Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Anyone calling for an end to ‘austerity’ should take a look at the latest Fiscal Sustainability Report from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), which states pretty unequivocally that the public finances are unsustainable over the long term.
Since the global financial crisis, debt has spiralled, despite tight spending controls, with interest on current borrowings of £1.8 billion costing more than is spent on the Police and Armed Services.
With current financial pressures, not to mention promises of extra funding for the NHS, it is unlikely that debt can ever return to an acceptable level. Gordon Brown’s 40 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) target was quickly overtaken by Labour’s excessive spending, and the subsequent financial crisis, leading to the infamous 2010 note welcoming the Conservatives to the Treasury stating ‘there’s no money left’. Abandoning George Osborne’s policy for a budget surplus by 2020, reducing debt to 54 per cent a decade later, has led to the OBR projections of debt hitting more than 100 per cent of GDP by the early 2030s and continuing to rise.
I’m no accountant, but it strikes me that it is irresponsible to leave such a debt legacy for future generations.
Why am I mentioning this? To put public finance and associated issues into context.
As we are seeing from the crisis in Northampton, where the council is on the brink of insolvency due to poor financial management, the public sector needs to get a grip on budgets, and focus on attracting external investment, to reduce the burden on taxpayers. This requires vision, confidence, and a long term strategy, as well as a culture change – questioning whether expenditure represents value for money, and a healthy return on the investment, in the same way we all examine the pros and cons when spending our own money.
In Suffolk, Conservative-controlled councils are pioneering a fresh approach to maximising their budgets and resources. It started with partnerships to share services and top management, leading to formal amalgamation of authorities, approved by Government, to ‘drive prosperity and growth’.
One of the pioneers is former merchant banker, John Griffiths, elected to St. Edmundsbury Borough Council in 1997 and Leader since 2003. In 2011, he negotiated the first phase of shared services with neighbouring Forest Heath Borough Council, led by James Waters, saving £4 million each year since. They are now on target for further annual savings of £800,000 a year by creating a new West Suffolk Council in 2019, following extensive consultation. Coincidentally, the Boundary Commission had already announced a review of boundaries and councillor numbers, enabling a reduction from 72 to 64 as part of the package.
It hasn’t been easy to reach this stage, but the strong partnership with a major programme of inward investment, attracting market leaders, including in retail, has won over local people as well as staff and, crucially, business.
Some outsiders assume that this is an affluent area, but, as in most parts of the country, the picture is more complex. The region hosted post-war overspill, and in Haverhill, the challenge of creating jobs to ensure secure employment affected aspiration and attainment. There is hidden rural poverty, including in Newmarket, despite being home to horseracing, one of the world’s richest sports.
Using their strong business acumen, the two leaders have ensured that addressing deprivation is integral to the growing economy, by focusing on strengthening families and communities. Family and community locality budgets were introduced for councillors to support local initiatives and combat loneliness, and the Councils have a popular apprenticeship programme. As John Griffiths says, “Our work with community interest groups to acquire pubs, shops and even hotels to run themselves, has energised local people and raised awareness of how we can support them to achieve the things they value.”
He also emphasises the importance of “using our commercial approach to invest back into our communities. We take pride in being self-sufficient and resilient, enabling us to work closely with residents and businesses to drive our ambitious vision of economic prosperity for our unique area. This means improving skills and qualification levels, especially in rural areas, increasing productivity and seizing the opportunities of technological development. Formal integration of the two authorities enables us to benefit from our strong financial position and leadership, as well as ensuring stability.”
Significant council investment has seen Haverhill transformed in recent years, with a multi-faceted approach to growth enabling its continued transformation, including a masterplan, Enterprise Zone status, as well as the Council acquiring town centre investments, whilst Bury St. Edmunds is becoming the envy of its Suffolk rivals.
In Bury, investment in replacing a former livestock market with a design-led retail and mixed use centre, although challenged at the time, has proved a major contributor to the local economy, attracting visitors from across the region, who also enjoy the historic Abbey and its famous gardens.
There are 50 quality restaurants which contribute to the strong evening economy, with The Theatre Royal and Apex Venue jointly contributing £10 million a year, aided by the underground car park the Council developed as part of the retail project. “It wasn’t really viable for a private developer, but we now receive a very healthy return for the Council,” comments Griffiths.
A proactive Economic Development team visit regional businesses to explore opportunities and evaluate potential Council input to aid expansion, including addressing skills shortages. Together with businesses, they have a strong relationship with West Suffolk College and its Innovation Centre. The Annual Business Festival brings people together, with the latest in technology, young entrepreneurs, potential investors and the Local Enterprise Partnership.
The 68 acre Suffolk Business Park on the edge of the town, another designated Enterprise Zone, “is very exciting,’ explains Griffiths. ‘With its easy access on the Europe/Midlands route, it allowed indigenous expansion, but also attracted a number of companies, including Treatt, which has created its worldwide HQ here.’
Nevertheless, the new West Suffolk Council will face inevitable challenges: including schools, infrastructure and public transport, and housing. ‘We are on target for 25-30 per cent affordable, to rent or purchase, but getting the right housing in the right place to meet demand can be hard work when prices here are higher than the national average. People want to live here because it is such an attractive location, with a growing number of quality jobs, and the Cambridge overflow.’
With a population of 176,000, rising to more than 202,000 in 2039, the new Council will be the eighth largest in England, “and a big voice among our peers and central Government,” adds Griffiths, who ensures that he is at the leading edge of economic development, regionally and nationally.
He and James Waters are building strong relationships with Cambridge City and the Mayor for Greater Cambridge & Peterborough, who now controls the GCGP Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). John Griffiths sits on the board of the New Anglia LEP, covering Norfolk and Suffolk, as well as chairing the West Suffolk Property Board and works closely with the local NHS, Police and Fire Service amongst many other organisations and businesses, ensuring policies are ‘joined up’.
In summary, he says, “we are moving into a very exciting period for West Suffolk. With our track record over the last decade, we intend to further transform local services and maximise the potential for our healthy local economy to the benefit of both our existing and new residents and businesses.”