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!

Free School Milk

I thought the debate that raged yesterday about the discussion about free school milk was very interesting. Firstly I think Number 10 got it spot on, politically speaking. Some commentator have suggested that the issue got along way down the line before it was stopped and I simply don’t see that; a junior minister sends a ministerial letter to a Scottish Executive office opening up the debate.

Indeed that debate seems to be centred, quite rightly, around the issue of a universal offer or should the provision be targeted to help poorer families with they children’s nutrienial needs; the ending of universal benefits must be right in the current economic climate, but should that include free school milk at £59million maybe not; not to mention how a school would administer who got the free milk and who did not, and then those who were not entitled to it but whose’s parents had paid and what about those kids who decided they then wanted the milk but had not paid, most 5 years olds don’t tend to carry much cash with them!, a nightmare as one teacher pointed out to me.

At a very pleasant lazy sunday afternoon lunch with friends I asked around what people thought and the general feeling is that programmes should be targeted at those who most need it, and so they should, but perhaps milk should be left alone.

To my mind the more interesting bit is around the command structure of Government, gone are the days of centralised paranoid control and it seems to me what David Cameroon is trying to do is create a culture whereby the intellectual prowess of MPs, Civil Servants, and those who are involved in the various think tanks is allowed to proposed debate and refine policy to get us out of the mess this county.

So on that note, I thought the debate is worth having, and debates such as this should continue to be had but then it’s right for David Cameroon and his team to say ‘I see what you are proposing and no don’t like that one’.

To some extent this is mirrored in local government, as we face the cuts lots of different saving are proposed by Councillors and Officers and its the role of the Leader to take each idea and to say, don’t like that one.

But I also think residents have a great role to play in this debate about what we do in the future, and that is a part of what is proposed by the New Stratergic Direction, we want people’s input to what is proposed so that we can make more informed choices; I ask at every forum I attend from surgeries to Parish Council meetings to the articles I write in various local magazines for people to let me know what they think, how they should shape future services and where they would make the cuts.

So let me know!

Seismic cuts and savings required

Much is written and often said in the press about how to deliver the cuts we need to make both at the national government level in all departments and across the nation in all Councils and of particular worry to us here in Suffolk at the County Council.

Suffolk County Council is rated the 2nd most cost efficient in England and I think its good to reflect on how we arrived at this position and can the same strategy deliver the seismic shift in local government that is now being asked.

To date we have moved from a frankly very inefficient Council in 2005 run by the previous Liberal/Labour administration precisely because since we took power we have carefully used of interims and external advice to constantly delivered cost savings far, far in excess of the cost of their fees.

Often people say surely you have the expertise in those you employ to deliver these savings without the need to employ external consultants or interim Heads of this and that, well no the County Council is the 2nd most cost efficient in England because it only employs full time and long term the people it needs to do specific jobs, change management is not a full time post within the organisation and is different and thus requires different skills and experience in different department, so we bring in the best we can find to deliver precisely what we need when we need it and no more.

Headline wages always cause a stir but the careful use of different teams, companies, and individuals that has delivered savings far in excess of Government targets, year, after year, after year, that’s how we have delivered the lowest ever Council tax rises year after year after year, and this careful use of professional external advice as we seek to do more with less is how we will achieve the sort of cuts and savings that the new government has discovered we need to make in order to cut the deficit and hopefully to eventually balance the books.

I know with the New Strategic Direction and our determination to see this process through we will achieve what is going to be a very difficult process.

As we recently saw on the telly last night with the Protests outside Durham Council as they start to address the ‘in year’ cuts they face, none of this is going to be easy, we will not be popular, but if we do it by redefining Suffolk County Council and involve our communities as we go, we will come out the other side of this facing our election with people prepared to vote for us because we are seen as competent and capable of delivering radical change that has helped cushion the people of Suffolk through a very tough few years.

The LGA Conference and iced Frappuccinos

I felt rather guilty about being in Bournemouth this week for the Local Governments Group Annual Conference.

There are some who say why do you need to go to Conferences and seminars in order to represent me. And indeed that was said to me the week before I went when someone asked for a meeting the following week.

So with this ringing in my ears I packed my bags and headed for Bournemouth, determined to answer the question when I got back, by really thinking about what is the benefit of going or should I just stay at home and read about it later.

Unless you regularly go to conferences or training seminars or indeed networking events I am not sure you are going to accept that they have a positive impact on what you do, more a bit of a jolly and you probably won’t change your views by anything I say.

Having said that, one of the important things about being a Councillor and indeed an officer is not to reinvent wheels and to make sure you learn from others bright ideas to save money or improve a service. In my experience that knowledge does not come form newsletters of guides but from hearing first hand about what others are doing and their passion or otherwise for a particular programme; without conferences and chats over a latte or as it was so hot an iced Frappuccino you don’t get the first hand up close candid words that convince you to take something back to try out.

Also it was an opportunity to hear and question the policy shapers at first hand and in this respect the Conference was quite something but not in the way I expected.

Firstly Eric Pickles MP was there for most of Tuesday and all day Wednesday and spoke at a number of events and was really interested to talk and listen to our concerns a refreshing change from the previous minister who last year ‘swanned in’ gave a prepared speech and legged it back to London just as fast as he could, I sat outside having a coffee on the Wednesday morning and he was going from table to table talking to people, quite something and a very different approach.

Eric, Bob Neal MP and then Greg Clarke MP, Minister of State (Decentralisation) all spoke on aspects of what I thought they might cuts and localism, but what did surprise was an additional theme – the sheer lack, intentional lack of directive they intend to issue.

Greg Clarke even visualised this with a clip from Yes Minister and a Sainsbury’s extra strong bag which he brought on stage with 13.5kgs of the regional special strategy that just fitted in the bag and then proudly proclaimed the 30 grammes of 5 sides of A4 that replaced it.

Time and time again we were told that they will not be issuing directives.

Time and time again we were told its up to you how you do things; what you want your council to look like; what you want your council to deliver; how you want your council to work.

And time and time again it struck me that is exactly what we are doing with Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction and the sort of questions we are asking ourselves as to what we want to be and how we want to deal with the cuts coming our ways

Time and time again it struck me we are well ahead of the game here in Suffolk; talking with people, whenever I mentioned our programme I was asked to send them a copy and could they then talk some more with us about what we are doing.

Actually when you read the Big Society paper, listened to how they want to empower us and implement change and then how this all sits with our New Strategic Direction, it’s a bit spooky really.

So to answer the question ‘why do you need to go to Conferences and seminars in order to represent me?’ – I go because it improves my knowledge and helps me suggest better ways of doing things and is that worth the three days out from work and away from my family to go? – yes on balance it is.

A meeting at LGA House

Yesterday I was asked by the Leader of Suffolk County Council Jeremy Pembroke to attend a meeting at LGA House in Smith Square, London of the LGA Strategy and Finance Policy Review Group as he could not go, due to attending a very sad funeral.

The meeting was addressed by Dr. Tony Travers (Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics) and he focussed on about the possible Local Government Settlements we are to see over the next few years and frankly they made for very depressing telling. The cuts that are coming are going to be deep and far reaching and will demand a complete review of how we do business, I am minded that in Suffolk we control the County Council and are implementing our ‘New Strategic Direction’ to do precisely this body of work; its not going to be easy and not without controversial cuts but the county is in the worst financial position since the great depression in the 1930’s and simply we cannot afford the State 13 years of Labour mal-administration has left us with.

Looking forward to next Tuesday I think we are going to see the most stunning Budget in a generation and not in a good way!

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