Councils to learn fate

A DECISION on local government shake-up in Suffolk and two other counties will be announced next week, but speculation is growing that it will be pre-empted by Gordon Brown tomorrow when the Cabinet holds an “away day” in Exeter.

Graham Dines

A DECISION on local government shake-up in Suffolk and two other counties will be announced next week, but speculation is growing that it will be pre-empted by Gordon Brown tomorrow when the Cabinet holds an “away day” in Exeter.

Sources close to the city's MP, Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw, say “it's a done deal” and that Exeter will be cut adrift from the rest of Devon.

This has heightened hopes in Ipswich and Norwich that they will also be granted unitary status, moves which were vetoed two years ago by the Government on the grounds that the economic case did not stack up.

After the Cabinet meeting in Exeter, Mr Brown will hold discussions with members of Exeter City Council but, crucially, he will not be talking to Devon county councillors. He will then hold a media conference, which is when he is expected to say what will be approved.

Local government minister Rosie Winterton, who is making the decision, has to avoid the possibility of a judicial review thwarting any shake-up.

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If she approves Ipswich becoming a unitary council, she will have to keep the rest of Suffolk split between the county council and districts because no public consultation has taken place on a unitary covering “rural Suffolk”.

Approving a unitary Ipswich would be to snub the recommendation of the independent Boundary Committee for England, which was to create either a One Suffolk super unitary or split the county between Ipswich-Felixstowe (North Haven) and Greater Suffolk.

Labour opposition leader in Ipswich David Ellesmere said: “I think the Government will either allow Ipswich unitary status, leaving the rest of the county as it is, or it will say 'no change'.”

The Parliamentary timetable is tight. For elections to any new councils to take place in May, the necessary Orders must be approved by MPs on or before February 10, the last day before the half-term recess.

However, as the new authorities would not come into being before April 1, 2011, Ms Winterton can either hold elections which would establish new councils with executive powers to appoint staff and approve a budget, or she can set up a vesting body comprised of existing councillors with elections taking place in October.

In a move orchestrated by Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson, Conservative MPs from Suffolk, Norfolk and Devon yesterday wrote individual letters to Secretary of State John Denham demanding that any announcement be made in the Commons so that Ms Winterton can be quizzed.

Even if elections have been held, the Conservatives have pledged to abort the new unitaries if they win the General Election. Shadow local government minister Bob Neill said: “There are greater priorities facing the country than bringing in unitary councils, towards which the public seems totally indifferent.”

graham.dines@eadt.co.uk