Sadly Council Tax has to rise

Here is my column that appeared in last Tuesday’s edition of the EADT and then in the Ipswich Star.

Last week, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet voted to increase council tax in Suffolk for the first time since 2010.

A 2.99% increase was approved, along with a 2% adult social care precept, meaning taxpayers will be paying little under 5% for council services than last year.

A council tax rise was not surprising – we had mentioned it last year, with a 1.99% increase put forward, with the adult social care precept at 3%.

Despite the changes in the way the tax is being divided, the increase remains the same.

It’s been said that we are taking away the 1% from the precept to spend elsewhere. This is simply untrue. The 1% we’ve added on top of the 1.99% first mentioned in October will go towards providing adult care. There is nothing more important to us than delivering the best possible frontline services to those who need them most.

We spend half a billion pounds providing services every year. Like the majority of councils in England, we accepted a four-year financial package from the Government, covering the period from 2016/17 to 2019/20. It also, helpfully, provides some certainty about our funding.

However, we can’t rely on this alone. We were successful in our bid to be one of 10 areas where we can retain 100% of business rates generated here in Suffolk, which will help. But there still remains a budget gap.

In 2018/19, the gap is £26.8million. That is the difference between the amount of money it will cost to provide essential council services in Suffolk and the amount of money we actually have to spend.

We are required by law to have a balanced budget so we have therefore had to find ways of closing that budget gap. We have proposed a range of savings totalling to £23.9m, leaving us with a gap of £2.9m remaining – which will come from our reserves.

We have been careful to limit the use of our reserves as once that money has been spent it’s gone forever and won’t be available to close any future budget gaps.

This isn’t a new way of working for Suffolk County Council. We’ve successfully managed the financial challenges laid down in the Government’s austerity programme and have made savings of £236 million between 2011 and 2018. The response to these challenges has been measured, pragmatic and innovative, and designed to protect front line services as much as possible.

Demand for services has increased since the last council tax increase and it continues to. We also have an investment programme totalling nearly £100m this coming financial year, which includes building new schools, extending and improving existing schools, investing in Suffolk’s road network, continuing to provide better broadband coverage across the county and delivering two major river crossing projects – the Lake Lothing Third Crossing in Lowestoft and the Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich.

Being clear about your goals, listening to people and being accountable for your actions are fundamental principles in public services. When the people of Suffolk voted in the Conservative councillors I lead, it was on the basis of a clear manifesto.

We are introducing business plans, which set out how we will deliver services and how we will measure performance. These are based on three core priorities – inclusive growth, healthcare and wellbeing, and efficient and effective public services.

These are deliverable because of the hard work and commitment of our councillors and staff – working with our partners, businesses and residents to make Suffolk a healthier and more prosperous place to live and work.

Yes, the latest Autumn Budget confirms that the pressure on public spending is likely to continue. But this is not news to us and we have a positive response.

We don’t hang about in Suffolk, we get on and do everything we can to get the best possible outcomes for the people we serve. We do this by listening to what people say and giving them an opportunity to influence the difficult decisions we have to make.

This council tax increase wasn’t taken lightly and every penny will be put to the best possible use. Our staff, our councillors, and I, will make sure of that.

 

Suffolk yet again a test bed for new thinking

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Suffolk has been chosen to trial Government Flagship Business Rate Retention Pilot

The amount of money allocated to each Local Authority in England for the next financial year was announced just before Christmas by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government now Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid MP.

As part of the announcement, Suffolk County Council has been named as one of the pilot areas for a new Government scheme to retain 75% of business rates from Council Tax in 2018/19.

In future, Business Rates will be an even greater income stream for all local authorities and this is an opportunity for Suffolk to influence how it will operate in a two-tier system.

Until more information is released from the Department for Communities and Local Government it is not possible to say exactly how much additional income this could generate into the Suffolk system.

I issued a press state that said: “Suffolk welcomes the Secretary of State’s announcement that it has been accepted as a 100% Business Rates pilot area in 2018-19. This is a positive step towards greater local autonomy which will encourage economic growth in the county and help to secure the best outcomes for people in Suffolk. We are now studying the details of the scheme and will be working with colleagues in the Borough and District Council’s to identify what this means for the whole Suffolk system.”

Suffolk school travel consultation

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Suffolk County Council is looking for a long-term solution to providing affordable home to school transport as a major public consultation gets underway.

I know people who give their views as part of a consultation on the future of school travel in Suffolk will be listened to carefully and have the opportunity to influence the final outcome.

The two and half month consultation, which started on Tuesday 12 December, invites people to help the council shape the future of school and post-16 travel policies, tis coming to Lakenheath so parent from Row Heath’s schools can give their views in person to the team and myself when we’ll be at the Lakenheath Pavilion on Tuesday 23rd January from 7pm to 8:30pm, please do come along.

Suffolk County Council has already listened to head teachers and included additional options in the consultation document. The pledge today is to do more of the same as the authority seeks help to find a long-term solution to the funding issues facing home to school transport.

In Suffolk, £21 million of taxpayers’ money is spent per year getting children to and from school. Suffolk County Council has already introduced a number of efficiency changes to the service saving around £2.6 million.

Now, like many other councils across the country, we need to consider making more significant changes. We’re therefore consulting on changing its school and post-16 travel policies so the service can be affordable, sustainable, and capable of meeting growing demand in the future.

The council’s current school and post-16 travel policies go above legal requirements, which means around 2400 children and young people receive free/subsided school or post-16 travel that Suffolk County Council is not legally required to provide and that they wouldn’t get in many other parts of the country. In addition, around 2400 children receive free travel to schools further away than legally required to provide. The proposed consultation seeks views on changing these policies and includes three alternative options, pre-and post-16.

Option 1: In September 2019, change the school travel policy so that it is in line with the legal requirements.  This would mean implementing all the changes in one go, including ceasing free travel to the transport priority area schools where it is not the pupils’ nearest.

Option 2: From September 2019, introduce the changes year by year as a child joins or moves school so that it is in line with legal requirements. This means that we would introduce all the changes on a phased basis. This option would cost Suffolk County Council an estimated £8.8 million to implement.

Option 3: Make no changes to the school travel policy but make savings from other services provided by Suffolk County Council.

Suffolk County Council is also asking for feedback on several other matters, including using Rights of Way as part of the way distance to a school is measured and a range of local solutions, such as Local collection hubs and opt-in to travel, which we have developed with a range of schools.

Further details on these options can be found on the consultation website: www.suffolk.gov.uk/schooltravel

To have your say please fill out the consultation survey, alternatively you can download a hard copy from the website and return to:

Suffolk County Council – school and post-16 travel consultation
Endeavour House
8 Russell Road
Ipswich
Suffolk
IP1 2BX

The consultation will run from 12 December 2017 to 28 February 2018 and there will be a full programme of events and opportunities for discussion. This includes consultation workshops where you can consider themes from the consultation, the proposals and general questions and answer sessions.

 

Venue Room Date Time
Kesgrave Conference Centre

Twelve Acre Approach, Ipswich IP5 1JF

Orwell Room 16 January 2018 19:00 – 20:30
Eye Community Centre

Magdalen Street, Eye, IP23 2DH

Main Hall 17 January 2018 19:00 – 20:30
River Stour Trust – the Visitor Education Centre

Dove House, Great Cornard, CO10 0GF

VEC 18 January 2018 19:00 – 20:30
Beccles Public Hall

Smallgate, Beccles NR34 9AD

Main Hall 22 January 2018 19:00 – 20:30
Lakenheath Pavilion

Eriswell Road, Lakenheath IP27 9AF

Main Hall 23 January 2018 19:00 – 20:30
West Suffolk House

Western Way, Bury St Edmunds, IP33 3YU

WSH – GFR12 – Meeting Room 26 January 2018 5 sessions between 14:00 – 19:30

 

 

Conservative Values & Budgets

CPC2006-LG-083At the moment, there seem to be a media storm in Westminster with Serious Allegations being diminished by silly ones.  Yet the business of government rolls on with important negotiation on Brexit and more immediately the Chancellors budget.

It’s also an important budget time for Councils as we debate and negotiate our way to our Budget proposals.  Here in Suffolk we do not indulge the grand unveiling in January before a Full Council debate in February for its implementation in May, we take a more inclusive approach and are about to publish our draft for public and Councillor scrutiny.  Last week I alongside the Leader of Kent CC, Paul Carter and Philip Atkins the Leader of Staffordshire CC, being the Chairman and vice-Chairman of the County Council Network sat down with the Secretary of State for Local Government, Sajid Javid MP to discuss the issues with funding we are as County Councils are facing and some of the things we would welcome in the Budget or if not, then in the Local Government Financial Settlement which follows between the Chancellor’s speech and Christmas.  Last Friday as a Conservative group we had our final presentation on the draft budget for 2018/19 before its draft publication.

A budget is one of the key pieces of work as a Councillor you undertake and it should reflect your values and polices.  In May 2017, we set out a very clear set of policies which we have translated into corporate priorities.  We won a massive majority pinning Labour back to but a handful of seats in Ipswich, one in Sudbury and one in Lowestoft but everywhere else soundly rejected as was their spend, spend, spend set of pledges in their campaign.  So, the course is set, steady as she goes, find new ways to do things and protect Front line services for the most vulnerable in our communities.

But its more than that, it has to be about our Conservative values.  Labour often take a very high-handed stance that as Socialists they are the ones with principles and indeed they are, one of them being that they always manage to run out of other people’s money, which helps and protects no one.  Eventually at a local Council or Government level the Conservatives’ then have to sort that out.  But as Conservatives we do have principle about fairness, incentives to get on in life, low taxes and a small state and finally last but not least a hand up, not a hand out.

At times, Conservative Principles seem more difficult to express than socialist dogma.  So as a part of our budget setting process as a Conservative group in administration on SCC we had the first of a series of sessions from one of the brightest thinker I know in Conservative Local Government.  Christina Dykes has spent the past 9 years leading the LGA Flagship political training programme the Next Generation.  Whereas most of the LGA Councillor work is cross-party, the Next Generation programme has been entirely different in that each political party run their own elements of it and each year she has been able to work with about 20 Councillors the next generation of Cabinet members and Leaders, on a year-long journey about being Conservative leaders in Local Government. (the above picture is Christina’s Next Gen 1 cohort at the launch of the programme at the BIC in Bournemouth in 2008, when the party conferences were at the seaside (that’s me on the second right, just behind Sir Eric Pickles in case you did not recognise me after 9 years in Local Government!)

I shall not go into the details of the workshops here but they are built on her years of knowledge of councils and councillors and she challenged the foundations of what we as Conservatives want to achieve in Local Government and then she get us to rebuild our vision so we are clear in our policies and our decision making what is right for our communities and this is reflected in the draft budget we will publish shortly.

My bi-weekly Newspaper column

 

Here is last weeks column I wrote for the EADT & Ipswich Star, enjoy, or least I hope you’ll find it worth a read:

Savings are, unfortunately, part of life working in the public sector.

Every authority is having to do it, including us. There’s no shying away from it. But as we continue to work on forming the budget for next year, there’s a chance to reflect on where we are and how we need to continue to work to deliver the best services for the best value.

Since 2011, we’ve saved £236.2million – no small feat. However, we do still need to save more. By April 2021 we plan to have saved an additional £56million.

These savings will help us prepare for the future. While we’re in a good place, Suffolk will change massively in the next 20 years, therefore we all need to do what we can to ensure the public purse is in the best position to face the challenges predicted.

Life expectancy in Suffolk is higher than the national average already and one in five people are over the age of 65 and by 2037 that is estimated to increase by 50% to one in three.

This is a success story in itself that people are and will be living longer, but Suffolk, its communities and its economy will change – along with the demand on the public sector.

The cost of caring for over 85s will be nearly £300million and the number of people living with dementia in Suffolk is likely to almost double in the next 20 years – 24,300 people. Most of these diagnoses will be in those older than 85 years old.

Based on current admission rates and lengths of stay, an additional 792 acute beds will be needed – that’s nearly enough to fill another two West Suffolk Hospitals.

And while we have a higher percentage of people employed when compared against the rest of the county, but wages are low. This results in lower labour productivity and when you also factor in rental prices, which are forecast to rise twice as fast as incomes, by 2030 around 40% of under-40s will be living with their parents, compared to 14% now.

There are also other statistics that mean we need to prepare for the future. It is estimated that by 2037 the working age population will be similar in size to the dependent population. At the moment, there are around six people of working age to just over four dependent people – in 20 years it is estimated to be closer to five people of working age to five dependents – three older people and two children.

These figures show how different the county will be. We need to be prepared, but also look at what can be done at this point of time.

We must also to ensure the benefits of economic growth in the county – of which there can and will be plenty – are shared by all. We, along with our partners, must also look at addressing housing provision because the current approach will not compete with future demands.

Everything is being looked at. Funding, grants, provision. We’re having to be innovative in how we work, and instead of going it alone, we’re having to work collaboratively with our partners to get the best possible outcomes for the people of Suffolk.

For those starting out in life, we need to continue our focus on the value of a good education. For those carrying out their business, or working in Suffolk – we need to make the county as attractive as possible in order to create jobs and investment. For those retiring, we need to look at how we currently provide health and care. Our current models will not be able to cope with the increases predicted.

One way that we’re looking at changing how we provide health and care is using the Buurtzorg model of care, delivering dedicated personal and healthcare to patients in a neighbourhood. We’re working with our partners in health to deliver this in the west of the county. We’re leading this nationally I’m proud of the work we’re doing so far to change things for the better.

These are challenges that won’t be easy to tackle. But we are ready to face them, head on, with our partners, and get the best for those living, learning, working and retiring in Suffolk.

 

Independent Remuneration Panel

Every 4 years any Council is required to appoint an Independent Remuneration Panel to look at and report on the Allowance scheme for members of that particular Council.

So, last year we asked the monitoring officer of the Council to put together an independent panel to undertake the work.  The panel is unpaid and seeks to balance the need to make sure the scheme reflects the work undertaken with the need to keep costs down.

4 year ago the previous panel recommended work be undertaken before the next panel to look at various roles and to provide job descriptions to the next panel.  So, a year ago we asked the Audit Committee of the Council to draw up job descriptions for all the different roles Councillors undertake.  When the new panel formed last September, we asked that they be asked to take time to interview as many Councillors as possible.  We also asked that they reflect our scheme in the context of the schemes and levels of allowances from Upper Tier Councils across the East of England, which they have done.

The panel is made up of Sandra Cox who chaired the Panel and is a local government expert, Dame Lin Homer who has had a long career in Local and National Government roles, Mark Pendlington a Director of Anglian Water and Chairman of the NALEP and Andy Wood CE of Adnams.  So, by any one’s measure an expert panel who are all recognised as leaders of industry with years of experience in making tough decisions in large organisations.  The panel met 7 times between November 2016 and June 2017 to fully consider the scheme which will apply for the next four years.

We did ask them to consider the age and profile of the Councillors, as this is a concern to us all and how we could increase the number of women, younger people, and BME representatives of our community to better reflect our population.  In essense should the allowance scheme be increased to attract more diversity in the Chamber because people can’t afford to do it but they felt that in these difficult times that must be achieved by other means.

The Panel is recommending no change to the level of basic allowance county councillors receive but is suggesting an increase to the level of allowance for the roles of Leader, Deputy Leader and Cabinet by raising the way this is calculated which is by a multiplication of the basic allowance so Leader – from 2.5 to 3, Deputy – from 1.75 to 2, Cabinet – from 1.5 to 1.75.  These recommendations put Suffolk County Council in line with other county councils.

They have looked thoroughly at all aspects of the allowance scheme and make a number of recommendations that seek to remove outdated payments (breakfast/lunch etc.).  They also felt that in comparison to other Councils we now have too many Committees and so have recommended mergers of some with the removal of two Committee Chairman and less Members with Special Responsibility which we have reflected in the number that have been appointed to 4.  The overall effect of the proposals is cost neutral and that means they will not cost the Council tax payers of Suffolk any more money.

So these recommendations offer a revised allowance scheme with no additional burden to local tax payers.  The proposals will come before the Full Council next Thursday 20th July.

I believe there is little point asking an independent Panel to look at a scheme if you do not accept their findings and I believe it is fair and reasonable to accept their findings.

Commitment to the Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich

Upper Orwell CrossingOn 8th June, Sandy Martin, the Leader of Labour opposition on Suffolk County Council was elected as Ipswich’s MP.  Ipswich has always been a bell-weather seat and given the extraordinary General Election he just pipped the hard-working Ben Gummer ‘at the post’.  During the campaign and subsequently as MP one of the first things he did was declare his dislike for the Upper Orwell Crossings (UOC) in favour of a Northern Relief Road which I think was a shock to the business community and other Ipswich partners on the Ipswich Vision Board, who are entirely behind the regeneration project to open up derelict / low value land in the heart of Ipswich’s waterfront and bring with it the sort of new high worth tech jobs the town so badly needs.  Instead Mr. Martin said the money should be ‘switched’ toward the Northern Relief Road, a project the County Council entirely supports but as the next mayor infrastructure project, but not instead of the UOC.  This change of direction must have also stunned his colleague David Ellesmere who as Leader of the Borough Council and member of the Ipswich Vision Board, has been supportive of the scheme since its inception.

However, there is a fundamental problem with the stance of the new MP as Government funding for the UOC is not geography based it is project based so it’s not some sort of ‘pick and mix’, that can be switched. The funding of the UOC and the Third River Crossing in Lowestoft comes from a funding pot called Local Majors and across the country Highways Authorities such as SCC had to make extensive, detailed and through business cases to bid for funding.  Fortunately, given the chronic congestion issues in Lowestoft holding back business growth and the massive economic benefits to Ipswich the UOC brings, both won through.  Should the new MP succeed in getting the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department of Transport to look again, the most he could achieve would be that the scheme could be dropped and the next scheme that it beat in the funding round, would have a windfall.  This would be an absolute tragedy for Ipswich’s economic future.  Tomorrow there is a meeting of the UOC Task Force which I now Chair and like other members we all hope Mr. Martin can attend so he can understand how the funding works and the importance of the UOC to the future of Ipswich.

I have heard criticism from some that Mr. Martin was keep in the dark on the project and so is hardly surprising he wants to look again at the project, this is utter nonsense.  Mr. Martin is not new to Ipswich or the project.  He has been the Leader of the Opposition on the County Council for the past 8 years.  All the papers and reports on the project are a matter of public record, they are as is the way of these things slightly complex but as an experienced Councillor Mr. Martin was/is better able than most to read the hundreds of pages on the project, I have. Every document is listed at

https://www.suffolk.gov.uk/UpperOrwellCrossings

Equally virtually no one was better placed to understand the project than Mr. Martin, as Leader of the Opposition, he or his team was present at the very meetings where we took the decisions to commit funding and had every opportunity to ask questions and seek further information.

We all agree for Ipswich to grow it needs a Northern Relief road to help easy traffic over the Orwell bridge and in the north of Ipswich but also to allow housing growth.  However, the economic growth that the UOC and the regeneration of the waterfront with new Hi-Tec companies and high worth jobs, comes first.

So as part of our campaign to stress, my and SCC commitment to this vital infrastructure project I have written to the DCLG Secretary of State Sajid Javid MP and the same to Chris Grayling MP the SoS for Transport to re-confirm Suffolk County Council’s commitment to the Upper Orwell Crossing and to exploring a Northern Relief Road Route for Ipswich.

‘Dear Sajid,

I am writing to confirm and emphasise the very strong support for the Upper Orwell Crossings from Suffolk County Council and our partners locally and nationally.

Upper Orwell Crossings

The County Council with its partners is driving forward the delivery of these bridges which will link the east and west banks of the River Orwell, providing a long needed new route for cross-town traffic, and access to the port’s island site – opening this newly created Enterprise Zone site to development. This £96.7 million investment into Ipswich will have a transformative impact on Ipswich’s economy and signals our ambitions for the town.

A compelling outline business case for this project resulted in the announcement, in the March 2016 Budget, of £77.546 million funding from the Department for Transport.  The local financial contribution of £19.1 million – is confirmed and available. Following a hotly contested international Architectural Team competition, we have recently appointed Foster and Partners as the architects for the bridges.  In addition to ongoing stakeholder engagement and scheme design and development, we have completed extensive environmental surveys and a local consultation.

The Upper Orwell Crossings has a Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) of 4.01 and has therefore been categorised as being a very high Value for Money scheme; with around £300 million of Transport Benefits and £6.5 billion of wider economic benefits.

Delivery of the Upper Orwell Crossings is one of the 21 Commitments made by the Ipswich Vision Board. Ipswich Vision is a partnership of local authorities, New Anglia LEP, Chamber of Commerce, University of Suffolk, Ipswich Central – the Business Improvement District and the local MP. It was established in 2015 to develop and publish a blueprint for the development of Ipswich and increase investment in the town, with clear commitments, including developing the waterfront as a high tech, innovation and learning quarter. The Vision Board is a sub-committee of New Anglia LEP, chaired by Mark Pendlington, chairman of New Anglia LEP. The partnership working which has been achieved through the Vision Board is ground breaking for Ipswich.

Part of the Island site to be opened by the bridges will house incubation units for fledgling start-ups and provide a link between academia and the major digital employers already located in Ipswich (such as British Telecom, Intel, Cisco Systems, Nokia and Huawei Technologies). Ipswich has a cluster of ICT businesses, recognised in the Tech Nation Report 2017. The investment in the Upper Orwell Crossings will significantly develop the opportunities for high tech companies to locate and grow in Ipswich, within a new high-technology hub linked to the University of Suffolk.

The Island Site and surrounding regeneration area is a 10 minute walk from Ipswich Railway Station which has fast and frequent Mainline service into the heart of London’s financial centre and high tech cluster in Farringdon.

The Upper Orwell Crossings will enable improvements to connectivity and the public realm within Ipswich and will be a transformative catalyst to the regeneration of the area. Their delivery will facilitate high density employment and residential development, and enable the creation of a quality urban realm which will attract both developers to develop and people and businesses to invest. The elements needed for the realisation of this exciting opportunity, to create a high tech knowledge cluster in an attractive location, to improve connectivity and the public realm are now in place, and I strongly believe should not be jeopardised.

Ipswich Northern Relief Road

The County Council and its partners are committed to developing a scheme to improve road capacity in the north of the town. This is to support significant housing development in the wider Ipswich area. The development of this scheme cannot be seen as being an alternative to the Upper Orwell Crossings. The latter is focussed on economic regeneration and improving the quality of the environment between the town centre and waterfront, with some transport benefits arising from relieving some traffic on the A14 and the central area, whereas a Northern Relief Road would enable the delivery of a substantial number of new homes to meet the needs of our residents.

All of the Suffolk Local Authorities have been working together to establish how we can deliver significantly increased housing numbers. In part, this work was started as a result of our devolution discussions with government, during which we committed to delivering around 95,000 new homes across Suffolk. Ipswich has a very great role in delivering a significant proportion of that growth as the county town and driver for growth in Suffolk. But in order to deliver this level of housing growth, we need to ensure that the required infrastructure is provided.

We have just concluded a significant piece of consultancy work to understand the future for planning and infrastructure in Suffolk. This concludes that the delivery of an Ipswich Northern Relief Road, located to the north of Ipswich between the A14 in the west and A12 in the east, will be necessary to support the growth of the Ipswich area beyond levels set out in current local plans. Failure to provide the Ipswich Northern Relief Road is expected to have significant implications for the surrounding strategic and local highway network (i.e. A14, A12, B1078 and Ipswich Radial Corridors), and the long term economic performance of Ipswich, and the opportunities available to its residents.

Furthermore, the growth planned in current local plans is forecast to be at the limit of what can be accommodated by existing road infrastructure. Therefore, to ensure infrastructure is provided to support development, Suffolk Public Sector Leaders have dedicated funding from their pooled Business Rates to begin developing a scheme to deliver the Northern Relief Road in Ipswich.

In conclusion

The Upper Orwell Crossings will transform the economy of Ipswich and Suffolk. The project will deliver high quality urban realm improvements, create better connectivity across the town, provide benefits for the A14 and enable the growth of the Ipswich Waterfront area as a location for high tech companies and high quality residential development. Work to deliver these bridges is underway and should not be jeopardised.

We are beginning to develop a scheme for a Northern Relief Road for Ipswich using pooled Business Rates. A Northern Relief Road will be necessary to support housing growth beyond what is contained in current local plans and we ask government to support the development and delivery of this road to enable Suffolk’s ambitious housing delivery plans.

It is not a case of either the Upper Orwell Crossings or a Northern Relief Road – Ipswich needs both if it is to grow and realise the ambitions we and our partners have for it.

Councillor Colin Noble

Leader of Suffolk County Council

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