Governing England: English Identity and Institutions

governing england

Almost two years ago I was invited to attend a roundtable in Cambridge following the collapse of the Norfolk and Suffolk Devolution idea and the beginning of the emergence of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.

The British Academy convened the roundtable, and it was one of a series of evidence gathering events culminating in a book entitled Governing England: English Identity and Institutions in a Changing United Kingdom (Proceedings of the British Academy). So just before Christmas, I found myself at its launch at the Brtish Academy’s grand Headquarters overlooking the Mall in London listening to its co-authors talk about their research, observations and work which the book pulls together. Available from selective bookshops at a whopping £65.00 but it makes for an interesting read particularly for someone who lived and breathed the Devolution period in local government.

Devolution came forward as an idea, which Suffolk took on board and who Leaders in Local Government including me thought was something we could use to help grow our Suffolk economy. What followed was government interference in a system they knew little of, what’s that saying about ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Four days after submitting a Suffolk bid, DCLG directed that Norfolk and Suffolk come together which was particularly disappointing at the time having regularly through the period sense checked that a Suffolk bid would be acceptable for weeks before the deadline. After many meetings, Leaders were summons to the government offices in Cambridge and told in no uncertain terms that it had to be Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk or no deal. Only to be told a few weeks later, ‘no scrub that’, Cambridgeshire can do it on their own. And Norfolk and Suffolk must merge, long story short, that deal was eventually technically and legally scuppered when the Borough of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk pulled out and its collapsed.

[the timeline above is truncated, but as fantastical as it sounds, the sequence is accurate].

Fast forward, and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough combined authority exists with a powerful Mayor who brings real money into the Cambridgeshire system albeit into a governance arrangement where each senior leader has to find their feet and voice as to how best to work together. That element looks like a real challenge and looking at it with hindsight into the Suffolk and Norfolk version it was always going to be the greatest challenge. I suppose I always knew that more than most, given my experience as Norfolk and Suffolk Area Chairman for the Conservative Party at the time. Given our dominance on most of the councils, I knew, first hand the very different cultures of the councils involved. And thus the near impossible task to pull together despite the large sum of funding finance that came with it, ultimately not an enough of an incentive for Councils and more accurately Councillors to seed some control to a Mayor or the collective of a Combined Authority.

Today in West Suffolk the challenge is about looking towards the Cambridge economic sub-regional and where it leaves our local government relationship with the rest of Suffolk. Unitary plans of varying size splutter on in different places and lingers in dark corridors in others. Leaders come and go, including me, but the financial challenges remain, all of which seems lost in the current turmoil of Brexit. One day even Brexit will be settled, and the need to focus on economic growth and the money or lack of it will return as the most significant question of our time is how we afford to support vulnerable Adults and children in our communities as we would want to.

And so, the question of local government reorganisation will also return, to which the Brtish Acemdey book is a significant contribution to where we are at as a nation, our sense of self and our forms of governance from exiting the EU to Westminster, local government and the union. The book is thus well worth the cost and effort, it’s not a light read!

The Centre for Public Scrutiny Annual Conference 2018

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A couple of weeks before Christmas I was delighted to be invited to give the LGA keynote speech and sit on a panel session at the Centre for Public Scrutiny annual conference. The brief was to provide my perspective of the big issues facing the local government sector in the future and the role scrutiny can play to meet the challenges.

Much like House of Common’s select committees their reports can be broader than just the business of the council and can help shape policy and warn when things are not right. For instance, on the health side of things Upper Tier authorities’ Health Scrutiny Committees are just about the only public external scrutiny, our health system is subject to and so play a vital role in ensuring that public get to hold the NHS to account.

But with great influence comes great responsibility and so I used my speech to talk about that responsibility. From Northamptonshire County Council to the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Trust scrutiny has the challenge, flag up problems and improve the lives of our communities and residents. The danger is at its worse it merely ‘goes through the motions’, skating over the issues or plain missing them altogether and so compounds the problem when things are going wrong because it suggests things are OK.

But there can be another factor at play.

As we waited to go on the stage at the conference, I was chatting to my fellow panellist Jo Millar CE of Doncaster Council and who is the current Chairman of the Society of Local Government Chief Executives (SOLACE). She was telling me about a great TED talk by Margaret Heffernan about a concept called ‘Willful Blindness’.

So the next day I watched the video and reflected on the similarities of my speech about responsibility – The proposition the talk puts forward is something that I am aware of but had never articulated it as she does. It’s about how the organisation and people just chose to see what they want to look at and a bit about power and how organisational think affects us. Hans Christian Andersen tells much the same fable in his Emperors New Clothes tale, and it’s about just not seeing or refusing to speak up when things are not right.

Let’s take Northamptonshire County Council as an example. It took years not months, to burn through their reserves with Councillors, Cabinet members and Senior Officers purely focused on a Transformation programme that ultimately did not work. Why was there not more outcry or was everyone from its Leadership to its scrutiny processes so focused on the grand program working rather than speaking up because they did not see the problems or they all wanted it to work that they willfully did not see the failure coming.

Having read through the work and reports of the Local Government Association hard-hitting reviews that certainly seems to be the case. In Northamptonshire, they said there was no plan B but the signs were there about the rate of use of reserve, the quarterly outturn reports that showed the programme was not going to work, quarter after quarter, yet it carried on.

As tough as making savings is, and how hard it is to get groups and residents on board to ultimately you serve no one if, in the end, you hit a ‘brick wall’ and the requirement to stop services. So far better to have that difficult conversation and be realistic with what we can and can’t achieve.

So I recommend Margarets Heffernan’s book as an excellent read about the pressures we face in Public Services and what and why we need to be mindful of the danger of Willful Blindness.

Happy New Year

2019 Happy New Year colorful celebration bannerHere’s to a happy, healthy and successful one for you and your family.

Looking back on last year one subject dominated and will naturally dominate the early part if not all of this year and that is Brexit. Just before the referendum, I blogged about my thoughts on the notion of Brexit, and it was brought back into sharp focus at the shadow West Suffolk Full Council meeting just before Christmas when I met with some of the protesters at the front of West Suffolk House who were there campaigning for a second referendum. I was an active remain campaigner and helped with the Suffolk campaign, and, from talking with some of the protesters, most seemed to be remainers. And of course this is perhaps the problem with a second referendum, are you campaigning because Parliament might not be able to decide to accept the deal negotiated on the table or merely crash out with a hard Brexit and you want to make that decision as a nation or because you want a different decision? – I think that it would be a mistake to hold a second referendum, not because of the notion of having another vote.  After all, since the second world war the average life of each parliament before we hold a general election is only about 3 & a half years and so we regularly, as a country, pick and choose changes in policy and direction for one political party to another. But more about the motivation of some of those who want a second referendum, what happens if they didn’t get the ‘right’ decision – best of five!  Not to mention it could be a very complex ballot paper: Do we now still leave or stay?  If we remain, do we accept the deal? Do we reject the deal as is? Do we leave and go for a hard Brexit?  Do we extend and seek to conclude the entirety of the agreement and/or then vote again?  Complex!  It seems to me we made a decision and now we let our parliament decide the best way forward.

To my mind and I may well be proven wrong such is Brexit but if you ask the people then whatever the decision you enact it. And however bumpy it is getting I sort of think that’s what the Government and Parliament are doing. If the will of parliament is to reject the deal on the table and the EU, in such a game of brinksmanship, decides to ignore you, then we crash out. Or parliament rejects the deal and instruct the Government to extend and continue to find a compromise.  With each of these, our democracy may at the time look bumpy if not downright ugly like it did on the final PMQs of the year, but I put it to you that parliament is doing its job. We elect a representative body of people called MPs, and they sit in the House of Commons to debate and make decisions on our behalf. Precisely what we elect them to do and if you don’t like the decisions they make, then at the next election you find yourself new politicians – democracy in action. We have all got somewhat used to the showpiece sound bit version of democracy played out behind closed doors and then neatly presented for the 24-hour news cycle.  I think what you see in parliament is what its there for, a place of real debate and difficult questions that stretches the two-party system and intricate, complex options voted on – democracy at full flood.

By the way, I hope MPs will see the sense of the deal on the table, in business long-term partnership deals only work if they are win:win – everyone knows that.  If you have an agreement which is a win for us and loss for the other side that will not work in the long term for that is not a partnership.  Why would you not want access to the EU single market? We are leaving the EU, but declining access to the single market and trading on WTO terms when you can have access seems to me to be economically stupid.

Away from Brexit, life carries on, and in local government, the settlement just before Christmas almost went unnoticed.  Over the next couple of months, councils across the country will grapple with setting their budgets for the coming year. We seem to be entering a period of sustained council tax rises, which I am fundamentally against as it’s your hard earned money.  But accept that unless the government decides otherwise, financially, councils have little choice if they are to protect and support the most vulnerable older people and children in our communities, given the lack of money flowing from central government.  While there continue to be welcome additional monies for this and that; these are financial sticky plasters ahead of the Fairer Funding Review which is vital for a vibrant and place shaping future for our councils. If not then we are heading for organisations that deliver statutory minimum services and nothing else, and that would be a mistake.

On a personal level, it has been a year of change where my passion for Suffolk while still burning brightly, now has less influence than it once did and thus takes a little less of my time. So I have refocused on my business life and reignited my love for housebuilding and MMC in particular.  When the full-time aspect of being a Council Leader was over, I always knew I would go back to what I do outside politics, just a little sooner than I intended. I still want to use my Adult Social Care, Local Government and community engagement experience and seek avenues to do that.  And I continue to have the honour of representing my community at the County Council. Over the past four years, I have worked to serve my community on Forest Heath District Council ahead of the new West Suffolk Council which is being formed in the elections of May this year.  These are challenging times in Local government, and I shall be standing and hope that my experience and knowledge of how to get things done will persuade residents to vote for me in May so I can continue to be a strong voice for the Row Heath area and Lakenheath on both local councils.

So it seems to me we all have an interesting political year ahead – happy New Year.

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As we approach Christmas

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It’s a busy time of year rushing about buying presents and preparing for that big Christmas Day.  In my case being shown on Amazon, the specific presents my nieces would like us to buy them.  Both still have a belief in Father Christmas, and he’ll bring them their main presents, but they see no problem with Auntie and Uncle buying presents for them as well.  One has such faith in Father Christmas bringing her a Barbie Doll we are to get her Barbie accessories. How times change!

Whilst a lovely time of year for many, especially Children, it’s also a time to reflect on those who are no longer with us.  In my case, in the past four years, my sister Paula and I have lost our parents, in a family where before them no one died under at least 90 years old it was and still is, a shock.  Recently my only surviving Auntie died in her late 80’s and this Christmas Lisa, and I will visit with her husband to remember her.  Like him, for many, it’s a time to remember their wives, husbands and partners sadly passed.  So as you rush about, perhaps remember your neighbours or older relatives and maybe pop in for a cup of tea, drop a card off or see if there is anything they need this Christmas.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas and here’s to a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

OffSite 2018

I very rarely blog about my work preferring to talk about community, being a councillor and politics, but at moments politics and business do cross-over and housing delivery is one of those moments.  I am as passionate about housing as I am about politics.  In fact, being booed in Parish Council meetings when proposing housing development was what got me into politics in the first place, some say nothing has changed much, the booing that is!

Last Wednesday I travelled to London to meet colleagues at the OffSite show at Excel. Much has been written about Modern Methods of Construction and at the show, many companies were demonstrating their system and services that support modular, and something struck me as I walked around and that was you know what… it’s about time.

When I left school in 1984, my family said are you going to university or start a house building company – there was simply no other option offered in a family of house-builders and so like my father and grandfather before me, I started a housebuilding company.

When I started, my grandfather came along to help we get going and to help me set out my first site, I still have my ‘Cowley’ Level from those days – not sure I’d remember how to use it, but hey we now have the internet.  As I built those early homes with my grandfather by my side, he was thoroughly familiar with the materials, the way we built, and the companies suppling the various components, essentially nothing had changed since he started out 40 years before after the war.

Ridiculously, fast forward to today and if my dear Grandfather were alive, he would be entirely familiar with most building sites, save for the Health and Safety aspects, because the methods of construction have not moved forward much in 73 years, how utterly ridiculous.

There have been many a false dawn with Modern Methods of Construction, but today the government has set out an agenda to seek to address the lack of building in our country and at the show, you could see the technical ability to build off-site and differently to increase capacity and quality.  But hey I would say that as we were there exhibiting.

Remembrance Weekend

There are many reasons people get involved in public life and become councillors.   Beyond having different roles on two councils and at the national level, which over the years has been interesting, for me its always first and foremost been about where I grew up and live.  I love representing my community and doing what I can to help it be a safer stronger more pleasant place to live for young and old alike.  A sense of place is at the heart of local government and of my way of looking at things.  So while a sombre weekend, it was also a weekend when communities across the country both large and small come together in formal and simple acts of remembrance for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice form our communities.

This year, of course, marked 100 years since the end of the first world are, a war hoped to be ‘the war to end all wars’, sadly not the case and as we laid wreaths at some of the events I attended, the presence of armed Police reminded us all that the world is not a safer place.

After ceremonies, on the Saturday morning my nieces and their respective mothers arrived at ours to come with us to see the magnificence fireworks at Ely, an annual event in our household as I have been going for well over 30 years.  The nieces arrived like a whirlwind as they do but when we explained the other things going on over the weekend one of them asked if she could lay a wreath with me and I said maybe in a couple of years time as she is only 5 but it was a very thoughtful moment is frenetic weekend with them.  The only time they were quiet is when they walked down and watch me and others from our village lay wreaths on Sunday afternoon.

So a hectic weekend balancing family and my public role where I laid wreaths on behalf of Suffolk County Council at three War memorials in West Row, Eriswell and Kenny Hill on Saturday.  Then on Sunday at the Beck Row Parish and War Graves followed by the first of two Church services one at St. John’s Beck Row and after the parade and wreath laying, in Lakenheath at St. Mary’s Chruch.

In the evening I travelled back to Beck Row for their short open-air payers before the lighting of the Beacon forming part of the National final moment of remembrance.

All in all a wonderful weekend full of family, fireworks community and simple acts that bind us all together in our communities remembering those who gave their today’s for our tomorrows.

A decent home for all

Last Thursday I was in London for the National Housebuilders Federation’s Smaller Housing Association Conference.  Housing Associations builds homes for people with an increasingly diverse tenure from former council house tenants all the way through the different tenure options to open or private market homes for sale as it’s called. So nowadays they build homes for every level of income, but with the same fundamental ethos, one I share, that regards of income everyone is entitled to a decent home.

As sentiment goes that’s usually one that no one disagrees with, but can we build them on the field or development site next to you then disagreement creeps in!  During the breaks, I spoke to a number of the delegates, and we all agreed even in this most philanthropic end of the housing game, few welcome new homes near them as that would be the wrong place – the great British malaise.

The keynote speaker in the late morning was Kate Henderson who used to be the CE of the Town and County Planning Institute and who I met last year when she was kind enough to invite me to a Garden Town discussion at the House of Commons.  She gave a speech about her new role as Chief Executive and working alongside the larger and smaller Housing Association.  Kate follows in the footsteps of David Orr is no easy task but the need for strong voices to get this country building is essential, and no doubt she will be one of those voices.

Slightly aside but one of the smart things during the day was the effective use of technology with an app which detailed the delegate list and how to make contact, review the agenda to plan the day, sign up for break-out sessions and book meeting slots with exhibitors. The app is Attendeehub.com.  Secondly, we used a ‘question’ app called slido.com which provided the ability to post questions during the presentation and for these to be put up at the end in the Q&A segments.  This way was a far more effective way to get interesting questions answered that providing the usual ‘platform’ it provides for people to make more of a statement to the presenter or panel than ask a question.

The last session was an exciting showcase of the key ideas which have emerged from an Initiative of the NHF this year called “the Greenhouse’.  Where professional across the social housing sector came together for a three-month period this year to try to find some initiatives to unlock our national housing crisis.  Some great ideas have emerged that need to be taken forward.

http://future.housing.org.uk

All in all an excellent day learning about the pressures that Smaller Housing Association face as they step up to meet the challenge from the government to get more homes built. The overarching theme of the day was building more homes and about taking leadership in the housing crisis, topics not just for Smaller or Larger Housing Association but everyone in the industry and across Local Government. Despite the malaise, we have to get building, or home ownership and a decent home will become beyond the reach of the many and the privilege of the few, and that is just not acceptable.  Everywhere and I do mean everywhere must take new housing developments with a mixture of tenure.

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