Politicians are fond of saying that elections are the only opinion polls that matter.
Our job, out on the campaign trail in Suffolk this month, has been to convince people of just how much these elections really do matter.
At Suffolk County Council, the Conservatives have been in charge since 2005. We inherited an organisation which had experienced 12 years of Labour/Lib Dem control.
Or, to put it another way, we inherited an organisation in which strong financial management and ruthless efficiency had become alien concepts, where the estate of council-run care homes had slowly been allowed to become unfit for purpose, where our roads, particularly in rural areas, were in serious need of repair, and where the big decisions, on our school infrastructure, on building an incinerator and on re-structuring the council, had all been ducked.
Most significantly of course, we inherited a legacy of eye-watering council-tax increases which, over a sustained period, showed a real contempt for council taxpayers across the county.
And so, as all Conservatives do, we set to work.
Eight years on, firstly under Jeremy Pembroke, and more recently under my leadership, things now look very different. We’ve put right the under-investment in our rural roads; we’ve secured a £60 million investment from Care UK to build ten new state-of-the-art residential care homes; we have re-organised our schools in those parts of the county where the three-tier structure, with middle schools, was disadvantaging children.
Much more than that, we have launched a sharply-focused economic growth strategy for Suffolk and a Raising the Bar project in education, bringing everyone together to drive up educational standards.
At the same time, our energy-from-waste incinerator has been successfully guided over all the potential barriers and will be up and running by December 2014, saving around £350million over the next 25 years.
Most importantly of all, we have done all this while paring back the organisation, saving nearly £100million, prior to the coalition’s austerity measures, through improved efficiency, cutting management and back-office costs and so enabling us to keep council tax down. Indeed, we’ve increased council tax less in eight years than Labour and the Lib Dems did in one single, shocking budget!
But, while we can be satisfied with our record, this election is about the future, and our campaign is focused on positive plans for the next four years.
These include our top pledge, to freeze council tax for the next four years. This will mean that, under the Conservatives, there will be seven consecutive years with no increase in council tax up to 2017.
We are pledging this with our eyes wide open, but believe, however challenging it may be in the current climate, it is the most important way we can help hard-pressed households across Suffolk.
They all have to balance their budgets and live within increasingly restricted means. So should we.
Young people will benefit from a new Oyster-type travel card. We are determined to do what we can to help young people get to college, apprenticeships and work, and are making the investing in the necessary technology to ensure travel discounts will be available on public transport in Suffolk.
We will also see the roll out of high-speed broadband across the entire county by 2015 – putting Suffolk in the first wave of counties to benefit from this project. Like much of East Anglia, Suffolk has often been over-looked when it comes to funding for large-scale infrastructure that can help drive economic growth. Comprehensive broadband coverage will be, to us, the 21st century equivalent of building the railways: transforming the work of businesses, households and, crucially, the provision of public services; and can’t come soon enough.
The £60 million investment in residential care homes will be complemented by an additional £270million in extra care facilities, which we hope to develop in partnership with the voluntary sector, developers, Registered Social Landlords, our property teams, and the district and borough council colleagues.
I am determined to work across the public sector to improve public access to services and make those services more effective and better value. Our ‘Single Public Sector Estate’ project is all about drawing the various strands of the public sector together, and using our buildings to best effect. We’ve already a joint building with St Edmundsbury Borough Council, and have just opened a new office which we share jointly with Suffolk Police – allowing us to close several other buildings and save £1 million a year – which enables much more efficient working between the services.
We will drive this forward in the years ahead, providing a single front door for public services wherever possible.
I am proud to be a Conservative; proud to be a member of the party of Peel, Disraeli, Churchill and, of course, Margaret Thatcher. It is Conservative councillors across the country who are following in their footsteps. With imagination, innovation and, in many cases, courage, it is Conservatives delivering better-value services for local people and keeping the council tax bill down: not through dogma, nor through any selfish quest for power, but through a single-minded desire to do the best we can for the people we represent.
That’s why these elections matter. Because it is the Conservative Party which, time after time, gets the job done; which, whether in Westminster or across our local councils, provides the value for money in public services that people have a right to expect.
This is the message we are taking out on to the doorsteps of Suffolk. It’s a message that no other party has any real right to claim for themselves. It’s a battle we are well and truly up for, and one we are determined to win.