Wordblog asked Suffolk County Council opposition leader Kathy Pollard (Lib Dem) for a comment on the announcment of the plan to set up a Commnity Interest Company to run the libraries (see previous post). This is her response:
At first I believed that the County Council had completely changed its mind about the divestment of libraries to “communities”. Excellent, I thought. As ever the small print revealed a different picture.
The transfer of libraries to a Community Interest Company raises a further series of questions and surely means this is just “Divestment” under a different guise?
How much money will be given to this CIC to run the library service? Will the service still be expected to save more than 30% of its running costs? If so how will that work?
And why was it that Judy Terry seemed determined to go ahead with the closure of some libraries even on Wednesday of last week after she had received nearly 19,000 petition signatures in favour of keeping them open?
It is absolutely and startlingly clear that the people of Suffolk value libraries far more than Cllr Terry. I suspect this small change in direction is meant to be a distraction before the local elections, and designed purely to regain votes.
Once more we are left with a complete lack of detail. People are asking me “What’s happening to libraries?” All is still confusion and uncertainty.
Sandy Martin, the Labour opposition leader has also been asked for a response and that will be published when received.
The Suffolk libraries “consultation” is growing ever more bizarre, with Judy Terry, the portfolio holder for libraries telling the BBC, “It may be that some close, but has anyone actually thought that we may open some libraries?”
It looks like desperation as she talks about pubs taking over internet services and schools looking after books. Grasping at straws?. There is of course a traditional political way out of a hole like this — delay things for further consultation.
This formula was used last week by David Cameron when he ordered a “pause” in the NHS reform plans. If it is good enough for Downing Street it should be good enough for Endeavour House.
Caroline Page, the Lib Dem county councillor for Woodbridge, has made a detailed case for an extension and has written to Ms Terry. The case is specifically about Woodbridge library but most of the points apply throughout the county.
All these reasons make it hard for a businesslike case to be made for any ‘expression of interest’ in running a library within the timescale you have set out. The people of Woodbridge are likely to be too well-grounded in reality to want to make any proposal under such circumstances. It would seem a great shame that they should be thus deprived of a chance to have a reasoned and factually supported say in how their local library provision is to be altered.
It is a suggestion which will, no doubt, be in the minds of the ruling Conservative group on the county council as they choose a new leader to replace Jeremy Pembroke who resigned at the end of March.
Caroline Page points to wasteful spending authorised by Suffolk County Council while they are cutting school crossing patrols to save £174,000. she writes:
On the parsimony side, they [ruling conservative group] stand up straight, cross their fingers behind their backs and declare straightfaced that they simply haven’t the money to spend on inessentials like road crossing patrols and libraries.
Yet it was just before Christmas that they spent literally hundreds of thousands of pounds on setting up Suffolk Circle, a membership-based social enterprise that had apparently worked well in Southwark. (Where, I would suggest, there is less sense of social cohesion and a greater turnover of population than in Suffolk).
Page, the Lib Dem councillor for Woodbridge, has more examples in her full post.
Suffolk Circle has been given £3/4 million over three years (see my previous post Taxpayers taking the ‘risk” out of being an “entrepreneur”.)
The word entrepreneur has its uses, but is too often misused. Alan Sugar hit the nail on the head in The Apprentice last year when, exasperated, he said something along these lines to a contestant: “Entrepreneur is not something you can call yourself. It is for other people to describe you an an entrepreneur.”
Collins dictionary defines an entrepreneur as, “The owner or manager of a business enterprise who, by risk and initiative, attempts to make a profit.” Risk and profit are in all the definitions I have seen.
But where is the risk when Suffolk Circle has been given £3/4m over three years by Suffolk County Council to get itself established? It looks as if Suffolk County Council has taken over the risk on what looks like an uncertain business plan.
Suffolk Circle has been set up as a CIC (community interest company) which has to put profits back into the community and cannot be sold at a profit. But, I believe, salaries are not controlled.
There were allegations at the county council meeting last week that Suffolk Circle is duplicating work done by voluntary organisations which do not get anything like the same level of support.
Kathy Pollard, the Lib Dem leader on the council said on her blog after the council meeting that Suffolk Circle was duplicating the work of others. It seems this statement was challenged (off-line, I assume, as I cant see any comment on her previous post).
She has now blogged justifying the duplication claim in some detail which you can read on her blog.
In Westminster the revolt by seven Tory Councillors on Suffolk County Council yesterday would have been described as a substantial rebellion. The issue was a small one, the abandonment of a saving of £174,000 by continuing to pay for school crossing patrols. This is out of a budget of £1bn.
On paper, the Labour group of four, looked weak, limiting their amendment to the budget to this single item, while the Lib Dems suggested a much larger change in the budget.
But politically it was an astute move by Labour leader Sandy Martin, that identified a weakness in the ruling party and exploited it to show wavering Conservative solidarity.
The tone of the debate, which lasted most of the three hours I was in the chamber, was set not by a councillor buy by Lianne Shepherd, a lollipop lady from Lowestoft.
She was presenting a petition against the cut and stood, for a moment silent before the microphone, biting her lip. Then she said “I am nervous” and went on to talk fluently for five minutes.
She had rapt attention. While she was speaking my neighbour in the public gallery leaned across and said: “Have you seen the smirk on Andrea Hill’s face.” I looked towards the council’s chief executive and her expression did indeed look something like that.
After the Labour amendment was proposed the flow of debate was in support. The arguments were put strongly including that the cost of one injury accident as a result of not having a lollipop person would cost more than the savings.
The only real argument in support of the cuts was that providing crossing patrols was better done by the community than by the county council.
When Conservative members started to stand up to announce they would support the amendment, I began to expect to hear an echo of David Cameron’s “not happy” statement on forests.
The realisation dawned that they knew, from the earlier Conservative group meeting, that this rebellion was coming. Their leadership simply did not care that there was clear public support for the crossing patrols, because their majority is so huge. With seven votes switching they still had twice the number of the opposition.
After that I had to leave but the budget debate went on for a further three hours before it was approved with no amendment, despite a spirited attempt by the Lib Dems to save libraries, youth clubs, bus service, park and ride, the explore card and crossing patrols from cuts.
The EastAnglian Daily Time report of the debate is here.
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.
Another powerful blast from Caroline Page, the Lib Dem county councillor for Woodbridge, who is providing the most vocal opposition to the Tory county council “government”.
However, I would urge you not to confuse national policies with our current disgraceful local vandalism. For a start, such confusion could – no, WILL – let those responsible off the hook! The New Strategic Direction has been a long time in the planning. It is making cuts greater than required in services the administration doesn’t value. A cynic would suggest that it is using the national situation as a cover for doing so.
Remember, in Suffolk the Liberal Democrats are not in any kind of coalition – they are very strongly the opposition party. And as you know, both I and my colleagues have been fighting these cuts from the day they were first heralded, back in last September. Let us be clear here – although we are in opposition, Suffolk Lib Dems are fighting this New Strategic Direction as a matter of common sense rather than party-political politicking. We are fighting it because the effects will hit people of all ages, and backgrounds and political hue.
Opposition on Suffolk County Council is certainly difficult with the Conservatives holding 54 seats. Liberal Democrats, the main opposition, has 11, Labour 4, the Greens 2 and UKIP 1.
But that does not excuse the lack of real opposition. A trawl of the internet produces very little evidence of great activity except by Page
Her leader Kathy Pollard’s blog is much less active. Pollard’s last post was on January 22: it, like the two previous entries, was doing little more than pointing at stories in the East Anglian Daily Times.
The Labour group does have a website, www.suffolklabour.org but it is not working and has not been for some time.
There is, however, this comment from the Labour leader, Sandy Martin, in a booklet put out by Local Government Leadership:
I would like to give Jeremy [Pembroke, Conservative council leader] a “pat on the back” – asking questions at Cabinet allows opposition Members to contribute to the democratic process.
An image of him tugging his forelock would come to mind, if he had enough hair. It would be funny if it did not reflect the complacent opposition to the governing majority.
PS. The first comment on Page’s post is from someone called Karen. It says: “What a clear outline of a looming social disaster. The small voice of common sense. Please appoint this woman to a position of more power. Soon -Suffolk needs more of this.”
Caroline Page, the Lib Dem county councillor for Woodbridge, was up late last night writing a lovely post ridiculing the “consultation” about the future of Suffolk libraries.
In Distribute that middle! Losing Suffolk’s libraries through a logical fallacy! she talks about the “embarrassingly autocratic library ‘consultation’”. It does not mean “the administration is allowing you any opportunity to say their idea is bad, and you want no part of it.”
Oh no – all this consultation gives you is a chance to explain your idea for running your divested library. For example Question 4 is: “How will your idea or interest generate changes or significant efficiencies in the way the library operates to reduce what the county council pays by a minimum of 30%”
I can’t really give the flavour of Page’s comments without reproducing it, so please use the link above to read it in full.
For those who have not been following the story, Suffolk County Council has decided that 29 of its libraries will close if they are not taken over by community groups to be run at a lower cost.
These include the tiny library in Debenham, where I live, which has bucked national trends by increasing numbers of users, lending more books, encouraging children, helping people find information and a host of other things. By some measures, I suspect, it is among the most successful libraries in the country.