Tuesday, 29 January 2013


I attended a meeting of Suffolk County Council's Cabinet today as a member of the public. It took place in West Suffolk House - the hub of localism and local authority partnership working in Bury St Edmunds. Positioned well out of the town centre it  perhaps discourages attendance by local people.

I was quite surprised at the lack of real welcome, bearing in mind these meetings are open to members of the public. No offer of refreshment (even water) nor checking if I or any of us had any specific needs. No introductions of the Councillors present and as a member of the public I was expected to pre-read huge swathes of documents and only able to ask questions submitted in advance. With no opportunity for debate and discussion.

I sat there wondering how many people across Suffolk directly impacted by the issues set out in the papers discussed and decided upon today knew anything at all about this meeting. Who is responsible for promoting democracy? Is it local Councillors? Local Authorities?  the Voluntary and  Community Sector? No one?

On the agenda was the budget - which was largely cheered through, meaning privatisation, including the erosion of public sector staff jobs and security continues to gallop along at pace.  One comment from Councillor Newman seemed to describe the end of social workers 'turning up with clipboards', ignoring the role and needs of communities. I reflected that the picture he painted was surely not a fair description of the hundreds of highly qualified and committed social workers working across Suffolk. Certainly not the many I have met.

There was another comment from Councillor Storey along the lines of the freeze in Council Tax being welcomed by those not on benefits and proud to be working. What I wondered of those proud to be working, but also unavoidably on benefits because of low pay in Suffolk? Or of those on benefits but desperate to be working perhaps previously employed in the public sector in services cut based on decisions presided over by Councillor Storey?

Questions about poor attainment in Suffolk schools seemed to be batted off. Amongst other things Councillor Newman blamed 'coasting schools' that had not had a recent OFSTED inspection. It seemed to me that there was no acceptance of any lack of appropriate investment or failures in political leadership. Rather, we were encouraged to believe the Raising the Bar initiative (£700,000 set aside for this) and growth of Academies would fix things. Not sure if there were any parents or carers in the audience today whose children are being let down.

The new all singing and all dancing travel card was also cheered through. The intelligent question about the impact on her (as her disability meant she would be studying longer), put by the only young person in attendance, went unanswered by Councillor McGregor. Other questions by Councillors Page and Martin about consultation with young people; information on the detail of the scheme; why concessions apply only up to the age of 19 and how the goodwill of bus services to offer a 25% discount would be monitored, again remained largely unanswered. Why cut the Explore card in the first place and offer no alternative for 2 years? Shocking. I was involved (as the leader of a local Charity) in meetings around the time it was cut. I know that the concerns of young people and their parents/carers were sought, half heartedly, at the time and then completely ignored.

There was a lengthy discussion about Sizewell C and significant criticisms levelled at EDF Energy consultation documents - who I am not sure were in the audience. I have an aversion to public criticism of anything where there is no automatic right of reply.

I have an aversion also to inappropriate discriminatory comments that go unchallenged by leaders. Councillor McGregor referred to people 'either being deaf or not listening' when describing the concerns of people in local villages as to the impact of Sizewell C.  Offensive.

I wondered whether the voices of the women I met in Leiston when on the Police & Crime Commissioner campaign would be sought when discussing what the impact might be on Leiston. These women had talked with me about their hopes and fears for their young people.
The 'Health and Well Being Strategy' was tabled and praised for its content and accessibility.  For me the discussion lacked detail and I wonder again how many members of Suffolk's communities know what the plans mean for them in terms of health provision. Mental ill health is a priority I was pleased to note. I was surprised, therefore, that there was no discussion or any assessment of the impact of the savage cuts facing Suffolk and Norfolk Mental Health Trust.

Overall this Cabinet meeting felt like an expensive unrepresentative club running along tramlines with a  predetermined direction. Praise was heaped upon those who represented the majority in the club; those who were in the minority were met with political point scoring or dismissively.

Local democracy then - by turns unrepresentative, unwelcoming, unfair, discourteous, shocking and offensive.

Surely its time for a new type of local politics before it is too late?



  1. "There was another comment from Councillor Storey along the lines of the freeze in Council Tax being welcomed by those not on benefits and proud to be working. "

    Just plain wrong of the Deputy Leader!!!

    Try Lowestoft where many of us have friends and relatives proud to be working but needing help as not enough hours are available to make a living on minimum wage, or are working casual or temporary jobs.
    Try Lowestoft where many of us know young people who wouls like to be working but need help as despite applying for all suitable vacancies they don't get chosen for interview.
    We have children at school, and rely on public transport. We need to be sure our food is safe, and have entertainment we can afford to get to. It all has to be paid for, and we "not on benefits and proud to be working" understand our commitment to the wider society.

    I wish our Council leaders did.

    1. It often feels these days that us regular people are living in a parallel universe to these elected members who point score and ignore many real issues and as Jane has said here hold themselves accountable only to the chosen few who have the time and resources to follow and challenge what is really going on. It seems to lurch from Orwell to Kafka where the local authorities are concerned. People have become very disenfranchised and disenchanted by the current political system and are declining to vote. Where is the mandate coming from at the moment?