Council overhaul decision delay

Residents and thousands of council staff across Norfolk and Suffolk face five more months of uncertainty about who will deliver vital public services after the government yesterday delayed the announcement of a controversial overhaul of councils until the summer.

Residents and thousands of council staff across Norfolk and Suffolk face five more months of uncertainty about who will deliver vital public services after the government yesterday delayed the announcement of a controversial overhaul of councils until the summer.

Councils across the two counties and Devon were all set to learn on Friday the verdict of the independent Boundary Committee about whether the existing system of district and county councils should be replaced by a new one size fits all unitary system.

However the government yesterday agreed to a Boundary Committee request to delay the announcement until after the completion of legal challenges into the process brought by councils, including Breckland - which were due to be heard next week.

But the length of the delay set by ministers - until July 15 - has surprised observers and sparked fevered talk about whether ministers are trying to shelve the process or put pressure on the committee, which initially favoured a single super council for Norfolk and Lowestoft, to put forward a more politically palatable set of proposals.

And it also means that any changes will not reach the statute books until Parliament returns from the summer break, which means that any new council could not be up and running until 2011, a year later than planned.

That has also hopes among opponents of the process that a general election could get in the way and see the whole project fall if the Conservatives form the next government.

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Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council, which has been in pole position after its single council bid caught the eye of the committee, said he was not surprised there was a delay but was struck by the length of it.

“I do think that continued delay and uncertainty is not helpful to good government across the county as a whole and sincerely hope for an early decision either way,” he said. “I am surprised by the length of the delay but not by the fact that there is one. Given that the appeal hearing on recent Judicial Review judgements is not scheduled until later this month, we had not expected the BC to report before then.

“We will continue with the measured and proportionate approach to this review which has helped us weather the vagaries of the twists and turns of the process so far and seen us keep focused on continuing to manage our budget well and improve the public services that really matter to local people.

Yarmouth council leader Barry Coleman, whose authority is also in the running with a rival bid for a wedge bringing together the town with Lowestoft and Norwich.

“It just leaves us all in limbo for another five months,” he said. “We have got lots of people's livelihoods at stake here, it's just grossly unfair to staff, we are no further forward than we were last year.

Waveney District Council leader Mark Bee said: “It's a dog's dinner second course. Here we are with more delays and confusion and is shows what a flawed process this whole thing has been from the start. We have yet more uncertainty and it brings into question if the whole thing is going to happen, but it gives the opportunity for other options to be considered…”

City council leader Steve Morphew could not be contacted yesterday, but opposition Green leader Adrian Ramsay said the announcement was “frustrating”.

“The only advantage is that if the new council doesn't start until 2011 it gives more time for preparation and means that councillors could be elected next year to oversee the process rather than being put together by officers.”

But opponents of the unitary process felt that the latest delay would sound the death knell for the overhaul.

William Nunn, leader of Breckland Council, whose legal challenge helped force the delay said: “It will obviously knock the review into the long grass because hopefully the timetable will be too short to enact it.

“I'm quite pleased that the legal challenge we put forward seems to be holding them to account and making them reconsider the consultation process.

Nick Daubney, leader of King's Lynn and West Norfolk borough council said he had mixed feelings about the delay.

“Our staff have had to live with this for more than a year,” he said. “The secretary of state is telling the Boundary Committee what we've been saying all along - that a proper consultation is really very important. I still think there is a long way to go, but at least now we have got the chance to ensure that the Boundary Committee does what it should have done in the first place.

South Norfolk council leader John Fuller said: “It's an embarrassment for the Boundary Committee and a humiliation for the government.

“We've always said they are rushing this through,” he added. “I don't know why the government isn't honest with the people of Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon and pull the plug on the whole thing.”

Confirming the delay local government minister John Healey said: “Our priority is for the people and communities of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk to have the highest possible levels of local service delivery and for those areas to have the local leadership they need.

“The general case for one level of local government rather than two remains strong. It can bring real benefits in terms of better services, improved efficiency, stronger strategic leadership and genuine involvement of local communities.

“The Boundary Committee are charged with giving proposals to ministers which are properly developed, but they need to do this as rapidly as they can, so that the current uncertainty about the future is kept to a minimum. It is this balance we have struck in agreeing the July deadline for the Boundary Committee to meet”.