Friday, 4 October 2019

Looking back as Leader - an honour and privilege

In May 2010, I was elected as Leader of West Sussex County Council. It was a huge honour, privilege, responsibility and commitment.

As someone said to me at the time - what a time to become Leader - as we entered a period of austerity that has lasted nine years – and they were not wrong.

Of course, taking on such a role comes with aspirations. For me it is about the communities in West Sussex and wanting to do the best for the residents we serve, to represent them well and spend their money wisely. It is also about ensuring a strong economy, doing as much as possible to make us more sustainable and greener, as well as promoting our beautiful countryside.

But it is not just about those ambitions, it is also about providing key services including children’s, adults’, highways and fire and rescue - all paid for from council tax payers’ money with some central Government grants. That Government funding has gone down significantly over the last ten years so all our ambitions have been tempered by the need to find money and balance budgets.

In response, we have transformed our services, driving down costs and in doing so, made substantial savings.  But that is not a long-term solution. More and more we have had to look closer at the services we have a duty to provide and those that we do not. Decisions to reduce services are really hard for all councillors. I certainly take no pleasure in doing that. We have lobbied hard with the support of our MPs but we still await a long-term financial model from the Government that enables us to plan for the future more effectively. I must say I have learnt much working with our MPs over the last few years. We need them to fight our corner in Westminster but also look to them to support our work and achievements locally. 

We have become very, very lean but it is a relentless task to balance the budget each year, which we are legally obliged to do. No councillor or leader relishes this task. We all became councillors to make changes for the better. One of the hardest jobs is looking at what you need to spend to make a difference, but realising that the finances simply won’t stretch that far. That’s been a recurring dilemma over the last five years. All I do is hope the promised funding, for our most vulnerable residents especially, appears and appears soon.
Despite the continual funding shortage we have become more sustainable and greener – with solar farms supplying and storing energy.  Through working collaboratively with the district and borough councils, we have developed growth deals, which are bringing in considerable additional funding to the area and helping to build for the future.  Examples of this work are the substantial regeneration of Burgess Hill, major enhancements in Crawley and Manor Royal, and the creative digital hub in Bognor Regis.  There is investment in Worthing town centre, and hopefully in the Horsham Park on the former Novartis site. This is joint working with our districts and boroughs for the benefit of the community.

We’ve made huge inroads to enhance the digital connectivity across the county.More than 70,000 extra homes and businesses can now enjoy the benefits of superfast broadband and we’re also building gigabit-capable infrastructure for our public services.

Next year we will be opening the remodelled Worthing Community Hub Library. This will be a centre for the community giving residents access to a wide range of services all under one roof - and there are more community hubs to come.

Engaging with the Youth Cabinet has been one particular pleasure. Young people are the future and we must hear their voices. We have recently had an excellent debate on knife crime at County Hall. I think we all had a better understanding of this serious issue as a result.

However when it comes to Children’s Services I very much regret that the service is a very long way off from being good enough. This service has had a long history going back to 2000 of deep-rooted issues which despite various interventions, we have never been able to put on a course of long-term sustainable improvement.  For that, I offer a big apology. We have developed our Children First Improvement Plan and we have funded our ambitions. However this is a very big task and it is desperately important we get this right for the children of West Sussex.

During my term of office, we have dealt with some very serious incidents. We had flooding in 2012- 13 with a disastrous impact on some of our residents. In early 2013 Operation Watershed was launched and has been a great success. It was a first in allowing communities to come forward with solutions for dealing with localised flooding. It was true empowerment of our community and one I am proud of.

There was the huge anti-fracking demonstration in Balcombe which tested the county council and partners. We learnt much about community engagement. I know residents are really concerned about fracking and we must listen to those fears.

Nobody could have foreseen the Shoreham Air Disaster which was a major national incident never before experienced in West Sussex and with such a sad and dreadful loss of lives rocking families and their community.  West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service played a major role from the start, together with the police, ambulance service, Highways England and supported by many charities. To this day, I am very proud of how we responded and am grateful to all the firefighters who were involved either at the scene or supporting their colleagues. It was exceptional team work by exceptional people. It is only in such circumstances that you see how everyone pulls together to help out.

Our Record Office has played an important role in the aftermath of the tragedy. As the guardians of our county’s records, we created the first digital archive of all the messages from this event. It was a pioneering piece of work done mainly with the support of dedicated volunteers, which is now a national exemplar of best practice in disaster recording.

I want to make one comment on politics. At present nearly everyone is dismayed at the scenes in Westminster.  But verbal aggression and unkindness are not just confined within the Westminster bubble - they travel beyond.  I have witnessed and been on the receiving end of some unpleasant attacks.  Leaders do not always receive the respect that you might imagine, so it’s not for the faint-hearted.  Abuse, threats, harsh, personal and unkind words - are they really necessary in modern politics? I don’t think so and I hope that things will change for the sake of our wonderful and now rather shaky democracy.

Making the decision to stand down as Leader has been an incredibly hard and emotional one for me. I have loved the job even though sometimes it has been really challenging and difficult.  In those dark times you are very much on your own. I have tried to do my best to promote the council and put our amazing communities at the heart of all the work it does.

I have been so fortunate to have excellent Cabinet Members and members of my Party who have supported me. They in turn have done so much for their communities and I have been truly inspired by their commitment.

I have met so many brilliant people in West Sussex from business, education, charities, Lord Lieutenants to High Sheriffs. It has been amazing.

West Sussex County Council is made up of staff whose dedication and commitment shines through in so many ways. I thank them for all they do.

In standing down as Leader there is going to be a big hole in my life.  I will certainly have more time for other things - gardening, catching up with friends and campaigning on environmental issues to tackle climate change.  I’ll be able to spend more time in my division, do some volunteering and start writing my book. There’ll be no more of the Leader’s blog from me but I will be setting up my own personal one.

My thanks go to all those who have shown me kindness, support and respect and to those who have helped me when I have needed it most over the years. There are too many to mention individually but thank you once again.

Friday, 30 August 2019

#CouncilsCan: Spending Review 2019

This Monday, West Sussex County Council (WSCC) is supporting the Local Government Association’s campaign #CouncilsCan.

We all know councils can - we’ve proved it year in year out. But you can only manage on a shrinking budget for so long and we have all come to that point, that is why the announcement of the Government's Spending Review next week is so critical to not only WSCC but all other councils across the country. That is why we are all getting behind the campaign.

Between 2010 and 2020, councils across the country will have lost almost 60p out of every £1 the Government had provided for services. Despite this they have continued to deliver for their communities, providing vital services daily and supporting local communities to thrive.
Closer to home, in West Sussex the county council still has a gross budget gap, before council tax rises, of over £127 million, to close over the next 4 years. Years of austerity and funding reductions, coupled with rising demand and more complex care cases, have brought some of our essential services, such as children’s social care, to crisis point.

Earlier this month I wrote personal letters to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Secretary of State for Education and the Ministers for Care and Children and Families, reiterating the severe challenges that we are facing here in West Sussex in relation to protecting the most vulnerable children and families in our communities, calling on the Government to help relieve this significant financial pressure and ongoing uncertainty as a matter of urgency.
Let’s see what the Government announces next week.  Unless we see positive change it is going to become increasingly difficult for our councils to improve residents’ lives, reduce demand for public services and save money for the taxpayer. 

I do hope and pray that our voices are heard and that we continue #CouncilsCan rather than be forced to become increasingly #CouncilsCannot.