At the end of January 2017, Suffolk Coastal and Waveney District Councils will decide whether to create a brand new, ‘super district’, to deliver services to communities across east Suffolk.
Both councils have long been recognised as innovators, working in partnership since 2008. They boast a fully integrated workforce, which has enabled the two councils to save £16 million since 2010, keep council tax low and yet still enjoy a reputation for high standards.
However, both councils understand how important it is to not stand still and should these latest proposals be agreed, it would create a powerful and influential local authority delivering vital services for communities from Lowestoft in the north to Felixstowe in the south.
We have asked local people what they think about the proposals and have a received a range of opinions. However, most strikingly, many of the concerns raised appear to be based on information which either isn’t true, or - we believe - needs further explanation.
These concerns fall in to four broad categories:
Therefore we are seeking to reassure local people by providing further information and ‘busting some myths’ about the proposals.
"Local people are not having a say on whether the councils should merge."
Although some people have expressed the view that residents should be allowed to vote on a change of this nature, it is ultimately up to the two councils to decide how they are constituted and councillors are elected to represent local people. However, public opinion is very important to Suffolk Coastal and Waveney.
The councils could have held a referendum, however at a time when they are looking to take decisions which help save taxpayers money, it would be very expensive to run (costing the public purse in the region of £100,000) and the outcome of the vote would be ‘non-binding’ meaning that councillors would still have to make the final decision.
Both councils believe that public opinion is extremely important and have gone to great lengths to ensure that views are welcomed and acknowledged, in a cost-effective way.
First, an independent survey of 1,000 residents across the two districts was undertaken by leading national polling company ComRes. Statistically, a representative sample of this size reliably reflects overall views.
The results of the survey show that residents are largely favourable towards the idea of the councils merging.
Then, between 1 November and 12 December, residents were actively welcomed to provide us with their views on the proposals via an engagement campaign which was widely publicised in the local press, on our website, on social media and in our residents’ magazines which are distributed to every household in both districts.
No decision has yet been taken and the Councils are committed to acknowledging and understanding the views of local people. The final verdict will only be established once all 90 councillors, across both districts, have voted.
"Merging means there will be cuts to jobs and cuts to important services."
Far from being a decision that would lead to cuts, it is a proposal entirely motivated by a determination to avoid them. The Councils face financial challenges in a difficult period for public services and we are seeking innovative ways to maintain and enhance the services our communities expect and deserve, while also keeping council tax low.
Suffolk Coastal and Waveney have been working in partnership for several years and deliver services as a joint workforce throughout east Suffolk. We were among the first councils in the country to join forces in this way, putting communities first despite financial challenges.
This proposal is not about making cuts but about preserving services and creating a more powerful and influential council better able to stand up for local people. Reductions in staff numbers were made when the two councils began working together and there are no plans for similar reductions.
We want to maintain high standards in all that we do and without progressive, innovative thinking, including this proposal to merge, there is every chance that cuts WOULD have to be made.
"A new council would be too big, leading to a loss of democracy and local decision-making."
When we asked local people for their views on the proposals, we received many comments expressing concerns that a new single council would be too big and therefore too distant from residents. Residents reasonably asked whether a combined council could represent local needs and whether councillors would have enough local knowledge for their new roles.
It is important to state that the services delivered by the two councils would not change as a result of creating a new single council as these services are already delivered by shared teams.
Also, no decision has been taken regarding the number of councillors elected to the new authority. A working group will take advice and make a decision that ensures proper local representation is maintained. Ward sizes and boundaries will be agreed so that councillors will have local knowledge and be accountable for decisions which affect the locations they represent.
Any decision to create a new larger council would only be taken as long as local representation is maintained. Regardless of whether residents live in a village near Felixstowe, or in the heart of Lowestoft, they will still be represented by councillors with their interests at heart.
"Council offices will be closed and jobs lost from certain locations, as staff will now work from one, single headquarters."
Were the merger to take place, there would be no closure of council offices as part of this process and there would be no creation of a single ‘headquarters’. Customers and residents would continue to access local services in convenient locations to them.
The new single council would still operate from the existing offices in Lowestoft and Melton, with council meetings taking place at both sites and, occasionally, in other locations. Meanwhile our Customer Services centres will still operate at the Marina Centre in Lowestoft town centre and at the libraries in Beccles, Felixstowe and Woodbridge.