Councils make case to go it alone

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Civic leaders in Norwich have until January to prove they can run all council services themselves as a new unitary authority. City Hall is hoping to convince the government that it should be given 'home rule' and take over powers to run schools, social services and libraries currently managed by Norfolk County Council.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Civic leaders in Norwich have until January to prove they can run all council services themselves as a new unitary authority. City Hall is hoping to convince the government that it should be given 'home rule' and take over powers to run schools, social services and libraries currently managed by Norfolk County Council.

Ministers yesterday invited councils to make the case for unitary status and Norwich City Council leader Steve Morphew said the council was keen to take the plunge, but needed to see if it met the government's criteria first.

“What I want to see is the criteria we need to satisfy and how far we meet it,” he said. “What I desperately want to avoid is a head to head with our partners in greater Norwich. If it happens, it happens.”

But whatever happens, the white paper suggests that maintaining the status quo in two-tier counties such as Norfolk no longer appeared to be an option.

“One innovative model of governance might be the creation within a county area of a common group of employees or a single cadre of councillors” the white paper said.

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“In two-tier areas, where each place has a county council and a district council, local authorities face additional challenges. Strong leadership and clear accountability is harder to achieve where for the same place there are two leaders, each with a legitimate democratic mandate and often having different and sometimes conflicting agendas.

“Councils in all areas that are currently two-tier need to find new governance arrangements which overcome the risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency between tiers and can meet the particular challenges faced by smaller districts with small budgets and tightly constrained boundaries,” it said.

In a sign of the war of words to come, the county councils' network is today issuing a report by Michael Chisholm, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Cambridge University, concluding that the review of the case for unitary status commissioned by Norwich, Exeter, Oxford and Ipswich was seriously flawed. His report claims the costs for new unitary authorities in each of the four cities would be between £11.3m and £17.2m.

Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland District Council, said: “It doesn't bother me whether we get unitary status or not, if it was in the public benefit. But the thing to look at is whether it is value for money. I genuinely think it will be hugely expensive and waste a lot of time.”

Shaun Murphy leader of Norfolk County Council, said: “Our understanding is that Norwich will want to make a case for becoming a unitary council - taking on responsibility in its area for all the services that the county council currently provides on behalf of the whole of Norfolk.

“To date we have seen little or no appetite for major structural change of this sort among local people - or any evidence that the benefits of creating another upper-tier council in Norfolk to provide social services, children's services, libraries etc outweigh the likely costs and disruption of wholesale change.

“The latest research commissioned about the costs of such change says that this is likely to be in the region of £12.5m.

“Our current view is that the benefits that the government, and local people, want to see can be achieved by better working arrangements between all local councils.

“That is why we have been working with others to see how what works well at present, can work even better in the future,” he said.

REACTION

t Vivienne Clifford Jackson, leader of South Norfolk Council, supported the extra powers for parish councils. “We would definitely like to go down that road and enhance their powers,” she said. “We do see the parish councils as the leaders of their communities and I'm all for it as long as it's what they want.”

t Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland District Council, doubted whether the by-laws plan would work. “I'm not sure that parishes would want that,” he said. “I can imagine a councillor walking around the village and getting out a red book when somebody throws some litter down. I don't think it's the sort of thing local government should be doing. It would contribute to a police state.”

t Ian Gibson, Norwich North MP, thought the paper was promising for the city's chances to become a unitary authority. “This is very positive news for the city and the city council and I would both welcome and support a bid for a unitary Norwich. We still await with interest news of the funding assessment as well as plans for council tax.”

t Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, chairman of the local government association, said: “The white paper reflects the growing confidence in, and competence of, local government and the belief that the best way to deliver the best services to local people is at a local level. “There are proposals that will help free up elected councillors to put local people first in delivering the right services, in the right time and at the right place.”

t William Nunn, leader of Breckland Council, said he supported greater powers for councillors to scrutinise the work of other public bodies. “That's a really good idea in an age of local area agreements and local strategic partnerships that these bodies are held to account. But I don't think it will change voter apathy. People don't believe it makes any difference when they vote and until they feel their cross in the ballot box makes a difference there will still be voter apathy.”

t Chris Leslie, director of the New Local Government Network, said: “This is a good day for stronger local leadership, strengthening the hand of local democracy and giving local people a greater chance to shape their own destiny.”