Government approves unitary council for Norwich

Shaun LowthorpeNorwich City Council has secured its long-held home rule dream after ministers gave the green light to the controversial plan to create a city only unitary.Shaun Lowthorpe

Norwich City Council has today secured its long-held home rule dream after ministers gave the green light to the controversial plan to create a city only unitary.

Local Government Minister Rosie Winterton announced the go ahead for local leaders in Norwich to run the city's local services as a unitary council.

In Suffolk the government opted to keep the status quo but is recommending councillors and MPs get together and form a 'countywide constitutional convention' after no single proposal emerged that ministers believed the county's councils would unite behind.

The decision flies in the face of advice by the independent Boundary Committee which recommended a single council for the whole of Norfolk and Norfolk County Council has signalled it intends to challenge the decision in the courts.'

But ministers said the city needed a strong voice as it battled to get through the recession, and they pointed out a single unitary council had no support from any existing council in Norfolk.

The Government decided that a unitary structure for Norwich would be a far more potent economic force, than the current two-tier local government, for delivering growth for the city's residents and businesses and was the best way of giving the city strong decisive local leadership.

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Announcing her decision Mrs Winterton said: 'Our highest priority is to have the best and most efficient local services for the people of Norfolk and for the area to have the strong local leadership it needs to rebuild local economies and deliver jobs as we move towards recovery.

'The city of Norwich is at the centre of regional economic activity and its economic performance is crucial for its residents and the wider area. That's why today we're putting Norwich's local leaders who know their areas best in charge of delivering all local services and at the heart of delivering economic growth. A unitary Norwich authority will work for the interests of the people who live, work and study in Norwich and they will have one body to hold to account.

'Across Norfolk we listened carefully to the views of interested councils, MPs and other stakeholders and the option of a unitary structure for the whole of Norfolk did not have sufficient support from key councils. As a result the government had no option but to rule out a unitary authority for the whole of Norfolk as it could not succeed without local support.'

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, said: 'This sounds, at last, like progress towards something which will be good for the city and the county.

'This has never been about getting unitary for its own sake, but about making the best of the prospects for the city and being able to deal with the problems we have got.

'What we need is a system of governance which gives democratic accountability and can also help stimulate business and the economy.

'I am hoping people will set aside the propaganda and party political point scoring and get on with making the best of this opportunity by developing a genuine partnership between the city and county to benefit everyone.'

David White, chief executive of Norfolk County Council, said: 'The decision flies in the face of the Government's own conclusions and concerns about the affordability and risk posed to taxpayers of the original Norwich proposal which were subsequently confirmed by the Boundary Committee.

'As far as the economy is concerned, a separate Norwich Council would be financially weak and highly dependent on the support of the County Council and the authorities around it, which is where most of the Norwich area's employment and housing growth is earmarked, and where key infrastructure is located or proposed.

'A unitary Norwich would be too small to progress big strategic projects, and a weak voice in the region and nationally. So this decision simply threatens to put an artificial barrier into the growth of the Norwich sub-region - just when we should be pulling together to get out of the recession and drive Norfolk forward.

'There is a considerable way to go before the Secretary of State's announcement could become a reality. In the light of today's decision, we will certainly seek leave to challenge this decision in the courts and, given the strength of opposition and the timetable involved, I am convinced this is by no means certain to happen.'

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson accused the government of playing politics to appease its Labour supporters

'It's gerrymandering of the worst possible kind,' he said. 'The idea that we are going to break everything up is a disaster. It's the worst of all possible worlds. What's going to happen to the rest of Norfolk?'

The proposals for Norwich will now be voted on by Parliament before they become law. If Parliament approves the proposals, the affected councils can start putting in place transitional arrangements ready for elections to the new councils in 2011.

But the decision is sure to face a legal challenge from Norfolk County Council and could also hinge on whether the House of Lords tries to resist the plans, while the Conservatives are promising to undo the plans if they win the general election.

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