Authority shake-up delayed again

LOCAL authorities in Suffolk and Norfolk were thrown into confusion today after the government delayed a report on their future for a further five months.

THE future of local government in Suffolk and two other counties has been thrown into uncertainty following the Government's decision to extend public consultations on unitary councils until July.

The earliest date any new authorities could replace the existing county and seven districts is now April 2011 - but the Conservatives have pledged they will abort the process if they win the next General Election.

Opponents of the plans expressed their delight at the delay, which they believe will spell the end of plans to abolish Suffolk, Norfolk and Devon county councils

Councils have spent the past seven months working on the Boundary Committee for England's (BCE) preliminary proposals for two unitary councils in Suffolk - one covering Ipswich, Felixstowe and surrounding parishes, with a Suffolk Rural authority responsible for an area stretching from Sudbury and Haverhill to Woodbridge and Southwold. The BCE also proposed linking Lowestoft with a Norfolk county unitary.

A recommendation from the committee was due to be published this Friday with the Secretary of State Hazel Blears making a decision in March.

But following a High Court ruling last month in favour of a Devon council's objection on the shortage of time for public consultations, Ms Blears has put the date back to July 15.

Most Read

The Boundary Committee was instructed to draw up plans for unitary councils in Suffolk, Norfolk and Devon. Its preliminary findings for two councils in Suffolk were put out to public consultation, but Ms Blears has now extended the deadline until July.

If she accepts the final recommendations, she will lay parliamentary orders in December and elections for the new authorities will be in May 2010. However, it will be another year before the councils start operating.

The county and seven districts - Ipswich, Babergh, Suffolk Coastal, Mid Suffolk, St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath and Waveney - now face another 10 months of uncertainty over their futures.

Ms Blears has written to affected councils saying she “recognises the importance of minimising the continuing period of uncertainty for the councils concerned, and hence minimising the risk to the delivery of effective local services and to the provision of that local strategic leadership needed to promote an area's prosperity.”

In a statement, the BCE told the councils: “We welcomes the Secretary of State's recognition that, in the light of the ongoing legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate for the committee to provide any advice by February 13. We wrote to her on January 23 explaining that in our view the deadline was no longer realistic.”

Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo, whose constituency would include areas from both unitary councils in the BCE's preliminary proposals, said he was delighted at the delay. “Any slippage in the timetable increases the likelihood of nothing happening.

“Hazel Blears knows that these proposals are not widely supported in Suffolk. I favour the status quo and if there is a General Election before the unitary councils are up and running and the Conservatives win, then local government reorganisation is unlikely to happen.”

John Griffiths, leader of St Edmundsbury Council who led a rearguard action to try to persuade the Government to throw out the BCE's plans and support unitary councils for Greater Ipswich, West Suffolk and East Suffolk,

He said: “We've worked very hard to put forward our case both in terms of West Suffolk and Suffolk as a whole.

“This delay gives us the opportunity to ensure the wishes of our communities of West Suffolk and Suffolk will now be heard.”

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

“We've always said they are rushing this through. 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.”

Clifford Smith, a former chief executive of both the county council and the former East Suffolk county council, said: “I trust the Secretary of State will spend the extra time contemplating that there are only two realistic options - the status quo or a single unitary county.”

More than �200,000 has been spent so far on preparing for plans but Ipswich council leader Liz Harsant said all work would now be suspended until July at the earliest.

“I am bitterly disappointed at the Secretary of State's decision,” said Mrs Harsant, who also chairs the working party for the proposed Ipswich-Felixstowe unitary which has been given the working title North Haven.

“We have spent hundreds of hours working on preparing for the North Haven authority and it's devastating to find that there is yet more delay. We will spend no further time or money on unitary proposals until we hear in July what the final recommendation is.”

Julian Swainson, Labour group leader on the county council, said there had been growing support in Suffolk and Norfolk for unitary government and he pledged that Labour councillors would lobby ministers to ensure the plans would go-ahead.

If the Government decides to press ahead with unitary councils, it will be a race against time to reach the point of no return, beyond which David Cameron Tories could not pull the plug.