Suffolk

on the sofa with BBC Radio Suffolk's Lesley Dolphin at the Suffolk Show

on the sofa with BBC Radio Suffolk’s Lesley Dolphin at the Suffolk Show

A couple of Friday’s ago, fresh in my new role on Suffolk County Council, I was on BBC Radio Suffolk Mark Murphy’s ‘Hot Seat’ an hour long grilling with phone in and tough questions from Mark. Earlier in the day the county council’s Labour Opposition Leader had described me as more acerbic and aggressive than my predecessor and I tend to think that is usually unfair but in his case when I have to listen to the unreformed Socialist nonsense he insists on repeating as he does, I suspect he gets that about right!

That aside, for me the interview was about setting out in part how we need to work together across Local government to protect services for the most vulnerable in our community that is Suffolk and deliver the services people expect from us, never sure the extent to which you get these things across in a free flowing interview but hope I did.

I also hoped I got across just how much I love our county, I am Suffolk Born and Breed and I am once, twice and always a Lakenheath Boy. My childhood was spent on a Saturday watching the Blues from the then new Portman Road stand and our summer holidays were spent in Felixstowe at my parents holiday home in Western Avenue. I literally went to school in the back of a builders van and growing up at the dinner table its was all about business and the community in which we lived. We do things a certain way in Suffolk and its important that we mirror that, proud of what we do well, careful in how we plan but open to changing things if we can find a better way working with our partners and communities and it is clear with the emerging agenda on Devolution this way of working will be how we take public sector services forward in Suffolk not just local government but Health, police, indeed potentially the totality of government spend in our communities. So for all the savings we have to make, it is still a very exciting time to be in Local Government.

And one of the wonderful things about being from Suffolk is the Suffolk Show, l was there last Wednesday and the weather was glorious and I had a pleasure to welcome the show President Terry Hunt and his wife Jane, to have a look around the County Council stand. It was designed to be how the public sector works with each and everyone of us as we make our journey through life and to be interactive, so it started with face painting for the kids from the team in Children’s services and finsihed with things like the Coffee Caravan, a voluntary sector organisation, talking about how they go out and explain the services available for older people in their community across Suffolk. Just before I left to travel back for the Forest Heath District Council AGM I popped along to the Radio Suffolk stand and had a chat with Lesley Dolphin about all the great things at the show, a truly lovely celebration fo all things Suffolk.

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.

Suffolk Adult Learners’ Awards 2013

Last Thursday I had the honour of being invited to give the opening address to the Suffolk Adult Learners’ Awards 2013 at the University Campus Suffolk, Waterfront Building, BBC Radio Suffolk’s Mark Murphy was the host and even managed to get the audience to clap and holler when he introduced me, as I opened my speech I said I have been booed before speaking but never hollered!

All over the country last week people are celebrating Adult Learners Week (ALW) as part of the NIACE initiative and the award ceremony was just one of the activities happening in Suffolk last week. Across the county there were an incredible variety of taster sessions, open evenings, and even a conference for mature learners interested in going to university at UCS. To give just a few examples. You could try Indian head massage or singing, learn about dyslexia, do a maths or English taster, learn to make a healthy snack for the family and even try out playing in a steel band!

The awards were to celebrate the successes and diversity of adult learning in Suffolk.  Adult learning covers a huge spectrum – from family learning, leisure and community learning, work-place learning, learning for older people, learning for specific groups and university lectures are just some examples.

All of these examples have a common thread.  They can have a huge impact on people’s lives. Adult learning can give people a second chance to return to learning and improve their life or work chances through learning new skills.

Indeed Adult learning can inspire and motivate people to overcome barriers that life throws up. It can help people get into or back into work or once in work improve their career prospects. It can give people life skills to enable them to live more independent lives. For older people it can help them socialise, stay active and keep up with changes.

So the Awards were to celebrate some of the achievements adult learners in Suffolk and hopefully inspire others to sign up and take a course or attend a lecture and learn something new.

It certainly was an honour to be a judge firstly reading through the entries and nominations and then along with Miles Cole – LEAP Project manager, Fiona (Fisk – Head of Academic Partnerships and Support and Gwen Parsons – the former Head of Lowestoft College judging the winning entries to picking the winners

In the tough financial times Local government are going through there are many difficult meetings to be had and tough decisions to make but every now and again you are reminded just why we do it.

There are pictures online at the leap website and in them you’ll see what a wonderful joyful evening it was.

Annual Visit to the Suffolk Show

Maybe I am getting old but annual events seem to come around faster and faster and I can’t believe it’s a year since I was last meeting people on the excellent Suffolk County Council stand at the Suffolk Show but there I was again yesterday in the lovely sunshine enjoying talking to people about their issues and concerns and what we are trying to do about them as we live in a new world of less money with which to do so.

I thought the show was bigger and even better than last year with lots of Suffolk businsses taking stands and a really strong showing from the voluntary sector in Suffolk which obviously is a passion of mine. I think the way the Suffolk Agricultural Association has kept farming at the heart of the show but expanded it to be all about what is best in Suffolk and made it a really great family day out, is a real testiment to their vision and they are to be congratulated.

I was particualrly pleased to see so many organisations as a part of the County Council stand including the great team from Suffolk Circle and not far away in another row the Coffee caravan which the Care Health and Independance Board of Suffolk which I chair, helped fund and as usual Gary was on hand with a cup of tea.  Then it was lunchtime so a quick phone call to arrange to meet up with my very good friend’s Andy and Boo and it was off to the food tent for lunch and a refreshing half of Adnams splendid Spindle Drift light beer.

The big news story of the day, in the care world, was around the problems faced by Southern Cross Care Homes Group and Look East wanted to interview me for the evening show and so I made my way to their satellite van and formed an orderly queue behind various people including the hard working Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey who was I think being interviewed about drought issues; the main thurst of what I was saying was about the need to plan for the worst but helping people understand that often the high level problems of a group often mean very little at the day to day end of the care provision, but that we were planning with other councils and keeping a very close eye on the situation.

All in all a lovely day out and a chance for all those who came along to see some great displays in the various show rings and celebrate all that is good about living in the lovely county that we do.

Suffolk County Council Budget Day and the morning after

Last Thursday I had quite a long day up at 5:30am, tea and toast, emails, shave and a shower and off to Endeavour House to be there for 8am to be interviewed by Eamonn Holmes on the Sky’s fast moving Breakfast News show.

That is always a strange experience; cameraman, a moving camera lens straight in front of your face and an ear piece to listen to Eamonn and a Councillor from Liverpool, neither of whom you can see; we chatted about the cuts and the Budget meeting here in Suffolk and then got on to who is responsible and to blame for the cuts, I said what I know to be true is that after 13 years of Labour mismanagement and the ridiculous situation where this county is spending more that it takes in its tax base we are having to deal with the consequences of that and Council budget cuts are one such consequence.

Next was the group meeting and we discussed the budget and the amendments that were proposed by Labour and the Liberals then into the foyer to record a video Tape for Look East with Kevin Burch just in case the Council Meeting by the tiem Look East went out at 6:30pm and I promised to do a live interview if we were finished, as the meeting ended at 8:05pm they used the tape.

Then a quick sandwich and Councillor briefing from Andrea Hill on where the New Strategic Direction was up to and into the Chamber for what turned out to be a 6 hour meeting, we certainly debated the budget and then some.

Just as last year and the year before that when I was Cllr. Jane Storey’s Assistant Portfolio Holder for Finance and Resource Management; I had the honour of seconding the Budget motion and so got to speak twice firstly when the Liberals tabled their amendments and then to sum up the debate before Jane put the motion to the Council.

First came Labours amendment with regards the school crossing patrols and then came the Liberal one. Whilst I accept that with only 4 members the Labour group will struggle to put together a credible alternative to our budget one line item was a bit think on the ground for all the rather feeble rationale from their Leader that they only tabled the one in the hope we would adopt it, I’ve heard some excuses in my time but really!

Then came the Liberal’s amendment and to be fair I was somewhat torn by it and said on balance I could not support it, which surprised a few, as in the five years I have seen a budget debate this was by far the most work they had ever put in fact I would go so far as to say, you could add all the other amendments together and this one was longer, a whole side of A4 albeit big print but nevertheless a whole side, I mentioned that in preparing for the debate I had looked up my previous notes and in February 2009 I had accused them of perhaps not realising when the deadline for submission was as it as so short and clearly rushed.

Unfortunately as is often the way of these things when you got into the detail you could clearly see that rather than a detailed critique of our proposals it was nothing more than Political Showboating not discussing some of the more difficult subjects in my Portfolio or anyone else’s come to think of it but just those subject that have been on the front pages of the press pure Political Showboating.

But it gets worse, much worse, when it came to where they would find the money from it was scary, they were even suggesting that we use service reserves and contingency funds to stave off having to do things, but then don’t worry folks just as in 2002/03’s Budget when they put up Council tax by 11.9% and then the very next year when they put it up again by 18.5%, if it goes wrong they can always make the people of Suffolk pay for it, simples yes!

Both amendments started and in Labours case ended with the issue of the School Crossing Patrols and we must have sent two and a half hours on this every subject. To my mind getting children to school safely is everyone responsibility their own, parents and drivers and I actually suspect that most children who walk to school have to cross more than one road and do so safely with their parents or friends because they take responsibility to follow the right way to do it.

During the debate Cllr. Guy McGregor said that School crossing patrols were being maintained until the end of the summer term to allow Community Groups, PTAs, schools, Parish and Town Councils and individual businesses to support a crossing service if a community valued it. I am sure over the coming months local County Councillors will be taking the lead in helping those communities work out how to do it. For my part I am going to speak with the schools in my division and see if any way to although most have travel plans and school crossing patrols do not seem a priority.

In my closing remarks I talked about a survey by the East Anglian Daily Times where they asked in an on-line poll ‘Would you pay more Council tax to save threatened services?’ 25% said yes and 75% said no. To me the whole budget process is about helping those families in Suffolk who are struggling in these difficult times and I can thing of no better way to support people who are on fixed incomes and low wages that freezing the tax they have to pay and are struggling to pay.

The following morning I popped down to my local Newsagent and got a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times to read what was said and then back home to do radio interviews with Town 102 (Ipswich Local Radio) and Mark Murphy’s show on Radio Suffolk. On Nick Pandolfi’s breakfast show a number of people has texted and twittered in how angry they were at the cuts and I tried to address the point’s one by one saying if we did not do that what would we cut, which of course is the real challenge of objecting to a particular cut. On Mark Murphy’s show he kindly played a tape of one parent who said ‘we would have blood on our hands’ over school crossing patrols, now it does not matter how sure you are of your course that’s not a nice thing to be accused of, just gone 8 o’clock in the morning and in any case in my Division there is not one school crossing patrol yet children seem to get to school mostly without any untoward incidents.

Next Mark read out that one listener thought I was being boastful on the Look East interview, I might be proud of our efficiency track record and that 82% of the £42.5M saving this year are coming from inside the Council but no Councillor would want to make cuts unless they have to, I certainly did not stand to do that but we are where we are. What I was saying on Look East is precisely that we have saved over £70M in back office efficiencies since 2005 and we intend to go much further and its this track record and what we are now proposing to do that has other County Councils wanting to come and talk with us about how we have and are going about it. That along with a zero percent rise in Council Tax built on a base line of zero percent rather than using the Government Grant to achieve it is something to be proud of in these difficult times. Then off to work in my other life and a string of meetings with clients.

All in all a tough couple of days but I can look forward to Tuesday when we start to plan for next years budget!

On the Radio and TV

‘Thursday, 09:00 on BBC Suffolk. Synopsis Suffolk County Council chief executive Andrea Hill has spoken to BBC Radio Suffolk to defend council cuts and her hotly-debated salary, James invites you to have your say on what she’s said.’

I was driving down to Ipswich for a meeting on this morning when I got a call asking me if I would like to be on the James Hazell show at 9:40 after they broadcast Andrea Hill interview with Mark Murphy, and Cllr. Kathy Pollard would be on as well so the two of us could give our reactions to the interview ahead of the phone in they were building around it.

So I cancelled my first meeting and headed for the studio listening to Andrea’s interview as I travelled down, got to the studio at 9:35 straight in to listen to the end of it in reception and on with the head phone for a bit of political sparring with Cllr. Kathy Pollard, then off to my next meeting with the Suffolk Association of Independent Care Providers to discuss prices.

If you want to listen to the interview with Andrea its right at the start of James Hazell’s Thursday morning show and its on i-player for a week, Kathy’s and my bit is on direct after the interview at about 40 minutes in.

I have to admit we did not seem to get into the interview with Andrea much and I suspect that is because whilst Kathy will of course have a go about Andrea’s salary she knows how good Andrea is at her job and that came across in the interview.

We seems to spend most of our brief session discussing Lollipop men and woment and pot holes, which to be fair is seems to be the two topics of the day at the moment!

That doen and off I went to Endeavour house; at lunch time SKY News called and said they wanted to do a piece on the New Strategic Direction to camera and so the comms team naturally thought of me, well not quite, the Leader and Duty Leader were at other meetings and I was the only other Cabinet member about that afternoon, but the team did assume me I was not their last resort!

The reporter was Emma Birchley who used to be on Anglia News many years ago, so a local to Norfolk and Suffolk; she said they hoped it would be on Saturday as part of a piece on the Big Society and Councils but would let me know.

Postcard from Birmingham

What a difference a year makes as I travel on the train to Birmingham, this time last year we were in opposition and looking forward to winning a general election, this year in coalition and facing up to what looks like its going to be a really tough day on 20th October the day of the Comprehensive Spending review.

As I near Birmingham and sit quietly planning my conference which plenary sessions which fringes which receptions and which restaurants, or is that which restaurants which drinks receptions which fringes something like that; my phone rings and my day changes when I get a call from the Central Office team that the question I tabled has got through and I am to present myself to the conference desk at 3:15pm, I am now on a deadline – clearly the recent publicity around the New Strategic Direction has certainly pushed Suffolk up the list of Local Councils to watch, err……think that’s a good thing!

So I check into my hotel, unpack and head off the conference to make myself known at the desk, a brief chat, I drew the high nubmer so go last, and its into the main hall for the Big Society plenary session. I take my place in the reserved seat for the speakers from the floor and natter to the others who are going to ask a question of the Local Government team. The debate begins and surprisingly Eric Pickles quite early on asked for contributions form the floor. Not a good start as the first name called is not there but at least that pushes me up the list, next speaker, then the next then the next, a bit nervous now as one to go before me, then in comes George Osborne and wife and Eric Pickles decides to stop the contributions from the floor and makes his speech instead, my big moment dashed! Oh well never mind!

Later at a drinks reception I am introduced to Eric and mention that he cut me short earlier in the day, he did not seem fussed at all! The next couple of days pass without incident and I enjoy talking to old friends attending different fringes on Social Care, Health, Housing and Local Government tax and efficiency. I also attended a closed meeting with the local government team which was very different from years past gone are the days of Eric giving a rousing speech of once more unto the breeches dear chums, once more push and we’ll be there instead we are getting down to the ‘nitty gritty’ of government and the relationship with us in Local Authorities.

During the course of the conference the Residential Care Home papers for the cabinet meeting on the 12th were published and nothing really happened on the Monday but by the Tuesday the press were making enquires and I agreed to go on the Mark Murphy Show on BBC Radio Suffolk on the Wednesday morning, I got up early took my notes and papers to Breakfast and was back in my room waiting for the call just after 8am sitting in my room with my notes around me, Mark Murphy was on form and it felt quite a tough interview particularly as I had not been able to hear what people on before were saying. His questions were quite quick fire but I tried to get across the maths of what we are doing and how we were going to go to all the care homes to explain our thoughts.

He then rather unexpectedly moved onto the Chief Executive’s pay following comment made by a few people the previous day, again I was out of that loop being in Birmingham and so as not quite ready for that; but was able to answer the questions as much as anything because I am simply staggered that in the face of the scale of the issues before us, people seem to be able to rally behind such calls. I suspect in part this is because it is actually quite difficult to articulate just how much she has achieved in terms of the organisational structure change that has taken place and got us to a place whereby we can propose something radical such as the New Strategic Direction and be in a position to start its implementation, something we could not have done before her arrival, equally from the start of her employment we said we wanted to become know not just as an organisation that has successfully become more efficient but we want to be known as the most cost efficient County Council in England, last year under her stewardship we can second only to Kent not a bad achievement but difficult to get across just how important both of these things are when we look towards the cuts that are coming, shielding Suffolk from the worst of those and delivering on our promise of low council tax rises.

I ‘checked in’ with my Director afterwards and she was concerned that I did not really get the maths of why we need to look at how best to deliver the Residential Care Homes. I was disappointed with her comments but really pleased to be able to have another go at doing just that on Anglia Tonight who kindly interviewed me at the conference at lunchtime and I was able to talk about how we indeed to deliver a ‘as good if not better’ standard of care at a cost saving to us.

Reflecting on the conference and writing this blog on the train home, I supposed I noticed a couple of things doing the three days; firstly the slightly surreal airbrushing out of the coalition, we won, the rest is mere detail!, as one world weary colleague put it. The second as and by far the clearest message coming from the conference was about the Comprehensive Spending Revenue in a couple of weeks time, not one Westminster MP was saying anything, which it my mind is quite worrying, clearly they have taken the decision that they did not want a conference of gloomy looking delegates with the worlds media camped on the door step and in the halls.

All in all a few good days spent talking politics, good keynote speeches, interesting fringes and good company; there were one or two receptions, a couple of kind invitations to dinners with the area teams and I seem to recall a couple of lively discussions into the wee small hours in a bar of the Copthorne hotel.

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