Warning that impasse could cause chaos at Norfolk County Council
16:01 20 January 2014
Norfolk County Council’s reputation is at risk of being damaged if an impasse over a move to a committee system has not been ended by May, the authority’s head of law has warned.
Victoria McNeill told councillors a failure to agree a workable committee system could result in every decision the council makes - hundreds every week - having to come before all 84 county councillors.
Members of Norfolk County Council voted in November, by 41 to 35, with two abstentions, for a proposal to move away from the current cabinet model in favour of a form of committee governance from May this year.
A cross party steering group of councillors was formed to consider the details of how the new arrangements will work, ahead of a vote on the final structure in April.
The steering group consists of two Labour councillors, two Conservative councillors, two Green councillors, two Liberal Democrat councillors, two UK Independence Party councillors and independent Richard Bird.
But the Conservatives - Cliff Jordan and Alison Thomas - walked out of a meeting last week, saying they would no longer participate in an “undemocratic process”.
The Conservatives had tabled their own proposals for a new committee system, which they said would give all members democratic participation and oversight on decisions.
But the Conservative proposal was defeated. UKIP councillor Paul Smyth, chairman of the steering group, used his casting vote to reject the proposal after it was tied at five votes for and five votes against, with one abstention.
The Conservatives attacked the representation on the steering group, arguing the split was not fair to a party with 40 members.
At a meeting of the full council today, Ms McNeill said she had sought further legal advice on what would happen if the committee structure is not agreed by May.
She warned: “The implications of not agreeing a system are pretty serious.”
She said the November council vote meant a committee system would start after May, whatever happened. If a workable system had not been voted into place, she said, then every decision would have to be voted on by all 84 members of the full council.
And she suggested central government might take a dim view of an authority, which it is already working closely with because of the problems in children’s services, being unable to come up with a system.
She said: “I take the view that the fact there must be a committee system from May, if you seem not to have a workable system in place, it would reflect very badly.”
Green group leader Richard Bearman said his group would be prepared to give up one of its places on the steering group if that resolved the problem while independent Richard Bird said he would stand down if that meant a solution could be found.
The move to a committee system was one of the key planks which led, following last May’s elections, to the formation of a Labour/Liberal Democrat administration, supported by the UK Independence Party.