Tories at war

PASSIONS have been running high over Ipswich's bid for unitary status for some time. However it took until only the first working day since the results of the local elections for a war of words to erupt.

PASSIONS have been running high over Ipswich's bid for unitary status for some time. However it took until only the first working day since the results of the local elections for a war of words to erupt.

Despite a top-level meeting to discuss keeping the row out of the media NEIL PUFFETT reveals the Suffolk “Tory wars”.

WITH their imposing buildings facing each other across a single carriageway, the scene is perfectly set for an old fashioned cowboy-style showdown.

However this is not the Wild West and the occupants of the buildings aren't Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. This is Russell Road, Ipswich, and there is no tumbleweed in sight as the battle for unitary status engulfing Ipswich Borough Council and Suffolk County Council heads towards full-blown conflict.

Ironically the key players in this tempestuous tussle are one and the same - Conservatives.

Yesterday the family row intensified with all the vigour of a sour divorce, as the borough council accused the county council of “low-level scaremongering” over proposed public protection if changes goes ahead. Suffolk councillor Joanna Spicer warned that Ipswich residents could become vulnerable to rogue traders, animal diseases like bird flu and other emergencies if the borough breaks free from the existing trading standards services.

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The claim provoked a swift repost from Ipswich council leader Liz Harsant who said she was “appalled” by the comments.

Relations between the Conservative bedfellows are clearly not at their best, but things could be set to get more vitriolic still between now and June, with each authority attempting to gain favour in a crucial public consultation on unitary status. Both sides are determined to argue their case and further spats appear likely.

However, high-level attempts are now being made to plaster over the cracks.

A Cold-War style summit meeting was held yesterday in which Liz Harsant, backed by chief executive James Hehir, came face-to-face with county council leader Jeremy Pembroke and Suffolk County Council's chief executive Mike More. Their subject was calling a truce and keeping the row out of the media.

Mrs Harsant said: “The agreement that we have come to, is that we don't want mud-slinging in the papers or on the radio. The people of Ipswich are not interested in political views and that is what is coming out rather than the benefits of a unitary authority.

“We both agreed that, whatever happens, if we get unitary status we will still be working together.

“If we don't get it we have to move forward and get on with it. We work together an awful lot and that's not going to stop.”

Despite the best intentions of both authorities to broker a public peace, Mrs Harsant conceded it will be more difficult to prevent private tensions in the corridors of power.

The concern must be that private posturing could have a tangible effect on public policy.

Signs of strain in the relationship between the two sides emerged earlier this year when plans for a new fire station in Ipswich came on the table in January. A political spat ensued when fire chiefs were told by the borough council to forget about building a new station in Yarmouth Road.

The borough council's refusal to back the plans prompted a senior county councillor to accuse the borough of being “mischievous”.

Of course political divisions among members of the same political party are not a new thing. Back in 1993 then Prime Minister John Major's frustration with euro-sceptics boiled over, when in a private outburst caught on microphone, he questioned the parentage of three of his own cabinet members.

The wounds were never healed and in 1997 the Conservative's, under Major's leadership, lost the general election to Tony Blair's Labour party in the worst electoral defeat in British politics since 1832.

The party has only begun to show signs of recovery since David Cameron was elected leader last year.

Council chiefs will be keeping their fingers crossed the unitary issue doesn't prompt a long-term falling out of similar magnitude.


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