City Hall challenged to defend unitary plan

SHAUN LOWTHORPE City Hall leaders were last night challenged to enter the lions' den and defend their home rule plans at a special meeting in neighbouring South Norfolk.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

City Hall leaders were last night challenged to enter the lions' den and defend their home rule plans at a special meeting in neighbouring South Norfolk.

Norwich is one of 16 councils shortlisted to become a go-it-alone unitary council, with ministers set to make a final decision in July.

In South Norfolk, the new Tory administration wants to hold a special scrutiny meeting next month to probe the details of the city's case, which is set to cost £18m to get off the ground and more than £30m over the next five years.

It has also invited Norfolk County Council to the June 6 'D-Day' session.

With both South Norfolk and Broadland now firmly in the hands of the Conservatives after the May 3 local elections, there is a 'blue ring' of opposition to the city's plans and the two authorities are determined to use their mandate vigorously to oppose the plans and head off the city's long-term desire to extend its boundaries into their area.

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John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, said he was not happy that the only detailed look at the case was taking place behind closed doors in Westminster, while the Audit Commission was only carrying out a cursory examination of the numbers.

He condemned the "sorry state" of Norwich City Council's services and its "lamentable financial performance" and said the answer lay in closer working together not a costly overhaul.

"This is so important that we don't think we can leave it to outsiders in London - we should be looking at it ourselves," he said. "The council wants the scrutiny committee to undertake an investigation so that residents in South Norfolk have the best quality information.

"If the city is so certain of its figures, I hope they can come along and be subjected to scrutiny."

The invitation is likely to place the city in a tight spot - going along could expose it to a mauling from unitary opponents, while failing to attend is sure to prompt accusations of ducking the debate.

"It's all very well the county and the city councils having one-to-one meetings," Mr Fuller added. "What we are doing is using our community leadership role. It was an explicit manifesto pledge to resist the city's unitary bid."

Broadland leader Simon Woodbridge, who is meeting local government minister Phil Woolas next month to lobby against the plans, said he doubted the city would be willing to go the meeting.

"I would be quite surprised if they turn out," he said. "Both Broadland and the county council have looked closely at their case and exposed some fairly hefty gaps. I think they are talking about cuts in services - that's what it's all about."

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, stopped short of saying if he would go along, but said he was "happy to be convinced" about the purpose of the meeting.

"I am very happy to meet with the new administration in our neighbouring authority," he said. "We have a whole raft of issues that are of common concern about the future of Norwich and the area including growth and housing."

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