Suffolk Highways Contract debacle

Suffolk County Council’s poorly-thought through divestment of their highway services has hit the rocks. Ten weeks to D-day and there’s no plan B.   In an embarrassed press-release  Suffolk County Council last week announced an Update on the Suffolk Highways Contract Tender Process

“Following a period of extensive and constructive discussion with Balfour Beatty Living Places, Suffolk County Council has not been able to confirm and clarify commitments made to the point where it can provisionally award the contract. It has therefore been decided that the procurement process will revert to the previous stage where Suffolk County Council can liaise with any, or all, of the bidders who submitted final tenders (including Balfour Beatty Living Places), before again identifying a preferred bidder.”

So after a year of  negotiation in the pursuit of ideology, Suffolk’s planned divestment of  highway maintenance and improvement works, winter gritting, street lighting, traffic signals and bridge to a private company is back to square 1 – only ten weeks before D-Day (ironically,  April 1).  Serious egg on face time!

And why did this happen? Alas, the  release is remarkably short on detail.

Yet at the time the preferred bidder was chosen a few weeks back, SCC were positively expansive. “ There is a risk that the defined timetable slips and that the contract cannot commence on 1 April 2013, they said confidingly. “This is a key date. Many of our existing contracts expire on this date, as does the County Council’s agency agreement with Ipswich Borough Council (IBC) for the provision of highways services… The democratic approval processes and mobilisation period have been planned to avoid this eventuality . 

(But not, alas, sufficiently for this eventuality to be avoided)

Now, speaking as a person of average common-sense, I don’t think  that at that point I’d have have put a document into the public domain  which  alerted the business world to the fact SCC  was putting all its eggs into a single basket – and a basket with a loose handle at that! Its hard to negotiate when your head’s in a noose. Yet  SCC –  generally the first to withhold information on grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’ – went further,  and told the world of the associated risks in their planning:

..there is no “do nothing” option as from 1 April 2013. Current contracts expire on 31 March 2013 and will have reached their maximum term. Therefore a large part of the service would need to be re-procured, alongside seeking emergency extensions of existing contracts. This would present serious risks to service continuity, delivery and quality.  There is also a risk that any attempt to extend an existing contract, rather than to carry out a procurement exercise, might be challenged by other providers…


The LibDem and independent  group have asked SCC for speedy responses to the following questions as to this debacle

  • What happened since the Cabinet decision on the 11th Dec? What commitments weren’t confirmed, were they not outlined as part of the initial contract?
  • How much is it going to cost the County Council in interim arrangements?
  • What is the duration of the expected delay? When will the next preferred bidder be announced?
  • What is the impact on the staff at IBC now that the timetable has slipped?
  • What is the contingency plan now that contracts have reached their maximum term, will emergency extensions be required? What are the cost of these?
  • Do you envisage a serious risk to the continuity, delivery and quality of the highways service given this delay?
    and last, and possibly most importantly
  • Can SCC continue to be assured this way of proceeding is actually ‘best value’?

As yet we are not much the wiser – but it looks like interim arrangements will have to be made at least until September. And what happens in the meantime is -literally – anyone’s guess!
As a constituent of mine remarked, “This lot couldn’t organise a hen-party in a chicken farm!”


Votes at 16: true democracy

Last week Parliament made history by supporting the LibDem motion to give 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote .  At last. This is something we Lib Dems have been proposing since the last Millennium.

I can’t see why anyone finds this the slightest bit controversial. Surely if you are old enough to marry, join the army and to pay tax, you are old enough to vote on who can marry, when we fight and how much tax we pay?

Those  who argue that many young people ‘don’t know enough’ to vote, need only look around at their own peers.  No-one is making the case that people are ever too old to vote.

I’m certain that lowering the voting age would change politics for the better. If politicians have to appeal directly to 16 year olds as well as 46 and 66 year olds it will broaden their priorities.

Would the Suffolk Conservatives have scrapped the Explore young person’s travel card  two years ago  if the  cut impacted as fully on the ballot box as it did on young people’s lives?

I suspect not!

Demand Responsive Transport? – or none of the above

Looking at my Twitter feed this snowy Monday,  I noticed the following:

DRT cancellation (527x328)

In other words – Suffolk’s Demand Responsive Travel (DRT) was unable to supply any travel services in response to any public demand for transport  in East Suffolk today.

Of course, if you live in an area where there are real live scheduled bus services, these have continued to run, snow or no.  In Woodbridge for example, we had the opportunity to use the 164, 165, 63,64, 65 buses today,  to name but a few. It was only those poor people in the countryside whose scheduled bus services were slashed by Suffolk County Council to make way for the ‘limousine of services’ who were left high and dry.

The phrase ‘Demand Responsive Transport‘ is as much of a euphemism as  ‘Care in the Community‘  –  and similarly is best when used by people who don’t really need to use  it. It doesn’t operate on evenings or weekends or holidays. It doesn’t run to strict times – or indeed to time at all.

Now we see that it  doesn’t operate on work days – at least if there’s the ‘wrong sort of snow.’

DRT  is  fine for people who want to go somewhere and are not constrained too much by time – or date:  people who might book it to save the hassle of driving and parking their car for a spot of shopping.   However DRT services are not useful for those who have to rely on DRT services.  People in the countryside who have traditionally relied on the bus for regular transport (eg to work or college) are not supported, because DRT cannot be block-booked. (This is because our Demand Responsive transport is not designed to be responsive to the requirements of  regular demand for transport .  Can you think of anything more ridiculous in a rural county where 20% of households are carless? )

DRT is also poor for people needing to meet appointments (eg doctors, dentists, hospitals, lawyers, banks, CAB, hairdressers, physiotherapy – o the list is endless) because there is no guarantee the vehicle will arrive at the time required – or indeed that it can reliably  take the person home again afterwards.

If the designers of Suffolk’s DRT were reliant on it for their work, their health, their social life, would it operate as it does? Indeed, would it ever have come into being?

It would be nice to wave a magic wand and find out.