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What does the future hold for Norfolk’s councils - and is it time for a change?

PUBLISHED: 09:26 07 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:32 07 November 2017

Could Norfolk councils be in for a shake-up? Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Could Norfolk councils be in for a shake-up? Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

Vital services for thousands of people in Norfolk are facing an uncertain future, with the public today asked to give views over millions of pounds of savings and cuts.

The very future of local councils is in doubt amid dwindling money from Westminster.

That leaves a huge question mark over how crucial services, such as those which look after vulnerable adults and children, will be paid for in years to come.

And that is sparking questions over whether a shake-up of our local councils is what is needed to help services survive. Is it time for a change?

Norfolk County Council has seen the grant it gets from the government slashed by £189m since the start of the decade.

The government has signalled it will stop the revenue support grant for councils by 2019/20, which will lose the county council nearly £80m a year.

County Hall provides some of the most vital services, including those which protect older people and vulnerable children.

Yet, it is grappling with how to plug a £125m funding gap by 2021/22.

The Conservative-controlled council is looking to increase its share of the council tax by 4.9pc next year, which would add an extra £1.17 a week on what people in Norfolk pay County Hall.

Yet, while the tax is going up, including 3pc towards adult social care, the council has identified ways to spend £41.6m less on services within three years.

That includes: reducing spending on bus subsidies and grants; spending less on fixing the county’s roads; less gritting; co-locating children’s centres with libraries or day centres; cutting £200,000 from mobile library budgets; shedding staff and trying to reduce the number of children in care.

Council leader Cliff Jordan, who says the council needs to innovate and be commercially minded, insists changing the way services are delivered does not automatically mean the service will be worse.

That claim is disputed by opposition councillors, who highlight the example that taking £5m out of the £10m budget for children’s centres will inevitably mean a worse service.

The county council is not alone in trying to steer a way through the choppy financial waters.

All of Norfolk’s councils are bidding to be allowed to keep 100pc of business rates which they raise in the county, to counteract the loss of government grants.

Broadland District Council and South Norfolk Council are considering sharing top officers and services.

Those were the only two Norfolk councils which backed the government’s devolution offer last year - an offer which supporters said would bring £750m of funding for infrastructure and £130m for new homes.

But, with the government insisting the deal was dependent on an elected mayor for Norfolk and Suffolk at the helm of a combined authority, other councils withdrew or, in West Norfolk council’s case, voted against it.

With the government preoccupied with Brexit negotiations, the drive for devolution has rather cooled, although the county councils network has been calling for devolution on existing structures, without the need for an elected mayor, which might find more favour in Norfolk.

But there is an elephant in the room - local government reorganisation.

Norfolk has seven district, borough and city councils, plus the county council - but, in the past, supporters of reform said millions could be saved by whittling them down.

Switching to unitary councils - single tier authorities rather than the current two-tier system - has previously been hugely divisive.

In 2008, Norwich put forward a bid for unitary status and the county council responded by proposing a unitary Norfolk - which would have seen districts abolished had it happened.

One of the first acts of the coalition government was to stop Norwich getting unitary status.

It is understood that, in a letter to communities secretary Sajid Javid, asking for help in plugging the county’s funding gap, County Hall leader Mr Jordan floated the notion of a revival for a unitary Norfolk.

Mr Jordan says he won’t share the letter as it is “private and confidential”.

But, earlier this year, he said if a unitary proposal were to be revived, he would favour a single county unitary authority as the “cheapest and best option”, although he has added he would want a referendum on the issue.

People can have their say on Norfolk County Council’s budget proposals here, while council leader Mr Jordan will be at a roadshow event at the Enterprise Suite, South Green Business Park Enterprise Centre in Mattishall from 7pm until 9pm today.

A stark warning

“Services such as children’s services, adult social care and homelessness are at a tipping point” - that’s the stark warning from the Local Government Association.

The association, which represents local councils, is calling on the government to use the autumn budget to plug the £5.3bn funding black hole councils are facing.

Their submission to the government states: “It is vital that the budget recognises that councils cannot continue without sufficient and sustainable resources”.

In the summer, the LGA chair - Conservative Lord Porter said: “The money local government has to provide vital day-to-day local services is running out fast.

“There is also now huge uncertainty about how local services are going to be funded beyond 2020.

“Councils can no longer be expected to run our vital local services on a shoestring. We must shout from the rooftops for local government to be put back on a sustainable financial footing.”

Already lost: Connexions

One of the first casualties of the millions of pounds of cuts made since the start of the decade was the Connexions youth service.

The service, which provided advice and support to thousands of young people ceased to exist after funding was slashed in 2010, as part of a £10m package of cuts at Norfolk County Council.

Making 65 staff redundant, the council switched the service online and to a telephone service run from Newcastle, which ended about a year and a half later.

Jonathan Dunning, Unison branch secretary at Norfolk County Council said: “Connexions was a service that was designed to nip issues in the bud and work with young people and their families on any issues in a constructive and enabling way. Since Connexions ceased looked after children numbers have gone up.

“It is impossible to prove a direct a link but it strongly suggests if you disinvest from preventive services you pay the price down the line.”

What’s happening in Suffolk and Cambridgeshire?

More than £100m of savings have had to be made in Suffolk over the past three years, with another £120m needed to be saved over the next three years.

District councils there are already pursuing mergers as they look at ways to save cash and become more efficient.

Waveney and Suffolk Coastal councils are in the process of merging, with St Edmundsbury and Forest Heath also looking to form a single authority.

But proposals to merge Babergh and Mid Suffolk, which already has a joint administration, hit a rocky patch last week.

The chairman of Babergh council “stormed out” of a meeting over the issue and told fellow councillors they needed to “grow up” and realise a merger was the only way forward.

Cambridgeshire County Council says it faces £100m pressure on budgets over the next five years and is going into its budget planning for next year with a £37.5m funding gap.

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