Happy Suffolk Day!

 

Today is Suffolk Day, a chance to celebrate the best of this great county and the event goes from strength to strength.

Suffolk County Council was a founder member when BBC Radio Suffolk’s Mark Murphy first mentioned the idea to me as Leader a couple of years ago, I said to our team we should fully get behind the proposal and help make it a reality. As with all the best ideas the County Council should be there to support and get things off the ground and then it’s the residents, companies and organisations across the county that make something like this a success.

I recall being at Lowestoft bright and early with Mark Murphy when the first day was launched and enjoyed planning a full day of activities for last year helping to highlight the great voluntary work taking place across the whole of Suffolk, an itinery which was sadly curtailed by the new Leader. As a small part of Suffolk County Council’s contribution, I also approved the replacement of all of the County road signs as you entered Suffolk. The proposal was to replace the mixed bag of often older and slightly fading signs in a year with ones fittingly celebrating the highlights of Suffolk. I think they have done about four! But other things have gone from strength to strength as more schools, companies and organisations get behind this celebration of Suffolk, which is encouraging to see.

As we all go about our busy lives; it’s often easy to forget what a great place Suffolk is to live. We have near full employment, wonderful countryside and a beautiful coastline to enjoy. The county is safer than most, and across Suffolk, there are excellent services and community projects to support the lives of the most vulnerable in our society. There are of course problems, far too many people living in temporary accommodation, far too many people and in particular Children living in poverty. So the need to grow our economy to help improve the lives of people struggling to pay their bills is imperative. But thats all for another day for today is to celebrate the best of Suffolk and perhaps think about how we all can contribute more to our communities, to continue to make Suffolk a wonderful place to live and work.

Happy Suffolk Day!

Planning for Retirement Seminar

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Last Thursday I was invited to speak at a morning seminar hosted by Planning Futures, the leading planning policy think tank and Lexington Communications, well-respected planning consultants, entitled ‘Planning for Retirement’.

The event was expertly chaired by Therese Villers MP, and I joined a panel with an old friend of mine Emma Webster from retirement housebuilder Pegasus Life and Michael Stanworth of Lexington Communications.

I spoke about one of the subjects dear to my heart which blends my public life, business life and indeed my family history about retirement housebuilding. I’m the son of a bungalow builder who created a very niche retirement product and sold bungalows in Norfolk and Suffolk to retiring North Londoners who sold their homes often for double what it cost them to buy one of the company’s retirement bungalow thus topping up their pensions and going to live in a lovely environment. For a time I was involved in that company and came up with the strapline ‘It’s just like being on Holiday’ – won an award or two for that one.

Fast forward and in my time as a cabinet member for Adult Social Care, Finance cabinet member and then Leader for a County Council I promoted extra care housing being the sort of latest version in retirement living. In Suffolk, we held two conferences entitled Flexicare 1 and 2, both at Newmarket Race Course. The ambition was for Suffolk to ‘light the way’ as the place providers and developers could build extra care facilities. To this day Judith Hawkshore an Officer at SCC is remembered with great affection by those of us who were privileged to know her, as a leading advocate in the country on Extra-Care housing. The aim was for Suffolk to have the best offering to older people as they looked for more suitable housing and the chance to downsize but still have an independent home but that as they care needs changed, it could help support them better.

Did we achieve this? – A resounding no. None of the Districts councils in Suffolk adopted planning policies to enable it to happen and this disconnect between the challenge and responsibility for an ageing population and the delivery resting at a district or borough level in two-tier areas is at the very core of my thinking about two-tier councils area’s being unfit for purpose. But across the country, it’s not happened either. Pegasus Life and others are still nice developers of great schemes, but the quantum shift in the number of projects being build has not taken place.

So it was interesting that across the panel, we spoke of the planning ‘use class’ problems and the lack of an understanding and knowledge of the differences between Residential Care Homes, Nursing Homes, sheltered accommodation, and extra care amongst planning officers and councillors on development Control Committees.

Planner and Councillors across the country seem reluctant to land extra care, usually on the wrong preconception that it imports older people which is not the evidence, unlike the people who brought my father’s company’s bungalows! The evidence is where schemes are built; it’s local older people who move. Unlike the concept, my father sold to retiring North Londoners all those years ago! This has perhaps something to do with the differentiation of a cohort of just retiring and the final move we make in our older age the difference between the two age profiles is far greater now as we all enjoy a longer life. Older people need better choices than many face today between struggling on in their family home or some form of residential care home.  If someone has dementia then often a residential setting is the right choice but if you as just increasingly frail in older age that can seem like a death sentence. when I am old and frail I will want support but I will still want my own front door and my lifetime’s worth of stuff with me. I might not be able to cook but I will still want my own kitchen and that choice that extra care schemes provide is just not open to many yet.

So what to do? Firstly change the ‘use’ classification last given a major overhaul in the 1980’s! As per the recent recommendation from the Local Government Commons Select Committee recommendation so that Extra Care is a use classification of its own and clearly explained as such.

And from Housing Associations and local councils re-entering the building of homes game – let’s see a significant focus on older people extra care housing across all tenures. Let’s finally address the needs of our ageing population, providing suitable homes to aspire to.  So as the number of people living for far longer increases both in numbers and age we build extra care schemes close to where people live and that are suitable for them, to help them cope with old age and to support them better. Thus removing the stark choices that face many in older age, struggling on in unsuitable family homes or going into residential care. People deserve better choices than that.

The government rightly talks a lot about the additional homes we need, Kit Malthouse’s additional 100,000 more per year, but let’s also talk about housing for older people and extra care in the same breath and the coming Health and Social Care green paper.

‘Powerful Partnerships, Healthier Places’ Conference

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Last Wednesday I attended the annual joint Local Government Association and NHS Clinical Commissioners conference in London entitled ‘Powerful Partnerships, Healthier Places’. Where Leaders, Chairs and Board member of Clinical Commissioner Groups gathered with Cabinet Members for Adult Social Care, Health and Wellbeing Board Chairs and Officers from across the country to look at the current state of play of Health and Wellbeing Boards Integrated Care systems and joint working cross Health and Social Care.

Throughout the day we heard from different areas about what is working well and candidly about things that still present a challenge. We have all grappled with the changing landscape of Heath, and Social Care as the realities of an Ageing population starts to hit home. The solutions rest not in ever more advanced medicines and equipment, but how we help the vast majority of people in our communities. People, who as they get older need support with the issues that age brings and that support is more appropriately, cost-effectively and better delivered in communities, not hospitals. Hospitals, of course, are vital and have an essential role to play when we need medical intervention but for the vast majority of people, its day to day support which is the critical issue for the system of how we redesign services to address these changing population needs.

It’s also about the wider determinants of health from better public health, exercise housing and the support we offer people at tough times in their lives. This week the County Council Network has published a report on the impact of Public Health moving across from the NHS to Local Government, and it makes for interesting reading.

https://www.countycouncilsnetwork.org.uk/removing-public-health-functions-from-councils-would-be-a-deeply-retrograde-step-councillors-argue/

Showing how Directors of Public Health have been able to influence their communities in a far more tangible way than previously when part of the NHS and this is having an impact on local government focus and the health of populations and our communities.

During the day there was a couple of workshops, one of which I facilitated both called ‘When worlds collide’. The workshop was a taster session run in parallel one for NHS leaders and one for political leaders. As I prepared the slide deck for the workshop, I thought back over the past eight years from Andrew Lansley’s notion of a different way of working across Health and Social Care. Through the, then newly created, joint boards to where we are today, lots have been achieved, but there is still far more that can be done to share best practice and deliver the sort of service residents think already exists now which sadly is not the case everywhere.

One of the key issues continues to be the very different worlds that exists in Local Government and the NHS, and so the workshop which is jointly being rolled out across the country is about helping leaders from both worlds understand the other. Following on from my work with Public Health England and the Improvement programme for Local Government in both of which I have delivered many days workshops on Working in a Political Environment’ and this new 1/2 day is a distillation of much of those workshops helping people understand the political system which is the backbone of Local Government.

Helping Leaders from both worlds is a significant part of how we bring together two entirely different ecosystems. Both in the way in which Health and Wellbeing Boards can be more effective and how we co-design services for the residents we all serve. Rather than residents having to navigate two parallel systems the organisation that serves our residents focus on them rather than the other way round, there is a long way to get to get this right but as we have seen in the best examples such as here in West Suffolk. There is an old saying ‘progress occurs at the speed of trust’ and it as true in complicated relationships, such as the NHS and Local Government, as it is anywhere else. When everyone trusts each other great things happen, and this needs to be the focus over the next few years to truly design services and a system that serves residents.

The CCA Conference

Each year Conservative Councillors gather for our annual Association conference.  This year’s was just outside Oxford where Councillors from across the country heard the results of the Board elections and gather to discuss the key issues Local Government face and discuss those with the Ministerial team from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Across the two days, we heard from the MHCLG Secretary of State James Brokenshire MP and his ministerial team including Claire Perry MP and Jake Berry MP.  Alongside the impressive Heather Williams MP and Kit Malthouse MP confusingly both Housing Ministers, both of whom spoke passionately about the need for this country to increase housing supply and a focus on Modern Methods of Construction to achieve the additionally we need – obviously dear to my heart given what I do for a living.

On Friday afternoon, we said goodbye to the excellent outgoing Chairman Rory Love and welcomed Mark Hawthorne, the Leader of Gloucestershire as our new Chairman.  I was honoured to get elected as a member of the CCA Board representing County Councillors.  Shortly after the AGM, we held our first board meeting where we started to discuss the issues the Association faces over the coming year, and some of the feedback the new Board members picked up as we each fought our campaigns.  I certainly look forward to working with Councillors from to cross the country on how we can improve the Association.

On Saturday morning in parallel to our conference, the National Convention of the Party gathered, of which I am a member, and so was slightly torn between the two meetings.  I chose to hear the debate on our Local government finance, and it was stressed to Ministers the need to make sure the coming Fairer Funding review takes account of the views of the Upper Tier Authorities who year on year spend more in real terms and more as a percentage of their overall budgets on Adult Social Care.  The views of the CCN play an essential part in, and their latest reflective piece on their website makes for interesting reading:

www.https://www.countycouncilsnetwork.org.uk/counties-welcome-the-governments-fair-funding-proposals-but-voice-concerns-over-adult-social-care-formula/

At the break, I had a chance to catch up with Kit Malthouse MP and discuss MMC Modular Housing and how it is slowly being taken up by Councils and Housing Associations.  After that, we heard from the Party Chairman Brandon Lewis MP whom I have known as the local MP for Great Yarmouth for some years.  He spoke of the important local elections ahead and the need to stress to people that Conservative Councils are simply cost you less in Council tax – on average by £100 per year.

After his speech, Brandon introduced Prime Minister Theresa May MP who spend the next hour or so talking about all the challenges the government faces including Brexit but also the opportunities that lay ahead.  As always, the Prime Minister, was open and honest with CCA members present, talking about what can we achieve across a wide range of policy areas over the coming year.

As always a fascinating conference for Conservative Councillors from across the various tiers of local government, and I am pleased to now be on the CCA board.

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 the stand’s backdrop of Ipswich’s waterfront to launching a ‘future city’ bid.  These were all tactics 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 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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