‘This is a business’ - how South Norfolk Council is taking a commercial approach to help deal with funding shortfall

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller. Picture: ROSE SAPEY

South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller. Picture: ROSE SAPEY - Credit: Rose Sapey

As money gets tight, councils across the country have bluntly admitted that taxpayers may have to pay more and yet see a cutback in their services.

But while it has put its share of the council tax bill up for the first time in several years, South Norfolk Council believes it can chart a different path – and ensure residents get broadly the same services they've always had.

Like most local authorities, South Norfolk's leader John Fuller believes: 'We're in a difficult situation.'

With changes nationally to how councils are funded, cash from Whitehall to councils will fall to zero by 2019.

Elsewhere in the UK, that has already meant public assets being sold or handed over to other bodies, extra charges and some services stopped entirely.

But Mr Fuller said all that would be a 'last resort' and said of the funding reduction: 'Our challenge is to make that in extra income.'

It is a radically different approach from other councils and government departments, which have openly cut back on staff and services.

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It is not all plain sailing – the council has had to reduce its pots of grants for community projects from £150,000 to £50,000. It also admits it won't have as much money to support market towns in the future.

But Mr Fuller's mantra is that the council will 'prefer to make a pound than cut a pound'.

Indeed his main opponent on the council, Liberal Democrat group leader Trevor Lewis, said: 'You don't see any significant intention of it stopping doing things.'

Mr Fuller added: 'Like most councils we have got to live off our wits.

'It is a commercial approach. We are not just being business-like – this is a business.

'Even if we put council tax up to the maximum, we still have a reduction in funding.'

Mr Lewis said he was 'fairly relaxed' about the council's proposed budget for the year ahead, of which its commercial goals are core.

But he said: 'I'm more concerned about the longer term.'

The 'commercialisation of our services' that Mr Fuller describes is a key part of his approach.

For example, South Norfolk doesn't only run its own building control services but is paid by five other local authorities to run theirs.

'That money helps keep council tax down,' he argued.

However as many doctors would say, prevention is always better than cure.

And while it has spent a considerable amount in some areas, Mr Fuller believes some of the investments South Norfolk Council has made in recent years will prevent larger costs.

For example, much money has been spent on refurbishing the leisure centres in Wymondham and Diss.

'If that keeps youngsters off the Pringles, they'll stay fit and healthier for longer,' he explained.

But while Mr Lewis believes the council's more commercial approach is generally necessary, he said: 'It's got some fairly courageous aspirations, particularly in terms of leisure facilities.

'There is a lot more competition out there in the leisure market and I do get nervous when councils who are not commercial animals by nature end up going toe-to-toe with market firms, who live and die by making a profit.

'I hope this council has the know-how to do it, or the sense to get advice. It's got to have some pretty good commercial experts.'

Yet although he regrets the 3.7pc rise in South Norfolk's share of the council tax, which will mean a £5 per year increase on the bill for an average Band D property, Mr Lewis admitted the alternative was stark.

'If we were proposing having lower council tax, we'd have to propose cutting doing something, which we don't want to see – or we'd have to propose taking money out of reserves, which I don't think is a sensible thing at the moment,' he said.

What do you think about the council tax rise? Write, giving your full contact details, to: andrew.papworth@archant.co.uk

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