Call for poll on home rule bid

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Voters across Norfolk should be given a referendum on plans to overhaul council services in the county in the wake of Norwich's controversial home rule bid.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Voters across Norfolk should be given a referendum on plans to overhaul council services in the county in the wake of Norwich's controversial home rule bid.

Ministers have hinted that they are willing to give City Hall the green light to create a new greater Norwich council taking in parts of Broadland and South Norfolk.

Yesterday, Broadland councillors said any proposed changes needed to be put to the public vote and urged ministers to back a Norfolk referendum with voters also given a say on whether to stick with the current system of seven districts and one county council.

The move follows calls from Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson and Tories in Norwich for a poll into the unitary issue, while councillors in South Norfolk have set up an e-petition on the prime minister's website opposing the unitary moves.

Failing a county-wide vote, Broadland councillors were minded to set aside £50,000 for a poll across the district and spend around £20,000 mailing special editions of Broadland News to every household in the district setting out details of any proposed changes.

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Members of the scrutiny committee also urged all councils in Norfolk to sit around the table and devise a home-grown plan to deliver local government services in the county.

Speculation is mounting that the pace of reorganisation could be brought forward a year with new councils up and running by 2009 if a deal could be thrashed out locally.

But to date there is little sign of a deal being struck or alliances being formed with districts thought to favour carving Norfolk up into three councils, an East, West and Central option, and the county preferring the "doughnut" solution of a unitary Norwich council with tightly drawn boundaries surrounded by a single authority for the rest of Norfolk.

Tory councillor Tony Adams said: "We need a meeting of all councils, including the city, to thrash out a way forward because a united Norfolk would be a formidable opponent for any government.

"The big danger for me is that if we don't present a united front they will walk all over us."

Council chief executive Colin Bland said while the council was opposed to breaking up the status quo, it was vital to have a fall-back position.

"If everybody in Norfolk from the political point of view could come up with a political solution which would give us the best for Norfolk I think the government would jump at it," he said.

Councillors also supported plans to offer hundreds of Broadland staff special "golden handcuff" bonuses to stop them quitting the authority.

But there was disagreement about whether to continue with plans for a £1m refurbishment of the council's Thorpe Lodge headquarters.

Tory councillors wanted to press ahead with the upgrade, which would cost around £600,000, but the Lib Dems wanted a pause until the future of the council became clearer.

Kim Davis Claydon said failing to complete the refurbishment would send out a message to staff that it was time to abandon ship. "This isn't our full time job, it doesn't put food on our table or keep the roof over our head," she said. "We have got to accept the fact it's going to happen one way or another and we need to make all the staff at Thorpe Lodge feel loved enough to want to stay with us."

Broadland ruling Tory group will meet on Saturday to thrash out their response to the unitary issue ahead of a cabinet meeting on Monday.

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