John Martin: The Dinosaur at County Hall

TPA supporter John Martin blogs about Norfolk County Council...


Norfolk is a fine county with a low crime rate, beautiful stretches of coastline, wonderful old churches and acres of open rolling countryside. There are few better places to live. But in the towering ugly building on the outskirts of Norwich, known as County Hall, there lurks a huge, powerful all consuming dinosaur. Its name is Norfolk County Council. Dinosaur


The dinosaur employs many layers of expensive management, and there are always plenty of hands to do its bidding. And its bidding in recent times has been aimed at making cuts to services that are badly needed by the vulnerable – such as the young and elderly – to avoid making cuts within its own lair.


Indeed, there are no signs that the dinosaur is doing without itself. It paid its chief executive a total of £263,700 before expenses in the last financial year. Allowances paid to its members totalled just over £1m. The majority of those members also hold down seats on one of the lower tier district councils. The best rewarded of these twin-hatters picked up £47k last financial year, while still finding time to run his own business as an independent financial adviser. The dinosaur’s chairman has a budget of £68k simply to cover the cost of his “civic and ceremonial” role. Chauffeur driven transport is provided by the dinosaur’s wholly owned trading company. The dinosaur also ensures that members of the public know what a good job it is doing. Four times a year it publishes, at a cost of £50k an issue, a colour magazine entitled “Your Norfolk” in which it tells them how lucky they are to have such a good dinosaur. Feeling good about oneself is essential in life, and that is why the dinosaur also has a media monitoring and marketing team in place.


However, no-one should think that this is a mean dinosaur intent only on keeping its own lair intact. It is kind to those in the outside world, particularly consultants and employment agencies. Last financial year, while still maintaining hordes of expensive employees, it handed £2.612m to external consultants and it spent £1.327m on uneconomic agency staff. The consultants felt constrained in many cases to do something in return. One of them told the dinosaur of the extent to which its customers felt satisfied. Another told it whether its employees were happy. Yet others gave it legal advice, despite the fact that the dinosaur surrounds itself with sixty lawyers of its own.


But what will be the dinosaur’s lasting memorial is its “modern reward strategy project”. In laymen’s terms this means setting pay levels for its employees. The costs to date of this exercise amount to £4.516m. Which dinosaur would not be proud to be remembered for that?


You may ask from where all of these figures come. Well, the dinosaur prefers not to make easily available to the public more information than it has to. This gives the public little choice often but to use the Freedom of Information Act 2000, a statute that the dinosaur abhors. In fact, one of its members actually described in a meeting those members of the public who seek to rely upon it as “offenders”. I am sure that he was not taken too seriously, though the dinosaur has been known to write to one individual telling him that such conduct wasted thousand of pounds of taxpayers’ money.


Another means of extracting information is asking questions at meetings of the dinosaur’s cabinet, but sadly you are limited to two at a time and there is no follow up debate. Usually, the dinosaur also arranges for the answers to be incomplete and unhelpful. And the dinosaur is now planning to change the rules so that even less publicity is given to the questions and answers.


Where will this fable end? I hope that the members of the public will tell the dinosaur in three years’ time that they are fed up with his programmers, and that a new set is needed. That new set must understand that dinosaurs have had it too good for too long, and that it is time they cut their own cloth rather than frontline services badly needed by the public. Until then all we can do is seek to publicise the dinosaur’s bad habits.


John Martin, Norfolk


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