More for less

The quality of leadership is an interesting thing and a couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to meet and talk with a couple of leading figures one from national and the other from local politics who were guests speakers at the Next Generation Alumni event I blogged about recently.

First up representing local government was Stephen Greenhalgh whose slot was called ‘Reflections on Leadership’. Following on from him was Lord Heseltine and I shall blog on another day about his thoughts and what I took away from them.

Stephen is the former Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council and now working for Boris Johnson as his right-hand man running the Police service as Deputy major for Policing in London.

Stephen spoke about London policing and I was surprised to learn, when I consider how small the Suffolk Police force is (£120million budget and 3,000 or so staff), of the sheer scale of the metropolitan police with its some £3.5 billion budget! But it was not a surprise to hear of his approach, given that he made his name in local government by cutting his council’s back office and lower Council tax, as his is championing a 20% budget cut over 5 years in the Mets budget yet at the same time demanding a 20% improvement is the detection and conviction of things like assault, robbery, theft all to be alongside a 20% increase in public confidence, looks like he is rightly carrying his ‘more for less’ approach across the different sectors.

Stephen made his name for himself with his no nonsense, can do attitude that enabled his council to continually lower the council tax yet deliver quality services and this mind-set continues today as they have recently announced another cut for next year. His interesting thoughts sort of re-affirmed my beliefs that a Council can learn to live within its means and deliver quality services to the vulnerable in our communities at the same time. The physical manifestation of this is that as I go around the county discussing Suffolk’s Big Budget Conversation, people tell me that our services are well respected and valued, just as is our conservative promise of no Council tax increases for the next 4 years.

I am still jealous that we have not be able to actually cut the rate further to help the hard pressed Council tax payers of Suffolk as Stephen did in his time as Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham but of course the service delivery model for a London Council and its far higher Council tax collection based on property bands alone, makes it a very different place and shape of council. Having said that, in Suffolk with what will be a 7 year Council Tax freeze, if you put inflation at say 3% per annum that actually makes a cut of over 20% over the period which is not bad, not bad at all.

All Councils are equal but some are more equal than others

Last Thursday Local Government watched and pondered what fresh challenge George Osborne was going to put to us in his autumn statement. As it was, much of what has been said to government by various Local Government figures not least Sir Merrick Cockell, Chairman of the LGA that Councils that as a sector are, over the next 4 years, starting to reach the end of the level of savings it can make without having to look at front line services; this seems to be beginning to be accepted in government circles, which is probably the reasons why on balance local government was broadly left alone and not subject to the further cuts announced. The danger with this comment is that it can be misconstrued as the pressures off which it most certainly is not, the savings Suffolk County Council has to make of £156million of the next 4 year period are significant particularly coming on the back of the previous savings requirement of £90 million, which we have achieved, all at the same time of 3 years of no Council Tax increase and our commitment to no increases in the next 4 years.

Yet if you talk with ministers and highlight the good work we have been doing in Suffolk – such as the joining up of the back offices of most of the Districts and Boroughs. Minsters will say, yes good work, but there are still far too many councils in this county who simply are not getting the message. Of course we don’t have to look very far just look at Labour controlled Ipswich Borough Council who as always say they are for the people usually just before they push up the Council tax, whereas every other Suffolk Council finds ways to freeze it.

Further afield I was reminded of this at the weekend when I was in Barnsley, a Labour dominated Metropolitan Council, I was driving along when I saw a large black stretched new 7 Series BMW with the number plate ‘THE 1’ and a Chauffeur, I turned to my partner Lisa’s brother and said who’s car is that and was told ‘oh that’s the Mayor’s car!’, I honestly though he was joking until I saw the council logo on the side!

OK I admit Suffolk County Council does have some Ford Fiesta pool cars for the staff to use to get to meetings, but when you see a spectacular like that on the streets of Barnsley you sort of have to agree with Ministers. So whilst all councils are working hard to protect your hard earned council tax monies and finding ways to make the savings required; some Council bosses are doing it from the back of a Chauffeur driven stretched limo with a £500k personal plate!

A moment to pause

Like the storm surge that hit our coast last week and speaking of battering, what about the George v Ed show in the House of Commons as George Osborne delivered his autumn statement last Thursday.

Whilst you can take a view one way or another on the body text of the autumn statement, which generally was kinder to local government than expected, the big loser was Ed Balls who simply had a very bad day at the office, in short he lost his cool in the House of Commons and dented his personal brand.

Yet in many ways his key point was rather re-enforced the very next day by the IFS rather backed his assertion. Well, at least when it comes to his claim that British families are £1,600 a year worse off under the Coalition. The IFS questioned Labour’s working in the margins but essentially, Paul Johnson agreed with Labour’s calculation that “is not giving a misleading impression of the changes in living standards that have taken place during the financial crisis”. Having said that I do wonder at times what people think was going to be the result of the near financial collapse of 13 years of Labour’s fiscal madness of course it means that families are worse off and until the recovery is as long and sustained as the crash, it will not be made up, but even then we will be worse off as essentially that ground financially will not be made up and to my mind that is what was meant by Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund when she said we were in the ‘lost decade’.

But that was, of course, rightly overshadowed by sad news of the passing of Nelson Mandela. I recall sitting down and watching the BBC coverage of his release from prison, the hour it took him to walk down the dirt track and make his first short speech to the world after 27 years in prison, all those years ago as it struck me then this is a piece of living history. It also struck me as the world drew in its breath and paused, what happens if this man takes revenge. As we now know he proved to be one of the most significant Leaders in the world as he led the birth of a free nation, and through his softly spoken words and generously of spirit stopped a nation descending into civil war and genocide.

Today over 95,000 people will the stadium where he made his last public appearance as ordinary South Africans and Leaders from around the world pay tribute to this remarkable man. In the pantheon of great Leaders who have advanced the human race, for his demonstration and conviction in the power of reconciliation and forgiveness rather than military might, he surely now takes his place.

A major news cycle

Sometimes you watch the news and the same less than significant stories repeat every 15 minutes as the 24 hour a day news channels struggle to capture the imagination.

But not so towards the end of last week when we had the biggest storm surges to hit the East coast since 1954; the chancellor’s autumn statement and the passing of Nelson Mandela in the space of some 48 hours. In my own family a more personal event happened on Friday with the very sad funeral of Lisa’s cousin and close childhood friend who recently lost her long battle against cancer at age 50. It’s often said ‘family comes first’ and it certainly is true to say that even in a period of significant world events they just sort of fad into the background when set against family tragedy. 

Looking back at the storm surge, as a County Councillor I was party to a string of emails over the period from fellow Councillors who were out checking in on effected communities and from the emergency command centre set up at such times and whist it’s commented on by the new reports its quite something when you know significant level of teamwork that goes on by a vast range of people and is to be commended.

For me the thing I took away from the damage was just how well prepared the various agencies were and that flood defences whether enhanced natural or concrete broadly speaking held, the ferocity of the surge was demonstrated no worse than on Cromer’s sea front where chucks of the concrete sea wall were simply smashed away and the pier where I have seen so many great summer shows was given a battering.

Thankfully no one was killed, unlike in 1953, and the property damage was kept to a minimum, not that these facts will be of comfort for those who lost their home, or were flooded out, nor indeed the businesses who have to start again at this vital time of year for trade so close to Christmas.

NG 7 years old

When I first became a Councillor I managed to get onto what looked like an interesting course entitled Next Generation being run by an organization called the Leadership Centre. What was interesting about it was that it was delivered in political group with a parallel track for Conservative, Labour and the Liberals. As it turns out this course is unique in that there is no other local government training which is party political. As the training offer around local government has changed over the years, with the Leadership Centre becoming a part of the LGA and the LGA have changed its programmes and trainers more times than I care to remember, the Next Generation course remains with its original aspiration of training the next generation of Local Government lead members in a political context. It has also retained its original course leader the remarkable Christina Dykes, part organizer of really interesting course sessions, part champion for the aims of the course, the strengths of the Alumni and on occasion strict time keeper particularly in the morning after too many of us have stayed up in the bar the night before talking politics.

Me and Eric, Eric and I - 7 years ago - how time flies!

Me and Eric, Eric and I – 7 years ago – how time flies!

The course is also remarkable in its longevity, it is now in year 8 and each year group, about 20 or so of us, gets to join the alumni. This is now a sizable group of Conservative Councillors in local government and amongst it’s members it has a number of Leaders, former Leaders, deputy Leaders and a lots of Cabinet members for this and that service, spread across the whole of England. In terms of political friends and experience of local politics I have found the original course, follow up meetings, shared experiences and discussions to be the best resource I have come across.

Last Wednesday I attended the Alumni annual get together where the 7 years cohorts of Conservative Councillors come together to discuss local government and anything else that takes our fancy. I can’t believe it was some seven years ago in the bowels of the BIC centre in Bournemouth, that I first met Christina and became a member of its inaugural first year cohort launched with the seal of approval from the then Chairman of the Party Mr. Eric Pickles. The picture on this blog is from that launch where we all had our picture taken with Eric. Mind you both Eric and I had more hair and I think we were both a touch lighter on our toes in those days!

Up and Down the A14

Yesterday I had a day back and forth along the A14, firstly I attended a Conservative backbencher meeting looking at the budget proposals for next year and beyond in Adult Social Care and along with a informed group and the Portfolio holder Cllr. Alan Murray we pondered the scale of the savings required and the changes in our Ageing population, the nature of the Health and Wellbeing Boards integration of Health and Social Care and how we might drive out more savings from its back office to protect front line services.

Next it was off to Cambridge to attend the East of England Strategic Authority Leaders meeting to discuss the LGA Rewiring Public Services looking in particular at Financial Stability and how we various members were working on our forward budget plans and how we might lobby government. Kicked off with a presentation from Cllr. David Finch, Leader of Essex County Council about heir budget setting challenge. It was resolved that we would work on a paper focusing on our journey over the past 3 years the difficulties ahead and our thoughts to bring more financial stability to our regions local government moving forward.

We then moved on to Essex’s fascinating experience of Social Impact Bonds and how they lead the way in developing this innovative financial and delivery vehicle to achieve additional savings by working to turn off demand but funded externally by social investors, along with my officers in attendance we agreed we would look at how Suffolk might move this agenda forward.

Next up was a presentation by Cambridgeshire County Council’s Leader Cllr. Martin Curtis on the Greater Cambridge City Deal and as he presented I reflected on the Ipswich City Deal and the similarities of both to drive economic investment. Much is said about the Suffolk County Council not understanding Ipswich and only being about the county, the successful Ipswich City deal is evidence of the nonsense of the comments, but hey its politics and the Leader of Ipswich Borough Council is Labour’s candidate at the next election so his political narrative is hardly going to reflect that you only win these bids if you can demonstrate partnership working across Local Government and business sectors.

Then it was back into the car and off the Babergh Suffolk Association of Local Councils SLAC meeting of Parish Council leaders at Babergh District Council offices in Hadleigh to present the budget proposals for next year and debate with them how they see its impact. The road shows I and the County’s Chief finance officer are undertaking as a part of Suffolk biggest ever conversation are many but well worth it as it gives us the opportunity to listen to a very wide range of opinions as we make these increasingly difficult decisions. Got home at 9:15, supper and then a catch up on the day’s emails.

The role of Health and Wellbeing Boards

Last Wednesday saw an update conference on Health and Social Care Integration in the splendid setting of Ickworth House’s Historic West Wing. The meeting was facilitated by Richard Humphreys of the Kings Fund, whom I have met on a number of occasions as Health and Wellbeing Boards were being formed and the thinking around them matured.

As I sat and listened to a wide range of speakers giving their views as to where we are at, it seems to me that we are some way off a joint vision for the spectrum of services and the mechanism to support the proper joint commissioning of those services, or in other words how we move money around the system.

As always the elephant in the room was the acute sector or more correctly how do we alter the system and close hospital beds without  a. the hospitals going bust b. MPs and the public chaining themselves to the hospital front doors and c. protests in the street about ‘Save our hospital’.

We all know that Big money is in hospital beds and we all know how protective people are of those beds, yet an admission to hospital must be seen and the system must be designed and funded to acknowledge that such an admission is a complete failure of the Health and social care system, yes we need beds and hospitals for when we are ill but far, far too many and in particular older people are going into hospital when that is precisely where they should not be, far too many people are in hospital who could, with the right primary and social care support, could be treated in their community and supported at home, far better outcomes for the resident and far less cost to the system.

One of the things that interests me most is the emerging picture from the United States health care system where major insurers who are not hung up on jobs and the beloved citadels of the system but on the actual costs of providing care. Once they have a person’s insurance contributions, they pump prime money into prevention health and social care programmes and this saves them significant sums of real money, further down the system in their hospital admissions. Just imagine if we took money out of the actues and put it into sports centres, a motion that would seem ridiculous but when you look at actual ways to save money in the long term perhaps not such a crazy idea at all. An analysis of the joint care pathway showing service interventions size, spend and an understanding of what will need to change and the impact of this demographically and financially is not an easy task but one we should be undertaking and its the local Health and Wellbeing Boards not Whitehall mandarins who are best placed to know their local area and what will work best.

Of course the first thing that would have to be tackled is the core stumbling block of payment by results funding mechanisms of the acute hospitals which is actually payment by activity, so less activity would mean less income and the current model would fail. The next stumbling block would be us residents who want the hospital there just in case and are deeply suspicious of any change because we simply do not believe that it’s about improving services but actually about cuts to our beloved NHS, however if waiting times were reduced then perhaps we might start to warm to the idea that we can increasingly be treated away from a hospital setting and more effectively.

One of the acid tests of this at the moment is the out of hours service, I don’t know a single person who if really worried for themselves or a loved one would trust the service rather than simply get the ill person in the car and drive to A&E, with the current performance of the ambulance service in the East of England we even worry about that turning up.

The scale of the challenge before the system and Health and Wellbeing boards is immense but so are the rewards to us as residents and the system as a whole that the difficult times ahead and are worth every effort to get this right. To some extent this is of course now not a new agenda but there is a new imperative to deliver the plan, cope with our ageing population and realise the savings that can be made at the same time as servicing residents needs better, now that’s something worth having the difficult discussions about.

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