Council leaders talk about rise

LEADERS at County Hall were today having their first opportunity to discuss the shock 18.4 per cent council tax rise planned for April.And they'll have no excuse for not knowing the strength of feeling about this huge hike – they've all been sent copies of last night's Evening Star.

LEADERS at County Hall were today having their first opportunity to discuss the shock 18.4 per cent council tax rise planned for April.

And they'll have no excuse for not knowing the strength of feeling about this huge hike – they've all been sent copies of last night's Evening Star.

We've sent 78 copies of the newspaper to county councillors – two of the 80 seats at County Hall are currently vacant.

The council is Suffolk's biggest employer, with 27,000 on the payroll.

That includes all the schools' staff – including teachers – in the county. More than half, 56 per cent in 2002/3,  of the council's budget goes towards education – and it accounts for 72 per cent of its workforce.

In an organisation as large as the county council, at the top there are some very generous salaries.

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When Mike More was appointed chief executive of the council last year, the salary was advertised as in the region of £100,000 a year.

Now the council is looking for a new assistant director of environmental services to replace Alfreda Thistlethwaite who is due to retire soon.

The salary being offered for that – and the post is being advertised in national newspapers – is up to £73,000.

Her role includes responsibility for development control, the county council grants planning permission for its own developments and for any involving mineral extraction, waste disposal, archaeology, and the county's countryside service.

As members of the executive committee gathered, more details of the increased costs encountered by the council over the last year emerged.

The Ipswich Hospital social care team has doubled its work in the last two years.

The team is now coping with 500 referrals per month – it had just 250 in 2001. These are usually elderly and frail people who have to  either be found a residential place or have carers to help them in their own home.

This has benefited Ipswich Hospital. The number of "bed blockers" last year was 1,681, the total the year before was 2,323 – a reduction of 27 per cent.

The number of older people who live at home  has increased by 28 per cent, or 1,467 – and the Government expects a further increase of 56 per cent.

New  regulations introduced by the Government this year mean that an extra 3,000 in Suffolk receive their home care for free, costing £1 million.

There is no Government funding to meet this shortfall.

The pressures also acute in children's services.

The numbers of children "looked after" by social care services has increased from 643 in April 2001 to 721 in December 2002.

Another area of council activity which has led to raised eyebrows is the growth of the communications department at County Hall.

Five years ago there was just one press officer for the authority – for such a large organisation that was not enough and there needed to be some help.

But now there is a communications department, handling both internal and external communications, employing 16 people.

It's headed by Anne Bailey, appointed last year after the job was advertised with a salary of between £55,000 and £68,000 a year.

It has a budget, this year, of £637,000 – and deals with internal and external communications as well as seeking public views on the work of the council.

There are four general press officers dealing with queries from the media on all aspects of the council's work and preparing publications for employees and the county as a whole.

There are two further press officers specialising in particular aspects of the council's work – social care and trading standards – which are included in the communications budget.

The education department and environment and transport have their own spokeswomen, but they are outside the communications department – although they get support from that team.

Other posts in the communications team include a consultation officer – who makes sure the council gets feedback from the people of Suffolk – and administrative support staff.

"This is not a big department for the size of the authority," Mrs Bailey said. "If you compare our budget with that of Norfolk, Essex or Cambridgeshire you will see they spend much more on communications than we do."

Norfolk's communications' budget is just under £1 million and Essex spends just over £1million on communications.

Cambridgeshire's budget for communications is about £900,000.

With 27,000 employees and serving a population of nearly 700,000, it was vital that Suffolk County Council's work should be properly explained, Mrs Bailey added.

"The consultation officer works preparing questionnaires and analysing the results. There's work commissioning outside surveys from organisations like MORI, and again the results have to be analysed.

"We need to identify people to survey, to ensure we get representative views. The council needs to know if people think it is doing the right thing.

"Then there's consultation with council members – they need to be kept in touch with what's happening and tell us what is happening in their areas," Mrs Bailey said.