Visit by Secretary of State Chris Grayling MP & Suffolk 2050

Here is my article I wrote for this weeks’ EADT and Ipswich Star yesterday.

Last Friday, Councillor Paul West, Suffolk County Council Cabinet Member for Ipswich, and I welcomed the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling MP, to Ipswich for a visit to talk about the infrastructure that is needed in and around the town over the coming years.  We started by driving him across town to see the impact the Upper Orwell Crossing will have. Only polite as the government is committed to providing some £77.546 million towards its cost, with the balance being provided by the County Council. We looked at the design and the landing points, which will change the traffic flows around Ipswich. They will also unlock a significant section of redevelopment land to house world class tech and manufacturing companies, which bring the kind of high value jobs we all want to see more of in our County.

After a whistle-stop tour, we visited the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce. We met with local business leaders to talk about the challenges they face doing business in Ipswich, as well as senior representatives from the ports of Ipswich and Felixstowe who spoke of the challenges they face over the next few years. Conversations centred on the A14, including when the Copdock Interchange is going to be upgraded. The number of times the Orwell Bridge seems to be shut by Highways England, far more frequently than previously and far more than we would all want, was also a pressing issue. We talked about the need to improve the rail links to the West Midlands for the Port of Felixstowe. We pressed the Secretary of State on when the funding might be provided to undertake rail improvement here in Suffolk, and how soon the Ely North junction might be started and completed. This is vital to increase rail capacity on the line from Felixstowe.  What struck me in those conversations was the drive and determination from business leaders to grow their businesses here in Suffolk and to work with the County Council to lobby Government for the funding we need to unlock Suffolk and Ipswich’s potential.

We also discussed the Northern Relief Road and the business case that is being worked up after the Suffolk Public Sector Leaders approved funding.  I promised to have that report on the Secretary of State’s desk by the end of the year, to demonstrate why we need it and to lobby him for funding to enable it to be built. The business case can’t simply be about a new road cutting through the countryside north of Ipswich; nor can it just be about preventing the A14 and its main junctions increasingly grinding to a holt.  It has to be about the future of Ipswich and unlocking growth both in terms of new jobs and new homes.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Suffolk A14 Gateway strategy. A key component of that is to highlight to Government our infrastructure needs and the need for funding.  Importantly, we want to do this in a planned and strategic way – setting out, through strategies such as the Suffolk A14 Gateway, how we intend to grow and develop Suffolk over the next 30 years or so to Suffolk 2050.  Over the next year we will be bringing together the different public sector partners, our health partners, businesses groups, key business leaders, and residents to work on this long-term vision for Suffolk. This year’s growth conference will be about launching the Suffolk A14 Gateway. Next year’s conference will be about launching Suffolk 2050 and going back to the Secretary of State for Transport with our plans. We will remind him of his visit to our county and the commitment we made to lobby him for infrastructure funding that supports our plans for growth to 2050.

Rising to the challenge of Brexit – Suffolk A14 Gateway strategy

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Whether you believe in Brexit or not, it’s coming and creates opportunities and challenges for local government and businesses. Last year, I hosted the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox MP, here in Suffolk. We visited Andy Drummond, Managing Director of Lettergold Plastics, which is a family-run business in Newmarket. Andy gave Mr. Fox a tour of the factory and then we sat and discussed exporting. Liam Fox spoke about the number of UK companies that actually export – some 11%. His department have identified a further 23% of UK companies that match the profile of the 11% that currently export.  Liam went on to say that, if the 23% exported to the same extent as the current 11%, we would have a positive balance of payment.  At the County Council this has got us thinking about what we can do to help UK business, and Suffolk in particular, as we Brexit.

We are a unique county. It’s a lovely place to live, but we must also provide high value jobs for residents, so that they can enjoy our wonderful countryside and all that Suffolk has to offer. At one end of the county, we have the economic powerhouse that is the Cambridge sub-region. Huge investment coming over the next few years will open up the rail and road links between Oxford and Cambridge and beyond, making the Midlands easier to access. At the other end we have the Port of Felixstowe, linked by the A14 and rail links – both of which need investment to increase capacity and address problems such as high winds shutting the Orwell Bridge. We also have world class companies, some of which export and trade around the world, and lots that just do not. So, this has got me thinking about what we can do here in Suffolk to meet the challenges that face us.

I have often said that local government are regulators of business, with such things as the granting of planning permissions. We also try to be facilitators of business with the creation of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and the support it offers. Recently, the Government announced that, going forward, the support grant to Local Government is to end. If, in future years, our success is to be based on the business rates generated by our Suffolk businesses, then we must become champions of business. The additional business rates collected will also bolster what we can spend on the most vulnerable members of our communities.

There are many ways we can boost business. One of them is a new strategy called the Suffolk Growth Gateway, which we are consulting on. It will bring together Suffolk businesses and provide them with support to grow, expand new industrial areas, and attract inward investment from other UK companies who will be able to take advantage of our unique proximity to the Port of Felixstowe to export quickly and cheaply.

Other than physical infrastructure, we want to create additional business networking support, so businesses have the confidence to access overseas markets. Those thinking about exporting can talk to those in Suffolk who already do. So, we are working with the NALEP and the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, as well as the DTI, to strengthen these networks. The final part of this initial work will be to build on the strong links we have with China, and Hong Kong in particular, to help Suffolk-based companies access this vast market.

We will be starting with a conference in June and I look forward to talking about that in a future column.

 

EADT Headline: ‘We have a moral imperative to make sure frontline services are protected’.

 

Here’s my column from last week’s EADT and Ipswich Star newspapers:

Debate is good. Debate is healthy. It’s what challenges existing thinking and finds new and often better ways of doing things. Debate is what we need in Suffolk about the future of public services, including local government. And we need it now.

That’s why last week I asked Respublica to conduct a thorough and independent examination of the merits of public service reform in Suffolk. I know, that doesn’t sound hugely exciting on face value.

But, actually, it’s really important and I firmly believe we have a moral imperative to take a long hard look at existing structures to see what savings can be made to free up money for frontline services.

We want Respublica to develop a range of options that would give Suffolk taxpayers a better deal and our county, as a place, more local control over important decisions around health and housing.

They’ll look at current structures, governance and policies and publish proposals in the autumn. We’d like to make a bid to Government to reform the current structure.

The people at Respublica know what they’re talking about. They’re a leading public policy think-tank and were influential in the ground devolution of Government powers and money to Greater Manchester.

In November, they published findings which said £2.9billion could be saved nationally if councils were reorganised. Think what that money could do to improve people’s lives!

As with other areas in England, we want to build the strongest possible case for Government powers and funding to be devolved to Suffolk.

It’s not just about structures – not even close. It’s about how public money is spent.

There are eight councils in Suffolk, collectively spending about £565million each year. Of course, there are other organisations – like health – too.

Across Suffolk, councils have saved over £240m since 2010, becoming more efficient and effective as individual organisations. However, we all continue to face funding gaps in the coming years and the ability to do things more efficiently without affecting frontline services is now very difficult.

As we’re forced to save even more money, can we, morally, cut more when we know we should investigate the benefits of joining up? The mergers in East and West Suffolk are based on the principle that joining up councils saves money and provides better services.

There are many great examples of public sector organisations in Suffolk already working together, sharing buildings and back office functions. Suffolk is known for it nationally. We want to know what more could be done. We think further savings are possible, but restructuring might be necessary to achieve them. Respublica’s work will inform that debate.

I fully accept that it’s controversial – but if you saway from doing things that some people might object to, you’d never do anything at all and change just wouldn’t happen. Leaders must be bold.

Last week, Paul Geater wrote in his column that he could “see the benefits on all sides and I realise there are absolutely no simple answers”. Quite right, Paul. I therefore welcome the debate that’s started from all sides of the political spectrum.

As I said, it’s democracy in action. There will have to be more of it in the coming weeks and months. But it shouldn’t be dismissed just because it threatens the status quo. That’s not leadership.

Some of you may have seen the quite shocking news recently about Northamptonshire County Council having to freeze spending because of the desperate financial position they are in. Thankfully Suffolk isn’t in that situation but, like councils everywhere, money is really tight.

We want to get ahead and secure Suffolk’s future, whilst devolving powers and funding from Government so the public sector leaders in Suffolk can better deliver for residents.

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