All posts by Caroline Page

SUFFOLK: What’s been going ON, Feb-March 2019

Suffolk CC 2019/20 budget. Suffolk County Council’s 2019/20 budget was agreed on Thursday 14 February, voted in by the Conservative majority despite significant opposition concerns. This will see an increase in council tax of 3.99%, and savings (cuts) across the council’s directorates totalling £10.1m.

I am concerned by a number of these cuts, in particular:

  • The decision to remove all grant funding from Citizens Advice. This will be phased over two years, with a 50% reduction in the 2019/20 budget (£0.184m);
  • Reducing the amount spent on Housing Related Support, which supports those at risk of homelessness (£0.45m);
  • Reduced funding for sponsored bus services (£0.34m) and cessation of the provision of roadside bus timetables (£0.1m);
  • Reduction in highways maintenance, including no road sign cleaning (£0.1m), only maintaining mandatory road markings (£0.075m) and less frequent weed treatments in rural areas (£0.055m);
  • Staffing reductions across all directorates, which may result in less efficient services (£2.968m).

Suffolk CCGs to pick up Citizens Advice funding for 2019/20 As mentioned above, the budget includes a cut to the grant funding provided by Suffolk County Council to Citizens Advice. This grant will be cut by 50% in 2019/20 (£184,000) and removed entirely in the 2020/21 budget.

Thankfully, the CCGs have stepped in and agreed to provide Citizens Advice with £184,000 in funding this year, to make up for the 50% funding cut from Suffolk County Council. Although this means Citizens Advice will not lose funding this year, it does not address the longer-term problem of funding in the future. The CCGs have been clear that this funding is only available for 2019/20.

Reduction in Suffolk’s 2018/19 predicted overspend Suffolk County Council’s latest budget monitoring report suggests the 2018/19 budget will be overspent by £5.9m – an improvement on the overspend of £7.5m predicted after quarter 2.

The £5.9m overspend is 1.2% of the net budget and is made up of £3.8m on base budget and £2.1m on Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) spend.

Although it is positive to hear the overspend is reducing, I am concerned by where these savings are being achieved. The majority are due to ongoing staff vacancies at the council, particularly in social work teams. This is clearly not a long-term solution and is a dangerous false economy. Without adequate staff, the county council will struggle to properly and efficiently provide services in Suffolk.

Respublica report into housing costs Suffolk County Council £66,000. Last year Suffolk County Council commissioned the thinktank Respublica to undertake a study into housing growth in Suffolk at a cost of £66,000. The final report was published on 21 February. At just 14 pages long, it cost the authority almost £5000 per page and failed to discuss the issues in any great depth.

Ofsted inspectors conclude Suffolk’s SEND service is inadequate Inspectors from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) returned to Suffolk in January to see how SEND services had progressed since their inspection in December 2016.

Following that visit, inspectors ruled Suffolk was not effectively meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND.

In their report last week, the inspectors acknowledged that some improvements have been made, but say children and young people relying on SEND services have not yet felt the benefit.

The inspectors concluded that while sufficient progress had been made regarding governance and leadership of the strategic planning and delivery of the 2014 national SEND reforms, they ruled that insufficient progress had been made in the three other areas requiring improvement.

These were:
• the poor timeliness, integration and quality of SEND statutory assessments and plans and the delivery of subsequent individual packages of support
• the lack of understanding among parents and carers of the support available, and the inadequate quality of the local offer, including access to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), and
• lack of joint working to monitor, quality assure and maximise the effectiveness of work undertaken to improve outcomes for children.

Suffolk Free School Travel – new opt-in for funded transport Following changes to the school travel policy, which will take effect in September 2019, eligible families must now “opt-in” to receive free school transport – pupils will no longer be automatically signed up.

If a child is eligible for free transport, parents will need to apply this year and each subsequent year, even if they have never needed to apply in the past. The application window for this year is 1 March 2019 to 31 May 2019. There is more information available at www.suffolkonboard.com/optin.

I must emphasise that pupils’ eligibility for free travel is statutory, and restricted to under 8s living more than 2 miles and over 8s living more than 3 miles from their nearest school, together with some pupils eligible on grounds of disability, safety and special circumstances.

Jetty Lane Community Youth and Arts Centre gains planning permission At the end of February Suffolk Coastal District Council planning committee unanimously granted planning permission for the proposed Woodbridge Jetty Lane Community Youth and Arts Centre on 21 February. They have already awarded it £188,000 CIL funding.

When the previous Community Youth Centre was pulled down in 2017, many local groups were forced to move out of Woodbridge simply because there was nowhere to house them. The Jetty Lane site (Jetty Lane being the original name of The Avenue) – has been used uninterruptedly for Youth and Community clubs and meetings since 1949: that’s SEVENTY years! It is now the last site suitable for such a centre in Woodbridge, designed to serve the needs of the community in and around Woodbridge, designed to be sustainable, selfsupporting and affordable for community groups – and funded hopefully by charity bids.

The County Council have had such faith in the need for this project to have offered a 125y lease on the land at peppercorn rent. As Chair of Jetty Lane we are thrilled that the district council has demonstrated similar faith!

Suffolk is “Connecting Communities” even less

Rural concessionary bus pass holders are losing travel entitlement due to cheeseparing decisionmaking by our penny-foolish pound-foolish county council.

Harsh words? I will tell more. In recent years, where scheduled bus transport is not supported (and SCC has made a point of not supporting rural scheduled buses over the last decade), demand responsive transport (DRT) is provided instead. Initially bus pass holders had the same rights on DRT bus transport as they would have on the scheduled service. In 2016 this changed (You can read details here): http://carolinepage.blog.suffolk.libdems.org/2016/06/16/will-your-pass-be-accepted-on-sccs-new-community-transport

I was delighted at the time to discover that Suffolk Coastal bus pass holders together with most other districts would not lose entitlement, though very concerned that Mid-Suffolk bus pass holders would. I was also concerned that this loss of entitlement might spread. I was right!

Hidden in this year’s budget  (Appendix E p5 Table 1.3: Tactical Savings – Cost Reductions) is the following: COST-GHI-4 Passenger Transport: Removal of Concessionary Fares from Connecting Communitiesto ensure consistency of pricing through Suffolk.”

These are weasel words. “Consistency of pricing” could more fairly be achieved by restoring concessionary fares to Mid Suffolk than taking them away from everywhere else. This decision is expected to save £30,000. Less than half of what our fiscally prudent administration wasted on the recent 14pp ResPublica report on Housing. Talk about inappropriate priorities.

Put this together with the budget cut advertised on p7 of the same Appendix E (Table 1.6: Tactical Savings – Service Reductions): SER-GHI-12 Passenger Transport: Net savings achieved through a reduction in funding for sponsored bus services combined with an investment in the Connecting Communities demand-responsive community transport service) you can see the administration are creating a perfect storm for those least able to manage: the elderly and disabled with few other choices All to save another £34,000 – literally both sums added together are not equivalent to the money thrown down the gurgler for that 14pp Respublica report).

So why does this matter? The issue is one of equality. If you are unable to use your bus pass and are entitled to one, you can swap your entitlement for (I think) £100.00 of travel vouchers annually. This is useful if you are eg so disabled you cannot access buses, and therefore cannot make use of them.

However in the situation where a bus pass holder is not offered any local buses, they may be very enthusiastic users. This decision means such people have to choose between the vouchers for very local transport- and a bus pass that can be used on every scheduled bus service going throughout the UK, but not locally.

These two linked budget decisions therefore represent a huge loss specifically to elderly and disabled rural people with few transport choices  – either financially, or in terms of transport freedom.

Only an administration which has no understanding or reliance on a bus pass would have considered or enacted it…

Balance for Better: National Womens Day 2019

#BalanceforBetter – this years slogan for International Women’s Day.

Gender balance is essential for fair and thriving economies, businesses, communities. People need to recognise that achieving balance is not just a “Women’s issue”, it’s an issue for everyone. As the chinese say, 妇女能顶半边天 (fù nǚ néng dǐng bàn biān tiān: women hold up half the sky.)

Hold onto that half here – its a numbers game.

Suffolk is the home of women’s suffrage – yet 150 years after Millicent Fawcett started her first suffrage petition, a century after her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became Aldeburgh’s first Mayor, there are just 22 women councillors elected to Suffolk County Council. Women make up only 29% of Suffolk’s councillors (significantly below the already appalling 33% UK average). At the current rate of progress it’ll take 48 years for the UK to reach gender equality – and nearer 80 in Suffolk. Yet we women make up over half the population! And decisions affect us disproportionately.

Suffolk may have been the birthplace of women’s suffrage, of women’s higher education, of women’s independence – but modern Suffolk has a high gender pay gap, high levels of violence against women, and poor outcomes for girls.

A 2016 report by Plan International on the quality of life of girls across the UK – looking at child poverty, life expectancy, teenage pregnancy, GCSE results and NEET – highlighted Suffolk’s hidden need. Both Ipswich and Waveney were well in the lowest quartile for the UK, with Ipswich ranked 289th out of all 346 English & Welsh district councils. Yet both officers and councillors at Suffolk County Council were unaware of Suffolk’s poor performance. There is a problem with the way that data is gathered and analysed: Suffolk’s “gender data gap”.

The data gap is surprisingly prevalent . When asking the police about local statistics on domestic violence incidents, I was told they did not record the sex of the offender. When we worry about the impact of school transport changes, we don’t have the gender figures for parental impact. We do not know how many of the carers in the community may also be 50’s women with a vanishing pension age, how many non-driving bus users are women, how many lone parent families are headed by women.

As Caroline Criado Perez has recently discovered, the default of person, is man.

Applied to the “gender data gap” this default makes it harder to understand the impact that local and national policies – decided so substantially by men – have on the women and girls of Suffolk. It makes it hard to prove that both cuts and support are administered most appropriately. It makes it much less easy to improve outcomes for either.

Today let’s embrace #BalanceforBetter, and pledge to make a change, and challenge Suffolk’s “gender data gap! We women have nothing to lose but our statistical invisibility!