Since 2011, Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils have answered the challenges facing local government by developing a new way of delivering council services; Working Together.
In the last six years, we have achieved £13m cumulative savings by delivering our services with a joint Chief Executive and a fully integrated staff structure. We now have a shared vision and outcome based approach which marks a fundamental shift for both councils, and presents the opportunity to move from simply Working Together, to working as one Council. This would not only support the delivery of our new shared vision but also protect our public services by providing long term financial security for the new council.
Given the challenges facing local government, we believe that exploring whether to form a new single council covering the Mid Suffolk and Babergh area is likely to be the best option to continue delivering high quality services for our residents, at the best value.
To create a single council, we must draw up a business case for the proposal, one which must be informed by feedback from our residents, businesses and other stakeholders. We encourage you to read through our ‘One Council in the heart of Suffolk’ document, and to have your say by filling in our online survey.
Your views will help inform the councillors when they debate the business case and will also be considered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government when he makes the final decision.
This online survey consists of two questions, both with open/text box replies. The two questions are:
These are followed by several demographic questions designed to help us see who we are reaching and who we need to work harder to engage.
Answers on the following topics are currently available:
Q. I thought you were already a single council, what is the difference between ‘working together’ and a single council?
A. Both councils have been working increasingly closer together since first sharing a Chief Executive in 2011 and we now have a single staff structure. However, Babergh and Mid Suffolk are currently two ‘sovereign’ councils, which means they each have their own set of councillors and meetings.
Q. How would the creation of a new council benefit me?
A. Our recently refreshed Joint Strategic Plan marked a fundamental shift for both councils – moving from ‘Working Together’ as partners, to actually sharing a single vision and approach, which also ensures we are able to continually improve the services we provide for our residents. However, in the ever changing work of local government and with the financial challenges ahead, we need to make sure Babergh and Mid Suffolk are in the best position to respond to these so that we are able to bring real and lasting benefits for all our communities.
A single council would provide long term financial security through combining the strengths of both budgets (General Funds, Housing Revenue Accounts and Reserves), and it would also save £1m each year.
A new council would become one of the largest district councils by population in England which would ensure we remain on a par with the West Suffolk district councils and the East Suffolk district councils that are going through this process. This means we would be large enough to deal with Government over major issues such as new development, planning, infrastructure and economic development, while at the same time being small enough to continue working with our many diverse local communities and businesses to meet their individual needs and deliver the very best outcomes for all who live and work in the districts.
Q. We had a referendum in 2011 and Babergh residents voted against this? What has changed?
A. Since the referendum on ‘Merger’ was held, a great deal has changed. As Babergh residents voted against a merger, the two councils instead pursued a ground-breaking and award-winning approach of working together to deliver services. These new ways of working resulted in a saving of £2m a year. All this has been achieved while still maintaining the sovereignty of both councils.
However, in 2020 central government will no longer provide grant funding for district councils and we need to be ready for this. We already have a number of strategies in place to make up for the shortfall and generate income for ourselves. These include the scheme to install Solar PV panels on our own housing stock and buildings which will provide £7.5m in fed-in tariffs over the next 20 years. We also have various commercial investment projects which will generate income, but we need to do more. This means considering the next logical step in working together, which would be to create one new single council.
Q. Why don’t you hold another referendum? Does this mean it will definitely happen?
A. In response to correspondence from local residents, the Secretary of State has confirmed that:
‘A referendum may be held in order to change the governance arrangements of a local authority – i.e. from a committee system to a mayor and cabinet executive. However, there is currently no provision for a referendum specifically in respect of a structural change such as a merger of two local government areas.
The 2011 ‘referendum’ was a local poll held under Section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003. There is no obligation on a local authority to hold such a poll, nor any requirement to act in accordance with the result of such a poll. Therefore, there is no requirement for local authorities to hold another poll before proceeding with a district merger – whether or not to do so would be entirely up to the authorities concerned.
However, the authorities concerned would have to take the result of any poll properly into account in making its decisions in accordance with the public law. Any councils wishing to merge would need to undertake an engagement exercise and demonstrate a level of local support in order for the merger proposal to fulfil the policy on when mergers will be considered appropriate’.
The two councils are therefore undertaking comprehensive stakeholder, public and staff engagement to explore the option of creating a new district council for the area. The councils are gathering both qualitative and quantitative feedback and will use this data to determine whether to ask the Secretary of State to create a new single council for the area.
Q. Will I have a say in this?
A. The councils are in listening mode and want to receive feedback from our constituents, parish councils, businesses, partners and staff. To support this we have launched a media campaign with news releases, and are using social media to answer questions that are raised during the engagement programme. We have produced an online survey to enable the public and other stakeholders to comment on the proposal, provide qualitative feedback and pose questions which we can answer as part of our media campaign. We will also be attending existing business forums and community events, and have provided our frontline employees with information.
It is also very important that we receive quantitative data alongside the qualitative feedback from the conversations described above. To enable this we have commissioned a specialist polling organisation called ComRes to carry out telephone interviews with adults living in the Babergh and Mid Suffolk districts. The company will independently survey a representative sample of randomly selected electors across both Councils’ areas to capture their views towards the proposal. ComRes also completed the telephone polling in east and west Suffolk and to ensure consistency of approach, we have agreed to use the same questions where possible. The proportionally representative phone poll will survey 2,000 Babergh residents and 2,000 Mid Suffolk residents and will ensure that samples are balanced in terms of age, gender, geography, socio-economic grade and ethnicity. The polling will give us a confidence level of 99% and margin of error of 2%. This means that if ComRes repeated the survey then 99% of the time the result would be within 2 percentage points of the result of the first survey.
We encourage everyone to take part in this engagement as your views will inform the councillors when they come to make their decision and will also be considered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government when he makes any final decision.
The results of all this engagement will be debated by both Babergh full Council and Mid Suffolk full Council meetings.
Q. What would a new council look like?
A. It is too early to say at this point. We are undertaking a period of public and staff engagement which will help us to prepare a business case. However, any new council would hold the same powers as any district council and would continue to deliver the same high-quality services across both Babergh and Mid Suffolk. In addition to this, it would ensure we have a ‘louder voice’ on the Suffolk stage and the same power to influence as neighbouring councils in the county.
Q. Will this mean job losses?
A. We have developed a single staff structure serving both councils since 2011 which has resulted in an annual saving of £2m. Even if the decision to create one Council is approved by both Councils and the Secretary of State then it could not be created before 2019. We do not therefore anticipate any job losses associated with the creation of a new single council. As part of our medium to long term planning we continuously keep our staffing levels under review to achieve savings and efficiencies wherever we can.
Q. How much will this cost?
A. It is anticipated that there will be some cost associated with setting up the new Council, however it is envisioned this will be recovered through savings within the first year of a new council.
Q. Does this mean we will face cuts, will my bins still be collected?
A. Both Councils have a different financial profile offering different challenges. We are transparent about the Councils’ finances and the accounts are available to view on our websites for Babergh and Mid Suffolk.
Through our transformation work, we have already made significant savings through shared bin collections and having a single staff structure. One new single council will go further and help to safeguard these vital services and also ensure the funds and capacity are invested to do even more to for our residents and businesses.
Q. Will there be a rise in Council Tax?
A. The setting of the Council Tax for any new authority would be down to the members of the new single council. The new council has to have a single level of Council Tax and is likely to be a combination of the cost, what is deemed acceptable to the residents of the new council and projections over the medium term period. Further financial modelling of the options around council tax and the impact on the medium term position of a new council would be undertaken as part of the detailed business case.
Even if a single council was not formed, forecasts over reduced Government funding shows councils are having to do more with less. Therefore, councillors are already having to look at increasing Council Tax levels to meet this challenge. A single council would achieve £1m savings per year which brings greater financial resilience and therefore helps to protect council tax levels in the longer term.
Q. How would the new council structure work? How can we be sure of a balanced representation across the whole of Babergh and Mid Suffolk?
A. Once an election to the new council has been held, the Chief Executive or the Monitoring Officer would seek nominations at the first council meeting and councillors would then elect a new Leader of the Council who would serve for four years. Once the new Leader has been elected, they would then appoint a Cabinet of up to 10 councillors with assigned cabinet roles.
Ward members would continue to provide local leadership for their communities.
Legislation already requires committees to be politically balanced to reflect the different political groups on the council. Committee and cabinet members would be from the whole council area, just as they are now.
Q. Will this mean fewer councillors and less representation?
A. Mid Suffolk and Babergh are currently going through an electoral review which we anticipate will bring a reduction of councillors from 83 to 66, creating wards which have similar numbers of constituents and therefore achieving electoral equality. At this stage, it is not anticipated that a new council would have less than 66 members but the creation of a new council will provide an opportunity to amend the existing ward boundaries, in particular on the current Babergh/Mid Suffolk local authority boundary, to ensure each represents the identity of local communities.
Q. How would the new council be led, and from where?
A. The new council will decide where and when to meet as they do now. These can be held anywhere in either district or at Endeavour House, which is the councils’ current Headquarters.
The location of the workforce will remain as it is now, with a main Headquarters at Endeavour House and agile working across several locations in both districts, including customer walk in facilities in Stowmarket and Sudbury, touchdown points and alongside our partners, for example West Suffolk House.
Q. As you have moved into Endeavour House, could Babergh and Mid Suffolk create a new council including Suffolk County Council?
A. Suffolk and Norfolk went through a government-led Local Government Review in 2009 and unitary authorities were considered as part of this work. It is uncertain whether the Secretary of State would be open to unitary discussions without wider agreement within Suffolk and it is assumed that it would not be possible to reach the agreement of all Suffolk councils to this approach and a single proposal.
Q. What would a new council be called?
A. If a decision is taken to proceed with the creation of a new council, it would entirely replace Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils. The name of the new council would be put forward by councillors, subject to approval by the Secretary of State.
Q. Why can’t we see a business case now?
A. You can read the initial business case as contained in the report and appendices considered by both Cabinets on 13th October 2017.
To create the detailed business case, however, we must be informed by feedback from our residents, businesses and other stakeholders. The feedback we receive will be published as part of the business case and will help to inform the councillors when they come to make their decision. The feedback will also be considered by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government when he makes any final decision.