The Jetty Lane launch at the Table, Woodbridge: There were so many people attending, we had to have the speeches outsideA year ago Suffolk thought we had seen off devolution. At the end of this year, we are once again looking at proposals for change in many arenas. A lot of things have happened in Suffolk over the last 12 months. Here are some of the most important to people locally.
Leadership changes at Suffolk County Council Following the departure of Deborah Cadman, Suffolk County Council has appointed Nicola Beach (executive director of infrastructure and environment at Essex County Council) as new Chief Executive, She will start work this summer. This is not the only change. Cabinet Member for Environment, Public Protection and Broadband Matthew Hicks challenged the hard right leadership of the Conservative leader, Colin Noble, supported by head of Scrutiny, Mary Evans – and won. The personality of the leader of the council has a strong impact on how it is run.
Last May, my party joined with the Greens and Independents to create the Lib Dem Green and Independent Group on Suffolk County Council and I had the privilege to be appointed the first (and only) Group Spokesperson for Women in the county. The group has had a number of successes in this last year: opposing the School Transport changes, calling successfully for the abolition of single use plastics in Suffolk, exposing the council’s gender pay-gap and supporting an urgent review of the transition arrangements for WASPI women. At the recent LDGI group AGM I was elected Deputy Leader.
Ex -Suffolk CC Leader Colin Noble unilaterally commissioned (expensive) report on council change Ex-leader of Suffolk County Council, Cllr Noble unilaterally commissioned think-tank Respublica to look at unitary options to run Suffolk. This greatly angered Suffolk’s seven district and borough council leaders, two of whom (Waveney’s Mark Bee and Mid Suffolk’s Nick Gowrley) are also county councillors, because the decision was taken without consultation . They wrote an open letter distancing themselves from this decision. The review was costed around £70,000. It however appears now to be on hold.
Jetty Lane CiC takes off Having been awarded a 125 year lease by Suffolk County Council in December, fundraising has started in earnest for the Jetty Lane Community Youth and Arts Centre in Woodbridge. This will – as you know – provide facilities for the many local groups left homeless when the Woodbridge youth centre was pulled down last year. Apart from Just42, who currently are living in 2 shipping containers onsite, all other past users have failed to find suitable permanent accommodation in Woodbridge, because there is a clear lack of appropriate alternative facilities.
Jetty Lane directors gave up an entire week of the spring half-term to staff a public consultation at Woodbridge library to show the plans to the community and to get feedback. This showed once again the strength of support this project has from the people of the town.
The launch took place in April when the first bids for this exciting and sustainable heritage project went out.
Thoroughfare Solution? In late 2016 I regrouped the Thoroughfare Working Party to try and tackle the continuing issues of traffic in the Thoroughfare – balancing the needs of residents, visitors, traders, shoppers, pedestrians and (necessary) vehicle users. The aim was to try and find consensus to improve footfall and preserve the future of the Woodbridge Thoroughfare in all its aspects. There were two different issues with different enforcement needs (driving through and parking).Having come up with three workable potential solutions, the Thoroughfare Working Group held a public consultation on proposed changes to the Traffic Regulation Order in The Thoroughfare.
The results of this initial consultation showed that option 2b was the most popular (ie: No access at any time except permit holders and loading/unloading. This will include disabled drivers. This result has the backing of the Disability Action Suffolk Forum.) This would mean. The minimum lorry weight restriction will be removed. The new restrictions will be in force 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Parking will only be allowed in signed bays, which will be better marked. The signage both on the approach to the Thoroughfare, and in the road, will be much simpler and will show it as a pedestrian zone.
The next stage of the consultation will ensure that all those that may be affected by the proposed changes can have their say before we move to the final stage formal TRO consultation next year by Suffolk County Council.
I wish here to pay tribute to the late Tony Buckingham Woodbridge’s community engineer, who worked hard and productively with the group throughout the year , and who was working on the next stage when he sadly died tragically young earlier this year. His work was greatly appreciated and he will be greatly missed.
County Council Budget 2018-19 hits the most vulnerable Despite increasing council tax by 4.99% in 2018-19, Suffolk County Council will still be facing a budget gap and is responding with cuts of £23.9m. The majority of this will come from the Adult and Community Services budget, with an £11m cut achieved through “mitigation of care purchasing demand increases” and a £1m cut to the Sheltered Housing Grant. Other damaging cuts include reductions in funding to Citizens Advice and reduced subsidies for rural passenger transport, both of which impact most upon the most vulnerable.
Local Planning Development Controversies Various developments have been concerning local residents this year, not least because many are finding it harder and harder to afford to live in the town while most people are reporting driving and parking problems.
The two most egregious examples highlighted different problems: the infamous so-caĺled ‘Cheese Wedge’ development of the ex-Suffolk Coastal District Council offices showed that the district council planning department has a degree of power that has so far appeared to trump reasoned and strong objections from both County and Town Council, and many interested and well-qualified groups and individuals, as well as local opinion. The Woods Lane development showed how development outside the town – and about which residents could have no say – could impact heavily upon the town in order to build housing that was in no sense ‘affordable’.
An additional point: Woodbridge has recently agreed a 20mph zone and additional calming for the entire town. One of the principle rationales was the impact of heavy traffic on our medieval town and to discourage rat-running on the B1438 which separates the town from the riverside. The problems encountered during the Woods Lane diversion only underline why the scheme is needed. The scheme however needs funding. I would therefore urge SCDC and SCC Highways to work together, using development money earmarked for community benefit, to benefit that community most harmed by these works – ie Woodbridge itself.
Highways Operation It was recently reported that Suffolk County Council had repaired 6500 potholes since the start of the year. However, there are still a number of issues with the way Highways carry out their repairs, and this headline figure does not paint an accurate picture of the situation in Suffolk. In 2016 Suffolk’s administration agreed a new Highway Maintenance Operational Plan with contractors, Kier, and towards the end of 2016 extended their contract early – despite their record of appalling performance.
We were promised that this would result in a much more unified and strategic way of working between SCC and contractors Kier to try and make things work more efficiently, meaning that the Highways small schemes backlog – created solely by this administration’s ideologically driven decision to outsource the contract in the name of efficiency savings – would clear at long, long last. This has not occurred.
Indeed the design for Woodbridge’s 20mph and calming plan – which I asked for following its approval back in February 2017 – did not occur or even begin to get started over this entire year. Indeed they now seem to be endeavouring to forget that the decision has been made! Fortunately I put all the paperwork on my blog the moment the decision was made so that I am able to refer people there when they suggest they do not know, have access to, or remember details of the decision makingf.
The roads are currently worse than they have ever been, county and government funding is ever less, and the Highways team are currently struggling to keep up with the need for repairs across the county. They are therefore resorting to temporary repairs which are quicker to complete than permanent repairs. They have recently introduced a more expensive temporary material that is supposed to last slightly longer. However, these pothole repairs will undoubtedly need to be repeated in the coming months as the temporary material deteriorates. Whether this represents value for money for Suffolk residents is an important question.
Suffolk Highways have also stated that they are “blitzing” whole areas of the road at once, rather than making multiple trips to the same area. However, it is important to note that they are only ‘blitzing ‘ those potholes that meet their intervention criteria which means that the blitz might not look much like a blitz to the external eye..
Swallows Nesting Restored to Woodbridge Station After I put our residents’ concerns about the destruction of swallow nesting at Woodbridge station to Greater Anglia, the issue was taken up by BBC Radio Suffolk, the EADT and social media. And the company listened and took the matter seriously.
On March 19 Greater Anglia installed two RSPB clay swallow boxes at the very places where the swallows have traditionally nested.
County Councillor’s Surgery My regular monthly open access County Councillor’s surgery in the library, is now in its 8th year, continues to bring in more and more people from across an ever-wider sector of Suffolk Coastal. It is clear that residents would be grateful if their own county councillors held open-access monthly surgeries. Overwhelming issues are parking, speeding, road surfaces, and pedestrian problems. However I deal with problems as diverse as deportations, youth issues, special educational needs, disability needs, social care crises, homelessness, and charitable organisation support.
Locality Spending My Locality budget spending this year has covered such diverse grants as: new sessions for the New Horizons Lunch Club, a grant towards the defribrillator in Warwick Avenue, leafletting the entire town on behalf of both our local doctors’ surgeries’ PPGs on the benefits of Social Prescribing, in addition to a grant for preplanning work for the Jetty Lane Community Youth and Arts centre
My anuual report: highlighting some of the more important issues in Suffolk over the last year
SCC Leadership At the end of 2014-5 the Conservative administration of SCC hold the balance of power by a single vote. The current party composition is Conservative 38; Green 2; Independent 4; Labour 15; Liberal Democrat 7; UKIP 9.
At the beginning of April the leader of the Suffolk County Conservative party Mark Bee stood down and was replaced in an internal party election by Colin Noble, who had attempted to unseat him last year. This was, of course, far from an internal party matter, as it brought wide-ranging changes to the Cabinet (including the loss of highly intelligent -and numerate- Jenny Antill; sane and knowledgeable Alan Murray, and the bike- and bus- friendly Graham Newman). Cllr Noble was elected SCC Leader at the SCC Annual Meeting on May 21. A full slate of Tories voted for him, a rainbow coalition of the opposition – LibDem, Labour, Independent, Green and UKIP – voted against. This meant Cllr Noble was elected in, 37:31. No abstentions.
(For those new to Suffolk politics, Cllr Noble is former cheerleader of the ill-fated New Strategic Direction (which was going for a ‘virtual’ council with all its services divested), and the equally ill-fated Suffolk Circle.)
2015-16 budget Conservative budget proposals included savings of £38.2 m, leading to a budget requirement of £454,981,413. Reserves were forecast as reaching £165million by the end of March. Although this was opposed by opposition parties, who recommended dipping into the reserves to fund such things as transport to statutory education for the poorest over-16s, the administration’s budget was voted in, 37-31.
Home to school transport Central government has made changes to the age of statutory education, making it now compulsory to stay in education or training until one is 17 – and shortly 18. This is causing concern in Suffolk and having a particular impact on poorer students who have to travel to college, as Suffolk’s free home to school transport policy (as indeed the national home to school transport policy) only covers students up to 16 years old.
Over 16s can avail themselves of a discretionary – paid – option but it costs £540 a year. The SCC Administration say that the Endeavour card (offering 1/3 off available journeys by some operators) will cover the problem, and that there are Bursaries to help the needy. This is not proving to be an adequate response. While the government has made it mandatory for young people to remain in education or training until 17 it is a continuing concern that we have no funding mechanism in place to support the poorest young people of the county for this last year of what is now statutory education.
20mph and Other Speed limits The Transport Policy Development Panel -of which I have been a founder member – has established clear guidelines for 20mph and Other Speed Limit Criteria policies for Suffolk. Both of these were approved by Cabinet during past year. The new policies aim to ensure that appropriate speed limits are applied fairly, and transparently across the county while reflecting local concerns– and enabling local County Councillors to make representations on behalf of the communities they represent. Woodbridge is currently in the process of applying for a 20mph limit to calm local traffic.
Highways Maintenance Whilst there have been some successes – the resurfacing of Ipswich Road, Drybridge Hill, Warwick Avenue and Haugh Lane are notable examples – the divested highways maintenance under KMG has remained slow and inadequate – and -most particularly the minor works – increasingly expensive. There has been a backlog of County-Councillor-commissioned works that has only recently been tackled. This has been a universal problem and we have made strong representations. Another mild winter means that the gritting services have yet to be tested.
Sunday Bus Services From July last year, Woodbridge resumed a Sunday/Bank Holiday bus service, sponsored by SCC, allowing car-free travel between Woodbridge and Ipswich, including, importantly, the hospital. This was on a use-it-or-lose-it basis – three services a day till Christmas. It has now increased to 5 services a day and the route extended to Melton.
Other Bus Improvements I have been able to arrange the replacement of the ‘balancing poles’ at the Hamblin Road bus shelters with proper seating so that people are now able to sit and wait for their buses at long last. I have also arranged with Suffolk Onboard an the bus companies for two new bus stops on the Ipswich Road – above the Notcutts roundabout -so that people wanting to get to Framfield surgery and Clarkson Court will find it easier to use the bus services.
Care UK Serious concern was raised last autumn at the way Care Uk was running Suffolk care homes. The firm took over SCC’s 16 care homes in 2012 and is building 10 replacements. A CQC inspection found Mildenhall Lodge below standard in four of five categories while a safeguarding inspection raised concerns about another home, Asterbury Place. SCC Health Scrutiny looked at current arrangements for ensuring the quality of care in residential homes in Suffolk in October concluded that it was not fully satisfied that lessons had been learned from the findings of the recent CQC inspection of Mildenhall Lodge. Further, that the Committee was not yet satisfied that all the appropriate steps had been taken to improve the quality of care at the Suffolk homes run by Care UK. As I write new admissions to Mildenhall lodge remain suspended, nearly a year after the original concerns were raised.
Education Suffolk’s ten year slump in the education league tables seems finally to have been halted an to be turning around, but a recent Ofsted report suggests SCC has been “too slow” in reacting to areas of concern raised in last year’s hightly critical inspection – although it did say that “decisive improvements” had been made in areas of weakness identified in last year’s report.
Much of the strategy has been implemented too recently to impact substantially on pupils’ outcomes sd yet. Pupils’ attainment in Suffolk remains below average, particularly for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. As a result, 25,000 Suffolk children do not attend a ‘good’ primary or secondary school.
Customer Service Direct – CSD brought back in-house On 1 June SCC moved Customer Service Direct – back in-house. CSD, in which BT had a majority stake alongside the county and Mid Suffolk councils, handled SCC’s financial administration, IT, and personnel functions. The councils’ call centres were also operated by CSD .The cost of the contract was initially £301 million, but this increased to £427 million over 10 years as more functions were added to the service.
Woodbridge Fire and Police station merger After consultation Woodbridge police station was mergedwith the existing fire station , with the aim of allowing the services to work much more closely together and for the services to become even more cost effective. On 19th I welcomed councillors, police and fire officers to the station for an opening by the PCC and member for Public Protection.
County Councillor’s Surgeries I held 11 surgeries in the past year – on the 3rd Saturday of every month except August; 10-12 at Woodbridge Library. They have been popular and well-attended.
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.