Changing times at the county council

I DO not usually devote my whole page to a single subject, but events at the county council over the last ten days have been so extraordinary that there really is only one show in town.

I was working last weekend, and spent much of my time on the phone to Conservative county councillors from across Suffolk to gauge what is likely to happen in the election for a new leader.

Two themes shone through in my conversations.

One comment I heard time and again was that whoever took over as leader needed much better “political nous” than has been seen from the leadership over recent months.

Many councillors feel that while Jeremy Pembroke is a decent, hardworking leader he lacked the political antennae you need to pick up what people are really saying and feeling on the ground.

This has left many Tory councillors feeling that many policy decisions are being made by the administration without any real feeling for how they will go down among the people of Suffolk.

One senior Conservative told me: “The debate over the libraries is a classic case of muddle and people outside the council don’t know what is happening.

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“It’s one thing to put consultation papers on the webpage and invite people to respond – what is needed is for council leaders to go to their local library and hear what people are saying about the service and what they want from it.”

Another one said: “I cannot believe we have got into the mess we’re in with the school crossing patrols! For the sake of �200,000 it just is not worth all the political damage we’ve done ourselves.”

Councillors are also worried by the appearance that the political leadership has surrendered too much power to senior officers, in particular to chief executive Andrea Hill.

A former cabinet member said whoever was the new leader needed to take back the political initiative from the chief executive.

There was concern about the comments from Mrs Hill in her “Inside SCC” article. She said: “I’m going to challenge process and bureaucracy that doesn’t help our customers and find ways to help you deliver really relevant, tailored, public services (whether that’s inside or outside the Council).

“I’m going to support and lead you in helping to challenge the past culture of public services and duplication between organisations.

“I’m going to help us create a simpler more flexible council that really listens and works alongside communities to give them more control over council services.

“And I’m going to find a way to reduce the cost of our overheads for Suffolk taxpayers.

“That’s what the New Strategic Direction is all about. I believe in it and I’m going to give it my energy, intellect and hard work.”

Several of the councillors I spoke to said it was not right for the chief executive to endorse a political policy like the NSD, anymore than it would be for her to criticise it.

It was her job to implement it once its principles had been drawn up by elected county councillors.

One thing is clear – whoever takes on the political leadership of Suffolk County Council has a big job on his (or her) hands.

ONE message I’ve heard from supporters of the current leadership at the county council is that the policy of the New Strategic Direction is “leading edge” and is attracting interest from the government and local authorities across the country.

Apparently officials and councillors are beating a path to Suffolk to see how the county is bringing in all these reforms over the next two years.

I can’t help wondering if that is really what Suffolk wants.

I can see that it must be flattering for politicians and senior officials pushing forward the policy – it must make you feel good when all these bigwigs from around the country want to come and ask your advice, to see how something is done.

But is that really what the people who use Suffolk’s libraries want? Does it make parents worried about whether their children get to and from school safely feel better to know that the leader and chief executive of Wherevershire is looking at the “Suffolk Way.”

Or would most people in Suffolk rather have somewhere else used as a testbed for an all-encompassing policy like the New Strategic Direction.

Everyone knows we will be facing cuts over the next few years and some services will have to be lost or cut back �– but I can’t help feeling that in their very soul the people of Suffolk would rather the county adopted a pragmatic approach rather than what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as an ideological ambition.

Many people will have been uneasy at Andrea Hill’s comment in her message this month: “Let’s be clear, Suffolk County Council is now at the leading edge of new thinking in the public sector.

“We have an inspiring and bold Cabinet who have placed us there.

“It’s not an easy or comfortable place to be because we are challenging the old ways of doing things.”

Years ago you’d see car stickers saying: “You won’t hurry me, I’m from Suffolk.”

Those who want to put the county at the “leading edge” of local government reform might like to reflect that there is a serious message behind that humour.

BOTH of the main contenders to take over as county council leader are far more “political” than the departing Jeremy Pembroke.

Cabinet member Colin Noble is leading the discussions over the future of county council care homes in Suffolk and took great care to go to all 16 homes that will be affected by the decision.

He has also delayed a final decision on their future until there have been more talks – although the county remains keen to divest the homes to other operators.

Waveney council leader Mark Bee is a former Conservative Party agent who has his ear close to the ground and has an impressive record in providing the political leadership of a local authority.

When he took over at the helm of Waveney in 2004 the authority was rated by the government as “weak” and it is now seen on some tables as being one of the top two districts in the country.

As chairman of Suffolk’s scrutiny committee he has a good oversight of how the county works.

Mr Noble will certainly be seen as the “continuity” candidate – he is committed to the New Strategic Direction and has taken a leading role in promoting the policy.

Mr Bee’s supporters are portraying him as the “change” candidate who would bring a new broom to Suffolk County Council.

In any election like this, with just 54 councillors eligible to vote, it is difficult to judge who has how much support – it seems certain there will be a great deal of lobbying before the election on April 18.