ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE

February 22, 2011 10:00 AM

In a sombre mood, TPA supporter John Martin describes Norfolk County Council’s budget setting meeting and its aftermath.

Sadly, it is all too commonplace now to see televised reports of council meetings at which members of the public are ejected by security guards from the public gallery. Inevitably, they will be meetings at which financial cuts are being made. It was the same at Norfolk County Council (NCC) on 14th February. The five-hour meeting started with such scenes as the NCC chairman, Cllr Tony Tomkinson, read the riot act before the ball was hardly in play.

The leader, Cllr Derrick Murphy, explained that the “Big Conversation” exercise that NCC had carried out had resulted in responses from more than 9,000 people and organisations, and told us that he and is colleagues had listened to those very carefully. This, he said, was going to be the most significant budget since NCC was formed. I noticed, however, that despite this of the eighty-four members, eleven had not bothered to turn up for the meeting. One of those was known to be ill, but what about the other ten?

The controlling Tory group was intent on passing a budget that would achieve £60m in savings over the coming year, although the central government grant cut will be less than half that, and with its huge majority success was guaranteed. (That did not stop some of the Tory members giving themselves a round of applause at the end of the meeting, a gesture that will be remembered and that some of their colleagues may well regret at the district council elections in May.)

It is not necessary to list the cuts here. They would cause no surprises. Suffice it to say, the vulnerable – including the young and the elderly – came in for a hammering. Possibly as many as 1,000 staff will lose their jobs during the year, largely those who would actually have been providing at the sharp end the services that have been cut. One member of the public sitting behind me in the public gallery wondered out aloud whether this is what we had all urged in our responses to the Big Conversation. What I want to mention instead are some of the cuts that were not made, despite a valiant try by members of the opposition groups to persuade the Tory opposition that they should be.

NCC at the moment pays out £1.1m in allowances to its members, plus travel and subsistence expenses. Some do fairly well. Cllr Derrick Murphy and his wife, Cllr Janet Murphy – who is a deputy cabinet member – receive a total of £50K between them. Cllr Iain Mackie, the deputy leader, is paid £25K by NCC. All have outside work or business interests. But despite arguments by opposition members about the need to be seen to be sharing the pain, the Tories resolutely refused to consider any reduction in allowances whatsoever.

They similarly opposed any attempts to seek agreement on the principle of asking senior officers to renegotiate their terms of employment. One chief officer’s role has recently been scrapped, but that still leaves the five remaining chief officers taking home – on the most recent figures available – £888K between them. At the top of the list is David White, the chief executive, on £263K. So much for Eric Pickles' attempts to do something about chief officers’ pay.

Then it may be a small amount of money in comparison, but NCC awards a sum of money each year to the chairman to spend on his or her “civic and ceremonial duties”. At present, this amounts to £75K. Again, the Tories would not agree to that being withdrawn, or even reduced. Three or possibly four much needed youth workers could have been kept in employment in the former case.

As much to vent my frustration as anything else, I wrote e-mails to a number of members afterwards, including Cllr Tony Tomkinson, the chairman, asking them questions about their approach. I almost felt encouraged to do this by Cllr Derrick Murphy’s statement at the start of the meeting to the effect that the Big Conversation was not over; that it was an ongoing process. The only member to reply was Cllr Alison Thomas. She is the cabinet member with responsibility for children’s services.

I asked Cllr Thomas this: “With the cuts in the share of the budget for which you hold the portfolio, can NCC any longer justify employing a director of children’s services who last financial year was paid £175K?” She simply replied: “Yes”. I conclude, therefore, that the Big Conversation is indeed ongoing.In a sombre mood, TPA supporter John Martin describes Norfolk County Council’s budget setting meeting and its aftermath.

Sadly, it is all too commonplace now to see televised reports of council meetings at which members of the public are ejected by security guards from the public gallery. Inevitably, they will be meetings at which financial cuts are being made. It was the same at Norfolk County Council (NCC) on 14th February. The five-hour meeting started with such scenes as the NCC chairman, Cllr Tony Tomkinson, read the riot act before the ball was hardly in play.

The leader, Cllr Derrick Murphy, explained that the “Big Conversation” exercise that NCC had carried out had resulted in responses from more than 9,000 people and organisations, and told us that he and is colleagues had listened to those very carefully. This, he said, was going to be the most significant budget since NCC was formed. I noticed, however, that despite this of the eighty-four members, eleven had not bothered to turn up for the meeting. One of those was known to be ill, but what about the other ten?

The controlling Tory group was intent on passing a budget that would achieve £60m in savings over the coming year, although the central government grant cut will be less than half that, and with its huge majority success was guaranteed. (That did not stop some of the Tory members giving themselves a round of applause at the end of the meeting, a gesture that will be remembered and that some of their colleagues may well regret at the district council elections in May.)

It is not necessary to list the cuts here. They would cause no surprises. Suffice it to say, the vulnerable – including the young and the elderly – came in for a hammering. Possibly as many as 1,000 staff will lose their jobs during the year, largely those who would actually have been providing at the sharp end the services that have been cut. One member of the public sitting behind me in the public gallery wondered out aloud whether this is what we had all urged in our responses to the Big Conversation. What I want to mention instead are some of the cuts that were not made, despite a valiant try by members of the opposition groups to persuade the Tory opposition that they should be.

NCC at the moment pays out £1.1m in allowances to its members, plus travel and subsistence expenses. Some do fairly well. Cllr Derrick Murphy and his wife, Cllr Janet Murphy – who is a deputy cabinet member – receive a total of £50K between them. Cllr Iain Mackie, the deputy leader, is paid £25K by NCC. All have outside work or business interests. But despite arguments by opposition members about the need to be seen to be sharing the pain, the Tories resolutely refused to consider any reduction in allowances whatsoever.

They similarly opposed any attempts to seek agreement on the principle of asking senior officers to renegotiate their terms of employment. One chief officer’s role has recently been scrapped, but that still leaves the five remaining chief officers taking home – on the most recent figures available – £888K between them. At the top of the list is David White, the chief executive, on £263K. So much for Eric Pickles' attempts to do something about chief officers’ pay.

Then it may be a small amount of money in comparison, but NCC awards a sum of money each year to the chairman to spend on his or her “civic and ceremonial duties”. At present, this amounts to £75K. Again, the Tories would not agree to that being withdrawn, or even reduced. Three or possibly four much needed youth workers could have been kept in employment in the former case.

As much to vent my frustration as anything else, I wrote e-mails to a number of members afterwards, including Cllr Tony Tomkinson, the chairman, asking them questions about their approach. I almost felt encouraged to do this by Cllr Derrick Murphy’s statement at the start of the meeting to the effect that the Big Conversation was not over; that it was an ongoing process. The only member to reply was Cllr Alison Thomas. She is the cabinet member with responsibility for children’s services.

I asked Cllr Thomas this: “With the cuts in the share of the budget for which you hold the portfolio, can NCC any longer justify employing a director of children’s services who last financial year was paid £175K?” She simply replied: “Yes”. I conclude, therefore, that the Big Conversation is indeed ongoing.

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