City council leader 'not ducking debate'

SHAUN LOWTHORPE The stage was set for a battle royale. But plans for a D-day meeting to debate Norwich's home rule plans look set to go ahead minus the two leading actors, after it emerged that neither the leader of Norwich City Council or Norfolk County Council will be attending.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

The stage was set for a battle royale.

But plans for a D-day meeting to debate Norwich's home-rule plans look set to go ahead minus the two leading actors, after it emerged that neither the leader of Norwich City Council or of Norfolk County Council will be attending.

The city council is one of 16 authorities shortlisted to become a new go-it-alone unitary council running all services from schools to rubbish collection and housing within its boundaries.

Councillors in South Norfolk are to hold a special scrutiny meeting on June 6 to look at the unitary issue.

The hearing had all the ingredients for a public dust-up between opponents and supporters of the plans.

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But city council leader Steve Morphew said he had to turn down the invite because of a prior family engagement.

While county council leader Daniel Cox is also unable to go, but has asked his deputy Harry Humphrey to attend instead.

Officials from Broadland Council have also been invited to the meeting.

Last night, Mr Morphew denied he was ducking the debate, insisting that he would have gone along if possible.

"We have been open and transparent and above board at every occasion and nobody can suggest to the contrary," he said.

But he admitted he was less than happy to learn of the invite in the press first.

The city's bid has been under sustained attack from opponents of its controversial bid, including Norfolk County Council which says it will cost millions and lead to 60 social workers losing their jobs and cuts in around 30 library and museum staff.

But the county council was recently rapped on the knuckles by the Audit Commission for sending out anti-unitary leaflets during the May 3 election campaign, which were deemed to have fallen foul of publicity rules.

Christopher Kemp, chairman of South Norfolk's scrutiny committee, said the show would go on as planned.

And he hoped the city council would send a substitute.

"We have invited the chief executive of the city council and there are other people apart from councillor Morphew who can come and speak on behalf of the city," he said. "We are very concerned that this will have a very adverse impact on the whole of the county and we want to check their figures. There's no question of his non-attendance acting as a veto."

Meanwhile, Mr Morphew said he was not surprised at the onslaught from opponents of the bid as the June 22 deadline for the consultation approached.

And he said there was no evidence to suggest the unitary bid would be kiboshed by a Gordon Brown premiership.

"Given that the original bid was tested against Treasury criteria, I have had no indication of a change," he said. "I have no reason to believe that that is something that he feels uncomfortable with."

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