Norwich peers inflict first government defeat on unitary plans

Shaun LowthorpeNorwich peers successfully ambushed the government in the House of Lords yesterday to help inflict the first parliamentary defeat on the new coalition.Shaun Lowthorpe

Norwich peers successfully ambushed the government in the House of Lords yesterday to help inflict the first parliamentary defeat on the new coalition.

The government had hoped to secure the second reading of a bill to scrap the creation of unitary councils in Norwich and Exeter which were due to be up and running by next May.

But the kill-off plans were held up after peers, led by Labour's Lord Howarth and Baroness Hollis, voted by 154 to 150 votes on a motion for the measure to be referred to parliamentary clerks known as 'examiners' to decide whether it should be treated as a hybrid bill.

Hybrid bills, which are public bills considered to affect private or local interests or areas, were previously employed for on legislation such as Crossrail, and the Broads Authority National Park, and allow for detailed hearings and petitions to take place.

It is thought yesterday's vote will inflict a short two week delay on the process while the clerks reach a verdict on whether to press ahead as planned or go along the hybrid bill route.

Lady Hollis, former leader of Norwich City Council, who spoke during the debate, said supporters of a unitary city, would not give up the dream easily.

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'We believe there is a realistic argument that Norwich is being picked on by Eric Pickles,' she said. 'The government and Norfolk County Council have behaved as if this bill is already law. This shows that even though the government has these large numbers on its side because of the coalition, the Lords isn't going to have procedures abused. If that the means the government is going to run out of time, that's their problem.'

The motion was only put down on the parliamentary order papers yesterday after City Hall and Exeter Council received advice from Peter Oldham QC and Alastair Lewis of parliamentary agents Sharpe Pritchard. It is thought to be the first time since 1963 that such a vote has successfully taken place.

City council leader Steve Morphew said: 'It keeps the dream alive, but there is the possibility of a much more significant agenda running in parallel and that's about jobs and homes for the city. If there is a bill with Norwich in the title we want to make sure it's the kind of bill that can be amended to take into account the kind of things people want.'

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