Norfolk’s budget “cannot be without pain” warns council leader

Norfolk people are facing the reality of the largest cuts in local services in a generation after county councillors approved a budget package that would see funding being reduced by �60m in the next 12 months and the loss of about 1,000 jobs.

Norfolk County Council members yesterday voted by 54 votes to 21, with one abstention, to approve a budget that will see services being pared back across the board as County Hall wrestles with a �155m budget shortfall in the next three years.

This follows a 28pc cut in government funding despite rising demand.

Council leader Derrick Murphy said implementing the budget – which includes freezing County Hall's share of the overall council tax bill – would be a mammoth task and that some of the cuts would begin to be felt in the next six weeks.

But he added that many of the staff affected would start to receive redundancy notices from as early as this week: the rest would learn their fate over the next 12 months.

'This is a tough budget, but I believe it is a fair one, even though it cannot be without pain,' Mr Murphy said. 'The task to deliver the savings to meet the grant reduction of �29.44m will have to start in just six weeks time. So, though making the decisions today will be tough, we can expect the implementation of those decisions to be even tougher, and I recognise that.

'None of us should be surprised at the passion generated by our budget proposals, expressed during the course of the Big Conversation.

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'People are rightly passionate about their county and their services and their jobs. It is that concern, that passion, that makes Norfolk the county it is. But needs must, and those needs are very great indeed.'

The five-hour meeting started amid angry and unprecedented scenes in the council chamber – the budget debate was abandoned for some 30 minutes as police and the council's security staff were called in to eject a handful of protesters from the public gallery after noisy protests from some in the audience who wanted to ask questions. Two people were arrested and the gallery was temporarily cleared.

Earlier, about 250 people held a peaceful 'Valentine's Day Massacre' protest outside County Hall organised by the Norfolk Coalition Against the Cuts (NCAC). They urged the authority to think again, particularly about a �3m cut in youth services and the scaling-back of some family intervention work, including the closure of the Unthank Centre in Norwich.

With feelings running high about the budget plans, an NCAC spokesman said it was understandable some people would want to have their say.

'Those arrested were expressing the views of most decent people in Norfolk: that cuts are not acceptable and will hurt the most vulnerable,' he said.

'We applaud their protest. They were acting on behalf of the many people in Norfolk who have no other means to voice their opposition.

'Those councillors who voted to implement the cuts must understand that they will not be allowed to quietly walk away back to their comfortable lives believing they can get away with this act of vandalism. It is right that they were given a hard time today: they should understand this is just the beginning.'

Despite the outbursts and attempted opposition amendments, there was to be no going back on the vast majority of the plans, although the administration did unveil a �900,000 Big Society-style idea to help support communities looking to provide local youth services; also, it revealed that the authority was using cash from a government grant to pay for 12 new fire engines instead of borrowing the �250,000 needed.

Paul Morse, Liberal Democrat group leader at County Hall – who urged the council to consider his party's plan for a sell-off of some county farmland to offset cuts in children's services – said the administration's plans would hammer young people. He warned too of the creation of a 'forgotten generation' who would have no stake in society.

'This attack on young people is going to have dire consequences for communities,' Mr Morse said. 'We will see higher school absenteeism, higher levels of anti-social behaviour, higher teenage pregnancy rates... That is dangerous territory.

'This is a budget of no creativity and no imagination whatsoever.'

Green Party councillor Andrew Boswell described plans to cut family support services as staggeringly stupid. But the party's alternative budget, which included a 10pc salary cut for high-earners paid more than �80,000 and stopping work on the Norwich northern distributor road, was soundly defeated.

A rival motion by the Labour group that would have raided the county's commercial services offshoot, Norse, for funds was also voted down.