Norfolk and Suffolk county councils hold talks about working more closely together

PUBLISHED: 06:00 23 October 2013

Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs at The Forum in Norwich.

Norfolk County Council leader George Nobbs at The Forum in Norwich.

Archant © 2008

The leaders of Norfolk and Suffolk county councils have opened talks on closer cooperation which could lead to services being shared between them.

The increasing trend of public authorities working together

Although George Nobbs said “nothing has been decided” about the relationship between his county and Suffolk, the two authorities would not be the first to forge closer relations.

District councils in Suffolk are further down the road of sharing staff or merging services than those in Norfolk, with four chief executives between seven authorities, and some considering merging to form single bodies.

In Norfolk, only Breckland Council has a joint chief executive, shared with South Holland in Lincolnshire. Plans to extend the partnership to a third council, Great Yarmouth, fell through last year.

But although Norfolk district councils may not have merged structures, they increasingly work together to provide services, an early example being CNC Building Control, between South Norfolk, Norwich City, Broadland and West Norfolk councils.

Should the discussion between the county councils result in any shared services, it would pull in a different direction to a key recommendation in last year’s report into UK growth policy by Lord Heseltine, who called for county and district councils to be merged into single unitary authorities.

Councils are not the only public authorities to cross borders.

Norfolk and Suffolk police have merged their HR departments, dog sections, firearms units, roads policing and their communication teams, and could consider further opportunities to collaborate.

The Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust is responsible for mental health services in both counties. The East of England Ambulance Service covers six counties, but, in July, West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham called for it to be broken into smaller organisations as a result of poor performance.

Both councils ruled out a merger between two counties’ administrations, but they are set to sign a ‘memorandum of understanding’ on November 20 – St Edmund’s Day.

Norfolk County Council’s leader George Nobbs met his Suffolk counterpart Mark Bee last week to discuss the proposals.

Mr Bee said the closer relationship would lead to the two authorities sharing more “back office” services, although Mr Nobbs said “nothing has been decided” and “nobody’s jobs are affected by these talks”.

Norfolk County Council employs about 5,500 people, excluding teachers, while Suffolk County Council employs about 5,000.

The leader of Suffolk County Council, Mark Bee, pictured on the waterfront in Ipswich.The leader of Suffolk County Council, Mark Bee, pictured on the waterfront in Ipswich.

The prospect of sharing back office services will lead to concerns that jobs could be lost – however Mr Bee emphasised it was still early days.

Unison officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Mr Nobbs said: “From my first day as leader I realised it would make sense to work cooperatively with other councils, and clearly the obvious one to approach was Suffolk. Norfolk and Suffolk are two halves of a common East Anglian identity, so I have had some meetings with my counterpart Mark Bee. Things are at an early stage and when there is anything to announce we will do so.”

A number of district councils in Suffolk have merged their senior staff, as has Breckland Council in Norfolk, with South Holland Council in Lincolnshire.

However, asked whether the relationship between the two county councils would be similar to this model, Mr Nobbs said: “On the contrary. This is nothing like that sort of arrangement. This is two neighbours, two friends, talking to each other about how we help each other in these difficult times.”

He added: “It’s simply two neighbours who have got a river that separates them and they are talking to each other. That boundary, the Waveney, is something that should unite us in friendship rather than divide us in rivalry.”

Suffolk has said it needs to slash £156m from its budget over the next four years, while Norfolk has said it faces as £189m budget shortfall over the next three years.

Mr Nobbs said it “would be nice” if the talks led to financial savings.

The Suffolk leader said: “Local government is facing unprecedented financial challenges so it is incumbent on all of us to do everything we can to work together, cut waste and drive down costs.

“Suffolk is already leading the way in terms of working with other public sector organisations, including sharing office space with other councils and the police and delivering services together.

“There is absolutely no reason why joint working can’t transcend county borders and political divides. As council leader, I meet with other council leaders from time to time. George Nobbs and I met last week to progress discussions.”

And Mr Bee insisted political issues were not a major factor – he leads a Conservative majority administration in Suffolk, while Mr Nobbs is the Labour leader of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in Norfolk.

Norfolk Conservative leader Bill Borrett welcomed the discussions, and said the previous Tory administration had held preliminary talks with Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire county councils about working together.

He said: “Anything that makes local government more efficient is something I would support. The key thing is that the council is there to serve the people of Norfolk, and it’s the quality of services that matters. I worry very much less how services are provided.”

He said he could envisage a future where Norfolk and Suffolk merged their senior staff, if it was in the best interests of services.

Norfolk’s UKIP leader Toby Coke said: “I’m all for it. If you can share services or make efficiency savings to both councils then that’s a mutual benefit. I don’t know exactly what they have in the memorandum, but it’s something that’s to be encouraged.”

Brian Watkins, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said: “Certainly I think we are in an age in local government where there is a need for far more cooperation between local authorities and with other organisations within the public sector.

“If there’s some milage in exploring cooperation with another authority then obviously in theory that’s something that would be worth looking at, without knowing in particular which areas we are looking at

“It creates better cooperation between council and council, and often in a lot of situations it helps to drive down costs as well. If it’s on that sort of basis, in theory it’s probably worth exploring further.”

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