Breckland council maps out its future without South Norfolk

Chris Hill Breckland council has agreed a way forward following the collapse of its proposed marriage to South Norfolk - but left the door open for its former fianc�.

Chris Hill

Breckland council has agreed a way forward following the collapse of its proposed marriage to South Norfolk - but left the door open for its former fianc�.

The two authorities were negotiating a shared services agreement which could have saved taxpayers millions of pounds by combining a single staff under one chief executive.

But South Norfolk's cabinet decided to pull out of the deal, citing discrepancies in the business case and differences in operating cultures, while there was also disagreement about how the joint chief executive should be recruited.

Earlier this week, communities secretary Eric Pickles said the proposed merger was exactly the sort of streamlined partnership the government hoped to encourage as it prepared to tackle the national debt, and urged the two authorities to “kiss and make up.”

Yesterday, an extraordinary full council meeting at Breckland agreed unanimously to revise its senior management structure and fill director roles which had been deliberately left vacant to minimise redundancies during the expected merger.

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They also agreed to spend up to �50,000 on recruiting a new chief executive to replace Trevor Holden, who leaves Breckland on June 27 to head Luton Borough Council.

Some councillors voiced their anger about the way the talks fell through unexpectedly at the last minute.

But they were told sharing services was the best way to save money in the face of looming public sector cuts, and that no potential partners could be ruled out - even the one which jilted them at the altar.

Mr Holden said Breckland had already begun courting other suitors, and would not end up left “desperate at the disco”.

“While the emotion is entirely right and proper, I would encourage members to keep their minds on the prize at the end of this process,” he said. “Shared services will start to deliver the rate of savings that you need as your revenue support grant is reduced. That is why my message is that this is a hiccup - a challenge in the process.

“If there is no way to bring South Norfolk back to the table we need to understand why they took the decision to walk away so we can apply that learning as we move forward.”

Opposition Labour councillor Robin Goreham won applause for criticising the “off-hand and disparaging manner” in which the council was informed of the break-up. “If not unprofessional, it is extremely impolite,” he said. “Although we are all supportive of shared services I would not be desperate to go back into business with these people.”

If the merger had gone ahead, South Norfolk chief executive Sandra Dinneen would have been appointed as interim head for the two authorities. But Breckland's insistence that the �125,000 joint post should then be advertised in open competition became a sticking point in the negotiations, along with arguments over a two-year pay-off clause in the contract if she failed to get the job.

Breckland council leader William Nunn said any problems should have been overcome to reap an estimated saving of �9m in the first four years - equivalent to Breckland's entire council tax collection of �2m per year.

“It's difficult to understand why anyone could walk away from that amount of money,” he said. “This was about the political will and higher vision to deliver changes which would allow us to provide better services while not increasing the costs to the taxpayer. It should not revolve around individual characters, whether they are leaders or chief executives.”

Last night, South Norfolk Council leader John Fuller did not rule out a reconciliation. He said: “We remain totally committed to sharing services with organisations which may not even be other councils to maintain high quality services and spread our overheads more thinly. We had a choice between a fundamental tie-up of all services - almost a merger - or building relationships with other partners on a service by service basis.

“We have pulled-back from the first, the preferred partnership approach with Breckland, so that we can look at all possibilities at a time of great change in local government.”