Decision day on Suffolk County Council leader

SUFFOLK will today know who its new leader will be – but will the election also herald a new direction for the county?

Members of the Conservative group on the county council will elect a new leader to replace Jeremy Pembroke, and he – and it will be a man – will have to lead the authority through possibly the most challenging period in its recent history.

The two front-runners in the race are adult and community services portfolio-holder Colin Noble and scrutiny committee chairman Mark Bee, who is also leader of Waveney District Council.

Their names have been joined on the ballot paper by that of transport and planning spokesman Guy McGregor.

The 54 members of the Conservative group are the only people to have a vote in the election – but their vote could determine the whole direction of the county over the next two years.

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Colin Noble is seen as the 'heir apparent' to former leader Jeremy Pembroke whose retirement at the start of this month triggered the leadership election.

At recent council meetings, Mr Noble has led debates on the New Strategic Direction – arguing that it is the only way forward for an authority facing tough spending cuts.

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Mr Bee is seen very much as the 'outsider' candidate who would challenge the way the council has been operating over recent months.

As scrutiny committee chairman, he has a clear insight into the way the council operates – but he is seen as untainted by many of the controversies that have hit the administration over recent months.

However, he has experience of leading a local authority – and is credited by many with turning around the fortunes of Waveney after taking over as leader seven years ago.

Mr McGregor is seen as the potential 'compromise candidate' who has done a very good job in his own portfolio – preserving some bus services and gaining investment in new road and rail schemes – but with concerns about the way the council as a whole is heading.

He has said he feels the council should pay more heed to what the people of Suffolk want rather than trying to impress ministers and their advisers in Westminster.

Mr Noble and Mr Bee have both spoken optimistically about their chances of success in the ballot, but with such a small – and sophisticated – electorate it is not easy for outsiders to accurately gauge the strength of each candidate's support. But most accept that the result will have a huge impact on the way the council operates.

If Mr Noble becomes leader, the council's general direction seems likely to be the same. The New Strategic Direction will remain the guiding principle (even if there is a subtle change in tone) and the moves to divest services like libraries, country parks and school crossing patrols will continue.

He has said he is keen to explain to the people of Suffolk how the council's delivery of services is likely to change as the New Strategic Direction is implemented.

If Mr Bee becomes leader, there is likely to be a pause while the council's whole strategy is re-assessed – although he would be mindful of the fact the authority is likely to have to make a further �50million of cuts next year.

There could be a reprieve for some low-cost services like school crossing patrols, and the library divestment strategy would be likely to be reassessed. That could be music to the ears of 'twin track' county councillors who are also defending seats in district and borough elections next month.

And the indications are that the council would never use the words 'new', 'strategic' and 'direction' in the same sentence again!

For the result of the election, visit our website at lunchtime.

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