A decision to hold discussions about major Norwich roads schemes in secret has been branded "a new low for democracy", as senior officers at two councils slammed the move.

Norfolk County Council is scrapping a committee which debated multi-million-pound Norwich transport schemes in public in favour of a new group which talks about them behind closed doors.

It has sparked anger not only from opposition councillors but also two of the most senior officers at the city and district councils, who attacked the decision to make meetings off-limits to the public.

Norwich Evening News: Phil Courtier, director of place at Broadland District CouncilPhil Courtier, director of place at Broadland District Council (Image: Simon Finlay Photography)

Phil Courtier, head of planning at Broadland District Council, said the "flawed" move would "significantly detract from the transparency and openness of the decision-making process".

And Norwich City Council executive director Graham Nelson said it would "lessen public scrutiny".

Norwich Evening News: Green county councillor Paul NealeGreen county councillor Paul Neale (Image: Norwich City Council)

Green county councillor Paul Neale said, at a meeting of County Hall's scrutiny committee where the decision was questioned: "This is an all-time low for democracy. I cannot believe it is happening."

Norwich Evening News: Graham Plant, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for highways, infrastructure and transportGraham Plant, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for highways, infrastructure and transport

But Graham Plant, cabinet member for highways, infrastructure and transport at Conservative-controlled County Hall, stood by his controversial decision, saying holding meetings in private will make it "easier" for him to make decisions.

Mr Plant has decided to disband the Transport for Norwich advisory committee - made up of councillors from County Hall, Norwich, Broadland and South Norfolk.

That committee was formed last year after the revelation that members of a previous committee - the Transport for Norwich joint committee - believed they had been making decisions, when they had no power to do so.

Norwich Evening News: Work on St Stephens Street in NorwichWork on St Stephens Street in Norwich (Image: Archant 2022)

That committee had met publicly to discuss projects such as the £6.1m St Stephens Street facelift paid for through the £32m awarded for road schemes in Norwich.

But it emerged the final decision should have been solely in the hands of the committee's chairman - the county council's cabinet member - not the committee members.

Mr Plant said he needed to "reset" the replacement advisory committee, after a previous meeting was abandoned when Labour councillors staged a protest walkout over the way it was being run.

Norwich Evening News: Work on Heartsease roundabout in NorwichWork on Heartsease roundabout in Norwich (Image: Denise Bradley)

That meeting, where the £4.4m Heartsease roundabout scheme was due to be discussed, could not be held because there were not enough councillors for it to continue.

Mr Plant's solution to stop a repeat is to ditch that committee and create a 'steering group', which will discuss matters behind closed doors, before he makes decisions.

Mr Plant said: "I am concerned that there will continue to be disruption at future advisory committee meetings if this revised approach is not adopted, which could lead to funding being withdrawn."

Mr Plant said the new steering group, similar to ones already run in King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth, would better enable "open and frank discussions" to help inform his decisions.

He said councillors in areas where projects are planned would be invited to the discussions.

The public and press would not be allowed in, but Mr Plant said decisions would be published.

Norwich Evening News: Emma Corlett, Labour county councillorEmma Corlett, Labour county councillor (Image: Archant)

Labour group deputy leader Emma Corlett, who "called in" the matter to the scrutiny committee, said all of the decision-making process - including the discussions - should be open and transparent.

She said the public and local media, which she described as an "important part of a functioning democracy", should be present to help hold councillors to account.

Mr Plant said he was not one to "shy away" from the public forum but was "comfortable" with the change.

He said: "I don't see any issue with that. We do it in Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn. They work perfectly well.

"I think that's a way that's worked for many years now and the only one I've had problems with is with Transport for Norwich.

"I don't think there's any damage to public perception. I've had probably three e-mails concerned with that element, which I've responded to."

Mr Plant added: "It will make decision-making for me much easier."

The cross-party scrutiny committee voted to note the call-in, but to take no further action.



So, it seems Norfolk County Council is doubling down on its decision to move away from public meetings about how £32m of taxpayers' money is spent to holding those discussions in private.

We reported last week how County Hall wants to scrap a committee which holds open meetings about major Norwich road schemes to setting up a steering group that doesn't.

Graham Plant, the council's cabinet member for highways, transport and infrastructure, faced a grilling about his decision when the council's scrutiny committee met on Monday.

If anyone expected Mr Plant to have seen the light - that a key part of local government is that the public and press are allowed to see and hear what councillors are discussing when it comes to spending our money - then they will be sorely disappointed.

Mr Plant said he is completely comfortable with those meetings taking place behind closed doors and that doing so will make his decision-making easier.

He said doing so will bring the Norwich meetings in line with Great Yarmouth and King's Lynn, where steering groups have long met behind closed doors.

Maybe, but King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth are not in the midst of spending £32m of public money.

And in neither of those two towns had the council made such a blunder that councillors believed they were making decisions over that cash when in actual fact they had no power to do so.

That's exactly why more scrutiny is needed - by the public and press - not less.

Are we to simply trust that a council which makes massive mistakes like that will not make more?

Mr Plant argues that the walkout by Labour councillors, which meant a previous council meeting could not take place showed the committee which did exist needed to be "reset".

But for the solution to be cutting off the ability of the public and press to see the council's 'working out' when major road schemes are discussed is, extreme to say the least.

And, when the county council might be expected to be showing how an elected leader model would work, this will surely harm the relationships with district councils - as evidenced by the concerns raised by senior officers at Norwich and Broadland.