The Suffolk Show and Better Broadband

Yesterday I spent the day at the Suffolk Show, which each year, for me, is a mixture of being on our County Stand meeting and talking with visitors and also having a look around myself enjoying the sights and attractions of our County Show. Yes it rained and yes it was muddy but unlike last year it looks like the two days will happen and from those I talked to I really got a sense of how much they valued the show.

This year there was an added special reason to be there, in the afternoon alongside some of Suffolk MPs we launched the long awaited web site giving people the details of when they can expect our £10million investment decision to make sure that better broadband is rolled out to 100% of our businesses and homes.

www.betterbroadbandsuffolk.com includes a roll-out map, detailing when each part of the county will be getting the new high-speed broadband. It also have other information on the project and about broadband in general so log on, pop your post code in and see just when it arrives.

Inevitably I would like it to my home now but do accept the capacity issues as it physically is installed in my road. At the launch was Annette Thorpe, a regional Director for BT, so I did not miss the opportunity for a spot of lobbying for an early date for my village but she said even she could not get it earlier where she lived, so fair enough.

We struggle on with our 2mbs connection but at least, with our investment we know it’s coming soon!

Suffolk Adult Learners’ Awards 2013

Last Thursday I had the honour of being invited to give the opening address to the Suffolk Adult Learners’ Awards 2013 at the University Campus Suffolk, Waterfront Building, BBC Radio Suffolk’s Mark Murphy was the host and even managed to get the audience to clap and holler when he introduced me, as I opened my speech I said I have been booed before speaking but never hollered!

All over the country last week people are celebrating Adult Learners Week (ALW) as part of the NIACE initiative and the award ceremony was just one of the activities happening in Suffolk last week. Across the county there were an incredible variety of taster sessions, open evenings, and even a conference for mature learners interested in going to university at UCS. To give just a few examples. You could try Indian head massage or singing, learn about dyslexia, do a maths or English taster, learn to make a healthy snack for the family and even try out playing in a steel band!

The awards were to celebrate the successes and diversity of adult learning in Suffolk.  Adult learning covers a huge spectrum – from family learning, leisure and community learning, work-place learning, learning for older people, learning for specific groups and university lectures are just some examples.

All of these examples have a common thread.  They can have a huge impact on people’s lives. Adult learning can give people a second chance to return to learning and improve their life or work chances through learning new skills.

Indeed Adult learning can inspire and motivate people to overcome barriers that life throws up. It can help people get into or back into work or once in work improve their career prospects. It can give people life skills to enable them to live more independent lives. For older people it can help them socialise, stay active and keep up with changes.

So the Awards were to celebrate some of the achievements adult learners in Suffolk and hopefully inspire others to sign up and take a course or attend a lecture and learn something new.

It certainly was an honour to be a judge firstly reading through the entries and nominations and then along with Miles Cole – LEAP Project manager, Fiona (Fisk – Head of Academic Partnerships and Support and Gwen Parsons – the former Head of Lowestoft College judging the winning entries to picking the winners

In the tough financial times Local government are going through there are many difficult meetings to be had and tough decisions to make but every now and again you are reminded just why we do it.

There are pictures online at the leap website and in them you’ll see what a wonderful joyful evening it was.

A new Council

The 2013 Conservative Group on Suffolk County Council

The 2013 Conservative Group on Suffolk County Council

Yesterday marked the end of an era as Jeremy Pembroke, who was the Leader of Suffolk County Council when I first joined in 2006, left the Council Chamber for the last time as he took his leave as Chairman of the Council, having stepped down at the recent election.

It’s a funny thing in life, that you get sort of caught up in the day to day of work, family life and council life, that nothing seems to change but in reality much does even over a relativity sort period of these past few years.

In the Council so many people have come and gone, friendships have formed and been lost, people have pass away in office and new people have emerged to make for themselves different roles. Nationally the picture is now so different from 7 years ago when Councils were frankly awash with money, the economy was booming, albeit we quickly found out with a bump that it was all built on a Labour Party ‘House of cards’ and when it tumbled it did so rather quickly.

In the Council Chamber yesterday we saw the physical manifestation of a changing political scene Labour on the front opposition benches, the Liberals resigned to a supporting role and UKIP sitting slap bang in the middle of us all. As appointment’s were made and opening speeches given I got a sense of what a different Council chamber it will be, and I suspect far more robust that the pervious one when a tired Liberal party mounted such a weak and lacklustre challenge.

Yesterday Labour’s Leader Sandy Martin, now Leader of the opposition, in his opening speech, gave a master class in amnesia, financial crisis ‘nothing to do with us gov’, we are for the people and we need to spend, spend, spend, clearly the fiscal madness that was 13 years of a Labour Government is now long forgotten, as is their 11.9% and 18.5% Council Tax rises when they were last in power in Suffolk, I suspect it will be partly my role to remind him.

As of yesterday my new role as Cabinet Member for Finance and Property was confirmed and so effectively I now grapple with the money the county has available to it over the next 4 years, the pressures to maintain public services, residents expectations, and indeed a new Council Chamber with new Councillors.

Should be an exciting and interesting 4 years.

Spreadsheets and other exciting subjects

Over the past couple of weeks I have been ploughing through initial paperwork for my new role on the County Council looking at the financial projections and countless spreadsheet.

The great difficulty of such a dry subject is not that it is irrelevant to the lives of the Residents of Suffolk because column by column and row by row they are; it’s an old saying but the devil is in the detail and it is certainly possible to see every debate in the council chamber play out in the figures in each and every little box.

But how do we make it relevant to people on the doorstep and even more importantly how do residents influence the decisions being take. Yes we have just has an election and I am elected to represent my community but in the tough decisions ahead how do residents have a stronger voice beyond the ballot box?

I am working with my team on how we create real involvement for our communities in the decisions about what to spend the money on, not just an exercise in public engagement but how to embed the involvement in the budget process.

There is no doubt that over the coming months our election pledge to freeze the Council tax for 4 years will be ridiculed by the opposition yet as Conservatives administrations fell about us we retained control of Suffolk, it seems to me we did this on a number of levels, firstly the hard work we have put in since 2005, the effectiveness and efficiency that the County Council is generally regarded for. Our track record of delivering 3 years of Council tax freezes and thus, trust that we will do what we say we will do, with an effective cut in the County Council element of the council tax (say inflation at 3% x 7 years of freezes = a 20% cut in real terms), this is our mandate as we move forward to protect front line services and residents hard-earned money.

As a Councillor this is all about choices, if we spend money on this we can’t spend it on that.

On the door step people want you to fix that pothole in their road outside their house, not have a debate about the discreet Child safeguarding monitoring the child further down the road who might or might not be at risk, or Mrs. Smith at no 42 helped each day with getting out of bed, each must be given a priority and have a budget line assigned accordingly. The challenge is how to involve residents more in making these increasingly tough decisions.

Public money, Public information

Budgets, cash flows and performance to budget can be a dry subject but a very telling one, at the county and district level it is also a very public one.

At Suffolk County Council its annual £1Billion is debated in public over the course of about three month from first draft to final vote. Four times a year, the cabinet, in public, debate the Councils’ performance to budget. In my previous role as a Cabinet member for Health and Adult Care I had to report performance against budget of the departments spend of about £225Million; from now on I will lead on the performance to budget debates across the piece.

At both Councils any item of spending over £500.00 is also a matter of public record for public scrutiny.

At Forest Health I chair the Performance and Audit Scrutiny committee and we provide an opinion on the performance of the actual spend to the approved budget and the risks to the council where budget performance is not as it should be, again in full open session with published papers.

So in short at both Councils, all budget figures, performance reports to budget and scrutiny papers are published and meetings held in public.

What a contrast to my local parish Council in Lakenheath. Of course its budget of £123,000 (this year’s) is much lower that the District £11Million or the County’s £1Billion but it is still public money and thus it should be open and transparent.

The budget and actual spend is not posted on the villages web site but to be fair when I asked the clerk for it I did receive it. I think it should be published on their web site as should its quarterly performance. A simply task, take the excel spreadsheet create a .pdf file and post it, could not be simpler.

It’s public money and so the budget and spend should be public information.

A New Role

So the dust has settled on the County Council election and we re-merge to reflect on the results and think about the next 4 years.

Firstly the council chamber will be a very different place. Full of new blood and political vigour, hopefully it will be a more combative political space as the previous one was not due to the lack lustre performance of both the Liberal and Labour groups. The Liberals have been reduced to little more than a fringe party such as the Greens and after Labour,  UKIP are the largest opposition and their instincts are to the right of us; all in all should be an interesting chamber.

If politics is anything it should be about debate and rigour to arrive at the right decisions. We Conservatives won, just and so I think people feel we have the right way forward but it should be debated properly with a vigorous opposition.

We set out an Manifesto built on the back bone of 4 years of no Council Tax increases and a radical programme of pledges to improve the lives of residents of Suffolk.

As a part of that I have a new role moving from having the political responsibility for Health and Adult Care to Finance.

Cllr. Alan Murray is taking over my former role and I know, having worked closely with him in his former role of Chairman of the Health Scrutiny Committee, that he will hit the ground running.

I hope, in my time as Cabinet member for Health and Adult Care I leave it with a much better sense of direction, efficiency and strategy moving forward. It has a very focused and motivated team who I know will support Alan in the difficult task ahead.

Form the transfer of the last Council run Care Homes and the £60million investment; to the Supporting lives, Connecting communities we have the strategy in place to cope with a rising number of people needing services with a limited budget to do so.

Taking about difficult tasks ahead I take over Finance at a time of unprecedented difficult budgets constrains. With the possible exception of the Labour Party who seem to believe in the money tree, we all know that the fiscal madness of 13 years of Labour Government has to stop and the amount of money that government can provide Local Government is finite.

Whatever your politics, essentially Local Government has two principle roles to deliver quality services and as holders of the public purse to spend the money it gets, wisely.

In the election we saw from Labour that their spend, spend, spend then Tax, Tax, Tax ethos is very much alive and kicking, and eventually when the liberals did actually publish something it was as usual a mix of nonsense and unsustainable spending on their pet projects.

So the hallmark of my time running the Council budget will be two fold, holding the opposition to account when they come up no doubt populist but unsustainable spending proposal and engaging with residents as to what and how we spend the budget on, ever mindful it’s their hard earned money.

We live in interesting times and the next 4 years will certainly be that.

Row Heath 2013

My Row Heath campaign 2013 and Conservaitve Pledge of 0%, 0%, 0%, 0% Council tax rises

My Row Heath campaign 2013 and Conservaitve Pledge of 0%, 0%, 0%, 0% Council tax rises

Out on the campaign trail in Undley

Out on the campaign trail in Undley

Out on the campaign trail in the Rows

Out on the campaign trail in the Rows

This is the first of a series of blog posts I’ll write about the County Council election results, as many of us involved in the wonderful and often weird world of politics reflect on the high political drama of an election and what people are telling us. But before I do all that my first is rightly about the opinion of the residents of Row Heath.Row Heath 2013 result was:

Me (Conservative):              1104   (43.43%)

Ian Smith (UKIP):                 881     (34.66%)

David Gathercole (Ind):       284     (11.17%)

Pam Brown (Labour):          197     (7.75%)

Elle Minshall (Lib Dem):     76        (2.3%)

On the Thursday night I sat for a couple of hours pondering if I was going to win or lose and I worked out from our returns that I would probably win and that the turn-out was about 33% it turned out to be 32.85% so that was not bad on both points.

Essentially UKIP did badly in my division only adding 39 votes to their 2009 total. Less people voted which is always a disappointment, in 2009 the turnout was 40%, albeit the same day as the last European Parliamentary elections. Row Heath’s result was in stark contrast to neighbouring Suffolk divisions, in one our excellent candidate James Waters just won by 9 votes and in the other we lost by some margin as Stephen Edwards, who would have been a great County Councillor, lost to the UKIP surge, it was for a reason that Nigel Farage held his recent eastern region rally in Brandon.

Firstly, I want to say congratulations to everyone who stood.  Whether a paper candidate or not, putting your name on a ballot paper is actually tougher than many might think and I do actually admire anyone who stands up and seeks to be counted.

It an interesting thing as you watch a count, a vote there and you’re lost and oh well never mind, suffer the slings and arrows and all that. Then comes a vote for you and you are rather humbled that people actually do want you to stand up for them.

Of course the day was UKIP’s across the Eastern Region and anyone who says it was not is just being too politically correct, I think I am known for holding a party line or two but it was their day and we need to listen.

It has been and continues to be a huge honour and privilege to represent the area I grew up in and know so well. I would like to thank everyone who voted for me and those who helped me so such much during the campaign but a special mention goes to my partner Lisa, part confidant, part motivator, but complete leaflet delivery machine. Not sure it was her desire to see me returned or the thought of me losing and being at home more that gets her out there.

I got into local politics because I was outraged that the previous Liberal/labour controlled County Council put up the council tax by 11.9% in one year and 18.5% in another. I am delighted to have played my part in the continued Conservative control of Suffolk County Council, and that we will deliver 0% Council tax rises for the whole of the next term, on the back of three years of 0% Council tax rises. Wow what a difference.

My final comment is that I am here to serve the whole of Row Heath, irrespective of whether you voted or whom you voted for. Please do not hesitate to contact me, I am here to help if I can.

Out on the campaign trail in Eriswell

Out on the campaign trail in Eriswell

Out on the campaign trail in Tuddenham St. Mary

Out on the campaign trail in Tuddenham St. Mary

Out on the campaign trail in Icklingham

Out on the campaign trail in Icklingham

Out on the campaign trail in Higham

Out on the campaign trail in Higham

Out on the campaign trail in Cavenham

Out on the campaign trail in Cavenham

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