Category Archives: New Strategic direction

What’s been happening in Suffolk 2014-2015

My anuual report: highlighting some of the more important issues in Suffolk over the last year

SCC Leadership  At the end of 2014-5 the Conservative administration  of SCC hold the balance of power by a single vote. The current party composition is Conservative 38; Green 2; Independent 4; Labour 15; Liberal Democrat 7; UKIP 9.

At the beginning of April the leader of the Suffolk County Conservative party Mark Bee stood down and was replaced in an internal party election by Colin Noble,  who had attempted to unseat him last year. This was, of course, far from an internal party matter, as it brought wide-ranging changes to the Cabinet (including the loss of highly intelligent -and numerate- Jenny Antill; sane and knowledgeable Alan Murray, and the bike- and bus- friendly Graham Newman). Cllr Noble was elected SCC Leader at the SCC Annual  Meeting on May 21. A full slate of Tories voted for him,  a rainbow coalition of the opposition LibDem, Labour, Independent, Green and UKIP – voted against. This  meant Cllr Noble was elected in, 37:31. No abstentions.

(For those  new to Suffolk politics, Cllr Noble is former cheerleader of the ill-fated New Strategic Direction (which was going for a ‘virtual’ council with all its services divested), and the equally ill-fated Suffolk Circle.)

2015-16 budget Conservative budget proposals included savings of £38.2 m, leading to a budget requirement of £454,981,413.  Reserves were forecast as reaching £165million by the end of March. Although this was opposed by opposition parties, who recommended dipping into the reserves to fund such things as transport to statutory education for the poorest over-16s, the administration’s budget was voted in, 37-31.

Home to school transport  Central government has made changes  to the age of statutory education, making it now  compulsory to stay in education or training until one is 17 – and shortly 18. This is causing concern in Suffolk and having a particular impact on poorer students who have to travel to college, as Suffolk’s free home to school transport policy  (as indeed the  national home to school transport  policy) only covers students up to 16 years old.

Over 16s can avail themselves of a discretionary – paid – option but it costs £540 a year. The SCC Administration say that the Endeavour card (offering 1/3 off available journeys  by some operators) will cover the problem, and that there are Bursaries to help the needy.  This is not proving to be an adequate response. While the government has made it mandatory for young people to remain in education or training until 17 it is  a continuing concern that we have no funding mechanism in place to support the poorest young people of the county for this last year of what is now statutory education.

20mph and Other Speed limits The Transport  Policy Development Panel -of which I have been a founder member – has established clear guidelines for 20mph and Other Speed Limit Criteria policies  for Suffolk. Both of these were approved by Cabinet during past year.  The new policies aim to ensure that  appropriate speed  limits are applied fairly, and transparently across the county while reflecting  local concerns– and enabling local County Councillors to make representations on behalf of the communities they represent. Woodbridge is currently in the process of applying for a 20mph limit to calm local traffic.

Highways Maintenance Whilst there have been some successes –  the resurfacing of Ipswich Road, Drybridge Hill, Warwick Avenue and Haugh Lane are notable examples – the divested  highways maintenance  under KMG has remained slow and inadequate  – and -most particularly the minor works – increasingly expensive. There has been a backlog of County-Councillor-commissioned works that has only recently been tackled. This has been a universal problem and we have made strong representations.  Another mild winter means that the gritting services have yet to be tested.

Sunday Bus Services  From July last year, Woodbridge resumed a Sunday/Bank Holiday bus service, sponsored by SCC, allowing car-free travel between Woodbridge and Ipswich, including, importantly, the hospital.  This was on a use-it-or-lose-it basis – three services a day till Christmas. It has now increased to 5 services a day and the route extended to Melton.

Other Bus Improvements I have been able to arrange the  replacement of the ‘balancing poles’ at the Hamblin Road bus shelters with proper seating so that people are now able to sit and wait for their buses at long last. I have also arranged with Suffolk Onboard an the bus companies for two new bus stops on the Ipswich Road –  above the Notcutts roundabout -so that people wanting to get to Framfield surgery and Clarkson Court will find it easier to use  the bus services.

Care UK    Serious concern was raised last autumn at the way Care Uk was running  Suffolk care homes. The firm took over SCC’s 16 care homes in 2012 and is building 10 replacements. A CQC inspection found Mildenhall Lodge below standard in four of five categories while a safeguarding inspection raised concerns about another home, Asterbury Place. SCC Health Scrutiny looked at current arrangements for ensuring the quality of care in residential homes in Suffolk in October concluded that it was not fully satisfied that lessons had been learned from the findings of the recent CQC inspection of Mildenhall Lodge. Further, that the Committee was not yet satisfied that all the appropriate steps had been taken to improve the quality of care at the Suffolk homes run by Care UK. As I write new admissions to Mildenhall lodge remain suspended, nearly a year after the original concerns were raised.

Education Suffolk’s ten year slump in the education league tables seems finally to have been halted an to be turning around, but a recent Ofsted report suggests SCC has been “too slow” in reacting to areas of concern raised in last year’s hightly critical inspection – although it did say that “decisive improvements” had been made in areas of weakness identified in last year’s report.

Much of the  strategy has been implemented too recently to impact substantially on pupils’ outcomes sd yet. Pupils’ attainment in Suffolk remains below average, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. As a result, 25,000 Suffolk children do not attend a ‘good’ primary or secondary school.

Customer Service Direct – CSD brought back in-house  On 1 June SCC moved Customer Service Direct – back in-house.  CSD,  in which BT had a majority stake alongside the county and Mid Suffolk councils, handled SCC’s  financial administration, IT, and personnel functions. The councils’ call centres  were also operated by CSD .The cost of the contract was initially £301 million, but this increased to £427 million over 10 years as more functions were added to the service.

Woodbridge Fire and Police station merger  After consultation Woodbridge police station was mergedwith the existing fire station , with the aim of allowing the services to work much more closely together and for the services  to become even more cost effective. On 19th I welcomed councillors, police and fire officers to the station for an opening by the PCC and  member for Public Protection.

County Councillor’s Surgeries  I held 11 surgeries in the past year – on the 3rd Saturday of every month except August; 10-12 at Woodbridge Library. They have been popular and well-attended.

Suffolk Tories: the Milquetoast Manifesto

Snapshot of Suffolk’s County Council  2009-13:

Threatened closure of 29 libraries.. the vanishing of the Road Crossing patrols..  loss of the rural evening and Sunday bus services.. closure of Youth Clubs.. divestment of Highway Services..  divestment of Country Parks..  vast sums spent on gagging clauses,  consultants and senior management salaries and perks.. abolition of the Explore youth travel card..  sale and potential closure of Care Homes..  the plummeting of Suffolk schools down the educational league tables to their current places as 148th out of 151 at Primary school level, 141 out of 151 at secondary level… (there’s plenty more, but that’s enough to be going on with)

It’s quite a spectacular grime sheet, isn’t it?

As the 2013 elections approach it may be worth  remembering that the Suffolk Conservatives made no mention of Suffolk’s  New Strategic Direction when they went to the polls in 2009. Yet it didn’t stop them doing their darnedest to implement it without any mandate once they had their majority. (And when they were stopped, many of the NSD proposals continued under a different guise..)

It might be well to ponder this before voting. The Suffolk County Conservatives’ 5-pledge election manifesto is as thin as a lo-calorie water biscuit – and about as nutritious. They promise to replace a youth travel card they cut two years back, the high-speed broadband they funded in this electoral cycle, plus an (unavoidable) expenditure on care , a Country-wide ‘No ColdCalling Zone’ (go figure) and that old Tory staple of no council-tax increase – which is always wheeled out as an alibi for their more spectacular episodes of financial mismanagement. And .. er.. that’s it.

So – as I say – milquetoast from start to finish.  

But who knows what may be on the secret agenda for the next four years?

Suffolk Libraries : Suffolk Lib Dem Library policy

In the relatively calm waters of 2013, we are in danger of forgetting quite what threat Suffolk’s libraries were under back in 2010, when Tory-appointed CEO Andrea Hill was endeavouring to institute a ‘virtual council’ and divest itself of most services in the name of her New Strategic Direction. The Conservative councillors who were happy to vote this in are still in power – until May 2nd.

Suffolk libraries at risk from SCC's New Strategic Directive!
Suffolk libraries at risk from SCC’s New Strategic Directive!

Yet 29 of our 44 libraries were under very real threat of closure (don’t take my word for it – hear it from the mouth of Cllr Terry  -Conservative Cabinet member for libraries . Her actual words are unambiguous : “the fallback position is that if we don’t get those responses, then 29 libraries do have to close.” Naysayers and amnesiacs please note)

Luckily the people of Suffolk (kickstarted by the people of Woodbridge who were signing the first petition within 2 days of the first announcement of trouble)  saw off that threat, and the IPS which is now in place is definitely the lesser of two evils. What more it might be we have yet to discover.

A while back, Suffolk Lib Dems issued the  following  policy regarding libraries. In case it is hard to find in its current position, I’m taking the opportunity to repost it :

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Suffolk Lib Dem Group Library policy

Suffolk Lib Dem Group recognises the immense value of libraries to the Suffolk community. Most particularly because libraries :

  • Provide materials for study to help both young and mature students – and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • Provide materials for leisure helping people relax, thus enhancing or maintaining their mental health;
  • Provide a centre for social interaction – which enhances community cohesion;
  • Provide a place for quiet study for those who don’t enjoy such facilities at home;
  • Provide a source of reference material in both physical and on-line formats;
  • Provide internet access for people who can’t afford such equipment, don’t have the space to accommodate it, have occasional need or just need help with the processes.

It is essential that

  • the above facilities should be provided
  • the provision must meet current needs and satisfy foreseeable trends
  • the business structure should be stable and finance should be certain
  • accommodation should be conveniently located for existing population centres, thinking particularly of those that are disadvantaged
  • adequate public transport and car parking facilities should be available.
  • accommodation should attract users, being clean, comfortable and accessible
  • mobile libraries should be provided and used effectively to ensure a service in low population density rural areas
  • staff should be friendly, welcoming and willing to help new users of any age, not just the long established library buffs.

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“Attention – this policy is reversing!” U-turn on young people’s travel

Hurrah – direct action and real democracy has finally paid off.

Yesterday – fifteen months after their short-sighted,  mean-minded and pennypinching  abolition of Suffolk’s Explore young person’s travelcard (halfway through the academic year, let me remind you!) –  the Conservatives on Suffolk County Council have announced a U-turn.   SCC will now be developing  an Oyster-type card “to help provide reduced travel costs for education, training and work-related travel” for young people, because – as Leader Mark Bee acknowledged -travel is such a problem for young people in our rural county.

As my son would say, no shit, Sherlock!

What Cllr Bee says is perfectly true. But it  is  hardly news. It’s now exactly a year since the County Council received that  6,000 signature petition and the personal representations from a huge range of people (including some very vocal, determined – and polite – members of Woodbridge’s Just 42) telling them just this!

When  the Conservatives originally argued the necessity of the Explore  cut on the grounds of cost, they were too shortsighted to recognise the costly damage it would cause to the educational, work and training prospects of a whole cohort of young people.  This harm was clear to anyone who looked at the facts rather than the ideology of the New Strategic Direction.  Indeed, in the middle of last year the Conservatives heard this information directly from me and other Lib Dem councillors, from schools and colleges, from parents and – most of all – from the young people affected.

We all told the Conservatives that scrapping the Explore card would – and did – cause huge problems to those who wanted to get an education and a job.  But -as the Cabinet member for Roads and Transport so memorably said -“you can’t spend a pound more than once.”   In such  circumstances, the wise idea is to choose carefully what you do spend your pounds on in the first place. This was the same Cabinet that agreed the expenditure of really quite a lot of pounds on Suffolk Circle.

Thursday’s announcement is welcome news – but sadly it is too late for some.  And the current announcement – despite the fanfare – is currently limited to Ipswich.Yet  Scrutiny established  at the end of last year that the young people living in Ipswich remained  best supported by bus services after the Explore cut. It was those in the rural parts of Suffolk – those with large distances to travel and no access to cars or petrol -who were most badly affected.

Now that this decision has been made, I urge the council to go beyond spin on this occasion and to roll out this new Oyster-type scheme as quickly as possible. We we need to reverse, wherever possible,  the harm they have caused and are continuing to cause to the next generation of Suffolk!

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.