Hart of the Matter
Regular readers of this column will know that I like to raise your awareness of new words which are going to become important as they appear over the horizon of local government jargonese.
The latest one we are all going to be familiar with soon is ‘divestment’. Suffolk County Council is going to be divesting as hard as it can go, and that doesn’t mean county councillors stripping off in public (a worrying image).
It means finding other people to provide many of the services the council is currently responsible for, in order to save money.
The county council is faced with having to save between £110million and £125million, and no doubt there will be more to come.
Councillors have realised that this could mean making more and more severe cuts year after year, which will make them highly unpopular and, maybe, even unelectable at some stage.
Equally, officers have realised that a more popular solution would be to start axing staff, including senior officers who earn large salaries.
In order to avoid either of these unpleasant outcomes, councillors and officers have got together to come up with a plan to put the blame on other people.
But first, there have to be people to blame. So the idea is to get private enterprises, social enterprises, or even just you and me – in short, anyone they can lay their hands on – to take over the provision of these services.
That way, when money has to be cut, the provider will either have to fund the shortfall or cut the services – but it will be their fault and any complaints can be directed to them.
You will no doubt have read the exaggerated way some of this has been portrayed – selling off all services, becoming a council which just meets to let contracts, etc. The council is at pains to point out this is pure fantasy.
This week, it proposed to axe its lollipop men and women, without any proposal that their work would be taken over by anyone. It was rather an unfortunate choice because the total cost per year of the school crossing patrol people happens to be almost exactly the same as the salary of the council’s chief executive - £230,000, and the irony was not lost on the media.
This is the same chief executive who made a presentation about ‘divestment’ last week which makes pretty good reading. You can find it on line at http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/ONESUFFOLK/Templates/tplInternetStandardPage.aspx?NRMODE=Published&NRORIGINALURL=%2fCouncilAndDemocracy%2fAboutSCC%2fNSDDivestment%2ehtm&NRNODEGUID=%7b7D4AF5A7-DFE3-4BAC-BCD3-0D8617276470%7d&NRCACHEHINT=Guest#transcript-of-presentation
(I didn’t make that up – as long URLs go it’s the best I’ve seen). If you have the stamina you might be able to read the whole presentation and the questions and answers that follow.
Actually, Andrea Hill, the CEO, makes some quite convincing arguments and earns at least a small part of her salary in putting the council in a caring light. Until you start to look into it in detail.
She’s not happy about exaggerated media coverage, particularly on Radio Four where, she says, you might gain the impression ‘bigger society is all about you and I and everybody in the community volunteering to run a library. That seems to be the service that everybody uses as an example.’
That’s not the idea at all, she says.
Then, a bit later, we read: “....Actually we have an idea that some of the things we currently do, might be better done very locally. And we’re going to put together some ideas to start having conversations with communities about. So these are things like Children’s Centres, libraries and the Country Park Centre example, generally around some sort of physical asset.... Some of the big libraries, we might continue to run ourselves because they might be too big for the communities to take on. Some of the very small libraries we might close because they are not used enough. But some of the medium-sized libraries actually might be just the sort of facility that you and your communities would like to run....”
So there you have it, from the horse’s mouth, as it were. We might like to turn to and run Haverhill Library ourselves.
I haven’t yet heard that we should also turn out for the fire service at weekends, as they are proposing to only have Haverhill Fire Station manned five days a week, but it can only be a matter of time. We will be free, of course, because we only have to patrol school crossings on weekdays in term-time.
And what about the county council’s most expensive responsibility – looking after vulnerable people? We needn’t worry about that – they intend to give each vulnerable person a funding package to spend as they want on their care. So we can leave them to get on with it.
I know we all have to make a lot of sacrifices and get communities involved more in their own services, but it would help if we could see county councillors taking a very close look at the salary bill of their senior officers first. After all, what are they going to need them for?