Coronavirus fears mean not right time to spend cash on local government shake-up bid, says leader

Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council. Pic: Norfolk County Council.

Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council. Pic: Norfolk County Council. - Credit: Norfolk County Council

Now is not the time for taxpayers’ money to be used to plan for council reshuffles, the leader of Norfolk County Council has said - amid speculation that a shake-up for local government is on the horizon.

Local government secretary Robert Jenrick has said a Covid-19 recovery and devolution plan will be published later this year - which will reignite the debate over devolution, elected mayors and unitary councils.

With that opening up the possibility that some of Norfolk’s councils could be scrapped, there has been a degree of political manoeuvring behind the scenes over what it could lead to.

But Andrew Proctor, leader of Norfolk County Council says, with the county still tackling the impacts of coronavirus, the time for work on reorganisation is not now, but in the autumn, when the white paper is published.

The issue of devolution and local government reform is due to be discussed when the Conservative-controlled county council cabinet meets on Monday, September 7.

And a report which will go before councillors state the council would be “keen to pursue the prize of devolution”.

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But it states: “Now is certainly not the time for the county council to commit precious resources or time on working up detailed deals or re-structure responses ahead of September 2020 without knowing the full requirements of the white paper or having more certainty about the ongoing risk of a resurgence of Covid-19.”

The report concludes: “Whilst we would certainly welcome further funding and devolved decision-making that would enable us to get the best deal for Norfolk, we do not yet have sufficient detail of the government’s white paper proposals and requirements.”

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Council leader Mr Proctor said: “We’re focussed on tackling Covid-19 and supporting our communities – this is definitely not the time to spend time or money planning for council reshuffles.

“Norfolk’s response to the pandemic has proven how well our councils can work together and I’m committed to continuing that, as we move towards recovery and renewal.

“While I welcome the potential benefits of devolution and I’m not opposed to the principle of local government reform, we need to wait for the government’s white paper, later this year before we respond.”

Four years ago, the government offered Norfolk and Suffolk a deal which would have seen powers devolved to local councils, bringing in £750m of new funding for infrastructure and £130m for new homes.

But the government insisted the two counties must have an elected mayor - which led to Norwich, Great Yarmouth, Breckland and North Norfolk councils withdrawing from the process. Other councils voted against it and the deal was removed.

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 Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government was to stop Norwich getting unitary status.

MORE: Anger over £2.7m revamp of council meeting rooms amid £130m budget gap warning

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