Council reorganisation: Legal bid fails

Councils fighting plans to overhaul Norfolk's town halls have lost a legal battle to derail the process - at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds to ratepayers.

Councils fighting plans to overhaul Norfolk's town halls have lost a legal battle to derail the process - at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds to ratepayers.

A top judge refused to stall plans for local government reorganisation which could see all seven of the district councils, along with the county council itself, consigned to the history books and replaced by a new super council including Lowestoft.

He also ordered the authorities bringing the challenge - Breckland, South Norfolk, and King's Lynn and West Norfolk - to pay three-quarters of the legal costs incurred by the Boundary Committee as well as their own fees, adding to the spiralling multi-million pound bill even before any final decision has been made.

Mr Justice Cranston, in the High Court, on Friday ruled their challenge was “premature” but they came away with a slim hope after he said it would be impossible to complete consultation on the affordability question by a December 31 deadline.

That leaves alive their hope that the tight schedule set by ministers to get Parliament to approve a new council and get it up and running by 2010 could fall because a general election is due.

Despite what appeared to be an overwhelming ruling against them, the three councils were still sure they were heading for victory and the challenge was vindicated.

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The councils said they would lodge an appeal to challenge the ruling this week and even hinted at taking out an injunction to ensure the process was given more time to look at the affordability issue.

Nick Daubney, leader of King's Lynn and West Norfolk Council, said he was upbeat, adding: “The judge is dismissing the case, but still saying we have got to have more time. We will put in our appeal next week. We are talking to financial experts to allow them to do a proper job.

“I think it's well worth it. There is a cost to this, but I think because of the overall cost to the public, it will be worth it. Compared to what Norwich City Council and the county council have spent we are talking peanuts.”

John Fuller, South Norfolk council leader, said he was delighted. He said: “We didn't win the main points but we came away winning the one we wanted. The public did not have information to see whether it was worth spending £100m on a reorganisation at a time when the country can least afford it."

The committee's proposals were due to be submitted to communities secretary Hazel Blears by December 31 but Mr Justice Cranston's ruling means that deadline will probably have to be put back.

The independent Boundary Committee, which is carrying out the review, also welcomed the ruling and said it was business as usual as its members put the finishing touches on their final recommendations.

And with a recent decision to put back the county council elections by a month until June, supporters of the process believe there is still time to get a new council under way.

Mr Justice Cranston accepted the committee's plea that it was not obliged to "make a comparison" between the benefits of a unitary authority or maintaining the status quo. "A comparison with the existing two-tier structure was never on the cards", he ruled.

He also dismissed the three councils' criticisms of the way the consultation process was being run, and said the committee had "well and truly embarked" on consulting all the affected local authorities about the affordability of the proposals.

The committee had provided "sufficient material" to the councils so they could make a "considered response", he said.

Tim Leader, deputy chief executive of Breckland Council, said: "The inevitable consequence of today's hearing is that the secretary of state will not now be able to receive the Boundary Committee's advice on local government reorganisation in Norfolk in December, as originally planned. We will now be writing to the Committee to clarify how long the extended consultation period will be.

"Our decision to take legal action has been vindicated. Our desire throughout was simply to ensure the people who will pay for any reorganisation of local government in Norfolk would have a proper say on what the reorganisation might be."

However James Eadie QC, for Ms Blears, told the judge: "We would not wish anyone reporting this case to leave court with the impression that the claimants have won in any way, shape or form".

He said the councils had lost the case "on all the issues of principle", though Ms Blears would now consider a "short extension" of the December 31 deadline.

Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council, said: "We note the High Court judgment and await the publication of the Boundary Committee's final recommendation for change. We will now need to wait to hear what effect this may have on the consultation period."