Community Transport for Suffolk- even fewer services?

SCC’s cabinet has forced through a new Community Transport model for Suffolk– despite huge reservations from opposition parties and after many of these reservations were confirmed by the county’s cross-party scrutiny committee last month.

Community transport is the term for services like ‘Dial a Ride ‘ that provide transport on demand to those people  no longer served by scheduled buses or trains.

And there are a lot of these isolated folk in Suffolk. The Conservative administration has increasingly replaced scheduled bus services in rural areas with community transport operating under various brands serving specific communities and specific user-groups. Their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers, but delivery  of demand responsive services has remained patchy, disparate and problematic.  Often people have had little idea of availability and there have been large areas of unmet need – particularly regarding young person’s travel , regular travel to employment, weekend and evening travel, and same day travel.

The new proposal sees seven contracts (one per district council) to ensure holistic district branding – so people could identify who to phone to book a journey. It would also allow for greater flexibility of provision . (However, people often travel from one district to another to visit the hospital or to shop in a major town).

The SCC-owned vehicles will  be sold to the providers, a move that supposedly will  allow a wider range of customers to be served.  The voiced rationale is, when the county owns vehicles, providers are not allowed to use them to provide profitable services if they  compete with commercial services., as that would involve the state subsidising one service to compete against another. It will also, obviously save the county a lot of money!

Suffolk County County – still in thrall to the ideology of impossible competition which has failed rural bus transport so comprehensively over the past thirty years  – declares that this will allow ‘competition’ for eg some forms of home-to-school transport that will use the assets more intensively. (Why? Why now? Home-to school transport services have become  steadily more expensive, and council-dependent ever since bus deregulation made  competition mandatory outside London, thirty years ago. I would suggest this might just be because competition was not the answer!).

The proposal was ‘called in’ by the Labour group for several separate reasons. The call-in was supported by the LibDems , who thought thought the most significant objections to the scheme were financial.

For a start, the intention was that the county no longer provide free vehicles – saving it some £570k (which these largely voluntary bodies would have to find) – but also SCC would HALVE the community subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years.  This enormous cut was supposed to be  supported by the voluntary bodies’ increased revenue from the new ‘freedom’ to provide services !  (You may notice the same tired old rhetoric).

In fact, the scrutiny committee believed it was more likely that , although the providers would survive using their new freedoms and their vehicles to provide the county with some  alternative sources of transport (for instance home to school services) others would definitely suffer.  Many services to people without other transport options would be unlikely to be supported by the  halving of the county contribution – and would therefore be cut.

And as the new contract is deliberately non-specific, the County could  claim any such losses are matters outside its control. Talk about jesting Pilate.

Scrutiny therefore referred the decision back to cabinet. And, in a very brief process which allowed no comment from other councillors Suffolk’s Conservative Cabinet dismissed the reasoning of the cross-party scrutiny committee and decided there would be no change to this worrying decision.

They looked at scrutiny and thought, “Nobody tells us what to do!” So much for democracy! So much for ‘holding to account.’

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Winter Pavement Gritting in Woodbridge – Volunteers needed!

It is now five years since the Woodbridge Volunteer Winter Pavement Gritting Scheme was first set up at my instigation in the winter of 2010  with a  locality grant  for grit bins. (Over the past 5 years I have  made grants of over £5000 to keep this scheme going).

Can I please reiterate what I’ve said in the past,  – slippery footways are an issue not for some imaginary ‘them’ but for all of us.  Lets face it, we can easily grit a local pavement or two when we see the need. When it is icy, the people who run the gritting lorries are out day and night trying to keep as much of the thousands of miles of Suffolk roads passable as possible.

However, on that basis for the last 5 years  I have been the only councillor in Woodbridge to be out on every icy day as a gritting volunteer. This is no light thing. Every icy day over the last five years I have shovelled and gritted the whole of California, and the Ipswich road path down to John Grose – sometimes down to the Notcutts roundabout – well over a mile of ice and grit every time.

Astonishingly  I have often been approached by residents – often much younger –  unwilling to help grit communal paths, but wanting to  use the grit for their own driveways!

I’m tough but I am middle-aged and my health is not what it was. Other long-term  volunteers are in the same boat.If the scheme is to continue we need more volunteers. There are many able bodied people in Woodbridge who should be able – and probably will be willing – to help.

Woodbridge is a town of vulnerable pedestrians, narrow paths and steep hills. Before I instituted the gritbin scheme, many people were housebound every time the weather was icy.  We must not return to this.

So what are we to do? I would suggest Woodbridge Town Council puts a well-worded notice on each bin asking for local volunteers.

The Highways department tells me today that ice is is not expected ‘before the end of October’. Not so cheering, considering it is the 27th today!

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Additional bus stop near Framfield House Surgery

Over the next few days, work will be undertaken to put in another bus stop on each side of the Ipswich Road above the Notcutts  roundabout.

This is because there are now a significant number of people  who  want to use the bus to get to the Framfield House Surgery, and the McCarthy & Stone retirement housing behind it. The bus stop  beneath the Cherry Tree  Inn is not helpful for such people because it is quite a walk uphill and  pedestrian access to the surgery and housing was not prioritised in the design!

I brought this to the attention of Suffolk’s Passenger Transport department as a local need  after  various representations from Woodbridge residents –at my surgery, by email (and even when I was sitting on various buses!).

I can confirm that there are no plans to remove any existing bus stops in Woodbridge.  These new ones are being installed as an additional facility for passengers around the Ipswich Road/Warren Hill Road junction who are unable to easily access the stops at the Cherry Tree (on Ipswich Road) due to the distance to walk and the steepness of the gradients involved.

As most of the users are bus pass holders (who are unable to use a bus pass before 9.30) and people wanting to visit the surgery,  this was not considered likely to impact on  rush hour traffic.

Although I broke this news in April,  there has been a considerable delay (seven months) between  these new stops being agreed, and  the execution of the plan. This is due to the continuing operational and scheduling problems that seem to  have occurred ever since SCC  outsourced its Highways contract to the external company KMG.

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What’s been happening in Suffolk Sept- Oct 2015

This month’s  main issues have been devolution, government proposals to close most of Suffolk’s courts, the poor deal for Suffolk rail travellers in the new rail franchised invitation to tender, and a couple of pieces of good news(Woodbridge Youth club and the Drummer Boy)

 Potential devolution of Suffolk  The devolution agenda continues. It now seems that the government will welcome a combined bid from Norfolk and Suffolk but neither severally. Currently very little emphasis has been placed on transport  – which is something that might really benefit from the increased per capita funding and re-regulatory approach we might go for with devolution. On 22nd September leaders from all Suffolk and Norfolk councils, and representatives of the New Anglia LEP agreed a ‘framework document’ highlighting the key areas  to be devolved. They will meet again on 14 October to continue discussions.

20mph, other traffic calming – and Woodbridge   After the year of work by myself and colleagues on the Transport policy development panel last year, creating speed limits frameworks and criteria, Suffolk County Council have trained up a panel and  have starting looking at  individual speed limits cases. The Speed Limits Panel is a panel of four councillors  – one from each main party. Cases are looked at by officers and if the case cannot be decided simply, it is brought in front of the panel. There are no witnesses – but the local County Councillor represents the case.

Woodbridge has expressed a longstanding desire to lower speed limits since first I became County Councillor, but has not yet articulated  to me or to the Highways team the exact areas it would like to have calmed. It is useful if this evidence comes from a wide variety of sources – as this suggests that the desire is widespread.

I therefore have asked various groups who have contacted me on this matter to start collecting evidence, including the Transport strand of the Neighbourhood plan. I hope Woodbridge Town Council Highways Committee will take part in this exercise

Woodbridge Youth Centre now Asset of Community Value The application by Just 42, and supported by me, for the Woodbridge Youth Centre to be registered as an Asset of Community Value was approved on 30th of September, after the statutory 8 week consultation process. While this does not protect it completely, it does give us some time to marshal a defence, should there be any unexpected move to sell it off.

East Anglian Rail Franchise – Invitation to Tender  The invitation to tender for the next Rail Franchise came out on 17 September, and the detail is disappointing.  Sadly the DfT has taken no notice of the various voices (including my own) calling loudly and clearly for better rail services East to West and to Peterborough. As the DfT have refused to act – suggesting that the pressure was for better and faster Norwich to London services (which it certainly wasn’t   from SCC, or myself, let alone from local pressure groups)  it looks as if passengers will have to endure the same poor service for years to come unless our local MPs can exert some pressure on the DfT. This is a shame as there is not only a lot of potential on these routes, but developing them would actually take much-needed pressure off the London line and provide easy means of transport to work to eg Cambridge with its ever-increasing housing prices.

Situations such as this make one think that devolution might be a good idea  as Suffolk voices were clearly not seen as important in the decision-making that produced this document. The parliamentary statement is here:

MoJ’s Consultation on closing Suffolk Law Courts  The Ministry of Justice has just concluded a consultation on proposals to close all law courts in Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft leaving the whole of Suffolk with just the courts in Ipswich.

This is an issue that will obviously concern everyone – as even residents in places like Woodbridge (which might deem themselves to be ‘unaffected’)  will be badly affected by the inevitable queues and waiting that will occur when two thirds of the current provision  for  family courts, small claims courts, magistrates courts, trading standards etc etc disappears.  All of us who know Suffolk magistrates will know how much of a bottle-neck has occurred  in the judicial process  already since the last round of closures in the 90s.

In brief, the Ministry of Justice proposes that Lowestoft Magistrates’ Court, County Court and Family Court  and Bury St Edmunds Magistrates’ Court and Family Court and Bury St Edmunds Crown Court are closed (full details)  All this to save £600,000 a year.

Putting aside anxieties about ‘trial by video , it would seem particularly ironic that Suffolk’s legal representation is in danger of being reduced to one single court with all the difficulties of access from the west, mid-Suffolk, and the north of the county, in this iconic Magna Carta anniversary year.

With rural public transport as it is, there are also human rights issues for anyone having to attend courts as witness, defendant or appellant, or as a juror or any number of other situations. The Ministry of Justice are talking about trial by video links. That will not be a substitute for face to face justice!

The County Council debated the issue last month and reached cross-party unanimity that this was a bad idea, and replied accordingly.

I have also responded as your councillor and as Suffolk County’s LibDem spokesman on Transport . My personal view is that transport issues are key to why these proposals are flawed and need to be rejected.

Woodbridge's Drummer Boy - aka Jakin and Lew of the Band of The Fore and Fit Princess Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen-Anspach's Merther-Tydfilshire Own Royal Loyal Light Infantry, Regimental District 329A
Woodbridge’s Drummer Boy – aka Jakin and Lew of the Band of The Fore and Fit Princess Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen-Anspach’s Merther-Tydfilshire Own Royal Loyal Light Infantry, Regimental District 329A

I copied all links and information to both Martlesham Parish and Woodbridge Town clerks in case you wished to reply,  because  Martlesham Parish councillors (to whom I reported last week) specifically asked how they could respond to these proposals and intended to do so.

The ‘Drummer Boy’ statue  As a delighted reader of Kipling’s short stories, I’ve long been pleased that Woodbridge houses the only statue seemingly ever made of Jakin and Lew, “a brace of the most finished little fiends that ever banged drum or tootled fife in the Band of The Fore and Fit Princess Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen-Anspach’s Merther-Tydfilshire Own Royal Loyal Light Infantry, Regimental District 329A”  –  which, today,  we in Woodbridge are pleased to call for short, The Drummer Boy or The Drums of the Fore and Aft.

When I heard of the possible move of the Drummer Boy from Woodbridge to Girdlestones, I immediately offered £1,500 from my locality budget towards relocating the statue within town.  I am glad that it seems as if the Woodbridge Heritage Group’s arguments have prevailed, and we will keep Kipling’s ‘bold bad’ brave Drummer Boys in the town.

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MoJ consultation to close Suffolk’s courts: my response

Consultation on Proposals on the provision of court and tribunal services in the South East Region: Suffolk

I am replying to the Suffolk element of this consultation as County Councillor for Woodbridge, Suffolk, and as Transport spokesman for the Suffolk County Liberal Democrat group. The MoJ proposes to close all law courts at  Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft leaving the county with just the courts in Ipswich. I am replying as Liberal Democrat Transport spokesman because I consider that transport issues are key to why these proposals are flawed and need to be rejected.

1 You ask if I agree with the proposals? What overall comments would I like to make on the proposals? As County Councillor for Woodbridge in Suffolk, and spokesman for the Suffolk County Liberal Democrat group , I strongly disagree with the proposals.   I am concerned for the further (and extreme) loss of local delivery of local justice services and the impact this will have on Suffolk residents – most particularly those who through age, infirmity or poverty have transport difficulties. This is a significant number of the residents of Suffolk.   Putting aside anxieties about ‘trial by video’ , it would seem particularly ironic that Suffolk’s legal representation is in danger of being reduced to one single court with all the difficulties of access from the west , mid-Suffolk and the north of the county, in this iconic Magna Carta 800th anniversary year. With rural public transport  as it is, it is not hard to imagine the difficulties that will arise from having to attend court as appellant, defendant, or witness or if you are a juror or indeed any number of other situations. The Ministry of Justice is talking about trial by video links. My view is that will not be a substitute for face to face justice!

Most particularly I take issue with your overarching phrase “these proposals could result in some people having longer journeys to the courts and tribunals. I am committed to working with rural communities to provide alternative ways for the public to access the justice system. These could include the use of civic or other public buildings for occasional hearings, video links or telephone or paper hearings to avoid travel altogether. It is vital we understand the demand for alternative provision as we plan services for the future. “ It seems to me that ‘alternative ways  to access the justice service should not -and cannot be – your goal if you intend to provide an equal level of justice across the UK. And int 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta it ill behoves the MoJ to intend anything else.

2 You ask if the proposals for the provision of court and tribunal services have a direct impact on me and ask for further details.

It will have a direct impact on my constituents and all people of Suffolk – as jurors, as appellants and defendants and as witnesses. As families of people in all of these categories. And as Court officials and members of the judiciary and magistracy. And as those who serve justice as police, probation officers etc. It is hard to think of anyone who this will not have a direct impact on.

3. You ask are there other particular impacts of the proposals that HM Courts & Tribunals Service should take into account when making a decision? Magna Carta defined an important principle of equality under the law – which remains in the law books today. Local delivery of justice must involve local courts, JPs, police etc operating in a local setting  If the location of the justice system is too remote, this then disadvantages everyone in the process – victims, witnesses, and defendants, as well as all those with an interest. Distance travelled will also affect other things – such as the the local reporting of local cases in local media.

Travelling to Ipswich will be difficult  for appellants, witnesses, defendents, juries etc and will incur additional costs, which will bear particularly hard on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. With the current poor provision of rural public transport (and 20% of Suffolk households are without a car)  this reduction in location  will have a substantial impact on those with ‘protected characteristics’. For a start there will be huge anxiety about being able to make it to court ‘on time.’ People may well be penalised for contempt of court. Justice will be disadvantaged in consequence.  Traditional  local roles, such as being a jury member or a JP will become very much harder in this scenario. Anyone living in one of our rural Suffolk villages knows that your assessments of the additional time and chances of getting transport to Ipswich fail to recognise the availability of transport, the slowness of transport, the timing of transport – and indeed whether it actually exists. Sadly, these days, public transport simply does not exist in many areas of rural Suffolk.

 4. You provide an Impact Assessment of the likely impacts and supporting analysis and ask for  comments on the evidence used or conclusions reached The proposals will result in Suffolk having only courts in Ipswich (and relying on some not-particularly-easy-to-access cross-border courts in Norfolk). Suffolk will be only one of six counties in the country that have a single court centre.  Norfolk, our neighbouring county – equally rural, and for no particular reason better favoured by the MoJ – will retain three courts.  Based on the geographical area served by a Court, Suffolk will have the worst per square mile provision in the country! I cannot see any reason why our residents should be so poorly served!

The travel times quoted in your consultation document are seriously flawed.  Suffolk is a rural county and driving between towns on single carriageway roads takes considerably longer than the quoted times, especially during peak times or during harvesting. Travelling from Lowestoft Courts to Great Yarmouth Courts, for example, takes much longer than the 20 minutes quoted.  And that is by car!

Travel times you have quoted are times only between the existing court facilities, by car, and ignoring any journeys that are required to reach those centres.  On top of the (deeply optimistic) times quoted for Bury St Edmunds, to Ipswich people have to reach Bury St Edmunds. Often from rural villages and hamlets miles away .  For those many who are reliant on public transport, bus journeys may be required before train services can be accessed. Bus journeys may indeed be required instead of train journeys in many cases as there are few rail routes crossing the whole of Suffolk: Norwich to London, Ipswich to Cambridge,  Ipswich to Peterborough, and Ipswich to Lowestoft. Apart from the Norwich to Ipswich line, trains are infrequent and slow. We really cannot rely on appellants, defendants, witnesses, jurymen, families etc living near a rail station (and sadly many stations have little connection with scheduled bus services). 

It is statistically impossible that 95% of affected people will be able live in the kind of places and experience the kind of conditions that will allow them to make the 1 hour to court your proposals are based on

In fact the consultation statement that 95% of the population of Suffolk are within one hour of court is complete and utter balderdash – and the person who made it needs to be asked to justify it in terms of the realities of rural transport conditions! It does not apply to those from socially deprived areas, or those who are unable to drive (people such as this county councillor whose health condition prevents her holding a driving licence. It is an interesting notion that the disabled and disadvantaged should get second-class justice –and completely against the provisions of Magna Carta.  Why should we be entitled to less access to justice than if we lived  in London, just because of our health?)

5. You ask if there are alternatives to travelling to a physical building that would be a benefit to some users? You suggest these might  include using technology to engage remotely or the use of other, civic or public buildings for hearings as demand requires. An appearance in court is a salutory experience that may often prevent reoffending.  It is particularly daunting to be tried in a local building where there is the chance of being seen by one’s friends and neighbours and reported on by a local press. This was a situation best served by the 12 courts we had in the 1990s. As this is no longer possible, it is better served by retaining the three current centres than by your current proposal with any technological augmentation.

 6: Additional comments. In Suffolk the number of magistrates’ courts has fallen from 12 in the 1990’s to the current proposal of one for the whole county.  Twenty years ago there used to be a magistrates court in Woodbridge, the town I represent. We are now faced with the idea that local justice for nearly a million people can be dispensed from one location: Ipswich.  My view is that these proposals have been made as a cost-saving exercise and without any clear idea or intention of providing justice. The local magistrates courts have been at bursting point for years now – and this new proposal  is one step too far. In the interests of justice this scheme for Suffolk must not go ahead.

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Caroline Page, County Councillor for Woodbridge