LGA Conservative Group Meeting

Popped along to the LGA Conservative Group meeting Friday in Cambridge for a round up of thoughts post Budget day across East Anglia, all in all it was a tough few days last week for all of the councils.

Cllr. Jill Tuck, Leader of Cambridgeshire welcomed us all to their Council Chamber and we heard from Cllr. David Shakespeare OBE as Chairman of the Conservative Group on what good value the LGA was!  A discussion followed about the Big Society with Cllr. Robert Gordon, I can’t list all his titles as I am told to keep my blogging shorter! Cllr. David Parsons CBE talked about the post CCA world and the need for us to stress to government to keep it lite and not recreate reporting structures by creep over the course of the parliament.  

Cllr. Gary Porter lead the session on the changes to the planning system and I think many of us see opportunities and pitfalls in equal proportion!

Just before Lunch we have a good Q&A session with Stephen Hammond MP who as usual answered our questions with humour and honestly which I think is appreciated by us all.

After Sandwiches and a natter we heard from Alan Mabutt the CCHQ Local Government sage who is always interesting and has a great skill at pitching his presentation at the audience; I have for my sins heard Alan three times this year once in Swaffham, at the CCA and on Friday and he always seems to have the ‘pitch’ right for different audiences.

The event closed with Will Brooks Head of the LGA Conservative office who gave the feed back from recent polling as to what people were thinking about in the run up to the Local Government elections in May and fascinating it was too.

At the coffee break and at lunchtime the conversations were about the reactions we were having to the cuts and whilst of course these are quite local based on where the cuts were biting, there was a sense of the national picture that we need to keep reminding people that the cuts are a direct result of 13 years of labour mismanagement; as was said in one of the session the coalition government is 9 months old and its trying to sort out the biggest financial mess this county has been in since the second world war. The cuts are necessary and Labour’s fault it’s as simply as that.

I don’t care how many times Ed Balls does a Pontius Pilot and then says of course we always said there needs to be cuts, but we would do them slower, so what you get from labour is a complete washing of their hands and New, New Labour saying how much better they would do things, a bit like asking the arsonist how best to put out the fire!

Locally we have struggled with the cuts and articulating that cuts actually mean cuts; but to some extent I think that is inevitable as residents see the things they personally value affected by decisions made at County Hall, yet things they do not value continuing. I can of course make a strong case for the £190M ACS spend on the services it provides but if you use a Library or one of the other services that is currently being talked about with actual or potential closure I can completely understand people championing the things they hold dear.

Equally I think it’s fair to say getting the message across about the New Strategic Direction is proving difficult when people are trying to cope with the cuts at the same time. However getting the message across is important and we must continue to work with communities and community leaders to develop the ideas that will ultimately protect residents from more cuts, The county has, since 2005 focused on being efficient, but simply being efficient is not enough, we must find new ways to provide services; cheaper ways to provide services; if we are going to be able to continue to provide many of the services we hold dear, in the future.

On BBC Radio Suffolk’s debate on the cuts and the future , broadcast last week I was pleased to hear an old business associate of my family’s, David Bedford who along with his sons runs the excellent Bedford’s Estate Agency in Bury St. Edmunds, he was in the audience and suggested that what we are discussing and asking is a twist on Kennedy’s famous line ‘Ask not what Suffolk can do for you but what you can do for Suffolk’; and in essence that is what is being asked.

I am not saying we get the message right all the time, I am not saying it is well received and I am not saying there won’t be trips and spills along the way but it seems to me that this is far more an honest and intelligent approach to what is before us as we try to ‘cut our cloth’ according to what we can afford, a 28% drop in funding which equates to about £125M over the next 4 years, demands that the County Council must change and I am firmly of the opinion that Suffolk will be in better shape for this conversation in 4 years time that a lot of County Councils.

How to make a Decision

On Saturday I went to Warwick University to attend a really interesting  2 day course, which caught my eye, called ‘Approaches to Decision Making’. A Saturday and Sunday is a bit above and beyond but the course looked really interesting so I thought I would go, and I am glad I did.

The course started at 9:30 am but rather than stay two nights away from home I decided to get up early and get there in the morning, so I left the house at 6:00am and travelled to Ely to catch the train, Ely station is not a nice place when it’s cold and blowy and this morning was no exception!

The course was hosted by the Local Government Improvement and Development the LGID which to be fair rolls off the tongue better than its previous name IDeA, on the Warwick University Campus.

The Master Class was hosted by Pascoe Sawyer who did an excellent job and even reacquainted me with my Myers Briggs scoring and how that had an influence on my personal decision making style both individually and as a par of a wider group. Next up was James Sales from Motivational Maps, Google him and you find his web site which is rather interesting. During the course of the day James made a very strong opening impression with his presentation on group thinking in a group verses an individual very interesting indeed. Later in the day James introduced us to perhaps one of the simplest yet most powerful decision making tool in the world Edward De Bono’s Six Hat thinking, simple yet very powerful.

After a break we had a presentation from Dale Burch, the Deputy Leader of Bracknell Forest on Localism and Accountability which gave a contextualisation to the new decision making forums we would soon all be in.

In the grave yard shift after lunch was Dr. Liz Richardson from the Institute for Political and Economic Governance, Liz talked about communities and Councils and the nature of how they interact and how to solve the impasses that almost immediately appear when a Council proposes something and the anti-action groups form up. She articulated a process that I shall be trying out in a couple of week’s time and if I can get the audience to participate that it will be really interesting to see the results of what she explained to us.

The following morning we meet with Ian Fifield from Local Government Futures and we looked at Local Government Finance and the role of critical thinking in looking at the budget and Medium Term Financial Plan then a really interesting team exercise before we finished at Lunchtime, then train and home.

My thanks goes to Aggie, Alan, Faye, Joyce, Ian, Mark, Nick, Pascoe, Paul and Tracey for making the two days such a fun shared experience.

Now to apply what I have learned in the real world always the challenge with these things!

Suffolk County Council Budget Day and the morning after

Last Thursday I had quite a long day up at 5:30am, tea and toast, emails, shave and a shower and off to Endeavour House to be there for 8am to be interviewed by Eamonn Holmes on the Sky’s fast moving Breakfast News show.

That is always a strange experience; cameraman, a moving camera lens straight in front of your face and an ear piece to listen to Eamonn and a Councillor from Liverpool, neither of whom you can see; we chatted about the cuts and the Budget meeting here in Suffolk and then got on to who is responsible and to blame for the cuts, I said what I know to be true is that after 13 years of Labour mismanagement and the ridiculous situation where this county is spending more that it takes in its tax base we are having to deal with the consequences of that and Council budget cuts are one such consequence.

Next was the group meeting and we discussed the budget and the amendments that were proposed by Labour and the Liberals then into the foyer to record a video Tape for Look East with Kevin Burch just in case the Council Meeting by the tiem Look East went out at 6:30pm and I promised to do a live interview if we were finished, as the meeting ended at 8:05pm they used the tape.

Then a quick sandwich and Councillor briefing from Andrea Hill on where the New Strategic Direction was up to and into the Chamber for what turned out to be a 6 hour meeting, we certainly debated the budget and then some.

Just as last year and the year before that when I was Cllr. Jane Storey’s Assistant Portfolio Holder for Finance and Resource Management; I had the honour of seconding the Budget motion and so got to speak twice firstly when the Liberals tabled their amendments and then to sum up the debate before Jane put the motion to the Council.

First came Labours amendment with regards the school crossing patrols and then came the Liberal one. Whilst I accept that with only 4 members the Labour group will struggle to put together a credible alternative to our budget one line item was a bit think on the ground for all the rather feeble rationale from their Leader that they only tabled the one in the hope we would adopt it, I’ve heard some excuses in my time but really!

Then came the Liberal’s amendment and to be fair I was somewhat torn by it and said on balance I could not support it, which surprised a few, as in the five years I have seen a budget debate this was by far the most work they had ever put in fact I would go so far as to say, you could add all the other amendments together and this one was longer, a whole side of A4 albeit big print but nevertheless a whole side, I mentioned that in preparing for the debate I had looked up my previous notes and in February 2009 I had accused them of perhaps not realising when the deadline for submission was as it as so short and clearly rushed.

Unfortunately as is often the way of these things when you got into the detail you could clearly see that rather than a detailed critique of our proposals it was nothing more than Political Showboating not discussing some of the more difficult subjects in my Portfolio or anyone else’s come to think of it but just those subject that have been on the front pages of the press pure Political Showboating.

But it gets worse, much worse, when it came to where they would find the money from it was scary, they were even suggesting that we use service reserves and contingency funds to stave off having to do things, but then don’t worry folks just as in 2002/03’s Budget when they put up Council tax by 11.9% and then the very next year when they put it up again by 18.5%, if it goes wrong they can always make the people of Suffolk pay for it, simples yes!

Both amendments started and in Labours case ended with the issue of the School Crossing Patrols and we must have sent two and a half hours on this every subject. To my mind getting children to school safely is everyone responsibility their own, parents and drivers and I actually suspect that most children who walk to school have to cross more than one road and do so safely with their parents or friends because they take responsibility to follow the right way to do it.

During the debate Cllr. Guy McGregor said that School crossing patrols were being maintained until the end of the summer term to allow Community Groups, PTAs, schools, Parish and Town Councils and individual businesses to support a crossing service if a community valued it. I am sure over the coming months local County Councillors will be taking the lead in helping those communities work out how to do it. For my part I am going to speak with the schools in my division and see if any way to although most have travel plans and school crossing patrols do not seem a priority.

In my closing remarks I talked about a survey by the East Anglian Daily Times where they asked in an on-line poll ‘Would you pay more Council tax to save threatened services?’ 25% said yes and 75% said no. To me the whole budget process is about helping those families in Suffolk who are struggling in these difficult times and I can thing of no better way to support people who are on fixed incomes and low wages that freezing the tax they have to pay and are struggling to pay.

The following morning I popped down to my local Newsagent and got a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times to read what was said and then back home to do radio interviews with Town 102 (Ipswich Local Radio) and Mark Murphy’s show on Radio Suffolk. On Nick Pandolfi’s breakfast show a number of people has texted and twittered in how angry they were at the cuts and I tried to address the point’s one by one saying if we did not do that what would we cut, which of course is the real challenge of objecting to a particular cut. On Mark Murphy’s show he kindly played a tape of one parent who said ‘we would have blood on our hands’ over school crossing patrols, now it does not matter how sure you are of your course that’s not a nice thing to be accused of, just gone 8 o’clock in the morning and in any case in my Division there is not one school crossing patrol yet children seem to get to school mostly without any untoward incidents.

Next Mark read out that one listener thought I was being boastful on the Look East interview, I might be proud of our efficiency track record and that 82% of the £42.5M saving this year are coming from inside the Council but no Councillor would want to make cuts unless they have to, I certainly did not stand to do that but we are where we are. What I was saying on Look East is precisely that we have saved over £70M in back office efficiencies since 2005 and we intend to go much further and its this track record and what we are now proposing to do that has other County Councils wanting to come and talk with us about how we have and are going about it. That along with a zero percent rise in Council Tax built on a base line of zero percent rather than using the Government Grant to achieve it is something to be proud of in these difficult times. Then off to work in my other life and a string of meetings with clients.

All in all a tough couple of days but I can look forward to Tuesday when we start to plan for next years budget!

Localism Bill Workshop

Yesterday I went to a very interesting workshop on the Localism Bill and what it means in practice, at LGA House, Smith Square, London. LGA House is the old TUC building and the Bevan Hall is the room where the main meetings took place and is where we met yesterday, whenever I sit in it I always imagine the room full of cigarette smoke and Socialists plotting against the Tories who’s old offices are less that 50 yards away; as a kid I used to imagine the two hot beds of the left and the right being miles apart across London, it still amuses me that actually they were virtually next door to each other must have made for interestign conversations at the bar in the pub just around the corner.

The workshop had some really interesting speakers discussing their thoguhts as to what it means to them from Cllr. John Jowers Cabinet Member for Communities and Planning at Essex County Council who I have attended a couple of different events with and with whom I alsways enjoy discussing Essex’s approach to things and how that differes or otherwise to ours.

As always Baroness Margaret Eaton DBE DL spoke with passion about connecting with communities and the art of representation.

To me the most interesting speaker was the last Alastair Lewis who is a lawyer at Sharpe Pritchard who spoke about the General Power of Competence contained in the Localism Bill and the freedoms and restrictions it will place on say Suffolk County Council as it s plans what it wants to do, in terms of services its provides and indeed the charging and business activities it can get involved in; he concluded that it demostrated a ‘High investment in Trust’ by the Government.

My great concern is that last week we saw Liverpool and Manachester City Council’s reverting to type and using the current cuts and coming new freedoms to play political football with their residents and Government and that is disappointing to say the least. All we hope is that their behavious does not shake Mr. Pickles faith that with freedom we will take responsibility and deliver quality services and reduce the cost of delivering local government.

Conservative Councillor Association Conference 2011

Got back late yesterday afternoon from the Conservative Councillor Conference at Chesford Grange, Warwick, this is a gathering of Councillors from across the county and senior Conservative MPs who are now the team at the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG), Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities, Grant Shapps MP, Minister for Housing and Local Government, Bob Neill MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Greg Clark MP, Minister for Decentralisation, and Stephen Hammond MP, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Eric Pickles.

It’s quite  a whistle stop day and a half; I arrived with a fellow Councillor Robin Millar who is on Forest Heath District Council and the former PPC for Bangor, very green as we car share to the event or is that now very mean as we need to share the fuel costs!

We arrived to banners, megaphones, lots of protesters and police and security, marvellous what a different being in Government makes! I have been going to this event since I became a Councillor 4 year ago and no one has ever paid any attention to us before. It was amusing to see the slightly shocked looking hotel staff with police on every entrance, don’t think they were used to that!

Anyway checked in, had a coffee and into the opening speech of retiring Chairman of the Association Cllr. Merrick Cockell, Leader of Kensington and Chelsea, as it was his last year and the election for all the officer posts would be later that day, who ended his speech introducing Eric Pickles MP Secretary of State.

Eric said that it was his 33rd CCA Conference and that gives you an idea of his local government background as the former Leader of Bradford City Council, his home town, and his journey as the party has won, lost and now won power again with him very much at the centre of things; He also spoke about the speech he gave 3 years ago, before the financial crash hit, to the same conference and how the predictions he made then were now so very true.

So that’s 2 Eric Pickles speeches in 24 hours, some would say that’s above and beyond but it was fascinating to see the subtle differences in his words from the one to a small group of Leaders, where I was substituting for Jeremy Pembroke, to one to a wider audience of  Conservative Councillors.

The rest of the day pasted in a blur of break out sessions and question and answer sessions, I most notable f which was the planning one with Greg Clarke, now I know this is my bread and butter but it was fascinating at the depth of change coming and the real Councillor decision making they want to put back into the process; real decisions’ real democracy delivered at the town and village level. The question is will it work, will it get Britain building the homes we need or will it become a NIMBY’s charter; that will come down entirely to the Leadership that will be shown by Councillor’s in their own Communities.

Anyway then came the drama of the Officers elections, Merrick made another eloquent speech followed by Alan Mabutt’s annual moment announcing the results. He mused on should he change the format to more of a ‘Dancing on Ice’ one but had decided to simply do it in reverse order like the best beauty pageants. Cllr. Robert Gordon, Leader of Hertfordshire County Council and the team of like minded fellow members he had put together and lobbied us on, won and handsomely at that. The new Treasurer Cllr. David Simmons who is the Deputy Leader and Portfolio Holder for Children’s Services at Hillingdon Council is an old political friend and fellow alumni of the Leadership Centre for Local Government 1st year cohort with me four years ago.

It was fascinating how this lobbing and the notion of a ‘slate’ was received by those I talked to during the Conference; some were amused and some were not but it rather struck me that Councillors putting together a team and lobbying, whatever next you would think they were politicians!

Off to my room, quick shower and change, and to the Conference Dinner where I met up with another of the Leadership Centres 1st year Alumni and political friend Cllr. Louise McKinlay who is now Leader of Brentwood District Council; a dinner with the usual Breast of Chicken, an after dinner speech by Caroline Spelman MP Minister for State for DEFRA, a quick drink in the bar and off to sleep.

The following day there were sessions on LEP’s, Local Government Finance, New Homes Bonus, Business rates and various other subjects; a bit dry but if you are in this business of representing your community then important stuff.

In closing the conference Robert Gordon gave an excellent speech as introduction to Bob Neild MP who had kindly stayed to give the closing address. In Robert’s speech he commented on a subject I had discussed with him the night before and came up with an excellent catch phase ‘if we fight the coming election in two tiers it will end in tears’, at lunch I congratulated him on it and said I wanted to use it in one of my speeches and we agreed he needed to patent it!

As we drove back both Robin and I were very mindful of how different a conference the last 24 hours had been; as the Association were now looking to forge the relationship with the Politicians in the Department for Local Government and our Secretary of State Eric Pickles MP; exciting times and I think a time for Local Government to deliver real local governance, different in different areas based on the needs, wishes and aspirations of our communities rather than local administration of central government dictates as has been the hallmark of 13 years of Labour mismanagement.

Meeting with Lord Heseltine and Eric Pickles MP

Yesterday I had a busy day with various meetings and then off to London to represent the Leader of Suffolk County Council Jeremy Pembroke at the LGA Councillors Forum meeting in general session, i.e. all the political parties with, Lord Heseltine who spoke of his personal political journey to conclude that elected Mayors are the absolutely the only way forward, those in the room were polite but in general disagreed and he had quite a rough time, not that that fussed him at all. Fortunately there was no mention of a directly elected Mayor as the right solution for shire county solution, which is good. He also articulated his passion that Unitary Councils are the only logical only way forward!, very off-message to say the least.  

Then on to the group meeting where Eric Pickles MP gave us a sort of short ‘state of the nation’ speech and there was a full and frank exchange of views as to the issues before us, I suppose he was very on-message but then again as he rather writesd the messages for Local Government I suspose he is always on message, power indeed!

He then went on to talk about some of the exciting developments that will be rolled out over the coming months as we seek to redefine the relationship between local and Central government. He was as relaxed I have seen him at an event, reflective on the first year in power and excited by the challenges that lay ahead, as we all are.  

Whilst there is lots that I cannot blog about, he made an interesting comment ‘In politics never get tied up with power, go for influence’ which I thought was interesting.

Meeting finished and I rushed back to Liverpool Street Station to get back to Endeavour House in Ipswich for a meeting with the Directors and Trustee’s of the ICENI Project to discuss their future and what funding we could make available to them; All in all a busy day.

Lakenheath Library discussion at the Parish Council

On Monday I attended the monthly Lakenheath Parish Council meeting, having rushed back from a meeting in London with Suffolk’s MPs, to give my monthly report as Lakenheath’s Suffolk County Councillor.

In addition to my usual report I was extra keen to be there as they had kindly agreed to have a debate about the Lakenheath Library Consultation; and whilst it was tight getting back in time I particularly wanted to be in attendance as I had asked them to table the discussion.

At the start of the meeting the Chairman calls for representation from the public and a number of people spoke about the Library and were none too kind about Suffolk County Council. When we got to the discussion on the agenda I took on board what was said by the people who had come along to hear our discussion, in my comments.  

In opening I talked about the Government’s Comprehensive Spending revue and the 28% cuts to the county council’s overall funding the government has told us we must save over the next four years as our contribution to deal with the national budget deficit. I have also talked about the incredibly difficult decisions and indeed sleepless night many of the officers and councillors have had as we’ve wrestled with the implications and where we are going to have to make cuts.

I said 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 the vital services. We are also driving through fundamentally changes to the Council and have proposed over 1400 job cuts this coming year; for that is what 28% less 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.

I went on to say the cuts have finally arrived on our door steps here in Lakenheath and on the 19th January it was announced that our great little library is under threat of closure. I informed the Council that on the afternoon of the 19th I visited Chris, our librarian to discuss what was very worrying news to him and we chatted through what I was going to try to do in response.

As they knew that evening I emailed the Parish Council and asked for the future of our library to be discussed at the next meeting and sent details of where Parish Councillors could find all the information they needed ahead of that debate.

I also informed them that I have hired the Peace Memorial Hall for a public meeting at 7:30pm on Thursday 10th March, I then handed out copied of the posters I am going to put up around the village and I said I hoped that as many of them and the residents of Lakenheath as possible would be able to come along.

I told them that I have arranged for staff from the Library service to be there to present the issues and explain the costs of running our Library.

Whilst they knew where to find the information because I had advised the Clerk, for the benefit of the public present, I said that they could read about the scale of the challenge before us and find all the details at: http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/

I said the questions before us as a community are: Are we prepared to volunteer to run it? Are we prepared as a community to take on the building? Can we find ways to 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?

I then informed the Council that for my part I am happy to facility the meeting on the 10th and to be involved in an action group and if we are able to come up with a robust business plan; I would be willing to help set up a community interest company and be pleased to be a Trustee. I had already confirmed with fellow Trustees of the Jabez and Selah Bennett Charity that we could offer £1,000 per year towards the running costs, which is a start.

I finished my contribution and members of the Parish Council then discussed some of their thoughts and a good and lively discussion was had, with some thoughts proposed that I am currently exploring as to what we might be able to achieve.

I finished my final thoughts by thanking them for their contribution and said I would be delighted to see them on Thursday 10th of March at 7:30pm at the Peace Memorial Hall and I would be delighted to see you there too!

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