Minister says change will make it better

THE minister in charge of a controversial overhaul of councils has insisted the changes will lead to a better services and give people more say in local decisions.

THE minister in charge of a controversial overhaul of councils has insisted the changes will lead to a better services and give people more say in local decisions.

John Healey, local government minister, said that plans to replace 44 councils across seven counties on April 1 are on track. He said he had been impressed with efforts to ensure that the new councils will be up and running delivering top quality services from day one. But he said more needs to be done to explain the changes to the public itself - especially the benefits it will bring, particularly during the economic downturn.

The new authorities are the forerunner of an overhaul which could see councils in Norfolk scrapped and replaced with a single super council covering the whole county and Lowestoft or two rival plans which cover a greater Norwich area, or the city combined with Yarmouth and Lowestoft.

The Boundary Committee is due to present its final preferred option for Norfolk and Suffolk in February after being asked by the government to go back and look again at the financial cases put forward.

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Critics of the process believe that the overhaul will cost millions and lead to higher council tax and more remote services and five district councils are spearheading a 'Keep Norfolk Local' campaign to see the status quo retained in the county.

But Mr Healey said he had been encouraged by the work put in so far in other parts of the country.

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'In 100 days time 44 councils across 7 counties will be replaced with 9 new unitary councils, serving over 3 million people,' he said. 'This represents the biggest transformation of local government for 30 years and means that 60per cent of the population will now be served by single unitary councils.

'This isn't a bureaucratic process of redrawing maps or changing names, and it's not a 24-hour makeover. This is about making a real difference to people's lives. These new councils have committed to delivering better services, giving people a bigger say in decisions that affect them and making combined savings of over �100m to be re-invested in front-line services or used to reduce pressure on council tax. And through stronger leadership they will help their communities ride out these tough economic times.'

'From my visits to all of these areas I have seen first hand the huge efforts being made to ensure councils are not only up and running but also delivering top quality services from day one.

But shadow local government secretary Eric Pickles said the changes had been a 'vanity project' by ministers more interested in reducing the number of Conservative Party councillors than delivering better quality services.

'If I am lucky enough to become Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government I intend to keep a loaded pearl-handled revolver in my drawer, and the first civil servant who suggests local government reorganisation will be shot,' he said. 'I am not at all interested in the structure of local government. I am extremely determined that we make the functions of local government work as efficiently and effectively as possible to ensure we offer the best possible services and the lowest council tax possible. No city or county will forced to change their status, but we will expect councils to share back office functions to cooperate and work together, and focus on delivery not navel gazing.'

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