Last year at SCC – a brief review

 The past year at Suffolk County Council has seen a further reduction in grants from Government and greater pressure on limited finances.  Last year, SCC had been pressing ahead with its new approach to budget cuts, which it called the ‘New Strategic Direction’  and which had intended to divest or outsource many of the Council’s services.  

 2011-12 saw some significant changes. The New Strategic Direction has officially been abandoned.  We now have a new Council Leader in the form of Cllr Mark Bee, as well as a new Chief Executive in Deborah Cadman, and whilst many services are still being divested, we do not have the instability around the Council that SCC had last year. However, divestment and outsourcing continue under different names 

New Strategic Direction – Abandoned or just renamed?   

As you may well remember, last year the Council (under its then Leader, Cllr Jeremy Pembroke and its then Chief Executive Officer, Andrea Hill) designed and adopted a policy it called the  ‘New Strategic Direction’. This  intended to divest or outsource many of the services that SCC currently provided – without much or anything in the way of consultation. At one point it was claimed that the NSD would result in the Council retaining a mere  500 members of staff left at its strategic core .

As a result of the changes at the top of the organisation: 2011-12 has seen the election of a new Leader and the appointment of a new Chief Executive, and the ‘New Strategic Direction’ has been – at least officially – abandoned. 

Despite this, many services continue to be outsourced.  Over the past year we have seen the following externalised or to be externalised from the Council –

  • Library service (to which I will refer later)
  • Archaeology and archives to a new Heritage Organisation  (on-going)
  • Highways ( these will be run by a private contractor set to start in April 2013)
  • In-house Bus and Coach Fleet (on-going)
  • Supporting Families Delivery Agency
  • Adult Employment Advice Guidance Learning and Skill Service (Realise) ( this was granted permission at the 20th March Cabinet meeting).
  • Eastern Facilities Management (set up as an external company last year)
  • Residential Care Homes (which will now be run by Care UK)
  • Country parks

So whilst the administration is performing an official step away from the New Strategic Direction, many of the council operations continue to be externalised.

The sheer volume of this outsourcing can be seen through the example of the Adult and Community Services:  in March 2012 Adult and Community Services are directly employing 3,557 members of staff; a year later (March 2013), the number of staff is estimated to be 895.

Decision-making and democracy

This year saw the continuation of an increasing trend whereby most of SCC decision-making  is being performed via the dozen councillors appointed from and by the controlling group and who form the Cabinet. Although the monthly Cabinet meeting at which decisions are finalised is open to the public – and other councillors and members of the public can make comments – only Cabinet members can vote. Cabinet takes place monthly, although full council meetings are now  generally scheduled only every two months and do little more rubber-stamp decisions being made.

This is clearly a serious problem  if the Cabinet makes decisions at odds with what the people of Suffolk want to happen.

The Budget  

 Towards the end of February every year, the County Council sets its budget.  This year many of the savings present were due to service redesigns, and increasing efficiencies.  However, due to the continuing reduction in Government grants it was stated that there still needed to be a £50m reduction in Council spending over the next two years.

Below are the main savings that the administration proposed, and were voted in at the Full Council meeting on the 9th of February –

  • 1.5% efficiency savings across all directorates  (in ACS this amounts to £4m budget reduction).  The efficiency savings also include reducing the procurement spend by £1m by negotiating better deals, and reducing the budget of the CSD contract by £1.5m
  • Reducing management costs across the organisation – £1.5m (12/13); £0.5m (13/14)
  • Targeting resources in children’s services to reduce demand I am not actually sure what this means on the ground, but I imagine it means moving the goalposts at which services aredelivered – £1m (12/13) £2.5m (13/14)
  • Re-letting the highways contract – a saving of £2m but not applicable until 2013/2014 budget.
  • Service redesign in ACS – £8m.

I will keep you updated to whether this has been achieved, but it is worth noting that each quarter the Cabinet will receive an update each quarter on how the Council is doing for this financial year, and currently the Council is £5.443m underspent so far.

At the meeting the Liberal Democrats submitted an amendment to the  proposed budget in which we proposed alternative cuts to support those services that we feel SCC should be supporting at all costs: 

  • Re-instate the Bury Road Park and Ride
  • Bring back an equivalent to the Young Persons eXplore card (based on a £25 admin fee)
  • Implement unlimited travel for those 7,000 people in Suffolk  eligible for Concessionary Passes due to disability
  • Re-instate  bus routes cut at last years budget
  • Top-up the Learning and Improvement Service – to provide greater support to a wider range of schools
  • Fund the Looked after Children service – to develop alternatives to out of County placements
  • Create a NEETS Apprenticeship Scheme 

In order to pay for the measures above we proposed that savings could come from;

  • 30% reduction in External Room Hire
  • 10% Reduction in Business Miles
  • Reduce Cabinet Posts by 1
  • Reduce the Road maintenance Budget
  • Cut the cost of the CSD Contract.

Unfortunately the amendment was dismissed out of hand.  We are concerned about the continuing loss of vital services; we are also concerned at the sheer amount of money coming out of Adult and Community Service comes at a time when we are being constantly warned about the growing elderly demographic.

Street Lighting:  

over the last few months Suffolk County Council has been moving to an Intelligent Street Lighting System, allowing the council to switch off some street lights, dim others, and leave some on – all by remote control. This takes us back to how things were, before the wasteful days when it became cheaper to leave lights on than switch them off. This – as we all know –  is no longer the case.  The Intelligent Light System came into use  in Woodbridge on 26 March 2012.

Concessionary Bus Passes   

Earlier in the year (July 2011) , I and Cllr John Field submitted a motion to Full Council calling for a change in the time limits currently placed on concessionary bus pass holders.

Ever since the Concessionary Bus Passes responsibility moved to the County Council, those eligible for bus passes have been limited to travel between 9:30am and 11pm – a  statutory minimum set up by urban-decisionamakers who have no concept of the difficulties in ther countryside. but places strict limits on those eligible due to both age and disability to be able to travel freely and independently, and to make doctors appointments and socialise.

Our motion suggested that we should remove all time limits to those bus pass holders due to disability, and extend the current arrangements for those over 60 to enable them to travel a half-hour earlier –  from 9 in the morning and not 9:30am Reversing these  concessionary pass decisions would support full, affordable participation in society to two valuable groups of Suffolk residents: those who do not want to let their disability stand in the way of their achievements and those who do not want to let their age confine them to home. Whilst the motion was amended slightly at Full Council, it was fully supported by all parties in recommending that the Cabinet looks once again at the decision and analyses the possibility of changing the current arrangement.

Having got this far – the subject stalled and Cabinet has decided nothing  to date. We have just heard that the subject will not be discussed until the 10th of July that Cabinet looks  at the issue again, which is outside the scope of this AGM report! 

Similarly, a great deal of fuss has – rightly – been made about SCCs cutting of the youth travel card, which has had a bad impact on young people’s chances and choices – in terms of education, training, apprenticeships, work and socialisation. We vwere able to bring the cut into SCC’s scrutiny of Young People Not in Employment Education and Training, and again, this decision has been returned to Cabinet.

Libraries      

Over the past year the stance from the Council administration on Libraries has changed considerably.  Last year it was stated that if local Libraries were not supported by local groups then a number of the smaller sites would have funding removed from them, which would ultimately mean closure.

However, towards the end of last year the council changed their mind and opted to outsource the Library organisation into an Industrial and Provident Society for the benefit of the community.  This means that the Library system will become a member-based organisation where local libraries will become members of the IPS and be able to vote on policy decisions, and what the organisation will do with the funding that it receives from the Council.

Under these new proposals there are no planned closures for Libraries in the County. Instead those libraries that do not have existing community groups will be run by the IPS.  Each of the Libraries will be tasked to make 5% savings on top the savings that are already embedded in the proposals.  This may mean an increase in volunteers, more fund-raising events, or changing suppliers for maintenance contracts.

We are told that one of the main benefits of using this system over that of an in-house Library service is that with an IPS, the Council can bid for charitable status.  This means that there would be a significant reduction in the amount of business rates that the organisation will pay – potentially 80%.

Recently the Council has been making a number of appointments to the IPS board, the body that will manage the grant allocations to libraries.  The appointments will exist whilst the IPS is being set up and will by 2013 be replaced by a board elected by IPS members.

New Chief Executive and New Council Leader  

As I have mentioned above, last April, Cllr Mark Bee the Conservative representative for Beccles became the new leader of both the Conservative Group and the County Council.  . 

 In another change at the top, SCC’s Chief Executive Andrea Hill left the organisation in July 2012.  For a total of six months the Director for Economy, Skills and Environment Lucy Robinson stepped in as interim Chief Executive.  In December Deborah Cadman, was officially appointed as the new Suffolk County Council chief executive.  She had previous roles as the Chief Executive of EEDA, St Edmundsbury Council, and the Leader Inspector of the Audit Committee.

Council Pay scales

Suffolk County Council recently published details of its Pay Policy (as now required by law). Amongst the facts and figures that you may find interesting :

  • In 2011 SCC agreed a (downward) revised salary level of £155k for the Chief Executive post. It is a spot salary meaning there will be no increments ; there are no additional bonus, performance, honoraria or ex gratia payments.
  • Salary structure for Directors ranges from £98,393 to £126,733. New appointments to this level are on a “spot salary” basis and will not attract incremental progression. There are no: overtime, flexi-time, bank holiday working, stand-by paymentsetc. paid to these senior staff:  they are expected to undertake duties outside their contractual hours and working patterns without additional payment.
  • The salary ranges for Assistant Directors and Senior Managers are as follows: Assistant Director (higher) – £85,795 – £96,824 Assistant Director – £ 68,096 – £83,829 Senior Manager – £55,287 – £64,399
  • Rest of the workforce: eight grades ranging from £12,145 to £55,239.  The lowest paid full time equivalent basic pay of £12,145 is used to determine the local definition of ‘low paid’.  There are 100 workers currently on this grade
  • The current pay ratio is 1:8.  This means that the Chief Executive (top earner) earns eight times more than the Council’s median earner (for which the rate is £19,621). When measured against the mean average, this ratio is 1:7; and when measured against the lowest paid it is 1:13.

Public Questions and Participation Sessions  

 The County Council has revamped its public participation guidelines so that members of the public may speak at nearly all committee meetings as well as asking questions at Council and Cabinet meetings. I am proud to say that Woodbridge residents have had a very strong presence at such meetings – indeed, young people from Just 42 were the youngest people ever to question full Council and hold their own in Scrutiny. Long may this continue.

 Please head to the link below for more information, and click on the meeting you wish to speak at   http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/your-council/decision-making/public-speaking-at-meetings/

Locality and Quality of Life Budgets   

I made grants last year  from my locality budget to the following:

  • Tide Mill Trust £1000
  • Repairs of St Mary’s Church Tower: £1000
  • Town grit bins (including one outside the Shire Hall more in keeping with the ‘look’ of the square) £830
  • Solar Panels for the Community Hall £3,000
  • Woodbridge Library for children’s Reading Challenge £300
  • Woodbridge Town Pastors: £1000

Quality of life budget: Little expenditure this year as the 2 schemes mooted are still being assessed and designed:

  •  improvements to the safety of walkers and cyclists on Sandy Lane (National Cycle route 51)
  • solar powered speed sign in Pyches Road

However a small grant has been made for road signs  to flag up the Warwick Ave PO  to motorists

 My County Councillor surgeries   

Since  October I have been running regular monthly surgeries: every third Saturday of the month at Woodbridge library 10-12. No bookings are needed.

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