Zero Pounds, Zero Pence

Tomorrow we have a cabinet meeting to approve the 2011/2012 budget for it is debated by the Full Council later in the month, from our point of view it’s the culmination of months of hard work working out where and how to make £42.5M of savings over the coming year and deliver a balanced budget.

From the start of the process we were working on delivering a Zero pounds and Zero pence council tax rise, not by using a promised government grant incentive to pay for it, but by truely budgeting planning for no rise; the presumption was that if the incentive materialised, as it now has, we would use that to work with the District and Boroughs councils to protect front line services.

I have written much on my blog about the cuts and what we are trying to achieve, and being a part of this arena it’s quite easy to think that nothing else matters. But occasionally I think you need to take a step back and look at what effects the majority of people in Suffolk; I think the majority of people do not perceive they use Council services, yes they use the roads and want their bins emptied but for many and I have a number of friends included, they have little interest in the council, for them the main interaction with the council is when they get the Council tax bill and frankly from that they judge your performance.

Now I know I have colleagues who think this is a very cynical view but I think it’s a very useful one, if our aim is fundamental to protect the most vulnerable its important to realise that the Council tax rise has a real effect on the lives of residents; not so much if you are really on a very low-income because you probably get Council tax relief or if you are doing wonderfully well in life; but if you are on a fixed or lower-income Council Tax rises can have a profound impact on your income and can hit you the hardest as the percentage of your income that goes on the council tax is significantly higher than for those other groups.

So I fundamentally still believe it is a very significant moment and responsibility we have; indeed since I became a Councillor in 2006 the biggest single moment each year was the announcement of the Council Tax rise and the press were posed to pass judgement, so when the cabinet papers for this week’s cabinet meeting were published last Monday, the rise of zero pounds and zero pence passed almost without comment; all the talk was of cuts, savings, back office efficiency and job losses; entirely understandable but  interesting is how agendas move on.

Personally I believe that being efficient and keeping Council Tax rises down is the single biggest way we can help the people of Suffolk particularly those on fixed or low incomes during these straighten times and in this respect I thing the Conservative Administration since 2005 has something to be proud of.

Liberal Labour Control: 98/99 – 10.0%, 99/00 – 8.4%, 00/01 – 7.3%, 01/02 – 6.9%, 02/03 – 11.9%, 03/04 – 18.5%, yes this is not a type-o it was 18.5%, so in two years they put up the Suffolk County element of the Council tax by over 30% , then in 04/05 – 3.8.

In 05/06 the Labour Liberal pack tried set the council tax rise at 2.5% as a cynical election ploy and used captial reserves and revenue contincency to pay for it. Having won the election the Conservative stuck with the low rise but wqorked hard to achieve immediate cost sacvings to protect the reserves.

Conservative Control:  06/07 – 4.5%, 07/08 – 4.5%, 08/09 – 3.7%, 09/10 – 2.45%. 10/11 – 2.4%, 11/12 – 0.0%

The figures speak for themselves loud and clear.

As Labour and the Liberals try, in the coming local elections, to hope people have short memories of their inability to run councils properly; I for one intend to remind people of the disastrous effects of letting them have a ‘play’ at running things, in these difficult times it is vital that Conservatives remind people of the need for sound judgement that protects the most vulnerable and strong leadership that demands the council continues to change to meet the challenges head on.

On the other hand you can always have labour and the liberals with their ‘pay and play’ attitude that is you and I pay, they play, given their track record is that ‘pay, pay ,pay and play’!

Lakenheath Library – Dates for your Diary

Following on from the initial work to get the community behind a bid to keep our local Library open, there are two dates for your diary firstly the Lakenheath Parish Council will discuss the matter at the Parish Council meeting on Monday 7th February at the Lakenheath Methodist Church Hall from 7:00pm and then I have booked the Lakenheath Peace Memorial Hall for Thursday March 10th from 7:30pm for a village meeting, Poster will be going up shortly.

I have been able to get the area libraries Officer Lisa Elmer to attend the Parish Council meeting and she and the Head of Suffolk Library Services Roger McMaster will be there on the 10th March to help explain the challenge before us.

If you want to read about the scale of the challenge before us have a look at the various consultation papers at

http://colin.suffolkcc.gov.uk/Communicating/News/LibrariesConsultation2011.htm

This meeting is not about protesting at the proposed closure but about how much we as a village value our Library and if we do, what, are we going to collectively do to keep it open.

Are we prepared to volunteer to run it? Are we prepared as a community to take on the building? Can we find ways lower the running cost and possibly even make it pay for itself? How about a community coffee shop and cyber café? Can the local charities offer financial support?

For my part I am happy to facility the meeting on the 10th March and to be involved in an action group and if we are able to come up with a solution; I would be delighted to be on a future management board, I am also talking with the Charities I am involved in to see what tangible support we could offer.

So please come along to both meetings and lets discuss how we work together to keep our library open.

Adult Safeguarding Conference

Today I was in London for the Annual LGA conference on Adult Safeguarding, a serious issue and one we all need to occasionally think about as we visit with people and discuss the impact of cuts on our services.

Just before the conference I meet with James Mumford from the Centre for Social Justice who is writing a report for the Centre on strategies to address our aging population and the current state of the services available as we get older. Whilst it meant getting up far too early and a rather delayed journey courtesy of Network rail. James and I have a good hour and a half to chat about the state of services in general and the approach I am trying to see us drive forward in Suffolk. We agreed that eh would be coming to Suffolk to hear more from Officers on Suffolk Flexicare and to show him a round a couple of our Extra care housing scheme’s. I could wax-lyrical on extra care and its pivotal role in the delivery of housing for our aging population but you’d never have the time to scroll all the way through it and I am reminded one of my New Year’s resolutions was to make my blogs shorter!

Back to the Conference of the various excellent speakers the one I found most interesting was Zoe Lodrick MSc. BA Hons (1st). UKCP, wow!. Zoe is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist and an experienced Trainer and Consultant. Her back ground includes over 14 years experience working at Portsmouth Area Rape Crisis Service (PARCS) providing psychotherapy to women and men who had experienced rape, sexual assault and/or childhood sexual abuse; and she provides training and consultation to professionals who work with victims/survivors of sexualised traumas (whether therapeutically or within the criminal justice system).

Her presentation was also about why people in abusive relationships often stay with their abusive partner, something I suppose I never really understood and the challenges that presents from a safeguarding point of view; she also went into aspects of people’s behaviour and responses when faced with a perceived threat (especially sexual threat). you know occasionally you sit, listen and realise you haven’t got a clue on a subject and really learn something new, of course that is why you take the time to go beyond the simply definition of a role and try to learn more. but…….!

Someone one told me the key thing with youth is to capture it before it realises it does not know everything; what I know is that as I get older I realise I know about less and less about more and more.

“It’s about people not money”

It’s not often that I am stunned by a comment, but recently in a meeting where I was discussing the County’s Care strategy, I was told in no uncertain terms that “it’s about people not money”.

Now maybe it was who said it or the fact that the officer team and I are constantly battling the budget pressures as we look at how to pay for an increasing number of people who need services at a time when we are having to reduce the amount of money we have to pay for things.

I don’t know about you but when something is said that you keep coming back to in your mind, I have to think it through to clear it from my mind, either dismissing it or actioning it.

So what to do? Well let’s look at the current mess this country is in, put simply the county is spending far more running the state than it takes in taxes to pay for it, not that’s not the underlying debt position for that is even worse, I hear its now over 1000 Billion pounds. So how did we get here?, was it the bail out of the banks, pure ‘quantitative easing’ or a longer term malaise of “its about people not money”, a comment full of good intentions but lacking the gravitas to deliver, well probably all of the above.

A wise old owl said to me that unless you control the budget you control nothing, if the last few months since the general election has taught us anything it is this simple truth.

In terms of Adult Social services should we simply spend more of the total budget on providing social care? perhaps we should not worry so much about the, on average, 20 people a month who run out of savings to pay for their Residential care homes and ask us to pick up the tab, that tab is currently costing you and I £6.5 millions a year more than we were expecting and perhaps we simply should use the financial reserves of the county and when they run out borrow to pay continue paying.

Well I think its fair to say we will, long term, need to look at how much of the overall budget we spend on our ageing population but in the mean time we must hold to the budget, we must make savings where we know they exist such in as in the care homes strategy and we must have a long term strategy to work across all sectors private and public to deliver the housing and care we will need to support our ageing population, which I am pleased to say we do with Suffolk Flexicare. Or we could pay for it all but simply increasing the council tax, after all that’s what the liberals and labour did in 2003/4 when they increased Council Tax by 18.5%! – That would pay for it, but of course that would then hurt the very people we are meant to be protecting namely those on fixed incomes mainly pensioners.

So tight budget control it is! I think that people are best served by an administration that looks after the money, sticks to its budgets, makes the cuts that government requires, delivers quality services and the lowest council taxes rises in the council’s history, saves money where it can, however painful that can be, is as efficient as a council can be and has a strategy to deliver additional savings by finding a new way of doing things, a new strategic direction, in short Suffolk.

So what to do about the comment “its about people not money”, maybe who said it might read my blog!

Paying for Residential Care

On Thursday morning I hosted a difficult meeting with the Suffolk Association of Independent Care Providers where we got down to the thorny subject of the rates we can pay for the coming year. The meeting was, as is our way, pleasant but full and frank as each side set out its issues and problems with the rates we pay. For Suffolk County Council’s part officers talked about the Comprehensive Spending revue and the £12.7M savings ACS is having to make in the coming year and the problems the continuing number of people who are running out of funds and coming to us to pay for their care packages, are having on the budget. For the Association’s part they spoke of the difficulties to operate with increasingly tight margins. The meeting ended with both sides agreeing to reflect on what was said and for further dialogue.

In the car on the way home, I have time to reflect as it’s a hour’s drive each way; my mind turned back to the update Andrew Dilnot gave at the ADASS Conference in November as to the direction of travel of the Royal Commission currently addressing how we can pay for Care in the future, then it turned back even further to the I rather cast my mind back to the inaugural on How to Pay for Social Care – the Sir William Beveridge Foundation Lecture on the 9th March 2010, when Norman Lamb suggests in term of a voluntary scheme for social care in older age, the county with the best take up of a voluntary scheme insurance is France where the take up is 20%, far from what is needed.

The Care and Counsel Lobby group favours a 2.5% Death Tax over first £25,000 of asset to pay for a free at point of delivery service of course that is politically dead as the Conservatives were able to rip into it just before the election campaign. Others suggested that there is a need to enshrines social care rights rather than the state paternal, in short a Health and Social Care service!, however with rights must comes responsibility about health and it’s the realisation of responsibility and the prevention agenda that is driving much of the through processes behind the Health and Well Being Boards being set up.

It seems to me it’s actually all of the above as there needs to be choice as to how you pay for this, payment from estate, insurance products and equity release. The tax system also needs to incentivise such prudence; people must have incentives to save to provide for their own care.

Often, I return in my head, to a lady who spoke at the Sir William Beveridge Foundation Lecture from the floor and who very simply, very powerfully spoke of what I firmly believe will become one of the defining features of the next 20 years in Politics she said “you know the grateful as hell generation are dying off, I am from the Baby Boomer generation and as we retire and look around at what is being provider for our future old age we are not happy, not happy at all”. Politically I think politicians from all parties have ignored the older generation; but we simply will not be able to ignore them in the future, so vote and will get organised today they are asking questions now but they quickly will start demanding answers.

Lakenheath Library under threat

Matthew Hancock MP joins me to discuss the future for our local Library and who should be there returning a book but my predecessor as Council Councillor Mary Crane, with her husband Roger a former District Councillor

In this Blog and in articles I write for the local Parish Magazines I have talked about the Comprehensive Spending revue and the 28% cuts to the county council’s overall funding. I have also talked about the incredibly difficult decisions and indeed the sleepless nights many of the officers and Councillors have had as we have wrestled with the implications and where we are going to have to make cuts.

It’s fair to say that cuts are never ever going to be popular but as we worked through the options before us, our priority has been to protect the vulnerable in our communities and seek to make savings that do not hurt vital services.

The county council will fundamentally change; for that is what 28% less money means, a fundamental change and in many respects what we have come to expect, what we have come to enjoy, is no longer financially available to us.

On Tuesday the cuts have finally arrive on Lakenheath’s doorstep as it was announced that our great little library was under threat of closure unless the local community steps up and takes it over.

Of course I knew about this as I am in the cabinet of Suffolk and voted to for the strategy and consultation asking local communities to step forward to save our libraries, and I certainly did have a sleepless night thinking about the impact of this cut, but as I have said in print and on the radio the £43M saving we are going to have to make in the next year are all difficult choices.

Tuesday afternoon I visited Chris, our librarian to discuss this devastating news with him and we chatted through what I was going to do.

Tuesday night I emailed the Parish Council and asked for it to be discussed at the next meeting and details of where Parish Councillors could find all the information they needed ahead of that debate.

Wednesday morning I put a call into Matthew Hancock’s office and it was great that he agreed to visit the library with me today and to hear for himself the scale of the challenge before us. Just retruning a book was my predeccor Mary Crane and her husband Roger,a former District Councillor; both may have retired from the wider scene but are very active in our local Communitya nd it was good to have their intial thoughts as we discussed the future.

I told them that in addition to the Parish Council meeting I was arranging a Public meeting in mid-February to discuss our, as a community, response to the consultation and what we collectively might be able to come up with do to save the library and I will post those details here on my blog just as soon as I have them.

On the Radio and TV

‘Thursday, 09:00 on BBC Suffolk. Synopsis Suffolk County Council chief executive Andrea Hill has spoken to BBC Radio Suffolk to defend council cuts and her hotly-debated salary, James invites you to have your say on what she’s said.’

I was driving down to Ipswich for a meeting on this morning when I got a call asking me if I would like to be on the James Hazell show at 9:40 after they broadcast Andrea Hill interview with Mark Murphy, and Cllr. Kathy Pollard would be on as well so the two of us could give our reactions to the interview ahead of the phone in they were building around it.

So I cancelled my first meeting and headed for the studio listening to Andrea’s interview as I travelled down, got to the studio at 9:35 straight in to listen to the end of it in reception and on with the head phone for a bit of political sparring with Cllr. Kathy Pollard, then off to my next meeting with the Suffolk Association of Independent Care Providers to discuss prices.

If you want to listen to the interview with Andrea its right at the start of James Hazell’s Thursday morning show and its on i-player for a week, Kathy’s and my bit is on direct after the interview at about 40 minutes in.

I have to admit we did not seem to get into the interview with Andrea much and I suspect that is because whilst Kathy will of course have a go about Andrea’s salary she knows how good Andrea is at her job and that came across in the interview.

We seems to spend most of our brief session discussing Lollipop men and woment and pot holes, which to be fair is seems to be the two topics of the day at the moment!

That doen and off I went to Endeavour house; at lunch time SKY News called and said they wanted to do a piece on the New Strategic Direction to camera and so the comms team naturally thought of me, well not quite, the Leader and Duty Leader were at other meetings and I was the only other Cabinet member about that afternoon, but the team did assume me I was not their last resort!

The reporter was Emma Birchley who used to be on Anglia News many years ago, so a local to Norfolk and Suffolk; she said they hoped it would be on Saturday as part of a piece on the Big Society and Councils but would let me know.

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