What if Colchester had been moved to Suffolk?

Here’s an interesting bit of local history for you all, going all the way back to when I was born in 1972. This was a year of many interesting events, and also the 1972 Local Government Act which brought about wholesale changes to the way large parts of the country were governed. It brought in the two-tier system of local government (counties and districts/boroughs) that’s been continually tampered with since, and also carved many new counties out of the old borders. I grew up in Redditch, so was under the auspices of the county of ‘Hereford and Worcester’ for a while, though if things had gone slightly differently I could have known it as Malvernshire or the County of Wyvern.

But today, we’re not looking at H&W, Avon, Humberside or any of the odd agglomerations that were created then, but one that was proposed and never came about – Colchester becoming part of Suffolk.

The proposal was for the bulk of what’s now Colchester Borough and Tendring District to become part of a new Suffolk (until 1974, East Suffolk, West Suffolk and Ipswich were entirely separate authorities) as part of a wholesale redrawing of borders in East Anglia. Much of West Suffolk around Newmarket would join Cambridgeshire, while northern Suffolk would find itself as part of Norfolk. As what remained of Suffolk would then be a very small county, dominated by Greater Ipswich, Colchester, Harwich et al would be removed from Essex and put into Suffolk. The three main arguments for this were that the area looked more to East Anglia than Essex, that it would bring all the Haven ports (Harwich, Felixstowe and Ipswich) under the same authority and that it would put the whole Dedham Vale and Stour Valley into the same county.

There’s an article here from the Southend Echo discussing it from the perspective of one of the PR men employed by Essex County Council to lobby against it, but it seems the idea was proposed and discussed with much more seriousness than that implies.

I’ve found an interesting House of Lords discussion from September 11, 1972. By this point, the Local Government Bill had been amended to remove the Colchester proposals, but Lord Alport (who’d been MP for Colchester from 1950 to 1961) proposed an amendment to put them back in, and the ensuing debate provides an interesting recap of the discussions that had gone on around the proposals. Of particular interest to me is the noting of a three-hour debate on the proposals at Colchester Borough Council before they were rejected in a vote. There’s also another interesting ‘what if?’ buried within that debate where they discuss the new town and airport to be built at Foulness and Maplin Sands (the 1970s version of Boris Island).

The proposals did have some local support, however. There’s a summation of the consultation responses in a Parliamentary written question here which shows that while Colchester, Harwich and Clacton councils were opposed to it, others were in favour of it, including West Mersea, Wivenhoe and Lexden & Winstree councils (all now part of Colchester Borough). However, the largest number of voices were strongly against it and it didn’t happen.

But what if the Government of the day had ignored the objections and gone ahead with the changes? Given that they did decide Humberside was a good idea, there’s every possibility a redrawn East Anglia could have joined it on the map, but how different would things be? One obvious point made in that House of Lords debate is that the University of Essex would have had to change its name, but would the University of Colchester have fared any differently over the years?

The most likely result, I think, would have been the new Suffolk being about as successful as all the other new counties that were created in the 70s. Like Humberside – though the Stour is obviously a narrower barrier – the old differences could well have proven too much to overcome, and the 90s wave of re-reorganisations could have seen new Suffolk dismembered into a series of unitary authorities (which, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing). The strangest outcome of that might be the name of Suffolk entirely disappearing from the map, joining Middlesex in the land of former counties as all its constituent parts sought new identities.

However, the possibility of the new arrangements being a success can’t be entirely discounted. Sure, there’d be a rivalry between Colchester and Ipswich – especially if Colchester grew at the same pace it has in our version of history – but similar rivalries haven’t torn other counties apart. There’s also the intriguing prospect of a county that’s very focused towards the major ports and how that might effect its outlook. Would it be able to look out across the North Sea to find new partners and take advantage of Britain’s then-new membership of the EEC?

It’s easy to speculate and create an East Anglian utopia or dystopia according to your wishes, but it is interesting to look back at the discussions that surrounded this and ponder how those behind the proposals saw the future developing. Though they likely saw us all clad in bri-nylon jumpsuits and eating food pills for lunch while watching out for the hypersonic New Concorde taking off over the North Sea from Maplin Sands.

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