Mark Ling is a businessman specialising in transportation. He is the Chair of the Broomhill Pool Trust and a co-founder of Orwell Ahead.
From the much neglected perspective of an urban Conservative local voter, I find it extraordinary how little interest and understanding there is about local democratic structures or the impact they have on our sense of place. The Local Government Act of 1972 (implemented in 1974) was, in my view, a precursor to dissolving the power of our boroughs, our towns and cities. My home town, Ipswich, has a right to self- local government as granted by King John in AD1200. Ipswich is one of the oldest local democracies in the world. As a corporation, then County-Borough, it had a strong identity and sense of place and pride. A fully accountable single tier authority, elected by and for the people who live here and who share in its services and infrastructure.
In 1974 Ipswich County Borough was forced into a tripartite county council with East Suffolk and West Suffolk Authorities. Ipswich was “Suffolkated” overnight. The cemented majority is always from rural Suffolk with a common purpose and outlook; certainly with no understanding of, or affiliation to, gritty urban Ipswich. Over the years Suffolk County Council’s all-powerful cabinet has often not contained a single representative and decision-maker from urban Ipswich. Suffolk’s only major conurbation, its powerhouse and economic heart – supporting a third of Suffolk’s population and two-thirds its economy – has been diminished; from total authority to almost none at county level. It feels like Suffolk County Council has become an “occupying force”; based here, making all decisions for here, but rarely by anyone elected here.
Ipswich citizens and businesses are totally baffled and blindsided by two tier local government. They simply don’t understand that most of the major decisions affecting the town’s social services, infrastructure, strategic planning, economic development, and growth, are made by a Suffolk County Council cabinet over which they have no say, or sway. The Borough, ring-fenced in obsolete boundaries last set in 1835, is also hopelessly compromised at district level. It is a relative bystander as neighbouring districts, and a new super-district East Suffolk District Council, dominate all Ipswich’s growth; dumping much of their planned housing on Ipswich’s periphery, no doubt in order to protect their rural villages. These neighbouring districts never reinvest into the centre that sustains it all. They have no direct accountability to, or interest in, Borough stakeholders who are in fact shareholders in the overwhelmed services and infrastructure that our town provides to all.
The biggest predator to Ipswich’s ailing high street retail is not Norwich, Cambridge, or London; but Martlesham, right on Ipswich’s back door. East Suffolk has built up a massive retail and business park with out-of-town parking. It is built right opposite to Ipswich’s pointless Park & Ride. Why would anyone take an extra bus journey into Ipswich when you can park and shop there?
Today, we have the Suffolk cart leading the Ipswich horse. Urban Ipswich has been effectively excluded from power, excluded from the growth it underpins. Suffolk’s only ambition for it: containment. A system where Ipswich must never encroach on neighbouring districts but where those districts may freely encroach upon and freely share Ipswich’s assets, infrastructure, and services. Sadly, most Ipswich citizens and businesses are oblivious as to what has been lost. They can see and feel that the town is failing but they don’t understand why. Those in power in Suffolk probably do know why. Yet it is simply not in their interests to entertain reform that returns any greater authority to Ipswich, because they unfairly benefit from the status quo.
I set up a campaign and even issued a proposal for reform that could provide costs savings – and make local government more local – for all non-metropolitan and non-unitary councils.
Needless to say there was absolutely no interest from local government leaders. Perhaps Conservative Home readers will give my proposals a look – and consider how local government can be better reformed, restoring democratic power back to those in former county-boroughs like Ipswich.