Upper Orwell Crossing

When I became Leader of Suffolk County Council in 2015, I said in my opening speech one key thing for me, and my administration was that there is no such thing as a Strong Suffolk without a Stronger Ipswich. I meant it and so set about an Agenda to focus aspects of the County Council’s work on how to make a stronger Ipswich.

Ipswich is a town I have visited since I was a child in the 70’s to watch ‘the Town’ play football and at times it was quite stunning to have such a great football team and manager is our sleepy little county town.  Over the years I have spent much of my working life in Cambridge, Norwich and more recently as a County Councillor at ‘County Hall’ in Ipswich. Cambridge and Norwich are powerhouses of their respective county economies and in Cambridge’s case our UK economy with the Cambridge Phenomenon. Ipswich, for whatever reason, has not joined them and as Leader of Suffolk County Council, I wanted my administration to grow Suffolk’s economy.  Accordingly, I knew that meant our county town needed to grow and improve, not only to create the high-value jobs we need but also to lower the spend of the county council on services to the most vulnerable in our society.  As a Conservative, I believe in a hand up not a handout and improving the economy of a place is the quickest way to do precisely that.

So from the creation of Ipswich Vision to Suffolk’s 1st ever attendance at the London MIPIM Property show with a stand backdrop of the Ipswich’s waterfront and launching a future city bid.  These were all tactic to put Ipswich on the radar of companies and investors as a great place to grow and do business, and there was to be no finer location in the whole of East Anglia than the waterfront of Ipswich.  Ben Gummer MP recognised this and so proposed the regeneration of the docklands much like the regeneration of the Isle of Dogs in London and the Docklands.  Not fanciful pie in the sky ideas, not Ben’s Bridges, but proven tactics used by cities across the country to grow their place, from London’s Docklands to the Bristol Wet Dock. Invest in your infrastructure and drive forward your economy with inward investment by businesses – in short how we were to drive forward the economic growth of Ipswich and Suffolk.

And in the case of Local government, the growth in business rates by companies expanding and relocating into your area is going to be the cornerstone of the money we will have to spend on services as the Government rightly changes from grants to growth. Real growth is achieved not by wishy-washy statements about supporting business and being on their side but real tangible steps to create the spaces and environment, that attract companies. Business space and parks also underpinned the Suffolk the A14 Gateway Strategy, now sadly also dropped.

So we set about a funding bid to the Department for Transport and secured about £78M, but costs have increased. Anyone who knows anything about government funding round bids knows that funding is secured at the cost estimate stage, and that soil investigation, final designs, cost engineering and the appointment of contracts for a significant project is always a race against time and rising costs and thus a question mark over the final bill. On the budget and on time is vital but is set at the contract appointment stage.  Yes, the costs rose, and yes it was always going to require Suffolk County Council to focus, prioritise it over other projects and draw breath to do such a major project. As one senior local businessman put it to me “I bet the building of the London underground required a bit of a struggle, but it was worth it”.  The project would have transformed Ipswich’s waterfront that would have attracted companies to leave Bishopsgate in the City of London and think about an hour up the rail on brand new trains or seek a base closer to the Port of Felixstowe in a world-class setting.  Locally it would have allowed Adastral Park companies to think about where they expanded once they grew, alongside companies from across the county to do the same and would have rapidly brought the sort of high-value jobs Ipswich needs.

So the dropping of the UOC project is, I believe, disappointing and will over time be seen a missed golden opportunity for the Town.

The project was also about the lives of residents in that area of Ipswich for anyone who lives or travels about Ipswich knows the traffic at the back of the waterfront is a major bottleneck, and the scheme would have helped significantly.  Yes for residents of the Cliff Lane area it would have seen considerable change and so stopping it seems like a victory. It’s not, the traffic will not decrease, and the area’s congestion will increase.  The Lib Dems as usually don’t have much of an opinion and the Green Party as always talks about sustainable transport without ever actually articulating what that means because they know most people don’t agree.  Most of us happen to like our cars something the Green’s just refused to accept.

Ipswich’s Labour MP rightly talks about a Northern Relief Road, as did I and yes Ipswich needs that, as the long term projections for traffic means it must have it or reach a state of gridlock.  That’s why I agreed to a cross-council and cross-party working group to discuss how to take that forward; this was due to publish its initial report in before Christmas which also seems to be delayed.  As for funding, has the handing back of funding to Government of the UOC millions made that come closer or not – I leave you to draw your conclusion of what government might say?  Ipswich Labour claims it as a victory for their MP and their views, they stopped the bridges, they stopped the investment of over £100M into the town, they stopped the opening up of significant business growth areas and the creation of high-value jobs – wow if that’s a victory I’d hate to see the defeat.

The cancellation of the UOC is a missed opportunity, one that will not return. The building of the two smaller bridges is utterly irrelevant and a complete waste of money as they will do nothing to open up the area, or put Ipswich on the ‘open for business’ UK map or deal with any local congestion.  The acceleration of growth the project would have brought to our county town is something that might take 50 years of organic growth to replicate.  Food for thought as the Cambridge powerhouse economy drives ever forward, spending the monies government has provided to grow their economy not handing the money back.

The Centre for Public Scrutiny Annual Conference 2018

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A couple of weeks before Christmas I was delighted to be invited to give the LGA keynote speech and sit on a panel session at the Centre for Public Scrutiny annual conference. The brief was to provide my perspective of the big issues facing the local government sector in the future and the role scrutiny can play to meet the challenges.

Much like House of Common’s select committees their reports can be broader than just the business of the council and can help shape policy and warn when things are not right. For instance, on the health side of things Upper Tier authorities’ Health Scrutiny Committees are just about the only public external scrutiny, our health system is subject to and so play a vital role in ensuring that public get to hold the NHS to account.

But with great influence comes great responsibility and so I used my speech to talk about that responsibility. From Northamptonshire County Council to the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Trust scrutiny has the challenge, flag up problems and improve the lives of our communities and residents. The danger is at its worse it merely ‘goes through the motions’, skating over the issues or plain missing them altogether and so compounds the problem when things are going wrong because it suggests things are OK.

But there can be another factor at play.

As we waited to go on the stage at the conference, I was chatting to my fellow panellist Jo Millar CE of Doncaster Council and who is the current Chairman of the Society of Local Government Chief Executives (SOLACE). She was telling me about a great TED talk by Margaret Heffernan about a concept called ‘Willful Blindness’.

So the next day I watched the video and reflected on the similarities of my speech about responsibility – The proposition the talk puts forward is something that I am aware of but had never articulated it as she does. It’s about how the organisation and people just chose to see what they want to look at and a bit about power and how organisational think affects us. Hans Christian Andersen tells much the same fable in his Emperors New Clothes tale, and it’s about just not seeing or refusing to speak up when things are not right.

Let’s take Northamptonshire County Council as an example. It took years not months, to burn through their reserves with Councillors, Cabinet members and Senior Officers purely focused on a Transformation programme that ultimately did not work. Why was there not more outcry or was everyone from its Leadership to its scrutiny processes so focused on the grand program working rather than speaking up because they did not see the problems or they all wanted it to work that they willfully did not see the failure coming.

Having read through the work and reports of the Local Government Association hard-hitting reviews that certainly seems to be the case. In Northamptonshire, they said there was no plan B but the signs were there about the rate of use of reserve, the quarterly outturn reports that showed the programme was not going to work, quarter after quarter, yet it carried on.

As tough as making savings is, and how hard it is to get groups and residents on board to ultimately you serve no one if, in the end, you hit a ‘brick wall’ and the requirement to stop services. So far better to have that difficult conversation and be realistic with what we can and can’t achieve.

So I recommend Margarets Heffernan’s book as an excellent read about the pressures we face in Public Services and what and why we need to be mindful of the danger of Willful Blindness.

Happy New Year

2019 Happy New Year colorful celebration bannerHere’s to a happy, healthy and successful one for you and your family.

Looking back on last year one subject dominated and will naturally dominate the early part if not all of this year and that is Brexit. Just before the referendum, I blogged about my thoughts on the notion of Brexit, and it was brought back into sharp focus at the shadow West Suffolk Full Council meeting just before Christmas when I met with some of the protesters at the front of West Suffolk House who were there campaigning for a second referendum. I was an active remain campaigner and helped with the Suffolk campaign, and, from talking with some of the protesters, most seemed to be remainers. And of course this is perhaps the problem with a second referendum, are you campaigning because Parliament might not be able to decide to accept the deal negotiated on the table or merely crash out with a hard Brexit and you want to make that decision as a nation or because you want a different decision? – I think that it would be a mistake to hold a second referendum, not because of the notion of having another vote.  After all, since the second world war the average life of each parliament before we hold a general election is only about 3 & a half years and so we regularly, as a country, pick and choose changes in policy and direction for one political party to another. But more about the motivation of some of those who want a second referendum, what happens if they didn’t get the ‘right’ decision – best of five!  Not to mention it could be a very complex ballot paper: Do we now still leave or stay?  If we remain, do we accept the deal? Do we reject the deal as is? Do we leave and go for a hard Brexit?  Do we extend and seek to conclude the entirety of the agreement and/or then vote again?  Complex!  It seems to me we made a decision and now we let our parliament decide the best way forward.

To my mind and I may well be proven wrong such is Brexit but if you ask the people then whatever the decision you enact it. And however bumpy it is getting I sort of think that’s what the Government and Parliament are doing. If the will of parliament is to reject the deal on the table and the EU, in such a game of brinksmanship, decides to ignore you, then we crash out. Or parliament rejects the deal and instruct the Government to extend and continue to find a compromise.  With each of these, our democracy may at the time look bumpy if not downright ugly like it did on the final PMQs of the year, but I put it to you that parliament is doing its job. We elect a representative body of people called MPs, and they sit in the House of Commons to debate and make decisions on our behalf. Precisely what we elect them to do and if you don’t like the decisions they make, then at the next election you find yourself new politicians – democracy in action. We have all got somewhat used to the showpiece sound bit version of democracy played out behind closed doors and then neatly presented for the 24-hour news cycle.  I think what you see in parliament is what its there for, a place of real debate and difficult questions that stretches the two-party system and intricate, complex options voted on – democracy at full flood.

By the way, I hope MPs will see the sense of the deal on the table, in business long-term partnership deals only work if they are win:win – everyone knows that.  If you have an agreement which is a win for us and loss for the other side that will not work in the long term for that is not a partnership.  Why would you not want access to the EU single market? We are leaving the EU, but declining access to the single market and trading on WTO terms when you can have access seems to me to be economically stupid.

Away from Brexit, life carries on, and in local government, the settlement just before Christmas almost went unnoticed.  Over the next couple of months, councils across the country will grapple with setting their budgets for the coming year. We seem to be entering a period of sustained council tax rises, which I am fundamentally against as it’s your hard earned money.  But accept that unless the government decides otherwise, financially, councils have little choice if they are to protect and support the most vulnerable older people and children in our communities, given the lack of money flowing from central government.  While there continue to be welcome additional monies for this and that; these are financial sticky plasters ahead of the Fairer Funding Review which is vital for a vibrant and place shaping future for our councils. If not then we are heading for organisations that deliver statutory minimum services and nothing else, and that would be a mistake.

On a personal level, it has been a year of change where my passion for Suffolk while still burning brightly, now has less influence than it once did and thus takes a little less of my time. So I have refocused on my business life and reignited my love for housebuilding and MMC in particular.  When the full-time aspect of being a Council Leader was over, I always knew I would go back to what I do outside politics, just a little sooner than I intended. I still want to use my Adult Social Care, Local Government and community engagement experience and seek avenues to do that.  And I continue to have the honour of representing my community at the County Council. Over the past four years, I have worked to serve my community on Forest Heath District Council ahead of the new West Suffolk Council which is being formed in the elections of May this year.  These are challenging times in Local government, and I shall be standing and hope that my experience and knowledge of how to get things done will persuade residents to vote for me in May so I can continue to be a strong voice for the Row Heath area and Lakenheath on both local councils.

So it seems to me we all have an interesting political year ahead – happy New Year.

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Remembrance Weekend

There are many reasons people get involved in public life and become councillors.   Beyond having different roles on two councils and at the national level, which over the years has been interesting, for me its always first and foremost been about where I grew up and live.  I love representing my community and doing what I can to help it be a safer stronger more pleasant place to live for young and old alike.  A sense of place is at the heart of local government and of my way of looking at things.  So while a sombre weekend, it was also a weekend when communities across the country both large and small come together in formal and simple acts of remembrance for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice form our communities.

This year, of course, marked 100 years since the end of the first world are, a war hoped to be ‘the war to end all wars’, sadly not the case and as we laid wreaths at some of the events I attended, the presence of armed Police reminded us all that the world is not a safer place.

After ceremonies, on the Saturday morning my nieces and their respective mothers arrived at ours to come with us to see the magnificence fireworks at Ely, an annual event in our household as I have been going for well over 30 years.  The nieces arrived like a whirlwind as they do but when we explained the other things going on over the weekend one of them asked if she could lay a wreath with me and I said maybe in a couple of years time as she is only 5 but it was a very thoughtful moment is frenetic weekend with them.  The only time they were quiet is when they walked down and watch me and others from our village lay wreaths on Sunday afternoon.

So a hectic weekend balancing family and my public role where I laid wreaths on behalf of Suffolk County Council at three War memorials in West Row, Eriswell and Kenny Hill on Saturday.  Then on Sunday at the Beck Row Parish and War Graves followed by the first of two Church services one at St. John’s Beck Row and after the parade and wreath laying, in Lakenheath at St. Mary’s Chruch.

In the evening I travelled back to Beck Row for their short open-air payers before the lighting of the Beacon forming part of the National final moment of remembrance.

All in all a wonderful weekend full of family, fireworks community and simple acts that bind us all together in our communities remembering those who gave their today’s for our tomorrows.

The small matter of Housing

There is no more contentious issue in British local government today than housing.  There are those who do not accept that our birth-rate is going up and our death rate is dropping as people celebrate a longer lifespan, there are those who blame immigration.  There are those that welcome housing with the “I am not against housing in the right place but…” to the ” I am not a NIMBY but…” and that ‘but’ is always the same, just not here.  And the proof of the pudding is to see application after application, stir-up action groups to form against, protests at the Town Hall and booing of councillors who grant permissions.

At the same time, housing has never been in such a bad state of affairs.  In my business lifetime, a lifetime in Housing, the average of the first-time buyer has risen from 22 to 39, yes 39 today.  Today the average property in places like West Suffolk is now eight times the average wage.  In rural areas it’s estimated that there are some 191,000 families on the waiting lists with about 10,000 social housing units built each year by Registered Social Landlords and others – do the maths, and you can see the sheer scale of the challenge ahead.

So we have an unacceptable situation where younger people are starting to be called generation rent, and home ownership seems something they will never achieve, that is not acceptable.  We must build more homes.  We must build more homes in West Suffolk and my particular case more homes in the villages I represent.  Councillors across the country must show leadership of their communities in the face of some very vocal opposition.  Politically you can’t expect people to vote for the party that believes in Capitalism if you deny people the ability to acquire capital.  Tenure might depend on income but the right to a decent home should not.

So last Monday West Suffolk showed outstanding Leadership is arranging a conference to discuss housing, not planning but housing and its importance to our communities and what we have to deliver.  The conference was entitled: ‘Home is where the start is – building foundations for the future’ and the line-up of speakers was stellar with Sir Edward Lister Chairman of Homes England, Tony Pidgley CBE Chairman of Berkeley Homes, David McQuade CEO of Flagship Housing Group and Lord Richard Best OBE DL – House of Lords spokesperson on social housing, amongst others.  Beccy Jago from Anglia TV News compared the event.

As Lord Best spoke, it was ironic that he talked about land coming forward from County Councils for social good with such things as extra care and place shaping not the blinkered selling to the highest bidder.  He went on to say that across the country this is starting to happen with new Local Government housing companies and partnerships emerging, just not in Suffolk.

The Conference gathering together the key players across the West Suffolk system and beyond. Planners, land developers and house-builders cam together to discuss what we here in our part of the world are going to do to get building, well done West Suffolk Councils. #letsgetbuilding

An interesting week

Over my time in local Government, I have attended lots of training course from various organisations and if I look back through my training log and yes I do love a good list; there is a theme, and it has predominantly been about Leadership, Leadership of place, Leadership of organisation etc., etc.  Of course, some people think that is far beyond the role of a councillor, but then again I do ponder what those people think local government is there to do, presumably keep its head down and empty the bins.  When in fact, local government is at its very best when Councillors and officers lead and shape the places we all live in as we are all residents.  To me, if I were to define Leadership it would be to quote a saying on another of my lists, my Top 10 quote list:

“Managing is helping to make happen, what is supposed to happen anyway.  Leadership is making happen what isn’t going to happen anyway” – Richard Pascal

Last Tuesday at Suffolk County Council the cabinet agenda made for interesting reading not so much the predictable increased costs of the Upper Orwell Crossing but the cabinet paper on Domiciliary Care Commissioning.  At its simplistic it was the abandonment of an innovative approach, dividing the county up into geographical lots so that providers had to provide care in areas where they could do so quickly and areas where they would find it more challenging to deliver, this is true of all rural counties as like Suffolk.

In reality, last Tuesday’s cabinet decision is not a new initiative, approach or attempt to redefine the market but a return to a more traditional form of commissioning of care in the home, albeit hopefully with some learning along the way.  However, given Suffolk and other counties ageing population, without true innovation, any council will unacceptably end up managing a service well for an ever-decreasing percentage of residents as the demand outstrips the money.  Addressing that challenge is where leadership, not management is needed.  But Leadership is not a comfortable space, for comfort aim to manage, for maximum comfort strive to manage well.

A sense check of where we are at

On Friday last week, I spent the morning at a conference jointly hosted by the East of England Local Government Association and ADASS.  For the person who read this blog and FOI questions why I have the right to attend anything nowadays, firstly thanks for reading and secondly to save the cost of responding to an FOI – for they do cost actual money – you could always ask me.  So here goes, I attend as I am a member of its Improvement and Efficiency Panel of the EELGA and as a member of the Community Wellbeing Board of the LGA – but I digress.

The conference was chaired by James Buillion who never fails to remind me I once had the chance to employ in Suffolk but chose internally!  James has become an excellent Director of Adult Social Services (DASS)and now works in Norfolk following in the footsteps of Harold Bodmer whom I and many others remember with great affection.  So big boots to fill but I hear good things from Councillors in Norfolk.

One of the key speakers for the morning session was Richard Carr the CE of Central Bedfordshire, and in many ways, he typifies the commitment that Local Government officers and councillors now committed to the integration agenda across Health and Social Care.  From Richard, we heard about the focused work he is engaged in with the NHS CE group across the Bedfordshire system and of the complexity that entails.

To give a sense of the range of attendees from James and Richard, I also met up with Dr Peter Topping the former Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, who as a County Councillor chairs the Cambridgeshire Health and Wellbeing Board, alongside Councillors and officers from across the region including Suffolk. It was also a chance to briefly catch up with Jacquie Lansley who works with the CCG in Southend on Sea and with whom I recently spent a few days in Stafford as part of the LGA Peer team. Where we undertook Staffordshire CC’s Corporate Peer Challenge, and on the day we have both received the first draft of the final Staffs CPC report for our review and comments.

The conference was called ‘A system Approach to Integration: A Local Government Perspective on the Journey so far’.  And during the morning various speakers gave their reflections both on the system as a whole and his successes difficulties and work still to come.

It struck me that on the subject of Health and Social Care we were further down the line now that at any point in the past.  I can say we have come a long way these past eight years and I have seen first-hand the realisation from both Local Government and essentially from Health and Social Care that the issuers we collectively dace of an ageing population and an increasing cohort of work-age adults needing complex care.  The solution does not lie in any one area be it a super drug, procedure or social workers.  It’s in how the whole system comes together to support older people as they live their lives, not as a system construct.

 

The conference venue, Grant Park is not far from the Cherry Hinton Community Centre, albeit two venues worlds apart but as I sat taking notes on Friday, I recalled something I heard said ten years ago in that other hall.  It was there that I first met one of today’s NHS Board members Lord Victor Adebowale CBE, then and now also CE of a charity called Turning Point whom I first met at the Cherry Hinton Community Hall some ten years ago.  He talked about organisations, and how they expect people to conform to their way of doing things and how that has to change, our organisations and structures should be around the people we service and who use the services our residents, our families and well, us.  Of course, it’s as true today as it was then.

 

Fast forward ten years and are we getting there? Yes, albeit slowly.  So, call them what you will: STPs (Sustainable Transformation Plans) to ICS (Integrated Care Systems) any plan or system must focus on residents, not the other way around!

 

 

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