As we reach the end of not just a year, but a decade, it gives me an opportunity for a moment of reflection. So much has happened politically over the last 12 months, both locally and nationally. As leader of the council it is important that I allow myself time to review our year – those things that went well – and thankfully there are several - and those where opportunities were lost, or lessons have been learnt.
I am exceptionally proud of all that Suffolk County Council has achieved during 2019 – it has been a year of national recognition for the services we deliver. In April, Ofsted inspectors awarded our Children’s Services its top grade of ‘Outstanding’. This reflects the significant positive impact that we make when supporting vulnerable children and families. Ofsted also praised the experiences and progress of Suffolk children who need help and protection. Of course, none of this would be possible without the hard work and dedication of our staff and partners, which was reflected when Ofsted commended the “stable and aspirational leadership” in the service.
This wasn’t the only cause for celebration, last month we were awarded silver in the Social Worker Employer category at the Social Worker of the Year awards. There was stiff competition as we were one of 94 finalists across 16 categories - which makes the judges recognising the life-changing work our social work team does to support children and families in achieving their full potential an even greater achievement.
Our adult social care services also got some well-deserved recognition in September, when Mills Meadow in Framlingham was officially rated as ‘Outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission. This brings our total of Suffolk care locations rated as either ‘Outstanding’ or ‘Good’ to over 87%, which highlights the strong quality of care available in Suffolk – even when demand is high, as at any one time 9,600 people across Suffolk are supported by Adult Social Care Services. It is testament to the tireless work of our care staff, many of who will be working over the festive period.
And just last week we heard that Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has been rated ‘good’ following an independent inspection. The report praised it effectiveness, efficiency and how well it leads and manages its staff. Inspectors also recognised how well SFRS collaborates with other emergency services and agencies, how it responds to fires and other emergencies, how it ensures fairness and promotes diversity, and the financially sound way the service is run. What an achievement!
Although we have accomplished a great deal this year, we are, like many other local authorities, not immune to the pressure on our budget to provide high quality services. The demand in children’s services and in special educational needs, is reflected in our proposed council tax increase of 1.99%. There will also be a 2% increase for the social care precept element, which will enable us to continue our work to help people live as independently as possible for as long as possible.
I appreciate the proposed increase in council tax may not be a popular decision, or easily affordable for some people, but it is essential that we continue to be prudent with our budget, so we can provide the best services to Suffolk. This increase, along with a better annual settlement we’re set to receive from central government, means we don’t need to make the significant cutbacks we’ve been forced to in previous years, but we will continue to deliver our transformation savings programme. The additional income will also enable us to restore a Citizens Advice Bureaux grant of £360,000 over three years and give Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) an extra £500,000 annually.
Whilst I’m keen to reflect on our successes this year, it is important that I also reflect on what we could have done better. Our home to school transport policy implementation was far from ideal and I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to parents who struggled to get their bus passes on time, despite the best efforts of our hardworking officers. We are currently undertaking an independent review of the implementation as there are lessons to be learned, which will lead to improvements going forward.
I also acknowledge that we need to make our special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) services a priority. Ofsted’s reinspection of this area in March highlighted the progress with our plans and leadership since their last inspection in December 2016, however there’s still plenty to improve on and I am determined that children and young people with SEND get the quality of support they deserve.
From humble reflection to excited anticipation for 2020 – I’m looking forward to what next year will bring.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my cabinet for their hard work and dedication. Most importantly, I am grateful for all the support you’ve given me this year. It is always a pleasure to chat with as many people as possible at the Suffolk Show or at our We Are Listening roadshows, which visited nine towns and villages across Suffolk during the year. Whilst national recognition is always welcome, hearing first-hand about the positive difference Suffolk County Council is making is the best accolade of all. Wishing you a prosperous and Happy New Year.