Category Archives: Education Transport

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.

 

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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Whats been happening in Suffolk over the summer

Home to school transport  Central government have made changes  to the age of statutory education.  It is now  compulsory to stay in education or training until you are 17 – and shortly it will be 18. These are impacting on poorer students who have to travel to college, as Suffolk’s free home to school transport policy  (as indeedthe  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. Currently the SCC Administration are taking the line 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.  I do not think this is an adequate response and  I will be taking this up as a matter of urgency.

The Milestone in Woodbridge's Thoroughfare
The Milestone in Woodbridge’s Thoroughfare

Historic milestone lost – and found  The Thoroughfare Milestone outside John Ives was reported to me as  missing by an anxious local historian and nobody seemed to know where it had gone. We were for a short time worried that it might be a case of vandalism or theft. Luckily some nifty detective work by Woodbridge Town Council’s very own Kay Yule and myself has traced it to the depot in Melton and we expect it to be returned shortly.

Planning Application next to Dukes Park  I have had a lot of emails of concern from residents about the planning application to build housing on the field next to Dukes Park.As this is also the site through which the EA One underground high tension cabling is due to be routedI contacted the EA ONE  link officer at Suffolk County Council for definitive information on the separation necessary between  housing development and underground high tension cables.  You can find his brief resume of the status quo and implications on my blog : http://carolinepage.blog.suffolk.libdems.org/2014/07/26/dukes-park-and-east-anglia-one/

Travellers Sites Suffolk County Council has abandoned a public consultation on where to create three official Gypsy and Traveller stopping sites. The consultation identified seven potential sites – with the aim of selecting three in the areas where unauthorised encampments usually occur. However, following a number of landowners coming forward with other potential sites and early feedback from councillors and residents, Suffolk’s council and policing leaders decided to halt and reconsider. The sites were:

      • Layby off A143 opposite Shepherds Lane, Wortham
      • Land between Candlet Road and Treetops, Felixstowe
      • Layby on Felixstowe Road, Levington, south of junction with Bridge Road
      • Former Little Chef site, Kentford, between Bury Road and A14
      • Former Chippings Dump, Upthorpe Road, Stanton
      • Former Little Chef site, off A14 by the Orwell Bridge
      • A140 junction with Castleton Way, Yaxley.

Restoration of Woodbridge – Ipswich Sunday Service  Just to reiterate that from the 20th July a Sunday/Bank Holiday bus service has resumed allowing car-free travel between Woodbridge and Ipswich.  Suffolk County Council is sponsoring 3 return services a day between Woodbridge and Ipswich. As you know I have ben fighting for this since the  last was so disgracefully  discontinued at two weeks notice to us, the passengers, back in 2011.

The Sunday 65b will allow car free journeys to visit hospital and help young people get out on their own. It will be a boon for all people who can’t- or can’t afford to – drive. And its obviously a big boost for tourism. It is only guaranteed until the end of 2014 – after that, it depends on numbers – so it’s a case of use it or lose it!

65 b Sunday Bus Service                                         Key Stops

Woodbridge Turban Centre                             10.35               14.20               17.20
Woodbridge Pembroke Avenue                      10.40               14.25               17.25
Martlesham Black Tiles                                    10.47               14.32               17.32
Ipswich Hospital (adj)                                      10.57               14.42               17.42
Ipswich Tower Ramparts                                 11.09               14.54               17.54

Ipswich Old Cattle Market (Stand B)            10.00              13.45               16.45
Ipswich Hospital (nr)                                       10.11                13.56               16.56
Martlesham Black Tiles                                   10.21               14.06               17.06
Woodbridge Pembroke Avenue                     10.27               14.12                17.12
Woodbridge Turban Centre                            10.32               14.17               17.17