Authorities across the county are sitting on more than a billion pounds of combined debt, with the vast majority held by just one council. 

Analysis of government data shows that Norfolk’s eight local authorities have borrowed £1,147,221,000.  

The revelation comes at a time when council balance sheets are receiving increased scrutiny after several around the country declared themselves effectively bankrupt. 

Councils can borrow money for a variety of purposes, for example building new schools and roads.  

Although the debt does not put councils at immediate risk of going bust, loans must eventually be paid back, with the cash coming from sources like council tax.

Most of the borrowing comes from the Public Works Loan Board, a government body, which lend to authorities at a much lower rate than a bank.


Eastern Daily Press: County HallCounty Hall (Image: Archant)

How much debt does each council have? 

The council sitting on the most debt in the area is Norfolk County Council, with £828.7m, some £902 for each of the roughly 918,369 people in Norfolk.  

The authority with the most per head is Norwich at £1,447 for each of the 143,118 people. In total, the city authority has borrowed £207.1m. 

Great Yarmouth is third with around £81.3m worth of debt, £813 per person. 

However, the vast majority of the city and Great Yarmouth’s debt is related to its ‘housing revenue account’ (HRA), which is used to fund its council properties, including repairs and building new homes. 

South Norfolk has borrowed £20m and West Norfolk £10m. 

Three councils – Breckland, North Norfolk and Broadland – have no debt at all. 


Eastern Daily Press: Norwich city centreNorwich city centre (Image: Archant Norfolk 2015)

Why do Norwich and Great Yarmouth have so much debt? 

The reason for the high level of debt is that the government effectively made them buy their existing social housing stock in 2012. 

While most councils in Norfolk sold their stock, either through 'right to buy' or to housing associations, Norwich and Great Yarmouth decided to purchase at least some of their homes. 

This allowed them to keep some of the rent received from their social housing but also required them to take on a set amount of debt relating to the size of their stock. 

The rent is then used to pay for servicing the loan. 

Great Yarmouth had 5,736 council homes as of March last year, while Norwich has almost three times as many at around 14,500. 

Some £160m of the city’s debt is related to the initial long-term borrowing undertaken when the current financing for the HRA was taken out in 2012. 

A senior official at Norwich City Council stressed the authority was in a “strong financial position”. 

In total, £58.4m of Great Yarmouth’s debt is housing-related. 

Because of their status as landlords, both Great Yarmouth and Norwich officials stress that comparisons with other authorities in Norfolk cannot be made on a like-for-like basis. 


Eastern Daily Press: Great Yarmouth Great Yarmouth (Image: Newsquest)

What about the rest of the debt? 

Unlike most authorities in Norfolk, City Hall also borrowed millions of pounds to fund investments, many of which were outside of Norwich. 

This includes a gym in Kent, a cold store unit in Corby and a Travelodge in Harlow. 

The council owns the freehold to the buildings, which are then let out to tenants. 

Borrowing to invest in this way is no longer allowed under government rules. The level of borrowing to invest in Norwich is much lower than many councils around the country.  

City Hall has also taken out loans to fund things like building new homes locally. 

Officials have said that some of the city's loans are 20 to 30 years old, at much lower rates than possible today.

They said: "Because rates are so high, we're trying not to borrow.

"We've got some small loans which are maturing over the next six months and we'll look to repay those loans back without borrowing again."

In total, city hall has around £1bn worth of assets. 

Yarmouth council insists it has not borrowed to invest, with extra borrowing being entirely for its capital projects. 

Eastern Daily Press: Norfolk County Council Norfolk County Council (Image: George Thompons, LDR)

Why does County Hall have so much debt?  

Officials at Norfolk County Council have said all the borrowing has been to fund its ‘capital programme’, for assets which enable services to be delivered, for example, schools, roads, bridges, libraries and museums. 

None of the cash has been used to invest in property outside of running the council's services.  

Its debt is almost £24.5m lower than it was in 2022 when it was paying nearly £31m a year in interest. 

The interest payable on its current borrowing is £28.5m per year. In 2016/17 the authority was paying £25.7m. 

While the county council appears to have a high level of debt it has loaned well under the cap it has set itself, which is around £1.06bn.

Are any Norfolk councils at risk? 

Seven councils across the UK have declared themselves effectively bankrupt after they were unable to balance their budgets since 2020, including three last year. 

But officials at Norfolk councils have explicitly stated they are not at risk of declaring effective bankruptcy. 

Over the last decade, councils have come under heavy financial pressure as the government has been taken out of their budgets, forcing them to make drastic cuts. 

Some councils, such as Thurrock in Essex, have then gambled on risky investments as part of an attempt to bring in extra income. 

A 2023 report by credit agency Moody’s warned that “weak government” and the falling value of commercial properties due to the pandemic meant more councils were likely to go bust. 

Where councils have gone bust, cuts have followed, with Nottingham putting 500 jobs at risk in December. 

In total, local authorities have borrowed a combined £122bn as of September 2023. 

How do Norfolk councils compare?

 The levels of debt in Norfolk, particularly in the city district councils, are far below those of authorities elsewhere around the country.

Woking, which has a population of 103,000 - similar to Great Yarmouth or North Norfolk - is sitting on debt worth just under £2bn.

In terms of total borrowing, County Hall sits as the 25th most debt-laden authority in the UK but per person it is 185th.

There are almost 400 local authorities in the UK.

What have other councils said? 

West Norfolk Council said: “The Council has loan debt of £10m, taken in order to fund the Council’s Capital Programme, which includes a range of projects and schemes.  

“The Council only borrows towards its Capital Programme after careful consideration on value for money and other factors, in the interests and needs of residents and business in the area.” 

South Norfolk Cabinet member, Richard Elliott said: “The council borrowed £20m from the public loans board at very advantageous rates, an average of 2.4pc.  

“This money is used to help finance the council's £100m capital programme and is used to help provide community facilities, housing and temporary accommodation and to support major infrastructure projects.”