Face-off in city bid for home rule

SHAUN LOWTHORPE The spectre of spin and counter- spin last night surrounded the fate of Norwich's bid for home rule, with supporters and opponents claiming to have the ear of government on the matter.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

The spectre of spin and counter- spin last night surrounded the fate of Norwich's bid for home rule, with supporters and opponents claiming to have the ear of government on the matter.

City Hall wants to run all council services in its area such as schools, rubbish collection and social services, currently split between itself and Norfolk County Council.

Yesterday, all 26 councils across the country which submitted bids for "unitary status" were invited to meet civil servants to go through the details and "explore questions that we have following the initial reading of the proposals".

A letter to the city council from the Department of Communities and Local Government said: "We have concluded that it conforms to the terms of the invitation."

But opponents insist the announcement is meaningless and an additional controversial proposal to create a larger greater Norwich council involving a

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land grab from neighbouring Broadland and South Norfolk councils would torpedo the city's plans as it appeared to breach government rules.

Meanwhile, as the lobbying effort continues, Lisa Christensen, the county council's director of children's services, has written to all schools in Norfolk asking for their views on the proposal and restating the council's opposition to the plans.

"It would be very useful if you could send me a short letter, or

e-mail saying whether or not you support Norwich's unitary bid and highlighting any concerns that you have," she wrote.

"We do not believe there is a proven case for change and that the cost of change would be better spent on improving existing services and ways of working between the three tiers

of local government in Norfolk."

And civic leaders at Broadland still believe that the greater Norwich proposal will fall down at the first hurdle.

The council has finally heard from local government minister Phil Woolas after urging him to rule out non-compliant bids.

In his response, Mr Woolas wrote: "As you recognise, the invitation makes clear that the area of any proposed future unitary authority must consider either the whole of the area of an existing local authority …or the combination of such whole areas. In short, a bid for unitary status on expanded boundaries will not be considered under the terms of this invitation."

Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland district council, said the letter "kicked into touch" the greater Norwich bid.

"He is saying he isn't going to countenance a bid on extended boundaries, though it leaves the door open for a unitary on existing boundaries, but in my heart of hearts I believe that area is going to be too small," he said.

"We are very much down to working in partnership; I think we will achieve more that way. It would be good to get back to normal and get back to doing what we are supposed to be doing - and that's serving the public."

But Norwich City Council chief executive Laura McGillivray

took heart from yesterday's announcement.

She said: "It seems we are over the first hurdle, which is very good news as the government has been able to conclude very quickly

that we meet the criteria."

The government will unveil its shortlist of authorities to be awarded unitary status at the end of March.