Plans drawn up for council merger

SENIOR staff working for Suffolk's seven district councils could sacrifice their jobs in the desperate battle to plug a �100m black hole in finances over the next five years.

Graham Dines

SENIOR staff working for Suffolk's seven district councils could sacrifice their jobs in the desperate battle to plug a �100m black hole in finances over the next five years.

Plans are being made to merge authorities by 2015, and in the meantime they will pool resources to end duplication and cut down on bureaucracy.

Suffolk could end up with just two super districts, a move welcomed by the Taxpayers' Alliance, which is encouraging councils to share services and staff.

When the recession ends, government borrowing to bail out the banks will have to be repaid through a combination of tax rises and slashing investment in public services. Councils will be targeted and told to make do with less support from Whitehall.

In a report authored on behalf of the county's senior officers and presented to council leaders, Ipswich chief executive James Hehir says: “We are seeking to shrink the public sector as a whole in Suffolk through collaboration.

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“Wherever possible, we will redesign services to meet customer need at lower cost for taxpayers. We need fast change but we need to agree a common message for staff to overcome fear and suspicion about takeovers and job losses.”

Although any merger to produce super districts would need parliamentary approval, Suffolk's district councils would offer themselves as a template for similar amalgamations throughout England.

If Suffolk's districts - Ipswich, Babergh, Suffolk Coastal, Waveney, Mid Suffolk, St Edmundsbury, and Forest Heath - endorse the proposals, and the necessary legislation is passed, mergers of staff would begin in 2012 and full constitutional merger would start from April 1 2015.

The county council would retain its statutory functions for education, social care, children's services, libraries and highways, but public service villages in Ipswich, Lowestoft, Needham Market/Stowmarket and Bury St Edmunds would provide one-stop shops to improve community access to all local public services.

District and county services which could be combined include emergency planning, legal, internal audit, building control, waste management, IT support, procurement, registration - births, marriages and deaths - countryside management, pool cars, health and safety, tourism, marketing, economic development, regulatory services - trading standards, licensing, environmental health - young people's community initiatives, and building maintenance and security.

Unprecedented levels of co-operation are expected to be implemented over the coming months between councils and other public bodies such as health and police try to ensure that quality essential services are maintained in Suffolk.

Suffolk Coastal and Waveney already share a chief executive and a head of planning but any mergers into larger districts would almost certainly lead to senior officers being made redundant.

“The options outlined represent our collective views about what is possible,” says Mr Hehir. Chief executives were “all committed” to delivering radical change and team work.

Susie Squire, political director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, welcomed the approach being taken in Suffolk, but warned that public services should not be allowed to go down hill in the county.

“What is being proposed in Suffolk is a big ask, but these councils recognise that innovative solutions have to be adopted in these difficult times.”

However, the Labour party in Ipswich has said it is “totally opposed” to the borough amalgamating with rural authorities. “We have not fought against the unitary plans for a greater Ipswich to cave into this solution.

“If spending has to be cut by up to a third, the number of teachers, nurses, and other public sector employees in Suffolk will be decimated. This is the nightmare vision of the future under a Conservative government.”

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