Norwich unitary bid war of words hots up

JON WELCH Conservatives on Norwich City Council yesterday joined calls for its bid for unitary status to be referred to the Audit Commission, claiming the go-it-alone plan would “sell our city down the river”.

JON WELCH

Conservatives on Norwich City Council yesterday joined calls for its bid for unitary status to be referred to the Audit Commission, claiming the go-it-alone plan would “sell our city down the river”.

The three Tory members echoed Norfolk County Council's demands that the city's £31.7m unitary bid be fully scrutinised by the commission, which aims to ensure the most effective and efficient use of public money.

It is the latest salvo in the bitter war of words between the two authorities over who runs Norwich.

The city council is one of 16 authorities shortlisted by the government to become a unitary council, with a final decision expected in July.

If the council were to be successful, it would run all local government services within a given area, taking over services including education and social services from the county council.­

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The county council is fiercely opposed to the plan, claiming that it is not financially viable and will result in cuts to vital services.

Labour chiefs in the city are considering legal action against the county council after questioning whether “anti-unitary” leaflets distributed by the county during the May 3 local election campaign may have helped to swing the vote to the Tories in marginal areas

They have already sought advice from the Audit Commission over whether they breached electoral rules.

Now the county council has written to Audit Commission chairman Steve Bundred, arguing that “it is imperative and a matter of public interest” that the city's unitary bid be fully tested and validated.

The county council's chief executive David White's letter said: “Given the Audit Commission's remit for ensuring public money is spent economically, efficiently and effectively to achieve high-quality local services for the public, we believe it is well-placed to carry out this piece of work.

“We would be happy to supply any relevant financial information to support this and ask that you give this matter your urgent consideration.”

Antony Little, leader of the Conservative group on Norwich City Council, said last night: “I welcome this move and agree the Audit Commission should take a long hard look at the figures.

“After all, unitary status would have far-reaching consequences for Norwich and Norfolk and we cannot rush into this.

“Not to cover all the angles would be unfair on council tax payers because they pick up the bill if we make a mistake.”

Mr Little, councillor for Bowthorpe, said that in opposing the bid and calling for the Audit Commission to investigate, the Tories were putting principles before power. He said: “We would be selling our city down the river if we were to support this project.”

But Labour's Steve Morphew, the city council leader, said calls for the commission to become involved were a “complete nonsense”.

He said: “The government will be asking the Audit Commission to look at the figures, as a matter of course, as will the Treasury. Not only will we absolutely welcome that, we would invite them to do it.

“The people trying to oppose this are coming up with many different issues which are not terribly relevant. What's relevant is what's best for the future of Norwich.”

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