Saturday 19 February 2011

Video Clip

The discussions and debates at our Council Meetings are rarely available for people to see, but last week we agreed to allow independent blogger Richard Taylor to film our budget debate.

This is a clip of me speaking about the Lib Dems alternative budget:

Friday 18 February 2011

Jill Tuck to Stand Down as Council Leader

Jill Tuck, the current Leader of the County Council has announced that she is to stand down as Leader for personal reasons.

This is sad news for the County.  She has been a great leader steering the Council through some very tough times.  I have known Jill for a long time and have huge respect for her - it was in fact her that first persuaded me to join the Conservative Party when we were both Governors at Alderman Jacobs.

I totally respect the reasons for her going and I wish her all the best.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Full Council - Annual Budget

Many of the headlines around the budget debate at Shire Hall this week have been about the protesters.  I don't mind genuine protest when it is done in a sensible way, it keeps Councillors focussed.  But, I object to what went on. Let's start with the decision to blockade the road junction into Shire Hall.  Yes that disrupts people, stops officers getting into work and I'm sure the protesters thought it was a jolly wheeze; but it also stopped members of the public getting in, for an example someone that wanted to register a birth or a death.  Does someone that needs to register a death deserve that sort of additional hassle at what is already a stressful time?

The disruption at the meeting included heckling a humanist who was speaking during what is normally the prayers part of the meeting.  Is he part of the Democratic process?  No he isn't.  At one point someone called him Judas!

Another person who was shouted down was a lady who had come to ask a question about subsidised buses, yet again unfair and uncalled for.  I hope Richard Taylor publishes the video of her magnificent response (I recall it as something like "I Will have my say").   Richard Taylor is an independent blogger who was given permission to film the whole meeting.

Of course the frequent interruptions to the meeting were a pain, but I've seen and heard worse.  What I found odd was that the barracking included a frequent claim that democracy was happening in the public gallery and not in the chamber.  Strange given that no-one up in the gallery had, to my knowledge, been elected, neither had they exercised their democratic right to ask a question at the Council meeting.  The protesters could have behaved in a different way and made a solid point, but they turned up with the intention of disrupting.  I suspect, to them, knocking a police officer's hat off is just part of the game, the messages that sort of behaviour sends to others is probably irrelevant.

I actually thought there was some good debate yesterday and some good challenge.  But I remain disappointed about the Liberal Democrat amendment which was nowhere near sufficiently evidence based. When someone from the opposition has to stand up and say the equivalent of "we really have worked hard on this, honest!" It says to me that they are struggling.   They never justified my challenge that the St Neots funding fudge was just pushing a problem to the right so they could ignore other tough decisions - they did say that the financial arrangements were just playing with money and wouldn't affect the St Neots federation - but that is only half the picture.  The Lib Dems put in a two year budget plan, and then put in an accounting fudge that pushed £1/3m worth of tough decisions into year three - that is a poor way to win an argument. No-one once challenged my claim that one part of their budget was not about what was right or wrong, but because of something I had written elsewhere.  It is the sort of comment that I would normally expect to be instantly rebuffed, the fact that it was not denied once suggests that there was an element of truth in my claim.

I was particularly impressed with the Labour Group Leader Tariq Sadiq's contribution, he was extremely eloquent and (if I remember correctly) failed to support the Lib Dem amendment. The only challenge I would make is that his line that we don't need to make these cuts doesn't wash, people know the situation this County is in and they know the causes, including New Labour's debt which means that we spend more on interest than we do on education.  This is where Labour's claim that we don't need to cut hard and fast falls over.  The longer it takes to clear our debts, the more taxpayers money will be spent on debt rather than services.  That cannot be right.

One of the interesting challenges was over the Lib Dems claim that voters are willing to accept higher Council taxes.  It is an easy argument to make if you live in an area of affluence and have the sort of income that allows you to have a mortgage in Cambridge.  That's not the way it is in Fenland and elsewhere in the County - that thinking has to be included.  The Lib Dems were right that the consultation we carried out did say that, some people would accept higher council tax.  However, the choice is not about that.  Higher Council Tax could mean that we turn down additional central Government funding; shifting more of our long term spending burden onto Cambridgeshire residents when, elsewhere in the country, the burden is shifting the other way.  I suspect if we asked whether that was acceptable, the answer would be no.

The one area where I think we failed to get a message across is in subsidised buses.  It's not that we don't have a message, rather that  it is not about cutting subsidies and leaving nothing behind.  We cannot keep paying bus operators to run empty buses up and down the County, it is not a good use of people's money.  Our intention is to work with all transport providers and to create a different sort of transport system, one that is more responsive and makes better use of, for example, community transport schemes.  We have already had one transport summit that examines this, and we will do more.  The argument that our decisions are just about cuts are fatuous and should be ignored.

Some may not be aware of LGSS.  It is a scheme we have entered into with Northamptonshire to share back office services (such as legal and financial support) as a way of cutting costs and making savings.  It is succeeding, making the maximum savings we had predicted. Another example of Conservative efficiency.   The Lib Dems approach to this showed their difficulty with economics.  Their questioning was all about the need to expand the service and include more local authorities within its umbrella.  The principle behind that has merit - but not in the way they seemed to make their argument, which is growth for growths sake.  If LGSS is to grow and to include others, then it has to be to the benefit of all, just growing and not making additional savings is pointless - and in some cases that could be the result.

Commentators and critics have used words like "armageddon" to describe our financial situation.  One of the difficulties about a debate about cuts is that it is easy to use that sort of language and have an impact.  It's actually not true, yes it's tough and the decisions are uncomfortable and it will affect some people, but it is not the disaster that some have tried to suggest - and I think a good part of that is because of the huge amount of effort that went in to making sure we had got our priorities right.  Of course it's up to us as a Conservative administration to prove that to be the case.  I am sure we will.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Budget Debate at County Council

I will blog some fuller views soon.  But I have a busy schedule over the next few days.  So I thought I would post these few selfish early snippets about today.

Today has been a long day debating the County Council's budget.  I always thought it was going to be tough, and so it proved, please don't anyone pretend that these decisions don't weigh heavily on good Councillors - they do.  I got home at 10 o'clock this evening some 15 hours after I left home, relieved and extremely tired (but I confess to sneaking a crafty beer at the Railway in Whittlesey on the way back from the Station).  Given the decisions we were making today, I can only say that this sort of rigorous day is probably how it should be, even though it was extremely frustrating at times.

I am pleased that, in my opinion, the ruling Conservative group justified its budget and showed the Lib Dems headlines to be what they were, headlines and a budget proposal that was not deliverable.  I am sure others would differ.

It is a shame that a few people felt that unelected individuals shouting down a debate held amongst the elected was a good way of delivering democracy.  It wasn't and it was exposed as such.

I am pleased that my own passion for children's services were recognised by the opposition - and I thank David Jenkins for his compliment, and for the other opposition members who recognised the huge amount of work that went in to our budget.

I paid compliment today to the staff in Children's Services for their selfless attitude towards our budget and for the way they focussed on children rather than themselves in consultations.  I meant every word.

I was also complemented on the way I spoke today.  I personally didn't think I was as fluid as I have been in the past - but I tried to respond to the issues that were raised rather than read a prepared speech, so I suppose that was inevitable.  I hope it made my response sound genuine - because it was.

Today's budget has been portrayed almost as something apocalyptic.  It is tough, but it is not that disastrous - and now it is for the administration to deliver; I am sure we will.

Thursday 10 February 2011

Whittlesey Transport Survey

I have blogged before about the Transport strategy for Whittlesey, a piece of work that is looking at all aspects of transport for the Town, including bypass, market square and bus stops.

Part of that strategy is a survey, for which leaflets are soon going  to be available in various places around Town.

That survey is also available online - can I please encourage you to follow this link and fill it out.

New Highways Reporting System

Rather than stretch myself and write something original, I thought I would just cut and paste the County presss release on this issue:

Cambridgeshire County Council has introduced a new interactive on-line reporting system for highway problems which will ensure the person reporting a fault is kept fully up to speed with its repair. 
The Highways Reporting Project allows people to:
  • Report a fault using a web-based mapping system to ensure the exact location is identified and notified to repair teams
  • Check on-line to see if the fault has already been reported
  • Let the customer go on-line to check progress on repair work
  • Does away with the need for the public to use other reporting systems such as ‘fixmystreet’ which will save staff time and free up resources for road repair work
  • In addition people will still be able to report faults by telephone on 0345 045 5212

Other benefits include:
  • Better information and communication for customers
  • Time saving for county council staff through reduced numbers of e-mail/telephone calls, freeing them up for other tasks such as programming repair work
  • More accurate fault reporting which will help reduce repair times

County Council Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Highways and Access, Councillor Mac McGuire, said: “This new Highways Reporting system has streamlined the way in which our customers can report a fault on the highway network and keep themselves fully informed on the progress being made to repair or rectify the problem. It’s another example of the County Council’s commitment to putting the customer first and keeping them at the heart of everything we do in Cambridgeshire.”

Report away!!!

Monday 7 February 2011

Sorry, Lib Dems again..

I have just seen the detail of the Lib Dems alternative budget in Cambridgeshire

One of the tricks in the budget is to take out a cash grant that we are giving to the new St Neots secondary schools federation and deferring the payment over three years.   By doing this, they hold back St Neots by delaying the solution to their problems despite this they would still have to make the savings they are deferring in a few years time; they are deferring the solution to St Neots' problems so they can defer the inevitable budget issues in the County Council.  The Lib Dems opposed and called-in the creation of the federation of schools in St Neots (which is making really good progress) and now they are denying them funding?  What have they got against schools in St Neots?

They have built in additional savings from an assumption that they can decrease reliance on taxis for Home to School transport and from reviewing bus routes to schools.  There are already savings built into the proposed Budget for Full Council and they have not articulated any rationale behind what they have proposed (in fact "we can do better" is pretty much the only rationale behind all of it).  As an answer to the fact that they are double-counting savings already in the budget, it just cannot wash.

They have also gone one step further than us in taking further savings from business mileage.  It is really easy to say "we can do better than they are proposing" in this area - it is much harder to deliver.  We are already proposing savings from mileage in Children's Services.  But even that is a quandary.  Much of our mileage comes from social workers visiting families in various locations - often at home.   We cannot stop them doing this and, indeed, part of the pretext that the Munro review of Social Care is based on is ensuring that social workers spend more time in front of families - which will increase mileage.  I suspect the Lib Dems haven't even thought about this (in fact I know they haven't).  They talk about increasing video conferencing (which needs big capital investment) but actually there is much work going on to increase the amount of telephone conferencing - in fact I took part in a telephone conference last week.

These are just the children's services issues in their budget.  I am pretty sure that the other portfolio holders can pick holes elsewhere, but I want to talk about another aspect of their proposed cuts, which is to decimate the County Councils central communications department to just one.  This is really easy proposal to make - it's a great headline.  But it won't work, they could never deliver it.   Communications Departments do much, much more than just press releases.  As an example, our head of Comms co-ordinated and wrote the proposal for Cambridgeshire's bid to have the olympic torch relay in the County - it was a superb document that was lauded by the media and which we hope will bring a result for the County, our communications department have also co-ordinated media activity around our serious case reviews - a tough task given that they involve the whole public sector in Cambridgeshire (and sometimes beyond).  Communications departments do much, much more than just press releases - they are extremely important.  Of course, like every other area of the Council, we need to review and cut unnecessary cost - but the decimation they are talking about will harm the people of Cambridgeshire, but the Lib Dems have their eyes closed to the reality because it doesn't suit their argument.

Nationally the Lib Dems have been found wanting because in opposition they promised the world and then proved totally unable to live up to key promises in Government.  They are adopting the same patterns of behaviour in opposition in Cambridgeshire.  No doubt about it - it's just that they will never have to deliver it.

Wednesday 2 February 2011

I was right..

As predicted, Cambridgeshire Lib Dems alternative budget, going by their press release, is basically that they are saving an additional £3.5million this year, £10.5 million next year and reinvesting it back in services in a way that creates them the best headlines.  That is all on top of over £50m worth of savings the Council is already making this year (and more next).

They have spent the last year challenging and opposing every single cut, without offering any alternative.  Now they say they can find more and reinvest it. The detail is not available for scrutiny, but it looks like they have taken a two year view and not five years, which gives them more flexibility to be creative.  I suspect one of the things they will do is make savings from short-term spending and make it look like a long term saving.  I also expect they will take savings that are already proposed and double count them.

Oh, by the way, they propose a 3.5% Council Tax rise next year (I predicted they would go over 2.5%).  Not this year, presumably because they know they have elections this year and not next.

Again, as predicted, they have used "protects vulnerable" in their headline.  Immoral and alarmist.

I am really looking forward to the detail, but that is not available yet.  I suspect it will be provided as late as possible so as to minimise scrutiny (I challenge them to send it to me now).  It is, of course, a budget that will never have to be delivered.  Just as well.

The stuff we are having to do this year is tough - it's the toughest thing I have had to do in my ten years as a Councillor.  But we have fought hard to make sure that what we do is fair and as reasonable as possible - but of course it has an impact.  Cambridgeshire Lib Dems have deliberately set themselves apart from their National Party's position of austerity, responsibility and balancing the books in order to create local headlines.
It is such a shame, Nationally, Nick Clegg's announcement on Mental Health today was absolutely awesome.

NB:   I am pleased to say that further clarification of central government's grant has identified some additional funding for Children's Services (it is not uncommon for this to happen), it means that one of our toughest cuts, to post 16 transport, does not need to be made.