Suffolk’s Budget 2016-17: “Its mine it is and I wants it”

z79wxCutting and hoarding – the miser approach?  This year Suffolk County Council demonstrated its usual Gollum attitude to public money – inflicting impossible damage to vital services by slashing comparatively small sums while sitting on a hoard that it doesn’t want to disgorge.

Its mine it is, and I wants it.”

At SCC’s budget setting meeting of 11 February  it was cuts all the way. To community transport funding, to Park and Ride funding,  to the Fire services,  to Library stock, to  County Councillors’ locality budgets… the list goes on and on

There is no such thing as a free lunch“, announced the Cabinet Member  for Finance, shortly after devouring one.  And then started announcing ‘the  realities’ of austerity – and ignoring  the equal reality of the vast sums this administration keep hiding under their mattress, though they were given it in trust to spend on our behalf.

The cuts  (there is no point calling them efficiency savings) amount to £34.4m –  leading to a budget requirement of £445,659,553.  With all these cuts the budget will still  increase council tax by 2% – though in a figleaf to the administration’s electoral promise to freeze council tax for the entire electoral period this is worded as “”The budget is based on a freeze… but includes a 2% precept to fund Adult Social Care…”. What is it that George Orwell said about political language? That it was designed to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”?

Unsurprisingly on the day of the budget councillors were told the Conservative administration had ‘found’ more money at the last moment – a Transitional Grant of £1.9m  and an extra £1.6 million from the Rural Services Delivery Grant. This money goes specifically  to Suffolk on its ‘super-sparsity indicator'( because of “additional rural costs… including the small size of rural councils, scattered and remote populations, lack of private sector providers, and poor broadband and mobile coverage”)  Predictably,  the Tory administration decided to bank this little windfall (under their rule our county’s piggybank of  reserves have increased by £100m to c£170m in 5 years)  instead of ameliorating a single cut.

Face it, Suffolk residents – you have the administration you voted in.

You have also the budget that 35 Conservative councillors and the ex-Conservative Councillor for Hadleigh , North Carolina resident Brian Riley voted for. ( Cllr Riley sent his apologies for important statutory councillor training on Child Exploitation earlier in the week. He had no difficulty in flying in from America to vote to impose these cuts on his constituents at the behest of his previous party on Thursday. Hadleigh residents who voted for Riley ‘to give Clegg a bloody nose‘ – how is that one working out for you?).

The total cohort of Suffolk County councillors amounts to 75.

The Lib Dems supported  a Labour amendment that tried to ameliorate – indeed turn back – the cuts. They were joined in cross-party unity with the Greens, the Independents and even UKIP. It was a tight vote but the administration squeezed through. The Labour amendment was lost 32-36. The Conservatives won their budget 36-27.

My own speech referred to the transport cuts :

The cuts to Community Transport , Park and Ride and Passenger Transport budgets amount to £750,000.  That’s a £1 for every man woman and child in Suffolk. Not a large sum, you might say? Certainly small enough for Suffolk to lose without comment from the administration on the failed Suffolk Circle scheme, which closed so quietly in 2014. Remember that, Cllr Noble?

However these cuts are likely to be catastrophic to the services affected, to the roll-out of the new look Community Transport , now tasked with doing so much more for so many more  with so much less; to those who can’t look up timetables on smartphones and laptops as the loss of printed timetables requires because they simply don’t have the smartphones and laptops (and many older bus users don’t have!)  and most of all  -because possibly fatal – for the park & ride service.

Today I travelled on the park and ride route – 45 mins to Ipswich stuck in a jam of single occupancy cars on the Kesgrave road. There’s no denying this service is desperately needed. Its arguably not well  enough promoted. Arguably the  charging policy may need review. But its need is unarguable. Indeed, instead of cutting this funding,  I’d argue we need to refund and bring back the Bury Road Park and Ride the Tories cut so disastrously a year or two ago.  Park and Ride loss  will mean a huge loss of amenity for out-of- Ipswich residents: city centre access, railway access, hospital access, Suffolk 1 access.

I’d also argue that all cuts  to the public transport budget particularly when  over £2m Rural Services Delivery Grant money was specifically allocated  to Suffolk on its super sparsity indicator  – that is   specifically to help us with  issues such as our scattered and remote population – are an exercise of power without responsibility: an inability of the administration to recognise the unintended consequences of these cuts.

Yes, this is a time of austerity and we must all get real. SO lets talk the reality of reality. And at a time of austerity we have a duty to support those people who are suffering most from the impact of austerity. Efficient reliable public transport underpins education, employment, training, access to health and social care.  Of course I support Labour’s amendment!

Disability and education in Suffolk – the costs and hidden costs

The first tranche of Suffolk’s  review of its special educational provision – the consultation  -finished last Sunday. I responded jointly as councillor and as parent as the form allowed.

We were told that the review was  focusing on the following three types of current specialist educational provision:
1) Specialist Support Centres (SSCs) (I am in favour, indeed I would like Suffolk to establish another one in the north west of the county); 2) Residential provision in Moderate Learning Disability (MLD) Special Schools (I felt this  needed  discussion with parents as best placed to define wants) and
3) 
Alternative Provision (AP). Alternative Provision was used in the consultation as a catch-all for  ‘any provision that provides education that is not a mainstream school or academy’. It includes all provision for young people with specialist health issues, for example autism, and epilepsy which is  often provided out of county at great expense (and now to age 25 because of recent legislation). AP was also used to include  PRUs (Pupil Referral Units): facilities offering a part time or full time education for pupils who exhibit challenging behaviour. Typically pupils spend 2 terms in a PRU before being reintegrated back into school.

We were told

Currently the county council is experiencing considerable pressures with the number of learners with additional needs (236 currently) needing to be educated in non – Suffolk settings, with learners requiring access to Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) provision accounting for 151 of the 236 learners

However, in the consultation, despite these remarks on the cost of out-of-county placements in general the AP question  focused entirely on PRUs (see below)!

The third question - on Alternative Provision (that is, ) only mentioned PRUs!)
The third question of three- on Alternative Provision – only mentioned Pupil Referral Units!)

Now, as regards PRUs, I would not throw the baby away with the bathwater and would definitely ensure that  excellent provision in Suffolk is not lost in any rationalisation we undertake, and I was happy to respond saying as much.

HOWEVER, I concentrated most of my response on the hidden question  of what Suffolk is doing, or rather not doing, for students – like my own child – who was fortunate enough eventually to be sent out of Suffolk because Suffolk SEND education so completely failed to provide an education for them (despite costly but unstructured, unquantified and unthought-out  ‘interventions’ ).

This is not because of my personal interest but because of my understanding of the cost involved on the one hand, and the reasons for the cost on the  other.

SEND covers a hugely wide range of conditions; individual schools  seem to provide pretty much what education they choose to these (clearly second-class) pupils and SCC, the statutory authority for education and social care, often has to pick up the costly pieces of their cherry-picking failure. Why should this be the case?

Looking at this SEND consultation it seems that there may be a tendency to view the cost of premises and salaries as where cost-savings and rationalisation could be made.  I therefore urged SCC to look at the often inappropriate delivery of SEND education itself.

For a start , why should (as ever) the needs of young people with social and behavioural problems be asked to conflict with those with health issues and cognitive deficits?

As  example, my own child with a physical disability  was educated away from her peers  in a unit along with those with anger issues and other behavioural problems. Why?  You tell me.  Seemingly for the same reason as her current education establishment  (a specialist college outside Suffolk dedicated to her medical  condition)  is conflated with PRUs  in the reply box for this consultation.

(And even then, PRUs who educate short-term those who can be reintegrated into mainstream school are given the whole of Box 3 in a 3 box consultation document supposedly dealing globally with educational provision for Special Educational Needs and Disability. The disabled once again become second-rate citizens?  You couldn’t make it up). It is neither fair or reasonable to either group.

So, redressing the balance and talking specifically about educating specifically disabled young people – Suffolk’s  continuing failure  in  the field of SEND teaching and  curriculum delivery is expensive and an essential part of our problem. It is an area that this consultation document seemed reluctant to address.

Let us not beat about the bush – I’ve heard stories of parents who treat SEND provision as if it were ‘childcare’ but I would contend that there is a lot of Suffolk SEND provision that is arguably little better than childcare: with ‘educators’  seeing little responsibility for the future of their students; setting challenges that do not challenge and awarding gold stars and pats on the head instead of a  robust and rigorously constructed syllabus looking realistically towards their future after education.

SEND education – if it is NOT to be childcare – should be looking at the longterm future of the pupil. If it is to be effective and cost-effective , it should explore possibilities of independence, expect  the possibility of paid employment, work for realistic integration with employers’ needs , not be dismissive and patronising of pupils’ potential,  skills, capacities. ( Here, the  education, employment and discrimination sections of this blog post (click for link) although epilepsy-specific, have universal relevence.   Suffolk produced a strategy document 2015-18  last October. But non-specific optimism  is no good without teeth and this was toothless. Just like Suffolk’s current  Inclusion and Equalities strategy which completely excludes having to contemplate the situation of all the disabled people in Suffolk  and their inability to find work because they have not received adequate or even appropriate training or education  (see link). Disabled people and their problems seem remarkably invisible to the policymakers of Suffolk).

Yet not educating, or mis-educating these young people  is at the short- and long-term expense of the taxpayer as well as the young person.  And failure to address the need  of provision in-county has greater ramifications now we have a statutory duty to provide to age 25. We have an absolute need to question and query and qualitatively analyse the outcome  of what is taught to young people with disabilities in the same way as we assess and monitor mainstream provision.

Will Suffolk now improve the SEND offer so that disabled young people can expect the same quality and monitoring of  education  as their able-bodied peers get by right?  Not, you might say, a very big ask.  And a damn sight cheaper ask then sending them out of county, like nineteenth century black sheep to the colonies.

We wait for the next stage of the consultation to see whether these issues have been taken on board.