Thursday, 17 January 2008

Will the last man out...

Last night was a Special Cabinet meeting. The first item on the agenda was the decision on the new concessionary bus fares scheme, which will allow the over-60s to travel anywhere in the country on local buses for free between at least 9.30am and 11pm. Unfortunately, Darlington's proposed variation of this scheme will mean free travel is being withdrawn before 9.30.
As the Leader said, if you're over 60 and have an early morning hospital appointment and need to travel by bus, just pick up the phone and re-arrange the appointment. Well, that's all right then, isn't it? Unless of course they all do that, which will still mean the Council has to pick up the tab for these journeys, which it says it can't afford!
Of course, one of the problems here is that the Labour Government was forced into this by complaints about its previous scheme which had meant that many bus travellers were being forced to pay, or being turfed off buses, when the bus reached the local authority boundary. Government, typically, has not provided adequate funds for local authorities to maintain their present schemes. Despite the fine words coming out of number 10 nowadays, there is no sign that central Government is paying anything more than lip service to the notion of local accountability and responsibility.
The second item on the agenda was the Cabinet's proposals for next year's budget, which are to go out to public consultation. Well, if last night's meeting was anything to go by, they're in for a rough ride - from their own staff!
Several officers spoke at the meeting: all with passion and commitment towards the services they provide. Particularly telling was a short, unscripted contribution from a young lady from the taxation department who said that money could be saved and some cuts avoided if employees switched off lights and computer screens when not needed - including overnight!
What is going on? In this day and age, with rocketing fuel prices, climate change and a financial squeeze on local government, we still don't have a culture of saving energy within the Council!
Another contribution was from Trading Standards staff who pleaded for the retention of their front line advice service. They said they could find the necessary savings by internal back-room re-organisation and the loss of just one job (which has been left unfilled since the summer anyway).
This raises the question, weren't staff consulted before all the worry and upset caused by the publication of these Cabinet proposals? I suspect, if their suggestions stand up to scrutiny, that the Cabinet will find some way to amend these proposals to save this service. Then they can claim to be the "listening" Council they say they want to be. Of course, they could have consulted properly BEFORE all the upset this has caused (as, of course, they could over Hurworth School and Tesco!).
For those who enjoy politics for its entertainment value, get along to Middleton St George this Saturday for the next Talking Together event. The proposed abolition of grants to the parishes will be the hot topic. Go Doris!

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