The resignation of two senior officials of Suffolk County Council followed yesterday by Jeremy Pembroke, the Conservative leader, were linked today by Sandy Martin, the Labour leader.
He suggested, in a BBC Radio Suffolk interview, officials were making decisions that were too political (he mentioned the “chief executive” but not by her name, Andrea Hill) and that the two officials were the only two people to stand up against this.
Cllr Martin said Cllr Pembroke was a “decent chap” but “out of touch with reality” and did not have the control that was required.
The two officials are Graham Dixon who until Wednesday was director of resource management, and Eric Whitfield, the monitoring officer (EADT).
Cllr Pembroke told BBC Radio suffolk that he was “not pushed” and had made his decision at the beginning of December. He said: “I genuinely believe it [the New Strategic Direction] is the right thing to do.”
He told the East Anglian Daily Times:
I have enjoyed being Leader immensely. I believe we have made great strides in modernising the authority, making efficiencies and creating an organisation that, even in these difficult financial times, will deliver.
I feel this is the right time for me to step down to give the next Leader enough time to prepare for the elections in 2013. I know that I will be leaving the authority in good hands.
The deputy leader, Jane Storey, will take over as interim leader until an election is held later this month. The favourite, according to the EADT, is Colin Noble. He was recently described to me as the most capable and ambitious politician on the council.
Kathy Pollard, a Liberal Democrat and leader of the opposition, described the situation as “quite extraordinary”. She had been at a meeting earlier in the week at which Graham was expected, but was told, “He is not in today”.
She said it was clear that Jeremy Pembroke was under a great deal of pressure.
While all this was going the April issue of the Inside SCC internal newsletter was being finalised. Production was completed at 2.45 yesterday afternoon. In a 1,850 word message chief executive Andrea Hill writes:
Let’s be clear, 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 change makes ordinary people uncertain. Changing the system also challenges vested interests and will therefore be attacked.
That’s partially why I’m getting so much focus and now why Jeremy Pembroke, the most honest, visionary, trustworthy politician I have ever worked with, is, in my view, being unfairly attacked by a local newspaper. But we also have advocates and supporters both in central government, and local government, who are looking to Suffolk as a future role model. You won’t see them in the media – and you might well ask why – but be sure they exist.
The full text is is at wikisuffolk.
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.