Exeter’s 36 year campaign to have its unitary council status restored cleared its final parliamentary hurdles this week. In a hotly contested debate on Monday in the House of Lords, an attempt by Liberal Democrat Peers to kill the legislation was overwhelmingly defeated.
A motion from the Cross Bench Peer Lady Butler Sloss expressing regret at the move and asking for a further delay was passed, but not with as big a majority as had been expected. The only other two cross benchers who spoke, supported Exeter’s case, as did the Labour Peers Lord (Larry) Whitty and Baroness (Brenda) Dean. The orders was also approved easily both in committee and on the floor in the House of Commons. It was a great tribute to the hard work of everyone in Exeter over so many years. An all-party delegation from the city last week, led by Conservative Lord Mayor Cllr John Winterbottom and including Lib Dem, Liberal and Labour councillors did a brilliant job at persuading cross bench and Tory Peers not to support the fatal amendment.
Now that the orders for both Exeter and Norwich have been approved by Parliament, after lengthy debate in both Houses and are law, it is far less likely that the outstanding legal challenge by Norfolk and Devon will succeed. Parliament is sovereign and the courts are usually very reluctant to overturn such a strong democratic mandate.
Also, one of the effects of the legislation has been to postpone the city council elections that were due to take place in one third of Exeter wards in May in order to hold all out elections to the new unitary authority next year. So those councillors who would have faced elections in May have been told they can continue for one more year. By the time the court sits it will be too late to reinstate those elections so the court will want to be very mindful indeed of the consequences of any ruling on the democratic process.
Meanwhile David Cameron has been embarrassing his local parliamentary candidate in Exeter today telling local Tories they were wrong to support Exeter’s bid. Cameron is either incredibly ill-informed or astonishingly insensitive or both.
Exeter Tory leader Yolanda Henson has fought for years for unitary status and was ably supported by John Winterbottom, Norman Shiel and Jeff Coates among others for last week’s lobby of the Lords. Cameron said a Tory Government would reverse the decision. But as doing so would require primary legislation. Could anyone really see an incoming Tory government making this their first priority and upsetting Exeter Conservatives in the process?
When can we expect the Conservative parliamentary candidate to finally speak up for Exeter, support local Conservative councillors and call publicly for her national party to allow Exeter to fulfil its ambition and call on Tory-run Devon County Council to drop its costly and futile legal shenanigans?