Unitary powers for Norwich

Ed FossNorwich City Council has secured its long-held home rule dream after ministers gave the green light to the controversial plan to create a city only unitary - but ministers have decided to leave the rest of the county's councils alone.Ed Foss

Norwich City Council has secured its long-held home rule dream after ministers gave the green light to the controversial plan to create a city only unitary - but ministers have decided to leave the rest of the county's councils alone.

Local government minister Rosie Winterton announced the go ahead for local leaders in Norwich to run the city's local services as a unitary council.

The decision flies in the face of advice by the independent Boundary Committee which recommended a single council for the whole of Norfolk.

The government announcement was immediately criticised by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb who said: 'This is an outrageous and extraordinary decision.

'It is extraordinary that the secretary of state has ignored the detailed findings of the boundary committee and decided to press on regardless.

'This decision fails to acknowledge the impact that this would have on local government in the rest of the county.'

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The new unitary will mark the break up of county services such as education and adult social care and was immediately condemned as the 'worst of all worlds' by Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson.

But ministers said the city needed a strong voice as it battled to get through the recession, and they pointed out a single unitary council had no support from any existing council in Norfolk.

The government decided that a unitary structure for Norwich would be a far more potent economic force, than the current two-tier local government, for delivering growth for the city's residents and businesses and was the best way of giving the city strong decisive local leadership.

Announcing her decision Mrs Winterton said: 'Our highest priority is to have the best and most efficient local services for the people of Norfolk and for the area to have the strong local leadership it needs to rebuild local economies and deliver jobs as we move towards recovery.

'The city of Norwich is at the centre of regional economic activity and its economic performance is crucial for its residents and the wider area.

'That's why today we're putting Norwich's local leaders who know their areas best in charge of delivering all local services and at the heart of delivering economic growth. A unitary Norwich authority will work for the interests of the people who live, work and study in Norwich and they will have one body to hold to account.

'Across Norfolk we listened carefully to the views of interested councils, MPs and other stakeholders and the option of a unitary structure for the whole of Norfolk did not have sufficient support from key councils. As a result the government had no option but to rule out a unitary authority for the whole of Norfolk as it could not succeed without local support.'

Steve Morphew, leader of Norwich City Council, said: 'This sounds, at last, like progress towards something which will be good for the city and the county.

'This has never been about getting unitary for its own sake, but about making the best of the prospects for the city and being able to deal with the problems we have got.

'What we need is a system of governance which gives democratic accountability and can also help stimulate business and the economy.

'I am hoping people will set aside the propaganda and party political point scoring and get on with making the best of this opportunity by developing a genuine partnership between the city and county to benefit everyone.'

Mr Simpson accused the government of playing politics to appease its Labour supporters.

'It's gerrymandering of the worst possible kind,' he said. 'The idea that we are going to break everything up is a disaster. It's the worst of all possible worlds. What's going to happen to the rest of Norfolk?'

The proposals for Norwich will now be voted on by parliament before they become law. If parliament approves the proposals, the affected councils can start putting in place transitional arrangements ready for elections to the new councils in 2011.

But the decision is sure to face a legal challenge from Norfolk County Council and could also hinge on whether the House of Lords tries to resist the plans, while the Conservatives are promising to undo the plans if they win the general election.