Proposals to reduce eligibility for free school transport in Suffolk will adversely affect students 5-18 -and their families. The changes have the potential to bring hardship -especially in rural areas: loss of choice; a postcode lottery for places and courses; potentially the splitting of siblings between schools. It will also put a lot more cars on the roads round our schools -with preductable effects on speed, safety, airquality, and quality of life. Continue reading Reduction to free school transport entitlement: respond, or have no say
SCC’s cabinet has forced through a new Community Transport model for Suffolk– despite huge reservations from opposition parties and after many of these reservations were confirmed by the county’s cross-party scrutiny committee last month.
Community transport is the term for services like ‘Dial a Ride ‘ that provide transport on demand to those people no longer served by scheduled buses or trains.
And there are a lot of these isolated folk in Suffolk. The Conservative administration has increasingly replaced scheduled bus services in rural areas with community transport operating under various brands serving specific communities and specific user-groups. Their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers, but delivery of demand responsive services has remained patchy, disparate and problematic. Often people have had little idea of availability and there have been large areas of unmet need – particularly regarding young person’s travel , regular travel to employment, weekend and evening travel, and same day travel.
The new proposal sees seven contracts (one per district council) to ensure holistic district branding – so people could identify who to phone to book a journey. It would also allow for greater flexibility of provision . (However, people often travel from one district to another to visit the hospital or to shop in a major town).
The SCC-owned vehicles will be sold to the providers, a move that supposedly will allow a wider range of customers to be served. The voiced rationale is, when the county owns vehicles, providers are not allowed to use them to provide profitable services if they compete with commercial services., as that would involve the state subsidising one service to compete against another. It will also, obviously save the county a lot of money!
Suffolk County County – still in thrall to the ideology of impossible competition which has failed rural bus transport so comprehensively over the past thirty years – declares that this will allow ‘competition’ for eg some forms of home-to-school transport that will use the assets more intensively. (Why? Why now? Home-to school transport services have become steadily more expensive, and council-dependent ever since bus deregulation made competition mandatory outside London, thirty years ago. I would suggest this might just be because competition was not the answer!).
The proposal was ‘called in’ by the Labour group for several separate reasons. The call-in was supported by the LibDems , who thought thought the most significant objections to the scheme were financial.
For a start, the intention was that the county no longer provide free vehicles – saving it some £570k (which these largely voluntary bodies would have to find) – but also SCC would HALVE the community subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years. This enormous cut was supposed to be supported by the voluntary bodies’ increased revenue from the new ‘freedom’ to provide services ! (You may notice the same tired old rhetoric).
In fact, the scrutiny committee believed it was more likely that , although the providers would survive using their new freedoms and their vehicles to provide the county with some alternative sources of transport (for instance home to school services) others would definitely suffer. Many services to people without other transport options would be unlikely to be supported by the halving of the county contribution – and would therefore be cut.
And as the new contract is deliberately non-specific, the County could claim any such losses are matters outside its control. Talk about jesting Pilate.
Scrutiny therefore referred the decision back to cabinet. And, in a very brief process which allowed no comment from other councillors Suffolk’s Conservative Cabinet dismissed the reasoning of the cross-party scrutiny committee and decided there would be no change to this worrying decision.
They looked at scrutiny and thought, “Nobody tells us what to do!” So much for democracy! So much for ‘holding to account.’
You may remember that I tabled a question on the increasingly poor rural bus services at July’s Full Council and promised to post the answer when I got it.
My question was
Caroline Page to Cabinet Member for Roads and Transport (Graham Newman): “Public transport is an essential part of supporting the welfare of the county, particularly in rural areas. It is coming under increasing pressure and is failing to meet the needs at the time when Suffolk needs it most. When is Cllr Newman going to pressure national government to alter the ridiculous ethos of so-called ‘competition’ which has caused deregulated buses to provide such a terrible service to the people of the Suffolk countryside, over the past decades?”
Cllr Newman’s response was: “I’m a strong supporter of public transport services in Suffolk. I wish to see more effective coordination of services. The government clearly set out its position in March 2012, in its full response to the competition commission report; ‘Local Bus Service Market Investigation’.
I believe the focus of our efforts should now be on working with the commercial sector to improve the availability and the affordability of transport, particularly to support young people to continue to learn and take their first steps into employment. I therefore welcome the cooperation of the commercial sector in developing our new ‘Endeavour Card’ for young people, and hope that we can build on this relationship to further improve services without unaffordable financial support, in this county council.
As Cllr Page will know*, we are meeting with Therese Coffey MP, to discuss these very issues, and indeed I have previously discussed them informally with Dr. Coffey.”
* Caroline Page: This last was actually news to me – though very welcome news, particularly as Dr Coffey has not so far answered the specific points I raised with her in June concerning this subject, although she has replied to my letter.
You can find the answers to the other Lib Dem councillors’ questions here – that is, to two of them. Very unfortunately my colleague John Field’s pertinent concerns on potential carcinogens was lost in transit – although submitted correctly, and acknowledged as such by the Suffolk County Council Monitoring Officer. It disappeared from the Full Council agenda and therefore was neither asked nor answered
The rural population of Suffolk is increasingly dividing into the haves and have-nots: those WITH transport – and those without any.
With the imminent closure of Anglian Buses 164 and 165 services, and following the diminution of the 63 Framlingham service, I sent a litany of local travellers’ concerns to our MP Therese Coffey together with a letter asking her to use her influence as our local MP to do four things:
- to try and change some of the decisions to reduce bus services at a local level – specifically by asking Go Ahead (new owners of Anglian Buses) if they could reconsider their decision to cut.
I pointed out that as the 164 bus was an additional service that has only been around for 6 months, I feel it likely most of the travelling public might be satisfied with the restoration of the 165;
- to use her voice to alter – at national level – the ridiculous ethos of so-called competition which has caused deregulated buses to provide such a terrible service in the countryside.
In the past County Councils ran bus services on the basis that popular routes could subsidise essential routes with smaller passenger numbers. I have sympathy with Councils that see no reason to subsidise only loss-making services. The loss of the 165 shows us on what a tightrope the services run. Yet rural services are not a frivolous luxury – they can make the difference between productive employment and training and expensive enforced idleness;
- to press the government to address the situation of local transport in the forthcoming spending review holistically, by recognising the additional expense in social care and welfare payments that will occur if public transport is not supported.
I asked her to press them to support it at all costs because public transport is an essential part of supporting the future welfare of the country – particularly in rural areas;
- to press the government to look at the frankly unfair differentials in per capita spending on public transport across the country.
Each Londoner gets about three times as much spent on them as each person in Suffolk despite the huge economies of scale London offers – and London buses aren’t deregulated. Why should the rural population be worth any less?
I wrote this letter because I’ve been contacted by a so many people living along the path of the soon-to-be-cancelled Anglian bus routes 164 and 165 (164 Saxmundham -Wickham Market-Woodbridge – Ipswich ending at Railway Station. 165:Aldeburgh, Leiston, Rendlesham, Woodbridge, Ipswich ending at Railways station). I am known to be particularly concerned about the public transport situation in Suffolk but I am assuming that Dr Coffey and various relevant council colleagues will have also been approached.
These two services are greatly loved and regularly used by many different local people (including myself). They are being cancelled because they are not profit-making. Indeed, how can they be when First bus company has been scheduling similar but by no means identical 64/65 services to run in direct competition? This has been a no-win situation as bus companies and travellers have all lost out.
At the same time the First 63 service from Ipswich to Framlingham has been cut back so as to provide a 3-4 bus service only Monday to Friday (no holidays). For the rest of the time , Framlingham and its famous castle is as cut off from Woodbridge and tourism as if it were in Ulan Bataar – a fantastical situation for ‘the greenest county’ to countenance.
Basically this means that the five major bus services that up till May 2013 ran through Woodbridge – the second largest town in Dr Coffey’s constituency – have been halved at a stroke.
The loss of these buses will have a dreadful impact on bus users all the way down Suffolk Coastal from Leiston to Woodbridge. Research from the Suffolk Foundation a year or two back has told us that 1 in 5 families in Suffolk don’t have a car. The County council response to this over the years has been to replace scheduled services with so-called Demand Responsive Transport. This is a misnomer as it doesn’t respond in any sense to actual demand, or indeed need.
Most of my correspondents have been older people but this loss of more scheduled services will also have an impact on travel to education, employment and training – and thus upon NEETS. It will negate the Suffolk Conservative election pledge of a revived Youth Travel card. (What use is a youth travel card if there is no bus to travel on? ) Demand responsive transport is not set up to satisfy the regular, timely requirements of travel to education, employment and training as recent research has underlined http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/media/28-may-young-people-research
It will continue the negative effect on tourism caused by the current (in my opinion crackbrained) transport system which sees would-be visitors to Suffolk stymied by a double whammy of a rail company (Greater Anglia) that only performs engineering works at weekends and public holidays – and a rural bus service that has stopped all services at these times. Again, Demand Responsive transport is of little help in this case because the tourist has to know about it in advance and know where they will be to pick it up, and understand the booking system. Never was there a service less fit for purpose!
We need our county council to do more to subsidise scheduled services – and i have copied this letter to the new Cabinet member for Transport, asking him to look at this. But we need more – we need all our elected representatives at all levels of government to join together to improve the status of public transport in Suffolk – indeed in all rural areas.
We fail to do so at our peril.