Saturday, July 31, 2010

Big Society to Save Sutton From Big Mistake?

The Leader of the Council in Sutton has joined David Cameron on his trip to India to tell people there about his very own white elephant, the controversial £8million Sutton Life Centre.

Sutton has been picked as one of four councils to pioneer the Big Society as a Liberal Council, alongside Labour Liverpool and Conservative-run Windsor & Maidenhead and Eden Valley. Sutton have picked four projects to trial

1.give people influence for transport decisions and allowing greater local choice in schemes that suit them

Essentially this is keeping Smarter Travel Sutton going now that the £5million Transport for London funding has been spent.

2.train a new generation of community organisers

In a serendipitous move, a team of 'young advisers' will meet in the Sutton Life Centre attracting another revenue stream for the building that still has no meaningful business plan and an uncertain future. Ostensibly this is to help 'continue' to allow the Council to consult local residents. Sutton has one of the poorest records in London when residents ask whether they feel if they can influence local decision making. Promotional banners were put up along residential streets telling people that they can influence decisions last year so that the Council could help boost their survey figures and so hit a government target that attracted some funding. So they spent some taxpayers money to get some more taxpayers money. Not the most efficient way to do things.

3.give communities the power to green their neighbourhoods

This will help fund the Hackbridge project, which aspires to make this part of the Borough 'the greenest place to live in the UK'. This ambitious project has struggled for funding since its inception.

4.give people a greater say in local health provision

The Council is a major commissioner of services from the National Health Service, in particular for Adult Social Care. It is right that health provision should be moved away from the great monoliths of the Primary Care Trusts and closer to local people but I wonder if this move has been superceded by the Government's plans to scrap Primary Care Trusts, putting the power and decision-making with GPs.

You'll see a thread with the first three. Sutton's LibDems are saying that the Big Society has already started in Sutton. I say that they've found three projects that were struggling for cash and have latched onto a sugar daddy.

The Big Society is a great concept, that has not been discussed widely enough yet to be understood by many. However, this isn't it. Handing down power to the Local Authority from central government is just a first stepping stone. Free schools, giving spending decisions to GPs, giving voters the power of recall, these are all examples of handing power back down as close as is possible to where decisions are made and should be the way ahead. Instead, here in Sutton, we'll see the majority of residents shrug their shoulders at best and continue to rightly complain about why decisions are made about paving the High Street for £3m and putting up the Sutton Life Centre at £8m without them being consulted first. Sutton could and should have been bolder in putting forward ideas. Maybe, and whisper it quietly now, they could have asked residents how they would see the Big Society manifest itself in Sutton?

Local Government Around The World - Part 2

An interesting council story comes to me from Singapore. Friends staying over there were disturbed by the host family's dogs barking at a cobra, rearing up and hissing at them near the front door. They called the local equivalent of pest control who are adept at getting rid of snakes.

The next day, the snake man came all kitted out ready for anything...except one thing. He refused to step into the house because of the dogs.

Their bark was definitely not worse than the snake's bite. Is this Singapore's equivalent of Health & Safety?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Local Government Around The World - Part 1

Maywood, California: The Independent reports that this small bluecollar town has outsourced all of its services to other councils and private contractors. Everything: policing, bin collection, school crossing. Everyone got the sack and new teams came in from various parts. The City Treasurer said "You have single-handedly destroyed this city" before getting the tin-tack but a month later the view has changed. The gangs have moved on, the parks and leisure centre are still open and doing well. The insurers of the old police service had refused to pay out on public liability claims because of the amount of compensation claims relating to police misconduct. Quite some change.

Clearing out the Civic Offices would be extreme and unneccessary but there is always scope for Councils to concentrate on what they do best and leave other activities to those who can do things better. We already have plenty of other companies and organisations running services for us in Sutton, from bin collection to another council running our communication department. We need to do more of this, market-testing the contracts on a regular basis.

However, should the Council be teaching children how not to take drugs at the Sutton Life Centre? Should the Council have a paternalistic view on Youth Services rather than allowing organisations with great track records across London the freedom to offer something more relevant to young people? Should the Council be paying people to tell us how to 'live on one planet'. The Council has a key role as a facilitator but it doesn't need to remain after making the introductions, becoming an obstacle for people to cross to get things done. Councils like Sutton need to know when to simplify and when to let go entirely. There's plenty of scope here before we do a Maywood.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

'This Is Going To Hurt You More Than It Is Us.'

Sutton Council met as a whole to discuss business for the first time last week, more than two months after the election. The first debate was to vote on the first decision that the LibDem administration took in the first week of office, to increase the total cost of councillor allowances.

They attempted to soften the blow of taking on two more cabinet roles at £34,440 between them by trimming the amount paid to local committee chairs (We'd proposed halving this) and totally scrapping the Opposition Deputy Leader's allowance (So one Conservative takes almost as big a hit as five LibDems.) To their credit, the Conservative Opposition rightly accepted this cut as unlike the LibDems, we could not look residents in the eye whilst cutting frontline services, knowing that they are paying for increased allowances for politicians. We are residents too.

Their final sleight of hand was to include the removal of political assistants from both parties. Again, this is fine as a separate decision but somewhat duplicitous to say that they are taking a cut. The Conservative Political Assistant left at the end of their contract in May. The Liberal Democrat Assistant has now morphed into a 'neutral' council officer...looking after the Liberal Democrat administration. Political assistants came to Sutton after a previous holder of the Head of Leadership post was overtly political whilst being bound by the restrictions of being a Council Officer. Now, it'll just be swept under the carpet again.

Cllr Tony Shields made the valid point that increasing the number of cabinet members of the Council equated to 10 pay rises. If you do less work for the same money, this is an improvement in your working conditions that is equivalent to a pay rise. Ask anyone that has been in negotiations with a union.

Lord Tope in his speech at the meeting, expressed the view that it is an unedifying sight to watch politicians arguing about their own pay. I have agreed with him on this on several occasions. However, he then went on to argue that it is not just about how much money councillors get as individuals but how much they value the job as a councillor, saying if we did not value the role then how could they possibly expect anyone else to value it. So says someone that has been in politics for 30 years and has earned more than £100,000 per year from politics for several of those years until recently stepping down from one of his many roles. Meanwhile, those who have run a business know that this is a specious argument. Yes, we ought to market-test our allowances, benchmarking them against other authorities. The recent independent review of allowances in London did this. However, we need to pay a rate that is commensurate to the job at hand.

The reason that I wanted to halve allowances for Local Committee chairs is that £9,000 was far too much for the majority of them who chaired 5 meetings a year, attended two other short meetings in advance of each committee and took a few phone calls (say, one hour per week for this). Beyond this, they were taking up the slack of less-effective ward councillors who should be capable of covering ward specific issues. Lord Tope may put a value of £125 per hour on this role (the equivalent of an annual salary of £260,000) I certainly don't. This is what is allowed to happen if you get disconnected from real life and start talking about arbitrary values rather than commonsense.

Competition: Song for Sutton

This brilliant video based on Jay-Z's song 'Empire State of Mind' has been all over the news this weekend after attracting 1.2million viewers on YouTube. I especially liked the reference to the fact that Newport is twinned with Guangxi Province in China, (there's no province finer.)

With the dicy economic climate at the moment, we need to attract people and investment into Sutton and, quite frankly, we need a laugh. So, put your thinking caps on. Give us your best lyrics for the next big thing, 'Sutton State of Mind'.

Tackling the Pothole in the Age of Austerity

Sutton Council are still manfully trying to keep up with filling in the potholes caused by the icy weather in February. This was after the LibDem administration slashed £20k from the Highways Winter Maintenance budget whilst roads were still icy in 2009. Park Hill has just been resurfaced. Hopefully this will
a better job than in Beeches Avenue where residents have complained that the repairs made the road more bumpy than when it was full of potholes.
The entire roads maintenance budget for 2009-10 was around £500k. A single road in St Helier needs some £450k worth of work to bring it up to scratch. Removing speed bumps whilst resurfacing would have released tens of thousands of pounds to add to this meagre budget. The new LibDem administration are unlikely to go down this route so how will they ensure that this important frontline service is kept up whilst the overall Council budget is reduced by 25%? As ever, I try to be helpful so here's some suggestions.
1. Guerilla gardening. UK Design student, Peter Dungey suggests filling in potholes with plants "like oases in asphalt deserts." Sutton likes to bill itself as a 'green' council but this might be a step too far. The flowers will quickly be more pressed than Alan Partridge's slacks Verdict: Quirky but rubbish.
2. Pothole Adverts. KFC has offered to fill in potholes in 5 cities in America for free, putting a chalk logo over the repair advertising the fried chicken restaurant chain. This has not been without problems. PETA have offered double the money to put their own logos attacking KFC Despite promising to fund a portion of Sutton Scene through advertising, Sutton Council continue to fail to get to grips with advertising sales so they may struggle with this one. Who would advertise on Sutton's roads. Answers in the comments please. Also how off-putting would these be to drivers. Verdict: Interesting but dangers ahead.
3. Partnering with GenShock. A new invention takes the energy released from hitting a pothole and converts it into electricity. At the moment shock absorbers simply protect us from bumps. GenShock allows the jarring experience to power the windscreen wipers. Now I can see this appealing to the LibDem administration, renewable energy and embracing speed bumps and potholes at the same time; three birds with one environmentally-friendly stone. Forget filling the craters, make it your civic duty to stress your spine. Verdict: Clever invention but no-one tell the LibDems about it unless we want to see a Council grant go on this.
4. Get the holes filled cheaply. Market-test the contract for road maintenance, ensuring that quality and a high service level agreement is bound into the contract. Then take the cheapest contractor that puts in a tender and get more holes filled for the money. Divert funds from unneccessary road humps due to be replaced. Verdict Commonsense but...Nah! Not a chance.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Total Politics - I Need Your Vote

Now I'm going to be a bit cheeky. For the last two years, I've asked you to vote in these awards and you have been kind enough to help me become one of the leading political blogs in the country. I've hardly posted in the last few months but I'm going to ask once more anyway. I want to help bring you the news of what is happening in your name in the Civic Offices and in Westminster, so I'll gradually make the time to blog more often. In the meantime, I would be grateful if you would vote for me as one of your top political blogs, instructions below:

1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and ranks them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
3. You MUST include at least FIVE blogs in your list, but please list ten if you can. If you include fewer than five, your vote will not count.
4. Email your vote to
5. Only vote once.
6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents or based on UK politics are eligible. No blog will be excluded from voting.
7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2010. Any votes received after that date will not count.

I can't help prompt you with my favourites, apart from pointing you to the blogroll on the right hand side of this page. Happy voting and thank you.

A Bit Unneccessary

Since starting a new job in Westminster, I've found it both hard to get the time to blog and to see much evidence of anything happening in Sutton bar increases in councillors' allowances. Having got out of the habit of thinking about council work as soon as I woke up, a few text messages received this week from a single anonymous texter (07812 984365) brought it back.

5am, 14/7/10

8.39 14/7/10

8.50 14/7/10

18.38 14/7/10
(all capitals, punctuation and spelling, sic.)

I don't know why someone feels so moved to start having a pop at five o'clock in the morning, two months after the election, but it is intriguing that people feel that people who volunteer for public service are fair game for this, though I admired the poetic sign offs. At least they got it off their chest and I hope that they are happier for it.