Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

BudgetLast week I blogged about the next few months nationally but as a Councillor my and others focus is far more on the local issues and for us at the County Council it’s a mixture of two heady things Devolution and Budget, now you know you are a local gov geek when you use the word ‘heady’ to describe what is essentially rather dry subjects however important both are to Suffolk.

For any Council deciding where to spend its funding in the coming year is its biggest decision.  The one that effects the quality of services it provides and importantly for our most vulnerable residents the quality of aspects of their lives. Thus, it’s the single biggest decision we have to make in our annual cycle.

Last week, Suffolk County Council Cabinet started the process of sharing each department thoughts on the budget they would require and the debate then starts that will take the next few months through to a Full Council meeting to debate and decide.

I try to work hard to get out there with our #WeAreListening events and I have lead more public consultation on things that are happening than the Council has ever undertaken, both in terms of surveys people can fill in on line, to town and village hall meetings. We have commissioned Ipsos Mori and others to provide the backbone to these events with statistically valid polling. Our desire to ask people what they think is critical to me as we have a number of tough decisions to make. But hey, let’s be clear, asking people is but one part of the decision making process, debate in the Conservative group is another, as is the debates at Full Council.  All are component parts into trying to make the right decisions. People often are not going to agree, but, we make the best decisions we can to serve the wider population of Suffolk and to make sure the organisation has the financial resources and capacity to deal with the often more hidden issue we have to deal with.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a sort of reply piece on Mark Murphy’s BBC Radio Suffolk show to address some political pot shots from the opposition about Care Homes and how they are funded and the extent to which SCC work with them for the good of residents that was on the day before’s show.  In essence, I provided context to oppositions Councillors comment that implied we provided all the places a few years ago and now we sold everything off to the private sector. What we actually did was bring in a private provider to provision the 9% of the Suffolk total number of beds we were the provider of.  But, beyond the political point scoring, it was a really good debate highlighting one of the many discreet services provided few people hear or know about, unless faced with such very tough and difficult choices.  As an adult there are few things more daunting than that of care provision for one’s parents and loved ones.

Often the debate is about roads and this year many of us will have seen the significant investment £10M we have made over and above our normal expenditure on the highways. Yet, few of us actually know which of our neighbours receive some form of care service support or hear about the discreet Children’s services to protect our young people from harm. Getting Mrs. Smith out of bed each morning and helping her wash and dress, those hundreds of care beds we provide for people who can’t afford to pay for them themselves and all of these services to the most vulnerable in our communities largely go unnoticed. But we all, me included love to moan about pot holes for its the universal services, our roads.

So over the coming months there will be the chance to have your say and for the Cabinet to set out its plans for the coming year’s budget and when you do, it is important to say what you would divert money from to address something else.   For these are the debates your Councillors will be having as well.

Just another layer of government, just what we don’t need:

One of the re-occurring theme I have heard these past few weeks at Business Breakfasts, in discussion with Parish and Town Councils and on Twitter both in tweets and retweets at my Devolution Twitter surgery on Wednesday, and at public engagements events in Lowestoft on Thursday lunchtime and Saturday morning in front of the Apex in Bury St. Edmunds is a worry that the Combined Authority and the Mayor will cost a lot more and why would we want that.

And you know what, it’s a fair question.  The first part is simply dealt with, it will be staffed by existing officers and Chief Executives alongside Council Leaders and no one will be earning anymore.  In Suffolk, we have experience of this with a strong and active Suffolk Public Sectors Leaders board where we often take decisions as a collective. This then leads to the question, well, why do you need a Combined Authority, can’t you ‘just do it’?  In part that would be possible, albeit that many of the powers we need are a part of the devolution deal to ‘just do it’, without Devolution this would mean the money would not be forthcoming and you know what, it’s a lot of money, so we would be daft not to explore this further. It’s fair to say that a Mayor and a Mayor’s office would come with costs. Whoever stands to be the proposed Mayor must seek to deliver real savings in local government, far beyond the cost of its creation; offering efficiencies across the entire system to protect front line services that local people rely on.  This is about building on the partnership working that already takes place within local government and with health and business, offering residents the quality of service they have a right to expect.

I think that Devolution is a new and real opportunity for the proposed Mayor and Combined Authority to deliver real savings in local government, far beyond what we currently think of being local government.

Please do have a look at www.eastangliadevo.co.uk and fill in the questionnaire to have your views heard.

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.

Innovate or pay more

innovationAt last Thursday’s Budget Debate I ‘suffered’ the full fury of the Liberal’s Cllr. Page, who decided this year, slightly ‘left field’ to launch at me about the money spent on Suffolk Circle.

It is interesting that Cllr. Page failed to comment that one of the programmes in the budget delivering the biggest savings is the Supporting Lives and Connecting Communities, this year aiming to save the council £6 million. A programme developed and instigated when I was Cabinet Member for Adult and Communities Services which has 3 or 4 core papers as the basis on which I managed to convince my cabinet colleagues that we should reshape the way in which we deliver services in our communities. One of these documents is the original work done by Participle the organisation behind the circle movement. It researched, over the course of a year, how Suffolk’s communities are connected, and why the differences in capacity between similar places exist and if the Circle could be a part of the way forward in Suffolk. This extensive body of work is a document I still refer to today in my role for the Local Government Association sitting as a member on the national TLAP Board and on TLAP’s Building Community Capacity (BCC) Framework programme board, from my point of view, its work is very much it is informed by the original Participle paper and to some extent our Suffolk experience of why the Circle movement did not work.

Another thing that so infuriated the Liberals at the time was the notion of providing start-up funding to a Circle model which was primarily not about providing services to those who can’t afford anything themselves but about addressing loneliness and connections in communities by individuals, in the social economic group just above those that qualify, who will pay for services themselves in order to stop them tipping into services. Interestingly this notion of councils having responsibility to inform and market shape not just for those who qualify is now about to become an actual duty under the Care Act when it comes into operation in April this year. Prevention and addressing the causes that make people tip into expensive services is very much the new agenda.

Over the course of 3 years we spent about £680,000 on funding the Suffolk Circle as a start-up, the organisation behind the circle movement is a not for profit social enterprise and the circles staff were drawn from the Suffolk voluntary sector, it hit its membership targets but did not exceed them and at the end of the three year start-up period the Suffolk Circle and Participle decided that they could not sustain the organisation and all the existing members were transferred to other voluntary sector organisations in Suffolk who took over aspects of its activity, programmes that are still running today. Since then the Southwark Circle has also closed yet others are still in existence. Much has been written about the circle approach and community involvement indeed the role of councils and other voluntary organisations. The TLAP BCC Framework, which I led a workshop on at the Annual TLAP conference last year on, attempts to build on all the different learning out there.

In terms of risk I suppose you are always going to have the Cllr. Pages’ of this world who just want to throw mud and not understand the detail but it important that Council’s innovate and work on how to lead the way to delivery services in an environment of less funding. In the period that the circle start-up was funded the Council spent over £650 million on Adult and Community Services and so in this context the less that 0.001% of its spending on something that was expected to succeed but did not was a part of the mix of service delivery being trialled, but we must keep trying to find new ways of supporting our communities and help prevent people from needing services in the first place, this one did not success but that does not mean you stop.

When we Conservative took over in 2005 the structure of the council was a basket case, 9 years later literally thousands of staff have gone and the council delivers more service today than it did then. But you know what unless we try new ways of working I suppose the only recourse is to do what Cllr. Page’s party did the last time they had power and simply keep spending without innovating and then demand ever more of people’s hard earned money to pay for it.

Suffolk stubbs it out

044cigarettebuttLast Thursday I was up early to head to London for a meeting at the LGA in Smith Square before rushing back to Ipswich via Liverpool Street Station to be as Suffolk County Council’s Full Council Meeting. I recalled that I must have done the same round of meetings last year as once again I found myself on a train stuffed full of festival goers looking forward to Suffolk’s Latitude Festival.

The Full Council was equally eventful as one Councillor passed out, due to the stifling heat of the very poorly ventilated Council Chamber. Somehow we seemed to have been collectively moaning about this since I became a Councillor yet no one seems to have solved the problem. At the meeting, in addition to it being boiling hot, we had one of those small moments in time, when we did something of some significance.

Disappointingly it was a Labour motion, with our contribution consigned to an amendment to the wording to make it achievable, but hey it was tabled and we debated that Suffolk should no longer hold tobacco stocks as an investment class in its pension fund and become a signatory to the Local Government Association Declaration on Tobacco Control.

I say disappointing because we should have lead the charge on this as we have had ample time to prepare something, not least because I raised the matter a few weeks ago after having a presentation from PHE, ASH and ADASS at the LGA Community Wellbeing Board meeting on 11th June discussing their commitment to ask councils up and down the land to agree to their charter which includes withdrawing from Tobacco stocks as a part of a pension investment portfolio. I said then it was a political issue and one we needed to react to quickly, Labour beat us to it.

A quality debate took place ranging from the evils of smoking and its sheer danger to your and everyone else’s health, to the independence of the pension fund to invest in what it likes being sacrosanct, to given that we are now the body with the Statutory Duty for Public Health the holding of tobacco stocks is perverse in this context. This latter position won the day and now Suffolk leads the way and sets the agenda for much of the rest of Local Government to follow.

Political Determination

Mildenhall Lodge opening

Mildenhall Lodge opening

Last Friday I attended the official opening of the New Mildenhall Care Home built by Care UK to replace the former County Council home at Wamil Court and what a splendid new facility it is.

Care UK will open, over the coming months, 10 similar new care homes across Suffolk investing some £60M in the process. As per my promise when I visited every single one of our 16 ageing care homes to meet with residents families and staff, in my former role as Cabinet Member for Community and Adult Social Services, all of those residents in Suffolk County Council’s former homes who wish to, will transfer across to a wonderful new home supported by the county council, that is now happening.

At the recent political training sessions I was involved in for both Director of Public Health and Directors of Social Services we talked a lot about what motivates a Councillor to get involved and of the ‘quality’ of Leadership.

I put forward my personal view that whilst there are many reasons people enter politics, I entered to firstly represent my community which I work hard to do and secondly to make an actual difference. It is all too easy to appear to be busy, fronting this and that decision or policy when in reality those would have been Council policy and decisions irrespective of if you or another person from your own or another party was fronting them, the council would make those decisions if you were there or not and there are many of those.

In respect of Supporting Lives, Connecting Communities, a number of great new mutuals delivering outstanding services to some of the most vulnerable in our Suffolk community, at costs lower than before (thus protecting front line services) and in respect of the replacement of all of Suffolk County Council’s care homes with something to be proud of, I was the key political decision maker. Of course I was ably supported by a great officer team who made it happen and colleagues who backed me but it was my political vision and determination often in the face of quite challenging opposition that made these things happen.

That, to my mind is the great challenge of being a Councillor, to have made an actual difference, rather than simply serve your time, to be a journey man if you will. In doing so you’re not always going to get right but at least you will have made a difference.

Local Government Leadership in Duxford

New-Hanger-Duxford-Air-MuseumLast Friday I travelled to Duxford Museum conference centre set amongst the wonderful displays of planes, of course last Friday was the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and as I looked across the assembled planes you could see some of those which were the backbone of the RAF in the War, which look so small set against the mighty war planes of today.

The conference was entitled the Entrepreneurial Council II – Creating new social businesses to secure local service and realise potential savings, hosted by the East of England Local Government Association an organisation I am very keen on as it helps the Councils of East Anglia learn from each other and to have an voice for East Anglia as a region, but hey I would say that as I sit on its Improvement Board.

Looking through the delegate list I was encouraged to see so many local government officers from across Suffolk but disappointed to only see there was only a handful of Councillors form across the region. But was delighted to see that my former colleague on Suffolk County Council Judy Terry was there and later we had a good natter about all things Suffolk.

The opening speaker was Danny Kruger, Chief Executive of Only Connect and former speech writer to David Cameron, who spoke about national renewal and touched on the Big Society, and what that actually means in this era of cuts. Then we heard from Stepping Out’s Craig Dearden-Philips talking about Turning Public Services into Thriving Social Businesses, which is exactly what his company is all about.

Later in the morning Aidan Dunn, Assistant Director Strategic Finance and Head of Procurement Resources Management, Suffolk County Council (he was teased about the size of the business card needed to get that title on to it!) spoke about the social enterprises and companies created in Suffolk by Suffolk County Council over the past few years. Both Judy Terry and I chatted at lunch about our small roles we played in the creation of some of these and the political battles we endured to do so.

Of course there is much debate about how to deliver services both in an era of a decade of Local Government cuts and an ageing population. Should council be direct providers of services, should they be commissioners and what is in future role of local government and its place in a new world of integration with health services.

Perhaps even to some extent a subtext of the future direction of Suffolk County Council and recent battles. But to my mind however complex the issues, the principles are relatively simple. Firstly as a conservative I believe in business and people being entrepreneurial. In local government terms I believe in social businesses doing things for the public good, I like a plurality of service providers rather than one large provider and that they are truly local. The more local they are the more they are able to work with communities and delivery services people really need rather than those services someone miles away think they need. Secondly from my actual experience, social enterprise can deliver outstanding services at a reduced cost, Suffolk Libraries, Realise Futures, Leading Lives and Sensing Change are shining examples of what we have done in Suffolk. And lastly I do not believe councils should provide directly provide services but they should be, the publicly financed, democratically accountable, co-producing with communities and intelligent commissioners, co-ordinators and protectors of services.

It will certainly be interesting to see how local government is delivered in say 10 years, a salami sliced version of what it is today, probably, basically failing to serve the expectations of the general public or more importantly the basic needs of the most vulnerable in our society or an innovative force for the sort of national renewal of which Danny Kruger and the closing key note speaker Dr. Neil Stott, CE, Keystone Development Trust and Senior Teaching Faculty in Social Innovation, Cambridge Judge Business School, spoke of, the challenge has never been greater, thus nor has the need for the right sort of bold leadership.

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