Year of changes as new bosses arrive

AT the start of 2011, everyone with an interest in local government in Suffolk knew it was going to be a significant year – all the borough and district councils were facing elections.

That would give all voters the chance to give their verdict on the first year of the coalition government at Westminster as well as events here in Suffolk.

But what was not quite so clear at the turn of the year was the seismic change that would happen at Suffolk County Council during the first six months of 2011.

In January, the council was still pursuing the policy of the New Strategic Direction which had been commissioned by leader Jeremy Pembroke and was being enthusiastically implemented by chief executive Andrea Hill.

Over the next three months growing concern about the policy and a series of stories about Mrs Hill’s management style in the Evening Star brought nationwide attention on Endeavour House.

All this combined to make Conservative councillors worried about what might happen to them and their colleagues in the local elections – a concern that was shared by the county’s MPs.

Mr Pembroke announced his retirement as leader on April 1, a move which triggered a sea-change at Endeavour House.

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Scrutiny committee chairman – and Waveney District Council leader – Mark Bee stood in the election for Conservative group leader and won in the first ballot. It was immediately clear that he offered a very different style of leadership.

He won the group leadership on April 18 – a day which had further significance for the county as it was the last day that Mrs Hill was at her desk before leaving for a long-planned holiday in the US.

Mr Bee immediately announced he would be halting the controversial policies of scrapping school crossing patrols and would be looking at ways of ensuring that libraries could remain open.

Mrs Hill never returned to the county council – on the day she was due back in early May it was announced she was taking extended leave while “anonymous whistle-blowing allegations” were investigated. These investigations cleared her of any wrongdoing, but she left the council in early July.

While much of the attention was focused on the county, at the borough council there was a real political change as Labour regained control after six-and-a-half years of a Conservative/LibDem administration.

Elsewhere in the county, the Conservatives maintained their grip on most councils – although at Waveney the Conservatives and Labour are equally represented.

The Tories remain in power thanks to the council chairman’s casting vote.

There will continue to be changes in local government during 2012, especially with the arrival of new county council chief executive Deborah Cadman.

But I suspect that overall, the year will be one of consolidation after what has been a pretty lively 2011!