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Former West Norfolk Council Leader’s concern with new regime

In our weekly Friday Politics column, former West Norfolk Council Leader Stuart Dark discusses the new regime’s first months in power...

I hope that you are enjoying the holiday season and making the most of the great, beautiful area we live in. I’m glad to see the ‘summer of play’ events and reduced entry prices to local council leisure facilities for children during the holidays, we introduced, are continuing and that the Borough is putting on and supporting its customary wide range of events throughout the summer and maintaining its award-winning open spaces. As you’d expect these things and the hard-working staff behind them all cost money and have to be budgeted for and planned well in advance.

You might have missed the fact that despite a really turbulent four years where the Borough needed to not only deliver all its core services but bring in new ones to effectively support local businesses and residents, its financial outturn report for FY 2022-23, published at the start of this month, confirmed there was an additional ‘windfall’ return of £1.6m for the new administration to put to good use going forwards, due to our outgoing administration’s prudent financial management and effective lobbying of central government for additional funding. It was gratifying that the new cabinet member for finance acknowledged this very fact when presenting this report to one of the council’s key committees. It’s our earnest hope that the new administration makes the best use of the firm financial footing they’ve clearly inherited at a time when many councils are reporting real hardship and cutting back on services, ambition, events and staffing as a result for all our sakes.

Cllr Stuart Dark
Cllr Stuart Dark

Whilst there are some encouraging signs regarding financial common sense, like the prompt signing of the ‘Parkway’ contract initiated by our administration, to bring forward 226 of the ‘greenest’ low cost/affordable homes to be built in West Norfolk, there are also areas of early concern regarding financial understanding. One current example of this being the Cabinet’s recent dismissal of the unanimous recommendation of a multi-political group scrutiny committee to bring forward a concerning ‘staff pay award for 2023/24’ to Full Council for approval later this month. Given staff are the council’s most important but costly asset any pay settlement has to be given full and detailed attention. The award currently proposes staff at the most senior grades will receive far more compounded financial benefits than those on the lowest incomes, intuitively hit most hard by the cost of living pressures. We believe, we feel rightly, that as such a pay award will be funded by your taxes, fees and charges it needs to be carefully considered against its budgetary impact on services, events etc and focussed clearly on those who need the most. So one which is currently sketchy in detail and increases the pay differential between those on the lowest incomes and those on the highest and also increases their top-end salary ceilings for future years does not work for us. We’ll report back how we get on…

There’s no denying it’s been a turbulent start for the new administration, losing a Cabinet member in one of the busiest and most important portfolio roles – people and communities – after such a short time due to a widely reported internal fallout. Whilst we were encouraged by the Leader’s lead comments in his very first report to full council that the new administration will work with the 40% of borough councillors who are Conservative and to the benefit of all residents, including the 40% who voted Conservative at the borough election - we are not yet seeing this in action. In fact, we have noted with some regret, his decision to bring in a controversial replacement, even considered as such within his own group, into this key Cabinet post – an individual with a significant and widely known history of antipathy towards and non co-operation with Conservatives. We can only hope that this is not another later regretted decision and that the Leader’s constructive words in public morph into action promptly, as clearly a minority administration is best served by trying to work with all in the council for the benefit of residents.

Finally, on a personal note, one of the things I look back with the most satisfaction on as my time as Leader was the way in which my administration and the council responded quickly and effectively with partners to support the refugees fleeing the illegal invasion of Ukraine and resultant humanitarian crisis and the many truly heart-warming ways in which West Norfolk residents stepped up and in to help. This August 24 marks the second ‘Ukrainian Independence’ Day for our very welcome guests since the war started. The Borough will be marking this event with them and continues to fund its support and I know many of you continue to help in so many ways. Thank you, I know there are many diverse challenges currently facing our community, but this support to those who have lost so much shows us all at our best.

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