Could we be heading for a council shake-up as the price for the Covid crisis?
PUBLISHED: 16:20 23 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:19 23 July 2020
Speculation is mounting that the government could demand a wholesale reorganisation of councils as the price for bailing out local authorities which are staring at a financial desert in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.
Ministers have told councils that a White Paper on the future of local government is expected to be published in September, which is likely to lead to the biggest national shake-up since the mid-1970s.
It is expected to herald the abolition of the current two-tier system of district and county councils across most of England and replace it with unitary authorities. This is being considered as councils are reeling from the impact of the coronavirus crisis. In Suffolk this has left a hole of more than £50m in council finances and that could rise still.
What is not clear is whether these will be based on existing county councils – or on “super districts”. That depends on what population the government sees as ideal for a “local” authority. There have been suggestions that 300,000 to 400,000 is seen as the ideal size – in which case, Suffolk would probably be split in two.
But the simpler, and cheaper, option would be to retain the current county council boundaries and transfer the powers of the districts to it. With government finances under strain, that may be an attractive option for central government.
Any changes are also likely to see the creation of powerful regional mayors. A proposal to set up a regional mayor for Suffolk and Norfolk collapsed in 2016 after Norfolk councils rejected the deal their colleagues in Suffolk had agreed. Councillors south of the Waveney have privately blamed their colleagues from the north for the failure.
Senior Conservative councillors in Suffolk believe that any changes will have to be imposed by the government, because otherwise there would be too much arguing among local politicians.
Former county council leader Colin Noble lost that position in 2018 after he tried to promote a unitary Suffolk proposal and upset district council leaders.
Over the last 25 years there have been several attempts to shake up local government in Suffolk. It was only last year that there was a limited restructuring with the creation of East and West Suffolk councils following the mergers of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney and of St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath. But the two-tier structure survived - which is what is now under threat.
In 1995, there was a suggestion that the county should be split into East Suffolk and West Suffolk with the then Waveney district being merged with Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. That failed because of opposition from the county’s two largest towns.
Since then, there have been several attempts to reorganise the councils. The main opposition has come from Ipswich, where the normally Labour-controlled borough wants to run all the services in the town, and from West Suffolk which was a county in its own right until 1974 and where there are many people who do not like being run from an Ipswich-based authority.
The big difference with the new proposed shake up is that it is not being governed by a desire to improve democratic accountability. Its main driver is the determination to improve efficiency and cut costs.
So what are the options?
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■ One council for Suffolk - The county council would do everything from arranging care provision and ensuring roads were maintained to collecting rubbish and deciding whether homes should have planning permission for extensions.
This is backed by South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge, who said: “Suffolk has a clear, historic identity with well-known borders and it would be the most efficient way of delivering services. Speaking as a Suffolk MP (he is also parliamentary private secretary to chancellor Rishi Sunak), it is the option that makes most sense.
“Having said that, East and West Suffolk have already reorganised themselves and they would need to have a say – but from my point of view a unitary Suffolk brings in the savings and I don’t think many voters understand the difference between the councils anyway.”
■ Two unitary councils for East and West Suffolk - The existing councils would be enlarged with East Suffolk taking in Ipswich, the Shotley peninsula and part of Mid Suffolk and Babergh while West Suffolk is expanded to take in towns like Sudbury and Hadleigh.
This is backed by Waveney MP Peter Aldous, a former county councillor. He said: “Local government reform usually comes at the end of a government rather than the beginning, but I can see why this is being looked at now.
“As East and West Suffolk have only just formed, they deserve to be given the chance to succeed. I know Ipswich sees itself as a special case, but I’m afraid even if you look at Greater Ipswich it simply is not large enough to run everything in its area.”
■ Three unitary councils for East and West Suffolk and Greater Ipswich - Democratically the most appealing, from an economic point of view it is the most problematic. Most experts believe 300,000 to 400,000 is the minimum size for an efficient unitary council. Suffolk’s population would struggle to sustain three unitary councils from a financial point of view.
Ipswich council leader David Ellesmere – the most senior Labour politician in the county at present – said he was concerned about any proposal that did not have a distinct Ipswich local authority would ignore the urban issues that dominate the town.
But he was not sure that was what was driving the decisions. “Three unitaries for Suffolk – East, West and Ipswich – is what we would want to see,” he said. “But I’m not sure that is in Dominic Cummings’ plans for local government.”
So what happens next and how will the decision be taken?
One councillor in Suffolk said: “To be honest, I hope there is a clear lead from the government. We should be consulted – but it would be useful if the government told us right from the start what they were looking at and not expecting us to come up with a plan because if that happens there will be long arguments about what’s best all over again!”
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