Poll countdown is under way

The starting gun for the county council elections was fired yesterday with no-one knowing if this will be the last poll of its kind.County councillors are responsible for big ticket services such as schools, roads, care for the elderly, and libraries and an annual budget of around �1bn.

The starting gun for the county council elections was fired yesterday with no-one knowing if this will be the last poll of its kind.

County councillors are responsible for big ticket services such as schools, roads, care for the elderly, and libraries and an annual budget of around �1bn.

But their very future is up in the air after the government ordered a controversial local government review to see if the set up of county and district councils in Norfolk and Suffolk should be scrapped in favour of one-size-fits-all unitary authorities.

The Boundary Committee, which is being tasked to review the current set up, will recommend its preferred option to the government on July 15, but it is also likely to give a further hint on its thinking this month - right in the middle of the campaign.

Ironically, of the 84 current councillors many are already “twin-hatters” meaning they already combine a role as both a district and county councillor; some are also parish councillors.

This year, around a third of the current membership is standing down - so all parties will be counting on an injection of new blood - much of it being transfused from the districts.

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Added to that, a large number of candidates are already either leaders or cabinet members from district authorities, which if votes go certain way could not only see around three-quarters of the council comprised of new faces but also a kind of “shadow unitary” by default.

And even if the status quo remains, the political direction at County Hall is likely to look very different, with many speaking of the new Tory intake as “hawkish”.

More than 400,000 people voted in Norfolk four years ago, with the 64pc turnout boosted by the general election, which was held on the same day.

But though the June 4 contest will take place at the same time as the European parliamentary elections, parties will be doing well to secure a turnout of more than 30pc.

In Norfolk the Conservatives, led by Daniel Cox, hold 46 seats, with a majority of eight over the opposition - with Labour on 22, the Lib Dems on 14, and the Greens on two.

Beyond Norwich, most seats are a straight two-party fight between the Tories and Labour in areas such as Yarmouth, Dereham and King's Lynn.

The Lib Dems are strong in North Norfolk, where they also control the district council, and hold divisions in parts of Norwich and South Norfolk.

At a district level the Tories increased their hold on power in Yarmouth and Waveney last year, while in 2007 they strengthened their hold in Broadland, became virtually one-party fiefdoms in West Norfolk and Breckland, and in South Norfolk they crushed the Lib Dems to seize power after more than a decade.

The Tories currently run the county councils in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire and must feel confident of increasing their hold on power.

But the unitary question has sparked tension within the Tory ranks and this contest could see a power struggle in Norfolk as district Tory leaders such as Breckland's William Nunn, former West Norfolk leader John Dobson, and Broadland's Simon Woodbridge are all standing in this contest.

Mr Cox and his fellow cabinet member John Gretton were among a number of pro-administration Tories deselected from their seats last year in what was widely seen as a putsch against county Conservatives by disgruntled districts over their handling of the unitary issue.

While the leader scrabbled to safety after winning the nomination at nearby Humbleyard, Mr Gretton lost an appeal to the regional party hierarchy who ruled against him - concluding that the selection rules had been properly followed.

There is speculation that Mr Cox could face either a leadership challenge from the new intake or strong pressure to introduce them to his cabinet team - particularly as Rosalie Monbiot and Chris Mowle, both in charge of two key departments, children's services and adult social care, are also retiring.

There is a good chance that all of the above and the unitary question could see quite a significant shake-up to the cabinet portfolio roles, too.

Labour, which unusually is fielding candidates in all 84 seats, is also having a few niggling problems over some bread and butter issues such as leafleting.

But, more seriously, some fear that the unpopularity of the government and the recent housing scandal at Norwich City Council will hurt their chances most of all, though party insiders still believe they will remain the largest opposition group.

Jackie Howe, the Lib Dem group deputy leader, was also forced to contest a new seat after failing to be nominated for her current Melton Constable division amid a disagreement over which party association she should belong to.

One party which on recent form should boost its numbers is the Greens. Andrew Boswell became the first Green county councillor in 2005, while Chris Hull followed him after a by-election a few weeks later.

Mr Hull is calling it a day this time round, but the party performed strongly in the city council elections last year to become the official opposition at City Hall, and would be confident of a strong showing, especially in the Norwich divisions to help increase its presence in the county. Anything less in the city particularly is sure to be a disappointment for their well-oiled electoral machine.

It is a fair bet that whatever happens, change is coming to County Hall.