Farm sell off could ease cuts

Vulnerable youngsters and older people could be spared from painful cuts under a radical opposition plan to sell off council owned farm land in Norfolk aimed at overhauling how children in care are looked after and protecting preventative services.

Today sees the closure of Norfolk County Council's Big Conversation which includes controversial plans to cut a raft of services and jobs in a bid to bridge a �155m funding black hole.

But the Conservative run authority is being urged by the opposition Liberal Democrats to back a plan to sell-off a slice of its 16,000 acre county farm estate and use the cash to build eight new specialist facilities in Norfolk for children in care.

Currently the county council spends nearly �20m on out of county placements for youngsters. But the Lib Dems argue that the creation of purpose built facilities would cost less than half that to run, and the remaining �10m could be used on sparing youth services and preventative services for older people from potentially devastating cuts.

County Hall has received more than 2,000 responses to its proposals ranging from outright hostility and fears about the devastating consquences they would have, to support and suggested improvements.

Lib Dem leader Paul Morse said that the scale of the funding crisis meant that radical action was needed, but the sell-off would be a win-win as it would end the costly practice of sending youngsters in care to out-of-county facilities. And his party is pressing for rules about the minimum size of the estate, which were only agreed in the last 12 months, to be changed to enable a sell-off.

'It takes a fundamental crisis like this to really try and get to grips with it,' Mr Morse said. 'You could save �10m a year through this process and that's money that could be used on the services for the vulnerable of all ages that are currently under threat.

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'Ever since I have been on the county council, the looked after children's budget has been a problem,' Mr Morse added. 'People have talked about it without ever thinking through what could be done to cope with it.

'We face this huge challenge, county farms were created to provide opportunities for soldiers returning from the First World War, 100 years on the responsibilities of the county council are very different. It's all about priorities.'

The proposal is the centre piece of the Lib Dem's budget proposals which they are urging the Conservatives to take on board

Mr Morse said other plans would include a 10pc cut in councillors' allowances, pay cuts for senior officers, scrapping the council's Your Norfolk magazine, and scaling back its PR budget.

'We will be making proposals to reduce member allowances, we are talking about 10pc which gives �100,000, we are looking at senior officers' pay, and we are looking at the communications budget really closely,' he added. 'Do we really need Your Norfolk at all? Do we need as many press releases as they put out? We would also cut the chairman's budget.'

Ian Mackie, deputy council leader and cabinet member for finance and performance, said it was too early to be drawn on individual plans.

'It is premature to start speculating and commenting on individual proposals, nor comment on opposition ideas ahead of the close of the consultation, scrutiny panels, cabinet and full council,' Mr Mackie said. 'The county council has a sensible position of maintaining the county estate for the benefit of future generations, and salami slicing one-off portions doesn't on face value appear to be a sustainable way to set a budget of more than �1bn. However, we do welcome suggestions and look forward to exploring them at the appropriate time, remembering that the administration has the responsibility to set the whole budget for the entire council and set the medium term financial plan.'