Norfolk 'super council' or status quo?

Shaun Lowthorpe AFTER years of talk the stage is finally set for a decision on the future of council services in Norfolk and Suffolk as the government finally gives its verdict on whether to overhaul councils across the two counties.

Shaun Lowthorpe

AFTER years of talk the stage is finally set for a decision on the future of council services in Norfolk and Suffolk as the government finally gives its verdict on whether to overhaul councils across the two counties.

Talk is rife that a decision could come as early as tomorrow and certainly by the end of next week - which is when MPs head off for their 'half-term' break.

The government is remaining tight-lipped about what it intends to do, but civil servants have cleared the decks to quickly enact a decision should they need to, and even hold elections to any new council by May, should ministers agree to a decision.

And despite talk of potential parliamentary battles ahead, previous experience suggests it could take as little as a day to get the necessary orders through Parliament.

In Norfolk communities, John Denham can throw his weight behind the recommendations of the Boundary Committee, and back the 'super' council option.

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Or he can dust down an original proposal submitted by Norwich City Council to leave everything bar Norwich, and create a single unitary council for the city on its existing boundaries - an option his predecessor Hazel Blears ruled out on cost grounds, because the figures did not stack up, and one which would presumably spark another legal challenge, this time from Norfolk County Council.

Or he could simply decide to do nothing and keep the current status quo of county and district councils.

By contrast in Suffolk he has the luxury of two options from the Boundary Committee - a single council for the whole county or one council for the Haven Gateway including Ipswich and Felixstowe and

There are many reasons why the minister might find that in Norfolk the most compelling option might be to leave well alone.

You can well imagine the howls of protest if a Labour government opts for a single unitary from grassroots Labour activists in Norwich, whose wish for a city unitary kick-started the whole process.

City MP Charles Clarke is poised to go on the war path and fight any single county plan and joining him from the House of Lords is former city council leader Patricia Hollis.

On the Conservative side the districts are gearing up to take their fight, again, to the High Court this month, and are pinning their hopes on a pledge from shadow local government minister Bob Neill that an incoming Conservative government will scrap the project - though we do not yet know if he has run that past shadow chancellor George Osborne, who will be controlling the purse strings.

Tory district councillors, battling to keep the status quo, have also met with Conservative peers at Westminster to devise their tactics to fight off any possible overhauls.

And meanwhile Conservative-run Norfolk County Council, which put forward the super council plan, has perched itself back on the fence, refusing to lobby for its own bid and even handing out �10,000 to support the district councils' legal challenge.

Some believe Mr Denham will have an easy get-out of jail card because no council in Norfolk openly supports the single county option.

The political infighting points to the real tragedy of this whole process - too many are unwilling to look beyond their own horizons and it has been left to non-partisan bodies such as Norfolk Constabulary and NHS Norfolk to set out persuasive arguments for change to the government.

So what are the arguments for and against change?

FINANCE

On paper this is the killer argument in favour of the single unitary. By switching to a single council you would at once save �25m a year. That is currently the amount we are paying just to keep the current system up and running, paying for the salaries of the eight chief executives and senior officers.

You save money because you no longer need separate chief executives and senior officers and you can cut administrative support in services such as highways, housing, cultural and environmental services.

Each council currently uses its own IT systems, which could be harmonised and you teaming up could mean saving cash by bulk buying and reducing costs such as insurance premiums.

Once the changes are underway, and paid for - which will cost in the order of �42m - the analysis suggests you will then save �16.2m a year.

But Norwich City Council also believes that the world has moved on since its original bid foundered, and buoyed by an improved financial performance, it believes that a city unitary could generate savings of �4.4m a year.

District councils meanwhile have written to the government questioning the savings stating they are based on “modelled” theoretical figures and lack detail. They also point out that seven of the nine unitary authorities are “struggling to deliver the promised financial savings and service improvements”.

Yet many district councils are struggling financially and face bleak prospects even if the status quo continues. For areas such as Great Yarmouth creating a single unitary could be the worst of all worlds as it would weaken its county council partner which it has worked closely with on issues such as regeneration, waste collection and economic development.

QUALITY OF SERVICE

Norfolk County Council actually delivers the vast majority of council services from schools, to care for the elderly and looking after transport and roads

And it has a proud track record on service delivery particularly in areas such as social care and transport.

The county council has also helped deliver big strategic schemes such as the Great Yarmouth outer harbour and a new Norwich bus station

That would suggest it is much easier for the council to take on the remaining 15pc rather than doing it the other way around and farming them out to districts who have no experience managing such complex services.

Currently each district has its own system for collecting and recycling rubbish, while processing it is done at a county level. Supporters believe you can achieve better results at a lower cost by bringing it under one roof.

A single council means that housing and social care can also be brought together more effectively, and services such as trading standards and environmental health could also be run under one roof.

And supporters believe it will give Norfolk the clout to argue more effectively for big strategic projects such as A11 dualling.

At a district level performance can also vary on issues such as use of resources to recycling - just ask the independent Audit Commission which rates councils, and there is a real fear that the vital big ticket services such as social care and children's services could be broken up and rendered unviable at a time when people may need them most.

But the city council believes that Norwich has suffered as a result of the current set-up and also believes a city unitary would “reverse the historical under-investment in city schools” and put resources where they are needed most and focus on local children, families and organisations.

GOVERNANCE, or THE 'WESTLEGATE' QUESTION

Do you know what council does what or who your local councillor is?

Currently there are around 400 councillors at district and county level in Norfolk. Under a single county unitary this would be replaced by anywhere to between 100 and 170 councillors.

Supporters believe that knowing who does what will be a lot simpler because you will only have one number to ring and one councillor to talk to.

But beyond that the single county option also proposes to give greater powers to parish and town councils to make decision which affect people at a very local level, with localised budgets to spend on neighbourhood priorities. A network of 21 community partnership boards consisting of a unitary councillor, parish and town councillor, local school governors, police and health officials, and voluntary groups is planned.

They could make decisions which matter to local people from funding a new play area to agreeing library opening times and even discussing how local street lighting could be best managed.

District councils believe that the proposals would create confusion by creating a structure with a multitude of overlapping elements instead of the current set up of eight councils.

They also fear that towns such as King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth would be marginalised - though the Boundary Committee has stated that a single unitary would help these areas because it gives them access to the county's strategic muscle.

“We do not believe this will reduce public confusion, increase local accountability, achieve efficiency savings, deliver genuine empowerment, or enable greater devolution of decision-making and budgets,” the district councils have told the government.

Meanwhile the city council believes that a county unitary would be remote and the city would be reduced to town council or community partnership board status.

And the city council point to recent stand-offs with County Hall over issues such as closing two city based day centres, and controversial plans to switch off street lights, which it believe demonstrate the county's tendency to ride roughshod over city views. City Hall also points to the long-running saga of banning cars from Westlegate, which has been supported by Norwich councillors but constantly vetoed by county councillors, who do not live in the city.

Instead it believes a city unitary would end the “democratic deficit” for the city and is already working on new neighbourhood arrangement to give people in the city more say over local services.