Upper Orwell Crossing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Reports, Reports, Reports

Institute for Government

If you take a keen interest in any subject nowadays there seem to be more commentators and more reports than ever before.  It’s perhaps something to do with the rise of the internet and the volume of noise that this has created that we increasingly seem to want our news more bit sized and we are less likely to trust it, or is that just me as I grow more cynical with age.

However not all reports and news are created equally and dare I say some of it comes with bias baked in, but some reports need to be read and considered and pondered.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the joint Institute for Government and CIPFA fridge at the Conservative Party conference where Director Bronwen Maddox and Dr. Emily Andrews spoke, and I blogged about the forthcoming report, well here it is, and it makes for fascinating reading if you are interested in Local Government and the services it delivers to our residents and communities.

In the preamble to the report its sums itself up perfectly:

‘About Performance Tracker

Performance Tracker brings together more than 150 data series to provide a comprehensive picture of the performance of key public services. This third edition expands on our 2017 analysis. This report focuses on general practice, hospitals, adult social care, children’s social care, schools, neighbourhood services, the police, criminal courts and prisons.

This analysis – produced in partnership by the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy – reveals the key decision points that the Chancellor faces in the run-up to the Budget, and the proposed 2019 Spending Review.’

Find out more: http://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/performance-tracker

Suffolk – A14 Growth Gateway

Recently I was at a business lunch, and a couple of business people I know asked whatever became of my Suffolk A14 Growth Strategy I launched just before I was dumped as Leader of Suffolk County Council, their words, not mine!  It was something recently I blogged about in April and was launching at the various events around Suffolk before I stopped being Leader.

As I said at the time as Leader and Cabinet member for Economic Development part of the role is to think about how you might take Suffolk forward.  So, I came up with this strategy, built in part of some of the spatial work the County, District and Borough Councils developed, during and post the Devolution debates.  And in part the New Anglia LEP Economic Strategy work called ‘The East’ on who’s Board I sat at the time.  All which steps to a wider Economic growth strategy.  Once presented to councillors, I started a series of engagement events with the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce.  We started this off with the first of a series of dinners and exporting speaking events, all designed to start a debate and lead up to a Conference on Monday 25th June in Ipswich to launch the strategy ahead of a focused year ‘s work to put some flesh on the bones.  The idea was that the conference would be an annual event and we would seek to measure the progress of the strategy with the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce on a quarterly basis to make sure that we remained focused on its outcomes.

In essence, the idea was/is to help Suffolk Companies have space to grow and support to export.  Then longer term to encourage businesses from across Britain to relocate to Suffolk because of fast-tracked business parks along the A14 and easy access to the Port of Felixstowe to exported across the world.  But with a focus on exporting into China through Hong Kong.  A short paragraph to sum up a focus and determination to provide the sort of high-quality jobs we want to see in Suffolk in manufacturing and to help this country export.

One of the things I did produce was a PowerPoint presentation that I used to explain my thinking which seemed to have unanimous support from my colleagues and those business people I shared it with.  But it appears the strategy’s been dropped?  Or will it reappear as someone else’s grand vision at some future point will be interesting to see!

So here is that presentation I wrote:

https://mailchi.mp/1243278a0de4/suffolk-a14-growth-gateway

Money is not everything but it does help

Its been a fascinating couple of weeks with significant papers published on Health and Social Care from both the County Council Network and the Local Government Association.

Those of you who are kind enough to read my blog know that beyond anything else in Local Government this is the area I am interested in, not only because its a subject dear to my political heart but because in addition to Children’s services, this is mission critical stuff for councils and communities.

But this particular blog is about something else that is starting to happen, so I will return to the published papers in a future blog. There is a slow rumbling; some might say mumbling, of Councils who are beginning/willing to voice concerns as to the suitability of their councils.  Councils are starting to run out of money and are beginning to say so.

In the past few days, East Sussex a well run Council with an outstanding Leader of many years experience in Louise Goldsmith and a well-respected CE in Becky Shaw publishes a paper about the future of service delivery.  This comes on the back of a problematic Council meeting in Northamptonshire where the public voiced their anger at the council for the announcements of just what their financial failure means regarding services. In both cases a discussion about the delivery of statutory services only. Northampton immediately, East Sussex in the slightly longer terms as their cash reserves diminish.  So whether its a council that had failed to step up to the challenges these past few years or a council that has and is now thinking about the future, that future is bleak.

Before I go any further let’s be clear what we mean when we use the term ‘Statutory minimum’. As a former County Council Leader, I spend many an hour debating what those words mean, and it means a level of children’s protection services which are not good enough and only those Adults with the most desperate needs will receive any help. The result of which place children at risk and those with Learning and Physical disabilities not receiving the support they need to live meaningful lives. For the vast majority of older people who through no fault of their own become frail or have Dementia and who lack the means to provide for themselves will not get support to do the things, we take for granted. Such as getting out of bed, washing and preparing meals or have dementia, demine these services to those who can’t afford to pay for themselves, and you are condemning them to horrible old age.

The state of the roads and how often our bins get emptied, exercises us all, as these are the universal services we all use. But the vast majority of Council spending and activity is not in those areas but the provision of Social Services and care, whether they be Children or Adults. Unitary, Upper or District and Borough Council levels do not matter – the vast majority of staff and activity goes into Children and Adults Social Services. Councils or Councillors who do neither will tell you that their services are as vital such as Planning and Environment but seriously they are not, they matter and we value them, but they pale into insignificance compared with protecting children and helping vulnerable adults.

Of course, some Councils could be better run, of course, there is always room for improvement and efficiencies but for the vast majority of councils its starting to be about money. The real terms cuts in Local Government grant that has been the hallmark of Central Government funding since 2010. Now you can argue the merits or otherwise of this Governments’ fiscal policy, I happen to think it has been right to address the national overspend. But it would be wrong to say there have not been cuts and to recognise that these need to be discussed now if we are to avoid more Northamptonshire like failures.

Children’s services are interesting in that when it goes wrong whether that is a poor OFSTED report for Children Services or the worse case of abuse and neglect. System failure is just not tolerated, but let’s be realistic Children Services standards are linked to the funding. Where social workers are operating in a stretch system its struggles, put enough money in service, even taking into account recruitment issues, the caseload drops, line management support is as it should be, so that frontline social workers have a team to share their thinking with and the quality of the service goes up. Adequately financed, well resources with capacity results in good services, dah!

Adult Social Care is more confused as only some of us will need it, the debate rages about property wealth and who should support people in their older age. I shall blog about the two papers recently published but let us not lose sight of the fundamental issue Local Government currently faces, and that is funding, as I say money is not everything, but it does help.

A new Council

 

As you may have read Forest Heath District Council and St. Edmundsbury Borough Council have held their first few joint shadow meetings as we head towards a merger in May 2019.  I was there to take part in the historic first meeting, and it felt like the next logical step on the reform journey we set out on in 2011 when we decided to share a Chief Executive and cut staffing numbers by merging the officer teams to serve the two councils and save money.

The critical point for me has and will always be the same, organising the councils differently we can save back-office costs to protect frontline services. Regarding Council tax, the merger will mean that it will rise slower than if we did not merge because by merging we can save even more back-office costs. So, on both of my acid-tests, this merger is the right next move.  Lakenheath will still have two Councillors, and we will continue to work hard for our community at the Shadow Council.

One of the differences between the councils has always been that Forest Heath is a District Council with a Chairman who chairs the Full Council meeting and represents the Council at official events and functions.  Whereas, St Edmundsbury is a Borough Council with a Civic Mayor, who does much the same role but there is a more ceremonial aspect to it and thus higher costs associated with the office. What we want to do is get your views on the type of formal role the new Council should have.

The differences and pro’s and con’s of both approaches are explained in far greater detail by having a look at

www.westsuffolk.gov.uk/civicleadership

and then taking part in the survey

www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/civicleadershipsurvey/

The survey is open until Sunday 2nd September.

Alternativity you are very welcome to contact me to share your views, which we can then feed in. It will be interesting to learn what you think and to have a strong representation from our area would be great.

A decent home for all

Last Wednesday I attended the first ever County Council Network conference on Housing, sounds surprising doesn’t it that the County Councils have never held one before.  Your surprise level probably depends on your point of view, if you’re not a councillor then maybe a surprise.  But if you are it somewhat depends on what type of council you sit on, if you are in a two-tier area so a District or Borough Councillor, then you might think hey that’s a power grab.

But that, of course, is one of the problems in itself that the issues of housing delivery get distilled into such arguments as soon as Local Government discusses housing.  And its a ‘Red Herring’ of a case, in our country most people will agree with the title of this post that regardless of income and tenure everyone deserves to live in a decent home.  However few would ever accept the new housing proposed near them! So why is this? Some people will of course merely object, afterall they have their home.  But for most, it is the fear of what the new housing not the people who will live in them but the pressures it will place on the infrastructure and services they use in their day to day lives from Highways Junctions to Doctors Surgeries.  NIMBYism is more complicated than just houses in their backyard.

And of course, most of this perceived strain is not provided by the District and Boroughs most of that is about highways, public transport, school place planning and access to GPs and community services which are delivered by upper tier or Clinical Commissioning groups.  And resolved by Strategic plan rather than the specifics about which brownfield site or field they should be built.

Now, this starts to sound like a rag on District and Boroughs, but it’s not its a rag on the system which places vital aspects of community delivery into two different bodies. This demarcation of responsibilities can lead to utter chaos.  Such as the tale I once heard of a County council having to threaten legal action because a District council refused on one site, based on the developer’s viability argument, to seek contributions towards a new school provision as long as the developer delivered Affordable Housing in line with their Local Plan requirements.  And in our system, because the education contribution element is the remit of the County Council who do not have the powers to demand clauses in an S106 agreement, the District was able to contemplate such arrangement, well they did until the County Council’s pre-High Court action letter arrived.

Now there is a duty to co-operate, and sensible councils in two-tier areas are starting to think about the infrastructure delivery across all the partners including health, but each is a fix around for a broken system.

So right at the start of last Wednesday’s Conference, the chairman Cllr. Philip Atkins OBE, Leader of Staffordshire CC who is the CCN Spokesperson for Housing and Infrastructure, said the day ahead is not a conference to grab power it’s a conference to see how the duty to co-operate required by Government under the NPPF can work better and how together councils can increase housing growth in communities.

It also launched two exciting papers about the growing crisis in housing need and affordability and the role of County Councils in future housing delivery planning. If you are connected with the housebuilding industry both are well worth a real.

https://www.countycouncilsnetwork.org.uk/new-reports-back-a-larger-role-for-counties-in-planning-as-councils-warn-over-severe-need-for-affordable-homes/

One of the presenters at the conference and contributors to the above was Kate Henderson who over the past few years has put the TCPA onto the map in the debate on housing.  The following day she was announced as the new CE of the National Housebuilders Federation, an excellent appointment and hopefully, she can use her new role to advance the debate so this county start to deliver the 300,000 homes MHCLG have stated we need.

Only Saturday Sir Oliver Letwin waded into this debate with his article in the Telegraph, rightly talking about the spirit we need to meet the challenge the Government has set of 300,000 homes per year in a system that delivers little more than half that.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2018/06/23/greater-variety-homes-needed-solve-housing-crisis-says-oliver/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_em

Of course in reading this, some will sense that if one council had the responsibility in an area for all the community and planning functions, it would work better but of course, some areas do.  In the recent Respublica report for the CCN they comment on housing start delivery, so whether you think the system of Local Government needs urgent reform or we need to find ways to deliver more housing with the system we have got. But there is a role in the delivery rather than the planning process alone, for Local Government and I shall blog another time about Local Government housing companies.

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