Councillors face axe in rush to reform

THE number of councillors in Suffolk could be more than halved as the Government pushes ahead with plans for unitary councils to replace the county and districts.

Graham Dines

THE number of councillors in Suffolk could be more than halved as the Government pushes ahead with plans for unitary councils to replace the county and districts.

In the clearest indication yet that ministers want to create all-purpose councils before the General Election, council chief executives have been alerted to proposals to hold elections to any new authorities in May this year.

The councillors would serve on transitory authorities, working with existing councils until 2011 when the new unitaries would come into being.

But there is concern that reducing the total of councillors will create a democratic deficit because electoral divisions will be larger.

The Boundary Committee next week will submit its final proposals for a unitary shake-up, and the Secretary of State John Denham will give his decision within days.

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If the One Suffolk option is adopted, it will have 126 councillors. If the two councils solution is chosen, Ipswich-Felixstowe will have 40 councillors - 22 from Ipswich - and Greater Suffolk 101 to serve Lowestoft, rural areas and market towns including Woodbridge, Southwold, Stowmarket, Bury St Edmunds, Haverhill, Newmarket, and Sudbury,

Ministers are pleased with the success that restructuring had already achieved in Cornwall, Durham and Cheshire and believe that unitaries will deliver stronger local government in Suffolk.

But wary that the Conservatives have threatened to abort the plans if they have not been legally implemented, Mr Denham is expected to lay draft orders before Parliament to give effect to which unitary option he favours.

He could even create an Ipswich only unitary and leave the rest of Suffolk two tier, with services split between the county and other six districts, although this was rejected two years' ago on the grounds that it would not be viable financially.

Currently, the county council has 75 councillors and the seven districts 306 between them. Either unitary option would reduce this number by nearly two-thirds.

Ipswich has 13 county councillors and 48 borough members but this total would be reduced to 22 under unitary options being put forward by the Boundary Committee.

“I don't think this is enough for Ipswich,” said borough leader Liz Harsant, “and I would hope we can negotiate more. For instance, my own ward disappears.”

Mrs Harsant said: “The timetable is very tight but whatever decision is made, the Conservative Party in Ipswich will do its best to make it work. I still believe that the single-tier Ipswich-Felixstowe option is the best to deliver quality and affordable local government services in the borough.”

The removal of so many councillors was welcomed by Reg Hartles, of the organisation Protest Against Council Tax Suffolk. “It will save a lot of money and will also end the practice of some councillors serving on two councils and picking up two lots of pay and allowances.”

But the move has been condemned by Mark Ereira-Guyer, Green Party county councillor for Bury St Edmunds. “It would appear that a dying Government is engaged in a vindictive last act here in Suffolk.

“This is an unseemly and indecent haste to turn everything upside down with fresh elections for a new unitary in May of this year.”

David Ellesmere, Labour opposition leader on Ipswich council, said his group was sticking to its policy of an urban unitary council for the borough. “We would not support any plans for Ipswich to be included in a large rural authority.”