There can be no doubt, my Lord Mayor, that this Unitary Bid is the stuff of political dreams and represents a romantic ideal of which we can all unite around. But the truth is that the current arrangement with Norfolk County Council gives us in the City access to a wide variety of services, from beacon schools to the award winning library services, all at a recognised value-for-money cost. Norwich and Norfolk go together and have worked as a successful partnership for many years. Unitary threatens our relationship with the county and the first class services that we have come to expect. Cllr Morphew will no doubt point out, ad infinitum, that Unitary would be a new council and the failures of previous Labour and LibDem administrations wouldn’t indicate the future for unitary. But we would be taking a massive gamble – that the same good services could be provided for the same cost by the council, new or old. That is a risk that I, my group and the people of the Greater Norwich Area seem unwilling to take.
This bid sets out a number of factors, which it claims are compelling. In my time limit I can cover but a few of these.
The first is of a clear and focused place-shaping role. Norwich is a thriving City with unparallel growth. With housing and business growth side by side the City will keep on expanding, taking its place as the beating heart of the Norfolk economy. However we should remember that this remarkable achievement has been possible without Unitary. The real growth of the last ten years and of the next ten years was in place without changing the structures of local government. We made this happen together – as a team. There is no evidence that growth is threatened by not going Unitary. Furthermore even the key players in this bid admit that two tier working can carry on and get better. The current scenario is not unworkable and is not untenable. It has put Norwich where it is now. We can build on that, not knock it down.
Of course, this document claims that a Unitary Council will give people in the City a clear sense of leadership and purpose. Yet I don’t think on the estates of Mile Cross, the terraces of Nelson or the homes of Lakenham people are sitting around their kitchen tables pondering the greatest question of our time – is Morphw or Murphy (or, for that matter, your good self my Lord Mayor) the Leader of Norwich? Such political abstract barely interrupts breakfast because what people want are good services in the knowledge that they pay value-for-money council tax. It is without doubt that this Unitary Bid will distract from that very goal.
And the claims of bringing decision making closer to communities really do ring hollow. The surest way of bringing this close to communities and to consult properly would have been a referendum. This bid was presented to this council some months ago. I understand the Labour Group’s desire to avoid public consultation as they knew then what we know now – this doesn’t command public support or confidence at all. The LibDems said that the time for a referendum wasn’t just then – well, when is the time Cllr Cooke? Between the government shortlist and final announcement or maybe the shadow elections. When you voted against you knew the times would be tight and knew the vote could not be taken place. I hope a party with the word “democrat” in its title is happy in the knowledge that they have robbed the people of this City the final say in saying how they are governed instead happy to leave the decision to the 39 of us in the room. This is a political project run by the political elite and the manner and execution of this has been wrong.
Finally, the bid makes much of the supposed boost for education that this would bring. Yet the successful Headteachers in our City are not beating a path to the door of City Hall demanding that they be released from the oppressive control of County Hall. In fact County Hall is considered to be a good employer and has done much to support and help the City groups of schools. How would this “new” City Council match the standards of continued professional development opportunities currently made available? Could the council attract the new teachers that we need when in direct competition with Norfolk rather than working with it? The fact is that school leaders are pretty much content with the current scenario and this bid has picked up a fact which has nothing to do with local government organisation and run with it. Not a single pupil will have their learning enhanced the day Unitary comes into force.
The Conservative Group has long warned that this bid would not, by the government’s own original criteria, be in contention. In fact, if this bid goes forward in either form after March it will say a lot for the government failing to stick to its own roadmap and changing its mind to suit its own political bent.
The government says it wants consultation and the City Council claims it is good at this. So good, it gets Trowse and Thorpe St Andrew mixed up. Interestingly though we do seem to be able to find Chester.
The government says it wants broad stakeholder support. In fact you might have trouble finding any support outside of this room today. Norfolk County Council is against it, Broadland is against it, South Norfolk is against it and North Norfolk is against it. And that isn’t a political point. The LibDems on Norfolk County Council voted against this plan yesterday morning, and the ruling LibDems groups on North and South Norfolk Councils have led the charge against. Labour county councillors may have abstained but their senior party members across the county have gone on record to rubbish the plans. Neither does this have the support of the Independent groups on various councils or vast swathes of independent parish and town councils both inside and outside of the non-compliant bid area.
The Councils can’t agree, the parties can’t agree, the people can’t agree. No doubt Cllr Morphew will point to his MORI poll – which goes to prove that you get what you pay for. I don’t have the time here to into the inherent biases of that poll, but if the senior polling officer of MORI cannot refute my criticisms then you know that I am onto something. No poll – this one or the Evening News online poll – adequately sums up the public mood. It all shows the need for that referendum. Even the “Citizen” magazine bought in a three-figure response rate – lower than our party political surveys. We don’t know what the people want because we haven’t properly educated them or asked them.
I do know something that they want – quality services at value-for-money tax levels. This bid will heap millions of pounds onto the shoulders of local people. There is no argument that the tax burden for the people of Broadland and South Norfolk will rise but the transitional costs and the cost of duplication will be massive and impact on the City. Why, when we have a share in the Adult Services of County Council, should be lumber ourselves with our own version here with the same cost structures in place? There is a wide spread belief this is going to cost us dearly.
And with no corresponding impact on services. In fact they are likely to get worse. The job of unpicking, for example, the library service is massive. Customer contact suffers as a result. Coming from a council that is lacking in so many areas you might have though we’d want to focus on getting our existing service provision right before we look at running more.
This bid asks us to turn away from a system that has delivered strong partnership working, three star public services, and sound, strong and efficient public finances.
This bid asks us to turn away from the system that gave us the new bus station, investment in our City schools, the Forum, transport improvements in places like St Stephen’s and Rose Lane, the running of the most park and ride routes in the country and more housing schemes for our elderly.
This bid is costly, disrupted, opposed by our neighbours and barely thought of by our residents. This political project has gone on too long and cost too much. The bottom line is that the benefits are clearly outweighed by the cost of making it. This serves only to damage our relationships and stop the momentum we have built up.
Norwich and Norfolk go together – we work well together – we should keep it that way.