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Ipwswich politics: Calm down, dear(s)

Why are ipswich politics so much like a tussle outside a bar at chucking-out time? They seem to scream at each other rather than engage in reasoned debate, at least if you read their blogs.

To get an idea of what goes on you can look at the last three posts on Ipswich Spy which brings together bloggers of various allegiances and does its best to explain what is happening in a balanced way.

There was “Liar tag causes fury at council meeting” about a spat between Tory Judy Terry and Alasdair Ross (Labour).

Over an item about the local MP being reprimanded by the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, the headline was a quote, “Mr Gummer, I do not think we need you to lead the cheerleading“.

And in the most recent post about a stormy council meeting headed Golden Key refused again, the Spy comments: “Is it any wonder the public think councillors are just in it for themselves and that ‘you’re all the same’ when there is no effective opposition?”

Some of the blogs by individual politicians get very nasty, but I had hoped they not did take their venom with them to meetings.

Replacement of Suffolk Libraries IPS chair is ‘positive’ change

Clive Fox, the controversial choice of Suffolk County Council to lead the arms-length library service, has resigned.

Shan Bendix

Shona Bendix: New leader to take libraries forward

At an apparently smoothly orchestrated board meeting of Suffolk’s Libraries Industrial and Provident Society yesterday, he announced that he intended to step down from the job he was given less than three months ago.

He was swiftly replaced by Shona Bendix, chief executive of Suffolk Assoication of Local Councils (SALC), who has clearly impressed board members as well as community groups poised to take responsibility for local libraries.

She said, in a press release:

The people I’m working with in the IPS and library service share a very strong and very clear aim – to do what’s best for the future of the service. This fundamental principle is what’s driving all of us to do what we can to make sure our much-loved libraries are able to flourish and continue to be well-used for decades to come. I’m very much looking forward to working in partnership with the board, library groups and the public to turn those ambitions into reality.

While Fox said he had always know it would be difficult to managing the increasing commitments of being chairman with other voluntary and professional roles. It was, he said, time for a new chairman to lead the IPS to the next stage. He remains a member of the board but is not expected to play a very active part.

Clive Fox, chairman of Suffolk's Libraries IPS

Clive Fox: After three months, time for a new leader

Fox’s appointment was always controversial and he was seen by some library campaigners as a placeman for Judy Terry, the council’s portfolio holder for libraries. I described it as a “strange choice” and another bloggerwrote, that he would have “an uphill struggle to get credibility among library groups”.

Since then he has faced problems including the resignation of his local library manager in Aldeburgh over the plans, and the collapse of the Ipswich co-operative, the largest of the pilot schemes for the new way of running libraries.

Bendix who was also one of the three founding directors of the IPS is clearly no ones placewoman. A board member described the change as “very positive”.

Following the collapse of the Ipswich co-operative, taking six of 14 libraries out of the pilot programme, the task of the IPS has changed substantially. The IPS is going to have to find a way of implementing the council’s decision which will gain widespread support among library groups.

The council itself will, almost certainly, have to find a new flexibility in its approach.

Sound of rubber stamps as Suffolk adopts library plan

It was hard to hear much of Suffolk County Council cabinet meeting yesterday because the sound equipment was badly adjusted. Twice a technician had to be called from some distant part of Endeavour House. And the battery in the roving mic used for questions from the public and backbenchers went flat: someone had to go in search of a new battery.

I could not help wondering why, if the council could not organise such things better, we should trust them with the decisions they were to make. Having a technician on hand at the start of a meeting and a spare battery in a pocket is so standard it should not need a formal risk assessment.

Yet it hardly mattered as the sound of rubber stamps being inked was clear as they started talking about the future of libraries.

Some things would have been better left unheard. Judy Terry, the cabinet member responsible for libraries, told us that 5% of £6m was £100,000. Pity they were not talking about the standards of maths in the community.

I thought I must have misheard her, but afterwards others confirmed they had heard the same. And the East Anglian Daily Times this morning reports (this paragraph is not in the online story) the county council will “finance 95 per cent of the cost of running local libraries, but the final 5% should be raised locally”.

Reading the papers (162 pages of them about libraries) it is clear that individual libraries will be required to raise 5% of what is called “direct costs”. That does give us the £100,000 figure. The total budget for the slimmed down library service is a bit over £6.5 million.

The rubber stamp was applied to the creation of a co-operative to run libraries, rather than a slimmed down in-house service or a company wholly owned by the council on the grounds that it would save most money and would best meet the localism policy.

It hardly mattered that no mention was made of a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis which identified a weakness of community governance as: “Lack of direct democratic mandate for local library organisations (unless part of parish/town councils).”

Democracy in action did not seem very attractive in the Elizabeth Room of Endeavour House yesterday morning.

The scrutiny committee had looked at some of the issues before the meeting and came up with ten recommendations. The report to the cabinet said the majority of the scrutiny committee recommendations had been acted upon. Unfortunately it not say which had been ignored.

The only time the meeting (it would be misrepresentation to call it a debate) showed a spark of life was when Sandy Martin, the Labour leader asked a question of the cabinet. He wanted to know what they were doing about the scrutiny recommendation that,”any claims on secondary taxation from Parish, Town, District or Borough Councils be carried out on an equitable basis across Suffolk”.

The reaction to this in the cabinet papers is: “The reference module, and the financial modelling in the Evaluation do not presuppose secondary taxation.”

Ms Terry elaborated saying that any secondary taxation would be voluntary. I don’t think she was suggesting that council tax payers could withhold a part of their payments if their local council decided to support their library.

The most amazing thing was that no mention was made of the overall recommendations of the the 121 page Best Value Evaluation Report. These were:

  1. Options 1 and 3 [slimmed down in-house service and a cooperative] are both considered as serious contenders for the future delivery of library services with the deciding factors being the risk appetite of the County Council and the level of commitment to community governance.
  2. The next phase of the work should include an in-depth review of the risks identified in both the community governance model and the selected structural delivery model in order to ensure that mitigation can be put in place to minimise the impact of risks identified in the adopted approach.

The decision was simply to adopt the co-operative model (an Industrial and Provident Society), without the recommended in-depth review of both approaches. It is subject to endorsement by the full council in December.

Members of the business development team who have clearly worked very hard on the the best value report must be wondering why they are employed by the council.

It is a relief that there is no threat to closure of any of the county’s 44 libraries but confidence in the plans needs the full examination of the risks identified by the business development team.

Closure threat to Suffolk libraries returns, and dumping rubbish may cost up to £12 for some

A week after Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member responsible for libraries, Judy Terry, promised that libraries were saved, she turned on her heels yesterday and rejected a call to give an assurance that no libraries would be closed before 2013.

At a, by all accounts, chaotic meeting of the county council is became clear that 20 libraries remained under threat if they were not taken over by communities.

This is very much the position that was overwhelmingly rejected in a consultation where 3,839 people responded but only 102 supported the idea of community run libraries. The gun is still pointing at the heads of communities which are being told, take-over your library or it will be closed.

Ms Terry told the council that there were many expressions of interest in running these libraries, but she did not say how many of them also said they wanted the library to be run by the county.

I was not at the meeting, but  library campaigners James Hargrave and Sue Hall have written accounts. Paul Geater, the Archant newspapers local government correspondent in Ipswich, understandably chose to report what James Hargrave, who presented petitions to save libraries containing 35,000 names, said at greater length than the councillors. James also tweeted the meeting (see my previous post).

It was, from what I have heard, a meeting that would be impossible to report in any way which would be intelligible to readers of the East Anglian Daily Times.

The goodwill that was given to the new leader of the council, Mark Bee, seems to be evaporating fast. He promised to listen and to have a conversation with the people. On yesterday’s showing he does not appear to have the authority to ensure the councillors have a reasonable conversation among themselves.

But from what sense I can make of the voting figures, it seems that some of the 55-strong ruling conservative group abstained. The tiny Labour group of four put forward a motion that no libraries should close before 2013. How the Greens and Lib Dems (15 seats betwen them) voted/abstained I have not been able to discover.

And Mark Bee’s reputation will not be enhanced by a report in the EADT that taking rubbish to recycling centres is likely to become a postcode lottery which some people paying between £3 and £12 to dump rubbish while others will be able to do so free at county run centres that remain open.

He had delayed planned closures to seek alternatives. Now it looks as it any alternatives will be extremely unpopular. Mark Bee has had a very short honeymoon, since taking over from Jeremy Pembroke. And the credit he has been given for pronouncing the end of the New Strategic Direction (virtual council) policy and removing chief executive Andrea Hill is short lived.

It is looking as if those Conservative councillors who were saying privately, after the NSD was scrapped, that nothing had really changed were right.

 

Suffolk’s 44 libraries safe, but three options for future

Three options for Suffolk libraries will be put forward later this month, Judy Terry the county council’s cabinet member with responsibility for libraries, has told BBC Radio Suffolk and the East Anglian Daily Times.

None of the county 44 libraries will close, she said.

The proposals:

  1. An in-house business unit similar to the Schools Library Service.
  2. An external, but wholly council owned company.
  3. An independent company managed by the county through contractual arrangements.

Blogger James Hargrave has responded, saying:

… the biggest concern must be the budget for whatever the governance structure you can’t run any service well without enough money and the level of cuts proposed still seems to be the 30% that we started originally with. The only change here is at first this was at least 30% possibly more but now looks to be no more than 30%. This is still a huge cut, especially for a service that is already one of the worst funded in the country.

 

Libraries: hopes of new meeting of community groups and Suffolk CC

On Wednesday I was a rather pessimistic (earlier post) about the previous day’s Suffolk County Council scrutiny committee where I feared the opportunity of opening further constructive talks on libraries had somehow slipped away.

Today things are looking more hopeful following a press release from the council and the reaction of one of the campaigners who gave evidence to the committee.

The press release, issued quickly and before formal minutes are available, clarifies the committee’s recommendations.

Colin Hart, who chairs the committee thanked those who had given evidence and said:

This was a valuable exercise in scrutinising an issue before decisions are taken and I hope and expect our recommendations will make a positive contribution to the new policy that is being developed.

The release which includes the valuable recommendations of the committee has not yet appeared on the county council website, but my copy is here.

James Hargrave, one of the campaigners who gave evidence to the committee, reacted on his blog saying:

I am hopeful that there is now an opportunity for all sides to sit down and discuss the situation and work together for the good of the counties libraries.

During the meeting on Tuesday a meeting was suggested, but it seemed to me that the opportunity faded away. Now, I hope it is back on track.

The press release quotes Judy Terry the council cabinet member responsible for libraries saying:

I am extremely grateful for the comments from committee members, representatives of various campaign groups and those who have submitted bids. We’re continuing to listen and will base future policy on exhaustive consultation with the people of Suffolk.

The scrutiny committee recommendations are:

  • the classification of County Libraries and Community Libraries referred to in the Consultation document is not a reasonable basis for a policy;
  • the potential community interest company agrees individual budgets for each library;
  • the business case considered by Cabinet should clearly demonstrate how the community interest company service would operate across the whole of Suffolk;
  • that the Council retain the ability to ensure that the terms offered by the community interest company were sufficient to maintain a sustainable service;
  • any claims on secondary taxation from Parish, Town, District or Borough Councils be carried out on an equitable basis across Suffolk;
  • due consideration be given to innovative ideas that have already come forward and any others that are received  from communities on how their services might be run;
  • the policy on mobile libraries be clearly stated in the report to Cabinet;
  • the Council provide absolute clarity to communities interested in running their libraries on issues they were likely to raise such as finance, staffing and legal issues;

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 libraries ‘saved’ announcement reeks of political oportunism

The announcement that Suffolk libraries have been “saved”, rushed out over a bank holiday weekend, stinks of political expediency.

It comes just four days before the borough and and district elections which are widely expected to see Labour win control of Ipswich as Conservatives suffer there and in the districts.

While the abandonment of the plan by Conservative dominated Suffolk County Council to divest all libraries is welcome, it is far from clear how libraries would operate under the newly proposed community interest company.

It was a political announcement apparently agreed by some sort of sofa cabinet consisting Mark Bee, the leader elect, Jane Storey, the interim leader and Judy Terry, the cabinet member responsible for libraries.

It comes before they have even had time to read all the submissions to the ill-fated libraries consultation which only ended on Saturday.

On BBC Radio Suffolk this morning Cllr Terry said they hoped to save all the libraries and denied that the announcement was a political stunt.

Just five days ago, on Wednesday, April 27, there was no hint of this change of heart. Cllr Terry told people handing in save our libraries petitions: “We  are looking at all options ay the moment…. The consultation does ot end until the end of the month and then we have to analyse all the results.”

So what happened in the following three days? We simply don’t know, but rumours started to circulate on social media yesterday and during the afternoon a story appeared on the website of the Ipswich Evening Star by local government correspondent Paul Geater.

Today Geater has a fuller story in the East Anglain Daily Time (which shares staff with the Evening Star) today which says:

The libraries are set to be run by a community interest company which will be fully owned by the county council – but will include representatives of communities across Suffolk as well as councillors and officials.

Mrs Terry said this would ensure that the county retained responsibility for providing the library service – but it would enable individual communities to decide what was on offer.

She said: “The review of library services has shown how much they are valued by their communities, but it has also shown that different communities want different things from their libraries and this should allow them to develop in different ways.”

She said that involving communities in the running of the libraries would lead to a reduction in the amount of bureaucracy and should help to make savings needed by the county.

On Radio Suffolk she said that the Community Interest Company would make savings of at least 30% but they hoped the savings could be greater. Cllr Terry did say there would be a further consultation before a report to the council’s Cabinet.

A lot of questions remain to be answered. Not least, why was the decision leaked on the Sunday of a bank holiday weekend at the start of a week in which local government elections (not including the County Council itself) take place?

There is the question of why a community interest company with “community representatives” on its board will be more democratic than the council running the libraries. How will these representatives by chosen and how will that be more democratic than elected councillors running the service?

How will a community interest company be able to make greater savings than would be possible if the county continued to run libraries directly?

After Cllr Bee was chosen by the Conservative group as leader-elect two weeks ago folwoing the resignation of Jeremy Pembroke, he told the EADT:

If we are going to properly engage with the people of Suffolk we are going to have find out what they want in such a way that there is a meaningful way that these things can be run and not just a theory and a hope that people will take them on.

If the Big Society is about anything it is about working with communities and I want us as a council to actively do that rather than just hope and anticipate that people will take these things on.

One of the principle objections to the just-finished consultation was that it appeared not to have been thought through before being launched on the public with apparently one option for many of the libraries: form a community group to take it over or lose it.

Now another single idea is being presented to the people. And it appears to have been cobbled together in three days.

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.

Suffolk has had four meetings with US library firm

In Tuesday’s East Anglian Daily Times splash revealing the interest of the American company LSSI in running Suffolk libraries,  was  a paragraph saying:

County councillor Judy Terry who is leading the consultation process, said officials were hoping to hold meetings with representatives from LSSI.

Today the paper reveals that there have already been four meetings between county officials and LSSI.

The story is in the printed and digital facsimile editions but does not appear to be in the on-line version. The first meeting may well have been the contact, mentioned by Wordblog yesterday. Here is the clipping:East Anglian Daily Times, March 2