Unitary plans could be dead in water

A controversial council shake-up appeared dead in the water last night after new communities secretary Eric Pickles ordered civil servants to look urgently at cancelling the plans.

A controversial council shake-up appeared dead in the water last night after new communities secretary Eric Pickles ordered civil servants to look urgently at cancelling the plans.

The new communities secretary, who took up his post on Wednesday, wasted little time in honouring a Conservative manifesto pledge to reverse the plans, which were approved in Parliament during the dying days of the Labour government, despite opposition from both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Asked about the shake-up he said: “It's off, it's definitely off”.

However, last night Norwich City Council leader Steve Morphew insisted overturning the decision would not prove easy.

Details of exactly how the unitary plans can be overturned are not clear, but it is believed the secretary of state, who was a vocal opponent of the moves to shake-up councils in Norfolk and Devon, can issue an order to delay their implementation which would put on hold the current plans to create a new authority by May 2011.

That would stop in their tracks plans already under way in Norwich to create the new authority, while after that the government would have to enact fresh legislation to fully overturn the city unitary proposal.

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Next week is also likely to see the outcome of a legal challenge against the plans by Norfolk County Council, arguing that the previous government's decision was unlawful, which could also see a judge overturning the government's decision if he finds in the council's favour.

Norfolk County Council leader Daniel Cox welcomed the move.

“I'm pleased that Eric Pickles is very clear that he is going to follow through on the Conservative Party's previously stated commitment to stop the local government review,” Mr Cox said. “The Party's position from the start has always been that re-organisation is an unnecessary distraction and what residents really wanted to see was local government delivering effective services as efficiently as possible. To see Eric Pickles take over at CLG and within 24 hours demand that civil servants find a way of unpicking the legislation, is no surprise.”

Mr Pickles announcement came as it emerged that he had already been lobbied by Norfolk MPs.

Brandon Lewis, Great Yarmouth MP, said he had emailed him yesterday morning seeking clarification on the manifesto pledge.

“I contacted Eric Pickles to see where we are in regard to the unitary situation,” Mr Lewis said. “I emailed him this morning saying this is our manifesto promise; it's what we said we were going to do and can he confirm its cancellation.”

Mr Morphew said: “The Conservatives said something about it in the manifesto, but it is not absolutely clear,” he said. “The Lib Dems and Conservatives have already dropped a number of the promises they made before the coalition and I'd be surprised if Mr Pickles had already spoken to our new Lib Dem MP for Norwich, who has always been very supportive of our unitary bid.

“Our advice from government and lawyers is that it would not be as easy as the Conservatives say to stop the unitary process. Why would you want to when, after being set up, the city would be nearly �4m better off?

“Given the problems the city is facing at the moment, it hardly seems sensible to embark on reversing this now when so much work has been done on getting ready for the new council.”

The decision could also prove the first political test of the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition for Norwich's new Lib Dem MP Simon Wright, who said in the election campaign he supported a unitary city, which is also backed by his party colleagues on the city council.

“If it comes up as an issue we will confront that and work together to get what we think is the right outcome,” Mr Wright said. “I think it is right that the people of Norwich have more say on how our affairs are governed, but I do have concerns with the process. If it's really a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, that could mean a more challenging discussion.”

This month it emerged that councils across Norfolk have spent more than �2.6m, including six-figure bills for consultants fees, public relations and legal costs linked to the controversial local government review (LGR).

Mr Pickles predecessor John Denham controversially approved creating a city unitary, flying in the face of advice from the independent Boundary Committee and also sparking a warning from his senior civil servant Peter Housden about the financial risks involved.

This week, the city council's shadow implementation executive approved salary packages for the proposed new chief executive and directors.

That work could now be kicked into the long grass if the new government succeeds.

A CLG spokeswoman said: “The Secretary of State today set out his intentions on restructuring following the commitment made in the manifesto. He has therefore asked officials as a matter of urgency for advice on how to take this forward. Further detail will be forthcoming.”