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.
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.
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.