Moving Babergh District Council’s offices to Ipswich would be a breach of trust and go against the verdict of the 2011 local referendum, say Labour councillors.
Babergh district councillor Tony Bavington and Sudbury and Great Cornard Labour Group leader Jack Owen are strongly opposed to moving Babergh and Mid Suffolk District Councils into Endeavour House, the Suffolk County Council headquarters at Ipswich.
Council leaders who back the move insist that new customer access points – including one in Sudbury – and modern digital services will ensure continued ease of contact for residents and be cost-effective.
But Mr Bavington said it was wrong that councillors, staff and members of the public would have to travel to Ipswich for meetings.
“Do I like this? No. I think it’s anti-democratic. They have breached our trust, really,” he said. “It is in direct contradiction of the referendum result,” he added, referring to the vote in 2011 when 60.9 per cent of Babergh residents voted to keep the two councils as separate legal entities.
Mr Owen said: The people of Babergh gave a resounding ‘No’, now the Conservatives have total control of Babergh they have over time got the arrogance to change that decision without referring back to the people.
“It is just another example of Conservative councillors ignoring the will of the people.
“I am sure they will argue that we are still a sovereign council, but if you believe that, you’d believe anything.”
Mr Bavington added: “If I had deep enough pockets I would fund a judicial review. All the actual services we want are not going to be there.”
He also criticised the creation of a single customer email address and telephone number, which he said would create bottlenecks.
“They talk about moving into this local authority village. It sounds like a gated community to me.”
The future of the current offices is yet to be decided.
Babergh and Mid Suffolk leaders praised the decision to open access points in the two districts, including one at Sudbury, as part of the move.
“From day one of this important project we have been clear that for those residents who need it face-to-face contact will remain sacrosanct,” said Jennie Jenkins, leader of Babergh District Council.
“Our work to introduce modern and friendly digital services will ensure communicating with the councils is easier and more cost-effective than ever. We do remain passionate, though, about providing walk-in advice and guidance. That’s why we’re delighted that we will have a continued presence at the heart of our communities.”
Mrs Jenkins said current public access to services for both councils could be antiquated, confusing, difficult and bureaucratic.
She said low numbers of residents were visiting the council offices in both districts, but members of both councils had made clear a desire to provide an access point in each district.
“We will be delivering modern and customer-friendly digital services to our local residents, many of whom will already be using online services on a regular basis for banking and shopping,” said Nick Gowrley, leader of Mid Suffolk District Council.
“We have made the decision to end the expensive and inefficient maintenance of two headquarters, but we also recognise the need to continue to have customer service points in the communities we serve.”
The council has said the specific locations in the towns would be announced in due course. Arrangements for the move will not be in place before mid-August with staff more likely to move in the autumn.
At the customer access points, users will be supported to access the services they require by digital methods.
But councillor Tony Bavington, who opposes the HQ move, said staff were “not there to help you with their services but there to help you change from the way you want to access your services”.
The councils are already looking at redevelopment options for their sites in Needham Market and Hadleigh. Mrs Jenkins said: “We want to ensure the use of the assets in the future provides the right outcomes for tax payers.”
Mr Bavington believes that if Babergh does move to Ipswich, some of the Hadleigh offices could be redeveloped for high-end housing, but insisted that at “no cost” should it be sold.
Instead, he said it should be rented out to give the council a continuous revenue stream.
He would like to see the main reception and council chamber retained for local authority use and hired out to any other bodies that require it, as well as potentially being used by volunteer organisations.
Both district councils have a disturbance policy in place for staff affected by the move.
Any employees that qualify for this either currently or in the future will have to access the scheme.