Category Archives: Suffolk County Council

Suffolk Buses reach their Beeching moment?

The First Bus decision to pull the plug on their Bury St Edmunds services and close the depot at the end of March  is a further step in the apparently unstoppable destruction of Suffolk’s public transport services. It is particularly tragic because – after Beeching’s shortsighted and illjudged railway decisions of the 60s – many parts of Suffolk are now not served by rail and have only a bus service to rely on. 
 
Now it’s Suffolk bus services that are at a Beeching moment.  Sadly, many council tax payers are are left reliant on the decisions of a county council administration that doesn’t value or support bus transport and that has made bus services the focus of recent budget cuts (remember, for example the Bury Road Park and Ride closure (details here)? last year’s loss of all evening/Sunday bus services to Woodbridge and beyond (details here)?). Such cuts have little personal impact on any councillor or officer who runs a car, and yet these are the people making the decisions.
 
SCC needs to remember that the impact of poor/non-existent bus services is felt amongst other very real people. People who pay their council taxes and contribute to the community but who also happen to be elderly, or poor, or disabled, as well as others who rely on the bus to reach their college or first time job in order to contribute to the future of Suffolk.  SCC decisionmaking should be addressing these people’s needs as well as pandering to those residents who pay no more tax but are lucky enough to be able to use a car!
 
Of course, we shouldn’t put all the blame on the county council. At national level, the Coalition needs to reverse the iniquitous deregulation of bus services, instituted under Thatcher, and shamefully supported by the last Labour government. Deregulation has left rural communities at the mercy of bus companies with little local interest or management presence, who can run the moneymaking routes as poorly as they choose. The County Council, on the other hand,  is only allowed to run ones that run at a loss.
 
Tell me, is this how the ‘free market’ gives us a better service?
 
Despite this,  SCC could choose to be far more proactive than it has been. It could lobby both Suffolk’s MPs and central government for increased support for rural public transport. It could also show that SCC cares though direct action to preserve scheduled bus services. In July’s council meeting, I proposed a motion to increase support to disabled and elderly bus user (details here) via improved bus pass conditions. This motion was passed almost unanimously by full council and referred back to the Cabinet.
 
Since July, Cabinet has overseen the revision, recasting, re-consultation, decisionmaking and embarkation of their new Library services despite few Suffolk residents wanting any change whatsoever. Many many Suffolk residents want changes to the new terms and conditions for bus pass holders. Has Cabinet looked at bus passes?  Six months on we’re still waiting for a date!
 
By the way, I note with interest that passengers who wish to register a complaint about the withdrawal of the Bury St Edmunds services are ‘advised to contact First buses directly on 08456 020 121’. I suggest that this is precisely what people should do
 
This is a slightly extended version of my letter to the EADT  published today, 18-01-2012. 

Whats happening at SCC: town council report January 2012

This month’s report deals mainly with the future of Suffolk Libraries, but also mentions the official appointment of the new Chief Executive, potential changes to Suffolk’s schools admissions policies, the forthcoming Budget for 2012-13 and  the dangers of heavy objects being thrown onto the A12/A14:

Happy New Year!

Chief Executive   Having been officially confirmed in her post at full council, Deborah Cadman began her role as Chief Executive in the last week of December. I look forward to working with her. One of her first acts has been to address the issue of long-term ‘interim directors’ at the top of the council. As both the Directors of Children and Young People and Adult and Community Services are interim appointments, a recruitment process is now under way to appoint permanent postholders on fixed salaries.

Libraries  Full Council also covered the administration’s decision to change the structure of the Libraries so that the current library provision will be transferred  to an Industrial and Provident Society for the benefit of the community. This means that local libraries will be run by local “community groups”, who may be voting members of the IPS.  The IPS, as the overarching organisation, will be run by an elected board, responsible for managing the grant funding from the Council.  Local libraries are expected to make 5% of savings through a number of means – IT provision, maintenance contracts, use of volunteers and fundraising. 

The opposition are concerned that there are still many issues which remain unanswered. The future of the Libraries is supposedly secure for 10 years yet the funding is only guaranteed for two years. There are continuing uncertainties about the fate of the smaller libraries. There is also concern about over- reliance on volunteers – not only to run the Libraries but also the home library service, which will no doubt see an increase in use after the reduction of the mobile library service.

You can read further details about my concerns  in my blog, here.  Full details of the Council papers,  are here  

2012-2013 Budget  January’s Cabinet will take place on the 24th of January at 11am in Mildenhall at the Forest Heath District Council Offices. Can I remind you that members of the public are welcome both as spectators and  to ask pre-booked questions in the usual way.

This is a very important Cabinet meeting as it is the first real look at the budget papers, which provide greater detail on what the Council is intending to do for the next financial year.    The final vote on the budget for 2012/13 will   take place at the  next Full Council meeting (9th of February). 

A12/A14 – incidents involving objects being thrown from bridges   There have been a number of  occasionss on the A12/A14 where objects have been thrown from bridges onto traffic below.  This started with an incident in Essex but seems to have spread to south Suffolk as a copycat activity.

SCC, the Police, Fire and Rescue and partners are extremely concerned and taking all possible action to stop these extremely dangerous and irresponsible happenings.  A senior detective has been appointed to lead a team dedicated to catching the individual(s) responsible.

We need to ensure that everybody knows that if they do see any suspicious activity on or near a road bridge,  they must call 999.

Winter – Are you prepared?  SCC is finally expecting colder weather. We may at last get use from those grit bins!

Admissions to Suffolk schools in 2013/14  Suffolk County Council has launched a consultation about their policies for admission to schools next year. It includes the admissions policy for community, voluntary controlled, voluntary aided, foundation/trust schools academies and free schools in Suffolk. As Farlingaye has recently become an academy, and there is a proposal that a new Transcendental Meditation Free School should start locally, this may well be of interest to many of us.

I am particularly keen that SCCs  policy of free school transport only to the nearest catchment school is addressed if it turns out that the nearest catchment school is, eg,  a Transcendental Meditation free school. You can find the consultation here  

Kesgrave by-election: purdah Due to the unexpected death of John Klaschka, Councillor for Kesgrave and Rushmere, there will be a district and county council by-election on 9th February.  As the purdah period is upon us, I am not now able to make any commitments as regards my locality budget till after 9 February

Your Library – Pain Ahead?

How is your library doing? Or, to quote Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man, “Is it safe? Is it safe?”

Yesterday we heard the latest of Suffolk County Council’s confusingly articulated plans for  our library services. It is inviting nominations from community library groups to fill interim board positions at an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) that will be set up to run it.

On 15 December, the County’s Tory Councillors voted in bulk to transfer library management and running to an IPS, despite this being judged by the County Council to be the riskiest and least hands-on of the three business models they evaluated. (The other two models being “in house business unit” and a “company limited by guarantee, wholly owned by SCC”)

So why?

According to the Portfolio holder Cllr Terry, the IPS ‘will set libraries on a sustainable footing for the next ten years.’

“Did she forget her reading glasses? “ a Suffolk Libraries campaigner asked me. “Or has she simply forgotten she has guaranteed public funding for two years only. How will we fund our 44 libraries, the central book stock, the staff and all the other things that make up a library service, after that?”

“Council documents suggests that our library service will in the future rely on volunteers and on their fundraising efforts. Yet Cllr Terry said at the Council meeting that it would not be reliant on volunteers.  I suppose it slipped her mind that the community groups who have come forward to run their libraries are all volunteers. And, of course, the IPS will have a Board of Directors who are also all volunteers.”

The Council has adopted something called a Library Access Model: a hierarchy in which large towns (Major Centres)  can apparently keep their libraries but the 14 libraries located in the (smaller) ‘Key Service Centres’ could be at risk. At least that’s what campaigners fear.

And the Council meeting did nothing to answer these fears. In the film, Laurence Olivier keeps asking, “Is it safe? Is it safe?” and getting no reply.  Much the same happened at the council meeting. It was clear one would have to start up the dentists drill to get any actual  answers from the horse’s mouth.

The opposition asked questions about  the IPS and how it would work.

  • Would members of the public be able to access the minutes of IPS meetings?
  • Could Freedom of Information requests be made to the IPS?
  • What about public participation in the IPS?
  • How exactly will the IPS will be accountable to the public? (Particularly as it seemed as if the  IPS would not be subject to the Council’s Scrutiny and Audit Committees).

Interestingly enough, some of these questions are addressed in yesterday’s press release . On 15 Dec, the Portfolio holder’s colleagues were less fortunate. It was like drawing teeth to get any substantive answer  from Cllr Terry.  Her replies had no clarity, meaning  nor in some cases, much fact  (At one juncture she denied point-blank that there had ever been any intention  on the part of SCC to close any libraries whatsoever. In stark contrast to her own words as quoted by the EADT or indeed, testimony from an ex-SCC employee quoted in the Guardian, and even the original Libraries consultation.)

Most disturbingly there seemed to be no intention on the part of the Portfolio holder to address her colleagues’ wholly legitimate concerns.

For my part, I asked the following very specific questions to allay very real anxieties expressed to me by Suffolk residents:

“It is good news that there are likely to be ‘lower community contributions to the IPS than expected’, but even the lowest proposed  contribution is substantial. As such, there is a very real risk that some libraries will be taken back ‘in house.’ But what IS ‘in-house’ with an IPS?  Will all libraries be given sufficient SCC grant to stay open – and if taken back, would any be expected to close?  I am particularly concerned because the 2011 Review casts doubts over the long-term future of 3 Ipswich Libraries and 1 in Lowestoft. Could I have assurance that these 4 libraries would be accorded the same priority and funding as libraries in  Major Centres.”

To which (wholly unexceptionable and valid) concerns,  the Portfolio holder responded with two words; “No imagination”.  This was one of her politer responses.

As the campaigner wrote to me afterwards:

“Like lambs to the slaughter, the Conservative Councillors voted a resounding “yes” to the IPS. They were told that all libraries would stay open, so who cares about the risk and the long-term and the small print and the fact that there is only guaranteed funding for two years?

Or maybe there was another reason  those lambs were so silent. It was only opposition councillors who stood up and asked searching questions .  In reply, Cllr Terry directed extremely aggressive and insulting remarks at them.  Sadly, I have heard similarly rude and insulting remarks regularly at Suffolk County Council meetings -not only from Cllr Terry, but other Portfolio Holders too. Why doesn’t the Chairman intervene and stop such objectionable behaviour? “

This brings us back to the problem of democratic deficit in Suffolk. This particular campaigner is a very committed, experienced, articulate, intelligent person – just the kind of person this county should be electing to represent them properly. Yet she said to me that she couldn’t take the kind of behaviour she saw in the Council Chamber:

“Is this a regular feature of SCC meetings? It’s appalling and unprofessional. I would be so embarrassed if I was the Chair. To be honest I just couldn’t do what you do. I think you’re much tougher than I am to put up with all of the rude comments”.

Clearly she is unlikely to stand for election and so her wealth of  expertise, commitment and public-spiritedness is lost to this county.

Remarks like those we heard in full Council on the 15th Dec do disservice in so many ways. Not only do they fail to answer the concerns of the people of Suffolk; they also frighten off some of the brightest and best who could otherwise contribute to the well-being of the county. If a thick skin and a brutal manner becomes a key requirement of participation, there is a danger we will end up with a council run by pachyderms and cavemen.