Rising to the challenge of Brexit – Suffolk A14 Gateway strategy

fullsizeoutput_216fEADT-image1EST

Whether you believe in Brexit or not, it’s coming and creates opportunities and challenges for local government and businesses. Last year, I hosted the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox MP, here in Suffolk. We visited Andy Drummond, Managing Director of Lettergold Plastics, which is a family-run business in Newmarket. Andy gave Mr. Fox a tour of the factory and then we sat and discussed exporting. Liam Fox spoke about the number of UK companies that actually export – some 11%. His department have identified a further 23% of UK companies that match the profile of the 11% that currently export.  Liam went on to say that, if the 23% exported to the same extent as the current 11%, we would have a positive balance of payment.  At the County Council this has got us thinking about what we can do to help UK business, and Suffolk in particular, as we Brexit.

We are a unique county. It’s a lovely place to live, but we must also provide high value jobs for residents, so that they can enjoy our wonderful countryside and all that Suffolk has to offer. At one end of the county, we have the economic powerhouse that is the Cambridge sub-region. Huge investment coming over the next few years will open up the rail and road links between Oxford and Cambridge and beyond, making the Midlands easier to access. At the other end we have the Port of Felixstowe, linked by the A14 and rail links – both of which need investment to increase capacity and address problems such as high winds shutting the Orwell Bridge. We also have world class companies, some of which export and trade around the world, and lots that just do not. So, this has got me thinking about what we can do here in Suffolk to meet the challenges that face us.

I have often said that local government are regulators of business, with such things as the granting of planning permissions. We also try to be facilitators of business with the creation of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and the support it offers. Recently, the Government announced that, going forward, the support grant to Local Government is to end. If, in future years, our success is to be based on the business rates generated by our Suffolk businesses, then we must become champions of business. The additional business rates collected will also bolster what we can spend on the most vulnerable members of our communities.

There are many ways we can boost business. One of them is a new strategy called the Suffolk Growth Gateway, which we are consulting on. It will bring together Suffolk businesses and provide them with support to grow, expand new industrial areas, and attract inward investment from other UK companies who will be able to take advantage of our unique proximity to the Port of Felixstowe to export quickly and cheaply.

Other than physical infrastructure, we want to create additional business networking support, so businesses have the confidence to access overseas markets. Those thinking about exporting can talk to those in Suffolk who already do. So, we are working with the NALEP and the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, as well as the DTI, to strengthen these networks. The final part of this initial work will be to build on the strong links we have with China, and Hong Kong in particular, to help Suffolk-based companies access this vast market.

We will be starting with a conference in June and I look forward to talking about that in a future column.

 

EADT Headline: ‘We have a moral imperative to make sure frontline services are protected’.

 

Here’s my column from last week’s EADT and Ipswich Star newspapers:

Debate is good. Debate is healthy. It’s what challenges existing thinking and finds new and often better ways of doing things. Debate is what we need in Suffolk about the future of public services, including local government. And we need it now.

That’s why last week I asked Respublica to conduct a thorough and independent examination of the merits of public service reform in Suffolk. I know, that doesn’t sound hugely exciting on face value.

But, actually, it’s really important and I firmly believe we have a moral imperative to take a long hard look at existing structures to see what savings can be made to free up money for frontline services.

We want Respublica to develop a range of options that would give Suffolk taxpayers a better deal and our county, as a place, more local control over important decisions around health and housing.

They’ll look at current structures, governance and policies and publish proposals in the autumn. We’d like to make a bid to Government to reform the current structure.

The people at Respublica know what they’re talking about. They’re a leading public policy think-tank and were influential in the ground devolution of Government powers and money to Greater Manchester.

In November, they published findings which said £2.9billion could be saved nationally if councils were reorganised. Think what that money could do to improve people’s lives!

As with other areas in England, we want to build the strongest possible case for Government powers and funding to be devolved to Suffolk.

It’s not just about structures – not even close. It’s about how public money is spent.

There are eight councils in Suffolk, collectively spending about £565million each year. Of course, there are other organisations – like health – too.

Across Suffolk, councils have saved over £240m since 2010, becoming more efficient and effective as individual organisations. However, we all continue to face funding gaps in the coming years and the ability to do things more efficiently without affecting frontline services is now very difficult.

As we’re forced to save even more money, can we, morally, cut more when we know we should investigate the benefits of joining up? The mergers in East and West Suffolk are based on the principle that joining up councils saves money and provides better services.

There are many great examples of public sector organisations in Suffolk already working together, sharing buildings and back office functions. Suffolk is known for it nationally. We want to know what more could be done. We think further savings are possible, but restructuring might be necessary to achieve them. Respublica’s work will inform that debate.

I fully accept that it’s controversial – but if you saway from doing things that some people might object to, you’d never do anything at all and change just wouldn’t happen. Leaders must be bold.

Last week, Paul Geater wrote in his column that he could “see the benefits on all sides and I realise there are absolutely no simple answers”. Quite right, Paul. I therefore welcome the debate that’s started from all sides of the political spectrum.

As I said, it’s democracy in action. There will have to be more of it in the coming weeks and months. But it shouldn’t be dismissed just because it threatens the status quo. That’s not leadership.

Some of you may have seen the quite shocking news recently about Northamptonshire County Council having to freeze spending because of the desperate financial position they are in. Thankfully Suffolk isn’t in that situation but, like councils everywhere, money is really tight.

We want to get ahead and secure Suffolk’s future, whilst devolving powers and funding from Government so the public sector leaders in Suffolk can better deliver for residents.

A conversation about Local Government

In the past couple of days Suffolk County Council have announced that we have asked Respublica, a policy think tank, to come and have a look at Suffolk to consider the next opportunities for making savings in Suffolk’s Local Government administration costs and thus how we can find money in the system to be spent on Frontline services.

This is what I sent out to Councillors, to District and Borough Council Leaders and the Police and Crime Commissioner and across Business, Voluntary and Health Partners.

Given the national and local changes and discussions underway it is the right time to look at the current arrangements for public service delivery in Suffolk. We have asked Respublica to examine the merits of an individual County bid for a retained and reformed two-tier system and this builds on our work in Suffolk to date, as explained in the briefing attached to the e-mail. Whilst Respublica will be working closely with the County Council’s leadership, given the collaborative approach across Suffolk’s public sector, local stakeholders will also be able to provide them with additional information, views and insight to inform the outcome of the work. If you have any questions about the work at this stage, please do not hesitate to contact me.

And that went with the attached Briefing Note: Suffolk County Council work on public sector reform:

Through collaboration, integration and devolution, Suffolk County Council has worked closely with public sector partners to further Suffolk’s collective ambition for thriving economies and thriving communities and to secure the best possible outcomes for Suffolk. Following the withdrawal of the Norfolk/Suffolk devolution deal in 2016, the Suffolk System has continued to drive that ambition and secure sustainable public finances, demonstrated for example, through Suffolk’s recent success as a Business Rates Retention pilot for 2018-19. However, medium term financial plans are clear that the combination of continued budget pressure and demographic demands mean that fundamentally different forms of delivery will be needed across public services in the future.

Central Government has been ambivalent in working with local areas (demonstrated, for example, through the number of places with and without devolution agreements); however, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has recently made four significant “minded to” decisions to create super-Districts in Suffolk (East and West), unitary local authorities in Dorset (2 unitary authorities) and Buckinghamshire (1 countywide unitary authority). This may signal a renewed commitment to public service reform by Government and is significant and consistent with Suffolk’s ambition and direction of travel for better local outcomes through different means of delivery.

The County Council is keen to ensure that Suffolk is best placed to work with Government on creating more sustainable local public services and better local outcomes. To do that will need a clear and compelling case that demonstrates Suffolk’s ambition and credibility as a place that delivers.

To help build that case, the County Council will be working with the think-tank Respublica to examine the merits of an individual County bid for a retained and reformed two-tier system. Respublica will provide additional expertise, experience and objectivity and has established itself as a leader in the policy area of public service reform and devolution, through demonstrable change. Its work with Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) (Devo Max Devo Manc) was the catalyst for the Government’s devolution deals and creation of Mayoral Combined Authorities across England along with the transfer of millions of central funding and associated decision making to these new local strategic authorities.

Last summer it worked with the County Councils Network (CCN) on an approach that placed counties as the building blocks for transformative devolution and public sector reform (Devo 2.0 The Case for Counties: Why a new model for local government in the counties is needed). This means that Respublica has a unique insight on public sector reform and devolution. That is why the County Council has asked Respublica to examine the merits of Suffolk making a bid to Government for a reformed system of local government as a way to unlock more local control and better delivery for key functions such as economic growth, housing and care.

To do this, Respublica will analyse Suffolk’s existing plans (eg, the devolution deal, economic strategies, joint strategic needs assessment) and focus on: the link between good governance and productivity; coherence of administrative boundaries and functional relationships. It will consider how a system could give Suffolk greater scope for enhanced strategic decision making over economic development and public service reform. To deliver this, it will use models and thinking developed for its work with city-regions, counties and devolved areas across the UK. The detail of the work is yet to be scoped in detail and it is expected to conclude early Autumn. Whilst Respublica will be working closely with the County Council’s leadership, given the collaborative approach across Suffolk’s public sector, local stakeholders will also be able to provide them with additional information, views and insight to inform the outcome of the work.

Close of the School Travel Consultation tonight!

 

Dealine Clock

Heres the article I wrote for the EADT Times yesterday encouraging everyone to make their final submission:

Tomorrow evening, one of the most high-profile public consultations Suffolk County Council has run for many years will close. Over 3,600 responses received so far, 11 public events attended by over 150 people, a petition, tens of thousands of people reached via social media and weekly headlines in Suffolk’s local and regional media.

I am, of course, talking about home to school transport.

The first thing I’d like to say is thank you. Thank you to the thousands of people who have taken time out of their busy lives to be part in this very important piece of work. I’m very clear that I want Suffolk County Council to be a listening authority, but that is only possible when people come forward and share their views.

When we launched the consultation in December, we called on people to coming together to help find a long-term solution to providing affordable home to school transport in Suffolk. We also pledged to listen to people who give their views and give them an opportunity to influence the final outcome.

Let’s just say we’ve had a varied experience. We’ve had some really constructive conversations with people who’ve understood the financial challenges we’re facing and sought to suggest new and creative ways of overcoming them. We’ve also faced outright opposition to any change whatsoever, regardless of the financial implications of doing nothing. Perhaps most worryingly of all, we’ve heard from people who were led to believe that we were cutting home to school transport altogether. No, we’re not! I shudder to think where these inaccurate perceptions came from.

When you put all of this together with the research and discussions we had with headteachers prior to launching the consultation, I’m confident that we’ve created enough opportunities for people to influence the tough decisions we will have to make in the coming months.

This is such an emotive issue, I really get that. This service is hugely valued by many parents, especially those living in rural parts of Suffolk. It potentially means having to pay for their child or children to get to and from school when before the council paid for it – so where is the money going to come from? That’s exactly the same question we’re having to ask. In Suffolk, £21 million of taxpayers’ money is spent each year getting children to and from school. We’ve already introduced a number of efficiency changes to the service – saving around £2.6 million – but this enormous annual bill keeps going up and up. With that happening, and Suffolk providing more than is legally required and more than is available elsewhere in the country, we have to look at the policy. We have to ask what are we going to do to make this service more affordable and capable of meeting growing demand in the future. That’s why we launched this consultation.

Once the consultation is closed, Suffolk County Council officers will be working through the enormous amount of information we have received in order make a final recommendation to Cabinet in June this year. I don’t want people to underestimate the scale of that piece of work, nor the commitment from my officers to read and consider very carefully every piece of information we have received.

What that final recommendation will look like isn’t yet known, but three things are clear. It will be influenced by this consultation. It will be very carefully thought through. And it will make sure Suffolk can afford to provide a home to school transport service for years to come.

Have your say

www.suffolk.gov.uk/schooltravel

schooltravel@suffolk.gov.uk

0345 603 1842

 

 

 

How to build better Public Services across Suffolk

Here is my column that appeared in last Tuesday’s edition of the EADT and Ipswich Star newspapers:

Suffolk is a place where people work together. We do it to make people’s lives better, to make the county more prosperous and to be creative. It’s part of what makes Suffolk so special.

I’m very proud to say that this is the case in Suffolk politics too. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of tough debates and disagreements, both between and within political parties. But that’s just healthy democracy. I know that making Suffolk a stronger place binds us all together and very often, we can find common ground.

One such place that common sense prevails in this way is the Suffolk Public Sector Leaders (SPSL) group, of which I am a member. People often assume that I run or chair the group because of my leadership of the county council. In fact, I don’t. I am an equal member along with the leaders and chief executives of all seven district and borough councils, Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner and chief constable and representatives from the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).

SPSL has been running for about six or seven years now and is a clear demonstration of the cross-party, cross-organisation public sector cooperation for which Suffolk is recognised nationally. I can assure you that there is less of this happening in other parts of the country. In some places, it doesn’t happen at all!

When it originally began, we used to discuss the big issues facing Suffolk and try to find ways that we could commit our own organisations to doing something about them. That was really helpful and still happens. But then in 2012, members of the group took a bold step and each partner publicly agreed to combine a share of the money we collect from local businesses and invest that in projects that benefit the county. It’s known at the ‘pooled business rate’ and is quite forward-thinking in the public sector world. We all agreed for SPSL to oversee this work.

There are some hugely important projects that have benefited for pooled business rate funding. Building the business case for Ipswich’s much-needed northern bypass, work to promote Suffolk as a place for tech companies to set up business and recruiting more town planners across the county so that the impact of housing growth can be better managed.

I’m sure many readers know that the Government has chosen Suffolk as one of 10 areas to trial next year a new way of funding local areas (the 100% business rate retention pilots). We were chosen because of our national reputation for working together and our bid was built in that basis. Again, Suffolk leading the way.

Recently, SPSL has been described as some kind of ‘secretive club’ that people only know about when it’s publicised. Well, I can think of better ways of keeping secrets than publicising things! It’s not a club though, far from it. It’s a serious space where people responsible for major public bodies in Suffolk come together to find solutions to the issues facing Suffolk.

Last month, the SPSL group met Eleanor Kelly, the chief executive of Southwark Council who stepped in to help residents in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Eleanor told us that Suffolk was one of the first places, as a whole, to seek to learn the direct lessons from Grenfell so that we can protect our residents. I’m not sure this would have happened if Suffolk’s public sector organisations didn’t work in this way.

At that same meeting, we agreed to review the way we work to ensure we keep having a positive impact on Suffolk. We’re reviewing everything, including having representatives from other sectors involved and looking at how we share more about the things we’re working on. That was absolutely the right decision to make, not least because the business rate retention pilot kicks off in April and collective decision making will be even more important. I look forward to updating people when that work is complete.

 

 

Sadly Council Tax has to rise

Here is my column that appeared in last Tuesday’s edition of the EADT and then in the Ipswich Star.

Last week, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet voted to increase council tax in Suffolk for the first time since 2010.

A 2.99% increase was approved, along with a 2% adult social care precept, meaning taxpayers will be paying little under 5% for council services than last year.

A council tax rise was not surprising – we had mentioned it last year, with a 1.99% increase put forward, with the adult social care precept at 3%.

Despite the changes in the way the tax is being divided, the increase remains the same.

It’s been said that we are taking away the 1% from the precept to spend elsewhere. This is simply untrue. The 1% we’ve added on top of the 1.99% first mentioned in October will go towards providing adult care. There is nothing more important to us than delivering the best possible frontline services to those who need them most.

We spend half a billion pounds providing services every year. Like the majority of councils in England, we accepted a four-year financial package from the Government, covering the period from 2016/17 to 2019/20. It also, helpfully, provides some certainty about our funding.

However, we can’t rely on this alone. We were successful in our bid to be one of 10 areas where we can retain 100% of business rates generated here in Suffolk, which will help. But there still remains a budget gap.

In 2018/19, the gap is £26.8million. That is the difference between the amount of money it will cost to provide essential council services in Suffolk and the amount of money we actually have to spend.

We are required by law to have a balanced budget so we have therefore had to find ways of closing that budget gap. We have proposed a range of savings totalling to £23.9m, leaving us with a gap of £2.9m remaining – which will come from our reserves.

We have been careful to limit the use of our reserves as once that money has been spent it’s gone forever and won’t be available to close any future budget gaps.

This isn’t a new way of working for Suffolk County Council. We’ve successfully managed the financial challenges laid down in the Government’s austerity programme and have made savings of £236 million between 2011 and 2018. The response to these challenges has been measured, pragmatic and innovative, and designed to protect front line services as much as possible.

Demand for services has increased since the last council tax increase and it continues to. We also have an investment programme totalling nearly £100m this coming financial year, which includes building new schools, extending and improving existing schools, investing in Suffolk’s road network, continuing to provide better broadband coverage across the county and delivering two major river crossing projects – the Lake Lothing Third Crossing in Lowestoft and the Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich.

Being clear about your goals, listening to people and being accountable for your actions are fundamental principles in public services. When the people of Suffolk voted in the Conservative councillors I lead, it was on the basis of a clear manifesto.

We are introducing business plans, which set out how we will deliver services and how we will measure performance. These are based on three core priorities – inclusive growth, healthcare and wellbeing, and efficient and effective public services.

These are deliverable because of the hard work and commitment of our councillors and staff – working with our partners, businesses and residents to make Suffolk a healthier and more prosperous place to live and work.

Yes, the latest Autumn Budget confirms that the pressure on public spending is likely to continue. But this is not news to us and we have a positive response.

We don’t hang about in Suffolk, we get on and do everything we can to get the best possible outcomes for the people we serve. We do this by listening to what people say and giving them an opportunity to influence the difficult decisions we have to make.

This council tax increase wasn’t taken lightly and every penny will be put to the best possible use. Our staff, our councillors, and I, will make sure of that.

 

Increased funding for Suffolk’s Pre-schools

pre-school

Following a meeting with Schools Forum representatives, it has been agreed that Suffolk County Council will be increasing the hourly base rate paid to childcare providers in Suffolk will increase from £3.87 per hour to £4.00 per hour from April 2018.

There will also be changes to the allocation of Deprivation and Inclusion funding for eligible children. From April, Deprivation funding will be allocated based on the number of hours a child attends a setting.  The eligibility criteria for this measure will remain the same. Inclusion funding will be targeted at the needs of individual children.  This means the funding will be targeted where it is most needed. The total amount of funding the council receives for Deprivation and the Inclusion Fund will remain the same.

Suffolk is one of only 25% of authorities to see a reduction in funding following the Early Years Funding Reform and from April 2018, the amount of funding the council will receive from government will reduce further.  This means that the council has to consider how best to allocate the reduced resources.

The council currently retains 6.3% of funding received from government to carry out statutory support services for parents and providers. 93.7% is passed on to providers. From April 2018, 96.2% of the funding the council receives from Government will be passed on to providers through the base rate of £4.00 per hour per child, Inclusion and Deprivation funding.  This exceeds the statutory requirement of 95%.  The authority will retain 3.8% to carry out its statutory support services.

Gordon Jones, our Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills, said: “We are pleased to be able to increase the hourly amount paid to providers to £4.00 per child, despite a reduction in funding from central Government. In order to give providers, the highest possible funding rate, 96.2% of the funding we receive will be passed on to providers, exceeding the statutory requirement of 95%. This will include the £4.00 per child hourly base rate, as well as Inclusion and Deprivation funding for eligible children.

The fairer allocation of Deprivation and Inclusion funding also means that this money will be going to those children who need it the most.

We recognise that more needs to be done.  I have tirelessly campaigned for fairer funding from Government, raising the matter with local MPs and the Minister of State for Children and Families.  I will continue to lobby the government for fairer funding for children in Suffolk.”

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