Landmark unitary ruling 'in two weeks'

A High Court judge is expected to deliver a ruling within two weeks over a legal challenge to radical proposals for a shake-up of councils in Norfolk.During a two-day case heard in London, government lawyers defended their bid to abolish all seven of Norfolk's district councils, along with the county council.

A High Court judge is expected to deliver a ruling within two weeks over a legal challenge to radical proposals for a shake-up of councils in Norfolk.

During a two-day case heard in London, government lawyers defended their bid to abolish all seven of Norfolk's district councils, along with the county council.

The legal challenge comes from three of the councils - Breckland, South Norfolk and Kings Lynn - who have asked top judge, Mr Justice Cranston, to stop the whole complex process in its tracks.

Lawyers for the three councils called into question the processes followed and said the committee had failed to take into account the affordability of the plans, one of the key government criteria, during the consultation, and failed to consider if it offered more value for money than the current two-tier set up.


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The councils want the court to force the committee to re-open the consultation process claiming it had come up with proposals nobody had thought of and there was no way of knowing why it had rejected submissions made by the councils themselves.

Tim Straker QC, for the councils said the committee was determined to push through a unitary option and had “simply shut its mind” to the possibility of keeping the status quo.

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Michael Beloff, QC, for the Boundary Committee said notes of meetings between Archie Gall, of the Boundary Committee, and Paul Rowsell, the civil servant overseeing the process, made clear that when the terms of reference for the review were drawn up the process was to be tightly focussed and would not include looking at the status quo.

It would be up to ministers to consider the merits of the existing system after a final recommendation was produced. Councils had been well aware of the process and were only objecting because their rival options had been rejected, he added.

Government barrister, James Eadie QC, argued the councils had left it too late launch their High Court challenge and a victory for them now could derail the process of change and be “detrimental to good public administration.”

He added that the councils' judicial review challenge - if successful - will jeopardise a tight deadline of December 31 this year when the proposals must be submitted with a view to any changes being brought into effect by April 1 2010.

At the end the hearing, Mr Justice Cranston left the councils - and the government - on tenterhooks when he reserved his decision, which is likely within two weeks.

The proposals for change have been put forward by the Boundary Committee, which has recommended that the whole administration of Norfolk - along with Lowestoft, which is currently in Suffolk - should be taken over by a single “unitary” authority.

It also says it can see some merit in two other options: A Norfolk and Lowestoft unitary authority surrounding a Norwich unitary authority (the doughnut option) or a Norfolk unitary authority surrounding a Norwich/Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft unitary authority - (the wedge option).

A question mark was raised over the impartiality of the judge Mr Justice Cranston, who as Ross Cranston was a former Labour MP and Solicitor General until 2005.

Mr Straker told the judge that the case had raised “very considerable political controversy” and the three Conservative-dominated councils were all “apprehensive” about him presiding.

But the judge said he had been entirely unaware of the political complexion of councils in Norfolk.

Although he recognised that judges must not only be, but appear to be, impartial to all, Mr Justice Cranston added: “The objective observer would not think that I was biased in this matter. It is not inappropriate that I should hear this particular case”.

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