Update: the taxi shambles was featured on BBC Politics South East on 19th Sept. For the full segment click this link and go to about 18 minutes in.
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The ongoing shambles on East Sussex County Council school taxi contracts is covered in this week's Sussex Express (print edition only, as far as we can see). We quote here the words they carried from LibDem District Councillor Sean MacLeod, who is Chair of Lewes District Council's Licensing Committee. (Note that taxis as a whole come under the District Council's jurisdiction, but the schools contract, being an education matter, belongs to Conservative controlled East Sussex County Council.)
Cllr MacLeod said, "My main concern is that there appears to have been a clear lack of due process when, in mid-July, they awarded this contract to 24x7 cars.
"This firm, according to the press release, did not have the cars to do the contract and had to order 160 vehicles in a less than four week turn around before the school term started. On top of this they would have had to have found 160 drivers and 160 support workers.
"To any reasonable thinking person, this turnaround is unrealistic and not achievable.
"What the County Council have effectively done is award a contract involving vulnerable school children to a firm with no taxis or staff.
"It's frankly shocking and I do believe that senior Conservative councillors should be deciding if it's time to resign.
"There are really also real safeguarding concerns; we are seeing vehicles not plated or with any identifiable signs.
"How is anyone to know if these drivers have had the appropriate checks other taxi drivers have when they are not even showing their plate number?
"East Sussex County Council have to remove this contract and hand it back to firms who have a proven record in East Sussex."
Liberal Democrat councillors joined parents in expressing dismay at the collapse of parts of the home to school transport contract. Cllr David Tutt, Leader of the Liberal Democrat group explains:
“The Conservative administration that runs the County Council decided to re-tender the contract for home to school transport. The Canterbury based company who won the contract could then not deliver two of the routes as they apparently had insufficient vehicles, drivers and passenger assistants or any backup vehicles in the case of a breakdown. Two parts of the contract then had to be cancelled leaving parents in the lurch.”
Councillor Sarah Osborne adds:
“This shambles has left parents, including parents of some of our most vulnerable children, faced with uncertainty and confusion at the start of the school term. We have heard that some children were not collected at all. Our children have been through enough disruption in the last year without this inept contract management. The Conservatives need to sort this out as a top priority.”
As many as 17% of hard-pressed families across Lewes constituency, which includes the towns of Seaford, Polegate, Newhaven, Lewes and surrounding villages, face being left worse off when the government ends the uplift to Universal Credit next month.
New data from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation exposes the true nature of how badly some areas will be hit by the £20 Universal Credit cut, which is opposed by local Lib Dem parliamentary spokesperson, James MacCleary.
In the report, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that the Universal Credit cut alone could force 500,000 people, almost half of them children, into poverty. Their breakdown shows that some 5,930 families in Lewes constituency will be harmed by the government's cut, with 33% of families with children being affected adversely.
Responding to the data, James MacCleary, Liberal Democrat parliamentary spokesperson, said:
"It is time that Maria Caulfield stood up in Parliament and put her constituents ahead of her party. Only the Tories would think that the place to start making savings is by clawing desperately-needed money back from those with least. Maria Caulfield should join those in her party who have already said the increase in universal credit should be made permanent.
"There are nearly 6,000 families across the constituency in Seaford, Newhaven, Polegate, Lewes and our villages anxiously facing the prospect of Caulfield and her government taking away this much-needed top up at the most difficult time.
"Liberal Democrats are calling for the Universal Credit uplift to be made permanent. Rather than looking at cutting support for those with least, the government should be exploring ways to increase support further."
Liberal Democrat Work and Pensions Spokesperson Wendy Chamberlain MP added:
“Just as we begin to hope that Covid is being tamed in the UK, the Government is ripping support from millions of families across the country. We cannot have a full recovery if families are struggling to make ends meet.
“The Prime Minister's claim that he wants people to live by their own 'efforts' rather than 'welfare' shows how out of touch he really is. With almost half of those receiving Universal Credit already in work and with many having young families, this cut will leave parents and their children behind despite their efforts."
Liberal Democrat County Councillors for Seaford and Bishopstone are demanding to know where the traffic lights promised by Maria Caulfield MP have got to. Cllr James MacCleary, County Councillor for Newhaven and Bishopstone explains: “Following two serious accidents which closed the A259, Maria Caulfield promised residents traffic lights which she believes will sort out the issues of these dangerous junctions at Bishopstone.
"During the election campaign, Maria said that she had met with the County Council who had agreed to look at installing traffic lights as a solution. Residents would be consulted but so far nothing has happened.
"We know that the County Council is undertaking studies of traffic on the A259 but it will take years before anything happens and meanwhile residents are having to deal with these dangerous junctions on a daily basis. It is unfair to raise expectations and make promises if these can’t be delivered.”
Councillor Carolyn Lambert, County Councillor for Seaford South adds: “We are very concerned about the length of time it will take to get any action at all to make the A259 junctions safer, let alone finding the money for the costly investment the County Council seems to be considering.
"Cllr MacCleary and I would like to see some cost-effective interim measures put in place now. These could include putting in a light controlled pedestrian crossing at the main Bishopstone junction which would also help traffic exiting from Bishopstone. We are also calling for a speed camera on the Buckle by-pass to slow traffic down, change driver behaviour and reduce the risk of accidents.”
Local Liberal Democrats have described a government announcement of just £250,000 for roads across the whole of East Sussex as 'pitiful'. Residents across the county have been suffering with deteriorating roads in need of urgent repairs while necessary upgrades are shelved due to a lack of funding. Lib Dems want to see major investment in walking and cycling improvements to encourage alternatives to car use.
Cllr James MacCleary, who represents Newhaven and Bishopstone division on the County Council, says: "It isn't even a drop in the pond. For context, it cost a lot more than £250k just to repair half of Newhaven's ring road recently. The idea that this is going to upgrade anything is embarrassing and shows how far out of touch the Conservatives are with the real world in which the rest of us live.
"Maria Caulfield should be joining us by standing up in parliament and demanding better for our area rather than just loyally applauding this pitiful announcement from the sidelines."
Cllr Carolyn Lambert, who represents Seaford South, adds: "I am working with James and other local councillors to get real action on safety improvements and congestion on the A259. Any sort of serious improvements will cost millions and that's just one road!
"It is insulting to see our MP once again trying to pretend that this is anything other than an empty gesture that will do absolutely nothing to improve our county's crumbling roads."
Liberal Democrat councillors Carolyn Lambert and Stephen Gauntlett met with representatives of Barclays Bank to discuss the bank’s decision to close its Seaford branch.
Cllr Lambert says: “We made it clear to Barclays that Seaford is the biggest town in Lewes District. Barclays have told us that one in five residents in Seaford bank at Barclays and many of these are likely to be older customers who both need and value personal banking services. Many do not have access to online banking and are also very vulnerable to scams. There are other banks in Seaford who are continuing to offer personal face to face banking services so Barclays needed to consider the impact of their decision.”
Cllr Gauntlett adds: “I described the decision to close the Seaford branch of Barclays as “brutal”. I was pleased that Barclays accept that this should have been handled better and are now calling the customers who regularly use the branch to see how they can be helped to adjust to the change”.
Barclays told the councillors that they are now looking at bringing in a mobile banking van to offer some face to face advice services and that this could also be provided by them on a regular basis at Seaford library. Cllrs Gauntlett and Lambert are offering to work with the bank to assist with this provision which should help residents who will be affected by the closure.”
Liberal Democrat County Councillors say that the Conservative government is ignoring the plight of Seaford town centre which has been blighted by a scaffolding skyscraper for almost a decade.
Councillor Carolyn Lambert, County Councillor for Seaford South explains: “As residents of Seaford we are all fed up with this immoveable blight in our town centre. We have been let down by the Conservative government and by our MP. The fact that we have not even had an acknowledgement of our concerns is beyond discourteous and shows how little the government cares about places like Seaford.”
Cllr James MacCleary, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary spokesperson adds: “Lewes District Council has written to Robert Jenrick MP, the appropriate Minister to ask the government to consider changing planning legislation so that the council can take action to end this blight."
No response was received so Councillor Carolyn Lambert, as the local County Councillor wrote again. Neither Carolyn nor Lewes District Council has even received an acknowledgement. "We have asked Maria Caulfield, our MP, to intervene and help, but despite her repeated claims that the council has the powers to deal with this, she has not been able to tell us anything that we have not already tried. Her claims that other councils have dealt successfully with these kinds of issues are not supported by any evidence."
Liberal Democrat councillors are fighting to keep Barclays Bank services in Seaford.
Councillor Carolyn Lambert explains: “I have contacted Barclays Bank to point out that Seaford is not only the largest town in Lewes District but that it has a high population of older people not all of whom are connected to the internet or who are comfortable with online banking services. They value face to face contact with their bank. This group of residents are also particularly vulnerable to scams which makes it even more important that they can access bank services directly.
"I am also very concerned about this large scale building in the town centre being left empty.”
Councillor Stephen Gauntlett adds: “Local organisations such as the church use banking services provided by Barclays. It is not appropriate to ask volunteers to carry sums of cash. As we discovered during the vaccine rollout, many residents simply cannot afford to travel to Eastbourne or Brighton to access banking facilities.”
Both councillors welcomed Barclays response to their concerns and hope that a forthcoming meeting they are having with bank staff will prove productive.
Cllr Keith Glazier, Leader of East Sussex County Council, wrote off a Liberal Democrat proposal to bring forward the council’s target to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 instead of 2050 as “hypocritical shroud waving”.
In a heated debate, Conservative councillors angrily denounced Liberal Democrat arguments that the Council needed to make a plan of action to deliver on a carbon neutrality target of 2030 and should include an environmental assessment on every council report.
Cllr Kathryn Field comments: “The reaction of the Conservative administration to this frankly very reasonable proposal was extraordinary. The clue is in the word emergency. We need to take action now. The Conservatives are happy to talk about introducing stretch targets in other areas of work but are clearly not willing to do so to help tackle the biggest global emergency facing us all. At the current rate of progress, the County Council will fail to reach the targets it has set even by 2050. The events of the last few weeks in Germany and the United States have shown the impact of climate change on parts of the western world let alone what is happening elsewhere. We cannot simply ignore these catastrophic events. We need to show ambition and leadership.”
Liberal Democrat Councillor Carolyn Lambert welcomed the reply to her question about trees in East Sussex.
Councillor Lambert explains: “I have consistently raised with the County Council the question of trees in Seaford. We are losing many of our lovely tree-lined roads and instead seeing unsightly stumps. East Sussex County Council has now applied for the maximum grant of £300,000 from the government’s fund for tree planting. If this is successful, the money will all be spent in Seaford.
"I am delighted by this response and very much hope that the bid will be successful”.