Is there really any point in local councillors if their views are overlooked?
PUBLISHED: 06:18 07 September 2017 | UPDATED: 08:12 07 September 2017
The strange saga of the Mid Suffolk bus service that was re-routed to take it away from its passengers has provided a bit of amusement – and has made the county council look a bit silly.
But I’m worried that it actually shows up a more deep-seated malaise at the heart of the political and administrative structures of the council – something that needs to be addressed straight away.
Otherwise the whole philosophy on which local government – and indeed democratic government at all levels – is based is a total sham and fundamentally pointless.
When the decision was made to re-route the buses from Eye to Ipswich away from the A140 and the villages of Stoke Ash and Thwaite, who was responsible?
There is some confusion whether the idea came from the county council itself or the operators Galloway, but why on earth was no one from the local area consulted before new timetables were published as fait accompli?
None of the parish councils were consulted – even though public money is spent on subsidising the service – and the local county councillor Andrew Stringer did not know about the changes until he was contacted by bus users.
When he did challenge the decision he was told that the county council had to save money therefore the service had to be reduced and by running it through country lanes rather than the main road, it would be cheaper.
No one listened to his concerns that the route was totally unsuitable for buses and would leave residents of two villages stranded and unable to use the service.
Why were his concerns ignored? Was it because they didn’t believe he had a good point? Or was it because as an opposition (Green) councillor they didn’t think it was worth listening to him?
Because when Suffolk Police and Crime Commissioner, and Tory bigwig, Tim Passmore started making exactly the same point, clearly officials and councillors at Endeavour House paid far more attention.
He lives in the area and knows it, and the small roads that the bus was being put along, well. He knows just what a daft idea the proposal was. And he was prepared to say so – he used the word ridiculous to me several times.
When I put Mr Passmore’s concerns, which were very similar in essence to Mr Stringer’s, to the county council – together with some questions I raised having been out photographing the route – the attitude changed rapidly.
Within a couple of hours the decision had been reversed (albeit from next week because of the need to inform the Traffic Commissioners) and everyone seemed happy.
Now it was absolutely right for Mr Passmore to have his say. He lives in the area and as well as being PCC he is also a Mid Suffolk District councillor.
But frankly if the county council had consulted locally, and especially with Mr Stringer, before they made the decision, then the authority would not have been left looking foolish (and with a bill for a shuttle bus it is running this week to keep the villagers from Thwaite and Stoke Ash connected with the outside world).
This is a comparatively small decision – but it really does go to the very heart of the concept of representative democracy.
When we go to the polls to vote for our councillor, MP, Police and Crime Commissioner or whatever, we are electing someone not just to represent our political views – but also to represent our area to those who run things in Westminster, Endeavour House, or wherever.
Some decisions are political (like whether to cut the subsidy to bus services) but some are entirely practical (like whether it is possible to walk a mile through muddy fields to a bus stop a long way from the nearest building).
If you are unable to tell the difference between a practical and a political decision, then frankly you are unable to really do your job as either a council official or a senior councillor making decisions that affect people’s lives.
Some of the best councillors and MPs are those who aren’t governed by political dogma – but who represent the people who have voted them into office because they know their home area well.
I’m not convinced that the majority of those living in the Upper Gipping Division of Suffolk County Council are all keen Green Party supporters – but they recognise that Andrew Stringer knows the area and feel he can represent it well. Suffolk County Council should accept that.