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Does the new-look Suffolk administration stand up to close scrutiny?

PUBLISHED: 05:49 12 July 2018

Mary Evans and Matthew Hicks are getting to grips with life at the top of Suffolk County Council. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Mary Evans and Matthew Hicks are getting to grips with life at the top of Suffolk County Council. Picture: GREGG BROWN

New county council leader Matthew Hicks and his cabinet have been in control at Endeavour House for a couple of months now and are starting to make their own mark on the way the authority operates.

I’ve not been around as much as I would have liked, but from what I’ve heard from politicians and officials there is a feeling that the new regime is genuinely listening to what people have to say – even if the cabinet doesn’t always do what everyone wants it to!

In fact, the new administration deserves a firm two cheers for the way it has started work – although I have serious concerns about one particular aspect of its work. I’m not at all sure that the scrutiny function of the council will be any more effective now than it has been in the past.

The good news is that it has been prepared to look at two of the most controversial policies of the previous regime.

Deputy leader and cabinet member for transport and highways Mary Evans has launched a major review of the council’s road management and the effectiveness of the link with contractor Kier.

That is long overdue – there had been previous reviews by her predecessors, but I always got the feeling with them that they were rather back-covering exercises looking to say that while there were some isolated problems overall the service was working well when most people felt it was inadequate.

I don’t have any problem with the fact that Mrs Evans waited a month or so to find out exactly how the contract was working before saying anything – that made eminent sense.

I hope that when the review is eventually published it turns out to be more than a simple whitewash and leads to major changes in the way the county’s roads are maintained – and in particular that the urban estate roads in the major towns are given the attention they deserve.

Just because you live on a council estate in Ipswich or Lowestoft doesn’t mean that you should have to drive (or cycle) over rough roads. There are better ways of keeping traffic speeds down!

Similarly the council does finally appear to be listening to the concerns of people in Lowestoft and north east Suffolk generally that their access to county records could be seriously cut once The Hold record office and heritage centre opens on Ipswich’s university campus.

As someone who lives and works in Ipswich, I am delighted that we’re getting a major new multi-million pound heritage centre provided largely by lottery funds.

But I can understand that isn’t great news for local history enthusiasts who live at the opposite end of the county if their only access was going to be a computer terminal in their local library.

So it is good that the council is re-examining their plans for the future of the service in the north of the county. That does really look like common sense.

But I am worried about the relationship between the administration and the scrutiny function of the county which has always been rather unsatisfactory. It now looks as if things are not likely to get too much better in the future.

If you have an executive or cabinet form of local government, a strong scrutiny function is absolutely vital. Suffolk hasn’t really had that for several years.
Some authorities – including Ipswich Council – have an opposition councillor chairing the scrutiny committee. But the county council has always resisted that.

In fairness, Suffolk’s scrutiny committee has usually been chaired by a Tory councillor who is not particularly sympathetic to the group leadership – and this has led scrutiny to sometimes send back decisions for a second look.

When that happens, the cabinet usually looks at the decision again and promptly comes back with exactly the same decision as it made in the first place – making the scrutiny process a waste of time.

Now the situation is slightly different. The scrutiny committee is now chaired (for a second time) by former leader Mark Bee, who is a keen supporter of Mr Hicks.

This week’s meeting discussed the school transport row that has been rumbling on for months – and effectively let the cabinet off the hook by backing their recent decision.

Mr Bee is certainly his own man – and I hope that in future he can steer his scrutiny colleagues to be a “critical friend” of the administration, and not just another rubber stamp.

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