Norfolk could have new super council in four months
Shaun LowthorpeCity council chiefs are set to lobby ministers today on the case for home rule for Norwich as it emerged that Norfolk could have a new look super council in four months with an election held at the same time as a general election if ministers are minded to press ahead with a decision.Shaun Lowthorpe
City council chiefs are set to lobby ministers today on the case for home rule for Norwich as it emerged that Norfolk could have a new look super council in four months with an election held at the same time as a general election if ministers are minded to press ahead with a decision.
Communities secretary John Denham is consulting on proposals for a single super council for the county - put forward last year as the preferred option for change by the independent Boundary Committee.
Mr Denham can opt for a super council covering all of Norfolk, create a new unitary authority based on Norwich on its existing boundaries, or do nothing.
A letter from Paul Rowsell, the senior mandarin in charge of the process, setting out an implementation timetable for either a single Norfolk council or a unitary Norwich on its own boundaries includes a discussion paper setting out the merits of holding a city-only election, or a county election this year or next, based on a new 84 member council - the same number of councillors as the existing county council, or an authority comprising 168 councillors.
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Mr Rowsell said the secretary of state, recognising the need to end uncertainty, 'intends to move forward as quickly as practicable' and intends to make a decision as soon as practicable after January 19.
Norwich City Council leader Steve Morphew said recent county council decisions such as the controversial plan to shut two city day centres and moves to switch off street lights, were further evidence of the need for home rule for the city alone.
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Mr Morphew will today make the case for a unitary city in talks with regional minister Barbara Follett, while other districts and Norfolk County Council are set to talk to local government minister Rosie Winterton in the coming days.
'I don't think you can pre-ordain the outcome given some of the bizarre recommendations we have had,' Mr Morphew said. 'I wouldn't take anything for granted given that the unitary county has no friends whatsoever.'
Norfolk County Council leader Daniel Cox, said the letter was 'another unexpected twist in a very convoluted saga', but while it showed a determination of civil servants to get a unitary in place before the general election the appetite for change among ministers was less clear.
How has unitary councils worked in other parts of the country?
Jane Scott, leader of Wiltshire Council, which became a new single unitary last year, said the switch had been a great success.
'The performance of the council has gone up and not down in what were both county and district services,' she said. 'All frontline services have improved. We have just had our comprehensive area assessment and were awarded a green flag for working closely with our communities.
Alec Robertson, leader of Cornwall Council, said the shift to unitary had been a huge challenge, and he had initially been opposed to the idea believing the status quo was the best way forward.
'It's a massive change and very expensive, much more expensive than was ever envisaged and it was a massive disruption,' he said. 'There are a lot of extra costs that have come out of the transition that weren't built in to the original bid.
'If you don't have to do it, don't do it,' Mr Robertson said.
While Norfolk has the city of Norwich, Durham also has the county town with some seeing parallels in the city/county relationship between the two areas.
But Simon Henig, leader of the new unitary conceded that Norfolk and Norwich are far larger and that could be the key to whether a single unitary in this county could work or not.
'Durham is not only essential, it is the saving grace of the unitary,' Mr Henig said. 'If you took out the city you would take away the one crucial thing that brings people together. Even though the districts have gone and we are one council, everybody comes into Durham. It would have been disastrous to take Durham out.'
Richard Stay, deputy leader of Central Bedfordshire Council, formed after the government created two unitaries in Bedfordshire - said he would have preferred to see a single authority for the whole county.
'We ended up with two unitaries instead of one, so we have the sub-optimal solution,' he said. 'I think two unitaries in Norfolk would be too small and I don't think it's a good idea. I think a single Norfolk, if it's going to happen is a better option.'