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Political row has just begun

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Does the ghost of Governor Elbridge Gerry haunt communities and local government secretary John Denham?

Gerry gave his name to electoral boundary rigging, benefitting his party in 1812 by creating a Massachusetts voting district shaped like a recumbent salamander.

Exeter and Norwich have more conventional shapes, but without any of the adjacent Conservative-leaning shires and suburbs there is a fair chance Labour could hold both, supported, perhaps, by a populace grateful for unitary status.

That might seem cynical were it not for the action of Mr Denham’s permanent secretary Peter Housden, who demanded to be instructed to proceed with the unitaries, such was his doubt that they represented good value for money.

Mr Denham decided on Norwich but declared a personal interest in Exeter and left that decision to his minister Rosie Winterton. By a most remarkable coincidence, they reached the same conclusion.

In 2007 the then local government minister John Healey concluded that Exeter and Norwich’s unitary bids did not meet the required criteria. They still don’t, but “compelling reasons” have been found to ignore this.

Ms Winterton said unitary Exeter and Norwich would “each be a far more potent force for delivering positive economic outcomes … [and] could open the way for improvements to the quality of public services”, through shared services.

What further piles up suspicion that these were party political decisions is the difference in populations between Exeter, Norwich and other district councils.

There are 44 districts with a larger population than Exeter (123,000) and 25 with a larger population than Norwich (135,000).

Indeed, both Exeter and Norwich are smaller than were Vale Royal DC and Macclesfield BC, both abolished as too small when Cheshire was reorganised.

Surely few lawyers expected further recourse to m’learned friends after the final decisions. That, though, is what Devon and Norfolk CCs plan as they would be left, like Polo mints, with a hole in the middle and of questionable viability.

They claim Mr Denham acted politically rather than in the interest of good government.

Governor Gerry would have seen the point.

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