Bee ready for the battles ahead
Mark Bee has had a tough few months heading up Suffolk County Council, but as local government correspondent Paul Geater discovered, the hard work is just beginning.
SUFFOLK: Sitting in Rosehill Library in Ipswich, Mark Bee seemed relaxed as he contemplated the next round in the rollercoaster of life at the head of the county’s biggest employer.
He was elected leader of Suffolk County Council at the end of May, but he had been elected head of the Conservative group at Endeavour House five weeks earlier and his effective leadership of the authority started on with the group vote on April 18.
But in a real sense the tough times really start now as the county prepares for its first budget of the Bee era.
The county is conducting a county-wide consultation exercise and Mr Bee is determined that all voices will be heard before any decisions are made.
“We had to save �43million last year and need to save a further �50million over the next two years. That is a very tough task,” he said.
“Much of these savings will come from reducing bureaucracy and there will be staff losses there – but there will be some changes to frontline services.”
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The first few weeks of his leadership seemed to be dominated by the question of the leadership of the council organisation. The day he was elected leader of the authority was also the last day that former chief executive Andrea Hill spent behind her desk at Endeavour House before starting a planned holiday.
She never returned – leaving the authority at the start of July.
Looking back briefly, Mr Bee acknowledged it has been a hectic time: “Four months? Six months? It feels a lot longer,” he laughs.
The council has faced bureaucratic problems – although the new government had reduced some of the targets it needed to achieve, which made life considerably easier.
Mr Bee said: “At one stage for every pound we spent on a service we had to spend another pound on reaching the decision to spend it and that can’t be right!”
One of his first actions as leader – in his acceptance speech when he took the role – was to publicly declare the death of the New Strategic Direction which had become the county’s catch-all policy to change the way it operated.
However there have been claims from his political opponents that things haven’t changed as much as he would like the world to think.
Opposition councillors claim that while the county no longer talks about “divestment” it is still trying to transfer services away from its direct control.
“There is a huge difference. The New Strategic Direction was a policy being applied to all services across the county.
“I don’t like the expression, but it really was a case of “one size fits all” and people were being told that things like libraries would be closed unless communities took them on.
“We are not closing any libraries. Look at this building here. It is quite small but it is like the Tardis, – just look at what it offers to the community.
“Local people are now being given the chance to help run their libraries, but we are there supporting them. No libraries will close. That is a huge difference.”
Mr Bee is keen to work closely with their public sector bodies to help cut costs – including Ipswich Borough Council, which is now run by a Labour administration.
He said he would be happy to talk about sharing buildings like Rosehill Library to allow more services to be offered at a single location. But he is clearly irritated that the borough still has money put aside to “save” libraries and school crossing patrols.
He said: “They are not under threat now. I want to talk to them about working together – I will talk to anyone on this.
“But the borough can release that money for its own use. The libraries and school crossing patrols are safe.”
n In what area do you think the council should save money? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@evening star.co.uk