A new Council

As you may have read Forest Heath District Council and St. Edmundsbury Borough Council have held their first few joint shadow meetings as we head towards a merger in May 2019.  I was there to take part in the historic first meeting, and it felt like the next logical step on the reform journey we set out on in 2011 when we decided to share a Chief Executive and cut staffing numbers by merging the officer teams to serve the two councils and save money.

The critical point for me has and will always be the same, organising the councils differently we can save back-office costs to protect frontline services. Regarding Council tax, the merger will mean that it will rise slower than if we did not merge because by merging we can save even more back-office costs. So, on both of my acid-tests, this merger is the right next move.  Lakenheath will still have two Councillors, and we will continue to work hard for our community at the Shadow Council.

One of the differences between the councils has always been that Forest Heath is a District Council with a Chairman who chairs the Full Council meeting and represents the Council at official events and functions.  Whereas, St Edmundsbury is a Borough Council with a Civic Mayor, who does much the same role but there is a more ceremonial aspect to it and thus higher costs associated with the office. What we want to do is get your views on the type of formal role the new Council should have.

The differences and pro’s and con’s of both approaches are explained in far greater detail by having a look at

www.westsuffolk.gov.uk/civicleadership

and then taking part in the survey

www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/civicleadershipsurvey/

The survey is open until Sunday 2nd September.

Alternativity you are very welcome to contact me to share your views, which we can then feed in. It will be interesting to learn what you think and to have a strong representation from our area would be great.

A decent home for all

Last Wednesday I attended the first ever County Council Network conference on Housing, sounds surprising doesn’t it that the County Councils have never held one before.  Your surprise level probably depends on your point of view, if you’re not a councillor then maybe a surprise.  But if you are it somewhat depends on what type of council you sit on, if you are in a two-tier area so a District or Borough Councillor, then you might think hey that’s a power grab.

But that, of course, is one of the problems in itself that the issues of housing delivery get distilled into such arguments as soon as Local Government discusses housing.  And its a ‘Red Herring’ of a case, in our country most people will agree with the title of this post that regardless of income and tenure everyone deserves to live in a decent home.  However few would ever accept the new housing proposed near them! So why is this? Some people will of course merely object, afterall they have their home.  But for most, it is the fear of what the new housing not the people who will live in them but the pressures it will place on the infrastructure and services they use in their day to day lives from Highways Junctions to Doctors Surgeries.  NIMBYism is more complicated than just houses in their backyard.

And of course, most of this perceived strain is not provided by the District and Boroughs most of that is about highways, public transport, school place planning and access to GPs and community services which are delivered by upper tier or Clinical Commissioning groups.  And resolved by Strategic plan rather than the specifics about which brownfield site or field they should be built.

Now, this starts to sound like a rag on District and Boroughs, but it’s not its a rag on the system which places vital aspects of community delivery into two different bodies. This demarcation of responsibilities can lead to utter chaos.  Such as the tale I once heard of a County council having to threaten legal action because a District council refused on one site, based on the developer’s viability argument, to seek contributions towards a new school provision as long as the developer delivered Affordable Housing in line with their Local Plan requirements.  And in our system, because the education contribution element is the remit of the County Council who do not have the powers to demand clauses in an S106 agreement, the District was able to contemplate such arrangement, well they did until the County Council’s pre-High Court action letter arrived.

Now there is a duty to co-operate, and sensible councils in two-tier areas are starting to think about the infrastructure delivery across all the partners including health, but each is a fix around for a broken system.

So right at the start of last Wednesday’s Conference, the chairman Cllr. Philip Atkins OBE, Leader of Staffordshire CC who is the CCN Spokesperson for Housing and Infrastructure, said the day ahead is not a conference to grab power it’s a conference to see how the duty to co-operate required by Government under the NPPF can work better and how together councils can increase housing growth in communities.

It also launched two exciting papers about the growing crisis in housing need and affordability and the role of County Councils in future housing delivery planning. If you are connected with the housebuilding industry both are well worth a real.

https://www.countycouncilsnetwork.org.uk/new-reports-back-a-larger-role-for-counties-in-planning-as-councils-warn-over-severe-need-for-affordable-homes/

One of the presenters at the conference and contributors to the above was Kate Henderson who over the past few years has put the TCPA onto the map in the debate on housing.  The following day she was announced as the new CE of the National Housebuilders Federation, an excellent appointment and hopefully, she can use her new role to advance the debate so this county start to deliver the 300,000 homes MHCLG have stated we need.

Only Saturday Sir Oliver Letwin waded into this debate with his article in the Telegraph, rightly talking about the spirit we need to meet the challenge the Government has set of 300,000 homes per year in a system that delivers little more than half that.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/06/23/greater-variety-homes-needed-solve-housing-crisis-says-oliver/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_em

Of course in reading this, some will sense that if one council had the responsibility in an area for all the community and planning functions, it would work better but of course, some areas do.  In the recent Respublica report for the CCN they comment on housing start delivery, so whether you think the system of Local Government needs urgent reform or we need to find ways to deliver more housing with the system we have got. But there is a role in the delivery rather than the planning process alone, for Local Government and I shall blog another time about Local Government housing companies.

Inaugural Chamberlain Lecture

On Monday evening I was invited to attend the inaugural Chamberlain Lecture hosted by BT at BT Tower in London. Sir Merrick Cockell, former Chairman of the LGA, opened the proceeding, introducing Lord Heseltine who spent the next hour weaving a fine speech about Chamberlain’s time in local Government, and as a Westminster politician with his own life story, his time influencing Local Government and snippets from his ‘No stone unturned’ paper.  Followed by a Q&A session chaired by Rt. Hon Stephen Dorrell.

He spoke of mayors and unitary authorities and his time as number 2 to Peter Walker the then Local Government Minister and the notion to reorganise Local Government broadly speak on County Boundaries in the 1970’s.  It never happened in England, but it did happen in Scotland where the Conservative government created county unitary councils, slightly ironic that since Scottish devolution the Scottish Parliament, with precious little to do, has taken stripped Scottish councils of the powers given to them by a Conservative government all those years ago, but I digress.

Fast forward to the Conservative Government of 2015, and Lord Heseltine found himself back in favour and following on from his paper ‘No stone unturned’ and with the support of the new Prime Minister, David Cameron and the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourn.  Lord Heseltine worked alongside SoS DCLG Greg Clarke MP to drive forward English Devolution.  I was leading Suffolk County Council at the time and remember well the meeting on 15th February 2016 we held in Cambridge where we discussed what was going to happen which proved to be very different to what actually happened.

2016_02_15 Devolution with Lord H & Greg Clarke

The picture above is from my archives, and I recall the blog I wrote on 16th February 2016 which you can find by scrolling down this page, how times flies!  Then, it was about Combined Authorities with a Mayor, and I think when I look at those created they are far too complicated.  Nowadays perhaps the debate is more centred on unitary councils forming.  To my mind, this is sensible.

Let’s face it unitaries make sense; two-tier does not.  Lord Heseltine did reform Local Government in Scotland and putting aside the issues with the Scottish Parliament, can you imagine today saying to the large county based unitary authorities in Scotland we are now going to propose two-tier.  Where some duties are going to remain you, but others are going to smaller councils, and the public will have to figure out for themselves which is which, confusing or what!  Once a place goes unitary no one would ever suggest a return to two-tier, and I think that is an acid test.

What struck me as I listened to Lord Heseltine on Monday evening, sitting next to Martin Tett the Leader of Buckinghamshire who is currently trying to lead a unitary Buckinghamshire bid, that each new idea in Government is often not that new and each has a window of opportunity that comes along and goes almost as quickly.  Today the debate seems to be is centred on the creation of new unitary councils, so fundamentally possible reorganisation with little new money attached; and slowly we seem to be moving to a discussion, not on Majors or devolution but the size of unitary councils rather than the concept of unitary.

Of course, Lord Heseltine continues to propose that change comes with Mayors as influential leaders of place able to get things down, a system that seems a bit un-British as we instead like our discussions and complexity.  But we do have some Mayors, and it is interesting to watch as they seek to forge a way forward for themselves and their embryonic power base.  I think the jury is out on these at the moment and of course, each of them has a complex system of governance to work with, not to mention fellow politicians and councillors!

How to build better Public Services across Suffolk

Here is my column that appeared in last Tuesday’s edition of the EADT and Ipswich Star newspapers:

Suffolk is a place where people work together. We do it to make people’s lives better, to make the county more prosperous and to be creative. It’s part of what makes Suffolk so special.

I’m very proud to say that this is the case in Suffolk politics too. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of tough debates and disagreements, both between and within political parties. But that’s just healthy democracy. I know that making Suffolk a stronger place binds us all together and very often, we can find common ground.

One such place that common sense prevails in this way is the Suffolk Public Sector Leaders (SPSL) group, of which I am a member. People often assume that I run or chair the group because of my leadership of the county council. In fact, I don’t. I am an equal member along with the leaders and chief executives of all seven district and borough councils, Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner and chief constable and representatives from the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).

SPSL has been running for about six or seven years now and is a clear demonstration of the cross-party, cross-organisation public sector cooperation for which Suffolk is recognised nationally. I can assure you that there is less of this happening in other parts of the country. In some places, it doesn’t happen at all!

When it originally began, we used to discuss the big issues facing Suffolk and try to find ways that we could commit our own organisations to doing something about them. That was really helpful and still happens. But then in 2012, members of the group took a bold step and each partner publicly agreed to combine a share of the money we collect from local businesses and invest that in projects that benefit the county. It’s known at the ‘pooled business rate’ and is quite forward-thinking in the public sector world. We all agreed for SPSL to oversee this work.

There are some hugely important projects that have benefited for pooled business rate funding. Building the business case for Ipswich’s much-needed northern bypass, work to promote Suffolk as a place for tech companies to set up business and recruiting more town planners across the county so that the impact of housing growth can be better managed.

I’m sure many readers know that the Government has chosen Suffolk as one of 10 areas to trial next year a new way of funding local areas (the 100% business rate retention pilots). We were chosen because of our national reputation for working together and our bid was built in that basis. Again, Suffolk leading the way.

Recently, SPSL has been described as some kind of ‘secretive club’ that people only know about when it’s publicised. Well, I can think of better ways of keeping secrets than publicising things! It’s not a club though, far from it. It’s a serious space where people responsible for major public bodies in Suffolk come together to find solutions to the issues facing Suffolk.

Last month, the SPSL group met Eleanor Kelly, the chief executive of Southwark Council who stepped in to help residents in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Eleanor told us that Suffolk was one of the first places, as a whole, to seek to learn the direct lessons from Grenfell so that we can protect our residents. I’m not sure this would have happened if Suffolk’s public sector organisations didn’t work in this way.

At that same meeting, we agreed to review the way we work to ensure we keep having a positive impact on Suffolk. We’re reviewing everything, including having representatives from other sectors involved and looking at how we share more about the things we’re working on. That was absolutely the right decision to make, not least because the business rate retention pilot kicks off in April and collective decision making will be even more important. I look forward to updating people when that work is complete.

 

 

Sadly Council Tax has to rise

Here is my column that appeared in last Tuesday’s edition of the EADT and then in the Ipswich Star.

Last week, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet voted to increase council tax in Suffolk for the first time since 2010.

A 2.99% increase was approved, along with a 2% adult social care precept, meaning taxpayers will be paying little under 5% for council services than last year.

A council tax rise was not surprising – we had mentioned it last year, with a 1.99% increase put forward, with the adult social care precept at 3%.

Despite the changes in the way the tax is being divided, the increase remains the same.

It’s been said that we are taking away the 1% from the precept to spend elsewhere. This is simply untrue. The 1% we’ve added on top of the 1.99% first mentioned in October will go towards providing adult care. There is nothing more important to us than delivering the best possible frontline services to those who need them most.

We spend half a billion pounds providing services every year. Like the majority of councils in England, we accepted a four-year financial package from the Government, covering the period from 2016/17 to 2019/20. It also, helpfully, provides some certainty about our funding.

However, we can’t rely on this alone. We were successful in our bid to be one of 10 areas where we can retain 100% of business rates generated here in Suffolk, which will help. But there still remains a budget gap.

In 2018/19, the gap is £26.8million. That is the difference between the amount of money it will cost to provide essential council services in Suffolk and the amount of money we actually have to spend.

We are required by law to have a balanced budget so we have therefore had to find ways of closing that budget gap. We have proposed a range of savings totalling to £23.9m, leaving us with a gap of £2.9m remaining – which will come from our reserves.

We have been careful to limit the use of our reserves as once that money has been spent it’s gone forever and won’t be available to close any future budget gaps.

This isn’t a new way of working for Suffolk County Council. We’ve successfully managed the financial challenges laid down in the Government’s austerity programme and have made savings of £236 million between 2011 and 2018. The response to these challenges has been measured, pragmatic and innovative, and designed to protect front line services as much as possible.

Demand for services has increased since the last council tax increase and it continues to. We also have an investment programme totalling nearly £100m this coming financial year, which includes building new schools, extending and improving existing schools, investing in Suffolk’s road network, continuing to provide better broadband coverage across the county and delivering two major river crossing projects – the Lake Lothing Third Crossing in Lowestoft and the Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich.

Being clear about your goals, listening to people and being accountable for your actions are fundamental principles in public services. When the people of Suffolk voted in the Conservative councillors I lead, it was on the basis of a clear manifesto.

We are introducing business plans, which set out how we will deliver services and how we will measure performance. These are based on three core priorities – inclusive growth, healthcare and wellbeing, and efficient and effective public services.

These are deliverable because of the hard work and commitment of our councillors and staff – working with our partners, businesses and residents to make Suffolk a healthier and more prosperous place to live and work.

Yes, the latest Autumn Budget confirms that the pressure on public spending is likely to continue. But this is not news to us and we have a positive response.

We don’t hang about in Suffolk, we get on and do everything we can to get the best possible outcomes for the people we serve. We do this by listening to what people say and giving them an opportunity to influence the difficult decisions we have to make.

This council tax increase wasn’t taken lightly and every penny will be put to the best possible use. Our staff, our councillors, and I, will make sure of that.

 

Suffolk yet again a test bed for new thinking

iStock_LightBulbMoment_350

Suffolk has been chosen to trial Government Flagship Business Rate Retention Pilot

The amount of money allocated to each Local Authority in England for the next financial year was announced just before Christmas by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government now Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid MP.

As part of the announcement, Suffolk County Council has been named as one of the pilot areas for a new Government scheme to retain 75% of business rates from Council Tax in 2018/19.

In future, Business Rates will be an even greater income stream for all local authorities and this is an opportunity for Suffolk to influence how it will operate in a two-tier system.

Until more information is released from the Department for Communities and Local Government it is not possible to say exactly how much additional income this could generate into the Suffolk system.

I issued a press state that said: “Suffolk welcomes the Secretary of State’s announcement that it has been accepted as a 100% Business Rates pilot area in 2018-19. This is a positive step towards greater local autonomy which will encourage economic growth in the county and help to secure the best outcomes for people in Suffolk. We are now studying the details of the scheme and will be working with colleagues in the Borough and District Council’s to identify what this means for the whole Suffolk system.”

Primary School application deadline approaches

 

Dealine Clock

January is an important time if you have children who will be going to school for the first time in September 2018 as Parents and carers have until Monday 15th January to make their application to secure their child’s place at a Suffolk Primary, Infant, Junior or Middle school for September.

Any child born between 1st September 2013 and 31st August 2014 is due to start primary school from September 2018. An application for a full-time school place must be made, even if a child is already attending a nursery class in an infant or primary school, a pre-school or a children’s centre next to a school site.

It is recommended that parents and carers apply online as they will receive confirmation of their application. Alternatively, parents and carers can apply on a paper CAF1 application form. Both applications can be accessed at www.suffolk.gov.uk/admissions. We are unable to acknowledge receipt of paper applications and therefore suggest that proof of posting is obtained.

A completed application must be submitted or posted for every child wanting a primary, infant, junior or middle school place from September 2018. If families are planning to move house or think their circumstances may change before September, it is still important to make an application on time. Advice and guidance about this process is available at www.suffolk.gov.uk/admissions

For guidance about the application process, parents and carers can watch the council’s ‘Applying for a Primary School place’ video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m90IgVibmck

Families who apply online will be able to log on to the Online Service on the National Offer Day, 16th April 2018 to see their school place offer, and will also receive an email to confirm this offer on the same day. Offer letters will also be sent by second class post to all applicants.

Information to help parents and carers make their application is available at www.suffolk.gov.uk/admissions

Please do tell your family and friends so no one misses the deadline.

%d bloggers like this: