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‘Disappointed’ - council slammed for ‘backslapping’ over coronavirus response

PUBLISHED: 17:35 11 May 2020 | UPDATED: 17:52 11 May 2020

Norfolk County Council leader Andrew Proctor during the council's first remote cabinet meeting. Photo: Dan Grimmer

Norfolk County Council leader Andrew Proctor during the council's first remote cabinet meeting. Photo: Dan Grimmer

Archant

Councillors have been criticised for “backslapping” during a “heavily scripted” virtual meeting to discuss the county’s response to the Covid-19 crisis.

County Hall in Norwich. Norfolk County Council leader Andrew Proctor (left) and opposition Labour leader Steve Morphew (right). Picture: Norfolk County Council/Neil Perry/Denise BradleyCounty Hall in Norwich. Norfolk County Council leader Andrew Proctor (left) and opposition Labour leader Steve Morphew (right). Picture: Norfolk County Council/Neil Perry/Denise Bradley

Norfolk county council’s cabinet met remotely earlier today (Monday, May 11) for the first time since the UK entered lockdown seven weeks ago.

Cabinet members outlined the impact of the pandemic on the council’s finances, the county’s economy, children’s services and adult social care, among other areas.

But councillors drew criticism from opposition parties for a lack of detailed information and “heavily scripted” discussions.

Council leader Andrew Proctor opened the meeting, and said: “Locally and nationally we seem to be over the peak but it’s not a case of back to normal.”

He said the phases of the crisis were responding, normalisation and recovery, while Graham Plant, deputy leader, outlined two plans for an economic bounceback over the next 12 months, and five years.

Mr Plant said economic sectors most likely to take a hit as harvest and high season arrived were farming, hospitality and tourism.

And Tom Fitzpatrick, member for innovation, said the crisis had transformed the way the council works and added: “NCC has acquitted itself very well.”

Mr Proctor added: “We still have major challenges ahead so there’s no way we can be complacent.”

He said the “battle continues to go on” in the county’s care homes and pledged to ensure the sector is well supported.

But the leader of Labour group, Steve Morphew, said the cabinet should have offered more detail.

He said: “I was disappointed the first half hour was spent reading out what was on the agenda.

“Beyond that there was little discussion of important issues and - while people need credit for their work - a lot of backslapping.”

Liberal Democract councillor Dan Roper called the meeting “heavily scripted” and “a missed opportunity with little effective forward planning”.

Liberal Democrat group leader Steffan Aquarone called for an independent inquiry into Norfolk’s handling of the crisis.

Mr Proctor said: “I’m disappointed opposition leaders haven’t recognised what’s really important - our efforts to keep vulnerable people safe and critical services running during these unprecedented times.

“Our meeting was open to public questions, although we did not receive any on this occasion.

“We are starting to look at the council’s response and what lessons can be learnt – including through the scrutiny committee.”

Andrew Jamieson, cabinet member for finance, also told the cabinet about the impact the coronavirus outbreak was set to have on council funding.

The council has already forecasted a projected £19m overspend for 2021-22, and Mr Jamieson warned that “without a response from the government the impact of coronavirus will be felt by the people of Norfolk”.

He added: “We will need to find an additional £17-18m to deliver a balanced budget. We are looking at much higher savings.”

It follows outrage from local authorities over claims of ministerial backtracking on financial support, after Robert Jenrick, communities secretary, warned councils not to “labour under a false impression” that excessive coronavirus-related costs would be reimbursed.

“Government will need to hold fast to its promise to deliver ‘whatever it takes’ if we are to deliver a balanced budget,” Mr Jamieson said.

“Robert Jenrick has said that councils were the unsung heroes of the pandemic response - we have proven we can rise to the challenge.

“All we need is fair and sustainable funding.”

The cabinet agreed to use money from the two tranches of government cash received so far to make up added spending pressures, income reduction and lost savings.

The council will also review its financial planning for 2021-25, which will be presented to cabinet next month.


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