More doubt over home rule bid

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Norwich's home rule bid should have been vetoed at the first hurdle because it was financially risky, according to the minister with the task of sanctioning the plans.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Norwich's home rule bid should have been vetoed at the first hurdle because it was financially risky, according to the minister with the task of sanctioning the plans.

Reports at the weekend claimed communities secretary Ruth Kelly wrote to John Prescott in March warning that Norwich and Ipswich should not be shortlisted because there was "little likelihood" they would be successful and education and social services in the area could be damaged.

City Hall's bid was seen as too financially risky while the Ipswich case was seen as too expensive, according to the reports.

It was widely thought that both Norwich and Ipswich only made it on the shortlist following a political row among the cabinet when the majority were loath to disappoint Labour councils ahead of the May 3 local elections.

Norwich is currently revising its original bid with changes thought to be focusing on whether the council can pay back the transitional costs earlier than originally forecast. Another amendment is thought to be switching to all-out elections every four years.

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Yet the revelation is sure to be another blow to the city's case which has been beset by overwhelming opposition from neighbouring councils and question marks over financial management.

Antony Little, Tory group leader at City Hall, said: "The fact is that Norwich should never have made the shortlist. If Norwich now gets through it is clear that it will be ministerial plotting rather than the strength of the bid that does it."

Friday is the final day of consultation into the plans and, in a further sign of the city's isolation, a delegation of Norfolk MPs led by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb will this week lobby local government minister Phil Woolas.

Mr Lamb, a former city councillor, said that while he had sympathy with the unitary principle, the govern-ment had messed up the process.

"It's a ludicrous process that picks out one part of the county and focuses on its needs without considering the consequences for the rest," he said. "I have real concerns about the costs and I want to know how much has been spent advocating and opposing it because I think people would be shocked."

Among the delegation, which also includes Keith Simpson, Henry Bellingham and Richard Bacon, is Norwich North MP Ian Gibson who said that while he was 'neutral' on the unitary issue his postbag was exclusively full of letters attacking the plans.

"I am in an impossible position," he said. "They probably think for some reason I am seen to be on the city's side. I am not. I am listening to my constituents and what they want.

"There's a lot of feeling out there. I've got hundreds of letters from people in Taverham right through to Hellesdon and Sprowston and members of the Labour party are against it."

West Suffolk MP Richard Spring has also written to Mr Woolas urging him to reject unitary plans for Ipswich because they were "not viable" and would undermine the coherence of Suffolk.

Officials from Broadland District Council are also due to meet Mr Woolas tomorrow restating their opposition to the case.

Meanwhile city council leader Steve Morphew will face pressure from South Norfolk Council's ruling cabinet today about the plans and the proposed revisions.

Council leader John Fuller said: "We want to hear what he has to say about the revised bid. This is too important to leave until the last minute. It's the future of Norfolk, and three-quarters of a million are going to be affected by this."