Unitary savings claim sparks bitter row

PUBLISHED: 15:18 12 September 2008 | UPDATED: 21:15 05 July 2010

A BITTER row erupted yesterday over claims that Lowestoft council taxpayers would save £12 a year if the town merged with Norfolk to form a new unitary authority.

A BITTER row erupted yesterday over claims that Lowestoft council taxpayers would save £12 a year if the town merged with Norfolk to form a new unitary authority.

Norfolk County Council set out for the first time how the council tax take would fall by £5.25m if the plan for a single authority were given the green light, insisting it would mean lower bills for more than 600,000 residents.

However, Waveney District Council leader Mark Bee said the financial case “does not stack up” and warned Lowestoft residents not to take the proposals at face value.

A statement from Norfolk County Council said to replace the county and district councils with one authority would cost £18.65m, which would be paid back in three years. It would see falls in the average band D council tax bill of between £1 a year and £104.

Supporters of the one-council plan believe that the savings will not only help but bills but will also free up nearly £25m a year for investment in extra services.

Mr Bee disputed these figures and pointed out that they fail to acknowledge an additional charge which the town's taxpayers would face.

“The people of Lowestoft have already expressed their dismay at the prospect of having their affairs run by Norfolk and they will be even more concerned by a financial package that frankly does not stack up.

“We have seen no satisfactory explanation of the assumptions behind some of their numbers and the headline figures simply do not tell the whole story,” he said.

“For example, their council tax proposals fail to acknowledge that any new unitary council incorporating Lowestoft would require the creation of a town council and this would bolt on an additional precept to their council tax figures for the town.

“Such an additional charge would ensure that the people of Lowestoft end up paying more council tax and not less,” said Mr Bee.

Waveney District Council still supports the creation of an East Suffolk Unitary authority as part of a three-council structure alongside a West Suffolk and North Haven arrangement.

A final judgement about the business case will be made by the Boundary Committee which will unveil its final preferred option and conclusions for ministers for consider at the end of the year.

David White, chief executive of Norfolk County Council, whose business case report will be discusses at a special council meeting on Monday, said: “Bringing eight Norfolk councils, plus Lowestoft, together to work locally as one offers the biggest potential for savings and the greatest scope for efficiency.

“Clearly, the level of council tax would be for members of the new authority to decide. But our work clearly demonstrates that with projected annual savings of £24.59m, they are able to reduce the overall tax burden by over £5m a year and still be able to invest more in improving public services.”

There are also fears that if Lowestoft is merged with Norfolk it could lead to a serious reduction in Suffolk's police force.

Suffolk Chief Constable Simon Ash said it could result in Suffolk Constabulary having to transfer staff over the border.

A report by Mr Ash claims the move could lead to a reduction in crime detection rates and resources stretched elsewhere in the county.

Suffolk Police Federation describes the move as catastrophic, with no obvious benefits for the public or police.

Matt Gould, federation chairman, said: “The main reason for concern is about the viability of the constabulary.

“If we lose Lowestoft to Norfolk we will lose a third of our force. It would be catastrophic; we would not need the same level of support services, so Unison members would potentially lose jobs.

“We can see no benefit for the public or our members.”

Mr Ash's report is due to be discussed by Suffolk Police Authority today.

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