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Suffolk No More
Local Government Chronicle – 25 September 2008

The Boundary Commission's plans to eradicate Lowestoft from its county of Suffolk have riled locals. Mark Smulian heads east to find out that you can't change where you come from

"We're not part of bleedin' Norfolk, I was born in a fishing village just near here. I'm Suffolk."

The forthright view of Susan Carter, landlady of Lowestoft's Welcome pub, may not be the 'evidenced' response sought by Max Caller, chair of the Boundary Committee for England, when he decided the town should shift counties in his review of unitary local government.

Sentiment also seemed to trump evidence among the 100 or so people who rallied outside Waveney DC's town hall at the beginning of this month brandishing Suffolk flags in a demonstration against Mr Caller's proposal. Pensioner Jean Baker summed up the feeling as: "We are proud of Suffolk. There is always a bit of rivalry, and we don't want to change."

Waveney DC, one of the country's most troubled local authorities, may not be held in any great affection, but the pro-Suffolk lobby clearly has a wave of local loyalty behind it.

Lowestoft, which is the main town in Waveney, occupies a unique position in the unitary upheaval that has hit seven counties and is now in progress in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. It is the only town that stands to move county, although its rural hinterland would stay in Suffolk.

On the map, Mr Caller's proposal to detach Lowestoft into Norfolk makes sense. Norwich is nearer to Lowestoft than it is to Suffolk's county seat of Ipswich, and there are strong economic links. But Waveney argues that, quite apart from localist sentiment, putting a town as remote as Lowestoft into a county unitary would ensure its neglect.

Fishing was once a major industry, but it has been largely replaced by offshore energy services. Hopes are now pinned on the town becoming a centre of renewable energy, with a giant offshore wind farm planned. Waveney has had some success in promoting this industry and in securing regeneration money - would the same happen were it a remote appendage of Norfolk?

It's a question other councils may face if the government's enthusiasm for unitaries continues after the current round, despite ministerial statements to the contrary.

Waveney has joined forces with Forest Heath DC and St Edmundsbury BC to promote a three-way unitary split into East Suffolk, West Suffolk and Ipswich, a variant of which is also supported by Suffolk Coastal DC. And while Waveney wants to stay in Suffolk, the council dislikes Suffolk CC's promotion of a county unitary, which it argues would be too large.

Leader Mark Bee (Con) says: "The feeling against leaving Suffolk is partly a matter of sentiment, but for Max Caller to say that Lowestoft belongs in Norfolk just because of economic links with Norwich is simplistic.

"He has come up with a dog's dinner. He is asking for evidence, but the scale of the councils he suggests cannot be closer to the people, the distances are vast."

Cllr Bee is not impressed with the ideas for local community structures proffered by supporters of county unitaries. "If Lowestoft was in Norfolk, the rest of Waveney, the market towns, would be in rural Suffolk. People in those towns resent Lowestoft a bit, never mind somewhere miles away. Local committees do not capture the public imagination, real democratic decisions need to be made at the local level."

Stephen Baker is chief executive of both Suffolk Coastal and Waveney, having been seconded to spend half his time at the latter after the departure of Glen Garrod last December. He says of Mr Caller's proposal for Waveney: "If you look at the government's five criteria for unitaries - affordability, value for money, strategic leadership, community engagement and broad public support - it is just not there.

"If you split Suffolk into three and kept Lowestoft, you would still get economies of scale. The Boundary Committee has stressed economies, but we are designing local government here, not a business, and part of that is community engagement. The committee has done a disservice to local government by coming up with something nobody gives support to."

Mr Baker says Mr Caller's insistence that reactions to his unitary proposals must be backed with evidence has inhibited public responses.

"It is deterring people from saying what they think," he says. "I've had parish councils telling me what they'd like to tell him but worrying that it is opinion not evidence, so they are not putting it up."

Waveney has multiple problems, yet its officers have been distracted by being required to gather evidence for the committee on every permutation possible of unitaries, in addition to collaborating with neighbours to build an economic case for the three-way split of Suffolk. The council has had some support from the regional improvement and efficiency partnership but the demands have still been huge.

Mr Baker says: "The critical issue that my chief executive colleagues around the country should know about is the time demanded on a very constricted timetable. The committee is trying to redesign local government on the basis of about six months' work."

He hopes though that Waveney and its neighbours will be able to marshal a convincing case for the split. "There is a clear east/west division in Suffolk," Mr Baker says. "I know, I grew up here and I could draw the line where people pretty much stop saying they are 'east' and starting saying they are 'west'. There is a lot of economic sense to the idea of East Suffolk as the coastal communities have much in common."

Most Suffolk and Norfolk districts dislike the idea of county unitaries, but whether they can gather the economic case and political clout to see them off is uncertain. There has been no real survey, scientific or otherwise, of public feeling, but Boundary Committee members would surely find a cool welcome at The Welcome.

The Waveney Problem

Waveney's fight against dismemberment has not been helped by an eye-watering set of inspection and audit reports.

It has a 'weak' comprehensive performance assessment rating, its planning service was last year judged 'poor' and with poor improvement prospects. In 2006 its housing service was also judged poor, though its prospects were merely 'uncertain'.

A forensic audit after Mr Baker's arrival warned of a potential 5m overspend only weeks after the 17m annual budget was agreed, and a report in July found serious deficiencies in internal auditing.

Cllr Bee says: "I make no bones about it. On assets and f nancial issues we have found that the further we dug, the worse we found. We have a lot of challenges which go back a long way, and a lot of systemic problems that we have been tackling over the last four years."

He adds he would "not entirely blame the previous Labour administration, since some problems go back even further".

Local Voices

"There is no problem that needs this change. It will cost money but there will be no voice for this part of Suffolk if this happens." Chris Punt (Conservative councillor)

"I've lived here 45 years and I think things about Lowestoft should be decided here." John Daniels (Labour activist)

"If I wanted to be part of Norfolk I'd have gone to live there. I've lived here since 1961 and want to remain Suffolk. Nothing got better as a result of the 1974 reorganisation; they will just bleed us with higher council tax." 'Johnto' (retired Suffolk CC education officer)

"I went to university in Norwich but the city has changed so radically that I don't see how it could take on Lowestoft's problems on top of its own, it has grown so big. I don't think Waveney council has been very clever though." Gavin Crawford (previous landlord of The Welcome)

"The only reason politicians do something is they think there'll be something in it for them." Ron Cooper (regular at The Welcome)

"Some people just say they don't want to be part of Norfolk, but others say they just want to be rid of this council, and I incline to the latter." 'Davo' (shopkeeper)