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More than 30 bus routes axed in Suffolk

More than 30 Suffolk bus services are to be axed in April as part of the planned halving of the £4.3million public transport subsides. More than 50 routes will have unspecified timetable/route changes and about 15 services will not longer run on evenings and/or Sundays.

The announcement appears as a list published on Friday on the Suffolk on Board website. There is no press release on the subject on the county council website, but on that evidence no press releases have been issued this month.

It is difficult to assess the effect of the cuts without a lot of local knowledge and more information on the timetable/route changes. About 120 routes, mostly run without subsidy, are not affected.

The council seems to have been drip-feeding information in what looks very much like a media management exercise.

On January 3, the East Anglian Daily Times reported “Fears as bus routes face axe“. It said:

Some fairly large market towns like Eye could be left with no buses at all and Halesworth faces being left with just one service.

Then on February 2, the EADT quoted, Guy McGregor, the councillor for transport saying:

This has been a very difficult process and we have tried to be as transparent as possible, but I can say core services will remain and rural areas will be served.

And on February 15, under the headline “Bus services saved in countywide deal” the paper said the service to from Diss to Ipswich, via Eye and Debenham, had been save. It reported:

Bus services to communities across Suffolk are looking more secure after operators were persuaded to run them on a commercial basis.

The list at Suffolk on Board says that, in fact, the service through Eye and Debenham will continue to be subsidised but there will be changes.

A culture of secrecy at Suffolk County Council

There seems to be a culture of secrecy at Suffolk County Council. I was surprised that several councillors referred to difficulty in getting information at the the council meeting last week.

The following day James Hargrave, a campaigner for Stradbroke library, blogged that he had used the Freedom of Information Act to discover the make up of the project team for the libraries consultation. He could not get it simply by asking, although there was nothing surprising in the list.

You may recall that Suffolk is one of the councils which is defying the Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, by not publishing details of all spending above £500. Now published (see comment).

It seems a growing number of people with difficulties getting information from Suffolk CC is resorting to the FoI. In 2007 there were 387 requests. In 2008 the number rose to 596 and then fell slightly in 2009 to 582. And last year there were 684 until the end of October, an increase of 15% with two months still to go.

This information comes, of course, from an FoI disclosure. This one made through the What Do They Know? website.

At the council meeting, Jane Storey in presenting the budget, referred to the £3.5 million reduction in the Customers Services Direct budget which was included in the savings to be made. She said negotiations were continuing but she could not go into them because of “commercial confidentiality”.

It is looking very much as though Ipswich Spy was correct when the blog said, CSD savings in jeopardy before vote!.

In another FoI request Suffolk CC was asked for details of all directors of CSD, and for a list of people who attended board meetings “as representatives of the council who attended board meeting in either a voting or non-voting capacity”.

The response was that as CSD is not wholly owned by a public authority it did not fall under the FoI act. It pointed the enquirer to Companies House.

And then came this curious line which did not really answer the question: “Board meetings for CSD are attended by the Chief Executive and the Leader of the Council on behalf of Suffolk County Council.”

The fact is that Andrea Hill, the chief executive, and Jeremy Pembroke, the leader, are members of the board. Andrew Good, chief executive of Mid Suffolk District Council, and the leader there, Tim Passmore, are also directors. The other four directors are from BT which owns 80.1% of the company, Suffolk CC 16.4% and Mid Suffolk 3.5%. None of the directors are paid a fee by CSD.

The accounts to March 31 last year, available from Companies House for £1, show a company with no profit or loss and no employees (they are employed by the councils or BT).

In the 2009-10 financial year Suffolk CC paid CSD £50,960,952, and received expenses of £33,037,415. Mid Suffolk paid £3,138,231 and received £4,699,329.

The idea that negotiations with this company should be shielded by “commercial confidentiality”, is an affront to democracy. It runs, in large part,  on seconded County Council employees providing services including  IT, human resources, payroll, finance and benefits.

One of the unanswered fears is that the New Strategic direction will, if implemented, shield even more activities from public accountability.

Ipswich Evening Star’s robust and thoughtful journalism

Front page of Evening StarThe Evening Star in Ipswich yesterday had a powerful editorial urging Suffolk County Council not to go ahead with its cuts. The heading was simply “YOU’RE WRONG!

It starts on the front page and continued on two inside pages. Unfortunately, I can’t find it on their website, but if anyone can provide the link, please put it in the comments below.

The editorial begins:

On the day a savage package of cuts is rubber-stamped at Endeavour House, The Evening Star urges out decision-makers to think again.

We say the drastic axing of crucial services — many of which cater for the most vulnerable in society — is avoidable.

Then follows a cogent examination of the budget which argues for the use of reserves to “ease the pressure”.

The reserves are crucial because they include £3.4 million put aside for “business transformation” and £4 million put aside for “management of change”.

Part of the budget that was approved yesterday, is £3.6 million to be spent on “management of change”.

As the Evening Star says there are echoes of the New Strategic Direction running through the budget. The NSD is a policy to make Suffolk CC and “enabling authority” which outsources its services to charities, social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups. (During the budget debate, the Lib Dem leader, Kathy Pollard described it as the New Sadistic Direction.)

One of the most significant things in the editorial is not in the main text. In the front page image (above) there are two circular pictures and a caption which reads: “THINK AGAIN: Our message to county decision-makers Jeremy Pembroke, top, and Andrea Hill.”

Jeremy Pembroke is the council leader, a Conservative, while Andrea Hill is the Chief Executive, who should not be a decision-maker. This treatment in the paper, neatly reflects the suspicions in Suffolk that Ms Hill, unelected and highly paid, is usurping democracy by driving the New Strategic Direction poicy.

Nigel Pickover, the editor of the Evening Star, and his team are — in this post I am returning to my media blogging mode — providing a great example of the kind of robust and thoughtful journalism of which much more is needed in the regions.

Little things that undermine confidence in Suffolk County Council

It is often little things that undermine confidence in any organisation. Copies of the budget available to the public at yesterday’s meeting of Suffolk County Council had every other page printed upside-down. Then, when it came to a vote, it was announced the electronic voting system was not working properly. The clerk had to call out the name of each councillor to record the vote.

Tory rebels vote with Labour in bid to save lollipop men and women

In Westminster the revolt by seven Tory Councillors on Suffolk County Council yesterday would have been described as a substantial rebellion. The issue was a small one, the abandonment of a saving of £174,000 by continuing to pay for school crossing patrols. This is out of a budget of £1bn.

On paper, the Labour group of four, looked weak, limiting their amendment to the budget to this single item, while the Lib Dems suggested a much larger change in the budget.

But politically it was an astute move by Labour leader Sandy Martin, that identified a weakness in the ruling party and exploited it to show wavering Conservative solidarity.

The tone of the debate, which lasted most of the three hours I was in the chamber, was set not by a councillor buy by Lianne Shepherd, a lollipop lady from Lowestoft.

She was presenting a petition against the cut and stood, for a moment silent before the microphone, biting her lip. Then she said “I am nervous” and went on to talk fluently for five minutes.

She had rapt attention. While she was speaking my neighbour in the public gallery leaned across and said: “Have you seen the smirk on Andrea Hill’s face.” I looked towards the council’s chief executive and her expression did indeed look something like that.

After the Labour amendment was proposed the flow of debate was in support. The arguments were put strongly including that the cost of one injury accident as a result of not having a lollipop person would cost more than the savings.

The only real argument in support of the cuts was that providing crossing patrols was better done by the community than by the county council.

When Conservative members started to stand up to announce they would support the amendment, I began to expect to hear an echo of David Cameron’s “not happy” statement on forests.

The realisation dawned that they knew, from the earlier Conservative group meeting, that this rebellion was coming. Their leadership simply did not care that there was clear public support for the crossing patrols, because their majority is so huge. With seven votes switching they still had twice the number of the opposition.

After that I had to leave but the budget debate went on for a further three hours before it was approved with no amendment, despite a spirited attempt by the Lib Dems to save libraries, youth clubs, bus service, park and ride, the explore card and crossing patrols from cuts.

The EastAnglian Daily Time report of the debate is here.

Sudden announcement of recycling centre closures

The threat to waste recycling centres in Suffolk was known, but a decision to give the names of seven to close in May was suddenly made on the eve of today’s county council meeting.

Opposition councillors are angry that they were not give any notice of the decision but were sent copies of the press release, the East Anglian Daily Times reports.

The nearest centre to me, at Brome, north of Eye, is among those to close. The centres are run by a contractor which allows the council sidestep responsibility for redundancies by simply referring enquiries to the contractor.

But most bizarrely, the EADT report the council recognises the need to keep sites open over the Easter weekend (usually one of the busiest) and for the extra bank holiday on 29 April, so any closures would not happen until 9 May.

What about Easter 2012?

iPad: Al Jazeera, yes; BBC Radio Suffolk, no

I love my iPad. Couch blogging has become a reality. And the new BBC iPlayer app is brilliant but….

Yesterday evening I wanted to listen to Radio Suffolk’s any questions on the county council cuts. I could not find the station on the digital radio in the kitchen where I would be cooking at the time.

So the iPad would be the solution. No, the iPlayer which generally works very well, refused to play Radio Suffolk because it required Flash.

So, I was only able to hear snatches of the discussion, which so far as I could tell was predictable.

But it seemed strange that I have been able to follow events in Cairo, watching Al Jazeera on the iPad (use Livestation to watch on an iPad), but not something happening 12 miles away in Ipswich.

Council pays £500,000 to former employees

A dramatic headline in the East Anglian Daily Times relating payments by Suffolk County Council to former employees reads: “£500,000 to silence disgruntled staff”. The article below starts:

County council chiefs have been criticised for using more than £500,000 of public money to silence disgruntled employees.

Suffolk County Council has spent a total of £521,277 on gagging orders over the last 12 months to ensure staff don’t whistle-blow once their contracts have been terminated.

That figure is almost double what the organisation spent on “compromise agreements” during 2008 and 2009 and comes just months after sweeping cuts, including the axing the entire £230,000 budget for school crossing patrols as well as a number of bus services. The data, obtained following a Freedom of Information Request, revealed that during 2010 a total of 41 council employees were given Compromise Agreements ranging in payments of between £2,000 and £60,000.

But I am not sure this is entirely fair on the council. Compromise agreements are often made when an employee is disputing dismissal, and starts the process towards taking a former employer to an Industrial Tribunal.

If is often cheaper, and less time-consuming, for the former employer to make a settlement than to go to the tribunal. The compromise agreement system was explained in a recent article in Personnel Today.

While these agreements usually include a “confidentiality clause” that is not generally the prime purpose. The employee is likely to see them as compensation for loss of earnings etc.

A doubling of the number of such agreements at SCC does raise questions about the efficiency of the human relations department. But to categorise the payments as “gagging orders” is only partly true.

More allegations about Suffolk CSD contract on eve of budget meeting

In an explosive story today, Ipswich Spy says a £3.5 million “saving” on Suffolk County Council’s controversial Customer Services Direct (CSD)  contract is in jeopardy.

If true, it will undermine the austerity budget the Conservative-controlled council is to present tomorrow.  This already looks like being a stormy meeting, following protests at Norfolk and Cambridgeshire budget meetings this week.

In December, the Guardian reported that the council was ignoring spiralling costs of more than £100m from its joint venture with British Telecom.

A former head of supplier relationships at the council, Michael Gower, said he had repeatedly complained that the joint venture set up by the council and BT, to run human resources, finance and IT, was over-budget. He said  contract changes he suggested were ignored by the Suffolk CC chief executive Andrea Hill who had taken courtesy trips to the US with BT.

Ipswich Spy says the latest officer put in charge of the CSD contract has also resigned. There are further allegations about the involvement of Ms Hill.