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Suffolk Circle – paying to be neighbourly!

As my neighbours will corroborate, if they need help, I am very happy to offer it – and if I need any, I go running to them. No money changes hands. Its about neighbourliness and a sense of community. This isn’t a purely Woodbridge characteristic – good neighbours can be found up and down the length and breadth of Suffolk and elsewhere.  Yet yesterday Suffolk County councillors   looked  at Suffolk Circle which is  a “Pay-for-good-neighbour” scheme funded two years ago by SCC to the tune of £680,000.

(I have blogged querying the basis of  this decision in both February and July 2011)

Suffolk Circle was based on a Good Neighbour scheme  that had recently started  in inner-city Southwark and had -apparently – been mentioned enthusiastically once by David Cameron.  The declared intention was to save money by building sustainable support for the increasing numbers of ‘frail elderly’ in Suffolk and thus saving money longterm.

In order to be part of the Suffolk Circle you must pay an annual membership fee (currently £30pa).  In order to use one of the helpers (for maintenance, TV, gardening etc.), or attend one of the priced events, members must buy half-hour tokens for £6 each.

This scrutiny gave everyone – that is, all non-Cabinet councillors as well as the public -  first sight of the confidential paper provided to Cabinet on the 25th of May 2010 on which Cabinet unilaterally made the controversial decision to fund the programme. This made interesting reading. (Full details here.)

Although the social enterprise could provide evidence of some satisfied users, the taxpayer would find almost all details disturbing:

  • Suffolk Circle was presented to the people of Suffolk as long-term assistance to the council’s social care budget by helping support the vulnerable elderly. However, the social enterprise assumes ‘the elderly’ start at 50 – thus including over a third of Suffolk’s population (and the vast majority of SCC councillors)!  If Suffolk Circle wait for every 50 year old to become frail and elderly they are likely to be waiting 35 years. This is a ludicrously long-term solution!
  • Suffolk Circle missed its first year membership target by over 10% – only getting 362 of 404 target members. This was itself an unbelievable modest target  for £350,000 : 363 people make up 0.16% of Suffolk’s over-50s.
  • Suffolk Circle’s target membership for next year is to achieve 1630 members, and 3500 at the end of the funded three years. This will have cost the Suffolk taxpayer just under £700,000 and ‘reached’ 1.6 % of Suffolk’s over-50s – with no guarantee that many of these would be ‘frail elderly’! And this is assuming that nobody who has joined has ever left.
  • Suffolk Circle now charges £30 per year for membership, although the original financial plan was to charge between £30 and £75 per quarter. Despite this radical shift, we could glean no information as to how this might alter the financial viability of the project.
  • At £6 per half-hour, the tokens are twice the cost of employing someone at minimum wage and the ‘helper’ is given one token for an hour’s work. The rest goes to Suffolk Circle. Outing/ social events cost a lot more than  one token (the last one in April was a cookery course costing £36 a hed) – and instead of offering a discount for theatre outings etc, we were told Suffolk Circle members actually seem to pay a premium. That is, it costs the member more than it would cost the man or woman in the street
    How could this price structure meld with the vulnerable elderly with £107 pw pension? Suffolk Circle told us they hoped to ‘get in’ on ‘Personal Budgets’. I must tell them, it didn’t have a good sound.
  • No account seems to have been taken  (either by the Cabinet who agreed this expenditure, or Suffolk Circle, who proposed it ) of the huge number of existing interest groups and services for the Over-50s AND for the ‘frail elderly’  that were already available in Suffolk.  Locally this includes: Church groups, Suffolk Carers, Royal British Legion, WI, English Country Markets, Library groups, amateur dramatics and plat readings, Good Neighbour Groups, Tea dances, Ramblers, Age UK (including their telephone befriending scheme), Wickham Market Family Carers Support Group, political parties, WRVS, lunch groups, charity work, NADFAS, WAMRAG, and groups for those interested in art, photography, music, opera, ballet, the theatre – to name but a few
  • When questioned about this, spokespeople ( I would hate to call them apologists) for Suffolk Circle, told the committee that Suffolk Circle was still “learning.”  You’d think this was part of the research and scoping SCC paid them £100,000 for  in the year before the enterprise started!

It would seem to me that this dubiously useful project is a prime example of how Suffolk County Council’s undemocratic Cabinet system is failing the taxpayer.  It allowed a few – seemingly mathematically challenged councillors –  to make an effectively unilateral decision that is costing council tax-payers of Suffolk the best part of a million pounds. And without providing any demonstrable benefit to the vulnerable elderly of Suffolk  it was supposedly set up to help. Yet in these straitened times,  the frail elderly need and will increasingly need all the help they can get.

When money is so tight this is a disgraceful example of putting the ideology of private enterprise above the common-sense of making limited resources stretch as far as possible.

And what could possibly have been the rationale? The Conservatives have been heard to say that £680,000  is “really not very much money”. They need to remember that it is is a fortune to people living unsupported and friendless on £107 a week!

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