Category Archives: Cabinet

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.

 

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.’

Whats been happening – November to December

Restored Sunday bus goes from strength to strength! Having finally got the 65b service back in July, after years when Woodbridge residents were cut off from any Sunday or holiday bus transport whatsoever (including getting to Ipswich hospital for visiting, A&E and minor injuries!) We were told – quite fairly–  ‘use it, or lose it’  Woodbridge residents have risen magnificently to the challenge  – and as a direct result  the 65b will not only be retained at least until March but will also now run 5 times a day in each direction from January, and the service has been extended out to Melton.  Again, we must continue to remember that it’s a case of use it or lose it – so when shopping for Christmas, or in the sales – remember to take the Sunday bus!

Woodbridge Rail StationTicket Machines!  Sadly, the machine continues to be less than wholly fit for purpose. It spends much of its time out of order or malfunctioning, leaving many Woodbridge residents frustrated – either out of pocket, having had to pay twice for a ticket, or facing a penalty fine for a fare they have paid!  I have recently been contacted by a stream of people complaining about this problem , including overseas visitors who found  local travel very difficult and some residents who have told me  that their only option to this is making a 15 mile round trip to use the machines in Ipswich (as the Saxmundham ticket machine is often  also out of action).

Suffok Speed Limit Criteria  For some months now I have been part of the crossparty  policy development panel  working on developing a new  Speed Limit Criteria policy for Suffolk. SCC Cabinet will be seeking to approve this today. If approved, the  new policy aims  to ensure that speed  limits are applied fairly, and transparently across the county while reflecting  local concerns where appropriate  – and enabling local County Councillors to make representations on behalf of the communities they represent.

This would complement the new 20mph policy that  the same panel  (on which I also sat) developed  and which Cabinet approved earlier this year.

Suffok’s Education and Learning Infrastructure Plan  SCC is also developing Suffolks Education and Learning InfrastructurePlan. This is of particular interest to me as I have been arguing that there is insufficent bringing together of strategic issues  locally.  The  coverage of the  future eduction situation in  Woodbridge is not wholly encouraging:


Woodbridge/Melton
Issue: Potential housing of up to 500 houses in the  longer term
Solution: Investigate local primary provision in the area to ensure capacity is available or local schools are able to expland to accommodate growth. Also ensure that local secondary provision, already at capacity, is able to expand as appropriate.”

I have asked for this  information to be expanded on, bearing in mind that Farlingaye, designed for 750  pupils, now accommodates around 2000 and that the the physical impossibility of moving this number around the corridors has caused lessons to be reduced to 3 a day for the last 8 years. I understood that these  developments aren’t seen as enough to fund a further school, but query what further expansion  might be humanly possible in the circumstances!

I also want to understand why the strategic  issues of Farlingaye are siloed within Woodbridge/Melton when it has a catchment area of 400 square miles including, for example Rendlesham (where I see further development is also indicated).

Additionally, strategic development of schools seems to stop at the buildings themselves and does not consider the impact on local roads.

Warwick Avenue:  That  long-awaited resurfacing of Warwick Avenue is delayed again –  until March 2015 – but this time there is an excuse! I have been lobbying for this seriously overdue and much-needed repair work for years, and  am very glad that it  is finally going ahead. The repairs had been planned for the end of 2014, but when cores were taken from the concrete slabs that make up the road, it was discovered that they had metal reinforcement, making hopes of using an in-situ recycling technique impossible.  I am now told that the SCC contractors, KMG, will be bringing in a specialist surfacing  contractor to remove any asphalt on the slabs, repair the slab joints and lay high density asphalt overlay.

Let us hope this will finally and at long last provide the reliable and stable road surface that Warwick Avenue residents deserve – and for which they have been waiting for such an unreasonably long time!”

County Councillor Surgeries  My  monthly walk-in surgeries continue to be very successful and well-attended. In October I discovered 14 people waiting for me when I opened.  The final Surgery of the year will take place on 20December 2014 10-12 in the library as ever.

Dates for the early part of 2015 will be: 17 January, 21 February. 21 March and 18 April.

Finally,

Happy Christmas and all good wishes for a peaceful New Year!

Whats happening in Suffolk Nov 2014

Care UK   There is serious concern at the way Care Uk is running some of the care homes in Suffolk. Councillor Alan Murray has been challenged as to what the council is doing to rectify these problems. The firm took over SCC’s 16 care homes in 2012 and is in the process of building 10 purpose-built replacements

A CQC inspection last month found Mildenhall Lodge below standard in four of five categories while a safeguarding inspection raised concerns about another home, Asterbury Place.

We’ve been told that “Care UK have committed additional support to both Mildenhall Lodge and Asterbury Place in Ipswich until all of the improvements are completed.  SCC officers continue to monitor improvements…  and will continue to have regular contact with any relatives who wish to discuss any concern whilst final improvements are made in both homes”.

SCC Health Scrutiny looked at current arrangements for ensuring the quality of care in residential homes in Suffolk in October concluded that:

a)        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 Mildenhall Lodge and in the other Suffolk homes run by Care UK.

b)         that at its meeting on 20 January 2015 it wished to receive a further report, providing an update and including detailed evidence about:

i)          what had been done to ensure that all Suffolk homes run by Care UK were meeting the essential standards monitored by the CQC;

ii)         the current ratings of all Suffolk homes run by Care UK;

iii)        the views of residents and their families, gathered in a systematic way;

iv)        what steps had been taken within the County Council to strengthen contract management arrangements within Adult and Community Services;

v)         the findings of a recent ADASS (Association of Directors of Adult Social Services)  national benchmarking exercise in relation to contract management arrangements in neighbouring authorities and how Suffolk compared

Civil Parking Enforcement  SCC Cabinet are looking to extend an agreement with Ipswich Borough Council to enable IBC to continue undertaking Civil Parking Enforcement in Ipswich for another 5 years. ALthoough this is Ipswich-specific, it is interesting because the arrangement has been in place for 9 years and  the key benefits, perceived at the start are still held to be true today.

These are:

  • Most cost effective  management of on- and off-street parking enforcement
  • Safer traffic conditions and improved traffic floe
  • More locally accountable

The suggestion is that CPE may be extended beyond Ipswich. Officers make the point that it will always be an easier option in an urban than a rural setting.

Revised Guidance for Parking  Suffolk County Council Cabinet is looking today at adopting a revised “Suffolk Guidance for Parking’. It has been updated to support the next generation of green transport, eg supporting electric vehicle charging points, minimum bicycle parking requirements and priority Car Club parking spaces in planning decisions. A rather more contentious section states:

“In line with national policy, the guidance includes a minimum of car parking spaces for new residences to replace the maximum limit contained in the previous standards. The absence of such a minimum standard has led to many cases of inadequate residential parking on new developments leading to unsightly and unsafe on-street parking congestion. The implementation of a minimum standard provides an opportunity to provide an appropriate level of parking that meets the day-to-day needs of occupiers.” It also gives specific minimum dimensions for car parking spaces.

Although the 2011 Census revealed that 14% of households in Suffolk Coastal were carless, it also revealed there were 3% of households with 4 cars or more!

If this policy is adopted centrally, it would be up to Suffolk Coastal District Council to adopt this policy although SCC recommends that they adopt it as a supplementary planning policy.

Recommendations on parking design are also made in an appendix, to ameliorate the ugliness of parking areas. Again, whether individual district councils sign up to this is individual!

0345 numbers for Suffolk County Council

From last month the county council has changed all of its 0845 telephone numbers to 0345. The remaining seven digits of the telephone numbers are remaining exactly the same. This includes the telephone numbers for people wanting to apply for a school place for their child, reporting a pothole or road defect and the Families Information Service.

Calls to 0345 numbers from landlines and mobiles are included in free call packages. For customers with these packages, it will mean calling the council on these numbers, does not incur any additional costs. For people not on free call packages, a call to a 0345 number costs no more than a geographical number (eg: 01284, 01787 and 01473).

Existing 0845 numbers are not being switched off overnight. There will be a period of time where the 0845 number, and its replacement 0345 number, will both be live. This is to ensure people can still access the services they need whilst getting used to the new numbers. It will also mean the county council only replaces printed materials and liveries when current stocks run out.

All Freephone numbers starting 0800 will also remain unchanged.

Childrens Centres There was an attempt to halt the current consultation and possible closures, but unfortunately this failed. The results of the consultation will be presented to SCC cabinet on 9th December.

Surgery  My surgery is on the third Saturday of the month, as ever. 10-12, in Woodbridge Library

What’s been happening in Suffolk 2013-14

Here is the annual report I gave yesterday to Woodbridge Town Council’s AGM,  highlighting some aspects of the running of Suffolk County Council over the last year that people may find of interest:

Caroline Page,  Woodbridge County Councillor
Caroline Page, Woodbridge County Councillor

Electoral makeup of Suffolk County Council 2013-4  The electoral year 2013-4 started with a newly elected county council, which brought  significant changes in the dynamics of SCC. The Conservative group retained their overall majority, but it was reduced from 35 to 3. The political make-up of the council has been: Conservative 39; Labour 15; UKIP 9.  Liberal Democrat 7; Green 2; Independent 3.

I was re-elected for a third term, retaining my place as ViceChair of the Education Transport Appeals committee. I have continued as LibDem spokesman for Transport and Highways.

There has been a welcome improvement in the democratic process in this year, with the establishment of cross-party Policy Development Panels to look at areas of concern in all directorates. I have been sitting on various panels to do with transport: so far 20mph Speed Limits, Other Speed Limits; Rural Transport

Budget 2014  There was a further reduction in Government grants to the County Council this year requiring £38.6m of spending cuts across most services.  SCC once again took advantage of central government’s council tax freeze deal – which provides central funding for all those councils NOT raising council tax.

My party was concerned – most particularly with Adult and Continuing Services – that apparent efficiencies are masking significant service cutbacks, and that any budget cuts  made in  Childrens and Young Peoples’ services might impact on the chances of improving performance.  The  future of Suffolk depends on the aspirations of its young people.

Gains will finally be made by moving Customer Service Direct back in-house but a hard lesson has been learned here. Proof, if proof was needed that outsourcing services doesn’t always make savings and is not always best.

Outsourcing of Highways Services to Keir MG  In October 2013, SCC finally managed the long-anticipated outsourcing of Highways services to an external company – Kier MG – after the debacle earlier in the year  where the arrangements for the procurement of a prior preferred bidder fell apart literally at the last moment.

The new highways contract to with Kier MG started on the 1st of October. I think it is fair to say there have been significant teething troubles in the first months: extraordinary delays and a hefty increase in costing for Councillor-funded projects. I am on the Councillor Working Group which meets with Keir MG representatives and SCC officers to improve information, and have not been backward in bringing local concerns  for improving information.

Raising the Bar in Suffolk Schools  At the end of 2013 SCC adopted  findings of a 10 month independent inquiry into school performance  in Suffolk as part of the ‘Raising the bar’ initiative.  These include working harder to attract and retain talented teachers, having an awards programme to recognise excellence in teaching, working with governors to improve the management of schools – and building a partnership with the London borough of Hackney which has seen its educational standards improve dramatically over recent years.

Although in Woodbridge, the schools are doing well (Farlingaye was recently rated outstanding in all areas by Ofsted), Suffolk was rated 148th out of 151 councils at primary level, 141st out of 151 at secondary level. Eight years ago, Suffolk schools were rated as being in the top thirties.

Public Health  Public Health Suffolk  moved to Suffolk County Council on 1st April 2013 and commissions a range of services for all  Suffolk residents, notably adult and child obesity, smoking cessation and sexual health. Before this date these services were commissioned by the NHS.  Over year Public Health Suffolk has been assessing services across Suffolk to ensure equity of provision in all areas.

I still  have concerns that no efficient, central accessible sexual health clinic has yet been found to replace that which closed at Ipswich Hospital . The recent move to buildings in the old Holywells site has done nothing to provide services that are accessible to the young people of Woodbridge, reliant on public transport. Holywells is less accessible than Ipswich Hospital!

Suffolk Circle  In March 2014 Suffolk Circle folded and SCC quietly wrote off nearly a million pounds of our money.  In 2010 SCC’s Cabinet unilaterally decided to give just under £800,000 sight unseen to a company called Participle to produce a good neighbour by subscription scheme  based on Southwark Circle, in London.

The notion was ‘spun’ as long-term assistance to the council’s social care budget by supporting the vulnerable elderly. But as the Circle defined ‘the elderly’ as anyone aged over 50, this included over a third of Suffolk’s population!  An extra £100,000 spent by SCC on a ‘scoping exercise’  failed to identify the large number of pre-existing interest groups and services for both the over-50s and the ‘frail elderly’ that were already operating in Suffolk

Suffolk Circle’s target membership was supposed to be 1630 members by March 2013 and 3500 by March 2014, when the funding finished and the scheme was supposed soar onwards without it.

As it was, Suffolk Circle ground to a halt in March the moment the money ran out, admitting it had achieved no more than 2000 members in its entire existence. Southwark Circle folded in the same month.

I will be raising the issue of  the necessity for  accountability and responsibility for this money – especially at a time of such pressing need.

Challenge to SCC Leadership  At the end of the year, a challenge to Conservative Leader Mark Bee for the leadership of the SCC by Colin Noble Cabinet Member for Finance, failed. A challenge by ex Cabinet Member for Transport and then Chairman Guy McGregor to Deputy Leader Lisa Chambers also failed. The Cabinet reorganisation that followed this has removed three very longstanding supporters of Andrea Hill’s New Strategic Direction to the backbenches.

Emprotesting2 (2)Further loss of local buses This year has seen the loss of the 164 and 165 services to Woodbridge (indeed to Suffolk Coastal), the diminution of several other services (most particularly the 63 to Framlingham now restricted to 4 daily buses on working Mondays to Fridays with one additional bus on schooldays). This means there is no bus link whatsoever between Ipswich/Martlesham/Woodbridge and Framlingham on a Saturday.

I wrote to our local MP, and to the County council, asking  if they could use their influence to try and change some of these decisions at a local level. (This appears to have had some effect, as there has been a slightly better service on the 64 and 65 since then).

I have also asked SCC  to use its voice to press to alter – at national level – the ridiculous ethos of so-called competition which has caused deregulated buses to provide such a terrible service in the countryside. In the past County Councils ran bus services on the basis that popular routes could subsidise essential routes with smaller passenger numbers. I have sympathy with Councils that see no reason to subsidise only loss-making services. The loss of the 165 shows us on what a tightrope the services run. Yet rural services are not a frivolous luxury – they can make the difference between productive employment and training and expensive enforced idleness.

I have pressed it also to ask  the government to look at the frankly unfair differentials in per capita spending on public transport across the country. Each Londoner gets about three times as much spent on them as each person in Suffolk despite the huge economies of scale London offers – and London buses aren’t deregulated. Why should our constituents be worth any less?

DSCF8771 (577x1024)Your County Councillor In May, to celebrate my re-election, I walked with the Woodbridge and district youth group  Just 42 Fund-raiser Julia Hancock from Felixstowe to Lowestoft. Between us we raised £2500 for the charity.

Road budget I have used some of my highways budget this year in calming Sandy Lane:  pedestrian and cyclist warning signs  at each end and at the railway bridge, and white edge markings throughout. These also give warning of the road edge at night which is very useful, particularly to cyclists on this route, part of  Sustrans cycle route 1.

I have also had some road signs put up, most notably to prevent lorries trying to use St Johns Hill as an unsuccessful rat run!

Locality budget This has been used to support projects as diverse as the Summer Reading Challenge; Benches, Trophy for Best Allotment Competition Seckford Explorers Unit flag,  Grit Bins, High Vis Jackets, Wheelbarrows and Snow Shovels, Mobile ice rink, Chairs for Bowls clubhouse, and a Wireless Projector for HomeStart.

Surgeries   I have held 10 County Council Surgeries over the last year, on the 3rd Saturday of every month (excluding March and August). They continue to be well-attended.