Will new Suffolk leader Matthew Hicks change key policies at county council?
Suffolk County Council’s new leader Matthew Hicks will be spending the next week putting the final touches to his new cabinet and his formal acceptance speech before he formally takes over the reins of power at Endeavour House.
He will have had just 13 days to formally prepare to take over by the time councillors sit down next Thursday afternoon – but I suspect he had been quietly thinking about what he would do long before he actually launched his leadership bid at the end of last month.
I suspect there will be several new cabinet members unveiled at the annual meeting – although some of Mr Noble’s team are likely to survive because they have been seen to have done a good job.
The only new cabinet member we are certain to see unveiled next Thursday is Mary Evans who is set to become deputy leader of the council – Mr Hicks has already appointed her deputy leader of the Conservative group.
The deputy leader also has a key job in the cabinet and it remains to be seen what Mr Hicks asks her to do – but her current role as chair of the council’s scrutiny committee has given her a good overview of all aspects of county council work.
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Talking to backbench councillors (most of whom say they have no aspirations for a cabinet role) there are certainly some members of the current top team that are not rated that highly – and it would not be a surprise to anyone if they leave the cabinet.
The danger is, of course, that those who leave the cabinet sit grumbling on the backbenches and become more trouble than they are worth – so maybe a committee chair or a ceremonial role here or there might be offered.
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But choosing a new cabinet is only part of the challenge facing Mr Hicks. He also has to consider what policies to pursue and which to amend (or even ditch) over the next few months.
Of course the Conservatives were returned to power at Endeavour House with an increased majority only a year ago. That was a fact that Mr Noble used forcefully during his unsuccessful bid to retain the top job.
They produced a manifesto of election pledges – but having looked through these again many of the policies are quite vague and do give Mr Hicks a fair amount of wriggle-room if he wants to make changes.
For instance, they did not say: “We will cut the cost of home to school transport as a key element of keeping council tax bills low.”
What they said was: “Suffolk Conservatives are committed to running a low-tax county council. We maintain services by being more effective and efficient rather than by asking you to pay more.”
The school transport issue will be one of the first things Mr Hicks’ cabinet will have to decide – and of course one of the key issues there will be whether cabinet member for education Gordon Jones retains his portfolio next week.
That’s a tough issue for Mr Hicks. On one hand Mr Jones has impressed councillor colleagues and officers by his grasp of what can be a difficult subject – and under his watch Raising the Bar really has started to pay dividends as school Ofsted reports and exam results improve.
However Mr Jones has not always been the most effective communicator and the proposed changes to school transport rules has caused a great deal of concern among natural Conservative voters.
The fact is this only affects a comparatively small minority of students in some of the most rural parts of the county – but that isn’t really a good look for a party which has always claimed to understand countryside issues.
The fact is “countryside issues” are far more than a bunch of people riding horses about the countryside or blasting pheasants out of the skies – they are also about the way people live, work and are educated in the countryside.
Putting at risk the future of one of Suffolk’s most popular rural schools, Thurston Community College, is not a great advert for the county council’s countryside-loving credentials and a new broom at the top might want to reconsider this policy.
After all as cabinet member for public protection, Mr Hicks dramatically changed proposals to change the fire service after widespread public concern.
He has been elected leader of the Conservative group by promising to listen to others before making key decisions – will the school transport issue be the first time he shows what this means?