Unitary idea reviewed after devolution axe in Norfolk

Candidates for the Norfolk County Council Elections May 2013 ENGANL00120130426152949

Candidates for the Norfolk County Council Elections May 2013 ENGANL00120130426152949

A new call to consider establishing a single, unitary council for Norfolk will be debated next week, more than six years after a similar proposal was thrown out.

The idea is one of several options being put forward for consideration following the collapse of devolution proposals last month.

A motion to be debated at a Norfolk County Council meeting on Monday calls for officials to prepare business plans for several different council structures.

They include the existing two-tier system of county and district councils, as well as structures with either one, two or three unitary authorities, which would be responsible for all council services in their areas.

UKIP group leader Toby Coke, who proposed the motion, yesterday insisted he did not have a preferred option and wanted a solution that was both economically and politically viable.

But he claimed council papers showed a one or two unitary structure offered the potential for savings of between £20 and £30 million a year from around two years after the initial switch.

He said Norfolk should follow the example of other counties, such as Dorset, in developing different structures, adding: “We can’t go on like this.”

But the last attempt to create a unitary council for Norfolk was finally scrapped in early 2010, following a bitter political battle.

West Norfolk Council leader Brian Long predicted any fresh attempt to impose a single unitary council would be resisted as fiercely within West Norfolk now as it was then.

He said he felt people had a greater affinity with their local authority while views of County Hall were still coloured by recent history, particularly the ill-fated Lynn incinerator scheme which he believes would have been built under a unitary council.

He said: “The seat of power is over 50 miles from where I live and for many people it’s further. The remoteness will be an issue.

“I don’t think he (Mr Coke) realises how divisive it can be.”

But he agreed that authorities should pool resources to deliver services where it made sense to do so, even looking beyond county boundaries.

He said: “If there is a deal to be done, somethingthat can be delivered, we would have to look at it.”

The new debate has been launched just three weeks after devolution proposals for Norfolk and Suffolk collapsed after West Norfolk councillors overwhelmingly rejected the deal.

County officials were asked last summer to investigate the potential benefits of new governance structures.

And Mr Coke suggested reform could also be a stepping stone towards a fresh devolution deal for Norfolk in the future.

Mr Long said work done by the borough council on a two unitary structure that would split the county into east and west areas, which was done during the last unitary debate, could also be revisited as part of any new discussions.