On 1 April 2019 Forest Heath District Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council will be replaced by a single district council called West Suffolk Council. It will entirely replace the borough and district councils but will continue to deliver the same services while finding improved ways of supporting communities, businesses and the local economy. Over the next few weeks you may notice changes to the website, forms, letters and emails as we prepare for the creation of the new council.
No decisions have been made and we will be working with a cross party steering group to look at the details. But it will work and look like any district or borough council and deliver the same high quality services within west Suffolk. Both councils already share the delivery of all these services and this will now bring the democratic process in line with that. A new council would entirely replace the borough and district council but continue to deliver the same services. But it would have a better ability to drive forward further benefits for our communities, continue to deliver high quality services as well as work more closely with residents and businesses to deliver local initiatives and invest in our communities.
Following shared services, and our strong and consistent joint branding and delivery, many residents may already believe that West Suffolk is a single council.
Both Forest Heath District and St Edmundsbury Borough Councils are separate authorities but already share delivery of all services, staff and management and work very closely together as West Suffolk councils. But currently each has a separate set of councillors and meetings.
Our communities want to live in a prosperous place and have good quality of life, good suitable homes as well as job and leisure opportunities. The new authority would help us still be small enough to work with individual communities to deliver and invest in tailored initiatives on the ground. At the same time be large enough to deal with Government over planning and new development, attract new business and be fleet of foot to take commercial opportunities as they arrive. With just one council decision making is quicker and financially more sustainable and stronger, producing even better value for money and greater efficiencies.
We have already saved £4 million a year by sharing services and this gives us the opportunity to drive further savings that can be spent on and help protect services our residents hold dear.
A single council would bring real and lasting benefits to all residents and businesses in the area. A new single council would give us a greater ability to:
Both councils already share services, such as bin collection, and have saved annually £4 million to help protect, deliver and improve services while Government funding has reduced. A new single council would not only make sure we can continue to deliver high quality services in the future but ensure the funds and capacity are invested to do even more for and with our communities.
Forest Heath District and St Edmundsbury Borough Councils have both recently approved balanced budgets up to 2020/21in spite of the challenging reductions in funding from central Government faced by all councils. Both councils have always been proactive in taking decisions to secure their financial position well in advance of significant financial challenges.
A single council would give the whole of west Suffolk greater financial resilience and lower council tax levels in the longer term which would be a positive outcome from the process.
It is estimated a new single council would be able to make future additional savings and efficiencies of around £800,000 a year. At the same time the council would protect the savings already made to date, such as the £4 million every year from currently sharing services. In addition the Council would be more resilient in the future to deal with the ongoing challenge of a national reduction in funds. However, while there are financial benefits there are many more reasons why a single council would be good for west Suffolk communities and businesses (See the previous How will the council benefit me? Question 3).
Yes. Most of the hub is an operational facility (school, leisure, library, health, advice services and emergency services). Meeting rooms are also designed to be multi-use and, in any event, we would want the chance for the single council still to meet in Mildenhall. The reception area and 75 desks that Forest Heath District Council has in the shared office space at the hub will still be needed to deliver our agreed office accommodation plan. If we ever decided to reduce this number, the design of the Hub is flexible enough to let the space to other organisations.
Similar other large projects across west Suffolk are vital to either delivering services efficiently or helping provide homes and jobs.
Councillors and resident’s access to them and the democratic process remains vital and at the core of what councils do. No decisions on the number of councillors have been made but a review is due to take place anyway this year by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (Please see the next question). The new authority would act as any district or borough council and members would play their normal part in their localities. Becoming a single council would not mean a reduction in customer contact points, and any changes in councillor numbers would come about as a result of a review by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, who are already due to undertake a review of both councils before 2019.
Whether west Suffolk becomes a single council or not, the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) is going to review ward boundaries, sizes and councillor numbers this year, 2017. This is a routine electoral review and it will give each elector across the council area an equal voice by ensuring new wards are broadly the same size, and each councillor represents the same amount of people on average.
The creation of a single council means we have a better opportunity from the beginning to help set numbers and describe the role councillors will play. The role of councillors is changing and a new singe council with a unified democratic leadership gives members the opportunity to drive real improvements for their localities while attracting investment and championing them nationally.
The Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE), who will determine how many councillors are required in the future, will focus on how many are needed to: (a) run the organisation; (b) effectively represent and engage with communities; and (c) engage with partners.
We will have the opportunity to put a strong case forward to the LGBCE for whatever we think is needed, based on our joint constitution, Families and Communities Strategy, strategic plan and the views of stakeholders. Experience suggests that while the trend nationally is to reduce councillor numbers, the LGBCE are prepared to listen to authorities who can put a cogent case forward to maintain or increase councillor numbers depending on their demands and requirements.
When the number of councillors is agreed by the LGBCE, they will divide it by the five year electorate forecast to give us an average number of electors per councillor, which helps inform a new ward map alongside a sensible community rationale.
No decisions on size have been made. But it would act as nay normal council and members would play their normal part now in their localities. Becoming a single council would not mean a reduction in customer contact points, and any changes in councillor numbers would come about as a result of a review by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England, who are already due to undertake a review of both councils before 2019.
We are just starting out at looking at this and therefore no decisions have been made about a mayor or borough status. Councillors will discuss the options going forward and this will form part of the work of the cross council member group. But we recognise the importance of the ‘borough brand’ and status for west Suffolk as well as its heritage and continuity (the origins of the current borough status for St Edmundsbury can be traced back almost 1000 years).
There is potentially a strong case to be made around a new borough that also covers former Forest Heath areas, for example reflecting the royal connections with Newmarket. That new borough would need a new West Suffolk identity but could carry forward existing tradition where appropriate, just as in 1974 when Bury St Edmund’s borough status transferred to the larger area of St Edmundsbury Borough Council as part of the 1972 Local Government Reorganisation.
The designation of borough status is, however, not made by the council itself but by royal charter.
The current law does not allow borough status to be transferred to parish councils, such as Bury St Edmunds Town Council. In our case, only a district council can apply to the Privy Council for borough status.
Following an election, it would usually be the case that the proper officer of the council (usually the Chief Executive or the Monitoring Officer) would seek nominations at the first council meeting, and councillors would then elect a new leader who would serve for four years. If it is decided to continue the current Cabinet and Leader model the council will elect a new Leader who will appoint a Cabinet to represent the majority group.
Ward members will continue to provide leadership in their localities.
The new council would decide where and when to meet. Meetings of councillors can be held anywhere in west Suffolk. There is an opportunity to hold meetings out and about in localities, to improve residents’ access to decision making.
There would continue to be specific rooms for council meetings in both Bury St Edmunds and Mildenhall.
In terms of officers, they would be based, as now, where the work needed them to be (Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall, Haverhill or Newmarket offices, operational sites, working remotely or alongside partners, and so on).
Our aim is not to increase the financial burden on residents as a result of being a single council but continue to find better ways of doing things while being financially stable to face future challenges. No decision has been made and 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, however, there would be a period of harmonisation to achieve this. Both councils would need to demonstrate that single level of Council Tax can be achieved over a reasonable period of time.
Even if a single council was not formed forecasts over reduced government funding shows councils are having to do more with less. Therefore, councillors already have to look at Council Tax levels anyway to meet this challenge. So it is likely in the case of Forest Heath that this would need to rise anyway, as it did last year, but this would not be due to becoming a single council. Becoming a single council will not involve any further increases in Council Tax over and above those already planned in order to ensure a stable and balanced budget for Forest Heath.
A single council would give the whole of west Suffolk greater financial resilience and lower council tax levels in longer term which would be a positive outcome from the process.
A public engagement exercise will be ongoing through June and into August and will include talking to a range of people and groups as well as business. There will be a statistically representative phone poll and people will also be able to have their say online. The views expressed during this engagement period will help inform the councillors when they come to make their decision. You can have your say by going to www.westsuffolk.gov.uk/singlecouncil
We have a shared and single staffing structure already following restructuring in 2013. By sharing services and staffing we have generated an annual saving of around £4 million a year. While we always continue to review staffing levels we do not envisage another significant restructure or associated job losses as a result of being a single council.
There are a range of options for how this could work, which the proposed Future Governance Member Steering Group could explore, in order for the new council to decide which option to pursue.
We would expect the new arrangements to be designed based on local representation, political balance and thereby democracy. Legislation already requires committees to be politically balanced to reflect the groups on the council. Committee and cabinet members would be from the whole council area, just as they are now.
How these principles are implemented could mean changes in cabinet roles; ward member roles; and committee structures and ways of working, to ensure both a strategic and place-based approach as appropriate.
Many district, county and other councils are already made up of 60+ councillors and work well. The meeting would be chaired by the Chairman/Mayor of the new council.
In addition to using other available venues, the new council would have two permanent options:
West Suffolk House’s conference room, which has a capacity of 100 already (which can be supplemented by external viewing). In addition the Western Way masterplan offers the opportunity of a new shared conference hub which could offer a much larger meeting room than the current conference room in West Suffolk House, which could be available from the early 2020s.
The Mildenhall Hub will be open in 2020 and have a large 250m2 hall in addition to its 150m2 council chamber, so could easily accommodate 60-75 councillors as well.
No. The new council would deliver the same services as the borough and district councils do now. But it would be in a better position to help do its bit to meet the shared objectives around health, economic prosperity and supporting communities that all local groups, community organisations, charities and public bodies in Suffolk look to achieve. It enables us to play our part in a better way with communities and other organisations to achieve those outcomes our residents and businesses want to ensure a good quality of life in west Suffolk.
Our overriding duty is to do what is best for the people, businesses and communities that live and seek to thrive in west Suffolk. Our focus is on what is best locally and we believe that this new council would be the right size to meet these challenges while working with other local public services.
Councillors will discuss the business plan and whether to go forward in September. If they decide to go ahead they can ask the Secretary of State to lay an order to create a new single council for west Suffolk which then has to be approved by the Government.
While there will be some cost to set up the new authority it is envisioned this will be repaid with the first year of becoming a new single council.