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Two more Suffolk districts propose merger

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Babergh and Mid Suffolk DCs are to consult on dissolving their respective local authorities to form a single council which would be “one of the largest” in England.

The Conservative cabinets on both local authorities, which already have a shared senior management team but operate separately with their own political administrations, both voted in favour of consulting with residents on the proposal to creating a new council.

Doing so could save about £1m a year, while joint chief executive Arthur Charvonia said in a report to both cabinets that the move would provide “long term financial stability as a result of combining the strengths of the respective general funds, housing revenue accounts and reserves”.

Forming a single council would “involve some political change to a single leader and cabinet” model, he said but added: “It should also be noted that electoral equality across the two districts should already be achieved, in any event, through the current further electoral review of both districts.”

LGC previously reported how other Suffolk districts have plans to reorganise. Forest Heath DC and St Edmundsbury BC have proposed to merge as West Suffolk, and Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs to merge as East Suffolk. If all of the mergers proceeded it would reduce the number of districts in Suffolk from seven to four. Ipswich BC is the only one without any plans to merge.

Babergh and Mid Suffolk began working together in 2011 but Mr Charvonia said the arrangement is now “at a peak in terms of efficiency” and added it is “unlikely to be able to provide additional resilience against future challenges” so change is required.

Merging the two councils would make the new local authority “one of the largest district councils by population in England” giving it “greater influence nationally and regionally”, said Mr Charvonia.

The Department for Communities & Local Government is “clear that the decision whether to submit a proposal to dissolve and combine existing districts is, and should be, one for the democratically elected councillors to make”, said Mr Charvonia. He said DCLG had “recommended” using powers created in section 15 of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 to carry out any reorganisation.

“This section provides the primary legislation by which the secretary of state may, by regulations, make provision about the governance arrangements of local authorities, and their structural and boundary arrangements,” said Mr Charvonia.

A similar proposal to merge the two districts was mooted in 2011 but a referendum showed 60% of Mid Suffolk’s residents in favour but 61% of Babergh’s opposed it.

Other options were presented to both cabinets today, including a proposal to create a unitary council. Mr Charvonia said it was “uncertain however whether the secretary of state would be open to such discussions” and added there was an assumption the proposals wold be “strongly resisted” by Suffolk CC.

The report outlined concerns the current working arrangement between the two councils could “begin to pull the partnership apart” as it becomes harder to drive efficiencies out of the model. “This has been seen elsewhere in the country, most notably the tri-borough partnership in London,” said Mr Charvonia.

While Mid Suffolk could withstand the costs associated with becoming a standalone council again, Mr Charvonia said “the impact upon Babergh District Council’s finances are likely to be catastrophic”.

“Such action may even require the chief finance officer to implement a ‘section 114’ report to the council, which would put a freeze on all spending until a balanced in-year budget position is achieved and a revised, robust medium term financial strategy adopted,” he said.

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