Norwich welcome for 'self-rule'

Sarah HallDelighted leaders at City Hall today hailed a bright new dawn for Norwich after the government gave the green light for a unitary council to be created.Sarah Hall

Delighted leaders at City Hall today hailed a bright new dawn for Norwich after the government gave the green light for a unitary council to be created.

City council leaders said yesterday's decision recognised Norwich as a major city and would give it the opportunity to 'take control of its own destiny' and provide the services families deserve.

Local Government Minister Rosie Winterton announced in Parliament yesterday that draft orders had been laid to create a Norwich unitary council in two years on the same boundaries as the current city council - but with the new authority getting extra responsibility for services such as education and social services.

Those services are currently provided by Norfolk County Council, which will remain responsible for those services in the rest of the county, although County Hall has already signalled it plans to challenge the decision in the courts, which could yet scupper the switch.

And the draft orders also have to make it through Parliament - both the House of Commons and the House of Lords - while the Conservatives have said they would ditch the plans if they win the next general election.

The city council has long questioned why decisions which have a huge impact on the city are made by county councillors who can represent places such as King's Lynn and Downham Market, yet Norwich has no representation on the county council cabinet.

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A proposal for a unitary authority in Norwich City was originally put to ministers in 2007 but was put on hold because it did not meet the criteria and the Boundary Committee looked at alternative proposals, while a judicial review delayed proceedings.

The Boundary Committee had recommended that the government plump for a single unitary Norfolk, but yesterday the government said the city should get unitary, with the status quo retained in the rest of the county.

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, was delighted that a saga which started in 2006, was on the brink of becoming reality.

He said: 'This has always been about how best to deliver a city that drives an economy, prosperity and high-quality of life. It has never been an all-purpose council for its own sake - we always believed a unitary Norwich would be the best solution for local people.

'Norwich is an urban engine of prosperity and needs the gears and drivers to achieve its full potential. A unitary Norwich on its existing boundary would benefit both the city and county and could deliver more efficiently and effectively, and with a lot less waste, than the current two-tier set-up.'

Brian Watkins, Norwich Liberal Democrat group leader, said it was a 'historic day' for the city and said: 'If the plans are passed, it will mean that all key local decisions on issues like education and transport in Norwich will be taken by the elected representatives of the city.'

Claire Stephenson, leader of the Green group at City Hall, said: 'I am delighted that the needs and character of Norwich are being recognised. This decision should make dealing with the council much clearer for all residents in the future.'

But Antony Little, leader of City Hall's Conservative group was not convinced and blasted the government's thinking as muddled.

He said: 'They claim that there is genuine interest in unitary for Norwich, yet all surveys locally show the opposite - people just want good services provided at a value-for-money council tax.

'The government has ignored the advice of the Independent Boundary Committee, who specifically ruled out this option, and even the previous Labour secretary of state who said that the unitary bid didn't stack up and wasn't affordable.'

The city's two MPs were, unsurprisingly, split over the announcement. Norwich South Labour MP Charles Clarke, said: 'At a time of great change, Norwich needs the power to determine its own future, including in the vitally important areas of planning, transport, education and social care.

'This decision will provide that power and explains why so many parts of city opinion favour this change, including the Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat parties.

'It is important to emphasise that this decision is not simply an expansion of the role of the current city council. It will create a new council for Norwich with new powers and new responsibilities, able to deliver the high quality services which the people of our City demand.'

But Chloe Smith, Conservative MP for Norwich North said she was 'astounded' by the decision.

She said: 'The government has ignored its independent advisers, its own previous guidelines and its own sense. Ministers and civil servants have effectively let loose an expensive new white elephant just months before a general election. This is a costly, irresponsible diversion when the real thing is the recession and there is no public money to spare.'

The county council hit out at the government for ignoring advice from the independent Boundary Committee and pledged to fight the decision in the courts.

David White, chief executive of Norfolk County Council, said: 'The decision flies in the face of the government's own conclusions and concerns about the affordability and risk posed to taxpayers of the original Norwich proposal which were subsequently confirmed by the Boundary Committee.

'As far as the economy is concerned, a separate Norwich council would be financially weak and highly dependent on the support of the county council and the authorities around it, which is where most of the Norwich area's employment and housing growth is earmarked, and where key infrastructure is located or proposed.

'We will certainly seek leave to challenge this decision in the courts and, given the strength of opposition and the timetable involved, I am convinced this is by no means certain to happen.'

In announcing she was placing the draft orders for Norwich to get unitary status, Rosie Winterton said: 'Our highest priority is to have the best and most efficient local services for the people of Norfolk and for the area to have the strong local leadership it needs to rebuild local economies and deliver jobs as we move towards recovery.

'The city of Norwich is at the centre of regional economic activity and its economic performance is crucial for its residents and the wider area.

'That's why today we're putting Norwich's local leaders who know their areas best in charge of delivering all local services and at the heart of delivering economic growth.'

But Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council, which put �10,000 into a legal challenge by five other Norfolk district councils to challenge the Boundary Committee process, said: 'This is another twist, no more than that. If there was a real desire to see this happen, they would have pushed ahead with a May 2010 election.'

Under the plans this year's city council elections will be put off until next year while the new council is set up and a new implementation executive made up of city councillors and county councillors based in Norwich could be up and running by April this year to oversee the process if it gets through parliament.

District councils, who were due to go to the courts next to challenge the Boundary Committee process, will meet today to decide whether or not to press ahead with their legal case, which could see the county council going it alone with a fresh legal challenge.

Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland District Council, said: 'It's absolutely nuts. The cost is going to be horrendous. It's public money that could be better spent elsewhere.'

John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council said: 'Amazingly the minister concedes the plan is unaffordable yet decides to carry on anyway. It's paying-off Labour's political debts with taxpayers' money. It's the biggest gerrymander since rotten boroughs were abolished in 1832.'

Barry Coleman, leader of Great Yarmouth Borough Council, said: 'As far as the whole of Norfolk is concerned it's unsatisfactory. As far as Great Yarmouth is concerned it isn't ideal because we have a strong relationship with the county and the stronger the county is the better it is for us, but having said that we can live with that.'

Do you think Norwich should have a unitary council? Write to Evening News Letters, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE or email