Parties clash over unitary Norwich plans

Shaun LowthorpeThe Conservatives yesterday produced the manifesto pledge that they insisted would overturn controversial plans to create a new unitary council for Norwich - and were immediately accused of weasel words by Labour supporters of self-rule.Shaun Lowthorpe

The Conservatives yesterday produced the manifesto pledge that they insisted would overturn controversial plans to create a new unitary council for Norwich - and were immediately accused of weasel words by Labour supporters of self-rule.

The Tories' commitment to scrapping the plans for a unitary council in Norwich was called into question by their own side last month after Conservative peers refused to support a vote which would have effectively killed it in Parliament and instead allowed the measure to get on the statute books.

The party yesterday pointed to a 20-word paragraph in its manifesto under plans to 'make politics more local' as evidence of its commitment to overturn the plans.

While neither Norfolk nor Devon, the other area affected by the changes, are mentioned by name, page 76 of the manifesto includes a bullet point with a commitment to 'scrapping Labour's uncompleted plans to impose unwieldy and expensive unitary councils and to force the regionalisation of the fire service'.


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Norwich North Conservative candidate Chloe Smith said voters now had a clear choice over whether to choose a party which could keep the unitary option, or one which would scrap it.

'I think it's sufficient, the key is it refers to incomplete unitaries, and in this context the timetable goes on to next year,' she said. 'This is very clear.'

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But Labour's Charles Clarke challenged the Tories and also urged them to publish the legal advice they had received on the issue to allow for a proper debate.

Mr Clarke, who is hoping to hold on to the Norwich South seat for Labour, said advice he has received from the House of Commons Library shows the Conservative claims are wide of the mark and it would require an Act of Parliament to rescind it.

And he has written to Tory leader David Cameron asking him confirm that he accepts that reversal of Parliament's decision on unitary status for Norwich would require primary legislation, calling on him to 'correct' the statement that it would be 'relatively simple' to enact a U-turn.

'The manifesto is misleading, it's not clear and it's put in weasel words,' Mr Clarke said. 'David Cameron should be clear in his commitment and demonstrate the legal advice behind it.'

David Willetts, shadow minister for universities and skills, who was in Norwich for the regional launch of the manifesto, said: 'We are very confident that the unitary status can be reversed.'

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