Suffolk public services shake-up: details revealed

THE first details of how communities will play a bigger part in running their own services emerged yesterday as Suffolk County Council prepares to implement major strategic changes which aim to save up to �125m.

People will be helped to take over services previously provided by the council, such as libraries, children's centres, country parks and footpath maintenance. And new local boards created to link health and social services provision across the county.

Council leader Jeremy Pembroke has accepted that he still does not know what the authority will look like in a few years' time – or how many people it will employ.

As the agenda for next week's council meeting was published yesterday(Tuesday), Mr Pembroke insisted that many of the principles behind the New Strategic Direction (NSD) were already in place.

'In adult care, about 90 per cent is provided by other bodies. It is nothing new to buy-in services,' he said.

But when it was suggested that the scale of divestment being proposed by Suffolk was greater than that being suggested anywhere else, Mr Pembroke smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

He insisted there was no grand design – no dream behind the proposals which were aimed at ensuring Suffolk continued to provide good services for residents while budgets were cut.

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The agenda for next week's meeting includes a 36-page report entitled 'Progress in the implementation of the New Strategic Direction'.

Under a section entitled 'Big Ideas', the report outlines new ways of providing crucial services.

It says the work of social care and health trusts should be merged to integrate health and personal care – and that social care should be organised along the same geographical boundaries as the health service.

Under the title of 'Your Place' the council intends to encourage communities to take over services that were used by a large number of people – which would help give them a local flavour.

And the council also wants to look at shaking up highways services to ensure that the county's roads are well-maintained.

Mr Pembroke insisted NSD was a response to the economic climate that had been coming for many years.

He said: 'We knew several years ago that we were going to face severe cuts now – we had been expecting cuts of about 30 per cent over four years in the event it looks like being 28 per cent.

'In Suffolk we are facing cuts of between �110m and �125m. And there are going to be cuts of about �40m next year alone which we are having to work on now.

'We don't want to have to cut back services to the bare minimum. We want to protect services as best we can. That is why we have been drawing up this programme – to involve more communities.'

He said there was no grand vision – the council would divest services where it could.

And both he and chief executive Andrea Hill insisted there were no firm figures for the number of jobs to go – or the size of the council at the end of the process.

Mrs Hill said: 'I know there are figures being discussed and rumours going around. I know the figure of 500 to 700 people was quoted today. That is not accurate. There is no figure.'

Suffolk is aiming to set up a 'strategic council' by April next year and have it in full operation by April 2012.

It is aiming to start divesting services in April next year and to have completed the process by April 2013.

Kathy Pollard, Liberal Democrat opposition leader, said: 'I have never seen so much waffle.

'The Conservatives have paid lip service to consultation. Everyone knows that they have already made up their minds and are adopting an ideological approach to the outsourcing of council services.

'They have failed to produce a Business Plan, which would give some idea of how they intend to save money. The public has every right to be cynical about promises of savings.'

She added: 'Barnet council has adopted the same approach as Suffolk and has already found that it has actually cost them more than running services in-house.

'They need to look at all their costs, including the spiralling costs of the upper tiers of management, whose pay bill has gone up by �10m in the last five years. They can't expect to be taken seriously with such vague plans.'

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