Alastair McCraw's View On Local Politics

 

OPINION

Alastair McCraw, District Councillor, Alton Ward, BDC

BEING THERE

People sometimes wonder why we are Councillors. Not so much why anybody voted for us, although that’s always a possibility, but why we did we stand and WHY do we do it? Obviously, there’s the glamour. We clearly have a very high boredom threshold, a love of jargon and long complicated sentences and a serious addiction to complicated sets of initials like NPPF and SHMA. (You don’t want to know). But across the board, I’d say that we want to make a difference. That’s no bad thing in itself. Lots of people make a difference on a daily basis within all the communities. They run local groups, raise money, keep the day to day activities of all our lives going for the benefit of all. Some are appointed as Parish councillors, school governors and officers in local societies. Others just quietly get on with things, less formally but no less usefully, as local and national volunteers. If they get some pleasure, social contact and a sense of quiet satisfaction out of it as their reward that’s all to the good.

‘Small p’ politics (which is what I believe a District Council should be about) is just a bit of a step up from that. Surprisingly few have ‘large P’ Politics as their primary motivation. Some do, it’s true, and some of the major changes made in the course of the last three years have been the result. But the majority of us are people who wanted to make a difference. In some cases, a choice of party was a mixture of inclination and the only viable means to actually get elected.  For Independents it’s frequently out of frustration.

Now, we all differ a bit in our views on how to make that difference. Loyalty to your party view, to their support in getting you there and potentially in taking a larger role may colour some thinking or voting. Generally, you’re hoping that people are voting out of principle. You also hope that alternative arguments and views will be listened to, given consideration and affect a decision.

This roundabout explanation may explain some of the reasons why the character of Babergh has changed somewhat in the course of the last year or so. First two, then four, and currently six members of the Conservative administration have left the party whip to become ‘Independent Conservatives. More often than not, they have been voting with the Eight Independent, Three Lib Dems and Two Labour members on significant matters. Believe me, we are all aware of some of the resulting ironies. The relatively non-controversial matters continue as before. We have statutory responsibilities that go beyond any consideration of party lines.

It was that gradual shift, based upon solid reason and argument, that saw the resignation of one Council leader (which was NOT the opposition purpose) and a declared commitment to a local poll, or ‘referendum’, over a possible merger with Mid Suffolk (which decidedly WAS).

We all expected the full Business Plan, that the opposition stated as one requirement, to be presented for examination by both Scrutiny Committee and Council in preparation for some form of local poll to take place in the early summer of this year. And then everything changed…..again.

SCC Leader Colin Noble unilaterally commissioned a study into Unitary Council options for Suffolk, producing an almost instant request from all the other council leaders to stop. When he declined, Babergh & Mid Suffolk realised that there was little point in continuing to pursue their merger proposals while these possibilities existed. That shelves any referendum for now. Strangely, had the opposition not made their stand we might have been too far down the merger track to stop the merger process. We have no idea where this study will go or what options will be available, but I remain convinced that any eventual choices should be subject to a democratic vote on those options. Not by way of being seen to endorse a manifesto or leaflet, that few people ever read, but by a direct vote on the substantive issues.

(April) GOING ON

Over the last year or so, as those shifts have happened, Independent and Opposition members have been taking an increasing (and sometimes vocal) role in briefings, meetings and committees. That work has now been reflected in the appointment of an Independent member, Derek Davis, to the Babergh Cabinet. Until this point we had been given a Vice Chairmanship on the, admittedly important, Overview and Scrutiny Committee, currently to myself.

Derek has the Organisational Delivery portfolio which covers the, often-criticised, experience that you face in dealing with the Council by any means. He won’t be subject to any whip, but will deal with the issues as he sees them. He’s been quite critical himself and believes that you should be able to ‘put up or shut up’. My words, his sentiment (I think, but I’m sure he can correct me!)

What can I, you, or we expect? There’s a year left until the 2019 elections, so that’s a bit limited. I’d suggest we can expect a lot more than a sticking plaster and better than First Aid, but Major Open-Heart Surgery seems unlikely. The Cabinet now slightly better reflects the makeup of the Council and the possibility of some consensus now exists.

Some decisions previously made cannot be reversed. We are where we are, no matter what we voted for or against. There will still be disagreement and controversy, but perhaps the party lines can be less strongly taken. I’ve just left the most co-operative and grown up Cabinet meeting I’ve ever witnessed. This was part of the difference that Derek and I had hoped to make and that’s why I believe we shoulddo it.

This article was previously published in ‘In Touch’ May editions. My thanks to them for the regular platform and their patience about deadlines.

I don’t normally write about Suffolk County Council and education matters. You might, quite reasonably, say that wasn’t what I was elected for and somebody probably will. In the case of the current SCC consultation on School Transport though I think I must. This impacts upon our communities to a such a significant extent. There are but three whole days to respond as this closes at 11.59pm on Wednesday 28th February. 

Fundamentally there are three options to consider. Option 1 reflects SCC’s belief that only fulfilling their legal responsibilities for free school transport will save money. It probably will, though some of the other consequences lead me to believe it won’t be nearly as much as they think. Option 2 would do the same thing but phased over a period of years, saving less theoretical money but creating a bit of an expensive bureaucratic nightmare. Oh, and confusion, winners and losers and loss of simple clarity. Option 3 is to make no changes to the current policy which raises a funding challenge which we are invited to solve. Apparently, this is very difficult, although there are some wrinkles hidden in there.

I’m obviously going to approach this from the point of view of Brantham, Stutton & Tattingstone, but many of these points apply across the whole county. The first peculiarity is that SCC appear to believe that children will walk two or three miles on Rights of Way, which is to say footpaths, bridleways and tracks as well as on un-pavemented roads. They may use such within communities like Holbrook or East Bergholt, where the serving secondary schools actually are. From the Alton villages it can only produce exhausted, late, muddy, dishevelled, possibly hungry pupils in no condition to be educated. At a time where we recognise how important the start of the school day is if we are ‘Raising the Bar’, the concept is well, flawed. And it won’t happen.

Brantham mostly sends secondary pupils to East Bergholt and Manningtree. The proposals (1 & 2) assess that free school travel will only be provided to the closest school. The basis of this calculation is a simple distance. It is a stupid calculation, but we don’t say that in a consultation, because it tends to annoy them. Call it an overlooked anomaly. From the Pippins to Cattawade where most of the population live, the closest school is Manningtree HS. Obviously, this ignores the current number of pupils (the majority) from there currently going to East Bergholt, but it also misses a couple of other points. Manningtree is in Essex, covered by another LEA (Local Education Authority). It has a rather tricky time-consuming railway crossing to get over, a winding road system to reach and a trip there, particularly in rush hours, takes a lot longer. That’s going to cost more! The north side of Brantham stretches beyond the Brantham Bull, halfway to Stutton. The furthest distance by road from there is further to  East Bergholt HS than it would be from virtually any point in the whole of Brantham. For the most part they would both use the same Slough Road as the shortest route. This is still quicker and less troublesome than Manningtree. Now there are historical and family connections with Manningtree that should see the provision of free school travel there. That option should be maintained, but unevenly splitting the village in two makes no sense at all. SCC do not just serve individuals and families, they serve communities and should have some respect for that responsibility. Many of us will remember former historical educational arrangements that saw friends and families split up between primary and secondary levels. It caused anguish, hurt and caused some lasting resentments that exist to this day. It served education badly, it served communities badly and I would suggest it served society very badly. At a time where Suffolk is seeking to ‘Raise the Bar’ returning to those ideas is counterproductive.

The same situation applies in Tattingstone where the Heath end of the village would only receive free travel to East Bergholt and their near neighbours only to Holbrook. A few would only receive it to Stoke High School. This is of course insane. Stutton is completely covered by Holbrook, but neighbours on the Tattingstone border might be surprised to find they’re expected to go in different directions.

Of course, it may be that SCC are less concerned about saving money by having parents and pupils move to the designated schools and more about the £900 per pupil per year they wish to charge. Some will be able to afford that. I recall under a previous policy having to pay for both my children to attend East Bergholt. It had an impact. During that period, basically raising a family, we struggled with debt. A family of three might now be facing £2700 p.a. That is going to have a significant impact on anybody normally.

There are other effects of course. What of the schools themselves? The largest secondary in Suffolk, Thurston Community College, has gained national attention on this question. It faces a potential impact upon 54% of its pupils. East Bergholt though has the fourth highest such impact at 18% and Holbrook at 3%. I can see no figures for Manningtree High School, but sincerely doubt they would be equipped to absorb that many extra pupils from Brantham. Has anybody at SCC thought about asking the teaching profession what they think and what they can actually cope with? Being married to a teacher who has spoken to some of those affected by this, it seems a pretty negative response. Pupil numbers are carefully calculated, demographically, years in advance. Mucking around with those calculations for short term gain can have dramatic long-term consequences.

Most people, without multiples of £900 to spare, will use cars. The road congestion (rush hour), environmental impacts of extra journeys, the additional road maintenance that will be needed and, very notably, the stress levels involved for all do not appear to have been properly considered or assessed.

There are some local solutions suggested within the consultation that need looking at. They suggest 12 possible options for intelligent use of transport to reduce costs. I think I could support many, if not most of these, as an alternative to those appallingly short-sighted Options 1 & 2. They require consideration on an individual basis for each situation, not being imposed across the board. That flat simplistic set of answers is what’s produced this mess in the first place.

What about the money then? Where is it to come from? Those local solutions above can certainly help. Consideration of extra unforeseen costs involved in these proposals may point out potential false economies. AND SCC do have substantial reserves, which they seem very reluctant to spend. They’re being kept for a rainy day. This is such a rainy day and they should be prepared to release some of those reserves. I’m resisting childish point scoring as best I can, but need to point out that the reduction in Central Government funding is the product of decisions made by the same party as the SCC administration. They need to talk to each other. Starving local government at all levels is having some very negative short term and long-term effects. Potentially councillors voting for these proposals may find themselves being called to account, both now and in any future election.

But overall, there’s a bigger point here. It’s a trite cliché to say that ‘children are our future’ but none the less true. They’re our future workforce, taxpayers, voters, parents, teachers, and some (I can attest) are future politicians (heaven help them). Within our aging Suffolk demographic, we are going to come to rely upon them. Now they should be able to rely upon us. I urge anybody to respond to this consultation. Whether you are at school, a parent, a grandparent, planning to be a parent, or just a member of a community that can see further than simple accountancy please respond and do it soon. Option 3, suggesting that the current policy be kept with allowance for some local solutions seems to make the most sense to me. That is how I have responded. I’ve supplied some reasons, but I’m sure there are others. You can find the consultation online at https://tinyurl.com/y7gvka6t

This shortened URL brings you to a page where you can get all the information I’ve used. The booklet contains the meat of it, but your local school maps display the threat. Then, I implore you, HAVE YOUR SAY. It doesn’t take that long and it’s worthwhile time.

I’m not a Conservative, but I’m familiar enough with (and agree with) the conservative principle of providing choice. This has been applied as government policy in education. These proposals threaten to effectively reduce that choice. That’s a flawed idea. Suffolk County Council and education professionals have been working for years now to raise our county educational standards. ‘Raising the Bar’ has been remarkably effective in doing so, and although there is more to do I would applaud that concentrated effort. We are now much more aware of the wider factors involved in providing quality education to improve standards, of the social pressures and changes in society. Getting to and from a school and how it is done is one of these. If we’re working on improvements then we shouldn’t go in the opposite direction and end up ‘Barring the Raise’.

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