Category Archives: Just 42

Town Council Report June 11

My most recent report to Woodbridge Town Council, on 14th June, heralds the chance of a new era at SCC, with a change of leader and the possibility of other changes. However it becomes clear that SCC having a legal obligation to  e-petitions had developed or considered no strategy to deal with these petitions  once presented.
An extraordinary Cabinet grants £10m for broadband from reserves, although the very same people had been deeply snitty only a month or two back, when the Lib Dems  suggested the interim funding of vital frontline services via a much smaller sum from reserves ( full details here).  One rule for them, and another for the rest of  us – same old, same old.
Locally I’m interested in suggestions for spending Quality of Life money and Locality budget money

Full Council AGM

At the Full Council AGM on the 26th of May Cllr Mark Bee was elected leader of the Council, with Jane Storey continuing as deputy.  In addition,Patricia O’Brien became SCC Chairman for 2011, with ex-leader Jeremy Pembroke named as Vice-Chair , and thus Chair in the next (Olympic) year..

The Council discussed the Third Suffolk Local Transport Plan, which outlines the County’s top transport infrastructure priorities.  This is a statutory duty and covers the period from 2011 to 2031.  The plan refers to possible  short term schemes such as the Beccles rail loop, the A14 Copdock improvements and the Ipswich Chord.  As the plan lasts for twenty years, the Council has also included more medium and long term aspirations, which include  the perennial  A12 Four Villages improvement.

I spoke  here of the extraordinary lack of SMART targets in this Plan’s set-up – relying as it does so completely on both privatised rail and privatised bus services (over which SCC has absolutely no control) and the fact that demand responsive transport which is what SCC has replaced its subsidised services with does not solve the problems of the car-less at the very times they might need it most.
However, the plan was passed with 46 votes for the plan, 7 against, and 8 abstentions.

Another item on the agenda was the decision to reinstate the County Council’s Health Scrutiny Committee, abolished in December.  This decisionwas fully supported by the Liberal Democrat opposition, as we feel it is necessary to have a committee that looks solely at health to give it the attention it deserves.  All too often the agenda of the new scrutiny committee is filled with health related items, limiting the ability to fully scrutinise County Council decisions.

Petitions

The AGM also heard three petitions which had achieved sufficient signatures to be returned to the Council for further discussion: calls to save the EXplore Card, Country Parks, and Household Waste Recycling Centres from the recent cuts imposed at the Councils February budget meeting.

The author of the petitions each spoke for five minutes, appealing for their petitions to be acted upon.   There was much support in the public gallery for the eXplore card petition, with members of youth clubs, schools and colleges attending to watch the discussion and subsequent decisionmaking, despite this petition being heard in the middle of GCSE, A.A/S and college exams. Woodbridge should be very proud of its Just 42 Off the Streets representatives, who put some very cogent questions directly to Cllr McGregor, the portfolioholder.

After the petitioners had spoken, Councillors from all parties had the opportunity to input into a very brief discussion prior to the portfolio holder speaking on the subject. I spoke on the subject of the Explore card as one of the petitioners was from Woodbridge, and the Woodbridge and district Just 42 youth club have been very supportive of the petition –  and I had received a lot of emails and calls on the subject from worried parents and students. In each case discussion was followed by a port-folio holder speech in which the cut was asserted.

At this point it became clear that no-one  within the council  at all had any very clear idea as what was to happen next. Clearly ending the process undemocratically by means of a response from the very person who had organised, agreed and implemented the cut –in the case of the Explore card, without any public consultation – reduced the concept of the epetition to no more than a figleaf. SO what whas to happen next? During a short recess,  Explore card petitioners were promised by Mark Bee and Guy McGregor   that the problems of their particular cut would go  before scrutiny. This has yet to happen. (note : subsequently, of course it did, see here )

The opposition is particularly concerned that all three sets of petitioners need to be told now, exactly what is to happen next, and that the procedure for dealing with e-petitions MUST be sorted out before the next council meeting to prevent this ridiculous state of affairs happening in the future and allow these petitions to perform the constitutional function for which they were created.

Cabinet: Care homes and Home to School Transport

In Cabinet on 24 May , decisions of note included:

Care Homes: the Cabinet agreed to note the recommendations put forward by the current business agent: sale of all homes as going concerns.  The Cabinet agreed to receive a further report in February will details of those who have expressed an interest in the Care Homes, prior to awarding any contracts. How this will be affected by  recent news of the collapse of Southern Cross remains to be seen.

The Cabinet also agreed revisions to the home to school transport policy, which include removing the subsidised transport for those students who will be admitted to a Roman Catholic aided School, other than for those who are entitled by law.  Those students, who already receive the transport, and those who will join the schools in September 2011, will continue to receive the subsidised transport until they leave.  The Cabinet also agreed that the parental charges for  discretionary transport provided by the County Council will be £150 per term; this will increase by £10 each year over the next two years.

Extraordinary Cabinet: Broadband

A further emergency Cabinet on 10 June reflected on Broadband provision in Suffolk after Suffolk lost out on national grants although The Government had made available a fund of £530m to support the provision of fast broadband across the country. We were told that this was because Suffolk County Council  under the previous leader had not wished to contribute more than a few hundred thousand pounds to the project – which the national grant-makers  BDUK considered inadequate.  Suffolk currently has one of the poorest broadband networks in England. The average broadband speed currently experienced by Suffolk’s consumers and small businesses is under 5Mbps.

Cabinet therefore considered an increased Suffolk County Council contribution to the project up to a maximum of £10million over the 4 years of the project to match the contribution from BDUK; and authorised the Director for Economy Skills and Environment in consultation with the Portfolio Holders for Greenest County, Economy and Skills and for Resource Management to determine the final level of Suffolk County Council contribution in conjunction with other public sector partners in Suffolk.

The total cost of implementation is estimated at £41.7 million, of which approximately half is expected to come from the private sector. Suffolk County Council has committed up to £10m in the expectation that BDUK will at least match that amount.

Local issues

My Quality of life budget: Sandy lane traffic calming. I have left the current plans for this with the clerk, if anyone wishes to comment. I had assumed there might be a need for haste because repair work is being undertaken in Sandy Lane for the next few weeks, but having consulted with the engineer there will be no resultant economies in scale. We are hoping to get some air quality grant money to assist in the calming measures.

I am interested in other possible small schemes and would be grateful for suggestions from councillors.

My Locality budget: I am always keen for new suggestions. Several people have mentioned Woodbridge’s lack of bicycle racks to me. Specific areas have been: on the Market Hill, down at Cross Corner and by Kingston Fields. There need to  be more racks down by Café Nero as this is clearly a popular place for bike parking.

Explore travel card – Resurgam?

Ok, so guess what. The Explore card cut DID make an appearance at yesterday’s SCC scrutiny of NEET (young people Not In Education, Employment  or Training ).

Not, you understand,  that the Explore card was officially scheduled in, nor indeed was any witness called who was thought to know of , or wished to talk about, the Explore card.  Although Explore card  petitioners had asked  for information about this scrutiny  meeting and I had contacted the committee officer offering to provide evidence, we’d been greeted with silence.

Less than 24 hours before the meeting, petitioner Patrick Gillard  finally heard back  from Mark Bee:

The discussion between Cllr McGregor and myself with you, outside the Chambers included an explanation of the situation we are in and issues that had been experienced by students with the Post 16 discretionary scheme process for the half term only.  As part of this discussion, it was agreed that the issue with the process would be looked into and that the other issues would be forwarded to the next Scrutiny meeting.

Suffolk County Council procedures in respect of petitions says that any petitions should be presented and formally received, there is no further detail given on what should happen however it is recognised that this is an area that needs further clarity and this will be reviewed for the future.

The Scrutiny meeting on Tuesday 14th June 2011 is a public meeting which you are welcome to attend, if you would like to opportunity to speak this will need to be approved by the Chairman…. There will be an opportunity for the Committee to consider scrutiny of the impact on young people of the removal of the Explore card as part of item 5 – Young People not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETs) (16-24yrs) in Suffolk.

Less than 24 hours notice – yet Mr Gillard, and the young members of Woodbridge’s Just 42 broke engagements, cancelled college  and turned up. What commitment!

And just as well Patrick Gillard had managed to get last-minute permission to speak (and that I  happened to be substituting on the Scrutiny committee)   – because that meeting had somehow been arranged to talk about every aspect of young people’s deprivation EXCEPT TRANSPORT, though the witness from Suffolk Young Carers  did dwell upon the effects of explore card cut.  Otherwise, a group of (largely) town dwellers and car owners talked as if  all the young Suffolk NEETs had no greater problems of transport than  they did themselves!

Fortunately we managed to make the point sufficiently forcibly for the excellent new  Committee Chairman (Colin Hart)  to direct a Scrutiny Tast and Finish group to look at the problem and report back.  This was helped by a surprisingly receptive response to the cuts from Guy McGregor.

This is wonderful! SCC made no equality impact assessment before embarking on this cut -which  is the reason they appeared to have  no idea of how badly it would affect young people. Neither did they engage in any form of consultation whatsoever – which  is why they have been stating that  there were no options between cutting and not cutting the card. This is far from the case. All it has ever needed as a bit  less silo mentality from the departments and some divergent thinking.

Cllr McGregor has suggested one way forward (funding drawn from the EMA replacement subsidy).  I feel there may well be several  others – for example reducing the Explore card from an age 5-19 card  to one for post-16 only, or suggesting an annual parental subscription.

One thing is certain – after this meeting I feel confident that, if SCC finally provides the will , they will be able to find a way.

Suffolks NEET problem – and a neat solution

We have just learned that 1,100 Suffolk teenagers “have no work, training or college place to go to when they leave school“, that is, a staggering 1 in 13 are NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training).   And although Suffolk County Council will be scrutinising NEET next week, it looks like the scrutiny will not be addressing one major identiable – and solvable – contributory factor:  Suffolk County Council’s cut of the post 16-Explore card – halfway through this academic year.

This is odd – because the council has had plenty of warnings as to the impact of this cut – and not just via this blog.  Back in February “Save the Explore Card” petitioner, Patrick Gillard warned them in person that the cut “will lead to less take-up of FE education because of difficulties of access. It will harm young people’s chances of going for job interviews and training. The proposed abolition is a retrograde step that threatens the very education and employment opportunities that our young people need in order to help us out of our current economic crisis.

Last month, after handing in petitions with thousands of signatures, Mr Gillard and Otley College’s Greer Hill spoke eloquently on the subject at the SCC council meeting, as did the young people of Woodbridge’s Just 42 OTS club. I was one of several councillors who also spoke – all in support of reversing this damaging and short-sighted decision  (see my  blog entry ). However when we finished speaking, no outcome was reached, no decision minuted, no progress made:  the petitioners may as well have been talking to a wall.

Yet Suffolk’s pig-headed adherence to this damaging cut seems to exist without  thought of longterm financial and social implications for the county – or indeed any “joined up thinking”  between those responsible for Education/Training, for Social Care, and for Transport.

Remember the deaf adder of the Psalms , who “stoppeth her ears, and will not hearken to the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely?”  You begin to wonder if the SCC Cabinet has taken that snake’s correspondence course.

Suffolk County Council:  which part of the phrase “You got it wrong” can’t you hear?

Won’t these truly shocking NEET figures finally finally persuade you  to change your minds and restore this invaluable card to the young people of Suffolk?

A petition that won’t lie down: democracy and post-16 travel cards

Last week Suffolk’s  ‘Save the  eXplore Card’ petition earned the right to be discussed at full Council – having received over 6,000 signatures.   (To remind you: this  young person’s travel card, a brainchild of SCC’s last Lib-Lab Coalition, has been cut halfway through this academic year without any form of consultation or risk assessment by Suffolk County Council.)

Unfortunately, it turned out that SCC – having set up their e-petition site as a legal requirement – had not thought at all about what should happen after an e-petition had reached 3675 signatures  and was discussed at full council – as is required by the SCC constitution .

From the first there was great confusion.

The originator (Patrick Gillard)  found that his petition had not been acknowledged:  it still registers as ‘failed to achieve the requisite number of signatures’ on the epetition site.  SCC had not invited him to speak as he asked (and was his constitutional right). When he insisted on speaking, another speaker (Greer Hill, Otley College) was un-invited by SCC. After pressure from myself and Kathy Pollard, both speakers were finally allowed their 5 minutes  – but this left only 10 minutes for discussion.  SCC offered no explanation for this.  This was a grave discourtesy to the speakers and to all those thousands of petitioners  they represented.

Although this  petition was heard in the middle of GCSE, A.A/S and college exams, it was handed to Transport Portfolioholder Guy McGregor by a very large group of  Just 42 youth club members, other young people,  MYPs, councillors, and representatives of schools and colleges. These were eager to  explain their anxieties. Cllr McGregor’s  response was his old traditional theme “you can only spend a pound once.” He did not explain why he had failed to consult on this cut or explored alternative options. No explanation of this has ever been forthcoming!

At this point it turned out that two teenage members of Woodbridge’s Just 42  youth club , who had scheduled a public question, had not had this question acknowledged at all by SCC. I had to  go to great pains to get their  right to speak agreed  and it was only very few minutes before the debate that it was confirmed. This was another grave discourtesy – in this case,  to the youngest public questioners ever to address the council!

During the meeting, SCC’s new Leader Mark Bee spoke about a new era based on the principles of  Listening; Openness/ transparency; and Practical, common sense solutions to problems.  Although he mentioned other cuts,  he never directly mentioned the Explore card. The resounding silence of SCC’s administration re this cut and the lack of any consultation is one of the great mysteries of this year.

After the petitioners had spoken, Councillors from all parties had the opportunity to speak briefly before  the portfolio holder replied.  (my speech below). Cllr McGregor did not repoond to these concerns raised but merely re- asserted that  the cut was necessary.

At this point it became clear that no-one had any idea as to what was to happen nextClearly ending the process undemocratically, without a vote,  by means of a response from the very person who had organised, agreed and implemented the cut made the whole epetition process completely futile. After a heated exchange in the chamber, a  short recess was announced. During this  Mark Bee and Guy McGregor spoke directly to the young people from Just 42 and  promised that the problems of their particular cut would go  before scrutiny. This was however, outside the chamber, and remains unminuted.

The strength of the young people’s clear, polite and determined  objections made it clear to the administration at this point – if not before – quite how much people care about  this cut . These young people were not coming here to observe democracy: they were coming to take part!

Three  things are clear –

  • the Explore card may be dead but it ain’t lying down;
  • SCC MUST tell the petitioners officially  now, exactly what is to happen next
    – and finally;
  • SCC’s procedure for dealing with e-petitions MUST be defined before the next council meeting in order to prevent this a repeat of Thursday’s shambles and to ensure these petitions to perform the constitutional function for which they were created.

My speech on the Explore card 26 May 2011

We’ve heard first hand – from the thousands of responses to the petition, from those  addressed us – most of all from individual young people in our divisions – that this cut was a bad idea – a short term fix  that didn’t consider the future.

There was no impact assessment for this cut –made  halfway through the educational year. Instead SCC boxticker noted  blandly that

There may be an adverse impact to the 15-19 age group – but there was  no need for an impact assessment  as it is a discretionary activity and has been identified as a budget saving proposal

In other words – it will have an impact but we don’t care!

Rather like saying I’ll  pay my council tax because I have to  but  I won’t pay into a pension because I’m feeling poor. The explore card expenditure is not just money paid out – it is money invested in the future  it  IS our pension plan – The young people of Suffolk – future builders, magistrates, nurses, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, firemen, soldiers, carers, taxpayers – are our future and we will be relying on them in the years to come. It is in our interests to support them now so we can get the best out of them when we need them later on.

The administration tell us that we can’t afford it and that home-to-school transport cuts are  ameliorated by help with post-16 discretionary passes, and tempering the Catholic transport decision.

This is a red herring.

The Explore card is the most important home-to-school pass we had because it was such excellent value for money – giving halfprice travel at all times to all places to all young people at a total cost to the council of less than £30 a year for each of its 55,000 users!

Where a discretionary pass  gives one school day, school hour  journey each way at the cost of £150 a term to the parent and a lot more to the council, the explore card  was much more flexible- used by those studying in the evening or  multi-site, by those  wanting to attend a distant college because the local school didn’t run the course,, those on training courses outside the scope of Suffolk’s transport policy, starting a first time job or going to job interviews to find one. Those who want to go out safely in the evening, without worry about road conditions and ability to drive. Those who we don’t want to hang about the bus stop because they can’t afford to get on a bus. All  this for £30 a head.

Colleagues, we can afford this investment in our future. I won’t remind you of some of the recent headlines on SCC expenditure  but  we all know that it is not as simple as “can’t pay wont pay” . Even in a time of cuts there’s a large element of what we choose to pay for. Suffolk is poor but resilient – we’ve enough in the reserves to pay to reverse  this decision and continue investing this  £30 a head in the future of these young people and our county.