Has the county's priority changed?

BUDGET cuts in Suffolk appear to have concentrated on the county's social services - most of the anguish we have heard about has been about reductions in the amount of time and help offered to vulnerable people.

BUDGET cuts in Suffolk appear to have concentrated on the county's social services - most of the anguish we have heard about has been about reductions in the amount of time and help offered to vulnerable people.

I was chatting to a senior Labour county councillor about this the other day, and I was surprised to find he was so philosophical about the situation that has been developing in Endeavour House.

He was not surprised that the most serious cuts were hitting social services, believing that it showed the fundamental difference in philosophy between the current Conservative administration and the previous Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition.

“When the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition took control at County Hall back in 1993, Suffolk spent less on social services than almost any other council - the department had one of the lowest budgets per head of population in the country,” he said.

“That was a situation that the administration worked very hard to counteract over the next 12 years.

Unfortunately money is not limitless so there were bound to be other areas where there was a bit of a squeeze to meet that expense.”

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The service that lost out most during the Labour/Liberal Democrat was the road budget - less was spent on maintaining smaller roads, especially in rural areas.

This was a constant source of anger to the Conservatives when they were in opposition and they pledged to improve the conditions of country roads when they returned to power.

One of the first things the Conservatives did after winning power last year was to boost spending on road maintenance - and they continue to spend much more on that than the previous administration.

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Andrew Cann told me that the amount cut from the transport budget this year had been just seven per cent, compared with 10 pc from social services - but transport had seen a big increase just before the cut.

And he was scathing about some of the cuts that have taken place: “I cannot think why the administration has cut so many grants to voluntary organisations, they offer great value for money and are far more cost-effective than other services that have been retained,” he said.

County council leader Jeremy Pembroke maintained that the reason for the cuts was the government's settlement for the county council. He told me: “The government increased spending on schools substantially but that is ring-fenced. In effect it said it was important to spend money on young people, but not on the elderly through social services.”

When you look at the situation at Endeavour House, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that there has been a shift in council spending.

During the years of the Labour/Liberal Democrat administration less was spent on road maintenance, especially in some of the rural areas of Suffolk.

There were more potholes than there had been previously, and this did anger voters and councillors in these - mainly Conservative - areas.

Given that, it is perhaps not unreasonable to see the election of 2005 which saw the Conservatives return to power as a clear statement by the electorate that they wanted more to be spent on rural roads.

Of course voters didn't know that the government would squeeze spending (although experienced councillors and senior officers should have realised that the chancellor was unlikely to be too generous in a year after an election).

But looking from the outside, it does seem that the emphasis at Endeavour House has shifted significantly over the last 15 months.

Social services are not now the number one priority that they may have been in the past - they are just another service competing for funds. And that will be uncomfortable for many people who rely on the council for help.

AS building work continues around Ipswich Waterfront, I was interested to hear an estate agent from the town warning that the area could be saturated with too many flats coming on to the housing market too quickly.

He was expressing a concern felt by many people keen to see the Waterfront develop but anxious that it should be a vibrant part of the town, not an expensive white elephant.

Part of the problem for Ipswich is, of course, that there is no culture of flat-living. Most people in the area aspire to living in their own home with their own garden and their own front door.

Flats have always been seen as a second-best option, for people who can't afford their own place - and that is not an attitude that will change quickly.

Most Ipswich people would not dream of spending £250,000 on a two-bedroomed flat on the Waterfront - for that money they could get a four-bedroomed house on the Crofts.

Of course most of the flats going up in the Waterfront are not aimed at people already living in the area - they are aimed at attracting commuters who would rather pay Ipswich flat prices than £1 million upwards for a similar pad in London docklands.

But the developers do need to be sure that there are enough people willing to buy these flats. It would be a tragedy if our shiny new Waterfront ended up half-empty.

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