Norfolk councils in merger talks

Adam GrettonThe leaders of two Norfolk councils yesterday pledged to be more open after it emerged that 'secret' talks about merging services had been going on since the summer.Adam Gretton

The leaders of two Norfolk councils yesterday pledged to be more open after it emerged that 'secret' talks about merging services had been going on since the summer.

Fresh details about the potential marriage between South Norfolk and Breckland councils, which officials say could help save money and benefit residents, were made public yesterday,

But opposition members accused the South Norfolk Council leader of being 'disrespectful' after not informing councillors of the discussions behind closed doors, which were revealed earlier this month after the EDP obtained leaked internal documents.

Representatives from the Liberal Democrat group spoke of their 'irritation' after it emerged that John Fuller had presented his vision of a 'meeting of minds' between the two Conservative-ruled authorities at an East of England Regional Assembly (EERA) meeting two weeks ago before talking to district councillors.

South Norfolk Council's scrutiny committee yesterday recommended that the authority should consult parishes and partners about the proposed services merger, which was first brokered in private between Mr Fuller and Breckland council leader William Nunn two months ago.

Murray Gray, leader of the South Norfolk Lib Dem group, said he was not against the sharing of services, but he had 'major concerns' about staff morale at the council, which recently shed 40 jobs following a restructure.

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He added that the work could prove to be 'totally wasted' at a time when the unitary debate had not been resolved.

But Mr Fuller said the council was facing up to the reality that government rate support grants may be slashed by up to 20pc after the general election and the authority was looking at ways of sharing resources to protect taxpayers from large council tax rises and service cuts.

He added that a partnership with a rural council like Breckland was more 'fitting' than working more closely with Norwich and Broadland councils, which 'do not understand the countryside.'

'We have not proposed an exclusive arrangement with Breckland. It is not a merger. South Norfolk and Breckland Council will continue to exist. The key thing is to ensure there is sufficient resilience whatever the chancellor throws at us in the future.'

'The suggestion it has been kept under wraps is slightly wide of the mark,' he said.

A document presented to EERA on November 5 suggests that a merger of services at South Norfolk and Breckland could take place by the summer of 2011 and result in having just one chief executive. Integrated leisure centre provision, single economic development, arts and cultural teams, and a solitary dog pound for both councils have also been suggested.

Breckland leader William Nunn said the views of residents and parish councils would be sought over the next few months.

'We intend to examine every element of our services to establish the most cost effective way of delivering the highest possible standards,' he said.