'Golden handcuffs' for council workers

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Hundreds of workers for the Norfolk council most affected by Norwich's move towards home rule are to be offered special “golden handcuff” payments to try and stop them quitting.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Hundreds of workers for the Norfolk council most affected by Norwich's move towards home rule are to be offered special “golden handcuff” payments to try and stop them quitting.

Such is the uncertainty at Broadland council about its future that its leaders are already proposing a loyalty bonus to head off an exodus of staff in a bid to keep services running ahead of any switch to a new unitary city council, probably in 2010.

Ministers are minded to grant City Hall its wish for a Greater Norwich council taking in parts of Broadland and South Norfolk, subject to a boundary review.

But it has sparked fears of a brain drain as staff, fearful their jobs are to disappear, leave their posts - prompting the proposed use of public funds to stem the tide.

The controversial home rule move would see a complete overhaul of council services across Norfolk and the demise of the current two-tier system of county council and district councils.

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A decision is likely to be months off, but Broadland council chief executive Colin Bland is urging councillors to back the loyalty payments - exact details of which are not yet clear.

He said: “Broadland looks as if it is going to be broken in two. If we lose staff and we can't attract people we have either got to say the service isn't going to be provided or look at expensive agency staff. That's the stark choice.”

Mid Norfolk MP Keith Simpson said the council was caught between a rock and a hard place and accused ministers of 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink' decision-making.

“The people who lose out are the residents and local government employees, not just in Broadland but across Norfolk. I have every sympathy for them,” he said. “I think it's dreadful.”

Broadland council is likely to oppose the changes. It is urging the government to hold independent ballots into the unitary issue to gauge public feeling and has yet to rule out a legal challenge to secretary of state's actions.

It is also warning ministers that disruption caused by the overhaul means it is unlikely the council will deliver on government imposed efficiency targets.

In a report to councillors, Mr Bland says the council should adopt a parallel approach alongside opposition because he is concerned that the uncertainty caused by the government's announcement will mean some staff decide to leave and it will be extremely difficult to replace them.

Councillors are being asked to consider awarding workers a lump sum loyalty payment based on salary for committing to work between September 2007 and April 2009, with a further payment at March 2010.

Other measures include swapping non-pay perks such as lease cars and Bupa health insurance for cash. Workers could also be allowed to “sell leave” to the council to provide more staff resources.

Last night, Mr Bland insisted the measures were necessary to keep services going and were not a bribe.

“I would say it is to encourage them,” he said. “If we can encourage staff to stay, we won't even have to face that problem.”

Money for the loyalty bonuses would be taken from the council's reserves, and the authority's lawyer has advised the measures are lawful - but the council should take further legal advice once a detailed proposal has been drawn up.

Councillors are also being asked to look at reletting contracts so they expire by March 2010 and consider whether to complete the £4m revamp of the council's Thorpe Lodge headquarters.

“Of all the Norwich councils we are at the greatest risk because we have got the smallest staffing complement,” said Mr Bland.

“We are going to advertise a couple of posts shortly and that will be the real test of whether we can recruit or not. It's a big issue, particularly for Broadland.”

The council is also looking at whether to spend £10,000-£15,000 on a special edition of Broadland News for residents setting out the case both for and against change.

In his report, Mr Bland says a team of officers should begin looking at different unitary options and the council is asking ministers to place an obligation on both Norwich City and Norfolk County councils to provide information needed to form a view.

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