Norfolk County Council's consultancy costs in the spotlight

Shaun LowthorpeQuestions have been raised about why Norfolk County Council is spending nearly �3m on consultants at a time it is seeking to cut costs.Shaun Lowthorpe

Questions have been raised about why Norfolk County Council is spending nearly �3m on consultants at a time it is seeking to cut costs.

The new coalition government has warned all tiers of government to cut spending on outside experts as it seeks to cut public spending across Whitehall by 25pc.

But members of Norfolk County Council's scrutiny committee heard yesterday that in the last 12-months, the authority had spent �2.6m on outside consultants including �367,000 with PriceWaterhouseCoopers for help on three initiatives -Total Place, shared services, and the council's organisational review.

In 2008/9 the council also spent �245,000 with the same firm for the local government review to look at creating a new single tier unitary authority.

Paul Morse, committee chairman, asked if the council had a default position to employ consultants instead of dealing with problems in-house.

'What processes are in place to make sure there isn't an automatic default to 'let's have a consultant in',' he said. 'How do we evaluate the effectiveness of the different consultants' contracts that we have?'

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Bill Borrett, cabinet member for corparate affairs and efficiency said the expertise was needed because the council was looking to overhaul the way it does business.

'We are trying to change a lot of the ways that Norfolk County Council carries out its functions in order to have more efficient working to drive out costs and all the time produce front line savings,' he said. 'If we are trying to fundamentally change the culture of an organisation, it's necessary to bring in consultants to challenge and cast fresh eyes on the establishment process, which may be delivering good outcomes for people using the services, but may not be delivering it in the most cost effective manner.

'At a time when we are trying to drive out inefficiencies and costs, I'm not surprised at the level of consultants,' he added. 'If there was no consultant based expenditure, you could assume there was a level of complacency in the way the county council was run and I'm very pleased to say that's not the case.'

The session, which looked at how the authority is managing its multi-million pound contracts in wake of the collapse of a deal for a waste treatement plant at Costessey, problems with a care contract with Careforce, and issues over a street lighting replacement programme with Amey, heard that a new centralised team had been set up to provide support to all departments to help them get the deals right and put together a list of all contracts the authority currently has.

But councillors raised concerns that once deals were signed not enough was done to keep an eye on whether they were delivering good services to the public.

Tory councillor Jim Shrimplin said he had concerns about how contracts were monitored and what was being done to deal with quality issues after the deals had been signed.

Labour's George Nobbs also questioned the special relationship the authority had with its arms length company Norse, which is not subject to normal tendering rules but is in line to pick up a mutli-million contract to build and run new care homes.

'What evaluation criteria did you employ before the cabinet appeared to award the contract to Norse,' he said. 'Why didn't you do the business case first?'

Mr Borrett said that the Norse contract had yet to be awarded and the cabinet was waiting to see a detailed business case before making a final decision.

'Norse is wholly owned by the county council and is part of the county council to that effect,' he said. 'However, Norse is run independently as a commercial organisation by its own board of management.'

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