Iain Dale has been chronicling the extraordinary breakdown in relations between Communities Secretary John Denham and the Department's Permanent Secretary. It was a good old fashioned scoop for Iain followed up, so far, in The Guardian. The Local Government Chronicle have also done a piece. It deserves to be followed up more widely.
Yesterday, the Government announced a volte face and abandoned plans for a Norfolk-wide unitary authority and instead indulged in a bit of pro Labour gerrymandering by creating a unitary authority for Norwich. Very few people support such a proposal (apart from Norwich Labour Party) and opposition parties are furious. It has to be said that there were very few supporters for the Norfolk wide unitary authority either. Most people want the status quo.
However, I can reveal that John Denham, the Local Government Secretary, has ignored warnings from his senior civil servants, who believe the proposal is "unaffordable" and doesn't meet the
Government's own criteria. Indeed, the Permanent Secretary at the DCLG, Peter Housden, has forced Denham to sign a letter absolving the civil servants from any legal action. Incredibly, Denham has done just that. Norfolk County Council is ready to make a High Court challenge
and the Conservatives have already committed to reversing this decision if they win the next election.
I am told it is unprecedented for a Permanent Secretary to send such a letter to a Secretary of State.
Amazingly, Denham concedes the plan is unaffordable, yet decides to carry on anyway.
It is a major blow to the credibility of Denham for the Permanent Secretary of the Department of Communities and Local Government, in his capacity as Accounting Officer of the department, to have asked to be ‘instructed’ by Ministers to proceed. As laid in out in Clause 5.5 of the Ministerial code, this absolves the Accounting Officer of the personal responsibility for decisions which breach financial propriety rules.
Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Caroline Spelman says:
"Labour Ministers have been caught red-handed fiddling with local government structures for petty, partisan advantage. This startling intervention by the Civil Service comprehensively demolishes the case for this expensive and disruptive upheaval. It significantly strengthens the case for these flawed Orders to be voted down by Parliament, and for any incoming Conservative Government to revoke them if they pushed through by Labour whips."
Iain also points out that Labour's proposals involved cancelling this years Nowich County Council elections due to be taking place in May. Not the only forthcoming elections Labour would like to cancel I suspect.