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Andrea Hill ‘fifth most influential person in local government’

Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction is grinding to a halt, according to Patrick Butler, the Guardian’s cuts blogger. After a revolt by Tory county councillors the policy is in “tatters” but he says the jury is still out on whether changes amount to a U-turn or a “pause” in the NHS reforms sense.

Butler has one fact I had entirely missed — the choice of Andrea Hill as the the fifth most influential person in local government by the Local Government Chronicle last month. This is the citation:

Suffolk CC’s chief is driving one of local government’s most radical experiments on the Big Society concept with its vision of becoming a ‘commissioning council’. Suffolk has resolved to “withdraw as much as possible from its role as a service provider”.

Opponents have tried to label this as merely conventional outsourcing, but at the heart of Ms Hill’s vision is a council that signs service delivery contracts with mutuals led by its current staff and with voluntary sectors bodies.

Only a few of Suffolk CC’s services are expected to go to the private sector.

Such an upheaval has inevitably created enemies, and Ms Hill has shown fortitude and spirit in taking them on and putting across her case, not least in the face of a hostile media campaign that focused on her pay and even the price of her clothes.

Ms Hill is one of local government’s characters. She is an outspoken figure who attracts a lot of attention – both favourable and not.

This was controversial last year, but now, interestingly, other councils are beginning to consider the idea and run with it – albeit without Ms Hill’s high-profile panache.

As the year progresses, and Suffolk’s plans are realised, all eyes will be on Ms Hill as the sector seeks to learn from her valuable experience.

How things change in a month. I can’t imagine that final paragraph being written with such confidence now.

The six judges included Max Wilde, director of strategic development at BT Government. One of the factors in the current state of Suffolk CC is controversy over management of the huge Customer Services Direct joint-venture contract with BT.

Report from apathy central

It is hard to believe that Debenham, population 2,000, has not been struck off the electoral maps. There are also vague reports reaching the heart of Suffolk of a referendum on how we might choose someone to speak on our behalf in a distant parliament.

The biggest political controversy since I moved here in the dying days of the last century has been the parish council’s spending on a circular notice board, that was christened the pissoir. It has faded into the landscape of the Market Green. Now rather tatty, it is the only place to discover that four people are seeking to represent us on Mid Suffolk District Council.

Elections are like that in Debenham. Even in general elections some candidates do not bother to push leaflets through letter boxes. I once caught a local election candidate delivering a rare leaflet and asked about the campaign. For a moment she was like a startled deer caught in headlights, then muttered “well” before turing and running away.

Never has there been a knock on the door by anyone soliciting my vote (most things are done the old fashioned way here), a phone call or an email. As for using social media to campaign, “What is the internet?”

A short walk to the noticeboard reveals the list for the district council which shows three candidates “challenging” the incombent Conservative, Kathie Guthrie.

I put “challenging” in quotes because there has been no communication whatsoever from the Lib Dem, Labour or Green candidates. Nor any election posters.

The Green candidate lives in the village. Labour had to go to Braisworth, near Eye, and the Lib Dems to distant Needham Market to find people prepared to put their names on nomination papers. Do they know where Debenham is?

It is not as though Debenham should be a lost cause for other parties: fairly recently it has been represented by Lib Dems on the district council.

But only Kathie has sent leaflets (two). I was almost tempted to vote for her as she represents the village well, but one page of her second leaflet urged me to vote “No” to AV. It is tempting to send a message to Nick Clegg as one of the two No campaign leaflets seemed to sugested, but I do believe we need to change the voting system.

The Yes campaign has sent not a single word to my home. This cannot be a cynical decision based on the calculation that Debenham is a lost cause because, in a national referendum, every vote has equal weight.

As for the parish coucil, there is no election because only three people have been nominated for five seats.

I will walk the few yards to the polling station in Dove Cottage next week because it is my habit to vote but this time without enthusiasm. I feel as if I have landed in a political black hole.

More than 19,000 petition Suffolk CC to save all libraries

Save our Libraries petitions with more than 19,000 signatures have been handed to Cllr Judy Terry, Suffolk County Council cabinet member responsible for libraries. The petitions come from 12 libraries and a couple of other sources, out of 44 libraries in the county, so it can be anticipated the total number signing Save Libraries petitions is considerably higher.

Paper
Online
Total
Aldeburgh
1200
1200
ALL Libraries
722
722
Bungay
1202
56
1258
Debenham
828
149
977
Hadleigh
59
59
Ipswich County
3945
3945
Ipswich Labour
1600
1600
Kesgrave
45
265
310
Leiston
759
181
940
Oulton Broad
1229
22
1251
Rosehill
3128
469
3597
Saxmundham
1703
147
1850
Stradbroke
700
100
800
Woodbridge
578
578
TOTAL
16976
2111
19087

Petitions in italics previously handed in but representatives at handover. Ixworth also handed over their petition. List from James Hargrave.

Cllr Judy Terry, who is the portfolio holder for libraries, came down to the entrance of Endeavour House, after some shoting and phone calls, to recieve the petitions. She was very keen to explain that no decisions on the future of libraries had been taken as can be seen in this video.

There did appear to be a change of tone in what she said reflecting the promise of the new council leader Mark Bee that they would be more transparent and listening. However, many questions about the consultation remained unanswered.

A complete video of the comments made by Cllr Terry and her answers to questions is available here. It includes the admission of an “error” in a council response to a Freedom of Information request.

Before the presentation opposition leader Kathy Pollard (Lib Dem) and Sandy Martin, the Labout leader, were interviewed by Anglia News. The videos are my recording of the interviews.

Improving morale at Suffolk CC is a priority for the leader-elect

Improving staff morale at Suffolk County Council will be a priority for the new leader-elect Mark Bee, he has told the Municipal Journal. He “called for a period of calm reflection on Suffolk’s future amid intensifying concern over the county’s organisational culture”, The MJ reports.

The journal also says Jane Storey, the interim leader, has confirmed that an inquiry following a letter raising concerns about staff welfare in the legal department would be overseen by an outside organisation.

The letter followed the suspected suicide of David White the acting head of legal services. Mr White had taken on extra responsibilities following the resignations of resources director Graham Dixon and monitoring officer Eric Whitfield. Those two resignations were quickly followed by Jeremy Pembroke’s decision to stand down as leader with immediate effect.

Cllr Bee told The MJ:

There are issues of staff morale and we will need to work as a team while dealing with those. I also want to spend this time between now and the AGM in May as a period of reflection, and to review aspects such as the New Strategic Direction.

I want to consider pragmatic ways of working, with the aim of finding a sensible direction.

While it is understandable that little has been said about the inquiry, which will clearly involve delicate and personal issues, it would a sign of a fresh approach to openness if we were told who is to conduct the inquiry and the terms of reference. At the same time we should be told how much of the inquiry report will be published.

The less space there is for speculation the better the prospects for revived confidence in the council.

Mark Bee, Suffolk county leader elect – blogosphere reactions

Predicting what will happen at Suffolk County Council with Mark Bee as leader is really a guessing came. The information is sparse beyond what he said in an article in the Evening Star yesterday.

It has the heading Mark Bee’s vision for the  county, and contains welcome promises to listen to the people and to provide more time for a dialogue over the more contentious issues. We know he does not use the words “New Strategic Direction” but that a policy of community divestment will continue.

He is probably wise not to say anything too specific at the moment. He has more than a month of thinking time before he actually takes on the role of council leader.

Instead of risking making predictions, here are links to what other Suffolk blogs have to say.

Mark Valladares (Lib Dem) writes an open letter to Bee which includes the suggestion of cabinet changes to ensure he has a cabinet which “responds to your leadership”.

Kevan Lim (Lab) echoes this concern saying: “The problem for Mark is that he will now have on the backbenches his former Leader, Jeremy Pembroke who will be a brooding presence as Mark attempts to review the direction of the Council.”

Tendancecoatesy (very left) welcomes the reprieve for lollypop people and the promise to reconsider other policies but questions whether it is “really a fundamental change”.

The right voice of Ipswich Spy (what has happened to the left voice?) has some apparent inside information on the leadership election and feels the Conservatives made a mistake in not choosing Colin Noble. The Spy says Noble told the private hustings of his views on Andrea Hill as chief executive, “whose days would have been numbered under his leadership”.

A Riverside View (Con) believes the county council Conservatives made the right choice ins Bee, a man who went into politics for the right reason — to make a difference and leave things in a better shape.

Craig Dearden-Phillips (Lib Dem) welcomes Bee’s election but is worried that “moves to shift services into social enterprises and charities will stall”.

James Hargrave (Lib Dem) hopes Bee “will lead Suffolk County Council to something we can all be proud of whatever our politics”.

The 6th pip (Lab) finds it “slightly perverse to express too serious an interest in the internal machinations of a political faction with which I am in no way aligned”, but like Wordblog has taken a look at other blogs.

I do hope Mark Bee finds time to trawl through Suffolk political blogs sometimes. He may find some of the views exasperating, but it is lively scene which will give him another slant on the mood of the county.

Later: Caroline Page (Lib Dem) says Bee has “shown every sign of being Suffolk County Tories’ quiet voice of reason”. She hopes his few weeks of reflection will result in a “Damascene conversion”.

New county leader promises to listen and review

Mark Bee who has been chosen by Suffolk Conservative County Councillors to be the new leader of the council, has started off well, saying the things that people hoped to hear.

His first announcement was a reprieve for the lollipop patrols and the slowing down of divestment proposals for other services.

In retrospect, the reprieve to allow further discussions on the closure of waste recycling centres was a straw in the wind. Going back further the revolt by seven Conservative backbenchers who voted for a Labour amendment to save the school crossing patrols was another sign that attitudes were changing.

Craig Dearden-Phillips, a Lib Dem county councillor, has an interesting analysis of what brought about the change. He writes in his blog:

So how has this come about? What has turned Suffolk from daring outsourcer to protector of crossing-patrols in 24 hours? Very simply, the power of the Backwoodsmen – shire-Tory Councillors who, for the last six months, have been getting in the neck at Parish Council meetings. This breed are often not deeply political. Many are One Nation types who don’t like anything fancy, and prefer to see the Council out of the news. Others are big community players who like to be seen on the side of the people. For the Backwoodsmen, the New Strategic Direction has always been a challenge.

Bee is certainly going to have challenges ahead. But at least he has some time to think before he takes up his new job at the end of next month. He told Paul Geater for the East Anglian Daily Times:

My intention is to review aspects such as the school crossing patrols, libraries, care homes and household waste sites, and we have already started to do this kind of thing.

It is about saying we will need to find ways that these services can be run outside the county’s finances but we are not just simply going to say we are going to stop doing things without a clear idea of what they will be replaced with.

So we want to be clearer about what the next steps would be for this type of service.

The words “New Strategic Direction” may be consigned to the Endeavour House dustbin, but it is clear that the policy of divestment will continue albeit in a more humane form.

The facts are that very painful cuts still have to be made and it is difficult to turn around a policy after the start of the financial year. But the signs that the council we be more open and give people more time to have their say are hopeful.

Hill “could come under pressure to leave” SCC says Municipal Journal

The MJ (Municipal Journal), a leading local government magazine reports that “senior local government sources” have suggested that Suffolk County Council chief executive Andrea Hill could come under pressure to leave after the new political leader is installed.

The MJ examines the situation following the recent resignations of Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the council, Graham Dixon, the director of resources, and Eric Whitfield, the monitoring officer.

A spokesman for the council denied to the magazine that moves were afoot to replace the chief executive.

Ms Hill herself told the journal:

It’s not my intention to leave Suffolk CC. I’m working hard to deliver the best public services to the people of Suffolk. In due course, a new leader will be elected and I look forward to working with them to achieve that objective.

Mary Orton, leader of the senior council officials union, the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, said they would support Ms Hill if she came under pressure to move on.

The East Anglian Daily Times carried a report based on the MU story.

Reprieve for six recycling sites as Suffolk CC listens to the people

Suffolk County Council has put the close of waste recycling sites on hold. Six sites were due to close next month, but faced with outrage from people across the county it is look for other ways of paying for them and the sites will operate as at present until July 31.

During this time the county will work with district and borough councils and Suffolk Communities to develop long-term solutions for the sites at Beccles, Bramford, Brome, Chelmondiston, Newmarket and Southwold (Press release). The Ingham site for which planning consent runs out will close as planned.

Lisa Chambers, Portfolio Holder for Waste, said:

We have made this decision in direct response to the views of Suffolk residents.  I have personally attended 14 community meetings and the feedback has been very clear.  People are telling me they are very willing to look at paying for the service rather than lose their site and would like more time to come up with new ways of working. District, parish and town councils have also asked for more time to look at alternative funding opportunities.

I believe it is important that we listen to feedback from communities and when possible act on that feedback. In this case that is what we have done.

Three ideas from the consultation are mentioned:

  • Pay-per-use
  • District/parish council funding for sites
  • Local recycling projects.

It is good news that the council is listening to the views of others. Let’s hope it marks the start of a change of approach in Endeavour House. Perphaps, they will also stop making firm announcements again before they have consulted others about their policies.

Is Suffolk failing to look after the pennies…

Evening Star front pageThe front page of the Evening Star yesterday was dominated by a picture of a kettle with the single word headline Steaming above it. The story was about the County Council spending £59,095 on tea and coffee for employees in its offices.

Today in the East Anglian Daily Times there is a report, based on figures from the Taxpayer’s Alliance (TPA), saying that Suffolk County Council’s bill for mileage is the seventh highest in the country at £6.3m.

First, the bill for tea. Probably about half the employers in Britain pay for tea and coffee at work and across all the employees who benefit it is going to be a very small perk.

The council says it it is financed from the £3 a day employees pay for car parking. That is sophistry. Many people have to pay for public car parks when they go to work and an all day ticket for the Portman Road car park around the corner from Endeavour house is £4.50.

In the normal scheme of things such spending on drinks would go unremarked, but the council appeared mean-minded when it cut school crossing patrols across the county to save little more than twice the tea and coffee bills.

Many business do cut small perks when they have the need to make savings, although they can be counter-productive if they further damage already low employee morale. However, it often has to be done partly because of the message it sends to the customers/taxpayers.

Cutting back on mileage can also hurt morale especially if managers are forced into questioning every mile on an expenses claim. Trust can be seriously damaged.

Suffolk is a large, rural area and mileage is naturally going to be relatively high. A note on the figures given by the Taxpayer’s alliance suggests that some action has been taken with the stopping of lump sum payments at the end of October last year.

The more significant thing to emerge from the TPA figures for 2008/09 and 2009/10 is that some authorities cut mileage spending while others did not.

In Suffolk county we see a rise of £168,000 which would almost have paid for the school crossing patrols for a year.

Forest Heath, Ipswich Borough, Mid Suffolk and Waveney councils all managed to reduce their mileage payments in the same period between them cutting their bills by around £87,000.

Both stories cast further doubt on Suffolk’s spurious claim to be one of the most cost-efficient councils in the country. While both can be delicate labour relations matters (does Suffolk County Council have the skills to manage such issues well?) the overwhelming impression is that the council is failing to look after the pennies….

And that leaves us worrying about their ability to manage the pounds.

Editor calls for a change of direction as county councillors choose new leader

Nigel Pickover, editor of the Ipswich Evening Star, yesteday called in a front page story to the county council’s new strategic direction to be ditched.

He writes:

Just a week from today Suffolk’s 54 Conservative county councillors will have elected a new leader – and our ‘ditch it’ clarion call is to whoever takes the helm at Endeavour House as leader.

The election is taking place because Jeremy Pembroke, one of the “key architects” of the New Strategic Direction according to Pickover, has resigned the leadership of the ruling Conservative group. That job means whoever is elected is also the county’s “prime minister”.

For the ordinary elector the problem is that we know little about the views of any of the candidates. Who would keep the NSD, who would modify it and would any of them ditch it?

We know that the candidates are Colin Noble, Guy McGregor and Mark Bee. It is suggested that Noble is the carry on as we are candidate, Bee the representative of change and McGregor the compromise.

But we know very little about how each of them would handle the job.

Suffolk Conservative county councillors use a method of selecting their leaders called the exhaustive ballot. This means several rounds of voting until a clear winner emerges (it is similar to AV),

Compare this to the process used by their Westminster colleagues. David Cameron was one of two people chosen by MPs to go to a vote of Conservative party members.

All this took place under intense scrutiny from MPs, party members and the media. The views of the candidates was clearly known and they were weighed against many factors including their appeal to voters.

No doubt Conservative county councillors are busy taking soundings from their constituents and Conservatives on district councils. But more light on the process would give whoever is the new leader greeter credibility.

One of the biggest problems facing the current county government is that there is a widespread belief that too many decisions are taken in what were once called smoke-filled rooms.

The home page of the Suffolk County Council Conservative Group might have shed light but all it says is: “Site under construction.”