Suffolk Cabinet debates and decisions

Really long day on Tuesday started at 6am when I worked though my emails, made my final notes for the day ahead of a quick blog and out for the hour’s drive to Endeavour House, Ipswich for the first meeting of the day at 9:30am finished just in time for a cup of coffee and straight into the Cabinet meeting at 11am with about 10 debates, votes and lots of public questions ahead, quite a mammoth meeting with an agenda which ranged from consideration of the final pyramid of the School Organisation Review (SOR) to the back office HR processes; so very external items which attracted a number of public speakers to some very internal structural things, I predicted it would take until 5pm, I was wrong it finished at 5:30pm.

There was a packed public gallery and most were there for the SOR debate and most had been at Monday evening’s meeting. After the public questions and thoughtful replies from Cllr. Graham Newman who is the cabinet member for Education, we got down the business of considering the Cabinet paper, for me and as I said yesterday in 2007 I voted for the SOR programme and since then I have consistently voted for the pyramid changes as we have gone through the process, and I chaired the Forest Health pyramid meetings. So for me to vote differently I needed to have heard such new information that outweighed that I had before, to vote different.

Over the past couple of weeks we have seen SATS an action group formed to argue against the proposals for Bury St. Edmunds, Stowmarket and the surrounding schools emerge @SATSinfo & @suffolkaction www.suffolkaction.org.uk and if you have read my blog you’ll know I went to their public meeting on Monday.

I talked about the changing context of the new Government’s strategy on Schools and the emergence of Free schools and Academies. I also said it was true to say when we started the process in 2005 our position in the results league tables at Key Stage 2 and 4 was considerably higher and indeed that since our position has progressively got lower but importantly our Suffolk School’s performance is better and improving both in terms of pure results and Ofsted reports but that improvement is not happening as fast as in other local authority areas hence our slippage in the league tables; later in the debate Cllr. Graham Newman made an interesting point that if 30 pupils had achieved the 5 good grades GCSEs with Maths and English amongst them, the litmus test, we would be mid table at about 90th; still nowhere near good enough but it does indicate the narrow band between middle order and 3rd from bottom.

I went on to say that throughout the process I voted for the SOR proposals and have voted for the changing of the system for 3 to 2 tier re-organisation in each area as the they have come through over the past few years; so accordingly I needed to hear that things have fundamentally changed or new evidence has emerged, to vote differently now.

I talked about other authorities and that as others have looked at this, each have come to the same conclusions Suffolk has, and where it has no be changed that was more to do with political expediency that if the change is right or wrong for educational reasons.

Today there are under 200 middle schools in a system of some 30,000 schools ad I think this is a factor, Education is arranged on a 2 tier model and Key stage 2 and 4 are tests and indicators that come at the end of the two tier system (with the former Key Stage 3 having been dropped precisely because it was mid-way through the two sets of key tests).

I went on to say that on Monday evening one speaker spoke of Eton and how that was 3 tier and whilst I have heard the public school argument before, so nothing new, I think we would all wish that Government could provide the sort of money Eton charges to provide educational and the level of intense Pastoral care that they can afford to offer, but Government simply can’t and so I do not accept that argument.

I concluded my comments by saying that there is of course a need to focus on Education, that is what ‘Raising the Bar’ was commissioned to do and its commissioning was long before we knew the latest results and the position that provides in the league table.

I finished by saying that in my opinion I have heard nothing new to change my mind, I have always listened and remained convinced that the original decision we took was the right one based on the evidence before us and so I would be voting for the proposed changes in the paper and did so when the vote came.

SATS & SOR

I attended a really interesting meeting last night at the Apex in Bury St. Edmunds. It was organised by a group called S.A.T.S.

Not my patch of course but given the debate later this morning I thought I would pop along to see what was being said and indeed if there was anything new I could add to my deliberation later today. I took lots of notes and then spent a couple of hours last night re-reading the original papers in light of what was said last night. I was joined by a number of my fellow Cabinet members and Councillors and candidates; others wanted to be there but such is the way of these things some were as is usual attending other meetings, indeed for me it’s quite rare that I don’t have a Parish or community meeting to attend on a Monday night.

One of the interesting aspects of the meeting was that social media principally Facebook and twitter @SATSinfo & @suffolkaction was used to advertise it along with more traditional word of mouth and the usual posters. They have also set up a web site www.suffolkaction.org.uk to widen their views on the subject. That’s why we had such a good crowd and I counted it at about 200 or so, which was actually hardly hugh numbers given the area of the pyramid and that so many schools effected were within walking distance of the venue.

Of course as is usual at the end of such event I was challenged as to what I know about the subject and I reflected back some 7 years now to the first drafts of the cross party Policy Development Panel (PDP) report about the different areas in Suffolk with two tier schooling and 3 tier; convened simply because it was and is stark that 2 tier areas outperform 3 tier areas. It drew the conclusion that we should make the change to a system 2 tier and that this should happen in phases to allow for learning and the capacity of the team to support schools and pupils through the process.

Since that time of course, the last remaining few Local Educational Authorities (LEA) with the same issues or say a whole three tier system have gone through the same process and almost every single one has come to the same conclusion.

Equally the recently published league tables show that whilst Suffolk is improving it is not improving as well as the rest of the Country something we recognise and are doing something about.

As far as I can recall there were about 4 meetings where we initially discussed and had presentations on the policy proposal, then came the public meeting I recall attending other meetings in Bury St. Edmunds and Haverhill and chairing two of them in my area; next came the cabinet meeting and full Council debates as we adopted the proposal as policy. When time came for my area to reorganise I attended every single by one of the school’s public meetings so I think that was 7 meetings and more importantly I chaired the 100 or so people who came forward to work out how exactly to implement it in Forest Heath’s area and I seem to recall we meet 6 times. On top of that probably read some 300 or so emails, 3 web sites, and I would imagine well over 1,000 pages of written reports and evidence, most notably from Head teachers from across the two and three tier pyramids. So I think I am reasonable well placed to do what I was elected to do – think about the subject at hand and to vote for what I believe is the right way forward.

Of course recently we have seen the disappointing drop in the league tables and third from bottom does not make for comfortable reading. I have elsewhere in my blog talked about the Raising the Bar initiative and all I am going to say about that is that it was launched long before we knew last year’s results nor where were in the league tables as they were not made public to you and indeed us until January this year. Not to mention the rise of Academies and Free Schools following the change of government.

So in light of the improving but not improving anywhere near fast enough figures and the changing landscape; the question to my mind is does this change the premise of the original decision or not – I was there last night to listen, take notes go home and form my opinion, as I was sort of elected to do and this afternoon I shall be there in Endeavour House to debate and then vote for what I think is the right way forward.

Suffolk Volunteering Legacy

A few days ago I noticed that the display cases in Endeavour House have changed as they do and the Olympic memorabilia has now gone on to other locations and I was minded to think about what is the lasting legacy of the Games, here in Suffolk.

For me there are two, firstly it about people enjoying better access to sport and the way in which with the move of Public Health into the County Council we intend to put sport and physical activity at the heart of the Public health agenda; to be fair I know that we are not alone in this objective, as it should always have been, but it’s hardly unique to Suffolk.

What is unique is Suffolk Volunteering which we have developed following the success of the volunteering programme at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games which has raised the profile of volunteering and generated an enormous amount of positive press and comment in the media. The challenge is to now build upon this raised profile and enthusiasm to make positive and lasting change to volunteering in the county.

In Suffolk, we have a changing landscape for voluntary sector infra-structure with the creation in April 2013 of Community Action Suffolk (CAS). The new organisation will be the result of a merging of SAVO, Suffolk ACRE, Young Suffolk and 7 other Infra-structure bodies, including most of the Volunteers Centre’s in the county which gives us a unique opportunity to roll out coordinated volunteering programmes across the whole of the county. In this the team with support from the County Council have been building upon, and guided by, issues raised at the Sports Volunteering Conference held in March 2012 and the Volunteering Legacy Summit in November 2012. In the background meetings have taken place, papers have been written, strategies agreed and funding is being sort. But frankly all that is the structural and the internal machinery what people are interested in is what that means for them.

Please go and have a look at http://www.suffolkvolunteeringlegacy.org.uk/ and get involved and be alongside so many of those who volunteered at the Olympics, who enjoyed it so much they are now a part of this unique Suffolk legacy.

A street light is a simple thing – Wrong

Last Friday morning I met with a group of residents from one estate in Lakenheath whom I have been in regular contact with; essentially they are not happy with the Suffolk County Council policy to turn off street lights after midnight.

As a cabinet member I voted for the policy on cost and carbon reduction grounds, and I am pleased to say, since its introduction, I have had virtually no negative feedback with only the occasional request to turn lights on all night  back on all night in isolated spots, such as alley’s etc. but here was the first group who have objected.

Over the years I am aware that street light are a complex issue and I never could quite get my head around why some were county and some parish. So before the meeting I had asked a great number of questions of officers and uncovered that what I thought was a strange set up is far more complex than even I could imagine and discovered a very complex situation.

Of course their suggestion was to spend more money but their concerns about crime whilst not proven or realised, as there has not been a crime in their estate since the policy came in, nonetheless I promised to talk with officers, review their suggestions and see what I could do.

Being me I had arranged to then go on to see the Parish Council Chairman and the Parish Clerk and discuss the complete mis-mash of who owns which street lights. The historic mess is that all three tiers of local government are responsible and liable for different street light with absolutely no logical criteria other than history! The Parish sets aside money to replace but the notion of parish taking over the street lights or the District or the County brings into question the replacement liability as they fail both bulbs and columns and how that money shifts around, one hour later we did not have a workable solution for me to take back to officers, I think this one will be logner term project!

There is no doubt that there needs to be a local government solution to this very complex issue as it is quite ridiculously complex, they are just street lights, but in this one issue you can see all the complexity of local government!

Budget day 2013 – 10th Anniversary of Liberal and Labour Council Tax raids.

On Budget day 2002 the Liberals and Labour who controlled the County Council put the Council tax up by 11.9% and just as people were struggling to adjust to that hike they ‘came a knocking’ again and hiked it up by 18.5% in 2003, a staggering over 30% hike in two years.

So ten years on have they learned anything? – I think not.

Last Thursday as the opposition tried to counter our announcement that if elected we will Freeze the Council Tax for the whole of the next 4 year term, and as they spectacularly failed to come up with a response. There were some very interesting insights to opposition attitude towards the hard earn money of Suffolk Council Tax payers; perhaps the most bizarre intervention came from Cllr. Ereira who said such a move would be the death nail of local government, to my mind the County Council is the servant of the people of Suffolk and they are telling us loud and clear to ‘live within your means’; perhaps Cllr. Ereira and others think that regardless of how tight money is for hard pressed families and pensioners on fixed incomes trying to deal with rising food and energy prices, the County Council should sail serenity on rather than meet the challenges this time presents shoulder to shoulder with residents, head on.

In my seconder speech I reminded the opposition of this dark anniversary and they seemed rather annoyed that I did so, which I can quite understand!, afterall this is an anniversary that all Liberal and Labour Councillors would want to brush such appauling behaviour under the carpet; 10 years ago there were financial pressures but compared to today’s more of a ‘storm in a tea cup’ in comparison.

But at that time, rather than listen to people and demand and lead the Council to live within it’s means; it was a time they demostrated such little regard for people hard earned money trying to cope with such massive rises in Council Tax, instead the residents of Suffok were seen as an easy ‘Cash cow’, rather than do the tough stuff we have since they were kicked out of power, making the organisation more and more effeicent finding new ways fo working and demanding that every single cost line to examined and reduced.

So the question, as we face the election and people have a choice to make, is, have the Liberals and Labour learned to respect people hard earned money thay pay in Council Tax?

Well, in November 2012 we announced that we would be proposing the freeze the Council tax in 2013 for the third year running at 0%; Cllr. Wood, the leader of the opposition, said in the East Anglia Daily Times and I quote “Looking back it’s a good job the rate did rise all those years ago…”

Frankly I think that says it all.

People have a choice to make on 2nd May and I think it’s a simple one, do you want a County Council that protects front line services, protects hard pressed families and pensioners as they struggle to pay their household bills and has a mantra that ‘this Council will live within its means’ or not.

Working with Health Professionals

Last Wednesday I had the pleasure to chair a conference in Cambridge in the historic surrounding of the Library at Girton College, a conference arranged by the East of England Public Health Directorate for Public Health Professionals called ‘Understanding the Local Government environment.’

I am asked to attend a number of these events by ‘Health’ and just like the speech I gave to a conference last week at Duxford for Clinical Commissioning group I think this work is important as we seek to arrive at a significantly different way to delivery Health and Social Care in this county. I often say that we speak, not two dialects of the same language but different languages and it’s vitally important if we are to change and break down these institutionalised silos we have created we need to learn each other language and culture, and the only way to do that is to talk to each other.

Along with my colleague from Essex, Cllr. Dr. Ann Naylor who now has the political responsibility for Public Health, we presented a session entitled ‘Working effectively within a political environments’ where we peppered the theory with the practical realities of Councillors!

What I get out of these events is learning Health’s language and some of it is very interesting, as I summed up the days presentations and discussions I reflected on a few key points for me from the day.

Firstly it was said that the sector did not want this move across and is fearful on two counts; firstly that the data and evidence based approach they use to directing funding will be diminished by Councillors having a say and that come 2015 when the ring-fencing is removed that Public Health budgets will be cut as local government deals with the cuts in base funding as indicated by Government.

From my side of things I reflected that the emphasis that Public Health teams place on data and an evidenced based approach is also something Councils do but Councillors will also take sounding of those they represent and this is right and proper in a democratic system.

With regards the worries about budgets I made the point that of course that could happen but here is Suffolk we already spend far more that the £25million that is coming across with the team, on our Council strategy of prevention where we currently spend about £40million. Equally there is a political imperative not just in Suffolk but across the county, we are an ageing population and we need to be healthier in our older age or the demographic time bomb that is so often and so flippantly mentioned will become will explode. Thus Public Health professional are welcomed into local government with open arms as a better integrated approach to public’s health is vital, prevention is the cornerstone of our Suffolk Strategy, but that is true of all councils or it should be! It’s an easy thing to say but even in these difficult fiscal times public health spend must be protected.

Budget Day 2013 – Council Tax record and pledge – 0%, 0%, 0%, then 0%, 0%, 0%, 0%

On Thursday Suffolk Council Councillors came together for our annual debate on the Budget and indeed this year’s had added poignancy in that we are some 10 weeks off our County elections.

The debate was its usual lively and uncompromising self, as we Conservatives set out our spending plans for the next year protecting front line service and delivering value for money for every single penny of Council Tax payer’s money we spend and at the same time dealing with the continued reductions in Government grants.

We also announced that if elected we will Freeze the Council Tax for the whole of the next 4 year term, that certainly ‘through’ the opposition and it was interesting to watch them try to counter it, failing spectacularly in the process.

We have been accused by some of electioneering which I find a very curious comment indeed, if you are, as we all are, out on the door step and people are telling us how hard it is and worried they are about their household budgets, a comment I have heard time and time again; surely pledging to live within our means, not demand more and more of their hard earned money in Council Tax is just the right thing to do?

We pledged that we will protect frontline services and if you read the budget book we have clearly set out our vision as to how we are going to go about this; in my area of responsibility we have reduced our expenditure in real term by tens of millions of pounds each year, we have gone from a department of 4,000 staff to 1,000 staff, we have created 4 mutuals most of which are now part of the EADT top 50 to watch grow, and we have transferred our Care Homes to Care UK are bring in £60Million of investment in 10 brand new state of the art homes extending the offer to their residents of nursing as well as social care; we are finding new ways of working with communities and embracing both the transfer of Public Health to the Council but also a far better and involved working relationship with Doctors and HealthCare Providers through Suffolk’s Health and Wellbeing Board.

A track record of 3 years of 0% and a pledge of 0% for 4 more years – that’s what voting Conservative in the County elections in May means. That’s called treating the hard earned money of Council Tax payer’s with respect.

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