Category Archives: Education Transport

What happened in Suffolk in September – my report

Library Reading Scheme presentations  On 17 September I presented awards to all those children who successfully completed the Woodbridge Library Reading Challenge 2017. This year 212 children completed, to gain certificates and medals. I also funded  a poster competition and a magic show from my locality budget.

Suffolk’s Cabinet decision on controversial school transport policy changes called-in by LDGI Group A decision made by Cabinet on 12 September, to go to public consultation on proposed changes to SCC’s school transport policy, was ‘called-in’ to scrutiny by opposition councillors from the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group (of whom I was one).

The call-in cited several problems with the report that informed Cabinet’s decision, and argued that to go to public consultation without a comprehensive impact assessment would be premature. The councillors questioned the expected savings and stressed the need to fully research how changes might impact on educational attainment, increased car use, and school viability.

The call-in was examined by the Scrutiny Committee on 28 September, who determined determined that the subject should be referred  back to Cabinet again. Watch this space!

Consultation on Woodbridge Thoroughfare  September 25- 1October saw the Thoroughfare Working Group’s public consultation in Woodbridge Library on changing the Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) in the Thoroughfare. A stall was staffed in Woodbridge Library for a full 7 days (I personally worked 44 hours staffing it).

The consultation is to ensure it more accurately reflects current usage and to make the provisions more enforceable. Three options were provided. Approximately 600 questionnaires have been received, and the information will now analysed and used to establish the basis of a new TRO.

Impact of Woods Lane development on A1438  The astonishing and unacceptable closure of Woods Lane for a prolonged period ( 3 weeks shortly and then three months in early 2017) to install utilities for the 180 house Bloor Homes development will divert heavy traffic between the A12 and Wilford to the B1438 (Ipswich Road) in the south and the Old Yarmouth Road through Melton to the north. I am one of many lobbying to ameliorate this situation, not least because of the number of schools and sheltered housing along the route. When I recently was able to secure permission for 20mph zoning in Woodbridge, a significant rationale was the impact of heavy traffic on our medieval town , the number of pedestrians and cyclists inconvenienced or endangered, ­­­­and to discourage rat-running on the B1438 instead of A12/Woods Lane usage.

This diversion now underlines why the scheme is necessary. I am very concerned on the impact this will have on Woodbridge’s traders, students, and residents

Search for a new SCC Chief Executive continues  A full day of interviews and assessments took place on Monday 11 September in the search for a new Chief Executive for Suffolk County Council to succeed Deborah Cadman. The interview panel included five councillors from across the three main Groups. (3 Conservative, 1 Labour, 1 LDGI)

Although the field of candidates was strong it was decided that there was no clear candidate that met the expectations for the role. Therefore no appointment was made, and the recruitment process will begin again in the coming months. In the mean time Sue Cook will contine as interim Chief Executive, supported by other members of the corporate management team.

PCC ‘not pursuing’ plans to take control of Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service   Suffolk’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Tim Passmore, has announced that he will not be pursuing plans to take control of Suffolk Fire and Rescue Services.

Earlier this year the PCC commissioned PA Consulting to undertake an options appraisal to consider the future governance of the Fire and Rescue Service and a potential shift of governance from the County Council to the PCC. This review concluded that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that a governance change would be clearly in the interests of economy, efficiency, and effectiveness; or public safety.

Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service launches ‘escape plan’ campaign The Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service has launched a new safety campaign and website highlighting the importance of fire escape plans. The campaign addresses the fact that every year there are 40,000 accidental house fires in the UK. Having an escape plan will allow Suffolk residents to escape the fire quickly and safely. Please

Visitors to the campaign website will be able to:

  • Take a quiz to test how prepared they are to escape a fire
  • Create their own escape plan for everyone in their household

The ‘escape plan’ fire campaign will run until 31 October 2017. More information can be found at fire.suffolk.gov.uk.

October Surgery Cancellation  I will be cancelling my monthly surgery this month (21 October) because of family commitments on the other side of the world. The remaining surgeries for 2017 are:

  • 18 November 2017
  • 16 December 2017

 

 

Moving the Goalposts: Suffolk’s School Transport proposals

This week Suffolk’s cabinet decided to enter into formal consultation on  worrying changes to our current Suffolk Home to School Transport arrangements.

These changes are profound.  Most importantly,  the proposal is that  free travel will only be provided where a qualifying school student attends their nearest school. Currently it is available for qualifying students attending their catchment school, nearest school, or transport priority area. Between the schools organisation review and the the advent of free schools, these may be three different schools in some areas. ‘Not fair’, according to the administration who oversaw this chaos.

Such a decision  will impact specifically on rural families, and those from families with single parents, limited incomes and few travel choices. Additionally, the last shreds of subsidised travel for 16-18 year olds will no longer be provided.

If, after the consultation, the decision were made to adopt the proposal, it would be implemented for all students across Suffolk with effect from September 2019, without consideration for decisions made in good faith by families before this date.

The intention is to make savings. However the preconsultation has been unable  to identify any specific proposals or indeed the savings that might be intended to be made.

And why are these changes being made? Simply, Suffolk can’t afford  the transport we have provided up till now. Costs  – we are told sorrowfully- have gone up.  But gosh,  not our Council tax – which the leader is so proud of having not raised for seven, yes SEVEN, years.   No wonder the county  can’t afford to provide the transport that rural Suffolk students need!

To add insult to injury the proposals are being  cynically marketed as “unlocking capacity to benefit Suffolk residents, not just the small proportion of school children” because the abolition of school-specific bus services ‘may’ allow private companies to come forward to offer services! (Not that any have to date. That was another question I asked.)

So, having comprehensively annihilated scheduled rural bus services (because of the cost), Suffolk County council now complains that it has to rely on expensive closed buses and taxis to meet its statutory obligations to the students of this county – and expresses surprise that this provision is not open to the Suffolk residents it deprived of buses in the first place.

I think the expression is No shit, Sherlock.

 Why on earth, ( I asked the Cabinet)  having previously stopped funding various public and community bus services across the county on the grounds that they were ‘not financially viable’,  are you now contending that there will be a market solution to the school transport budget problem?

Because we are getting rid of the closed buses  that we replaced the cancelled scheduled services with“, was the Topsy Turveyland reply. You couldn’t make it up…

The young people of Suffolk are worth investment.  Instead of further penalising rural residents by moving the goalposts  once again, I call on Suffolk County Council to make proper provision for the  rural families of this county by once again subsidising  rural bus services, retaining current Home School travel provision, and  funding student travel right up to the new de facto statutory school age  of 18 out of our ever-increasing reserves.

You will be pleased to hear the LibDem, Green and Independent Group has ‘called in’ this Cabinet decision, which means it will now have to go to the Scrutiny Committee to be  investigated properly before it can be implemented.

Watch this space.

Update: Im glad to tell you that the LDGI Group call-in  (proposed by LibDem Councillor Penny Otton , and seconded by Green Councillor  Andrew Stringer) was successful. Cllrs Otton  and Stringer persuaded Scrutiny of the justice of their argument – citing Essex where the same proposals ended in very little actual savings. The proposals now have to be re-examined by Cabinet

 

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.’

What’s Been Happening: June – July 2015

Hot topics this month  are:  post-16 transport, a subscription scheme to replace free garden waste disposal, further cuts to the Fire service budget,  the new SCC Leader’s ‘Listening Days’  – and the fact that we underspend on our concessionary fares budget and have done so year after year , indeed apparently ever since we took over administration of the scheme from the district councils – despite the fact that successive SCC Cabinet members have told us that disabled people can’t possibly take the bus earlier ‘because it’s too expensive.’

Seems to me that that ‘too expensive’  is the kneejerk mantra of our administration –  without any investigation of whether this is the case or not (except when it comes to  certain things like Suffolk Circle..) What’s that quote about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing? This lot don’t even know the price!

Post-16 Education transport  Farlingaye High School has contacted me with concerns raised by individual parents concerning SCC’s new post-16 transport policy. Although the statutory school leaving age is 16, Raising the Participation age (RPA) has created a de facto statutory school leaving age of 18.This sits uneasily with SCC’s new post-16 transport policy, which, far from taking this into account offers less provision for post-16s than previously.

The county council has received no additional funding to support RPA. However, RPA is causing real issues for some families, particularly those on low income in rural communities and where there are no public services available that are timed to work with the school day.

I have asked SCC :Whether any scheduled public services that have been cut are being reinstated? Has SCC lobbied central government about the disparity of transport funding between  for example, London (whose Oyster card provides free travel for all young people funded from a disparate governmental grant allocation that provides much more per capita for Londoners) and rural counties, and what was the outcome? Has representation been made by SCC  to seek additional funding to support Raising the Participation Age?  The EADT published my letter on this issue last Friday.

More cuts to Suffolk Fire Service?  SCC are starting a public pre-consultation for changes to Suffolk Fire http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/consultations-petitions-and-elections/consultations/fire-service-redesign/  The ultimate intention is to cut another £1m of the already slimmed-down service.

Already Felixstowe Fire Station has ceased to have whole time Firefighters, and there has been a cut in the number of wholetime Firefighters across the county. As an example, on June 24th at 11:30 there were 10 Fire Stations off the run, including such stations as Hadleigh, Debenham, Framlingham and Aldeburgh. A further station was short-crewed meaning it could not attend property fires and a further 2 had appliances off the run.

I contacted CFO Hardingham to assess our local situation: as of the beginning of the month, there were13 firefighters at Woodbridge Fire Station, but they are in the process of interviewing for one more . The full complement is 14.

Proposals to end free garden waste collections in Suffolk Coastal (and other districts) Acting on advice from the Suffolk Waste Partnership, SCC is proposing to cut costs by moving the rest of the county to the Babergh/MidSuffolk system for collecting and treating organic (eg garden and some food ) waste. This would mean that the council reduces its subsidy to the minimum  for ‘free’ collections in other districts (such as Suffolk Coastal)  and supports a move to a subscription service – sharing the savings 50/50 with the relevant district councils. This would rely on an increase in individuals home composting.

This will depend on decisions of individual councils, but I gather that the subsidy will be reduced to statutory minimum whatever the outcome.

SCC underspent last financial year The financial outturn of SCC 2014-15  revealed that the revenue budget was underspent by £2.3 million (0.4% of the net budget)  and at the year end, £107.1m had been spent against the capital programme of £171.4m. This leaves reserves of £202.9 m.

Worrying  areas of underspend included  Early Years, Passenger Transport and Highways. Passenger Transport has underspent by half a million  – due to savings in the cost of concessionary travel. The Chief Accountant confirmed to me on 13th July that here has been a similar underspend in the cost of concessionary travel  every year since SCC has taken it over from the district council. Yet SCC has consistently refused to provide an earlier  start-time for travel for  Suffolk’s 7,000 disabled bus-pass holders on the  grounds of ‘cost’.

Health Scrutiny –mental health services  At the beginning of July, SCC health scrutiny looked at Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust’s Service Strategy 2012-16  for mental health and what had been done to address the CQC’s findings of February 2015, when the Trust was rated as “Inadequate. The Committee was particularly concerned about the 24 hour CAMHS crisis care service, which was high priority and rated red, and asked for a progress report on this issue.

Leader’s Listening Days  Between now and October, SCC’s new leader Colin Noble is scheduling ‘We are Listening’ events in  Lowestoft, Haverhill, Felixstowe, Stowmarket, Ipswich, Sudbury, Beccles, and Newmarket. During these visits, he “wants to hear first-hand the issues and topics of interest for local council tax payers”

Although I have been unofficially told that he plans to be in Woodbridge on 19 September, (the date of my September surgery), I have not had this confirmed.  See more at http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/wearelistening

County Councillor’s Surgery Increasingly my surgery is bringing in constituents from outside my division, who want to speak to a County Councillor face-to-face. Two people  in two months have come from other parts of the country and have been incandescent about the lack of useful Tourist Information that is provided inside the Library on a Saturday despite the enormous SCDC notice outside, stating otherwise!

Surgery dates for the next few months are:  Saturday 20 June, and Saturday 18 July. I will take my customary  August break, before starting again on 19th September. Surgeries continue at Woodbridge Library 10-12 as ever.

More transport problems for rural post-16 students

Decisions  about funding post-16 transport made by SCC’s Cabinet in 2014 are now hitting the street. These resulted in a significant tightening of SCC’s ‘discretionary’  transport offer, due to a double whammy created by conflicting governmental expectations: On the one hand young people are now expected to remain in education, training and employment until 18 – thus creating a de facto if unofficial statutory leaving age of 18. On the other hand, continuing cuts in central funding, assisted by ideological reluctance to increase taxation at either national or local level  means that SCC are trying hard to cover impossible bills. The London-based, urban-centric nature of  central government has a track-record of making  decisions without funding support, that puts rural-dwelling young people  at a very particular disadvantage. They have so much further to travel to education and so much less in the way of public transport to fall back on than their urban peers.
This is my letter in today’s EADT, 2-07-2015.

Sir,

Many people have contacted me re with concerns about SCC’s new post-16 ‘discretionary’ policy which will offer students travel to the nearest place of education only. This sounds reasonable, until you look at the plight of the rural young.

The government’s Raising the Participation Age (RPA) insists on education, training and employment until 18. However, almost all support for travel finishes at 16. And for many rural post-16 students , there may be literally no other transport to education apart from the SCC-chartered bus the discretionary pass is used on,  because the bus services have been cut.

A few years ago SCC replaced many rural bus routes with ‘demand responsive transport,’ A Rural Transport PDP working group last year found this was incompatible provision for school attendance. Remaining bus  routes often run a regular service except for the one bus at school times which has been taken off-route so as to run a school- specific service – ironically for bus-pass holders only. And if a student wants to continue their studies at their catchment school since age 11 (Farlingaye, for example) – but there is another education provider a shade closer, too bad!

Let me remind readers that a discretionary bus pass is not free. It costs the student £600 a year. But the bonkers bus deregulation laws – aimed at promoting competition -won’t allow one to pay for a seat on a school bus if one has no discretionary entitlement. It’s a deeply unhelpful scenario for those who just need transport to get from A to B!.

I have yet to establish what is the situation of the rural young person who is literally unable to attend mandatory school college or training because there is no public transport and they do not drive. Are they sanctioned?

In February’s 2015 Budget debate, I suggested affordable transport was so crucial to education that  we take money out of reserves to support educational transport for disadvantaged  post-16 year olds. My plea was ignored. The council needs to revisit this decision.

I also call again on the county council to lobby for  the extra funding to support RPA. Compare the prospects of our rural young with those in  London – an Oyster card gives free, accessible and appropriate travel for all young people. We cannot continue to lose out to the Londoncentric  travel funding policies of successive governments – who simply ignore the problems faced by rest of us . Young people in Suffolk also deserve  to achieve their potential!

And finally, it is surely time for Suffolk to lobby for the re-regulation of local bus services, so that we do not carry on  spending our council tax payers’ money patching together pieces of a fractured system that fails in a rural setting

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