Two Bridges, One Suffolk

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On Friday I walked along the Ipswich Marina dockside and the sun was shining as I headed for the press announcement of the Architectural Practice we have appointed to Design the Upper Orwell Crossing in Ipswich…Foster + Partners who are one of the world’s foremost practices.  Who also have a wonderful track record in Ipswich having already designed the iconic Willis Building in 1975 that looks as if it was completed yesterday.

Earlier in the day I was ready about the press launch of the Lake Loathing Bridge announcement which was led by my colleague Guy McGregor.

These press events follow years of lobbying and hard work by Councillors and our great Local MPs Peter Aldous and Ben Gummer. The County has provided all the technical answers to the various questions and loops you must go through when obtaining funding and this has resulted in £73.39M from central Government for the Lowestoft bridge and £77.546M for the Ipswich bridges.  The County Council took a paper to Cabinet in May 2016 pledging the reminder of the monies £18.3M for the Lowestoft Bridge and about £19.1M for the Ipswich bridges.  Which demonstrated our commitment to these two exciting projects, both have different aims but both demonstrate Conservatives are committed to investing in our county’s infrastructure across Suffolk.

As you can see from the visuals the bridges will address the difficulty in getting about in Lowestoft and in Ipswich the bridges will open up significant high value employment land in a beautiful part of our County Town.

In the recent Annual Budget the Labour party proposed the spending of the general reserve over the next two years and then they would be eating into the very money allocated for these Bridge projects, their manifesto would cost so much that by the time the Council needed to contribute the sum we have promised there would be no money left with which to do so and we would have to borrow it!

So, imagine the irony when last week when Labour said the money is not there to build the Lake Loathing crossing in Lowestoft.  While I would not go as far to suggest this is “Fake News’, it would be fair to say the claim is entirely false. The funding required to complete Lake Loathing Third crossing is there and we are committed to ensuring the projects are completed. The shamelessness of the Corbynistas is just staggering.

My response to Labour’s comments was simple “The bridges will be build”.

And what I mean by that is, back in the real world, we have made a financial commitment to these two important projects in our County and if elected they will be built by a Conservative County Council.

Vote Conservative on 4th May.

On the campaign trail – Beck Row

0% County Council Tax rises for Beck Row

Out on the campaign trail in Beck Row

So, we have voted in the 2017/18 Suffolk County Council Budget having defeated Labour’s financially dangerous spend, spend, spend plans and delivered on our key 2013 Manifesto pledge of 0% base Council Tax increases, making 7 year at 0% since 2010.

Our manifesto has been a year in the making and is completed, a mixture of innovation and careful financial planning ever mindful of the need to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and ever mindful it’s your hard-earned money.  We will launch it on 17th March both in paper form and on our web site http://www.suffolkconservatives.org.uk/

So, our regular survey and canvass work steps up on the streets talking to resident about our track record and plans for the future.  They say all politics is local and of course that is true so as I start my campaign off as I always do in Beck Row there are a mixture of concerns from a highways parking problem at the local convenience store which I am getting sorted out, to the bigger picture of what is going to happen with Mildenhall Air Base, (its really RAF Beck Row as you can see in the picture on the left) which we are working on but will take a bit longer!

As I am out and about I am asking residents to fill in my survey or do it on line as we now have our surveys up to make it easier for residents.  The one for Beck Row is http://www.surveymonkey.com/r/beckrow

It’s going to be an interesting few months as we set out our vision for Suffolk County Council’s Future and Labour and the Liberals promise as they do, everything your heart’s desire, just one small problem they never ever tell you that they can’t deliver it.  Same old Labour always spending your hard-earned money and same old Lib Dems always…well that depends what you want them to say. As for UKIP… we are leaving the EU so move on.

The battle lines are drawn and now to the campaign.

 

Absent Lib Dems or Financially Dangerous Labour?

Last Thursday was Budget Day at Suffolk County Council, it’s the most important meeting of the year as well its sets the Council Tax and the budget for the coming year and so it’s also the highpoint of the year’s debates. In an election year, its also one of the final formal meeting before we go to the polls.

As I sat there during the debate I pondered the choices in May and the state of the opposition. So let’s take a look firstly the Lib Dems, no doubt their election material will say ‘only the Lib Dems can win here’, as they always do.  But their woeful performance in the chamber was typified by their Leader who could not be bothered to turn up.  The dates of the Budget day meeting are set about a year in advance so he could hardly say it was not in his diary, he was on holiday, says it all really, in 12 years of opposition they have never tabled a budget amendment, not one.

So, what about Labour, you have to say their budget amendment was one of two things either the typical Corbinista fiscal denial, or shameless pure political showboating.  Possibly denial? after all their shadow Finance chap at the county is quoted as saying that the financial outlook for the Council is better in the next 4 years!, trouble is there is not one single report or independent commentator who agrees with him.  Presumably he is banking or gambling on a Labour Victory in 2020’s General Election and the Corbin Money tree would bail them out, or frankly is it it’s just political showboating.  As my Cabinet member for finance pointed out, they are saying spend, spend, spend at the county when we hold a general reserve of 10% and a total, for all future projects such as new schools, planned bridges and IT projects, allocated reserves at 39% of our total revenue budget but across the road where many of the same Councillors are part of the controlling Labour group, they put up the Council Tax every year but hold 54% in their general reserve and 84% in their allocated reserves based on its total revenue budget, I leave you to draw your own conclusions but it isn’t pretty either way.

In May, Suffolk Conservatives will stand on our track record of delivering 7 years of 0% raises in the base Council Tax and carefully applied the National Adult Social Care Precept to give our lowest paid, mainly care workers, a welcome pay increase and rightly so.

Suffolk Conservatives will stand on how we have radically changed the Council saving £200M since 2010 with much more to be saving to be made, given the diminishing Government grants, yet have protected front line services, such as our libraries.

Suffolk Conservatives will stand on our plans for the future where we will be innovative in our approaches and have lots of new ideas about how we go about things over the next 4 years building on the work these past 4 years but we will always, always be prudent and carefully with the budget and our reserves, ever mindful of the need to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and ever mindful it’s your hard-earned money.

So people have a choice in May, us, the Lib Dems if they can be bothered to show up, or the financially dangerous Labour Party.

3% National Adult Social Care Precept rise

 

health-funding

Last year the Government surprised many with the very welcome change from Minimum Wage to National Living Wage, a pay boost for the lowest paid in our society, which has been universally welcomed.  But it also must be paid for and the LGA and the CCN spoke for the entire Care industry in saying we have to, have more money to pay for this, so the Government introduced a new Tax, the National Adult Social Care Precept set at 2% of the Council Tax or in places such as Suffolk 2% of the County Council element of the Council Tax.

You can argue the merits of local v national, property or income based taxation as much as you like but the 2% did not quite cover what we paid to our providers to fund this increase in pay.  We are, this year, asking for the additional 1% Government has allowed, taking this tax to 3% and every penny raised with be spent on Adult Social Care for our most vulnerable residents.

In Suffolk, we carefully negotiate both the rates we pay for residential and home care, ever conscious that we are the holders of your hard-earned money you pay in Council Tax and balancing that, with the need to make sure that employers pay the higher National Living Wage and can attract the staff they need to provide the vital quality of care we would want for our own families.

This year we will not be putting up the base Council Tax for the 7th year running fulfilled our manifesto commitment when we were elected in 2013.  As a Conservative administration, we are philosophically opposed to increasing Council Tax and only do so to pay for those things that we rightly must provide to the most vulnerable in our society.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

BudgetLast week I blogged about the next few months nationally but as a Councillor my and others focus is far more on the local issues and for us at the County Council it’s a mixture of two heady things Devolution and Budget, now you know you are a local gov geek when you use the word ‘heady’ to describe what is essentially rather dry subjects however important both are to Suffolk.

For any Council deciding where to spend its funding in the coming year is its biggest decision.  The one that effects the quality of services it provides and importantly for our most vulnerable residents the quality of aspects of their lives. Thus, it’s the single biggest decision we have to make in our annual cycle.

Last week, Suffolk County Council Cabinet started the process of sharing each department thoughts on the budget they would require and the debate then starts that will take the next few months through to a Full Council meeting to debate and decide.

I try to work hard to get out there with our #WeAreListening events and I have lead more public consultation on things that are happening than the Council has ever undertaken, both in terms of surveys people can fill in on line, to town and village hall meetings. We have commissioned Ipsos Mori and others to provide the backbone to these events with statistically valid polling. Our desire to ask people what they think is critical to me as we have a number of tough decisions to make. But hey, let’s be clear, asking people is but one part of the decision making process, debate in the Conservative group is another, as is the debates at Full Council.  All are component parts into trying to make the right decisions. People often are not going to agree, but, we make the best decisions we can to serve the wider population of Suffolk and to make sure the organisation has the financial resources and capacity to deal with the often more hidden issue we have to deal with.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a sort of reply piece on Mark Murphy’s BBC Radio Suffolk show to address some political pot shots from the opposition about Care Homes and how they are funded and the extent to which SCC work with them for the good of residents that was on the day before’s show.  In essence, I provided context to oppositions Councillors comment that implied we provided all the places a few years ago and now we sold everything off to the private sector. What we actually did was bring in a private provider to provision the 9% of the Suffolk total number of beds we were the provider of.  But, beyond the political point scoring, it was a really good debate highlighting one of the many discreet services provided few people hear or know about, unless faced with such very tough and difficult choices.  As an adult there are few things more daunting than that of care provision for one’s parents and loved ones.

Often the debate is about roads and this year many of us will have seen the significant investment £10M we have made over and above our normal expenditure on the highways. Yet, few of us actually know which of our neighbours receive some form of care service support or hear about the discreet Children’s services to protect our young people from harm. Getting Mrs. Smith out of bed each morning and helping her wash and dress, those hundreds of care beds we provide for people who can’t afford to pay for them themselves and all of these services to the most vulnerable in our communities largely go unnoticed. But we all, me included love to moan about pot holes for its the universal services, our roads.

So over the coming months there will be the chance to have your say and for the Cabinet to set out its plans for the coming year’s budget and when you do, it is important to say what you would divert money from to address something else.   For these are the debates your Councillors will be having as well.

The day job

FinanceThere is much talk about Devolution in the air in Local Government at the moment, locally much of the time and energy of Councillors and Officers is focused on the emerging Norfolk and Suffolk Bid.  At the heart of it is a proposition to government to allow us to have a greater impact on our local economy working alongside the New Anglia and Greater Cambridgeshire and Great Peterborough LEPs and the business community to create more high value jobs, grow the Business Rate and improve our local public sector system including how we work in a more integrated way with the county’s health care services.  All of which is about how can we do more with less, how can we protect front line services by having a more joined up approach to Suffolk and now Norfolk and Suffolk.

Whilst this is the focus as we seek to meet the Government’s deadline for submission, the other thing that looms large on our horizon is the coming council budget round.  We all await the CSR but are under no illusions that it will bring anything but tough new saving targets for Local Government. So last week my SCC Cabinet Member for Finance and myself travelled to Horsham to attend a LGA Finance course, to look at budget setting and ways to find even more savings from the Council’s budget, there is always something to learn in any walk of life.

Of course Devolution is never far from Councillors minds and in the conference room I sat next to Jonathan Bacon, who is the Leader of Isle of Wight Council, so inevitably we spend a fair while chatting about Devolution as the rumour has it that the IOW Council and Hampshire County Council are going to be successful in their bid. So as much as Richard and I tried to concentrate on the discussions during the course of the two days on finance, Devolution was never far from the table.

Viva 0%, long live 0%

0 percentLast Friday afternoon at Forest Heath District Council’s Full Council meeting we set the council tax rate rise for the coming budget year at 0% this comes on the back of 4 years of 0%, another remarkable achievement in these times of significant government grant cuts. At Forest Heath what is even more striking is that services have been maintained and in my Role as Chairman of the Performance and Audit Scrutiny Committee I have seen, in many cases services have actually improved over the past 4 years. Even the one Councillor who bizarrely voted against the reorganisation that has facilitated the savings to achieve this, voted in favour of the 0% Council Tax rise, which is equally bizarrely because he as a Parish Council Chairman, he has been behind some of the most massive Precept hikes that council has ever seen with it going up almost a third in the last 2 years. Not sure what people should look for in their Councillor’s but consistency might be a start! Last Friday week I blogged about the County Council’s budget setting and spoke about why I got into Local Politics, Forest Heath has thankfully not had to suffer a Labour/Liberal coalition and so the contrast in council tax rate setting is not as stark, but my principles is just the same, councils should live within their means and stop treating hard pressed families as cash cows. As I said a couple of weeks ago I accept that 0% council tax rises are unstainable in the long term, of course they are, inflation is inflation and cannot be absorbed forever equally we have an ageing population but we are not at that point yet. I think it’s a sort of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ when Councillors start to say council tax must rise and we can’t keep delivering 0%, why not?, costs in most councils are still significantly higher than a business would consider as acceptable overhead, and I am talking overhead not front line, for councils are principally a people business in service delivery. I think, alongside re-organisation, there is still quite a ways to go. At Forest Heath, Conservatives have politically lead this remarkable achievement by sharing services with our neighbour’s St. Edmundsbury Borough Council, instigating a cabinet system of decision making, halving the staff numbers and investing in technology to streamline the business, lots more to do but it’s a start that is saving money and protecting services and keeping the Council tax down. Whoever wins in May, further cuts in local government funding are to be expected and it will be interesting to see those Councils with the political will to make the council live within its means and those councils where officers hold power and council tax goes up! So viva 0%, long live 0% and watch the political group and the emerging local government manifestos as to whom are the true champions of the hard earned money you are obliged to pay in Council Tax.

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