Here is the annual report I gave yesterday to Woodbridge Town Council’s AGM, highlighting some aspects of the running of Suffolk County Council over the last year that people may find of interest:
Electoral makeup of Suffolk County Council 2013-4 The electoral year 2013-4 started with a newly elected county council, which brought significant changes in the dynamics of SCC. The Conservative group retained their overall majority, but it was reduced from 35 to 3. The political make-up of the council has been: Conservative 39; Labour 15; UKIP 9. Liberal Democrat 7; Green 2; Independent 3.
I was re-elected for a third term, retaining my place as ViceChair of the Education Transport Appeals committee. I have continued as LibDem spokesman for Transport and Highways.
There has been a welcome improvement in the democratic process in this year, with the establishment of cross-party Policy Development Panels to look at areas of concern in all directorates. I have been sitting on various panels to do with transport: so far 20mph Speed Limits, Other Speed Limits; Rural Transport
Budget 2014 There was a further reduction in Government grants to the County Council this year requiring £38.6m of spending cuts across most services. SCC once again took advantage of central government’s council tax freeze deal – which provides central funding for all those councils NOT raising council tax.
My party was concerned – most particularly with Adult and Continuing Services – that apparent efficiencies are masking significant service cutbacks, and that any budget cuts made in Childrens and Young Peoples’ services might impact on the chances of improving performance. The future of Suffolk depends on the aspirations of its young people.
Gains will finally be made by moving Customer Service Direct back in-house but a hard lesson has been learned here. Proof, if proof was needed that outsourcing services doesn’t always make savings and is not always best.
Outsourcing of Highways Services to Keir MG In October 2013, SCC finally managed the long-anticipated outsourcing of Highways services to an external company – Kier MG – after the debacle earlier in the year where the arrangements for the procurement of a prior preferred bidder fell apart literally at the last moment.
The new highways contract to with Kier MG started on the 1st of October. I think it is fair to say there have been significant teething troubles in the first months: extraordinary delays and a hefty increase in costing for Councillor-funded projects. I am on the Councillor Working Group which meets with Keir MG representatives and SCC officers to improve information, and have not been backward in bringing local concerns for improving information.
Raising the Bar in Suffolk Schools At the end of 2013 SCC adopted findings of a 10 month independent inquiry into school performance in Suffolk as part of the ‘Raising the bar’ initiative. These include working harder to attract and retain talented teachers, having an awards programme to recognise excellence in teaching, working with governors to improve the management of schools – and building a partnership with the London borough of Hackney which has seen its educational standards improve dramatically over recent years.
Although in Woodbridge, the schools are doing well (Farlingaye was recently rated outstanding in all areas by Ofsted), Suffolk was rated 148th out of 151 councils at primary level, 141st out of 151 at secondary level. Eight years ago, Suffolk schools were rated as being in the top thirties.
Public Health Public Health Suffolk moved to Suffolk County Council on 1st April 2013 and commissions a range of services for all Suffolk residents, notably adult and child obesity, smoking cessation and sexual health. Before this date these services were commissioned by the NHS. Over year Public Health Suffolk has been assessing services across Suffolk to ensure equity of provision in all areas.
I still have concerns that no efficient, central accessible sexual health clinic has yet been found to replace that which closed at Ipswich Hospital . The recent move to buildings in the old Holywells site has done nothing to provide services that are accessible to the young people of Woodbridge, reliant on public transport. Holywells is less accessible than Ipswich Hospital!
Suffolk Circle In March 2014 Suffolk Circle folded and SCC quietly wrote off nearly a million pounds of our money. In 2010 SCC’s Cabinet unilaterally decided to give just under £800,000 sight unseen to a company called Participle to produce a good neighbour by subscription scheme based on Southwark Circle, in London.
The notion was ‘spun’ as long-term assistance to the council’s social care budget by supporting the vulnerable elderly. But as the Circle defined ‘the elderly’ as anyone aged over 50, this included over a third of Suffolk’s population! An extra £100,000 spent by SCC on a ‘scoping exercise’ failed to identify the large number of pre-existing interest groups and services for both the over-50s and the ‘frail elderly’ that were already operating in Suffolk
Suffolk Circle’s target membership was supposed to be 1630 members by March 2013 and 3500 by March 2014, when the funding finished and the scheme was supposed soar onwards without it.
As it was, Suffolk Circle ground to a halt in March the moment the money ran out, admitting it had achieved no more than 2000 members in its entire existence. Southwark Circle folded in the same month.
I will be raising the issue of the necessity for accountability and responsibility for this money – especially at a time of such pressing need.
Challenge to SCC Leadership At the end of the year, a challenge to Conservative Leader Mark Bee for the leadership of the SCC by Colin Noble Cabinet Member for Finance, failed. A challenge by ex Cabinet Member for Transport and then Chairman Guy McGregor to Deputy Leader Lisa Chambers also failed. The Cabinet reorganisation that followed this has removed three very longstanding supporters of Andrea Hill’s New Strategic Direction to the backbenches.
Further loss of local buses This year has seen the loss of the 164 and 165 services to Woodbridge (indeed to Suffolk Coastal), the diminution of several other services (most particularly the 63 to Framlingham now restricted to 4 daily buses on working Mondays to Fridays with one additional bus on schooldays). This means there is no bus link whatsoever between Ipswich/Martlesham/Woodbridge and Framlingham on a Saturday.
I wrote to our local MP, and to the County council, asking if they could use their influence to try and change some of these decisions at a local level. (This appears to have had some effect, as there has been a slightly better service on the 64 and 65 since then).
I have also asked SCC to use its voice to press to alter – at national level – the ridiculous ethos of so-called competition which has caused deregulated buses to provide such a terrible service in the countryside. In the past County Councils ran bus services on the basis that popular routes could subsidise essential routes with smaller passenger numbers. I have sympathy with Councils that see no reason to subsidise only loss-making services. The loss of the 165 shows us on what a tightrope the services run. Yet rural services are not a frivolous luxury – they can make the difference between productive employment and training and expensive enforced idleness.
I have pressed it also to ask the government to look at the frankly unfair differentials in per capita spending on public transport across the country. Each Londoner gets about three times as much spent on them as each person in Suffolk despite the huge economies of scale London offers – and London buses aren’t deregulated. Why should our constituents be worth any less?
Your County Councillor In May, to celebrate my re-election, I walked with the Woodbridge and district youth group Just 42 Fund-raiser Julia Hancock from Felixstowe to Lowestoft. Between us we raised £2500 for the charity.
Road budget I have used some of my highways budget this year in calming Sandy Lane: pedestrian and cyclist warning signs at each end and at the railway bridge, and white edge markings throughout. These also give warning of the road edge at night which is very useful, particularly to cyclists on this route, part of Sustrans cycle route 1.
I have also had some road signs put up, most notably to prevent lorries trying to use St Johns Hill as an unsuccessful rat run!
Locality budget This has been used to support projects as diverse as the Summer Reading Challenge; Benches, Trophy for Best Allotment Competition Seckford Explorers Unit flag, Grit Bins, High Vis Jackets, Wheelbarrows and Snow Shovels, Mobile ice rink, Chairs for Bowls clubhouse, and a Wireless Projector for HomeStart.
Surgeries I have held 10 County Council Surgeries over the last year, on the 3rd Saturday of every month (excluding March and August). They continue to be well-attended.