Audio: Shona Johnstone Interview

IN a wide ranging interview, Councillor Shona Johnstone reflects on next year s budget planning and the challenges it presents. Cllr Johnstone, in her first year as leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, spoke to JOHN ELWORTHY at recording studios i

IN a wide ranging interview, Councillor Shona Johnstone reflects on next year's budget planning and the challenges it presents. Cllr Johnstone, in her first year as leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, spoke to JOHN ELWORTHY at recording studios in Cambridge. Her 40 minute interview - in which reveals publicly for the first time the decision to review the decision for a roundabout on the A141 in the Fens- is available for you to listen to via our website. Cllr Johnstone discusses congestion charges, lack of Government funding for infrastructure, the challenges facing the county council in areas of deprivation in places such as Oxmoor and Wisbech, and raises intriguing possibilities for schools transport.

John- Before we started the interview Shona, we were talking about your ring tone and you were worried in case the recording interrupted it, but actually you have a wonderful ring tone. Tell us more about it....

Shona - My ring tone is very ancient and my children are totally embarrassed but it's Simon & Garfunkel - 'Keep the customer satisfied'

John - Is that being played across the entire County Council empire at the moment, or should it be played?

Shona - Well, I think it's quite a good thing we should use when we have people on hold, not that we keep people on hold for very long because we have a very excellent contact centre.

John - That's always good news in the Fens because we are leading the way with our one stop shops and our contact centre's, so we're used to good service. Do you actually have to monitor how quickly you answer calls, is that all part of everything these days?

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Shona - Yes we do, we are developing a much stronger performance management system, so we monitor phone calls, how long it takes to answer and how many people hang up before it's answered, which fortunately is very few because we have a very good record for answering calls.

John - Good records always interesting though, but you've gone out to consultation as to what you think your priorities are, but you know what your priorities are for next year because they're part of an ongoing programme. Isn't consultation a bit of a myth? I noticed when you were saying it recently, well we could do this we could do that but in reality you know roughly what you're going to be doing because you're contractually obliged and legally bound to do some of it and the conservatives in control are going to do certain things anyway. What is there for the public to tell you what you don't already know?

Shona - I think it's important we go out and talk to the public and ask them whether they think the priorities are right. Yes you're right so much of what we do is controlled by central government which I don't agree with.

One of the issues around local elections and why people don't come to vote is because they say 'why do I bother' because central government is telling us in local government what to do. I still think where we've got areas of choice about what our priorities are, we should go out and talk to the public and ask them, 'do you think that managing the growth agenda and the new housing we've got to do is a priority or do you think we concentrate on other areas?

Do you think we should be looking after our older people better or do you think we should concentrating on youth services? And actually to see within those broad themes, where the areas are that people are really concerned about.

John - But how would people know whether your looking after your old people well or not? Or whether you're looking after your young people? You'd have to be involved in one or the other, in which case you're going to be singing from a different hymn sheet from one to the other.

One of the problems that we discovered in going out and asking people what questions they would like to put to you and to put to the council, is that very few people actually want to say because they're not sure where to gain the access into it, and they actually feel, perhaps wrongly, that their voice doesn't count.

Shona - Well that's why we've changed the way that we do our consultation around the budget. In the past, we've had the budget settlement from the government in early December, end of November. Then we spend December and January going out to consultation on 'do you think this is right sort of priorities for the budget and therefore the right level of council tax?'

Actually we're doing it a different way this year because in the past, essentially, the budget determines the priorities. I think it needs to be the other way round. The priorities that we set, following consultation with residents in Cambridgeshire, therefore determines the budget.

So if people come back and say actually we think that adult social care is the most important thing that you as a council have got to address. Then clearly when we come to determine our budget, we need to reflect that in our budget settlement and actually be investing more money in adult social care, if we agree with the public. Which actually I would do, I think adult social care is extremely important.

John - But you said yesterday you're not expecting much of an improvement on the grant from the government anyway, so you're not really talking about there being a great deal of money to make the choices from.

Sheona - No, and that's one of the problems we face is that our budget settlement are so low and so abysmal, and we know we are going to get about a one percent increase. Yet again local government is the poor relation with all the public services. Which I think is upside down but we can talk about that later, but yes we are very constrained.

But within the overall settlement, within the overall pot there is scope for some movement around. For example, if people think adult social care is more important than youth services or the other way round, and they say that, then we can reflect that in where that little bit of scope that little bit of slack comes into the budget.

John - But people when they're looking at their bills and their saying my goodness, that's this and that's that, surely they want their bills to be as cheap as possible. Although your predecessor, Keith Walters, made the point every year, do you want a three percent and we can do this, four percent and you can do that or five percent and you can do that. You've resisted that temptation to put percentages on it, in terms of what can then be done. So you're not giving people a consultation on what they fancy paying next year, you're saying lets have your priorities or your wish list if you like, then we will decide for you what we think your council tax can be within the priorities set down by the government anyway.

Shona - To be honest, last year when we did the consultation what a lot of people were saying was, well the difference between a three percent council tax rise and a four percent council tax rise and a five percent council tax rise, in terms of what we're paying as council tax payers is so little.

In a way, is it pointless having a consultation around that, which is why I think having a consultation around what the priorities of the council should be, is a better way of approaching the problem. Then of course clearly when we get the actual settlement for government. We know the government will short change local authorities again through the comprehensive settlement review, we know that's the case.

What we don't know yet is the actual detail around that because that's still got to come through, but hopefully we'll get that towards the end of November, beginning of December. Then we can look, but of course we're very constrained by government because they're saying 'we've given you all this money, you don't need to put your council tax up by more than five percent.' So we're stuck between a rock and a hard place.

John - Ok, what would you say are your personal priorities as an individual member of the council and as the leader of the council, not compared to the previous administration but in terms it was Gordon Brown taking over from Tony Blair.

Shona - A lot of people have made that connection.

John - He's setting out a new agenda and a new vision if you like, in saying now that were not having an election in this autumn but, judge me on my policies. It's fair to put that point to you. Keith had a particularly, almost idiosyncratic style of leadership. I detect yours as being slightly different.

Shona - Yes I'm a very different leader from Keith. I think we have the same approach to providing high quality services for low cost, nothing has changed there. We've stopped and had a good look at where, as an authority, we want to be. We've had a number of inspections of our services in the past twelve months. Those are going to be published fairly soon.

It's given us an opportunity to look at the direction the Cambridgeshire county council wants to take. Also look at the priorities that we want to have. I'm in a very fortunate position in some ways I've got children still at school, the youngest has just moved out of primary school to secondary school. So I've got that experience but I also have a mother-in-law now who's getting older and increasing needs support from us. Possibly in the longer term support from the public services. So I can see it from both ends.

So I can look at what are the stresses and strains that the average Mum in the playground has. Therefore where should we as a county council be investing our resources.

John - Ok, come off the fence then young or old?

Shona - Of course I'll sit on the fence, but there's got to be a balance. The schools get a good settlement from government because they get what is called Direct Schools Grants, so they're funded directly from government now.

John - But there's still pupils in the East of England

Shona - Absolutely and we've been part of the F40 group, which is the group of lowest funded education authorities, and we've been pressing our case with government for a long time.

So we are poorly funded. I think there needs to be a balance but what I would say actually is I think there needs to be more money invested in local authorities. If, for example, you were to invest more money in local authorities for adult social care, you could help older people to live at home independently where they want to be for longer.

Whereas investing it in the health service, excellent! I'm a non-executive director at Addenbrokes so I see it from both sides. But if actually you invest it there, you're actually saying well we're not going to spend the money until the people need the care in hospital. Whereas actually if you invested it further up, you wouldn't actually need to send them to hospital in the first case in many instances.

John - But that's not necessarily a resource issue, it's also applying those resources better. The report that came out recently on the social services and your links with the PCT, it wasn't altogether 100% favourable and to say that you are really joint up because obviously amalgamated into the Cambridgeshire PCT within fairly recent history.

They're saying a lot more needs to be done and the areas of responsibility probably need to be more clearly defined. To say which the priority is, what the report is suggesting is that you may find the priority by actually doing the job and using the resources that are there, but just tying up the procedures a lot better than they have been at the moment.

Shona - I think you've raised a very important point that actually we need to be working much more closely with our partners. For example the Primary Care Trust. I think it's excellent that we have one Primary Care Trust that covers the county because then we've got a really common agenda in terms of serving our residence well.

If you join up our resources with our partners, with the Primary Care Trust, with the District Council and if you do that better, then you get much better value for money. That's one of the areas we're looking at. Where can we share our services, whether that's providing a single contact centre. We already share a contact centre with South Cambridgeshire District Council.

You can save money by sharing your services. We need to look at better ways in which we can deliver high quality services, but actually cut the cost by providing a single service with our partners.

John - You didn't really come off the fence did you, when I said young or old? It's not your responsibility to be on the fence is it? You need to say these are my priorities. Why else are you wanting to be leader of the council? Why are you wanting to steer this administration?

One wants to hear where you believe we have been perhaps under resourced over the last few years. Does youth need to catch up with what resources are available for older people? Are you allowed your personal preferences, as to where you think there are some weaknesses in the services that are being provided?

The services of the social services are clearly not good enough because of the star ratings that you are at the lowest levels of.

Shona - I would say with regards to adult social care and the star ratings which haven't yet been published, they'll be published later on. The inspection report that was carried out recently, what that indicates actually is that we could improve the services to adults and save money at the same time.

We're not spending our money in the best way. Now we've got an action plan which will coming into cabinet next week, which will address precisely how we get better value for money. I don't think it's so much an issue, in some ways, as young or old. Actually are we spending it in right parts of the county? Are we really investing our money where those people who need it most are living? Do people in South Cambridgeshire get the best deal or do people in Fenland? Are we actually putting resources in the right area of the county?

I think that's an area we need to look at and we have looked at it.

John - Don't you know?

Sheona - We do know and we do know we need to be investing more money in the areas of deprivation. There are some places in Cambridge, there are place around Huntingdon, in terms of Oxmoor, and we've done a lot of investment there. We also know that we need to be shifting resources.

We have been shifting resource up towards the Fenland area. Investing more money to improve life chances for people in Fenland. We've done an awful lot of work but I still think there's more to do.

John - Do you know the county well enough?

Shona - Yes

John - Do you think the offices and the people who are running the portfolios know the county well enough to adequately respond to the challenges that are being faced by them?

Shona - I think we do know the county well enough. I've picked what I believe to be a highly experienced group of members to be part of my cabinet. They represent the whole of the county. We do know the area well. I spend a lot of time travelling around the county as part of my children's services portfolio brief last year.

I spent a very long time, with frequent visits up to Wisbech visiting what is now Thomas Clarkson School. So did my officers. That's paid off because we can see, what was the Queens school now the Thomas Clarkson School, the amount of investment that we've put in there and the support we've given to that school. You can see the positive outcomes, in terms of the increased GCSE results. Which were much better than they were the previous year.

John - They're still below the government accepted norms though aren't they?

Shona - They are, but if you look at where we were just over twelve months ago and where we are now, a massive increase. We can see because we've put support and investment into that school because we've worked hard, then we can see improved outcomes.

What you will see is if you invest in young people and you can get improved GCSE results, improved attainment. It's not just about academic achievement it's about actually learning for life, so that they've got the life skills. If you can invest in that, not in five years time but in ten, twenty, thirty years time, you'll see an improvement. It's a long haul.

John - I think it's too early to be claiming the Thomas Clarkson a success.

Shona - We're starting to turn it around, I would never say it's a success yet. We're turning it around.

John - The jury is still out. That's virtually the admission John Bennett gave. I heard an interview with him earlier in the week.

Shona - He's got a lot of work to do.

John - He said we are not even at the beginning of the true recovery and we're just breaching the defences at the moment, getting ourselves back on track.

Shona - Absolutely, but what we've done in twelve months has been very significant, in terms of putting in the interim Executive Head Teacher Tony Cooper. Addressing some of those issues around behaviour, around attendance and what we've seen is where behaviour and attendance has improved, what you've got is better outcomes in terms of GCSE results. I'm not saying it's perfect by no means, there's a long way to go. John Bennett recognises that and the local authority recognises that. But in the context of do I know what's going on around the county, then, yes I think I do.

John - One of the problems that people in Fenland and Huntingdonshire particularly and other parts of the county are going to be facing now, when you're talking about education is the problems with transportation in.

You're having tremendous pressures on schools transport and the cost of Post-16's now having to find extra money and saying that can come out of their 30 pound a week allowance because it was meant to do this anyway. Again a lot of people in rural areas feel this is yet another issue they want to take up with you. Saying, again that it's the rural areas that are being most highly disadvantaged.

This is certainly going to be true if the changes happen in the day care provision, which is another consultation process which you've done and I would like to come back to that in just a moment. People in rural areas do feel, I believe and from the experience that we can certainly monitor are feeling, there ain't much in it for me is there?

Shona - I think in terms of people living in rural areas and their access to transport and such like, that's one thing that I've always been conscious of. People in rural areas do only have one choice which is their car sometimes. We want to do a lot more. We've got a transport review that's going on which looks at better ways of joining up. For example community transport schemes. I think we could join up again issues about school buses, which then go on to provide other services allowing people to get into local market towns. Should we as an authority, for example, would it help if we had our own school buses? I don't know the answer to that question but it's something we're looking at.

John - Well it would probably be a lot safer than some of the reports that come our way about the standard of some of the school buses. I think there was a period last year when I was being rung up constantly about parents concerned about the buses that their children were being taken to school in.

Shona - There were some issues around buses up in the Peterborough area I know that and about the safety. We have very stringent safety requirements in terms of the contracts we let. I'm never going to say there isn't a problem that would be naïve, but we do the best job we can.

We need to look about home school transport. We need to make sure we've got places for the children where they need them. I know there's a particular issue that has arisen in the last year in East Cambridgeshire for example, particularly around the Primary level. The problem as parents, and I'm a parent, we don't have our children in nice little blocks so that we all send our children to school and we've all got the same sort of size classes. It's much easier to organise classes in cities where the schools are much closer together.

Where you have a village school we do need to be more flexible because you will get school classes that vary enormously. I'm a governor of a small school which will have class sizes that vary from four children to 12 children. It's very difficult to manage.

John - What do you then see are the difficulties for people in rural areas? It seems to some people in rural areas that the larger urban areas get the best deal all the way round, they get the park and ride. Obviously they get the congestion charge as well, but we get the congestion charge as well as we're the people who have to drive in.

Shona - Not if you use park and ride.

John - Yet you see things like the extra houses in the rural community. Somebody was talking about the Trumpington development this week and they said where are you going to put all these 1200 cars.

One of the planners was on the radio said there is no plan for better infrastructure. Basically the road will have to get used to the amount of extra traffic.

Shona - I don't agree with that. I do not agree with the statement that says the infrastructure is going to have to get used to it. I spent eight years, as you know, leading the environment and transport, constantly arguing the need to improve the infrastructure. I think I'm on record, probably about ten years ago now at a conference with the then government minister, saying that I had three priorities.

This was, paraphrasing Tony Blair, infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. I will continue arguing that we need to have the infrastructure. You cannot have all this extra development and expect the existing road structure to support that, it just won't work, it's not good enough. If necessary we have to take a hard line with government and say 'you want us to have this extra development, you've got to support us to deliver that' and that means supporting us financially.

John - There isn't a lot of money around for infrastructure is there?

Shona - Well I think the government needs to look at where its priorities are.

John - I looked at the transport minutes, for east Cambs and also for Fenland, and it almost appears as if the market town strategies, in certainly March and Wisbech, have all but been mothballed. There seems to be very little going on, no money and not even the joint programmes that are available, i.e. you put some money in as a town council and we'll share it.

They look to be at risk and there's no certainty about them. So having gone through the process of finding two out of nearly 30 schemes in Fenland, there's no guarantee that these two will go ahead because the funding may not be there. It doesn't seem that you have a lot of money to play with.

Shona - We don't have a lot of money to play with. That comes back to my first choice that Cambridgeshire is constantly being short changed by government. Not only in terms of revenue but in terms of the capital moneys we need. We've got a huge bill for infrastructure. We have got to have that infrastructure in place. We know that the area will come to a halt with the additional housing if we don't do something.

John - What about our roundabout at Goosetree?

Shona - Well we're looking at that.

John - No we're not looking at that, it should have been built!!

Shona - Sorry, it should have been built. There is a problem with the soil structure. We're looking at how to address that.

John - Its' Fenlands soil and it has always been Fenlands' soil. Drive for 50 miles in either direction and you'll find Fenland soil.

Shona - When we're going to build a big roundabout like that we need to make sure we've got it right. One of the things we've been looking at is, are roundabouts the best solution? I've asked the officers to go away and have a look, because in a couple of areas in A roads we've put in traffic lights.

The transport planners have always been quite nervous about traffic lights, as to whether they would work and whether they would be more dangerous because of cars travelling at high speeds having to break for a red light. The experience we've had with traffic lights along the A11 in Norfolk (Elveden) isn't a problem.

John - Excuse me, but any driver using the A11 will tell you there is a major problem of crossing that road. I go there regularly and on a Friday and Saturday and it's queuing 8 or 9 miles in either direction because of the traffic lights installed at Elveden.

Shona - There's a difference between queuing traffic, which holds traffic up, and are they dangerous because traffic has to break for a red light. So I think you need to look at the two different angles to it. It's an example where traffic lights have been put in on a major road and they are not a safety hazard. So we're looking at what is the best solution for that roundabout because events have moved on since I first gave a commitment that we would do something about that junction. That commitment still remains.

John - The commitment to do something about the junction remains, but the commitment for a roundabout has gone.

Shona- What I'm looking at, is there a better solution?

John - It was in your programme to be built.

Shona - We have a commitment that we will start work on that junction in this financial year and that is a commitment I am happy to go public on.

John - To start work on the junction, but not necessarily work on a roundabout. Why has it taken two or three years to find out there might be a better solution?

Shona - Because we've been looking at the soil surface and how we might manage that.

John - You're saying that the soil surface is not suitable therefore we need to find another alternative. Or looking another alternative because it'll cost less money and do the job.

Shona - I gave a commitment three years ago, when I was lead member of environment and transport, that we would do something with that junction. At that time a roundabout was the only solution. We've done further work on that junction in terms of looking at the soil and then the detailed work that needs to go ahead. You have various stages in a project.

You have the outline case, where you say 'yes we're going to do something, we think a roundabout's the best solution.' Then you do the further detailed technical work and that did throw up a number of problems.

John - So why did the minutes of the area transport committee say there was a funding issue over the design?

Shona - What's coming through in terms of dealing with the issue of the soil structure is that it will cost more money. I've said, lets look at that and see if there is a better solution than a roundabout.

John - So why didn't someone go around and tell the people of Fenland before? Instead of having increased their expectations that there would be a roundabout. I'm not sure they would worry too much. I think what they are concerned about is, one of the questions we get asked more than anything, when is the roundabout going to be built?

We get procrastinated responses and unintelligible responses sometimes as to whether this is ever going to be built. Now you have clearly said it may not be built if there is an alternative or an equally good solution.

Shona - What I want is the best solution for that junction.

John - But it will be started, whatever the solution, in this financial year?

Shona - It will be started in this financial year.

John - Good. I was intrigued by and followed the consultation of the day care centres, I don't think that was your finest hour when it came to consultation.

Shona - I would agree with that.

John - Why with all the experience you have did it go so badly wrong? Councillors did not know what was being proposed, there was scurrying around to get documents out and there were some grossly inappropriate documents, in my opinion. Confidence was lost in the consultation process.

Shona - I will acknowledge it wasn't my finest hour. We didn't start it off in the right way possible. We didn't communicate well enough and it's a lesson we will have to learn.

John - Ok, let's just deal with the congestion charge issue for Cambridge and the progress of the guided bus. Where are we going with that?

Shona - We have a long term transport strategy that the council signed up to well over 12 months ago. It looked at the issues of transport for the Cambridgeshire area, but also concentrated on Cambridge. It goes back to the discussion earlier about the growth. We know for example 9,500 houses at Northstow, 3,000+ houses on the Southern fringe, around Trumpington. There's North-west Cambridge, the area between Madingley Road with around 4,000 houses.

There are so many more coming through. We've been extremely successful in managing that traffic growth so far, but we know with all the other things coming on stream it is getting increasingly more difficult.

John - So there will be a congestion charge?

Shona - No, I'm not saying there will be a congestion charge. What I'm saying is we want a first class transport strategy for the public transport system in the Cambridge area. We've got a bill of well over £500 million which we want from the government and I think the government should give it to us. As we're taking on all this extra growth, I think the government should just give us that money.

John - But they're not giving you money in other directions, and as you just said they're not giving you the annual settlement. They're not giving it to you to bring the school budgets up. They're not necessarily going to give the Police authority they say they need. So why should they suddenly produce this massive cheque?

Shona - But I think they should. We're taking all these extra houses that they want us to build. I think they should fund they should fund the infrastructure properly.

John - Will the future Tory government give it to you?

Shona - Absolutely, I know Drew Se Villiers the shadow minister is saying transport innovation fund money would not be dependant on a congestion charge. What I'm saying is we want this money from the government. Let's negotiate if, at the end of the day with investment from government, we still have gridlock in Cambridge. Then we need to consider it. We are not ruling in a congestion charge.

We should be looking at government to fund £500 million of investment in public transport in Cambridgeshire. I don't like the gun that is being held to our head by government.

Let's have a look and see if it's worth it. The consultation will be whether people think that it's worth it. I have an open mind and I don't want a congestion charge. I would strongly oppose a national congestion charging scheme, but whether it is the right thing for Cambridgeshire, I want to hear what people think.

John - What odds do you think Ladbrokes would give me on a congestion charge? Odds on favourites to get one?

Shona - Well they might, but I wouldn't put money on it. I wouldn't put any money on with Ladbrokes or any other agency.

John - You've been getting criticism from some of your oppositions worried about the failing IT project, allegedly. Criticised by cross party committee's. Criticism from the opposition par for the course for a resilient young leader like you?

Shona - Absolutely

John - Any truth in what they say?

Shona - No.

John - There seems to be. I've read the documents, it's a bit of a mess isn't it?

Shona - there are some significant issues over IT and part of that goes back to the governments desire to have one single system. They have what's called the National programme for IT within the NHS system, enabling the NHS to talk to the local authorities.

It comes back to the government hasn't got its act together about IT, which makes it difficult for us when we try to work with the primary care trust, having systems that work together and talk to each other. It comes back to government.

John - You are government?

Shona - Central government, as opposed to local government.

John - Do people always see the difference?

Shona - No they don't, unfortunately.

John - Do they expect you to talk?

Shona - I wish the government would talk to us. We are trying to talk to the government with regard to funding. With the last conservative government at least if we didn't like the settlement, we had the opportunity to go and talk to the relevant minister. The ministers will not talk to us will not listen to what we have to say. That I think is disappointing.

John - When are we getting a Chief Executive?

Shona - We have the appointments committee next week. I hope we will have a recommendation by Thursday that we be able to make to full council. We have some excellent candidates and I'm sure by the end of this month the full council will have approved the appointment of an excellent Chief Executive.

John - When I spoke to you some weeks ago you described yourself as temporary Executive leader. Has that been more onerous than being leader?

Shona - Yes, but it's a good way to get under the skin of the organisation.

John - Do you think you've been successful in getting under the skin of the organisation?

Shona - History will judge me. I think I've made a good start, but history will judge me and the electorate will judge me.

John - Give us one example in conclusion of where you think you've demonstrably improved the lot of the county council by having this extra role, since your appointment at the beginning of the year.

Shona - I think people will start to see that emerging over the next few weeks and months. We've been doing a lot of background work in the summer. One example I'll give you is I appointed a special advisor on performance management. He's been getting to grips with managing performance. So we know where there are dips in performance and that's where we need to tackle them.

We need to take action to address them and that is starting to bare fruit. You won't see it instantly but you will see it over the next few months and years.