Suffolk: Time to scrap the New Strategic Direction

SUFFOLK: The county’s New Strategic Direction has been a disaster for the county and deserves to be confined to the dustbin of history as soon as a new leader takes control at Endeavour House.

The NSD has never been so much a policy for the council as ideological principle being followed by a few – with ripples and pain felt by many tens of thousands of our countyfolk.

Trying to distil what the NSD is all about has never been easy – but the broad principle seems to be that all services provided by the county should be examined and, where possible, transferred to another provider who will operate them on behalf of the council.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with transferring individual services in a bid to cut administrative costs – I give some examples later of where that would be sensible – but to start from a premise that everything should be examined and considered for transfer unless it proves impossible is putting services in great danger.

Make no mistake this is a bold experiment, and Suffolk’s chief administrator was right when he told staff the is now at the “leading edge”.

We were told in a statement: “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; we are developing a new model that will unsettle the status quo and, as we all know, any changes make ordinary people uncertain.”

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This is the kernel of the whole problem with the NSD – and especially as far as it relates to Suffolk.

We live in a county that is up to date and modern – and had been rated “leading edge” for many years before the current hierarchy took control at Endeavour House.

But this sceptered land doesn’t want change at any cost, not least to be at the leading edge of some theoretical policy dreamt up in the seminar rooms of business schools.

If the likes of Wandsworth and Westminster in London want to set themselves up at the “leading edge” as they did under Margaret Thatcher and Nicholas Ridley in the 1980s then that’s up to them.

Suffolk people want to know that a new policy will work before the county’s services are treated as a huge guinea pig in a social experiment.

We used to say “You won’t hurry me, I’m from Suffolk.”

That didn’t mean we were all slow carrot-crunchers – it did mean we didn’t want to leap without looking at what was ahead of us first!

The NSD is being held up as a way of ensuring services continue to be delivered with less money.

There is absolutely no guarantee that will happen. In fact many people think the idea of having lots of small providers running services will prove more expensive as they will not be able to achieve the kind of economies of scale you get from a large organisation like the county council.

If the bureaucracy is inefficient at the county council then look at reorganising it – but there is no need to dismantle the whole structure.

And I remain perplexed by the sheer political stupidity of scrapping school crossing patrols to save just �220,000 a year – it is a tiny fraction of the council’s �1bn turnover but it has defined the council’s headlong rush to adopt a policy that the people of Suffolk don’t want.

So if we ditch the NSD how do we go about making savings without cutting valuable services?

There are bound to be some cuts – but I cannot see how the NSD will make them anymore palatable.

On the libraries service, we hear much about the cost of the bureaucracy that services the libraries – so why is the branch network under threat?

Suffolk is joining Essex in a scheme to purchase books. Is there not merit in talking to Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire to set up a regional library service with a single bureaucracy to run libraries from Felixstowe to Peterborough, from Cromer to Southend?

Suffolk is already talking to Norfolk about setting up a joint highways management service for the two counties which would ensure that if the A140 is being resurfaced in Suffolk the work doesn’t necessarily stop at the Scole bridge.

That is eminently sensible and could be extended to other county highway authorities – bringing a larger number of people under a single management structure.

I have concerns about merging fire control rooms but if the service can be made to work then that is another logical cost-saving measure.

But these changes should happen at their own pace, not because some ideologues have decided it sounds like a good idea.

I stress Suffolk is not the place for a radical, headline-grabbing experiment.

So let’s consign the NSD to the dustbin of history, before it inflicts any more damage.

This isn’t about resistance to change, as critics of these words may claim, this is about change at a sensible pace, with sensible debate and sensible planning. It is about taking a pragmatic approach to the county’s future.

I was speaking to an old friend who is a Conservative councillor in London and he nearly choked when he heard the name.

“Good God. It sounds like a Stalinist programme from the late 1940s or Mao’s ideas of the 1960s. I cannot believe any Conservative council would have come up with a description like that!” he said with a genuine splutter.