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Leaders revive proposals to merge Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils into one authority

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Endeavour House, Ipswich (8515221)
Endeavour House, Ipswich (8515221)

The merger of two Suffolk councils is still on the cards, according to their leaders – one year after the plans were shelved.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils announced in April last year that work on a merger had been put on hold, because of then-county council leader Colin Noble pursuing work on a unitary authority.

Mr Noble was subsequently replaced as leader in May by Matthew Hicks, who has not continued with a unitary bid.

Now, the Conservative leaders at the two councils have confirmed they are committed to continuing with the merger plans.

Nick Gowrley, Mid Suffolk leader, said: “We already feel we have a mandate for it.

“We did a ComRes [independent market research company] study at the end of 2017 that supported the merger, but we need to have a willing partner to do it.

“We will see what comes out of the elections in May, but it’s not dead in the water.”

It is claimed that a merger would help to help save money at a time when council budgets are being increasingly squeezed, while protecting services from being cut.

The two bodies already share most services at their Endeavour House headquarters in Ipswich, but a merger would formally unite the two.

A public consultation in early 2018 also backed a merger.

Babergh leader John Ward said: “We are working closely together and there are plans for additional working on the horizon. Most have been done but there are a few things left to sort.

“Realistically, the endgame will be a merger. As to when that will happen, that’s another question.

“We have got to take our communities with us and then we have got to explain the benefits.

“We will never do it unless we have the community behind us, because it will be for full council to make that decision.”

But the Babergh Labour group has criticised the revival of the plans, citing the public’s rejection of a similar proposal to combine the two authorities eight years ago.

The referendum in 2011 saw Mid Suffolk back the merger, while Babergh residents voted against it, resulting in the measure being defeated by an overall majority.

Luke Cresswell, Labour Party councillor for Sudbury, said: “The Labour group has been warning for sometime that the Tories at Babergh will once again try to force through a merger at the council.

“Labour opposes a merger between Babergh and Mid Suffolk, and will fight against this attack on local democracy.”

Mid Suffolk’s opposition Green group has backed plans for a merger, but only on the basis that it results in Suffolk having four unitary authorities – Ipswich, East Suffolk, West Suffolk and Babergh and Mid Suffolk – and scrapping the county council.

It would essentially mean that those four councils would carry out all areas of council business, including health and social care, education and highways, which are currently managed by the county council.

Andrew Stringer, from the Greens, said that, with staff already working together and the number of councillors reduced as a result of ward boundary changes, the benefits of pursuing a full merger were now marginal in the short term.

He added: “We need to make efficient our current arrangements before we look at even further change.

“Then, and only then, should we pursue any merger, and that should come about after we have asked the public.”

The two authorities, which had planned to become one council by 2020, were forced to shelve plans last year amidst calls to create a unitary authority for the county.

This month marks the start of the new East Suffolk Council, which has been formed by merging Waveney and Suffolk Coastal district councils, while West Suffolk also launched on April 1, effectively combining Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury councils.