Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs looks back at his first 1,000 days in the job
08:55 21 February 2016
Archant Â© 2014
An unlikely alliane is at the helm at Norfolk County Council and this week celebrated an equally unlikely milestone. Its leader George Nobbs, looks pack on its first 1,000 days.
A colleague pointed out to me a few days ago that Thursday, February 18 would mark 1,000 days since I was elected leader of Norfolk County Council and formed the administration which is still in office today.
Few of our political opponents gave us more than a week – or two at the most.
“Rag, Tag and Bobtail” was the popular Tory description of our alliance of parties. Certainly no one expected our radical experiment to last more than a matter of months.
Well here we are nearly three years later having tackled a range of issues – many of which were barely on the horizon back on May 24, 2013, the day I was elected leader.
The very next morning I had a meeting with our acting chief executive to discuss the most urgent issues facing the council. None was more pressing than the King’s Lynn incinerator. The saga of the energy-from-waste plant had been tearing Norfolk apart for years and had no solution in sight.
The previous administration had signed a £700m contract but there was fierce opposition from West Norfolk, Norfolk’s Tory MPs and many of the newly elected councillors. As if that wasn’t enough the whole scheme was mired in a government planning appeal which has not been officially resolved to this very day
Another issue that was causing a lot of opposition at the time was my predecessor’s purchase of the former RAF Coltishall, which was being denounced as a “white elephant” amid vague suggestions that there was something sinister about the scheme.
I soon learnt that conspiracy theorists are always ready to see plots in even the simplest council plan.
But more important than either of these issues was the state of Children’s Services in Norfolk. A succession of bad Ofsted Reports had slated the department and we were in the middle of the latest one when we took office.
There was no excuse for the failings of the past, so within five minutes of being elected Leader I made my first two political appointments of James Joyce and Mick Castle to oversee the department.
Today Michael Rosen heads Children’s Services and James Joyce chairs the committee. They know that reversing years of decline is like turning round an ocean liner.
Progress at first was slower than we would like – but it has been steady and consistent and is now gathering pace.
In 2013 for example, Ofsted said that our arrangements for supporting schools was “ineffective”, by 2014 they were judged “effective” and by 2016 Norfolk was being asked to share its arrangements with other councils nationally.
In 2013 only 60pc of primary schools were judged “good or better” in 2016 it is 82pc. Of secondary schools it has gone from 47pc in 2013 to 77pc “good or better” in 2016 – above the national average.
At the same time the number of schools requiring improvement has gone down from the 31pc that we inherited to 17pc today
Of the other issues, Coltishall is now the Scottow Enterprise Park and is set to be a thriving economic asset while the King’s Lynn incinerator is now just a memory –but at a large cost.
The refusal of Eric Pickles to make a decision on the planning appeal tipped the project over the financial edge and it became more cost effective to pay the penalty and end the contract.
It taught us one vital lesson however. That contract was signed under the old system of council governance that we inherited.
We changed that in our first year so today it is impossible for that sort of decision to be made without the public involvement of the whole council.
Much else has happened including the dualling of the entire A11 and the start of the NDR. And one other thing that was discussed on that first Saturday was closer co-operation with Suffolk. Today the burning topic is regional devolution. And Monday will see our third budget – something that few predicted a thousand days ago.
This frankly unlikely alliance of Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP (with Green goodwill) has provided Norfolk with a new sort of governance but one in keeping with its radical “do different” tradition.
It proves that many of us can step up and put partisan differences aside to work together for Norfolk’s sake.
I believe that that’s what the people of Norfolk want us to do.