Shelved Norfolk fire service takeover process used up £150,000 of taxpayers' cash
PUBLISHED: 16:30 11 December 2018 | UPDATED: 16:41 11 December 2018
Archant Norfolk 2016
The shelved proposal to explore whether Norfolk's police and crime commissioner should take over the county's fire service cost almost £150,000, it has emerged.
Conservative commissioner Lorne Green was at loggerheads with Tory-run Norfolk County Council over the future of the fire service, which County Hall runs.
But in November he announced he would not be submitting a final business case for taking the service over to the government – despite an eight-week consultation in which 59pc of more than 7,700 people who responded supported a switch. He said the county council’s continued opposition meant it was not possible to achieve local consensus, with the possibility of a legal challenge from the council had he pressed ahead.
It was already known that Mr Green’s office had spent almost £100,000 on the process, including commissioning Grant Thornton to draw up an options appraisal.
But it has now emerged the county council spent close to £50,000 and an estimated 980 hours of staff time on the process, including on a business case for why the service should remain under County Hall control.
When this newspaper asked the county council what the cost was, we were initially told it was just £870 for “external publicity resource”.
However, a question from Labour’s Mile Cross county councillor Chrissie Rumsby at a full council meeting revealed it was actually in the region of £49,000. And Andrew Proctor, leader of the Conservative-controlled council said: “In terms of the whole process, that was money well spent in dealing with this situation. We can do an awful lot more to collaborate together.”
Mr Green, who will not be seeking re-election to the commissioner role when his stint comes to an end in 2020, had previously said the expenditure was worth it.
He said he had been “duty bound” to investigate if the switch could save money.
And he said the work would lead to changes and increased collaboration between the fire service and the police. He stressed the situation remained ‘under review’.
Steve Morphew, leader of the opposition Labour group at Norfolk County Council, said: “Money wasted on this failed, flawed and pointless power grab would have been better spent on front-line services and policing.”
Dan Roper, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said: “It was a Lib Dem proposal that the council prepares its own business case to counter the attempted police and crime commissioner takeover.
“This spending led to the right outcome for Norfolk. Given the overall cost to the taxpayer of this bid by the PCC. I hope the issue is laid to rest once and for all.”
How did this happen?
Under the Policing and Crime Act 2017, the government made it possible for police and crime commissioners to also take control of fire authorities.
Lorne Green said he felt “duty bound” to commission an independent report. Grant Thornton concluded the ‘preferred option’ would be to transfer control to him from the county council.
The county council rejected that conclusion and urged Mr Green to drop it. But, with the county’s MPs saying it needed further exploration, he tasked Grant Thornton with putting together a full business case.
After looking at the case, which said £10m of savings could be made over 10 years, he started eight weeks of consultation with the public.
But Norfolk County Council continued to oppose any change, while questioning the savings figures. The Norfolk branch of the Fire Brigades Union petitioned against it.
And Mr Green decided to shelve the proposals - for now.
Spending at a time of cuts and savings
The spending of £150,000 over the fire service proposals comes at a time when cuts are being made by both councils and the police.
Earlier this year, Norfolk police abolished all of its PCSO roles and closed seven public enquiry offices as it looked to make £10m of savings.
Chief Constable Simon Bailey said the need for savings and a rise in complex crimes meant he had to look at policing differently, with 176 PCSOs axed. Ninety-seven police officers and staff roles were created instead.
At Norfolk County Council, which is proposing a 2.99pc council tax increase in 2019/20, the council needs to find £78.5m savings over the next four years.
The council has agreed cuts to mobile libraries, is consulting over proposals which would close all but seven children’s centres and is looking to change charging policies for some adult social care users, which could see some have to contribute more to care costs.