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Babergh councillors try to halt districts' merger

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The proposed merger of two Suffolk districts has been thrown into doubt after a revolt by Babergh DC councillors.

Voting is in progress among residents of Babergh and Mid Suffolk DC over whether a full merger should take place, with a result due on 6 June.

But the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Independent groups in Babergh have now urged residents to resist the idea on cost grounds.

This is despite the two councils having appointed Charlie Adan as joint chief executive in March and receiving a business case that projected savings of £1.5m a year from merger.

If the merger went ahead it would be the first between districts, a step further than councils such as Adur DC and Worthing BC, which have merged staff and managements but remain separate entities.

The joint statement said merging would mean a higher council tax in Babergh and residents becoming responsible for part of Mid Suffolk’s £12m debt, something denied by a paper issued to residents by both finance directors earlier this year.

Babergh’s Band D council tax rate of £139 would have to rise while Mid Suffolk’s £151 would fall, the councillors’ statement predicted.

The statement told residents: “Financially, we believe there are important differentials between the two authorities – many councillors believe that these are significant, they are potentially to Babergh’s disadvantage, and should not be discounted.”

Mid Suffolk leader Tim Passmore (Con) denounced the joint statement saying: “Why are they saying this now? Why weren’t they saying this three months ago? At the end of the day both councils voted for the merger. The whole thing is preposterous.

“To start a campaign against the merger now after all the work by officers and councillors is a disgrace since [the Lib Dem and Independent group leaders] were both in favour of the plans before the elections and had voted accordingly.”

He added: “They should examine their conscience or perhaps go and learn how finance works or even how to add up with the aid of an abacus – unless of course they are completely bonkers.”

Independent group leader Sue Wigglesworth said Cllr Passmore’s remarks were “not very polite”.

She added:  “The council agreed to conduct an advisory poll, not a full merger. I always thought it was going too fast and no-one who has sat in meetings with me could have thought I was in favour of merger.”

Cllr Wigglesworth said a merger would bring fewer councillors representing larger wards, and independents would struggle to make themselves known across such areas. “Suffolk is a very Conservative area,” she noted.

Babergh’s Lib Dem group leader Sue Carpendale said she was concerned by the tone of information issued to the public by a joint board of the two councils, which has a Conservative majority.

“It was agreed this would not be campaigning material but would be balanced with pros and cons,” she said.

“What is going out is not balanced, the public are just getting the ‘pros’, though we did manage to tone it down from using words like ‘fantastic’ and ‘groundbreaking’, which would have been wholly inappropriate.”

Cllr Carpendale said the wording had been agreed at the joint board, where those who raised objections were “shouted down”.

Nick Ridley (Con), chair of Babergh’s strategy board, called Cllr Carpendale’s comments “pretty unfair” and said the referendum information reflected an agreed view “signed up to by Sur Carpendale and Sue Wigglesworth”.

But he regretted Cllr Passmore’s intervention, saying this “might perhaps have been better left to the people of Babergh”.

Cllr Ridley said Babergh’s council tax would rise under the merger but only by “1% a year for four years, about 3p per week” and that Mid Suffolk’s debt was already covered by its council tax and was not an extra cost.

Conservatives have run Mid Suffolk since 2003, while Babergh has been under no overall control since its creation in 1974.

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