What a waste of public money?

Amongst our new coalition government’s £6.2bn of announced savings last week was an immediate freeze on new work with management consultants.

Yet in Suffolk, hard-pressed tax payers, people who see the pot-holes daily increasing outside their doors,  are being asked by the Conservative administration to shell out  as much as £122,000 just to help our highly paid senior managers to save money. At least we assume thats what its for. As they were asking that this spend didn’t have to go out to public tender we really dont have much idea WHAT its going to be  spent on!

Now, £122000 may not seem a lot to some people, but from my view – where our local Family Centre closed for want of £50,000  – it’s a fortune.

We are told that the company Scintillate will be paid around £50,000 – £55,000 and Bedfordshire-based Fields of Learning will get up to £42,000 for two months’ work; and DNA will be paid around £30,000 for one month’s work.  The sums are pretty specific but nobodywill tell us what these companies will do or why we should pay them.

Go figure.

Don’t you think it is deeply worrying that the Conservative-run Suffolk County Council Cabinet has actually voted to put aside standing orders and allow this money to be spent without the taxpayers, or indeed other county councillors having  any idea what these companies do or how it will benefit anyone other than the companies themselves? How can they justify it?  I guess the answer is, that with their huge majority they just don’t need to!

Who are these companies? Who runs them? What are their qualifications? Google their personnel and their practice and you come up with very little. No sense of educational background, or any concrete measurable achievement. No peer reviews – apart from one practitioner recommending another practitioner’s book. On Amazon!  The websites of all these consultants are filled with nebulous, positive-sounding content-free platitudes. Forgive me for saying this, but its hard to understand why any sensible person with a genuine feeling of responsibility for a public budget would fall for this  for one moment.

Fields of learning for example offers range of very mixed services  –  and I do n’t mean this admiringly: personal trainers, acupuncture, neuro-linguistic programming. I don’t know how useful acupuncture and personal training might be in saving us money but if you check up on NLP you you will discover it is one of the 10 most discredited forms of intervention in published research: on a par, apparently, with  “equine treatment for eating disorders” and “dolphin assisted therapy.

Now my view is, it is ok for the practitioners of NLP to take money from the credulous if the credulous are happy to part with it. But is it ok  for them to take other peoples money? Most importantly of all is it ok for them to take OUR money?

This is a time of belt-tightening, painful desperate belt-tightening, belt-tightening so desperate, so painful that our waistbands will be cutting us in half. So why at this time are we loosening our waistbands and dropping the public trousers for these vacuous, worthless pointless puffs of hot air

(Note: This first appeared as a speech I made at full Council, 27 May 2010)

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Bikes, maps, grit bins… Locality budget spends

Recent applications for my locality budget funding have included:

Assistance to publish walking maps of Woodbridge

Bicycles for Town Pastors

Grit bins  to help residents de-ice their roads in the next cold spell

A Town Crier (- yes really!)

Keep these requests coming – I still have funds left for the year and I like to spread them across the needs of as many different types of operation as possible!

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Bollards in Hasketon Road – at long last!

For years the residents of Hasketon Road – happy neighbours of Farlingaye HS, by and large – have been plagued by  inconsiderate parking. Sadly this is generally by a few thoughtless parents at school drop-off and pick-up times. Their cars churn up the verges  into a sea of mud and have posed a safety risk to the hundreds of students who cycle and walk to the school every day.

If you look at the photographs on my parking page, you will see examples.

I have been talking to the  highway authorities for eighteen months trying to  get this solved. Although I have been able to agree double yellow lines around the corners of Eansom Road, we then needed some other solution for the adjacent verges. And  there was some reluctance (to put it mildly) to see bollards as the answer.

Other options  were recommended and explored – notably the officers’ preferred option of building up and reseeding the verge. This was attempted last May after a a wait of  seven months and lasted precisely as long as until the contractors left the site.

The residents were – rightly – incandescent.

A year later we have seen no further progress, and there was some suggestion that reseeding and building up should be attempted again.  My view is that to even consider rebuilding the verges once more is a waste of everyone’s energy and a trial of their patience.  For a start, it will involve another wait of a year  as  we were told 18 month ago that spring is the only time for building and reseeding.  And for the likelihood of no better outcome than last time. I feel that the residents of Hasketon Road deserve better than this continuing putting-off.

The other non-bollard option recomme nded was preventative planting – but local town  councillors have told me of other places in Woodbridge where planting to discourage parking has been ineffective.

At this point – luckily – our wonderful  community police came to the rescure and put down traffic cones along the Hasketon Road with immediate success.  parking stiopped just like that. The cones were placed exactly where we intend to place bollards. The success is not surprising – it  mirrors the success of the bollards that are installed a couple of hundred yards further down where the Hasketon Road becomes the Burkitt Road, and which has discouraged dangerous parking by parents at St Marys.

As well as talking to the police, I have talked to residents and to both town and district councillors and the issue was raised at the last SNT tasking meeting  by Woodbridge Town Councillor Miles. Bollards were agreed by all as the best solution.

The Highways engineer  tells me we can install a nice set of concrete bollards for around £3000 – a sum that I am more than happy to contribute from my locality budget to improve the safety of Woodbridge residents, students of Farlingaye, and the much tried inhabitants of Hasketon Road.

On Friday I did the paperwork! They  are – I trust – now coming!

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Walking to school: Ipswich Road, Woodbridge

Congratulations to the members of Farlingaye High School who chose to address  transport and walking to school in relation to Ipswich Road traffic  when working on a Make a Difference programme. You may have heard the youngsters on BBC Radio Suffolk last week, as they investigated the speeds of traffic on Ipswich Road. The students interviewed me, very well and professionally, as a part of their project, and I also commented live on the issues on Mark Murphy’s breakfast programme on 20 May, before attending their assembly at Farlingaye that morning.

As you know I have  many concerns about speeding along Ipswich Road,  particularly in relation to those walking and cycling to Kyson and Farlingaye schools, andI have reserved £12,000 from Quality of Life money to build an island in the road which is being planned at the moment. Now the Highways department at Suffolk County Council have invited the FHS students to take part in the design of this island, so as to see the project through! Congratulations to all!

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Report to Woodbridge Town Council AGM

Another busy year has passed. Not only has the recession continued to hit, but it is expected that the situation will worsen considerably over the next few years, putting further pressure on future budgets.

The other main story is that SCC  will continue to exist after the Government announced no change in the structure. What a waste of time, energy and money, eh!

Locally, I was delighted to be re-elected as your County Councillor in June.

This year I have been interested in Woodbridge transport in the widest sense: roads, buses, trains, parking, cycling, walking…

County Budget for 2010-11

One of the most important jobs for the Council is to set the budget for the upcoming year.  The strain on the public sector is starting to bite, and this budget will probably be the last before the 15-20% cuts, which have been suggested, will start to hit.

This year the council increased the level of Council tax by 2.4%. This – as well as a slight increase in the level of Government Grant – means that there will be some areas in the Council eligible for additional spending, these include:

  • £1.5m as a one-off payment for roads maintenance to help deal with the effects of the particularly harsh winter (eg potholes)
  • £1.7m to investt in social workers to help support vulnerable children and their families
  • £1.6m to pay for the additional numbers and more complex placements of young people coming into the care system
  • £4m to help care for older people who most need specialist support
  • £1.6m to pay for extra landfill tax

However, there are still areas within the budget that are overspent, including Children and Young Persons by £2m, mainly due to the increasing cost for Home to School Transport and for Adult and Community Services by £1.7m due to the increasing number of elderly residents in our county.  In addition to this within the capital budget, Schools Organisation Review will be costing over £100m

At the Full Council debate the Liberal Democrats focused on the discovery that 500 additional employees now worked at the Council compared to the previous year.  Some of these positions were entirely Government funded forming some of the staff for the newly created Children’s centre.  However many of these aren’t funded from Government grant, and come at a time when the public service is under pressure as the recession bites.

Local Government Review

Throughout the year almost every Parish report has included updates on the Local Government Review.   The process which promised so much at the beginning has been regularly stalled, by court cases not only from Suffolk, but the other affected counties as well.  It was eventually reignited when the court cases were thrown out last December, after the Boundary Committee appealed.

After this decision, the announcement from the Boundary Committee about which form of local Government they would prefer was announced, with a recommendation to the secretary of state, of either a one Suffolk Unitary Authority or a North Haven Unitary Authority and a Rural Suffolk Authority.  This was then followed by a short six week consultation in which the public could react to the announcement from the Boundary Commission.

Onthe 10th of February the Minister of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government  announced that there would be no change for the County of Suffolk.  Instead there would be a County Constitutional Convention which would provide a new form of unitary government for the council hhas remained completely schtumm about how this could possibly be implemented or even a timescale to when it should begin.

Indeed, as I write this there is not even a government…

County Councillor’s Quality of Life budget

Last year I allocated Quality of Life transport money to three projects:

  • The Seal Crossing;
  • Cross Corner project and
  • bridging  the muddy ditch from Houchells Meadow to the back of Farlingaye High School.

Of these, the only one to have been completed last year was the smallest: the muddy ditch.  At the same time as this was done, (and at my request) SCC workmen altered the bars at the entrance to the footpath round the school grounds so that students cycling from Melton could access the school more easily. ) I have just been sent the plans for the Cross Corner scheme, which hopes to open out the area round the crossroads to provide greater accessibility for pedestrians and cycles.

The Seal Crossing

Although I allocated money for this last year, progress has been slow. I’ve therefore added an additional £5,000 from this years funding to the money I allocated last year for the island crossing at the top of Ipswich Road.  The aim is to get something that will allow people to cross in two stages, that will also encourage drivers to slow down by alerting them to the fact people (school students, mothers with buggies, elderly bus users and cyclists)ISurveyors have now been out to identify the best place and that plans are being drawn up.

Calming Ipswich Road

I’m allocating £3000 hopefully for a speed activated sign – – a solar-powered LED maybe?  for further along Ipswich Road, where it slopes steeply  down to the John Grose garage. Because the banks are steep and there are no pavements, no-one can safely do speed checks and there is subsequently a new entrance to the new housing coming out onto the road after a blind bend. I and the police and the town council are all really – and legitimately -worried about the danger of this.

The remaining £4000 is to go to traffic calming/cyclist and pedestrian protection in Sandy Lane. The difficulty with Sandy Lane is that not only are issues about pedestrians etc going along from adjacent houses, but it is a National Cycle route AND  at every high tide and a couple of hours on each side, the other footpath from Woodbridge to Martlesham is impassable (three feet depth of water across two or three hundred yards at the creek) meaning all sorts of walkers ramblers dogwalkers twitchers etc have to divert onto the road which is very windy and with steep banks and high hedges on the Woodbridge side of the railway bridge. I have walked this with three Martlesham parish councillors to get their ideas.

County Councillor’s Locality budget

The year’s Locality Budget covered a range of things:

  • An awning for Woodbridge Bowls Club
  • Funding a feasibility study for the Whisstocks  Development scheme
  • Contribution to the Woodbridge Shop link Radio Scheme
  • A new laptop for Homestart
  • Funding for Walking Maps of Woodbridge
  • A canopy for Farlingaye High School

Money has been carried over

  • to pay for measures to prevent poor parking in Hasketon Road (bollards!), and
  • grit bins for various Woodbridge locations so that future bad weather can be quickly and efficiently dealt with..

Public transport

In March Suffolk County Council mwas asked to respond officially to  the forthcoming Greater Anglia rail franchise tender . This was important, because it defines what we want from a new rail franchise provider for the next ten to twenty years. The response, which rested on the findings of the Rail Policy Group (of which  I am a member) saw much support from across the political spectrum to improve the quality and quantity of train services across the region. Important areas that were stressed included:

  • The need for an hourly service to Peterborough;
  • the hourly service to Lowestoft (this should be up and running as far as Saxmundham by December); this further depends on the building of the Beccles loop;
  • adjusting the timings of interconnecting trains to correspond better;
  • greater parity of  equivalent fares across the franchise area – currently the cheapest day return fare to London from Ipswich is twice what it is from Cambridge to London
  • more advance notice of replacement bus services and ensuring they carry luggage and bikes  that were carried on the train
  • more provision for bikes on trains
  • better links with bus services

We have had a much less satisfactory response to our councerns about buses. Although Woodbridge Town Councillors joined with me and members of the Seckford Almshouses to complain about poor bus services  these complaints have been met with the usual resounding silence from the authorities approached –  that is, the bus company and the  county council officers – and indeed our then MP John Gummer and the then Labour junior transport minister, Ipswich MP Chris Mole. Indeed, neither MP even acknowledged the letter.

Woodbridge Parking review

It seemed to have been going on forever, but the complicated and long-drawn-out process that is the new parking review for Woodbridge was nearly finished by the end of the year. In the last few months Suffolk County council sent out all finalised proposed changes to consultees (Fire, Ambulance, HGV etc) and the legal orders for changes to restrictions were written out.  All that now remains to be done is for the changes to be  formally  advertised on site / newspaper before the lining / signing changes to roads are made.

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Caroline Page, County Councillor for Woodbridge