These last few weeks have been dominated by the national Referendum and the Norfolk and Suffolk Devolution debates, but other things have – of course – been happening on the domestic front. Locally there has been continuing work to secure the future of the Woodbridge Youth Centre, on a slightly larger stage the big issues in SCC have been the political stability of the Conservative administration, the future of the Ipswich Park and Ride and a new plan for maintaining Suffolk’s Highways.
SCC’s Conservative majority on a knife-edge After a Conservative Carlford win Suffolk County Council continues to be led by a technical minority administration, with the following political make-up:
Conservative 37 – Labour 15; LibDem 7; UKIP 10; Green 2; Independent 4 (eg a technical opposition of 38)
However, one of the Independents remains the notorious Hadleigh councillor, ex-Conservative Brian Reilly, who will insist on holding onto his council seat although disgracefully he has lived in North Carolina for a long time now. In Cllr Riley’s absence this makes the vote 37:37. On the rare occasions he graces the chamber with his presence, he votes with the Conservatives (this presumably being why they have been so reluctant to take constructive steps to get him removed).
A new Highway Maintenance Operational Plan SCC’s Cabinet has just approved Suffolk’s new Highway Maintenance Operational Plan.
Basically they had little option because the past Highways Maintenance plans have been a disaster, criticised by everyone, regardless of party affiliation. (And anyway, this Plan has been running (‘trialled’) without Cabinet consent since early May.)
The good news is that it concedes that the previous way of Highways Maintenance working was unwieldy and inefficient, as county, town and district councillors across Suffolk can testify. There will now be a much more unified and strategic way of working between SCC and contractors Kier to try and make things work more efficiently than they have (with clear matrices for action for all eventualities). This may mean that the Highways small schemes backlog may clear at long, long last.
The bad news is that the mantra of ‘you’ve got to pay the market price for the work you get’ is very much to the fore, so there is no suggestion of many highways schemes being affordable any more. (An example was given of how a simple Highways marking job where the paint cost £49 would be charged out at £1989.) Unfortunately this seems to be the inevitable result of a market driven solution. Small towns like Woodbridge will no longer be able to rely on their County Councillors’ Highways budgets. Currently these are half what they were at best (mine is £6660 this year). Yet jobs will be many times more expensive.
At the Cabinet meeting I asked whether this was not a case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’? That this newly designed Highways Maintenance Operational Plan (the second one in a year!) had been constructed to fit the contractor because the contractor had been unable to stick to the agreed plan?(This was loudly rejected – but with little evidence).
In particular I pointed out the anomaly of a private organisation uttering the ‘you’ve got to pay the market price for the work you get’ mantra whilst
- having no competition to ensure that they are offering good value for money
- charging for the time worked by SCC officers on projects (when these officers have already been paid by SCC) when billing councillors for these projects and
- failing to recognise the principle of counter-charge that ought to apply when the contractor wastes the time of County Councillors – who they rely on heavily for advocacy and intermediary work.
Surely these charges must be reciprocal? I suggested. Surely a free market model will not be wholly accurate unless the councillors too have a market rate set against the work they do? For equity, a charge for councillors’ work ought to be introduced which could then be levied against excessive charges and the incompetence of the contractor. Why should local highways budgets suffer from inflated charges without any redress?
Naturally this is far too sensible and logical a suggestion to be accepted by the SCC administration, but I am recording it to ensure you are aware that the suggestion was made by me, in defence of local councillors’ highways budgets.
For the rest, we will have to wait to see how this will pan out.
Future of the Ipswich Park & Ride SCC’s administration’s plans to make the Park & Ride service self-supporting by getting the bus companies that operate alongside it to take over its services were looked at by the Suffolk CC’s Scrutiny committee who were not satisfied with what they saw and voted to send the plans back to Cabinet. These were reassessed and once again passed.
In a slightly rewritten proposal the ultimate future of the P&R will not hang immediately on the success of this scheme. If it fails, the plan will have to go back to Cabinet for reassessment before any thought of closure. However, Woodbridge and Martlesham residents will be concerned to discover there is as yet no clarity as to which First buses will be operating at the Martlesham end. This obviously makes a difference – both to the P&R service AND to the service it operates within.
(I had been told by officers very clearly that it would NOT be the Martlesham-terminating 66, but our less circuitous 63, 64, 65 will become Park and Ride buses. The Labour spokesperson has been equally clearly informed it will be the 66. I asked Cabinet Member James Finch for disambiguation at the previous Cabinet meeting. Unfortunately he had no idea whatsoever.)
I have been promised that once the scheme has been passed we will get confirmation as to which of these two options will be in operation.
I remain unsure how successfully this service will work. It seemed to me that the best way to make the P&R more income-generating would be to make it more responsive to unmet demand – and that would be to provide a good service for London commuters. This our local buses does not do.
Indeed at the moment I cannot see any very compelling reason why people should now drive to the P&R from Woodbridge rather than getting on the same bus in Woodbridge – especially as they will be able to use their bus passes in Woodbridge but will pay to sit on the same bus if they board it at the Park & Ride! We will wait and see as more details emerge.