Unitary uncertainty for city fringes

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Nearly 250,000 Norfolk residents face a year of uncertainty and bitter political upheaval to find out if they are to become citizens of Norwich in what could be the biggest shake-up in local government for a generation.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Nearly 250,000 Norfolk residents face a year of uncertainty and bitter political upheaval to find out if they are to become citizens of Norwich in what could be the biggest shake-up in local government for a generation.

Ministers yesterday ruled out giving home rule to Norwich based on the existing city council boundaries, though Ipswich was one of nine local authorities given the green light to run all services from schools to care for the elderly.

But while City Hall lost the immediate battle to go it alone, it may yet win the war after the government said there was a “strong case” for a unitary authority and called for an independent review of the city's boundaries - leaving the door open for a larger greater Norwich council taking in swathes of Broadland and South Norfolk.

And that raised the prospect of an increasingly acrimonious tug-of-war over control of public services in the heart of Norfolk.

The unitary announcement sparked confusion, with both supporters and opponents of the overhaul claiming victory in remarkably spun statements - while the Conservatives accused the Labour government of treating the shires like its own personal Lego set.

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Steve Morphew, leader of the city council, said the announcement meant the city would secure

the prize of a larger council capable of meeting the challenges of more than 30,000 new homes and jobs in and around Norwich over the next generation.

“The government has grasped the nettle and is using the emerging powers they have to deal with this with a long-term solution,” he said. “A bid on existing boundaries would have been the second best solution. What we always knew is that extended boundaries were the best solution and what they have done is given us the route to that.

“I am delighted. We haven't failed. It's like saying you failed because you asked for a mini and got a Ferrari.”

Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland District Council, which is the most likely to disappear with the creation of a greater Norwich council, said the government had ducked the question.

“It's failed - there's no two ways about it - because it's not affordable,” he said. “Ministers were told we wanted a conclusion and they haven't done it. They have just left it up in the air, which I think is appalling.”

John Fuller, leader of South Norfolk Council, noted city residents paid higher council tax for district services such as bin collections and recycling, and bills would only get higher if the new council went ahead.

“The city would have us believe this is a done deal, but we haven't heard the last of this,” he said. “This is a fight that's still very much alive.

“It's the people around Norwich I feel sorry for, those in Sprowston, Costessey and Trowse. Up to now it's been something for the politicians to argue about, but now the implications on their council tax and services are going to come into sharp focus.”

Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council, said: “Norwich hasn't been granted unitary status because the government agreed with us, and many others, that the city council's bid did not meet its criteria for approval. In addition, we know that the vast majority of local opinion was opposed to it.”

John Healey, local government minister, said the government wanted the review after judging that “there is not a reasonable likelihood of Norwich City Council's proposal, based on the city's current boundaries, if it were to be implemented, achieving all the outcomes specified by the five criteria, particularly the affordability criterion”.

“We believe, having regard to the circumstances of Norwich, that alternative proposals based on revised city boundaries would achieve these outcomes,” said Mr Healey.

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