High noon for future of councils

FEVERED speculation is mounting about the future shape of councils in Norfolk and Suffolk as town halls face a high noon announcement today about what is in store.

FEVERED speculation is mounting about the future shape of councils in Norfolk and Suffolk as town halls face a high noon announcement today about what is in store.

The Boundary Committee is expected to publish its new draft proposals - giving an insight into its thinking into what form of 'unitary' councils should replace the current set up of country and district councils.

Like nervous finalists, councils which put forward unitary bids will be waiting to see if they have delivered the X-factor to wow the Boundary Committee and make it to the shortlist of drafts which will go forward to the final recommendation stage on July 15.

Previously the committee said its preferred option was a super council covering Norfolk and Lowestoft, while two other patterns - a 'wedge' covering Yarmouth, Norwich and Lowestoft - and a doughnut of two councils, one for greater Norwich and a second for the rest of Norfolk also had 'merit'.

Both supporters and opponents of the process have become disillusioned at the never ending twists and turns.

Barry Coleman, leader of Yarmouth council admitted last night he lost faith in the process and had told officers in February not to waste any more time on it.

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“We have given up relying on the Boundary Committee because they are a total irrelevance and since the February fiasco I've told officers not to spend any more time on it,” he said. “Each time they come out with a new directive it strikes me as giving Norwich an authority and to hell with the rest.”

Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council said he wanted a speedy conclusion to the issue.

“We are now into the fourth year of the local government review, which has been a real distraction to Norfolk councils from what they should be doing,” he said. “My big concern is that the independence of the process itself may have been compromised by the intervention of the secretary of state to give cities that have put their bids in another chance.”

Norwich City Council leader Steve Morphew said he was not leaping to any conclusions about which options would go forward.

“We're hoping that the shortlist will demonstrate our expectation that the doughnut will be given equal consideration in any of the viable options,” he said. “We think as the figures become more and more robust so our chances of ever achieving unitary status are strengthening.”

The process threatened to come unstuck after a legal challenge spearheaded by Breckland, South Norfolk and King's Lynn and West Norfolk was referred to the Court of Appeal.

Key to the councils' case was a belief that the Boundary Committee had failed to consult properly over the options put forward, and had not given enough weight to keeping the status quo. A final ruling is not expected until next week.

Breckland leader William Nunn said: “I'm surprised they are seeking to consult on more possible options when we haven't had anything back from the courts.”

Hazel Blears, the Labour secretary of state for communities, also weighed in with new guidance stating that bids could be looked at in 'aggregate', which was widely seen as a move to boost the bids of Norwich, Ipswich and Exeter.

The project was delayed again after Norwich City Council submitted fresh financial information about its doughnut bid - which showed it would stack up “in aggregate” but only in the greater Norwich area and not in the rest of rural Norfolk.

But district councils are angry at the lack of time they have been given to study the new finance books and could again resort to the courts to challenge it. And Norfolk County Council is also disputing City Hall's figures.

Other rumours are that the committee will come up with a revised East-West option for Norfolk, and it has also been claimed that in Exeter the council has already been told the answer is a single council covering the whole of Devon - so the same option could apply for Norfolk.

Opponents of the process are also pinning their hopes on a general election - and a change of government - kicking the process into the long grass.