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.

Speeding in our villages

Showing Matt Hancock MP and Geoffrey Van Orden MEP the speed of traffic entering Lakenheath along Station Road

Showing Matt Hancock MP and Geoffrey Van Orden MEP the speed of traffic entering Lakenheath along Station Road

During the course of the last 4 years I have tried to survey every village in my Row Heath Division and along with Council Tax costs one of the other top issues is speeding through our villages. The other day I was out canvassing with Matthew Hancock our MP and joined by Geoffrey Van Orden and his wife Fanny and I took the opportunity to show then one of the issues we face in Lakenheath on Station Road.This road is long and straight and traffic does enter the village too fast, I think in most cases it’s not a case of drivers being anti-social it’s just that we all forget form time to time what speed is appropriate for which environment we are travelling in.

But I also think it’s fair to say for many people the 30mph speed signs are the point at which they slow down. This is particularly true on another of my Division’s roads as you enter Tuddenham St. Mary from the Higham end but the Highway code says it is the speed you should be doing as you come up to the signage, not the braking point!

Equally sometimes drivers use the sight up the road of the national speed limit signage as they exit a village to speed up, usually the signage is placed where it is to make sure at junctions as with Woodlands along Station Road in Lakenheath the speed is appropriate to make the junction safe.

Showing Matt Hancock MP and Geoffrey Van Orden MEP the speed of traffic in Station road, Lakenheath

Showing Matt Hancock MP and Geoffrey Van Orden MEP the speed of traffic exiting Lakenheath at the Woodlands junction

We have tried, over the years, many things from gateway signage to red road patches on the roads with 30mph painted as you enter our villages; all are effective for a time but over time, we all get used to them and ignore them. What is more effective is Police and community speed watch enforcement which we need to expanded equally it is the occasional nature of this type of activity which makes it so effective.

That’s why I am delighted to have been a part of the Suffolk County Councils Cabinet’s decision to purchase as series of new mobile warning signs that give you your speed as you approach, these will move from location to locations across Suffolk and I have already booked them for the known speeding entrances to many of our villages. They will come for a period of time remind people and just as drivers get used to them move on and reappear again a few months later, the best evidence is that this in conjunction with the other measures we have in place this will have an effect of slowing the average speed in our villages

Annual Conservative Councillor Association Conference in Leeds

Last Friday I packed my bag and left early to catch the train to attend the annual Conservative Councillors Association (CCA) conference at the Queens Hotel, Leeds which conveniently has an entrance right in the station concourse, so it’s a long way but very easy to get to by train!

Cllr. Robert Gordon, Leader of Hertfordshire, opened the one day conference in his role as Chairman of the CCA and was later re-elected along with most of the existing Baord members.

The only change was that Paul Bettison, the Leader of Bracknell Forest was elected back onto the board which was good to see.

The session before lunch started with an opening address by Bob Neill MP and then a Q&A session with him and Greg Clark MP.

After lunch we had the whole local government team of Eric Pickles MP, Bob Neill MP, Greg Clarke MP, Grant Shapps MP and Baroness Hanham; and we got a clear sense of their frustration with Local authorities who have put up their element of the council tax and they did not spare the Police authorities in this criticism, indeed there was much comment about the forth coming Police and Crime Commissioner and how they might be better at getting the police to understand the need to live within their means, than evidently is the case this year.

Mr. Pickles said he was pleased that over 90% of authorities including Police and Fire authorities have delivered a 0%; he went on to say how the more disappointing those such as Surrey were and if they truly thought that was the best way to serve their residents they should have the bottle to put their increases to referendum.

We then went into the breakout sessions and there were lots of interesting sessions discussing everything from Mutuals to the use of twitter:

Learning for the 21st Century – Councils role in Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning.

The localism Act: Innovations, Entrepreneurship and Local Services

Strategic Asset Management – Key to Service Transformation?

Enabling and Encouraging Communities.

I attended the Using Yourcllr.com and Twitter session to learn more about blogging and my use of twitter.

Then I attended the ‘Be a Councillor’ campaign update session which is something I am very passionate about and lead for the Conservatives in Norfolk and Suffolk on.

In the evening Matthew Hancock our West Suffolk MP was the guest speaker at the dinner and spoke of the issues the national government face and the important role Councillor’s play in delivering the very difficult job and message of shrinking the state. He also spoke about the Unions and that Council Tax payers would be shocked to learn that we have salaried staff who we allow to spend time partly or fully undertaking trade union activities and that we should not wait for the Department of Local Government and Communities (DLGC) but to tackle the issue now ourselves.

Afterwards Matthew and I agreed to have an early breakfast and chat about Constituency matters before he left for home, so I arrived at 7am and who was sitting with Matthew, Eric Pickles and whilst we did not get a chance to talk about West Suffolk we did have very interesting hour discussing councils and conservative values, and of course I did not miss the chance to gently lobby the head man on a few thoughts of my own.

More plenary sessions followed and ended with Mr.Pickles giving the closing address talking about the truly amazing chances that are coming with the introduction of the different elements of the Localism Bill not least the removal of pre-determination.

He then spoke of ‘Pilgrims’ and this is what Matthew Hancock was speaking about those salaried employees we allow to spend part or all of their time on Union activities.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this practice but from my perspective I want to hear what Council Tax payers I represent think to the practice before I make up my mind, after all its their money.

All in all it was an excellent quick conference, back on the train and home, did not get to see much of Leeds which is a shame because it’s a great city, that I have visited quite a few times and really enjoyed.

A11 Update – The Brandon question

Had a really excellent meeting on the duelling of the A11 yesterday at Endeavour House. The meeting was chaired by Cllr. Guy McGregor Portfolio Holder for Transport from Suffolk County Council and Matthew Hancock MP for West Suffolk.

Over the years I have attended many meetings on the duelling of the A11 some even before I was a Councillor as the West Suffolk Association Deputy Chairman usually with Richard Spring MP for West Suffolk, now Lord Risby of Haverhill, as he did battled to see its duelling.

The meeting was packed with Representatives from Brandon and the local community with every layer of Council well represented both by Officers and Councillors both in Suffolk and Norfolk. We heard a presentation from the highways Agency that was both encouraging and discouraging. They opened with the Bury Free Press front page article exposing plans that traffic might be diverted through Brandon as the A11 closed during construction, they also read the email they sent to the BFP and to be very fair to them the article was less that supportive and a very sensational illogical conclusion to what they were actually saying.

In very flat engineering references they talked about the road staying open as traffic is managed from old to new carriageway and they there may be moments the road might have to close for safety reasons but they would do everything they could to make this the dead of night and as little as possible.

As this point I stressed the need for the Highways Agency to work with Cllr. McGregor and his team who are well used to dealing with the local press and know how to discuss matters with them and get them to understand what is being said. I also said they should, from now on in, make sure that all of us local Councils, Councillors and Community groups are sent something as simple as an email to keep them informed

We can but hope they listen, nobody is expecting Highway engineers to be experts at public engagement but working with our communities is our ‘bread and butter’ and they must use our networks as a apart of the construction if they wished to keep people informed and take our communities on this good news journey, yes there will be some disruption

Matthew Hancock, the new MP for West Suffolk gave reassurances to the meeting about the plans to get on with it and all in all people left the meeting in a far better mood than that in which they entered.

I think our communities have been very patience waiting for this major error to be corrected, MP’s both old and new have battled hard to keep this in the political arena not the long grass.; campaigners whilst they have seen the road constantly diminished with shortened entry slip roads and no proper solution for the Barton Mills roundabout. And in my own Patch the communities of Lakenheath, Eriswell and Icklingham restrained in their disappointment that the B1112 will not have access up onto the new road merely an underpass.; Tuddenham, rightly, remain very worry about the way in which their road crosses to get to Barton Mills and I have and will keep up the pressure to see a speed camera to protect this dangerous crossing.

I look forward to the official opening with Matthew Hancock MP and Lord Risby of Haverhill cutting the Ribbon. We will then  go straight to Barton Mills Village Hall and I’ll host the first meeting of the A11 action group to start the campaign for improvements and a proper flyover at Barton Mills, such is life!

Canvassing in Manor Ward

Campaigning in Manor Ward with Stephen Frost and Matthew Hancock

Yesterday morning I joined our MP Matthew Hancock and Stephen Frost the Conservative Candidate in Manor Ward for the coming Forest Heath District Council elections and spent the day canvassing the good people of Barton Mills and enjoying the sunshine. On the door step it was interesting talking to people about their concerns; funny thing, people really do understand the need to make cuts and everyone I spoke to about the zero council tax rise from both the county and Forest Heath said it was the best news they had all year; the price of fuel was the major concern and I for one share that worry. I did report this back to Matthew that there is a real need to protect people in rural communities such as ours who have no choice but to pay the prices to get to work and access facilities, he agreed and said he would feed that back.
All day I found only one Liberal! Marvellous!

Regular Meeting with Suffolk’s MPs

Yesterday afternoon the Cabinet of Suffolk County Council, Andrea Hill our Chief Executive and William Hooper our political support officer travelled up to Portcullis House, next to the Houses of Parliament where we met with all of Suffolk’s MPs. We all aim to do this once every few months with the meeting venue alternating between Endeavour House in Ipswich and Portcullis House in London.

These meetings are extremely useful so we can share the work we are respectively doing on behalf of the people of Suffolk; from the delivery on the ground which is our responsibility, to the need to change legislation which is theirs.

Matthew Hancock MP chaired the meeting and we had a wide ranging conversation about the issues that effect Suffolk today, such as the School Crossing Patrols where staff have to be employed by the County Council or the Police to be able to actually stop traffic so kids can cross the road on their way to or from School; a ridiculous state of affairs.

We discussed Suffolk’s Budget and the implications of the cuts we are proposing for next weeks full Council Budget Debate; we talked about Libraries, Care Homes, Leps, Broadband and the differences between our approach to the Cuts that we are required to make as our contribution to the National Deficit – a very wide ranging set of subjects indeed and another very useful meeting.

After the main meeting I had a cup of coffee with Peter Aldous MP and we spoke about the Disability Mobility Allowance for those in residential care, how changes to the legislation will affect those who receive it, and the work he and I are respectively doing on this important subject.

Then it was back onto the underground to King’s Cross and then to Ely so I was back in time to attend the Lakenheath Parish Council Meeting to discuss the important subject of Lakenheath Library that the Parish Council had kindly agreed to put on their Agenda for yesterday evening.

Meeting with Suffolk’s MPs

Tuesday afternoon I had a meeting with the Suffolk MPs, well some of them, Tim Yeo was not able to be there due to other commitments and Matthew Hancock and Peter Aldous had secured adjournment debates and were due to be speaking in the House so they were unable to attend; so my meeting was with Therese Coffey, Ben Gummer, David Ruffley and Daniel Poulter.

The main subject of conversation was the Residential Care Homes and my promise to keep them updated every step of the way with how things are going. I had a good chat with Peter Aldous about the council homes in his patch before the meeting by phone.

Each was eager to discuss the care homes in their patches and how the visits went and what progress we were making towards which route I would be taking back to cabinet in March and they added in their thoughts and some of the comments they had from their colleagues about the experiences in other counties that have or are attempting to do much the same thing as us. I talked about the market provider consultations we had and the active discussions we are in the process of having; not to mention the discussions and visits I had undertaken with my counter parts in Hertfordshire, Leicestershire, Staffordshire and was about to have in Birmingham in January.

We discussed the Suffolk Association of Independent Care Providers and how we all wanted them to be involved in both the decision I would be presenting to cabinet in March and if the decision is to sell or transfer then for them to be active bidders so that we help build on our strengths albeit taking into account the current rules and hand tying that exists with Local Government and European tendering and procurements regulations.

We also discussed the progress of the New Strategic Direction and their support for this strategy to make further efficiency savings and delivery a Suffolk version of the Big Society.

We moved on to discuss the implications of the Comprehensive Spending revue and the level of savings this would require Suffolk County Council to make, I said It was equivalent to £27M this year and will cost pressures and inflation that amounted to some £43M in total for the coming year. With ACS being asked to save some £12.7M next year, as an example of the cost pressure in my portfolio I mentioned the 20 people a month who are coming to social services unable to continue to pay for their residential care home placements and asking us to support them in the future. I went thought some of the cost pressures in Adult and Community Services and how challenging it is to decide upon cuts at the same time as having to grapple with significantly year on year increase demands for services..

We discussed the positives about very sheltered housing and the need for this to be developed not only to replace District and Borough sheltered housing where there is increasing voids occurring but through Suffolk Flexicare programme we are trying to work better across our different responsibilities to create an environment where providers can more easily develop VSH and Residential Care Homes.

Therese spoke about Day Care and we had a good discussion on social enterprise, Ben talked about Crabbe Street Day Care Centre and the challenges it faces and I talked of Newmarket Day Care Centre that has never been an SCC enterprise, always a separate Charity delivering Day Care services, but one that was looking forward to the challenge of Personalised Budgets as an opportunity not a threat; lots of work to be done on this issue of the next year or two.

I closed by saying that SCC’s future role must be about people, the growing number of people that will need a service, the role of Suffolk Flexicare, our future role in standards of care homes and in shaping the market working with providers to deliver a more robust provision of very sheltered housing and an increased number of quality Residential Care Homes to support our ageing population. All in all a very useful and constructive meeting and I promised to keep them in the loop on this most difficult of issues before us.

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