Commons debate over Norfolk council shake-up plan

Chris Fisher, political editorThe government will be forced to defend its plan for a unitary Norwich council on the floor of the Commons this evening.Chris Fisher, political editor

By Chris Fisher, Political editor

The government will be forced to defend its plan for a unitary Norwich council on the floor of the Commons this evening.

A three-hour debate on the highly controversial proposal has been put on the agenda in a late switch by the Tories, who have dropped a debate on access to higher education to make way for it.

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There is no chance of the government losing a vote on the issue because it will use its majority in the Commons and the whipping system. But the Conservatives will be hoping to heap further embarrassment on communities secretary John Denham over the plan, which he has stuck to in defiance of the Boundary Committee, the top civil servant in his own department, and a House of Lords committee.

The Tory motion calls for the rejection of the plan for an all-services council in Norwich. In so doing, it 'questions the legality, motivation and financial probity of restructuring in Norfolk', and notes that that the permanent secretary of the communities department, Peter Housden, felt a need to seek a ministerial direction from Mr Denham because of his anxieties about the restructuring plan's value for money and feasibility.

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It also refers to Mr Housden's concerns about the vulnerability of the plan to legal challenge, and asserts that the government is perpetrating 'an abuse of the democratic process'.

The order to establish the Norwich unitary is much more vulnerable in the House of Lords, where there is no government majority and where peers will be studying last week's strong criticism of the proposal from its committee on the merits of statutory instruments.

This was underlined yesterday when Baroness Butler-Sloss, an independent peer and a retired judge, tabled a motion noting the merits committee verdict and asking the government 'not to proceed with the draft order before conducting further consultation with the residents of Norwich and Norfolk'.

She is a member of the committee, but stood down from it because it was also considering an order for a unitary council in Exeter, and she is from Devon.

The Tories have pledged to quash the plan for Norwich if they win the election and it has already been approved by parliament.

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