Simmering issue has divided county

PUBLISHED: 10:03 01 August 2008 | UPDATED: 09:30 11 May 2010

Plans for a Norfolk super-council plus Lowestoft have sparked outrage among the majority of our elected representatives. But are the proposals as “bizarre” as they sound? History suggest not - as Shaun Lowthorpe discovered.

Plans for a Norfolk super-council plus Lowestoft have sparked outrage among the majority of our elected representatives. But are the proposals as “bizarre” as they sound? History suggest not - as Shaun Lowthorpe discovered.

BARELY three weeks after the Boundary Committee published its draft recommendation for Norfolk and politicians of all sides are saying the whole local government review exercise will be kicked into touch anyway - heading, after all this time, for the long-grass.

So a process which has cost getting on for £2m of our money to get this far (that's about 1pc off your annual council tax increase, by the way) could end up achieving nothing.

Is that right?

Politicians of all colours are playing the numbers game and missing the point about what is actually happening - which is a chance to get around the table and see if what is being proposed could be made to work and even improved.

Yet away from the political world the proposals have been broadly welcomed by the local NHS, police, community groups, parish councils and business leaders, are dare I say it, engaging constructively with the process, which tells its own story.

Yet a glance at the history books suggests that despite what the politicians believe, this issue is not going to go away.

And if we do nothing we will simply see a return to the simmering sniping between city and county, which has blotted relations since the last time this question was kicked into touch in the 1990s.

In 1969 a Royal Commission chaired by Lord Redcliffe-Maud produced a thorough report looking at local government in England.

And guess what it recommended for Norfolk and Norwich?

A single unitary council for the whole county and most of Waveney, going even further than the current proposals and taking in Bungay, Beccles, Halesworth, Lothingland, and Wainford.

In Suffolk the report favoured a single county minus Newmarket and Haverhill, which would shift into Cambridgeshire but taking in Colchester, Harwich, Clacton and Frinton, from Essex.

And the arguments sound quite familiar too.

“Norwich is the main centre for most of the unit and is also the present county town of Norfolk. Lowestoft, Yarmouth, and Beccles act as local centres for the north-east corner of Suffolk,” the report said. “They are much closer to Norwich than Ipswich and their ties with it are stronger. We therefore include them in the same unit as Norwich.

“We considered whether West Norfolk might form a separate unit. This part of Norfolk is about 40 miles from Norwich and focuses on the important local centre of King's Lynn. We found it impossible, however, to define a reasonably coherent West Norfolk area that had sufficient population and resources to make, in our opinion, an effective authority.

“The division between town and country in the present system has been very bad for local government. The growing interdependence of town and country was widely recognised in the evidence.”

You get the picture - 40 years on, and the findings of one independent review are virtually identical to those of its predecessor. What does that tell us?

While Harold Wilson's Labour government broadly accepted the report's recommendations, the incoming Conservative was committed to a two-tier system which led to the creation of the current set up in 1974.

Then in the 1990s a new Banham review tried again, but could not bring itself to make the case for change and opted for the status quo - admitting its verdict was based strongly on public opinion (as opposed to evidence).

History appears to be telling us that the options really are either to work with the Boundary Committee's preferred option, or do nothing and see the whole issue rumble to the dissatisfaction of everyone for another 40 years.

For all the talk of referendums and judicial review, we are in the middle of a statutory process.

Could our political masters show some leadership and actually sit around the table and use the super council plus Lowestoft option as the basis for a meaningful negotiation?

Then they could legitimately walk away if the talks breakdown, in the knowledge they have given it their best shot.

Everything points against it - and why would our politicians play ball?

Turkeys don't vote for Christmas, after all.

Particularly Norfolk (and Norwich) ones.

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