Babergh District Council’s newly-elected leader has pledged to hold a public referendum over plans to merge with Mid Suffolk.

Conservative councillor John Ward was voted in as leader at Thursday’s full council meeting, although he lacked the universal support of his colleagues.

Of the councillors present, 22 voted for his appointment, 16 were against it and three abstained.

Mr Ward’s rise to the top follows Jennie Jenkins’ resignation last month, after she came under fire over her handling of plans to merge with Mid Suffolk District Council.

Accepting the nomination from Brook ward councillor Barry Gasper, Mr Ward said he was mindful that members were in favour of holding a referendum to merge the two authorities.

“I will be committed to holding one once we have a full business case, including the benefits and costs of the merger weighed against other options, to present to residents,” he said.

Mr Ward added that a final debate over a public referendum would also take place, following a vote by the full council.

“If the evidence is there, residents and the council will vote for it,” he said. “If it isn’t, then it will fail.

“Let’s be driven by the evidence, not a motion. Many of you would like to see a unitary solution one day – so would I.”

Mr Ward pledged to increase the size of the cabinet with additional members, and said he would create a new communications role to increase transparency.

His predecessor, Mrs Jenkins, was previously criticised by members for a perceived lack of communication across the council.

“I accept that communication has not been as good as it could have been and the cabinet has also expressed its frustrations about this,” said Mr Ward.

John Hinton, an independent councillor for the Dodnash ward, questioned Mr Ward’s apparent U-turn.

“At the last cabinet meeting, you had a steely resolve in saying that we didn’t need a referendum,” he said.

Mr Ward responded by saying that, due to the council being elected by the public as representatives, he believed they should have the final say.

David Busby, ward councillor for Pinewood, went further, questioning Mr Ward’s integrity.

“All of a sudden, it’s very convenient for you to promise a referendum,” he said. “It seems that it’s just a promise to get yourself elected.

“You say this is the most important question for this council, yet this is just another internal reorganisation.”

Mr Busby claimed that taxpayers were more concerned about infrastructure needed to support the number of new homes being built across the district, than the merger proposals themselves.

“We are failing to deliver on so many aspects of the services we promise,” he said.

Mr Ward, however, assured him that he had always kept an open mind.

“I’m very mindful of the will of this council and members here,” he said. “And, consequently, I’m reacting to that and promising a referendum.”

Accepting the leadership position, Mr Ward told the council: “I know I’m inexperienced, but I will work hard to earn your trust.”

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