What’s been happening in December

“The local authority is a servant not a master, a truth which on occasions is too easily overlooked.” All local authorities, whether town, district or county, should remember Lord Justice Mumby’s maxim – and abide by it

Why you haven’t seen much of me Some of you many have wondered why you have seen less of me than usual over the last few weeks. The reason is that I have been off work recuperating after a major operation. This unfortunately has been complicated by my other underlying health conditions.

Additionally, my mother (for whom I have been a weekly carer for many years) died in late November. Her funeral was at the beginning of December.
I have missed attending some meetings and have had to cancel two of my regular monthly surgeries for the first time ever.

 

I will now be gradually returning to work – slowly at first – but expect to be functioning as normal in January 2019.

Challenge to Woodbridge Town Council’s audit 2017-18 – ongoing       This is a long tale and still continuing. I have yet to have any direct response from Woodbridge Town Council regarding my objection, five months ago, to certain points they signed off as correct in their last year’s Annual Governance Statement in May 2018. This governance statement (AGAR) is a formal legal obligation which is taken very seriously indeed. 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, after  concerns articulated on this blog had been dismissed by councillors in the rudest – nd least disciplined – full council meeting I have ever attended,  I exercised the legal right that all electors have to examine the Council’s accounts (during a specified period). 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 –were briefly on the Town Council site in early October but are now taken down. Apparently, they are available on application to the Town Council (for a small payment).

Unfortunately this has not been a subject the Town Council seems willing or able to engage with as a full council . I believe it has yet to be on the agenda for discussion at any full council meeting, although it is an issue that can only be decided BY the full town council. (And, as I said, the querying of one’s town’s annual audit is every resident’s legal right.)

Additionally, from the start, I noticed certain comments on my social media, made within a few days of my original objection – eg https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1776255192439524&id=100001651809340 and https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1766416283423415&substory_index=0&id=100001651809340 which in retrospect might suggest predetermination on behalf of some councillors NOT to want to engage with my objections.

One Councillor was very keen to explain that there were ‘items that would not benefit from being made public’. But not why. (And we need to know why: councillors are public servants, not masters!) Another councillor immediately started shroud-waving about a ‘very expensive’ re-audit – and this was before any councillors had been officially informed of any objections to the internal audit at all. It was almost as if an unofficial cabal  were aware of things that were  kept from other councillors…

Such attitudes are strange and disappointing. These also showcased extraordinary suggestions that any public examination of the town’s audit is slanderous and inferred that anyone doing so is not undertaking a democratic right legally advertised as available to every elector, but is somehow behaving improperly . It was almost as if the Town Council wished to deter any resident from doing so in the future.

It is hard to think of a more arrogant example of the tail thinking it existed to wag the dog!

The Town Council’s continued silence to me is even more disappointing, because the external auditors specifically recommend that there is dialogue between council and objector specifically in order to save public money. And also because I had made clear and specific suggestions in a formal letter back in September as to how to resolve this matter effectively and cheaply.

I am sure many people will be as puzzled as I am that Woodbridge Town Council is making such heavy weather of this matter, particularly as councillors’ decisions – or lack thereof – run a risk of costing the town (us!) significant sums of money.

I have therefore sent all town councillors the full set of letters and emails exchanged on this subject. As this is vital public information concerning the running of our town, I am also offering to share these with any Woodbridge resident who is interested.

Proposed Suffolk County budget cuts for 2019/20 On 22 November, Suffolk’s scrutiny committee discussed proposals for the 2019/20 budget. These will be finalised and presented to the Cabinet in January, before being debated by the full Council in February.

Council tax will increase by a total of 3.99% in 2019/20 – this will be made up of a 2.99% increase in general council tax and a final 1% increase for the Social Care Precept. The proposed “tactical savings” total £11.2m. These are spread across the Council’s directorates (as shown in the table below), with Growth, Highways and Infrastructure, Adult and Community Services, and Health, Wellbeing and Children’s Services seeing the greatest cuts.

  • Remove the full Citizens Advice Grant (however the Council have since announced that this will be phased in rather than immediate, with 50% of the grant being cut this year and the remaining 50% being cut in the 2020/21 budget)
  • Staffing reduction (totalling £3m) across all directorates
  • Reduce Housing Related Support and the provision of hostel beds
  • Negotiate care pricing
  • Stop displaying bus timetables at the roadside
  • Reduce spend on sponsored bus services
  • Reduce out-of-hours stand-by service and winter support fleet for Suffolk Highways
  • Stop road sign cleaning and only maintain mandatory road markings
  • Turn more streetlights off overnight
  • Cease accreditation of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme (the scheme will continue, however organisations will license themselves directly with the charity rather than through SCC)

As you can see, many (if not most) of these cuts will cause significant hardship to people in Suffolk.

Unfortunately, I have not been informed of the savings associated with each of the above proposals, and instead have only been told how much each directorate is expected to save in total. The final proposals, along with the savings associated with each of them, will not be made available until January.

U-turn on support for period poverty In October, a motion asking for a commitment of £15,000 in the budget to help tackle “period poverty” was unfortunately rejected by the County council on the grounds that it was not inclusive. My amendation to £30,000 to include all schools was rejected without appropriate reason.

However, the administration have since announced that they will be undertaking an audit of the services in Suffolk that are aimed at tackling period poverty, to identify gaps and assess how provision can be improved.

“I am cautiously hopeful that this review will result in proper support and funding for those wonderful voluntary organisations that are currently providing free sanitary products. They cannot provide that service all on their own, and a commitment of funding from Suffolk County Council will be vital to ensure we eradicate period poverty across the whole county.

Significant increase in insurance pay-outs for cars damaged by potholes Data published under Freedom of Information laws has shown that, between 1 January and 16 October this year, Suffolk Highways have already paid out £67,819.07 for vehicle damage (including insurance pay outs, costs and legal fees). This is a significant increase from the previous year, when pay-outs for the whole of 2017 totalled £26,004.63.

“The number of claims has also more than doubled, from 598 in 2017 to 1,265 so far in 2018.

Work on on Upper Orwell Crossings delayed Work on the Upper Orwell Crossings in Ipswich has been suspended since August 2018, due to concerns that the costs of the project were no longer sustainable.

In October, the administration announced that they would need an additional £43m of funding in order to continue with the project. It was agreed by Cabinet that officers and councillors would have until December to try and find this additional funding. However, this deadline has now been pushed back to January 2019. We are therefore expecting an announcement in the new year about the future of the project.

November report: what’s been happening in Woodbridge

Rocky Singh stands in for County Councillor Page to represent SCC at the Woodbridge centennial Armistice Day Parade and service. Photo: Charmian Berry

Apart from my own health,  last month my principal concerns  were to do with Broomheath, Woodbridge gritting, social care, period poverty  and the ongoing issue of my challenge to Woodbridge Town Council’s Annual Governance and Accountability report.

I am currently off work after a total knee replacement which has left me significantly incapacitated and still largely bedbound. I am not expecting to be able to work this month, but. I hope to be able to return in December.

As I was unable to attend the centenary Armistice Day parade, my place was taken by Mr Rockey Singh who has seen active service in a Commonwealth country.

I will regretfully be cancelling my November surgery.

Highways Improvement – SCC trials new approach to pothole repairs etc The county council established a Highways Improvement and Innovations Board in June which recently announced that Suffolk Highways will be piloting a new approach to prioritising pothole repairs over the winter, but only for those divisions served by the Ipswich Phoenix House depot. If successful, it will be rolled out to other depots.

The new approach will mean more potholes in a single area will be repaired together, and potholes of 200mm width will also be included.

The pilot aims to tackle more potholes at once, rather than later returning to the same area to repair nearby potholes. It will also aim to reduce the number of temporary repairs, which also have to be returned to at a later date. This should reduce the travelling time of maintenance crews, and result in more potholes being filled.

The Board looking into improving the coordination of road closures, reducing the number of roadworks which overrun, and exploring ways for Suffolk Highways to work closer with town and parish councils.

Broomheath resurfacing mystery However, I have had little luck in trying to establish why Broomheath was unexpectedly resurfaced without official notification over the summer.

I have had complaints raised by residents in other parts of Woodbridge, who were at a loss to understand why this no through road of no strategic importance was resurfaced quietly over the summer without apparent need, notice to local councillors, or public appetite – although many other roads and culs de sac in Woodbridge are overlooked. (I am thinking particularly of Naverne Meadows and Grove Gardens, where the need is high and public concern has been loud, protracted and prolonged).

I have found it hard to get any  information as to the whys and wherefores of this operation from Suffolk highways. After some weeks’ persistence, I received the following rather opaque remarks:

“Broomheath was resurfaced using TO15 traffic management, legally we are unable to close a no through road, so this traffic management allows us to delay traffic for up to 15 minutes whilst materials are laid on the ground. This is the safest way of working on site for resident and members of staff. This would have been the reason that you weren’t informed due to the fact that this was not a full road closure, however residents that were immediately affected received a letter from the team on site directly.. The previous resurfacing programmes were governed by formal condition surveys. This site was identified due to its condition and suitability for preventative treatment. Preventing pot holes forming is a far more cost effective approach to maintaining our asset, this is in keeping with national best practice”

I have to say I do not find the explanation compelling.

In fact the entire situation makes the county council look very bad indeed in the eyes of the people of Woodbridge. I have therefore put my concerns  in the hands of deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Highways, Mary Evans.

Woodbridge Gritting Scheme  Just before I went into hospital I reminded Highways of the requirements of the Woodbridge Gritting scheme, and told them that the Town Council should hold the lists of past volunteer gritters and the master list of bin sites. These names need to be confirmed annually to ensure the volunteers are covered by Highways insurance.

So far I have not had a request for funding for additional bins/equipment from Woodbridge town council, nor do I know if the volunteers have been contacted so far this year, or whether any call has been put out for new ones?

We have had some warning that this year might be colder than the last two, and the gritting scheme has been a very efficient way of enabling mobility and reducing falls among the older people of the town. I will not be able to do my regular mile of pavement this year for obvious reasons!

My Official objection to Woodbridge Town Council’s Annual Governance and Accountability Return 2017-18 As I reported at last Town Council meeting, I regretfully had to challenge WTC’s Annual Governance and Accountability Return on the grounds of some anomalies between what the town council declared had been done in 2017-18, and the actuality. Please note these are concerns about process, not about final figures, and they concern the Annual Governance Statement (AGAR) section1 that Woodbridge Town Council confirmed and signed on 15 May.

Although unfortunate, the external auditors are apparently not unused to small councils needing to amend their AGAR, and they confirm they can do so. All they require is for WoodbridgeTC to amend some of the incorrect assertions made in its response to section one of the AGAR (there are several, but most importantly, is failure to follow own financial regulations, included in eg statements 2 and 3 of Section 1) and to elucidate.

The 15th May AGAR statement was voted on by all attending councillors and signed on their behalf by the chair.

The cost of issuing a new letter is £40.00, according to the external auditor’s website. I mention this because the sum of £14,000 was being plucked out of the air and stated as fact by at least one councillor at the last Town Council meeting. It is very important to be accurate in these matters.

One of my formal roles as County Councillor is, as Community Leader, “to participate constructively in the good governance of the area” and “to act as an informal local scrutineer.” I continue to be surprised that Woodbridge Town Council should seem to be reluctant to put right what they know to be wrong, and demonstrate transparency to those they represent.

SCC refuses funding to help end period poverty On 18 October, my group were happy to support a Labour motion asking the county council for a budget commitment of £15,000 to help tackle “period poverty”. Many girls suffer and frequently miss school because they are unable to afford sanitary products. The motion therefore asked the Council to fund free sanitary products in all local authority maintained schools in Suffolk, which would encourage academies to implement similar measures.

Unfortunately, the Conservative administration once again amended the motion, removing all funding commitments. Their claim was that this was because the level of funding in the original motion was too small and unfairly favoured girls at maintained schools.

However, this claim did not hold water. I immediately put in a later amendment on behalf of my LDGI group which proposed increasing the funding commitment to a still notional £30,000 to include all schools in Suffolk. This was voted down by the Conservative majority without explanation.

New Home Care operating model At Cabinet on 9 October a new Home Care operating model was agreed. It was acknowledged that the previous model had not been a success and had caused unnecessary stress to both care providers and residents receiving home care. We were assured that “lessons had been learned” from this previous experience, and that greater care had been taken to develop the operating model in partnership with stakeholders.

I raised – here and later in full council – the problem of the combined impact of Suffolk’s free market housing policy (which is losing us our young people) and Brexit on care in Suffolk. Currently 1in 5 people are over 65. In twenty years it will be 1 in 3. Yet Suffolk hasn’t enough carers now. What will happen to people’s care needs, I asked? Substantive answer came there none.

After a call-in the model went to the Council’s Scrutiny Committee. However, the majority of the Scrutiny Committee voted to proceed with the new model rather than asking Cabinet to reconsider their decision.

Budget consultation and reduction in overspend  Suffolk County Council is currently consulting on the 2019/20 budget and is asking the public to share their ideas for potential savings. The consultation runs until 5pm on Friday 16 November, and can be found at: https://www.suffolk.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/consultations-petitions-and-elections/consultations/a-tough-call-to-make-budget-20192020/. We will get our first look at the 2019/20 budget proposals on Thursday 22 November, when they are presented to the Scrutiny Committee. I would encourage everyone to put in their suggestions and pass on this link.

At the end of Quarter 1 the council was predicting an overspend on the 2018/19 net budget of £8.6m. This prediction has now reduced, at the end of Quarter 2, to a £7.5m overspend. Although an improvement, it is unlikely that the overspend will be reduced completely by the end of the financial year, and the council will still need to make use of reserves to cover the funding gap.

School admissions consultation Suffolk County Council is consulting on its school admissions policy for 2020/21, available at: https://www.suffolk.gov.uk/children-families-and-learning/schools/school-places/consultation-on-admissions-to-schools-in-suffolk-for-the-20202021-school-year/. The consultation is open until 12 November 2018.

No significant changes are proposed for 2020/21. However, the council are also seeking views on potential future changes to the oversubscription criteria, in terms of the removal of catchment area priority. If they decide to progress with this change, there would be another consultation October 2019 and any changes would then apply from 2021/22.

Second Suffolk children’s home judged “inadequate” A children’s home run by Suffolk County Council has been judged “inadequate” by Ofsted, following an inspection on 3 October 2018. This is the second council-run children’s home to receive an inadequate rating in the past 2 months.

Ofsted expressed particular concern over unsafe behaviour management techniques used by staff in the home, and noted a significant increase in the number of physical interventions.

Council signs up to 100% nuclear energy deal  At the Council meeting on 18 October, members of my political group put forward a motion calling on the Council to recognise the benefits of renewable energy, commission a report into smart grids, and commit to ensuring at least 50% of the Council’s energy comes from renewable sources by 2025. Unfortunately, the Conservative administration amended the motion to remove any clear actions or targets.

It was also revealed that the Council have recently signed off on a 100% nuclear energy deal for the next three years, to commence in March 2019. This represents a major step backwards for Suffolk County Council, whose current energy contract includes 18.7% renewables.