Unitary decision divides opinion

Norfolk County Council leader Daniel Cox insisted it was business as usual for the authority despite yesterday's announcement to grant Norwich its home rule dream.

Norfolk County Council leader Daniel Cox insisted it was business as usual for the authority despite yesterday's announcement to grant Norwich its home rule dream.

County Hall believed it had seen off the case for a city unitary after two secretaries of state Ruth Kelly and Hazel Blears, previously ruled out the option and the Boundary Committee found no merit in the case.

Westminster has been awash with rumours that communities secretary John Denham, would give the green light to the unitary plans.

And the government pulled the rug from under County Hall's feet yesterday with its announcement while also granting home rule for Exeter.

Mr Cox said the authority would now challenge the decision in the courts as they believe that the decision could be unlawful.

And he said he still believed that the decision would fail to get through parliament.

Most Read

“This is another twist, no more than that,” Mr Cox said. “If there was a real desire to see this happen, they would have pushed ahead with a May 2010 election.

“We are going to very much carry on as we are,” he added. “I have always taken a view that this was never going to happen. It's very much business as usual. That's very much what we are asking staff to do which is focus on what matters.

Under the plans this year's city council elections will be put off until next year while the new council is set up and a new implementation executive made up of city councillors and county councillors based in Norwich could be up and running by April this year to oversee the process - if it gets through parliament, while the Conservatives are also vowing to overturn the process if they win a general election.

District councils, who were due to go to the courts next to challenge the Boundary Committee process, will meet today to decide whether or not to press ahead with their legal case, which could see the county council going it alone with a fresh legal challenge.

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, said he hoped all sides could come together and work to create the new council.

“This sounds, at last, like progress towards something which will be good for the city and the county,” Mr Mor-phew said.

“This has never been about getting unitary for its own sake, but about making the best of the prospects for the city and being able to deal with the problems we have got.

“What we need is a system of governance which gives democratic accountability and can also help stimulate business and the economy. I am hoping people will set aside the propaganda and party political point scoring and get on with making the best of this opportunity by developing a genuine partnership between the city and county to benefit everyone.”

Announcing her decision local government minister Mrs Winterton said the city's vital economic role meant a unitary council with strong leadership was vital, particularly at a time of recession.

“The city of Norwich is at the centre of regional economic activity and its economic performance is crucial for its residents and the wider area,” she said. “A unitary Norwich authority will work for the interests of the people who live, work and study in Norwich and they will have one body to hold to account.”

But David White, chief executive of Norfolk County Council, poured scorn on the government's assessment.

“As far as the economy is concerned, a separate Norwich Council would be financially weak and highly dependent on the support of the county council and the authorities around it, which is where most of the Norwich area's em-ployment and housing growth is earmarked, and where key infrastructure is located or proposed.

“A unitary Norwich would be too small to progress big strategic projects, and a weak voice in the region and na-tionally. So this decision simply threatens to put an artificial barrier into the growth of the Norwich sub-region - just when we should be pulling together to get out of the recession and drive Norfolk forward.

“There is a considerable way to go before the Secretary of State's announcement could become a reality. In the light of today's decision, we will certainly seek leave to challenge this decision in the courts and, given the strength of opposition and the timetable involved, I am convinced this is by no means certain to happen.”

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith said: “I am astounded at this decision. The government has ignored its independ-ent advisers, its own previous guidelines and its own sense. Ministers and civil servants have effectively let loose an expensive new white elephant just months before a general election. This is a costly, irresponsible diversion when the real thing is the recession and there is no public money to spare.”