2019-20 Budget and Cuts Suffolk County Council’s 2019-20 budget was agreed on Thursday 14 February. This will see an increase in council tax of 3.99%, and savings across the council’s directorates totalling £10.1m.
A particularly concerning cut was 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). Fortunately, the CCGs 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 in 2019-20, 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 the 2019-20 financial year.
The budget also proposes staffing reductions across all directorates, totalling almost £3m. We do not currently have details of how these cuts will be distributed and which staff will be affected, but I am very concerned that this will result in less efficient services and an increase in stress amongst the remaining staff.
In terms of rural public transport, a triple whammy has occurred: the budget is saving £100,000 by not replacing any roadside timetables (catastrophic in a rural county with poor phone signal and a large elderly population); £30,000 by cutting subsidised scheduled services and providing Community Link services, while simultaneously and meretriciously “ensuring consistency of pricing through Suffolk” for Community Link provision by disallowing bus passes in all districts to save a paltry £34,000. Previously these passes were valid on Community Link transport everywhere but MidSuffolk.
These small savings will impact on the elderly, the disabled and the transport poor, as well as more generally on tourism. I suspect they will create considerably greater costs than they save.
New Suffolk County Council Leader and Chief Executive In May, the Conservative group leadership changed and Cllr Matthew Hicks became the new Leader of Suffolk County Council. Cllr Hicks brought with him a number of new Cabinet members and established cross party “Policy Development Panels” (time-limited groups tasked with looking at a particular issue or policy). There have been a number of these PDPs to date, and it has been a good opportunity for backbench and opposition councillors to be involved in policy decisions.
Towards the beginning of the municipal year Suffolk County Council also appointed a new Chief Executive. Nicola Beach joined the council from Essex County Council, where she was Executive Director of Infrastructure and Environment.
Changes to School Transport Policy Since September 2017, I and my group have been fighting against changes to the council’s School Transport Policy that would see numerous children losing free school transport. Despite two successful call-in attempts by my group and a lengthy delay to the policy change, it was finally agreed by Cabinet in July 2018.
The changes to the policy will be implemented in September 2019, and will see free school transport restricted to children who attend their nearest school only. Currently, children are also able to receive free school transport to their catchment schools, but this will no longer be an option under the new policy.
Although it is deeply disappointing that this change was made, I am glad that, through our consistent opposition to the policy, we were able to reduce the severity of the final policy change. The final policy that was agreed in July 2018 was much less damaging than the original proposal in September 2017. In particular, we were able to ensure that children who are currently attending a school will continue to receive free school transport until the end of their time at that school – thus reducing the upheaval and ensuring no child is forced to move schools in the middle of their education.
CPE and Yellow Lines Enforceable road markings are being refreshed across Suffolk in advance of CPE (Civil Parking Enforcement) – the transfer of the enforcement of on road parking from the police to the district councils. This process has been in operation for awhile.
The rationale for CPE is that it has become increasingly clear that adequate police enforcement of selfish and irresponsible parking across the region has not been possible due to the very limited number of feet on the ground.
Once parking has been decriminalized, enforcement can be put in the hands of district council ‘parking protection officers’ who will look much like the old traffic warden and can treat on street parking offences as firmly as they do those in the car parks.
However CPE cannot take place until every TRO (traffic regulation order) in Suffolk has been made watertight and enforceable. Thus it is essential that all regulatory road markings are made visible and correct. Which is why many hitherto invisible markings are now made visible. When all is in place the transfer of CPE to the new East Suffolk District Council will take place. New yellow lines recently noticed in Woodbridge are not new, they replace existing ones for existing TROs.
Many of the concerns that have been expressed are on aesthetic or heritage grounds. However there is an element of cherrypicking here. Our medieval heritage is often mentioned ! Medieval Woodbridge didn’t have tarmacked roads, let alone road signs or markings. Within living memory there was even two way traffic, including buses down the Thoroughfare.
The Thoroughfare TRO and Woodbridge 20mph and Associated Calming Change to the Thoroughfare TRO was decided by public consultation at the end of 2017. Woodbridge has since had to wait a year on account of the exigencies of CPE (above). However I have been working with highways officers since early this year, and in March was able to get their assurance that this project was now going ahead, funded with my Highways Budget (- at least to the tune of £28, 000 odd.)
As we know to the popular and sustainable Woodbridge 20mph and Associated Calming scheme failed to get CIL funding this year. However I have been talking to Transition Woodbridge about this, and I believe they may be looking to put forward a new CIL bid shortly. I hope the Town Council would continue with its support of this scheme too.
Sizewell C Consultation Suffolk County Council responded to the latest consultation, expressing reservations.
I also wrote , expressing my significant concerns about the impact of Sizewell C on the whole area, and also articulating my concerns about its impact on Woodbridge in particular. I copied my response to the Clerks of both Woodbridge and Martlesham councils. For non-councillors, my response is publicly available here. https://suffolklibdems.org/carolinepage/2019/04/02/sizewell-c-consultation-my-response/
Women In Suffolk Women are more than 50% of Suffolk’s population and the major users of council services, yet their interests are not necessarily much considered in policy making.
Following International Women’s Day I put in a motion at a full meeting of Suffolk County Council calling to improve outcomes for girls. The motion also called for more detailed data by gender. Suffolk has an embarrassing gender gap and much useful information is either not stored or not collated by sex – with potential disbenefit to both sexes. The motion recognised IWD ‘s #BalanceforBetter campaign
Unfortunately Suffolk’s administration while claiming they backed the principal of the motion – voted against it on the specious grounds that “positive discrimination” would not help – “establishing facts” has clearly been confused with “positive discrimination”.
Suffolk County Council currently has 29% women councillors, less than the 33% national average. The percentage of Conservative women councillors is smaller than the total average. This may also in part explain the reluctance of the Conservative administration to support my motion earlier in the year asking for £30,000 to help alleviate period poverty in all Suffolk schools. They voted it down. Luckily it turns out that central government is more enlightened.
Jetty Lane: Progress The proposed Jetty Lane Community Youth and Arts centre in Woodbridge is continuing to meet its development targets. In February the district planning committee voted unanimously to give permission to , and said some very complimentary things about the Jetty Lane plans and intentions. We couldn’t be better pleased. This is another real vote of confidence in the project
When the Woodbridge Community Youth Centre was pulled down in 2017, many 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. The County Council have such faith in the need for this project to have offered a 125y lease on the land. Jetty Lane was lucky enough to benefit from a CIL grant of £189,000. The cic is now converting to a charity and fundraising is beginning in earnest.
Challenge to Woodbridge Town Council’s audit 2017-18 – ongoing This has occupied a great deal of1 last year.
In brief, I made an objection (as any elector can do, whatever their status) within the legal period to certain points Woodbridge Town Council signed off as correct in their last year’s Annual Governance Statement, May 2018. You can see what the council asserted here : http://www.woodbridge-suffolk.gov.uk/assets/Town-Council/Finance/Annual-Return/Notice-of-audit-of-AGAR-17-18.pdf, page 2.
My concern was that – however mistakenly – Woodbridge Town Council did not follow their own financial regulations. In July I exercised the legal right that all electors have to examine the Council’s accounts (during a specified period) together with a politically independent accountant. As a result, I sent a list of objections to the external auditor and copied them to the Town Council on July 13.
Full details of my concerns –and the Council’s initial responses -are available from the Town Council.
I was finally able to obtain a meeting with the Town Clerk, a representative from SALC and a local resident (Ms Thompson, now a newly elected town councillor) on 14/1/19. We discussed the four questions that constitute my objection. (As you recall, I withdrew 5 of my original 6 objections, not because I felt they could not be sustained, but because either the sums were small, or I felt the intentions were good even if due process had not been followed). The SALC representative present discussed the various options open to the Council, including restating the AGAR.
Nothing we discussed in the meeting made me feel I could withdraw this final objection.
I subsequently attended a Town Council meeting on 12/2/19 at which councillors discussed a motion asking the external auditors for an adjudication on my objection to the council’s AGAR for 2017/18. No motion was proposed for them to restate their own AGAR.
OFSTED rates Suffolk SEND service inadequate after second inspection 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 and subsequent improvement notice issued in January 2017. Following their visit, they ruled Suffolk had not made sufficient progress to improve the serious weaknesses identified at the initial inspection and was not effectively meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND.
I am very concerned that the council’s SEND service needs to be dramatically and quickly improved. Along with the Labour group, we have called for an independent review to determine what needs to be done.
We have received assurances from the Cabinet member for Children’s Services that an oversight board will be set up imminently, made up of councillors from all parties, as well as CCG staff and user organisations.
Review into abandoned Upper Orwell Crossings project The Upper Orwell Crossings project in Ipswich was abandoned in January due to rising costs and fears the project would go well over the original budget. The county council attempted to find additional funding for the project but were unsuccessful.
Despite no building work having started, Suffolk County Council still spent over £8m on the project before it was abandoned, most of which was on consultants’ fees. In terms of some of the cuts that have been made in the budget – and their impact – this is an unimaginable amount to waste.
Nicola Beach (Chief Executive of Suffolk County Council) has confirmed that she will be undertaking a review of the project to determine what went wrong.
Suffolk Highways – new Cabinet member and Director appointed After a long search, Mark Ash was appointed as the new Director of Growth, Highways and Infrastructure in January. He joined Suffolk County Council in February, having previously been the Director of Waste and Environment at Essex County Council.
In addition, Cllr Mary Evans took over as Cabinet member for Highways in May 2018. Response times for pothole repairs do seem to have improved, and a new policy for repairing potholes has been implemented that should improve efficiency.
The Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group For the last year I have been Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent party. Our group promotes inclusivity by leadership change every year, so I have just proposed LibDem Penny Otton for Leader and Green Elfrede Brambley Crawshaw as deputy, and Andrew Stringer and I retire to the back benches.
We are therefore for the next year, a group led entirely by women and with the only group spokesperson for Women on it.
During the last year, my political group proposed a number of successful motions to council. These included:
-Developing a strategic, costed five-year cycling plan to improve investment in cycling infrastructure in the county;
– Committing to reducing single-use plastic waste in Suffolk;
– Declaring a climate emergency and pledging to make Suffolk carbon neutral by 2030.
We are proudest of this last, declaring a climate emergency in Suffolk , which was passed almost universally, cross party, with 1 against, and 1 abstention.