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Battle over council services continues

PUBLISHED: 10:53 07 October 2009 | UPDATED: 08:39 01 August 2010

THE battle for the future of who runs council services in Norfolk and Suffolk returned to the court room again yesterday as lawyers made the case for continuing with the controversial local government review.

THE battle for the future of who runs council services in Norfolk and Suffolk returned to the court room again yesterday as lawyers made the case for continuing with the controversial local government review.

The Boundary Committee was set to produce its recommendations to ministers about what the shape of council services in the two counties and Devon should look like.

But in July the High Court upheld a legal bid by three Suffolk councils, St Edmundsbur, Forest Heath, and Suffolk Coastal, that the process was flawed because their rival unitary option to divide the county into three had not been considered.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Foskett said at the time that the committee had broken rules of "straightforward fairness" and "simple good administration" in rejecting the pleas of the three councils which represent 57pc of the county's population.

The judgment torpedoed the process and meant the Boundary Committee was also unable to give its verdict on options for Norfolk for a single council for the county, and a greater Norwich/rural rest-of-Norfolk authority.

But Richard Gordon, for the Boundary Committee, told the Appeal Court yesterday that the judge had misunderstood the position and his decision should be overturned.

The committee's proposals, he said, were at a “formative” stage and councils facing abolition had been given every chance to put forward their views and there had been no obligation to further consult them before the committee reported to the communities secretary.

Tim Buley, representing the Secretary of State, supported Mr Gordon's arguments and told the court that, if Mr Justice Foskett's ruling is upheld, the committee will have to re-start its deliberations for a third time, causing "inevitable further delay and replication of effort".

Such an outcome was "unattractive for obvious reasons", including the prolongation of the inevitable disruption already caused to local councils by the prospect of change.

However, James Findlay, for the three councils, insisted Mr Justice Foskett had been right to uphold their judicial review challenge and rule they had not been fairly consulted.

The QC argued the councils' proposals were “unfairly excluded” from consideration and that the committee failed to “engage in a fair and proper dialogue” over the three-authority option.

And the councils said they were denied an opportunity to argue against “even the gist” of the committee's “apparent reservations” about their preferred option for change.

The hearing comes as shadow local government secretary Caroline Spelman said a new Conservative government would scrap the unitary overhaul.

Sir Anthony May, Lord Justice Wall and Lord Justice Moore-Bick, are expected to reserve their ruling in the appeal.

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