A new Council

The 2013 Conservative Group on Suffolk County Council

The 2013 Conservative Group on Suffolk County Council

Yesterday marked the end of an era as Jeremy Pembroke, who was the Leader of Suffolk County Council when I first joined in 2006, left the Council Chamber for the last time as he took his leave as Chairman of the Council, having stepped down at the recent election.

It’s a funny thing in life, that you get sort of caught up in the day to day of work, family life and council life, that nothing seems to change but in reality much does even over a relativity sort period of these past few years.

In the Council so many people have come and gone, friendships have formed and been lost, people have pass away in office and new people have emerged to make for themselves different roles. Nationally the picture is now so different from 7 years ago when Councils were frankly awash with money, the economy was booming, albeit we quickly found out with a bump that it was all built on a Labour Party ‘House of cards’ and when it tumbled it did so rather quickly.

In the Council Chamber yesterday we saw the physical manifestation of a changing political scene Labour on the front opposition benches, the Liberals resigned to a supporting role and UKIP sitting slap bang in the middle of us all. As appointment’s were made and opening speeches given I got a sense of what a different Council chamber it will be, and I suspect far more robust that the pervious one when a tired Liberal party mounted such a weak and lacklustre challenge.

Yesterday Labour’s Leader Sandy Martin, now Leader of the opposition, in his opening speech, gave a master class in amnesia, financial crisis ‘nothing to do with us gov’, we are for the people and we need to spend, spend, spend, clearly the fiscal madness that was 13 years of a Labour Government is now long forgotten, as is their 11.9% and 18.5% Council Tax rises when they were last in power in Suffolk, I suspect it will be partly my role to remind him.

As of yesterday my new role as Cabinet Member for Finance and Property was confirmed and so effectively I now grapple with the money the county has available to it over the next 4 years, the pressures to maintain public services, residents expectations, and indeed a new Council Chamber with new Councillors.

Should be an exciting and interesting 4 years.

Suffolk County Council AGM

It was a bit of a marathon session on Thursday which lasted over 4 and half hours with the changing over of the Chairman and Vice Chairman, a speech of note by the new Leader Mark Bee, the announcement that I will continue in my role as will the rest of the cabinet, a brief but important moment to me anyway, and then a number of public questions and petitions; not to mentions the usual political showboating of the liberals, but I’ll come to that.

The Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury the Right Reverend William Nigel Stock spoke about attending Barack Obama’s speech to the joints Houses of Parliament gathered in Westminster Hall the day before and the importance that politics and indeed politicians do have in peoples lives and the need for those making the decisions to do so in the full knowledge of their impact; his was an excellent thought and prayer for the day and most relevant picking up on our role and indeed the public questions and presentation of the petitions to come.

Cllr. Eddy Alcock spoke about his year in office and he handed over the reigns of power to his vice chairman last year Cllr. Patricia O’Brien and I was delighted to then see Jeremy Pembroke installed as Vice-Chairman. When Jeremy retired as Leader he also announced that he would retire as a Councillor at the next County elections so it will be a fitting time as he will be the Chairman in his last year but also during this Country and indeed this county’s high ceremonial summer of 2012. I read somewhere yesterday that spoke of his failure and resignation, well he did not resign he retired.

Now no one is suggesting that the cuts have hardly met with universal approval, lets face it they were never going to, nor indeed has the New Stratergic Direction captured the public’s imagination nor been particularly understood as a way to protect services when there will be less money. But I tell you what if retiring at 70 from a high pressure high profile, public role; after a life in the city, which culmulated in becoming a Director of Hambros, then becoming Leader of the Conservative Group on the County Council, winning a stunning victory from the Liberals and Labour in 2005; overseeing the sorting out of a basket Authority with 11.9% and 18.5% rises in two years under Labour and the lib dems mismanagement; driving forward saving over £70M in back-office re-organisation in the process. Leading his party to winning a second term with a land slide of 55 out of 75 Councillors with the labour group reduced from 18 to 4; demanding and delivering the lowest council taxes rises in the Council’s history with 2.5%, 2.45% and 0% in the last three years alone and last but not least as witnessed by the recent county by-election, that others care to ignore because it does not fit with their themes, where the conservative candidate won over 50% of the vote share; well if that is failure, then bring it on.

Cllr. Mark Bee was then elected unopposed as Leader and gave a speech which I think blended the need for us to explain what the problems are and talk with people more in their own communities to come up with the solutions. He also made the point that the savings we have to make are not theoretical but a reality and whilst we want to work with and take people with us we still have to make those savings.

Next we had a string of public questions and three petitions, to my mind the most moving of the various speeches were those made around the explore card and the role it plays in young peoples lives as the take those first few steps of independence from their parents and the role it plays in their education as well. We simply cannot provide the service we did, we have to make cuts but there really is a need to look at how we can mitigate the impact of this for those least able to afford to pay the full fares. With the cuts we face the only universal things we can do must be around keeping Council tax as low as we possibly can; in most other area’s with the savings we are having to make Local Government needs to be focused on providing our support on helping those who most need our support.

And finally I come to the liberals political show-boating, now maybe I am being unkind but I think not! As we discussed the first Petition they put in a motion and then went on to quote the Constitution, that they just happened to have the relevant pages to hand, that it says this and that and how unsatisfactory the next steps or lack of them. Now to the best of my knowledge of 4 years on the Constitution working party where they have been fully represented, as we have discussed and approved the procedure on petitions they have not once disagreed with amendments proposed to be put to full council, not least because it is custom and practice to only propose what is fully agree in that forum. I also do not recall at any full Council meeting where amendments have been proposed have been anything other than unanimously voted in favour; now from all that I take it they have always been fully in favour. But clearly not! with petitioners in the room they were ‘confused’, ‘upset’ and now ‘challenging’ the procedure, as I said pure political show-boating, very disappointing but not surprising.

Jeremy Pembroke Retires

Yesterday the Conservative Group Leader and thus Leader of the Council announced his decision not to stand as Leader at the Conservative Group AGM. In doing so he retired from the front line of local politics and his will not be an easy act to follow. Whilst I am sure many people will write and blog about his influence on local politics over the past decade I thought I would use my blog to share a few insights into the man, I have observed in working with him over the past 5 years.

The first time I met Jeremy was in March 2006 when following the decision, due to work commitments, by my local county councillor to stepped down and thus a by-election was called in my patch. I was asked and said yes to be the Candidate.  I had been previously asked if I would stand, but at the time of the County and General election in 2005 I was the Chairman of the West Suffolk Conservative Association and had decided I needed to concentrate on getting the MP Richard Spring and other county councillor candidates elected, which we did most successfully as we had a clean sweep apart from one Labour councillor in Haverhill but we managed to persuade him to cross the floor a few a couple of years later.

So I visited Endeavour House pre election to meet Jeremy as the prospective new Councillor and a frist timer at that, sitting in reception I was I admit a bit nervous, things looked up when Jeremy’s charming secretary Leanne came down to collect me and take me up to Jeremy’s office. She was very sweet and did her best to put me at easy making me a cup of tea. I was then ushered into Jeremy’s office and we had a chat about this and that, I later realised Jeremy was actually thinking so if this one gets elected,  on what committee do I put him. I talked a bit about the Charity I am a trustee of working with older people and that was it, Adult and Community Services Scrutiny committee, job done, ‘next’!

Having got elected, over the next couple of years, Jeremy always asked how I was getting on as he put me on this or that committee. I was really pleased and surprised when he asked me to become the next Chairman of the group; now chairing a meeting with Jeremy sitting beside you is no mean feat, for, how can I put this, he did rather have a habit of talking charge.

During this time I was also invited to attend cabinet and it was here I started to really see the incredible work, commitment and energy that Jeremy put into the role of Leader. His command of the detail was amazing, there is no doubt whichever one of us takes over from him will have to work very, very hard not just to fill Jeremy’s substantial ‘shoes’ but the job itself is incredibly demanding and will swamp anyone who does not.

After the county election in 2009 when under his leadership, I suspect we arrived back from the campaign at the high water mark in terms of the number of conservative councillors returned with us being 55 of 75; Jeremy invited me into the cabinet and to take political command of Adult and Community Services, effectively one of the big two portfolio’s. I am sure this was a gamble on his part, and I hope it has paid off.  Over the past two years I have worked  with him and come to realised a number of things as we worked more closely together, firstly Jeremy has always been a man in a hurry, you learnt quickly to only ever take a problem to him when you have a couple of solutions as well! Secondly I think he also had the vision of what was coming in terms of the economy and cuts, it is amazing to me to think we actually started the work on the New Strategic Direction in September 2009, for all the concern around the decisions we are taking about where to make cuts; the fact is that irrespective of where, Government is stripping out 28% of our funding, and if the work being done to fundamentally lower the cost base of delivering services is successful, in 5 years time we will be delivering  more services that people want than if we just ‘kept our head down’ and salami sliced our way forward.

This ultimately will be the third legacy people will hopefully remember from Jeremy’s time as Leader.

The first will be the re-organisation of the Council from the frankly ‘basket case’ way it was run before 2005; the over saving of £70M in back office efficiencies and turning Suffolk county council from being one of the least efficient to one of the most efficient in the country.

The second, that the liberals and labour would have us all forget, is about the Council tax we pay and their appalling track record, as the red rose or whatever its called and that terrible yellow thing drop on your door mat, sorry only in the area’s they think they have a chance unlike Conservatives who are broadly speaking campaigning in every ward up for election across Suffolk, but I digress. Let us not forget that the last time they were in power in the county they happily put up the council tax by 11.9% in one year and 18.5% in the next, utter madness! The conservative administration under Jeremy’s Leadership have delivered the lowest council tax rises in the councils history (2.5%, 2.45% and now 0% in the last three years), these historic lows are as a direct result of those efficiency saving and Jeremy’s demanding that the organisation learns to look to itself not the Council tax payers of Suffolk; This return to financial sanity has benefited us all and is a testament to our and Jeremy’s determination to put this right.

At a personal level Jeremy was always polite even when grumpy, he is a gentleman of the old school and always there to help if you had a problem with a resident or balancing the crazy world of being a councillor with work and family commitments.

Whoever replaces him, and there will be a number of us looking to do so, will have a tough act to follow.

His command of the detail, his sheer hard work and determination will be qualities we will need but more than that, for me it is his vision, not of managing but of leadership that we and Suffolk will need.

In these uncertain times that I can honestly say his selflessness in his role, his passion for Suffolk and his desire to do the right thing often not necessarily the political thing but the right thing, are the qualities I shall most often be reminded off when I think of his Leadership, and a fundamental benchmark I intend to always be a part of my decision making.

But most importantly I want to just say thank you to Jeremy for taking the time to help me learn and develop, and for the good he has done in Suffolk, for all the financial worries this country faces I am convinced that Suffolk is a better place for Jeremy’s efforts over the past 10 years than it would be without them and I do hope that he finds a role to continue to serve our great county.

Meeting with Lord Heseltine and Eric Pickles MP

Yesterday I had a busy day with various meetings and then off to London to represent the Leader of Suffolk County Council Jeremy Pembroke at the LGA Councillors Forum meeting in general session, i.e. all the political parties with, Lord Heseltine who spoke of his personal political journey to conclude that elected Mayors are the absolutely the only way forward, those in the room were polite but in general disagreed and he had quite a rough time, not that that fussed him at all. Fortunately there was no mention of a directly elected Mayor as the right solution for shire county solution, which is good. He also articulated his passion that Unitary Councils are the only logical only way forward!, very off-message to say the least.  

Then on to the group meeting where Eric Pickles MP gave us a sort of short ‘state of the nation’ speech and there was a full and frank exchange of views as to the issues before us, I suppose he was very on-message but then again as he rather writesd the messages for Local Government I suspose he is always on message, power indeed!

He then went on to talk about some of the exciting developments that will be rolled out over the coming months as we seek to redefine the relationship between local and Central government. He was as relaxed I have seen him at an event, reflective on the first year in power and excited by the challenges that lay ahead, as we all are.  

Whilst there is lots that I cannot blog about, he made an interesting comment ‘In politics never get tied up with power, go for influence’ which I thought was interesting.

Meeting finished and I rushed back to Liverpool Street Station to get back to Endeavour House in Ipswich for a meeting with the Directors and Trustee’s of the ICENI Project to discuss their future and what funding we could make available to them; All in all a busy day.

Suffolk’s New Stratergic Direction on Thursday’s Newsnight

Wow what amazing coverage and I for one was not expecting it, I suppose because to me our proposals for the New Strategic Direction are quite old news in that we approved the start of the process last September in the Full Council and I have sort of lived and breathed it for a year, with lots of meeting and workshop as we look at what we need to do to take it to the next level.

Last Thursday started well with a bit of early morning excitement as there are protesters outside Endeavour House and I rather assumed they were here about the Energy from Waste paper than was on the Agenda for the afternoon, it was only later that I saw they were from UNISON, they were 7 of them which is hardly a crowd but such is the way these thing are reported, later on the news it said UNISON were protesting outside I don’t know about you but my mind when I heard comments like that is of a large angry crowd raging against the ‘dying of the light’ as opposed to seven people having chat with people coming and going and handing out a few leaflets, don’t get me wrong I am not diminishing their right to protest just this point about the impression it leaves in the mind when you hear or read the comment ‘there were protesters outside’.

So there were are sitting in our group meeting discussing the agenda for the full council and the Chairman of the Council Eddy Alcock comes in and says are we OK for Anglia and wait for it, Newsnight to come and film now we are used to Look East and Anglia coming along but the mighty Newsnight now that was a first and I joked with Mark Bee the Chairman of the Constitution Working Party Committee on which I sit that they were clearly coming to interview him on the proposed amendments to the Constitution of the Council that were on the Agenda for the day, at this point I thought it was a toss up between Energy from Waste and maybe the NSD.

So we had our meeting and Jeremy Pembroke was interviewed for Anglia and Newsnight, we got to the end of the meeting and I rushed home to go and catch the tale end of a couple of town Councillor elections in Newmarket and we won both seats comfortably!

Then back home at 11:30 to watched the recorded coverage on Anglia and Newsnight, quite amazing it has really captured the imagination, the first 15 minutes of Newsnight was all about Suffolk, Suffolk this and Suffolk that, Jeremy’s interview came across really well (and on Anglia), Suffolk and NSD was reported as the first Council to embracing the Big Society, interpreted it for Local Government and are now setting about making it happen. Matthew Hancock MP was in the Studio as part of the panel discussing our NSD, his fellow studio guest was reflective on the role of Communities and the rigour of the Big Society and a UNISON spokesperson, who well lets just say was against! Matthew gave a robust defence of our strategy, and even mentioned that 80% of the services we provide today through ACS are done by our provider partners, slightly worried I must have bored him to death with that stat during the election campaign, all in all it was quite something to see little quite Suffolk and our thoughts examined on Newsnight! Makes a pleasant change from Essex!

However I rather thought the press coverage slightly misses the point about what we are trying to do as its really not so much about outsourcing all the councils services and going down to a tiny operation with a few hundred contract managers as seems to have been suggested, it is much subtler than that.

Unlike the Cuts that we, like everyone else face, which are not remotely subtle. SCC is likely to be receiving between 25 to 30% less money with which to pay for services.

Someone said to me what does that mean in the day to day for the Council and I said well that life changing and anyone who things it is not is in cloud cuckoo land. Simple put we need to find a way of protecting the county from the worst of the financial difficulties, improving outcomes for people while having much less money with which to do it.

SCC already have an excellent record on efficiency savings – £70 million over the last four years and is now rated the second most cost effective County Council in England after Kent, yes we’ll get more efficient but it will only get us so far and not to anything like the sort of savings we need to achieve to deal with what’s coming.

People have also said if this is such a great idea why have you not done it before and again I say that we have been lobbying our Party that when they take power we must be allowed to run our own affairs and true to their word the freedoms granted by the new government now present us with an opportunity to re-design the way services are provided and tailor them to the needs of our communities rather than a centralised version of what they thing our communities are and need, not to mention the whole scale dismantling of the strangle hold of requirements and reporting back to central government that was the hallmark of the Labour government, centralised control that Stalin would have been proud of!

So if the New Strategic Direction is not what the press are saying it is what is it well its a two year programme starting now (September 2010), and with the new strategic council up and running in 2012.

 It’s a programme to reduce as far as possible the Council’s role as a direct provider of services. The aim is to move service delivery outside the council, by doing that we can cut out layers of organisational bureaucracy, leaving a cheaper, more flexible and efficient core, and feeding money much more effectively to the services people need.

It’s not about handing over all services delivery to the private sector, but about talking to individual communities to find out what they need, and then helping them find the best way of delivering.

It’s about help communities become more self-reliant on present trends, demand for our services continues to grow.  By helping to build each community’s capacity to support itself, we can help our towns and villages become stronger and more self-reliant, and create a culture in which people feel more willing and able to take control of their lives and help those around them.

Something that has been entirely missed by the press is that it’s also about supporting and strengthens local democracy and the role of councillors, both at the heart of the council and as advocates for their divisions, this bit has not been reported at all!

We want to encourage people to become more involved, take on responsibility for what happens in their area.  We want to build the Big Society in Suffolk.

So in this Suffolk Big Society who will provide services, Services could be provided by existing staff running the service as a self-sustaining social enterprise or co-operative or other existing social enterprises can take on services or private companies may be contracted to provided some services or charities are ready and willing to take on a greater role and or local community groups, town and parish councils, or individuals, can do work that was previously done by the council, depending on the size and scale of the job

There are no hard and fast rules about how a service should be run and I for one certainly believe that the County Council doesn’t know best.  The NSD is all about giving more power to local communities, allowing them to decide for themselves what services they need and, with the help of the local councillor, find the best method of providing it. 

So that’s the aims but what about the nitty gritty stuff, as part of this process, there may be occasions where a private company is the right choice for a particular service. Equally if we have a statutory duty to provide the service, or indeed, if it is one that is considered ‘essential’, then I believe the Council must and will put in place strong mechanisms to ensure standards of delivery are maintained.

But there may well be some services the county provides where, for whatever reason, a statutory service cannot be provided satisfactorily. In this case it seems to me one of the roles of the strategic council will be to act as a guarantor, and ensure it is provided, while working to develop a market in that area, or encourage suitable providers to come forward.  So the principle of what we want to do still stands and we would continue to look for an external solution.

But we must not be afraid to say that in cases where there is no statutory need, and no-one in the community is willing to provide it, it may well be that the service stops, and as I reflect on a really interesting couple of days, if you think of democracy and ‘for the people by the people’ maybe just maybe that is the right litmus test for what services to cut as we deal with a new era in Local government as we change from being managers of a centralised state to truly working to reflect the needs of our communities albeit with a lots less money.

The spot light has been turned on Suffolk probably because we seem to be amongst the first to take the Big Society and interpret it for local government, what gives me a chuckle is that we launched this in September 2009 and now its news!

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