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Fight to block Norwich home rule

PUBLISHED: 09:26 17 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:42 30 June 2010

Judges could again determine the future shape of councils in Norfolk after county council leader Daniel Cox confirmed he would head to the courts to try and stop Norwich's home rule bid.

Judges could again determine the future shape of councils in Norfolk after county council leader Daniel Cox confirmed he would head to the courts to try and stop Norwich's home rule bid.

Norfolk County Council is teaming up with Devon to mount a High Court challenge a government decision to grant unitary status to both Norwich and Exeter on their current boundaries.

The government last week granted home rule in the city - flying in the face of advice from the independent Boundary Committee and despite concerns from civil servants that the proposals were risky and could be successfully challenged in the courts.

Opponents believe the decision is unlawful and hope a judicial review will kill the process. Failing that the fate of the plans and the successful implementation of any orders to create a new council could rest in the House of Lords.

Such was the scale of concern about the plans that Peter Housden, the senior civil servant in the department for communities and local government, took the step of asking for a “direction” from ministers to implement the decision because of his misgivings.

Mr Cox said a unitary city would be madness and unaffordable at a time when councils are facing massive funding cuts.

“I passionately and sincerely believe we owe it to all the people of Norfolk to do whatever we can to stop this decision going ahead because of what it would mean for their services and future council tax,” he said. “The facts are stark. This proposal was agreed to be unaffordable and poor value for money in 2007 and confirmed as being so in 2009. Common sense tells us that the risks have multiplied many times over since the city council put this case forward given the current state of the economy and dire forecast for public service funding.

“Throughout this saga, the government has set great store by insisting that councils must meet five set criteria, including affordability and value for money. As late as December, it wrote to us confirming that this remained its approach.

“Within weeks, those criteria have been abandoned without warning, prompting the secretary of state's most senior civil servant to counsel he had received clear legal advice that the risk of a successful judicial review challenge is 'very high'."

Lib Dem group leader Paul Morse also backed the legal challenge, but said the Tories in Norfolk had to share some of the blame because of their failure to rally around a rival option to the city's plans - namely a single authority for the whole of Norfolk.

But Green group leader Andrew Boswell said it was time to draw a line under the saga and begin the work of building the new council for Norwich.

“At this stage it's not a good use of council taxpayers' money,” he said. “We've always supported the city unitary, though we would have preferred to see it on larger boundaries, but for the people in Norwich and Norfolk, we should be looking to work on it.”

It is expected the case will be heard next month. If it fails and the orders are approved a new implementation executive will come into force in April to oversee the creation of the new council.

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