This is my last council report before the Woodbridge Town elections – and there are a number of very contentious issues to tell you about as Suffolk County Council suffers some form of melt-down with the departure of very senior executives and mixed messages regarding their initiatives abounding.
The County Council has recently seen several high profile changes. Firstly the County’s Monitoring Officer, Eric Whitfield, left the organisation suddenly and at 24 hours notice for personal reasons. SCC’s Interim Head of Legal Services, David White was appointed Interim Monitoring officer. Tragically David died a few days later. I am sure all our sympathies are with his poor family at this time.
Secondly, Graham Dixon, the Director of Resource Management also left the organisation to pursue other interests. He left on the same day and at the same notice as Eric Whitfield. Andrea Hill has indicated she will now take up the role of Director of Resource Management.
Finally, Cllr Jeremy Pembroke has decided to retire as County Council leader and will also step down at a Councillor at the next election. Cllr Pembroke has been a Councillor for a total of 8 years, and leader of the authority for 6. The next leader will be chosen at the Conservative Group meeting on the 18th of April. Currently the contenders are Cllrs Colin Noble, Mark Bee and Guy McGregor.
March Full Council
Suffolk County Council held a Full Council meeting on the 17th March. The most notable item was an update to the New Strategic Direction (NSD) which recommended that the County should seek to have wider ‘conversations’ with communities across Suffolk. The paper suggested that rather than focusing on individual services to be provided in the community, the Council should look to see what group of services local areas would ‘like’ to take on. I spoke on the unintelligibility of this entire paper, quoting George Orwell to suggest that: “what looks like an unclear expression of a clear thought might actually be a perfectly clear expression of an unclear thought.” Despite considerable opposition from the opposition, the report was voted through by the administration.
A motion put forward by the Greens recommended a referendum to gauge the public’s viewpoint on the New Strategic Direction. It was defeated due to the cost of holding such a referendum. An amendment which would have seen the referendum become internet-only,was also defeated as it would have provided accessibility issues for all those without a computer.
This NSD update being voted through affects all of the following issues:
Trying to restore the Explore card
Because the SCC administration accepted the NSD update, the Suffolk Explore card was abolished on the 1 April – halfway through the school and college year – causing considerable distress to a large number of young people. The Explore card gave half price bus and rail travel to young people beyond the age of statutory education (eg 16-19). The long-term implications of this are immense.
Monday’s Evening Star covered the subject in a high profile article
The Save the Explore card e-petition on the Suffolk CC site needs only another 900 signatures before the decision can go back to full Council. Please please sign this and get everyone you know to sign it – the long-term impact of this decision will be likely to affect everyone in Suffolk. http://petitions.web-labs.co.uk/suffolkcc/public/Save-the-eXplore-card-
‘Your Place’ and Woodbridge
Because the SCC administration accepted the NSD update, the “Your Place” initiative is in place. We are lucky have the two SCC officers who have volunteered to assist me in the SCC ‘Your Place’ initiative: David Chenery and Jo Cowell.
For those who don’t know, ‘Your Place’ is the New Strategic Direction’s Localism concept seen as returning decision-making to individual areas rather than the council as a whole.
In actuality it appears to mean that huge savings can be made at County Council level by ensuring that elected county councillors involve themselves in a lot of ‘business development’ work that was previously done by paid employees of the Council, on top of their not inconsiderable work-load.
The flaw in this plan is that if your county councillor doesn’t try to do, fails to do, or is not up to doing the work, the impact will be felt by the locality. And if your councillor does try to do what ‘Your place’ is requiring, they are in serious danger of working themselves to death.
‘Your plac’ in fact is suspiciously close to “Do what we say, or your district gets it!”
It is also a gross exploitation of the willingness of elected representatives to work long barely remunerated hours for the public good, while reducing the responsibility and work-load of senior SCC executives whose pay has not decreased with their reduced responsibilities!
Following directly on from the last point, the “Your Place” officers alerted me to the fact that Woodbridge has yet to provide any business plan for taking over the library and that SCC sees this as being a matter of huge concern for us residents of Woodbridge.
The SCC “ consultation” states that it “aims to encourage community and voluntary groups, businesses, local councils and individuals across Suffolk to have their say about ways to run their local library differently and at reduced cost.” This is amplified by the Portfolio-holder who says
“I have made it very clear from the launch of the consultation, and it is very clear in the consultation document, that the council is looking for new providers for all the libraries, not just those proposed as community libraries…
“When the consultation has finished, the responses, including people’s views on the categorisation, will be analysed and recommendations will be put to Cabinet in July. I do not know at this point what those recommendations will be.”
However, this does not seem to reflect SCC’s expectations of this ‘consultation’ : indeed from what the “Your Place” officers told me, what appears to be required are hard business proposals by 30th April for running our local library with 30% cuts. I have just been warned verbally by my officers that there have been no expressions of interest at all from Woodbridge, warning me that “unless proposals are put forward by the community, the community will have decisions made for them”. Worryingly the officers say:
“In addition to the 30% cut, the other issue about libraries is that of ownership – there is an issue about who will own the libraries and the options in the consultation include the following:
“Following the Cabinet’s decision, we will start the process of arranging for other organisations to take over the running of libraries. (CP points out : In other words: the cabinet’s decision is already made before the consultation is over. This is in direct contradiction to Judy Terry’s comment above.) There are a number of ways in which we may select organisations to do this.
- We can delegate the running of the service to another council – this could be town or parish, borough or district, or even to a council outside Suffolk.
- We may invite Suffolk community groups to bid to take on the running of a library, and this is more likely for community libraries.
- We may open up the opportunity more widely to all potential providers, and this is more likely for county libraries.
- We may, if appropriate, negotiate directly with a suitable organisation to take over the running of a library.”
“So” say the “Your Place” Officers” it might be worth checking whether the Town Council have picked up on this aspect of the consultation as well as the 30% reduction in costs. I understand that the Seckford Foundation have had discussions with relevant people about the libraries, but I am unaware of any proposals from them. This may be a link that the Town Council would want to explore further – possibly to develop a partnership approach?”
The business of ‘ownership’ is very important, as it raises all sorts of issues about our wonderful expensive, purpose-built town hub: which houses the Library but is not ‘the library’. These are not issues that are going to go away if we refuse to address them.
The “Your Place” officers also asked whether Woodbridge Town Council had considered raising their precept to cover the library (and were frankly amazed when I told them how little the total precept amounts to and thus how truly unlikely this is. )
It seems to me that, far from consultation, this is arm-twisting!
Bearing in mind
- that nowhere has SCC articulated that this ‘consultation’ was actually a disguised bidding process;
- that SCC has produced frankly inappropriate and indigestible financial figures for Woodbridge Library to be used to support this consultation/bidding process (I have just yesterday received useful figures on the running of the library after having complained at what is available online) ;
- that small towns like Woodbridge with a potential ‘county’ library are at a huge disadvantage against a private company in producing a business plan at short notice,
- that also, Woodbridge Town Council, and Suffolk Coastal District Council are both going into elections a week after the ‘consultation’/bidding process is proposed to have finished. It would seem extremely unreasonable to expect a) the councillors currently in post to be making long term decisions for other councillors to honour b) the new council members to be dreprived of a chance of making proposals on such a momentous issue
In light of these points, I have written to the portfolio holder and the senior SCC officer to request that the consultation process should be extended in the interests of the libraries, and the residents of Woodbridge – and other towns like it .
I hope this meets with your approval. If so, it would be helpful if Woodbridge Town Council also wrote to this effect.
Trying to restore lost bus services
Because the SCC administration accepted the NSD update, a programme of cuts and reductions took place across SCC’s subsidised bus services.Following the cancellation of the 62a and b evening and Sunday services I joined with John Forbes, Councillor, Martlesham P.C., Julie Clarke, Councillor, Rushmere P.C., James Wright, Rushmere P.C. Public Transport Liaison Officer, Martin Grimwood, Councillor, Woodbridge T.C. and Suffolk Coastal District Councillor for Kesgrave West, Geof Butterwick, Councillor, Melton P.C. and Sue Hall, Kesgrave T.C. Public Transport Liaison Officer last week to articulate residents’ problems and to see if we could come up with any solution. Geoff Butterwick has come up with an idea that may salvage at least a Friday and Saturday evening service for a truly tiny payment spread out between all the parishes and town councils. This is still embryonic. As I am away, I am hoping Cllr Grimwood will be able to elaborate
Woodbridge lollipop patrol
The SCC administration has rejected the Chair of St. Mary’s School PTA’s attempt to get the abolition of the School Crossings brought back to Council. Although there had been many petition signatures, officers decided they had been presented before the council meeting in question and that adequate discussion had been allowed.
I discussed the situation with the relevant SCC officer , who suggests various options for replacing the school crossing patrol from other purses, including the Town Council’s. I asked him about the situation of St Mary’s, which, being a church school, has no catchment area and calls in pupils from a wide area outside the Woodbridge district.
Why therefore, I asked should Woodbridge Town Council foot the bill for such a crossing patrol?
What would happen if everyone refused to fund it? would the Council be responsible?
Apparently all SCC school crossing patrol sites are going to be scored 1-3 for safety (3 being the least safe) by SCC engineers. The officer confirms there will be distinct potential problems for SCC if a school like St Mary’s is scored as a 2 or 3 but nobody is prepared to take over responsibility for the school crossing.
Roads and footpaths miscellaneous
- After intervention from the SCC Highways people the Duke of York’s large Car Parking sign that greeted people as they drove into Woodbridge has been removed.
- Work continues at on the traffic calming project at Cross Corner
- I’m also personally very grateful for the repainting of the white lines on Naunton Road which can only encourage drivers to stay on the correct side of the road! This will significantly add to the safety of this particular little piece of highway – where I was knocked over on my bike last year by a driver taking the corner on the wrong side of the road who hit me head on.
- After some pressure from myself, the footpath along the estuary from Kyson Point to the Sewage works at Sandy lane (which runs along the southern boundary of Woodbridge district) is in the process of being built up and strengthened as it had worn so far into the embankment as to be often totally impassable in the wet seasons.