Business as usual at councils

SHAUN LOWTHORPE The fallout from Norwich’s home rule bid is reverberating across Norfolk. Policymakers insist it’s business as usual, but it depends on what sort of business you mean. Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Time travel has been much in the news recently with various scientists claiming they have unlocked the secret for zipping back and forth. And there's a Back to the Future feel about local politics in Norfolk at the moment.

Ministers have given a big hint that council services will be overhauled. But the announcement that a Boundary Committee review will look at redrawing the local government map in Norfolk has created a void - which is currently being filled by uncertainty.

It may not be the end of the universe, but the uncertainty has left councils in a state of temporal flux with some decisions being put on hold until a clearer vision of the future emerges.

But haven't we been here before?

Turn back the clock to 2000 when councillors were ditching plans for a Norwich northern bypass.

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Then in the 1990s there was the Banham Review, set up to look at the structure of local government which had recommended Norwich should become a unitary council.

Its interim recommendation had also favoured a unitary council covering both Yarmouth and Waveney.

Both options were vetoed by the then Tory government.

Back in 2007, and the northern bypass is back on the cards, and council services in Norfolk are again facing change after ministers hinted they would like to see 'unitary solutions' introduced in Norfolk.

There is no guarantee that reorganisation will happen - anybody remember Charles Clarke's plan for regional police forces?

Yet everybody seems to think it will - and the government's decision has spawned some interesting political phenomena in our town halls.

Broadly speaking, the closer you are to Norwich, the more it feels that decision making is at greatest risk of slowing down.

As city councillors oppose plans for a Heartsease Academy, and place a different emphasis on issues such as the northern distributor road, what odds that City Hall's growing influence forces decisions into the long grass?

But cross the city's (existing) boundaries and councillors in Broadland and South Norfolk are keen to accelerate decision-making - pressing ahead with manifesto commitments made during May's local elections.

Broadland wants to complete the next phase of the refurbishment programme at its Thorpe Lodge headquarters - doing otherwise, the authority believes, sends out a message to staff that it's time to abandon ship, something they are keen to avoid.

Other manifesto commitments such as introducing household collections of food waste could also be brought forward.

Quite simply, the Tories are keen to get as much business signed off as they can in case the sun finally sets on the authority.

They believe the elections handed them a mandate, which includes opposing the overhaul, but there are also signs the council is keen to lock any new authority into continuing with some of its policies.

Districts such as Broadland are also keen to take a lead in fighting the unitary push, with mumblings at last week's Tory group meeting, that the county council had not been robust enough.

Yet further from the city, others councils are also taking stock.

Services will carry on as normal, but it's the day to day internal management stuff which is looking most likely to be affected.

One issue exercising minds is what to do with council buildings in need of upgrades to bring them in line with Disability Discrimination Act standards.

The county council owns several such buildings across Norfolk - should they do them up, or look for more tie-ups with district authorities? Such an 'integrated services' approach is already under way in Yarmouth - beset by delays after the reorganisation of the Primary Care Trusts.

And a similar approach could now follow in the rest of the county, with West Norfolk said to be keen to get involved.

Paul Adams, director of corporate resources at Norfolk County Council, insisted it was business as usual.

"We are not putting decisions on hold, it's very much carry on as you are," he said.

"The important thing is whatever is finally decided, the public will need services delivered and local authority workers to supply them."

But in West Norfolk, the council has put on hold the second phase of a multi-million refurbishment of its King's Court offices as a direct result of the unitary uncertainty.

Ray Harding, borough council chief executive, said: "It will almost certainly go ahead, but we felt it was prudent to hang on a bit to see if we get a bit more clarity.

"We have decided to defer it for a couple of months in the hope that the fog will clear," he added. "We have been talking to the county about this and it's a racing certainty there will need to be a fairly substantial office presence in King's Lynn whatever the local government structure is.

Richard Packham, managing director of Yarmouth Borough Council, admitted there was widespread uncertainty, but added he hoped it would not affect council business in "any significant way".

But the council has taken a fresh look at the finances of the £12m integrated services plan.

"We are looking at costs based on the status quo and a unitary scenario," he said.

"That doesn't mean we are slowing things down, but it does add another dimension. We are just looking at it from both perspectives, to make sure it works in both scenarios.

"Any likely restructuring across Norfolk will be disruptive to an extent, but it's just another development in a constantly changing environment. We will cope with it. My management team will get on with the job of delivering frontline services.

"In Yarmouth we are going through a rich period delivering regeneration and efficiencies, We will not allow it to distract us from our course."

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