Shake-up's a shambles

The future of who runs vital council services for every Norfolk resident was plunged into fresh confusion last night as the chaotic process was delayed again at the 11th hour.

The future of who runs vital council services for every Norfolk resident was plunged into fresh confusion last night as the chaotic process was delayed again at the 11th hour.

Council chiefs battling to deliver services, from schools to emptying bins, during the recession were all set to learn today if they were to be scrapped in favour of new one-size-fits-all unitary authorities covering either the whole county or two separate authorities for greater Norwich, and a rural council for the rest of Norfolk.

The Boundary Committee was expected to present its recommendations to the government today - finally bringing to an end a review which has been dragging on for the best part of four years and left councils more than �2m out of pocket, with nothing to show for it as yet.

Ironically the issue could have lit the touch paper for campaigning in the Norwich North by-election where large parts of the constituency are dead set against being absorbed by the city.

But the wheels fell off the process last week after three Suffolk district councils made a successful legal challenge, kicking similar proposals for the county into touch.

And the impact of that challenge came home to roost in both Norfolk and Devon yesterday, where parallel reviews have been taking place, when communities secretary John Denham agreed more time was needed to allow for a legal appeal to be heard - if the Boundary Committee were to go down that route.

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Failing that, Mr Denham still has the power to get shot of the process and go back to giving Norwich its original unitary bid based on its existing boundaries, if he had lost patience with the Boundary Committee and was feeling politically minded to give the Conservatives a bloody nose on the issue.

A letter from Paul Rowsell, the senior civil servant overseeing the process, said Mr Denham recognised the “importance of minimising further disruption and the continuing period of uncertainty for the councils and local communities concerned and he will have regard to this when deciding what, if any, further later date should be specified”.

Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council, which has spent �800,000 so far on the process, said he was not surprised by the delay.

“Today's announcement comes just two weeks after the secretary of state set out yet another revised timetable. Even he must be beginning to suspect that this review is unlikely to go anywhere other than the recycling bin,” said Mr Cox.

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, which has spent �1.3m, only to see its home rule bid sucked into a process covering the whole of Norfolk, said he believed that ministers were still committed to reaching a conclusion on the issue once the legal hurdles have been cleared.

“This has been an exhausting process and what we know is that our opponents will continue to do their absolute best to derail it,” he said. “People seem to have lost sight of the tens of millions of pounds which could be saved once the initial investment has been made.”

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said ministers “reluctantly” agreed to extend the deadline and a new date would be set once it was clear when any appeal may be determined.

“We are still clear that if appropriate unitary structures are identified for Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk they have the potential to offer real benefits for the residents of these areas by delivering better services, improved efficiency, stronger strategic leadership and genuine engagement and empowerment of local communities - it would be wrong to deny the people of these three areas those benefits,” she said.