New bid to end unitary plans
Ministers are looking at whether they can use anti-terror style emergency laws to block plans to give Norwich home rule, it has emerged.New communities secretary Eric Pickles last week ordered civil servants to carry out an urgent review of plans to create a new look unitary council for Norwich, which was due to be up and running by May next year.
Ministers are looking at whether they can use anti-terror style emergency laws to block plans to give Norwich home rule, it has emerged.
New communities secretary Eric Pickles last week ordered civil servants to carry out an urgent review of plans to create a new look unitary council for Norwich, which was due to be up and running by May next year.
The government needs to move fast if it is to unpick the unitary plans for both Norwich and Exeter, and it is believed that they are considering emergency legislation, usually reserved for terrorism and national security matters to try and stop it.
But supporters of the city unitary plans accused the government of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and there are also question marks about whether the use of emergency legislation would need to be agreed by all parties including the Labour opposition.
By law, work has to continue on creating the new council until it can be legally stopped, though last week City Hall said it would delay plans to advertise for senior staff to work for the new council until the situation becomes clearer.
It is also believed that the city council received a call from Paul Rowsell, the CLG senior civil servant overseeing the process telling them to take their foot off the accelerator.
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Conservatives locally are pressing for the government to act quickly before too much time and money has been spent.
Much could also depend on the outcome of a judicial review expected this week following a legal challenge by Norfolk County Council, who accused the previous government of acting unlawfully and ignoring their own advice when approving the city plans.
If the courts conclude the former government did break the law then the decision could be quashed anyway, however if they find in its favour, the new administration's hands could be tied.
Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council said the government was right to use any powers at its disposal to stop the plans.
“All the councils involved are fully aware of the high costs that are about to be incurred as a result of going forward with this reorganisation,” Mr Cox said. “To table emergency legislation, if they do table it, would be exactly the right thing to do because it removes the need to spend any more money at a time when we should be looking at ways to make savings. I will certainly be demanding that the foot is taken off the accelerator, but it's still the law at this stage and until we have received a statement from CLG we have to comply with the law.
“It was a very clear Conservative manifesto commitment to stop it, unlike Labour's in 2005 which didn't mention anything about reorganisation,” he added.
Former Norwich City Council leader Baroness Hollis, who helped steer the unitary plans through the House of Lords, condemned any use of emergency powers as over the top.
“Since when did two medium sized cities becoming unitary under the law, represent a threat to the nation as severe as car-bombers,” she said. “It would be quite unprecedented to use emergency powers in this way. It's a curious set of priorities, you might think that the new government had a few more important matters on their hands, such as dealing with the global recession or managing the public finances?
“Should the Tory efforts succeed, it's not just the people of Norwich but of Norfolk as well, who will be the losers as only Norwich can power Norfolk out of economic recession, and bring us all much needed jobs.
“But the city cannot do this with its hands tied behind its back as a district council - it does not have the economic clout - instead those jobs will go to other unitary cities - Peterborough, Basildon, Nottingham, Milton Keynes - where being unitary is apparently not a threat to national safety and security.”
Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, said: ““This is an astonishing affront to the people of Norwich who voted overwhelmingly in favour of parties which supported a city unitary. The city has won the right to keep the day centres open and the street lights on, and the government is trying to take away the city's right to determine things which benefit the people.”
Brian Watkins, Lib Dem group leader at Norwich City Council, said he and new Norwich South MP Simon Wright planned to lobby his party nationally and do everything they can to get the government to reverse the latest decision.
“As far as I am concerned, we are not going to be bullied in to submission on this,” Mr Watkins said. “We feel very strongly about this.”