Proposals to reduce eligibility for free school transport in Suffolk will adversely affect students 5-18 -and their families. The changes have the potential to bring hardship -especially in rural areas: loss of choice; a postcode lottery for places and courses; potentially the splitting of siblings between schools. It will also put a lot more cars on the roads round our schools -with preductable effects on speed, safety, airquality, and quality of life. Continue reading Reduction to free school transport entitlement: respond, or have no say
SCC’s cabinet has forced through a new Community Transport model for Suffolk– despite huge reservations from opposition parties and after many of these reservations were confirmed by the county’s cross-party scrutiny committee last month.
Community transport is the term for services like ‘Dial a Ride ‘ that provide transport on demand to those people no longer served by scheduled buses or trains.
And there are a lot of these isolated folk in Suffolk. The Conservative administration has increasingly replaced scheduled bus services in rural areas with community transport operating under various brands serving specific communities and specific user-groups. Their vehicles have been provided by the county and the services largely specified by county officers, but delivery of demand responsive services has remained patchy, disparate and problematic. Often people have had little idea of availability and there have been large areas of unmet need – particularly regarding young person’s travel , regular travel to employment, weekend and evening travel, and same day travel.
The new proposal sees seven contracts (one per district council) to ensure holistic district branding – so people could identify who to phone to book a journey. It would also allow for greater flexibility of provision . (However, people often travel from one district to another to visit the hospital or to shop in a major town).
The SCC-owned vehicles will be sold to the providers, a move that supposedly will allow a wider range of customers to be served. The voiced rationale is, when the county owns vehicles, providers are not allowed to use them to provide profitable services if they compete with commercial services., as that would involve the state subsidising one service to compete against another. It will also, obviously save the county a lot of money!
Suffolk County County – still in thrall to the ideology of impossible competition which has failed rural bus transport so comprehensively over the past thirty years – declares that this will allow ‘competition’ for eg some forms of home-to-school transport that will use the assets more intensively. (Why? Why now? Home-to school transport services have become steadily more expensive, and council-dependent ever since bus deregulation made competition mandatory outside London, thirty years ago. I would suggest this might just be because competition was not the answer!).
The proposal was ‘called in’ by the Labour group for several separate reasons. The call-in was supported by the LibDems , who thought thought the most significant objections to the scheme were financial.
For a start, the intention was that the county no longer provide free vehicles – saving it some £570k (which these largely voluntary bodies would have to find) – but also SCC would HALVE the community subsidy from £1.4m to £700k over the next four years. This enormous cut was supposed to be supported by the voluntary bodies’ increased revenue from the new ‘freedom’ to provide services ! (You may notice the same tired old rhetoric).
In fact, the scrutiny committee believed it was more likely that , although the providers would survive using their new freedoms and their vehicles to provide the county with some alternative sources of transport (for instance home to school services) others would definitely suffer. Many services to people without other transport options would be unlikely to be supported by the halving of the county contribution – and would therefore be cut.
And as the new contract is deliberately non-specific, the County could claim any such losses are matters outside its control. Talk about jesting Pilate.
Scrutiny therefore referred the decision back to cabinet. And, in a very brief process which allowed no comment from other councillors Suffolk’s Conservative Cabinet dismissed the reasoning of the cross-party scrutiny committee and decided there would be no change to this worrying decision.
They looked at scrutiny and thought, “Nobody tells us what to do!” So much for democracy! So much for ‘holding to account.’
You may remember that I tabled a question on the increasingly poor rural bus services at July’s Full Council and promised to post the answer when I got it.
My question was
Caroline Page to Cabinet Member for Roads and Transport (Graham Newman): “Public transport is an essential part of supporting the welfare of the county, particularly in rural areas. It is coming under increasing pressure and is failing to meet the needs at the time when Suffolk needs it most. When is Cllr Newman going to pressure national government to alter the ridiculous ethos of so-called ‘competition’ which has caused deregulated buses to provide such a terrible service to the people of the Suffolk countryside, over the past decades?”
Cllr Newman’s response was: “I’m a strong supporter of public transport services in Suffolk. I wish to see more effective coordination of services. The government clearly set out its position in March 2012, in its full response to the competition commission report; ‘Local Bus Service Market Investigation’.
I believe the focus of our efforts should now be on working with the commercial sector to improve the availability and the affordability of transport, particularly to support young people to continue to learn and take their first steps into employment. I therefore welcome the cooperation of the commercial sector in developing our new ‘Endeavour Card’ for young people, and hope that we can build on this relationship to further improve services without unaffordable financial support, in this county council.
As Cllr Page will know*, we are meeting with Therese Coffey MP, to discuss these very issues, and indeed I have previously discussed them informally with Dr. Coffey.”
* Caroline Page: This last was actually news to me – though very welcome news, particularly as Dr Coffey has not so far answered the specific points I raised with her in June concerning this subject, although she has replied to my letter.
You can find the answers to the other Lib Dem councillors’ questions here – that is, to two of them. Very unfortunately my colleague John Field’s pertinent concerns on potential carcinogens was lost in transit – although submitted correctly, and acknowledged as such by the Suffolk County Council Monitoring Officer. It disappeared from the Full Council agenda and therefore was neither asked nor answered