Home rule for Norwich after all?

Shaun LowthorpeSpeculation is mounting that the government is all set to grant Norwich its home rule dream after all - heralding an incredible about turn in fortunes for City Hall.Shaun Lowthorpe

Speculation is mounting that the government is all set to grant Norwich its home rule dream after all - heralding an incredible about turn in fortunes for City Hall.

Communities secretary John Denham is believed to be ready to give the green light to creating a new one-sized fits all unitary council for Norwich based on its existing boundaries - flying in the face of the evidence of the independent Boundary Committee which favoured a single 'super' council for the whole of Norfolk, amid warnings the city option was 'high risk' and overturning an earlier decision by his predecessor Hazel Blears, who vetoed the move on affordability grounds.

It is believed the government will cancel this year's city council elections for 12 months to allow new unitary council wards to be created. An election would then be held in May 2011 ahead of the creation of a new unitary, which would come in to being in 2012.

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, said there were huge advantages for both the city and the county if the measure went ahead.

'Of course, we will be delighted if it happens, but we are not counting any chickens just yet,' Mr Morphew said. 'I do live in hope that the real merits of a new single purpose council for the city will now get a fair hearing.

"Set aside the propaganda and what remains are real benefits for the city and the rest of the county. A true partnership between the city and county, rather than one being engulfed by the other, offers huge advantages for us all."

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Norwich South MP Charles Clarke said: 'I hope that the rumours are right. I support a unitary Norwich on current boundaries, even though it would be better to be on extended boundaries.'

But Norfolk County Council leader Daniel Cox said the move was 'cynical and naked political engineering' and the authority planned to do everything in its power to stop it happening.

'Sadly it has everything to do with a fag end government trying to rally dispirited troops for the forthcoming General Election and nothing to do with the best interests of Norwich or Norfolk people,' he said. 'If allowed to go ahead, it would break up Norfolk, split services for schools, children and vulnerable adults a time when they are most under pressure and place them with a cash strapped council with a shocking track record of financial management. It would also mean less money for remaining county services.'

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson, who favours keeping the status quo, wrote to Mr Denham urging him to think again.

'If you do decide to go ahead with a Norwich unitary option based on current boundaries this will provoke both disbelief and anger throughout Norfolk and will be seen as blatant gerrymandering,' he said. 'Such a decision will no doubt be legally challenged by both the district councils and Norfolk County Council.

Do you have a story for the Evening News? Call reporter Shaun Lowthorpe on 01603 772471 or email shaun.lowthorpe@archant.co.uk.