Derby City Council

Ruth Skelton (Council Leader Liberal Democrats): Manifesto 2018 interview

This is the first in a series of 3 interviews with the Party Leaders about their 2018 manifestos. Labour chose not to paticipate.

Ruth Skelton – Liberal Democrat

Matthew Holmes – Conservative

Alan Graves – UKIP

The Liberal Democrats in Derby have compiled a comprehensive manifesto (LINK to full manifesto)  covering a wide range of issues. As with all of the opposition party documents it is not costed due to lack of access to detailed data. Some of the key pledges seek to consult further with the public e.g. Assembly Rooms, and other entertainment, sports and leisure facilities. It recognises that the treatment of children with Special Education Needs (SEN) is not effective or fair and needs addressing.

I met with Ruth Skelton, Leader of the Liberal Democrats to explore the detail across some of the other commitments in the manifesto.

You say in the manifesto that Lib Dems would do the “most” for people in Derby. What is peculiar about Lib Dems that makes you “most beneficial” to the public of Derby?

It is the way we like to work. We have a culture in the Council at the moment which is toxic. We feel that really needs changing which is partly why we want to go back to the committee system. We stand for openness, transparency and doing things above board.

Wouldn’t that be the case for other parties?

It’s quite often down to personalities. I don’t think the Tories would be as much of a “control freak” as Labour have been. What we do need is a total uncovering of what’s been going on, and I’m not sure whether, once they take control that the Tories wouldn’t want that to come out. Why wouldn’t you want to lay everything bare just to show everyone what’s been going on? Then to build it up properly? I’m not sure that they would be committed to as radical a overhaul as we would.

You mention a return to the Committee system. How would the average member of the public benefit from that?

For a start, all of the decision makers on that committee are from a cross section of parties. Any member of the public can then find someone who they can talk to, to get their views and opinions across, in a way that in a one-Party Cabinet you just can’t. You see it with the Planning Committee and Taxi Licensing where members of the public do write to Councillors and get involved.

But wouldn’t  the party balance on the committee be the same as in full council so the controlling group would be able to pass all votes in their favour?.

Yes, you can run it like a dictatorship. If there is “No Overall Control” ( possible outcome in 2018 election) then there will have to be more consensus particularly if you have a Chair and Vice-Chair from different parties.

In this situation the public will not see what they’ve seen in the last few years with bad decisions and policies being implemented. You will get far more sensible decisions.

In your manifesto you talk about increasing the proportion of Affordable Homes, how can you influence that practically?

When negotiating with developers then we would need to “dig our heels” in more; they will want as few affordable homes as possible, and we would want the opposite.

If the developer maintains that they can’t afford it then let’s “open the books”

Another way is to use surplus Council land for housebuilding – which we have a lot of. We would have to partner with a suitable developer or housing association. Many developers are sitting on land banks which we need to open up.

How would you identify the needs of the local community for development?

Us as local Councillors should be out and about in our local communities and finding out what people want by talking to people.  We are in the process of agreeing the Local Plan Part 2 which the public can contribute to and get involved in; it’s what planning applications are judged against. We’ve had open mornings, and neighbourhood forums to discuss specific issues. We try our best to reach out to people to understand their needs.

We do that actively within our main constituencies.

And then the link with homelessness you mention. How would you work on this proactively, as most interventions are reactive?

Some of it is around supply of housing but then other is around life issues like mental health, drugs and alcohol. The Night Shelter organisation do work proactively with people and have some good success stories whose lives have been turned around. Ideally this should be throughout the year.

We would work with the community organisations and support them on the ground to help with reducing homelessness.  The problem is that previous funding is no longer available.

The Council should be more involved as the initiator, bringing things together which doesn’t happen well at the moment.

How would you increase support to schools to avoid “tick boxing”. How would that work and what is the nature of it?

At the moment there are not many Local Education Authority (LEA) schools left – most have gone into Academy chains and get that support from the academy group. The Council needs to up its game on the support – there is an attitude that it’s being done really well. That’s not what the schools are saying, so there needs to be a reality check.

There is a massive job to do on school improvements. A lot of the reason why schools have gone to academy status is that they felt that they haven’t had that support from the LEA. That’s not to say that good people are not working there – I know there are, but the overall combined effort is not good enough.

There is an attitude issue – schools feel that they have things done to them, rather than “with them”. Had this been different then perhaps more would be under LEA control.

You say you will spend the additional Adult Social Care money more wisely, in what way is this not happening now?

There doesn’t appear to be much of a strategy at the moment, especially for those people with little family support. They’re doing some strange things like removing Derbyshire Carers association from running the Carers service.  This is odd as it’s so well-received.

They abandoned the New Homes for Old strategy which I developed for moving to “Extra Care” rather than Care Homes. People don’t want Care Homes anymore.  They want their own flat with care alongside.

There is a lack of transparency and openness on Care Homes about what is exactly is going on. They are being run down and under-utilised. They could have closed 2 and kept the others full. But they’ll close them and put no Extra Care in place. This strategy was widely considered to be common sense and was a good thing for the City – we should revitalise it.

We do need a lot more extra care for the City – ideally in each suburb so people can stay with their friendship groups.

You said you would prioritise Streetpride. In what way?

The number of Inspectors out there is not great, so the people can be the eyes and ears of the Council. We should encourage people to make it easy to report problems efficiently. People want to report things as, generally, matters do get resolved when they know about them

What is your preferred vision for libraries?

Having a mixture of paid professional staff assisted by volunteers makes sense; the buck has to stop with someone. All of the people I’ve spoken to who want to volunteer want to “assist” , they don’t want the full responsibility which is to be expected.

Would you look to keep the 10 libraries open?

Yes, while they are being used but we should always look at different ways of doing if that is better for the community.

We could probably do with looking at how Devon have done their library service which is all outside, and is a mixture of paid staff and volunteers and that seems to be work very well. We probably need to go back to the drawing board and formulate a plan in Derby.

What would you in your 1st 100 days?

The whole issue of SEN is going to explode as more things come to light and more parents are speaking out now. More lawyers are getting interested in Derby now. The Council is going to find itself in a very difficult position soon as far as legal obligations are concerned. Children with SEN have a right to be properly assessed and have the services that meet those needs. Being told that something can’t be afforded just doesn’t wash.

That is one of the biggest issues we need to get to grips with otherwise people will be taking the Council to tribunal and judicial review.

This is a legal process and there are people involved who have not been properly trained.

The other action would be to implement the committee system I mentioned earlier, which we should be able to do that by September.

And, changing the Council’s culture. It’s not right that the staff have to put up with that behaviour. We need a line drawing under an unpleasant past.

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