Andrea Hill, chief executive of Suffolk County Council has written a message to employees in the March issue of the Inside SCC newsletter. She deals with important matters and it should be read in full so that all the points are seen in context. It is in the public interest that it should be available to everyone in Suffolk.
Budget cuts or divestment?
On 17 February the Full Council set one of its most challenging budgets. You will no doubt have seen much of the media coverage and certainly it was a day of high emotion and passion.
Much of the coverage – not just in Suffolk, but also in neighbouring Norfolk and Cambridgeshire – focused on public protest and headlines about anxiety. The danger is that the portrayal of a ‘cuts agenda’ nationally is creating a charged atmosphere in Suffolk that is confusing our agenda of divestment with budget cuts.
Some of the budget proposals started as unfortunate but necessary front line service reductions. However, during the budget consultation process we listened to feedback from communities and local councils and changed our approach as a result. The Council agreed to a £1.7m Transition Fund to buy time for others to come forward with proposals to run our services – including school crossing patrols, youth clubs, libraries and recreation sites. We are not trying to close these services: we are trying to find alternative ways of other people running them locally.
It has proved almost impossible to convince the public and local councils that we are not shutting 29 libraries in April this year. The media headlines haven’t helped.
Our consultation document – intended to be honest and early publication of a future scenario for libraries – has been interpreted as a definitive proposal to close 29 libraries. With hindsight I don’t think we should have called it ‘consultation’: it is rather information to stimulate a ‘creative conversation’. This is one of the things we have learned from our engagement on the New Strategic Direction – what we are doing is new and it needs new thinking and new ways of communicating our messages. I believe there are thousands of creative people in Suffolk who will have good ideas about how to deliver public services differently and we are starting to see this. Our town and parish councils are developing ideas and questions about services and buildings in their local areas and the voluntary sector is an engaged partner in the New Strategic Direction. Harsh as it may appear now, taking away the money will act as a driver to prompt those ideas and innovation.
We need to continue to learn how to work alongside communities in a new way: to help and support them develop their ideas. We need to behave differently to implement the NSD. One of the changes in behaviour we need now is to stop talking to communities in service silos and work in a place-centred way. It will just frustrate communities if we have one conversation about youth clubs; a separate conversation with different officers about libraries; another conversation about recreation and countryside sites with another group of officers; and yet a different conversation about school crossing patrols. We are one Council. Our communities need a single, joined up conversation with one point of contact who is as knowledgeable and passionate about the community as they are.
Over the next 6 months those conversations need to find practical solutions to turning the budget cuts into local divestments. So I prefer not to encourage people to ‘save services’ because that implies they will stay as they are. The way we provide services is certainly not the only way of doing things: it may not even be the best way. We must embrace the concept that the Council does not necessarily know what’s best. Communities may not yet believe that the Council will really give up control. When they do, I am sure they will see opportunities.