My anuual report: highlighting some of the more important issues in Suffolk over the last year
SCC Leadership At the end of 2014-5 the Conservative administration of SCC hold the balance of power by a single vote. The current party composition is Conservative 38; Green 2; Independent 4; Labour 15; Liberal Democrat 7; UKIP 9.
At the beginning of April the leader of the Suffolk County Conservative party Mark Bee stood down and was replaced in an internal party election by Colin Noble, who had attempted to unseat him last year. This was, of course, far from an internal party matter, as it brought wide-ranging changes to the Cabinet (including the loss of highly intelligent -and numerate- Jenny Antill; sane and knowledgeable Alan Murray, and the bike- and bus- friendly Graham Newman). Cllr Noble was elected SCC Leader at the SCC Annual Meeting on May 21. A full slate of Tories voted for him, a rainbow coalition of the opposition – LibDem, Labour, Independent, Green and UKIP – voted against. This meant Cllr Noble was elected in, 37:31. No abstentions.
(For those new to Suffolk politics, Cllr Noble is former cheerleader of the ill-fated New Strategic Direction (which was going for a ‘virtual’ council with all its services divested), and the equally ill-fated Suffolk Circle.)
2015-16 budget Conservative budget proposals included savings of £38.2 m, leading to a budget requirement of £454,981,413. Reserves were forecast as reaching £165million by the end of March. Although this was opposed by opposition parties, who recommended dipping into the reserves to fund such things as transport to statutory education for the poorest over-16s, the administration’s budget was voted in, 37-31.
Home to school transport Central government has made changes to the age of statutory education, making it now compulsory to stay in education or training until one is 17 – and shortly 18. This is causing concern in Suffolk and having a particular impact on poorer students who have to travel to college, as Suffolk’s free home to school transport policy (as indeed the national home to school transport policy) only covers students up to 16 years old.
Over 16s can avail themselves of a discretionary – paid – option but it costs £540 a year. The SCC Administration say that the Endeavour card (offering 1/3 off available journeys by some operators) will cover the problem, and that there are Bursaries to help the needy. This is not proving to be an adequate response. While the government has made it mandatory for young people to remain in education or training until 17 it is a continuing concern that we have no funding mechanism in place to support the poorest young people of the county for this last year of what is now statutory education.
20mph and Other Speed limits The Transport Policy Development Panel -of which I have been a founder member – has established clear guidelines for 20mph and Other Speed Limit Criteria policies for Suffolk. Both of these were approved by Cabinet during past year. The new policies aim to ensure that appropriate speed limits are applied fairly, and transparently across the county while reflecting local concerns– and enabling local County Councillors to make representations on behalf of the communities they represent. Woodbridge is currently in the process of applying for a 20mph limit to calm local traffic.
Highways Maintenance Whilst there have been some successes – the resurfacing of Ipswich Road, Drybridge Hill, Warwick Avenue and Haugh Lane are notable examples – the divested highways maintenance under KMG has remained slow and inadequate – and -most particularly the minor works – increasingly expensive. There has been a backlog of County-Councillor-commissioned works that has only recently been tackled. This has been a universal problem and we have made strong representations. Another mild winter means that the gritting services have yet to be tested.
Sunday Bus Services From July last year, Woodbridge resumed a Sunday/Bank Holiday bus service, sponsored by SCC, allowing car-free travel between Woodbridge and Ipswich, including, importantly, the hospital. This was on a use-it-or-lose-it basis – three services a day till Christmas. It has now increased to 5 services a day and the route extended to Melton.
Other Bus Improvements I have been able to arrange the replacement of the ‘balancing poles’ at the Hamblin Road bus shelters with proper seating so that people are now able to sit and wait for their buses at long last. I have also arranged with Suffolk Onboard an the bus companies for two new bus stops on the Ipswich Road – above the Notcutts roundabout -so that people wanting to get to Framfield surgery and Clarkson Court will find it easier to use the bus services.
Care UK Serious concern was raised last autumn at the way Care Uk was running Suffolk care homes. The firm took over SCC’s 16 care homes in 2012 and is building 10 replacements. A CQC inspection found Mildenhall Lodge below standard in four of five categories while a safeguarding inspection raised concerns about another home, Asterbury Place. SCC Health Scrutiny looked at current arrangements for ensuring the quality of care in residential homes in Suffolk in October concluded that it was not fully satisfied that lessons had been learned from the findings of the recent CQC inspection of Mildenhall Lodge. Further, that the Committee was not yet satisfied that all the appropriate steps had been taken to improve the quality of care at the Suffolk homes run by Care UK. As I write new admissions to Mildenhall lodge remain suspended, nearly a year after the original concerns were raised.
Education Suffolk’s ten year slump in the education league tables seems finally to have been halted an to be turning around, but a recent Ofsted report suggests SCC has been “too slow” in reacting to areas of concern raised in last year’s hightly critical inspection – although it did say that “decisive improvements” had been made in areas of weakness identified in last year’s report.
Much of the strategy has been implemented too recently to impact substantially on pupils’ outcomes sd yet. Pupils’ attainment in Suffolk remains below average, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. As a result, 25,000 Suffolk children do not attend a ‘good’ primary or secondary school.
Customer Service Direct – CSD brought back in-house On 1 June SCC moved Customer Service Direct – back in-house. CSD, in which BT had a majority stake alongside the county and Mid Suffolk councils, handled SCC’s financial administration, IT, and personnel functions. The councils’ call centres were also operated by CSD .The cost of the contract was initially £301 million, but this increased to £427 million over 10 years as more functions were added to the service.
Woodbridge Fire and Police station merger After consultation Woodbridge police station was mergedwith the existing fire station , with the aim of allowing the services to work much more closely together and for the services to become even more cost effective. On 19th I welcomed councillors, police and fire officers to the station for an opening by the PCC and member for Public Protection.
County Councillor’s Surgeries I held 11 surgeries in the past year – on the 3rd Saturday of every month except August; 10-12 at Woodbridge Library. They have been popular and well-attended.