Council votes to slash opening times at Downham Market and Hunstanton offices

Views of King's Lynn''The view of Chapel Street with the Junction of Austin Street King's Lynn''The King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council Office is the building on the left, with the Lattice House Pub further down on the right. ENGANL00120130322090456

Views of King's Lynn''The view of Chapel Street with the Junction of Austin Street King's Lynn''The King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council Office is the building on the left, with the Lattice House Pub further down on the right. ENGANL00120130322090456

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Plans to slash opening hours at two West Norfolk Council offices have been passed, despite confusion over whether the public will be consulted.

The authority intends to open its premises in Downham and Hunstanton for just two days per week, instead of the current five, from next April.

It further plans to end the current drop-in service provided at its Lynn headquarters and replace it with an appointment booking system for people whose inquiries cannot be resolved by phone or online. The current range of online services is also set to be extended.

Officials say the changes, which were approved at Thursday’s full council meeting, reflect the changing nature of demand for council services, with more people accessing what they need electronically.

Leader Nick Daubney insisted the measures would improve services to the public.

He said: “We can cling to the old ways, we can go by tradition, give a generally poor service, get a poor record and let down people who look to us for so much.

“Technology gives us the opportunity not just to save money but to deliver a better service and we would be failing those people totally if we rejected this opportunity.”

But opposition groups questioned the differing answers given by the ruling Conservative administration and officers over the extent of public consultation on the changes.

Mr Daubney said full consultation had taken place with affected staff and service users would be asked for their views.

However, papers published ahead of the cabinet meeting where the plan was first discussed last month said the April date had been chosen to allow time “to advise customers, partners and stakeholders of the changes.”

Independent Jim Moriarty said that, despite assurances sought by deputy leader Alistair Beales at the time, officers had made clear at a subsequent meeting that no public consultation would be undertaken.

He argued the council’s previous defence of public consultation on issues like the Lynn incinerator was “devalued” by that position.

Mike Tilbury added: “We’re talking about something that is to come into effect in 17 weeks’ time. It is reasonable to expect those behind this move do know exactly what consultation is going to take place during that short period.”

And Labour leader John Collop said: “I assumed that would include members of the public but was told it doesn’t because they would say they don’t want it closed, so there’s no point consulting on it.”

He also voiced concerns about the ease with which people could access council services in emergency situations under the plans, adding: “We don’t think it’s right and it needs more work to make sure people will not suffer.”

But Mr Daubney said emegency situations could occur anywhere across the borough, adding: “We need to upgrade the service to better serve the people we’re expected to serve.”

He also admitted the authority was prepared for further reductions in its central government grant following last week’s autumn statement.

But he said: “I happen to agree with the chancellor on reduced public inexpenditure. We need to live within our means and I’m glad we’re on course to achieve that.”