Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Suffolk - where self-help means doing something you’ve paid someone else to do...

I’d be the first to accept that, when money is tight, a steadfast reliance on local government to do things for you is probably unwise, unless, of course, you have little choice. However, it is a step beyond that to ask lower tiers of government to take on duties that you’re levying a tax for, but keeping the money.

And that’s the case with what is charmingly called Suffolk's Community Self-Help Scheme.

Suffolk County Council, like so many other local authorities, is seeking to make savings, and apparently, has a mere £120,000 per annum available for highways work other than basic maintenance. So, they’re seeking support from Town and Parish Councils to fill the void. The Community Self-Help Scheme is described as a response by the County Council to requests to empower and support town and parish councils across Suffolk to carry out small local maintenance tasks in their communities.

Now set aside the fact that, as a Parish Council, we’d really rather not do that, but they explain that;
The limitations on local authority budgets means that Suffolk County Council prioritises its funding and its focus on maintaining a safe network for all users. As a result, we are not able to undertake the extra works which town and parish councils would like to see being done to maintain and improve the look of their areas.
Now, you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking, that would be things like traffic calming, or something vaguely infrastructure related. But no, they go on to provide a handy list of the range of works that Town and Parish Councils might like to take on;
  • Sign cleaning
  • Fingerpost cleaning/painting/repair
  • Tree pruning/branch removal
  • Hedge cutting/pruning
  • Siding out of footways, or paths (removing encroaching grass and weeds)
  • Grass verge cutting
  • Weed killing/weed removal
  • Developing verge reserves
It is my understanding that Suffolk County Council will retain legal responsibility for maintaining the road network to a satisfactory standard, a point they emphasise;
Suffolk County Council, as the highway authority, has a duty to uphold and protect the rights of the public to use and enjoy all highways for which it is responsible. 
Suffolk County Council, as the highway authority, remains bound by statute (Highways Act 1980) to maintain the highway network in a safe condition. The County Council sets out in its policies the level of service it will provide to discharge its duty to maintain.
So, why should I, or my fellow parish councillors, seek to take up their generous offer? After all, if anything were to go wrong, and volunteers found to have carried out the work in a manner considered inappropriate by Suffolk County Council (who have every incentive to pass the buck), we become liable - Suffolk County Council require the signing of an indemnity should we seek to do any work.

I’m not sure that I see the benefits outweighing the risks to the Parish Council.

Funnily enough, I did once clean a road sign in the Parish, as it was annoying me, but if I had had to fill in a bunch of paperwork, and ensure that the Parish Council had £5,000,000 worth of public liability insurance, I’m not sure I’d have bothered. In truth, I have no idea how much that level of public liability insurance costs, but it’s an additional cost, and duplicates the insurance that Suffolk County Council already hold.

And does anyone really expect that a Parish Council, run by volunteers, can achieve the same economies of scale as a County Council, with its trained professionals and lawyers? Consider me a sceptic.

So, I may sneak out and clean the odd road sign in future. But it may be in the guise of a concerned citizen, rather than as a parish councillor. You can’t be too careful, after all...

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Mid Suffolk elections 2019 - a time of unexpected nervousness and high drama...

On Wednesday, I had made time to listen to an East Anglian Daily Times podcast, previewing the local elections across Suffolk. The presenters had concluded that Mid Suffolk was likely to be the least interesting of the five contests and, to be honest, I didn't really have grounds to disagree. A notional majority of fourteen on the newly trimmed thirty-four seat authority, and only really the Greens and the Liberal Democrats - both plucky but seriously under-resourced - standing in their way.

It turned out slightly differently...

When the early results started coming in from across the country on Thursday night and the early hours of Friday, it became apparent that the Conservative vote had melted down. But, and this was an important "but", it did seem that there were serious campaigns being run in those places. That wasn't entirely true in Mid Suffolk. Yes, in our held and target seats, campaigns were being run, and in many wards, if you didn't want to vote Conservative, you had very few options - half of the seats were Conservative vs A N Other - but still...

By the time I woke up on Friday morning, the sheer horror of overnight events must have been beginning to dawn on local Conservatives, and, as the very much paper candidate in Claydon & Barham, a two member ward with two Conservative candidates and a Green, it was beginning to dawn on me that a most unlikely outcome was not entirely impossible.

The count started at 9 a.m., and as the ballot papers had been verified overnight, there must already have been some unease in Conservative circles, as it turned out.

Things started to go sour early, with Bacton going to the Greens - goodbye Conservative Housing portfolio holder - by nearly 2:1, the Green canddiate having painted the sheep on his smallholding with "Vote Andy". It wasn't even close, and when Ringshall & Battisford went Green soon after, I did begin to wonder.

And then it became clear that this was going to be pretty bloody for the Conservatives, when their leader, Nick Gowrley, bit the dust, losing to our very own Keith Scarff by 114. Now, Keith has lost so many elections at District and County levels by agonisingly small margins that I seriously wondered why he does this to himself, but he got himself a proper scalp. He'll be a very good councillor for the south end of Stowmarket.

The notional Conservative majority was now eight, and only six seats had been declared...

Fressingfield went Tory (no real surprise there), and I lost in Claydon & Barham by 290 (the Green got within 155 of the County's Police and Crime Commissioner!). As a paperless candidate, resident outside the ward, I'd gained 35% of the vote. The game was, most definitely, on...

Three more holds, Kathy Guthrie and Matthew Hicks for the Conservatives in Debenham anjd Hoxne & Worlingworth respectively, and John Field in Blakenham for us with 51.7% of the vote, and then the result which made me think that no overall control was a real possibility, with a Green gain of one of the seats in the north Stowmarket ward of Chilton.

Notional Conservative majority now six...

Onehouse's veteran Green councillor won handily and then Eye returned its expected Conservative, but only after a scare. The Returning Officer had called the candidates together to advise that the Liberal Democrat candidate, Tim Glenton, had narrowly won. And then he hadn't, losing by forty-nine (I'm guessing that a bundle check undid the original verdict).

The Conservatives held Walsham-le-Willows and Stonham, Penny Otton, our Group Leader, was safely returned in Rattlesden with 64% of the votes. The two member ward of Haughley, Stowupland & Wetherden returned the two expected Greens with majorities of around 1,000 apiece, Rickinghall returned Conservative Jessica Fleming (who clearly divides her time between Cabot Cove and mid-Suffolk), although her sole opponent (Labour) got within 200 votes.

Another Green gain in Thurston, and then a result which seemed at first amazing but turned out to have rather more significance than anyone might have imagined, as my successor as Local Party Treasurer, David Child, lost by one to the sitting Conservative. Now, my suspicion is that there was no campaign in the central Stowmarket ward of St Peter's, but I'm a bit out of touch, so I'll put it down to bad luck.

The notional Conservative majority was now done to four. But they did have the Independent in Combs Ford, who'd been a portfolio holder in the outgoing Conservative administration. So, it was still six really...

And then, Gislingham went Green, and the Conservatives lost another to the Greens in the newly created Stow Thorney ward - everything east of the railway line in Stowmarket.

Mid Suffolk was notionally a no overall control authority!

Palgrave returned the expected Conservative but we were still to hear from Needham Market, a Liberal Democrat stronghold for thirty years and Ros's old District seat between 1991 and 1995 (yes, it all started there). I knew that the Conservatives hadn't campaigned but still, it's the Conservatives and I'm used to bad news. We couldn't have lost, could we? But no, we hadn't, and Mike Norris and his new running mate, Steve Phillips, were very comfortably voted in by a 2:1 margin.

That left Stradbroke & Laxfield (safe Conservative and with the former Green candidate not running) and the two member ward of Elmswell & Woolpit, notionally split with one Green and one Conservative... who lost by more than two hundred!

And so, the carnage was over, leaving the Mid Suffolk Conservatives headless and out of control, with key leadership figures gone, along with their seemingly impregnable majority.

The final outcome - Conservatives 16 (minus 8), Greens 12 (plus 7), Liberal Democrats 5 (plus 1), Independent 1 - leaves the council absolutely hung, unless Gerard Brewster, the Independent, swaps sides. I don't know if he will, indeed I strongly suspect that he won't, but from the comments I've heard, the Conservatives hope to hang on with the casting vote of the Chair. One vote switched or extra in St Peter's ward and a coin toss, and we would have seen possibly the first ever Green/Liberal Democrat coalition administration, a point that the Green Leader, Andrew Stringer openly stated as being the likely outcome afterwards.

The voting shares are a cause for thought though;
  • Conservatives - 40.68% (thirty-two candidates)
  • Greens - 34.00% (twenty-one candidates)
  • Liberal Democrats - 17.69% (19 candidates)
  • Labour - 4.30% (9 candidates)
  • Independents - 3.00% (2 candidates)
  • UKIP - 0.32% (1 candidate)
We're back in third place, having come second across the District in the 2017 County elections. All credit to the local Greens - they appear to have swallowed whole the classic ALDC playbook and they're very persistent - but it could be argued that, were we to be more ambitious, it could have been us.

From a proportionality perspective the result reasonably reflects the votes cast, for the vote share, if applied proportionately, would have generated a result;

Conservatives 14, Greens 12, Liberal Democrats 6, Labour 1, Independent 1

FPTP saves the Conservatives again, though.

The conclusions I draw from the results are as follows;
  1. In this instance, an anti-Conservative pact, albeit a very informal, possibly accidental one, worked. The absence of Labour, UKIP and any corps of independents helped, and you're unlikely to replicate that in many places. We have a joint group on Suffolk County Council and Mid Suffolk has two relatively friendly groups at District level.
  2. Labour simply don't exist in rural districts like Mid Suffolk, and even where they were the only opponents to Conservatives, they rarely did well.
  3. Our local Conservatives don't campaign between elections - they seldom have to - but when circumstances combine as they did on Thursday, they are extremely vulnerable as they seem unable, or possibly too arrogant, to respond here. Again, I don't suspect that's the case in a lot of other places.
  4. Whilst UKIP didn't play any significant role in Mid Suffolk, their absence saved the Conservatives from a far worse drubbing. I suspect that even I might have won had they contested Claydon & Barham, for example.
And so, the apparently least interesting contest in Suffolk turned out to be the most dramatic, even on a night of drama across the county. And, for the first time in nearly a decade, Liberal Democrats were not counting their losses and mourning their disappointments. We nearly ended up with a gain of three, but we have something to work towards for 2023, and thoughts now turn to winning back Bosmere and gaining Stowmarket South in the 2021 County elections - bearing in mind the possibility of revised boundaries in the meantime.

We've got some of our mojo back, the Greens have the wind in their sails, and the world looks like a very different place all of a sudden...