Plan to scupper council overhaul

Five Norfolk councils are to launch a last ditch �150,000 legal challenge to derail a controversial council overhaul amid growing fears that the government is to rubberstamp a single Norfolk super council.

Five Norfolk councils are to launch a last ditch �150,000 legal challenge to derail a controversial council overhaul amid growing fears that the government is to rubberstamp a single Norfolk super council.

Communities Secretary John Denham is due to give his verdict on a single super council option for Norfolk after a consultation ends on January 19.

The super council is the preferred proposal put forward by the independent Boundary Committee which was struck by the fact it could save council taxpayers �25m a year by stripping out duplication, reducing the numbers of high paid officers and joining up services, while also giving people locally more say in their lives through beefed up parish councils and new community boards.

But King's Lynn and West Norfolk, Breckland, Broadland, North Norfolk and South Norfolk councils are seeking a judicial review in the High Court today to try and stop the process because they believe that the public are overwhelmingly against.

While in a further twist, Norfolk County Council, which put forward the original super council proposal, is also paying around �10,000 towards the challenge, which could effectively scupper its own bid and the millions it has already spent on it.

The districts believe that the overhaul would be a calamitous waste of money at a time when the country can least afford it, and savings could be made by more joint working and shared services.

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Yet the challenge - which the councils estimate will cost around �150,000 - comes as all of them are seeking to pare back services because of the recession and is equal to around a 2pc hike in district council bills.

It also comes after an EDP investigation highlighted the �1m expenses costs of the existing twin-hatter system at Norfolk County Council where 50 of the 84 members are also district councillors benefitting from two sets of allowances - and strongly opposed to any switch to a unitary system.

And it is a return to the courts for the Norfolk districts who previously failed to stop the process in 2008, while a separate move by Suffolk councils, which had stalled the process, was overturned by the Court of Appeal last month.

John O'Connell, policy analyst at the TaxPayers' Alliance, condemned the legal bid as a waste of money and said the authorities had a vested interest in going to the courts.

“Using taxpayers' cash to fight an expensive legal case shows that these authorities are looking primarily at their own survival,” Mr O'Connell said. “Whether a new unitary is formed or not should be down to a sensible and level-headed debate, and should not be settled by throwing taxpayers' money at lawyers. If any conflicts of interest exist where councillors sit on more than one authority then this should be a central feature of any discussions. Above all else though, the opinions of the people of Norfolk should be paramount.”

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, and a champion of an alternative two unitary option for greater Norwich and the rest of Norfolk, which was rejected by the Boundary Committee, said while he was strongly opposed to the single unitary, the courts were not the place for the argument to take place.

“There are an awful lot of twin-hatters out there who have got themselves into a position they are now trying to protect, and using an awful lot of taxpayers' money to do it,” he said. “The Audit Commission should look at intervening because the money is being spent for party political purposes.”

Nick Daubney, leader of King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council, said the legal challenge was justified because of the damage the super council would do to local democracy, while the Boundary Committee's own limited consultation showed that 85pc of people were against the single county option.

He said the overhaul came at an unacceptably high risk and the savings were only theoretical, but he was worried the government was going to press ahead regardless.

Mr Daubney said. “We have got to stop this process. The problem with government at the moment is that nobody seems to be in control, civil servants are doing what they like and ministers do not appear to know what's going on.”

Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland District Council, denied the councils were behaving like turkeys trying to stop Christmas.

He said. “There is so much at stake here for people and businesses in Norfolk and we do not want to see them paying millions of pounds for a restructuring in local government they do not support and that will not serve their needs.”