It has been somewhat surprising to me that in the reportage and commentary that has accompanied the recent Ipswich application to Central Government for ‘unitary authority’ status, much of the discussion has seemed to present it as a bold new initiative for our ancient and historic town. To be fair, the August issue of Angle did, in reporting the success of the application, remind us briefly that Ipswich enjoyed such a status until 1974. It omitted, however, to specify since when.
Might we perhaps approach our ‘new’ situation with extra confidence if we were to undertake a serious exploration of our urban ‘since when’? The moment we do this, of course, we are taken back 807 years to 25 May 1200, when King John set his seal to the first of many royal charters granting the burgesses of the borough of Ipswich ‘its liberties and free customs’ (set out in considerable detail).
This act was in effect a recognition of the crucial economic and social importance to the nation of its urban communities, which could only flourish if in control of their own affairs. That this was well understood by the town’s citizens is uniquely well illustrated in Ipswich, for which we have an account of how they assembled in St Mary Tower churchyard on five separate occasions between June and October 1200 to hear the charter read out and agree to all the steps to be taken to put it into effect. (This surely is a splendid example of that ‘consultation’ of which we hear so much nowadays and which could be duly noted when starting off anew.)
There is not alas a happy ending to this first unitary exercise which, while it did survive for over six centuries, failed to keep abreast of changing times and declined, like not a few of our chartered boroughs, into gross inefficiency and corruption, and was dissolved in 1834. Legislation replaced many of the ancient boroughs, including Ipswich, by Municipal Borough Councils, whose structure has provided a pattern of urban local government which is broadly recognisable today.
Was Ipswich Borough Council a unitary authority? There are three reasonably valid answers – ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’. The massive economic and social change of the Victorian period and beyond were wrestled with by these local authorities as best they could, but they tended to be playing ‘catch-up’ in a host of circumstances – health, education, amenities, utilities, and so on, and so on. Essentially, they could all the same, fairly claim to be the principal authority, and to keep a modicum and growing measure of control of the range of urban responsibilities. For Ipswich, the situation changed radically in 1888 when Government conceded that very large towns needed realistically to be empowered to run the whole range of local government services and created a new element in the structure, the County Borough Council. So from 1888 to 1974 Ipswich became a County Borough Council or, in the current terminology, ‘a unitary authority’.
The demotion of a number of urban communities of six-figure population levels to a ‘District Council’ level -in effect equating them with rural communities of widely-spread and much smaller populations – has presumably come to be realised by Central Government to have failed to recognise the urban factor and its importance in the social mix, hence the decision now to do so where it seems appropriate. Different as our world is now is, the distinction seems as valid today as it was for our burgesses in St Mary Tower churchyard in 1200.
That said, all our Suffolk authorities should have the wisdom to acknowledge the ‘different world’ we live in, and see how best we can be both good and effective neighbours, which has not – let’s face it – always been the situation post-1974. A sentence from a recent Evening Star editorial note is perhaps worth repeating in conclusion – ‘Suffolk County Council, which opposed the bid, and Ipswich Borough Council, which is delighted with the news, will need to work together for the good of the community and the county town.’ That makes sense, surely?