Council shake-up decision to go to the wire

Shaun LowthorpeA controversial plan to overhaul councils in Norfolk and Suffolk is set to go to the wire with a decision likely next week - as the government signals it will backtrack on plans to hold elections for any new authority in May.Shaun Lowthorpe

A controversial plan to overhaul councils in Norfolk and Suffolk is set to go to the wire with a decision likely next week - as the government signals it will backtrack on plans to hold elections for any new authority in May.

Communities secretary John Denham is expected to give his verdict on whether to scrap the current system of county and district councils in Norfolk in favour of a super-council for the whole county, keep the status quo in place, or dust down an earlier proposal to create a unitary council in Norwich, based on its existing boundaries.

Councils in Norfolk are over-whelmingly against the super- council plan, the preferred option of the independent Boundary Comm-ittee, while City Hall is pinning its hopes that the Labour government will finally help the city realise its long-held home-rule dream.

And Norfolk County Council, which submitted the proposal, has also adopted a 'neutral' position on its own plans.

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Meanwhile Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, insisted the case for a unitary city had been well-made.

'The county council has shown it doesn't get how Norwich works and the latest examples are day centre cuts, taking money from schools in deprived areas and rural councillors saying there are no lights in the rural areas so why should the city need them,' Mr Morphew said.

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'Norwich is an urban engine of prosperity and needs the gears and drivers to make it function to its full potential. A unitary Norwich on existing boundaries will benefit both the city and county and can deliver more efficiently and effectively and with a lot less waste than the current two-tier set-up.'

But police and NHS chiefs have signalled their support for a single county unitary, amid fears of the damage caused by breaking up key services such as those for adults and children, and a belief that the �25m a year savings will prove vital at a time that public-sector funding is set to be squeezed in the wake of the spiralling national debt.

District councils point out that the vast majority of responses to the plans have been against any change, a position they argue is backed up by a Mori poll showing an overwhelm-ing majority against.

Other non-political organisations, such as the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce and the University of East Anglia, are also adopting a neutral view publicly.

Speculation has been rife that a decision could have come today, but an email sent to council chief executives yesterday from Jo Miller, deputy chief executive of the Local Government Association, set out that a verdict was likely next week, before MPs and peers head off for their Easter break.

'Ministers are now in the process of deciding what, if any, decisions should be made,' she said. 'If decisions are to be made, draft orders will need to be laid in both houses by February 10 at the latest to allow for debate and passage through.

'Again, if decisions are to be made, we believe these will be made as close as possible to that date. If draft orders aren't completed by the end of March when Parliament goes home for the Easter break then they will fall as after Easter, in view of the general election timetables, matters will only be dealt with through a 'wash-up' ie where there is party consensus, and in this case there is none.'

The email also added that civil servants were moving away from the idea of holding an election for any new council in May after strong lobbying from councils that it would prove difficult at a time when activists on the ground will also be helping with the general election effort.

A 2010 election was 'almost certainly not going to happen' and an implementation executive would be the way forward for the first year with an election likely in May 2011.

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