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Unitary Authority (Norfolk)

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2010

7. For what reasons he overruled the advice of his Department’s accounting officer in relation to the value for money of his proposals for unitary restructuring in Norfolk. (321002)

Following the end of the consultation on 19 January, Ministers gave careful consideration to the boundary committee’s advice, the representations we had received, and all other relevant information, including the advice from the permanent secretary. While expressing concern that our proposed approach would impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector as compared with the alternative options available to us, he highlighted the savings that would be achieved by the unitary Norfolk and unitary Devon proposed by the boundary committee.

We had previously been consistently advised that we were not duty bound to choose the cheapest option. We noted that the unitary county option did not command the support of any of the principal councils, including Norfolk county council and Devon county council, and we were reluctant to pursue recommendations that did not meet the broad cross-section of support criteria. We concluded that a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich which were locally supported was the best way forward for local people, creating councils far better placed to deliver jobs, growth and services.

In one way, at least, I am grateful for the very long answer given by the Secretary of State, because my further question is this: will he tell us why, in this matter, he has ignored the wishes of the public, only 3 per cent. of whom want his wilful, capricious and cavalier proposal for a unitary Norwich?

I note that three out of the four political parties represented on Norwich city council favour the unitary proposal, and all the parties represented on Exeter city council support that proposal, so that is an indication of support in key places.

Referring to the accounting officer’s letter to the right hon. Gentleman, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), made this observation on his blog, which is named “Ben’s Brain Bubbles”:

“The selective leaking of internal correspondence has confirmed the suspicions long held in Exeter (and Norwich) that London-based civil servants have consistently been biased against Exeter and Norwich and have been firmly in the county camp.”   

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that very serious allegation warrants investigation, and if so, will he undertake it? If he disagrees, will he now say so on the record and invite his fellow Secretary of State—

Order. The question is of course about Norfolk only, and I know that the Secretary of State will factor that into his reply.

In which case, Mr. Speaker, I take your guidance and will not refer to my right hon. Friend’s blog. [Interruption.]

However, it is a matter of record in a statement issued by my Department that there was no leak of correspondence. It was placed in the public domain and provided to the National Audit Office in a perfectly proper way, and I believe it was also provided to a Member who had raised the topic in correspondence.

Order. I simply point out to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) that he ventilated his views very fully and forcefully, and that points of order come after questions.