Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Backwoodsmen have spoken

Yesterday, in Suffolk, something small but important happened. The ruling Conservatives on Suffolk County Council elected a new leader. Not the person we all expected, but a backbencher, and Chair of Scrutiny, Cllr. Mark Bee, who has expressed reservations about the Council's much publicised New Strategic Direction or 'Virtual Council' strategy.

His first act as Leader has been to reprieve all of Suffolk's crossing patrols and to pledge that no public service will be divested until all options had been fully explored. You could smell the rubber on this particular U-turn. If this is a flavour of what is to come, it is quite possible that the New Strategic Direction could very quickly become the Old one.

So how has this come about? What has turned Suffolk from daring outsourcer to protector of crossing-patrols in 24 hours? Very simply, the power of the Backwoodsmen - shire-Tory Councillors who, for the last six months, have been getting in the neck at Parish Council meetings. This breed are often not deeply political. Many are One Nation types who don't like anything fancy, and prefer to see the Council out of the news. Others are big community players who like to be seen on the side of the people. For the Backwoodsmen, the New Strategic Direction has always been a challenge.

But what tipped the balance? What caused them to elected a new Leader totally unassociated with the current direction of travel You could say that the media campaign against the CEO of Suffolk, Andrea Hill, has not helped. However, what really did it was very simple - crossing patrols. Last month, in order to save £180,000, Suffolk County Council decided to pass responsibility for its crossing patrols to unspecified others - Town Councils, Boroughs, communities, schools even.

This wasn't, of course, about saving money. It was a Big Statement, to say, this is what we are doing - and it's up to communities now to pick up where the state is leaving the stage. Many of us sensed that, regardless of the merits, this was Bad Politics - and a really daft way to get people signed up to major change. But the Administration pressed on, despite an outcry. Rather than pull back and say 'We're listening', they said ploughed on, leaving many on their own side, privately, very upset.

Which brings us back to politics. Good politics is, often, about the successful management of change. Getting people on board early. Giving people a chance to feel heard. Offering them influence over what is in their domain. Responding to emotion and being prepared to give a little in exchange for full backing. The reason why Suffolk's New Strategic Direction is now vulnerable isn't so much its content - much of which is laudable - but its political management. It has been presented in a confrontational fashion and politicians haven't done the necessary work both inside the Council and beyond to see the policy through to implementation.

What will happen next? Like many Councillors, I am pleased to see a clear commitment to listening. However, I also worry that moves to shift services into social enterprises and charities will stall. I worry that the cuts we need to make will come from procurement from large global corporates, and by closing services, rather than intelligent divestment. And I fear the effects of any profound change in direction in between elections. For those organisations seeking to partner with the Council, these cannot be easy times.

So, the Backwoodsmen have spoken. Who says backbench Councillors have no power?

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