It’s not all Brexit glamour in the House of Lords, and whilst most attention is on the series of defeats inflicted on the Government with regard to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the business of government limps along otherwise.
Here in Suffolk, the various District and Borough Councils have been pairing off in an attempt to staunch the financial bleeding, merging back office functions, creating joint teams covering planning, council tax collection, and all of the various things done at sub-County level. Waveney and Suffolk Coastal have sought to merge into East Suffolk, whilst St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath aim to merge into a new West Suffolk District. To do so requires authority from Parliament, and thus the appropriate Orders, allowing them to proceed, came to the Lords recently.
Usually, these go through without much comment, but there were questions about the quality of the consultation, and thus then Secondary Legislation Select Committee raised some concerns. And, to be honest, the consultation did look a bit lopsided, with many of the voices in favour coming from other (Conservative) Leaders of neighbouring, or in the case of Suffolk County Council, overlapping authorities. Parish and Town Councils didn’t seem to be quite so keen, and in that context, Ros spoke in her capacity as a resident of Suffolk...
My Lords, I also speak as a Suffolk resident of almost 40 years, although not of either of the areas covered today. I am a former district and county councillor in Suffolk so I have a keen interest in this.
I have always advocated unitary government for Suffolk, perhaps going back to the old, two-council days before 1974, or possibly 1973, with serious devolution to the towns and parishes which want it. I felt that way because I truly believe that service delivery would be better if we brought together planning and transport, for example, under one council. Local people would not have to sort out which council does what. As a councillor, I know that that is a significant issue. The financial savings that can be made from creating unitary councils have been well established across the country where this has been done.
Opposition to my view has always been on the grounds of saying, “Well, district councils are important because they’re small and they’re local and the wards are small. Everybody knows everyone and they’re close to the people”. I buy that; I can see that argument. However, it seems that in merging these councils—I am talking about councils as opposed to their back-office functions—big wards will be created and the council offices will, in many cases, be moved away from the area they represent. The advantages of districts are lost without the benefits of unitary government. Bins will still be emptied by one council and the waste disposed of by another, for example.
I remain concerned about that. I accept the point that Suffolk councils have been in the process of merging their back-office functions to save costs for some years now. That is entirely sensible. However, my council in mid-Suffolk, having done that with the neighbouring authority of Babergh, has now gone completely mad and moved its joint offices to the middle of Ipswich. There is no local connection there. If you are going to defend three-tier local government on the grounds of local connection, you have to show local connection.
I am worried that all this is being driven by the parlous state of local government finance in this country, rather than some sort of rational, thought-out plan. It feels as though people who live in Suffolk are somehow not being properly engaged with—I will come back to that—or brought along in the process. It was interesting that the Secondary Legislation Committee shared some of those concerns. I appreciate the trouble that the Minister has gone to to allay those. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of work to do—to be charitable—to convince people in Suffolk and in town and parish councils that the proposals will work.
To give what I think is an important piece of context, the report that went to Waveney and Suffolk Coastal District Councils on 14 March 2016 stated:
“The potential benefits and pitfalls of unitary local government have been well rehearsed previously”—
“have not been reproduced here. It is uncertain whether the new Secretary of State will be open to such discussions … Similarly, this could not be done in any format without … an impact upon Suffolk County Council. It is assumed at this stage (and without any discussion with the County Council) that this would be strongly resisted”,
by the county council. In other words, in East Suffolk at least, this was kicked off in 2016 without really knowing what the Secretary of State or the county council thought.
With regard to the support to which the Minister referred, the problem was that nobody ever had a say about the benefits of unitary councils—which I think, had it been put as an option, would have been more significant—but that did not take place because a unitary authority had been ruled out.
This continues to be a model. On 21 March this year, the leader of Suffolk County Council announced that he had commissioned a report from ResPublica to look at options for local government in Suffolk over the coming years. This afternoon, the local press are reporting that he has suspended this work, saying that it is because his opponent in a leadership bid is opposed to it. I have no idea whether the second part is true but it shows, given the importance of local government to Suffolk and the services that it delivers, that it deserves better than this.
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