Joy versus sorrow over unitary shock

POLITICIANS in Ipswich today reacted with shock and dismay after proposals for home rule were controversially shelved amid claims it would prove too expensive.

POLITICIANS in Ipswich today reacted with shock and dismay after proposals for home rule were controversially shelved amid claims it would prove too expensive.

In a move that has rendered hundreds of hours of officer time and thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money potentially wasted, central government has announced that Ipswich's unitary bid will not get the green-light.

A statement released by The Department for Communities and Local Government said Ipswich had not met “the affordability criteria”.

As revealed in The Evening Star yesterday, the proposal will now be referred to the Boundary Committee, meaning the existing unitary proposal will be looked at again along with other possibilities.

These could include a “greater” Ipswich unitary authority including Felixstowe combined with a rural authority for the rest of Suffolk or a continuation of the status quo.

Ipswich council leader Liz Harsant said she was left stunned by the news.

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“I'm so cross with this government because last Thursday everything was fine but between then and the cabinet meeting on Tuesday something has happened to change their minds,” she said.

“We have been led on at every stage. Nobody thought we would get as far as we did. We were virtually told we would get it and would be having elections next year. I think it is disgraceful.”

A spokesman for the borough said the authority was “disappointed” with the news but felt that the unitary project was still on course but would now be delayed.

The spokesman said: “The council is surprised at a government statement saying Ipswich had not met ministers' financial targets.

“Our finance case has been approved on no less than four occasions.”

Meanwhile Andrew Cann, Lib Dem leader at Ipswich Borough Council, said he found the decision “inexplicable”.

He said: “People are entitled to feel angry about this. It does make you cynical about the reasons for it. Ipswich was told not to apply on the basis of being bigger - only on the basis of being the same size. All those hours of work have just been wasted.”

The Boundary Committee will look at a variety of possibilities for unitary authorities across Suffolk and Norfolk which could include cross-border councils such as a combined Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft authority.

It is understood that should revised unitary authorities be recommended they would come into force by 2010 with elections being held in April 2009.

CALLS are already being made for government to foot the bill for thousands of pounds in taxpayers' money that has been spent so far on Ipswich's bid for unitary status.

Both Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk County Council have spent heavily building their cases for and against a single authority for Ipswich.

This includes hundreds of hours of officer time as well as specially contracted experts to strengthen their cases.

Liz Harsant, leader of Ipswich Borough Council, said she estimates their bill alone could reach as high as £700,000.

She said: “I think we should get that money back.”

Ben Gummer, Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Ipswich, said: “The borough and county councils have spent millions getting ready for unitary - and now all that is wasted.

“I will be pressing the chief executives of both councils to send the government the bill.”

IT was back in July that Ipswich's bid for home rule was given the green light by central government following a lengthy campaign.

Councillors from all parties celebrated on the steps of the borough's Grafton House headquarters.

As part of a government initiative offering authorities the chance of unitary status, a total of 16 authorities - including Ipswich - were short-listed as possibilities.

A unitary Ipswich would have meant almost all local government functions being handled by the borough council by 2009 - they are currently split between the borough council and county council.

Despite being given the initial thumbs up to go ahead with becoming a unitary authority, Ipswich was told it would still have to pass a final test before the deal was sealed.

Out of nine authorities earmarked to become unitary in two years time, four, including Ipswich, were asked to undertake further work and submit more information to prove the “financial viability” of the bid.

Speaking at the time, local government minister John Healey did not say how tough the final tests would be although he did say the bids had already been subjected to “rigorous testing”.

He said: “They have to prove their proposals can improve services for local people and bring potential savings for council tax payers.”

The other authorities that had to provide further finance information were Bedford Borough Council, Chester City Council and Exeter City.

PASSIONS are set to run high again between Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk County Council following yesterday's announcement.

Suffolk County Council, which was set to see its budget slashed as a result of the initial decision, has always been staunchly opposed to the borough council going it alone.

Both authorities argued their own sides of the debate vigorously and tensions in the corridors of power were tangible.

Publicly, the two authorities claimed the competitive struggle to convince people of their cases would not sour relations.

However strains started to show as each side struggles to gain vital inches in the epic campaign.

A Cold-War style summit meeting was even held in which Ipswich Borough council leader Liz Harsant, backed by the authority's chief executive James Hehir, came face-to-face with county council leader Jeremy Pembroke and Suffolk County Council's chief executive Mike More.

A truce was agreed in an attempt to keep the row out of the media.

The two authorities will now come head-to-head once again as a new round of unitary campaigning gets under way.

How the key people reacted to the unitary news:

Liz Harsant, leader of Ipswich Borough Council, said: “We have not got all the details yet but the principle of a unitary Ipswich still stands and we are pleased about that.

“We have always said that unitary councils are the best form of local government so we are glad the rest of Suffolk will now have the same opportunity as Ipswich to go unitary.

“We will now build on the close relationships we have built up with our neighbours and the county and will help them with their own plans where we can."

Ipswich MP Chris Mole was hopeful that the announcement would not mean the end of the unitary dream for the town - although he accepted there was much more work now to do.

He said: “There was always a feeling that the historic boundaries were not ideal for the town, but given the original conditions of the bids, I felt the proposal was worth pursuing.

“Now the situation has changed I am hopeful that the Boundary Committee will make recommendations that can be implemented within not too long a timeframe.”

Ben Gummer, Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Ipswich, slammed Gordon Brown for “pulling the plug” on unitary status.

He said: “Gordon 'Bottler' Brown has done it again. He knew he was going to lose Ipswich for good in May and so calls off the election just in case.”

Councillor Jeremy Pembroke, leader of Suffolk County Council said: “I am pleased that the government has listened to our concerns about the financial case for a unitary Ipswich.

“Suffolk warned government last year that this process was badly thought out and wrong for the people of Suffolk, especially those in need of vital services delivered by all our local authorities.”

Julian Swainson, leader of the Labour group at Suffolk County Council, said: “We welcome the government's commitment to a review of authority boundaries across the whole of Suffolk. This supports our long stated view that Suffolk should move to a Unitary Council structure across the whole county, on boundaries to be decided in conjunction with affected communities.”