Staffordshire County Council Peer Review

I spent most of last week as a part of an LGA peer team working on a Corporate Peer Challenge for Staffordshire County Council.  Those of you who are kind enough to read my blog will know how much I enjoy this work as a Conservative Peer and the insight it affords into other councils.  As always the aim is to help the council we are taking a look at, but I also find these assignments so rewarding as I continuously get to reflect on the councils I sit on representing my community.

The format for the reviews are similar, but the history, geography, ways of working and cost pressures of each council makes them unique.  Hopefully, by the time we present our findings and recommendations to their senior officer and Councillor cohorts for discussion on the final afternoon and with the subsequent written report, officers and Councillors alike find the conclusions useful and they provide powerful ways to improve.

The LGA delivers this sector lead improvement work, and to my mind, its one of the key offers the LGA has, unlike consultancy we are not trying to flog a council anything.  Each of us on the peer team is highly experienced and knowledgeable about Local Government, and we offer impartial advice.

I enjoyed being a part of a great team:

Lead Peer: Nathan Elvery – Chief Executive – West Sussex County Council

Senior Officer Peer: Jacqui Lansley – Director of Integration and Partnerships, Southend-on-Sea Council and CCG

Senior Officer Peer: Adrian Smith – Corporate Director of Place – Nottingham County Council

Senior Officer Peer: Chris Tambini – Director of Corporate Resources – Leicestershire County Council

LGA Associate: Richard Williams

LGA peer challenge manager: Richard Cooke – Local Government Association

We arrived on Sunday evening and spent a couple of hours planning the Monday’s work, having already ploughed through the background reading that comes with such assignments and ‘oh boy’ is there a lot of that.  It’s incredible what you rack up the work undertaken on a Peer review, before, after and during the four days on site where we spoke to more than 130 people including a range of council officers together with councillors and external stakeholders.  We gathered information and views from over forty meetings, visits to key sites and additional research and reading during the assignment.  Collectively we spent more than 420 hours to determine our finding which is the equivalent of one person spending nearly 11 weeks in the organisation.  So four days does not seem a lot, but in reality, it’s a very in-depth process.

Staffordshire is, I am so glad to say, a great County Council, with a well-respected Leader, Cllr Philip Atkins OBE, in his role since 2009, whose experience is and will be vital as he leads the council, his group and Cabinet negotiate the choppy waters ahead.

Unusually while we were there, they were taking a significant item through their Cabinet processes, an early look at their proposals for their Medium Term Financial Strategy.  It was fascinating to see their thinking and how it was received in the community and reported on in the local news.  What was clear was their Cabinet are facing up to the challenges and not ducking the issues or the difficult conversations with their staff, backbench Councillors or residents.  Indeed the very problems every upper-tier council face.  I was pleased to see despite the challenge they have the drive and determination to make sure that they deliver for the residents of Staffordshire.  It was a pleasure to work for them, and I hope through the presentation we gave on Thursday afternoon, and the report we are now finishing off, our work in Staffordshire helps them on their journey.

Windows and deadlines!

Every year without fail the window opens up for parents and carers to apply for primary and secondary school places for September 2019 across the country.

It relatively short but well-advertised and I urge anyone kind enough to read this blog to check with their family and friends with little ones they know and get their applications away as early as possible because frankly it helps council officers plan and shape the system to try to best accommodate parental choice.

The deadline for applications to secure a place at a Suffolk secondary school is Wednesday 31 October 2018 and for a primary school it is Wednesday 15 January 2019.  Secondary schools include all the high and upper schools and primary schools includes infant, junior and middle schools.

Last year, Suffolk County Council received over 15,000 applications from parents and carers indicating which school they would prefer their child to be educated at from September 2018.  With 93% of applicants received offers for their first preference school and more than 98% of applicants received an offer for one of their top three preferred schools.

This year, parents and carers will also need to consider the changes to Suffolk’s School Travel Policy, which were agreed by Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet on 19 June 2018.  The new policy will assess eligibility for funded school travel to the nearest suitable school with a place available.  You find more information about the changes is available at remember parents and carers can list up to three schools on their application form and we recommend applying for more than one school.  If parents or carers are planning to move house or perhaps circumstances may change before September, it is still important to make an application on time. Advice and guidance about this process is available at they’ll receive confirmation that we have received their application.

If for any reason parents and carers are unable to apply online they should apply on a paper CAF1 application form. Suffolk County Council is unable to acknowledge receipt of paper applications and therefore suggest that proof of posting is obtained.

Then over the coming months every effort is made to accommodate parental or carers choice and then families who apply online will be able to log on to the Online Service on the National Offer Day, Friday 1 March 2019 for secondary school places and Tuesday 16 April for primary school places to see their offer of a school place, and they will receive an email to confirm this offer on the same day.  Offer letters will be sent by second class post to applicants, who made a paper application.

So now is the time to get your choices registered.

A different role

Last Wednesday we held the first informal meeting of the Conservative Executive of the LGA ahead of our first formal meeting the following morning and both were a chance to catch up with those of us who have been on the Executive before and new members under the Leadership of Cllr. James Jameson whom we elected Group Leader in July.  At these meeting, we discussed what we think should be the key focus of the work of the LGA over the coming year namely the financial challenges faced by all councils and in particular those who have to run Children services and Adults services.

For a number of years now, the issues of an ageing population and growing cohort of those with Disabilities who need our support has been discussed and been our main focus.  But increasingly Children Services and the cost overspends in making sure our young people have the protection and support we must rightly offer them is a worry. Both regarding the sheer number of younger people seeking or identified as needing help and the associated costs of social workers number increases and the sheer cost of the protection we put in place.

After the Executive came, the LGA councillor’s induction day for those of us from across the county asked to sit on the LGA’s various board, panels and roles. For the past two years I have enjoyed helping Councils across the Eastern region as the regional Conservative Peer but have now switched across to the Community Wellbeing Board where I hope my experience as an Adult Social Care and later Finance Cabinet Member and more recently as Leader of an upper tier authority will allow me to usefully contribute to this vital debate on Adult Social Care.

If you are one of those kinds enough to read my blog, you will have often heard me speak about our ageing population and its impact on services and costs over the coming years.  Last year I commissioned a Public Health report in Suffolk as a part of the Suffolk in 20 years report, and the starkest fact was that at the current rate of hospital admissions we would need an additional 492 Acute beds in Suffolk in 20 years.  That is just not going to happen, and so in Suffolk and across the country, we have to find ways for our communities, our councils and the NHS to integrate better and support older people away from the acute hospitals or a bleak old age awaits us all. Okay if we are well but as any of us will live with more and more-morbidity’s as we age it will not be much fun unless we redefine the services we provide.  So, an exciting challenge for the government, local government the NHS and all of us going forward.  It starts with the next Social Care Green paper, and there is still a chance to feed into the excellent work of the LGA both in term so its practical approach to the problems now and in the future.

And from the LGA comes a dedicated web site:

And the hashtag #FutureofASC

For me, the building block has to be the Health and Wellbeing boards across the county.  Whatever your view of the Lansley reforms of the early coalition government in 2010. I was with him and other in 2009 when we spoke of the need for a new space for local government and the NHS to come tighter to solve the problems.  Nine years on, the best of them such as Suffolk’s HWB with the great work of the West Suffolk Health Alliances shows what’s possible and we have to make sure this sort of best practice becomes standard practice across the county.

Can’t wait to get stuck into the work agenda of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board.

Services in our rural communities

Last week I attended the Rural Services Network conference in the beautiful town of Cheltenham, it’s an organisation and conference focused on rural issues and services in our communities.  All of the councils in Suffolk contribute to the organisation except Ipswich Borough Council, as each Council has rural communities. My division is made up of a series of villages, so I was particularly keen to hear about businesses in rural communities and on transport issues.

The conference sponsor was the Post office, and I was particularly keen to hear from them about the services they provide. In my Division, the largest village Lakenheath clung onto its last remaining bank branch, but Lloyds Bank recently announced that this is to close, and for people, they are worried they will not be able to get to a bank.  However, Debbie Smith, Chief Executive of Retail spoke of the bank services that they can provide to over 99% of UK bank customers so and as she reeled off facts and figures about the Post office it struck me that many people in my community probably do not know that the Post office can step in when the branch closes.  Many people have told me how disappointed they are with Lloyds for closing it.  But to be fair to Lloyds I have asked those who have mentioned it to me, and younger people, how long since you have used the counter service?  And how many, like me, now use the banking apps and the internet to do most of the services I need.  On those rare occasions when someone writes me a cheque figure, I can now photo it and process it myself.  How the world changed, from the Friday afternoon queue that used to be at the Lakenheath Branch. It was like a little business social club as you waited your turn to bank the week’s cheques, how times change.

One of the highlights of the conference was the keynote session from Tony Travers, Director of the IPA, London School of Economics, Local Government Futures and Innovation.  I have over the past 12 years hearing Tony speak at various conferences with a real insight as to what is going to happen in the short to medium term. He explained his thinking and what is lightly to happen with the economy, public spending and thus his view of the next four years of local government funding.  He spoke of the term ‘flat cash’, and that’s his view that we will get about the same money irrespective of the rising costs in Adult social services inflation and in particular Children’s social care costs which are across the county a real challenge to carefully worked out budgets. If a child needs a protection package in place, then it is provided, simple as that and rightly so, but it does not stop the costs rising and with it the challenges both in terms of support and finance of finding the money.

Over the two days, there was a quality line up of speakers not least my colleague from St. Edmundsbury Cllr. Carol Bull and one of our officers Ben Smith who gave a presentation about the tremendous joint working that is taking place as we form the new West Suffolk Council, the sessions were well attended, and a lot of interest was shown at the innovative work taking place and how we have been careful about how we bring two councils together.

The other main highlight for me being the Pixel Financial Management update on the Fairer Funding discussions taking place between the LGA and the MHCLA.  They are carrying out this work on behalf of the CNN and the RSN to lobby Government that rural areas have increased costs in service delivery across a broad range of services due to the distance between properties.

Looking further forward there was a very interesting presentation from a company called Vectos whose session was titled ‘Connecting Rural Communities through Smart Transport and Mobility.  Part of the presentation was about on-demand vehicle services which with eh arrival of driverless cars, which is coming, how we might be able to use functions in entirely different ways and ways that make our rural communities better connected.  In my postbag residents’ write to me worried about bus services as they approach the age they may have to give up driving, there is a revolution coming in public and personal transport, and it will be fascinating to see what happens in the future.

So, we looked at Rural service such as the Post offices banking offer, the flat cash position likely to remain over the next few years for Local Government, the lobbying for a Fairer Funding allocation even if there is no more money the distribution across Local Government might reflect the rural nature of our communities and the costs associated with that. And the future of public transport even if that’s a long way off!

September 2018 Newsletter

As a Councillor its important to be available to residents and that’s why I am active on Social Media.  Nowadays this method of contact is running ‘neck and neck’ with emails as how people ask questions and seek help with issues in their lives, but I suspect it won’t be long before most questions comes via social media.

It’s also important to keep people informed as to what is happening with the councils, the thinking behind decisions, however bizarre they at first look!, maybe details about services available in a community and frankly the occasional myth busting – but hey lets face it, communications is a two way thing.

So one of the ways I do this is issue a monthly email newsletter, this has two versions, one goes to to my Division’s Parish Council clerks’ for them to forward onto their Councillors, and the other is a newsletter to a growing band of people who have kindly asked me to include them on my email distribution list.

So here is the link to September’s:

If you would like to receive it please just email me and I’ll add you to the circulation list.

Anne Whybrow

fullsizeoutput_136fA couple of weeks ago I learnt the sad news that my fellow Suffolk County Councillor Anne Whybrow had lost her brave fight against cancer.  Last Thursday I, along with many of her colleagues, family and friends attended Stowmarket Church for a memorial service in memory of Anne and a celebration of her life.

Pictured above is us out on the campaign trail in last year’s county council elections with Jane Storey and Christopher Spicer, and it sort of sums up a remarkable lady out campaigning even when restricted to a wheelchair.

I knew Anne for about 10 years and she was an absolutely pleasure to work alongside at the County Council.  She was Suffolk through and through, had a colourful life and leaves us all with fond memories.  She was never happier than when raising her family, helping out in her community and sorting out residents’ problems.  And for the rest of my life I shall never forget ‘Stowmarket, the centre of the universe’ as she occasionally used to say!

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