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‘Report card for the new West Norfolk Council administration would read ‘C-, must try harder’!

In the weekly Friday Politics column, Conservative councillor Stuart Dark makes a withering assessment of the new administration...

It gives my group and myself no satisfaction, as residents and people who genuinely care about West Norfolk, to be writing this week’s column, but the timely points it raises do need highlighting.

There is a long-established doctrine, widely attributed to President Roosevelt, that your first 100 days in a new job, promotion, relationship etc and particularly so in political leadership, is your chance to demonstrate your ambition, drive, commitment, fresh thinking and above all ability to deliver.

Conservative leader Stuart Dark
Conservative leader Stuart Dark

In Roosevelt’s case, his administration delivered 77 new laws that changed the face of America at a crucial, difficult time, whilst facing many critical demands. This links into the wider public consciousness of first impressions really do count. I and my administration tried to adhere to this principle locally and our record is across numerous press articles.

It is now 120 days since the leadership of this great borough changed, a full 20% past this key milestone. It is evident that no batch of major new ideas or significant course change has come into public view in that time, with the administration either continuing projects, services etc well in train or promoting and delivering long-established and budgeted events, part of the fully-funded three-year programme they inherited, along with a £1.6m additional outurn windfall left to them by their predecessors.

Yes, we have seen nice, fairly vanilla, Cabinet member introductions and the musings of the incoming leader on second homes and their owners (interestingly contradicted by the Lib Dem Leader of North Norfolk last week) in the local press but this sadly does not equate to meaningful new output.

Council leader Terry Parish
Council leader Terry Parish

In the same time frame we have lost a key position Cabinet member due to a widely reported falling out, had Cabinet members seemingly contradict each other so it’s hard to tell the course being set, Cabinet members absent from full council meetings and a Cabinet member’s report to Full Council referencing they are currently busy/distracted with their day job.

Indeed, the leader’s last formal Full Council report to all councillors in August, his final opportunity to showcase all he had been up to in the twilight of his first 100 days in office and allow questioning of it, started with the fact he had been on holiday and was just 13 or so very short lines of text long including that statement and just the listing of several internal and external meetings and a training session he had attended.

This from the new leader of a multi-faceted, £20 million-plus a year council operating over 550sq miles, the fifth largest in the country (all of this information is readily checkable on the council’s website - just click on council meetings and go to Cabinet members’ reports – August 23).

So it is perhaps understandable that there is currently much frustration regarding what is or is not going on. It is very difficult for keen councillors of any group to steer, shape or question, such a low new strategic output.

Now, you may be tempted to dismissively think this is just the sour grape grumblings of the ex-leader and party that were the previous administration but, perhaps far more concerning for the new leadership, is these issues are coming up from within their wider group, councillors from across opposition parties, officers and external stakeholders.

Indeed, you may well have read the Labour group’s recent attempt to amend a major component of the pay award by the new administration they (and we) felt was unsatisfactory and under-evidenced when it came to full council and their leader’s recent comments in this very paper about how he felt about the administration’s approach to supporting the Gaywood Clock remembrance event was wrong.

Remember, this is from the leader and group that has, in their words, just 120 days ago ‘lent’ the new council leader their support to allow his minority administration to even be in control.

It is starting to be muttered, that if we are seeing nothing of note emerging now, in the recognised honeymoon period for imprinting a vibrant new leadership, in the relative harbour calm of this summer compared to the turbulent last few years, how will this leader and this administration deal with, heaven forbid, the demands we have faced together previously such as the pandemic, an escalating war in Ukraine or cost of living crisis if similar were to occur on their watch requiring prompt, decisive local activity?

Now the new administration’s leader is a nice, good man. No one is saying any different. But, and unfortunately, it’s a big but, given all the above the report card for his administration’s first 100 days is in from several quarters and it seems to read ‘C-, must try harder’. Let’s hope things rapidly improve for all our sakes.

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