Consultancy questions at County Hall

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Posted by Matt | Posted in Politics, Worcester Politics | Posted on 12-08-2014

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The article in the Worcester News about the issues with consultancy at Worcestershire County Council are very worrying. With the Conservative administration at WCC pushing for as much as possible to be outsourced, the reliance on contracting out services and consultants being brought in to help on projects due to lower staffing levels, means that unless these concerns are addressed then more problems will arise in the future.

The other concern, maybe a more serious one, is the fact that the report upon which this story is based had to be leaked to the Worcester News. It is dated 4th January 2014, so have the Conservative administration been deliberately concealing this report, written by external auditors, since it was highly critical of the Council?

It is essential that this report is made public so that both local taxpayers and all County Councillors can examine what it contains. For example, the Worcester News article refers to £184,000 that went to an unknown third party for advice on waste initiatives. With the decision to proceed with the incinerator, despite vocal criticism from many, including myself, likely to leave the County Council with huge long term costs, I would certainly want to know who this money was paid to and what advice they gave.

I will be supporting any motion at the next full council meeting that demands that this report be made public and that seeks to fully investigate both what it contains and why it was kept secret.

Commercial Bus Services and the Loss of Democratic Influence

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Posted by Matt | Posted in Transport | Posted on 31-07-2014

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A number of residents in the Merrimans Hill Road area of Worcester have contacted me due to concerns they have over rumoured changes to the number 39 service run by LMS that currently goes both ways along this road, taking residents into the city centre and back again. Users of this service have been told (by a bus driver) that it will only go up Merrimans Hill Road (away from town) and head back to town via Rainbow Hill.

Two residents that I visited, both of whom are elderly and visually impaired, spoke of their and of other bus users concerns about this potential change. With the 31 bus service – the most heavily used service in the county – being reduced from half-hourly to hourly, following previous cuts such as the service down Lansdowne Road, the public transport services in this area are getting continually worse.

The aim of the County Council is to make all services commercial with no subsidy from the taxpayer. Within Worcester we are practically there already. One consequence of this, other than a reduced public transport service, is that changes to commercial routes can be made by bus companies with little or no involvement from bus users, councillors or the County Council. They have no duty to consult with County Council officers, councillors or the general public before making a change.

As a result, changes are likely to be made to the 39 service without users of this service having any say at all. As their democratic representative, I am trying to meet with LMS to discuss this, but it is up to them if they wish to speak to me.

The Green Party calls for a return to local government control over buses.

As more and more services are being handed out to private operators, similar issues concerning loss of democratic control will happen more frequently.

Fewer Buses and Cheaper Parking equals More Congestion

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Posted by Matt | Posted in Transport, Worcester Politics | Posted on 07-06-2014

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On the same day that the Worcester News reported that Worcester has the third worst traffic congestion in the country, I was taking part in a County Council scrutiny committee looking at proposals to stop or reduce numerous bus services in the county. This list of services being scrapped included the Perdiswell Park and Ride.

At a time of huge pressure on the County Council budget due to massive cuts from central government, we all understand the pressure to maintain services. The fact that over the past years the Cabinet has refused to increase council tax to try to lessen the severity of the cuts has not helped.

With regard to public transport the situation in Worcestershire is pretty dire. It was only due to the backlash from bus users to the consultation that more money was found to lessen the size of the bus subsidy cuts. However, the fact that the Park and Ride is one of the services to be lost speaks volumes about the current administration’s idea of a sustainable transport policy. Basically, they don’t have one!

The rationale for removing the Park and Ride, despite it having the second highest number of passenger journeys, was that most of those that use the service travel by car, so they could drive to their destination. Hundreds of extra cars will now be driving into Worcester adding to the already terrible congestion.

Congestion is the number one concern for residents in Worcester, yet the County Council are actively ignoring their concerns by making the situation worse. Congestion creates more pollution, which is known to be a major cause of premature deaths in this country – around 29,000 per year. As a result of the cut to the Park and Ride and other services, Worcestershire County Council is sentencing more people to a shortened live-span. The fact that the Council is directly responsible for Public Health is being completely ignored. Saving a small amount of money from the transport budget, will lead to increased costs to Public Health and the NHS.

With the City Council battling over who can cut parking charges and allowing ASDA to built a multi-storey car park in the centre of town at which you only have to pay £1, the congestion has been getting worse and worse. And with more house building planned on the outskirts of town, there appears no chance of it improving. The only solution offered by the County Council is to expand the existing road network, for instance the southern link road. The huge cost of this compared to the much smaller cost of maintaining a decent public transport network is quite apparent.

As a County Councillor I will do what I can to prevent the loss or reduction of services, particularly those in my area. The most heavily used service in the County (the 31A/31C) goes through my division on the Bilford Road and is to be reduced drastically. The Blanquettes Estate service is being axed. Plus, the Park and Ride is on the edge of my division. However, this is more than just an issue of fighting for my constituents, this is a broader issue of the County Council having no transport vision for Worcester or Worcestershire. I’ve written previously about what we can learn from Oxford and Oxfordshire, yet we seem to be ignoring this best practice and are actively going in the opposite direction and promoting car use, when we should be trying to get people out of their cars.

A proper European Debate

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Posted by Matt | Posted in Europe, Green Party, Politics | Posted on 28-04-2014

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With the EU elections looming the various political parties are ramping up their campaigning to persuade voters to vote for them. The particularly worrying aspect of this is the fear-inducing campaign of UKIP. Posters claiming that 26 million people in Europe are after your job may not be racist, but are clearly aimed at stoking anger against “all these foreigners coming here and taking our jobs.” The fact is there is not a fixed number of jobs to go around in the economy. If there were fewer immigrants in this country, there would also be fewer jobs around, because immigrants also create jobs when they spend their wages, and in complementary lines of work. There is much research showing the benefits of immigration. Further, issues such as concerns with immigrants depressing wages can easily be addressed by implementing a living wage and expending more effort in tackling unscrupulous businesses that exploit people by paying them below the minimum wage.

The problem is getting this message across, when you are faced with simplistic and emotional language from UKIP and others, claiming that everything would be fine if we just got out of the EU and greatly restricted immigration.

An alternative approach

There are many problems with the EU that need addressing, but to just give up on it and retreat back to the UK is very short-sighted. Many of the major issues that we face in the world, such as the environment, climate change, inequality and globalisation, cut across national boundaries. By grouping together, the countries in the EU can stand up to large multinationals who avoid taxes and play one country off against another over where they will locate in the hope of getting the lowest tax burden possible. Environmental issues such as pollution and climate change can only be tackled at this level, by preventing one country trying to undercut another by loosening their environmental controls. Exactly the same argument applies to workers rights. The right-wing argument that we are in a global race and must compete against the lowest paid countries can only be a recipe for disaster for those already struggling on low wages; this is a race to the bottom.

After years of austerity, with the four UK parties (Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP) all advocating more of the same, the interesting fact is that the one party that is standing up to this “business as usual” are the Green Party. Hopefully enough people will realise that disillusionment with the main parties should prompt people to vote Green, rather than UKIP. They are advocating policies deemed too right-wing for the Conservatives, such as privatisation of the NHS and large tax cuts for the wealthiest, that will do nothing to support those most in need. Whereas the Green Party favour bringing the railways back into public hands, turning the  minimum wage into a living wage, scrapping tuition fees and insulating every home. Once people realise what the Green Party stands for, they tend to vote for us. We just have to keep trying to get our message across.

Please read the Green Party mini-manifesto to better understand our policies.

Transport Futures: What Worcester can learn from Oxford

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Posted by Matt | Posted in Environment, Politics, Transport | Posted on 27-04-2014

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Professor David Banister (Director of the Transport Studies Unit) was the guest speaker at the Guildhall on 15th April for the Mayor’s Annual Lecture, organised by the Worcester Civic Society. The title of his talk was: Transport Futures: Can Worcester Learn From Oxford.

Having got some good press coverage back in August 2013 when I suggested that we should emulate the transport policies of Oxford, I was particularly interested in this topic. Especially so since such an idea was dismissed out of hand by Conservative Councillor Simon Geraghty. The following is based on my notes from the night and my own thoughts on the matter.

Thinking about the future.

The starting point for considering how to improve transport in Worcester and the surrounding area is to look at how you would like to see Worcester in 20 to 30 years, then consider the role that transport will play in this. When they did this in Oxford they generated three key messages:

  1. Innovative public transport solutions required to respond to carbon reduction commitments.
  2. Interaction between stakeholders, e.g., City and County Council, businesses, university, community groups, etc.
  3. Greater priority must be given to modes of transport other than the car.

Simulation of possible futures.

Three possible futures were considered as plausible futures:

  1. Business As Usual: Rural areas dependent on the car.
  2. Clean technology, e.g., electric cars.
  3. Sustainable mobility, e.g., public transport, walking and cycling, less car use.

Sustainable mobility (option 3) was the favoured scenario. The next stage was to assess this scenario on five criteria: Environment, accessibility, local impacts, safety and economy.

From this analysis, a package of measures was drawn up. These included:

  1. Investment in public transport, including new routes and particular focus on having better public transport in rural areas.
  2. Improved cycling and pedestrian infrastructure.
  3. Road pricing schemes and reduced/more expensive car parking.
  4. Increased park & ride capacity and locations.
  5. Better travel planning, e.g., for schools and businesses.
  6. 20mph speed limits in all major towns and 50mph on single-carriageway rural roads.
  7. More efficient car/transport fleet.

At this point David pointed out that there was no mention of any new road building. Somewhat different in Worcester!

Vision for Oxfordshire.

Oxfordshire LEP, together with businesses, councils, universities and other groups, put forward their vision of how they would get there. The aim is to better join up the homes and business centres of Bicester and Science Vale with Oxford in the middle. A new rapid transport system would link these areas, with new homes and businesses developing over time on the route.

A rapid transport system is a prioritised public transport system, which could take the form of a dedicated bus lane, a train/tram system, or a combination of these. It is a way of making it very easy to travel quickly from rural to town and from town to town.

So, how could this be applied in Worcester?

Five lessons for Worcester.

  1. Have a vision for Worcester in 20 to 30 years and see how transport can be used to get there.
  2. Positive role that planning and spatial development can have in helping achieve the vision – reducing vehicle miles travelled by car, promoting shorter distances and encouraging all modes of transport – walk and cycle.
  3. Technological transition to a low carbon transport system have positive impacts from reduced CO2 and other pollutants. However, car ownership is an issue, due to impact on congestion and parking. Park & ride and car share schemes can release space in town for better amenities, such as parks.
  4. Improving the quality of life in cities – conflicts between place, space and movement. Who owns the space within cities? If we have ownership, we can have a say. Reassign space from cars to people.
  5. Participation and acceptability is key, with increased sense of ownership and pride in city space. We want to create quality spaces that people want to spend time in.
    • Closer links between councils, businesses and the community.
    • Tackling big issues by thinking outside the conventional.
    • Acting as a catalyst – creating networks of experts.

That pretty much sums up David’s talk. I did ask a question at this point concerning how Worcester gets from where it is now, with bus subsidies being cut and any talk of reducing car use seen as an attack on car drivers, to where Oxford and Oxfordshire are heading. It does seem to me that the County Council are currently moving in the opposite direction to where they need to go.

David’s reply was that the key task was to get all the relevant groups together – bus companies, councils, businesses, the university, Sustrans, etc. People need to accept that this vision of less car use and better public transport, walking and cycling facilities is for everyone’s benefit. Hence, they all need to be involved in looking at the future of Worcester.

My task, then, is to try and get all these groups together – I may need some help!

If you want to find out more about the Transport Studies Unit you can visit their website.

Divisional Fund Payments for 2013-14

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Posted by Matt | Posted in News | Posted on 20-04-2014

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As a County Councillor I have access to a divisional fund worth £10,000 per year to spend on projects that will “promote or improve the economic, social or environmental well-being of your Division or those within it”. You can view a summary of what each County Councillor spent their money on on the Council website. However, to provide greater openness and transparency I thought it would be a good idea to supply some more detail about the projects that I spent my money on. Hence, I’ve created a page called Divisional Fund Payments 13-14 where you can take a closer look.

If you know of a group or project that you think could use some money and fits the above criteria, please get in touch.

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