Suffolk’s New Stratergic Direction on Thursday’s Newsnight

Wow what amazing coverage and I for one was not expecting it, I suppose because to me our proposals for the New Strategic Direction are quite old news in that we approved the start of the process last September in the Full Council and I have sort of lived and breathed it for a year, with lots of meeting and workshop as we look at what we need to do to take it to the next level.

Last Thursday started well with a bit of early morning excitement as there are protesters outside Endeavour House and I rather assumed they were here about the Energy from Waste paper than was on the Agenda for the afternoon, it was only later that I saw they were from UNISON, they were 7 of them which is hardly a crowd but such is the way these thing are reported, later on the news it said UNISON were protesting outside I don’t know about you but my mind when I heard comments like that is of a large angry crowd raging against the ‘dying of the light’ as opposed to seven people having chat with people coming and going and handing out a few leaflets, don’t get me wrong I am not diminishing their right to protest just this point about the impression it leaves in the mind when you hear or read the comment ‘there were protesters outside’.

So there were are sitting in our group meeting discussing the agenda for the full council and the Chairman of the Council Eddy Alcock comes in and says are we OK for Anglia and wait for it, Newsnight to come and film now we are used to Look East and Anglia coming along but the mighty Newsnight now that was a first and I joked with Mark Bee the Chairman of the Constitution Working Party Committee on which I sit that they were clearly coming to interview him on the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the Council that were on the Agenda for the day, at this point I thought it was a toss up between Energy from Waste and maybe the NSD.

So we had our meeting and Jeremy Pembroke was interviewed for Anglia and Newsnight, we got to the end of the meeting and I rushed home to go and catch the tale end of a couple of town Councillor elections in Newmarket and we won both seats comfortably!

Then back home at 11:30 to watched the recorded coverage on Anglia and Newsnight, quite amazing it has really captured the imagination, the first 15 minutes of Newsnight was all about Suffolk, Suffolk this and Suffolk that, Jeremy’s interview came across really well (and on Anglia), Suffolk and NSD was reported as the first Council to embracing the Big Society, interpreted it for Local Government and are now setting about making it happen. Matthew Hancock MP was in the Studio as part of the panel discussing our NSD, his fellow studio guest was reflective on the role of Communities and the rigour of the Big Society and a UNISON spokesperson, who well lets just say was against! Matthew gave a robust defence of our strategy, and even mentioned that 80% of the services we provide today through ACS are done by our provider partners, slightly worried I must have bored him to death with that stat during the election campaign, all in all it was quite something to see little quite Suffolk and our thoughts examined on Newsnight! Makes a pleasant change from Essex!

However I rather thought the press coverage slightly misses the point about what we are trying to do as its really not so much about outsourcing all the councils services and going down to a tiny operation with a few hundred contract managers as seems to have been suggested, it is much subtler than that.

Unlike the Cuts that we, like everyone else face, which are not remotely subtle. SCC is likely to be receiving between 25 to 30% less money with which to pay for services.

Someone said to me what does that mean in the day to day for the Council and I said well that life changing and anyone who things it is not is in cloud cuckoo land. Simple put we need to find a way of protecting the county from the worst of the financial difficulties, improving outcomes for people while having much less money with which to do it.

SCC already have an excellent record on efficiency savings – £70 million over the last four years and is now rated the second most cost effective County Council in England after Kent, yes we’ll get more efficient but it will only get us so far and not to anything like the sort of savings we need to achieve to deal with what’s coming.

People have also said if this is such a great idea why have you not done it before and again I say that we have been lobbying our Party that when they take power we must be allowed to run our own affairs and true to their word the freedoms granted by the new government now present us with an opportunity to re-design the way services are provided and tailor them to the needs of our communities rather than a centralised version of what they thing our communities are and need, not to mention the whole scale dismantling of the strangle hold of requirements and reporting back to central government that was the hallmark of the Labour government, centralised control that Stalin would have been proud of!

So if the New Strategic Direction is not what the press are saying it is what is it well its a two year programme starting now (September 2010), and with the new strategic council up and running in 2012.

 It’s a programme to reduce as far as possible the Council’s role as a direct provider of services. The aim is to move service delivery outside the council, by doing that we can cut out layers of organisational bureaucracy, leaving a cheaper, more flexible and efficient core, and feeding money much more effectively to the services people need.

It’s not about handing over all services delivery to the private sector, but about talking to individual communities to find out what they need, and then helping them find the best way of delivering.

It’s about help communities become more self-reliant on present trends, demand for our services continues to grow.  By helping to build each community’s capacity to support itself, we can help our towns and villages become stronger and more self-reliant, and create a culture in which people feel more willing and able to take control of their lives and help those around them.

Something that has been entirely missed by the press is that it’s also about supporting and strengthens local democracy and the role of councillors, both at the heart of the council and as advocates for their divisions, this bit has not been reported at all!

We want to encourage people to become more involved, take on responsibility for what happens in their area.  We want to build the Big Society in Suffolk.

So in this Suffolk Big Society who will provide services, Services could be provided by existing staff running the service as a self-sustaining social enterprise or co-operative or other existing social enterprises can take on services or private companies may be contracted to provided some services or charities are ready and willing to take on a greater role and or local community groups, town and parish councils, or individuals, can do work that was previously done by the council, depending on the size and scale of the job

There are no hard and fast rules about how a service should be run and I for one certainly believe that the County Council doesn’t know best.  The NSD is all about giving more power to local communities, allowing them to decide for themselves what services they need and, with the help of the local councillor, find the best method of providing it. 

So that’s the aims but what about the nitty gritty stuff, as part of this process, there may be occasions where a private company is the right choice for a particular service. Equally if we have a statutory duty to provide the service, or indeed, if it is one that is considered ‘essential’, then I believe the Council must and will put in place strong mechanisms to ensure standards of delivery are maintained.

But there may well be some services the county provides where, for whatever reason, a statutory service cannot be provided satisfactorily. In this case it seems to me one of the roles of the strategic council will be to act as a guarantor, and ensure it is provided, while working to develop a market in that area, or encourage suitable providers to come forward.  So the principle of what we want to do still stands and we would continue to look for an external solution.

But we must not be afraid to say that in cases where there is no statutory need, and no-one in the community is willing to provide it, it may well be that the service stops, and as I reflect on a really interesting couple of days, if you think of democracy and ‘for the people by the people’ maybe just maybe that is the right litmus test for what services to cut as we deal with a new era in Local government as we change from being managers of a centralised state to truly working to reflect the needs of our communities albeit with a lots less money.

The spot light has been turned on Suffolk probably because we seem to be amongst the first to take the Big Society and interpret it for local government, what gives me a chuckle is that we launched this in September 2009 and now its news!

A11 Public Meeting

Just got back from the A11 Public Meeting called by Matthew Hancock our MP and Elizabeth Truss MP for South West Norfolk it was standing room only in a packed hall of, I estimated, about 150 people who turned out to heard Matthew and Elizabeth speak about their campaign at Westminster to get this scheme off the respective desks of Philip Hammond MP, Secretary of State for Transport and Teresa Villiers MP Minister of State for Transport and get the diggers rolling!

Guy McGregor Portfolio Holder for Transport at Suffolk County Council was on hand and spoke with knowledge and passion as he always does about the often difficult relationship the County Highways has had with the Highways Agency over the years and in particular with regards the final upgrade stretch of the A11. Suffolk Highway engineer Peter Grimm also spoke about the tecincal issues surrounding aspects of the proposed design.

Also on the platform was Lord Ivegh who spoke about the Elveden Estate and its important role in the local economy and their needs from the dualling as it cuts straight through his estate.

This scheme is of particular interest to me for a number of reasons, firstly I use the road frequently, get stuck in the traffic jams at the Barton Mills roundabout often and occasionally take my life in my hands as I cross over the road to go to Icklingham; secondly the road cuts through my Division and so I represent, at the County level, a large number of people who are effected by this road and desperately want to see it upgraded; and last but by no means least, I recall the great many years of hard work our former MP Richard Spring put into trying to get this stretch upgraded.

I, amongst a number of others, worked closely with Richard in the run up to the Public Enquiry last year trying to get the community groups who are so very disappointed with the proposed design not to object so that the road could be started before the coming cuts put the scheme in jeopardy.

My final words to a number of groups was ‘lets not object, lets get the road started and after we have all been to the opening ceremony, I would hold a meeting in Barton Mills Village Hall and I would chair the first meeting of the action group’ – to get the sort of improvements needed to make crossing the road safe for local residents and community groups such as the walkers and cyclists, at the time we all agreed that the Highways Agency scheme was wholly inadequate, but the point we were trying to make was to just get it built, warts and all, before the money ran out.

This fell on deaf ears and at the last count I think there were 36 different groups and organisations listed as objectors at the Public Enquiry.

Digressing as I am prone to do, the Highways Agency is for all intents and purposes a quango who whenever challenged about not being accountable repeat the mantra that they are answerable to the Secretary of State i.e. not local people nor the councils that represent them. I could blog a page on this issue but I think there is a real case for the Highways Agency to have to be accountable to Local Government as well as the Secretary of State, this would force them to truly engage with us and address our concerns, as they would have to do if a scheme was to be presented to the County and District Councils.

Thankfully the decision is at least back with the Secretary of State who is talking with Matthew and Elizabeth about it, rather than the now defunct faceless EERA who made a decision last time around to chose the Cambridge Guided Bus System rather than this scheme, and we all know what a success that has been!, I suppose it will be opened one day.

To some extent that is now ancient history, if the Inspector recommends to the Secretary of State to go ahead and the she has the money to build it then the road will be built as per the proposal before the Inspector or not as the case may be, in my opinion if the scheme is yet again put on hold it will be nothing short of an economic disaster for our area.

Once again at the meeting there was this dividing line between those who just want the road built warts and all and those who rightly criticise the design.

Matthew expertly drew the meeting to a close rounded with a vote for all those in favour of calling for the road to be built and built now, as opposed to those who want the scheme to be placed on hold until a better design can be agreed. The vote was almost unanimous with everyone in the room voting that they want the road now and asking how they help to lobby with only two people voting for the road to be redesigned.

Wherever I go across my Division people ask about the Public Enquiry and when will they start this vital dualling. I suppose we all wait to see it its funding survives the Comprehensive Spending Review’s necessary cuts and we get the road that is so vital to the economic success of our area, fingers crossed.

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