Council shake-up on track

PUBLISHED: 15:30 25 October 2008 | UPDATED: 21:37 05 July 2010

Ministers have pledged not to interfere with a controversial overhaul of councils in Norfolk and Suffolk until an independent commission makes up its mind about the best way forward.

Ministers have pledged not to interfere with a controversial overhaul of councils in Norfolk and Suffolk until an independent commission makes up its mind about the best way forward.

Speculation shot up last week that the credit crunch would torpedo plans to scrap a round of local government reorganisations including a review of the current system of county and district councils in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Rumours reached fever pitch after the government said all options were the table and communities and local government secretary Hazel Blears refused to rule out that the council shake-ups would be scrapped.

The Boundary Committee is currently assessing which of three options put forward in Norfolk could be the best way to replace the current set up.

The current front runner is a single super council covering the whole of the county and Lowestoft. Other options are a wedge made up of Norwich, Yarmouth and Lowestoft, alongside a rest of Norfolk authority, and a 'doughnut' of an enlarged greater Norwich surrounded by a Norfolk authority including Lowestoft.

But at a conference in London this week local government minister John Healey and his officials told the first wave of nine councils already going through the process and due to be up and running in April, that they would act as standard bearers for others to follow.

Ministers are also sticking strictly to the line that they cannot interfere by law in the process in Norfolk and Suffolk while the Boundary Committee carries out its work.

It was also made clear at the conference that the savings generated by the new unitaries would “facilitate rather than hinder” councils to address “budgetary pressures”.

That will be a shot in the arm to those involved in the process, and perhaps help to reduce the febrile political atmosphere gripping local politicians - which has already helped spark a bitter division within Norfolk County Council's ruling Conservative group.

However, there are still a variety of twists and turns which could yet derail the process, including a legal challenge by district councils next month .

The Boundary Committee itself could yet conclude that none of the options stack up, while there are also a range of possible exit strategies should its final option prove politically unpalatable.

Ministers can rule against what is proposed, suggest something else, stick with the status quo, or go back to Norwich City Council's original failed bid, which sparked the whole process.

Meanwhile several insiders close to the process said they have had assurances that it will not be derailed.

Norwich South MP Charles Clarke, who is pushing for a city unitary said: “I have obviously seen the speculation around the future of the Boundary Committee report in the light of the political and economic situation, but in the conversations I have had at Westminster, I have seen nothing to substantiate concerns about a possible delay.

“On the contrary ministers are saying that they will await the report and then make their decision on that basis.”

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