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Council shake-up could got to ballot box

PUBLISHED: 06:44 16 February 2009 | UPDATED: 22:29 05 July 2010

Voters across Norfolk and Suffolk could get their best chance yet to use the ballot box to give their verdict on the controversial overhaul of councils - if the political parties are minded to make it a campaign issue.

Voters across Norfolk and Suffolk could get their best chance yet to use the ballot box to give their verdict on the controversial overhaul of councils - if the political parties are minded to make it a campaign issue.

The government this week agreed to a five month delay in the process which means that a final proposal for ministers to give their verdict on would be on the table by July 15.

But the Boundary Committee has confirmed that it was looking to start a consultation on a fresh draft proposal between March 19 and May 14.

And with the starting gun for the June 5 county council elections being fired on April 28 the controversial unitary proposals could become a live campaigning issue if the parties adopt a for or against stance on what is being planned - while potentially highlighting the cracks both between and within political parties who are all at sea over which options to support.

County Council leader Daniel Cox, whose authority had been in pole position with a single unitary bid including Lowestoft, questioned whether voters would feel strongly about the issue.

“In the two years I've been leader and spoken to people on the doorstep structural re-organisation isn't an issue that's come up,” he said. “What matters is keeping council tax down and being as efficient as possible.”

Labour's Sue Whitaker said she felt the election would be dominated by national issues.

“It might come into play but I suspect it will finish up being a referendum on national issues,” she said.

But Green county councillor said he would actively campaign on the issue, particularly if a doughnut was one of the options on the table.

“The general public are tired of it,” he said. “But we've always said a doughnut would be better than a single unitary and as a party we would be seriously campaigning on it.

Much will depend on what options are on the table - but in a further twist the Boundary Committee has also granted Norwich City Council more time to work up a more detailed financial case for its greater Norwich doughnut - though ironically using county council figures based on its proposed model of shared services.

On January 9 city council chief executive Laura McGillivray wrote to the committee with concerns that its finance consultants had misunderstood the council's “transformation” proposals as other bids did not consider the major investment needed in new computer services.

In its reply the committee has told the city to go off and make the case by February 25. This will then be shared with other councils who have until March 10 to make their views known.

City Hall has twice failed the make the finance case stack up and some see the decision as yet another lifeline for it greater Norwich/rural Norfolk “doughnut bid”, while another school of thought is the committee is giving the city a second chance to insure itself against further legal challenges.

And if legal appeals next week rule that the committee will have to put forward a range of options in its final submission, could yet make it even easier for the Labour government to opt for the political option it likes most.

But it is not yet certain which way the courts will go and opponents of the unitary process are also pinning their hopes on Tory general election win scuppering the plans.

Ms McGillivray said she was pleased the council was being given the opportunity to do some further work on the financial information.

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