Not Al Gore!

On Tuesday SCC cabinet met in West Suffolk House in Bury St. Edmunds to discuss the budget for the coming year and approved a far reaching set of proposals to go forward to the Full Council Debate on 13th February in Ipswich.

According to the journalist from the EADT, Paul Geater, during a set of exchanges about the Library service in Suffolk I overused Al Gore’s famous ‘inconvenient truth’ catchphrase with reference to Labour’s continued attack on our Library Strategy and the simple fact that no Suffolk Library has closed and once he had tweeted his disapproval Labour Councillors in the room jumped on the bandwagon and retweeted what he said that if I used it one more time he would scream, of course I too don’t doubt Labour Councillor would scream because their attack is so weak and pathetic on Libraries even I would screen at their efforts!

It is of course my own fault as during my introduction to the Budget cabinet paper I spoke of the cultural change at the County Council over the years and how now it deliver services in many different ways from wholly owned companies, in-house provision, mutuals, to joint ventures, and, as is the case with Suffolk Library service an Industrial Provident Society commission by the County Council to deliver the library service, a service where every Library is open and customer satisfaction is higher than when it was a purely in-house service, public engagement through a series of friends and management groups is also higher than ever and in my own village, here the library is far more centred in the community than it ever was when it was a direct service see http://lakenheathlibraryfriends.wordpress.com/ . Across the county when I say I’m from Suffolk in local government circles people are keen to hear how we have made the necessary savings in our Library service and how we did it.

I suspect what annoys the opposition more than the words I used is that they so desperately wanted the Library savings to provide them with ammo for their attack position and it’s the complete opposite. Equally we must not forget that they so disagree with the motion than anyone, including our own former staff who make up the backbone of the organisation, could provide a better service at a lower cost than the Council it just so upsets them, bless.

On Tuesday beyond the setting of the Council tax I spoke of the cultural change that has taken place at Suffolk County Council and it’s this willingness to embrace new ways of working focused not on protecting Council jobs but on outcomes. The good people of Suffolk can be relieved that the luddites in the Suffolk Labour party riddled with dogma and old fashioned thinking are not in charge, putting up Council tax, cutting services, and blowing the reserves rather than do anything differently than the socialist utopian Big State.

Post War prefab housing – the homes of tomorrow?

Over a year ago I spoke in support of Councillor Judy Terry’s comments about the post war prefabricated housing on Inverness Road in Ipswich and I was royally flamed for having an opinion on an Ipswich issue. So here goes again, last week I learnt will dismay that Cllr. John Mowles the Labour housing Portfolio Holder on the Borough Council, the same one who this year is pushing up the Ipswich’s council house rents by £200 for those who are working hard and paying rent, is proposing that Ipswich Borough Council spend money revamping the 127 prefabs homes on the estate and yet can’t or won’t even indicate how much extended life span the money will provide.

When I previously spoke it was twisted that I was against the residents and shame on me but nothing was further from the truth, essentially from what I hear the residents love their bungalows and gardens and the low density of the area, who would not, but it’s the quality of the fabric of the buildings and the ability to heat them that is the real concern.

Not to put too fine a position on it, structural re-furbishing of sub-standard prefab housing is an utter nonsense, putting new roofs, services and insulation into a crumbling superstructure that in engineering terms has now failed as they were designed to last 20 years, 60 years ago and to do anything other than replace them is ridiculously short sighted. It’s also proposed that the Borough will install new kitchens, bathrooms and windows but even that is strange as any social housing provider will tell you, such important things should be a part of an on-going stock maintenance programmes not an executive decision.

What qualifies me to speak about housing is simply that I happen to know a thing or two about prefab bungalows. Firstly because I am a third generation builder and at a technical level know about housing construction and mainly bungalows to boot having built quite a few of them. And secondly because in my youth I worked with my grandfather and he was involved in a property company that owned a number of prefabs within its stock and one of my jobs was in part to understand the maintenance, repairs and improvements, which were costly and a nightmare as structural components failed time and time again, and that was 30 years ago!

In terms of what could be built and it’s density, fortunately the centralised density dictates of the old PPG 3 that were a feature of the last Labour government are a thing of the past and providers can build at what density they like and here residents like the lower density and gardens which can easily be recreated with new modern bungalows and perhaps even an extra care scheme for those who still want to live in the area but for whom their large gardens are now a struggle.

Why can’t IBC start a programme of partial improvement, focus on replacing the dwellings allowing people who love their location, density and gardens the opportunity to have a new modern bungalow where they live, and finding a provider of extra care to invest in the area. Refurbishing prefabs is simply not good enough and the residents of Inverness Road surely deserve a Council with more forth-sight than this, maybe the massive rent rises for those who work and pay rent to the council might pay for a bit more vision?

The Council Bubble

Over the past few blogs I have written about Council tax, referendums, surveys and the future role of residents in Suffolk in the county council’s decision making processes from a panel of residents to discuss policies with, to pilots of participatory budgeting. But for now the focus for the next few weeks at the county council will be on the budget setting process, across the country councils have huge financial pressures as centre government requires local government to make savings yet rightly charges with protecting and deliver front line services. On the one hand they want us to absorb the cuts but not put up the Council tax and have provided a 1% grant incentive to resist the urge to increase council tax, but any increase loses this incentive so say in the case of Essex you are proposing a county council tax rise of 1.49% you will only get 0.49% extra as you lose the government 1% incentive grant, which they argue is necessary to protect services.

So there are many masters in all this, residents, government, inflationary pressures, strange grant formulas not to mention property prices which effects the base council tax take as an area such as Kensington and Chelsea where almost all property will be in the highest band thus much higher Council tax payments are collected, set against somewhere such as Suffolk which is much closer to the average with many properties in band D.

But for me, putting all these argument aside, there is something fundamental in the argument about the state, of big government, set against protecting people hard earned money and individual choice. In my opinion local government is here to efficiently deliver services and to make sure that the most vulnerable in our community are protected for the least charge possible.

In Suffolk this means to achieve our county 0% increase promise and our commitment to absorb government grant reductions. There, of course, will be cuts to some services but others will be reshaped and despite what the opposition will try to sling mud at over the coming weeks, the fundamental focus of the Conservatives at the County Council day in day out is how to protect services for the most vulnerable in our community,  in short protecting these services from cuts is the very essence of why we do what we do.

Equally and beyond these fundamental decisions we take, I am extremely mindful that frankly , when you step outside of the council world bubble, for there is one, when you think about people sitting at their kitchen table trying to balance their own budgets and pay rising bills for fuel, heating, and food, people who for the most part don’t consider the council as an integral part of their lives, but they are working hard and for the moment are often struggling to pay these bills, I simply don’t believe if asked to cast a vote, they would support paying more Council tax.

Now that may change, and various commentators ponder this question and over time putting aside the necessary savings government is requiring local government to make, inflation does bite and will continue to bite thus making even our position today irrespective of savings, somewhat unsustainable over the longer term. So perhaps in future surveys, panels and participatory budget session we need to test these theories to see if public opinion over time shifts. In the meantime, we honour our manifesto commitment which we were elected on, not to increase the county council tax for the whole of this current council term but like others I watch with interest for the first Council brave enough to actually go to referendum and to hearing what the people say.

At least your County Council Tax bill will not be going up

Today Suffolk Council Council’s worst kept secret will be out at lunchtime as it publishes the papers for next week’s cabinet meeting. We Conservatives are proposing a 0% County Council Tax increase in the coming year’s budget fulfilling the first year of our 4 year commitment to a 0% County Council tax increase for the whole of the councils’ term.

Over the weekend on various blog sites such as www.conservativehome.com and in papers such as Saturday’s edition of The Times in their article on Eric Pickles considering a lowering of the council tax referendum cap to 1.5%, something I pondered in this blog last week, the debate rages. Another interesting line that is being debated is about grant formulas, the reliance of any one council on council tax or grants. Indeed as I have been about Suffolk taking part in our Biggest ever Budget Conversation roadshows there is no doubt that people are surprised when you show them that councils are not actually, for the moment, funded by Council Tax and business rates alone but that various grants make up a significant part of the funding.

Beyond this financial reality a more philosophical debate is also taking place about the legitimacy of representative democracy, i.e. Councillors v referendum. In response to the con home article about Kent’s proposed Council tax rise and the various comments started online by me and followed by many others, Cllr. Simmons from Kent made a number of interesting points in response, no least that 70% of those who responded to a survey were in favour of rises.

Clearly survey results are significantly cheaper to obtain than indulging in a referendum even if you could do a referendum on the back of the European elections, which would make it significantly cheaper than a standalone one. In Suffolk a standalone referendum would, we estimate, cost in the region of £750,000 and a 1% rise in Council tax would bring in some £2.4 million, so there is a considerable cost to running a referendum, whereas the recent Ipsos Mori survey cost in the region of £16,000.  There are of course those who say that is too much money but public participation is important and a part of that is polling and other ways to engage.

Polling of course takes the discussion down an interesting line about what is actually asked of people in any survey, highlighted by a survey in Sheffield about would people pay more Council tax and many said yes but the option to say no or they wanted a 0% rise or even lowering of the council tax was not offered. So as with all surveys are you seeking people opinion or simply trying to get the answer you want? Always the acid test.

Here is Suffolk as a part of Suffolk’s Big Budget Conversation in the Ipsos Mori survey we commissioned we did not ask that question as we are committed to 4 years of 0% increases but we were very careful and took advice from Mori to make sure the questions were designed in such a way as to try to get to the real opinion of the average resident in the county rather than support any one position.

The poll results form one of the appendix to the cabinet paper published today and has a link to the raw data, both of which have played their part in the shaping of this year’s budget proposals and are a part of the increasing and developing involvement and participation of residents in the decisions Suffolk County Council makes.

Council Tax – a philosophical point of view, a game of bluff or people’s hard earned money

This week the debate on Council Tax has sprung to life as Councils across the county start to announce their Budget proposals. At Suffolk County Council we have a different approach and our 0% Council Tax rise is the worst kept secret, a manifesto pledge at last year election, it’s been to the county’s Scrutiny Committee twice in October and November and I and a number of my colleagues have been around the county taking part in Suffolk Biggest Budget Conversation taking about the plans and getting feedback.

In Brighton the minority Green administration yesterday proposed a 4.75% rise in their Council tax and that they would want to be the first ever Council to go to referendum to get it though, closer to home in Essex they proposing a 1.49% rise in Council tax, both of which have been associated with specific services they seek to protect as a part of the ‘sell’.

On Wednesday at a Council Councils Network meeting in London county council leaders from across the county were grilling Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis MP about is the Secretary of State about to lower the referendum trigger point. After that meeting I had a chat with a couple of Leaders about their plans and increases they were considering and so the debate is clearly coming more to the fore as Councils are feeling that the current cuts are starting to become more and more difficult to implement.

So is Eric Pickles MP about to lower the referendum cap. To me if Government, as they approach an election year, think Councils are about to start putting up Council tax this may well force Mr. Pickles hand with his colleague in Cabinet to tighten control, something about a self-fulfilling prophecy springs to mind. Personally I think it might be quite telling that Essex where the Secretary of State has his seat is proposing 1.49%, clearly they have pitched it just below where the cap might go.

With regards Brighton, over the past few months I have got to know the Leader of Brighton Council a little bit as we have both contributed to the New Local Government Network’s work on Digital in Local Government and I have no doubt he is earnest in his aims, having said that he also knows that his is minority administration and if Labour and Conservatives join forces he will be defeated, so there might be a little bit of politics mixed in there too!

So what of Suffolk County Council and us keeping our promise of a Council Tax freeze over the next 4 years, following on from 3 years of 0% increases. Yesterday Ipswich Spy blogged about a presentation by my colleague Cllr. Andrew Reid presenting our Budget proposals to an Ipswich area Committee questioned our policy stance.

Well in my next blog I’ll talk about my thoughts and I look forward with interest to the first Council brave enough to actually hold a referendum and beyond the political class let’s see what those hard pressed families sitting at the kitchen table trying to pay their bills with their hard earned money think to a Council asking them if they want to pay more.

Voters Choice in the Euro elections

Whatever you think about Europe, there is no doubt that UKIP will have a good set of European elections here in the East. As I said in my blog yesterday the key for Conservatives rests on two things, one true of all elections and all parties getting our core voters out and the other I would say is how people view the Referendum promise.

Last week in Haverhill’s St. Edmunds Borough Council by-election quite a lot of people vote UKIP perhaps beyond their simply articulation on Europe it is of course convenient to peg it to this or that but you can’t ignore 54% of the vote share and to do so is a mistake. On politics in general they, like liberals before them, do not have to deal with the complexity of actually having to potentially run the country and they seek to represent a point of view to return to some sort of ‘how it used to be’ and whilst I do not think they are a racist party, they do tap into a cohort of people who are a bit shocked at the pace of change they see in their community. I personally welcome all people if they can contribute to our communities and I think that predominately those who have made this area home are hardworking and add to the rich diversity of our communities by I do recognize the sheer change in our market town and high streets with the variety of ethic shops is tough for some in our community to get their heads around.

Also I think it fair to say UKIP have, since the Liberals joined coalition government, become the party of protest, hovering up right wing conservative votes and liberals who are really a sort of protest cohort the liberals used to tap into but have found it increasingly difficult since they had to face the harsh reality of having to actually seek to delivery on some of their policies in coalition! And in this vein they seem to be picking up a, albeit smaller, cohort of Labour supporters who hark back to an imaginary better time.

So how to engage the electorate in the coming election and how to get across the conservative message. Vote Conservative and signal we want to continue to work hard to reform the EU and that you want a referendum where you get to vote whatever your views, for it gives David Cameron the leverage he needs in Europe to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with Europe and then for the first time we the British people can fully and openly debate this subject properly, a debate which will be rigorous on both sides of the argument, which is precisely how we as a nation make good decisions.

or:

Vote UKIP and signal out and hang the consequences. But even if you do, whatever you do, do not vote UKIP in 2015 because you will simply let Labour win, we saw this in Norfolk and look what an absolute mess Norfolk County Council are in with its rainbow hiatus.

Vote Labour and signal continue with membership as is (although I wonder if that will change in the run in to the General Election, if the conservative referendum starts to gather up voters)

Vote Liberal and err. I think it’s in or would you prefer out, we are nothing if not flexible in the pursuit of power, just look at their track record in coalition!

The European Election campaign trail

Last Thursday Vicky Ford MEP and Conservative candidate in May’s European Elections came and spent an hour talking through the campaign ahead with myself and fellow Suffolk County Councillors. Of course what will be a major political set of elections across Europe with high engagement and turn out will for any British political party with the exception of UKIP be a difficult set to motivate supporters to campaign and voters to vote.

I have in my political involvement been fortunate to, I hope, have a reasonable understanding of Europe. Occasionally I work with East Anglia’s 4 Conservative Euro MEP, Vicky, Geoffrey Van Orden, Robert Sturdy and David Campbell Bannerman. In my opinion each of them work very hard and are absolutely committed to getting the best out of what is a very complex eco-system of how Europe works. Robert is retiring and I know his trade knowledge and committee work will be missed in the European parliament as will his hard work on East Anglia’s behalf. But as is the way of the world there are great candidates seeking to be elected in his place with the experienced John Flack and the youthful Tom Hunt to name but two of the rest of the conservative team.

Over the past few years I too have had some small involvement being the inaugural Vice Chairman of a European think tank EUREGHA and seen its useful contribution first hand in Brussels. I have also been the County Council Cabinet Member in charge of a department as it went after a chunk of European funding some €275,000 of funding for a pan-European project on Active Ageing and I hosted a international Conference in Ipswich, so have seen first-hand and I value the collaboration that Europe provides in what are difficult areas of service delivery.

So as we look forward to the Euro elections it will be interesting to watch the positioning at Westminster as each party attempts to suggest there is but the only course on this difficult question. I suspect that the key for us Conservatives rests with the Referendum and whether people vote UKIP because they want out, as is UKIP simply articulation on the subject or as a move to drive home to David Cameron that he must have one, a strange battleground but such is life.

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