Council answers our questions

LAST week the EADT asked a number of questions of the leaders of Suffolk County Council as it prepares to embark on its New Strategic Direction. Today council leader Jeremy Pembroke and his cabinet answer those questions and explain in an open letter exactly how they see the council’s role changing over the next few years.

Questions and answers:

1. Impact on vulnerable people

Question: Has SCC thought through all the implications of its new strategic direction, especially for the most vulnerable people – children at risk and families in need, adults with disabilities, older people and carers. Has it anticipated the impacts? What does SCC think these impacts will be?

Answer: We believe our route to dealing with the major cuts in Government funding will be the most effective way of protecting the most vulnerable people.

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We could have simply cut the budgets of every service meaning that everyone would suffer. Or we could find a way of cutting the overheads of a centralised bureaucracy coupled with other ways of delivering the council’s current services more cost-efficiently.

Through our New Strategic Direction we believe it will be possible to maximise the value of our budgets and at the same time enable the people of Suffolk to get the best possible services.

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2. Local government’s moral and legal responsibilities

Question: Has SCC thought through its (1) moral and (2) legal responsibilities to the most vulnerable people in the county? Has it done this in the context also of other impacts over the next two/three years – e.g. reduced personal income, loss of employment, reduced welfare and housing benefits? Does SCC think that people will realistically be able to make the ‘choices’ and ‘take control’ of their circumstances in the way it proposes?

Answer: Our legal responsibilities have not changed. And we will not change our moral responsibilities.

When it comes to giving people choice and taking more control, we are proposing to introduce personalised budgets for many types of service.

For example, we already do that for children with special needs, and their families, by providing budgets and a choice of services from which they can choose.

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The result has been better service for customers and less costs for taxpayers. And feedback from customers has been very positive.

We already use the same system for many adults with disabilities and older people who want to stay in their own home.

We will make sure as many people as possible can receive their services in this way.

Part of the service is help for people to make those choices, which is often best provided by people outside the council or employed by people themselves.

This isn’t something new. In 2007, the previous government enabled councils to offer personal budgets to people for them to choose what they need when it comes to type of care.

It seems logical.

After all, who knows best about what people need – the people themselves or someone from the council?

3. Linking things together

Question: Has SCC a clear plan for linking together the changes proposed and their timescales, the order of changes to specific services, the reduced budget spend on these services, reduced SCC workforce for these services, development of potential new providers and transfer of services? When will we see evidence of such a plan?

Answer: We are at the beginning of the road not the end; we are planning and considering options and alternatives.

We must develop our proposals carefully to support the people of Suffolk while having to cope with a budget gap of �110m which equates to a 28% reduction in our money coming from Government.

The first draft plan will be seen in early December at the full council meeting when the elected representatives of the people of this county will be considering the proposals.

None of this is ideological. Every proposal is based on merit. And nothing happens overnight. After all, if someone proposes to start up a new social enterprise* to deliver a service, that takes time.

In examining all the options we will consider every service for divestment, but we will only divest those services for which it makes sense to do so.

We will be taking a phased approach starting from April 2011 so that we can learn about divestment and manage risk sensibly.

The next steps are to cost the potential divestment options, explore how they would work practically and examine the staffing, legal and tax implications. This is all work in progress. No decisions have been made yet.

In tandem with this plan to ‘divest’ services, we will also be planning further efficiencies and some reductions to services in order to close the �40m gap in next year’s budget.

The proposals will be scrutinised by councillors in early December and will be published in late November.

*A social enterprise is a business with primarily social objectives whose surpluses are principally reinvested for that purpose in the business or in the community, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit for shareholders and owners.

4. Leadership capacity

Question: Does SCC have the general leadership knowledge, experience and capacity for the scale and pace of changes proposed – and their implications, including unanticipated events? Is there leadership knowledge, experience and capacity in SCC to work through all the detail of the changes in a partnership way with council staff, service users, voluntary organisations and potential service providers? How will the council build support for what is proposed?

Answer: Eight councils in Suffolk, including Suffolk County Council, invested in leadership skills development for staff in order to develop new skills and facilitate cheaper and innovative management of this council.

We are also tapping into local capabilities from the University Campus Suffolk’s Leadership Academy and the School of Social Enterprise. This county is rich in skilled leaders and innovators plus those with a huge range of valuable experience. We will listen and talk to all who can contribute to the sum total of useful knowledge.

And let’s not forget other councils are going through the same issue of having to cut costs so we are in touch with councillor colleagues across local government to listen and learn from them too. It is precisely because of the scale and pace of these changes that we need senior officers of the highest calibre to guide the changes through.

We, as the leader and cabinet, determine the strategic direction of the council and the priorities for Suffolk: it is the chief executive and her senior managers who are responsible for delivering them.

5. Suffolk’s local economy

Question: What quantity of services does SCC anticipate being provided by organisations which are not currently part of the Suffolk local economy? What might be the loss to the Suffolk local economy? Will SCC prevent any net loss?

Answer: We believe that our plans will have a huge and beneficial impact on the local economy. Instead of a single bureaucracy we anticipate the creation of opportunities for new social enterprises, additional services from the voluntary sector, existing Suffolk businesses and new businesses starting up.

This has significant potential to boost the economy.

Additionally, staff who currently work for the council will have the potential to move to the new organisations or they may wish to start new enterprises.

What we are NOT doing is looking for a single, national, major consultancy-type company to come in and deliver a clutch of services perhaps importing staff from elsewhere and taking the profits out of the county.

6. SCC and the NHS

Question: Given the scale of parallel changes to the NHS in Suffolk which may impact on the same people, is there a joint plan about what will be the combined impacts on vulnerable people? What might be the unintended consequences of unilateral action by either SCC or the NHS? How will this be prevented?

Answer: We are already working together with the NHS in Suffolk on a variety of services and responsibilities.

We already have a direct responsibility for collaborating on social care. And we are working together to align our adult services.

Dr Peter Bradley, the director of public health says: “Suffolk continues to be a healthy county because local individuals, communities and businesses prioritise health and wellbeing and are at the leading edge of work to keep people fit and well.

“The NHS and Suffolk County Council are working together closely with Healthy Ambitions Suffolk and others to support local initiatives and make it easier for people to improve their health.

“We particularly need to concentrate on our poorer communities who will need more support in making this work.”

7. External advice and feedback

Question: What advice is SCC taking from others nationally or regionally about the changes proposed? What has been the feedback received so far? What is the risk that SCC will prove unable to do successfully what it has said? What then would be the reputation damage to Suffolk – as well as SCC?

Answer: We are not asking a big consultancy (or a small one) to re-design our services.

We are working with local communities and organisations to help us design how, and what, services will be delivered in the future.

There is a lot of experience and a broad range of skill locally which we are calling on to help us design the future. But we will need certain amounts of very specialised advice.

For example, understanding tax rules relating to different styles of enterprise and responsibilities relating to transferring staff to another organisation.

At every step we are examining the potential risks and pitfalls which is why we are taking this one step at a time. And proposals have to be put before the full council – 75 councillors representing the people of Suffolk.

It is they who will scrutinise them to ensure that officers of the council have examined all elements to minimise risk and maximise success.

It should not be forgotten that we have four years of massive budget cuts to cope with. We believe our route will provide a sustainable solution to the very real problems we face.

8.Pro-active and wide ranging engagement

Question: On September 23 SCC agreed formally that there “should be pro-active and wide-ranging engagement across Suffolk to establish whether the key new strategic direction proposals find favour with the communities we all represent before moving forward to implementation; and the findings from this engagement be reported back to full council at its meeting on December 2.”

What pro-active and wide-ranging engagement has there been so far with: Service users – children, parents, adults with disabilities, older people, carers? Voluntary organisations – large and small, county-wide and local? Local communities? Suffolk people generally? Public media? Staff of SCC? How widely are opportunities for this engagement being advertised? How will the results be analysed?

Answer: We are having ongoing discussions throughout Suffolk with individuals, organisations, communities and community representatives.

In this first phase we will be sharing more information about what the New Strategic Direction means and asking people what concerns them about our proposals and also what ideas and opportunities they see.

To support these conversations we have produced a publication called ‘New Strategic Direction Explained’. In it we give more information about why we need to do things differently and how the council will operate in the future.

We want the views of as many people as possible so will be working with our partners to reach out to local people by participating in local events and meetings.

This includes working with Suffolk Association of Local Councils to reach town and parish councils and the Suffolk Association of Voluntary Organisations to ensure local voluntary and community groups have an opportunity to have a say.

We will be using these organisations and others to share the New Strategic Direction Explained document widely and to make the offer to attend other meetings of local groups and organisations. The feedback captured during these meetings and events will be collated and used to report back to a full council meeting on December 2. In addition we have provided a facility on our website which invites individuals and organisations to share their views

Information and surveys will also be circulated to public places across Suffolk and councillors and staff will be encouraged to have conversations out in their community.

In addition to the online survey we have provided a facility for staff and elected members to feedback people’s views as part of the consultation process. We are also looking at specific activity to reach those audiences which often find it most difficult to participate. For example we are looking at how to capture the views of young people through focus groups and will be sending out information to all school governors to make sure we gain the views of families.

We will also be working with organisations such as Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality to make sure that seldom heard groups have an opportunity to have their say.

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