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Wordblog revived

incorporating New Life


Green shoots in the heart of Suffolk

The surprise of the the local council election here in Debenham is that the Green candidate passed the Lib Dem and Labour candidates to take second place.

The election for our Mid Suffolk district councillor was hardly followed with widespread interest. It would have taken more than a landslide to oust our Conservative representative and the Tories were extremely unlikely to lose control of the council.

But things have changed. The Lib Dem melt-down means that the Greens (Mid Suffolk Green Party) and their allies are now the official opposition on Mid Suffolk District Council.

The composition of the council is now: Conservative 22 (+1), Lib Dem (6 (-4), Independent 5 (+1), Green 4 (+1), Suffolk Together 2 (no change), Labour 1 (+1).

The result in Debenham was a disaster for Lib Dem Xy Stanfield who polled just 92 votes this week compared with 234 in 2007 when the turnout was considerably lower.

It was not a great day for the Conservative incumbent Kathy Guthrie who saw her share of the poll drop from around 70% to 53%. Her vote increased a little, from 486 to 509.

In second place was Brian Fearnley (Green) with 178 votes, marginally ahead of Jennifer Chattington (Labour) with 176. The turnout was about 50 per cent compared with 40 per cent in 2007 when there were only two candidates.

It is hard to believe that it is not that long ago that the Debenham seat was held by a Liberal Democrat.

Things were not quite so bleak for Lib Dems in every part of the district. Mark Valladares, who is secretary of East of England Lib Dems, stood for the first time in Stowupland, was runner-up and substantially increased his party’s vote.

Full results at Mid Suffolk District Council.

Council says Hill’s leave is while whistleblower’s allegations probed

A little more information about Andrea Hill’s extended leave from her work as Suffolk County Council’s chief executive seeped out this afternoon. A council spokesman said:

The Chief Executive has been asked by the council to take additional leave so that preliminary investigations can be made into anonymous whistleblowing complaints received by the council.

Andrea Hill has agreed to remain away from work so that the review can be carried out independently.

This statement is carried on the Evening Star website this afternoon but it appears to have been too late for the printed edition.

It relates to a letter sent to the council chairman and others after the resignations of two senior managers and the sudden death of a third, about morale and work pressure in the legal department (see earlier post).

An independent inquiry into the allegations was ordered last month and although there have been widespread suggestions of a connection between this matter and Ms Hill’s extra leave, this is the first time an explicit connection has been made publicly. Details of who is to conduct the inquiry and the terms of reference have not been revealed: more to seep out in the coming days.


Hill’s leave ‘linked to county staff morale’

The Local Government Chronicle today has a story headed Andrea Hill’s leave ‘linked to morale’. The first ten words are: “Suffolk CC chief on extended leave as sources cite staff issues…”

The linking of the “morale” issue and Andrea Hill’s leave of absence from her job as chief executive of Suffolk County Council is not at all surprising and has been widely hinted at.

I can’t tell you any more about the LGC story because it is a subscription journal. I guess that some readers of Wordblog have access and might like to share anything new with us.

A story published on the Daily Telegraph website this morning quotes a source as saying: “A number of issues concerning her personal style with staff were raised before she went away .”

It continues to say the source denied her leave bore any relation to the rethink on one of her most controversial policies in her absence.

That is in accord with what I have heard.

Friday 5pm. LGC now has an updated story that is not behind the pay wall.

(This post has been added to since first publication)

Shock: Royals use supermarkets

On a day when news in the papers is of elections, a referendum and Andrea Hill being sent on extended leave, my eye was caught by by two stories, in the East Anglian Daily Times and the Daily Mail.

Prince Harry, who is based at Wattisham, was seen in Tesco at Copdock and was asked if he wanted a cash back (EADT) while Kate Middleton was pushing her own trolley at Waitrose in Anglesey (Daily Mail).

It seems it is not the first time Harry has been seen in the Ipswich store and the EADT is appealing for pictures. Citizen paparazzi?

Sometimes I feel very sorry for the Royals.

Andrea Hill on extended leave ‘at request of Suffolk County Council’

Andrea Hill, Suffolk County Council’s controversial chief executive, is on extended leave for “personal reasons”. This evening a council statement confirmed the leave had been agreed by Jane Storey, the acting leader of the council.

Radio Suffolk was reporting that Mary Orton, of the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives, said the extended leave was at the request of the council. Ms Hill was keen to return to work but had been under a lot of stress according to the union.

This evening the Guardian says:

The chief executive of Suffolk county council may be forced to resign her position after the council’s U-turn over outsourcing all of its services and becoming a “virtual council”.

Ms Hill began a planned holiday on April 18, the same day as the Conservative group chose Mark Bee as the leader-elect, following the resignation of Jeremy Pembroke. He immediately promised a review of policies and excluded the term New Strategic Direction which originated with Ms Hill.

Cllr Pembroke’s resignation followed immediately after those of two officials, Graham Dixon, director of resource management, and Eric Whitfield, the monitoring officer. The following week the interim head of legal services, David White, who had taken on extra responsibilities, was found dead in Butley Woods. An inquest is yet to be held.

After an anonymous letter was sent to several councillors, including the council Chairman Eddy Alcock, raising concerns about the welfare of staff in the legal department. Cllr Storey confirmed that an external enquiry would be held. No furher announcment has been made and it is unclear whether it is completed or underway, or who is carrying it out.

Yesterday the Guardian reported the “inquiry was begun into morale at the council’s legal department after an anonymous whistleblowing letter, sent to councillors, and believed to be from an employee, alleged staff there had been put under ‘unbearable pressure’. The letter refers to ‘the poisonous atmosphere that exists at present’ in the council.”

In mid April the Municipal Journal speculated that Ms Hill could come under pressure to leave the council although a council spokesman denied that she was under pressure to leave.

Ms Hill wrote a 1,850 word message in the council’s Inside SCC newsletter last month which was seen by many as suggeting that she was under stress.

The Evening Star reported on speculation earlier today.

An item on Wordblog written a month ago and headed Andrea Hill was warned about the sensitivity of her spending has been receiving an unusually high number of hits in the past 48 hours.

Post history: Edited shortly after writing to correct date of start of Ms Hill’s holiday.

Suffolk councillor advocates social enterprises for public services

Craig Dearden-Phillips, Lib Dem Suffolk County Councillor for Bury St Edmunds, is an advocate of spinning off public services to social businesses and mutuals. He runs a company called Stepping Out which aims to help services make the change.

He also writes in Society Guardian and today his column (also on his blog) is about conversations with four leaders who have made the change. He writes:

The vital factor appears to be the benefits of freedom both strategically and operationally. Getting away from a much larger public body seems to have a powerful galvanising effect.

But warning signs abound. A trickle of spin-outs has not yet turned into a flood. Few councils, it appears, are looking seriously at this option, choosing instead to cut their inhouse services and tender them out.

Now, this is interesting in a week when Judy Terry, cabinet member responsible for libraries, announced the intention to form a Community Interest Company to run Suffolk libraries. The scheme remains vague as no details have yet been given.

But it has engendered a lot of interest in exactly what Deaden-Phillips is writing about. He finds that there is a need for leaders and concludes:

It remains in the balance whether potential leaders of new mutuals are encouraged and nurtured – or made to walk through fire before stepping out.

I would very much like to hear his thoughts on possible futures for Suffolk libraries. But I hope he will avoid jargon: what on earth does “public bodies need a ‘playbook'” mean?

Why I will be voting “Yes” to AV

It is tempting to vote “No” to AV to punish Nick Clegg — he could have reached a simple supply and confidence arrangement with the Tories but the lure of the cabinet table was too much for him. The lack of any leaflet from the “Yes” campaign or from the Lib Dem in the council election could be another reason.

But I will be voting “Yes” and this is why. This referendum is about the future, not current politics. The first past the post system has generally, but not always, produced governments with good parliamentary majorities in the past 60 years.

It was not always so, and in the 19th century, before party discipline became so strong, prime ministers had to fight for every vote in debates over great decisions.

In more recent years we seldom see really good debates. Blair famously avoided attending the House of Commons. I believe coalitions and even minority governments can be good for democracy: they force leaders to argue their case, under tough scrutiny, to win the important votes in the House.

AV will ensure that MPs have support, even if it is sometimes reluctant, of a majority of voters. It is a system used in many elections here and around the world without problem.

But let’s look at what AV might mean here in the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency. Dan Poulter, who is showing himself as a good constituency MP representing all his constituents, would have been elected MP last year.

He just squeaked past the winning threshold with 50.8 per cent of the votes. It is just possible that more people might have voted UKIP in a first round under AV, but he would certainly have won, probably with a bigger share of the votes. The Lib Dems overtook Labour to come second in this election.

Looking at previous elections things become more interesting. In 2005 Michael Lord, Conservative and a deputy speaker of the Commons who was not a very active constituency MP, was elected on 43.9 per cent of the vote. It is likely that he would have won but it might have had to go to a third count.

In 2001 Lord got 44.4 per cent of the vote and was only 3,469 votes ahead of Labour. Everything would have depended on second preference votes of Lib Dems.

In 1997 Lord was elected with 42.6 per cent of the vote and a majority of 3,458. Again everything would have depended on Lib Dem voters’ second preferences.

The elected members for Mid Suffolk and North Ipswich could well have been the same throughout this period if we has used the AV system. But clearly the candidates would have had to work to widen their appeal.

Under first past the post, the objective of candidates here needs to be to gain the support of about four out of ten electors.

I would much rather see MPs campaigning to get the support of more than half the electorate. That is why I will be voting “Yes” to AV.

Source: Wikipedia.

Public Libraries News: Suffolk — campaigning works OR too good to be true?

Public Libraries News has a series of links today about the decision of Suffolk County Council not to go ahead with the divestment of libraries to individual community groups under the heading: Suffolk — campaigning works OR too good to be true

As the announcement, of a plan for a community interest company to run libraries, continues to be absorbed and debated, traffic on the internet is very firmly agreed that the library staff are hugely important to a successful future and that they need to be consulted and involved in the next stage.

Mark Bee, the council’s leader-elect has said that one of his tasks is to improve morale of council staff. I trust he is working on this in the library service where a lot of staff are dispirited at present.

Every library user can also help by letting the staff how much they are valued. Give them a metaphoric hug if you don’t think the real thing would be appropriate in a library!

Labour leader responds to libraries announcement

Sandy Martin, labour leader on Suffolk County Council, was asked for his comments on the the plan for a community interest company to run the council libraries (see earlier post). This is what he said:

Suffolk County Council is responsible for Libraries. They are already owned by the people of Suffolk. We don’t know the details of the so-called Community Interest Company – and why do we need it anyway?

By all means let’s make any possible savings that won’t damage the library service, and let’s involve the local people even more than they are already. But how can we trust a word that the Conservatives are saying on divesting libraries?

Why have they released this so-called “news” just 3 days before the local elections? What has changed since this whole libraries “consultation” process first started? Cllr Terry is still talking about local communities running their local libraries, she’s still talking about making a 30% overall saving, and she’s still not categorically promising that all the libraries will remain open.

Lib Dem leader responds to libraries announcement

Wordblog asked Suffolk County Council opposition leader Kathy Pollard (Lib Dem) for a comment on the announcment of the plan to set up a Commnity Interest Company to run the libraries (see previous post). This is her response:

At first I believed that the County Council had completely changed its mind about the divestment of libraries to “communities”. Excellent, I thought. As ever the small print revealed a different picture.

The transfer of libraries to a Community Interest Company raises a further series of questions and surely means this is just “Divestment” under a different guise?

How much money will be given to this CIC to run the library service? Will the service still be expected to save more than 30% of its running costs? If so how will that work?

And why was it that Judy Terry seemed determined to go ahead with the closure of some libraries even on Wednesday of last week after she had received nearly 19,000 petition signatures in favour of keeping them open?

It is absolutely and startlingly clear that the people of Suffolk value libraries far more than Cllr Terry. I suspect this small change in direction is meant to be a distraction before the local elections, and designed purely to regain votes.

Once more we are left with a complete lack of detail. People are asking me “What’s happening to libraries?” All is still confusion and uncertainty.

Sandy Martin, the Labour opposition leader has also been asked for a response and that will be published when received.