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Don’t expect a challenge to Suffolk County Council leadership just yet!

PUBLISHED: 05:30 20 February 2020 | UPDATED: 08:44 20 February 2020

Suffolk County Council leader Matthew Hicks looks secure at present - but there is some discontent within the Tory ranks. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Suffolk County Council leader Matthew Hicks looks secure at present - but there is some discontent within the Tory ranks. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Anyone who was at last week’s budget meeting of Suffolk County Council (or who has seen any of it on the authority’s webcast) will have seen that things are getting a bit tetchy among some of the members of the ruling Conservative group.

When former cabinet member for finance Richard Smith got up to have his say on his successor's budget proposals we saw some real Blue-on-Blue action - which in turn has prompted talk of a leadership challenge to Matthew Hicks.

I think such talk is premature. I'm not sure that Mr Smith's intervention wasn't really a bit of a strop rather than a full-scale attempt to undermine the leader. But it certainly grabbed the attention of opposition councillors and neutrals watching the debate.

I've heard from opposition councillors of all colours in the last few days telling me that Mr Hicks' days might be numbered. Meanwhile the county's Tories are either playing down the exchange . . . or trying to build it up into a Sir Geoffrey Howe-type moment.

Frankly, I don't think Mr Hicks' position looks at all precarious at the moment - and it could just be that all this bluster turns out to be what he needed with his internal opposition letting off steam and the rest of his councillors stopping to think for a minute where the party is sitting in relation to the issues it has been dealing with.

Talking privately to senior Conservative councillors at Endeavour House, and the message you get is that the last 20 months since Mr Hicks became leader has largely been concerned with clearing up what many see as the mess he found.

The Upper Orwell Crossing debacle was a disaster for the Tory administration. It totally miscalculated the cost of the project, did not have enough contingency built in, and Mr Hicks first major action as leader had to be to call the whole thing off!

Since then we've had the disaster of the school transport reorganisation (again started before he came in), the government's rejection of the Four Villages bypass (again submitted pre-2018) and most recently the Ipswich Northern Route saga.

Now that is something that did loom into view since Mr Hicks took the top job - although the council had been talking about it for several years earlier and there was a feeling that the issue needed to be fully considered.

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It was quite clear, however, from the discussions I had had with councillors at the county and from all the districts outside Ipswich that this was very much a longshot from the start - and so it ultimately proved.

The financial case might have looked solid on one level (as did the financial case for the Upper Orwell Crossings and the Four Villages Bypass) but there were so many other factors - especially the number of homes required to make it viable - that the whole project was doomed from day one.

Therefore the threat to Mr Hicks' position is not real now - although he would be well-advised to keep an eye on the plotters.

The fact is there are four types of Tory councillor at Endeavour House:

There are the permanently-discontented - no one can run the council as well as they could and they won't be happy with anyone else at the helm (a very small number, but always willing to give us their view of life!).

There are those who feel life was better before under a previous leader - they usually don't necessarily want the previous leader back, but they would like someone in the same mould.

There are those who think that things are going reasonably okay and don't see the need for a change - but if the administration did go off the tracks they'd start to look for an alternative leader.

And there are those who will sit quietly and get on with life under whoever is leader and not think about any contest until it actually happens (and these are - as usual - the majority of councillors).

Mr Hicks has been in place for less than two years, and much of that time has been fire-fighting.

Now is the time when he really starts to need to stamp his authority on the council. There are massive decisions to come. At a time when we know there is a need to invest more in adult care, when the roads are cracking up with potholes, when there are concerns about education provision and when children's social services are always a concern the vast majority of people in Suffolk don't see this as a time for unnecessary spending cuts because of a desire to reduce the council tax rise by the cost of a pint of milk a week.

Mr Hicks should be secure in his role - and should be able to push his agenda through. But he now knows he cannot please all of his councillors all of the time.

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