Tag Archives: democratic deficit

Caterpillar Children’s Centre lost, despite our best endeavours

The LibDem, Green and Independent group joined forces with Labour to “call in” to Scrutiny  Suffolk’s recent decision to close or alter Childrens Centre provision throughout Suffolk. The 4 opposition members (I was one) asked probing and important questions to back the points made by our call-in speakers: LibDem Penny Otton and Labour’s Jack Abbott. Additionally there was an excellent statement from LDGI group leader, Elfrede Brambly Crawshawe.

However Scrutiny is a numbers game: there are double the number of Conservative members to opposition ones on the committee – most of the latter being obedient silent sheeple who ask no questions at all – but vote as they are told to. The vote therefore went against us.

As the public meeting was recorded (like Cabinet and Full Council), I would like to say to you “Watch the questions, observe for yourselves the Conservative members complete silence, notice the fumbling, incomplete attempt at explanation when anomalies were brought to light – and then ponder the majority vote which went against reason (but not against Conservative party policy).

Sadly, SCC seems to have destroyed the recording, leaving very minimal minutes. Could it be that Scrutiny is THE one remaining public meeting where the Conservatives are publicly held to account, without the chance of wriggling off the hook with a series of grandstanding speeches?

I think we should be told.

In the meantime – I did my best, but the Caterpillar goes.


The questions I and fellow LibDem John Field asked are below:

  • This Scrutiny report actually contradicts the report given to Cabinet, on which the decision was made. Here it says that outreach will cost an average of £4300 per centre per year, which will provide 4 group sessions per week (term-time only) at £30 per session. By contrast, in Appendix I of the Cabinet report it stated that outreach sessions for Caterpillar would cost £23,500 a year – not £4,300. It said this sum eould cover at least 11 two-hour sessions per week (for 52 weeks a year) at a cost of £20 per hour, or £40 per session. If only £43,000 is available for outreach, that would leave just £19,500 for the other 9 centres – or an average of just £2167 each. Can you please explain why we have got completely different information than what was given to the Cabinet, and what the actual budget for outreach is per centre? Were the Cabinet given incorrect information, or have the Scrutiny Committee been given incorrect information?I
  • In paragraph 8 you outline the various costs associated with each centre that is being closed or repurposed, and then state the amount that will be saved by closing each one. However, we will still own the buildings – so surely SCC will continue to pay for costs such as security, utilities and maintenance, even if it comes from a different department’s budget. Is this really a saving, or are you just moving the cost over to another budget in SCC?
  • If the early help budget is so severely underspent by £1.4m for each of the last 5 years (according to Scrutiny paragraph 9) it is very hard to understand why it was deemed necessary to close the 10 children’s centres in the first place. Why was this spare budget not used to pay for additional outreach and staff, whilst also maintaining the current number of children’s centres?o
  • How hve you calculated that the average cost of hiring a village hall is £30 per session, and why is this evidence not included in the response? Have you undertaken a desktop study of the rates and availability of village halls in the outreach areas for all the centres that are being closed? From my experience, £30 is at the very low end of the scale for hiring costs. Woodbridge I am having to raise £3.5m for Jetty Lane, because SCC failed to maintain and then pulled down a youth centre that could have provided this hire. In addition, many of the cheaper venues are likely to be in isolated rural locations and may not have accessible facilities such as disabled toilets/access or baby changing rooms.u
  • Suffolk libraries are being encouraged by SCC to run as an independent business and will increasingly need to generate their own funding. What evidence do you have for your assertion that any future outreach sessions in libraries will be free of charge? Has this been agreed with Suffolk Libraries? For how long? Whilst they may currently offer one free session a week, I think it is very likely that they would start charging if we were wanting to use their premises more often. It also may not be viable for there to be frequent outreach sessions in libraries. Eg do you have any evidence to suggest that libraries would be happy with the idea that there could be 4 outreach sessions a week?
  • I’m very concerned by the lack of analysis over safeguarding issues within this outreach model, particularly with regards to the use of public libraries as venues for outreach sessions with young children. Have safeguarding issues been analysed by officers ,and if so why wasn’t this included in the report to Cabinet?a
  • You state that the outreach budget will be increased if necessary. Is there an upper limit to this, and where will the additional funding come from? (I asked this twice as I got no answer the first time. Not the second time either)
  • You have suggested that the outreach funding would allow there to be 4 group sessions run per week. How does this compare to the number of group sessions that are currently provided by these centres?
  • You dismiss the chances of “clawback” of significant sums the govt invested in two centres Caterpillar being one). As member for Woodbridge, why was this money not invested in keeping the old Youth Centre in good repair? You would then have an appropriate venue you could also hire out. Instead you tore it down, left 30 groups homeless,and invested govt money in a lease for an inappropriate building which you say is not fit for purpose. (You wouldn’t believe the patronising inaccuracies I was fobbed off with as a response to this. Disgraceful)


Your Library – Pain Ahead?

How is your library doing? Or, to quote Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, “Is it safe? Is it safe?”

Yesterday we heard the latest of Suffolk County Council’s confusingly articulated plans for  our library services. It is inviting nominations from community library groups to fill interim board positions at an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) that will be set up to run it.

On 15 December, the County’s Tory Councillors voted in bulk to transfer library management and running to an IPS, despite this being judged by the County Council to be the riskiest and least hands-on of the three business models they evaluated. (The other two models being “in house business unit” and a “company limited by guarantee, wholly owned by SCC”)

So why?

According to the Portfolio holder Cllr Terry, the IPS ‘will set libraries on a sustainable footing for the next ten years.’

“Did she forget her reading glasses? “ a Suffolk Libraries campaigner asked me. “Or has she simply forgotten she has guaranteed public funding for two years only. How will we fund our 44 libraries, the central book stock, the staff and all the other things that make up a library service, after that?”

“Council documents suggests that our library service will in the future rely on volunteers and on their fundraising efforts. Yet Cllr Terry said at the Council meeting that it would not be reliant on volunteers.  I suppose it slipped her mind that the community groups who have come forward to run their libraries are all volunteers. And, of course, the IPS will have a Board of Directors who are also all volunteers.”

The Council has adopted something called a Library Access Model: a hierarchy in which large towns (Major Centres)  can apparently keep their libraries but the 14 libraries located in the (smaller) ‘Key Service Centres’ could be at risk. At least that’s what campaigners fear.

And the Council meeting did nothing to answer these fears. In the film, Laurence Olivier keeps asking, “Is it safe? Is it safe?” and getting no reply.  Much the same happened at the council meeting. It was clear one would have to start up the dentists drill to get any actual  answers from the horse’s mouth.

The opposition asked questions about  the IPS and how it would work.

  • Would members of the public be able to access the minutes of IPS meetings?
  • Could Freedom of Information requests be made to the IPS?
  • What about public participation in the IPS?
  • How exactly will the IPS will be accountable to the public? (Particularly as it seemed as if the  IPS would not be subject to the Council’s Scrutiny and Audit Committees).

Interestingly enough, some of these questions are addressed in yesterday’s press release . On 15 Dec, the Portfolio holder’s colleagues were less fortunate. It was like drawing teeth to get any substantive answer  from Cllr Terry.  Her replies had no clarity, meaning  nor in some cases, much fact  (At one juncture she denied point-blank that there had ever been any intention  on the part of SCC to close any libraries whatsoever. In stark contrast to her own words as quoted by the EADT or indeed, testimony from an ex-SCC employee quoted in the Guardian, and even the original Libraries consultation.)

Most disturbingly there seemed to be no intention on the part of the Portfolio holder to address her colleagues’ wholly legitimate concerns.

For my part, I asked the following very specific questions to allay very real anxieties expressed to me by Suffolk residents:

“It is good news that there are likely to be ‘lower community contributions to the IPS than expected’, but even the lowest proposed  contribution is substantial. As such, there is a very real risk that some libraries will be taken back ‘in house.’ But what IS ‘in-house’ with an IPS?  Will all libraries be given sufficient SCC grant to stay open – and if taken back, would any be expected to close?  I am particularly concerned because the 2011 Review casts doubts over the long-term future of 3 Ipswich Libraries and 1 in Lowestoft. Could I have assurance that these 4 libraries would be accorded the same priority and funding as libraries in  Major Centres.”

To which (wholly unexceptionable and valid) concerns,  the Portfolio holder responded with two words; “No imagination”.  This was one of her politer responses.

As the campaigner wrote to me afterwards:

“Like lambs to the slaughter, the Conservative Councillors voted a resounding “yes” to the IPS. They were told that all libraries would stay open, so who cares about the risk and the long-term and the small print and the fact that there is only guaranteed funding for two years?

Or maybe there was another reason  those lambs were so silent. It was only opposition councillors who stood up and asked searching questions .  In reply, Cllr Terry directed extremely aggressive and insulting remarks at them.  Sadly, I have heard similarly rude and insulting remarks regularly at Suffolk County Council meetings -not only from Cllr Terry, but other Portfolio Holders too. Why doesn’t the Chairman intervene and stop such objectionable behaviour? “

This brings us back to the problem of democratic deficit in Suffolk. This particular campaigner is a very committed, experienced, articulate, intelligent person – just the kind of person this county should be electing to represent them properly. Yet she said to me that she couldn’t take the kind of behaviour she saw in the Council Chamber:

“Is this a regular feature of SCC meetings? It’s appalling and unprofessional. I would be so embarrassed if I was the Chair. To be honest I just couldn’t do what you do. I think you’re much tougher than I am to put up with all of the rude comments”.

Clearly she is unlikely to stand for election and so her wealth of  expertise, commitment and public-spiritedness is lost to this county.

Remarks like those we heard in full Council on the 15th Dec do disservice in so many ways. Not only do they fail to answer the concerns of the people of Suffolk; they also frighten off some of the brightest and best who could otherwise contribute to the well-being of the county. If a thick skin and a brutal manner becomes a key requirement of participation, there is a danger we will end up with a council run by pachyderms and cavemen.