Council shake-up in Norfolk and Suffolk could be back on track after legal ruling

Shaun Lowthorpe A controversial overhaul of councils in Norfolk and Suffolk could be back on track after a legal victory today.

Shaun Lowthorpe

A controversial overhaul of councils in Norfolk and Suffolk could be back on track after a legal victory today.

Moves to create new 'unitary' councils in the two counties became bogged down in the courts after three councils in Suffolk argued that the Boundary Committee had failed to look at all options on the table when it formulated its proposals.

But a Court of Appeal ruling today said that the process was lawful and consistent with the guidance given by ministers.

In Norfolk the committee is looking at two draft proposals to overhaul the current system of county and district councils - one for a single Norfolk super council, and a second option of two councils, one covering greater Norwich including parts of Broadland and South Norfolk, and a second 'rural' Norfolk authority.

Similar options are on the cards in Suffolk - with a two council option based on Ipswich and the Haven gateway.

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Supporters believe unitary councils will save millions and make local government more accountable and easier to understand.

Opponents argue it will cost a fortune at a time when the country can least afford and the savings can be better achieved by closer working together among existing councils and sharing services.

Today's decision means that the committee could finally be in a position to make its recommendations to communities' secretary John Denham.

And it also leaves the three Suffolk councils - Forest Heath, St Edmundsbury, and Suffolk Coastal with a huge legal bill.

The council's said they would now appeal directly to ministers in order to make the case for their preferred option of three unitaries for Suffolk - East, West, and Ipswich.

But the next question is whether the government has the political appetite and will to act on any of the recommendations with the parliamentary clock ticking before a general election.

A Boundary Committee spokesman said the committee was pleased with today's ruling.

“Our approach has allowed around 20,000 residents, groups and organisations in Suffolk, Norfolk and Devon to have their say and provide evidence about how their local authorities should be structured,” he said. “This has helped us determine which alternative proposals should be consulted on and refined our thinking about what matters to residents in delivering effective and convenient local government.

“We regret the delays and increased costs to the public purse that legal challenges have brought to the process, and welcome today's unequivocal judgment.

“Our role in this process remains as it has always been: not to decide what will happen but to give the Government our independent advice,” he added. “Today's judgment allows us to proceed with giving advice to the Secretary of State on Suffolk, Norfolk and Devon should he provide us with a new deadline.”

In a joint statement the three council leaders, Geoffrey Jaggard, John Griffiths, and Ray Herring, said local democracy had taken a step backwards following the ruling which overturns a previously successful legal challenge by the authorities.

"We find it deeply frustrating, and extremely disappointing, that there will now be no opportunity to make the Boundary Committee take the views of local people into account,” the statement said. “Its advice to ministers on the future shape of local government in the county will ignore the polling evidence which shows strong support for a proper consultation on three unitaries. The Boundary Committee says it has spoken to 20,000 individuals and organisations in Suffolk, Norfolk and Devon which is a ridiculously tiny proportion of all those interested in the quality and accountability of their local services.

“The Boundary Committee is accountable to no-one. We, however, are accountable to our residents, and will continue working to ensure their voices are heard. We will now take some time to look at our next steps, whether that's appealing to the Supreme Court or taking our case directly to officials and ministers in Whitehall.”