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Would a loo break have given a little more hope over future of Suffolk libraries?

After more than three hours of a council meeting about libraries yesterday afternoon, I wake up this morning still wondering whether the outcome might have been different if a loo break had been called.

The scrutiny committee of Suffolk County Council was breaking new ground by examining the issue before the cabinet makes a decision.

Colin Hart, who chairs the committee with flexibility and humour, said beforehand: “I’ve long called for the Scrutiny Committee to be given the opportunity to have a say on key issues before they are decided on by Cabinet.”

At a crucial moment yesterday he said to the non-council people called to give evidence (I was not taking a note but believe this is a fair summary): “We [the council] have got ourselves in a hole. Will you help us get out of it?”

The suggestion was for all those with an interest in the issue to sit town together and try to find a solution, but it got lost in the surprised and equivocal responses. Quickly, the momentum was lost.

If there had been a short break in the meeting at that point the idea of talks before the cabinet decision is made might have got somewhere during the meeting. It is not too late now to open a dialogue.

One concern among campaigners is that Judy Terry, the cabinet member responsible for libraries sometimes gives the impression that she wants to get through a policy as close as it can be to the old New Strategic Direction idea.

In fact she made a significant change in the amended version of the policy which was announced after Mark Bee became leader of the council.

She avoided saying they intended to set up a Community Interest Company to provide core services and instead talked about a “social enterprise”. A CIC would be a social enterprise, but so are other models of organisation and governance.

But this significant change in her position seemed to pass unnoticed by members of the committee who continued to talk about the Community Interest Company.

Sometimes Ms Terry’s use of language does not help. Many of the councillors seemed surprised to learn that the differentiation between “county” and “community” libraries had been dropped.

Library campaigners had learned this more than three months ago during a meeting at Endeavour House, but it had never been unequivocally announced. Probably there was a fear that it would make the drive a fatal nail into the consultation.

And yesterday, Ms Terry stuck to her formula that she had always made it clear that all libraries were subject to the consultation. The problem is that the consultation documents led most people to believe otherwise and that the bigger libraries were outside the consultation.

There does seem to be a basis for talks which just might result in a cabinet decision which is more widely acceptable.

This is a very subjective look at the meeting. For a traditional report (as a journalist, I would have written much the same), read Paul Geater in the East Anglian Daily Times.

Further links since this post was published: James Hargrave, from Stradbroke who gave evidence at the meeting, blogs about it. Alasdair Ross, an Ipswich labour blogger sees no change. And Andrew Coates, also sees a continuation of the New Strategic Direction.

 

Suffolk CC urged by campaign group to delay libraries decision

Suffolk County Council will be urged tomorrow (Tuesday, June 15) to defer making a decision on the future of the county’s libraries by a new campaign group involving nearly half of the “community” libraries.

A press release says: “We believe that the Cabinet will not be in a position to make a properly considered decision because the information put before them will be incomplete and inaccurate.”

Tomorrow, at a meting of the council’s scrutiny committee, campaigners will present evidence, “showing how the consultation process begun this January is fundamentally flawed – not least because those delivering it have failed to follow Suffolk County Council’s own procedures.”

The Save Suffolk Libraries Campaign Network will urge the scrutiny committee to recommend that the council cabinet should defer any decisions on libraries at its meeting on July 19.

The campaign network says no decisions should be taken until the council has, “completed a review of the completeness and validity of the information they have received, assessed whether they have adequately gathered and listened to the views of the Suffolk people and have completed an appropriate Impact Assessment.”

The Save Suffolk Libraries Campaign Network was formed last week by campaigners supporting many individual libraries and has three objectives:

  • Network, share information, knowledge, ideas and expertise.
  • Coordinate countywide campaign activities
  • Work collectively on identified themes of common interest

The full press release can be dowloaded here.

A newspaper and the non-story of a council’s travel expenses

Because some spending details are available as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request does not mean they are scandalous. Take the Evening Star’s latest revelation under the headline “Suffolk: County Council staff takes 175 trips abroad — at a cost of £98,000”.

That is in a period of six years making the cost of foreign travel less than £16,500 a year. The average cost of a trip is £560.

That looks to me like careful control of expenses. I doubt if many organisations of similar size would appear so frugal if their travel expenses were exposed to scrutiny.

The figures suggest budget airlines and far from luxurious hotels.

The newspaper reports a county spokesman saying that one trip to Africa, which cost £16,000 was mainly funded through the children partaking in the trip raising money. He said that the reason was to take eight children in care to visit orphanages in Africa.

That sounds like a commendable project.

And “almost £500 was forked out” to visit an exhibition in Amsterdam to consider the best speed cameras for the county. It lasted three days which hardly suggests an official living the high life.

We need our officials to get out and talk to people, to hear the experiences of others so that they are better able to advise councillors.

One employee had £2,000 to attend a five day course in Boston as a part of a masters degree. This kind of spending is clearly not common and providing development opportunities to staff is important in recruiting and retaining the able people we need working for us.

Wordblog in its earlier incarnation was about the media, and it is the decision that this story was worth running that worries me.

It is the job of the press to hold public bodies to account. Enquiring into all aspects of spending is an important part of this. And the Evening Star has produced some important stories including the revelation of the money spent on photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The chief executive’s spending on hotel stays in Suffolk, now a part of the investigation into her conduct, is another.

But this story about travel expenses undermines the good work. It enables those who should be held to account to turn on the media with valid complaints. “Just another example of the press pursuing a vendetta,” they can say with credibility.

I fear that FoI requests have given regional newspapers, hit by declining sales, reduced advertising revenue, and the resulting loss of reporters, a cheap semblance of investigative reporting.

The in-depth analysis of what the county council is really doing is expensive, demanding staff time which is no longer available. But that is what we need.

The challenge to our regional media is how to respond the the challenges of changes which are much more long-term than the current economic low. The internet has changed everything but I believe print will be with us for a long time.

I will return to this subject to look at ways in which our regional press could operate in a world of hyperlocal web news and social media to better serve its print readers.

Suffolk Freedom of Information requests up 57% last year

Some Freedom of Information Act requests are frivolous although they can  provide the hard-pressed staff in what must be a sometimes difficult job with some light relief. Leicester City Council was asked about preparedness for a zombie invation (hat tip to @waveneydc).

I have not heard of anything like that being asked of Suffolk County Council but they are increasingly busy dealing with information requests as this chart which has appeared on their web page shows.

 

Suffolk Foi requests

Requests increased by 284% since 2005

Rises since the implementation of the act in 2005 would have been expected but the big increase between 2009 (622 requests) and 2010 (978 requests) suggests that something more is going on. One would have hoped that the Act would have made the council more transparent, but it is clear that last year Suffolk people were resorting to FoI requests much more often.

The reasons are not hard to guess. But there must be a lot of similar or duplicated requests which could be avoided if all responses were published.

This would hardly be revolutionary. Government departments do and so does Suffolk Police.

And provided the new county council leader, Mark Bee, delivers on his promise of greater transparency the figure should start to decline. That is an easy cost to cut.

 

BT responds to examination of Vital Vision… sort of

It is nice to have a response, of sorts, to my examination of BT’s influence on local government and Suffolk county council in particular.

Notice on bt website saying file no longer available

The removed document is the entry for a BT marketing award by the Vital Vision programme. It reveals that it was essentially a sales and marketing programme designed to gain contracts by winning the hearts and minds of people in  public services. More in my post: Has BT gained too much influence in local government?.

However, the entry document is available here.

There is one thing I noticed while getting the “removed” notice. BT’s internal marketing awards are sponsored by Accenture. That is the company to which BT outsources its Human Relations work.

Now, why would Suffolk County Council decide to outsource its HR work to a company which has concluded that someone else is better able to manage its own HR?

Answers in the comment box below, please.

 

Suffolk: poverty hidden under thatched roofs

Rural poverty comes with a thatched roof, John Gummer told a fairly well-heeled audience for Opera in the Barn, at Crows Hall, Debenham, on Saturday evening.

Lord Gummer was quoting someone else but the point was well made for the audience at the event which was for the benefit of the Suffolk Foundation which raises and allocates money to a wide range of projects throughout the county.

Last week the foundation published a research report, Hidden Needs, into deprivation in the county. It was prepared by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research in the University’s Department of Land Economy.

It shows that nearly 78,000 people (more than one in ten of the population) live in income deprivation at the most minimal living standard provided by welfare benefits and will below the “poverty line”. This includes 19,000 children under 16 and 24,000 people of retirement age.

While Ipswich and Lowestoft have the worst areas of deprivation, the “hidden” poor of rural areas are vulnerable when resources are allocated to areas with the greets need.

Shockingly, the report shows than in the past few years poverty in Suffolk has risen relative to England as a whole.

The distances that residents in many parts of the county must travel to buy groceries, see a GP or post a parcel are among the highest in England.

On government spending cuts, the report says:

The Local Government Finance Settlement, the Coalition government’s decentralisation policy, the Localism Bill, the Big Society agenda, and outsourcing of public sector services in Suffolk present both challenges and opportunities for different sectors of Suffolk society.

While these changes may present opportunities for social enterprises, charities and small businesses to grow and develop, it is possible that the impact of funding cuts and restructuring of public sector service provision will have most negative effects on the most disadvantaged groups and individuals.

This is a report that should be read by every member of the county and district councils. If they don’t they are not doing their jobs properly

Hotel stays now part of Andrea Hill investigation

It is not surprising that Suffolk County Council is being very careful with the Andrea Hill inquiry following the Shoesmith judgment by the Appeal Court last month.

The judges ruled that the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith from her job as Haringey’s children’s services director, after the death of Baby Peter was  “procedurally unfair” (BBC).

After the meeting of the council’s disciplinary committee yesterday, it was announced that Andrea Hill, the chief executive would remain on  mutually agreed leave at least until June 24.

The committee received a report from solicitors Wragge and Co who were asked to investigate allegations, made by an anonymous whistleblower, about the treatment of staff in the legal department.

After the meeting a statement was issued saying that some matters had been resolved but others required further investigation. It also said that “as a result of FOI requests into expense claims by Andrea Hill the committee has asked the investigation team to review those claims”.

The East Anglian Daily Times says today this relates an FoI request it made which revealed the council had paid for Ms Hill to stay at Milsom’s Kesgrave Hall on two nights before early meetings and a night at the Brudenell in Aldeburgh.

When details were revealed of these stays and another at a hotel in Sandbanks at £205 a night during a conference in Bournemouth, while senior councillors stayed in a much cheaper hotel, they appeared to show ill-judgment. But they did not look like serious disciplinary matters.

The Daily Mail also says the hotel stays are the focus of the expenses investigation.

The Daily Telegraph is alone in saying Ms Hill was, “cleared of accusations about her management style, amid claims of bullying and intimidation”.

Intriguingly, LocalGov.co.uk, the online site of the Municipal Journal, referring to the whistleblowing says:

The letter, seen by The MJ, makes a number of serious allegations against more than one senior member of staff at Suffolk.

Whatever path the council is following, there appears to be wide political backing for it. The EADT quotes opposition leader Kathy Pollard, saying:

Obviously the public want a resolution to this but the council is going to have to go through all the procedures and make sure it dots all the Is and crosses all the Ts. People are going to have to be patient.

But the council has to do this properly otherwise it will cost them an awful lot more money.

I don’t think it [extending the scope of the investigation] has muddied the waters, it’s another line of inquiry that the council is pursuing. It’s right to do that.

Blogger James Hargrave wonders if it now the time to reach a deal by which Ms Hill would leave the council. He writes that while it would cost money it would seem an appropriate way for her to go.

But, as Kathy Pollard’s comment says, as well as ensuring the procedure is absolutely correct, they are anxious to avoid a large pay out.

Any settlement would be expensive and politically extremely unpopular. I can see the headlines pointing out how many school crossing patrols and libraries it would have paid for.

I suspect the council is hoping that Ms Hill will review the whistleblower’s allegations and the matters surrounding her expenses and decide to write a resignation letter before it all becomes much more public.

Statement on Andrea Hill’s future expected today. Updated

Update Friday afternoon: Andrea Hill to remain on leave until at least June while further investigations are carried out. Statement said that some matters had been resolved but others further inquiries. Following an FoI request the committee has also asked the investigation to look at some of Ms Hill’s expenses claims (BBC).

A statement about the future of Andrea Hill is expected later today after a meeting of the county council’s Dismissals Appeals Committee. Ms Hill, the council chief executive, has been on extended leave for a month while and inquiry into allegations about staff relations in the legal department.

A preliminary report from solicitors Wragge and Co who have been conducting an external investigation will be presented to the committee and council leader Mark Bee, who was chosen after the resignation of Jeremy Pembroke.

The subject of the inquiry has been a whistleblowing allegation made after two senior executives resigned and the death by suspected suicide of David White. Mr White had been given additional responsibility as interim monitoring officer (one of the key local government posts) after the sudden resignation of Eric Whitfield, the monitoring officer, and another official, Graham Dixon, the director of resource management at the end of March.

Police have been investigating Mr White’s death before the resumption of an inquest into his death.

According to the county council website the Dismissals Appeals Committee “meets as required to deal with appeals by Council employees under the Council’s disciplinary and grievance procedures”. The press and public will be excluded from today’s meeting as is normal when discussing such matters. However, there has been no suggestion that the meeting will involve an appeal: BBC Radio Suffolk is reporting that a report from the meeting will go to Mark Bee who has announced the end of the New Strategic Direction policy of which Ms Hill was the architect.

The committee has five members, four Conservative and one Liberal Democrat.

The relvant agenda item for the meeting is:

To Consider a Report by the Strategic HR Manager (Reward and Performance)

(The report relating to this Agenda item has been withheld from public circulation and deposit pursuant to Section 100(A) of the Local Government Act 1972 on the grounds that the meeting is likely not to be open to the public when this item is considered).