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Councils face more turmoil

PUBLISHED: 10:45 04 August 2008 | UPDATED: 21:00 05 July 2010

A controversial overhaul of councils in Suffolk and Norfolk was rocked by further turmoil last night after the government admitted it could yet simply go back to plan A and give Norwich its original home rule wish after all.

A controversial overhaul of councils in Suffolk and Norfolk was rocked by further turmoil last night after the government admitted it could yet simply go back to plan A and give Norwich its original home rule wish after all.

City Hall appeared to have twice blown its chance of securing unitary status firstly after failing to make the case with ministers to go it alone on its own boundaries and secondly when the independent Boundary Committee favoured a proposal for a new Norfolk super council including Lowestoft ahead of an enlarged greater Norwich authority.

Communities and local government secretary Hazel Blears instructed the Boundary Committee to look at the case for unitary councils across Norfolk and Suffolk including a tie-up between Yarmouth and Waveney after home rule bids by Norwich and Ipswich failed to stack up financially.

But the independent committee's preferred solution for a single Norfolk council plus Lowestoft, sparked vociferous protests and caught politicians of all hues off guard while the government is also believed to be unhappy at the option.

And the government has said that Ms Blears could yet “implement Norwich's original proposal” which is sure to raise questions of whether an 'exit strategy' is being put together to try and save the city and avoid simply kicking the process into the long grass.

The idea that Norwich's original proposal could somehow win through came as a shock to those closest to the process and is likely to send councils scurrying to the lawyers to check exactly what the secretary of state can and cannot do.

It is also sure to raise fresh questions about the integrity of the process and perceived political gerrymandering, particularly if ministers also decide that Norwich gets home rule while the status quo can remain in place in the rest of Norfolk - having seemingly called in the Boundary Committee because that outcome was not a viable option.

Steve Morphew, Norwich city council leader, said he was unaware that the original bid was still on the table - and the authority had been working up a revised greater Norwich bid alongside a doughnut unitary for the rest of Norfolk.

“I can happily confirm that we haven't been working on the basis that the original bid was still around,” he said. “It's an interesting development and another turn in the road.

“I definitely think something will happen and there will be an outcome in all of this otherwise we will finish up not fulfilling the potential of the city and will back here the next time this comes round to ask the same question,” he added.

Norfolk County Council leader Daniel Cox, whose authority had advocated a single council, was also unaware the original bid could yet come into play, but said he hoped that all sides could work through the process currently on the table.

“Labour parliamentarians have already said that they will fight it in Parliament, what difference that will make we will have to wait and see,” he said. “There is a debate happening now about the future of local government in Norfolk around the single draft proposal on the table. I hope that proposal can be shaped with the help of others so that it can reflect the needs and aspirations of Norfolk as a whole.

John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, restated the belief that the process was dead in the water.

“Nobody in their heart of hearts believes that this is going to happen,” he said. “The only reason that this is still on the table is that Hazel Blears didn't have the courage to shoot it last time. My prediction is that this is going to end up with an elected mayor for Norwich and status quo for everyone else as a face saver.”

Last July and again in February Ms Blears stressed she was “not minded” to implement the city's original bid because “value for money services may potentially be compromised by the city's small population and the difficulty of managing cross border issues”.

She also felt there were a “number of risks” to the financial case set out in the Norwich proposal and had “concerns about the reliability of the financial data submitted”.

Yet support for the single Norfolk and Lowestoft super council plans, which are likely to deliver the biggest savings to council tax payers, is strong among the police and health chiefs and business groups.

Parish councils are also leading the calls for all sides to sit down and work together on improving the draft proposal, while a glance at the Boundary Committee's website shows so far that a majority of the public who have responded are also in favour and hope councils will simply get on with making it happen.

A statement from the department for communities and local government said: “Following advice from the Boundary Committee, (the) Secretary of State will take a decision to proceed with those alternative proposals, modify them, implement Norwich's original proposal, or not to proceed with any proposal. Any decisions will be subject to Parliamentary approval.”

A spokesman insisted that nothing had changed since the Boundary Committee were called in.

“Nothing can be ruled out,” he said. “We can't do that as that would prejudge anything the Boundary Committee is doing. This isn't some switch.

“At no point have we ruled out the initial bid - that was quite clear from the February statement. We can't rule anything in or out until we get advice from the Boundary Committee. Nothing has changed.


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