Union fears over council changes

ON the eve of this week’s crucial meeting about the future shape of the county council, union officials have written to every councillor asking for them to reject the “New Strategic Direction”.

The letter from UNISON warns that councillors would be risking services if they support the administration’s moves towards transferring services to outside bodies.

The union says: “This is the time to unite with your electorate and your council colleagues and say NO to the New Strategic Direction.

“The paper states that the council has ‘become risk averse’, you are encouraged to become risk takers, but there is never an acceptable time or situation to take risks with people’s health, safety, wellbeing or the care of the vulnerable in your communities.”

It urges councillors to look at what happened in Norwich and other councils when the company that took over services, Connaught, collapsed last month leading to many job losses and uncertainty for residents.


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UNISON says it has had confidential talks with a number of councillors who are concerned about the future of council services.

It says: “We all accept these are difficult times. We need to deal with the problems and not just “divest” ourselves of the responsibility.”

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The council will be debating a 41-page report written by chief executive Andrea Hill looking at creating a “smaller, leaner” authority which aims to “divest” services by transferring them to outside contractors, charities, or social enterprise organisations.

It is preparing for budget cuts of between six and 12% in the next financial year – the first phase of what is expected to be a 25% budget cut over the next four years.

While talking about divesting services, it warns some may be cut altogether.

The report says: “We propose to develop a list of services which can no longer be justified in the current climate. We will be honest with Suffolk residents about these.”

The full text of the UNISON letter:

Dear Councillor,

This is a very important week for Suffolk County Council, local people and you as their local councillor.

We are sure you have seen through the pages of management-speak which cleverly hide the devil that lurks in the detail of the ‘New Strategic Direction’.

The offer of you becoming an “Executive Member in your Division”, “working with the politics of austerity” maybe attractive in this brave new world, but you have this already. This, along with the suggestion that somehow you need to spend more time in your division and less in Endeavour House, is patronising to you and the work you do. “Councillors having levers of influence, not just levers of power” - you as elected members of your community already have both. Now is your time to exercise them in the interests of the people you represent.

We all accept these are difficult times. We need to deal with the problems and not just “divest” ourselves of the responsibility.

We appreciate that with these papers being rushed out so quickly you won’t have had the chance to consult with your constituents as you would normally. However, this is what people are telling us daily from across the county:

“It is one big almighty experiment on the people of Suffolk.”

“Please stop and think about what you are doing to the people who you were elected to serve”

“Why do the electorate not get a say in this?”

Are you hearing similar things on the doorstep, or at parish council meetings?

Do you really want to be the person responsible for the break-up of these services and answerable to your constituents. Could the famous “burning platform” have turned into a burning bridge for you as a councillor?

You may think that you are voting on a new direction for the county council, something strategic and far away from your division, but do you know what it actually means? Are you ready for communities without adequate home care services, libraries, services to young people, care for the elderly, children’s centres, support for those with disabilities, help for our urban and rural communities?

As Full Council approaches, the people of Suffolk are looking to you as their local councillor to show direction and leadership as you debate the paper ‘Implementing the New Strategic Direction’ on 23rd September. This is a very important moment for the whole of the county, and UNISON as the county council’s main trade union, asks that you consider the points we and our members have to make before you cast your vote.

Be assured that you are not alone in your concerns about these proposals; other councillors have already told us this in confidence. This is the time to unite with your electorate and your council colleagues and say NO to the New Strategic Direction. The paper states that the council has “become risk averse”, you are encouraged to become risk takers, but there is never an acceptable time or situation to take risks with people’s health, safety, wellbeing or the care of the vulnerable in your communities.

You would expect us as a Trade Union to raise concerns about staffing issues, and indeed we do have serious concerns, as we do about the dismantling of local services and its effect across the county.

However, before Thursday, please consider the following:

1. Norwich City Council signed contracts worth �250m with a company called Connaught last year and we’ve all seen in the national news what happened with that. Are you willing to see a similar situation in Suffolk?

2. By changing from delivering services to commissioning them, the council becomes critically dependent for the quality of those services on the contracts between itself and the service providers. Currently, if the performance of a service falls short, the council can take immediate action to restore it. If the council has awarded a contract to a third party, then it can only rely on occasional meetings with the contractors to express its dissatisfaction.

3. The document’s words on ‘Democracy’ include nothing new. You as a Councillor have always had a responsibility to your community. You were elected to represent it. The community expects that by electing you, it influences what the Council looks like and what the Council does. Have your constituents elected you to make such drastic changes without their agreement?

If you do just one thing this week, think about the impact of this paper on your local area, the people you serve and the services you value and rely on.

We look forward to hearing your views before, during and after the Full Council meeting.

Yours faithfully

Helen Muddock

Branch Secretary,

Suffolk County Branch

UNISON

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