A very interesting week in Birmingham

Last week Councillors and Local Government officers from across the country gathered in Birmingham for the Annual Conference, with some exciting backdrops on the Agenda.

As always it seems the ‘U ‘ question (unitary councils bids such as Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and now Leicestershire lead the way) hangs in the air as it has done for a number of years. There was to be the maiden conference speech by a new SoS James Brokenshire MP and last but not least the previous week a key report was published jointly by the Health and Social Care and Housing, Communities and Local Government Committees. It makes for fascinating reading in the coming debate on Health and Social Care and indeed ahead of the much delayed Green Paper on Social Care now due in the Autumn a whole year after it was promised.

You can download it from the http://www.parliment.uk website by clicking the link below.

https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/communities-and-local-government-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/long-term-funding-of-adult-social-care-17-19/

Almost as a footnote last week, but no less interesting is an article by Tony Travers for http://www.lgcplus.com. Tony is one of the most respected speakers on Local Government finance and when he rings the warning bell its time to listen. the link to his article which makes for sobering reading is here:

https://www.lgcplus.com/services/health-and-care/tony-travers-nhs-is-on-course-to-consume-all-public-expenditure/7025020.article

On a personal note, I was delighted to get re-elected to the Conservative Executive of the LGA as what is known as an ‘At Large’ Executive Member rather than as the County Council representative for obvious reasons. I am delighted to join a tremendous senior Conservative team as we work to set out the Conservative Agenda at the LGA for the coming year.

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?

Innovate or pay more

innovationAt last Thursday’s Budget Debate I ‘suffered’ the full fury of the Liberal’s Cllr. Page, who decided this year, slightly ‘left field’ to launch at me about the money spent on Suffolk Circle.

It is interesting that Cllr. Page failed to comment that one of the programmes in the budget delivering the biggest savings is the Supporting Lives and Connecting Communities, this year aiming to save the council £6 million. A programme developed and instigated when I was Cabinet Member for Adult and Communities Services which has 3 or 4 core papers as the basis on which I managed to convince my cabinet colleagues that we should reshape the way in which we deliver services in our communities. One of these documents is the original work done by Participle the organisation behind the circle movement. It researched, over the course of a year, how Suffolk’s communities are connected, and why the differences in capacity between similar places exist and if the Circle could be a part of the way forward in Suffolk. This extensive body of work is a document I still refer to today in my role for the Local Government Association sitting as a member on the national TLAP Board and on TLAP’s Building Community Capacity (BCC) Framework programme board, from my point of view, its work is very much it is informed by the original Participle paper and to some extent our Suffolk experience of why the Circle movement did not work.

Another thing that so infuriated the Liberals at the time was the notion of providing start-up funding to a Circle model which was primarily not about providing services to those who can’t afford anything themselves but about addressing loneliness and connections in communities by individuals, in the social economic group just above those that qualify, who will pay for services themselves in order to stop them tipping into services. Interestingly this notion of councils having responsibility to inform and market shape not just for those who qualify is now about to become an actual duty under the Care Act when it comes into operation in April this year. Prevention and addressing the causes that make people tip into expensive services is very much the new agenda.

Over the course of 3 years we spent about £680,000 on funding the Suffolk Circle as a start-up, the organisation behind the circle movement is a not for profit social enterprise and the circles staff were drawn from the Suffolk voluntary sector, it hit its membership targets but did not exceed them and at the end of the three year start-up period the Suffolk Circle and Participle decided that they could not sustain the organisation and all the existing members were transferred to other voluntary sector organisations in Suffolk who took over aspects of its activity, programmes that are still running today. Since then the Southwark Circle has also closed yet others are still in existence. Much has been written about the circle approach and community involvement indeed the role of councils and other voluntary organisations. The TLAP BCC Framework, which I led a workshop on at the Annual TLAP conference last year on, attempts to build on all the different learning out there.

In terms of risk I suppose you are always going to have the Cllr. Pages’ of this world who just want to throw mud and not understand the detail but it important that Council’s innovate and work on how to lead the way to delivery services in an environment of less funding. In the period that the circle start-up was funded the Council spent over £650 million on Adult and Community Services and so in this context the less that 0.001% of its spending on something that was expected to succeed but did not was a part of the mix of service delivery being trialled, but we must keep trying to find new ways of supporting our communities and help prevent people from needing services in the first place, this one did not success but that does not mean you stop.

When we Conservative took over in 2005 the structure of the council was a basket case, 9 years later literally thousands of staff have gone and the council delivers more service today than it did then. But you know what unless we try new ways of working I suppose the only recourse is to do what Cllr. Page’s party did the last time they had power and simply keep spending without innovating and then demand ever more of people’s hard earned money to pay for it.

Digital Inclusion and an Ageing Population

digital-inclusion-150x150A couple of weeks ago I had was invited by SEEFA (South East England Forum on Ageing) (www.SEEFA.org.uk) to take part in a House of Lords Symposium on Digital Inclusion and an ageing population. It was my first time in a Lord’s Committee room and I had the pleasure to sit next to Lord Filkin who hosted the event. As we chatted we discussed the House of Lords report of a couple of years ago which he co-authored about the state of readiness of UK PLC for an Ageing Population and its premise that one of the early warning sign is A&E performance which was most apropos given the poor figures published that week.

Journalist David Brindle from The Guardian chaired the meeting where we heard from a number of speakers including Paul Burstow MP the former Care Minister and from around the table people discussed what is meant by digital inclusion and how to drive it forward, the discussion took place before an invited audience and the thoughts captured for a report based in part on the discussion that was had. For my part I talked on being careful not to replace community and human interact for a new digital interaction as loneliness is the key issue here and no amount of technology can replace friends and family, technology can enable friends and family to keep it touch but it can’t replace them.

One of the things I learnt and pondered about was ‘Digital Fossils’. In this area we all too easily say when the current generation of older people have passed because within the next generation most people can use a laptop and tablet they always will but as technologies change, people can get struck at a stage of learning new things and so the new technologies may pass them by and they will struggle to use the emerging platforms. With the fast pace of change in digit technology IT literate today does not necessary mean IT literate tomorrow. This sound daft until you stop to think about it. How many of us are comfortable with email and word and excel and our CD collection then talk with younger people and see if they do the same and increasingly they don’t. They use WhatsApp, SnapChat, Google docs and have a Spotify account for their music or download it from iTunes, with email being how you communicate with the old folks! So interestingly it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds and thus adds to the challenge of making sure inclusion is a key element as we develop digital services now and in the future.

RAF Mildenhall Closure

RAF MildenhallOn Thursday we had the sad news that RAF Mildenhall was to close, and my first thoughts when I heard was for the 500 or so people who work there and the uncertainty the announcement makes for them.

A number of us were all geared up for the official USAF announcement embargoed until 3pm, however this quickly became a nonsense as the moment was entirely overtaken by social media in the morning because the Stars and Stripes carried the full story that morning in their on-line edition, someone somewhere does not quite understand the nature of an agreed embargo! For my part I watched the twitter feeds starting up and then took a call from Paul Geater of the EADT asking for a quote before speaking on BBC Radio Suffolk’s Mark Murphy Show. The following morning I was interviewed by Etholle George on her morning show at 6:30am at Mildenhall Market and a couple of times more up to 9am and finally I did a piece for BBC Look East that evening outside the base.

Of course the devil is in the detail and whilst this will be a blow to many it’s not quite as bad as if first appears. In the same announcement, it was confirmed that RAF Lakenheath will expand and take 2 squadrons of the new USAF F-35 fighter aircraft with new investment and an additional 1,200 personnel and their families. RAF Mildenhall will close over the next 5 – 7 years with the leaving of 3,200 personnel and their families. If you consider that it’s only a year or so ago that the numbers were added to by 1,200 personnel connected with the special forces and their very strange looking Osprey aircraft. So that means with all the various comings and goings the area will ultimately only down about 800 personnel from the position 2 years ago.

Of course alongside these departures 500 local people are employed in a variety of roles on the base and whilst some will no doubt get jobs at Lakenheath many will be made redundant, and this is the biggest challenge we face. But it is also the biggest opportunity we face. At Forest Heath District Council since we won the last election in 2011 we’ve refocused the Council on economic growth and so, assuming we win the election in May we are well placed to lead taking advantage of this opportunity. RAF Mildenhall is a busy World class airport with great community facilities and industrial potential to attract high value jobs into a spacious industrial park.

We have already hit the ground running, Matthew Hancock MP has announced that he is to chair a Westminster working party looking at the future of RAF Mildenhall, RAF Molesworth, and RAF Alconbury. And alongside Cllr. James Waters the Leader of Forest Heath District Council we are already discussing the askes we want to make of Government, key amongst them and to the MOD in particular is clarity so we can use the next period to plan the strategy, not merely replacing those jobs lost but to bring far more in so that on the far side of this closure it is viewed as an economic success storey for West Suffolk. The work has begun to make sure as the USAF close down their last security post, new businesses are moving in generating those high value jobs.

No small task, but one,Conservatives from our MP to us Councillors are entirely focused on.

Last Week’s LGA Conference Day 1

As is tradition before the LGA Conference proper the political parties gather and at the Conservative group meeting I was delighted to be announced as re-elected to the Conservative Group Executive. A real honour and I was quite chuffed at the faith shown by colleagues after what has been a bruising year, (self-inflicted I might add) and I hope I can use the role to, in some small way, help local government have that vital voice, it needs, in setting the local government policy agenda at Westminster and across the increasing partnership working with Health .

As is the way of these things the conference was its usual mixture of networking, breakout sessions, some interesting and some less than interesting plenary sessions, drinks, food, and many, many planned and casual conversations. Beyond these I had a couple of formal contributions to make as I was booked to make 2 speeches and take part in the subsequent discussions. The first was in the, well……innovative, innovation zone hosted by the great Chairman of the LGA Innovation Board, Cllr. Peter Fleming, how was his usual self, fun, irreverent, enthusiastic and beyond the somewhat colourful outfits actually someone who has really championed and driven innovation as a key way we are going to continue to serve our communities as the money diminishes. I gave a short speech about my commitment to the Networked Councillor programme being delivered by the excellent Public-I and hopefully contributed to the important debate about the role of social media in how we connect with our residents, and hopefully explain and co-produce some of the new ways we need to deliver services in the future.

Then later, as other headed down the pier or to this or that venue for drinks receptions, I delivered a speech on Complaints with Mick King, Executive Director of the Local Government Ombudsman about the value and way in which we interpret complaints both to Councils and ultimately to his organisation, are they a reputational threat or something to inform organisational learning, which was the point I hope I got across.

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