Eric Pickles

Call for Andrea Hill to take a pay cut reaches Parliiament

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has told the Commons that Andrea Hill, chief executive of Suffolk Count Council, was detracting from Suffolk’s reputation by refusing to take a pay cut.

He was answering a question from David Ruffley, the Conservative member for Bury St Edmunds, about representations he had recieved on local government pay. In reply to a suplementary question, Mr Pickles said:

Chief executives’ pay has got completely out of kilter. There are now 800 local government employees in the top 1% of all earners according to Will Hutton’s figures. With regard to the chief executive of Suffolk, that county does many fine things and is an exemplar authority in many ways, but the chief executive’s refusal to take a pay cut has meant that she has detracted from Suffolk’s many fine achievements.

The full Commons exchange is on Mr Ruffley’s website. It is interesting that Mr Pickles chose to quote from Will Hutton’s report which Ms Hill also used in her message of justification in the latest edition of Inside SCC.

Tension between Whitehall and SCC mounts as it claims FoI response was ‘misleading’

The credibility of Suffolk County Council is in tatters as it claims that its own responses to a Freedom of Information Act request was “misleading”.

It took the Evening Star in Ipswich five months and four FoI requests to discover the council had paid £1,474.74 for photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The story was published on Friday and it soon became apparent that this was being followed-up by most national newspapers. The council’s communications team went into action and, according to the Sun started backtracking.

Yesterday the Evening Star reported a council spokesman saying:

It is true to say that the figure of £1,474.74p for photography supplied in a recent FoI request was assigned to the name of the chief executive.

Unfortunately and on reflection, that was misleading. The actual invoice supplied by the photographer shows that £1,474.74p was the total figure charged for two separate pieces of work on June 25 and July 3.

The work also included portraits of 14 councillors, the election of the chair and vice chair of the council and coverage of a community seminar.

It is entirely wrong to suggest that £1,474.74 was spent solely on photographs of Andrea Hill.

This came at the end of the week when frustration in Whitehall came to the surface, with local government minister Grant Shapps directly criticising Ms Hill.

Daily Telegraph columnist Alison Pearson wrote:

Eric Pickles [communities and local government secretary], that delectable love-child of Humpty Dumpty and Ena Sharples, may talk tough, but he is hamstrung by the Government’s strategy of devolved localism. Is it really such a good idea to give even more power to the regions when a sense of grandiose entitlement has spread like fungus through councils across the land? Suffolk is closing libraries, has sacked lollipop ladies and cancelled children’s travel cards. Meanwhile, Freedom of Information requests reveal that Andrea Hill, Suffolk’s chief executive, who is paid £218,592 a year, spent £14,188 of public money on a leadership adviser who gave her lessons in how to “liberate herself” to do her job better. For £525 an hour plus VAT, I’m sure we’d all be delighted to suggest how Mrs Hill might liberate herself. Slashing her own monster pay packet in half and distributing the excess to starving librarians would be a start.

That is the crux of the matter, Suffolk has become a damaging embarrassment to the Conservative-led government’s plans for localism and the big society. Insiders talk of “tension” between Whitehall and Endeavour House.

Monday, March 21: Robert Johns, the photographer, has now responded on his own blog under the heading The Truth Behind the Andrea Hill Portraits. It generally confrms that the county council FoI response to the Evening Star was “misleading”. But his attack on the Evening Star seems to be misguided, probably because he has only read the online version and did not have access to the full detail printed in the paper.

He also writes:

I have worked with Andrea before when she was the Chief Executive of Bedfordshire County Council. Under her leadership the Council went from no stars to 3 Stars in less than 3 years. I shot a very iconic picture, a portrait of the council to illustrate the journey upward. The picture was shortlisted in the British Press Photographers Awards 2006 for Business, Industry and Technology.

A Suffolk photographer was used prior to me being commissioned and he didn’t do a great job. I make no apology for the fact that I am good at what I do. I’m not a photographer who turns up and simply ’snaps’.

Suffolk County Council faces challenge on need to cut front line services

In rejecting budget amendments to be put to Suffolk County Council by the Lib Dems on Thursday, the Conservative deputy leader, Jane Storey, is effectively putting the big society experiment before libraries, rural bus services, youth clubs and more.

Mrs Storey told the East Anglian Daily Times that the the management of change budget (the largest element in the Lib Dem counter proposals) was very important because it was preparing staff to work under the councils’s new strategic direction.  She told the paper: “It is one thing to look at savings in isolation for one year, but this is the first of a series of what will be tough settlements.”

The Lib Dems propose cutting the management of change budget by £1.7 million. Their alternative cuts also include others which would clearly be painful including £800,000 off roads maintenance. They suggest reducing a contingency fund by £1 million, using £700,000 of reserves and cutting business mileage by 10% saving £936,000. In total their cuts add up to £6.23 million which balances with the cost of the services they want to protect.

This money would instead be used for libraries, youth clubs, public transport, school crossing patrols, recycling centres and the fire service.  Here is the Lib Dem press release (personal phone numbers removed).

The New Strategic Direction is is effectively the Big Society writ large, ending with the council becoming an “enabling body” by divesting the running of services to charities, social enterprises, other councils, volunteer groups and the private sector.

Nationally, David Cameron has recognised that it will cost money to get the big society up an running. In an article in the Observer yesterday he said:

But we understand that while the opportunity lies in the future the local authority cuts are happening now. So this week we are launching a transition fund to help charities prepare to bid for these contracts and a big society bank to provide some working capital when they’re awarded them.

Cameron’s local government secretary, Eric Pickles, has said that the cuts in government finance do not mean councils need to cut front line service. And Central Suffolk Conservative MP, Dan Poulter has supported firemen saying that the county council is being asked to go back to the spending levels of three years ago.

Lib Dem group leader Kathy Pollard said:

Unlike the Conservatives, we have been listening to Suffolk people. It has not been difficult to identify the savings we needed to retain these services. It is a question of priorities.  Clearly the Conservatives at Suffolk County Council are determined to close and privatise as many services as possible. This is ideologically driven and is not being imposed on them by central Government.

Suffolk county council Tories who grabbed the big society idea and ran with it as something that could be quickly implemented on a huge scale, are looking increasingly isolated. The Prime Minister is saying it will take time and money, the Local Government Secretary disputes their need to cut front line services and has now been joined by one of the county’s conservative MPs.

But the Conservative majority on the County Council is huge and they do not appear ready to compromise. But at least the Lib Dem amendment shines a light on some of the costs of the New Strategic Direction and priority they are being given by the Conservatives.

Strange political times — Tory MP supports firemen’s union

These are, indeed, strange political times. BBC Suffolk reports that Dan Poulter, the new MP for Central Suffolk, is supporting the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in their protests against cuts being made by the Conservative county council.

The FBU claims anticipated cuts in which full-time firemen would be replaced by retained (part-time) men could endanger lives.

Dr Poulter is quoted by the BBC saying:

All that central government is asking the county council to do is go back to spending levels of 2007/08 – three years ago.

My view is that we should be investing in the fire service and it should be ring fenced.

That is why I am supporting the Fire Brigades Union and all they are doing.

Mr Poulter is, of course, echoing the claim by local government secretary Eric Pickles that cuts in front line services are not necessary. Jeremy Pembroke, leader of the county council, responded to that in Wordblog last week.

Welcome ban on council-run newspapers

Eric Pickles, the local government secretary is right (I did not expect to be saying that) to call a halt to newspapers put out by councils. They have been drawing readers and advertising away from independent local newspapers.

At a time when the newspaper industry has very real problems with falling circulations and revenue, they don’t need to face further revenue and readership losses funded by council tax payers.

The BBC reports “anger” over the new publicity rules which are wider than restricting publishing.

New publicity rules were published by the Communities department yesterday, with Pickles saying:

An independent local press is an essential part of our open democracy and it is a vital part of local accountability, but the rules around council publicity have been too weak for too long squandering public funds and pushing local newspapers out into the abyss.

The news will be welcomed by the Newspaper Society which gave evidence to the Parliamentary communities select committee before Christmas. Lynne Anderson of the NS said 150 council publications took private advertising, and continued:

You don’t need your local council competing with you for scarce advertising revenues… those are the very ad revenues which keep journalists in their jobs. Councils should not be in the business of competing.

At the same time as welcoming the restrictions, it is hard to disagree with  Russell Kemp, vice chair of the Local Government Association. He told the same committee hearing it was hypocritical of the Government to interfere in local government business while pushing the Localism agenda.

He also said local newspapers needed to up their game.

It is clear, to me, that local and regional newspaper coverage of councils has fallen over the years in both volume and quality. Perhaps, Mr Pickles will also be be contributing to improvementt by making local government a more controversial and important issue.

It does looks as if councils were already seeing the writing on the wall, as well as looking for ways to save money. Tower Hamlets is reviewing the future of its fat weekly East End Life. Lambeth, North Yorkshire, East Riding, and Hamersmith and Fulham have announced closure of their papers.

Suffolk Couty Council leader gives response to Eric Pickles

Last week I emailed Jeremy Pembroke, the leader of Suffolk County Council, asking the following question:

Eric Pickles has written an article at the Conservative Home website today and in the last paragraph says: “It just goes to show that cutting front line jobs and hitting front line services isn’t inevitable- it doesn’t have to be an option at all.”

Can you, please, explain to me why then Suffolk County Council is making cuts in front line services? Or is Mr Pickles wrong?

I thank him for his reply which I am happy to reproduce in full.

Eric Pickles is, of course, absolutely right to highlight the excellent and innovative work of Conservative-run councils around the country.Those that have the scope to fill next year’s budget gap purely with back-office changes and efficiency savings, and without affecting front-line budgets, certainly deserve credit.

At Suffolk County Council we have, over the last four years, achieved around £70million in efficiency savings, turning the authority into one of the two most cost-efficient County Councils in the country. At the same time, we have put an end to the large increases in council tax imposed by the previous Lib Dem / Labour administration prior to 2005.

Indeed, in the last two years, we have delivered the County Council’s low increases in council tax. This year we are proposing that there be no increase whatsoever.

However, Suffolk has an ageing population, which means we face an inexorable increase in demand for our services, and the concomitant additional costs.

As a result, we have significant added costs over the next year, which must be made up alongside the 12.7% reduction in our grant. In total, this means a budget gap of £42.5million.

Despite this, over 80% of the budget gap is going to be made good with efficiencies, changes to back-office functions, and different ways of working. But inevitably, as with other County Councils in a similar position, there will be some extremely difficult decisions to make about front-line services, as you will have seen from our budget proposals.

It is precisely so we can avoid such difficult cuts in future years that we are developing our New Strategic Direction, as a way of improving outcomes for people in the future despite having much less money. Over the next two or three years, we should start seeing the benefits of this emerging. However, unfortunately, for this year, this does not stop us from having to make very difficult choices.

So yes, of course, where councils are able to avoid cutting any front-line budgets, they do deserve much credit and have shown, as Mr Pickles says, that such cuts are not inevitable.

“However, for County Councils such as ours, who already have an exceptional record on efficiency savings over a number of years, and the specific demographic pressures, such cuts, though kept to the absolute minimum, are unfortunately unavoidable.”

The only comment I make on the reply is that Mr Pembroke repeats his claim that Suffolk is “one of the two most cost-efficient County Councils in the country”.

The figures (Nation Indicator 179) on which that claim is made comes with this warning: “Good performance is typified by higher numbers.

“However, the indicator will not provide evidence on absolute value for money against which different councils can be judged. The scope for gains will be different in each area, and the ability to report higher numbers may be limited in any organisation that is genuinely delivering excellent value for money.”

Having made large savings, the NI179 figures for Suffolk tend to justify the case that the county has less scope than some others to make efficiency savings. For more on these figures see my earlier post.

Pickles to talk to “gung-ho” Suffolk County Council?

Local government secretary Eric Pickles has agreed to have one-to-one conversations with “gung-ho” councils about the cuts, according to the Guardian today. It would be very surprising if the “gung-ho” definition did not include Suffolk County Council.

The paper says Pickles blocked  proposals from Downing Street to protect the “big society” project from the harshest of the council spending cuts but agreed to speak to “gung-ho” councils. The story says:

The Guardian has established that ministers and No 10 formulated plans to reward councils for their contribution to the big society or force them to show they were cutting their own costs as much as their contracts with charities. But Pickles rejected the proposals.

Media stories about the crisis in the big society idea are coming from all shades of opinion (you can do a Google News search for “big society”). The Daily Mail is on the defensive today with, “Ministers hit back over claims Big Society is at risk because of spending cuts”.

A more thoughtful consideration from the Conservative-supporting press comes from Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph in an article headed Big Society RIP. He concludes:

The stakes could not be higher. If the Big Society collapses, Cameron does too.

Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction
If the  Big Society collapses so does Suffolk’s New Strategic Direction, which is really a doctrinaire version of the Big Society.

We are coming up to local government elections (district councils but not counties) and the Conservatives are preparing for big losses.

The influential Conservativehome local government blog accepts a prediction that the Conservatives will lose 1,000 or the 5,000 seats they will be defending in May. And continues:

What is harder to predict is what will happen in the large number of councils where there are no Labour councillors at all, or only a handful. Will the Conservatives make gains from the Lib Dems…. But I suspect that Conservatives losses to Labour could be partially offset by gains from the Lib Dems.

In this context, it is not surprising that Lib Dem councillors are trying to put clear water between themselves and their parliamentary colleagues in the coalition government.

The Guardian story (quoted above) refers to a private email sent to Liberal Democrat councillors in the Local Government Association which says:

Concerns about the weakness of the secretary of state have been raised within all three of the main political groups here at the LGA and the message has been heard loud and clear by leading figures in the government. The situation has been likened to having a republican in charge of the monarchy….

A key difference between Lib Dem and Conservative views on localism is that Lib Dems believe in representative democracy – Conservatives are happy to bypass elected local government and give power direct to local residents.

Here is Suffolk we may well see district councillors facing election trying to put clear water between themselves and their ruling group of county councillors.

It is being to look as if theelections here on May 5 are going to be more interesting and with a higher turnout that we have seen for many years.

Pickle says no need to cut front line jobs or services

From Eric Picles, the local government secretary, writing on the Conservative Home blog:

More and more councils biting the bullet on senior pay.  More and more councils coming together to share services.  And I’m determined to do everything possible to support them, in every way possible: by devolving power and by offering every council enough money to fund a council tax freeze next year.

…cutting front line jobs and hitting front line services isn’t inevitable– it doesn’t have to be an option at all. 

But is the message getting through to his Tory colleagues who dominate Suffolk County Council?

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