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!

Conservative History and Philosophy Seminar

Last week I returned from holiday to attend the much talked about Conservative History and Philosophy Seminar, having kindly been invited along with about 50 or so other Conservatives to discuss the future of Conservative ideology.

The seminar was Chatham House rules so no reporting of what was said, but its theme is important for Conservatives.  So much so, that its speaker list reads like a who’s who of the party, with Brandon Lewis MP, Chairman of the Conservative Party opening the proceedings.  Over the next few hours, we heard from Dominic Johnson CBE Vice Chairman of the party and organiser of the event and from Professor Andrew Roberts, Jesse Norman MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Anne Jenkin, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, Neil O’Brien OBE MP, amongst other great speakers.  In the last of the three sessions were heard about the future with speakers ranging from Dr. Eliza Filby and Dr. Anthony Ridge-Newman discussing how society, aspirations and social media are constantly changing.

If you take part in politics at any level, local or national one of the things that has seemed evident is the extent to which the left seeks the moral high ground, s if theirs is the only ‘moral’ way forward.  Well, it’s not, being a Conservatives should come with a conviction that it’s the right and moral way to organise society.  Let’s face it, time and time again socialism has proven to be a failure, it failed here with the last Labour government, and the one before that if like me you are old enough to remember 1979 and it continues to fail across the globe.

The Conservative Party has always been a reforming party, and this work is about making sure that beyond the day job, the party and its activists are thinking about how we reform our society.  How conservative values of hard work, individualism and making sure that success is rewarded not treated with suspicion as socialism would have you believe, has proven to be a success across the globe and with checks and balances is the best way to organise your economy and society.

Many people in the party look back to the Thatcher years with nostalgia.  But it was also a time when the Conservative Party has an ideological basis, as it turned the Hippies of the sixties into the Yuppies of the eighties, was it perfect, of course not, but it had a foundation, a conviction, an ideology.  Today the world is very different, and no one is suggesting a reinvention of Thatcherism. The millennial generation as not the same as when I entered adult life, but the future of the Conservative Party lies in its believes in itself, and its ideology as it shapes local and national policy.

A change of Leader at SCC

Last Thursday week was my last day as Leader of Suffolk County Council and quite a journey it’s been these past 3 years and in my 12 years as a Councillor holding various roles from Adult Social Care to Finance.

Along the way it’s been my privilege to meet with selfless people who are making a daily difference in their own lives and others. Remarkable leaders of organisations dedicated to the most vulnerable in our communities and skilled business leaders growing great companies right here in Suffolk. And it’s been a privilege to work alongside them all.

As the new Leader, Matthew Hicks must set out the challenges as he sees them and those of us in his group must face up to the difficult decisions to tackle the big challenges facing Suffolk.  To not address them is folly, as that have to be faced today or tomorrow but they will not go away.  I wish Matthew well and will work with him and the new team at the County Council, assuming they face up to the challenges ahead.

No county is an Island and they must look and learn from the experiences of others and understand the journey we have been on since 2010 with over £236Million saved and a staff team half what is was then, there is still more to do but the law of diminishing returns holds as true for Councils as any other organisation.

The future for County Councils lies in its relationship with the community it serves and its partner organisations and to be a catalyse for change, real change focused on the issues we face of the need for stronger families better able to provide the environment our young people need to grow and flourish. And stronger communities better able to support our ageing residents and working with our health partners to deliver better services more reflective of our residents needs than at times they seem to be.

Local government is the best performing part of the public sector. However, I still believe that local government must change – really change. The answers to the problems we face will not lie in a denial of realities ‘borrow and spend’ or trying to adapt to tighter budgets ‘managed decline’, but in our communities not the Council.

On a personal note, in my 12 years on Suffolk County Council in various roles from Adult Social Care to Finance I have spent most of time in the cabinet and it will be strange to have no role but such is politics.  If I can do so again, I will. I am grateful for the friendships forged and what we achieved together.

For now, I will continue working for the residents I represent in Lakenheath, Beck Row, West Row, Thistly Green, Tuddenham St. Mary, Eriswell, Isleham Marina, Higham, Cavenham and Tuddenham St. Mary and on the soon to merge and become West Suffolk Council representing my home village of Lakenheath.

Who know what happens in politics, but I remain privileged to serve the community I have grown up in and the county I love.

 

We Are Listening event

On Wednesday I attended Suffolk County Council’s latest We Are Listening event is the picturesque market town of Halesworth and for a couple of hours, Cllr. Tony Goldson, who represents the town and surrounding area on Suffolk County Council, Council Officers and I, chatted to shoppers and resident about their issues and how they view the services provided by the County Council.  I started these events three years ago, and they have grown and formed part of how Suffolk County Council looks to engage.  It is only a small part but its essential for Councillors from across the parties and for Officers who come along, to hear first hand what people think.

www.suffolk.gov.uk/wearelistening

The event came just a couple of days before a challenge for control of the Conservative group and ultimate who leads Suffolk County Council, which I and my supporters lost.

Comms Officer:  I hope you win on Friday.

Me: Why?

Comms Officer: Well we’ve just had some leaflets with your headshot and name printed.

Me: How many?

Comms Officer: 80

Me: 80,000? such faith!

Comms Officer: no, 80!

EADT Headline: ‘We have a moral imperative to make sure frontline services are protected’.

 

Here’s my column from last week’s EADT and Ipswich Star newspapers:

Debate is good. Debate is healthy. It’s what challenges existing thinking and finds new and often better ways of doing things. Debate is what we need in Suffolk about the future of public services, including local government. And we need it now.

That’s why last week I asked Respublica to conduct a thorough and independent examination of the merits of public service reform in Suffolk. I know, that doesn’t sound hugely exciting on face value.

But, actually, it’s really important and I firmly believe we have a moral imperative to take a long hard look at existing structures to see what savings can be made to free up money for frontline services.

We want Respublica to develop a range of options that would give Suffolk taxpayers a better deal and our county, as a place, more local control over important decisions around health and housing.

They’ll look at current structures, governance and policies and publish proposals in the autumn. We’d like to make a bid to Government to reform the current structure.

The people at Respublica know what they’re talking about. They’re a leading public policy think-tank and were influential in the ground devolution of Government powers and money to Greater Manchester.

In November, they published findings which said £2.9billion could be saved nationally if councils were reorganised. Think what that money could do to improve people’s lives!

As with other areas in England, we want to build the strongest possible case for Government powers and funding to be devolved to Suffolk.

It’s not just about structures – not even close. It’s about how public money is spent.

There are eight councils in Suffolk, collectively spending about £565million each year. Of course, there are other organisations – like health – too.

Across Suffolk, councils have saved over £240m since 2010, becoming more efficient and effective as individual organisations. However, we all continue to face funding gaps in the coming years and the ability to do things more efficiently without affecting frontline services is now very difficult.

As we’re forced to save even more money, can we, morally, cut more when we know we should investigate the benefits of joining up? The mergers in East and West Suffolk are based on the principle that joining up councils saves money and provides better services.

There are many great examples of public sector organisations in Suffolk already working together, sharing buildings and back office functions. Suffolk is known for it nationally. We want to know what more could be done. We think further savings are possible, but restructuring might be necessary to achieve them. Respublica’s work will inform that debate.

I fully accept that it’s controversial – but if you saway from doing things that some people might object to, you’d never do anything at all and change just wouldn’t happen. Leaders must be bold.

Last week, Paul Geater wrote in his column that he could “see the benefits on all sides and I realise there are absolutely no simple answers”. Quite right, Paul. I therefore welcome the debate that’s started from all sides of the political spectrum.

As I said, it’s democracy in action. There will have to be more of it in the coming weeks and months. But it shouldn’t be dismissed just because it threatens the status quo. That’s not leadership.

Some of you may have seen the quite shocking news recently about Northamptonshire County Council having to freeze spending because of the desperate financial position they are in. Thankfully Suffolk isn’t in that situation but, like councils everywhere, money is really tight.

We want to get ahead and secure Suffolk’s future, whilst devolving powers and funding from Government so the public sector leaders in Suffolk can better deliver for residents.

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.

 

 

We are Listening

Here’s my first column of the year for the EADT and Ipswich Star last week:

Happy New Year.

In the ‘lull’ between Christmas and New Year I like to reflect on what has taken place in the year behind us, as well as looking forward to the future.

One thing I’ll be hoping for in 2018 is greater participation from you, the public. Since the elections in May, I, along with my colleagues and our officers, have been working hard to give those we serve more chances to have their say and more opportunities to have their voices heard.

These are unprecedented times for local government. Savings have to be made and the way we provide our services will be changing. And we want you to be involved more than before.

Though this isn’t breaking news, our council meetings are open to the public. Members of the media regularly attend and report on them. Recently we’ve had more members of the public come to our meetings, and I’d like to see more people come along to further their understanding of how we make decisions and witness the debate between members first hand.

At our council meetings as well, the public are invited to get involved, in the form of asking a question or making a comment. In order to do this, all you need to do is send a request to www.suffolk.gov.uk/apply-to-speak-at-a-public-meeting/

However, if you can’t make our meetings, why not watch them online? All of our full council meetings are streamed online and we’ve recently upgraded the cameras in the council chamber to present a high definition quality stream to those either watching live or at a later date. You can find out more about watching our meetings online by visiting www.suffolk.gov.uk/webcasting/

We also want you to give us feedback on our services and how we provide them. We value the thoughts of those we serve, as they can help us shape what we provide and how. If you think something needs to be improved, let us know. If you feel you’re not getting the support you should be getting, we want to know. If you believe someone deserves recognition for their work, we’d like to hear about it.

You can do so by visiting www.suffolk.gov.uk/about/give-feedback-or-make-a-complaint/ but by also speaking to us using social media – we regularly respond to queries on our Facebook page, which can be found by searching for @SuffolkCountyCouncil as well as on Twitter @SuffolkCC – if you don’t already ‘like’ follow us I would suggest doing so as there is an array of useful information posted regularly.

If it’s something in your town or village that you have comments on, it may also be worth speaking to the councillor in your division, who may be able to assist. As councillors we are here to serve our residents and we are regularly working hard on local issues. If you don’t know who your councillor is, you can find them on our website here – www.suffolk.gov.uk/find-your-councillor/

We also consult residents and service users when changes are being made. In the past year we have consulted on a number of things, such as the Lake Lothing Third Crossing in Lowestoft, roadworks in Bury St Edmunds and roadworks in Ipswich. We currently have two consultations live at the moment – high needs funding and school and post-16 travel. We want your views – the better the response, the better informed we are moving forward on any potential decisions.

Last year I was joined by councillors and officers at five ‘we are listening’ events across the county – in Bury St Edmunds, Felixstowe, Haverhill, Ipswich and Lowestoft. These events are something I enjoy doing as it gives me, and others at the council, the chance to speak to the electorate about issues affecting them. It also gives a personal touch and the fact we are actively seeking views may make it easier for people to share their views.

At those events we received a number of comments which have since been acted on with the help of officers, giving positive outcomes for many.

These events are something I’m wanting to continue this year, and I hope to see as many of you as possible as and when they are held, across the county.

So why not make a new year’s resolution to get involved where you can at Suffolk County Council?

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