Last week I attended a meeting of Suffolk County Council of which there are five or six proper meetings a year. This was the week of a feared global banking meltdown, some pretty grim national figures on the economy and locally, a time of extreme stress as people struggle with the future.
We spent the first forty-odd minutes of this meeting discussing a change in the council's constitution pertaining to the right to speak of various councillors in relation to the public questions which take place at the start of the meeting. This discussion was tedious, to say the least, and I am proud to say that I spent nearly all of it writing on my Blackberry to a constituent whose life is being made hell by changes to council policy around social care!
This is a theme I know I have touched on before. Most people on the Council are comfortable-retired - members of the Jackpot Generation without mortgages and debt and in receipt of secure pensions. They don't have to work, they have defined income and few outgoings. Their kids, by and large, are older and they don't have many worries. And some, of course, are fairly narrow in their field of concern. There could be a nuclear war going on out there - but as long as the bombs didn't land on Suffolk, they would be happier discussing the condition of the roads in Saxmundham or street-lighting in Wickhambrooke.
Now I know what Councils are for. We're not about high-politics. We don't control the economy or affect the state of the world. We are here to worry about the roads and street lighting. But aren't we somehow supposed to bring some kind of awareness of the world we are living in into the room with us? Shouldn't we at least be focussing on how we can help kick-start the Suffolk economy as it goes through a period of strain? Or deal with the massive public service cuts we need to make?
Although the Andrea Hill era is now over, one thing it never was is boring. Each meeting felt like we were discussing the issues of our time. The need for public sector reform. The realities we need to face. That's one reason why Suffolk, for a short time, became interesting news to people on the outside. We were, at least, gripping the issues, as a Council. It made turning up as a Member interesting. There was plenty to say and to take away. The new leadership, while quietly dealing with our 'issues' as a Council has, very adeptly, kept discussion fairly low key.
So what have I done about this? Have I introduced a motion for discussion? No, not yet, but I intend to. Just to have a proper debate about what it is we're now doing as a Council to tackle the mountain in front of us. Andrea is gone - but how we're going to address the problems she correctly identified is as clear to me as mud. There is no strategy that I can see beyond keeping us out of the headlines for a while.
I actually really rate the new Leader of the Council and the new interim CEO. I think this could be an exciting time for Suffolk, I really do. But I think a desire to 'Keep Calm and Carry On' has superceded our genuine purpose as a Council - to be the voice and beating heart of Suffolk. With our membership, that is never going to be guaranteed, but that is what any good elected group actually should be, whatever the weather.