Friday, October 30, 2009

Playing a Straight Bat

We always like bosses who say it how it is. Or do we? I count myself as a heart-on-sleeve CEO. One who is happy to have an open conversation. To this end, I have been sharing my fairly unedited thoughts on the future environment with my staff through our newsletter.

In the last one I basically told people that I thought the game was up in terms of doing things the way we have this last ten years. The money I believe won't be there in anything like the same amount from 2011. I asked people for a conversation. About changes in working practices. About using volunteers. About working only with those in the most dire need. Stuff that needs to be considered, at least.

It's interesting what power does. Being CEO, my words were taken not as an invitation to a conversation but a pronouncement. A decree that we would do all these things. Quite a few people were genuinely worried that now going to happen an my announcement was simply my way of telling them.

I haven't yet responded to the staff who wrote to me, which include some of our key people. I think I will firstly apologise for scaring them. I know that often CEOs only say ANYTHING when the hammer is just about to fall. And even then dress nasty stuff in nice-sounding language.

But, in my response, I will also highlight that I was actually seeking dialogue. The truth is that we do have time. About 18 months to rethink things. Enough time. And that we need them to help us to do this.

The learning for me is that it maybe isn't always possible as a CEO to say it just how it is. People bring their own fears to the table, understandably so given the previous experiences of many people. A CEO friend of mine winced when I shared the story. She did the same thing once and people thought she was announcing the end of the organisation!

Two conclusions. One is that the CEO role brings a responsibility to take extreme care with one's communication. You are seen as all-powerful and anything you say on paper has an atmosphere of diktat about it.

The second is that people don't always prefer bosses to tell it how it is, whatever they might say. Enjoying Alan Sugar is one thing. In one's own workplace I suspect it might be a different matter.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Customer or Citizen

I notice, upon viewing some correspondence between officers and a resident here in Hardwick, that we refer to people as customers of the Council.

While I see, on one level the logic of this – the need to instill modern ideas of service into Council employees – I am wondering whether the language of “customers” is the right one to be used in the public space going forward.

A time in which we need to see ourselves less as “consumers” of public services, more as citizens with responsibilities as well as entitlements. The social capital agenda which we are all seeking to develop I believe increases such a need for a change of language.

A language of responsibility, of reciprocity, of contribution. "Citizen" I think fits better this need than "customer". If we’re asking people to partner with us, to co-produce or to do more for themselves, we may find ourselves tripped up badly by the customer mentality.

I say this not only from conviction but from experience. Even a few months into my time as a Councillor, I come up all the time againstpeople who see the Council as the would see a service centre run by Dell or Hotpoint. “We pay, you deliver” is the mentality.

So people won’t pick litter, clear leaves or call on their elderly neighbour because that’s, in their words “Your job”.

By treating people as consumers rather than citizens, I fear we are encouraging an attitude of mind which could be incimical to our aspirations as a Council - to build the kind of place we are seeking to create. One of citizenship, as opposed to one, simply, of consumerism.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tough Choices Ahead

Reading the latest from think-tank the National Economic and Social Research Council (NESRC) makes me realise that hardly anyone gets it yet. We are all in denial, of some sort. Kind of believing that what we're doing will, somehow, be spared or beyond the scope of cuts. It's a natural human reaction, to bury one's head and wait for the hammer to fall.

And fall it soon will. When the Government will probably either a) Raise income tax by 7% (not likely) b) Cut all `middle class benefits c) Start to reduce ordinary public spending to pre-1997 levels to bridge a £100m annual deficit. Fewer health service staff and police officers. Crumbling schools again.

Is this inevitable? Yes and no. I am a pessimist when it comes to achieving change in the way the state does its business, so part of me believes that it will be every bit as shit as I imagine.

But a part of me believes that we can waylay the looming cataclysm. Use the coming horror to galvanise a response that takes public services - and people themselves - to a better place.

The most important thing is to change the state. Locally and nationally, the era of diktat is now viewed mostly as a failure. Robbing all involved of energy and costing a fortune. Creating a litany of complexity, a destruction of trust and a system that, in the end, grew its impact far slower than its expenditure.

But we must also change people. For we have become consumers alone, when it comes to public services. I pay, you do. I see this all the time in my work as a Councillor. People won't brush leaves from their path. They would rather spend the time complaining to me to get the Council to do it.

This `entitlement' attitude is particularly prevalent among many (but not all!!) of the 50-65 year olds I encounter. The Baby Boomers. Very different to the wartime generation who, I find, just get on with it. And the young, who seem more willing to get stuck in and sort things out.

Lots of questions but do I have any answers? I am beginning to feel that the ship of my life is beginning to steam in these directions. For all I rail against the state and call for its reduction I am not doing this from a Sarah Palin small-government place. Pro-state and anti-state in this country have meant Left and Right respectively.

Now that the state, in its current form, has been discredited, we need a new place for those who see themselves as `progressive' (and I number myself thus) to gather, exchange views and engage - without being branded as right-wing wolves in sheep's clothing (a view recently expressed far more eloquently by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA on his blog)

For what is it worth, this is what, of all the ideas I have seen put forward by others, what we most need to do on both sides of the equation:

The State
1. Reduce the number of civil servants across all Government Departments by 25% over the next five years and freeze most public sector pay for three years.

2. Break-up the NHS into smaller, free-standing institutions (like Universities)and integrate PCTs into local authorities. Sign over the asset base to these new institutions. Allow private operators and social business to challenge the NHS for all contracts.

3. Allow all schools to opt out of local authority control and move to a voucher system.

4. Promote the Easy Council concept - and out-source as many services as possible.

5. Move all social care users to personal budgets by 2015.

6. Abolish most regulatory quangos and hand their responsibilities to central government or local authorities.

7. Keep all public sector pay under £200k pa - this may encourage the concept of public service among public servants.

8. Move all care-management services into existing or new community-based organisations that were mostly run by non-specialist, non-professionals.

9. Raise the retirement age to 70 by 2020.

10. Restore the 10p tax and reduce corporation tax to 10% on small businesses of up to £100k turnover.

The People.
1. Issue a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities to all users of Government services.

2. Expect some form or voluntary or community service from all people - and use the organs of the state - and local budgets - to encourage this.

3. Offer seed funding for a Development Trust for every locality.

4. Allow people to set up schools which can obtain state funding if demand is there.

5. Put information online as to spending priorities and trade offs (again Matthew Taylor's idea, not mine).

6. Use PR to choose all elected officers and run regular ballots on contentious issues.

7. Reduce the number of tiers of Local Government from up to three to one for all areas.

8. Offer start-up capital of 5k for any unemployed person to start their own business.

9. Accept that you will need to either pay for your own care in old age or pay for the insurance required to cover that eventuality from your own resources.

10. Redefine yourself from `Consumer' to `Citizen'. Ask not what your country etc...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Breakfast with the Minister

The place. `Fifteen' in Hoxton. The time. Eight thirty AM. The people. Twelve or so Social Enterprise Ambassadors plus Third Sector Minister Angela Smith and her entourage of four (yes, I know) from the Office of the Third Sector. The purpose. To tell Angela to keep this mainly pro-bono programme funded beyond 2011.

But let's start with the food. Breakfast was distractingly good. A kind of muesli-porridge followed by sausage and bacon baps and lashings of scrambled egg. The kind of food it is very difficult to have in front of you while politely waiting for someone to finish their spiel. I resisted at first - but couldn't stop myself. Fifteen it is definitely delivering its `taste bottom-line', as well as its financial and social ones!

We kicked off with intros. Very interesting to hear how people's businesses have grown, including bag-maker EAKO, toplining £2m from only half a million just a couple of years ago. Then Angela. She was, I have to say, very energetic and likeable. Quite chilled and healthy-looking for a Minister too.

She clearly grasps the sector - her own VCS background helping a little here I think. Unlike previous Ministers, she is keen for us to mark the ground clearly between what we're doing and the rest of the third sector, despite the similarities in some of our organisations.

Sam Coniff, the suave Founding CEO of marketing social business Livity chaired magisterially as ever and there were presentation on both public services and young people's services.

The theme across both was the need we have for our wider social offer to be taken seriously by commissioners who are often working to extremely narrow service-specs. Social clauses are a big requirement and we let the Minister know this.

I used my spot to say that our offer is well-suited to the age of austerity in which we can no longer afford full-price public service. Her response, perhaps predictably for a Labour government minister, was to stress that we shouldn't be primarily competing on price. I didn't want to say that I am already am . Forced to by commissionrs , even this early in the game.

Photos outside and then whoosh, she was gone in the Ministerial Prius. Overall we acquitted ourselves well. We come across as a dynamic, can-do bunch. Not your typical charity sector miserabilists.

So well done to all, especially the young woman who organises us all, Pauline Milligan, who is classy - in every sense.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Man from the IFS

Two years ago I had the privilege of sharing a platform with Carl Emmerson, who is the Deputy Director of the highly respected Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS). He was telling a rather uncomprehending crowd at NCVO that it was game-over for big public spending increases. And this was before the crash.

The IFS, for those that don't know it, run a model of the UK economy that at least rivals that of the Treasury. Some would say they predict things better than HM Government. Which is why you will often hear Carl or his boss, Robert Chote, on the radio in the morning. In short, the IFS normally get it right.

My motivation in catching up with Carl was to find out what his thinking was on the forward picture for public spending. I know what my instincts and my patchwork-knowledge tells me. But I wanted Carl's view - as a non-political, independent economist.

What he had to say was interesting. Basically, the UK's tax-take has dropped massively to the tune of about £100m pa - or roughly 15%. This is a recurrent deficit that we have to bridge. This is different from the Deficit we hear about on the news - which is the bill so far. The £100m, without corrective action, is what we will spend above what we get in EVERY YEAR from 2010-11 onwards.

Therefore we have choices. One unlikely choice is that we become Sweden: we accept current levels of spending, jack up taxes to Scandinavian levels and just live with that.

The other more likely one is that the Government immediately both raises certain taxes AND withdraws particular benefits (or Transfer Payments as they are called by economists) from groups who don't need them. Things like Universal Child Benefit, child tax credits and other "middle class" benefits come to mind.

These changes, if they are to be made, are likely in the first budget of any new Government (probably weeks after its election).

This led me to ask Carl whether a new Government would seek to implement departmental spending cuts too in that year. Carl thought probably not because budgets for 2010-11 will have already been set - and anyway, it would be likely, given the suddenness of any immediate changes that the "wrong cuts" would be made.

2010-11, therefore wouldn't be the year for actual cuts, beyond the immediate cash saving mentioned above, but the year in which cuts were planned for implementation in 2011-12, the first year of the next three year spending-period.

Interestingly, he pointed out that all of the cuts mentioned by the Tories only constitute a very small amount of the total amount to be saved annually. The truth is that the news will get a lot worse. Governments will probably need to tax more and spend considerably less for a long period.

Politically the question will be whether this period can be allowed to go on for the best part of a decade - or whether the next Government will seek to get it mostly done these next five years - to allow some light at the end of the tunnel rather than a message of "four more years of pain" in 2014.

If it is to be a shorter period, it will be altogether nastier to take out the effects of a recurrent £100m shortfall - and to pay down the existing deficit too.

I asked Carl about whether turning off the taps now, as Labour argue, would stymie recovery. He doesn't think it would be possible to do that in one go anyway and that the "now or later" question will be resolved by the fact that later isn't very far away now.

Might this kill recovery anyway? This worry, he says, needs to be offset by the risk that the markets (whose activities have a big bearing on interest rates) may be made very jumpy by any Government or prospective Government they didn't feel was committed to keeping the growing fiscal gap under control. From this point of view, a Government with this commitment and a firm majority would be the most welcome. Not the best of news for Liberal Democrats!

What was most striking talking to Carl is just the size of the gulf between what we are spending recurrently and what is being brought in - a gap currently funded by Quantitative Easing of monetary policy (or printing money). We cannot just grow our way out of this one. And while we cannot continue spending, it is worrying that neither party is publicly talking about how we can bridge that Grand Canyon.

Indeed if we were building a rope-ladder right now, even George Osborne's proposals would only stretch a few metres across!

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Guy Garvey of Elbow caught me by surprise today. No, he didn't call by or email. Rather he was on my Ipod. It was a chance meeting. I was out running and set to "Shuffle Songs".

On he came. Then, something in the way he was singing kicked in and I was suddenly, not knowing why, losing composure and feeling emotion run into my face and strange tears clouding my vision as I scooted across the ploughed field. It passed in moments. I don't `lose it' on any level very often and, even before the song had finished, my brain got to work on why this man's voice and words had reached into me the way they did.

And I think it is two things. One is the artist. I think Guy Garvey puts everything into what he does. He is authentic and, somehow, quite inspiring. An artist who has always been true to himself.

The other, I think, is to do with me. Garvey reminds me, physically and in manner of my younger brother, with whom I have a loving but slightly awkward, occasionally brittle, sort-of unfulfilled relationship.

On top of this, I am thinking a lot at the moment of an old friend of mine back home in the North-West who is nursing his mother in the last weeks of cancer. While this isn't front-of-mind stuff for me at all, today, listening to Garvey, who is from my home-town, brought this sorry, sad picture into sharp relief.

Then, as quickly as it had come over me, it all subsided as I was Shuffled to another track.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Would Charities Work Better if They Made Profits?

At first look this seems a rather daft question. Charities for profit? Isn't that a contradiction? Well, yes, and no. The public would certainly find NSPCC plc a hard one to throw into the bucket for. So, on one level, yes it is a non-starter.

But I raise the question because I there is a hypothesis I would like to test. Which is this: Would NSPCC deliver more social bang for buck if it were owned and managed as a for-profit venture? Part of me, you see, believes it might just do that. And if that were so, what would that mean for the charity model of raising money and spending it?

First though, how on earth might a private NSPCC deliver more for children. Well, I am fairly confident that it would very quickly focus the business on areas where the evidence suggested most gains could be made for least investment. Charities are, in my experience, not as skilled at focus full stop. Nor do they like to kill programmes that are good - but not quite good enough. Secondly, a private NSPCC would definitely have fewer staff, less bureaucracy and a more simplified and faster decision-making structure. Almost without doubt. Thirdly, a private charity would be better at driving down costs and would do this instinctively, rather than as a nice-to-do.

But there will never be a private NSPCC so why bother even thinking about it? Well, it's not quite as simple as that. Many charities now do work in fields that for-profit companies also operate.

Take my own sector, advocacy services for vulnerable groups. While charities predominate, there are a few private sector players, one of which is owned by a professional friend of mine. His business is is carefully organised to make profit (which he then puts to a variety of good uses on top of providing for his family.

But my friend believes, correctly I think, that his broad focus on profit actually leads the company in the direction of getting it right as a service. On processes. On delivery. On costs. On people. On measureable impact. Yes, a profit focus actually helps, on some level, to get these others things right.

I say all this because we have struggled, as a non-profit minded organisation, for to get some of these things sorted quickly. It is only now, when the medium term future is less certain (i.e. our top and bottom lines are under threat) that I seem to be able to generate the impetus for change.

Indeed, I have often wondered, in my darker moments, whether if we were run for profit, like my friend's business, we would have resolved the drag-factors on our business which only now we are starting to resolve.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, I think what comes out for me is that we need to rid ourselves of the fantasy that profit just takes from delivery. That third sector organsisations are somehow better because we don't aim for profit.

This is lazy thinking. The truth is that many charities that could make a profit toput to good use actually refuse to do so in the misguided belief that it is always better to leave costs in the business. If charities produced profit-targets - and stuck to them - I am personally fairly sure that the sector would, in a very short time, be delivering the same for a lot less money.

So yes, while I agree that charities can never be run for private profit, I do believe charities would, overall, do more good if they set ambitious targets for profit (to be reinvested or whatever) and pursued them with the same vigour and focus as would a private sector business.

Fuck You Money

I was having coffee with a work-friend of mine last week. He is in his fifties and spent the first thirty years of his career in business making a lot of dough. His motivation wasn't the superstar lifestyle or hob-nobbing with the wealthy. Nor was it to just to achieve a particular score on the board.

Rather he wanted what he terms `Fuck You Money'. Enough cash to be able to say and do what he wanted. Never to have to answer to anybody again in his life. To express himself and be himself. He set this goal fairly early on in the game. He tolerated colleagues and environments which weren't really `him'. But he knew what he wanted and that the sacrifice would be worth it.

Don't get me wrong, this guy isn't in any sense retired. He works hard, but does only the work he chooses. On top, he also studies, travels and takes an active interest in his kids.

While my path will be different a big part of me identified with him. I too would love to get to a point where I have the total freedom my friend enjoys. For many of us, only a late and lucky retirement brings these kinds of benefits. How wonderful to enjoy them with twenty odd good years left in you.

I guess this is what `Fuck You Money' is all about. I wonder if that is the real privilege of becoming wealthy. Not the toys it can buy you, but the liberty it can bring.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Do I Have Another One in Me?

I have been asking this of late. Not another child (Katy makes those decisions) but another big venture. Ten years ago, you see, I burned with the desire to grow a large-ish social venture. I ached for success. I wasn't very happy. Speaking Up was kind-of therapy.

Today, I want to burn with the same ire. But, in truth, I don't. Not just yet anyway. Life has somehow got in the way. I am a lot happier now. I have, sort-of, proved myself. To myself and to others. My interests are more diverse. My energy levels are not quite what they were. I have grown conscious of the limits of organisations. I now understand that resources do not solve problems.

If I don't go on to do another one, however, part of me will feel rueful. There are, I know, a queue of financiers out there looking for great new ventures. I could put together a team relatively easily. I know so much more now than I did then. I could, I am sure, make a much bigger splash this time round.

So will I? At the moment, I am thinking probably not. Working with others who are doing the leading - perhaps. Non-exec-ing - certainly. Advising, consulting, I am probably your man. But doing it all again? Not easy to imagine. You never know, a long holiday, a bit of respite from fatherhood, a bit of premature hair-loss and, who knows, I may be all revved up again. Yet it seems distant and `other' right now.

Which, on one level is right pain - as a lost part of me wants to be an entrepreneur again. But on another, is probably a sign that I am now, ten years on, boringly normal.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Just Giving Deserves its Profits

A few weeks ago I wrote a column in praise of the excellent charity Help for Heroes (H4H). Today I am going to disagree wholeheartedly with their public criticism of the excellent Just Giving, a private company which has enabled over half a billion pounds for charity.

What is Just Giving's crime? It charges 5% commission on donations. It is privately owned. Run for a modest profit. Pays its CEO and staff very well indeed. Simple as that.

This, we are told, is wrong. Instead, H4H is advising donors to use another site, one that doesn't make profits. A site that has been around now for a long time but, strangely, hasn't raised a great deal of money. And which, despite its relaunch, will take a very long time to scale the heights acheived by Just Giving.

It is on issus like this that I despair about our elements within our sector. Surely what matters about Just Giving isn't that it is profitable but that it has transformed giving in this country. Everyone knows someone who has used it. It is a brilliant innovation. Gone are the days of sponsorship forms, running after people for money and maybe getting round to claiming Gift Aid. Just Giving takes care of all of that. Charities should be falling all over these people in gratitude, not criticising them!

The oppobrium comes, I think, from a deep naivete about the way things like Just Giving happen in the first place. The founders had to develop new technology. They had then to get take-up to high enough levels to cover massive early outlays. And, on a personal level, they had to put their reputations and, probably, personal lives on the line for several years. Just to stay alive.

Now they are successful, yes, it all looks very good for them - the two owners have 10% each of the company. But it was not always thus. Not that they were motivated first by profit - both had a bigger goal: to transform UK fundraising. It was just that they figured the best way to do this was through a profit-pursuing company.

So come on, if you are one of those people nodding with agreement at the criticisms of Just Giving, ask yourself this. Would you prefer a return to the dark-age we were in before their appearance? Would you be happy for that half a billion to have been, at best, a hundred million - with next to no Gift Aid collected?

Thought not. So let's judge achievements, not mechanisms. Ends not means. And recognise a brilliant success story for what it is.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Getting Personalised

This week I met Simon Duffy, the founding CEO of In Control and Winner of the Royal Society's Albert Medal (previous winners include Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, Tim Berners-Lee).

Simon has recently moved on to set up a new initiative, the Centre for Welfare Reform. Though he would probably eschew such an accolade, Simon is one of the most influential people in the world right now in the world of social reform.

For it was Simon who persuaded the UK Government to try out personalised budgets, which are now the centrepiece not only of social care reform but also the latest thinking in education and health. Pretty much single-handedly, he changed the terms of political discourse on the issue of social care in this country. A Game-Changer, if ever there was one.

What makes him thus? Well, Simon is one of a uncommon type of person who can not only think in new ways but also deliver real change on the ground - and use that to augment his thinking. In the UK, we tend to split into either eggheads or pragmatists. Simon is both, which makes him special.

He is also radical in that he doesn't feel constrained to think in terms which speak to current policy fashions. He is further along the curve - and if the mainstream doesn't buy in just yet, he doesn't particularly worry. This gives him an uncommon freedom among intellectuals, many of whom are tied into the needs of the Beltway.

His new initiative is the Centre for Welfare Reform. Except it isn't `new' in that it builds on his core idea of positive citizenship. It also shares the critique of government made by InControl, namely that the system we have now is the hugely wasteful relic of a by-gone era of industrial-scale solutions delivered by a big state. The net effect of this has been the pulling apart of the`free' supports that people most require: Their own dignity as citizens. Their families. Their communities.

Sounding familiar? Well, this is what Simon was saying before even New Labour came along. But instead of just changing the system by influencing government (he's through with that after the experience of working with civil servants on In Control) he now wants to make real things happen and start the revolution from below. By working on new initiatives that show how, at a very local level, the big concepts can be played out.

Coming from most people this sounds wide-eyed stuff that would make you smile. But Simon Duffy isn't a person to be underestimated. He doesn't bend and, to a point, doesn't care what people think about his ideas.

But he's done it before - and he might well do it again. Watch out World.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Our Friends in the North

Sometimes the day you've just had sets you up for the one to come. This morning I am full of energy. Brimming in fact. Up at daybreak I ran through the first light which, within a couple of miles had become yet another sky blue Autumn day.

Yesterday till lunchtime I spent at our Youth Parliament for South Yorkshire, held in Barnsley. Here elected "MPs" with disabilities got into some serious dialogue about public transport with politicians (three local Westminster MPs), Councillors (about 5 attending) and various senior officers and transport company reps.

The young people acquitted themselves extremely well. Presentations were professional, brief and to the point. The responses were less brief but, generally of a high quality. The Parliament has a really interesting mix of purposes: empowerment, confidence-building, awareness-raising, creating new networks and, of course, building commitment towards change. Because it doesn't have any `power', it has to rely on influence - and this is I think what the dynamic of the day was all about. Very impressive and a reminder of what I am here to do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Full Stop for Full Cost Recovery

Full Cost Recovery. As a business-term, it sounds like something from a Czechoslovakian foundry circa 1973. But it is actually the pricing system for services from the UK third sector.

Full Cost Recovery. Think about that term and what it says. In effect, the message is "You owe it to me to pay the full cost I incurred in producing this service". No more, no less. Not what you want to pay or I am willing to accept. Just the "full costs", full-stop.

This does nobody a service. For providers it eliminates the prospect of profit. Which in turn means you can't build the business. For customers it means you have to pay the costs of production, whatever these happen to be.

So why are we in thrall to this idea? Shouldn't we really be thinking not about how we recover our costs but how we push down our costs so that providers actually want to use our services. I don' buy moral status of the costs of charities. Like all organisations, the cost of charities are subject to drift. To even imply someone else has a duty to meet them is ridiculous.

So let's hear less of Full Cost Recovery and more about how we drive down costs, create profits and grow our impact as a result. Full Stop.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Blackberries in October

They exist. In fact I made a fantastic haul just yesterday. I get pretty excited by blackberries. They are one of the few things you can actually, really eat from the Great Outdoors (I am no Ray Mears). And so many uses. Straight into porridge, or jam, or cooked with apple for a superb crumble.

Being able to get up from my desk and, within five minutes, be able to harvest a box full of blackberries is high on my reason-list for living where I do. While my garden is small, hop over the fence am I am in 200 acres of garden, peopled by the odd jogger or dog-walker.

Here I am in a classic Victorian park, planted 125 years ago with a range of native American cedars, redwooods and other `rare breeds' of trees. These tower above the oaks and sycamores, providing landmarks of where our house is from the fields and hills around.

Living here I think has told me that my location - as near to nature as possible - is as important to me as my actual dwelling. We could probably double the space for the money we spent to be here, but, I don't think I would ever swop this place, even for a suburban mansion. I am perfectly placed.

This is our first Autumn here. It isn't properly underway yet as the Indian Summer is clinging on but the first coldnesses are upon us and within weeks the blackberries will all be gone.

Until next year, of course.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Free Schools - Why I Support Them

Be in no doubt: The Tories are making the running at the moment. On welfare, they recognise the need for bold action and a step-change to making work pay. Likewise on education their free schools idea is a winner.

I say this not because I don't believe there will be huge difficulties. There will be. All sorts of problems will be caused when the first schools open - admissions, the challenge to existing schools, duplication, inequality - you name it. They will be legion.

But to dwell on these - as many will do - is to miss the larger point. Which is that free schools will break the current stranglehold that local authorities have on what is available to our children. Free schools allow resources to follow demand. They encourage diversity of provision. They pass economic power from people like me (or rather the educationalists I am elected to watch-over) to parents.

The reason I am probably sounding so fundamentalist on this issue is that the ecology of schools in my own town - Bury St Edmunds - is about to be completely destroyed by a local authority following a particular line that all schools should be two-tier.

This is regardless of the fact that just about every parent in the town (well I would say 85%) favours the current system. Three new County Councillors, myself included, were elected on a platform of local choice and opposition to this imposition. The money for change has pretty much dried up from Government. But still the juggernaut rolls on. Because, Suffolk's Tory leadership tells us, they have a democratic mandate to do whatever they like to education.

My own view is that it actually isn't up to politicians to tell people what kinds of schools people should send their kids to . Schools should conform to what parents demand of them.

Further to this, the effect of free schools will be to add a much-needed competitive edge to a system which seems stuck into the idea that we should have just the right number of places for the number of kids - resulting in even mediocre schools being guaranteed an intake. Competition, be it in the private or third sector - raises everyone's game - and shows the poorer players for what they are. Presently such schools are protected and just given exhortation to improve. Not good enough by my book.

While the new Free Schools will be disruptive, I think their presence will make Councils far more concerned than they are now with what parent, rather than Whitehall, wants.

Are you listening, Suffolk County Council??

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Brutal but Necessary

As you probably know am a County Councillor in Suffolk. The word here is of cuts in spending of up to a third over the next few years. Yes, I said a third. Very soon, we’ll be looking at a very different local authority. Delivering less. No longer about `doing things’ - but making sure they are done .

But just how will this gap between budgets and aspirations be bridged? Well, the talk is all about “social capital” – community self-help, mutual support and voluntarism. This is the headline strategy and there’s even a new cabinet portfolio in its name!

Sounds great. Yet can we generate enough of this vintage stuff in the digital, dissociative 2010s? Nobody truly knows but a sensible guess is that it will be no magic bullet, especially in areas where people don’t look at each other in the street, never mind help old ladies across the road.

So, on top, will be the tried and tested stuff - but this time turbo-charged! A pay and recruitment-freeze. A mass cull of expensive in-house people. And out-sourcing of traditional local authority mainstays such as schools, care-management and children’s services.

Enter the third sector. People, quite rightly, don’t trust the private megacorps to organize education and care. Their track-record is patchy. By contrast, charities and social businesses are trusted, have the right cost-base and draw in community effort. They have it all to play for.

It will all be very brutal. But there might be something better – and more financially sustainable – at the end.