Suffolk LibDems in cross-party call-in of ‘undemocratic’ school transport cuts

LibDem questions to Cabinet

Update: The Call-in was successful! The decision will now be scrutinised  by SCC’s Scrutiny Committee on 9 July, who will investigate the quality and reliability of the financial modelling; whether the Cabinet were fully aware of the actual role played by the Consultation Institute , and whether enough weight was given to the negative experience of EssexCC when they attempted the same policy.

Suffolk’After Suffolk  County Council’s Cabinet  voted  unanimously  for undemocratic cuts to school transport changes, – ‘the option that nobody wanted,’ your LibDem Councillors  (Leader and Transport Spokesperson, Caroline Page and  LDGI Education Spokesperson Penny Otton ) are part of a cross-party opposition  attempt to  ‘call in’ (that is, challenge) the  decision. Both  councillors (and especially Penny Otton  as ‘councillor on the ground’ for Thurston)have been very vocal on the subject

If the ‘call in’ is accepted, this means  the decision will not go  ahead until SCC’s scrutiny  committee  examines it fully.

The call-in was cross party, as was the  unanimity of focus of the opposition questioning on Tuesday . Concerns focused the grounds whereby Cabinet discussed only the unpopular Option 2 (phased change) instead of the universally popular Option 3 (best described as ‘leave well alone.’) Lib Dem, Green and Labour questioning was forceful and forensic and took – literally – hours.

LibDem Leader Caroline Page queried the administration’s terms of reference. Was Suffolk’s offer genuinely “more generous” than the government minimum, when the government minimum covered urban and rural students  indiscriminately, she asked? City students do not have 3 mile walks to their catchment school: city schools are closer and public transport is plentiful and cheap.

We were told how expensive our spend was- over £100 a student head as opposed to Salford’s £2. However, as Caroline pointed out,  Salford has a total area of 8 sq miles, and it would be almost  impossible for a child to live more than 3 miles from their local school! Suffolk, in comparison, has an area of 1466sq miles,  “Are you not comparing apples and pears, in order to justify hard-to-justify decisionmaking?” she asked.

Cllr Page also asked why there was no Traffic Impact Assessment for the county – and while the very limited (Thurston area only) TIA failed to consider issues such as pollution and air quality? (Answer: too expensive/work in progress.)  And, as over 70% of  consultation respondents were women , and LG cuts disproportionally affect women,  whether Cabinet  could be genuinely satisfied that the IA’s conclusion that “impact on women would be minimised by phasing in the changes”, fully addressed the  actual impact these changes would have on  women. Ominously  – but unsurprisingly -this question was not answered at all.

Penny Otton thanked Thurston school for their months of hard work. She also  asked Cllr Hopfensperger whether or not she had confirmed ahead of the publication of this report  (and decision of the Cabinet) that ‘local solutions’ are be implemented in September 2018, and asked for confirmation as to whether – local solutions having been provided by Thurston college and wholly ignored, whether any schools have reconfirmed their desire to work with  a council that had so totally ignored their input.

John Field asked why the Cabinet report used just three years historic data as the basis of an average growth estimate.  “Is that standard local government accounting practice?” Cllr Field inquired. He also pointed out that the  administration was using just three very different years of rapidly reducing cost growth as the basis for their forecast.  “Is that a valid forecasting technique?” he asked.   (The answer in both cases was to explain what had been done  – but failed to address the validity of the processes).

David Wood asked whether the Cabinet member could confirm that there would be no teacher redundancies and that no villages who currently all go to one school will now need two routes to take them to their nearest school. The  answer was not the positive affirmative that one would desire.

Cllr Wood also asked  why the administration didn’t commission experts from the University of Suffolk to undertake the educational impact assessment for these proposed changes.

This was new Council Leader Matthew Hicks first time chairing the Cabinet and it was a baptism of fire. It is only fair to say he chaired the meeting with justice and impartiality, allowing the opposition all the questions they wished to ask and cutting short members of his own party who wished to speak in order to make loyal declarations  rather than questioning Cabinet.

Will the call-in be accepted? Watch this space!