Unitary review call rejected in Norfolk council debate

Norfolk County Council UKIP group leader Toby Coke

Norfolk County Council UKIP group leader Toby Coke

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A call for officials to re-examine the case for setting up unitary authorities for Norfolk has been overwhelmingly rejected by councillors.

Critics of the proposal, which was defeated at a Norfolk County Council meeting today, fear the idea could deepen divisions opened by the collapse of devolution.

But UKIP group leader Toby Coke, who proposed the motion, accused them of ignoring the continuing financial crisis in local government, which he thinks reform can address.

He said: “They just want to kick the can down the road while the black hole gets bigger. I think it’s pathetic really.”

Only nine councillors, all members of Mr Coke’s group, voted in favour of the proposal.

He wanted officers to prepare business plans for several options, including the current two-tier system of county and district authorities and structures with either one, two or three unitaries, which would be responsible for all council services in their areas.

He told Monday’s meeting that any changes would be for the new council elected next May to choose and ought to be voted on by the public.

But, speaking ahead of the meeting, North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham, who opposed the last unitary scheme proposed for the county, said: “I don’t want to see a unitary discussion start up in the near future.”

He said such a debate would be similarly divisive to that over devolution plans for Norfolk and Suffolk, which were withdrawn last month after West Norfolk Council rejected them.

Sir Henry urged would-be candidates in next year’s elections to discuss the issue with voters, arguing that any reforms should not be seen as a “top-down” proposal.

And he insisted the chance was still there for the county to secure devolution without changing its structures first.

He said: “What ministers have told me is they’re concentrating on the deals that are left, but they’ll be coming back.

“That would be an opportunity to have a look and see what sort of structure we want for the future.”

However, Mr Coke claims switching to a unitary structure could generate up to £29 million a year in savings, depending on how many authorities were established.

He said voters in Dorset had already backed a similar change and warned Norfolk was at a “fork in the road.”

He said: “We can choose to take the easy route, kick the can down the road, bury our heads in the sand and whinge from the sidelines about government cuts to the revenue support grant, as the residents of Norfolk reel from relentless council tax increases and reduction of services.

“Or are we actually going to represent the interests of the people we are supposed to represent?”

Sir Henry said the financial argument was a fair one, but warned the initial cost was likely to be “huge”, particularly because of the likelihood of staff redundancies.