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Wordblog revived

incorporating New Life


Where is coherent opposition to council cuts?

Ipswich Spy has a thoughtful piece about political opposition to county and borough council spending cuts. It concludes:

David Ellesmere [Labour leader on Ipswich council] and his colleagues want the people of Ipswich to vote for them in May and to return them to the leadership of Ipswich Borough Council. Yet he is unable to articulate one single cut that he would be making to the current council services in order to save money. That is not a credible position. Nor is it credible to say this is all the fault of the Tory led Government, since the only plan put forward by Labour so far would lead to roughly the same, if not greater, financial squeeze on local government. Labour needs to think very hard and very quickly about what it is offering the electorate in Ipswich, otherwise Cllr Ellesmere will once again wake up the morning after the election as the Leader of the Opposition group.

Suffolk’s ‘second most cost efficient claim’ questioned

The claim which Jeremy Pembroke, Conservative leader of Suffolk County Council, has been using that Suffolk is “one of the two most cost-efficient county councils in the country” looks dubious.

Wordblog has established that the claim made by Mr Pembroke and other members of his group is based on National Indicator 179, a set of figures submitted to the Audit Commission by councils.

The Audit Commission defines NI179 as: “The total net value of ongoing cash-releasing value for money gains that have impacted since the start of the 2008-09 financial year.” That is further defined with is a series of explanations of the words it contains.

That is opaque, but it simply counts up the savings councils have made on delivering the same service. And Suffolk has made huge savings.

Crucially, the commission says (my emphasis):

Good performance is typified by higher numbers.

However, the indicator will not provide evidence on absolute value for money against which different councils can be judged. The scope for gains will be different in each area, and the ability to report higher numbers may be limited in any organisation that is genuinely delivering excellent value for money.

In other words, Jeremy Pembroke should not have been using the figures in the way he has been. They are a measure of savings made by councils that cannot be used to compare one with another. Those councils which were already efficient would be lower down the savings league.

The savings shown in a document from the Communities and Local Government are remarkable. Suffolk saved £43.25 million by the end of March 2009.

They were beaten only by Kent with savings of almost £45m.

The average sayings for all English counties was £14.9m. The average for councils excluding the two top savers was £12.75m (This includes Essex, at number three with savings of £27.85m.)

To be able to make such savings seems to suggest that until three or four years ago Suffolk was operating extremely inefficiently.

If you are getting confused by all these numbers the method of arriving at them is simple. This is an example of how they are worked out:

In year 1, council A spends £100,000 on providing service X.

In Year 2, it spends £90,000 to provide the service, with no deterioration in its overall effectiveness and taking account of inflation.

The value for money gain contributing to the aggregate total is therefore:

£100,000 – £90,000 = £10,000

I became curious after I noticing that no other councils  were making similar claims about their cost efficiency. Normally politicians are only too keen to highlight the efficiency of their administrations.

I asked Suffolk County Council for “material which validates the statement that Suffolk is “the most cost efficient county council” , “the second most cost efficient county council” or “one of the two most cost efficient county councils”.

The response (speedily delivered) was:

Please find attached our N179 return from 2008/09 which is the document on which these words were based. The link below is to our Budget Book which gives some narrative around the chart on pages 9, 10 and 11 and the two together validate the statement.


I can find nothing in the budget book (if you have problems with that link the document is also stored on wordblog) or the two documents (part 1, part 2) sent to validate the statement.

Mr Pembroke has used the phrase “one of the two most cost-efficient county councils” (with or without the word “two”) in a comment to the East Anglian Daily Times, in response to a question after a presentation by chief executive Andrea Hill, and in a letter to every council tax payer in the county last year.

I can find no evidence of the phrase or anything like it being used by any officer of the council. So how does Mr Pembroke justify it? He is welcome to space on wordblog to explain.

Defence of libraries goes viral — help spread it

Philip Pullman’s magnificent speech in support of public libraries has gone viral on the net, writes Nick Cohen in The Observer today (Jan 30).

It is a good virus so help to spread it through twitter, facebook, blogs and email. Philip Pullman, the acclaimed novelist who was born in Norwich, spoke at a meeting to oppose Oxfordshire County Council’s plans to shut 20 out of 43 libraries.

Change the numbers to 29 out of 44 and he could have been talking about Suffolk as this extract shows:

Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries. Mr Keith Mitchell, the leader of the county council, said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe?

I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

Especially since the council is hoping that the youth service, which by a strange coincidence is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by – guess what – volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?

This is an exact mirror of what is happening in Suffolk, including the slashing of youth clubs as well as libraries. Read the full speech and an introduction to it at falseeconomy.org.uk.

Library cuts and the ‘logical fallacy’

Caroline Page, the Lib Dem county councillor for Woodbridge, was up late last night writing a lovely post ridiculing the “consultation” about the future of Suffolk libraries.

In Distribute that middle! Losing Suffolk’s libraries through a logical fallacy! she talks about the “embarrassingly autocratic  library ‘consultation’”. It does not mean “the administration is allowing you any opportunity to say their idea is bad, and you want no part of it.”

She writes:

Oh no – all this consultation gives you is a chance  to explain your idea for running your divested library. For example Question 4 is:  “How will your idea  or interest generate changes or significant efficiencies in the way the library operates to reduce what the county council pays by a minimum of 30%”

I can’t really give the flavour of Page’s comments without reproducing it, so please use the link above to read it in full.

For those who have not been following the story, Suffolk County Council has decided that 29 of its libraries will close if they are not taken over by community groups to be run at a lower cost.

These include the tiny library in Debenham, where I live, which has bucked national trends by increasing numbers of users, lending more books, encouraging children, helping people find information and a host of other things. By some measures, I suspect, it is among the most successful libraries in the country.

Page encourages people to sign one of the petitions on the council’s new petition site. The consultation is here.

Library cuts to help meet spending on care

We now know that Suffolk libraries are being cut to help pay for overspending on adult care services. £710,000 of the £1.06m libraries cuts in the next financial year is to pay for care spending in the current year.

There are difficult choices here, but why has the county council not been explicit about this when it launched its consultation on the future of libraries last week?

The new information has been winkled out of the committee papers for the Cabinet meeting next Tuesday by the East Anglian Daily times which leads on the story, Suffolk: Libraries’ closures ‘will pay for council overspending’, today (Jan 17).

The paper reports:

Suffolk County Council has said it can no longer afford to run 29 of its 44 libraries and warned they would close if communities did not come forward to take them over. The move is to make more than £2million of savings.

Bosses have said communities have until April 2013 to confirm deals to run their libraries but it has now emerged that more than £1m has to be saved in the next financial year – which will cut the existing library service by 15% and increase the pressure on local people to act.

The information is in a spreadsheet among the cabinet papers for the next meeting. To download it go to the Cabinet documents page and use the link for Annex D (Agenda Item 5).

The introduction to the libraries consultation says:

The council will be reducing the funding for libraries by greater than 30% in order to protect more essential front line services like fire services and services for vulnerable people like elderly care.

That suggested to me and, I think most other people, it was talking about future spending on care. And, in view of the latest information, what is that about the fire service?

This is what is in the spreadsheet:

Divesting libraries to communities. N.B. The total saving the library service is having to deliver in 2011/12 is £1.06m or 14.92% (£0.710m- to address the over committed care budgets in 2010/11 plus this £0.350m [from library closures/divestments]).  More savings will be required in 2012/13.

…The £1.06m equates to a service reduction of 14.92%.

Impact on the public: This could result in some library closures and is in addition to a 10% saving of £710k in the library service which was used to address the over committed care budget in 2010/11.

Deliverability: This is determined by the willingness and ability of local communities or organisations to run these services, at a lower cost, whilst maintaining satisfactory statutory levels of service. There will be a public consultation from January until April 2011 to listen to peoples views.

Suffolk cuts free bus pass benefits

News of another cut by Suffolk Council Council arrives in today’s post. The letter tells me that the county is taking over responsibility for the free travel bus pass scheme from the district council and that from April 1 I will not be able to travel free on buses before 9.30am.

Also free travel on park and ride buses in Ipswich will be stopped. I guess I can go shopping in Norwich or Cambridge, unless they are making the same cut.

One small concession is that if a village does not have a bus to any destination (never mind where you want to go) between 9.30 and and 11.59am, free travel before 9.30 will be allowed.  SCC webpage on changes.

We are still waiting to hear about plans to slash rural bus subsidies in the county, but if rumours are true, the bus pass could become pretty worthless anyway. Any news on these plans would be welcome.

At the bottom of the letter there is this line: “We are working towards making Suffolk the Greenest County.” D’oh!

PS: Checked the minutes of the meeting which approved the changes. In part it says (my emphasis):

Reasons for Decision:
(a)The Cabinet agreed that County Councils were considered better to manage concessionary travel schemes as opposed to District Councils.
(b)The proposals benefited everyone, including the bus operators.

Pickles orders Suffolk councils to publish expenditure within a week

Eric Pickles, the Communities secretary, has today given Suffolk County Council — and five other Suffolk councils– a week to start publishing details of their spending.

They were told last June to publish online all spending over £500 by the end of January this year.

Today (January 25) he said in a press release:

I’ve called for every council to become more open and accountable about every aspect of their work, starting with getting all expenditure over £500 online by the end of this month. Transparency can help save money in tough times protecting frontline services, by cutting waste and unnecessary costs.

The final countdown for councils has begun. In the last six months more than half of all councils have got their house in order. Today I’m putting those councils still to open up on one week’s notice.

The public have a right to know how their tax pounds are spent, and those yet to deliver are running out of excuses and time before they have to face their electorate – I hope every council chooses to do so openly, transparently and democratically.

The list he also published shows that only two Suffolk councils — Babergh and Forest Heath — have complied. Leaving Mid Suffolk, (see next paragraph) Suffolk Coastal, St Edmundsbury, Suffolk Coastal, Ipswich and Waveney as well as the county council to get their skates on. Nationally more than 210 councils have published lists while about 150 have not.

Jan 26: Mid Suffolk District Council has now told me (see comment below)  they have published the spending details. Follow the link in the previous paragraph to find them. Jan 27: Ipswich Spy tells me Ipswich Borough Council has also published details. Link has been added above. the list published by the Communities department seems not to be entirely up to date.

It would be good to know why thee-quarters of Suffolk councils are so tardy.

Time for SCC to answer questions on BT contract

Suffolk County Council owes it to council tax payers to be more open about its negotiations to cut £3.5 million from its bill for the Customer Services Direct joint venture with BT and Mid Suffolk District council.

This is a big part the overall cuts to services including care to the elderly, bus services, libraries and much more.

The whole CSD project is mired in controversy and last June Michael Gower resigned as head of supplier relationship management at the County Council. He later told the Guardian that his repeated complaints that the scheme was over budget were ignored by SCC chief executive Andrea Hill.

In 2004 the original contract was to set up CSD as a joint venture,  with Suffolk paying BT £301m over ten years. BT was to invest £53 million in the council’s infrastructure. The costs, including inflation, have increased to £417m, said Gower.

The Guardian also reported, “… that Suffolk’s director of organisational change, Max Wide, is on secondment from BT where he is director of strategic development at BT Government. Wide was formerly director of organisational development at Barnet council, another Conservative authority with a radical privatisation programme.”

Ipswich Spy, a blog which seems to be close to some of the political animals in the town, returned to the issue yesterday with a post headed Who runs Suffolk County Concil? Andrea Hill. Jeremy Pembroke, or BT?

Jeremy Pembroke, is leader of SCC. Ipswichspy posed six questions to the council:

Ipswich Spy believes that the close relationship between BT and Andrea Hill needs careful and critical examination. Why has the relationship not been closely examined by the council’s Audit Committee for instance. They are meeting this week and the agenda would have been written whilst the relationship was under closest scrutiny. Yet they continue along a path set for them by the ruling trio of Chief Executive, BT and council leader Jeremy Pembroke. Are back bench councilors not concerned that BT appear to fill the roles of poacher, gamekeeper and owner of the farm at SCC?

I posted a comment pointing to a council document listing proposed spending cuts. It includes reducing the cost of the CSD contract by £3.5m (10.4%) but said it would be difficult to deliver, commenting: “Active discussions are taking place with CSD and BT.  Currently there is no agreement and an understanding of how this could be delivered is yet to be finalised.”

Ipswich Spy responded (in part):

This looks to us like a holding figure used to balance the budget, without any real intention to find those savings….

Our concern is that SCC isn’t really looking at all. The figure put in the budget has no substance behind it, no explanation of how those savings are going to be made.

Please read Ipswichspy’s full post and the comments.

One of the most important questions surrounding the whole cuts issue is whether SCC is capable of managing a huge range of suppliers from the private and voluntary sectors. The evidence we have of the CSD contract casts severe doubt on that.

A £3.5m reduction in the CSD budget is a big part of the overall proposed cuts and if it is not delivered where does that leave the whole policy? Without full disclosure, claims that SCC’s New Strategic Direction has democracy at its heart look more pious by the day

Clegg and Pickles in battle over councils’ right to raise taxes

There is a struggle going on at the heart of Government about how local councils should be financed. Over the past 40 years or more the proportion of council spending financed by local taxation has declined and been replaced by grants from the centre.

Now, according to the Local Government Chronicle, Nick Clegg is battling Eric Pickles, the local government secretary over this issue.

I have long believed that real local decision making and democracy depends on raising taxes to pay for local services. In Wordblog’s days as a jounralism blog this is what I wrote in 2006:

Part of the problem is that local news seems less relevant as local decision-making has been stripped away by centralising governments. Councils have become little more than administrators of central decisions and reorganisations in the name of efficiency have removed much of the cut and thrust of local politics.

The Local Government Chronicle reported last week:

… a chasm has opened up between Mr Clegg and Mr Pickles over the breadth and scope of the imminent local government resource review, with the communities secretary fiercely resisting the former’s calls for a much wider-ranging inquiry than that currently planned.

Mr Clegg is pushing for the introduction of local sales and fuel taxes and parking levies to be considered alongside a number of other measures, while Mr Pickles believes the review should not extend much further than the localisation of business rates and the introduction of Tax Increment Financing (TIF). Mr Pickles managed to block Mr Clegg from announcing the expanded review at a speech last week.

The LGC’s chief reporter, Allister Hayman writes in his blog that he is told by sources close to Mr Clegg that he has become increasingly concerned about the government’s lack of ambition in its decentralisation agenda. Clegg wants to “free local government from its overwhelming dependence on Treasury’s purse strings,” says Hayman.

We may question whether many councils, including SCC, are up to having such a large say over taxation. I feel we would be in for a bumpy ride but real power should revitalise local democracy with voters being more careful, insisting on better quality candidates from all the parties.

If the policy of localism is to have any real meaning eth power to tax enough to pay for the services must be devolved from the centre.

Suffolk changes “an experiment”

Trying to understand what is happening at Suffolk County Council is not easy. It is confused by two things happening at once — a deep political/philosophic reshaping of the role of the council and very heavy cuts in spending.

John Tizard, director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships, raised many of the issues in an article for Public Finance magazine and website. He concluded:

Local government has a specific responsibility to local people, communities and businesses – and must ensure that they honour these responsibilities. Given the financial, economic, social and demographic pressures no one can doubt that there needs to be some radical changes, but has Suffolk found the right solution for Suffolk?

To reach a judgement, we (and the citizens of Suffolk) need the answers to the questions posed earlier and, most importantly, we need to know what local people think. Without public authorisation and consent it might prove the wrong decision to rush into implementation of what could be irreversible actions with dramatic consequences.

This appeared at the beginning of October but I believe it is still worth reading in full. Tizard is an extremely well-informed commentator, having worked for Capita and the CBI before heading the Centre for Public Service Partnerships. He was also joint leader of Bedfordshire County Council for eight years.

He may well take a different view now and have answers to some of the questions he poses.

In his article he posed ten strategic questions which required reasoned, evidence-based answers. I don’t think Suffolk people have those answers yet.

He wrote:

There is little doubt that the Suffolk experiment is precisely that – an experiment, because no other UK local authority has embarked on such a programme, albeit that others have adopted elements of it on a much smaller scale.  To that end, the council would, if intent on such an approach, be well advised to consider piloting some of its proposals in the first instance.

If Tizard would like to update his comments I will be very happy to publish whatever he sends me. In the meantime I urge people to read his original article.