Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Ten years in the making, the new East Suffolk Council, with a population of around 250,000, became a reality in April. This followed the merger of Waveney and Suffolk Coastal District Councils.
The largest district council in the country by population, representing the best in Conservative values; it is a tribute to its strong political leadership. The partnership started by sharing a Chief Executive and management team and then gradually coordinated services for greater capacity and efficiency, achieving £22 million in savings.
Prior to the merger, a detailed plan was executed to ensure a smooth transition.
Cllr. Steve Gallant, the new council leader says: “We created a Shadow Authority for about 18 months, plus a Programme Board, with a number of working groups looking at various aspects of the future council. We were seeking a refreshed approach which would work for an area of this size. For example, we agreed on two committees, North and South, for each of Licensing and Planning, coming together on strategic issues, such as infrastructure, which would affect the whole region.”
Although creating a single local authority reduced the number of councillors from 90 to 55, and the need for some to stand down, it had full support in recognition of the major benefits, and considerable further savings, accruing from simplifying administration. “They could see the bigger picture. There were some concerns over the size of new wards, and how to cope with more meetings and travelling, but we worked with the Boundary Commission, doing a lot of work in-house to meet our timelines. The plans were approved and the Minister authorised the changes.”
Bucking the national trend, the May elections delivered an unprecedented strong Conservative majority with 40 of the 55 new councillors “allowing us to focus on what is important, instead of political infighting”.
In electing Gallant as Leader, members didn’t want it to appear that one council was taking over the other, so they chose a fresh face at the helm of the new authority, someone with a varied career and experience, which local residents could relate to. “I left school at 16 without qualifications and joined the RAF, spending 12 years as an engineer travelling around the world, coming out of the service when our children needed some stability in their education.”
He then worked as a Prison Officer before joining the Police, retiring as an Inspector after 20 years, and spending time on a property project in the Felixstowe area, “before being approached by a friend to stand for the Town Council, then for Suffolk Coastal, becoming Cabinet member for Community Safety and Health.”
All his experience provided insight into how different aspects of the public sector work, and the importance of greater integration and co-operation. “It also taught me that you can’t control everything. You have to attract talent and allow it freedom to develop policies.”
The new Cabinet reflects that philosophy,”balancing experienced and new members with new ideas and ambitions, able to challenge. I believe in empowering people, allowing them to take responsibility.” Assistant Cabinet members are fully integrated team members, having decision-making authority, in collaboration with officials, “who are committed to delivering what members have agreed.”
Already adopted for some Cabinet briefings, he wants to see wider use of video conferencing to save travel time, keeping councillors in touch with the electorate and parish councils, allowing them to participate – and even vote – in meetings (although not at Full Council).
The merger aims to save a further £1.3 million each year, but residents retain the advantage of accessing services from regional offices, around the district, including Beccles, Felixstowe, Lowestoft and Woodbridge, which Gallant believes is essential to meet the needs of different communities and the council’s ambitions.
Crucially, building a strong local economy is essential to the East Suffolk business plan. A third crossing at Lowestoft is already in the pipeline, and – as the UK’s most easterly point – the town hosted a First Light Festival, which attracted 100,000 people over 24 hours. “Tourism has considerable potential,” explains Gallant. “We shall be working with the sector to promote it to new markets. We have some of the best food and drink, as well as culture and coastline, which has been kept a secret for too long!”
The East Suffolk Business Plan initially had three key themes: Economic Growth, Enabling Communities and Financial Sustainability, “and we’ve now added two new areas, which we are better placed to tackle: Digital Transformation, to protect and grow the economy, ensuring businesses can thrive, and The Environment.”
Gallant appointed a Cabinet member to head the new portfolio for Climate Emergency, leading a task group to examine opportunities to enhance potential to improve conservation, and ensure high standards of development protecting the environment. “The east coast is a vibrant area, supporting major energy infrastructures, with oil and gas, and windfarms, as well Sizewell nuclear power station. We also have the largest container port at Felixstowe, and Lowestoft is establishing itself servicing the offshore industries.”
Community Partnerships are another key plan for the new district, essentially, splitting the district into eight areas, with ward and county councillors, as well as health and police representatives, each working with local people to spend a £25,000 budget as they see fit. Gallant says: “We evaluated detailed demographic statistics, using the latest Hidden Needs report published last year, to identify priorities. These groups are a real opportunity to make a difference, ensuring ward councillors engage with a wider network, coming to meetings with ideas to address key issues such as social isolation. The Chairs of each group regularly share best practice.”
Poor transport infrastructure in rural areas has a serious adverse impact on communities, reducing access to facilities in nearby towns, including shops, pubs, cinemas and health centres, as well as sports centres. “We are introducing a scheme using school mini buses, at off peak times, enabling local people to have a day out after the morning school run, and before buses collect children.”
Each councillor also has an annual £7,500 locality budget, to develop projects in their own communities: ‘men sheds’ are especially popular, where people can not only use their skills to make and repair items, but also chat together over a coffee, in the same way that allotments bring people together, helping each other. They also operate a time bank – e.g. offering an hour’s gardening, in return for an hour’s French lesson.
As with other regions, new housing is a key focus, with demand continuing to rise. East Suffolk is a very desirable location for developers and homebuyers, with a high proportion of second homes. “We need to work with small and large builders to provide a cross section of new homes for all age groups, including both young people wanting to get onto the housing ladder and those wishing to downsize.”
The Council had previously responded to the Grenfell disaster by installing sprinklers in its one tower block, in Lowestoft, despite it not necessarily being required. “Waveney retained its social housing stock, which is managed by its own expert team, who conduct regular maintenance reviews,” says Gallant. “Residents’ safety is an absolute priority and is constantly monitored. St Peters Court is safe, however we wanted to provide added reassurance for our residents.”
So, transition to a single council was smooth and orderly. “We shared an important coastline with its particular vulnerabilities, road and rail infrastructure, emerging areas of economic growth, shortfalls in digital infrastructure, some discrepancies in education and aspiration, and challenges in healthcare provision. Aligning services gives us greater influence, enabling us to deliver our priorities, including financial self-sufficiency and a stronger voice for our communities.
Gallant concludes that “East Suffolk is a template for new, modern, and effective local government”.