'Trust us' says City Hall

SHAUN LOWTHORPE Norwich City Council has insisted it could be trusted to handle the purse strings if it were given 'home rule' despite a watchdog report giving the council bottom marks for financial management.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Norwich City Council has insisted it could be trusted to handle the purse strings if it were given 'home rule' despite a watchdog report giving the council bottom marks for financial management.

The Audit Commission report today assesses how adept councils are at providing value for money and handling budgets.

Norwich City Council, which has been shortlisted to become a new one-size-fits-all unitary council by the government, managed an overall score of 'one' - flatlining in four out of five categories and deemed 'inadequate' and below minimum requirements.

But last night, the city council's Labour leader Steve Morphew insisted the findings - which are for the 2005/06 financial year - reflected the mess his party had inherited from the Liberal Democrats, when auditors threatened to send in a hit squad to sort out the budget after it emerged that finances had shot £2m into the red and councillors were kept in the dark until the last minute about the overspend.

Ironically, the best-performing council was neighbouring Broadland which was given a 'three' rating for 'performing well' and consistently above minimum requirements, yet could be under threat if the unitary plans get the go-ahead.

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Yarmouth also saw a drop from a 'two' to 'one' rating.

Overall, the watchdog found that districts were getting better at managing their finances, and more than half performed above minimum requirements, though a handful were still lagging behind.

Mr Morphew said performance was now improving.

“I think the scores are awful but they relate to 2005/06 and we did not even take office until May last year which is after the financial year ended,” he said. “We are turning it around and things are a lot better than last year. I'm not pretending for a moment we can do it all in one year, but everything looks a lot more positive than it was.

“We are not prepared to be anything less than excellent and that's going to take a couple of years,” he said.

Simon Woodbridge, leader of Broadland District Council, said he was delighted with his council's performance but warned the findings should sound an alarm call to ministers not to press ahead with the unitary plans. “We have got a mandate from last week's election to fight this unitary bid,” he said.

Daniel Cox, leader of Norfolk County Council, said: “It raises serious questions about their fitness to take on complex and demand-led services such as elderly people and looked-after children. The budgets are quite volatile and you need good financial control.

A score of one out of four certainly undermines their assessment that their problems are behind them. Compared to other districts, they come sixth bottom out of 238 councils,” he said.

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