Not so High Speed

Over the weekend I read quite a lot about High Speed 2 the proposed new railway line and its escalating costs from £20B to £40Billion and now £80Billion and I was thinking it all getting quite expensive for a slightly shorter journey time and indeed if I go to Birmingham I travel from Ely and it takes 150minutes but I just make sure I have lots to read.

I do ponder if we are actually getting our capital and infrastructure investment projects right.

In Suffolk we have supported the Better Broadband bit with lots of money some £11Million, now I know that’s not quite as much as £80Billion but we are only a County Council after all. The first of the cabinets have been rolled out in Beccles, no idea why we started there? But seriously Conservatives at Suffolk County Council have injected money to make sure that by 2015 as the government invests we use our top up to achieve our election pledge to bring Broadband to as much of rural Suffolk as is possible, and in that time to have at least a reliable broadband connection (where I live it constantly drops out) and for most places a ‘Super-fast’ speeds.

Now, ‘Super-fast’ in the UK is apparently any speed over 24Mbs and I understand we are talking maybe up to 80Mbs in some places and perhaps as high as 20Mbs in others. But I have family in Hong Kong and when I mentioned this all I got was laugher, apparently in Hong Kong what is meant by high speed in 1000Mbs and even in some very rural parts they have that. I wonder how much it would cost to provide the UK with 1000mbs broadband? The Guardian did an article in May 2012 that said some £29Billion, although as I know from the Suffolk project the amount of public money and private (BT) money is very complex.

So are we actually investing in the things that will make a fundamental difference to our collective lives and make us competitive in the world market place? If we are racing towards 20mbs or 80mbs as other nations have 100% 1000mbs seems to me we are getting left behind. So I think we need to invest in true high speed broadband before we invest in high speed rail.

Before your very eyes

Roy Hudd showing us the billboard of his first ever show. Max Miller at the top, him at the bottom.

Roy Hudd showing us the billboard of his first ever show. Max Miller at the top, him at the bottom.

As a Councillor you get invited to many different events, some interesting, some very boring, and occasionally some a complete joy. Last night after a number of meetings in Ipswich I was able to go along to the launch of the Roy Hudd Music Hall Archive project exhibition at Ipswich Town Hall. I have seen Roy Hudd perform in many venues the most recent being the very ‘music hall’ theatre that is Gorleston Pavilion theatre. ‘Laid out before your very eyes’ (sorry could not resist this old music hall saying) was a small part of Roy Hudd lifelong collection of posters pictures and even a short video of rare footage of some of the footage to of some of the performers; one of those was Robb Wilton who in his day was a huge star and my father remembers his sketches.

A little before my time but in my youth my summer holidays were spent going to the great British seaside resorts such as Blackpool and Scarborough and closer to home at the Spa Pavilion in Felixstowe to see the variety shows of the 70’s and early 80’s, in those days a Summer season was 12 weeks long, 2 shows a night and a matinee on Wednesday and Saturdays. The stars such as Morecombe and Wise, Canon and Ball headlined big variety shows and pack the theatres out. If you go to the Winter Gardens in Blackpool they have a board up with the names of who has headlined the Summer Season at the Opera House since its opening and it reads like a who’s who of Britain’s Music Hall and Summer Show past.

Roy Hudd, who can be very proud of his achievements both on the stage and in preserving this important slice of history for the nation, lives with his wife in Suffolk and so naturally it became a Suffolk Voluntary project to catalogue his collection including some 20,000 song sheets,

Dr Peter Funnell, a director at Oakmere Solutions who helped alongside Suffolk New College preserve, restore and catalogue the collection, with the aid of a £70,000 Heritage Lottery Funding grant spoke of the importance of preserving this part of our heritage and then introduced Roy Hudd. Once on stage Roy Hudd was in his element and in his speech he commented on the song sheets which he thought were the most important part of the collection and some of the songs we just seem to know instinctively, to demonstrate he then lead us in a chorus of  ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…….’ and others that have influenced national decisions. He closed by showing the assembled crowd a framed small billboard of his first ever billing where he was bottom of the bill and Max Miller was top if it and said he intends to be buried with it. Hopefully he will be around for many years to come, performing on stage and to see people enjoy his collection, which is on display at Ipswich Town Hall until the end of August and then is touring.

The challenge now is in part for the County Council, as we consider, along with partners across Suffolk, how and where to find a suitable setting to allow people access to his archive and the other great treasures of Suffolk, in a way that shows them off to their best and makes them accessible too, we are working on the various options and hope to make announcements soon.

To Lowestoft and beyond

Out canvassing into the darkness of Oulton Broad Lowestoft with Deanna and Colin Law and Peter Aldous MP

Out canvassing into the darkness of Oulton Broad, Lowestoft with Deanna and Colin Law and Peter Aldous MP

On Thursday I had the opportunity to go to Oulton Broad area of Lowestoft and help out an old political friend, Deanna Law, in her bid to be a Waveney District Councillor and did a spot of knocking up on Poll day, if she had won it would have made it a two Councillor household with her husband Colin Law who is Council leader there.

Until May this year Deanna was a County Councillor and she would have been excellent in the role but it was an uphill struggle with Labour seeking to hold, they did win but Deanna was a strong second which much have been a shock for them Clearly they ‘pulled out all the stops’ as I saw their ex-MP actually driving one older lady to a polling station and helping her to the threshold as I collected the tally sheets.

On the way to Deanna’s house to get my delivery map I took the opportunity to see08.08.2013 The first of the site huts is lowered into place at Lowestoft's new Public Sector Building site the first works on site for the new joint Suffolk County Council and Waveney District Council offices which will open in early 2015, the investment will bring together District and County staff in much the same way as has happened in West Suffolk House in Bury St. Edmunds where it has really helped the two councils work together for the benefit of the local community, not to mention allow Waveney DC to move out of a number of building in Lowestoft that were not fit for purpose in the modern age. But as is the way of these things people, as with Landmark House in Ipswich, question the capital spend on new buildings at a time of local government having to tighten its belt. I would say that the savings made and efficiencies such projects bring actually allow front line services to be protected, however the difference between revenue and capital spend is an eternal debate!

A11 Fiveways roundabout to be closed

The approach to Fiveways Roundabout

The approach to Fiveways Roundabout

On Tuesday I went to a meeting with the Highways Agency (HA) in Thetford and fellow local County Councillors to discuss, well not discuss more be informed about the progress of the works to dual the last remaining single carriageway of the A11 to Norwich, the single biggest issue being the upgrade works on the big roundabout at the start of the works known as ‘Fiveways’, essentially the HA have decided in their wisdom to close the roundabout over three weekends in October, here is the .pdf link to the document detailing the plan.

Last year right at the start of the project I recall sitting in a meeting with the HA at Endeavour House where I and my fellow County Councillors stressed the one thing they needed to make sure they did was keep the road open, as much as possible, during the course of construction to minimise the disruption to our communities and they assured us they would.

Of course we all very much welcomed the road dualling, we all appreciate that some disruption is inevitable, but we felt that if the traffic is keep flowing it would cause the minimum disruption to our communities and that point seemed to be taken on board, they made comment that overnight at moments of cross over from one section to another the road would have to be closed and we all entirely understood that.

So at Tuesday’s meeting you can imagine my disappointment, which I voiced, asking why last year they thought they could do the work and keep the road open and this year they said they could not? Was it possible to keep the road open? Or was it about a decision not to spend the money? I was politely told that it would take longer and only one lane would be in operation, both of which I said would be acceptable, but like a seasoned politician the HA Project manager politely ducked the cost question and moved on.

Clearly the works could be done and the road remain open, a simply section of temporary roadway across the middle of the roundabout would have ensured that, yes more cost but the road would have keep open.

This leads us onto the role of local government, if this was a County project, and many of us believe that democratic accountability is precisely what is needed in the vast monolith that is the Highways Agency, then our wishes on behalf of our communities to keep the roadway open throughout its construction would have made that happened. Of course the reply to this perennial question is that they report to a Government Minister thus are democratically accountable but in truth they make decisions with no reference to democratically elected anyone.

Simply put if Suffolk had been in charge and we had said we want the road to stay open then they would have designed a scheme of works that would have done precisely that.

I suspect for all the publicity when the roundabout closes on those first two of the three weekends in October traffic chaos and grid lock in Worlington, Mildenhall, Eriswell, Beck Row and Lakenheath may well occur and then my post bag with be full of complaints because ‘surely the county is in charge of the roads’, when in reality because its Highways Agency we seemly have no influence at all.

An additional cost but an opportunity

The draft Care and Support Bill

The draft Care and Support Bill

According to the DH, when the Social Care and Support Bill is passed in 2015, they estimate an extra 50,000 people will present to have an assessment to set up a ‘care account’ which will effectively tally how much they spent post 2015. Added to this we will also have the additional work load on the universal deferred payments scheme.

I understand the DH has allocated a £335M budget, and that a consultation is now open between now and Oct 25th, to the Joint Committee on the draft Bill.

Suffolk is working up our impact assessment on the figures for Suffolk and the impact of the many complex aspects of the bill and there is no doubt that it will present yet another significant impact on Local Government.

To my mind one of the key things is that as people switch on to the need to clock on and we grapple with how to do that, we must not lose the opportunity that this process presents, effectively if people become known to the Local Authority ways need to be found to use this process and permission to start a relationship and use this opportunity to offer advice to help people stay independent and healthy.

In Suffolk this accords with our Supporting people, connecting Communities programme and needs to build on that.

As to the costs apparently Hertfordshire has estimated that they expect an extra 6,000 initial requests in 2016 and they think there will be an additional 2,000 people presenting annually, thereafter requiring an extra 140 staff in the longer term and cost about £5.2M per annum; along with how to staff up the initial surge.

This is clearly something the LGA Community Wellbeing Board will want to lobby on as I suspect the funding will be woefully short if the Herts estimates are anything to go by, hopefully I’ll get appointed to it, all my fingers crossed.

Lakenheath Summer Fête

With the good ladies of the Local Conservative Branch setting out the home-made cakes

With the good ladies of the Local Conservative Branch setting out the home-made cakes

On Saturday, Lakenheath held its annual summer fête, and as usual I was delighted to go along. Our local Conservative Branch gazebo combined a home-made cake sale with our usual Conservative literature that even had a visit from UKIP to see what we were up to!

As you can see from the photo lots of lovely cakes and plenty of wind, just look at the side of gazebo bellowing inwards, at one point we had to get additional pegs to hold the gazebo down after it nearly took flight but we managed to grab it in time!

For my part I sold a few cakes and took the opportunity to chat to residents about their issues and concerns. The main topic of conversation was about where are we going to put the new homes the village will see built over the coming years and how are we going to grow the village infrastructure to meet this increased demand.

An important part of the day for me is spent at other stalls checking in with and chatting to the many community groups that Lakenheath can be justly proud of. As I went around I met up with the web designer of and we spoke about how to get more community groups and businesses taking advantage of the web page offer I funded through my Locality funding.

It was also great to see promoting the library. For the second year running, they had a stall hosting a second hand book sale and tombola to raise further funds for the library and many people were able to chat to them about the great work they are doing on behalf of our village library. They had also invited back Alison Bruce to talk about her back catalogue of crime novels and promote her upcoming fifth release in the DC Goodhew series, The Backs.

All in all a great day out, only a few spots of rain and an opportunity for the community to showcase what makes Lakenheath such a special place to live, but hey I would say that wouldn’t I, I’m a Lakenheath Boy.

Free Schools, Academies State schools and the market.

Reading the Institute for Government’s report calling for better commissioning and contract management skills in central and local government further, they have made some really intelligent comments on the emerging schools market

As w know Education Secretary of State Michael Gove’s department is determined to create a market place, and local government across the county is trying to make sense of the new order as ‘children’s champions’ and how to support and hold to account schools at the same time as sponsors enter the market to run schools.

Here is Suffolk a part of our new role and approach is called ‘Raising the Bar’. To my mind the question is, will it ever be a true market or remain a quasi-market.

As a micro level of this its interesting seeing the various players debating the concept of a secondary ‘free school’ in Newmarket. Will it challenge the existing provision to raise it’s game and or are there actually enough children to make two secondary schools viable in terms of the range of the curriculum. Where will it be based and how will it be financed. Am I even allowed to say the existing needs to raise it’s game?

The report makes a really interesting analysis of the market place approach being adopted and raises real concerns that frankly I think many of us share, including the quality of some of the sponsors and the what ifs. Chief amongst them is one about what happens if a sponsor takes on a school and it drags down the sponsors other schools and their overall ‘rating’, if they withdraw and another sponsor can’t be found? – well I support maybe there will be a role for local government after all. Then is there a danger that parents perception or indeed reality is that the schools that shine are all Free or Academies and the geographic rump at the local authority ones? Indeed this was said to me very recently by a parent picking the next school for their son.

All in all, not only is it a fascinating time to be a Councillor, sort of being at the heart of many of these debates including the range of issues that the Institute for Government raises in their report. It will in 10 years time be interesting to see what has worked, what has not, what initiative and theories have survived and what have been dumped to be replaced with the next bright idea.

We live in interesting times.

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