Devolution: there’s still time to have your say

Update:       To ensure that the people of Suffolk  have had every opportunity to give their views on the devolution of the county ahead of Suffolk County Council’s  meeting at the start of November, you can continue to send  comments and/or questions regarding devolution  up to the beginning of November via

  1. Email: eastangliadevolution@norfolk.gov.uk
  2. Letter – write to: East Anglia Devolution, Norfolk County Council, Ground floor – South Wing, County Hall, Martineau Lane, NR1 2DH
  3. Phone: 0345 6031842

Alternatively, people can get in touch with Suffolk County Council directly by

  1. Email:  customer.service@suffolk.gov.uk
  2. Letter addressed to : Suffolk County Council Endeavour House 8 Russell Road, Ipswich Suffolk IP1 2BX

Read my account of my, and other LibDem councillors’ reservations , here

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  • Do you want a Mayor for Suffolk?  or do you think a Mayor for Suffolk is a waste of money?
  • Is loosening links with goverment a good idea or will it just create a fourth tier of government and a lot of extra bureaucracy?
  • Will it provide more welcome development or is it just concreting over our beauty spots?

Whatever your views on the Suffolk/Norfolk DEVOLUTION deal, they won’t be taken into account unless you respond to the consultation.

You can do this online or download and send in a paper version (here via a websit which gives you the positive points; my reservations can be found here), or email your views to:   HaveYourSay@norfolk.gov.uk

CLOSING  DATE: 23 AUGUST

Whats up in Suffolk June to July 2016

Caroline Page, Woodbridge County Councillor (Phot: Toby Gray Photography)
Caroline Page, Woodbridge County Councillor (Phot: Toby Gray Photography)

Though these last few weeks have been dominated by the national Referendum  and the Norfolk and Suffolk Devolution debates, other things have – of course – been happening on the domestic front.  The big issues in SCC have been a new plan for maintaining Suffolk’s Highways and the future of the Ipswich Park and Ride, not to mention  the political stability of the Conservative administration, while locally,there has been continuing work to secure the future of the Woodbridge Youth Centre

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

  1. having no competition to ensure that they are offering good value for money
  2. 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
  3. 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.

 

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).

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.

 

Devolution voted in by SCC (though not by me)

At the SCC Devolution debate last week , councillors broke party lines to speak and vote their mind.  I was one of the 20 county councillors who – after much thought -opposed  the offered Devolution deal (despite my personal support for the concept of Devolution). This was in line with my party’s stance: we approve of giving local authorities more control over spending, but this proposal leaves much  of the crucial decision-making with the government.

My concerns were: the clear democratic deficit  this devolution deal will offer – an overarching authority will have one member from every council; the thorny question of an elected Mayor (and all the extra bureaucracy that would go with that post); the relative smallness of the sums offered to Suffolk;  the fact that  the Government  will still  oversee everything it wishes to oversee, but just without the responsibility, thus making the county the ‘fall guy’ for its more unpopular decisions  – and possibly most of all – the government’s target for Norfolk and Suffolk to build an additional 240,000 houses in Suffolk and Norfolk by 2031.  This is the equivalent of creating in Suffolk 4 extra towns the size of Ipswich, or increasing every town and village by 35%. This magnitude of growth is not needed to satisfy local demand, but is intended for people moving out of London.

Suffolk badly needs housing, but not to this extent. We specifically need starter homes, disability-specific housing and accommodation for older people wanting to downsize – all for a population already living in Suffolk. (And whose needs are not catered for). Our towns, roads and commuter rail are  already congested. How will our county cope with growth of this magnitude? Why is it needed?

Such largescale  development would  only be viable if there were also appropriate local jobs on offer and a well designed transport infrastructure to match (unless the intention is to house Suffolk residents in new build and sell off the picturesque housing to second home owners).

Despite such reservations voiced by many, devolution was voted in by a resounding majority (40 for, 20 against, 3 abstentions, and a couple of hurried departures just before the vote…).

A public consultation including a MORI telephone poll and an online survey has opened and will remain open over the summer only. You can find it here .  As ever, I suggest you should respond if you want your views to be counted.

(Whilst of course, we wait to see if Devolution still has legs.  It was very much Cameron and Osborne’s baby. Will it survive a new leadership, especially a post-Brexit one where so much governmental time will have to be taken up negotiating the nation’s way out of the mess we got ourselves in to? )