Norwich awaits unitary bid decision

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Norwich stood ready to take control of its own destiny last night. But a far-reaching decision to grant the city council unitary local government status - giving it the power to run its own schools, welfare services and transport - was down to the wire with ministers apparently at loggerheads with Whitehall officials over the shortlist.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Norwich stood ready to take control of its own destiny last night.

But a far-reaching decision to grant the city council unitary local government status - giving it the power to run its own schools, welfare services and transport - was down to the wire with ministers apparently at loggerheads with Whitehall officials over the shortlist.

An announcement, expected in the next 24 hours, would be momentous if the city is allowed to break away and effectively declare home rule.

It would mean a throwback to the days before 1974 when the city had complete control over its own affairs, and mean parallel council services operating in Norwich and the rest of the county.

Supporters believe the move would give the city the tools to provide better quality and more accountable services, while opponents claimed the opposite - insisting there was little public support for a move which would lead to massive council tax rises.

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One Whitehall insider told the EDP that the signs were the government had drawn up three lists, one based on civil servants' approval, a second giving the political “ok”, and a third “no” list.

It is thought that Norwich could be on the second list, but the result hangs on a knife edge.

Cities including Norwich, Exeter and Ipswich are among 29 councils applying for “home rule” and the result is expected to be delivered in a written parliamentary answer, which could come today but must in any case be announced by tomorrow at the latest ahead of the start of the local government election campaign.

What is now clear though is that any successful Norwich bid will only be based on the city's current boundaries after a second controversial proposal to take in parts of Broadland and South Norfolk councils to create an enlarged “greater Norwich council” was ruled offside.

City Hall is planning to hold a special executive meeting tonight should a decision be made.

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, said whatever the result, the authority had put down a marker setting out how to shape the future of the city.

“We are on the threshold of a massive change,” he said. “But we are not doing it simply as an end in itself. Whatever the decision the challenges and opportunities are still going to be the same.”

And he said that the need now was for all sides to recognise the challenges facing the city in a way which has not happened before.

“There's no going backwards from here - nobody is going to be able to say let's get back to normal,” he added.

Meanwhile if the government does place the city on its shortlist, one option open to Norfolk County Council is to turn to the courts and seek a “judicial review” to try and block the move.

Shaun Murphy, county council leader, said no decision had been made on a legal challenge.

However, last night the leaders of Broadland and West Norfolk councils said they would support any attempt by the county council to go to the courts.

“We haven't made a decision, we need to wait and see what the outcome is,” he said.

“I think it will be appalling value for money and it will cause widescale disruption to services.

“We have put forward a very strong and robust case where we have looked at all the criteria and shown it doesn't stack up.”

Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland district council, said he was convinced the bid would fail, but insisted that whatever the result it was time to take stock and look at how the four councils representing people across the Norwich area could work together.

“If it does go ahead, I'm prepared to sit down and think things through,” he said. “If Norwich is successful it certainly isn't going to happen overnight and will take a lot of detailed planning.

“I feel strongly that it isn't in the interests of council taxpayers to see a Norwich unitary, and I would support a judicial review.

“I think the expenditure would be money well spent because of the costs of a unitary.”

And he said he was relieved that City Hall had failed to convince ministers to agree a controversial land grab plan to take in parts of Broadland and South Norfolk.

“I think it has been poison,” he added.

John Dobson, leader of King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council, said creating a Norwich unitary would lead to an NHS-style crisis, which emerged with the creation of several smaller primary care trusts.

“I would support a judicial review,” he said. “This is not something that's desirable for Norfolk and it's going to cost council taxpayers more.”