Canvassing in Manor Ward

Campaigning in Manor Ward with Stephen Frost and Matthew Hancock

Yesterday morning I joined our MP Matthew Hancock and Stephen Frost the Conservative Candidate in Manor Ward for the coming Forest Heath District Council elections and spent the day canvassing the good people of Barton Mills and enjoying the sunshine. On the door step it was interesting talking to people about their concerns; funny thing, people really do understand the need to make cuts and everyone I spoke to about the zero council tax rise from both the county and Forest Heath said it was the best news they had all year; the price of fuel was the major concern and I for one share that worry. I did report this back to Matthew that there is a real need to protect people in rural communities such as ours who have no choice but to pay the prices to get to work and access facilities, he agreed and said he would feed that back.
All day I found only one Liberal! Marvellous!

Back to the role

Following on from a very disappointing Monday morning it was back to it yesterday with a visit to both Whitehouse Enterprises based in Ipswich and then Workwise based in Bury St. Edmunds in the afternoon.

Both organisations are very similar in some ways and quite different in others, both have a team of dedicated staff who work with people with differing issues that need support.

My thanks to both Theresa and Kieran at Whitehouse for taking the time to show me around the faculties and the great and quite different product ranges they make. It was also a pleasure to meet some of those who work at Whitehouse from support staff to the employees.

Whitehouse Enterprises was established by SCC some 31 years ago as a sheltered workshop for disabled people. Over the years it has delivered employment support, training, qualifications and created jobs for hundreds of disabled people. At present there are 120 people employed at theLovetofts Drive site and in its associated businesses around the County.

They have a broad customer base form Customers Habitat, John Lewis, BHS, Tesco and Mr Fothergill’s Seeds based in Kentford.

The products I was most interested in is their outdoor furniture made from recycled plastic. This new production unit began only 2 years ago and now employs 10 members of staff and has achieved £300k in sales in the last year alone! I have asked for a stack of their brochures to be delivered to Endeavour House and I will be sending one to each Councillor as I am sure like me they work with a wide range of community groups and Parish Councils who are involved in specifying playgrounds and recreation areas all the time.

Whitehouse also provide catering in cafes and external function catering and you might have come across them as cafes the St Lawrence café in the Ipswich Centre or as Café Libra in the Ipswich Gainsborough, Felixstowe and Bury St. Edmunds Libraries or as Room One at University College Suffolk north campus

Whitehouse now has an annual turnover of £1 million. I was extremely proud of them recently at the Public Procurement Expo where they were featured this year and apparently last and they have won theGreenestCountyaward for best product for its re-cycled furniture

Recently the business has now been featured in a new national publication (April 11) from the Social Firms UK group which high lights the success of Whitehouse as a company which has transformed itself from a sheltered factory into a thriving social firm. The Whitehouse General Manager Teresa Warren is regarded as a national expert on how to set up sustainable social enterprise cafes which employ disabled and disadvantaged people.

But it is also more than a company the people who work at Whitehouse and its associated enterprises don’t just work together. There is a thriving social group and working at Whitehouse helps people to develop support networks and new friendships that they have not experienced before. Tips and gratuities from the cafés all contribute to a big Christmas party to which everyone is invited. There are race nights, theatre trips, bowling and snooker groups and concert trips. For many people who have limited family and kinship networks support from colleagues at work can have a positive effect on managing their health conditions.

As a part of the New Strategic Direction Whitehouse is planning to be divested from Suffolk county council as part of the REALISE Futures Industrial Provident Society and hopes to continue to work with disabled and disadvantaged adults to help them achieve their work and life goals.

Having said good bye to Theresa and the team at Whitehouse it was back up the A14 to visit Workwise in Bury St. Edmunds, as I said in many ways the two organisations are very similar in their aims and approaches, but work with quite different client groups. Having sat down and had a cup of tea with the senior team I was given a guided tour of the facilities and meet with a number of those who were working on their product ranges and learning new skills to equip them for employment.

Workwise was set up in 1985 as an independent charity by Health and Suffolk County Council as a rehabilitation employment resource centre for people with long and enduring mental health problems. In 1996 they became a partner provider withWestSuffolkCollegeand developed into an Employment Training Centre, again for people in secondary care.  With their main aim being to successfully train people with mental health problems in a genuine business environment to encourage self esteem and independence through Work and thus contribute to their quality of life.

My visit was to learn more about what they did and to understand first hand their funding issues and the very complex world they operate in as they work withSuffolkcounty council and the Department of Work and Pensions and the Health services. They certainly have a more complex world in terms of funding than Whitehouse and I took back to my team at the county the need for us to find a better system of funding across all partners.

With both organisations you can clearly see the importance of work, work is about providing people with some of the things they need in their lives, a sense of worth and purpose that we all need.

Equally from both visits you could clearly get a sense of the challenge Suffolk county council is making to organisations across the services it provides; Yes they will continue to require funding from the council but as a social enterprises they will be free to make their own decisions and by building up their business, thus the support will cost less and the savings made will allow the council to protect other services from further cuts, there in a nutshell is the whole point of the councils strategic direction to fundamentally lower the cost base of doing things to protect front line services from the governments necessary cuts, the question I always come back to is: the alternative to this is what exactly?

In all the words written and blogged, in the protests and marches down the high street, the alternative to this is what?

The liberals say it quite simply really, delay the inevitable, burn the reserves, after all it’s only rainy day monies and fingers crossed hope ‘the sun will come out tomorrow’, well this is not a rainy day this is permanent climate change, but hay once the reserves are gone then you can always start to whop up the Council tax just like they did in 2002 and 2003 when they put up the Council tax by 11.9% then 18.5% up over 30% in two years, however many times I write this down it still stuns me and the staggering detrimental effect that has on the lives of people on fixed income.

Or you could be like Labour; deficit what deficit?, 13 years of Labour mismanagement, nothing to do with us gov’nor! – ‘we always said we needed to make cuts’ oh no they did not!

And if we are simply going to do anything more that salami slice our way backwards providing less and less services based on the funding we will be getting; then we have to do something about the fundamental cost base of providing services, yes you want the organisation to become more and more efficient but after six years of doing precisely that and over £70M taken out of the overhead there is a limit to what can be achieved, the strategic direction is about lowering the fundamental cost base of service delivery.

Yes we need to provide time, more time for organisations both within the council and from across Suffolk to take up the challenge, but as they do we will be doing what we were elected to do; provide and protect services with the funds available to us and to keep the council tax as low as we possibly can. Nothing protects the most vulnerable in our society and those on a fixed income more that keeping people’s hard earned money in their pocket to make their own choices about their lives.

Jeremy Pembroke Retires

Yesterday the Conservative Group Leader and thus Leader of the Council announced his decision not to stand as Leader at the Conservative Group AGM. In doing so he retired from the front line of local politics and his will not be an easy act to follow. Whilst I am sure many people will write and blog about his influence on local politics over the past decade I thought I would use my blog to share a few insights into the man, I have observed in working with him over the past 5 years.

The first time I met Jeremy was in March 2006 when following the decision, due to work commitments, by my local county councillor to stepped down and thus a by-election was called in my patch. I was asked and said yes to be the Candidate.  I had been previously asked if I would stand, but at the time of the County and General election in 2005 I was the Chairman of the West Suffolk Conservative Association and had decided I needed to concentrate on getting the MP Richard Spring and other county councillor candidates elected, which we did most successfully as we had a clean sweep apart from one Labour councillor in Haverhill but we managed to persuade him to cross the floor a few a couple of years later.

So I visited Endeavour House pre election to meet Jeremy as the prospective new Councillor and a frist timer at that, sitting in reception I was I admit a bit nervous, things looked up when Jeremy’s charming secretary Leanne came down to collect me and take me up to Jeremy’s office. She was very sweet and did her best to put me at easy making me a cup of tea. I was then ushered into Jeremy’s office and we had a chat about this and that, I later realised Jeremy was actually thinking so if this one gets elected,  on what committee do I put him. I talked a bit about the Charity I am a trustee of working with older people and that was it, Adult and Community Services Scrutiny committee, job done, ‘next’!

Having got elected, over the next couple of years, Jeremy always asked how I was getting on as he put me on this or that committee. I was really pleased and surprised when he asked me to become the next Chairman of the group; now chairing a meeting with Jeremy sitting beside you is no mean feat, for, how can I put this, he did rather have a habit of talking charge.

During this time I was also invited to attend cabinet and it was here I started to really see the incredible work, commitment and energy that Jeremy put into the role of Leader. His command of the detail was amazing, there is no doubt whichever one of us takes over from him will have to work very, very hard not just to fill Jeremy’s substantial ‘shoes’ but the job itself is incredibly demanding and will swamp anyone who does not.

After the county election in 2009 when under his leadership, I suspect we arrived back from the campaign at the high water mark in terms of the number of conservative councillors returned with us being 55 of 75; Jeremy invited me into the cabinet and to take political command of Adult and Community Services, effectively one of the big two portfolio’s. I am sure this was a gamble on his part, and I hope it has paid off.  Over the past two years I have worked  with him and come to realised a number of things as we worked more closely together, firstly Jeremy has always been a man in a hurry, you learnt quickly to only ever take a problem to him when you have a couple of solutions as well! Secondly I think he also had the vision of what was coming in terms of the economy and cuts, it is amazing to me to think we actually started the work on the New Strategic Direction in September 2009, for all the concern around the decisions we are taking about where to make cuts; the fact is that irrespective of where, Government is stripping out 28% of our funding, and if the work being done to fundamentally lower the cost base of delivering services is successful, in 5 years time we will be delivering  more services that people want than if we just ‘kept our head down’ and salami sliced our way forward.

This ultimately will be the third legacy people will hopefully remember from Jeremy’s time as Leader.

The first will be the re-organisation of the Council from the frankly ‘basket case’ way it was run before 2005; the over saving of £70M in back office efficiencies and turning Suffolk county council from being one of the least efficient to one of the most efficient in the country.

The second, that the liberals and labour would have us all forget, is about the Council tax we pay and their appalling track record, as the red rose or whatever its called and that terrible yellow thing drop on your door mat, sorry only in the area’s they think they have a chance unlike Conservatives who are broadly speaking campaigning in every ward up for election across Suffolk, but I digress. Let us not forget that the last time they were in power in the county they happily put up the council tax by 11.9% in one year and 18.5% in the next, utter madness! The conservative administration under Jeremy’s Leadership have delivered the lowest council tax rises in the councils history (2.5%, 2.45% and now 0% in the last three years), these historic lows are as a direct result of those efficiency saving and Jeremy’s demanding that the organisation learns to look to itself not the Council tax payers of Suffolk; This return to financial sanity has benefited us all and is a testament to our and Jeremy’s determination to put this right.

At a personal level Jeremy was always polite even when grumpy, he is a gentleman of the old school and always there to help if you had a problem with a resident or balancing the crazy world of being a councillor with work and family commitments.

Whoever replaces him, and there will be a number of us looking to do so, will have a tough act to follow.

His command of the detail, his sheer hard work and determination will be qualities we will need but more than that, for me it is his vision, not of managing but of leadership that we and Suffolk will need.

In these uncertain times that I can honestly say his selflessness in his role, his passion for Suffolk and his desire to do the right thing often not necessarily the political thing but the right thing, are the qualities I shall most often be reminded off when I think of his Leadership, and a fundamental benchmark I intend to always be a part of my decision making.

But most importantly I want to just say thank you to Jeremy for taking the time to help me learn and develop, and for the good he has done in Suffolk, for all the financial worries this country faces I am convinced that Suffolk is a better place for Jeremy’s efforts over the past 10 years than it would be without them and I do hope that he finds a role to continue to serve our great county.

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