Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
A revolution is happening in Suffolk, with Conservative local authorities, who pioneered joint working, now examining and developing plans for further service integration. They recognise that hard-working council taxpayers deserve greater efficiencies, concentrating resources on essential services.
Whilst already sharing some premises with the constabulary and other local authorities, in the last couple of years Suffolk County Council’s accounts confirm that it has reduced its workforce by 537, admittedly at a cost of £7.6m in redundancies.
In a sour note, the latest figures include nearly £500,000 in packages for four senior officers, with £157,000 and £134,000 going to two former heads of service, one of whom was already seconded to a national infrastructure project which then employed her, leading to the inevitable question: why was she eligible for ‘redundancy’? Nevertheless, millions are undoubtedly being saved.
Now Suffolk Coastal and Waveney councils will save £1.3m a year by combining to create the largest local authority in the country. They have already saved £16m since 2010, by sharing a Chief Executive and senior officer team, and the next stage will reduce the number of councillors from 90 to 65. If approved, the plan will become a reality in the next couple of years following a boundary review. Suffolk Coastal’s prime office complex site is already sold, and Waveney relocated into shared premises with the County in Lowestoft, so any future accommodation needs are likely to be more modest than originally expected.
Mid-Suffolk and Babergh, which previously rejected forming a joint authority, although they share an officer team, but have lost their CEO, are now proposing to move their administration from their separate large office complexes into the County’s now half-empty HQ in Ipswich. They will even share the services of the County’s Chief Executive, if only on a temporary basis!
Inevitably these changes will put pressure on the the west of the county, where Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury already share a CEO and top management, so will they also be tempted to further rationalise, to make additional savings?
Unfortunately, Labour-run Ipswich has so far rejected a potential £250,000 annual saving. This could have been achieved by reducing the number of councillors from three per ward to two (as well as a county councillor) and changing to four-yearly elections. With their own redundancy programme, there will be a lot of empty space in the borough’s office building directly opposite the County. (Perhaps someone could persuade Healthwatch or the overspent/overstaffed Clinical Commissioning Group to ditch their ridiculously expensive leased accommodation and move in.)
In its final stages, the reinvigorated Devolution package for Norfolk and Suffolk will inevitably prompt more change, and greater co-operation, hopefully finally abolishing the silo culture which remains endemic across the whole public sector, to attract inward investment and to benefit from the first wave of Government funding to enhance the regional economy. The Local Enterprise Partnership, led by business, is playing a significant role in generating support across all communities, which recognise the huge opportunities it represents.
The Prime Minister has made clear that her priority is to reduce inequalities across the whole country; this is more welcome than she can ever know. Previous over-concentration on London and the South East means that other areas have been neglected, despite being – like Suffolk – a net contributor to the Treasury.
Whilst East Anglia gives the impression of affluence, with low crime rates, it has – like so much of the North – suffered decline in some industries, with incomes stagnating as costs rise. Yet, with the new rail contract, just awarded to Abellio, it has enormous potential and a willingness to adapt, innovate and nurture new enterprises, without being hindered by an overwhelming and intimidating bureaucracy.
The future looks exciting.