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Bus services to continue without subsidy, report

As rumoured, the Diss to Ipswich bus services which passes through Debenham and Mendlesham on alternate trips, appears to have been saved. The East Anglian Daily Times has the story.

The County Council on Thursday is expected to approve a budget which cuts public transport subsidies from £4.3m to £2m.

It is said that operators of several services have agreed to continue the service on a commercial basis with no subsidy.

It is good news but the details are still somewhat vague.

David, it’s a co-op foodstore! PM relaunches Big Society

Had David Cameron visited a co-op foodstore before yesterday when he chose one for a photo-op for his Big Society idea? Had no one told him that together the co-ops are among the country’s largest food retailers. He certainly looked impressed when he visited one in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

The People’s Supermarket is new, but like its longer established big brother it traces the idea back to the Rochdale Pioneers formed in 1844.

Probably, there are not that many other co-ops in the WC1 postcode, an easy bike ride from Downing Street and Somerset House where he relaunched the Big Society (Guardian).

His visit to the People’s Supermarket where one of the founders said they were struggling to get people to understand it, provided BBC News at Ten with its lead item (iPlayer).

Listeners to The Archers will also know that co-operatives are springing up around the country to save village shops.

There is a co-op bank, the East of England Co-op employs 5,000 people in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex. The list can go on and on. There is even a top-level internet domain .coop.

If he want’s to know more he can easily talk to one of the 28 members of the Co-operative Party who sit in the Commons as Labour and Co-op members. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor is one of them and should be able to give Mr Cameron good advice on how big society works.

It must be difficult for someone who arrived from planet Bullingdon to understand how society has worked for centuries.

* I hope that while in Lamb’s Conduit Street he walked to the top of road and visited Coram’s Fields, with its wonderful playground and community nursery on the site of the Foundling Hospital established in 1739.

Suffolk County Council faces challenge on need to cut front line services

In rejecting budget amendments to be put to Suffolk County Council by the Lib Dems on Thursday, the Conservative deputy leader, Jane Storey, is effectively putting the big society experiment before libraries, rural bus services, youth clubs and more.

Mrs Storey told the East Anglian Daily Times that the the management of change budget (the largest element in the Lib Dem counter proposals) was very important because it was preparing staff to work under the councils’s new strategic direction.  She told the paper: “It is one thing to look at savings in isolation for one year, but this is the first of a series of what will be tough settlements.”

The Lib Dems propose cutting the management of change budget by £1.7 million. Their alternative cuts also include others which would clearly be painful including £800,000 off roads maintenance. They suggest reducing a contingency fund by £1 million, using £700,000 of reserves and cutting business mileage by 10% saving £936,000. In total their cuts add up to £6.23 million which balances with the cost of the services they want to protect.

This money would instead be used for libraries, youth clubs, public transport, school crossing patrols, recycling centres and the fire service.  Here is the Lib Dem press release (personal phone numbers removed).

The New Strategic Direction is is effectively the Big Society writ large, ending with the council becoming an “enabling body” by divesting the running of services to charities, social enterprises, other councils, volunteer groups and the private sector.

Nationally, David Cameron has recognised that it will cost money to get the big society up an running. In an article in the Observer yesterday he said:

But we understand that while the opportunity lies in the future the local authority cuts are happening now. So this week we are launching a transition fund to help charities prepare to bid for these contracts and a big society bank to provide some working capital when they’re awarded them.

Cameron’s local government secretary, Eric Pickles, has said that the cuts in government finance do not mean councils need to cut front line service. And Central Suffolk Conservative MP, Dan Poulter has supported firemen saying that the county council is being asked to go back to the spending levels of three years ago.

Lib Dem group leader Kathy Pollard said:

Unlike the Conservatives, we have been listening to Suffolk people. It has not been difficult to identify the savings we needed to retain these services. It is a question of priorities.  Clearly the Conservatives at Suffolk County Council are determined to close and privatise as many services as possible. This is ideologically driven and is not being imposed on them by central Government.

Suffolk county council Tories who grabbed the big society idea and ran with it as something that could be quickly implemented on a huge scale, are looking increasingly isolated. The Prime Minister is saying it will take time and money, the Local Government Secretary disputes their need to cut front line services and has now been joined by one of the county’s conservative MPs.

But the Conservative majority on the County Council is huge and they do not appear ready to compromise. But at least the Lib Dem amendment shines a light on some of the costs of the New Strategic Direction and priority they are being given by the Conservatives.

Strange political times — Tory MP supports firemen’s union

These are, indeed, strange political times. BBC Suffolk reports that Dan Poulter, the new MP for Central Suffolk, is supporting the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in their protests against cuts being made by the Conservative county council.

The FBU claims anticipated cuts in which full-time firemen would be replaced by retained (part-time) men could endanger lives.

Dr Poulter is quoted by the BBC saying:

All that central government is asking the county council to do is go back to spending levels of 2007/08 – three years ago.

My view is that we should be investing in the fire service and it should be ring fenced.

That is why I am supporting the Fire Brigades Union and all they are doing.

Mr Poulter is, of course, echoing the claim by local government secretary Eric Pickles that cuts in front line services are not necessary. Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the county council, responded to that in Wordblog last week.

The village where everyone is a “wealthy achiever” — data and the future of libraries

Otley is the most consistently wealthy village in Suffolk, according to a database being used used by Suffolk County Council in its libraries consultation. Everyone, bar none, in this pleasant village strung-out along the B1079 north of Woodbridge lives in a household of “wealthy achievers”.

I found this by chance, in my attempt to understand some figures in the Debenham information pack which is a part of the consultation documentation. It quotes ACORN data, which divides people into four categories: wealthy achievers, urban prosperity, moderate means and hard pressed.

It is ACORN data which explains whether you get pestered by loan sharks or investment brokers, and helps Waitrose and Aldi decide where to open stores.

I was surprised 225 of the 307 “Register Users Borrowed in Last Year” (sic)  at Debenham were “Wealthy Achievers.”

The company which produces the ACORN statistics describes “Wealthy Achievers” as:

These are some of the most successful and affluent people in the UK. They live in wealthy, high-status rural, semi-rural and suburban areas of the country. Middle-aged or older people predominate, with many empty nesters and wealthy retired. Some neighbourhoods contain large numbers of well-off families with school-age children, particularly the more suburban locations.

These people live in large houses, which are usually detached with four or more bedrooms.

The proportion in this classification using Debenham library is reasonably close to the overall ACORN data for Debenham. The county data, by electoral ward is available from Suffolk Observatory, an online store of data, statistics and reports, run by a partnership of councils, the police and the NHS.

A chart in the Debenham library information back goes beyond broad “wealthy achievers” and “hard pressed” categories. It tells us that 42 borrowers were old people living in detached houses, while 22 were well-off managers living in larger houses, if we dig a bit deeper. To do that you will need to download the ACORN user guide here.

There are some questions that need answering:

  1. How accurate is the ACORN data?
  2. Is it appropriate for the library consultation?
  3. How are individual book borrowers related to the third and most detailed level of ACORN classification?
  4. What information does the library service hold on individual borrowers?
  5. Why was this data used, rather than a simpler neighbourhood profile?

There are other puzzles in the consultation documentation. For example, why does each loan at Ipswich library cost £5.06 a loan while at the Chantry library, less than two miles away, they cost £2.14?

Twenty nine Suffolk libraries are thretened with closure if they are not taken-over by community organisations.

Welcome ban on council-run newspapers

Eric Pickles, the local government secretary is right (I did not expect to be saying that) to call a halt to newspapers put out by councils. They have been drawing readers and advertising away from independent local newspapers.

At a time when the newspaper industry has very real problems with falling circulations and revenue, they don’t need to face further revenue and readership losses funded by council tax payers.

The BBC reports “anger” over the new publicity rules which are wider than restricting publishing.

New publicity rules were published by the Communities department yesterday, with Pickles saying:

An independent local press is an essential part of our open democracy and it is a vital part of local accountability, but the rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long squandering public funds and pushing local newspapers out into the abyss.

The news will be welcomed by the Newspaper Society which gave evidence to the Parliamentary communities select committee before Christmas. Lynne Anderson of the NS said 150 council publications took private advertising, and continued:

You don’t need your local council competing with you for scarce advertising revenues… those are the very ad revenues which keep journalists in their jobs. Councils should not be in the business of competing.

At the same time as welcoming the restrictions, it is hard to disagree with  Russell Kemp, vice chair of the Local Government Association. He told the same committee hearing it was hypocritical of the Government to interfere in local government business while pushing the Localism agenda.

He also said local newspapers needed to up their game.

It is clear, to me, that local and regional newspaper coverage of councils has fallen over the years in both volume and quality. Perhaps, Mr Pickles will also be be contributing to improvementt by making local government a more controversial and important issue.

It does looks as if councils were already seeing the writing on the wall, as well as looking for ways to save money. Tower Hamlets is reviewing the future of its fat weekly East End Life. Lambeth, North Yorkshire, East Riding, and Hamersmith and Fulham have announced closure of their papers.

Lib Dems produce alternative to cuts in Suffolk

Further to my earlier post today, an amendment to the proposed Suffolk County Council budget has been proposed by the Liberal Democrats for discussion at the council meeting next Thursday.

Lib Dem group leader Kathy Pollard says, that if adopted, it would:

  • Keep all libraries open
  • Retain school crossing patrols
  • Retain funding for youth clubs
  • Maintain subsidised bus service to rural communities
  • Keep the eXplore student discount travel card
  • Reopen Bury Road Park and Ride service
  • Keep open all Household Waste Recycling centres by reducing hours
  • Retain Fire Control in Suffolk
  • Keep Felixstowe Fire Station as full time on weekdays and retained at weekends
  • Retain the Fire Service’s Ipswich Aerial Appliance
  • Retain the service of checking overloaded lorries

She also lists on her blog savings that could be made to finance the retention of services.

The Lib Dems have only 11 councillors to the Conservatives’ 55. Labour has 4 and the Greens 2. But it will be valuable to have an alternative plan laid out. Let’s hope the costing are fully explained.

Suffolk Couty Council leader gives response to Eric Pickles

Last week I emailed Jeremy Pembroke, the leader of Suffolk County Council, asking the following question:

Eric Pickles has written an article at the Conservative Home website today and in the last paragraph says: “It just goes to show that cutting front line jobs and hitting front line services isn’t inevitable- it doesn’t have to be an option at all.”

Can you, please, explain to me why then Suffolk County Council is making cuts in front line services? Or is Mr Pickles wrong?

I thank him for his reply which I am happy to reproduce in full.

Eric Pickles is, of course, absolutely right to highlight the excellent and innovative work of Conservative-run councils around the country.Those that have the scope to fill next year’s budget gap purely with back-office changes and efficiency savings, and without affecting front-line budgets, certainly deserve credit.

At Suffolk County Council we have, over the last four years, achieved around £70million in efficiency savings, turning the authority into one of the two most cost-efficient County Councils in the country. At the same time, we have put an end to the large increases in council tax imposed by the previous Lib Dem / Labour administration prior to 2005.

Indeed, in the last two years, we have delivered the County Council’s low increases in council tax. This year we are proposing that there be no increase whatsoever.

However, Suffolk has an ageing population, which means we face an inexorable increase in demand for our services, and the concomitant additional costs.

As a result, we have significant added costs over the next year, which must be made up alongside the 12.7% reduction in our grant. In total, this means a budget gap of £42.5million.

Despite this, over 80% of the budget gap is going to be made good with efficiencies, changes to back-office functions, and different ways of working. But inevitably, as with other County Councils in a similar position, there will be some extremely difficult decisions to make about front-line services, as you will have seen from our budget proposals.

It is precisely so we can avoid such difficult cuts in future years that we are developing our New Strategic Direction, as a way of improving outcomes for people in the future despite having much less money. Over the next two or three years, we should start seeing the benefits of this emerging. However, unfortunately, for this year, this does not stop us from having to make very difficult choices.

So yes, of course, where councils are able to avoid cutting any front-line budgets, they do deserve much credit and have shown, as Mr Pickles says, that such cuts are not inevitable.

“However, for County Councils such as ours, who already have an exceptional record on efficiency savings over a number of years, and the specific demographic pressures, such cuts, though kept to the absolute minimum, are unfortunately unavoidable.”

The only comment I make on the reply is that Mr Pembroke repeats his claim that Suffolk is “one of the two most cost-efficient County Councils in the country”.

The figures (Nation Indicator 179) on which that claim is made comes with this warning: “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.”

Having made large savings, the NI179 figures for Suffolk tend to justify the case that the county has less scope than some others to make efficiency savings. For more on these figures see my earlier post.