Key meetings planned to gauge response to Norfolk’s Big Conversation

County councillors will start to receive feedback about the responses to the Big Conversation in a series of key meetings this week.

County Hall has proposed a fundamental reshaping of its priorities and activities in the face of the biggest cuts in public service spending since the 1970s as it wrestles with a �155m funding gap over the next three years. The changes suggested envisage a sharp reduction in costs, with a smaller council and reduced workforce through an innovative reshaping of council services, so that the council of the future delivers less itself - and commissions more from others.

But critics believe the cuts unfairly target the most vulnerable in society and accuse the Conservative administration of using the consultation as a fig leaf for an ideological pursuit of a smaller state.

The council has so far received more than 6,500 responses from members of the public, organisations and people who use council services.

Officials are also analysing more than 23,000 individual comments received during the Big Conversation, that started on 26 October and ends at midnight tonight10 January.

Among the key responses received to the Big Conversation were wide ranging calls not to cut services which would harm some of the most vulnerable people in Norfolk.

In a joint response, Age UK Norfolk and Age UK Norwich, the two charities said they found the cuts in prevention services were among the most worrying of the plans, and they were also alarmed by plans to tighten up the eligibility criteria governing access to care. They also urged the authority to make sure that government cash going to councils as part of the unringfenced personal social services grant was spent on social care and not used to fund other services.

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Kate Jones, community development officer at learning disability organisation Mencap said the plans were 'unfair and frightening' to many families across the county.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said his two priorities would be the transport subsidy for post 16 college students and the preventative care, which are both under threat in the plans, while a reshaped council should also play a key role promoting economic development. And he urged councils to pursue the work set underway by his efficiency summit last year looking at how the public sector could cut costs by working more closely together and sharing services.

'When finances are very tight, we must ensure that the most vulnerable are protected this includes elderly people in need of care and support, younger adults with disabilities, and vulnerable children and young people,' Mr Lamb said. 'The County Council must think again about reducing the criteria for care. I think everything possible should be done to ensure that funding earmarked for social care should be spent on social care.

'The County Council should not proceed with axing the subsidy for college transport,' Mr Lamb added. 'In a rural county it is essential that youngsters can get to school or college. For many families the full cost of transport would be prohibitive.

Derrick Murphy, leader of the council, said he was grateful to the thousands of people who responded to the consultation.

'The fact that so many people have had their say is greatly appreciated, and we are listening very carefully because these contributions will help us make the best possible use of a smaller pot of money,' Mr Murphy said. 'There will still be very tough decisions to be made. Given the state of the economy and public finances nationally, that is inevitable. I can give an assurance that Norfolk County Council will squeeze out every penny of unnecessary spending by continuing to strip out management costs and root out inefficiencies.'