Norfolk's Big Conversation

A further despatch from the rear, as TPA supporter John Martin blogs about Norfolk County Council’s plans to save £155m


Tuesday 26th October 2010 was an important day here. It saw the much-heralded start of “Norfolk’s Big Conversation”, the name given to a consultation exercise launched by Norfolk County Council (NCC). The underlying document sets out NCC’s proposals to bridge a budget gap of £155m over the next three years. Our views are sought.


Somewhat oddly, both the leader of NCC, Cllr Derrick Murphy, and its highly paid chief executive were on holiday at the time leaving only the newly appointed deputy leader to field some pretty challenging questions from the media, and a load of “incoming” from a worried public. Perhaps even odder was the earlier decision of the previous leader, the chubby faced but dynamic Cllr Daniel Cox, to announce his resignation from NCC to do voluntary work in India. This precipitated something of a hurried unseemly contest within the Tory administration, all behind closed doors, to produce a successor. But I digress.Norfolk's Big Conversation


In a nutshell, NCC is proposing to shed up to 1700 jobs, severely cut spending on services to the young and the elderly, reduce subsidies left right and centre and impose charges wherever it thinks it can get away with it. We all have until 10th January 2011 to submit our four cents’ worth, so that the NCC cabinet can debate the issues on 24th January. The full NCC council will agree a budget, based on the cabinet’s proposals, on 14th February.


The question for the cynical is will this Tory administration pay one iota of attention to what the public has to say, or has it already made up its mind on where the axe is to fall. Cllr George Nobbs, the flamboyant but incisive leader of the Labour group (of three), has already been quoted in the press as saying that the consultation is “more like a dialogue of the deaf”.


While the consultation document refers to the need to make efficiencies, unsurprisingly it is light on detail in that respect. Below I set out, therefore, an open letter to Cllr Murphy:


Dear Cllr Murphy


In December 2009, the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, John Denham MP, said “Woe betide the local authority which cuts frontline services when it hasn’t made every possible efficiency saving”. I congratulate Norfolk County Council (“the Council”) for at last taking this on board. There are several very obvious areas where prompt change is necessary.




David White’s total annual remuneration before expenses is currently £263,700. I do not believe that what Mr White does warrants so large a financial reward, nor do I believe that in future the Council can afford to pay any individual such an enormous sum. The Council should ascertain promptly the cost of early termination of Mr White’s contract of employment, and enter into negotiations with him.




The total cost of remuneration of the other five chief officers is £786,300.  In many ways, the existence of their posts is one of the justifications for arguing that Mr White is hopelessly overpaid. Nevertheless, their roles will become much diminished as the Council reduces its size and streamlines its future role. The Council should renegotiate their contracts of employment, possibly so that they move onto a four-day week.




Norfolk is going to remain a two-tier county for the foreseeable future. The allowances paid to the members of the Council and the members of the seven district councils (before expenses) total well over £3m annually. This includes just over £1m paid to the eighty-four members of the Council. We can no longer afford this. The members of the Council should be prepared to accept a cut in allowances, or their total number should be considerably reduced from eighty-four.




As the role of the Council changes, so it will become questionable whether a cabinet of nine members (with six deputy members) can be justified. Their cost at present, in terms of special responsibility allowances alone, is £172k annually. It will require there to be, in the near future, fewer members each with recognised expertise working harder on merged portfolios.




The Council in 2009-2010 spent £10.942m on external consultants. This was against the background of the Council at the same time employing a huge top-heavy management team. There can be no excuse for doing both in the future. The Council must address this problem promptly




This is a similar problem. Agency staff are recognised as uneconomic. Research suggests that an agency worker can cost up to three times as much as a permanent employee. In 2009-2010, the Council spent £1.372m on agency staff. It cannot go on.




The legal department (now expensively re-branded as “nplaw”) employs over sixty staff. It has a shocking history of engaging outside firms of solicitors to do aspects of its work. In 2009-2010, this cost the Council £294k. It may be much cheaper to abandon it, and resort instead to a panel of external firms of solicitors.




The Council’s chairman has a budget of £68k for this. That is roughly equal to the predicted savings of turning off street lighting in the first year of that unpopular exercise. There really is no place for such expenditure in these straitened times.




These apparently cost the Council £126k in 2009-2010. Why are they needed? What is the relevance of “political advice”? Political assistants should go.




The Council simply cannot afford to continue to spend £3.5m on this function. What is particularly unforgivable is laying out £220k annually on four printed issues of a self-publicising circular such as “Your Norfolk”.


Yours sincerely,


John Martin




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