Tag Archives: cuts

App-trap – why close the Woodbridge Tourist Information Centre?

What will really, really, really help tourism in Woodbridge? A Tourist Information Centre? Or  a planned app for people with mobile devices that will give them targeted information?

The latter, according to the latest mouthful of lowgrade technological codswallop used by the Suffolk Coastal District Council Cabinet to justify their unjustifiable proposed closure of the Woodbridge Tourist Information Centre, while retaining the ones at Aldeburgh and Felixstowe.

Wait (I hear you say). Aldeburgh has no rail station, a very limited bus service,  a large population of second-home occupancy – oh, and 1 in 5 households in Suffolk don’t have a car… Aha – but Aldeburgh is nearer to Waveney than Woodbridge– and SCDC is in partnership with Waveney. Simples.

The easy way to save money in a hurry is to slash and burn – and now the men with grey suits (and machetes) would like us to think that the number of users of its TICs  is declining. Or anyway TICs are not an essential service and can be cut without too much of a fuss.

To put it another way, they are undertaking a service review which is “focussed on making sure our services are as efficient as possible but also that they are still relevant and needed by our customers. The reality is that the use of our tourist services are changing, with more and more people going online for their information and fewer visiting our offices.” This is according to Cllr Geoff Holdcroft, SCDC Cabinet Member for Leisure and Economic Development, who has conveniently forgotten the 8 million people in the UK who have never ever used the internet.  And the number of people who come to Woodbridge by train and who couldn’t take that train to Aldeburgh.

Talking trains, apparently Woodbridge TIC has particular difficulties in not being done away with, just because of  the time it spends selling rail tickets and providing transport information.  That’s good – it generates income?  Far from it  according to Cllr Holdcroft. He told a packed Woodbridge Town Council meeting last night that every ticket sold by the TIC in Woodbridge costs the council taxpayer £1.  (Personally I would like to see the facts behind and details on this one – given the price of rail tickets these days, the continuing local need and the heavy competition and discounting between the companies ‘selling on’ it would seem an impossible feat without a high level of council incompetence in negotiation or some very sharp means of public accounting.)

Putting that aside we are then presented with another facer. The Council’s other two TICs at Aldeburgh and Felixstowe will continue to provide a full range of services including ticketing and booking facilities, and will offer us  a telephone support and a postal service.  So tickets won’t lose money in Aldeburgh then?

Luckily not all is lost for Woodbridge  “Our commitment to encouraging tourism remains as strong as possible and our modernised service would see us still providing information from a new service based at Woodbridge library, backed up with internet-based information” . This  glib optimism  is not gaining the csupport of those who run b&bs in Woodbridge, or those who rely on the rail ticketing services for travel and for information to get about along the East Suffolk Line and beyond, or those retailers, restaurateurs, publicans and hoteliers who rely on tourists for trade or those who run tourist sites: the huge number of people who use or rely on the Woodbridge Tourist Information centre every day and who would find it hard to do so if it were replaced by a telephone or a postal service from Aldeburgh.  The local economy, in other words.

It also leaves us with a couple of  problems.

For a start,  this proposal concerning the library is a bit like telling your children that you’re not buying them  food because it’s too expensive, but they can go next door for dinner. Has anyone in SCDC actually asked the library about this plan, or have they just assumed they are willing to provide space and staff time? The library has never been owned by SCDC.  And from the 1 August it isn’t even controlled by Suffolk County Council. It is controlled by an IPS. Might the library have its own views on becoming SCDC’s cheap tourist information centre and ticket provider because SCDC is too cheeseparing to run its own? (Especially now the library knows that the ticket sales will cost them £1 a ticket). What’s in it for the library?

Secondly, the TIC looks very nice in its ornate iron-frilled white building. As gateway to Woodbridge its  presence might well be adding to the good impression of our town given to visitors as they arrive by car, bus or rail. And its certainly much easier  for new arrivals to find than the library.

Tourism remains a key part of our local economy and we are confident that potential visitors to our district will continue to get the information they need to help them choose to come here and enjoy all our district has to offer. We will continue to offer fresh innovations to attract tourists such as our joint working with Waveney’s tourism service and with local tourism businesses and partnerships to offer a better service, our Suffolk Coast website and a planned app for people with mobile devices that will give them targeted information” says Cllr Holdcroft.

So that’s all right then.

But  I’d like to know who  are the confident we? We in Woodbridge are not confident!

If you wish to contact SCDC to give your views before their Cabinet makes its final decision on November 6th, contact the portfolio-holder via this link

STILL waiting for the bus..

Sometimes its really difficult to admit you have made a mistake, but this is what Suffolk County Council needs to do.

The Conservative majority must face reality and reverse their decision to downgrade the Suffolk Concessionary Fares passes for the elderly and disabled. They need to return this service to the level it was at two years ago before SCC took over the running of this scheme. WHen they took it over, SCC’s Tory leadership justified their position by saying they provided these travel passes at a little more than the ‘statutory UK minimum’. A good excuse but a bad decision. Problems of transport are notoriously more difficult and disabling for those of us who live in rural areas like Suffolk, and most other rural county councils make adjustments accordingly.

It was a whole year back that I proposed SCC’s Full Council that all time restrictions be lifted for disabled pass holders and reduced for those eligible due to age (so that their travel can start at 9 o’clock). This proposal was so sensible and neecessary that it had cross-party support and was voted in by councillors of all parties. (O, and the Cabinet too ). Yet, after a hugely disrespectful delay of a year – presumably to let the fuss die down a bit – Cabinet has turned its back on the disabled and the elderly once again.

What a surprise! Making these changes would cost the Council a whole £489,448 a year (that’s just over a penny a week from every Suffolk resident). This is happening in the year that Cabinet saved only a paltry £13m from this years pared-to-the-bone budget, to stash with the other £140m they hold in reserves.

This cannot be the end of the matter.

Any councillor is entitled to dispute (‘call-in’) this unfair decision – and this is exactly what the Lib Dems have done. Sadly, as the Cabinet member is on leave to the end of July it cannot now be looked at by the all-party Scrutiny committee until the 27 September. This is nearly 18 months after the restrictions first came into force.

Its a long time to keep on putting the pressure on – but its a vey worthy cause. The changes to Suffolk’s concessionary passes have affected 140,000 local people, 7000 of whom are disabled and are causing genuine hardship to people with few if any alternatives. It limits their access to work, health, education, training and social activities.

The Cabinet were fully aware that such a change would cost between £251,000 and £489,448 pa, a small proportion of the £13.1m that the County Council has underspent and entrusted to banks  in this financial year alone. Their decision is frankly unbelievable.

At a time of cuts I would hate to say an expenditure under £500,000 is “peanuts”. But it compares very favourably with other SCC spending decisions such as Suffolk Circle .

Reversing these changes will allow full, affordable participation in society to two valuable and poorly recognised groups of people: those who do not want to let their disability stand in the way of their achievements – and those who do not want to let their age confine them to home. Its all a matter of priorities. Do the people of Suffolk really want the Council to hoard more and more of our money in an unstable banking system – instead of investing in the people of today for the benefit of tomorrow?

September’s report to Woodbridge Town Council

This month my report is principally to do with bus passes and  libraries. SCC’s county-wide consultation on further cuts is also covered

Interim Chief Executive
Lucy Robinson, Director for Economy, Skills and Environment has been appointed interim chief executive at Suffolk County Council. She had been covering the role of Chief Executive since the previous Chief Executive was put on “gardening leave”. The role is initially for six months, during which time the recruitment of a permanent Chief Executive will take place.  Mrs Robinson has been appointed on a salary of £150,000 pro rata which is apparently the kind of figure Suffolk might expect to be paying for our new Chief Executive’s salary.

 Concessionary Travel: Explore, over-60 and disabled persons passes
After the success of the recent petition, the Explore card cut (together with other obstacles to young persons travel  is currently being investigated by a SCC scrutiny task and finish group. I am a member of this three-person group, and urge anyone who wishes  to give evidence to do so. The committee is taking evidence till half term; the contact is Teresa Harden at SCC.

At  the last Full Council meeting the Liberal Democrat Group submitted a motion recommending that concessionary bus pass holders should be allowed to travel from 9am instead of 9:30am whilethose who hold concessionary bus passes due to a disability should have all time restrictions removed. The motion was passed with a single amendment , so this decision will be now referred to Cabinet.  In the meantime I have set up a petition to highlight  public support.  You can find the epetition on the SCC epetition website http://petitions.web-labs.co.uk/suffolkcc/public/Bus-Passes—we-need-to-travel-before-9-30- , while a paper  version of the petition can be downloaded from: http://carolinepage.blog.suffolk.libdems.org/2011/07/15/bus-passes-new-hope-for-the-elderly-and-disabled-of-suffolk/

Libraries update

Future: the administration has put forward a number of different options for the future structure of the service, and the options below will go through a ‘best value’ evaluation. I asked  for the parameters of ‘best value’ to be made very explicit;

  • A Council Business Unit
  • A Council owned company/enterprise
  • Independent Company/Enterprise

This will be reported back to Cabinet on the 8th of November. The Council has also moved to set up pilots for community run libraries at:

  • Aldeburgh
  • Bungay
  • Eye, Debenham and Stradbroke
  • Sudbury
  • Thurston
  • Wickham Market
  • Gainsborough, Chantry, Ipswich, Stoke, Rosehill and Westbourne – working together.

These projects will begin in April 2012, and will look to increase the amount of local decision making, fundraising and activities and look to include more public services under one roof.

Local news: I am funding the children’s writer and illustrator Jonathan Allen to come and cartoon at the Woodbridge Library on Sunday – the day of the Reading Scheme presentation awards.

Mobile libraries: theres  a consultation  running until 14 October on plans to move from fortnightly to monthly or four-weekly stops and  to remove all stops in communities that are served by a static library. We are told this would would save an estimated £225,000 a year, while maintaining the mobile library service to those communities that do not have a static library.

SCC Consultation  on further budget cuts 
As suggested by the Lib Dems last October,  SCC has decided to undertake a major budget consultation exercise with Suffolk residents, businesses, partners, the voluntary sector and other stakeholders. The idea is to get  people to tell us which  services matter most to them and to share their ideas and suggestions on how the Council could save money or improve services.  I urge everyone to make their opinions known. This is the only democratic way to arrive at necessary cuts   www.suffolk.gov.uk/WeAreListening

Public Questions at Full Council & Cabinet
As usual members of the public can ask questions to the administration at both Full Council and at Cabinet. Your question must be submitted by 12 midday, four days prior to the meeting.  This means that questions to Full Council, which takes place on the 22nd of September, have to be submitted by the 16th http://www.suffolk.gov.uk/CouncilAndDemocracy/DecisionMaking/PublicQuestionTimeatMeetingsoftheCountyCouncilandCabinet.htm

Locality budget
I am wanting to  fund  more bike racks in the Market Square, outside the Community Hall, and down by Cafe Nero. Hoefully this will encourage greater bike use – essential in a town where parking is so short

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?

Suffolk’s public transport: going the extra mile

Workers at Suffolk County Council can now use an online Travel Portal as a central point of information for all  travel.  Very laudable.

To aid you in your travel choices,  it has a  Step-by-step decision-maker (which doesn’t work) plus  a list of Alternative Travel Options to firm up your mind as to how you are to travel.

And this is where we part company as to its use and intentions.  For it has to be said, this  list of Alternative Travel Options (although intended to be informative) suggests there is no real alternative to the car.

In particular, Alternative Travel Options fails to mention the cheap and efficient bicycle as any form of travel alternative. Yet I personally cycled 2,500 miles on council business last year.

I’d like to point out here  that far fron being a lycra-clad fitness freak,  I am (sadly) 53,  fat, with a bad knee, a need to arrive appropriately dressed, have many care commitments and live more  than 8 road miles out of Ipswich. In short, if  someone like me can cycle 2500 work miles a year there must be many many other SCC employees who could also be encouraged to do the same.

In the absence of the bicycle,  SCC’s  Alternative Travel Options list provides the following six options for their workers to consider:

  1. Fleet vehicle (car, van or specialist vehicle)
  2. Lease Car –
  3. Hire car
  4. Team pool cars
  5. Public transport
  6. Reimburse  vehicle mileage

Notice anything? Out of these six , five refer specifically to car usage .

Each option comes with ‘issues to consider’ – issues which are broadly financial.   However, not in the case of Public Transport.  Here the issues to consider are (in full):

  • Not always an option due to time constraints/ availability/access.
  • May be more expensive for some journeys.
  • Requires planning ahead.
  • Some personal safety considerations (location/time of travel).

Let’s not big it up too much eh? Leaving aside the ‘May be more expensive for some journeys’, (which  is not mentioned in any of the car driving options), surely it is deeply unreasonable to list “personal safety considerations” as a reason to  for the Greenest County to discourage its own employees  from travelling  by bus/train?    There are many many more deaths/injuries in transit amongst car drivers and passengers than among those using public transport.  I am therefore pressing SCC to list “personal safety considerations” as a risk  with all the car-driving options .

Additionally, the mention of public transport is glossed as “Journeys to meetings, conferences etc where train travel between mainline stations is available. Business journeys within more urban locations.”  Yet shouldn’t we be encouraging all employees to travel sustainably within Suffolk at all times?   So why not advocate public transport more strongly?

The difficulty is laid out fairly and clearly: public transport is “Not always an option due to time constraints/ availability/access”.   Right.  Yet public transport difficulties have become  major problems for the people of Suffolk because of the lack of support SCC has given to public transport .  Our legislators  and administrators  like to talk the talk, but instead of walking the walk  – or cycling the bike, or taking the bus  – too many are wedded to driving the car.

Which has led inexorably to the County Council’s cut of the Bury Park and Ride site and its continuing barefaced  insistence that Demand Responsive Transport (7am – 7pm weekdays only)  adequately replaces subsidised bus services (yes, those which also operated during evenings/Sundays/Bank holidays). These two decisions alone  have  added greatly to the problem of ‘time constraints/ availability/access” in public transport – sadly there are others.

Is it entirely reasonable that SCC should be diverting away its own employees from the transport difficulties it  has inflicted on others who do not have the chance to claim back transport expenses?

 

End Note

I wrote to the  SCC Travel Portal on 2 June giving feedback on ther portal pretty much in terms of the above. I was delighted to receive an email two weeks later telling me that as a direct reponse to my comments, the portal had been entirely redesigned ” in accordance with the sustainable travel hierarchy“. 

The officer who redesigned it has done a wonderful job. The portal  is  now both more helpful and useful, and is much MUCH more encouraging towards sustainable forms of transport. Congratulations!