With local government funding decreasing, the SCC’s Conservative administration has made it clear that its top priority has been to keep the council tax bill down, and thus is finding it more and more difficult to fund frontline services.
Suffolk has been facing intimations of a new way of delivering local government, with the start of the Devolution negotiations.
At the end of the year, the refusal of the administration to accept Scrutiny’s concerns about the new Community transport model, proposed cuts to Suffolk Fire and Rescue services, and the unexpected announcement of Academisation of all UK schools (followed by an equally unexpected U-turn) were top news.
Suffolk’s erstwhile strong Conservative majority administration has slowly dwindled away and the the year finished with the County Council being in no overall control.
(This is a round up of the information I report to the Woodbridge and Martlesham AGMs)
Budget 2016 -17 At SCC’s budget setting meeting in February, the SCC’s Conservative administration proposed cuts to of £34.4m to community transport funding, to Park and Ride funding, to the Fire services, to Library stock, to County Councillors’ locality budgets… – leading to a budget requirement of £445,659,553. With all these cuts, our council tax still increased by by 2% – (though in a figleaf to the administration’s electoral promise this was worded as “”The budget is based on a freeze… but includes a 2% precept to fund Adult Social Care…”) .
On the day of the final budget meeting more money did appear – apparently from nowhere– a Transitional Grant of £1.9m and an extra £1.6 million from the Rural Services Delivery Grant. This money goes specifically to Suffolk on its ‘super-sparsity indicator’ because of “additional rural costs… including the small size of rural councils, scattered and remote populations, lack of private sector providers, and poor broadband and mobile coverage”. However, SCC decided to bank this little windfall (over the last 5 years our county’s reserves have increased by £100m to c£170m) instead of ameliorating a single cut.
A rainbow coalition of the entire opposition voted against this budget in cross-party. It was a tight vote but the administration squeezed their budget through.
Leadership and constitution of SCC’s administration After the putsch of right-wing Conservative Colin Noble for leadership of the Conservative party and Suffolk County Council from moderate Mark Bee, the County Council’s Conservative majority has lurched along on a knife edge.
At May 15 2016 , after the resignation of Cllr Alan Murray (the day after tipping the vote at the March full council meeting), and the death of Cllr Peter Bellfield in April, SCC’s political make-up is:
Conservative 36; Labour 15; LibDem 7; UKIP 10; Green 2; Independent 4, plus 1 vacancy.
This gives SCC’s opposition a majority whenever it votes in unison. One of the Independents is, however, notorious North Carolina resident and Hadleigh councillor, Brian Riley. He is often absent, and on the occasions when he crosses the Atlantic to attend Council he votes with the Conservatives.
Local Bus Services After more than two years of stability, major changes have been made to the services to Woodbridge and beyond. From September First bus halved the frequency of the 64 and 65 buses (that is the Rendlesham and Saxmundham buses) adding the additional short-route 63 bus to fill this gap locally to Woodbridge and Melton – but not helping passengers going on to Saxmundham, Rendlesham, Leiston etc.
The Sunday service to Woodbridge and Melton continues – so far without threat.
A new cost-saving model of Community Transport was proposed and has been imposed by by the administration (see my blog for full details). Although SCC scrutiny objected, and sent the decision back to Cabinet, Cabinet overturned this objection without further comment.
Devolution Much of this year has been taken up with an off-stage ‘will we, won’t we’ devolution debate. A devolution deal for East Anglia was announced by the Chancellor in mid-March and now needs to be ratified by all County and District and borough councils and the (unelected) LEP boards involved. (This may not be plain sailing – Cambridge City and Cambridge County have already shown themselves to be against this).
Although it is very difficult to get the person in the street in Suffolk interested in devolution, it is vital that they do because it is about a fundamentally different relationship between Government and local public services and it affects all of us.
The East Anglia Deal would see decisions currently made by Government on things such as infrastructure, growth, employment and skills being made by the Board of a new Combined Authority, consisting of all the Leaders of County and District Councils – and a directly elected Mayor. In other words it would be pretty much like the Cabinet system that currently operates in Suffolk County Council – with the potential for the same democratic deficit.
It is proposed that the first mayoral elections would be in May 2017 alongside county elections.
The directly elected Mayor would act as Chair to the East Anglia Combined Authority and would be responsible for local transport, roads, strategic planning and housing. The new East Anglia Combined Authority, working with the Mayor, would receive the following powers:
- Control of a new additional funding allocation of £900m over 30 years (£30m a year across the entire devolved region – not a great deal in the scheme of things) to boost growth
- Reviewing 16+ skills provision; devolved 19+ adult skills funding from 2018/19
- Joint responsibility with the Government to co-design the new National Work and Health Programme designed to focus on those with a health condition or disability and the very long term unemployed. (!)
There would also be commitment to continue improvements to local health and social care services, continuing to join up services and promote integration between the NHS and local government.
Looking ahead, I remain deeply concerned that any future deal involving education or NHS trusts will NOT involve the people of East Anglia shouldering the burden of PFI debt incurred by central government (not only our local debts eg the PFI debt on Elizabeth Garrett Anderson building, but also eg the mountainous ones on the Addenbrookes site). I have asked for further information on this.
Academisation of all UK schools At the end of the year, the Chancellor announced the surprise compulsory ‘academisation’ of all state schools, secondary by 2020, primary by 2022, taking them all out of local authority control . This had significant implications for all our local schools. New and existing academies were expected to become part of Multi-Academy Trusts, although a few stong ones may have been allowed to remain stand-alone.
In a subsequent U-turn, enforced Academisation will only be to those schools in special measures (as before). ‘Successful’ schools will only become Academies if they chose to do so.
Funding will go directly to Academy trusts , leaving the County Council still responsible for place planning, transport and admissions and ‘vulnerable learners.’
Very controversially, (under the heading ‘The Right resources in the Right Hands’) it appears that on academisation there will now be be a transfer of the school estates to the Secretary of State for Education. This needs unpicking – currently it looks startlingly similar to Henry VIII’s policy towards the monasteries
Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service Cuts In March’s Full Council meeting at Endeavour House I spoke on the LibDem/Labour motion to stop SCC’s proposed reduction in Fire appliances and full time crews (defeated 36-35 – all Conservatives voting for the cuts, and every single opposition councillor present: LibDem, Labour, Green, UKIP and Independent , voting against). Conservative county councillor, Alan Murray, resigned the following day.
In supporting the Suffolk Fire & Rescue Services I put the local case for Woodbridge retained fire station and its need for the continuing support of Ipswich fire crews – looking at daily staristics for the previous months, it seems clear the Woodbridge is ‘offline’ for several hours on an average of one day in two –generally in the afternoon (the very time of day when fire engines are most likely to be called out). We are therefore reliant on the fulltime crews in Ipswich.
Ultimately these cuts were slightly watered down. In particular, as regards Ipswich, Cabinet decided to remove the second full-time crewed fire engine from Ipswich (Princes Street) fire station but keep 4 of the crew of full-time firefighters . These 4 full-time firefighters will be used to support on-call fire engine availability across the county during weekday. The on-call fire engine and on-call firefighter establishment at Princes Street (scheduled to be cut ) will remain. However, the third fire engine from Ipswich (East) fire station will be cut and the number of on-call firefighters at the station from 21 to 15/
These cuts strike me as particularly concerning in light of the development which is likely to be taking place around Woodbridge, Martlesham and Melton.
Police Cuts A ‘re-design’ of the force to save £20m has lost police officer, PCSO and civilian posts. As follows:
From 1 April, the Woodbridge and District Safer Neighbourhood team was reduced to a Sergeant, two Police Officers and three PCSOs from previous staffing of a Sergeant, three Police Officers and seven PCSOs. The SNT remains in the new building so recently opened at the fire station in Theatre Street, Woodbridge. However it will no longer be a public access location! Better access for the public’ was one of the key benefits of the move – see my blog entry on the subject – June 14.
The only public access to Suffolk police will be at the three main police stations (Ipswich, Bury and Lowestoft), although there will be ‘intercoms’ to police headquarters to use at the front doors of other buildings .
Woodbridge County Councillor Locality budget 2015-16
In 2015-6 I made the following grants:
In April 2016 have made a further couple of grants to the Rural Coffee Caravan and to Headway, the head injury charity , and to provide a commemorative badge to each child in Woodbridge for the Queen’s 90th Birthday.
Woodbridge County Councillor monthly surgeries
This is the sixth year I have held regular monthly surgeries for the benefit of constituents.
I held 11 surgeries for constituents over the last year – on the third Saturday of every month except August. These were held at Woodbridge Library, and from January, at the new time of 9-11 am.
They continue to be popular and well-attended.