MP urges calm over council overhaul

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Town halls were at risk of being overwhelmed by "chaos and confusion" because of ministers' failure to spell out how to proceed with an over-haul of Norfolk's councils, an MP warned last night.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Town halls were at risk of being overwhelmed by "chaos and confusion" because of ministers' failure to spell out how to proceed with an over-haul of Norfolk's councils, an MP warned last night.

Councils are being forced to sign their own death warrants and produce plans for new forms of one-size-fits-all unitary authorities after ministers ordered the Boundary Committee to review the current two-tier system of a county and seven district councils.

This week, County Hall leader Daniel Cox launched a bid for a single Norfolk super council, while Norwich, whose original bid for home rule sparked the current situation, and other district councils are also working up their own 'unitary solutions'.

But Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson urged the authorities to hold fire as the government had still not given the Boundary Committee its precise terms of reference.

Fears are rising that the lack of clarity could see a slip to the proposed year-long timetable, while there is also speculation that the government may be attempting to set out terms of reference which already pave the way for a revised greater Norwich bid at the outset.

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Mr Simpson is pressing for a select committee-style hearing with officials from the Boundary Committee to get answers on what its role would be. And he questioned whether the lack of details was part of an attempt to start a "stampede of the horses" and create uncertainty among councils. "They are going out of their way to say they haven't got any instructions from the secretary of state, yet seem to be coming out with ideas and views in advance of these instructions," he said. "All that is doing is causing chaos and confusion, first of all with local councils and secondly with the electorate.

"The great danger is we have these people coming in like the demon kings of the pantomime with lots of smoke and thunder and then disappearing without bearing the consequences.

"It needs to be brought down to earth with some particular questions and we are trying to find a convenient date for Max Caller and his team to come to the House of Commons and give us a presentation on what their remit is. He is all for consultation but it's a pretty poor consultation as far as I can see. They are saying if councils don't come up with something they will come up with it instead. I find that a funny way of going about a democratic consultation.

"I'm concerned that what we have seen of the Boundary Committee is an attempt to stampede the horses.

"Officers have got to come up with a Plan B, but they are desperately thrashing around trying to second-guess ministers and the Boundary Committee. That may well be what they want. Across the board, whether it's districts, county or Norwich City Council, my advice would be to steady the horses and wait to see what the ministerial instruction is."

Earlier this week Mr Caller, chairman of the Boundary Committee, who is overseeing the process, confirmed that ministers had not produced their terms of reference.

"I am not worried at this stage," he said. "It would have been nice but on the other hand, obviously if there looks to be a long delay then we would have to shift the November deadline, but we expect to have discussions in the next couple of days."

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