Suffolk County Council AGM

It was a bit of a marathon session on Thursday which lasted over 4 and half hours with the changing over of the Chairman and Vice Chairman, a speech of note by the new Leader Mark Bee, the announcement that I will continue in my role as will the rest of the cabinet, a brief but important moment to me anyway, and then a number of public questions and petitions; not to mentions the usual political showboating of the liberals, but I’ll come to that.

The Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury the Right Reverend William Nigel Stock spoke about attending Barack Obama’s speech to the joints Houses of Parliament gathered in Westminster Hall the day before and the importance that politics and indeed politicians do have in peoples lives and the need for those making the decisions to do so in the full knowledge of their impact; his was an excellent thought and prayer for the day and most relevant picking up on our role and indeed the public questions and presentation of the petitions to come.

Cllr. Eddy Alcock spoke about his year in office and he handed over the reigns of power to his vice chairman last year Cllr. Patricia O’Brien and I was delighted to then see Jeremy Pembroke installed as Vice-Chairman. When Jeremy retired as Leader he also announced that he would retire as a Councillor at the next County elections so it will be a fitting time as he will be the Chairman in his last year but also during this Country and indeed this county’s high ceremonial summer of 2012. I read somewhere yesterday that spoke of his failure and resignation, well he did not resign he retired.

Now no one is suggesting that the cuts have hardly met with universal approval, lets face it they were never going to, nor indeed has the New Stratergic Direction captured the public’s imagination nor been particularly understood as a way to protect services when there will be less money. But I tell you what if retiring at 70 from a high pressure high profile, public role; after a life in the city, which culmulated in becoming a Director of Hambros, then becoming Leader of the Conservative Group on the County Council, winning a stunning victory from the Liberals and Labour in 2005; overseeing the sorting out of a basket Authority with 11.9% and 18.5% rises in two years under Labour and the lib dems mismanagement; driving forward saving over £70M in back-office re-organisation in the process. Leading his party to winning a second term with a land slide of 55 out of 75 Councillors with the labour group reduced from 18 to 4; demanding and delivering the lowest council taxes rises in the Council’s history with 2.5%, 2.45% and 0% in the last three years alone and last but not least as witnessed by the recent county by-election, that others care to ignore because it does not fit with their themes, where the conservative candidate won over 50% of the vote share; well if that is failure, then bring it on.

Cllr. Mark Bee was then elected unopposed as Leader and gave a speech which I think blended the need for us to explain what the problems are and talk with people more in their own communities to come up with the solutions. He also made the point that the savings we have to make are not theoretical but a reality and whilst we want to work with and take people with us we still have to make those savings.

Next we had a string of public questions and three petitions, to my mind the most moving of the various speeches were those made around the explore card and the role it plays in young peoples lives as the take those first few steps of independence from their parents and the role it plays in their education as well. We simply cannot provide the service we did, we have to make cuts but there really is a need to look at how we can mitigate the impact of this for those least able to afford to pay the full fares. With the cuts we face the only universal things we can do must be around keeping Council tax as low as we possibly can; in most other area’s with the savings we are having to make Local Government needs to be focused on providing our support on helping those who most need our support.

And finally I come to the liberals political show-boating, now maybe I am being unkind but I think not! As we discussed the first Petition they put in a motion and then went on to quote the Constitution, that they just happened to have the relevant pages to hand, that it says this and that and how unsatisfactory the next steps or lack of them. Now to the best of my knowledge of 4 years on the Constitution working party where they have been fully represented, as we have discussed and approved the procedure on petitions they have not once disagreed with amendments proposed to be put to full council, not least because it is custom and practice to only propose what is fully agree in that forum. I also do not recall at any full Council meeting where amendments have been proposed have been anything other than unanimously voted in favour; now from all that I take it they have always been fully in favour. But clearly not! with petitioners in the room they were ‘confused’, ‘upset’ and now ‘challenging’ the procedure, as I said pure political show-boating, very disappointing but not surprising.

Who will be the next Leader of the LGA

I have known Baroness Margret Eaton since I was introduced to her by Christina Dykes in the Conservatory room at the BIC in Bournemouth when I was lucky enough to be picked to be a part of the Leadership Centre for Local Government, Next Generation Programme’s first year cohort. Since then I have meet her on many occasion most notably when we went out canvassing in a Leeds ward after a CCA conference at Oulton Hall. In her time as first Chairman of the CCA then in her role as Chairman of the LGA she has steadfastly sort to promote the role of Local Government, I have found her to be very personable and charming, and always felt that she had a strength of character and determination to well represent those she has been elected to. She will be sadly missed as she spends more time on the red leather benches of the House of Lords.

A few days ago, the Leader of Leicestershire County Council, David Parsons through his hat into the ring on Conservative Home and I, like most, waited for David Shakespeare to do the same, but it appears he had more domestic matters to attend to and I hear he lost the Leadership of Buckinghamshire, which was a surprise, but after 10 years in post often groups seek a change. 

The other known candidate is Sir Merrick Cockell, Leader of Kensington & Chelsea, who until this year was the Chairman of the Conservative Councillor’s Association.

I have met and chatted with them both and watched as David Parsons has carved out a role for himself at the LGA on leading the improvement side of things and Merrick Cockell steered the CCA as its Chairman as the party focused on winning at Westminster. I also know David Sparsons, my opposite number in Leicestershire quite well and he speaks highly of his Leader.

The past year has been a remarkable one for the LGA as it has sort to forge a new relationship with a Conservative Sec of State in the formidable Eric Pickles MP and at the same time I have rarely hear such dissension in the ranks of its performance, not so much about it relationship with Eric Pickles but more its relevance in the new order, which is some ways is a little short sighted. A number of Councils have served notice to quit and I think the organisation is having a real battle to define its message and indeed usefulness.

Personally I think that the LGA needs to elect David Parsons, as Merrick, whilst a fine chap is, I believe, perceived as veryLondoncentric. He may argue otherwise but this perception comes from his time as Chairman of the CCA and as we know the vast majority of the Councils and particularly Conservative controlled ones are simply outsideLondon.

Many councillors I speak to question the value of this alreadyLondoncentric organisation and its cost of membership. If indeed it does electMerrickthen I think a number of County Councils will look towards other organisations for a voice after all the £100,000 fee, in this day and age is not an inconsiderable amount of Council tax payer’s money.

Me thinks a pivotal moment for the LGA looms

Leadership at Forest Heath District Council

There was a definitely a sense of the changing of the guard at Forest Heath Conservative Group AGM last night when James Waters were elected Leader of the Group and as is the way of these things will be elected Leader of the Council next week at the Council’s AGM.

The former Leader Geoffrey Jaggard who has served the residents of Forest Heath with great distinction over many years was given a rousing round of applause and thanked by all. He can be rightly proud of his and the Council’s achievements and track record, not least the lowest council tax of any council in Suffolk and a well run and efficient set of services. 

Both James and his fellow leadership contender Robin Millar presented a clear vision of how they saw the next 4 years and either of them would make an excellent Leader but there can be only one. Nigel Roman was the only nomination for Deputy Leader and brings with him a wealth of experience and knowledge built up over many years of outstanding public service both to Forest heath District Council and the Conservative Party.

The challenge for the new leader is to lead the council through the unprecedented change that the Localism Bill will bring about and to deliver a vision of how the area we all live in is going to be shaped by the council’s deeds and actions over the next 4 years.

At my induction onto the Council last week I heard an officer say the area looked more to the Cambridge Economic Sub-region than to Ipswich, and whilst I entirely agree with this correct assessment; it struck me, so how does that shape the policies and actions of the Council?, in my opinion it currently does not to the extent it should.

If we look economically look  towards Cambridge then we should have incubator business parks where we can support fledgling businesses from the world class industries around Cambridge thus creating high value jobs. If we look towards Cambridge why are we not building more housing to provide a high quality of life for those who work in Cambridge, and what about having a transport strategy that supports this as well.

These are the core challenges facing the new Leader and I wish James all the very best and promise to support him in his endeavours to the best of my abilities.

Outsourcing and Shared Services Conference

Yesterday I had an early start as I was asked to speak at the opening plenary session of the the Annual Outsourcing and Shared Services Conference at the QE2 Conference Centre in London.

I shared a platform with Paul O’Brien, Chief Executive of APSE, Jonathan Carr-West from the LGiU, Roy Barden from Novo Altum and the session was chaired by Amanda Lewis, she being the author of the leading text book “Outsourcing Contracts – A Practical Guide”; they all spoke about the challenges ahead for Local Government and some of their experiences of outsourcing over the years. I spoke about the vision we have for Suffolk to try to protect the people of Suffolk from the worst effects of the Government giving us all less money to deliver services with.

The day was very interesting, as in some aspects it confirmed that we are on the right course but at the same time it was  room of outsourcing professionals I was intrigued to be listening to what works and perhaps more importantly what does not work when you look towards this method of service delivery.

The principle question to me is does it work and will it save us money, if it does on both counts then we need to be looking at it.  I won’t bore you with the finer details of what was said but thought it might be useful just to list a couple of comments that really struck home with me.

One speaker told the tale of the Council that in a joint shared services agreement outsorced their comms team , and a couple of years down the line the relationship with the provider had problems and the provider had a bit of a go at the Council in the press, but when the Authority tried to rebut; their comms team was most reluctant to responsd as they were not employed by the provider! – So there is a lesson.

Another mentioned an aspect of a change of attitude that they were beginning to sense with consumers and one I certainly recognised from Public service deliver, with Cloud or even app. based computing we seem to be moving from a point where we must own everything to a point where we fix a price, get a service and stick with it if it delivers and change if it does not, we seem to becoming less interested about who provides the service, we just want it to work. Now it strikes me ‘was it ever so’ in Local Government terms, residents it seems to me, don’t really care who empties their bin or which council does what, they just want it done, and they most definitely do not want to pay more and more for it.

Their was a firm word of caution which came across a number of the workshops I attended and has stuck in my mind that you should maintain some capacity in your own organisation or you will lose the abitily to manager the new relationships, to me I took that to mean it not just about having very good contract managers in place you must retain the skills i.e. officers needed to deliver a service as a part of the intellectual mix as you move forward.

Rob Brarden in his plenary session spoke about a Mini he recently brought and Mini’s production line systems that they do not simply stock pile the cars but wait for an order and then on the one production line, they work to build the car to your specification as it progresses along the line.

In my speech I pondered the nature of a ‘post code lottery’ and the need to engage with communities so that every community has a ‘tailor-made’ fitting of services, but tailor made can be expensive and so perhaps what I fundamentally took away form the day was the need to have the aspiration of a tailor made fit but perhaps what we are more talking about is along the mini production line approach where services are tailored to an extent but not entirely hand made, now I accept that is a very bad mixing of metaphors but hopefully you get the picture.

The very last workshop I attended was presented by Kieron White, Managing Director of WCL who spoke about joint partnership and joint venture companies a. One of the slides he used was from Boeing Aircraft, on it it has a pciture of their soon to be launched 787 a new long range passenger plane and all over it, it had arrows pointing out who made what, in talking about the slide he explained that 95% of the compenenets of a Beoing are outsourced and made by others from Rolls Royce for the engines; to a french company who made the landing gear; to Kawasaki who make the wheels and tyres.

He went on to explain that sometime ago Boeing took the decision to outsource the design and manufacturer of most elements of building a plane and to just be an assembler enabling them to focus on their sales and safety standards (a couple of air crashes and their reputation would be in tatters).

As he said it it really struck me that in this analogy there was a lot of synergy with local Government in that what should you focus on? all aspects of everything? or trust partners to manufacturer elements of your core product whilst you concenrtrate on the most importnant people your Csutomers and making sure everything works every time so your reputuion to delivered.

May 2013

Over the weekend I have read the various blogs in and around Ipswich seeking to analysis and effectively ‘wash up’ the local election results, with some speculating on the ‘Andrea Hill effect’. Now I accept that the Labour party in Ipswich made an issue of her employment and that the Evening Star has a strange fixation with her, but Suffolk as a county is slightly bigger than just Ipswich and across the county the picture was of Lib Dems getting a ‘political kicking’.

To me it often seems local politicians are reluctant to accept that people’s feelings towards the parties at Westminster is the major influence on voters, I hesitate to suggest as much as we are all passionate about our local politics but actually it is the national mood that has the predominant effect more than local issues, as much as we would want it to be a pure judgement on our respective opinions and policies.

Looking forward to May 2013 as I think most people interested in local politics here is Suffolk are starting to do; there are a number of big issues that will effect the election, firstly the national mood, just as voters are unhappy with the Lib Dem’s performance in Coalition and that has rather ‘done for them’, what will be the mood towards the Conservatives in two years time.

Then and only then to a lesser extent, it is the local factor of how how will people view the track record of the Conservative administration of the county Council over what will be a 10 year period, will people want to give us a local ‘political kicking’ over having to implement cuts to address the cut in government funding or will our track record on Council tax be more of an issue to the silent majority.

In my opinion we simply have to accept what will be will be with the national mood but we most definitely do control the latter.

I have heard it said by a Lib Dem Councillor that they are determined, that the Andrea Hill salary and employment will be an issue in two years time ‘just as you have hung 11.9% and 18.5% council tax rises around our necks [and Labour’s] ; we are going to hang Andrea Hill’s salary around yours’  – Good luck with that one!, she was offered the going rate, no more, no less.

Whilst I hate to teach anyone the political realities of life at the local level, traditionally what people actually cared about are two things, the quality of local services councils provide and the level of council tax.

Suffolk now provides some of the very best services and our track record on Council tax makes the previous administration’s record look decidedly feckless however in these financially straitened times people are rightly focused on a third aspect of where we are making cuts and to me the new political battleground is about the degree to which we are imposing them or taking people with us on this difficult journey. Having sorted out the organisational mess, having dealt with the culture that we can also just simply raise the council tax; getting this involvement right  is perhaps the biggest challenge we face.

But if over the next two years if we as a council simply ‘bob along’ with the majority of other councils and the voters want to vent their frustration with the government and decide to focus on us rather than the liberals, we will all be hit by a tidal wave of discontent and it will swap a number of conservative controlled administrations. What little I know about tidal waves (I’ve watched a Perfect Storm twice) is that your best bet is to turn into it, head straight at it and put the engines into full throttle, leadership not management is the key.

Having said that, beyond the national mood, I fundamentally think for the majority of residents, the key local issue has and always will be how much council tax they have to pay and is this regard the good people of Suffolk will long remember the appalling way the Lib Dem’s and Labour ran the Council, they cost you more, Conservatives cost you less!

Back out there!

Yesterday morning Iain Frost and I was back out in Lakenheath knocking on doors and asking people about issues we had identified during the Forest Heath District Council elections, seems like only last week we were out campaigning in the local election , no wait it was only last week!

It is my intention to be out every Saturday morning, diary permitting, over the coming months visiting every street in Lakenheath and Beck Row, West Row, Cavenham, Eriswell, Gazeley, Higham, Icklingham, Isleham Marina, Kenny Hill, Sedge Fen, Whistley Green, Tuddenham and Undley being the villages my County Council Division cover; to get a true sense of what residents think of cuts, their community and the level of Council tax they pay both to Forest Heath and Suffolk County Council; building up this local knowledge helps me understand what residents really think about the policies from both councils and how that impact their daily lives.

Looking towards the County elections in two years time, thinking about what people really are looking for from their Councillors in the difficult times ahead is really important; beyond the protests as services to individual groups are affected, its the opinions of the silent majority not the vocal few we need to focus on.

Out on the door step I was very interested people’s comments and I spoke with literally hundreds of people, their issues were about their bins, the future of their local library, the school extension and the lack of buses servicing the village; I heard very few comments about Andrea Hill and I did keep tally.

The people of Lakenheath were genuinely pleased with the cuts in rises of council taxes the Conservative controlled county and district council have been making.

I had 3 negative comments about Andrea’s salary level,  5 people mention that they thought the press coverage was horrid and unfair, 2 of those said that the Daily Mail coverage managed to contradict itself in the same article and 2 said that that liberal leader should be taken to Standards over her comment but to be fair they were ex-councillors  and I had 3 people said you have to pay to get good people and if that is the going rate, and I said it was, then you have to pay it.

As much as the liberals, Labour and the EADT have tried to make Andrea’s salary an election issue in my village its not, what is, is how people feel about the county and its government, the Lib Dems and Labour were even too scared to put up a candidate in my village!, the services we provide and how we take people with us about the cuts we are having to make and the actual services we deliver on the ground.

But most of all they could not give a toss what we pay our staff just continue to make sure we deliver quality services and keep the council tax down.

If we continue to do that, I suspect the liberals and Labour will be too scared to put up a candidate in Lakenheath for a long time to come!

Visit to Lakenheath Primary School

Head Teacher Emma Vincent pointing out how the new building matches in with the original victorian building.

It’s been a busy week but I have a chance this morning to update my blog, on Monday morning, fresh from the local elections I vistied Lakenehath Primary school to have a look at the increasing traffic problems and a tour of the new school buildings which represent an investment in the village of over 1 million pounds as the schoool gears up for the oldest children to stay put rather than move to middle school in Mildenhall as part of the reorganisation of our local schools from a 3 tier structure to a 2 tier one, when we embarked on this change I said I wanted it to be accompanied by high quality new school buildings and we are delivering on this. I think parents will be just as proud as I am of the upgrades to our local primary schools in Lakenheath, Beck Row and West Row; even in these difficult times we are investing in the future of our Children’s education just as we promised we would.

I agreed that I would ask county highways officers to look again at the double yellow lines and how they could be extended to make sure inconsiderate parking does not block the local roads around the school and I discussed with the head Teacher Emma Vincent the school travel plan and how to get parents to allow their older children to walk to school or parents to car share as they bring the younger ones to school.

I was particularly interested in the new IT suite where pupils will get to use the latest computer equipment and occassionaly l I realise how old I am as I can remember at my school, a  friend of mine brigning in the first Sinclair calculator with its purble screen lit by little filiments that formed the digits and me thinking well that the end of the slide ruler! OMG I am showing my age, now where’s my blackberry!, see I am not that old! but more importantly where are my glasses as I can’t read a thing on the screen!

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