The Saturday after next I will be spending my usual morning at Woodbridge library, running my regular open-access surgery for Woodbridge residents. I’ve run this surgery every month for the last five years. It is supposed to be two hours long, but these days it’s closer to three, as the surgery is generally well-attended and I don’t leave until the last person has been seen.
In August, Rightmove published its annual report on the ‘happiest place’ to live in Britain – as identified by the residents *. Woodbridge scored 10th place nationwide – an amazing accolade for a town as small as ours.
Now, I don’t want to labour the point, but if your elected representative makes the effort to be available and to listen to your problems and ideas and tries to help with them, it must have a positive effect on the town’s happiness!
This weekend, I was in Hadleigh, whose County Councillor, Brian Riley (elected 2013) moved to North Carolina in early 2015 – but kept claiming his allowance and shamelessly told his constituents that he could be as good a Suffolk county councillor from the USA.
Mr Riley has now finally resigned shortly before being removed. He couldn’t even manage to maintain the minimum council attendance requirement for a councillor (one meeting every six months) and having left his constituents voiceless and without adequate county representation for 18 months. A private communication I had from him by email last month suggests he thinks this all a very fine state of affairs.
Before Brian Riley won the seat for the Conservatives (who have been strangely reluctant to criticise their former colleague’s shoddy behaviour to those he was elected to represent), Hadleigh was held for 24 years by LibDem David Grutchfield, who worked tirelessly for the town, and only stood down through extreme ill-health.
Maybe Hadleigh residents should ponder what it is that makes a town happy when they vote at the forthcoming by-election? They deserve so much more and better than what they have had in recent years
Though these last few weeks have been dominated by the national Referendum and the Norfolk and Suffolk Devolution debates, other things have – of course – been happening on the domestic front. The big issues in SCC have been a new plan for maintaining Suffolk’s Highways and the future of the Ipswich Park and Ride, not to mention the political stability of the Conservative administration, while locally,there has been continuing work to secure the future of the Woodbridge Youth Centre
A new Highway Maintenance Operational Plan SCC’s Cabinet has just approved Suffolk’s new Highway Maintenance Operational Plan.
Basically they had little option because the past Highways Maintenance plans have been a disaster, criticised by everyone, regardless of party affiliation. (And anyway, this Plan has been running (‘trialled’) without Cabinet consent since early May.)
The good news is that it concedes that the previous way of Highways Maintenance working was unwieldy and inefficient, as county, town and district councillors across Suffolk can testify. There will now be a much more unified and strategic way of working between SCC and contractors Kier to try and make things work more efficiently than they have (with clear matrices for action for all eventualities). This may mean that the Highways small schemes backlog may clear at long, long last.
The bad news is that the mantra of ‘you’ve got to pay the market price for the work you get’ is very much to the fore, so there is no suggestion of many highways schemes being affordable any more. (An example was given of how a simple Highways marking job where the paint cost £49 would be charged out at £1989.) Unfortunately this seems to be the inevitable result of a market driven solution. Small towns like Woodbridge will no longer be able to rely on their County Councillors’ Highways budgets. Currently these are half what they were at best (mine is £6660 this year). Yet jobs will be many times more expensive.
At the Cabinet meeting I asked whether this was not a case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’? That this newly designed Highways Maintenance Operational Plan (the second one in a year!) had been constructed to fit the contractor because the contractor had been unable to stick to the agreed plan?(This was loudly rejected – but with little evidence).
In particular I pointed out the anomaly of a private organisation uttering the ‘you’ve got to pay the market price for the work you get’ mantra whilst
having no competition to ensure that they are offering good value for money
charging for the time worked by SCC officers on projects (when these officers have already been paid by SCC) when billing councillors for these projects and
failing to recognise the principle of counter-charge that ought to apply when the contractor wastes the time of County Councillors – who they rely on heavily for advocacy and intermediary work.
Surely these charges must be reciprocal? I suggested. Surely a free market model will not be wholly accurate unless the councillors too have a market rate set against the work they do? For equity, a charge for councillors’ work ought to be introduced which could then be levied against excessive charges and the incompetence of the contractor. Why should local highways budgets suffer from inflated charges without any redress?
Naturally this is far too sensible and logical a suggestion to be accepted by the SCC administration, but I am recording it to ensure you are aware that the suggestion was made by me, in defence of local councillors’ highways budgets.
For the rest, we will have to wait to see how this will pan out.
SCC’s Conservative majority on a knife-edge After a Conservative Carlford win Suffolk County Council continues to be led by a technical minority administration, with the following political make-up:
Conservative 37 – Labour 15; LibDem 7; UKIP 10; Green 2; Independent 4 (eg a technical opposition of 38)
However, one of the Independents remains the notorious Hadleigh councillor, ex-Conservative Brian Reilly, who will insist on holding onto his council seat although disgracefully he has lived in North Carolina for a long time now. In Cllr Riley’s absence this makes the vote 37:37. On the rare occasions he graces the chamber with his presence, he votes with the Conservatives (this presumably being why they have been so reluctant to take constructive steps to get him removed).
Future of the Ipswich Park & Ride SCC’s administration’s plans to make the Park & Ride service self-supporting by getting the bus companies that operate alongside it to take over its services were looked at by the Suffolk CC’s Scrutiny committee who were not satisfied with what they saw and voted to send the plans back to Cabinet. These were reassessed and once again passed.
In a slightly rewritten proposal the ultimate future of the P&R will not hang immediately on the success of this scheme. If it fails, the plan will have to go back to Cabinet for reassessment before any thought of closure. However, Woodbridge and Martlesham residents will be concerned to discover there is as yet no clarity as to which First buses will be operating at the Martlesham end. This obviously makes a difference – both to the P&R service AND to the service it operates within.
(I had been told by officers very clearly that it would NOT be the Martlesham-terminating 66, but our less circuitous 63, 64, 65 will become Park and Ride buses. The Labour spokesperson has been equally clearly informed it will be the 66. I asked Cabinet Member James Finch for disambiguation at the previous Cabinet meeting. Unfortunately he had no idea whatsoever.)
I have been promised that once the scheme has been passed we will get confirmation as to which of these two options will be in operation.
I remain unsure how successfully this service will work. It seemed to me that the best way to make the P&R more income-generating would be to make it more responsive to unmet demand – and that would be to provide a good service for London commuters. This our local buses does not do.
Indeed at the moment I cannot see any very compelling reason why people should now drive to the P&R from Woodbridge rather than getting on the same bus in Woodbridge – especially as they will be able to use their bus passes in Woodbridge but will pay to sit on the same bus if they board it at the Park & Ride! We will wait and see as more details emerge.
A game of Tug of War with Suffolk in the middle? While other elections go on, Suffolk’s county Conservatives quietly continue to tear themselves asunder…
A couple of weeks ago came the news that Conservative councillor for Hadleigh, Brian Riley, planned to continue holding his seat as county councillor (and drawing his councillor’s allowance) from North Carolina. This was particularly galling to the Lib Dems as the Hadleigh seat had been occupied – and occupied well- for over twenty years by indefatigable LibDem councillor David Grutchfield, who only stood down at the last election due to ill health.
(It also suggests the pointlessness of a protest vote. People in Hadleigh who changed voting allegiance to show Nick Clegg a thing or two have rather cut off their own noses to spite their faces, haven’t they? Showed Nick Clegg a whole lot, haven’t you, folks? – and really really helped make sure you get your buses back and your old folk looked after and your schools and social care problems adequately looked at!
Well, its worth pointing out…)
NOW we have the news that Suffolk County Council Leader Mark Bee is standing down, after what has seemed from the outside rather like a year of overt and covert party infighting following the failed putsch of former New Strategic Direction cheerleaders Guy MacGregor and Colin Noble last April.
Was he pushed or has he left of his own free will?
Regardless of one’s political beliefs, Bee came in and steadied a very rocky boat in the wake of the Andrea Hill fiasco. And we may well wonder, in failing to support this decent and honourable man whether the Suffolk Conservative party are – yet again – prioritising party factions and personal ambitions over the needs of the county they are elected to represent!
The Conservatives are playing their cards close to their chest – but it looks like the battle will be between Colin Noble, hoping to be third time lucky, and Bee’s nomination, Jenny Antill.
Mrs Antill has degrees in Law and Russian Studies from London University and was an investment analyst in the City of London until she retired in 1999. She worked for a number of institutions, including James Capel, Merrill Lynch and Putnam Investments.
In public debates Colin Noble is fond of making reference to an 18.5% council tax rise raised by the Labour & Liberal Democrat administration in 2003. He never mentions whether it provided value for money. Maybe for him, that isn’t an issue. He is, however strangely silent on the subject of Suffolk Circle a “Pay-annual-subscription-to-get-a-good-neighbour-scheme” that Cllr Noble and his then Conservative Cabinet colleagues unilaterally decided to give just under £700,000 to, sight unseen, in camera, as a three year start-up – for reasons it is hard to understand, very much more recently. Based on the premise that every person over 50 in Suffolk was ‘old’ and neglecting to recognise the many many groups that provide similar services for free, even a person who did sums on eight fingers and two thumbs could see that Suffolk Circle, as a scheme, was doomed to financial failure. And indeed this baby was a baby which circled the plughole and sank without remark a year ago the moment that SCC’s seed funding ran out (and with ab-so-lute-ly total silence from Cllr Noble) -having cost every man woman and child in Suffolk – council tax payer or no – a little over a pound a head.
Next week’s winner? We wait and see. We, the people of Suffolk, will need persuading that we are not losers whichever way things pan out.
Caroline Page, LibDem County Councillor for Woodbridge