Suffolk County Council has finally set up a dedicated section within its’ website concerning the New Strategic Direction (http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/newstrategicdirection). All the relevant documents can be found here as well as the ability to take part in an on-line survey. The NSD now also has a logo (see left)!
There are two things to note about this on-line survey.
First, is is positioned as part of a strategy of engagement – not consultation. Consultation implies that we have an ability to change the outcome. Engagement simply implies a process of connection to an outcome that has already been determined. This survey therefore cannot be used as evidence that Suffolk County Council has consulted with the community – it has not.
Second, this process of engagement was forced upon the Council via, as I understand it, an ammendment tabled by Green and Independent members of Suffolk County Council at the last Council meeting. It was not something that the Council was otherwise planning to do.
I have completed the survey and urge everyone to do so. It is very short (almost worryingly so) and asks to outline your concerns and understanding of opportunities. For reference, my answers to these two main points are outlined below.
- This has not been thought through – in terms of fully understanding the impact of such a dramatic shift on the business of providing government and local services.
- This will undermine local democracy – because services will now be delivered through long-term fixed contracts with external suppliers and elected officials or their representatives will have little ability to influence these contracts once they have been negotiated. This might be acceptable in areas such as the provision of refuse collection, but is not acceptable when it comes to provision of the likes of education and social care.
- The approach to the provision of services will shift from one based on the needs of the community to the ability to find and negotiate terms with a sutiable provider – some important services are therefore likely to fall between the gaps if suitable providers cannot be found.
- In reality it is likely that the level of services provided by local community groups and third-sector providers will be minimal – with large private sector corporations stepping in to deliver and administer the bulk of services.
- Following on from this – there has been no research done in order to establish the capacity within local communities to assume additional responsibilities for service provision – other than vague references to the creation of new market for services. It is quite possible that this capacity simply does not exist, since existing bodies such as parish councils and other civic organisations that rely on voluntary support are already over-stretched.
- The actual cost savings that will result have not been identified – only the desire to reduce costs by 30 per cent – and the probability is that little will be saved other than by the actual reduction of services or service levels.
- Finally – I have the suspicion that this is being driven by ideology, not practical issues – i.e it comes from No. 10 rather than having been developed in Suffolk, by officials of Suffolk County Council, in response to the issues that Suffolk faces.
- There may be opportunities for local communities to exert greater influence of the provision of local services – although I have yet to identify a tangible example of where or how this might happen.
- There are clearly enormous opportunities for private sector services providers.