Thursday, 30 August 2018

A mountain to climb

In the eight years I have spent as leader of West Sussex County Council we have faced huge financial challenges and I do have a sense of pride that we have met all that has been asked of us. However the demand of County Councils across the land is absolutely relentless. Now we have yet another big mountain to climb as the financial landscape continues to remain harsh.

Despite some small initiatives from central government, including the increase of Council Tax, funding from central government continues to decrease. That could be just about manageable but when it is paired with increasing need in specialist areas; people living longer and with more complex conditions and the complexity and vulnerability of the children we support, we are forced to look long and hard at our spend, what we do, and what we need less of or to stop. That’s the reality we live in.

So I need to talk today about that financial situation and where we, in West Sussex, are on this.

Over the years we have prided ourselves on really tight financial management, we have always delivered on savings demanded from Government and continued to support and care for our residents despite financial challenges. Yes we have reduced some services, we have taken cost out of the organisation we have transformed the way we work and this work continues.

However, now we, like so many councils across the country, are facing the hardest, most severe financial challenge anyone can imagine.

We have always, and will continue, to look at creative an innovative ways of delivering services to residents, providing new and innovative services in different ways. For example we are looking at the way we use our libraries, branching them out as community hubs to broaden what they offer to residents. We will always look to work collaboratively with partners to find new answers to financial challenges.
We will continue to look at these ideas however despite all those initiatives they are not simply enough to plug the funding gap. That leaves us with the reality that we cannot shy away from some really difficult decisions we need to take in the next few years.

Being a County Councillor comes with a list of duties and one of the main ones is delivering a balanced budget, we cannot, and will not be, another Northampton.

So it is with such a really heavy heart I write this blog because like every other council leader in the country I would rather be talking about the things we are planning to do rather than things we must stop. Over the eight years the financial landscape has changed dramatically we now live in times of severe financial drought. I thought it was tough eight years ago – looking back now it was quite benign.

In the meantime, I am heartened by the commitment of our dedicated staff, front line and in the back offices who ensure we continue to deliver 24/7, and our partners, public sector and voluntary.

Working together we can and will do all we can to minimise the impact. Working with the County Council Network and Local Government Association we continue to lobby the government for Fairer Funding to meet the needs of our residents and put in place early help and prevention to manage future demand.

You can find a link to our proposed savings plan here. Please remember the publication of the forward plan is the first step in the democratic process for our savings programme. I need to stress that no decision has been taken, each decision is really important to making sure we meet the financial challenges we face. In order to make these decisions there is a full and thorough decision making process to go through. For many of these decisions that will include formal consultation with those most affected and please be assured we will be looking at how we can best mitigate the impact.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Once upon a time in America

Our West Sussex County Records Office is set back on Orchard Street, Chichester. It is a building you may have driven past many times but its fa├žade belies the wonderful historic treasures carefully stored away for safe keeping; the repository for todays and yesterday’s history.

West Sussex County is blessed to be steeped in history. The Romans landed here, some at Fishbourne, King Canute in Bosham, the estates of Norfolk and Goodwood, Georgian Chichester to East Grinstead and everything in between there is a long history. And thankfully much of that history is recorded for posterity with many records of times past and not so long ago.

Some that fascinate me include the Archie Mckindoe Guinea Pig Club records detailing ground-breaking medical techniques which were the for runner of plastic surgery today tucked away in our Records Office.  

Even more recently some will recall the Shoreham Memorial digital archive set up three years ago following the tragedy at the Shoreham Airshow to preserve and honour the many messages of remembrance that were left. This one of the first archive of its kind in the country and now we are helping others to look at how they can do the same.

Photos, registers, parish maps, diaries, are just a few of the examples of items handed over to our Records Office over the years to be held for posterity.

Many people visit the Records Office whether undertaking their family history, viewing old maps and plans etc. As well as other requests from institutions undertaking a special research project, which is what happened when a request came in from Harvard University via the prestigious British Library when they were trying to trace a document relating to the Declaration of Independence that was approved by the Continental congress on the 4th July 1776.

The Declaration of Independence  detailed why the congress (made up at that time of 13 British Colonies – although 12 states vote for independence and New York abstained) had resolved that these United Colonies ought to be free Independent states. It was momentous as it was birth of the USA and Independence Day is celebrated every year on the 4th July.

Since 1952 the original parchment Declaration of Independence document has resided in the National Archives exhibition hall in Washington DC. But  a copy of this Declaration has been residing in our County Records office for a few decades too!

The document is written not on calf’s parchment but on the slightly inferior sheep’s parchment although slightly faded the declaration is beautifully handwritten with all the signatory names listed but not the signatures.

It is hard to explain the huge sense of history when I was so privileged to view the document. It is an exquisite piece of history which must have been painstakingly written not under modern light but by daylight and candlelight using a quill and ink. Hard to imagine how long it took, I wonder what the scriber thought as he wrote away.  

Harvard University have run assessments on this document and have confirmed its authenticity as an original prepared at the time  of the Declaration – a copy – but what a copy!

Carefully stored away it remains at our Records Office a gem of a treasure in a house of treasures – West Sussex County Council’s Records Office.
So as we approach the 4th July happy Independence Day from here in Sussex across the pond to America.