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judyterr

Judy Terry is a marketing professional who stood down as a councillor in May.

It says a lot about the public sector that it takes a ‘financial crisis’ for the various elements to actually examine what it is spending, on what, and why.  Frankly, it is astonishing that our bloated State is only now  looking at how it can share services/accommodation/procurement, whilst continuing to complain that it is being forced to cut; all I can say, is ‘thank God for Osborne’.

Taking public spending down to 35.2% is commonsense, and affordable. Unlike Labour, with its random largesse during its 13 years in charge, destroying private pensions whilst creating £22b in working tax credits alongside billions in other giveaways, our current Chancellor is doing what just about every household in the country has been doing over the last few years – focusing expenditure on the essentials, reducing debt, and trying to put something in reserve for that inevitable rainy day.

Too much public money is written off on a daily basis through incompetence and lack of robust oversight by our elected representatives, who are often fearful of challenging officers or become too close to them; decisions are taken in secret which are not always in the public’s best interests because of a lack of vision and ambition, which means that ‘strategies’ (if they exist at all) aren’t joined up. They certainly aren’t joined up with neighbouring authorities, which is why there is so much unnecessary duplication.

The age of ‘spend, spend, spend’ is over – get used to it. I hope it won’t be long before borrowing vast sums will also be defunct. Government at all levels, across the whole public sector, should live within its means, giving taxpayers more of their own money to spend as they wish, which will help the economy.

Ipswich Borough still hasn’t got this message and is reportedly borrowing upwards of £18m to buy a redundant contaminated industrial site outside its boundaries, ‘to protect the town centre’; this is irresponsible because it admits that it has no idea what it is going to do with it.

Instead of clocking up debts on failed projects (just recently, £33m in Norfolk and £10m Northampton, £500,000 in Suffolk on a logistics project but officers omitted to consult with logistics experts), some local authorities are already sharing administrative teams, but there is much further to go.

In Suffolk, the police and county council have a shared building, yet each retains its own HQ, with the county’s directly opposite Ipswich Borough, where tensions are such that the two councils hardly communicate with each other.

A lost opportunity, when – at the very least – if the entire public sector across the LEP region had a single procurement strategy, hundreds of millions of pounds could be saved on everything from IT to vehicles (when I was reviewing Suffolk’s library service, I discovered that a neighbouring authority paid £20,000 less for its mobiles!) not to mention the £3m annual savings if all Suffolk’s local authorities shared a single waste service.

There is also a case for greater co-ordination of Planning and Legal services, not to mention economic development – which seems to focus on anything other than job creation or business liaison. Like some housing associations, whose 10 year plans seem entirely devoted to enhancing staff quality of life rather than that of their residents, much of the public sector has lost sight of who they are supposed to be serving.

Sir Bob Kerslake’s report into Birmingham highlights the bureaucratic nightmare to which so many local authorities have succumbed, whilst patronising residents with a ‘we know best’ culture. So, rid yourselves of the silo mentality, by demanding that teams work together, preferably across borders.

Ban the endless, repetitive, reports full of acronyms which tell no-one anything; instead require each report to preferably be short and to the point, and have specified outcomes by an agreed deadline, to accelerate actions which are visible to the electorate.  It is possible, as I proved when – as Executive member – I wrote the ten-year cultural strategy for Ipswich, myself. (It was delivered in
five  years.)

Give departments their own budgets linked to measurable outcomes, and hold them to account. Put a halt to recruitment without Cabinet agreement, and ensure that any new appointments follow an open process, not confined to internal candidates.  Stop installing yellow lines in secondary locations, destroying small businesses which rely on passing traffic as well as pedestrians, and ban  those black tie dinners for the great and the good to socialise as they dish out meaningless awards, and review marketing and PR departments; is it really necessary to have over a dozen people, including an ‘advertising’ manager? If public companies can manage with teams of five or fewer, so can local authorities, universities, and the NHS.

Chief executives and directors on inflated salaries should set an example by using public transport or fleet cars, instead of their own, for official business, or not claim personal mileage – and they should certainly not claim subsistence during normal working days. Tesco’s new chief executive acknowledges that, with private jets and chauffeur driven cars, its top team was so far removed from its customers’ lifestyles that it completely lost sight of what they actually wanted from the company: no frills value for money.

The same is true of local authorities, and the public sector as a whole. It’s time to get real and focus on the essentials. Devolution is a disaster waiting to happen if you don’t.

Think radical, think creative. You don’t need expensive consultants to tell you what to do – there are thousands of highly talented people in public service, who know what needs to be done, but no-one listens to them, because it’s not convenient to do so. We still have too many empire builders who want everything to continue as it is, whilst bleating about ‘cuts’.

12 comments for: Judy Terry: Councils still have a culture of extravagance

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