Norfolk County Council deadlock broken - but what next for Norfolk?
- Credit: Archant
The political deadlock at Norfolk County Council has been broken by the formation of a three-party 'rainbow alliance' to run the council: but questions are already being asked as to whether it will lead to increased democracy - or chaos.
Labour's George Nobbs has been voted in as leader at County Hall after the formation of an alliance between his party, the UK Independence Party and the Liberal Democrats.
The Greens and the sole independent councillor backed the alliance and made Mr Nobbs leader at an extraordinary meeting of the council, handing him a mandate to transform the way decisions are made by the council.
And, despite the political differences between the parties, Mr Nobbs last night pledged his administration would be strong enough to deal with the key challenges the council will face.
But the Conservatives, who failed in an attempt to form a minority administration themselves earlier this month, have questioned how the alliance will work and what this administration's policies will be.
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Mr Nobbs was elected leader by 42 votes to 38 and the council then voted 41 to 38 in favour of a motion proposed by UKIP leader Toby Coke, seconded by Richard Bearman, leader of the Green group to agree in principle to change Norfolk County Council's cabinet system of decision-making to a committee system.
Mr Nobbs, who represents Crome ward in Norwich, has said he will serve as leader for a year, the time it will take before that switch can be made, and will then step down.
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But in the meantime he acknowledged the county is 'facing problems' and said one of his priorities is to tackle the troubled children's services department.
The department has been criticised by Ofsted for not doing enough to improve the county's schools and to protect vulnerable children.
One of Mr Nobbs's first moves was to make his party colleague Mick Castle cabinet member for education and Lib Dem James Joyce cabinet member for safeguarding.
He said: 'There is a lot to do there, but I have made a start by dividing the children's services portfolio in two. I have done that first to show my intention to deal with that straight away.
'It's urgent that we sort that out because there have been failings there for too long and there does not appear to have been any sense of urgency or responsibility by our predecessors.'
Some UKIP councillors had previously called for Lisa Christensen, director of children's services to resign, but Mr Nobbs said it was 'far too early' to say what action would be taken over the department.
The remainder of the new cabinet is expected to be announced in the days ahead, but Mr Nobbs said he would be working closely with the Liberal Democrats in running the authority. UKIP are not seeking places on the cabinet, which is understood to have been a condition of the national Labour party agreeing to what, on the face of it, is an unusual alliance.
But former Norfolk County Council leader Bill Borrett, whose group saw its majority of 34 whittled away in the elections, has questioned how the parties will work together effectively.
He said 'We are very proud of our record over the last four years, but the council still faces some very challenging conditions ahead.
'We will continue to work to make sure that the interests of the residents of Norfolk are at the heart of all the decisions made by this new administration.
'We are concerned that it is still not clear what the new administration's policies are given the wide range of parties involved, and we urge them to share them as soon as possible.
'Norfolk is the most important issue here and the Conservatives will do all they can to make sure that this is properly understood at County Hall.'
But Mr Nobbs hit back. He said: 'If I didn't think I could form a strong and capable administration for Norfolk, I would not have been so presumptuous as to try to do that.
'We know what Mr Borrett's policies were, which led to some of the worst Ofsted reports anyone can remember and to ram the incinerator through without it ever being discussed by all councillors.
'Our policy will be to put right the failings of the previous administration. Obviously the state of our schools and children's services are crucial and we need to sort those out straight away. That's the most urgent task.'
He said the council faced key decisions, not least the need to make further savings and acknowledged there could be differences of opinion between the parties, such as UKIP's desire to cut council tax.
He said: 'In my administration the councillors will have a substantial say on decisions like that. On something like the budget I'd like there to be a number of options on how we decide on our spending.
'UKIP are entitled to their views, as are other parties, and it's up to us all to make a judgement on what we decide.'
A motion put forward by Conservative John Dobson three weeks ago means there will be a debate about the incinerator at King's Lynn next month.
When asked if the new alliance meant the plug would now be pulled on that controversial plant, Mr Nobbs said: 'The council will make a decision on that, all 84 of them. That's the difference between this administration and the previous one.'
UKIP leader Toby Coke insisted, despite the differences between the parties, the alliance would work. He said: 'We do have certain things in common. One is the return to a committee system, because we need to do something about the democratic deficit.
'The second is the incinerator, although some parties more so than others. UKIP are dead against it, and those two points are the opposite of what the Conservatives stand for.
'There are differences on national policy, but on critical things such as those two, and on the urgent need to look at children's services, we are united.' On his group not seeking cabinet posts, Mr Coke said, with 14 of his group's 15 councillors new to the role, they had to 'learn to walk before they could run'.
With the new administration committed to scrapping the cabinet system - where a group of senior councillors are the main decision-making body - and replacing it with a committee system, Green leader Mr Bearman said that had been key to his group's decision to back Mr Nobbs.
'We think the alliance is the best way to get a system of governance we want into the council, which is why we supported the motion,' he said, stressing his group had not joined the alliance.
He added: 'I hope it goes well. I share some reservations and concerns about George Nobbs as leader, but we shall see very soon how things go.'
He added his group would look at things on an issue-by-issue basis.
Dr Marie Strong, leader of the Lib Dems, who had previously put forward a motion for the council to consider a return to the committee system, said she believed it was the right way forward.
Following the elections, the political make-up of the council is 40 Conservatives, 15 UKIP, 14 Labour, 10 Lib Dems, four Greens and one independent.