Close of the School Travel Consultation tonight!


Dealine Clock

Heres the article I wrote for the EADT Times yesterday encouraging everyone to make their final submission:

Tomorrow evening, one of the most high-profile public consultations Suffolk County Council has run for many years will close. Over 3,600 responses received so far, 11 public events attended by over 150 people, a petition, tens of thousands of people reached via social media and weekly headlines in Suffolk’s local and regional media.

I am, of course, talking about home to school transport.

The first thing I’d like to say is thank you. Thank you to the thousands of people who have taken time out of their busy lives to be part in this very important piece of work. I’m very clear that I want Suffolk County Council to be a listening authority, but that is only possible when people come forward and share their views.

When we launched the consultation in December, we called on people to coming together to help find a long-term solution to providing affordable home to school transport in Suffolk. We also pledged to listen to people who give their views and give them an opportunity to influence the final outcome.

Let’s just say we’ve had a varied experience. We’ve had some really constructive conversations with people who’ve understood the financial challenges we’re facing and sought to suggest new and creative ways of overcoming them. We’ve also faced outright opposition to any change whatsoever, regardless of the financial implications of doing nothing. Perhaps most worryingly of all, we’ve heard from people who were led to believe that we were cutting home to school transport altogether. No, we’re not! I shudder to think where these inaccurate perceptions came from.

When you put all of this together with the research and discussions we had with headteachers prior to launching the consultation, I’m confident that we’ve created enough opportunities for people to influence the tough decisions we will have to make in the coming months.

This is such an emotive issue, I really get that. This service is hugely valued by many parents, especially those living in rural parts of Suffolk. It potentially means having to pay for their child or children to get to and from school when before the council paid for it – so where is the money going to come from? That’s exactly the same question we’re having to ask. In Suffolk, £21 million of taxpayers’ money is spent each year getting children to and from school. We’ve already introduced a number of efficiency changes to the service – saving around £2.6 million – but this enormous annual bill keeps going up and up. With that happening, and Suffolk providing more than is legally required and more than is available elsewhere in the country, we have to look at the policy. We have to ask what are we going to do to make this service more affordable and capable of meeting growing demand in the future. That’s why we launched this consultation.

Once the consultation is closed, Suffolk County Council officers will be working through the enormous amount of information we have received in order make a final recommendation to Cabinet in June this year. I don’t want people to underestimate the scale of that piece of work, nor the commitment from my officers to read and consider very carefully every piece of information we have received.

What that final recommendation will look like isn’t yet known, but three things are clear. It will be influenced by this consultation. It will be very carefully thought through. And it will make sure Suffolk can afford to provide a home to school transport service for years to come.

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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.


Increased funding for Suffolk’s Pre-schools


Following a meeting with Schools Forum representatives, it has been agreed that Suffolk County Council will be increasing the hourly base rate paid to childcare providers in Suffolk will increase from £3.87 per hour to £4.00 per hour from April 2018.

There will also be changes to the allocation of Deprivation and Inclusion funding for eligible children. From April, Deprivation funding will be allocated based on the number of hours a child attends a setting.  The eligibility criteria for this measure will remain the same. Inclusion funding will be targeted at the needs of individual children.  This means the funding will be targeted where it is most needed. The total amount of funding the council receives for Deprivation and the Inclusion Fund will remain the same.

Suffolk is one of only 25% of authorities to see a reduction in funding following the Early Years Funding Reform and from April 2018, the amount of funding the council will receive from government will reduce further.  This means that the council has to consider how best to allocate the reduced resources.

The council currently retains 6.3% of funding received from government to carry out statutory support services for parents and providers. 93.7% is passed on to providers. From April 2018, 96.2% of the funding the council receives from Government will be passed on to providers through the base rate of £4.00 per hour per child, Inclusion and Deprivation funding.  This exceeds the statutory requirement of 95%.  The authority will retain 3.8% to carry out its statutory support services.

Gordon Jones, our Cabinet Member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills, said: “We are pleased to be able to increase the hourly amount paid to providers to £4.00 per child, despite a reduction in funding from central Government. In order to give providers, the highest possible funding rate, 96.2% of the funding we receive will be passed on to providers, exceeding the statutory requirement of 95%. This will include the £4.00 per child hourly base rate, as well as Inclusion and Deprivation funding for eligible children.

The fairer allocation of Deprivation and Inclusion funding also means that this money will be going to those children who need it the most.

We recognise that more needs to be done.  I have tirelessly campaigned for fairer funding from Government, raising the matter with local MPs and the Minister of State for Children and Families.  I will continue to lobby the government for fairer funding for children in Suffolk.”

Major new investment in Suffolk’s roads


Here’s my column published in the EADT and Ipswich Star last Tuesday:

Yesterday, Suffolk County Council announced plans to further invest into the upkeep of our county’s roads.

While not yet approved, the money we are proposing to invest, a significant sum of £21million, will go some way to improving the condition of our roads in Suffolk.

This is not to say the overall condition of said roads are bad – there will be a perception if someone continuously drives along a road which isn’t in the best condition for a period of time – and we have been told the roads in our county are better than many others.

One of the reasons we were invited to host an entire stage of last year’s Tour of Britain was because the organisers were so impressed with the condition of Suffolk’s road network.

However, we also know the roads aren’t perfect, so we will be using this money to reduce the deterioration of the highway, meaning we can save money on repairing damaged roads – which costs us, and the taxpayer, more money.

This is an indication of us listening to those we are held accountable by – at every ‘we are listening’ event I hosted across Suffolk last year, the most questions we were asked about related to highways. How can we improve their roads, fix the pothole on their route into work, improve the road markings?

These questions were not exclusive to any one town I visited and I am regularly questioned about the roads by the public as well on both Twitter and Facebook. This is us answering those questions and taking action.

This money will be used across the county, for the benefit of Suffolk people and local businesses. It won’t be spent only on one town or repairing every single defect. Nor will it make the roads pristine forever more.

Instead, it will be used to restore roads and infrastructure where deemed most necessary by skilled officers assessing our roads.

And this funding will go a long way as well – enabling us to resurface 1,000 miles of roads by March 2021 – a quarter of the roads we are responsible for.

This is a big investment – and I would like to think it will go a long way to improving the experiences of all of our road users, both travelling within and through our county.

It shows we are a ‘listening council’ too – the people wanted roads improved, so we are planning for it.

And while we have not yet got this funding approved at our Cabinet and Full Council meetings, we are already beginning to plan and prepare for the upcoming financial year so we can start work straight away.

Nowhere has yet been indicated as a road that we’ll be resurfacing. This will be based on how busy the road is, the condition of the road, among other factors. We will be planning this carefully as well, in order to reduce the impact on those using the roads.

But when and where there is work, it is likely there will be some delays while it takes place, or a diversion route. While these can be frustrating, they are needed. Our workers deserve to be safe.

If approved, the first works are likely to begin in the summer, making the most of the warmer summer weather – which is when surface dressing needs to take place.

In the coming weeks and months our officers will be working hard to assess what locations need resurfacing soonest – and I look forward to sharing news of these as and when they are announced.

I look forward to these defect-free, resurfaced roads being of use to all of us in the future.

Suffolk yet again a test bed for new thinking


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.”

Two Suffolk towns, two new Bridges


Just before Christmas I attended the latest Task Force meetings in Lowestoft for the 3rd Crossing over Lake Lothing to hear the results of the recent public consultation and I am delighted that 96% of those who responded were very in favour of the project. The work now progresses towards a Public Planning Enquiry which will start in July.

In Ipswich, Structural and environmental Ground investigations for the Upper Orwell Crossings are about to take place to finalise the detailed design. These ground investigation works, which could last up to three months are scheduled to begin on 15 January 2018. Contractors will dig trial holes and deep boreholes both on land and in the water. The works will determine the underlying properties of the ground and river bed.  Geotechnical Engineers will analyse the information and use it to design the foundations on which the three bridges will sit.

Once designed the next stage will be a similar Public engagement exercise ahead of a Public Planning Enquiry, just as in Lowestoft.

Both are massive investments and there are exciting times ahead for both projects and the towns. The funding for these projects were hard fought for and won, in doing so the government recognised the need for these two schemes over other bids for funding.  There are some who seem to think the complex bidding process is like a sort of ‘pick and mix’ and we could, at this stage, put the money somewhere else.  Let’s be clear if a scheme did not come forward, and I am convinced both of these should, the Government would switch the funding to the next scheme in the bidding round or simply withdraw the funding, not something different in Suffolk.  So, let’s get behind these projects and see them delivered.  In Lowestoft, everyone is behind the investment as they should be to justify such a massive investment by the Government and SCC, we need to same in Ipswich.

There are many other vital infrastructure projects, such as the Northern Relief Road for Ipswich which I am leading on for Suffolk County Council and we are funding the initial feasibility work to progress that.

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