Norfolk and Devon CCs are confident they can defeat government restructuring plans after it emerged that communities secretary John Denham overruled the concerns of his department’s top official over the proposals.
In a rare move, Department for Communities & Local Government’s permanent secretary Peter Housden wrote to Mr Denham to demand he issue a direction to civil servants to follow his instructions, absolving them from any legal responsibility for the proposals which would see the rest of Norfolk and Devon remain two tier.
The letter, seen by LGC, accused ministers of departing from previously agreed criteria by which unitary bids would be assessed - an allegation admitted by local government minister Rosie Winterton - and of being inconsistent by proposing two new unitaries while retaining the two-tier system in Suffolk.
“My clear legal advice is that the risk of decisions for a unitary Exeter and Norwich, and indeed for not taking action in Suffolk, being successfully challenged in judicial review proceedings is very high,” he wrote.
In a parliamentary statement, Ms Winterton admitted that both the Exeter and Norwich proposals would not meet the government’s affordability criterion and the latter was unlikely to offer value for money. But she insisted unitary city councils could better deliver economic growth and work with partners to improve services.
The ministers’ decisions to proceed despite advice to the contrary have led to accusations of party political motives. Norwich City Council has a Labour leader, while Exeter City Council has often been a Labour outpost in an otherwise blue or yellow county.
Norfolk chief executive David White said: “The previous secretary of state has set out criteria against which any council with a unitary bid has to be judged. These have been set aside, it could be argued, for political expediency.”
Lawyers have been instructed, he added.
The House of Lords merits committee, which scrutinises statutory instruments, has already called for evidence on whether estimates of costs of the proposals are accurate and whether unintended consequences might ensue, before it considers the move on 2 March.
Devon CC leader John Hart (Con) said: “Sadly, this government is putting short-term electoral advantage above the wellbeing of people in Devon and Exeter.”
He vowed to fight the proposals “all the way”.
The government also overruled advice from the Boundary Committee for England, which endorsed Norfolk and Devon county unitaries and, as its second choice, proposals based on Norwich and Exeter with expanded boundaries - which opposition politicians say would make them less winnable for Labour.
Lawyers are gearing up for more legal wrangles. Malcolm Iley, senior public sector partner for Trowers & Hamlins, said: “If the permanent secretary’s reasons for asking for direction were well-founded and it’s proven that the secretary of state has ignored the considerations put forward by the civil servant, that could enhance the claims put forward by the county councils.”
The proposed unitaries face more hurdles - the Conservatives say they will abolish the new authorities if they win the general election.