A true Gentleman of Newmarket

Yesterday I attended the sad funeral of Cllr. Geoffrey Jaggard. I have know Geoffrey for a number of years first as a Conservative Association officer when he was Leader of Forest Heath District Council, more recently in the great unitary debate that took place in the final days of the previous Labour Government and most recently as a member of the Performance and Audit Scrutiny Committee I chair and he added his many years of experience to as a member.

A couple of weeks ago at the West Suffolk Conservative Assocation AGM, I paid tribute to him and his former fellow Councillor Maureen Hills both of whom sadly had passed since the last AGM. I said that whilst In the room any number of those present had at one point or another had a argument with me, I could only remember one occasion when he had slightly raised his voice at whatever nonsense I was saying at the time, his gift was that he was always able to deal with …..

At the end of the funeral as a mark of respect those Councillors who could make it along lined the way as his coffin was carried from the church. I know we will all miss his quiet counsel and friendship.

But do not mistake his gentlemanliness for weakness. It was quite fitting that as the assembled congregation at St. Mary’s Church, Newmarket marked his passing, in the background you could hear the construction work continuing on the Home of Horseracing. I say fitting because it is in no small part due to his and the Chief Executive of the Council at the time, David Burnip, leadership and determination that had brought this aspiration to life.

As we walked to the Hotel for the wake, I commented to fellow councillors that long before I got involved with Local Politics I was extremely critical ad to why the council would buy up a tumble down building and spend million renovating it, the building being Palace House which is to be the cornerstone of a world class racing visitor attraction that will shortly emerge from under the scaffolding, with the Palace House itself being used to home some of this nations racing treasures and art.

In the next few months the good and the great will gather and be shown around the wonderful new Racing Museum attractions and I hope a moments tribute is paid to this non son of Racing, without who’s vision and quiet determination, the whole project would literally never have happened. A fitting public life legacy to a real gentleman.

Innovate or pay more

innovationAt last Thursday’s Budget Debate I ‘suffered’ the full fury of the Liberal’s Cllr. Page, who decided this year, slightly ‘left field’ to launch at me about the money spent on Suffolk Circle.

It is interesting that Cllr. Page failed to comment that one of the programmes in the budget delivering the biggest savings is the Supporting Lives and Connecting Communities, this year aiming to save the council £6 million. A programme developed and instigated when I was Cabinet Member for Adult and Communities Services which has 3 or 4 core papers as the basis on which I managed to convince my cabinet colleagues that we should reshape the way in which we deliver services in our communities. One of these documents is the original work done by Participle the organisation behind the circle movement. It researched, over the course of a year, how Suffolk’s communities are connected, and why the differences in capacity between similar places exist and if the Circle could be a part of the way forward in Suffolk. This extensive body of work is a document I still refer to today in my role for the Local Government Association sitting as a member on the national TLAP Board and on TLAP’s Building Community Capacity (BCC) Framework programme board, from my point of view, its work is very much it is informed by the original Participle paper and to some extent our Suffolk experience of why the Circle movement did not work.

Another thing that so infuriated the Liberals at the time was the notion of providing start-up funding to a Circle model which was primarily not about providing services to those who can’t afford anything themselves but about addressing loneliness and connections in communities by individuals, in the social economic group just above those that qualify, who will pay for services themselves in order to stop them tipping into services. Interestingly this notion of councils having responsibility to inform and market shape not just for those who qualify is now about to become an actual duty under the Care Act when it comes into operation in April this year. Prevention and addressing the causes that make people tip into expensive services is very much the new agenda.

Over the course of 3 years we spent about £680,000 on funding the Suffolk Circle as a start-up, the organisation behind the circle movement is a not for profit social enterprise and the circles staff were drawn from the Suffolk voluntary sector, it hit its membership targets but did not exceed them and at the end of the three year start-up period the Suffolk Circle and Participle decided that they could not sustain the organisation and all the existing members were transferred to other voluntary sector organisations in Suffolk who took over aspects of its activity, programmes that are still running today. Since then the Southwark Circle has also closed yet others are still in existence. Much has been written about the circle approach and community involvement indeed the role of councils and other voluntary organisations. The TLAP BCC Framework, which I led a workshop on at the Annual TLAP conference last year on, attempts to build on all the different learning out there.

In terms of risk I suppose you are always going to have the Cllr. Pages’ of this world who just want to throw mud and not understand the detail but it important that Council’s innovate and work on how to lead the way to delivery services in an environment of less funding. In the period that the circle start-up was funded the Council spent over £650 million on Adult and Community Services and so in this context the less that 0.001% of its spending on something that was expected to succeed but did not was a part of the mix of service delivery being trialled, but we must keep trying to find new ways of supporting our communities and help prevent people from needing services in the first place, this one did not success but that does not mean you stop.

When we Conservative took over in 2005 the structure of the council was a basket case, 9 years later literally thousands of staff have gone and the council delivers more service today than it did then. But you know what unless we try new ways of working I suppose the only recourse is to do what Cllr. Page’s party did the last time they had power and simply keep spending without innovating and then demand ever more of people’s hard earned money to pay for it.

Protecting People’s hard earned money

Endeavour House PictureYesterday at Suffolk County Council it was budget day and the big set piece of Council life. What struck me most in the course of the 3 hour debate was firstly how powerful actual debate is, something that is sorely lacking in modern council structures and how it really highlights the differences of focus between Labour and the Conservatives. Cllr. Martin, the Leader of the Labour group, spoke of county life ”There are a few pirogue in Suffolk who would cope perfectly well with minimal county council services’. ‘So long as the roads are well-enough maintained for them to be able to drive their children to their private schools and visit their private hospitals’ a shocking generalisation but very telling none the less.

I got into politics because people where I live often struggle with their budgets and when the county council was controlled by Labour and the Liberals, people really struggled with the ridiculous tax demands the council repeatedly threatened people with. Those I represent are hard-working people who in the main don’t drive large cars or take their children to private schools, they sit down at their kitchen table and work out their budget and pay their bills.

I said then and I said yesterday councils should live within their means and stop treating hard pressed families as cash cows. I of course accept that 0% council tax rises are unstainable in the long term, of course they are, inflation is inflation and cannot be absorbed forever equally we have an ageing population and despite new ways of working with communities yielding short term benefits, in the longer term our ageing population cannot be supported with the current structure of either social care or the NHS and more money will have to be spend nationally and thus locally in these areas.

During the debate as I mentioned the tax rises of the last Labour/Liberal administration I was reminded across twitter that when Labour put the County Council Tax up by 18.5% the Conservative counter-proposal was 14.5% and it struck me how times have changed. The mind sets that existed in those days of an ever enlarging local gov and state sector demanding more and more of people’s money to build empires, is thankfully a thing of the past and we are now in a period of re-visioning born of economic reality, which is yesterday’s Suffolk Labour Group amendment and speaker after speaker is anything to go by, is still something Labour can’t grasp, truly scary! Since we came to power in 2005 Suffolk County Council has been on a strict course of efficiencies but it is in these last 5 years of government grant constriction that the most dramatic changes have been required to reshape the council to protect services to the most vulnerable in our communities. There is no doubt collectively local government is getting to the blunt end of efficiencies, but there is more to come.  Structurally what the future holds for local government in Suffolk and indeed across the country is starting to be debated and is required to continue to protect services to vulnerable people and equally protect hard pressed families who work and pay their Council Tax bill.

So I leave you with one thought:

The last eight Labour and Liberal years
1998/99 – 10%
1999/00 – 8.4%
2000/01 – 7.3%
2001/02 – 6.9%
2002/03 – 11.9%
2003/04 – 18.5%
2004/05 – 3.8%
2005/06 – 2.5% (in election year, achieved in desperation with the use of reserves)

Conservative years
2006/07 – 4.5%
2007/08 – 4.5%
2008/09 – 3.7%
2009/10 – 2.45% (SCC’s lowest-ever increase)
2010/11 – 2.4% (ditto)
2011/12 – 0%
2012/13 – 0%
2013/14 – 0%
2014/15 – 0%

And as of yesterday 2015/16 – 0%

Who do you think is on the side of hard working people just trying to pay their bills?

Conservative Local Government Conference 2015

2015_02_06 David Cameron at CCA Conference 2015Last Friday Cllr. Robin Millar and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Conservative Councillors Conference, where Conservative Local Government reasonably informally meets with Conservative Ministers and discusses the issues we face.

The Prime Minister opened the Conference and talked about the Conservative Campaign ahead and reflected on the 5 years of hard work undertaken to get this Country financially back on track and start to grow our economy. I tweeted about this and mentioned that this is the same stronger economy where Ed Balls could not name a single Business Leader to back Labour! It’s often said that Business Leaders are not listened too by the voting Public but I think that myth was blown in the Scottish Referendum whereas the final weeks approached Business Leaders did speak up against Devolution and people did listen. A strong growing economy is what is getting us out of Labour’s last financial mess of a government and Labour are simply not to be trusted with it.

Obviously much talk was of the coming local elections and again we have a strong message about managing the cuts we are having to absorb and still delivering those vital services our resident’s demand of us. It is Conservative Councils that are doing this and doing this without Labour’s default of tax, tax, tax.

Talking of Labour’s fiscal irresponsibility, just before I left for the Conference I receive the email from Suffolk County Council detailing Labours fiscally incompetence in the form of their budget amendments, the debate and vote on our proposal for another 0% Council tax increase is this afternoon and I shall blog a few thoughts on this over the coming days! If we win then its 5 years in a row of 0% increases, wow! in real terms an actual cut, taking less of people hard earned money and doing what we can to help hard pressed families cope with their bills.

The Housing Crisis and how we might start to solve it

Elphicke-ReportLast Wednesday week I was in the Grand Committee room of the House of Common for the launch of the long awaited Elphicke-House Report ‘From statutory provider to housing delivery enabler: Review into the local authority role in housing supply’.

It’s an important report in that it was commissioned by the Treasury to look at the issue of how we as a country can build more houses from a local government’s role prospective and by that I don’t mean the usual planning policy prospective. how we as a country can and need to build more houses. Danny Alexander MP, The Finance Minister of State and Brandon Lewis MP the Local Government Minister of State for planning and housing, spoke at the launch and this gives you some idea of how seriously it is taken.

I had a particular interest in this report as I was asked to be one of its ‘expert witnesses’ essentially because I have some 30 years knowledge of the Housebuilding, land and planning sector but can also blend this with knowledge of local government across County and District council responsibilities and my more detailed knowledge of Adult Social Care and housing for older people, something I have led on in Suffolk with the two conferences I arranged on Housing for an Ageing population.

The report can be downloaded from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/398829/150126_LA_Housing_Review_Report_FINAL.pdf and if you have an interest in local government and housing delivery this is a must read.

It’s not a report about the planning system nor about money, both Natalie and Keith were clear about that as they introduced it. As Keith put it it’s about how Councils should be Housing Delivery Enablers not just a sausage machine for developers to get planning permissions.

In her introduction Natalie posed a really great question to the bankers and investment fund managers in the room ‘How many meetings would you attend before you gave up and went to a different use class of investment’ as they found that sometimes, before a brick is laid up to 300 meetings will take place and this needs to change.

The report itself draws on the innovative approaches and case study examples, from the a very wide range 15% to 20% of the councils who are active in this space and following this report hopefully others taking a central role as Housing Delivery Enablers, working collaboratively with partners across all sectors to increase the building of new homes that can support strong and prosperous communities.

It’s also great news that government has welcomed the report, and accepted its core recommendation that councils should become Housing Delivery Enablers. By being proactive in identifying housing need and opportunity, working with partners, and actively using their assets and knowledge to unlock housing opportunities, councils can and frankly should be at the heart of delivering more homes and building strong communities.
Government’s response can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/councils-can-enable-more-homes-to-be-built

A chance to reflect

Shropshire shire hallA couple of weeks ago I spent most of it in Shrewsbury as a part of LGA Peer Challenge team looking at Shropshire Council’s Health and Wellbeing Board’s effectiveness and it’s relationships across the Health sector in the area.

Sometime people question why councillors and officers spend time away from their council undertaking these Peer Challenges and for me it is really simply, the process of reviewing all a Councils printed materials, their reviews, flow charts, agendas, minutes and papers from various meetings. Alongside some 33 interview sessions with over 100 people across their systems and partnerships with acute hospitals, CCGs, patients, carers and voluntary groups not only do you come to an opinion about that system and then play that back in the final presentation and ultimately a report; you can’t but help reflect on what your system in your area looks like and its strengths and weaknesses, which helps your local system gain as well.

Also in my case as I am one of Local Government Association’s Health and Wellbeing Board Ambassadors in my case for the East Midland, hopefully you can help others develop their board to be as effective as possible. All political parties are starting to publish their policies if elected and across the political divide it is clear how important Health and Wellbeing boards are and will be to the delivery of better services without spending more tax payers money and anyone who’s kind enough to read this blog will know that’s my thing.

These challenges are not inspection and are something councils across the county ask the LGA to undertake so they can get an external prospective on how either the whole council or some aspect of what the council is delivering. I worked with a great team which was ably lead by Anne Binkhoff, LGA Peer Challenge Manager and Phil Norrey, Chief Executive of Devon County Council along with Anna Lynch, Director of Public Health at Durham County Council, Sharon Liggins, Chief Officer for Partnerships Sandwell and West Birmingham CCG, James Cawley Associate Director – Adult Care Commissioning, Safeguarding and Housing, Wiltshire County Council, Rory Deighton, Chief Executive of Healthwatch, Kirklees and me. Hard intense work but the group I worked with helped make it fun as well.


Speaking in Northern Ireland

nimapA couple of weeks ago I was invited to be a speaker at a Conference just outside Belfast by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), called ‘Creative Service Delivery’ to an audience of Councillors and Officers from Northern Ireland’s Local Government community. Essentially to give a Councillor prospective on political leadership and real examples of what councils have done to innovatively reduce costs yet deliver better services by looking at ‘delivery in new ways – designing in customer services that continue to meet public’s needs within totally barren funding environments’. In short what I have tried to champion in Suffolk over the past few years. I travelled the afternoon before because the weather forecast for the day was for snow and indeed one of the other speaker’s attempts to get to the conference on the day, was dashed as planes were grounded due to the poor weather conditions. I was met at the airport by Derek McCallan Chief Executive of the NILGA who kindly took me to the conference hotel and joined me for dinner.

It was meant to be a quick supper and a short chat but as he explained all thing Northern Ireland local government politics and the differences to England’s local government arrangements the time just whizzed by and it was absolutely fascinating as I wrote page after page in my note book. One of the staggering facts we discussed was that the public sector accounts for about 65% of the total economy in Northern Ireland and the unique challenges this presents as Northern Ireland looks to continue its progress from its troubled past to a place of high value jobs in a wonderful part of the country.

At times we think English local government is in a state of flux but next day as I described the political leadership of the mutuals and companies created in Suffolk I also talked about the incredible change the audience were a part of and that ‘I took my hat off to them’ in the their desire to look at different approaches as their world was being reformed with 26 local councils becoming 11 in March this year and that for the first time planning decisions across the Provence were moving from an executive function with no councillors involved, which again staggered me!, to Development Control committees as we know them here.

On the platform with me was a Nigel Curthers, Senior Advisor for workforce policy and strategy at the LGA who gave a presentation on aspect of change management and we were meant to be joined by Richard Selwyn, Assistant Director Commissioning from Suffolk County Council giving a presentation entitled ‘Innovative Commissioning’ but he was the one snowed in. Essentially his presentation was going to be based on his book entitled ‘Outcomes & Efficiency’ which I read as I waited for my plane home later that day. It is certainly well worth a read if you are remotely interested in this area of councils reshaping and it can be downloaded from http://tinyurl.com/1f8o4p5 In his absence Derek, Nigel and I did an extended questions and answer session and in the discussion you could see the real commitment from the Councillors present to really think about the new councils that are about to happen on 31st March 2015 and how in this environment of less money how services can be delivered and reshaped as Northern Ireland progresses.

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