Who's won the battle for the future?

If you live in places such as Taverham, Cringleford or Costessey you may find yourself welcomed into the Fine City run by a greater Norwich council. Or will you? Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

If you live in places such as Taverham, Cringleford or Costessey you may find yourself welcomed into the Fine City run by a greater Norwich council. Or will you? Public affairs correspondent Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

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Do you remember those games at school when if the bigger kids didn't like the rules, they would just change them?

Well, local government in Norfolk may be heading for a bit of playground political gamesmanship which, if we're not careful, could turn quite nasty.

Change could well be in the air for how our council services are delivered, subject to a couple of weighty 'ifs' and 'buts'.

Norwich's unitary bid did not succeed yesterday. Had it done so, the city would be proceeding to go alongside Ipswich and Exeter to create a new council based on its existing boundaries in 2009.

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But supporters insist the unitary dream did not fail either.

Confused?

The city is now on its own in a neither here nor there world where it could become a unitary, subject to an independent boundary review.

Or in Ministerspeak, the government wants advice from the Boundary Committee of the Electoral Commission to see “whether for the areas affected by this proposal - Norwich and the remaining Norfolk area - there could be alternative unitary solutions involving boundary changes that would meet the five criteria set out in the original invitation”.

Originally the city council submitted two bids, one on its existing boundaries and a second “supplementary bid” expressing a wish for a land-grab for Broadland and parts of South Norfolk earmarked for new homes and jobs.

The greater Norwich option was the one City Hall really wanted, we were told at the time. That would deliver the biggest savings and best long- term future for a city and surrounding area set to grow to a population of 280,000 people.

But that non-compliant bid was vetoed, because the rules said you couldn't make the case for breaking up other councils.

Until now. Because, after months of consultation on the shortlisted bid, and last-minute tweaks to the case, what happens?

Ministers say no, but they like the idea of a 'greater Norwich' unitary and so they are going to recommend a boundary committee review using soon- to-be-passed powers in the local government and public involvement in health bill.

So the rules are about to be changed to fit the case and the land-grab is back on the table,

Norwich shall go to the ball, possibly by 2010 - and it's “good news” for those of you in Broadland and parts of South Norfolk as you can come to!

Most people would agree that kicking the existing boundaries bid into touch was the right decision - the numbers just didn't stack up despite last-minute attempts to tweak the figures.

But City Hall is convinced the decision for the new greater Norwich council is in the bag.

Laura McGillivray, chief executive of Norwich City Council, was in no doubt that Whitehall favours a unitary city.

“Both the Department for Communities and Local Government and Go-East were very clear that the expectation was that the result of the Boundary Committee examinations would be a unitary Norwich on extended boundaries,” she said.

“It will examine the implications for local government across Norfolk.”

Norwich South MP Charles Clarke, who lobbied heavily for the bid, backed yesterday's decision.

“The effect of both decisions is the right one - that the modern Norwich will be a unitary authority on modern boundaries and once again be able directly to control its own affairs,” he said.

But Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson said the three councils around the city should hold plebiscites to show ministers the true extent of feeling against a shake-up, a move backed by city Tories.

“This leaves everything in limbo,” he said. “If you want a rallying call for the suburbs, thank you Gordon Brown for giving it.”

Antony Little, Tory group leader at City Hall, said: “City Hall claim they have got unitary status - they have not. In fact, the bid that was submitted has failed. It has been a monstrous waste of taxpayers' money - £300,000 down the drain.

“An enlarged Norwich City Council was dismissed by the government a few months ago, not least because it totally lacked public support. Now it is back on the table as a crumb for the Labour leadership. Why did the government say it couldn't be on extended boundaries a few months ago and now says it can be? It all smacks of political interference and looks rather desperate.”

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb agreed.

“It smacks of a political fix and will create more uncertainty for a long time. I think it's a flawed process given the scale of the opposition from across the political spectrum in Norfolk,” he said.

The city boundaries have remained unchanged for hundreds of years, but former council leader Baroness Hollis, who was a councillor the last time Norwich had home rule, said change was imperative.

“As a unitary authority Norwich brought the university to the city, developed the city college and brought the airport,” she said. “We will be a flagship medium-sized city and we are not going to attract that investment if the city is run by four councils.”

A spokesman for the Electoral Commission, the independent body which will carry out the boundary review, said she was surprised by the move from government.

“We didn't expect any referrals from them,” she said. “We were surprised by the announcement and shall have to consider the implications very carefully.”

Ministers currently lack the powers to call for such a boundary review, which they are set to get in the autumn “if and when the local government and public involvement bill is enacted”.

That begs the question: what could the alternatives be?

Will it just be greater Norwich, surrounded by a new 'rural East Anglia' (that's how Whitehall describes the rest of Norfolk). And could it mean a unitary Yarmouth and Lowestoft tie-up?

Norfolk County Council missed the boat last time, but, faced with extinction, what odds the authority may come up with its own 'unitary county' bid as an alternative to the city's plans?

There is certainly a lot to play for.

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