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?

SCC: where does their “Interest” lie?

 At their last Cabinet meeting SCC’s Tories revealed that they had underspent a total of £13.1m in the last financial year. Much of this money is going into the already large reserves (now standing at £158m).

Yes, you heard me right.

At a time of huge financial stress when we need to make best use of every penny, they quite unnecessarily took more than £13m from our hard-pressed services and entrusted it to the banks

They must be the last people left in the country who have any faith left in bankers.

And they put their trust in the banking system at a time when public money is desperately needed to support the local economy. When the community is reeling under the impact of lost public services .

The Conservative administration has told us they’ve cut these services because they were unaffordable. This is how they have justified the huge damage that they have inflicted on Suffolk’s public transport – by tellling us that  “you can’t spend a pound more than once,”(as the Cabinet member responsible has told us rather more than once).

Now it seems clear that the Cabinet just doesn’t want to spend some of these (our) pounds at all.

We live in a time where belt-tightening may be unavoidable, but it is clear that the Conservatives’ cutting has been overly-enthusiastic.  The money they have put into low-interest reserves could better be spent on restoring such valued and socially valuable services as the eXplore youth travel Card, our closed Household Waste Recycling Centres, the Bury Road Park and Ride, many axed bus routes, and those essential and valued walk-in Youth clubs (so useful for those who cannot afford subscription activities) as well as improving the bus pass conditions for Suffolk elderly and disabled.

These were all services that my colleagues and I argued to reinstate at Budget time, but it fell on deaf ears.  More than deaf ears – as I recall, the Leader suggested our budget had been ‘scribbled on the back of a fag packet.’

Better than on the front of a paying-in slip, Cllr Bee!

Suffolk County’s Conservatives would much rather invest our money in banks than in the people of Suffolk – preferring to build up capital than to build social capital.

 

No room for the next generation?

Recently I’ve been worried about  the Woodbridge Youth Centre  and all those who use it. And now I’m  sharing both information and my own concerns about this situation.

The Centre houses a number of spectacularly useful and important groups for young people, including Just 42 – the only open access youth group in 400 square miles of Suffolk Coastal;  provides  rehearsal room for the Company of 4,  offers meeting places for various groups;  and is the only place between Leiston and Felixstowe which can provide meeting space for children and young people in a safe, non-school setting. Already, the centre is used for  something like 170 different meetings a month of one sort and another.

However,  if you look at it cynically,  the Woodbridge Youth Centre’s  Kingston Field site is also one of the last pieces of prime development land in Woodbridge. My concerns were aroused when I was told that a three-year lease promised a year ago to one of the groups that used it had failed to materialise. I then discovered that decisions about the future of the WYC appeared to be occurring without any traceable reference to any elected member at County, District or Town level.

It was as if some of the council officers involved were acting as entrepreneurs rather than caretakers. And suspiciously as if they  had forgotten that they did not own the land, and were supposed to be administering the site on behalf of the people of Woodbridge. Having first raised the matter with the County Council  in May, I eventually got an email telling me that indeed, the group in question

 were offered a three year lease. However, it became apparent that there was a need to look at the bigger long-term future of the building and occupants following the start of the Our Place discussions… The intention is to continue to renew the annual licence, while the options are considered.

I didn’t think that this covered the issue completely, not least because I discovered that there seems to have been an unilateral decison made as to the  best usage of the site : the development of yet more sheltered housing for old people. ( As if there isn’t really quite a lot of this in Woodbridge already!). And because, after a whole year  this other (again unilateral) decision to downgrade a 3 year lease to an annual licence  had not been mentioned to anyone until I  started making a fuss. And because I have been representing Woodbridge since before the inception of the ‘Our Place’ scheme and I had never been party to any discussions on the subject!

I am therefore raising  the following wider concerns on behalf of the councillors and residents of Woodbridge:

a)  “it became apparent that there was a need to look at the bigger long-term future of the building and occupants”  As this sentence is in the passive  – a timehonoured way for bureaucrats to avoid telling anyone who said what, when and why to whom –  I have asked who it was to whom “it become apparent’?   I know, it was  not to me, nor to the building’s occupants, nor to the Town Council, nor to the residents of Woodbridge.

So far I have had no answer.

b) “There appears to be a lack of space in Woodbridge generally.” I have asked for this remark  to be disambiguated, so that everyone can be clear whose lack of space is being referred to.  Past conversations and emails suggest that it doesn’t refer to the young people of Woodbridge –  the group who really do lack space in Woodbridge. Rather it  refers to the amount of  sheltered, and care provision in Woodbridge. If this is the case, it is  not true.  There are already 660+ units offering such to the elderly people in Woodbridge – and that excludes those who prefer to live in  standard housing!
Just to remind you, there are 7500 people in Woodbridge, and because of the amount of sheltered housing  already,  3000 of these are in the ‘grandparent’ age group.  Many of these  have contacted me with concerns about the extreme lack of facilities there are for young people – particularly those people who grew up here and raised their own children in past decades!

c)  The email mentioned “the start of the Our Place discussions” ( which supposedly consist of ‘officers working alongside elected members to develop local service solutions‘.) Yet any discussions as to the “bigger long-term future‘  clearly took place without the presence or knowledge of me, and as far as I know, of any other elected member. The start of these particular Our Place discussuons must have occurred quite a long time ago, bearing in mind the lease has been witheld without any reason for a full year

In conclusion  – and because localism is about joint decision-making from the start – I have asked SCC  to approach no organisation with any proposition whatsoever  without having discussed in advance the various available options  for the site  with all the stakeholders.  That is – at the very least – myself (as County Councillor), the members of Woodbridge Town Council, the current occupants, and representatives of other youth stakeholders within Woodbridge.

I have shared my concerns with the town council, and they are very supportive, and I’ve convened a meeting of all the youth groups  this Friday.

We all need to make sure that our town’s youngest generation  does n’t get marginalised and forgotten. After all, they will be supporting us one day!