Wednesday 3 September 2014
The news that UKIP County Councillor Alan Lay wants to abolish all translation services, or make people pay for them is interesting.
Of course, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need translation services. But then, in a perfect world:
We wouldn’t have to produce leaflets and posters to explain where to turn if you are a victim of domestic abuse
- We wouldn’t have to put social workers in front of victims of domestic abuse and explain to them that they risk having their child taken away if they stay in their relationship
- We wouldn’t have to bring in social workers to talk to a child who has disclosed to a teacher that he is being abused at home
- Our social workers would never have to liaise with their equivalents in foreign countries about social work cases (and that includes us liaising with overseas agencies about British families living abroad)
- We wouldn’t have to employ staff who have to detain people under the mental health act and explain to their loved ones why that detention is necessary.
So the next question is, in these circumstances, if the county Council doesn't fund it, who should pay? Councillor Lay says:
"If interpretation is required, this will be supplied by the county council at a cost to the recipient."
In this case the recipient is the partner who has been beaten, the abused child, the mentally ill, or families of the mentally ill. Surely he cannot mean they should pay (but that is what he says). So, should the alleged perpetrator pay when they haven't been found guilty? Councillor Lay's thinking is dangerously flawed.
I would suggest that there are a number of reasons why this idea could have come forward. Either Councillor Lay still doesn't understand what the County Council does, or he lacks compassion, or he is being populist. My view is it is a combination of all three.
Now, if there was a motion to council to review the cost of translation services to see if we could cut costs, that would be worth looking at, but it is not what is being suggested. The perfect way of dealing with this would be through a scrutiny review, but unfortunately, UKIP helped get rid of the County's valuable scrutiny function.
I suspect that if Councillor Lay puts his ideas forward as a motion (the correct procedure) it would still be ruled out by the County Council's legal team on the basis that we have legal obligations to provide such services and therefore that the intent is not deliverable.
We have a by-election pending in Wisbech. I hope as many Wisbech people as possible can read this so they can see the sort of heartless, wrong-thinking UKIP Councillor has been elected.
Saturday 30 August 2014
- I do not doubt for one second that Paul Clapp has been diagnosed with dyslexia and I wish him nothing but success in learning how to deal with it.
- This blog is not about Paul Clapp – the proposal to remove him as Chairman of the Adults Committee at Cambridgeshire County Council has been made and it is for Paul to reflect on that and deal with it. It is true I am not a fan of his, but I will give him the credit for trying as a Councillor and I hope he uses his willingness to work to deal with and overcome this situation.
What this blog is about is the way the UKIP leadership dealt with Paul Clapp’s removal; the way they attempted to soften the blow to UKIP by using Paul’s dyslexia. If I thought for one second that the reasons for Paul's removal was because of a diagnosis of dyslexia, I would be absolutely horrified. Politics at every level needs more people that have struggled in life, whether it be from illness, financial hardship, from disadvantaged background or for any other reason, and it needs those people in positions of leadership – provided they have the talent to deal with it.
It is, however, quite clear that Paul was struggling, and that struggle was IMHO down to a range of factors, including inexperience and a lack of support from the UKIP leadership at the County Council. If you look at the reasons that were put to the Council's Chief Executive in a letter by four group leaders, a few of them could be put down to dyslexia, but the biggest reasons could not – there are plenty of dyslexics with good strategic brains, who can cope with with complex political responsibility (Michael Heseltine is a good example).
It is also true that people often find a way of softening the impact of difficult political decisions and I suspect that this is what the UKIP Group Leader, Paul Bullen, was trying to do. But in my view it was a serious misjudgement. My guess is that the decision to blame it on dyslexia and the resultant press release will be widely read by dyslexics and dyslexia organisations and they will be horrified. The message it sends to dyslexics is clear – politics isn’t for you. It’s the wrong message and it is flawed thinking that went in to it – it is a decision that protects the UKIP group in Cambridgeshire but harms the improvement of politics.
I have asked the Council what support has been offered to Paul Clapp – we must make sure that if he wants it, it is there. Finding a way of dealing with his diagnosis will make him a better Councillor and will help the people of Wisbech. I wish him well.
I also want to say that the proposal to put UKIP’s Sandra Rylance in as Chair of the Adults committee is a good one – Sandra will do well.
Thursday 28 August 2014
Saturday 23 August 2014
Monday 26 May 2014
If someone really wanted to make mischief, they could point to children’s Services as a reason why the County Council needs committees – because it has an unsatisfactory OFSTED report hanging over it; they would be wrong and absolutely mischievous to do so though. Children’s Services is in a good place in Cambridgeshire with huge leaps and bounds having been made in the last few years.
The OFSTED report (two years ago now) came about for two reasons – one because of a high number of agency social workers in one team, which the Council had already addressed prior to OFSTED visiting and because of IT issues. The truth is the widely held view outside of the County was that the judgement by OFSTED was harsh but, in typical fashion, the County Council chose to take it on the chin and use it positively instead of fighting against it (and we could have challenged it). Certainly on my visits to Social Workers before I handed over leadership of the Council, the IT problem had become less and less of an issue. There are still huge leaps and bounds to be made around IT and social work, but they revolve around sharing of data with the wider public sector in order to better raise awareness of the vulnerable children’s circumstances – and that is a National issue, not a Cambridgeshire one.
We have not been afraid to be bold in Cambridgeshire, a few years ago we began a move to a different model of managing social work (known as the Unit Model) and it has been a huge success, not least because the structure allows for sharing of knowledge around casework. I sat in on a weekly meeting of social workers where this was happening and it was incredibly powerful.
The big danger with Social Care in the County is around political responsibility for safeguarding. The law requires that Councils who have responsibility for Children’s Social Care must have a politician designated as Lead member for Children. In the past this has been the Cabinet Member – and in that role he has taken political responsibility for the safety of our children, liaising with outside bodies, with the Chair of the Local Safeguarding Children’s board etc. that person is also the politician whose neck is on the line if safeguarding procedures fail. Under a committee system you could argue that this is the role of the Chairman of the Children’s committee – but is it? How can someone take personal responsibility for safeguarding when they have no executive authority? If there are issues, it would be difficult to hold them personally to account when they are only allowed to act on the will of the committee. The public would absolutely want clear accountability if the system failed, what they will get is a cloudy and unclear response - it will come across as politicians dodging accountability rather than taking responsibility. More importantly, that personal accountability really sharpens the mind and thinking of the Lead Member for Children – the lack of it has the potential to have the opposite effect.
Luckily, Cambridgeshire has the professional leadership that will ensure this does not become an issue – but that is now, what about in two, three years time as personalities change? I have still not seen anything that assures me this has been thought of in the transition to committees. Understanding and dealing with this so that the drive and innovation continues is something I believe the new Children’s committee will have to look at urgently.
Let me be clear, it is a sad fact that any Local Authority that is dealing with vulnerable children will face circumstances where awful things happen. That in itself should not be a reason for a witch-hunt, it is the underlying reasons for those awful events that matter. When I was Lead Member for children, Cambridgeshire had a number of child deaths, they are horrible to deal with – but there were two aspects that were important to me – the first is to find out why something happened, the second is to make sure that if there are lessons to be learned, they should be. One benefit we had in Cambridgeshire, to be fair, was political opposition that took a responsible attitude – that must continue.
Child deaths and serious incidents involving children are horrible to deal with. I can remember, even as Leader of the Council, receiving a telephone call about such an incident and being in tears when I put the phone down. That is one of the reasons that Children’s Social Workers are probably the profession I admire the most. They are a great, hugely conscientious group who take on massive responsibilities. I wish the public and the media would admire social workers more
Saturday 24 May 2014
A few days ago Wisbech Town Councillor Steve Tierney, whilst participating in a Council meeting, tried to film UKIP Councillor Alan Lay who had turned up in his capacity as a County Councillor to address the meeting. The mayor of Wisbech (wrongly in my view) asked Steve to stop filming, Steve, of course, complied with the request and stopped.
As Steve has reported on his blog, that incident has resulted in three complaints to Fenland District Council's Monitoring Officer. That in itself is astonishing. But even more so is the wording of the complaint from UKIP County Councillor Paul Clapp, which includes the following line:
"if this is how Cllr Tierney gets his kicks then in my oppinion he is mentally ill and should not be a part of Wisbech Town Council."
Councillor Clapp has recently been appointed as Chairman of the County Council's Adults Committee, which will have responsibility for dealing the Council's services to vulnerable adults, many of whom will have mental health issues. I do not consider his comments to be appropriate in any sense (even if they are expressed as an opinion). It demeans mental health as an issue and also bizzarely includes a suggestion that someone with mental illness is not fit to be a Town Councillor - should someone with such a view be chairing the Adults committee?
Let me be plain here. If, when I was leader of the County Council, my Cabinet Member for Adults had used this quote, I would have sacked him. Unfortunately, the new system at Cambridgeshire does not allow the leader to do this.
I accept that Cambridgeshire is under a new system of governance now. But everyone involved in that system has to also accept that the move to committees is controversial and therefore, in the early stages, everything possible should be done to ensure public confidence in it; I cannot see how the public can have confidence in an Adults committee with Councillor Clapp as Chairman, he should resign. If he doesn't he should be told to resign by his group leader.
I have submitted a complaint about Councillor Clapp's comments to the County Council's monitoring officer. Inevitably submitting that complaint leaves me open to "tit for tat" accusations. But this is not about that, I have complained because I have serious concerns about a misunderstanding of the seriousness of mental health in our country. Left unchallenged, this sort of inappropriate language from people who should know better heightens that misunderstanding.
Thursday 22 May 2014
The words "totally without merit" were used. He also ordered Harrier to pay Fenland District Council's legal costs.
Technically, Harrier/Tesco have the right to take this latest decision to the Court of Appeal. However, given the strength of the judge's words (and the awarding of costs) I would put money on this not happening.
If what I am hearing this morning is right, it seems that the judge has dismissed the potential judicial review against the Sainsbury application on the grounds that it is without merit (or something similar).
I will update when I have this formally confirmed, but, if true, this is the final step - it means that there is nothing to stop Sainsbury and their team getting on and building our supermarket and our country park.
From a personal perspective - I am absolutely delighted with this. It has always been clear to me that Sainsbury had the best planning offer, provided the best scheme for Whittlesey and had local popular support. Common sense has won the day. More importantly, the majority view of local residents has won through.
My insides are doing a little jig this morning.
Tuesday 13 May 2014
Adult Social Care is, arguably, the County’s biggest problem. Let’s get it straight, everything we see suggests we are doing the right things, but It accounts for over 40% of our total spend, an amount that is set to increase because we have a growing county where people are living longer (which is a good thing).
I do believe that Adult Social care and Children’s Service are probably the lest contentious areas of the council going forwards, they are the areas where we have the most consensus around decision-making. But that could change.
There is some huge change needed in Adult Social Care, primarily doing more to allow people to live longer in their own homes rather than relying on hospitals and care homes. To make this happen there is going to need to be a real change in thinking, and a significant blurring of the lines between the NHS and Adult Social Care, with GPs potentially taking a much more pivotal role. The committee system makes this complex – who takes responsibility for making it happen? The Health Committee? The Adults Committee? Or maybe we should just leave it to the Health and Wellbeing Board? With a Cabinet system, there was one body that pulled all this together(arguably this didn’t include the H&WB board, but there was always aCabinet Member with Executive authority sat on it). You could argue that where situations were this complex, it should be the role of the overarching General Purposes Committee – but it has been decided that the GPC will not have a decision-making role in Cambridgeshire.
One of the things I am most proud of in Cambridgeshire is the Community Navigator programme.
It is something I had a huge role in making happen in the County after hearing about the success of other schemes in the country. But, I am convinced this would, at best, have taken an age to get through the committee system. The point about schemes like this is that they are hard to find research evidence that shows their likely success, the evidence comes from getting out and seeing what is going on elsewhere in the country, and looking at case studies. As a cabinet member, I could drive forward this issue having seen it first hand – 17 committee members will not have been able to do that – and the lack of research evidence would have been an issue for some could have, at best, seriously slowed down the introduction of our community Navigators scheme.
Finally, I want to say this. Adult Social Care is an extremely complex area of business – it has intricate links with outside bodies, complex internal structures, because it is multifaceted, and it has a challenging financial position. Whoever takes on the Chairman’s role must have the ability to get underneath this complexity and must be capable of real depth of thought. There is a danger that the Chairman will be appointed simply as part of a numbers game. That would be a mistake – especially when you consider the serious safeguarding implications of getting it wrong.
Friday 9 May 2014
As I stand down as leader of Cambridgeshire County Council and move to the backbenches, I thought I would end my term of office with a series of articles which highlight where I think Cambridgeshire is on a service by service basis and explain the concerns about why the change of direction forced on the Council is not good for you, the Cambridgeshire resident.
But I am going to start with an oversight of where we are from a whole Council perspective, but focussing on the dangers going forwards.
I can’t comment on the corporate view of the County Council without including comment on the move to a committee system of governance. My view has always been that the decision to implement committees as the response to moving to no overall control was wrong and that a review of structures with a more open view based on “what is right for Cambridgeshire” was the right one. The decision to move to committees was made at the first full council meeting after May’s election with 39 out of 69 councillors newly elected – more than half of the council had no experience of working in a County Council under cabinets or committees. In those circumstances nobody could convince a reasonable person that it was a well thought out decision, but it was one that, practically, ties us to a committee system for five years. So, if it doesn’t work, a decision made in haste without any depth of thought leaves you the council tax payer stuck with a failing system for the next five years.
I am now clearer than I have ever been that a move to committees is no longer supported by the majority of the council. I have had many opposition councillors tell me over the last year that they now realise the early decision was wrong ( incidentally this includes councillors from every single political group in Cambridgeshire County Council). But a less informed, less well advised decision has won the day.
Now if Cambridgeshire was in a mess, then there would be some merit in a move to a different system, but it isn’t. Nobody is perfect but the only area we are really struggling with is the cuts agenda, and that is because of circumstances forced on us and not because of internal failings. Whilst I do have an issue with the disproportionate way local Government has been treated, we are clearly more efficient as result of the austerity agenda. There are very few, if any measures that say Cambridgeshire is in a bad place. Here is some information, that demonstrates we are in a good place:
1. Cambridgeshire’s local Government is the lowest spending per head of population and per household in the East of England
2. Local Government Association evidence shows that, compared to other councils, we are struggling financially with the cuts agenda, but that the difficult decisions we have made in the last few years mean things are looking better moving forwards.
3. Cambridgeshire’s Peer Challenge, held in the last year, described Cambridgeshire as “premier league” but also as a very, very lean authority in terms of its management structure; a good, efficient organisation that if anything, has gone too far in taking out senior staff to reduce costs.
Interestingly, one of the the main concerns in the Peer Review was the very low level of our reserves. Despite that evidence and the fact that we have one of the lowest levels of reserves compared to other local authorities (331st out of 336) there is still huge resistance from some of our opposition when it co es to addressing it. That reluctance to bite the bullet could cost us dear. If we have, say, an adult social care crisis that forces an overspend that exceeds our reserves we could be in a position where we are technically bankrupt. As we take increasingly difficult financial decisions, that sort of scenario becomes more and more likely.
In other posts I will go through other areas where we stand out service by service. But, part of the reason we have been successful is that Cabinet Governance combines three powerful things:
1. The ability to give executive authority to Councillors. Something that is not allowed in a committee system and effectively means that the most senior Councillors cannot make decisions and therefore there is an inevitable transfer of power to officers – there is less political control in a committee system, not more.
2. A system of scrutiny (potentially combined with other structures) that holds decision makers within the council to account and ensures advice and guidance to help deliver the process. At the same time it retains clear accountability about where the decision making rests. When bad decisions are made under a committee system, that accountability becomes cloudy. Under a committee system you, the electorate, will have less understanding of why and how decisions have been made, not more.
3. Under a well managed Cabinet System when a decision is made, every single Cabinet Member will have had the ability to challenge and fine tune decisions, through listening to scrutiny and other members, but also by responding to member and public challenge, by asking questions of officers and making improvements to recommendations well before decisions are actually made. So, a Cabinet of 9 makes decisions where every one of those 9 has had an element of intricacy with the underlying issues. Under the committee system we will be using from May 13th, of the 17 members who sit on a particular committee and who will be voting you can only guarantee that 4 or 5 people will have had anything approaching that same intimacy with a decision. The first time the majority of the committee will have challenged and questioned officers will be at the meeting where they are required to vote and actually make a decision. Many times Councillors will have had a party whip applied before they have had the opportunity to properly debate an issue in public.
Ask yourself a question. What is more important to you, the quality of decisions or the number of people that stick their hands up when the decision is made? Cabinet is far more of a guarantee of the former, committees the latter – and that is not just because of who the cabinet members are but because functions like scrutiny and, potentially, policy development groups support the process . The lack of scrutiny and in depth challenge is one of the reasons why, when Cambridgeshire last had a committee system, its Adult Social Services was put into special measures by Government.
Despite all I have said here – I believe that committees could work if the mindset of councillors was geared up to a change in their approach and thinking. But, the evidence from this year says that this hasn’t happened. In fact the political group that has changed the most over the last year has been the Conservatives. As an example, one thing I am proud of having achieved is an ability to separate the important from the less important; as a result the Conservatives have far less whipped votes than previously (a part of my own personal philosophy about improving politics and democracy). But, at the same time, we have maintained our ability to focus on the long term interests of Cambridgeshire – the sort of focus that has got us into such a good position (preventative policies, A14, City Deal and Wisbech to March Rail are perfect examples of this).
This is my biggest concern. The next two biggest political groups under the Conservatives are very short term in the way they behave – albeit for slightly different reasons. The Lib Dems are primarily interested in what they can say in their next leaflet – irrespective of the long term interests of Cambridgeshire. A great example is their obsession with selling Shire Hall which would generate, at best, £8.5m as a one-off receipt, but would increase the running costs of the Council and cost us more in the medium term. The Lib Dems have been shown clear, far more beneficial alternatives – but this one looks better in their leaflets, so it’s this one they stick with.
UKIP on the other hand are primarily interested in doing everything they can to promote UKIP Nationally, irrespective of what local damage they do. A great example here is the TB outbreak in the County. TB outbreaks in Britain are not unknown and Public Health England are experienced at dealing with them. When the UKIP group leader found out about the outbreak his immediate response was a press release that was all about trying to get National recognition for UKIP in exposing the outbreak and accusing others of secrecy – this claim of secrecy ignored the fact that the UKIP councillor in the Electoral Division where the outbreak happened was fully briefed weeks before His so-called press reveal (the local councillor is, by the way, a good Councillor who I have a lot of respect for). The most disturbing part of the press release was a claim that TB could be spread from touching contaminated fruit – there is absolutely no foundation to that claim and it forced local businesses, fearing for their reputation, to put out denials. UKIP in Cambridgeshire are a party willing to mislead you the electorate and see businesses suffer in order to further its National aims. Their desire to move to committees is about UKIP’s national interests, not your interests as a resident.
If, under the committee system, this short-term thinking sits behind decision making, Cambridgeshire has a problem. Cambridgeshire is not perfect, but it is recognised as being efficient, low spending and high performing – why risk that for a system that reduces political power, increases risk and weakens decision making?
Monday 24 March 2014
1. I am standing down because I don't believe committees work. That is not true. Yes I believe that Cabinet systems are less bureaucratic and lead to better decision making. But it is not true that there is only one system of cabinet - there are many - some of which engage opposition and make them feel involved. Conservatives offered a complete review of Governance last May - taking a view that the whole Council took a "what is best for Cambridgeshire" approach rather than leaping to a single conclusion within one month of an election with 39 brand new Councillors. Unfortunately, a more blinkered approach was forced upon us.
I do believe committees "can" work. I don't think they work as well, but at their best they "can" work. My concern is that the attitude of the two major opposition groups in the Council, unless they change, will not work. Good decisions are not made when political groups believe that the most important thing is how they can use a decision to raise their National profile, or what is going to look good on their next newsletter. I am afraid that "is" where the UKIP and Lib Dem Groups are in Cambridgeshire. That is why committees are going to struggle at the County Council.
2. I was forced out by my group. Anyone that says this does so without knowledge and, I would contend, is lieing. The Conservative group were 100% supportive of me - they have been magnificent over the last year. They have maintained confidentiality, had great discussions where we have needed them, individual members have respected decisions when they didn't agree with them and have stood full square behind me - and latterly, they have also supported my view that we should have more free votes at Council meetings. There was absolutely no pressure for me to go from anyone, it was my decision and mine alone.
Let me give you the real reasons in as few words as possible. I have loved serving our County over the last year. 90% of it has been great - I have absolutely detested the 10%. But I don't like pettiness and I don't buy the sort of party first, people second mentality that prevails in politics - especially in the two above named opposition groups at the County.
It was clear to me going forwards I would have to spend more and more of my time on that 10% - I suspect it would rise up to 50%. That is not for me - and it is bad for Cambridgeshire. So I have made the right decision for me and, I hope, sent a message to others about the need for a different approach. What they do next is their call, but be minded of what I have said.
I expected this sort of response, maybe I should have done something to anticipate it, it is a typical bit of politics. What I am now doing is mulling over a way of dealing with sort of stuff going forwards, so that I can expose it in a way that voters trust.
Saturday 22 March 2014
After a night of reflection, I thought I would provide the colour I said I would about my decision to stand down as Leader in May. I could trawl back over the last year and bring back loads of examples, but in truth I don't have to look too far in the past to find enough examples to make my point.
Full Council agenda next week. I could go on and on about what we are discussing next week. But here are three examples from just one meeting:
- Flying the LGBT flag. I realise this is a serious issue for some, and let me be plain, if I ever thought Cambridgeshire was discriminating in any sense against anyone, I would be horrified and angry - in fact the motion to Full Council does highlight the fact that we have a good story to tell in this area. I was asked a question about flying the rainbow flag at the last Full Council meeting, I said we would discuss it at Group Leaders (a meeting of all the Leaders of all the political groups). The current Cambridgeshire policy is to match the flag flying policy of National Government, this was explained to Group Leaders and the majority accepted it and agreed that we should not fly the rainbow flag. Now, I find we have a motion at Full Council to discuss it. So, Cambridgeshire County Council will have discussed the issue of flying a flag three times. Let me make it plain, I agree with the council policy on flags, once you deviate away from a policy that has structure behind it you open up all sorts of doors and complications. But, if Group Leaders had said they wanted to fly the flag, I would not have tried to revisit the decision at the next Full Council, I would have accepted it and moved on. Under a committee system, people are going to have decisions go against them - if people continuously find ways to revisit them, we will grind to a halt. It is this sort of behaviour that forced the Labour Government to introduce Cabinet systems in the first place (one of their better decisions) and we are seeing elements of that sort of practice in Cambridgeshire already.
- Filming at Full Council. We have a motion next week discussing whether to do live webcasts of our Full Council meetings. The motion is correct, in that we could do this at low cost; not no cost, but low cost. All the evidence from elsewhere shows that when Councils webcast very, very few people watch it. There are plenty of informal mechanisms in the Council to raise and discuss this issue, but instead, we have to use one of the most time consuming, most costly meetings of the Council to discuss it. Bearing in mind a Full Council ties up the time of every single elected member, every single one of our most senior managers and many other officers - this discussion, which the evidence suggests there is little public interest about (note "little" not "none" is going to cost you the tax payer thousands and thousands of pounds to debate, whatever the outcome. Be assured, the reason this is being debated in this way is not about you the resident, it is about a few Councillors being able to put a leaflet through a door saying "look what we've done!" - a bit of populism that will cost you thousands. Full Council meetings need to discuss the biggest issues of the Council, let's leave the other issues for elsewhere.
- Addenbrookes motion. We have a motion next week to debate supporting the move of Papworth Hospital to Addenbrookes. Sounds really important, and it is. However, it is not difficult within political structures to find out where the land lies Nationally on such issues. I did it with a few contacts at the Department of Health. Guess what I found out? It is fairly certain this decision has already been made, but is not yet signed off by Ministers. I am pretty sure the Lib Dems also know this, so when and if this motion gets support (which I suspect it will) and the National decision is signed off, the lovely Lib Dems will be able to put a lovely leaflet through your door saying "look what we did!". This motion is not about what's best for you, it is about the Lib Dems being opportunistic ahead of the elections in May.
I could go on about next week. To be fair, there are two important and very relevant motions for debate, one of which is about the Wisbech to March rail line, a motion I encouraged so we could genuinely make a statement about this issue (actually the motion was written well before the recent rail summit). But that allows me to make an important point. We have four UKIP County Councillors from Wisbech, guess how many of them have contacted me, expressed an interest or asked a question about this, one of the biggest issues facing their town? Not one.
UKIP. UKIP, as a new party, had the potential to offer something different to Cambridgeshire County Council. They haven't. They are a party that offer absolutely everything that people hate about politics, but they somehow manage to take it to a whole new level. There are loads and loads of examples I could use. But here are two.
Peter Lagoda. Last month, Councillor Peter Lagoda, a Wisbech UKIP Councillor pleaded guilty to benefit fraud. He pleaded guilty to "making a representation known to be false". What is worse is that he knew he was under investigation when he stood for election (he may even have been charged at that point, but I'm not sure) - ask yourselves a question, as a voter, if you had known he was under investigation for this, would you have voted for him? Now, some of you will say "yes I still would have" but many wouldn't - that latter group were deceived.
How did UKIP react to his guilty plea? You would have thought they would get rid of him instantly, in fact if you look at the National reaction, you would have thought they had - here is what they said in the National Press:
'If he has pleaded guilty to a criminal offence, the party will revoke his membership. He is currently suspended from the party and sitting as an independent"
That statement is not correct. He was, at that point, suspended from the UKIP group, technically that means that he is still listed as belonging to UKIP - he does not sit as an independent. That status has not changed since his guilty plea. You can check, he is still listed as a UKIP Councillor on the website.
In fact, what UKIP did was use the fact that he pleaded guilty to a charge that was lesser than the one he was originally charged with, to spin a story that this was all some sort of mistake. Let me repeat, he pleaded guilty to "making a representation known to be false".
Why does this matter? Well, apart from the moral issue, as a councillor who is suspended from his group, rather than as an indepndent, UKIP get more people on our committees. The number of people they have on committees is more important to UKIP than getting rid of a fraudster. (That probably explains why this guy is currently the UKIP Group Leader at Hunts District Council).
Wisbech. Wisbech is an important Town to the County Council. It is a lovely Town, with huge potential, but some big issues. I fight hard for it because I have a passion about deprivation. We started to get some good momentum in the previous council with the 2020 vision and we are still progressing on those issues, over the last year we have also made serious progress on the A47 upgrade and on Wisbech to March rail. Previously, we got challenge and great representation from our Wisbech Councillors. The current group are virtually invisible to me (to be fair Cllr Gillick is sometimes visible, but for all the wrong reasons).
A few months ago, I upset the Wisbech UKIP Councillors by highlighting the fact that I had invited them to a meeting to discuss Wisbech 2020 and they didn't turn up. They denied they were invited - I have checked the email trail, they were invited and they accepted.
You would have thought at that point, their group Leader would have had a chat and told them to up their game. So, what has changed? Absolutely nothing. I have still, despite the many things we are trying to do in the Town, yet to receive a single meaningful comment, question or challenge from a UKIP member about a Wisbech issue.
The truth is the only thing UKIP are interested in is having these people in their group as voting fodder. UKIP are happy to have people performing poorly as Councillors, as long as they turn up and vote at the right time. An important Town is suffering as a result.
I want to stress, these examples don't stand in isolation, they are a smattering of the sorts of pratice that has become increasingly prevalent since last May; I have found it incredibly frustrating. I don't mind a bit of party politicking at the right time, but the overall function of a County Councillor has got to be to provide strategic direction and drive as well as to represent their communities stongly and effectively.
Under a committee system, it is true that every Councillor is going to have more of an involvement in decision-making (I still contend that the quality of the decisions is more important than having the ability to stick your hand up more often, but I accept the change is going to happen). If we get bogged down in petty decisions that are all about party polliticking, if we get to a point where decisions are revisited numerous times because a minority of people don't like it, or we have political groups who are more obsessed with having numbers on committees than doing the right thing or are content for their Councillors to be voting fodder, as a Leader I would not be able to work to my strengths and lead that strategic vision. More importantly, if things don't change, the Council is going to have a serious problem. This is the reason I decided to stand down.
There may be others who are more able to succeed in that sort of environment (in fact there are definitely some in my group), I hope highlighting this issue might also force a few of the opposition group leaders to revisit their approach - or for their groups to make the necessary changes.
I have no doubt that the immediate reaction from those that I have discussed here will be to deny these issues. Remember what I have said - these are not the only reasons, they are a few examples that help paint the overall picture.
Friday 21 March 2014
Today I announced today that I am standing down as Leader of Cambs County Council in May. I will blog some colour to this over the weekend, but here is the press release I sent out today.
The reasons stated on here are the genuine reasons - in the next few days I suspect the targets of my reasons will create all sorts of speculation in order to deflect from the truth.
"County Councillor Martin Curtis has decided to step down as Leader of the Council at the Annual Meeting in May.He took the leadership role promising not to become embroiled in petty politics and to do the best for the people of Cambridgeshire.
Almost a year later he and the Conservative Group, working with others have delivered billions of pounds of investment into the County – including a City Deal, A14 upgrade, new rail and transport measures as well as playing a part in delivering on a 30 year wait for fairer funding for our schools.
But with the change to a new committee system in May he believes the evidence of the last year and, especially of recent months, suggests that the Council will become embroiled in petty politics at the expense of the huge strategic issues the Council is succeeding with. He also fears that the new system could lose focus on protecting vulnerable Cambridgeshire residents from harm.
Over the last year the Council has achieved:
· An announcement about a City Deal which is a £1/2b investment in our County.
· Secured a deal for the A14 upgrade: a £1.5b investment.
· At long last, taken a huge step towards fairer funding for our schools, securing £20m extra.
· Planning permission for a major rail investment (Science Park Station).
· Support from the Transport Minister for the Wisbech to March rail line, a potential £40m scheme - he has not yet committed funding, but described it a "strategic priority".
· A superfast broadband project that continues to deliver on time and on budget, and is forecast to deliver improved coverage across the County.
· £128 million in savings over the last three years while protecting frontline services
· Continued progress on schemes like Kings Dyke Crossing and Ely Southern Bypass.
· Our first community hubs, working across Councils to save money.
· A Community Navigators scheme that is progressing to maturity and receiving widespread recognition for the work it is doing supporting older people.
· Settlement of the guided busway dispute - very challenging, but at a cost far, far lower than many predicted.
· An asset management approach to road maintenance which is reaching fruition.
· A multimillion pound refit for the College of West Anglia - delivering on a promise broken by the Labour Government.
· A £30m agri-tech investment in the belt between Cambridge and Norwich.
· Worked with AmeyCespa to bring the MBT plant back into full operation
· Working with our partners to deliver Stage 3 of the Tour de France which is the biggest annual sporting event in the world
He said: “This has been the hardest decision I have ever had to make. But I vowed to always do the best for the people of Cambridgeshire, I do not believe my skills rest in dealing with the continuous stream of dogma that is going to get into the way of the direction of this Council that the move to committees will bring. Evidence of the last few months has shown to me that this is where we are heading.
“Our Councillors need to be absolutely concentrating on the people of Cambridgeshire and the challenges they face. We need to be looking after the most vulnerable, making our roads work better and ensuring people have access to jobs.
“In the last year the Council has achieved billions of pounds of investment that directly benefit the people we serve. I am extremely proud of the massive strides we have taken in solving some of the major problems facing Cambridgeshire and our record stands for itself. But this is about to become bogged down by people more interested in grandstanding or focussing on minor issues that are better dealt with more informally than doing what is best.
“I fear that we are about to rush headlong into a Committee System that will be characterised by petty politics and infighting, with the needs of the people of Cambridgeshire coming a very poor last.
“It would be easy for me to carry on as Leader but I believe we are elected by the people for the people. I cannot, in all conscience, be part of that system and see the massive achievements we have made become lost in a sea of self-serving noise. I hope that by resigning I can make some of our opposition groups think twice about the lack of strategic focus they have shown over the last ten months and the damage that will do to a County Council with a £500m budget under the committee system.
“You only have to look at the agenda for the next full council meeting to see a glimpse of the future. I cannot be part of a system that is using its most important meetings to eat up time and money discussing video cameras and becoming embroiled in a third debate about flying flags while we have real deprivation and a job to do. The people of Cambridgeshire deserve better of their Council and Councillors and I do not want to watch the good work we have achieved be squandered by people who seem unable to deal with the big strategic issues like reform of social care or delivering an infrastructure that will drive economic growth.
“I cannot praise enough the support the Conservative group and the officers at the Council have given me over the last year, providing me respectively with selfless support and tireless work to deliver for Cambridgeshire. I will remain Leader until the annual meeting in May and remain a councillor, doing my best for the people of Cambridgeshire and Whittlesey. I will of course fully support the Conservative group and its new Leader.”
Wednesday 19 March 2014
Thursday 27 February 2014
I have wanted to write this blog post for some time. Too long in fact.
It has been confirmed today that Fenland District Council has issued planning permission for the Country park and Sainsbury in Whittlesey. The process has taken a long time, for many reasons (some good and some bad in my view) and I have been quietly but firmly been chasing behind the scenes for some time.
Going forwards we now enter a six week pause which is needed legally in order that any concerned parties can consider legal action. We know there is a possibility of this, although I hope the third party in this case will realise that this has been a thorough process and that the permission reflects the will of the majority of people of Whittlesey and was exercised through an appropriate planning decision.
Over the next few weeks I will be talking with the Sainsbury team to see if I can get clarity around timescales.
But for now, rejoice, our much needed supermarket is now one very large step closer to happening.
Wednesday 19 February 2014
This Conservative Group have never hidden from or denied the tough financial challenges faced by this council, nor have we shirked the responsibility of dealing with them. It is worth reminding this council that over the last three years we have successfully dealt with savings of around £124m.
Those savings have been needed because of a combination of reductions in Government grant, caused by Labour's overspending and because of a growing county and an ageing population. The census proved that Cambridgeshire is the fastest growing County in the country. Let me set this into context. Between 2011 and 2021 the number of over 90s in Cambridgeshire is forecast to increase by 73%. Think about what that means for the amount of Adult Social Care we are going to have to provide?
But we have not been complacent.
- Our reablement agenda has saved some £5.4m over the last three years - remember that was an agenda that many in this chamber were sceptical about.
- Another success is in our traded services where, for example, Cambridgeshire Catering and Cleaning Services and Groomfields were costing us money in 2010/2011 but are now bringing in revenue.
- If we had not done the work we have to prevent the need for children to go into care (bucking the National trend) or in being more efficient around placements we could buck the National trend we would not have saved the £6m we have in recent years.
- we have slashed the number of Heads of Service by a third,
- saved £391k from changes to trading Standards,
- delivered over £2.3m worth of efficiencies from the Highway Services contract
- and saved nearly £1/2m from closing the Environment and Climate Change office.
I could go on and on, especially as I am allowed to speak for as long as I want today. But it's alright - I won't.
But before I talk about this year I do want to talk about how we have reduced waste:
- The cost of our Leadership team has come down by 25%,
- we have cut £1.3m from our mileage bill and, despite having taken on Public Health and and brought some CCS staff back in house, we are working cut that bill further.
Last week I published this County Council's progress on DCLG's proposed 50 ways to save on my blog - that in itself is unique, but actually when you see what our progress and status is, it is pretty remarkable.
- It demonstrates that we are leading the way in shared services ,
- improving procurement (for example saving over £600k in the last two years from retendering the Cambridgeshire Community Network contract or saving £420k on our e-business suite through a joint procurement contract with Northamptonshire
- We are saving through rationalising our estate and sharing property with our partners, such as through our Community Hub projects.
- and we are reducing absenteeism and sickness where our levels are well below public sector averages.
The reason I have mentioned these few examples is to highlight the point I have made a number of times over the last year, I have said that as far as savings go, we have taken the low hanging fruit. Of course, we should always try to be more efficient, but we are going to have to take tough decisions, we are going to have to cut services and we are going to have to do things that our residents find difficult and, more importantly, we are going to have to front it and stop pretending that there are easy alternatives. As we move into a committee system, that denial will slow this council down and halt the progress we are making.
This budget recognises our current situation and recognises where we are, no denial but an honest response to a difficult position. None of us would choose to make cuts to children's centres, no-one wants to cut winter gritting, no one wants to remove the funding from the Cromwell museum - but the reality is that despite our undoubted efficiency we have a savings target of £149m over the next 4 years.
I have said we must always try to be more efficient. That is why a large part of our children's centre savings will come from streamlining management. But there is more - in adult social care we need to continuously test how much more innovative we can be with assistive technology, to see if technology can enhance the great work our Community Navigators scheme is doing to reduce isolation.
I know some in here are obsessed with unitaries, I will have more to say about that later today, but the reality is that there are more savings to be gained from working better with the rest of the public sector in Cambridgeshire. We need to seize the opportunity that the Better Care Fund provides, but also to use initiatives like the Transformation Challenge Awards to bid for funding to allow us to realise the ambition identified at the last Full council to make Cambridgeshire the National Leader in delivering the Rewiring Public Services agenda.
We also need to continue to be ambitious around the way we make money from our assets. Marketing castle Court and becoming landlord are but two examples of the progress we are making on revenue raising schemes. Making our assets work for us is the right way forward, selling off the family silver as a sticking plaster most certainly is not.
I want to talk now about why I believe a Council tax increase is the right decision. My conservative colleagues and I do not take any decision to increase Council Tax lightly. But this is not just about slashing public spending. When I look at the current situation, I glance back at some of the tough decisions that were made Nationally in the 90s. Part of the reason for he disastrous election result of 97 was because public services had been slashed too far - Conservatives were criticised for poor investment in the Health Service and in schools in particular, something the current Government is recognising.
As our economy picks up, the focus will swing back to levels of service provision. Let's be blunt, our Social Care functions for both adults and children are core services that people care about. So, whilst it is true that we have a duty to the Council Tax payer, we also have a duty to the most vulnerable in Cambridgeshire, to do everything we can to maintain those core services whilst the Government does what it can to sort our National finances out. It is a balance between services and taxation levels, it is not just about taxation.
Our Council Tax levels are not high, in fact they are just under average for a Shire County, but there are only two County Councils with a higher proportion of savings to make over the next two years. That is why I believe a Council Tax increase is justified. Yes, it's a difficult decision - but we should not shy away from difficult, especially when there are people needing our care.
Those stats around Council Tax are backed up by some analysis done by the LGA recently which showed that our savings targets and our very low level of reserves mean that our current financial position is one of the most challenging in the country. But they also showed that going forwards, the difficult decisions we have made around Council Tax and our economy mean that our future is more rosie.
I want to finish by talking about the future. The next few years are going to be tough, please don't doubt it. However, my group is determined that we must remain ambitious for our County. Councils are now rewarded financially for economic growth. Not enough - and we need to try and improve that, but Business Rates Retention, in particular, is a bold initiative from Government that has the potential to make a real difference in the future and we should be in no doubt that Cambridgeshire's economic potential is huge.
Please let's not pretend otherwise, our challenging capital programme is challenging because of the pressure on school places. But we do also have ambitious infrastructure ambitions.
A significant part of that is the City Deal. A successful City Deal will transform the Greater Cambridge economy and can make Cambridge a genuine world economic powerhouse. If Government offer the right deal, we should take it, but only if it is the right deal. But we have a duty to make sure that deal benefits the whole of Cambridgeshire, that is why the City Deal must sit alongside projects like Wisbech to March rail, the Ely Southern Bypass, the A14 upgrade and Kings Dyke Crossing - as well as, of course, Superfast Broadband as a driver to widen The spread of the Greater Cambridge Economy and increase the travel to work area, so every single one of our residents can benefit from the potential of our economy.
Chairman, members. This budget is not an easy one. But it is the right one. It makes the necessary difficult decisions that show we are facing up to our financial challenges, but it retains our ambition for our County and its residents and does everything it can to protect services to our most vulnerable.