Category Archives: LibDem Green & Independent Group

School Transport: Cabinet decides on the option nobody wanted

Twitter and blogs get the news out that  journalists don’t cover  😉

On Tuesday, Suffolk County Council’s Conservative Cabinet passed an undemocratic proposal limiting access to free school transport.

I put it like this because the media narrative is that “Councillors voted unanimously.” Er… No. While any councillor could question, only the wholly Conservative Cabinet could vote. And while the Cabinet members opened their mouths, it was not to question. They spoke in turn uncritically, to offer support.

Undemocratic because – having gone to public consultation and the public having made their feelings abundantly clear – Cabinet voted on an option that was universally unpopular. It did not even consider the option supported by 90% of respondents.

If the public relied on the media to inform them, they would not have been aware of what happened at the meeting. The media  conscientiously reported the flavour of the many excellent tabled questions from the public. However, they totally ignored the literally hours of  forensic questioning from the opposition –  LibDem, Green and Labour councillors  – which teased out many problems and concerns with the favoured  proposal.

In other words the situation was framed as ‘councillors v public’ instead of ‘Conservative Cabinet fobbing off the questions of their opposition colleagues’. You might want to query this narrative and what purpose it serves.

In my particular case, I travelled as fast as I could on public transport to and from an emergency surgical appointment at Addenbrookes to be there in time to hold the Cabinet to account along with my Lib Dem, Green and Labour colleagues. We all asked many questions. (I must do new Leader Matthew Hicks justice and say he chaired the meeting with justice and impartiality, allowing the opposition all the questions they wished to ask and cutting short members of his own party who merely wished to make eyewateringly inappropriate declarations of loyalty, instead of questioning Cabinet. Another issue the media could have picked up on, ‘an if it would’.).

In my own questions I queried the administration’s terms of reference. Was Suffolk’s offer really “more generous” than the government minimum, when the government minimum covered urban and rural students  indiscriminately? City students do not have 3 mile walks to their catchment school: city schools are closer and public transport is plentiful and cheap.

We were told how expensive our spend was- over £100 a student head as opposed to Salford’s £2.

However, as I pointed out,  Salford has a total area of 8 sq miles. It would actually be well-nigh impossible for a child to live more than 3 miles from their local school in Salford! Suffolk, in comparison, has an area of 1466sq miles, used to grow the food and provide the electricity that places like Salford rely on. We are not comparing like with like.

I also asked, bearing in mind we were removing entitlement to bus travel, why there was no Traffic Impact Assessment for the county – and while the very limited (Thurston area only) TIA failed to consider issues such as pollution and air quality? (Answer: too expensive/work in progress. Hardly a scientific answer)

And, bearing in mind over 70% of respondents were women , and local government cuts disproportionally affect women,  l asked whether Cabinet  could be genuinely satisfied that the IA’s conclusion that “impact on women would be minimised by phasing in the changes”, fully addressed the  actual impact these changes would have on  women. Ominously  – but unsurprisingly -this question was not answered at all.

What’s been happening: June 2018

  •  School Transport consultation: Suffolk County Council Cabinet will be only discussing a single (non-preferred) option On 19 June  the controversial changes to entitlement to school transport are being discussed by SCC’s Cabinet. Supporting documents from the consultation show overwhelming public opposition to proposed school transport change Options 1 and 2 (1 = immediate change of entitlement to nearest school only, and 2 = a staggered change); and overwhelming support for Option 3 (Make no changes and carry on as before, allowing travel to nearest and catchment and transport priority schools) . Entitlement is only if the eligible child is more than 2miles (under 8yo) and more than 3miles (8-16) from school and is attending. (There is not and has never been an entitlement to school transport for students living under this distance unless the route has been declared not safe to walk/ or over this distance if they attended through parental choice rather than place-entitlement)

Of the 3600 responses to Suffolk County Council’s home-to-school transport consultation, 85% “strongly oppose” and a further 5% “oppose” Option 1; 70% “strongly oppose” and a further 12% “oppose” Option 2. In contrast 73% of respondents strongly support, and another 10 ‘support’ retaining the status quo: Option 3. Option 3 is therefore very clearly the will of the people.
3.600 is the most responses received by any Consultation in recent years, and it is clear that parents, teachers and communities across Suffolk have very serious concerns.

Despite this, cabinet has decided on, and will only be discussing Option 2.

Back in March, the Conservative majority at Suffolk County Council voted unanimously against an opposition motion that would have allowed all councillors the chance to vote, unwhipped, on all the final school transport proposals, before the Cabinet makes a decision in June. This was unfortunate to put it mildly.

These proposals have been causing considerable concern to the county at large. They may also have a significant impact on Woodbridge – because it is a town containing 8 schools. Woodbridge Town Councillors will recall I raised this as a significant concern in previous reports to you (2018: March, February, January and passim). In these, I urged Woodbridge Town Council to respond to the consultation, both individually and as a formal body. I was particularly concerned because I had heard from SCC that there had been a low response rate from the East of the County. I have had neither acknowledgement nor confirmation as to whether Woodbridge Town Council did this, which is disappointing.

I also contacted Farlingaye High School to ask it to ensure parents were wholly aware of a need to respond, and gave up one Saturday morning just before the end of the consultation to hold an awareness-raising stall in Woodbridge Thoroughfare where local people could respond directly. We were responsible for about thirty responses from that morning alone.

It was clear that the people of Woodbridge had very little understanding of the impact Options 1 and 2 had to the town – a town with 7-8 local schools. Reducing eligibility for buses means that there will be significantly more cars driving on our streets and parking near our schools during the school rush.

Cabinet makes this decision on June 19th. I, along with my Group, have opposed the proposed changes since they were first announced in September and we will continue to raise our concerns at the Cabinet meeting.

New Council Leaders: Following a leadership challenge in the Conservative Group at the Council, Cllr Matthew Hicks has been elected as the new Leader of Suffolk County Council, replacing Cllr Colin Noble. His Deputy will be Cllr Mary Evans, former Chair of Scrutiny.

Cllr Hicks has promised a “new era” of politics at the Council, with a focus on mutual respect, collaboration and co-operation. We are hopeful that he might be more open to working with, and listening to, councillors from other parties (although the School transport paperwork is not encouraging).

The first major change has been the removal of the unwieldy and untransparent Cabinet Committees, only established in September 2017. They will be replaced by Policy Development Panels (although we do not currently have the full details on how these will operate.) These worked very well in the past: I worked with Mary Evans on the former Transport PDP where we created the new speed panel frameworks were created. This may be a hopeful sign for the 20mph and associated calming in Woodbridge.

In other news there has been a change in Leadership in my group. Last May my party joined with the Greens and Independents to create the Lib Dem Green and Independent Group on Suffolk County Council and I had the privilege to be appointed the first (and only) Group Spokesperson for Women in the county, in addition to Spokesperson for Transport and Adult Care. The group has had a number of successes in this last year: opposing the School Transport changes, calling successfully for the abolition of single use plastics in Suffolk, exposing the council’s gender pay-gap and supporting an urgent review of the transition arrangements for WASPI women. At the recent LDGI group AGM, the Leadership moved to Green Cllr Andrew Stringer, and I was elected Deputy Leader.

Woodbridge 20mph zone and Thoroughfare scheme are both now finally showing signs of progression. I have had an outline design for the 20mph and associated calming scheme created and costed; the Town Clerk has applied for £100,000 CIL money to help fund this. Cllr Patricia O’Brien wants to be involved at the Martlesham end. I have asked her to inquire of our colleague Cllr Nicoll if he has any interest in forwarding the part of the scheme that is on the Melton Woodbridge division border. We are meeting with officers in a couple of weeks.

Bollards in the Thoroughfare We have been advised by Disability Action Suffolk that these need painting in order to make them more visible to visually impaired pedestrians. I have talked to Quay Church who have kindly put this on a programme of community work they are doing this month. I will be funding the paint: black as before but wit bright bronze stripes and tops

Outstanding’ schools in Suffolk have not had Ofsted inspections for years
Astonishingly, the National Audit Office has revealed that over 1600 schools in the UK have not been inspected by Ofsted for 6+ years. In Suffolk, 23 outstanding schools – almost half of those rated ‘outstanding’ – have not been inspected for at least 6 years. For 6 of these schools, their last inspection was over a decade ago. This means that whole cohorts of students have gone through school without a single Ofsted inspection.

My Group’s Spokesperson for Education, Cllr Penny Otton, raised the issue and her concerns at May’s Council meeting. The Cabinet Member for Children’s Services and Education, Gordon Jones, assured her that he shared her concerns and would raise it with the head of Ofsted.

Ofsted response is that the majority of ‘outstanding’ schools are exempt by law from inspections. However, if a number of concerns or complaints are raised against a school, they would have the power to carry out an inspection. This is worrying because it is external inspections which define

Unitary discussions on hold In March, it was announced that then-leader Colin Noble had unilaterally commissioned the think-tank Respublica to produce a report outlining the options for a unitary council in Suffolk. This news was not well-received by the District and Borough Councils, who had not been consulted by Cllr Noble.

However, in the lead-up to the Conservative Group leadership election in May, Cllr Noble announced that work producing the report had been suspended. It is not yet clear whether this work will resume under the new leader, Cllr Hicks.

Millicent Fawcett Statue and women in government: As Suffolk LDGI Group Spokesperson for Women, I made it my business to attend the unveiling of Millicent Fawcett’s statue in Parliament Square, carrying a banner to remind onlookers: “Suffolk Women Lead the Way.”https://twitter.com/CroPage/status/988686126239174656 It was a point needing making!
Aldeburgh sisters Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Agnes Garrett were all strong supporters and advocates of women’s suffrage. Suffolk, not London, is its birthplace. However, 150 years on, women make up only 29% of councillors elected to Suffolk County Council – significantly below the low 33% UK average (the exact % women on Suffolk Coastal District Council). 2 Suffolk MPs are women, out of 7
Modern Suffolk has a high gender pay gap, high levels of violence against women, specifically poor outcomes for girls (particularly in rural areas). Suffolk is yet fully to engage in recognising the importance of its own women and what they have to offer.

I was recently invited to appear on BBC’s Sunday Politics to stand in for Norman Lamb – specifically to talk about women in politics and the local elections.

Caroline Page: Suffolk County Council LibDem leader, & LDGI deputy leader

Caroline Page, LDGI deputy leader and SCC LibDem leader and Andrew Stringer, LDGI leader

In May,  I was honoured  to became  leader of Suffolk County Council Lib Dems and  Deputy Leader of Suffolk’s Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group. The new Suffolk LDGI Leader is Green councillor, Andrew Stringer.

I continue to be the county council’s first group spokesperson for Women, as well as group spokesperson Highways, Transport and Adult Care, while remaining a passionate campaigner on a diverse range of issues.

David Wood has been a fantastic leader, and I am excited at the prospect of building on the foundation he set out.  I am very grateful for all that he has done for Suffolk LibDems over the past years. I am excited to be taking on this new responsibility for the party, and alongside Andrew Stringer, for the LDGI group. We will continue to hold this administration to account and work for the good of residents across Suffolk. As a group we all believe gender balance in politics is important, so it is pleasing to see this better reflected within our own leadership structures.

The LDGI Group was formed following the elections in May 2017, bringing together 12 councillors from different political backgrounds. The Group has pledged to work together to hold the Conservative administration at Suffolk County Council to account, whilst still encouraging free thought, debate and voting within the Group. If you would like to find out more about it, click here