Norwich and Exeter City Councils have been thrown into disarray after a High Court ruling ousted one third of their councillors.
This followed the court’s decision last month that the process used by the Labour government to turn the two into unitary councils was unlawful.
Mr Justice Ouseley has now quashed the associated orders under which councillors, who had been due to face electors in May, had their terms of office extended May 2011 when all-out elections for the new councils were planned.
But with the orders quashed, the councillors no longer have seats. Each council has 13 councillors affected and the court gave no guidance on how they should proceed.
Junior local government minister Bob Neill said the resulting by-elections would have to be held within the normal 35 days of a vacancy arising. But he offered no help with the cost involved.
“I recognise that there will now be elections for one third of councillors in Norwich and Exeter within the next five weeks, and that this will involve the councils in additional costs,” Mr Neill said.
“This is an unfortunate consequence of the previous Government’s reckless move to drive through unnecessary unitary proposals which did not comply with their own criteria, and have now been found to be unlawful by the courts.”
In a furious reaction to the court ruling, Exeter accused Devon CC of “rubbing salt in the wounds” by forcing it into “expensive and unnecessary emergency elections”. Devon and Norfolk had sought to have the orders quashed in addition to the court’s ruling against the process.
Exeter leader Adrian Fullam (Lib Dem) said: “The process for considering Exeter’s unitary bid has been botched from start to finish. Now people in Exeter face a set of emergency elections. This is an expensive and arguably unnecessary solution to a problem which should not have arisen.
“Was it really necessary for Devon CC’s legal representatives to pursue this through to the death, especially during these testing financial times?”
He pointed out that legislation before parliament to kill off both unitaries would allow the councillors to remain if office until May 2011, but the court’s ruling had disrupted this process.
Those affected in Exeter include Labour group leader Pete Edwards, and Conservative group leader Yolonda Henson.
Norwich chief executive Laura McGillivray said she had “been advised to seek specialist electoral advice from the High Court in order for a date to be set”.
She added: “I would want to reassure people that we will be making every effort to ensure the council runs smoothly in these unusual circumstances,” she said.
Devon leader John Hart (Con) defended his council’s actions: “Essentially, the judge ruled two weeks ago that the Exeter unitary decision was unlawful. It followed that all decisions taken with it were also unlawful.
“Devon had no wish to force Exeter into holding elections but these are uncertain times and we needed complete clarity on the unitary question given the alternative Parliamentary process is not yet complete because of a delay caused by a few members of the House of Lords.”
The situation has astonished elections officers. John Turner, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said: “I do not think that there is any precedent for this occurrence in recent times and it is difficult to imagine it occurring again in the near future.”