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!

Suffolk CC: June Whats been happening

LibDems in Woodbridge raise awareness of the school transport proposals – and what they will mean to everyone

Suffolk shows overwhelming public opposition to  proposed Tory school transport changes-   Leaked documents from Suffolk County Council show overwhelming public opposition to proposed school transport changes. Of the 3600 responses to Suffolk County Council’s recent home-to-school transport consultation, 85% “strongly oppose” the proposals and a further 5% “oppose” them.

This is the most responses received by a Consultation in recent years, and it is clear that parents, teachers and communities have very serious concerns about the proposals.

The Cabinet is due to make a decision on changing the school transport policy on Tuesday 19 June. Suffolk Lib Dems have opposed the proposed changes since they were first announced in September and we will continue to raise our concerns at the Cabinet meeting.

New Council Leader elected  Following the recent Conservative Group leadership challenge, Cllr Matthew Hicks has been elected as the new Leader of Suffolk County Council, replacing  hard-liner Cllr Colin Noble. His Deputy will be Mary Evans, former Chair of Scrutiny, and previously Chair of the highly effective crossparty Transport & Highways Policy Development Panel, before Cllr Noble abolished these on becoming leader a couple of years back.

Cllr Hicks has promised us a “new era” of politics at the Council, with a focus on mutual respect, collaboration and co-operation. We hope he will be more open to working with, and listening to, councillors from other parties.

The first major change has been the replacement of  the only-just-established  unwieldy and untransparent Cabinet Committees with new Policy Development Panels. We do not currently have full details on how these will operate but, well-organised, they provide excellent crossparty consensus.

Some ‘Outstanding’ Suffolk schools in Suffolk have had no Ofsted inspection for a decade   The National Audit Office has revealed that over 1600 schools in the UK have not been inspected by Ofsted for 6+ years!

In Suffolk, 23 outstanding schools – almost half of those rated ‘outstanding’ – have not been inspected for at least 6 years.  SIX of these schools were last inspected over a decade ago! This means that whole cohorts of students have gone through school without a single Ofsted inspection.

LDGI Spokesperson for Education, Lib Dem  Cllr Penny Otton, raised the issue and her concerns at a Council meeting on 24 May. The Cabinet Member for Children’s Services and Education, Gordon Jones, assured her that he shared her concerns and would raise it with the head of Ofsted.

Ofsted have said that the majority of ‘outstanding’ schools are exempt by law from inspections. However, if a number of concerns or complaints are raised against a school, they would have the power to carry out an inspection.

Citizens rights of EU born residents  Our very own Lib Dem County Councillor Inga Lockington hit national and international headlines when the Home Office turned down her application for citizenship despite her 40 years uninterrupted  residence in the UK, married to an English doctor, her 19 years as an Ipswich Borough Councillor, her 17 years as a Suffolk County Councillor and a stint as Mayor of Ipswich! Apparently the Home Office felt she couldn’t prove residence!

Although Inga’s story ended with an apology and an offer of citizenship, she points out this would not have been the case for many others in her situation.

At May’s full council, Lib Dem leader Cllr Caroline Page  asked Matthew Hicks whether Suffolk was doing enough  to support such cases of Home Office injustice amongst its residents. Specifically whether we funded the Suffolk Law Centre -the only free law centre in Suffolk- and whether he would be prepared to talk to Centre Director Audrey Ludwig about unmet needs? The reply was cautious, unspecific, and referred to Suffolk’s CABs – all of which had funding cuts in SCC’s 2018 budget.

Unitary council discussions on hold? Back in March, it was announced that Colin Noble had unilaterally commissioned the think-tank Respublica to produce a report outlining the options for a unitary council in Suffolk. This news was not well-received by the (almost all Conservative) leaders of District and Borough Councils, who had not been consulted by Cllr Noble.

However, in the lead-up to the Conservative Group leadership election in May, Cllr Noble announced that work producing the report had been suspended. It is not yet clear whether this work will resume under the new leader, Cllr Hicks.

Possible U-turn on Lowestoft records office At Council on 24 May, a petition was presented by the Save Our Record Office (SORO) campaign group, calling on the Council to reverse the decision to close the Lowestoft Record Office.

Cllr Hicks responded by acknowledging the importance of keeping local records in Lowestoft, and pledged to work with local residents and councillors to develop a long-term, sustainable solution for the storage of archives in the north of the county.However, he made it clear that there is currently no capital or revenue budget available for the project, and so the council would need to seek funding to help deliver it.

New development with affordable homes in Cockfield  On 15 May, the Cabinet approved proposals for the development of a 4.5 acre site near Cockfield, which is owned as part of its County Farms estate. The development will be comprised of 51 units, including 12 affordable rented homes. There will also be homes specifically for first-time buyers, affordable shared ownership homes, and self-build plots.

This project is being treated as a pilot for future developments on Council owned land. The County Council is planning to work closely with design and property partners, and there will be a particular focus on local needs and benefits for the local community. The council will also benefit from financial returns as a result of developing the land.