The devolution discussions are wending their way forward. The government has stated that both Norfolk and Suffolk must be involved as in the LEP. A number of powers will be handed down only if an elected mayor controls a combined authority.
There is now a Norfolk and Suffolk Framework Document for Devolution, which gives a clearer list of ambitions. It opens “Devolution offers an exciting opportunity for greater local decision-making and influence to power economic growth and productivity and unlock the potential of Norfolk and Suffolk. The two counties have the scale, ambition and leadership to maximise the opportunities offered by additional freedoms and responsibilities. We also have the potential to grow our economy faster, with strengths in key sectors such as agri-tech, food & health, energy and the digital economy.”
The framework claims strengths as:
- National hubs for key business sectors, eg financial industries, that need to be nurtured to become magnets for global inward investment
- An all-energy coast at the centre of the world’s largest market for offshore wind
- Globally-leading research in life sciences and agri-tech, and pioneering technical innovations in ICT research and development.
- The UK’s busiest container port, in Felixstowe
- A fast-growing creative digital sector, with Norwich recently recognised by Tech City UK
- Market-leading food and drink producers
- Our first-class cultural heritage attractions mean tourism is worth £4.6bn annually across Norfolk and Suffolk
However, while our employment figures are among the best in the country, our skills and productivity levels are below the national average.
I believe the need to work with Norfolk and a wider variety of political parties has helped clarify the way forward. Negotiations continue.
This month a cabinet decision to tender for continuing community transport using a new structure was “called in”. Community transport is services like Dial a Ride that provide “on demand” transport to people not served by scheduled buses or trains. There have been a number of these services under various brands serving different communities and user groups. Their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers.
The proposal is that seven contracts would be let, one per district council so that people can easily know which they should phone to book a journey.
The current vehicles would be sold to the providers, a move that would allow a wider range of customers to be served. When the county owns vehicles providers cannot use them to provide some desirable services.
In addition, they can then select vehicles to meet the need as they see it rather than having to use what the county provides.
The county hopes that this will allow competition for services such as some forms of home to school transport that will use the assets more intensively.
So why was this called in? Well, among other issues, the intention was that, not only would the county no longer provide free vehicles saving some £570k but also it would reduce the subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years. The revenue from the new freedom to provide services was supposed to compensate.
Scrutiny believed it more likely that, although the providers would survive, service to people without other transport options will be cut.
We referred the decision back but cabinet decided there would be no change, so much for democracy!
Suffolk is one of four two-tier areas invited by the government to bid to run functions currently delivered by the government. In return, Suffolk would need to deliver agreed and improved outcomes without increasing costs.
The Suffolk Public Sector Leaders’ group, health, police and the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership have constructed the bid. They believe that by having more control over what goes on in the county, we can deliver better outcomes for all of Suffolk’s communities.
Local knowledge and expertise of councillors will lead to more effective decision-making on issues that affect Suffolk’s communities.
Summarising a 14 page document is difficult but I believe the essentials are:
The bid proposes “a new Public Sector Board, a simple development and continuance of the current Suffolk Public Sector Leaders Group”. This would organise the efforts of the current Local Enterprise Boards, County and District councils, Health, Police and perhaps the local employment and pensions service.
The leaders want:
- More autonomy and certainty on funds such as New Homes Bonus;
- Devolution of funding and decision making for investment in a modern transport system with a secure future;
- Devolved multi-year settlements for health, care and safety;
- The devolution of decision making over European Structural Funds;
- Further Enterprise Zones focussed on agri-tech, food and drink and ICT and enhancement of the Growth Hub;
- Devolved responsibility for the Apprenticeship Grant and successor schemes
- Freedom to establish a new local employment service which can deliver Universal Credit;
- First rights on government estates in Suffolk.
- 70,000 new homes by 2031;
- 5,000 new apprenticeships by 2020 and a further 2,500 in Suffolk by 2025
- A radically different approach to local public service finances where greater local autonomy creates an environment that supports investment, is more sustainable and less reliant on central grants;
- To increase Suffolk’s total annual Gross Value Add by a third to over £18 billion by 2025;
- To provide more effective and joined up planning so we can use assets to invest in growth and transformation
- They would design a new local employment service that helps people to progress into work and reduces dependency on benefits
- To invest in infrastructure to stimulate growth such as delivering on the commitment to 100% coverage of superfast broadband by 2020
Councils will agree these proposals across the county and, if all goes well, they will have been submitted to government on 24th September.
If government accepts the bid, it will have an important impact on us all. I believe it looks rather light on a believable democratically controlled structure capable of driving the improvements promised. It also appears to confuse wishes, wants and intentions but it will develop and I hope succeed.
Well, after all the activity and stress, I am again District Councillor for Bramford and Blakenham. Combining this with my responsibilities as County Councillor for Gipping Valley is a challenge I enjoy. It is great to be able to deliver things people want across the spectrum of Council activities from planning to potholes and waste collection to care. However it is on occasion very frustrating when I can’t get something simple, like the bollards in Bramford Road in Gt Blakenham, cleaned adequately.
Many people have told me they value my efforts to keep you informed by writing in “In Touch” and by this web-site and I will continue to do so.
Unfortunately I have lost two valued, hard working colleagues, one in Claydon, and Liberal Democrat replacements were rejected. As you know it was not our day across the country. The Gipping Valley, from Woolpit via Stowmarket to Bramford and Sproughton is a great dumping ground for things not wanted in the dormitory areas of High Suffolk. It is close to Ipswich and the A14 so a logical area for growth but we must ensure it stays a good place to live with the schools, doctors’ surgeries and shops we need to keep our Suffolk way of life.
I believe we will now suffer even more traumatic austerity and the outsourcing of services to the advantage of private equity groups. People on benefits will take a hammering, and pensions are the largest part of the benefits budget so we must wait to see just who suffers to repair the damage some major banks did to the world economy.
The proposed IN/OUT referendum on Europe I see as a profound risk. It is democratic to seek the peoples opinion but I fear the power of biased parts of the media. They don’t like the power of a European Commission they can’t control. Will they persuade people to believe in some simple, exaggerated and wrong basis for decision? I do hope that people get enough clear information to make a sound judgement.
I will continue to work hard for you all
Results: Turnout 71.64%
Well, it is time to vote! The Tory elite have told the population how they must vote, lets see how obedient we all are. Its rather like the divine right of kings that Charles 1st believed in. Now the divine right of Tories.
Nationally will we get enough seats to remain the source of the fair and sound policies of the centre ground or will the people who are intent on punishing us for the way they voted in 2010 succeed. Will they find they have punished themselves by voting for greater austerity that stops the economy in its tracks again? Will the NHS and Care services suffer even more and the mental health transformation that Nick Clegg and Norman Lamb have started come to rapid end?
In the district elections I will find if the people who tell me I have worked hard and delivered well are in the majority of those who chose to vote. An exciting wait until tomorrow afternoon.
Canvassing always feels a bit strange “will you vote for me?” but it is good to talk to people who are studying the options and not making their decisions lightly. Explaining that there are two district councillors in Bramford and Blakenham and one MP for Central Suffolk North Ipswich prompts questions about the County. Why both the Parliamentary and District election but not the County? Why am I not having to fight for my county council position. How is it that there is a Labour candidate for Parliament but not for the district?
What is the district responsible for? It is easy to overlook those that are managed without problems.
The List is
Council Housing: managing the letting of the existing stock and organising decoration and upgrades.
Planning, determining where we would like development and then assessing proposals against policies and saying yes or no.
Environmental health particularly checking places where food is processed or sold.
Leisure facilities such as Stowmarket Leisure Centre and sports grounds.
Licencing of pubs and clubs
Does the council try to ensure developments protect the environment, are energy efficient, well insulated and use renewable energy? It does but it is an up hill struggle to get improvements that increase cost, even by a small amount.
Long discussion with a resident about the difficulty young people who want to purchase have getting the deposit together and affording a mortgage. Mid Suffolk wants to encourage house building, encouraged by the “New Homes Bonus” that gives them money equal to the council tax for every new home built. This payment lasts for six years and is, at the moment about £2.4 a year, a big incentive.
The big problem is that existing house owners don’t want Suffolk to change and are frightened that houses will be built without the infrastructure to support them: Schools, Doctors Surgeries, Bus Services and so on. Just what must we do to build trust? Using our New Homes Bonus to help provide the infrastructure would be a good start.
The planning meeting this month considered the application to increase the number of houses to be built at Blakenham Fields by using the land once set aside for employment and a school. This increase allowed the District and County Councils to negotiate developer funding for the shop, education and early years and sports facilities overcoming the “viability” issues the developer claims to have with the original agreement. As this occurred the minister, Brendan Lewis, appears to have backtracked on his decisions to allow developers to escape from commitments using the viability argument under pressure from London authorities.
I opened my presentation to the committee by saying “I am convinced we are dumping developments in Gt Blakenham to the detriment of the population. We appear to have made a lot of concessions to get the site completed but there are a lot of unfinished issues.
The local residents are incensed that they have gained little to mitigate their problems. They face crowded doctor’s surgeries, oversubscribed pre-school provision, lack of primary school capacity, no village centre shop, daytime only public transport, congested roads and lack of local community facilities.”
And finished “The development has got too large for this location. I believe we should not grant planning permission until Early Years, Primary School, Highways and Primary Care issues are resolved to the state where they can be clearly communicated and agreed by the community and until the heads of agreement leave a minimum opportunity for future confusion and failed delivery.” (The full text is on my www site)
Although many councillors appeared to accept my arguments and those of Michael Blakenham, the majority eventually voted to approve the plans.
That leaves me with the need to get these problems addressed or evidence produced that they are less than people fear. I have started by getting the County officers to make face to face contact with the school heads to ensure both parties understand the issues and use the available finance to good purpose. They have also promised to carry the lack of early years provision forward with vigour.