Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
Well done Waveney District Council for its emergency flood plan to address a recent tidal surge. Developed in the wake of serious flooding under similar circumstances a couple of years ago, damaging homes and businesses, it focused on saving lives, and property, with advance warnings and evacuations implemented effectively. My friends in vulnerable locations along the east coast in Suffolk certainly took the advice very seriously, and prepared for the worst, albeit thankful that a late change in wind direction fortunately didn’t result in flooding, despite very high tides.
A leaked review highlighted some shortcomings in administration and training, but the council deserves praise for its proactive measures, ensuring best practice in future. Money well spent.
This is not always the case in the public sector; one reads daily of billions wasted in the NHS and various government departments, as well as local authorities, emergency services and even charities. This fuels dissatisfaction amongst the public, as well as business, especially when the ‘cash-strapped’ public sector is not necessarily making decisions in the best interests of the taxpayer; certainly policies sometimes seem to be adopted without appropriate consultation, whilst there are continuing concerns about a lack of accountability and things not being ‘joined up’.
For example, Waveney’s neighbouring council, Suffolk Coastal, which shares the same management, decided to penalise Felixstowe’s beach hut owners by introducing exorbitant new charges making huts unaffordable for many. A ten per cent annual rent rise for the next eight years, virtually doubles current costs, and a £7,000 up front premium for new leases (for the land on which the huts stand) compares with the current £32.64 administration charge. Councillors were surprised at the scale of the opposition, with hut owners refusing to be used as ‘cash cows’ and fighting back, forcing a consultation which ended in February.
It is especially unfair since, in Southwold, up the coast in Waveney, where pockets are deeper and property prices sky-high, beach huts change hands for well over £100,000, ten times the average in Felixstowe, and commercial lettings are commonplace, the terms are completely different. As indeed they are elsewhere along the Suffolk coast, where there are fewer huts.
Most importantly, Felixstowe is a modest coastal town where the majority of beach huts are owned by local retired people and families, who spend their holidays and weekends enjoying the fresh air and company, whatever the weather. Sadly, some older pensioners, so frightened by the threatened increased charges, have already given up their huts, but the fightback is gaining momentum. The two councils are amalgamating and should agree a realistic common policy.
In another case of penalising ‘ordinary people’, and despite strong opposition from parents and Conservative councillors, Labour-run Ipswich Borough Council has stopped funding crèche facilities at sports centres. But it spends £56,000 a year on the council’s ‘newspaper’. Overwhelmingly politically biased to promote Labour, the cost to the public purse is unlikely to be included in Labour’s expenses for the forthcoming county elections!
Instead, this money should be spent on upgrading the sports facilities, improving the range of activities which are so attractive at private centres, and encouraging more engagement to reduce obesity and isolation. A partnership with the private sector could possibly have saved the crèche facilities, helping families throughout the day and not just those going for a swim or a workout. This option doesn’t seem to have been considered, although the government has committed to early years funding to support creches.
Excessive car parking charges are another easy target (Ipswich has announced 20 per cent increases), adversely impacting on High Streets, where small businesses, especially, appear to be attracting a disproportionate increase in business rates in some areas. When disabled access remains poor, local authorities could use some of their discretionary grants to help those businesses to comply with appropriate standards. A greater focus on penalising irresponsible use of disabled parking spaces could also attract rewards.
In Suffolk, established trees alongside some of the busiest dual carriageways (including in Ipswich) are being cut down because ‘they are too expensive to maintain’, yet they are not only beautiful with long lives still ahead of them, they also contribute to clean air, and support wildlife but need little or no maintenance. The County is also refusing to replace trees at the end of their natural lives. Some critics suspect the policy is designed to make it easier to widen some roads, so they can cope with additional traffic from a new development.
Similar reports of environmental vandalism are emerging across the country. In Sheffield, for example, the city council has delegated road maintenance to a subcontractor which is ripping out some of the street trees, despite horrified protests, because it is the cheapest option.
However, I seem to recall a policy of replacing every tree lost with at least two new ones, to enhance the environment and wellbeing. When I was on Planning Committee, developers were forced to comply as well as provide public art, contribute to transport and educational costs, whilst meeting other demands which added about 20% to the construction budget. Small wonder that house prices have shot up in the last decade or so, making them unaffordable for so many young people.
Another frustration is that councils and utilities seem incapable of co-ordinating roadworks, which blight people’s lives all over the country; as soon as a road is re-surfaced, it is frequently dug up again, causing endless traffic jams as projects go over budget and timeframes, leaving people so irate they avoid an area and all its businesses completely. Spending thousands of pounds to create 20 mile zones, with road markings and new signage, in streets which are so narrow even a bicycle would be hard pressed to do more than 10 miles an hour, is a ridiculous waste of money, especially when they are not going to be monitored.
Meanwhile, poor road maintenance in Suffolk has led to a 40% increase, rising to £28,000, in compensation to motorists whose cars have been damaged by potholes in the last year.
Accidental use by drivers of new or badly marked bus lanes has also emerged as a multi-million pound winner for councils – at the cost of their residents. Yet drivers who deserve to be penalised because they are uninsured or have not paid their road fund tax, or had an MOT, seem to escape, but these are the worst drivers, using unroadworthy cars, speeding in the most unsafe areas without a care for the safety of others. This is a Policing responsibility, but abolishing tax discs makes it more difficult to spot transgressors who would have been noted by council parking teams.
There must also be the question of how contracts are awarded, and the cancellation terms. It has emerged that a company being investigated by Norfolk County Council for allegedly inadequate care and accommodation, recently won a £3.5m contract to house unaccompanied asylum seeking children, whilst another contract resulted in the closure of The Foyer in Ipswich.
A lot of councillors give up when they see these things but are unable to ‘do anything’ because too many decisions, buried in incomprehensible reports, are taken by officers, who are not held to account by the leadership. I lost count of the number of occasions I was told something was ‘an officer decision’ when it fell within a certain price range, despite I and other councillors having a very different view because tenders were issued late and the easy option selected.
The best-run councils keep a tight grip on how public money is spent, through a strong partnership between the Chief Executive, Council Leader and local business, including the Local Enterprise Partnership. They look for opportunities to share services, making them better value for money and more efficient. It isn’t about Politics, it is about doing the best for the people who elect councillors to run their local authority, and to work in their best interests.
As I look at my new council tax bill, I can only remember that I pay more than the owners of some of the most expensive properties in the country. It’s a shame that more councillors aren’t prepared to put their heads above the parapet, challenge poor leadership and secure better value.