The decision for Broadland District Council to share offices and staff with South Norfolk District Council has been controversial, not least because some opposition councillors feel they were not privy to the decision.
At a cost of just over £7m, the two councils will take over the Aviva Horizon Centre office. Speaking about the decision to BBC Radio Norfolk (from 2:43:00) Labour Councillor Natasha Harpley said “We are talking huge sums of money and a lot of those decisions were made behind closed doors. This is council tax payer’s money and even some councillors were not privy to those discussions.”
Broadland Conservative leader, Cllr Shaun Vincent, explains the rationale, “The newer building will cost us less to run, so from a Broadland point of view that will save us over £300K a year in just running costs. That helps us keep our council tax as low as possible.”
Sharing offices, sharing staff
The Green Party supported the Conservatives over the move from offices at Thorpe St Andrew and Long Stratton to more sustainable premises. However, although both councils are currently Conservative led, this week’s elections may change that; Labour, LibDems and the Green parties are concerned at potential conflicts with a shared team of staff. How will staff prioritise workloads, report correctly to the respective council, and deal with the differing residential demographic of the two areas and varied needs of each council?
Cllr Vincent has spoken about the councils’ “collaborative journey”, looking at how they can work more efficiently and cost-effectively by sharing one building. “There are so many benefits of bringing our staff together, not just the huge financial savings in both capital and revenue expenditure, but it will also dramatically decrease our carbon footprint by 84%, increase efficiency and performance and be much more accessible for the majority of both staff and residents.”
How far will the collaborative journey go?
There is a suspicion that under Conservative control the two councils might in time be merged. Might then the Conservative-led councils seek further economies by reducing the number of councillors?
Green Party Cllr Jan Davis believes a reduction in councillors, requiring each councillor to represent a far greater area, will be detrimental to residents. “We need to retain the existing representation of our communities,” otherwise he worries that residents will lose their voice and have less control over their local environment and its specific needs.
New regulations, new skills
A government requirement coming into force in November 2023 is that housing developers must demonstrate a biodiversity net gain when developing land. The intent is to provide a way to contribute to the recovery of nature and make sure the habitat for wildlife is in a better state than it was before development.
The Green party are worried that the sharing of council office resources, with “staff already under huge pressure”, will mean monitoring of biodiversity net gains will not happen. Not only are there insufficient ecologists in the country trained in biodiversity monitoring but planning departments are already under huge strain to inspect the delivered quality of housing developments.
Broadland District Council have outsourced building inspection. Concern remains that the privatised service does not offer the same level of scrutiny as a local authority inspection, resulting in developers “getting away with” lower quality housing in Broadland. Might the situation be repeated with biodiversity monitoring? LibDems Leader Cllr Sue Holland has already expressed a view that the Tories are “only paying lip service” to environmental protections.
Only time will tell. Meanwhile the Conservative majority on Broadland District Council believe that their partnership with South Norfolk District Council has “demonstrated the value of collaboration and the potential for councils to work together to achieve shared goals that benefit both residents and local businesses”.
The current political balance
Broadland District Council is comprised of 47 councillors representing 27 wards; 28 Conservative, 12 Liberal Democrats, 2 Labour, 2 Green Party, 1 Independent and 2 vacancies.
There are 46 elected councillors at South Norfolk District Council; 32 are Conservative, 10 are Liberal Democrats, 1 is Labour and 3 are Independent.