What will be replacing EMA?

Remember – although EMA has been abolished, this doesn’t mean that post-16 students will  be left high and dry (although some people want you to believe this, for purely political reasons). Instead the coalition  are proposing a new allowance that will be targeted at those who need it most.

This is very good news for those who are worried that loss of EMA will prevent them attending school or college

The government’s intentions about EMA are therefore very different  to Suffolk County Council’s disgraceful and undemocratic decision to scrap Suffolk’s Explore card tomorrow – right in the middle of the academic yearThere was not even a figleaf of a consultation or ‘conversation.’  So please don’t stop signing the Save the Explore Card petition and pressing for this decision to be reversed. We are now only 1000 signatures short!

The government’s proposals are that:

  • Everybody who started their course this academic year and is on the £30 per week rate will continue at the current rate to the end of the academic year  and will receive payments of £20 per week in their second year.
  • All students on EMA who started their course in the 2009/10 academic year will continue to receive the full rate.
  • An additional £15 million will be set aside to provide bursaries of £1,200 for the most vulnerable students, for example those in care, with severe disabilities or single parents living on their own. This is more than the maximum available to students currently on EMA.
  • Finally, schools, colleges and training providers will have £165 million put into a discretionary learner support fund each year which will be available for them to distribute to students facing financial need.
    This is the equivalent of just over £800 for every young person who received free school meals at the age of 15.

Across the country students face very different costs and barriers to attending school or college. In some places – such as huge swathes of rural Suffolk –  students have to travel a long distance to attend, or may find it hard to get transport. On the other hand, some courses involve prohibitively costly equipment.  Under the new plans schools and colleges can decide individually exactly how to distribute the money available to support their students in need.

The government wants to have a short consultation on its plans. You have till the 20 May to respond to this consultation – which you can do online.

So, if you get or got EMA, if you are a parent, grandparent or friend of someone who had it, has it, or will need support in the future  – or if you are just interested in social justice, please  add your two pennorth. We can ensure properly targeted support for the workers of the future if we all contribute to the decision-making!

Big Lottery Grant for Woodbridge-based Home Start

Staff, volunteers and families at Home Start Suffolk Coastal are thrilled today to hear that they have been awarded a Big Lottery grant  totalling £362,637!  This money has been provided as part-funding for the scheme over 3 years to extend its services within Suffolk Coastal.

Home-Start recruits and trains parent volunteers to support families , struggling to cope, within  their own homes, offering non-judgmental, practical and emotional support for a wide range of issues  including domestic abuse, multiple births, isolation, depression, bereavement and lone families. Family support groups are another part of the scheme, offering a nurturing environment for families to grow together. The effect of any intervention at an early stage in childrens’ lives  is magnified – and lasts a lifetime!

Tara Somers,  the Hone-Start Suffolk Coastal Senior Co-ordinator “couldn’t be more delighted! The money is for our Empowering Families project  – and will allow us to reach more local families for whom too often life feels like an uphill struggle. In the current economic climate, this is particularly important!”

The grant will enable Tara and her team  to set up a new Family Group in Woodbridge, and increase Home Start services throughout our area, which stretches northwards  from Felixstowe , as far as Leiston and beyond.

Home-Start Suffolk Coastal is part of the UK’s leading family support charity, Home-Start UK which supports nearly 35,000 families and almost 73,000 children each year.  More than 16,000 volunteers visit families in their own homes – parents supporting other parents in a variety of situations including isolation, bereavement, multiple births, illness or disability.

Since opening in Woodbridge in 1999, Home-Start Suffolk Coastal has supported 530 families, many in very challlenging circumstances. In the last year alone, their 45 volunteers spent a massive 17,000 hours supporting 84 families and 181 children.

Home-Start Suffolk Coastal  has already been part of a pilot, “Maximising Income”, helping families who already supported by Home-Start, to access necessary financial support  (And let me tell you, this is very very necessary: it took me and my daughter and my husband three full weeks of headscratching and together to  complete a Disability Living Allowance form). With the help of the Lottery grant, 60 more Home-Start families will be supported in accessing benefits and grants they are entitled to. Major reform to the welfare system means that there has never been a more vital need to offer support to families in navigating the system

“I really don’t know what I would have done without Home-Start, my volunteer was exactly what I needed, a friend, someone to talk to, someone that’s been there. My volunteer has given me the confidence to go out, and do what a ‘normal’ mum can do”

Woodbridge pays the price for no buses

I see that Ipswich Hospital made £1.3million from parking charges last year. What a brilliant means of encouraging people to use sustainable transport instead!

O, hang on a moment…

…Woodbridge has no sustainable transport whatsoever that can get you to Ipswich hospital  and back for the evening visiting hour – or get you anywhere near the hospital on Sunday or bank holidays. In Woodbridge our hospital-visiting choices are stark:: cycle a twelve mile round trip, pay to park, or stay at home!

As well as being a large source of income to the hospital, this  should be a huge source of shame and embarrassment  to the Suffolk County Council administration as a whole, to the Portfolio holder in question,  and to the Council Officers  involved in this kind of bum decision-making  (one of whom had to listen to me rant and rave for a good twenty minutes the other day when he was hoping to eat lunch instead. I pointed out that there was hardly one of the decision-makers who even knew what the inside of a bus looked like and explained that I would like to be a good fairy so I could smite them with a few month’s chronic epilepsy or some other condition that leaves one unable to drive, together with an insufficient income to employ someone else.  THEN, said I, you would really have an understanding of what your decisions really feel like. I didn’t get much of a response).

It was less than a month ago that the last evening buses left Woodbridge – forever, as far as SCC were concerned. And they STILL have the nerve to send out “Greenest County” press releases.

SCC LOVES to send out its mixed messages in worn-out  management-speak cliches.  So here’s one back for them to ponder over:

“Why don’t you learn to walk the walk as well as talk the talk? ” This level of decision-making is as joined-up as a 4-year old’s first sentence!

Suffolk Politics and the English Language

I’ve just come back from Suffolk’s latest full council meeting – the centrepiece of which was a debate on the administration’s  Update to the New Strategic Direction ( click here: its the last document on the list).  Many of the Lib Dem and other opposition members, including myself, laid into this  incomprehensible  piece of bureaucratic gobbledegook.

In return some, but not very many, members of the Conservative majority reproached us for using unkind words. (Oh, and for writing nasty blogs which criticised them.)  They suggested, cynically, that we Lib Dems were being cynical and destructive of  the Administration’s  highminded efforts to listen to the residents of Suffolk. “We want to free the people of Suffolk from the chains of excessive bureaucracy, and give them what they truly want”, they claimed.

They might have convinced me if it weren’t for all those emails I’ve been getting these last months from Suffolk people  facing the prospect of being without buses, without bus passes, without explore cards, school crossing patrols, libraries, care provision, respite provision etc etc. All of whom complained that they HADN’T been listened to, and WEREN’T getting what they wanted.

Other Tory councillors – the  numbers of the disaffected raising daily – were ‘layin low and sayin nuffin’. It didn’t stop them voting with their peers, though.

Dante MUST have reserved a circle of hell specially for those who lack the courage of their convictions!

I didn’t bother explaining why the Admin’s take on libraries is wrong, their take on transport is wrong, their take on the explore card is wrong . I have said all this before to much jeering from these highminded listeners to the people of Suffolk. Instead, I concentrated on how they were hiding behind incomprehensibility. I said:

I have endeavoured to read this document,  I have really really tried. And I’m good at reading: I have an MA from Oxford (English Language and Literature). Last year I worked on the great Oxford Historical Thesaurus – which covers all the meanings of all the words that have been used in English over the last thousand years.

I have even managed to read and enjoy the collected works of Walter Scott!

I would suggest that if there is meaning to be taken from a piece of writing I am the very person to take it.  However –

THIS piece of (for want of a better word) writing,  has done what Walter Scott, Beowulf , even John Milton, couldn’t do. It has defeated me utterly.

I can only conclude that the reason no meaning can be extracted from this piece is because there is no meaning to be extracted.

Is this accidental? Is this deliberate? Who can tell? As George Orwell puts it “what looks like an unclear expression of a clear thought might actually be a perfectly clear expression of an unclear thought.”

However, from reading this, one thing does become crystal clear. Either you don’t know what you want to do, or you don’t want to tell us.  Come on,  Cllr Pembroke can you give us your plan in words people can understand, so we identify clearly what action IS being recommended!

Cllr Noble attempted a comeback by trying to explain that the NSD WAS rather a ‘complex’ idea.  (The implication being that maybe it was a little bit too complex for lesser minds to comprehend in all its glory.)

Cllr Noble: complex and unclear are two very different words:

  • Complex implies that something has many separate aspects, which are necessary but difficult to understand;
  • Unclear denotes a muddle!

Complex or unclear? Gentle reader, I invite you to click on the link above, read the ‘Action Recommended’ section on the first page and judge  for yourself.

Woodbridge Town Council Report March 2011

This month’s report deals with the legitimisation of  various appalling cuts by the administration (who at the same time are letting money flow through their fingers on such essential front line services as extremely expensive consultants training them to ‘listen’ (hah!) and ‘gagging’ payments – £520,000 last year alone) to stop the mouths of ex-staff members

SCC  2011-12 Budget

The end of February saw Suffolk County Council’s  final budget setting meeting. Here the budget of cuts, already approved by the Cabinet, was voted through by the Conservatives on the County Council.  The cuts will affect many people in rural and urban areas throughout the county.  I strongly opposed, in particular,  decisions taken to reduce vital frontline services, including the scrapping of school crossing patrols, local buses and the eXplore card.

At the meeting my group put forward an amendment to the budget which would have saved many frontline services.

I feel that the people of Woodbridge NEEDc to k now what there WERE fully-costed options to these cuts, although the Conservatives would have us believe there were none.

We believed it would be possible to provide funding for all these services if we looked at savings from the centre of the organisation and used a small proportion of the £108m which the council holds in reserves.  Our amendment would have saved the following services:

  • Libraries
  • Youth Clubs /Youth provision
  • Subsidies to public transport services for Sundays, evenings and Bank Holidays
  • Park and Ride Service from the Bury Road, Ipswich site
  • Funding for the eXplore student card, which gives half price travel on buses up to age 19
  • School Crossing Patrol Service
  • Retain all Household Waste Recycling Centres, instead of reducing them from 18 to 11
  • Continue checking lorries to see if they are overloaded.
  • Stop the divestment of the Fire Control Function to Huntingdon
  • Keep Felixstowe as a Day Crewed fire station, instead of reducing it to retained
  • Retain full time crewing of the Ipswich Aerial Appliance

By using these funds;

  • Re-open Bury Road Park and Ride by reviewing revenue streams for Park and Ride to increase income, including from concessionary fares, creating a cost neutral service
  • Reduction in Road Maintenance Revenue Budget – not affecting emergency repairs
  • Business Mileage reduction of 10% – saving nearly £1m a year
  • Reduction of hours, to enable the continuation of all Household Waste sites
  • Reduction of one Director and 2 Assistant Director posts
  • Reduction of 2 Cabinet posts
  • Reduce back office staff in Fire Service & review the number of appliances attending incidents (at present, for example, they send 5 appliances to a cat up a tree)
  • Reduce External Room Hire by 30%
  • Felixstowe Fire Station to 5 day weekday manning
  • Use of Service reserves
  • Reduce Corporate Contingency reserve
  • Reduce Management of Change reserve

These savings would be heavily focused on the use of the ‘management of change’ budget, which was set up for business transformation during the year at the council, and the ‘corporate contingency’ fund, which is there to help manage risk throughout the year.  We believe with the current financial situation this is the best time to use the reserves to ensure communities will continue to receive essential services.  Even Eric Pickles agrees with us. Unfortunately the Suffolk conservatives did not, and the amendment was defeated on the day, with every Conservative voting for the cuts.  You can find all the information regarding the budget at this link


Libraries Update

The consultation for Libraries is still going ahead, as the County are looking to divest, or close most of of the Libraries around the County.  A meeting between SCC  officials and councillors and Suffolk library activists on 25th February  has brought forward new information (see James Hargraves and Andrew Grant Adamson’s accounts of this meeting which both attended, as supporters of Stradbroke and Debenham libraries individually)

The original classification of the 44 libraries into 15 county libraries, to be protected and divested as a group, and 29 community libraries, which would close if community groups did not take them over, has been effectively abandoned.

Only Ipswich County Library, Bury St Edmonds and probably Lowestoft remain in a core group to be divested. This appears to mean that Chantry (Ipswich), Gainsborough (Ipswich), Beccles, Felixstowe, Hadleigh, Halesworth, Haverhill, Mildenhall, Newmarket, Stowmarket, Sudbury and Woodbridge, join the other 29 seeking community arrangements.

No libraries will be closed without a further consultation. The process of divesting all libraries is expected to take two or three years.

Those who believe libraries should continue to be run as a Suffolk County Council service should write this when filling in the consultation response form.

The consultation began on the 18th of January, and finishes on the 30th of April.  You can find the consultation on the home page of Suffolk County Council under the Consultation heading.   http://www.suffolk.gov.uk

Loss and adverse change to Woodbridge bus services

In addition to the budget cuts as specified above, the County Council has made significant reductions in the levels of subsidy provided to passenger transport, a total of £2.2m, which enable commercial services to operate in non-peak time slots.  This means that some services will cease completely, whereas others will stop operating in the evenings, and on weekends. As I alerted you last meeting, the 61a and b have closed already as ‘non-profit-making’. This was despite representations from me, and reminders to the EME Directorate and portfolio holder that all three tiers of local government in Woodbridge had  told SCC and the operators last year WHY it was non-profit making and suggested a change or route that would make it more so.

The County Council has now released information of all those buses that will now cease or change hours.

The underlying principle of most of the timetable changes has been to remove evening and Sunday services. This of course is not much of an issue  for those who are mobile by other means. It is a tragedy for others. Particularly as the SCC line that these services’will be replaced by demand responsive transport’ does NOT apply as the DRT team confirm they have no interest or intention  in extending the service beyond 7-7 Monday to Saturday. Basically this is a huge loss to people who may have few choices.

I have placed a full list of the cuts and changes elsewhere on this blog (click here for details)

Full information can be found on  http://www.suffolkonboard.com/news/changes_to_public_transport_services_april_2011

Petitioning SCC against cuts

A change in national legislation means that the SCC now has to provide online petitioning for its residents.  This means members of the public are – at last – able to create, and sign electronic  petitions to disapprove a Council decision or bring an issue to their attention.

There are currently a lot of petitions online – all of which relate to recent decisions made by the county.  Once a petition reaches 3,675 signatures, the issue then has to be debated in Full Council. The eXplore card petition  is  proving particularly popular – having got over halfway already. It is an issue particularly close to my heart as losing this card will make a huge difference

a)       to the education and employment prospects of a whole generation of Suffolk’s young people.

b)       to the provision of scheduled bus services

I have recently told that Suffolk County Council is prepared to accept  all the library petitions together as one petition.  This means they have already reached the 3,675 and so hopefully it means this will be brought back to council shortly.

Just to remind you, the epetition site is: http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/News/EPetitions.htm

Ipswich Road: Clarkson Crossing and the Solar-powered 30mph Speed sign

A bit of good news to end with: two of my Quality of Life budget safety projects are now successfully finished:

On Tuesday morning a specially designed commemorative plaque will be unveiled  by Farlingaye students at the new Clarkson Crossing in Ipswich Road (named after Thomas Clarkson, Suffolk’s famous anti-slavery campaigner, and not after Jeremy!). This commemorates the work Farlingaye HS students put into this with Suffolk County Council.

I am delighted to say that the Solar-powered 30mph speed sign I proposed, negotiated and paid for out of my Quality of Life budget is now installed at the bottom of the Ipswich Road hill, just before  the John Grose garage, Sandy Lane and the blind bend.  I hope you have  NOT noticed it, because that means you would have been driving at less than 30mph.