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Mid Suffolk District Council considers social media enagement

I have sent the following email to Vicky Smy, senior communications officer at Mid Suffolk District Council.

Dear Ms Smy,

I was very pleased to read in Mark Valladares blog that you are considering with colleagues at Babergh council a social media policy. You will, no doubt, be taking into account the views of Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, who sent out a press release earlier this year saying:

Councils should open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said today.

To ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government, Mr Pickles believes councils should also open up public meetings to the ‘citizen journalist’ as well as the mainstream media, especially as important budget decisions are being made.

I doubt if either Mid Suffolk or Babergh councils are likely to be inundated with “citizen journalists” — I don’t really like that term which sounds too much like something from the French Revolution — clutching camcorders. But blogging and the use of social media in general do provide an important means of both informing and engaging the public. There is a danger in doing things because they are fashionable and seem to say “we understand social media”, but ending up looking foolish. The county council started a Twitter feed, promoted on the front page of its website, but they have made only three tweets in the past six months!

Making the same information and facilities available to social media as you do to mainstream media is perhaps the most important step. I am glad to see that you will be providing Mark with press releases. Please add me to the list too.

I am a fairly experienced blogger (former journalist, journalism teacher and communications consultant) who previously blogged about media but have now turned my attention to local government in Suffolk. If you would like to talk about any of this, please contact me.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Grant-Adamson

Time for Suffolk to ‘pause’ the library consultation

The Suffolk libraries “consultation” is growing ever more bizarre, with Judy Terry, the portfolio holder for libraries telling the BBC, “It may be that some close, but has anyone actually thought that we may open some libraries?”

It looks like desperation as she talks about pubs taking over internet services and schools looking after books. Grasping at straws?. There is of course a traditional political way out of a hole like this — delay things for further consultation.

This formula was used last week by David Cameron when he ordered a “pause” in the NHS reform plans. If it is good enough for Downing Street it should be good enough for Endeavour House.

Caroline Page, the Lib Dem county councillor for Woodbridge, has made a detailed case for an extension and has written to Ms Terry. The case is specifically about Woodbridge library but most of the points apply throughout the county.

She concludes:

All these reasons make it hard for a businesslike case to be made for any ‘expression of interest’ in running a library within the timescale you have set out. The people of Woodbridge are likely to be too well-grounded in reality to want to make any proposal under such circumstances. It would seem a great shame that they should be thus deprived of a chance to have a reasoned and factually supported say in how their local library provision is to be altered.

It is a suggestion which will, no doubt, be in the minds of the ruling Conservative group on the county council as they choose a new leader to replace Jeremy Pembroke who resigned at the end of March.

Bloggers in the council elections

Mark Valladares in his blog puts the blame for the farrago surrounding Andrea Hill squarely on the shoulders of the Conservatives at Suffolk County Council.

He would, of course. He is a Liberal Democrat standing for election to Mid Suffolk District Council as representative of Stowupland and is naturally trying to distance himself from the Tories. He is also right: the appointment of Hill as the county’s chief executive was partisan.

Three conservatives voted for her and for the high salary, later criticised by the district auditor. The Lib Dem and the Labour members (one for each party) of the panel voted against her appointment abstained on her appointment but voted against ratification and for a reference back of her pay at the full council meeting. (see comments.)

You can read what Valladares has to say here. And it is good to see an accomplished blogger standing in the elections. He is not the only one as James Hargrave is standing in Stradbroke as a Lib Dem.

Are there any Tory, Labour or Green bloggers standing in Mid Suffolk? We need more blogging councillors because, unfortunately, newspaper coverage of local politics is pretty thin these days.

Wiltshire village votes for £7 council tax rise rather than lose library manager

If anyone is in doubt about the determination of small communities to support proper library services, they need look no further than Aldbourne (population 1,800), Wiltshire.

They were faced with their library losing its library manager, Trish Rushen, who was to be replaced by volunteers under their county council’s cost-cutting plans.

They have voted nearly three to one to raise their council tax by about £7 year to retain the services of Ms Rushen. Only just over a quarter of the electorate voted in a referendum, but the result shows that only 102 people balloted against.

Here in Debenham, Suffolk, where I live (just a little bigger than Aldbourne) there is a similar determination to retain a proper library, in the face of our county council’s plans to hand libraries over to communities.

Aldbourne now faces double taxation, paying a parish precept for a service which others in Wiltshire get through the county’s share of their council tax. It is an unfair solution but it demonstrates the value people place on their libraries.

‘Going in the wrong direction’ — open letter to SCC leadership candidates

Kevan Lim who, until 2009, was an influential Labour member of Suffolk County Council has written a thoughtful open letter to the three contenders to become the next leader of the Conservative-run council.

It is headed “Going in the wrong direction” and concludes that waste should be targeted before “the very services the council is there to provide”. It should be read in its entirety.

Call for Andrea Hill to take a pay cut reaches Parliiament

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has told the Commons that Andrea Hill, chief executive of Suffolk Count Council, was detracting from Suffolk’s reputation by refusing to take a pay cut.

He was answering a question from David Ruffley, the Conservative member for Bury St Edmunds, about representations he had recieved on local government pay. In reply to a suplementary question, Mr Pickles said:

Chief executives’ pay has got completely out of kilter. There are now 800 local government employees in the top 1% of all earners according to Will Hutton’s figures. With regard to the chief executive of Suffolk, that county does many fine things and is an exemplar authority in many ways, but the chief executive’s refusal to take a pay cut has meant that she has detracted from Suffolk’s many fine achievements.

The full Commons exchange is on Mr Ruffley’s website. It is interesting that Mr Pickles chose to quote from Will Hutton’s report which Ms Hill also used in her message of justification in the latest edition of Inside SCC.

Three candidates declare in race to lead Suffolk CC

Only Conservative County Councillors will be able to vote for their new  leader to replace Jeremy Pembroke who resigned last week, but it is an election of great importance to everyone in Suffolk.

So I hope the candidates will make clear and public statements about their approach to the job, rather than speak in code understandable only to insiders.

We are told by the East Anglian Daily Times that Guy McGregor is seen as the “third candidate” who could be the compromise choice. It seems that Colin Noble is the carry on as we have been doing candidate, while Mark Bee represents something else and has been said to be  the “outsider” who would bring change in the way the Conservative administration works.

Mr Noble, according to the EADT believes there is no problem with the New Strategic Direction, but it has not been explained well.

I will happily carry statements of 250 words from any, or preferably all, the candidates. Please use the contact page to let me know.

The cat, five fire engines, the ladder and the rescue

Five fire engines were called out in Suffolk yesterday to rescue a cat from a roof in Leiston. While firefighters from Bury St Edmunds, Felixstowe and Bungay were heading to the scene a local fireman got a ladder, climbed up and rescued the cat. It ran away as soon as they reached the ground.

It seems that the turnout was required by some working at height rules. The guidelines also, apparently, allow firefighters to work temporarily from the top of a ladder.

There are,  of course, outraged comments about the “waste of taxpayers’ money” in the story in the East Anglian Daily Times. Red faces at fire HQ too, no doubt.

Andrea Hill’s message to Suffolk CC employees and councillors rebounds

Why and in what state of mind Andrea Hill wrote her 1,850 word message for the Inside SCC newsletter last week is unknown. It was clearly intended to be a personal defence as well as an attack on the media but it has rebounded to haunt her.

Today the Evening Star in Ipswich prints has on the website her message in full. (It is also available at wikisuffolk.) Readers can make their own judgements.

Nigel Pickover, the Evening Star editor, also selects short extracts and asks 15 pertinent questions (in the paper and on the web). For example:

Andrea Hill: My family and I used to enjoy reading the newspapers – I’ve always thought that our papers are a great British institution. But once you’ve featured in them you realise how much of the copy is not true.

1) Evening Star – please will you tell us which Evening Star articles have contained any inaccuracies? It is our policy to correct any errors forthwith.

Both the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Express have written about her message to employees and councillors both taking the line that she had accused her detractors of “envy”. The Mirror contented itself with a story about Hill’s hotel bills.

And today, media commentator Roy Greenslade has examined the issue of Andrea Hill and press reporting in his Guardian blog (Wordblog is mentioned). Under the heading Council chief rails against the press for doing its job, he writes:

Even if we were to take Hill’s explanations for her spending decisions at face value (and that’s difficult enough), there is no getting away from the fact that lack of transparency by her council means that journalists have had to winkle out information by using FoI requests.

At a time when the people of Suffolk are watching the council dismantle their public services, it is surely necessary for the council to be as open as possible.

Over the weekend two Conservative-leaning blogs in Ipswich, Bridge Ward News and A Riverside View have appealed to Hill to “just go”.

Where is the ‘capacity’ for the ‘big society’?

The village newsagent is not simply a place to buy a paper, it is a centre of news itself. This morning in Webster’s, Debenham, the talk was of three successful weekend fund-raising events in the village.

Central and local government both talk about building capacity for volunteering. They are employing increasing numbers of people to tell us how to do it.

Yet village across the country already have the capacity both to raise money and organise projects large and small. On my desk I have a 150-year-old report from the Ipswich Journal of a concert in which raised £5 towards renovating the Market Cross to become the Debenham village library.

The two largest 20th century buildings here were both community projects. The Odd Fellows Hall — a precursor of the welfare state — is now the Old Fashioned Bathrooms business. The leisure and community centre, which includes sports and exercise facilities as well as a hall, continues as a village project.

Debenham is running pretty close to full capacity at the moment. Some of the schemes are imaginative such as that for the primary school to build a swimming pool which will be open to all and the Debenham Project to support the carers of people with dementia.

Yet we are being told to do more in the name of a doctrinaire idea called “Big Society” (in Suffolk aka New Strategic Direction). We don’t want to be patronised. We had a big society before any of the current political parties came into existence.

And it is going to be tough finding the money for the things people here are doing already: supporting local things and people in other countries.

The Observer yesterday reported:

The Office for Budget Responsibility has raised its prediction of total household debt in 2015 by a staggering £303bn since late last year, in the belief that families and individuals will respond to straitened times by extra borrowing. Average household debt based on the OBR figures is forecast to rise to £77,309 by 2015, rather than the £66,291 under previous projections.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate economist, commented on these British figures last week:

… the only way the economy can avoid taking a hit from government cuts is if private spending rises to fill the gap — and although you rarely hear the austerians admitting this, the only way that can happen is if people take on more debt. So we have the spectacle of a government that inveighs against the evils of debt pinning all its hopes on an assumption that over-indebted households will dig their hole even deeper.

All in all, it’s quite a spectacle. It would be funny, except that millions of people will suffer the cost of this folly.

Substitute “county council” for “government” and you have what Suffolk County Council is also asking us to do. Our capacity to support existing projects, let alone do more, is going to be stretched in the next few years.