Norfolk council leader to quit

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Norfolk County Council leader Shaun Murphy is to step down after only a year in post, it emerged today

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

The race is on to find a new leader for Norfolk County Council after Shaun Murphy announced that he was quitting after only a year in post.

In a surprise move, Mr Murphy, who replaced Alison King last year, said he would not seek re-election as Tory leader on March 30 and wanted to give his successor enough time to settle in ahead of the next election.

County Hall was awash with speculation about Mr Murphy's decision to go including whether he had stepped down ahead of a possible leadership challenge.

But last night he said that the next election in 2009 would mark a decade as a councillor and that he wanted to enjoy his retirement.

Mr Murphy said he was quitting on a high note and brushed aside claims that a recent peer review had been critical of his "weak" leadership style.

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He added that a recent family holiday helped him make up his mind to step back from the punishing work schedule involved with the council leader's job.

Mr Murphy said: "I spoke to the chief executive and my deputy several weeks ago that I was seriously thinking about standing down.

"This is not a decision that I have taken lightly because this has been quite a remarkable 12 months, in which the council has achieved a number of notable successes.

"Services for children and adults have improved to two star performances and both are on track to continue improving.

"The Audit Commission has just awarded the county council four out of a possible four stars for its performance overall and, more importantly, our improvements to public services are being recognised by local people.

"That is why overall satisfaction with the council has also improved this year against a declining trend nationally.

"Although I never expected to be leader, I was glad to step into the breach after Alison King left to move abroad.

"However, I have recently decided not to seek re-election as a county councillor at the next county elections in 2009, and I firmly believe that the party and the council need to give its leader a two-year run-in to embed improvements and see policies through."

"It has been a real privilege to be leader of the council - and because the council is now a £1bn-plus public service organisation - it has also been pretty much of a full-time job," he added.

"While I remain on the council, it goes without saying that I will continue to serve my constituents to the best of my ability. I also wish my successor very well in his or her new role, because being leader of Norfolk County Council and able to help shape its services for the better, really is a most tremendous privilege."

The leader of the Conservative Group is elected each year at its annual general meeting and as the largest party on the council, the leader's name would automatically go forward to full council for appointment as leader of the county council.

Mr Murphy's replacement will be decided at the next full meeting of the county council, which will now take place on April 2 immediately prior to the scheduled cabinet meeting.