Peace breaks out in Babergh, but this isn’t the end of the local council debate
PUBLISHED: 06:00 11 January 2018
The New Year may still be very new, but already there’s been a great deal happening in local government in Suffolk – and I suspect this could be a crucial year for several councils in the county.
To start with Babergh elected a new leader. John Ward was a loyal member of Jennie Jenkins’ cabinet and was elected leader unopposed – but not without a considerable amount of pressure being put on rebellious Conservative backbenchers.
This prompted a flurry of calls and e-mails from independent and other opposition councillors who seemed surprised that the Tories acted like a real political party and put pressure on their members to fall in behind their leadership.
I realise that to Independents in an authority which has not traditionally been whipped that might have seen quite odd. But it’s a fact of life in councils up and down the country.
And to those members of other political parties who were shocked by the Tories’ actions I say get real! Every party does that. The whips in the Labour group at Ipswich council are ruthlessly efficient. You almost never see any dissent on the floor of a council meeting there!
Another complaint I heard was that there is no need for a merger with Mid Suffolk council. One councillor said: “Babergh is already geographically huge.”
I’m sorry that is totally unrealistic. If there is no merger Babergh would be a minnow among local authorities. An increasing number are joining up to achieve economies of scale. A stand-alone Babergh with a handful of staff would be totally overwhelmed with the financial changes coming in over the next few years.
And don’t think a change of government would help. Anyone who really thinks that Jeremy Corbyn’s priority as Prime Minister would be to bail out a tiny Tory-led rural council with two Labour councillors (historically quite a high number for Babergh) really does need to reconnect with planet earth!
Because many Mid Suffolk councillors are getting increasingly frustrated with the shenanigans in Babergh. They see the election of John Ward as a possible way out – but they’re worried about what might happen in a referendum and what it might mean for them.
If Babergh does vote to reject merger it seems increasingly likely that Mid Suffolk might vote to dissolve itself, split itself down the middle and link up with the new East and West Suffolk councils.
I know councillors are reluctant to talk about that on the record – but behind closed doors that is emerging as a real possibility in the longer term.
Against all this, Jo Churchill’s suggestion that the government might want to take another look at introducing a unitary system of local government for Suffolk does have a element of common sense attached to it.
Whether that would be “One-Suffolk” option, an “East/West” option or an “East/West/Ipswich” option hasn’t yet be crystalised – and if we did have more than one unitary council, could we have a Suffolk mayor responsible for police, fire, strategic planning and the county’s strategic roads?
If that does happen, it would have to be organised by the government, either with – or without – a county-wide referendum. We could not be held to ransom by one small district or another.
Which raises an interesting irony. How will the councillors in Babergh feel if their opposition to a comparatively minor change in the county’s local government map results in a complete new council system in Suffolk?
While rural councils argue about council structure, Ipswich borough is addressing its potential cash crisis by buying more commercial property to bring in a regular revenue stream from the rents paid by tenants.
It looks like a good way of replacing money that has been taken away from the authority by the government – the new deals will finance both the waste collection and sports services across the borough.
There is a certain amount of risk there, but in the past the borough has been pretty good with its investments – and the fact is that all organisations and individuals have to take some risks in life.
But it is also right that the opposition should go through deals like this with a fine tooth-comb and raise any concerns they may have. The one thing you do need when doing this kind of deal is adequate scrutiny to ensure the risk is sustainable.