Tag Archives: Suffolk Circle

The short life of Suffolk Circle- and what it cost us Suffolk taxpayers!

SuffolkCircle 21April2014

In March – just as I left the country – Suffolk Circle folded and Suffolk Tories quietly wrote off nearly three quarters of a million pounds of our money.  What a surprise!

Even back in 2010 when SCC’s Conservative Cabinet unilaterally decided to give just under £700,000 sight unseen to produce a “Pay-annual-subscription-to-get-a-good-neighbour-scheme” you could see there were potential problems (see blogpost July 2011) .

The notion was ‘spun’ to the people of Suffolk as long-term assistance to the council’s social care budget by supporting the vulnerable elderly. But as the Circle defined ‘the elderly’ as anyone aged over 50, this included over a third of Suffolk’s population. Such a ludicrously long-term ‘long-term solution’ should have raised alarm bells with anyone of even average mathematical ability. Unfortunately it seems there was no such person overseeing Suffolk Circle.

Furthermore, despite spending a year and £100,000 of taxpayers’ hard-earned money on a ‘scoping exercise’ – neither the (then) Cabinet Member for Adult and Continuing Services – Colin Noble – nor Suffolk Circle itself appeared to be aware of the huge number of pre-existing interest groups and services for both the over-50s and the ‘frail elderly’ that were already operating in Suffolk * (I know, I know. You couldn’t make it up.)

Colin NobleSuffolk CircleSo unsurprisingly Suffolk Circle missed its modest targets from the beginning.

In the first year it spent £350,000  and only got 362 members. These members had paid a minimum subscription of £30 each and STILL cost the council £1000 a head. Nice going! (362 people make up 0.16% of Suffolk’s over-50s, by the way).

The  modest target-setting continued. Suffolk Circle’s target membership was supposed to be 1630 members by March 2013 and 3500 by March 2014 when the funding finished and the scheme could soar to dizzy heights without it. As it was, Suffolk Circle ground to a halt in March the moment the money ran out, admitting it had achieved no more than 2000 members in its entire existence.  Paid for by the hardworking Suffolk taxpayer, who had had this scheme foisted on them – without consultation and in secret – by a set of ideological nitwits who had picked up the notion from goodness knows where.

No oversight, no claw-back, no responsibility taken. Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen, shall we?

But don’t you think the frail elderly of Suffolk deserve more? and all the local groups, from Age UK Suffolk to Wickham Market and District Family Carers who could have taken that money and spent it wisely and responsibly?

I do.

Colin Noble – until last week Cabinet member for Finance at SCC – has suddenly (and perhaps in view of the above, inexplicably) become rather passionate about debate in policy-making:

 “We believe that the members of the council should debate policy and come up with proposals that are taken up by the cabinet and then implemented by the senior officers,”  he is quoted as saying last week. “At present we feel it is developed by the cabinet and senior officers, and then given to the backbenchers for them to approve. I believe it is best when policy is robustly debated before being adopted and taken forward to be implemented.”

Cllr Noble, we members of the council would have loved to debate the issue of Suffolk Circle if the decision hadn’t been made by you and your colleagues in camera. As it was, non-Cabinet members first saw the briefing documents for Suffolk Circle when we scrutinized its shoddy performance one year on.

Don’t you think it’s a bit rich to start talking about debating policy now, after you threw the better part of a million pounds of Suffolk taxpayers’ hard-earned money down the gurgler?

 

*Just in the area local to Woodbridge this could be taken to include: Church groups, Suffolk Carers, Royal British Legion, WI, English Country Markets, Library groups, writers groups and book groups, amateur dramatics and play 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.

 

What’s been happening in Suffolk: June 2012

Woodbridge Jubilee beacon from across the Deben. The beacon was built and lit by 1st Woodbridge Scouts

Over the last month everyone was concerned with the Queen’s Jubilee. However I single out for special notice Suffolk County Council – who, for reasons best known to themselves, held a party on the evening of  4th June  to celebrate the  SCC Jubilee beacon being lit. They were clearly oblivious to the notion that any County Councillor worth their salt would  be on their own home patch enjoying local celebrations, and  their local beacon. At least I was.

Other things of importance:

Suffolk Circle If you remember, a couple of years back SCC committed £680,000 over 3 years to fund a ‘good neighbours ‘scheme in Suffolk. This was, to put it mildly, a controversial decision. Last month I told you that Suffolk Circle’s first year of operation was looked at in critical detail by the Scrutiny Committee to assess whether it was an effective/cost-effective means of providing support  to the over 50s. The main recommendations of the Committee were:

  1. Any proposed future partnerships between the County Council and third party organisations should be looked at by Scrutiny before any final decisions are taken by Cabinet;
  2. the Committee be provided with details of the outcomes from the Business Review of the Suffolk Circle ;
  3. the Business Review should take account of different mixes of income from tokens and subscriptions and developing closer working with the voluntary sector, in the context of planning for Years 2 and 3;
  4. the County Council and the Suffolk Circle should give consideration to how marketing could be used:

i.            to encourage members from rural communities to join;

ii.            to proactively reach out to the most vulnerable people in Suffolk;

iii.            to clearly demonstrate in plain English the benefits of membership to potential members;

  1. the County Council and Suffolk Circle take steps to improve communication with voluntary sector organisations, including a proactive approach to signposting services; and
  2. the Committee be provided with data regarding the number of membership renewals and the demographic make up of the membership, using Acorn data.

I will keep you up to date when I hear more from the County about the Circle.

New Chairman, New Travel Card The Annual General Meeting of Suffolk County Council took place on the 24th of May, where Cllr Jeremy Pembroke, the former leader and Conservative councillor for Cosford was appointed Chairman for the next year. Anne Whybrow, Conservative member for Stowmarket was also elected as the Vice-Chair.  At the same time the Lib Dem party announced that our Leader, Kathy Pollard, has stepped down, after a  prolonged brush with very ill-health, and is replaced by Cllr David Wood.

Cllr Mark Bee then gave a State of Suffolk Address, in which he highlighted the main aims for the year and reviewed the past year.   Interestingly, in this  he heralded the return on an Oyster-type young persons travel card because issues of transport are causing such harm to the education and employment prospects of the young people of Suffolk. Equally interestingly, he failed to mention that this was required to replace the  Explore young person’s travel card which his own administration (under previous leader Jeremy Pembroke) decided to cut halfway through the last academic year and which has already caused significant harm to the education and employment prospects of young people in Suffolk.

Any sign of a restoration is obviously a successful outcome for me, my party and the members of Just 42, amongst others: we  have been lobbying for the restoration of this card since it was withdrawn.  However the proposal is currrently limited to the young people of Ipswich, who  Scrutiny discovered have suffered least from the withdrawal.  It  must be extended as soon as possible if the Leader’s words are to mean anything at all. I have blogged, written and spoken publicly on how necessary this is if we are to support the badly-affected young people of rural Suffolk  to support themselves.

We also welcomed Cllr Bee’s announcement of a one-post Cabinet post reduction  for the next year. My party has been calling for such a reduction for two years.

Textiles Recycling Scheme Launched The Suffolk Waste Partnership has recently launched a scheme where residents across the entire County will be able to recycle clothes.  I do have some concerns about the effect of this scheme on charities, although the Council says that the aim is not to take away the clothes that would be donated, but to try to redirect some of the 7,000 tonnes of clothing that goes to landfill each year.   Having said this, they then supply a list of  those items that are deemed acceptable and unacceptable – many of which would be acceptable at a charity shop.

Acceptable items: all clean clothing, socks and shoes, boots, wellies, slippers, hats, scarves, gloves, bed linen, blankets, sheets, pillowcases, handbags, belts, clean underwear, curtains, towels, tea towels and stuffed toys

No thanks – dirty or oily items, duvets, quilts, sleeping bags, pillows, cushions and carpets.

All I say is, please remember to give to charities anything you would have given before  – and only hand clearly unsaleable items to the recycling scheme. Re-use is better than recycling any day of the week.

County Councillor surgery My next surgery is this upcoming Saturday, 16th June, in the Woodbridge library. As ever, everyone is  welcome

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!