Call to revive prospect of unitary councils in Norfolk is rejected

Toby Coke, leader of the UKIP group at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Toby Coke, leader of the UKIP group at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

The time is not right to revive the prospect of unitary councils in Norfolk, councillors have said.

Following the decision by five councils to reject the government's devolution proposals for Norfolk and Suffolk, there have been suggestions local government needs reorganisation.

And, at a meeting of Norfolk County Council today, UKIP group leader Toby Coke called for the council to ask officers to prepare detailed unitary options, with a view to submitting proposals to the Secretary of State, for 'alternative governance' for the county.

Mr Coke said a report by EY, which looked at unitary savings in general, suggested single unitary councils could save up to £29m a year, two unitary councils up to £19m and three unitary councils between £4m and £10m.

He wanted officers to provide a Norfolk-specific breakdown of savings, efficiencies and implementation costs of pursuing unitary or sticking with the status quo.

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He said: 'This is not about advocating one structure over another, but to get the process to the next stage, drawing on the indicative savings in the report.'

Mr Coke said the electorate must have a say and that people in Dorset had just voted in favour of reducing the number of councils there.

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Mr Coke said: 'This council is at a fork in the road. We can take the easy route and kick the can down the road, stick out heads in the sand and whinge from the sidelines that we have relentless council tax increases and reductions in services, or are we going to represent the people we are supposed to represent?'

But Conservative councillor Roger Smith accused Mr Coke of trying to 'come up with something' ahead of next May's elections and said it was 'premature'.

Labour leader George Nobbs agreed: 'This is not the right time. It's absolute madness at this stage.

'This would be seen as Norfolk County Council trying to get rid of the districts.

'My group is in favour of unitary in principle, but I have been through this process from 2016 to 2011 and it was torturous, awful and consumed so much of our time.'

Other councillors said governance did need to be looked at, but that, with elections coming up next Nay, that should be a matter for the next council.

But Mr Coke said his motion would set in place the information for the next council to base decisions on.

However, his motion was defeated, with just the UKIP and independent group backing it.

Switching to unitary councils - single tier authorities rather than the current two-tier system - proved one of the most divisive issues in local government in recent years.

In 2008, Norwich put forward a bid for unitary status and the county council responded by proposing a unitary Norfolk - which would have seen districts abolished had it happened.

One of the first acts of the coalition government was to stop Norwich getting unitary status.

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