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Council shake-up in doubt

PUBLISHED: 10:36 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 14:23 03 July 2010

CONTROVERSIAL plans for unitary councils in Norfolk and Suffolk appeared to be fading last night after a key High Court ruling.

The biggest shake-up in local government for a generation was plunged into chaos after a judge agreed with three Suffolk councils which said their views had not been fairly considered by the Boundary Committee for England.

CONTROVERSIAL plans for unitary councils in Norfolk and Suffolk appeared to be fading last night after a key High Court ruling.

The biggest shake-up in local government for a generation was plunged into chaos after a judge agreed with three Suffolk councils which said their views had not been fairly considered by the Boundary Committee for England.

Observers said the setback to change could well mean there would not be enough time in the Parliamentary agenda to force through the necessary legislation to create the new councils structure - leaving the status quo as the only option, and wasting millions of pounds in preparatory work.

The ruling comes just four days before the committee was due to report its recommendations for the restructuring of councils in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon.

That deadline has already been put back twice and last night Suffolk County Council said there would be no announcement on July 15.

At stake are plans for the biggest shake-up in local government in the region since 1974, with the committee due to decide whether powers currently shared in Norfolk between the county council and seven district councils should be brought under one-roof, or whether there should be two councils - one for greater Norwich and one for the rest of Norfolk.

Officially, it was unclear what impact the ruling would have on Norfolk, but Daniel Cox, leader at County Hall, denounced the process as a farce.

He said: “More twists and turns than an Alan Ayckbourn farce - only not half as funny. It's business as usual for us - services and value for money are what counts and, as far as we are concerned, the Local Government Review has already taken up enough time and money and the odds on anything happening at all are now almost non-existent.

“The government, Boundary Committee and law courts can wrangle all they like. We will simply continue to get on with the job.”

John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, said: “This is a fresh humiliation - and this time it's terminal. We warned the Boundary Committee last March if they carried on like they were, this would happen. Now is the time for Max Caller, the chairman of the Boundary Committee, to fall on his sword. Norfolk taxpayers have paid the bill; he's got to pay the price.”

In Sufffolk, the committee favours abolishing the county's seven district and borough councils, along with the county council, and replacing them with two unitary authorities.

But St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath and Suffolk Coastal councils sought a judicial review on the grounds that their own proposals for a three-unitary council option, one for an enlarged Ipswich and two for east and west Suffolk, had not been fairly considered. Mr Justice Foskett yesterday ruled in the councils' favour, effectively stopping the process in its tracks.

The Boundary Committee said it was disappointed with the judgment. A spokesman said: “Following those decisions, the committee will need to consider the implications for the structural review in Suffolk.

“It will also consider whether there are implications for its work in Devon and Norfolk. The committee has been granted leave to appeal against the judgment.

“Any further uncertainty caused in Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk is regrettable, but the committee sees no other option in moving forward but to consider very carefully what impact today's decision has for both its process and for its future work programme.”

Jeremy Pembroke, leader of Suffolk County Council, said: “We now know that there will be no announcement on July 15.”

Responding to the judgment, the leaders of the three Suffolk councils, said: “We challenged the Boundary Committee on the grounds that their process was unfair. The court has decisively ruled in our favour, quashing the draft proposals that the Boundary Committee issued on March 19. We are very pleased with the result.”

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