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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to build better Public Services across Suffolk

Here is my column that appeared in last Tuesday’s edition of the EADT and Ipswich Star newspapers:

Suffolk is a place where people work together. We do it to make people’s lives better, to make the county more prosperous and to be creative. It’s part of what makes Suffolk so special.

I’m very proud to say that this is the case in Suffolk politics too. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of tough debates and disagreements, both between and within political parties. But that’s just healthy democracy. I know that making Suffolk a stronger place binds us all together and very often, we can find common ground.

One such place that common sense prevails in this way is the Suffolk Public Sector Leaders (SPSL) group, of which I am a member. People often assume that I run or chair the group because of my leadership of the county council. In fact, I don’t. I am an equal member along with the leaders and chief executives of all seven district and borough councils, Suffolk’s police and crime commissioner and chief constable and representatives from the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).

SPSL has been running for about six or seven years now and is a clear demonstration of the cross-party, cross-organisation public sector cooperation for which Suffolk is recognised nationally. I can assure you that there is less of this happening in other parts of the country. In some places, it doesn’t happen at all!

When it originally began, we used to discuss the big issues facing Suffolk and try to find ways that we could commit our own organisations to doing something about them. That was really helpful and still happens. But then in 2012, members of the group took a bold step and each partner publicly agreed to combine a share of the money we collect from local businesses and invest that in projects that benefit the county. It’s known at the ‘pooled business rate’ and is quite forward-thinking in the public sector world. We all agreed for SPSL to oversee this work.

There are some hugely important projects that have benefited for pooled business rate funding. Building the business case for Ipswich’s much-needed northern bypass, work to promote Suffolk as a place for tech companies to set up business and recruiting more town planners across the county so that the impact of housing growth can be better managed.

I’m sure many readers know that the Government has chosen Suffolk as one of 10 areas to trial next year a new way of funding local areas (the 100% business rate retention pilots). We were chosen because of our national reputation for working together and our bid was built in that basis. Again, Suffolk leading the way.

Recently, SPSL has been described as some kind of ‘secretive club’ that people only know about when it’s publicised. Well, I can think of better ways of keeping secrets than publicising things! It’s not a club though, far from it. It’s a serious space where people responsible for major public bodies in Suffolk come together to find solutions to the issues facing Suffolk.

Last month, the SPSL group met Eleanor Kelly, the chief executive of Southwark Council who stepped in to help residents in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Eleanor told us that Suffolk was one of the first places, as a whole, to seek to learn the direct lessons from Grenfell so that we can protect our residents. I’m not sure this would have happened if Suffolk’s public sector organisations didn’t work in this way.

At that same meeting, we agreed to review the way we work to ensure we keep having a positive impact on Suffolk. We’re reviewing everything, including having representatives from other sectors involved and looking at how we share more about the things we’re working on. That was absolutely the right decision to make, not least because the business rate retention pilot kicks off in April and collective decision making will be even more important. I look forward to updating people when that work is complete.

 

 

My Column in the papers & a new road

fullsizeoutput_1c1cHere is this week’s column for the East Anglian Daily Times and the Ipswich Star:

Yesterday I joined councillors, staff and partners who have helped deliver a vital relief road to the east of Bury St Edmunds.

The Eastern Relief Road is a long-time in the making, with Suffolk County Council investing £2million into the £15million project, which was also funded by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership and St Edmundsbury Borough Council.

A huge amount of work went into the delivery of this project. From putting a strong business case forward to laying tarmac on the ground, this showed what partnership working can do.

Although the route is only a mile or so long, a 67-hectare area of land will be unlocked for economic development, creating 15,000 jobs and boosting the area by millions of pounds. It will also relieve congestion in Bury St Edmunds and in light of that, we’ve improved junction 45 of the A14.

Without these benefits, we would not have been able to get this road built.

Now the road is open, business development should begin to increase in the area. From the road, you are within an hour from the internationally-significant Port of Felixstowe. This is a prime area of land that hasn’t been able to be used before and I’m positive manufacturers will want to be based in Suffolk, with the benefits it brings.

Bury St Edmunds will see a boost too, as the creation of jobs will mean more people can work in their home town – reducing a need to commute out of Suffolk. More people will be using the town’s shops, bars, and restaurants as well.

This road shows how we and our partners can work for you to deliver a sustainable future for the people of Suffolk.

There’s further good partnership working in Bury St Edmunds, for the benefit of all road users – the schemes in the town centre we’re carrying out to improve the movement of traffic through the town and the safety of all road users.

Work has also begun on the Beccles Southern Relief Road. Costing £7million, this is further evidence of how we can improve things for people – with better journey times for all road users and an economic boost to the business owners in that area.

While on the topic of partnership working and delivering new routes for those using our roads, we’ve extended the consultation for Lowestoft’s Lake Lothing Third Crossing, with an additional event at Pakefield Church Hall on October 5. So far we’ve had a great response to the consultation and we want to ensure everyone has their say on this significant project.

Work is continuing on delivering the Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich and as part of a differing set of works in the town, we’ll begin working on the first junction improvement scheme, at Landseer Road and Clapgate Lane.

We’re currently consulting on proposals for Suffolk’s Energy Gateway in the east of the county, and we continue to study the possibility of a relief road to the north of Ipswich, as well as one in Sudbury.

All of the above wouldn’t be where they are without the combined working of us and our partners, to deliver the best we can provide for our county. And it doesn’t just count for our roads, we work with our partners in Clinical Commissioning Groups and the NHS with regards to caring for our most vulnerable.

As you will have seen in the news this past week, party conference season is upon us. Journalists are basing themselves in and around the bases of each major party, trying to find out what they can before the announcements are made on stage to the nation’s media.

The Liberal Democrats have held theirs, in Bournemouth, and Labour are currently hosting theirs in Brighton.

The Conservative’s annual conference starts on Sunday and I will be going to Manchester to represent Suffolk, discussing how we can play a bigger role in the national picture. I’ll be reporting back in my next column about my role and how the conference went.

We’re doing the best we can for the people of Suffolk – and our partners are doing so too.

 

 

EADT – A new weekly column

On Tuesday in the EADT and the Ipswich Star I wrote the first of a weekly Column as Leader of Suffolk County Council, well I say weekly it will be every other week as I shall alternate with SCC’s Cabinet Member for Ipswich Paul West who will write more about Ipswich issues as I concentrate on a pan-Suffolk approach.

These will be a mixture of the issues that are happening as the papers go to print and some of my thoughts about how we develop Suffolk as a place to live and work over the next 20 years.  Suffolk County Council is a large organisation delivering services to some of the most vulnerable people in our Community but it is but one players and how we work in partnership across the Public sector, with private businesses and voluntary organisations is key to how we build the place we all want to live.

“Yesterday in Lowestoft, as I witnessed the initial stages of the ground investigations that will shape the final design of the Lake Lothing Third Crossing, I saw the good of our democratic bodies working together.

The investigations, taking place on land behind the offices shared by Suffolk County Council and Waveney District Council, is another step in the right direction to getting the £90million project, funded by both central government and the county council, completed. The benefits will not only be reaped by those living in the town, but across the wider area too. We simply would not have funding for the project had this not been the case. The business case for this project, along with the Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich, was put together by people who work very hard and want the best for our county.

This also rings true for the senior bosses and directors who work on our behalf. They all, like the democratically elected councillors, work hard to make a difference to Suffolk and those who live and work here. Pay in the public sector has always been a fiercely-debated issue, and even more so in recent times. It’s not just politicians and those working in the public sector – we’ve all seen the furore over the salaries awarded to the highest earners at the BBC, as well as the gender pay gap.

Last week we published our accounts, as we do every year and are required to do so. As has been reported, the majority of our staff received the 1% pay rise, in line with other public sector workers up and down the country. However, a select few members of staff received honorariums as they stepped up to fill roles, either on a temporary or permanent basis.

Indeed, they are pay rises, but they are reasonable, considering they come with greater pressures and expectations. There is no hiding from the changes that will be coming to the United Kingdom in the next two years and these people will be there assessing and dealing with those challenges. Alongside that, as an organisation we are looking to save £56million over the next four years and, along with the cabinet, these people are key to making difficult but effective decisions.

Bringing in new people to the roles would have cost the council even more money. Not just for the roles themselves, but for the cost of advertising the position. Then there is the time element too, as staff will be taken away from working on policy and serving the community as they filter applications and sit in interviews.”

Our recently introduced priorities are based on three core principles; inclusive growth, health care and wellbeing, and efficient and effective public services. These are ambitious targets – but ones I know we can achieve during the term of the administration.

This is because of the hard work and commitment of our staff, regardless of pay grade, and our councillors – and not just those in control of the administration, as opposition provides checks and balances and the chance to challenge us on policies.

Sound financial management is needed, along with careful planning and the will to find new ways to deliver and protect our frontline services. One of these methods Suffolk is leading on nationally – inspired by the work of a Dutch community, using the Buurtzorg model of care (to deliver dedicated personal and healthcare to patients in a neighbourhood) in the west of the county with our partners in health.

The work we have been doing here is something I am proud to champion in my position of Health and Social Care Integration spokesman on the County Council Network. It is something I truly believe is a strong contribution to the national debate about how we re-shape the healthcare system to serve the ever-changing age profile of our communities. I’m sure there will be more of this to come in the weeks and months ahead as the trial continues.

We, and our partners, work extremely hard to provide the best for our residents. Despite the challenges we will come up against, our staff continue to excel every day in a concerted effort to make savings and provide a better life for those we serve.

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.

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