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Considering Andrea Hill’s message to county council staff

Wordblog published the complete text of Suffolk County Council chief executive Andrea Hill’s message to employees yesterday, because I believe it deserved a wider audience and should be read as a whole.

There are many points with which I agree. She writes: “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.”

That is undoubtedly true. It was also inevitable that this would happen. It is naive to think it could be otherwise. Ms Hill is not naive and this is what she said in a presentation on the New Strategic Direction:

Now you will have heard quite a lot in the local and national press about our New Strategic Direction. It is actually something that the Council approved in 2009, because our political leaders were actually ahead of the crowd and could see that a big reduction was coming to public services. So we want to set out an alternative to salami slicing every year, where we would have to cut services equally every year, because that would surely cut front line services and not enable us to protect the vulnerable in our community.

That seems to show the linking of the two things, which she is now complaining about.

I have no objection to greater community involvement and divestment to more appropriate organisations in principle. However, it is virtually impossible to discuss this properly when cuts are being made.

Transition costs money and that is one reason why it is difficult at a time of cuts. As Ms Hill points out in her message to employees the council has put aside £1.7m for a transition fund.

This is not nearly enough. Transition cost are always high if future savings are to be made. For example the change in NHS is estimated to cost £1.2 billion to achieve just over £1bn a year of annual savings.

If the costs related to Suffolk Libraries were in proportion, the transition fund is not enough to make the proposed changes in that service alone.

On top of that, the continuing concern over the CSD partnership has raised worries about the ability of Suffolk County Council to manage big contracts. And now negotiations with CSD over a budget cut are shrouded by “commercial confidentiality” causing further concerns about democracy.

It is very difficult to see how Suffolk CC can find adequate money to meet the transition costs in a time of large cuts in their central government funding and a freeze on council tax.

On libraries Ms Hill says in her message to employees: “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.”

That is true. But sometimes, I wonder how consistent elected politicians in the county have been in presenting the message. Only this week, I heard that promising all libraries would remain open until April next year was a “concession”. My understanding is that library divestment is a process scheduled to take up to three years.

Ms Hill says: “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’.”

I can’t disagree with the thrust of that as I was making something the same point in a meeting in Endeavour house at the same time as Inside Suffolk newsletter containing her words was being put to bed in another part of the building.

My wording was rather stronger, although I certainly did not see the consultation as a “definitive proposal to close 29 libraries”. The caveat “unless they were taken over by communities” was always there.

But with those words from Ms Hill the case for calling off the consultation and starting again becomes stronger.

Towards the end of her message Ms Hill suggests that instead of separate “conversations” about school crossing patrols, libraries, recreation and countryside sites, we need one joined-up conversation.

It is rather too late to say that. Joined-up conversation should have taken place when the NSD was being considered. At that time the people of Suffolk were not motivated to to think very much about what seemed like another matter for political wonks. What it meant was not well expliane, nor the implications made clear, in terms that the average voter could understand.

Ms Hill concludes here message:

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.

I fear that is wishful thinking without the money to meet realistic transformation costs. The money needed does not seem to be available without making deeper cuts in front-line services.

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