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What councillor number changes will mean at Suffolk County Council

PUBLISHED: 08:00 03 August 2019 | UPDATED: 15:23 06 August 2019

Suffolk County Council is likely to have fewer councillors come 2021. Picture: ARCHANT

Suffolk County Council is likely to have fewer councillors come 2021. Picture: ARCHANT

The number of councillors at a Suffolk authority looks set to reduce by five in the face of calls for the numbers to be increased.

Matthew Hicks said 70 was a good number of councillors. Picture: GREGG BROWNMatthew Hicks said 70 was a good number of councillors. Picture: GREGG BROWN

The Conservative and Labour groups at Suffolk County Council have made their submission to the Boundary Commission for England, which proposes to reduce the number of councillors from 75 to 70.

It comes as current electoral boundaries are considered to vary too much, with some divisions having around 7,400 electors at the lower end compared to more than 11,000 at the higher end.

Conservative county council leader Matthew Hicks said it was an appropriate number for the authority.

"We have put together a very detailed submission and we believe 70 is the number this council can operate with.

Liberal Democrat Ccouncillor Penny Otton pointed to workload concerns as a reason for more councillors. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNLiberal Democrat Ccouncillor Penny Otton pointed to workload concerns as a reason for more councillors. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

"We have got all areas of the authority making savings so there's no harm in councillors playing their part.

"The most important thing is the work has been done to show the number of councillors with which this authority can run and our electors are well represented."

Basic councillor salary lies at £10,688.79 per year, meaning a reduction of five would save just over £53,000 per year, although Mr Hicks stressed it was not the reason for the changes.

If the changes go ahead, it would see each council represent an average of 8,370 electors each.

All parties were expected to back the revised number, but the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group has instead made its own submission calling for the number to increase to 80.

Group leader Penny Otton said backbench councillors were completing an average of 27 hours per week of council work, with that number rising for opposition spokespeople.

"Fewer councillors means less representation for each citizen. With a growing population in Suffolk, this is going to become more and more important," she said.

"There is a strong case for 80 councillors, to ensure workloads are manageable and that it is not only the retired who can put themselves forward for election. However, given the constantly reducing funding for local government, we are prepared as a compromise to ask for 75 councillors.

"Democracy has a price, but it is a price worth paying."

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A motion has already been passed at the council to recommend single-member divisions.

The Boundary Commission will go and assess the submissions, and is expected to return with a first draft in late September.

Analysis: What it means politically

While much of the rhetoric in the Lib Dem, Green and Independent group's submission has been about adequately representing residents and councillor workload, there is of course an element of political gamesmanship at play here.

Yes, those considerations outlined by the group are important - particularly when attracting a range of ages, sex and backgrounds to stand for public office is arguably harder than ever, but the politics behind the pontificating makes for an interesting read too.

The current make of the council is 50 Conservatives, 11 Labour, five Liberal Democrats, five Independents, three Greens and one West Suffolk Independent.

However, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents have united in one group.

It means there are three and a half times more Conservatives than the next nearest group. On that basis, it should be expected that at least three Conservatives would go, and either one or two from other groups would lose out.

So on the surface numbers it appears the Conservatives are the turkeys that voted for Christmas.

But as the Conservatives currently have 36 more councillors than the next nearest group, a worst case scenario of losing all five would mean the party still maintains a healthy majority.

The opposition groups therefore would argue that each councillor they lose represents a larger share of their party's clout.

Losing all five would be nothing short of disastrous for the 14-strong Lib Dem, Green and Independent group - particularly as that includes several different political parties, although the likelihood of that is extremely remote.

In reality, five fewer seats is unlikely to change the balance by any large degree, but with the Green party scooping up much of the vote from Remainers in the most recent elections, the Lib Dem, Green and Independents could well see a 2021 county council election as a chance to bolster their numbers.

In that sense it is hardly surprising they want the number to increase.

We will need to wait and see what the first indications of the boundary changes are before any firm conclusions can be reached, as there is too much of a degree of crystal ball gazing.

Of course, this all depends on what would happen with the votes in other seats too, and as Mid Suffolk's elections this year testified there is plenty to play for at all political persuasions. Time will tell which party ends up with the biggest wounds.

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