Secrecy over letter which sought help for Norfolk – and a unitary revival
Archant Norfolk 2017
Secrecy surrounds a letter the leader of Norfolk County Council sent to the government suggesting ways Westminster could help reduce the need to make savings - which included floating the idea of a major local government shake-up.
With the need to make cuts looming, Norfolk County Council leader Cliff Jordan wrote to the communities secretary Sajid Javid in June to outline how the government could help the county.
But just what he asked for is being kept private.
Mr Jordan said he would not share the letter with this newspaper as it was marked ‘private and confidential’, although it is understood one of his suggestions was whether a unitary Norfolk would save money and be a more efficient way to provide services.
We have lodged a Freedom Of Information request to County Hall the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) for the letter and the reply, has been refused.
The DCLG said they were exempt because the correspondence related to the formulation / development of government policy and a degree of “safe space” was needed for such correspondence.
Labour opposition leader Steve Morphew hit out at that decision and said: “The letter was clearly intended to influence the
national agenda, but is not being shared with the people of Norfolk.”
While Mr Jordan says the content of his letter was private and confidential, he has confirmed he would like to see a unitary Norfolk authority, with five ‘hubs or pods’ dotted around the county to deliver services.
Mr Jordan said: “If you look at the districts, then there are seven centres and all seven of them have, for example, environmental health departments.
“It doesn’t go beyond the wit of man that there shouldn’t need to be seven separate environmental health departments.
“I will probably get criticised for having an opinion, but I’m allowed to have one.
“My opinion is that if we had a Greater Norwich area taking in some, but not all, of South Norfolk and Broadland, you could have that and four other centres, with elected people to cover those areas, but services driven by the county council.
“There could still be a two tier system, how I see it. It would save money, but it would also be an improved service.”
But Mr Jordan acknowledged the Conservative minority government was not in a position to push such change forward.
However, he said, if enough people said they wanted a referendum, that might make Westminster pay attention.
In the meantime, his council is looking at ways to plug a £125m funding gap, which includes proposals such as co-locating children’s centres and libraries.
John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, believes, in the long-term, local government reorganisation will come up again, but shared services need to be pursued in the short-term.
His council is talking to Broadland District Council about sharing top officers and services. Breckland Council already shares services with South Holland in Lincolnshire.
Mr Fuller had supported the aborted devolution deal involving Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and said its rejection was a missed opportunity for change.
He said: “The boat has been missed for most people who wanted change. The secretary of state couldn’t have been clearer that he required unanimity to support that change and we did not have it. That was a £1bn own goal.
“For the next five years I think we will have evolution, rather than revolution. There’s a recognition that we have got to work with our neighbours, which is what we are looking at with Broadland.”
Mr Fuller said the revival of unitary in Norfolk could rest on what happens in Dorset, where nine councils are backing plans to replace the county’s councils with two unitary authorities - to save the area more than £100m.
Mr Fuller said a similar two unitary model could work in Norfolk, with one covering the east and the other the west.
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Tomorrow: Should devolution be revived?
‘We would fight for Norwich’
“We would fight for Norwich”, the leader of the city council has said, if a local government shake-up were to happen.
And Alan Waters, the Labour leader at City Hall, said the time of his Conservative colleagues would be better spent arguing for fairer funding.
He said: “If we were faced with this issue we would fight for the city. Some of our Conservative colleagues are looking for reorganisation, but I don’t think we would let a thousand years of self-rule in Norwich be sacrificed as another victim of austerity.
“The Conservatives should take responsibility for allowing the government to cut money to local government over the last seven years and run down public services.
“I would be fully supportive of them if they would go to the government and say we need more money to provide services, because we are in danger of running out of road and that would be a disaster.”
What are the options?
Unitary status: Supporters say fewer tiers of local government can make millions of pounds of savings, but it could spark a bitter political battle.
Devolution: The county council network wants the government to revive devolution deals and give councils extra money and powers - but without the insistence on elected mayors.
Shared services: Savings can be made by joining forces with other councils. Breckland Council and South Holland have done this, while South Norfolk and Broadland are considering it
Commercialisation: Councils can try to generate more money to pay for services - such as by selling properties.
Change: Councils can look at new ways to provide services. For instance, Norfolk County Council is looking to co-locate children’s centres and libraries.
Managing demand: County Hall is trying to save money by reducing the number of children in care.
What happened with unitary last time?
The battle for unitary was one of the most divisive issues Norfolk politics has seen in recent years.
Unitary status is when there is just one tier of local government. At the moment Norfolk has two.
In 2006, councils were invited to submit proposals for restructuring to save millions of pounds.
Norwich City Council wanted to become a unitary. But, in an attempt to counter Norwich’s bid, County Hall submitted its own proposal for a whole county unitary.
All sorts of configurations for unitaries followed, including ‘nutcrackers’, ‘wedges’ and ‘doughnuts’.
It all created political divides.
Norwich seemed to have triumphed when, in March 2010, communities secretary John Denham said City Hall would get unitary powers - and on extended boundaries - but the county would not.
But, within days of the coalition government seizing power, the award of status was blocked.