Lincolnshire County Council Annual General Meeting – Cllr Martin Hill, Leader
In an era of 24-hour news, what’s important is often drowned out by the trivial.
Media outlets – desperate to fill bulletins and websites – bombard us with overblown political rows and gossip.
In studios, self-appointed experts talk us through the issues, adding noise but little light to the debate.
Fake news has added a dangerous new element, as untruths and half-truths muddy the waters even more.
That fuels anger and abuse – particularly on social media – when what we need is calm and considered debate.
Of course, rational decision-making has been almost entirely absent from Parliament during the Brexit crisis.
Determined to block the outcome of the referendum, some MPs have tried every trick in the book to prevent us leaving.
Others want to water it down to a thin Remain gruel, or Brexit in name only.
That’s a betrayal of democracy – and those MPs will be punished at the ballot box when voters have their say.
The result of all this has been paralysis in Westminster, where virtually nothing is getting done – at this stage, not even Brexit itself.
Around the country, the vast majority of people – however they voted in the referendum – are telling politicians to “just get on with it”.
That message came over loud and clear in the local council elections a fortnight ago, as the two main parties paid a heavy price for failing to deliver Brexit.
Quite rightly, the public want the country to move on to other pressing issues, forging a bright new future outside the EU.
In contrast to the Westminster meltdown, this council doesn’t need reminding to get on with the important things – it’s what we do every day.
Alongside our partners, we continue to provide good – often excellent – frontline services to our 750,000 residents.
We’re also determined to innovate at every opportunity, making services better rather than just keeping them the same.
As members know, that’s no easy task at a time of hugely reduced funding, and with both demand and our responsibilities growing.
Lincolnshire councils also lose out on £116m of annual funding compared with the England average – despite the cost of providing services across a large rural area.
We’ll therefore continue our “Fair Deal for Lincolnshire” campaign, calling for a local government formula that’s fit for purpose.
We’re also urging the Government to finalise its green paper on social care, which urgently needs a new financing model.
Even with these issues unresolved, this authority has achieved an enormous amount over the past 12 months, and I’ll highlight some of our key successes today.
They cover areas as diverse as roads and broadband, schools and safeguarding, flood risk and fire and rescue, social care and public health.
Across the board, we’re delivering on the things that local people really care about – and on the manifesto of this Conservative administration.
It’s about putting the important above the trivial. It’s also about trust, which is in short supply in politics these days.
A strong top team
Before I move on, I’d like to welcome two new executive directors attending their first full council today.
James Drury will bring experience and drive to the Commercial post, transforming our procurement, business and IT.
We’re also delighted to have appointed Andrew Crookham, who will lead Resources at a vital time, with Pete Moore due to retire shortly.
Congratulations, as well, to Andy Gutherson and Les Britzman, whose interim roles in charge of Place and Fire and Rescue have been made permanent.
They have tough acts to follow in Richard Wills and Nick Borrill, who – along with Pete – deserve the very real thanks of this council.
All three have been central to our achievements over many years, and we wish them well in retirement.
Staying with senior management, members will join me in thanking Debbie Barnes for leading them so effectively as Head of Paid Service.
She’s supported by a strong team, and our new appointments can only make it stronger.
Protecting the vulnerable
Turning now to this council’s achievements, let’s start with our work to protect the vulnerable.
As members know, our older population is growing all the time as people live longer and move to the county to retire.
To put that in context, we expect the number of over-65s to rise to 250,000 over the next 20 years.
Demand for social care for the younger generation is also going up, together with costs such as the National Living Wage.
Alongside these, the Government has given us significant extra responsibilities, without any additional funding.
They include paying the minimum wage for overnight sleep-in services, at an extra cost of £1.5m a year.
New criteria around Deprivation of Liberty Safeguarding have also led to a huge rise in applications – nearly 5,000 in Lincolnshire last year.
A third area is the number of adults with autism eligible for social care, up by 18% in three years.
Despite all these pressures – and even as our funding continues to fall – we’ve balanced the adult care budget for seven years in a row.
That’s an achievement shared by only a handful of councils, and is the result of taking difficult decisions at an early stage.
As part of our adult care focus, we’re working more closely with district colleagues to improve housing options for older and disabled people.
In Lincoln, for example, we’ve agreed a development for 70 extra-care units, with schemes in three other areas under consideration.
Closer working is also paying dividends as we help people live independently through adaptations to their homes.
Spending on these will be nearly £7m this year, providing about 400 different types of help, more quickly than in the past.
More generally, the NHS in Lincolnshire has started a “Healthy Conversation” with communities about how it needs to change.
We’ve been working alongside our partners to ensure a robust public debate, enabling the full range of views to feed into any proposals.
We’re also encouraging integration between the NHS and the council around neighbourhood teams, transport and other shared issues.
For the younger generation
Services for children and young people are another vital part of our work, where our record of achievement is as strong as ever.
At Key Stage 2, for example, we’ve seen an upward trend over the past three years, with a 3% improvement in the past 12 months alone.
The percentage of pupils performing well at Key Stage 4 is also high, and almost 20% achieved the tough grades needed for the English Baccalaureate.
To raise standards further, we’ve attracted extra funding and expertise from the Strategic School Improvement Fund.
We’ve also invested £50m in Lincolnshire’s special schools, creating an integrated system to meet the needs of pupils in their local communities.
In the SEND inspection last year, children and young people gave positive feedback about their services, developed with input from parents and carers.
Across Lincolnshire, we’re successfully meeting demand for new school places, and secured a £23m capital allocation for this year.
Over the decade to 2020, more than £90m will have been invested in new facilities – helping parents get the schools of their choice.
For children starting primary or secondary for the first time, the rate is above 90%, rising to 95% for the reception intake.
In other positive news from Children’s Services:
- Our Partners in Practice programme is improving the quality of social care, and we’ve supported Rotherham and other councils as they progress.
- The Troubled Families initiative has helped nearly 3,000 local households turn their lives around, as well as attracting significant extra funding.
- All seven of our children’s homes have been judged good, with most praised as outstanding.
- We have 22 Foster Carer Champions working with schools to improve learning, and an adoption podcast was nominated for two national awards.
- Our 48 children’s centres continue to support local families, with almost half celebrating 10 years at the heart of their communities in 2018.
Last year also saw the insourcing of public health nursing, enabling us to develop a fully integrated service for children and young people.
Already, performance times for health visits have improved significantly, and the service achieved over 60,000 contacts in just 12 months.
Another notable success is the Better Births programme, where joint working is creating a network of community hubs across the county.
These offer midwifery, health visiting and other vital services, and have attracted interest from NHS England and other national bodies.
Keeping Lincolnshire moving
On Lincolnshire’s roads, 2018 saw a welcome drop of almost 10% in the number of people killed and seriously injured.
However, we’re never complacent, and bids to the Safer Roads Fund have brought in an extra £2m for improvements.
Upgraded speed cameras, community schemes and awareness courses are also changing driver behaviour.
Helped by the mild winter, we fixed over 100,000 potholes last year, as well as resurfacing 85 miles of road.
We also co-ordinated 39,000 permit applications, easing congestion caused by utility and other roadworks.
Turning to major schemes:
- The £124m Lincoln Eastern Bypass is now really taking shape, with completion due in May next year.
- We’re expecting to start work this summer on the second phase of the Grantham Southern Relief Road.
- By the end of the year, Go Skegness will be finished, promoting sustainable travel on the coast.
To improve transport, we brought concessionary fares back in-house, slashing processing times.
We also lead the award-winning Poacher Line Rail Partnership, and CallConnect has celebrated its 18th anniversary with a 4% rise in passengers.
In the south of the county, our Teckal company is providing bus services where the market has failed to come up with solutions.
Our Independent Travel Training and Max Respect schemes are also reaching out to young people, improving confidence and behavioural awareness.
For those with disabilities, Business Support dealt with 17,000 Blue Badge applications in 2018, with 97% resolved on time.
On the environment, our Energy from Waste plant will reach a significant milestone later this year when it processes its millionth tonne of waste.
It will also have reduced landfill in the county by 92% over a decade, and created enough power for 140,000 homes.
To keep residents safe, the Wrangle Banks scheme has improved sea defences, in partnership with the Internal Drainage Board.
We’ve also successfully completed flood risk and carbon management plans, and are now drawing up new ones.
In all these areas, we’re meeting our environmental responsibilities, while still developing a transport network for the 21st century.
Obviously, that common-sense approach wouldn’t be enough for climate-change fanatics pursuing a radical agenda.
Thankfully, we answer to local residents living in the real world, and set our policies accordingly.
Creating jobs and prosperity
For ordinary people, jobs and prosperity are the bedrock of strong families and communities.
We therefore continue to support economic development, and over the past year have:
- Attracted a £1.5m grant to provide superfast broadband for remote communities and businesses.
- Improved the tourism offer on the Lincolnshire coast with the opening of the North Sea Observatory.
- Agreed a contract for the University of Lincoln to build a food technology centre in Holbeach.
- Helped nearly 750 businesses to develop, and held manufacturing and visitor economy conferences.
- Agreed an economic partnership with China’s Hunan Province.
Our Heritage Service has also continued to innovate, with the Museum of the Moon proving the most successful exhibition in The Collection’s history.
We also lent out two million books at county libraries, and are looking to invest in their IT.
More generally, we’ve been consulting on the future of the Heritage Service, to place it on a sustainable footing and enhance provision.
Inevitably, that has attracted some opposition – particularly from a vocal minority seemingly keen to preserve the Usher Gallery in aspic.
While everyone’s views will be taken into account, it’s our duty to look at the bigger picture across Lincolnshire as a whole.
Above all, we must ensure our heritage offer is attractive and relevant to a new generation of visitors.
That will protect the past not just for the present – but also for years to come.
Helping residents stay safe
It’s also been a positive year for Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue, which received a good inspection report, as well as dealing with 23,000 calls and 10,000 incidents.
We’re now investing nearly £10m in new vehicles and equipment, ensuring the service remains among the best-resourced in the country.
To improve efficiency and save money, the Blue Light programme has developed a combined fire and ambulance station in Sleaford.
In Lincoln, that process will go even further when a £21m tri-facililty – also involving the police – opens at South Park later this year.
Of course, Blue Light is just part of a wider drive towards shared public premises across Lincolnshire.
Called One Public Estate – and led by this council – it has already delivered co-located services in Spalding and Boston.
Another service central to public safety is Trading Standards, who have:
- Removed 1.5 million illicit and counterfeit cigarettes from sale.
- Prosecuted a used car dealer for selling a dangerous car and impersonating a trading standards officer.
- Worked with Fire and Rescue to share information relating to house fires involving consumer products.
To support the most vulnerable, Public Protection have commissioned countywide domestic abuse services worth £900,000 a year.
Last but not least, the Registration and Celebratory Service enjoys a 98% level of customer satisfaction, and has retained its excellence status.
It’s also providing help to EU citizens wanting to stay in the UK after Brexit under a new Settlement Scheme.
Making every pound go further
Fellow members, I’ve mentioned briefly the cuts to our funding, with our main government grant falling by 90% in just eight years.
Shire counties like ours also lose out massively to urban areas, which is why there’ll be no let-up in our Fair Dear for Lincolnshire campaign.
Although the Government hasn’t yet announced how future financing will work, there are signs that our lobbying is reaping rewards.
Taking last year and this together, we’ve been awarded £24m of additional funding to help meet the most pressing challenges.
They include the cost of delivering rural services; adult care winter pressures; the overall rise in demand for care; and the need for more road repairs.
In other words, the Government has – to a limited extent – already listened to our concerns, and put its hand in its pocket.
For the future, however, we need far more.
Above all, we must see a positive outcome from the local government funding review – whether that’s in 2020 or the following year.
We also require major change around social care financing – the subject of the long-awaited green paper.
As we wait for the Government to deliver on these, we had no choice this year but to increase council tax by 4.95%, including an extra 2% for adult care.
The rise will help us limit our use of reserves to £3m, ensuring we keep enough for difficult future years, as well as strengthening our tax base.
Even with the increase, we remain one of the lowest-charging English shire counties – a position we’re determined to maintain.
However, that now demands action from the Government, which must resolve the Brexit impasse and move on to other urgent issues.
Until it does, we’ll continue to make every pound of taxpayers’ money go as far as possible, protecting and investing in frontline services.
It’s what Lincolnshire Conservatives promised in our manifesto two years ago – and we won’t go back on our word.
Valuing our staff
Turning now to the Serco contract, significant performance improvements led us to extend the bulk of the arrangements until 2022.
At the same time, we took back certain key services, including professional People Management, with 51 staff moving across to join us.
In other HR developments, a Governance Review into our culture and values built on the success of our 2017 employee survey.
The survey showed that 96% of those taking part felt supported, while 88% had pride in working for the council.
I can also report that:
- Sickness levels are in line with the national standard of six days a year.
- Council staff turnover of 8.7% remains below industry levels.
- Children’s Services have reduced social worker vacancies to just 5%.
- Our reported gender pay gap is 2.1% – well below the national average.
- Looking to the future, we now have 167 apprentices in our ranks.
The payroll function is also greatly improved, and the pay statement project has overcome difficulties to reach a successful conclusion.
Delivering on promises
Fellow members, an annual review of this kind inevitably just scratches the surface of what we’ve achieved over the past year.
Dig deeper, and you’ll find innovations and improvements across every single one of our many service areas.
That’s testament to the dedication of councillors from across this chamber, as well as the officers on the front line of delivery.
As with all organisational success, it’s about teamwork – setting common goals, and then working together to achieve them.
For local authorities, of course, the focus is always on providing the best possible services for our residents.
And we’re committed to doing that in Lincolnshire, even as our funding falls, demand rises, and extra responsibilities are passed to us.
I spoke earlier about the possible betrayal of Brexit – and therefore the democratic process itself – as the Westminster paralysis continues.
Here in Lincolnshire – and at this authority – we do things better than that.
When we’re voted into office, we roll up our sleeves and deliver what we promised.
And long may that continue.