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Council shake up rocked by new delay

PUBLISHED: 08:49 10 February 2009 | UPDATED: 22:24 05 July 2010

RESIDENTS and thousands of council staff across Suffolk and Norfolk face five more months of uncertainty about who will deliver vital public services after the government yesterday delayed the announcement of a controversial overhaul of councils until the summer.

RESIDENTS and thousands of council staff across Suffolk and Norfolk face five more months of uncertainty about who will deliver vital public services after the government yesterday delayed the announcement of a controversial overhaul of councils until the summer.

Councils across the two counties and Devon were all set to learn on Friday the verdict of the independent Boundary Committee about whether the existing system of district and county councils should be replaced by a new one size fits all unitary system.

However, the government yesterday agreed to a Boundary Committee request to delay the announcement until after the completion of legal challenges into the process brought by councils, including Breckland - which were due to be heard next week.

But the length of the delay set by ministers - until July 15 - has surprised observers and sparked fevered talk about whether ministers are trying to shelve the process or put pressure on the committee, which initially favoured a single super council for Norfolk and Lowestoft, to put forward a more politically palatable set of proposals.

And it also means that any changes will not reach the statute books until Parliament returns from the summer break, which means that any new council could not be up and running until 2011, a year later than planned.

That has also raised hopes among opponents of the process that a General Election could get in the way and see the whole project fall if the Conservatives form the next government.

Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council, which has been in pole position after its single council bid caught the eye of the committee, said he was not surprised there was a delay but was struck by the length of it.

“I do think that continued delay and uncertainty is not helpful to good government across the county as a whole and sincerely hope for an early decision either way,” he said. “I am surprised by the length of the delay but not by the fact that there is one. Given that the appeal hearing on recent Judicial Review judgements is not scheduled until later this month, we had not expected the BC to report before then.

“We will continue with the measured and proportionate approach to this review which has helped us weather the vagaries of the twists and turns of the process so far and seen us keep focused on continuing to manage our budget well and improve the public services that really matter to local people.

Yarmouth council leader Barry Coleman, whose authority is also in the running with a rival bid for a wedge bringing together the town with Lowestoft and Norwich, said: “It just leaves us all in limbo for another five months. We have got lots of people's livelihoods at stake here, it's just grossly unfair to staff, we are no further forward than we were last year.”

Waveney District Council leader Mark Bee said: “It's a dog's dinner second course. Here we are with more delays and confusion and is shows what a flawed process this whole thing has been from the start. We have yet more uncertainty and it brings into question if the whole thing is going to happen, but it gives the opportunity for other options to be considered …”

Andy Smith, Suffolk Coastal's deputy leader, said: “This news show that the Government again clearly has strong concerns about the previously proposed BCE options and I hope it means that North Haven, Rural Suffolk or the one giant Suffolk will never see the light of day. The BC should now start again, forget its proposals for twinning Ipswich with Felixstowe, and instead offer an Ipswich unitary on a much tighter boundary with the rest of the county being split into East and West Suffolk as previously suggested by Suffolk Coastal. If the Government insists on proceeding with what has turned from a review into a farce, this council believes that our Make Suffolk Three model would be the best way forward.

“The bad news is that the continuing delays and uncertainty will definitely further harm local government in our county. The BCE has not previously given any real consideration to the most sensible options of creating three new local unitary councils, or even addressed the strong demand for the existing local councils to be allowed to remain in an updated and modernised way.

“There were strong concerns in our district about the lack of real consultation, which was recently highlighted in our survey of Suffolk Coastal's town and parish councils. It is good that the Secretary of State wants the BC to take the extra time to consult fully with local communities, which it should now make sure includes options that it had not previously looked at,” added Mr Smith.

“Friday the 13th felt like a suitably ominous day for its recommendations to be published but now that has been abandoned as well. I think even the government is now recognising what a massive and distracting waste of time this has been and that it has been getting in the way of all the councils in Suffolk delivering better services and even better value, which is so important in these economically challenging times.”

Opponents of the unitary process felt that the latest delay would sound the death knell for the overhaul.

William Nunn, leader of Breckland Council, whose legal challenge helped force the delay said: “It will obviously knock the review into the long grass because hopefully the timetable will be too short to enact it.

“I'm quite pleased that the legal challenge we put forward seems to be holding them to account and making them reconsider the consultation process.

Confirming the delay local government minister John Healey said: “Our priority is for the people and communities of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk to have the highest possible levels of local service delivery and for those areas to have the local leadership they need.

“The general case for one level of local government rather than two remains strong. It can bring real benefits in terms of better services, improved efficiency, stronger strategic leadership and genuine involvement of local communities.

“The Boundary Committee are charged with giving proposals to ministers which are properly developed, but they need to do this as rapidly as they can, so that the current uncertainty about the future is kept to a minimum. It is this balance we have struck in agreeing the July deadline for the Boundary Committee to meet”.

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