Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.
From my own experience of over ten years as a councillor, I know how hard we worked to prioritise delivering the best services, whilst adapting to changing need and budgetary constraints to maximise value for money. The same was not always true of officials, who could allocate quite significant departmental funds to pet projects without prior agreement. In particular, I recall two instances involving £750,000 with no outcome, and senior officers using their own cars instead of fleet vehicles, claiming generous mileage allowances to increase already significant earnings.
So, it’s hardly surprising that the general public are confused and frustrated by further council tax increases when they see money being wasted, without any logical explanation. It is essential that elected representatives remember who should be calling the shots, demanding fiscal responsibility to avoid the silo mentality, still prevalent in some organisations, undermining joint working to make savings. Commonsense should also play a part.
As we all know, potholes provoke furious debate because they are so visible. For example, a short walk from my house is a busy, technically minor, access road, a few hundred yards long at most. With car parking on one side, it leads to a park and college, as well as two religious centres, a popular pub, and a couple of narrow streets packed with terraced houses. At peak times, it is very popular with vehicles – and cyclists – as a short cut, bypassing traffic lights, to reach one of the narrow main routes into Ipswich town centre.
For years, residents complained about the dozens of potholes covering the entire road, in places merging into each other. Eventually, last autumn, Highways marked the deepest and widest, then closed the road for two days for repairs, but leaving those potholes which didn’t meet their repair criteria. Since then, they have not only become bigger and deeper because of all the heavy rain, but they have been joined by yet more, causing a hazard, not just for traffic, but for the many elderly pedestrians walking their dogs, fearful of tripping en route to the park.
Inevitably, as they worsen, cars will be damaged, and there are already calls for further repairs. Since I am told that it costs £100 per emergency repair, compared with £10 for those planned, it would surely have been more cost-effective to simply resurface the whole road? Given the many thousands of pounds claimed by drivers following damage to their vehicles, and cyclists toppled from their bikes, when hitting potholes, this must have been a better option.
But, commonsense doesn’t seem to apply in these situations. When major works taking several months, and causing considerable disruption, were undertaken in Ipswich to realign a junction on a busy dual carriageway, resurfacing ignored a huge pothole crossing two lanes just a few yards away – presumably because it didn’t meet the criteria.
Now Suffolk County Council (SCC) has voted for a four per cent council tax increase. The move has been publicly criticised by the former Cabinet Member for Finance, who resigned last October. Given the level of Government grant, he recommended a one per cent council tax increase, plus two per cent for social care, but rejected plans to transfer £9 million into reserves, which he felt was unnecessary because they are already substantial. Incidentally, had £10 million not been lost on a cancelled three bridges project when costs escalated by a third (remind you of anything??) transferring another £9 million into reserves wouldn’t be thought necessary.
However, the prize for wasting taxpayers’ money goes to Labour-controlled Ipswich Borough Council. Its decision to ‘improve’ the Cornhill, a popular public space fronting the former Town Hall is proving disastrous, and ‘a monumental eyesore’ according to Tripadvisor. Initial resurfacing led to the death of an elderly pedestrian when he tripped, as did several others. Two concrete pillars, dubbed Cornhenge by locals, installed as part of the ‘design’, looked so cheap and nasty they were removed within months, whilst a water feature works sparodically, depending on the weather.
Nearly two years on from the start of this project, further works are ongoing with a view to completion – “probably in May”.
All this required the regular Market, formerly an important town centre attraction, to be displaced to neighbouring streets, from which it has not recovered, no doubt contributing to the rising retail vacancies in the town centre. Shopkeepers are infuriated by the disruption to their businesses.
To date, no-one can get an accurate cost for the works, but local media are quoting £3.6 million: with the Inquest still pending, any liabilities resulting from the unfortunate death, and other pedestrian accidents are not available. At present, there are no plans for a referral to Scrutiny Committee. However, Labour will be increasing Council Tax by the maximum, blaming Conservative ‘austerity’.
Pent up anger at these and other issues over which they have no control, including the town being gridlocked, when the Orwell Bridge is closed (five times in the last few months, costing the local economy £1m each time) is increasingly reflected in drivers’ behaviour: speeding and overtaking as they wind in and out of traffic, failing to stop at junctions or give way to emergency vehicles – or stop at school crossings.
This behaviour is not confined to Ipswich. In the last six months, the 61 patrol officers across Suffolk have reported 19 drive-through incidents, with drivers (and cyclists) refusing to stop to allow children to cross safely, and subjecting officers to verbal abuse. As a result, following a campaign by the Eastern Region School Crossing Group, SCC has announced plans to issue 10 body cameras to school crossing patrols, initially in Ipswich, Lowestoft, and Bury St Edmunds.
SCC’s Cabinet member, Cllr. Andrew Reid, said:
“It is outrageous that drivers are putting lives at risk, and abusing officers for doing their job. The use of body cameras will deter and record intolerable behaviour, reminding drivers to obey the Highway Code and drive slowly passing schools.”
The scheme is partly funded by Suffolk Constabulary, with money from the Driver Diversionary Fund, which comes from motorists who have taken part in speed awareness courses. Tim Passmore, Police & Crime Commissioner, fully supports the use of the cameras, “although I’d much rather they were not necessary, the message is simple, Stop means Stop, or risk prosecution.” Failure to stop can lead to a fine of up to £1,000, plus three penalty points.
Patrol officers are effectively volunteers, paid a pittance and deserving respect, working in all weathers to keep children safe. One can only hope drivers pay attention in future because – thanks to Suffolk’s initiative – there will be evidence to take action.