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.

A nation decides and so does Lakenheath

2015_05_03 Campaign 2015 Team LakenheathThis week the country has a big decision to make, a Conservative Government or a Labour one, held to ransom by the SNP.

It is ironic that if people vote UKIP, they will get Ed Miliband in No.10 propped up by the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon who over the last few weeks have made it perfectly clear she will use the power to advance Scottish interests and by that I think we all know that means, demand that money be diverted from spending in England to spending in Scotland. Equally ironic is that Ed Miliband is on record he would have no referendum so the very thing UKIP want, would be denied them, yet if UKIP minded people vote Conservative, David Cameron will hold that referendum in 2017 having renegotiated the terms of our membership. Seems to me whether you’re in favour of being in Europe or out of it, this country need to make its mind up one way or the other.

Locally people have a choice too. Continue with Conservatives in charge of Forest Heath District Council where we are delivered quality services, have reorganised its back office and halved its staff numbers and thus been able to deliver 5 years of 0% Council Tax rises. Our carefully worked out plan is proposing a 4 year freeze for the next term. Alongside investment in our area such as a new public services hub in Mildenhall to include new state of the art sports facilities. Or elect a strange mix of independent candidates and/or UKIP both it seems from their election leaflets or lack of, don’t seem to have an actual plan.

This Conservative 9 year freezing of council tax is born of a simple premise, its your hard earned money and you are best place to spend it wisely for yourself and your family.

Even more locally in my village you can see the attitude of our opponents who over the past two years, with their controlling group has blocked every attempt to get the parish council to lower its costs and find new ways of working, and has increased the Parish Precept by over a third, making Lakenheath the most expensive place in Forest Heath to actually live and pay your per band council tax in – absolutely ridiculous!

I’m running with Louise Marston who owns a number of great local businesses, and has been a Parish Councillor and has increasingly frustratingly, tried with her minority group, to seek change on the Parish Council. She is a School Governor at the village primary school. Together we would play an active part in the District Council, continue to play an active part in our community, we would turn up and are determined to be a strong positive voice for our village, Lakenheath.

So nationally we have a clear choice, locally we have a clear choice and on both ballot papers please Vote Conservative.

An inconvenient track record!

u-turn symbolIt’s often said in politics you set your stall out, be positive and don’t go negative. Conservative controlled Forest Heath District Council has an outstanding track record and has delivered quality services, reorganizing its back office, halved its staff numbers and thus been able to deliver 5 years of 0% council tax increases. Our Local Conservative manifesto is full of good ideas for our community from our carefully worked out plan for a 4 year freeze of the Council tax, making it a record 9 year freeze alongside investment in our area such as a new public services hub in Mildenhall to include new state of the art sports facilities, so there is much to be positive about.

Recently there is a national story about did this politician or that politician rewrite their own wikipiedia entry, well they could do worse that read my wards local UKIP leaflet as a masterclass in editing your own track record, and sometimes you read things from the opposition that are just so ‘poor form’ that they need to be countered, so that residents can judge what is being said and promised.

The candidate in question is called Cowboy, no seriously, not getting myself into hot water, he is listed as on the notice of those standing, as ‘Cowboy’ which will appear as his first name on the ballot paper. He is a former Conservative whom we asked to leave the party after he refused to attend a selection interview for the previous district election, something all other candidates did including myself and indeed the Leader of the Council at the time. I know this because I was then the Vice President of the Conservative Association and on the agenda for his interview was to discuss his suitability as a candidate given his inability to work with his fellow Conservative Councillors and to seek his undertaking that we would not be printing his own election material, stop making promises he could not deliver and had not been discussed with the rest of the group and that he would take an active part in the group discussions on its manifesto, all things that had been a problem with him before. So at the last District election he stood as an Independent, just beat my running mate and thus became my fellow ward Councillor and now he apparently is a candidate for UKIP, hey anything for a vote!

Over the past 4 years on the District Council I have heard him speak twice at full council, once to vote against the creation of the shared services agreement that has saved millions of pounds in the running costs of the council, the only Councillor who did so, even Labour and the Liberal saw the sense of what was being proposed.

The second was when he banged his Stetson down on the table in front of him and stormed out when the Council unanimously, apart from him, voted in favour of providing something called the ‘People’s Project’ in our village with assistance. He had earlier handed round a hand written note and plan, not tabled a motion having gone through the due process so Councillors could have time to considered the matter before the meeting, no just 5 minutes before the meeting, in which he wanted his fellow Councillors to reject the request for assistance and to support him to knock down the building the People’s Project team was proposing to try to buy (to extend facilities at the Lakenheath Village Hall) and to turn it into a car park. To date the People’s Project has purchased the building and are busy fund-raising to renovate it.

In the past 4 years he has sat on the planning committee as ward member, apart from that role I have not seen him propose one single policy idea to the council, beyond the for-mentioned note. He has never attended any of the Audit Committee meetings I am Chairman of, I have never heard him ask a single question in any meeting other than a planning meeting. In the 3 or so years the Council has had a cabinet, I have never seen him attend a single cabinet meeting, I attend most. Seems to me, if you are going to ask people to elect you to represent them then surely you have to occasionally turn up and actually take part in council business.

But what is even more bizarre with his leaflet is that of course he did once have a more substantial role on the Council, but seems to have omitted this from his leaflet.

Once he was the Chairman of the Local Plan Working Group. Maybe the omission is because on that committee he approved the housing numbers for Lakenheath that were adopted as a part of the Local Development Plan Core Strategy document, at one meeting he said and it was witnessed, that if Newmarket could not take the 1,200 hundred new homes that at the time were being proposed for a particular location, then Lakenheath could.

Now you might say so what, but you see the UKIP Leaflet talks about his opposition to the housing numbers being considered in the village!

But it gets worse!

The leaflet also says the Parish Council is ‘frequently ignored’ by the District Council when it comes to planning matters, yet 3 years ago the Parish Council which Cowboy chairs wanted to know how they could have more control over where the housing numbers for the village should go and over the type of infrastructure that would come as a result. FHDC Senior Planning Officers attended the Parish Council and a presentation was given, explaining that in the planning system if the Parish Council produced what is called a Neighbourhood Plan document in a particular way they could do precisely that, now these things are expensive because of the process that has to be gone through, about £25,000 but grants may be forthcoming to help (the council had over £150,000 in its reserves at the time). Some of the members on the council wanted to commission a plan but the idea was rejected by Cowboy’s controlling group. As the planning applications have flowed in, the Parish Council have felt fustrated they don’t have more say and again his group have voted through, getting a Barristers opinion on what they can do. To date according to the records of the Parish they have spend over £10,000 and rising on that opinion. Whilst I am not party to the advice received, I suspect it will be telling them that they should have got themselves one of those Neighbourhood Plans!

You could not make this stuff up! So the local ward UKIP leaflet claims to be against the housing numbers yet one of their candidate was front and centre in agreeing the housing numbers. Their leaflet says the Parish Council is being ignored and it should control where and what is built and infrastructure provided, yet their candidates was front and centre in rejecting the mechanism to do precisely that.

But hey anything for a vote!

A track record counts

The Conservative Candidate team with 4 zero balloons to represent 4 more year of 0% Council Tax rises

The Conservative Candidate team with 4 zero balloons to represent 4 more year of 0% Council Tax rises

So the election campaign is in full swing, other meetings now cancelled and we are all on the campaign trail. Of course I go out canvassing when I can both in my own patch and across the Eastern Region outside of elections but somehow it’s different when election time comes round. If you’re not a councillor, activist or politician its hard to explain what I am talking about but there is a strange moment when you move from being a Councillor to a candidate, that moment when the campaign, the next leaflet, the returns to the office become the reason you get up in the morning probably having had dreamt about it in your sleep, it sort of takes your thoughts processes over.

Last week the Conservative group of Candidates launched our Manifesto, months in the making from workshop sessions, to group meetings, to checking out with officers that it is all financially sound and deliverable.

Over the past 4 years we have reorganised FHDC, created a truly joint officer team with St. Edmundsbury Borough Council, halved the number of staff and saved millions in the back office costs which, whilst absorbing the Government grant reductions, we have improved services and frozen the District Council element of the Council tax for 5 years, alongside the Conservative controlled County Council who have done the same.

In our Manifesto we have promised to delivery 0% council tax over the next 4 year terms for the whole of the term which will make 9 years without a rise, thus protecting your hard earned money, and at the same time continued to delivery quality services to our residents.

So along with a strong Conservative national message of securing the future and finishing the job of getting this country’s finances on a sound footing after the debacle of the last Labour Government, the message is simple – Vote Conservative, nationally and locally.

A busy time

Launching our Lakenheath Ward Campaign 2015 the Zero balloon stands for 0% Council Tax rises!

Louise Marston and me launching our Lakenheath Ward Campaign 2015 – the balloon represents 0% Council Tax rises!

Well last week was a busy one to say the least. A week ago today I was delighted to be elected the Conservative Group Leader on Suffolk County Council, and thus Leader of the Council elect,  ahead of it’s AGM on the 21st May. In my brief thank you to the Conservative group after my election, I thanked Mark Bee for his work over the past 4 years as Leader and whilst clearly we did not see eye to eye on some issues, he worked hard on a number of key policies not least the Broadband roll-out and he can look back at his time leading the way and driving this 4th utility forward with great pride.

I ended by saying we now need to get back to the issue at hand, campaigning in our District and Borough elections and supporting our MPs in their campaigns for re-election. On Wednesday night we had the final Candidates team meeting for Forest Heath District Council and ran through the next few weeks on the door steps discussing our outstanding track record of shared services, staff reduction, quality services delivery and yet 5 years of no District Council Tax rises, helping Forest Heath’s resident in the best way possible, by protecting their hard earned money.

So my time for the next few weeks, will be split between working in my business, canvassing and delivering in the General and Local Elections and taking a little time to sit down individually with my fellow Conservative Councillors on Suffolk County Council to discuss in more depth, the themes that emerged during the short leadership contest and how we as a group move forward. Group internal relations is hardly the stuff that has residents ‘on the edge of their seats’, as rightly its policies and what we are going to do that matters, but they are important. Last Tuesday I said we were each elected in our Division to come together in a Conservative group and run the County Council, and as a group we are at our strongest together. Alongside talking and listening to the people of Suffolk, it is as a group we’ll create Conservative policies that protect services here in Suffolk that people value.  I am Suffolk born and breed and there is a certain way we do things here in Suffolk and it’s important that as a Council we are in step with that. We’ll make the savings we are required to make by central government, as we have done to date. We’ll plan carefully and discuss openly, we’ll value what we do well, but not be afraid to do things differently with our partners and communities to protect services, residents need to support their lives.

The next few weeks are going to be really interesting for all of us, locally for me as I campaign to win my District ward and help others win theirs, alongside those discussions within the Conservative group on Suffolk County Council, ahead of the council’s AGM. But more importantly the country decides in the General Election, yesterday Labour launched their manifesto and you could see the danger signs of another Labour Government, this time propped up by the SNP. Today the Conservatives launch our manifesto and the difference will be stark, a real plan to continue to get us out of the mess the last Labour Government that Ed Miliband and the Ed Balls were a key part of, left this country in, or a return to the chaotic and damaging thinking of Labour.

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.

Protecting People’s hard earned money

Endeavour House PictureYesterday at Suffolk County Council it was budget day and the big set piece of Council life. What struck me most in the course of the 3 hour debate was firstly how powerful actual debate is, something that is sorely lacking in modern council structures and how it really highlights the differences of focus between Labour and the Conservatives. Cllr. Martin, the Leader of the Labour group, spoke of county life ”There are a few pirogue in Suffolk who would cope perfectly well with minimal county council services’. ‘So long as the roads are well-enough maintained for them to be able to drive their children to their private schools and visit their private hospitals’ a shocking generalisation but very telling none the less.

I got into politics because people where I live often struggle with their budgets and when the county council was controlled by Labour and the Liberals, people really struggled with the ridiculous tax demands the council repeatedly threatened people with. Those I represent are hard-working people who in the main don’t drive large cars or take their children to private schools, they sit down at their kitchen table and work out their budget and pay their bills.

I said then and I said yesterday councils should live within their means and stop treating hard pressed families as cash cows. I of course 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 and despite new ways of working with communities yielding short term benefits, in the longer term our ageing population cannot be supported with the current structure of either social care or the NHS and more money will have to be spend nationally and thus locally in these areas.

During the debate as I mentioned the tax rises of the last Labour/Liberal administration I was reminded across twitter that when Labour put the County Council Tax up by 18.5% the Conservative counter-proposal was 14.5% and it struck me how times have changed. The mind sets that existed in those days of an ever enlarging local gov and state sector demanding more and more of people’s money to build empires, is thankfully a thing of the past and we are now in a period of re-visioning born of economic reality, which is yesterday’s Suffolk Labour Group amendment and speaker after speaker is anything to go by, is still something Labour can’t grasp, truly scary! Since we came to power in 2005 Suffolk County Council has been on a strict course of efficiencies but it is in these last 5 years of government grant constriction that the most dramatic changes have been required to reshape the council to protect services to the most vulnerable in our communities. There is no doubt collectively local government is getting to the blunt end of efficiencies, but there is more to come.  Structurally what the future holds for local government in Suffolk and indeed across the country is starting to be debated and is required to continue to protect services to vulnerable people and equally protect hard pressed families who work and pay their Council Tax bill.

So I leave you with one thought:

The last eight Labour and Liberal years
1998/99 – 10%
1999/00 – 8.4%
2000/01 – 7.3%
2001/02 – 6.9%
2002/03 – 11.9%
2003/04 – 18.5%
2004/05 – 3.8%
2005/06 – 2.5% (in election year, achieved in desperation with the use of reserves)

Conservative years
2006/07 – 4.5%
2007/08 – 4.5%
2008/09 – 3.7%
2009/10 – 2.45% (SCC’s lowest-ever increase)
2010/11 – 2.4% (ditto)
2011/12 – 0%
2012/13 – 0%
2013/14 – 0%
2014/15 – 0%

And as of yesterday 2015/16 – 0%

Who do you think is on the side of hard working people just trying to pay their bills?

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