Graphic: Special investigation: Is Norfolk County Council fit for purpose?
11:57 16 December 2013
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.