Bryony's big challenges

Mother of three Bryony Rudkin will next week take over the political running of Suffolk county council. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES has been talking to the Ipswich councillor who will be steering the Labour Party towards the 2005 elections.

Mother of three Bryony Rudkin will next week take over the political running of Suffolk county council. Political Editor GRAHAM DINES has been talking to the Ipswich councillor who will be steering the Labour Party towards the 2005 elections.

 

WHEN Labour, with no small help from the Liberal Democrats, took control of Suffolk in 1993, ending 100 years of Tory rule, very few predicted the joint administration would retain power.

But 10 years later, with success at the polls again in 1997 and 2001, Labour has its eyes on a quartet of victories in a county which should be a typically blue Conservative heartland.

Labour's first leader Chris Mole is now Ipswich MP. His successor Jane Hore is giving up after 17 months to be replaced next week by Bryony Rudkin, who is not only a member of the county's ruling executive but also sits on the board of the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) and is one of trio of local authority appointees – all Labour – on Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust.

Married to Steve and mother of three boys under 10, Bryony Rudkin now faces her biggest challenges – to maintain the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition at county hall and to keep the Tories at bay in the 2005 elections.

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Whether the Lib Dems stay in partnership, or jump ship to become an independent force again in county politics, is not yet certain. It's all linked to council tax, especially the amount or cash granted to the county by central government. Both parties are still reeling from the massive public outcry at the 18.5% rise in council tax imposed this.

If next year, as a result of the Government once again diverting cash aid from the south and east to the north of England, another huge rise in tax is imposed, the Lib Dems will almost certainly walk away, putting the blame on ministers. Politically, it is difficult for Labour councillors to criticise publicly a Labour government, even though that's where the problem lies. And a further tax rise in 2004 of around 20% would almost certainly herald electoral disaster for Labour in the county.

Bryony Rudkin remains optimistic that councillors will have some success in the coming months in explaining to ministers, especially Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who hands out the cash, that local government finance is so complex that a fair deal for authorities is urgently required.

"It is opaque and difficult to explain to people that if we receive a 5% increase in funding from Whitehall, council tax will go up more than 5% just to keep the same standard of services."

Known as gearing, it's so complicated that no matter how simple the language used, neither councillors nor the media can properly summarise the formula for the public to understand.

Mrs Rudkin is adamant that one reform is essential: the date on which the cash settlement is announced. "Councils work on their priorities throughout the year. But the settlement needs to be announced earlier. It is published just before Christmas, which leaves us around eight weeks to work out the final details and how much we need to raise from council tax. It's a madcap few weeks. And we need to talk to government more closely to understand what they expect from us."

Faced with the same situation next year, would she contemplate putting up council tax by 18.5%? "I think we would have to look extremely carefully and engage the public in a much more focused and harder nosed discussion on what we could and couldn't do.

"People wrote to the EADT saying: `stick to your budget, that's what we have to do. We can't exceed our income.' But we as a county council have responsibilities for other people.

"Look at the budget for children's care, where we have an absolute responsibility to those youngsters. I can say to my own children they can't have a Playstation because we have run out of money, but I can't say to someone looking to put a child in an emergency placement: `sorry no, the county council's run out of money.'

"We need to look more closely at what people expect us to do – are we doing things people would be comfortable with us not doing? Cambridgeshire this year went down the road of closing libraries money to save money. But they had negative feedback and the actual savings they made was not that great and it caused ill feeling."

Was the Labour group surprised at the hostility to the 18.5% rise? "It's fair to say we have always had complaints, but there were more this year. Some people will always disagree with us and that is their political right.

"We have listened very carefully to some strong messages. It has been particularly difficult for people on fixed incomes and we understand that.

"We need to work with the media to engage taxpayers in a better debate – I don't want to turn it into trial by media, but we have to look at our consultation process.

"People have greater expectations now in everything. They want better service than they used to have and that's quite right and proper. Quality services need to be paid for and the public wants quality services.

"Let's take one example – standards in old people's homes. My husband's grandmother broke her hip because there was no handrail in the home she lived in and died with a month. But a rail, a simple standard, would have made the difference."

The very future of county councils is under threat from the Government's devolution agenda for England. If regional government is introduced in the East of England, Suffolk county council and the seven district authorities would cease to exist, to be replaced by two or three all-purpose unitary authorities. It's a major challenge for whichever party wins the 2005 elections.

"It is important that we are governed well and effectively. The referendum must inform everyone, including politicians, what it means for a community."

Would she campaign for a `yes' vote? "I would look at what the form of government on offer was. I would want it to be accountable, effective, financed properly and have the kind of teeth people would want it to have."

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