Graphic: Special investigation: Is Norfolk County Council fit for purpose?

Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs. Photo: Steve Adams Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs. Photo: Steve Adams

Monday, December 16, 2013
11:57 AM

Is Norfolk County Council fit for purpose? That is the question the EDP poses today as we launch a five-day series shining the spotlight on some of the biggest challenges faced by an authority wrestling with £189m worth of savings.

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The week ahead

Over the course of the rest of this week, the EDP will look at four key county council issues – the incinerator, children’s services, the former RAF Coltishall and the Norwich Northern Distributor Road.

We will look at the past, the present and the future and show how:

An 11th hour change of mind altered the course of the King’s Lynn incinerator saga, while unelected council officers were allowed to vote on issues which led to decisions made by councillors.

Social workers have been struggling to cope with “unmanageable” caseloads in children’s services.

Almost £14m has been spent on the Norwich Northern Distributor Road before planning permission has been secured.

Almost 30 businesses have expressed an interest in setting up at the former RAF Coltishall base, bought for £4m by the county council.

With a budget of £1.5bn, the county council is a big player on any business or council circuit. It employs almost 6,000 people, plus a further 14,200 in schools.

Yet, at the top of the council, there are a string of chief officer posts filled on an interim basis, rather than permanent appointments.

This has been a year of upheaval for the authority, with the chief executive departing, having secretly recorded conversations with a council leader who also fell on his sword after he was found to have breached the authority’s code of conduct.

Following May’s elections, when the Conservative’s majority was whittled away and the UK Independence Party emerged as a real political force, no party has overall control of the council.

Conservative group leader Bill Borrett. Picture: Matthew Usher.Conservative group leader Bill Borrett. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A so-called rainbow alliance, with a Labour and Liberal Democrat administration formed with support from UKIP, with the aim of switching to a committee system.

And the council has been struggling with a number of high-profile projects, which have got bogged down in controversy, such as the proposed incinerator at King’s Lynn.

The Norwich Northern Distributor Road has also had a difficult genesis, while critics have questioned why the authority has spent millions of pounds to buy the former air base at Coltishall.

Almost £24m has been spent on those three projects, before building has even started.

The authority has also had to endure stinging criticism from watchdogs for the way its children’s services department has been run.

All that comes against a backdrop where the government is giving local authorities less money to provide services, and the council is consulting over saving £140m to go part of the way to plugging a £189m funding gap.

Given the problems the council has had in 2013, can we rely on them to do what is best for Norfolk over the next year?

Click here to view the Norfolk County Council in numbers graphic

WHERE ARE THE PROBLEMS?

“Under this administration and the team of senior officers we now have in place, I am confident that the authority is not just still fit, but is fitter for purpose than it was six months ago, albeit leaner and likely to be leaner still in the future.”

That’s what George Nobbs, Labour leader of Norfolk County Council has to say when asked whether Norfolk County Council is fit for purpose.

But is he right?

At the helm of the council, there is currently no permanent chief officer and three of the top managers are on interim contracts.

The children’s services department has come in for heavy criticism from inspectors, while almost £24m has been spent on three highly controversial projects – the King’s Lynn incinerator, the purchase of RAF Coltishall and the Norwich Northern Distributor Road – before any building has begun.

And the council is facing having to cut services to save £189m over the next three years, with the government giving less money to the authority.

The administration is a so-called ‘rainbow alliance’ of Labour and Liberal Democrats, supported by the UK Independence Party, which was initially agreed on the basis that Mr Nobbs would be leader for a year while the current cabinet system is replaced by committees.

But critics have said the council has stalled under that administration, leading to uncertainty and instability.

Among the critics is Bill Borrett, leader of the Conservative group. He acknowledged, whichever group had been in power following May’s elections would have faced challenges, but he said the incoming administration had not appreciate how tough it would be.

He said: “I think they made some decisions based on political point scoring which have come back to bite them. A classic example was the recruitment of the new managing director/chief executive, call it what you will.

“They stopped that process and then came back in November with exactly the same thing we had been proposing, but that had led to five or six months of inertia

“That has affected the morale of staff and has had a serious effect on the performance of the council and its delivery of savings.

“I think the council has stalled. I am not blaming that on officers, but on decisions which the cabinet has made.”

However, on such accusations, Mr Nobbs said: “I would imagine that most of the people who are saying that are disappointed Conservatives and their friends who regret that the old regime is no longer in control. Every council in the United Kingdom is facing the same financial challenges.”

And Mr Nobbs dismissed any suggestion that the ‘rainbow alliance’ of Labour and the Liberal Democrats, with support from the UK Independence Party, was fragile.

He said: “While we may disagree on a number of national policies, we are of one in our opinion that we cannot afford to let the Conservatives once again run the council into the ground as they have in the past.

“We have set a course which we are determined to pursue and improving the county’s economy is at the forefront of that.”

Examples the council points to are how it has worked with other partners to make Great Yarmouth an Enterprise Zone; the creation of the Norwich/Cambridge agritech partnership; the success of the Hethel Engineering Centre; investment in apprenticeships; lobbying on the A47; a commitment to the Norwich Northern Distributor Road; helping Norwich achieve City Deal status and being picked to manage the multi-million Euro France Channel England Cross Border Programme.

While some of those schemes were in train before May’s elections, an innovation the current administration can call its own is the move to work more closely and share services with Suffolk County Council, while the Digital Ambition Project has been hailed as a way to save money, bring organisations together and help schools.

But the perception of a council in limbo is not helped by so many top officer posts being filled on a temporary basis.

Since the departure of chief executive David White (who had admitted secretly recording a conversation with the then council leader Derrick Murphy) Anne Gibson has been acting managing director and is now acting chief executive pending recruitment to the post.

Her role as head of HR is currently in the hands of her deputy Audrey Sharp, while Lisa Christensen, Mike Jackson and Paul Brittain have left their posts as director of children’s services, director of environment, transport and development and head of finance, respectively.

The departures were for very different reasons. Ms Christensen’s exit was hastened by MPs calling for a change in leadership after criticism of her department by Ofsted inspectors, Mr Jackson quit to become chief executive at North Somerset Council, while Mr Brittain retired.

Their former posts are being filled on a fixed term basis, for six months initially, by Sheila Lock, Tom McCabe and Peter Timmins.

Mr Borrett said that lack of stability is “a worry”. He said: “That’s a side effect of the political posturing over the managing director recruitment.

“You would want the top officer to appoint their own team, but failing to recruit the managing director has meant that has been put on hold and we have a number of interim appointments.
“That has destabilised the officers working for the council, because there is a lack of certainty.”

But a council spokesman said: “The decision to use experienced interim expertise was made for different reasons in each case, and in the general context of a senior management review.”

The remuneration of the chief officer core is projected to be £1,101,380 for 2013/14, compared to £1,109,799 for the financial year 2012/13.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb recently questioned whether taxpayers’ money was being best spent on the current system of local government in Norfolk.

That led Mr Nobbs to state: “I would have thought Norman Lamb had quite enough on his plate in trying to cope with the problems that he is responsible for as a member of the government, especially in the field of health, without concerning himself with things outside his ministerial remit.”

On the state of the county council, Mr Lamb said, the council had gone “massively off the rails” in recent years.

He said: “I think the whole turmoil over the incinerator has been massively distracting and destabilising.

There was the loss of the council leader [Derrick Murphy] and the chief executive [David White] and the problems in children’s services, which was seriously bad news.
“Not everyone likes the government coalition, but that has given us stable government which has been able to develop policies and give confidence.

“The county council is in a 
difficult situation because of the lack of a stable administration.”

CASH FOR NOTHING?

As the council struggles to plug a £189m budget gap, the authority remains committed to three hugely controversial capital projects.

The incinerator at King’s Lynn, the Norwich Northern Distributor Road and the purchase of the former RAF Coltishall have all met strong opposition, but the council continues to pursue them.

In total, almost £24m has been spent on those three projects and nothing has been built. Planning permission has yet to be secured for the incinerator and the NDR, or for homes planned at Coltishall.

But council leader George Nobbs said: “I believe, as do the three mainstream parties in Norfolk, that the NDR is essential to the future of Norfolk’s economy and that is one of our top priorities.

“As far as RAF Coltishall is concerned, it was purchased by my predecessors, but I have always supported the decision. It was a bargain for the Norfolk taxpayer. I share my predecessors’ confidence that this will produce a good long term return for the people of Norfolk.

“As far as the energy from waste contract is concerned, the entire rationale fro the previous administration entering into this arrangement was because it would save money for the people of Norfolk and we are bound by the contract that they entered into.”

Tomorrow: The last minute switch over the Norfolk incinerator and how unelected council officers were handed votes on an issue which has divided the county.

APOLOGIES

In today’s print edition of the EDP, two quotes were pulled from the article and printed alongside it. Unfortunately, while the attribution for the quotes was correct in the article, we made an error when we used the next to the name of Conservative group leader Bill Borrett.

Quotes from Labour leader George Nobbs and North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb were wrongly attributed to Mr Borrett and we apologise to him.

35 comments

  • Thanks for this article, Dan. Many of us have long hoped that the EDP would begin to take a more "investigative" approach to the activities and interests of Norfolk councils.

    Report this comment

    gilded beams

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Rumour that the new director of Children's Services and other senior managers are being paid as companies. This enables individuals to avoid paying higher rate tax. Of course James Joyce the councilor responsible for children's services would never allow this to happen!

    Report this comment

    Little fish

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Wow! More than one sentence from Ian Gourlay. At least from this we know this cannot possibly be Cllr Ian Gourlay.

    Report this comment

    Del Boy

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • @ alecto - I`m lost. They were singing and mouthing noel not nowell. Whatever. The BBC is always right anyway.

    Report this comment

    BG

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • @ Martin Wallis - Suddenly I feel a bit sorry for Mr Borritt. At least the EDP is not as red faced as the BBC yesterday on Songs of Praise when the text on screen read nowell, nowell, nowell in stead of noel, noel, noel Still the BBC are never wrong are they? Made a change from their saturation coverage a certain funeral in South Africa.

    Report this comment

    BG

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • fit for purpose? a question which the EU should be pondering... is there a 'cooling off period' (délai de réflexion) to enable the EU to reconsider the wisdom of their choice of Norfolk to administer 350m euros on behalf of the Interreg Programme? starts in January...

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Why didn't the EDP investigate the council when Bill Borrett and Derek Murphy were let loose?" More kudos here to that comment. The EDP and by association Archant are showing their true colours, a distant branch of the Tory party concerned with throwing mud and hoping it sticks. This stinks.

    Report this comment

    Ded Sterile

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Dic.kens , 40-38 is hardly decisive is it old pal? There was a divide in the county and now there’s a divide in Full Council, so opposition is no longer contained in the west it’s from all across Norfolk – I think you’ll find this small point has been brought to Mr Pickles attention. Of course it will depend on how Pickles wants to look at things, not everyone can be swayed, no wonder NCC have released the QC's report without it having to go through cabinet delays ….. someone’s money’s been well spent, kerching.

    Report this comment

    Honest John

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • I see the EDP have a new picture of His Royal Loveliness, this time against the backdrop of the Anglican Cathedral. Most appropriate. The only thing that is going to help the County Council is divine intervention.

    Report this comment

    alecto

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • One of the problems of our electoral system is that we vote for councillors along political lines and any person can stand for election regardless of whether they have the ability and experience to do the job properly. Consequently the elected councillors make bad decisions, don't hold the officers to account when they need to and then when the going gets tough we end up with this unseemly political back-biting which doesn't help anybody. I propose a system where councillors are elected on their ability to do the job and all councillors are politically independent. Before they put themselves forward, they should be interviewed to make sure they have skills and experience required by the council.

    Report this comment

    Betty Swallocks

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • "Why didn't the EDP investigate the council when Bill Borrett and Derek Murphy were let loose?". Seconded. And thirded... And the answer is?

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Dickens, the problem is anything that comes out of the council is weak as the dice is always loaded by the officers, the public are just sick and tired of it. I agree it was interesting that the Secretary of State asked for more information, i thought it was because CW lied about there so called poll. None of NCC is fit for purpose and they are an utter waste of tax payers money

    Report this comment

    Sweet cheeks

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • It is clear that NCC have no defined strategy. Why would you buy an ex RAF base and do nothing with it ! Or would it be that the runway was to be hardcore, but is now found to be the incorrect material ! It stinks !

    Report this comment

    Skyhookcoffee

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • NCC is presently doing a good job and not letting party politics get in the way of decision-making.

    Report this comment

    blue tractor

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • This article is a wonderul example of the not-so-subtle art of REPETITION.

    Report this comment

    Dictate

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • In the run up to the recent county council elections, I had a prospective Tory county council councillor call at my door asking whether "I would vote for him? I said “I didn't think I would bother to vote as the lot of them seem corrupt to me". His reply was “Yes I know they are, but it isn’t as bad as some countries”. Well that sums them all up for me.

    Report this comment

    Vic Sponge

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Its not been Fit for Purpose since when it enlarged & embarked on marginal & specious policies Chief Execs on £200,000 pa, large senior teams. - Masses of non jobs. Large amounts of discretionary overtime worked. - Temporary workers STILL employed - Union Reps being paid for. - They could do much the same at the front line for half the cost

    Report this comment

    J Smith

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • So what a feeble conclusion Its either fit or not

    Report this comment

    No to tory boy

    Saturday, December 21, 2013

  • BG: proof reading? costs money... textbook example today of why it is money well spent - both 'pull-out quotes' (pp 12,13) attributed to Bill Borrett!

    Report this comment

    martin wallis

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • No they are not fit for purpose, there has been nothing any good to come out of NCC for a long time. The whole thing is a mess and it needs either breaking up or sorting out by central government

    Report this comment

    Sweet cheeks

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • There was a lot of Repetition , it did make me wonder if the article was on a revolving scroll. My concern is George Nobbs and the current administration only has a year and then the County Council moves to a Committee system , this only just gives Portfolio Holders a limited time to do anything positive. I do think The leader was wrong to use words such as bankrupt during The Incinerator Debate when Norfolk County Council clearly has assets Top priority must be Education raising standards and ensuring Teachers are enthusiastic. and have the tools and training that they require. The Incinerator has taken a lot of Energy and Press Space it was the wrong project for Norfolk so let us hope Mr Pickles sees sense and puts the entire matter to bed, and The Norfolk MPs deliver and persuade The Government to pay any compensation required

    Report this comment

    Ian Gourlay

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Oh dear BG don't you know Nuffink? Nowell is a correct spelling. It is the archaic form of Noel and therefore the BBC were entirely correct in their use of it especially as the carol that was being sung would have had the words originally written in archaic language.

    Report this comment

    alecto

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • I think most people can see through these politicians these days. They work like heck for the electorate within their constituency, then beyond that they sell out to the money people who fund their particular party, the whole lot stinks.

    Report this comment

    John L Norton

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Let us hope that it is the EDP carrying out a full and thorough investigation rather than NCC spinning info via the pages of our regional newspaper! Please do put your readers before Ms Hannam and Co this time because at the end of the day the truth will out and then Archant will be in a very sticky place as the public will know just how badly our regional press have, to date, let us down. Nice to see DelBoy back I do think, despite our obvious differences, that he had more know how in his little finger nail than the current occupant of his old seat has in his entire brain.

    Report this comment

    Canary Boy

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • The qualifications for being a Councillor and the time to do the job properly need addressing.Experience of life,being able to stand up for your view against a Party whip, only representing one council instead of 2 or 3, the list is endless. The current inability to say no to Officers is probably the most urgent in need of change, but Councillors can only do so if they have the full facts and picture and the electorate monitor them closely.How many people care enough to attend Council meetings to see the workings of the current system?

    Report this comment

    bedoomed

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • ...shouldn't take too long to answer.....the answer is NO.

    Report this comment

    Scooby

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • i wonder how the lib dems feel about norman lamb criticising their coalition

    Report this comment

    Double Bill

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Of course it's not fit for purpose, £millions of public money has been and continues to be wasted in favour of private businesses.

    Report this comment

    John L Norton

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • The EDP is making more and more mistakes. Is it trying to outdo the Guardian? Doesn`t anyone proof read anymore before it is sent to the printers?

    Report this comment

    BG

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Re the Incinerator It is unusual for the Sec of State to request further information from those involved at a late stage and engaging a process to add weight to an Inspectors report is an interesting development although which way it is weighted may prove to be controversial in content. The recent vote in favour of the project was not included in the original evidence and it is that single piece of information that was required to tip the balance. A democratic vote in open Council is a powerful piece of play. It seems that once again the anti campaigns desires have ended up thwarting them. The question one needs to ask is does this mean that closer scrutiny is needed to adjust the fine balance of a decision or does an approved decision awaiting final release require firming up? The people of Norfolk are likely to be made poor indeed for the want of SOS ratification. No pressure there then.

    Report this comment

    Dickens

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Why didn't the EDP investigate the council when Bill Borrett and Derek Murphy were let loose? They seemed quite happy to let him sign the incinerator contract and see education standards plummet.

    Report this comment

    Jeffrey Osborne

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Lamb seems to think to get stability you have to be like your coalition partners. He is so blinkered by becoming a Tory he can't believe any other type of coalition works. He should take note of the council. We would rather see disagreements than parties selling out for power.

    Report this comment

    Jeffrey Osborne

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • What is clearly needed is a Select Committee type of inquiry with a tough Chair and no party interference Want some names?

    Report this comment

    No to tory boy

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • Let's face it, this whole witch hunt is primarily driven by the ongoing saga over the Willows. Yet, it has just been announced that the report by Mr Jonathan Acton Davis has concluded that the Council and its officers have acted entirely appropriately at every stage of the process! So, all the allegations of incompetence, secrecy and malfeasance don't appear to amount to a hill of beans. There is some serious egg on a fair number of faces, or at least on a few aliases on these pages. What next? A major tenant for Coltishall? A rapid increase in the rate of improvement in Norfolk schools? Gold discovered in the basement in county hall? I have a fair bit of contact with several officers and councillors of NCC and some of the Districts and I have always felt the vitriol I read on these pages to be misdirected. It used to be urban boroughs that were the butt of jokes and as a Norfolk resident I hope this anti public sector nonsense will quickly start to die down.

    Report this comment

    Tom Jeffries

    Monday, December 16, 2013

  • PS - "Nowell" is indeed the correct spelling :-)

    Report this comment

    gilded beams

    Monday, December 16, 2013

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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