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'Weak, divided': Council leadership slammed by £1k-a-day consultant

PUBLISHED: 06:30 23 December 2019 | UPDATED: 11:42 23 December 2019

A consultant, brought in by leader of the Liberal Democrats Sarah Butikofer has heavily criticised the corporate leadership of North Norfolk District Council. Photo: Liberal Democrats.

A consultant, brought in by leader of the Liberal Democrats Sarah Butikofer has heavily criticised the corporate leadership of North Norfolk District Council. Photo: Liberal Democrats.

Liberal Democrats

A council is set to overhaul its leadership in the new year after consultants branded it as "weak and divided".

Steve Blatch, joint head of paid service at North Norfolk District Council. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYSteve Blatch, joint head of paid service at North Norfolk District Council. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The consultant, Peter Thomas Ltd, was brought in at North Norfolk District Council in May by the new Liberal Democrat administration to look at how the council was operating.

The consultant's report has never been published but a copy has now been given to this newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act.

It made a series of damning findings including "serious concerns" about a "weak and divided" senior leadership.

The findings were rejected by the opposition Conservatives.

Joint head of paid service at North Norfolk District Council Nick Baker. Picture: Ian BurtJoint head of paid service at North Norfolk District Council Nick Baker. Picture: Ian Burt

The report recommended replacing the council's two current heads of paid service with one chief executive.

It also found there was an "unhealthy 'them and us' gap" between councillors and paid staff at NNDC.

It added there was a "top down culture that stifles ideas", a "lack of accountability" and "insufficient focus on customers".

Council leader Sarah Bütikofer said the report had confirmed many of her beliefs about how the council had been run under years of Conservative rule.

Conservative leader Duncan Baker criticised the report for hitting staff morale. Picture: Denise BradleyConservative leader Duncan Baker criticised the report for hitting staff morale. Picture: Denise Bradley

"It is a very upsetting report for staff," she said. "But it has given us the starting point for where we need to start fixing things.

"I'm not surprised by anything in the report."

She confirmed she wanted to see one chief executive at the council rather than two heads of paid service - currently Steve Blatch and Nick Baker.

Mrs Bütikofer said by February actions from the report would be taken.

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Messrs Baker and Blatch said in a private response to the report in July that they accepted many of its findings, but it should be put in the context of a new LibDem leadership coming in.

They said: "The council as an organisation has continued to deliver at a high level."

Conservative leader and North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker said: "Under the Conservatives, NNDC was one of the top performing councils in the country, led by Nick Baker and Steve Blatch who are excellent chief executives.

"Under the Lib Dems, a huge amount of public money has already been wasted, and staff morale has collapsed.

"Given the serious concerns about the report, no decisions should be taken based on it."

-Investigation into £30k report

The commissioning of the 'capability review' was marred by controversy when it emerged the work had been awarded to Peter Thomas Ltd - a contact of senior LibDem councillor Karen Ward - without the council following its usual rules.

Council rules state it should seek three quotes for work worth more than £5,000 and Peter Thomas Ltd was paid £30,000.

Instead an exemption was given by the council's finance chief Duncan Ellis and senior solicitor Emma Duncan.

Mrs Bütikofer said a committee of councillors had found no individual was at fault, but she said the council's procedures would change.

The Conservatives called for an independent investigation and said the LibDem handling of the matter was "completely unacceptable".

"There must be proper scrutiny of this contract award and the conduct of the members and officers involved in it," North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker said.

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