What happened in Suffolk 2012-13

Another year has passed, and yet many local government themes remain the same.  Local Government funding is decreasing; Councils have to choose what their priorities are, and find innovative ways of continuing to provide frontline services if they are not to abandon them altogether. However there is always a question of priorities, and I would strongly disagree with many of the priorities of the last Conservative administration.

This report mentions the year’s plummet of Suffolk Schools down the national league table, the loss of bus services, the Conservatives’ covert concession that they had messed up big time in abolishing Suffolk’s Youth Travel card – though they were never big enough to apologise to the young people – the creation of the Libraries IPS and various other things before it finished with the grand finale of the loss of much of Conservative dominance due in part to unexpected UKIP gains in the recent election. This is where I am going to start

County Council Election 2013    On May 2nd Suffolk went to the polls, changing the political profile of Suffolk considerably.  I retained my seat with  an increased share of the vote.  Thank you very much! Across the county  the major changes were as follows: the Conservatives lost 16 seats – including that of one Cabinet member – reducing their majority from a complacency-inducing 35 to a very much more nervous  and hopefully less arrogant 3.  Labour picked up 11 seats (admittedly from the rock-bottom level of 4 they were reduced to after the 2009 election), and the LibDems lost 4 seats – although not a single sitting candidate! The gainers were the UKIP – eight extra seats all gained from the Conservatives.

Our Woodbridge UKIP candidate seemed wholly invisible, and the only UKIP leaflets I saw were generic,  published in Newton Abbott, and scattered on the path outside the Kyson polling station on the day of the election. These said (I quote verbatim ) “Next year the EU will allow 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK”  (this figure being more than the total population of Romania and Bulgaria and the issue being wholly outside the remit of the County Council).   

327 Woodbridge residents were bird-witted enough to vote for this compelling local agenda. Presumably they have no views whatsoever  on things the county council actually does need todeal with, such as improving the dire  Suffolk Schools results, fixing the roads, caring for the elderly,  and trying to prevent the last rural buses from disappearing.

If only I could be certain that these very same voters didn’t come running to me to complain about  roads, schools, care and public transport. That would seem very much like having your cake and eating it!

SCC Budget 2013-4  There was a further reduction in Government grants to the County Council this year.  In total, the Council had to save £24.9m, as part of a two year programme to reduce the budget by just over £50m.   As was the case in 2012, the budget focused on making efficiencies rather than specific service cuts.  This is concerning as there is no way to measure how much these reductions affect the frontline services.

The vast majority of the savings came from two directorates.  The first,  Adult and Community Services will save £7m as part of an in-depth review, and the second being Children and Young People’s Services who must save £2.5 million. An excellent choice when there are so many concerns about elderly care and poorly attaining schools!.  In addition to these listed savings, there are further efficiencies taken from across the County Council which total £9.7m (including further money from ACS and CYP).

At the Full Council meeting where the budget is discussed, an amendment was submitted by the Liberal Democrat Group suggesting:

  • Increasing the funding for school improvement services by employing more advisers, and increasing the support to schools.
  • Attracting more foster carers to a pioneering scheme for the most vulnerable children in Suffolk.
  • Reinstating the Speed limits team at Suffolk County Council to allow communities to apply for 20 mph schemes once again.

This amendment, which would have been fully funded by the contingency reserve, and would have helped increase attainment and look after the most vulnerable in Suffolk, was defeated by the Conservative majority.

Education in Suffolk plummets  This past year has been quite a shocking one for education in Suffolk. Although our excellent Woodbridge schools have mercifully bucked the trend, Suffolk schools have slipped inexorably down the attainment rankings – having ranked  30th out of of 151 in in 2001-4, they have fallen the current position of 148th of 151 at primary level and  141/151 at secondary level. SCC has announced a Raising the Bar initiative in order to reverse this dreadful state of affairs.

Previously this year Matthew Taylor the CEO of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA) and former prime ministerial advisor, has been tasked with improving educational attainment in Suffolk.  The work will and has involved spending time working with employers in Suffolk and head teachers.  It is expected that the commission will report back in May 2013. This was was as a result of Suffolk GCSE results lagging four percentage points below the national average.

After all our lobbying, the return of a Suffolk Youth travel card   At the beginning of 2013, Suffolk County Council Cabinet announced that it was going to start to look into re-introducing a youth travel card –  having cut the Explore card in the 2011budget, as part of the Conservatives’ New Strategic Direction.  We predicted that the decision to remove it would cause significant hardship for many aged between 16-19, and it did: increasing the costs of not only travelling to college, but also work and social activities.  Petitions and campaigns were launched for its return, with myself as Lib Dem spokesman for Transport and the Lib Dem Group being at the forefront of this – along withg the young people of Suffolk (and especially Woodbridge).

It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to have once again played Cassandra to the Conservatives’  frivolous gaming with the futures of our young people.

This proposed new card will go some way to reduce this impact, with discussions still on-going with bus companies to provide a universal discount of approximately 20-25%.  There are concerns that this card won’t be available on all buses in Suffolk, which could hugely disadvantage students in rural parts of the County.

Better Broadband for Suffolk In 2012 Suffolk County Council together with other public sector organisations from the County submitted a bid to the Government to seek matched funding to help improve broadband in the County.

At first, the County submitted a bid which was rejected due to underestimating the amount of public funds required.  Subsequently, the County Council contribution was increased and accepted and so discussions with private companies to do the work began. Faster Broadband for Suffolk is  therefore an issue  that has been agreed already,  with the contracts  being signed just prior to Christmas.  BT Openreach are now surveying the locations around the County for implementing the agreed faster broadband speeds, with some properties possibly receiving this in the autumn.  So pleased were the Conservatives with this that they actually made it a pledge in their election manifesto although Faster Broadband has been arranged  already.  This is the easy way to ensure you meet your pledges.

 Suffolk County Care Homes to be divested   In October the administration, at Cabinet, voted to divest the Council of its care homes.  This means that the County Council has passed over its 16 care homes and 8 wellbeing centres to Care UK or its funding partner as part of a 25 year contract to provide care.

The decision also includes an estate development plan, which commits Care UK to provide 10 new purpose built care homes and 10 community wellbeing centres, many of which will be in different locations to the current homes, with the old sites being handed back to the County.
This is a great concern for care homes like  Lehman House which are well-situated in the centre of a community within easy reach of transport and shops. The proposed replacements are not situated so conveniently.

Police and Crime Commissioner  This last year was the year the  Suffolk Police Authority was abolished.   On the 15th of November Suffolk elected Conservative candidate Tim Passmore as their PCC.  The Liberal Democrats refused to field a local candidate on the grounds that policing should not be a  party-political issue.  Woodbridge had, I believe, a high rate of spoiled papers.

For  more information on the Panel, including membership, meeting dates across the year:- http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/your-council/decision-making/committees/police-and-crime-panel-joint-committee/

Libraries – Industrial and Provident Society On the 1st of August Suffolk’s  new Library service was launched with the Industrial and Provident Society taking over responsibility from the County Council.  The IPS now runs all of the 44 Libraries in Suffolk, as well as the mobile library, school, and prison services.

According to the SCC administration, this move is a way to ensure all libraries continue remain open with paid staff. It is better than the previous situation when 28 libraries were under threat of closure. However there have been a number of claims about the level of savings that are required across the Library service, most recently there were claims that £100,000 had to be saved from as yet unspecified areas.   Originally the County Council claimed that in setting up an IPS there could be an 80% saving on business rates, and then made a request of a 5% saving per Library.

It is concerning that the funding for the Library service will only be protected for a total of two years.

No Fairer Bus Fares for the Disabled and Elderly Over the past year the Lib Dem Group fought long and hard to get the Concessionary Bus pass system in Suffolk much fairer.  Back in 2011, the Lib Dems submitted a successful motion to Full Council to get the Concessionary fares scheme looked at once again, which finally occurred in July 2012.  Whilst this initial attempt was unsuccessful, the group requested that this issue be looked at again by the Scrutiny Committee.  This resulted in Cabinet finally looking at the issue in December 2012.

Our campaign aimed to reverse the decision that the county only provided the statutory minimum free travel with a bus pass.  This meant that on weekdays pass holders were limited to travel between 0930 and 2300, the Lib Dems wanted to extend this to 24 hour free travel for disabled users and from 9am for elderly users.

In the case of the December Cabinet meeting, the portfolio holders refused to change the Counties policy, and wouldn’t even let opposition councillors ask questions.  (Usually opposition Councillors have an opportunity to question Cabinet’s potential decision, and raise important points. On this one occasion this was refused, even though the report contained new information.   The new information included results from the small scale survey the Council carried out, and a letter from the Equality Human Rights Commission which stated that the processes undertaken by Cabinet in the original decision needed ‘considerable improvements’.)

Unfortunately, there are currently no further methods to change this decision through the Council’s constitution,  only through a different composition of the County Council decision makers! However, the Conservative majority now hangs on a knife edge. I predict a much more regular attendance and less snoozing in the Tory back benches!

Woodbridge County Councillor Locality budget 2012-13  This funded the following:

  • Woodbridge Cycling Festival: *Materials, first aid cover etc
  • St Mary’s Woodbridge: Repairs  to *Tower and to *South side of the church wall
  • Deben Swimming Club: *Poolside kit for competitions
  • Woodbridge RUFC: *Indoor activity area improvements
  • Woodbridge Town FC Under 8 Team: *Waterproof jackets
  • Deben Players: *Costume store
  • Woodbridge Youth Centre: *Generator
  • Wickham Market & District Family Carers Support Group: *Training for respite care volunteers
  • Just 42: *Hardstanding for Peterhouse  Green
  • The Princes Trust: *Flowers/ pots for exterior of Woodbridge Youth Club
  • YP@ Woodbridge: *Cooking equipment, TV/DVD & Disco/Karaoke unit
  • Woodbridge Library: *Blackout Blinds; *Reading challenge – balloon modeller, & prizes
  • WoodbridgeTown: *Grit bins; *Thoroughfare Bike racks ; *repairs to ElmhurstPark wall/shed; *Funding for Jubilee Pavilion; *Bench at Hasketon/Grundisburgh road junction

Woodbridge County Councillor Quality of Life budget 2012-13  The County Councillor’s Quality of Life Budget has funded:

  • new signs to prevent HGVs trying to get to the town centre via Angel Lane.
  • signage slowing traffic on Cemetery Lane
  • calming scheme in Sandy Lane.
  • New cycle racks in ther Thoroughfare; the old (expensive to be matched) ones moved to Market Square.

Because of  electoral purdah however, some of these schemes had been abandoned mid-stream to be restarted after the election.

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