Two choices in council overhaul bid

Norwich's home rule dream has been given another kiss of life after the Boundary Committee today agreed to put it forward to the government as one of two proposals to overhaul town halls in Norfolk.

Norwich's home rule dream has been given another kiss of life after the Boundary Committee today agreed to put it forward to the government as one of two proposals to overhaul town halls in Norfolk.

The Boundary Committee has just published revised proposals which would effectively give the minister the option of choosing either a single Norfolk super council or a 'doughnut' authority based on greater Norwich and a second rural Norfolk council

And it means that the committee has dropped plans to annexe Lowestoft into Norfolk - which now stays in Suffolk, while the so-called 'wedge' option has also foundered.

The proposals will now go out to public consultation until May 14 with a final recommendation due on July 15 before Communities secretary Hazel Blears gets to choose the option she wants.

And that has sparked accusations that the final result is now a shoo-in with the city all set to get its dream at last.

The decision was greeted with delight from City Hall and cynical weariness from opponents who feared that the government was moving the goalposts to help the city get its home rule dream.

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Steve Morphew, leader of the council, said: “We are absolutely delighted the boundary committee now recognises the 'doughnut' has the capacity to meet all the government criteria and has put it forward as a proposal for consultation.

“This is a big step forward, but we are not complacent. There is a great deal at stake and we will keep working to promote our case to the boundary committee and ministers who will ultimately take the final decision. We have always believed the best way of improving services and overseeing the massive growth planned for greater Norwich is to create a unitary authority which can focus on the distinct issues that affect the city.

“In the same way, a separate unitary authority for rural Norfolk would be able to concentrate on addressing the very different issues there. This is the best deal for all parts of the county.”

Norfolk County Council leader Daniel Cox said: “The original Norwich proposal didn't stack up, their next proposal didn't stack up and this one doesn't either. Judged through clear financial lenses with the interests of taxpayers at heart, it should be absolutely dead in the water.

“Our preference is to retain current arrangements. However if unitary change must happen, then we believe that one council for Norfolk and Norwich would be the simplest, easiest and most efficient arrangement. It would also avoid breaking up valued services like social care, children's services and planning and transportation and, importantly, enable the lowest council tax.”

“I am sure Norfolk residents will not hesitate to make their views known.”

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson said the committee had caved into pressure from government to deliver a doughnut.

“It just reinforces the deep cynicism that this was a political process to get a greater Norwich unitary council,” he said.

“The greater Norwich proposals have failed every obstacle, but the government kept changing the criteria and obviously they have put pressure on the Boundary Committtee.

“It just goes to show that if you ask the question enough times, you get the answer you want.”

King's Lynn and West Norfolk council leader Nick Daubney, said he was not surprised at the announcement.

“It's clearly what the minister told them to do,” he said. “I just think the Boundary Committee have taken their orders from the minister. This has absolutely no support in West Norfolk.

Norwich South MP Charles Clarke said: “I am pleased that the Boundary Commission has offered two feasible unitary recommendations for Norfolk.

“I am particularly glad that the Committee has included the proposal for two unitary authorities, one covering Greater Norwich and the other the rest of Norfolk. I believe that this reform would significantly increase the quality, coherence and value-for-money of local government in the county and it has my full support.

Max Caller, chairman of the Boundary Committee for England, urged people to have their say on the plans.

“We want people to look carefully at what we're proposing and then tell us what they think and why,” he said. “Any evidence we receive from this stage will add to that which we obtained in our consultation last year.

“You might want to tells us, among other things, which proposal you prefer, how one or both could be made better, or how you feel the community empowerment arrangements could work for your village or town.

“We are not at this stage expressing a preference for one pattern over another but, on the basis of the evidence received so far, we think both sets of proposals may have the capacity to meet all five criteria that the Secretary of State has given us and deliver the very best for local people.”

District councils facing extinction if any of today's unitary plans go forward accused the Boundary Committee of showing a lack of common sense in putting forward its proposals.

The leaders of five authorities making up the 'Keep Norfolk Local' campaign - Broadland, Breckland, South Norfolk, North Norfolk, and King's Lynn and West Norfolk said the process had become farcical.

And they vowed to fight to keep the existing status quo of county and district councils.

In a joint statement they said: “In making today's announcement the Boundary Committee has once again demonstrated its lack of common sense and its scandalous, uncaring approach to the use of public money.

“Having abandoned earlier timetables the Boundary Committee has now established yet another timetable for action just two weeks before we are due to hear from the Court of Appeal on whether its process is even legal.

“This process has become farcical.”

And they said they would fight for the status quo.

“The Boundary Committee is trying to pretend there are just two options, a single county unitary and the so-called doughnut option. But, as the minister said in a recent debate in Parliament the option of “no change” for Norfolk, remains on the table.”

“This is botched decision making on a breathtaking scale and it demonstrates the arrogance of the Boundary Committee which in pressing on with its ill-thought out proposals is flying in the face of public opinion,” the statement said. “It is not too late for the Boundary Committee to recognise that a unitary solution for local government in Norfolk is simply not wanted and that reorganising local government in the middle of a deep recession is like fiddling while Rome burns.”