Norwich home rule bid faces key test

Shaun LowthorpeCity Hall's long-running campaign to take control of its own affairs reach a key stage later today when orders to implement a unitary council for Norwich come before both houses of parliament.Shaun Lowthorpe

City Hall's long-running campaign to take control of its own affairs reach a key stage later today when orders to implement a unitary council for Norwich come before both houses of parliament.

Controversy has raged since communities secretary John Denham gave the go-ahead last month for a unitary Norwich council based on its current boundaries - against both the recommendations of the government's own independent inquiry and in the face of very public opposition from his own most senior civil servant.

Peers have a chance to throw out the controversial plans this evening but city council leaders are confident the home-rule measure will go through.

Today's votes in the Commons, which the government will easily win, and Lords, where there is a chance of defeat, come despite fresh warnings from an influential committee of MPs and peers that the unitary measure is unlawful and 'fails to accord with proper legislative practice'.

But all the signs are that ministers will get their way - with the Conservatives caving in, saying they will not back a Lib Dem 'fatal' motion to kill the proposal but only support a 'motion of regret' calling for more time for consultations.

Success will mean the orders creating a new city council could be in place by the end of the week - to the joy of those who have long campaigned for the chance to let Norwich have control all services and the dismay of Norfolk County Council which fears for the future of those services.

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All that will then stand in the way of a unitary Norwich council, responsible for all local services within its area from child care to schools, traffic to waste disposal, is a legal challenge by the county council to try and stop the proposal. It is due to be heard in the high court in London later next month.

The failure of the Conservatives to block the move in the Upper House will prompt claims that despite the tough talk of the national leadership, Tory-run Norfolk county council has been hung out to dry by the party.

The Tories are refusing to intervene because of parliamentary convention which says peers do not vote down the government on secondary legislation because it would risk a constitutional row and could also see Labour derail any legislation put forward by a future Tory government.

It has been left to the national Liberal Democrats to lead the attack on the order with its peer Lord Tope tabling a motion to reject the plans.

'If they really oppose these orders this is the opportunity to stop them,' he said. 'It does largely come down to Conservative backbenchers. If they feel this shouldn't go ahead, this is their opportunity to do something about it. I have given them an opportunity to put their vote where there mouth is. This is the time for them to stand up and be counted.'

Norfolk peer Baroness Shephard said the Conservative opposition was limited to what it could do in Parliament.

'We do not support the fatal motion in the House of Lords as a point of principle,' she said. 'They have been successful only about twice since the war.'

Meanwhile further evidence of the split between ministers and civil servants on the Norwich unitary is revealed in a letter from department for transport (DfT) officials supporting a single Norfolk unitary council.

DfT civil servant Phil Killingley said: 'From a transport perspective the ideal situation is to have a single unitary authority covering the former county area. This maximises efficiency and the ability to plan over the whole travel to work areas, ensures skills within existing transport teams at the local level do not become dispersed and reduces the risk of policy conflicts on transport and spatial planning areas.'