Tories under fire over council reform

A furious political row erupted yesterday as Tories were accused of “trying to save their own skin” by opposing a radical overhaul of councils in Norfolk.

A furious political row erupted yesterday as Tories were accused of “trying to save their own skin” by opposing a radical overhaul of councils in Norfolk.

Breckland Conservative and Labour members traded verbal blows during a debate about a fighting fund to oppose the shake-up proposals.

Labour's Michael Fanthorpe provoked outrage from Tories when he accused them of self-preservation and “never speaking to people”.

He was met with shouts of “absolute rubbish” as he spoke and Conservatives lined up to accuse him “of being a disgrace” and “being extremely offensive”.

Tories fiercely defended their records of attending local meetings and having regular contact with their local communities.

At one point as tempers frayed, chairman John Labouchere told councillors: “Behave yourselves.”

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The Tories' massive majority on Breckland - they have 48 of the 54 seats - meant the proposal to put up to £100,000 into a pot to fund a referendum, pay for a judicial review and employ a group of experts and a lobbyist was easily passed.

Breckland is working with King's Lynn and West Norfolk, North Norfolk and South Norfolk councils to oppose the Boundary Committee's (BC) preferred option of a single authority for Norfolk and Lowestoft.

Describing the BC's preferred option, Breckland leader William Nunn said: “I am appalled at these proposals which strike at the heart of local communities and which will have a devastating effect on local services.” He said a single authority would “inevitably” mean council tax increases for Breckland people, services would be more expensive and free parking would be scrapped.

Mr Nunn is backing an “enhanced status quo” where a two-tier system would stay in place but councils would work closer together.

But Labour leader Robin Goreham said the unitary option had the backing of the Tory-controlled county council, the health trust and police authority. He said under a single council system there would be 120 councillors rather than 500. “That is the nub that 380 councillors will go to the wall. The real purpose of this would appear to be a last-gasp attempt to save 300 Tory councillors from the axe,” he said.

Mr Goreham challenged the assumption that the BC's proposals are “legally flawed” and claimed a judicial review could cost “millions”.

He said the report from Breckland's deputy chief executive Tim Leader supporting the fighting fund was “full of half-baked assertions and the only winners will be paid lawyers”.

Breckland solicitor Mike Horn said he felt the BC's proposals were legally flawed.

Mr Fanthorpe described Mr Leader's report as “very unbalanced” and said: “People of Norfolk are for it (a unitary council).”

Mr Fanthorpe told the Tories: “You people never speak to anyone. People have lost confidence in you all. It is a misuse of Breckland's money. It is a sham and it is disgusting what you are doing to save your own skin.”

Mr Nunn said: “I have never had so much correspondence on an issue. People are outraged by the proposals.”

Paul Claussen said: “The Labour group is opposing spending £100,000 but are signing up to the £150m it will cost to carry out this change.”

Gordon Bambridge said:

“There is almost universal opposition to the proposals.”