Two Suffolk district councils have put their merger plans on hold after the county council ordered a review into the structure of local government.
Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils have argued the best way to make local government ‘fit for purpose’ in the county was to replace both authorities with a single district council.
They said a consultation during December 2017 and January 2018 demonstrated ‘clear support’ from residents, stakeholders, partners and staff for the idea.
However, the leaders of both of the councils also noted that the merger would not be able to take place before May 2020 and so it would be ‘illogical’ to submit the draft business case at this time.
The leader of Suffolk County Council has commissioned the think tank ResPublica to conduct a review in Suffolk - a move the district councils interpret as demonstrating the council’s support for unitary authorities.
However, Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils questioned ResPublica’s objectivity on this question and called on the county council to stop the think tank’s review ‘immediately’.
They said there should be a joint review between Suffolk County Council and the wider public sector.
The leaders of the two district councils emphasised they had considered the option of one or more unitary councils for the county, but had rejected this on the basis that ‘it did not appear possible or likely that it could be delivered in the foreseeable future.’
However, they both said they would remain open to the idea of some form of unitary arrangement.
‘I made two commitments to the residents and Councillors of Babergh when I became Leader in January 2018,’ Cllr John Ward, leader of Babergh District Council.
‘These were that I would personally prefer to see some form of unitary arrangements be brought forward for Suffolk, but that in the absence of any viable unitary plans I see real merit in creating a single district council in the centre of Suffolk to replace Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils.
‘We have been working hard to achieve this because of the benefits it would bring to our residents.
‘This is a big decision, however, and so not one that I was prepared to rush or take without first testing public opinion and then obtaining public support through a local poll.
‘In all the circumstances, however, having just moved into our new single headquarters, with an electoral boundary review already underway, with Suffolk County Council’s change of position and with our own elections just 12 months away, now is not the right time to be actively pursuing a merger with Mid Suffolk District Council.’
Cllr Nick Gowrley, leader of Mid Suffolk District Council, said: ‘We remain convinced that merging with Babergh, to cement our long standing relationship, is the right thing to do and something that we could deliver.
‘It would be good for our residents, would save tax payers money, and protect the services that residents value most.
‘However, one of the alternative options that we also favour is the creation of unitary councils.
‘Whilst it makes sense for the district and borough councils in East and West Suffolk to complete their mergers which will come into effect from 2019; it would not be sensible for us to start the process of a merger given the County Council's new willingness to consider other options.’