Householders count cost of unitary bid

HOUSEHOLDS across Suffolk are today facing a multi-million pound bill after the bid to reform local government in the county was kicked into the long grass.

Paul Geater

HOUSEHOLDS across Suffolk are today facing a multi-million pound bill after the bid to reform local government in the county was kicked into the long grass.

The Department of Local Government and Communities told councils and MPs from Suffolk that none of the proposals for unitary councils in the county had enough support to go forward.

The decision came after councils across the county spent an estimated �2million on preparing the case for their preferred form of unitary council - and on a legal challenge that was unsuccessful in the courts but delayed the decision long enough to ensure it could not be introduced before the General Election.

A further �370,000 was spent by the government's Boundary Committee for England (BCE) in preparing scenarios for unitary government that ultimately proved unpalatable to many people in Suffolk. And the money spent by the Department of Local Government and Communities in looking at the issue has not been released.

Local Government Minister Rosie Winterton announced in a written Government statement that Norwich and Exeter City Councils would be allowed to become unitary authorities.

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However the Conservatives repeated their warning that if they win the General Election in May they are likely to repeal any changes to save the cost of reorganisation.

And a “countywide constitutional convention” would have to be held in Suffolk before the shape of a unitary authority here could be determined.

The EADT has learned that the seven district and borough councils in Suffolk spent up to �200,000 each on preparing their cases in the unitary debate. The county may have spent twice as much as the districts because it had to deal with a much wider area.

The cost to councils was largely made up in officer time - with senior officials spending much of the time they would be otherwise have been devoting to other projects. An official at one district in Suffolk said that six members of staff spent much of their time preparing its case for the unitary question over the two and a half year period - with other officers also contributing from time to time.

Three district-level councils - Suffolk Coastal, St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath - attempted to get a judicial review of the BCE's decision.

Their bid was thrown out by the court and they were left with a joint bill of about �100,000. They could also face picking up the cost of the BCE's legal bill which could be a further �100,000.

Suffolk Coastal leader Ray Herring said the bill would be worth paying if it had scuppered the expensive reorganisation of local government in the county.

He said: “If the government had pressed ahead with such an expensive and ill-thought-out proposal, it would have cost many millions more for the council tax payers. If our legal action delayed it to this point then it is money well spent.”

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