“Homes have to be built for people”

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I have lived in the village of Lakenheath for most of my life and as I am now 52, no that can’t be right 2017 minus 1965 is…oh I am.  I have seen many of the fields I played in as a child built on, some by my family. I recall complaining bitterly when the company my father worked for brought a field where me and my friends used to play in and on the roof of the two barns on it. He said “homes have to be built for people”, if only we accepted this theory of life today, and “I told you to stop running along the roof of the barn one of you will get killed” so he brought the field and pulled down the barns – we did not speak for days!  Thinking about it, it was extremely dangerous as they were quite high.

Lots of new homes are proposed for our village over the next 10-year period and 250 to 300 of those will be given to Affordable Housing Providers who will rent them not sell them at below market rents to our young people and families not able to afford the rocketing cost of homes.  I have watched our village grow over 50 years but have despaired that in the past 18 years there has not be one major new estate built since an estate called Biscoe Way and hardly any socially rented homes built.  And in my time as a Councillor countless young people have complained to me they can’t afford to rent a home here and have moved away against their wishes or been forced to live at home with their parents for years after they want to leave home.  Shockingly the average age of the first-time buyer in this country and in my lifetime, has risen from 21 to 37.

Last week I had the chance to look at the Housing White Paper with the Prime Minster Theresa May and whilst a quick chat as she is an extremely busy person I thanked her for what she is doing and how her government is setting about tackling some of the biggest problems our country faces and one of those is housing.

There are those that simply don’t want new housing near them, they cite traffic congestion, they talk about the difficulty of getting a Doctor’s appointment and that housing changes a place.  All of these are important and we must work hard to address the infrastructure needs of our communities.  In my home village, I have secured the funding to build a much need second Primary school some £6M but we await the outcome of planning decisions to decide where it will be built.  We work hard to ensure development brings road improvement and engage with the NHS to improve primary care provision, that’s more Doctors to you and me.

The planning process is complex and the local Councils are blamed for its complexity yet it is laid down by government statue and it would be sheer folly for any Council not to follow it to the letter of the law, as they would lose Appeal after Appeal in the courts. It’s a long running process where numbers and allocation of numbers of homes is one part of the process that rarely, despite efforts by councils, engages many residents, but once the sites are proposed and applications start coming in people react.  The challenge for councils and Councillors is to listen to everyone from the vocal and angry about new homes being built in ‘their’ community to those residents struggling to afford a private rent or get on the property ladder or worse still have been made homeless for various reasons and are trying to get their lives back together in a bed sit accommodation. Across this country, here in Suffolk and in the communities I represent, far too many people are struggling to get a decent home and we have to address this.

This country has to build more homes, this county has to build more homes, this District has to build more homes, my Division has to built more homes and so does my home village of Lakenheath, it simply is not a solution to these serious problems to then say ‘ah yes but obviously not here’.  Do new homes bring challenges, of course they do, but what my dear old father said to me 45 years ago still rings true “homes have to be built for people.”

Please take my survey www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/RowHeath

 

Budget Day

Budget

This Thursday is Suffolk County Council’s Budget Day. It’s important for two reasons, it’s when we set the bulk of your, and my, Council Tax bill and we set the money each service will get to provide frontline services for the year ahead.

Budgets are important to Councils because until like the La, La, Land of the NHS finances where massive deficits mean little, in Local Government if you run out of money, wages are not paid and services shut down.

Every year the Conservative administration pour over the figures in the £500M budget starting almost as soon as the last budget is set. And whilst the figures are huge and services are vital such as protecting vulnerable children from abuse, the process is little different from how we budget at home.  We save money for big projects like a house extension or in the council’s case the two new Bridge projects. We have some money set aside for emergencies and the unexpected (reserves) and we plan for renewing smaller items like the computer, (major IT system changes) all of which is based on assumptions of our income in the coming years.

That may sound a bit simplistic but it’s essentially it’s the same process we go through at home.  For Local Government, as to future prospects all the future income indicators are poor as we face less money over the next few years’ from Government. So we maintain reserves to ensure we can sustain services and deal with the unexpected. It may at times be a little bit boring but we are prudent and careful with your money.

Just as in life then there are the neighbours or in our case the opposition Labour and Lib Dems.  Like the neighbour’s flash new car, always out there promising the world, spend, spend, spend for tomorrow never comes, we’ll get more money from somewhere, why have reserves, live for today. The Jeremy Corbin view of the world, it all look like fun and of course the sun will come out tomorrow, Happy Days.  But then again the last time they were allowed to be in control in Suffolk we all know how that ended, budgets not keep to, failing services and finally booted out of power, for raising the Council tax by 11.9% in one year and 18.5% in the next trying to keep the show on the road – ‘What rubbish’ I am told that was then this is now, but you see I don’t think it is rubbish, I think it’s a mind-set that has not changed one bit.

So we may be a bit cautious, we may be a bit tough in how we negotiate but, we have delivered 7 years of 0% raises in the base Council Tax and carefully applied the National Adult Social Care Precept to give our lowest paid, mainly care workers, a welcome pay increase and rightly so.  I hope in May people will allow us to carry on running the council, we will be innovative in our approaches and have lots of new ideas about how we go about things over the next 4 years building on the work these past 4 years but we will always, always be prudent and carefully with the budget and our reserves, ever mindful of the need to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and ever mindful it’s your hard earned money.

But remember those flash neighbours (and apologies to my neighbours who are all lovely people and not part of this reference!), if Labour and the Liberal were in power when they run out of the council’s money, guess who’s money they’ll come after, yours!

Thursday’s meeting is web cast so please log-in and have a watch.

A nation decides and so does Lakenheath

2015_05_03 Campaign 2015 Team LakenheathThis week the country has a big decision to make, a Conservative Government or a Labour one, held to ransom by the SNP.

It is ironic that if people vote UKIP, they will get Ed Miliband in No.10 propped up by the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon who over the last few weeks have made it perfectly clear she will use the power to advance Scottish interests and by that I think we all know that means, demand that money be diverted from spending in England to spending in Scotland. Equally ironic is that Ed Miliband is on record he would have no referendum so the very thing UKIP want, would be denied them, yet if UKIP minded people vote Conservative, David Cameron will hold that referendum in 2017 having renegotiated the terms of our membership. Seems to me whether you’re in favour of being in Europe or out of it, this country need to make its mind up one way or the other.

Locally people have a choice too. Continue with Conservatives in charge of Forest Heath District Council where we are delivered quality services, have reorganised its back office and halved its staff numbers and thus been able to deliver 5 years of 0% Council Tax rises. Our carefully worked out plan is proposing a 4 year freeze for the next term. Alongside investment in our area such as a new public services hub in Mildenhall to include new state of the art sports facilities. Or elect a strange mix of independent candidates and/or UKIP both it seems from their election leaflets or lack of, don’t seem to have an actual plan.

This Conservative 9 year freezing of council tax is born of a simple premise, its your hard earned money and you are best place to spend it wisely for yourself and your family.

Even more locally in my village you can see the attitude of our opponents who over the past two years, with their controlling group has blocked every attempt to get the parish council to lower its costs and find new ways of working, and has increased the Parish Precept by over a third, making Lakenheath the most expensive place in Forest Heath to actually live and pay your per band council tax in – absolutely ridiculous!

I’m running with Louise Marston who owns a number of great local businesses, and has been a Parish Councillor and has increasingly frustratingly, tried with her minority group, to seek change on the Parish Council. She is a School Governor at the village primary school. Together we would play an active part in the District Council, continue to play an active part in our community, we would turn up and are determined to be a strong positive voice for our village, Lakenheath.

So nationally we have a clear choice, locally we have a clear choice and on both ballot papers please Vote Conservative.

A busy time

Launching our Lakenheath Ward Campaign 2015 the Zero balloon stands for 0% Council Tax rises!

Louise Marston and me launching our Lakenheath Ward Campaign 2015 – the balloon represents 0% Council Tax rises!

Well last week was a busy one to say the least. A week ago today I was delighted to be elected the Conservative Group Leader on Suffolk County Council, and thus Leader of the Council elect,  ahead of it’s AGM on the 21st May. In my brief thank you to the Conservative group after my election, I thanked Mark Bee for his work over the past 4 years as Leader and whilst clearly we did not see eye to eye on some issues, he worked hard on a number of key policies not least the Broadband roll-out and he can look back at his time leading the way and driving this 4th utility forward with great pride.

I ended by saying we now need to get back to the issue at hand, campaigning in our District and Borough elections and supporting our MPs in their campaigns for re-election. On Wednesday night we had the final Candidates team meeting for Forest Heath District Council and ran through the next few weeks on the door steps discussing our outstanding track record of shared services, staff reduction, quality services delivery and yet 5 years of no District Council Tax rises, helping Forest Heath’s resident in the best way possible, by protecting their hard earned money.

So my time for the next few weeks, will be split between working in my business, canvassing and delivering in the General and Local Elections and taking a little time to sit down individually with my fellow Conservative Councillors on Suffolk County Council to discuss in more depth, the themes that emerged during the short leadership contest and how we as a group move forward. Group internal relations is hardly the stuff that has residents ‘on the edge of their seats’, as rightly its policies and what we are going to do that matters, but they are important. Last Tuesday I said we were each elected in our Division to come together in a Conservative group and run the County Council, and as a group we are at our strongest together. Alongside talking and listening to the people of Suffolk, it is as a group we’ll create Conservative policies that protect services here in Suffolk that people value.  I am Suffolk born and breed and there is a certain way we do things here in Suffolk and it’s important that as a Council we are in step with that. We’ll make the savings we are required to make by central government, as we have done to date. We’ll plan carefully and discuss openly, we’ll value what we do well, but not be afraid to do things differently with our partners and communities to protect services, residents need to support their lives.

The next few weeks are going to be really interesting for all of us, locally for me as I campaign to win my District ward and help others win theirs, alongside those discussions within the Conservative group on Suffolk County Council, ahead of the council’s AGM. But more importantly the country decides in the General Election, yesterday Labour launched their manifesto and you could see the danger signs of another Labour Government, this time propped up by the SNP. Today the Conservatives launch our manifesto and the difference will be stark, a real plan to continue to get us out of the mess the last Labour Government that Ed Miliband and the Ed Balls were a key part of, left this country in, or a return to the chaotic and damaging thinking of Labour.

Protecting Vital Funding

health-funding

Last Wednesday at the LGA I presented a paper to the Community Wellbeing Board about Adult Social Care funding, firstly looking at how we take forward our campaign to have the coming new requirements fully funded, how we protect social care funding in the next parliament and how we influence a future Better Care Fund (BCF); so a couple of small subjects then!

What did come out loud and clear were colleagues insights into the pressures facing their adult social care departments locally. Across the country councils are facing really difficult decisions and trying to protect Children and vulnerable adult social services at the same time as absorbing the re-balancing this country has to make in just how much we, as a nation, spend, no easy task. It was a really good discussion where we also considered the principles and features that should underpin a future BCF, which hopefully will inform negotiations into the next spending review which we all know is coming irrespective of who wins the coming election.

Of course the pooling of Health and Social Care Budgets under Health and Wellbeing Boards is to be welcomed and encourages as a step forward in designing a system in which we make sure our A&E department are only having to dealing with real accidents and emergencies not the failure of the system to cope with an ageing population. Equally we need a system where we stop seeing too many older and disabled people left languishing in hospital beds for too long or consigned to residential care because we lack the capacity to help them live independently for longer.
Even with Health and Wellbeing Boards and increased and accelerated pooling, one of the key difficulties still remains. In real terms the NHS budget are being protected but councils are struggling to protect spending on Adult Social Care set against the backdrop op of the 30% reductions in overall Local Government grant funding that will be seen across the past 5 years and what looks from all parties as if it may well be another 20% cut over the course of the next parliament.
All of these figures are quite general but they give a sense of the scale of this issues before Local Government and of the funding gaps councils are having to address.
That’s why last the meeting concluded that we should reinvigorate the ‘Show us you Care’ campaign with a sustainable funding lobby position with that its core, calling on Government to protect adult social care funding to make it sustainable for the future. This is of course not just essential for social care but for all of the other services that will tip into failure if this problem is not tackled. Equally if cuts are leveled across social care as well as the rest of local government funding then to protect this most vital of front line service, other areas of service delivery will struggle. The next government must make the distinction between general grant funding and that spent of social care, not ring fencing as I don’t think that is the right discussion but a way sustainable way forward for NHS and social care funding for without that, the NHS will fail to cope with our ageing population.

Viva 0%, long live 0%

0 percentLast Friday afternoon at Forest Heath District Council’s Full Council meeting we set the council tax rate rise for the coming budget year at 0% this comes on the back of 4 years of 0%, another remarkable achievement in these times of significant government grant cuts. At Forest Heath what is even more striking is that services have been maintained and in my Role as Chairman of the Performance and Audit Scrutiny Committee I have seen, in many cases services have actually improved over the past 4 years. Even the one Councillor who bizarrely voted against the reorganisation that has facilitated the savings to achieve this, voted in favour of the 0% Council Tax rise, which is equally bizarrely because he as a Parish Council Chairman, he has been behind some of the most massive Precept hikes that council has ever seen with it going up almost a third in the last 2 years. Not sure what people should look for in their Councillor’s but consistency might be a start! Last Friday week I blogged about the County Council’s budget setting and spoke about why I got into Local Politics, Forest Heath has thankfully not had to suffer a Labour/Liberal coalition and so the contrast in council tax rate setting is not as stark, but my principles is just the same, councils should live within their means and stop treating hard pressed families as cash cows. As I said a couple of weeks ago I 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 but we are not at that point yet. I think it’s a sort of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ when Councillors start to say council tax must rise and we can’t keep delivering 0%, why not?, costs in most councils are still significantly higher than a business would consider as acceptable overhead, and I am talking overhead not front line, for councils are principally a people business in service delivery. I think, alongside re-organisation, there is still quite a ways to go. At Forest Heath, Conservatives have politically lead this remarkable achievement by sharing services with our neighbour’s St. Edmundsbury Borough Council, instigating a cabinet system of decision making, halving the staff numbers and investing in technology to streamline the business, lots more to do but it’s a start that is saving money and protecting services and keeping the Council tax down. Whoever wins in May, further cuts in local government funding are to be expected and it will be interesting to see those Councils with the political will to make the council live within its means and those councils where officers hold power and council tax goes up! So viva 0%, long live 0% and watch the political group and the emerging local government manifestos as to whom are the true champions of the hard earned money you are obliged to pay in Council Tax.

RAF Mildenhall Closure

RAF MildenhallOn Thursday we had the sad news that RAF Mildenhall was to close, and my first thoughts when I heard was for the 500 or so people who work there and the uncertainty the announcement makes for them.

A number of us were all geared up for the official USAF announcement embargoed until 3pm, however this quickly became a nonsense as the moment was entirely overtaken by social media in the morning because the Stars and Stripes carried the full story that morning in their on-line edition, someone somewhere does not quite understand the nature of an agreed embargo! For my part I watched the twitter feeds starting up and then took a call from Paul Geater of the EADT asking for a quote before speaking on BBC Radio Suffolk’s Mark Murphy Show. The following morning I was interviewed by Etholle George on her morning show at 6:30am at Mildenhall Market and a couple of times more up to 9am and finally I did a piece for BBC Look East that evening outside the base.

Of course the devil is in the detail and whilst this will be a blow to many it’s not quite as bad as if first appears. In the same announcement, it was confirmed that RAF Lakenheath will expand and take 2 squadrons of the new USAF F-35 fighter aircraft with new investment and an additional 1,200 personnel and their families. RAF Mildenhall will close over the next 5 – 7 years with the leaving of 3,200 personnel and their families. If you consider that it’s only a year or so ago that the numbers were added to by 1,200 personnel connected with the special forces and their very strange looking Osprey aircraft. So that means with all the various comings and goings the area will ultimately only down about 800 personnel from the position 2 years ago.

Of course alongside these departures 500 local people are employed in a variety of roles on the base and whilst some will no doubt get jobs at Lakenheath many will be made redundant, and this is the biggest challenge we face. But it is also the biggest opportunity we face. At Forest Heath District Council since we won the last election in 2011 we’ve refocused the Council on economic growth and so, assuming we win the election in May we are well placed to lead taking advantage of this opportunity. RAF Mildenhall is a busy World class airport with great community facilities and industrial potential to attract high value jobs into a spacious industrial park.

We have already hit the ground running, Matthew Hancock MP has announced that he is to chair a Westminster working party looking at the future of RAF Mildenhall, RAF Molesworth, and RAF Alconbury. And alongside Cllr. James Waters the Leader of Forest Heath District Council we are already discussing the askes we want to make of Government, key amongst them and to the MOD in particular is clarity so we can use the next period to plan the strategy, not merely replacing those jobs lost but to bring far more in so that on the far side of this closure it is viewed as an economic success storey for West Suffolk. The work has begun to make sure as the USAF close down their last security post, new businesses are moving in generating those high value jobs.

No small task, but one,Conservatives from our MP to us Councillors are entirely focused on.

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