Tight race expected for unitary councils

THE government has confirmed it would face a tight race to get new unitary councils in Norfolk and Suffolk approved by parliament before the next general election.

THE government has confirmed it would face a tight race to get new unitary councils in Norfolk and Suffolk approved by parliament before the next general election.

Local government minister John Healey said yesterday that orders authorising changes to the council structure in the counties could be 'laid and in parliament' before the end of this year.

That could leave him with only a few weeks to get MPs and peers to vote for them. A general election has to be held by June of next year, and one coinciding with council elections in May 2010 would require parliament to be dissolved before the end of March that year.

Such a timetable would also mean a well-timed further legal challenge to a proposed replacement of the two-tier council structure in Norfolk and Suffolk with unitary authorities could torpedo government hopes of implementing the reforms before the nation goes to the polls. That could also completely destroy the chances of securing such change because the Tories have said an incoming government formed by them would not take them forward.

A Conservative policy statement pledged last week that 'we will stop the unitary restructuring plans for Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon, where recent delays following legal challenges mean the process will not have reached a conclusion prior to the next general election'.

After the five-month delay recently announced, the Boundary Committee is now due to publish further proposals for Norfolk and Suffolk in July. The government will not be able to respond to them before a minimum of six weeks, and will not be able to lay implementing orders before parliament until it returns from its summer recess in October.

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A battle could ensue in the Commons if the Boundary Committee persevered with its earlier proposals which include the creation of a unitary Super-Norfolk council embracing Lowestoft. There would be opposition on the Labour backbenches as well as among the Tories and Liberal Democrats.

The Tories are also pointing to potential trouble in the Lords, but the convention is that the upper house will not reject secondary legislation approved by the Commons.

Mr Healey also emphasised a parliamentary order to create new councils for the counties could not be revoked by a further order, and that that would require a bill. He added it was still possible for elections to new unitary councils for Norfolk and Suffolk to be held in May next year but it was 'more likely' they would take place in 2011.

He was speaking after a Commons debate in which Mid Norfolk Tory MP Keith Simpson reaffirmed his backing for the status quo.

'I suggest that the minister either goes back to the drawing board, given the failure to reach any agreed solution to the options on the table and given that the process is fatally flawed or, even better, that he scraps this disastrous process, which has relatively limited support within the county structures and has been an embarrassment to the government', he said.

Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, also said the review process should be 'scrapped straightaway', and South Norfolk Tory MP Richard Bacon urged Mr Healey to 'gracefully withdraw and acknowledge that this is not the right time to be pushing forward this proposal'.

Norwich South Labour MP Charles Clarke reiterated his support for a Greater Norwich unitary council and admitted he had been 'very angry' when the Boundary Comm-ittee announced its proposal for a single-tier Greater Norfolk instead.