Fairer Funding for Surrey Schools

March 19th, 2014 by willforster
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School

Surrey County Council is set to receive nearly £25 million more in school funding than under the current system, as part of an extra £350 million boost to schools in the least fairly funded areas in the country.

The proposals announced by David Laws, the Lib Dem Minister at the Department of Education will mean that funding will be allocated to local areas on the basis of the actual characteristics of their pupils and schools, rather than simply on the basis of historic levels of spending.

The changes mean that, on average, Surrey schools will receive £4,282 per pupil next year – an increase of around 4.5%.

This is clearly fantastic news for Surrey children and is a much needed reform – and really fits in with the Lib Dem fairness agenda.  The way schools were funded that was inherited by the Coalition Government was unfair, Labour knew it but chose not to act.

For too long, school funding has been based on historical data that no longer reflects pupils’ needs.  Similar schools just miles apart can be funded at very different levels, just because they happen to be in different local authority areas. This announcement, along with the Pupil Premium, will mean that children in South Woking can get the education they deserve.

Congestion around Old Woking

March 5th, 2014 by willforster
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Needless to say, the closure of Newark Lane has led to inevitable traffic congestion in South Woking – especially delaying motorists trying to get to and from the A3 – however, this traffic chaos has been compounded by a gas leak on the High Street in Old Woking and the subsequent roadworks by Southern Gas Networks.

Officials from Surrey County Council and I have been in regular contact with the utility company and it’s contractors, pushing them to get the roadworks done and cleared as soon as possible.  We challenged Southern Gas Networks on the length of closure required, as well as requesting that they extend their working hours and manually operate the traffic lights at peak periods.

To make matters worse, the County Council is now about to start work on some ‘improvements’ to the Maybury Hill and Old Woking Road junction.  As I’ve said before these changes were controversial and several Councillors, including me did not support them – and that’s setting aside the timing of these works.

The Council’s roadworks at the Maybury Hill and Old Woking Road junction at due to start imminently.  Lots, but not all of the work will involve temporary traffic lights – but thankfully they will only be used outside the morning and evening rush hours.  The Council will also close the roads for a few nights (at a date to be determined) to resurface the junction with anti-skid surfacing.

The Future of Woking Magistrates Court

February 28th, 2014 by willforster
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Woking Magistrates Court

Surrey County Council has purchased the site of the former Woking Magistrates Court and are currently converting the building to house an expanded Coroners Court service.

Ever since the Ministry of Justice closed the old court, I’ve been pressuring the County Council to buy the Magistrates Court site so it can be in control of the full court complex on Station Approach – the Council already owned the Coroners Court section, which is in between the Magistrates Court and the Police Station.

Following the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, the workload of the Coroners service has increased – so new office space was needed.  The Magistrates Court site seemed to fit the bill exactly – it was well connected, provided the right type of rooms and was a cost effective solution.

In the medium to longer term, the whole Coroners/Magistrates Court site could provide a useful option when the Council is next discussing how to meet the growing demand for school places.

The site is meant to be large enough – just – for a primary school, although the congested area outside and Town Centre location is not ideal or the traditional setting for a school, it does make sense when the other primary schools in the town have expanded – and we know demand for places in this area will keep growing.  The old court will not need a huge amount of work to convert to a school either – the rooms are about the right size and number for classrooms and the car park at the back would make a good playground.

Even if the old Magistrates Court is never used as a school, it is useful for the County Council has sites in its ownership that could be converted if the need arises – having only one option to create new school places is never good, and that’s keeps happening, resulting in children travelling further to school and residents living nearby schools suffering increased congestion.

So for a change, I’m actually happy with a decision made at County Hall – but, I was not happy with the way the news was made public.

The Cabinet made the decision to buy the Magistrates Court building in the confidential ‘Part II’ section of one of it’s meetings, as clearly buying property is commercial sensitive.  However, despite this being a confidential item and even before the decision was made (ever heard of predetermination?) – the Cabinet Member for Community Services spoke to the local press announcing the decision.

As an opposition member, I feel I would not be allowed to get away with breaching Part II rules like this.

Flooding changes transport plans

February 27th, 2014 by willforster
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Following the recent floods, Surrey County Council has suspended work on its resurfacing programme and the Local Sustainable Transport Fund improvements, including the South Woking cycle route.

Not only were all staff and resources needed to cope with the floods and its aftermath, but the quality of work will be poor if done in the wet conditions we have experienced lately.

Therefore, ‘my’ South Woking cycle route remains unfinished for now – the work still to be done is the shared used sections on Constitution Hill, Claremont Avenue and Mayford, plus the signing and lining works.

Ellis Farm Close was scheduled to be resurfaced at the end of February as part of Operation Horizon, however that is on hold.  Plans to resurface Granville Road, Kingfield Road, New Lane and Sutton Green Road in the new financial year are also up in the air at the moment.

The only exception is the A320 between Clay Lane and Woodlands Road in Guildford by Slyfield – this road is in a dire state and needed to be resurfaced asap.  The work is scheduled to last 11 nights between 8 pm and 6 am, starting on 25th February.

Canopy Square Update

February 26th, 2014 by willforster
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Canopy

I recently met with the Deputy Chief Executive of Woking Borough Council about the appalling state of the public space underneath the Albion Square Canopy outside Woking Station.

As I have commented on before, the quality of the surface is so bad – even Surrey County Council has refused to readopt it back into the public highway.

Following my meeting, I am pleased to confirm that the Borough Council state it has now done all the necessary emergency repairs to ensure pedestrians can use the area safely – both Surrey and Woking Councils will continue to monitor the square to ensure basic standards are maintained.

So although the Albion Square area is nowhere near as good as it should be, it is now at least safe.

I am hopeful that in the future – particular if the Bandstand, now Victoria Square development goes ahead – a full refurbishment of the pavement and highway will be done, I think it definitely needs one.  The Albion Square should be a welcoming environment to Woking’s visitors – which was the original plan, but sadly it is not at the moment.

Surrey Budget and Full Council

February 12th, 2014 by willforster
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Surrey County Council will increase its share of Council Tax by 1.99% following yesterday’s Full Council approval of the budget.  As a Group, us Lib Dems opposed the Conservative administration’s budget, as we viewed it as half baked and unrealistic.

The budget includes a £19 million saving in a programme designed to support families and communities, that we know cannot be achieved – therefore leaving a massive hole in the budget.  Despite savings of over £14 million for this programme not being achieved this year, the Cabinet has buried its head in the sand and is over optimistically planning to make yet more savings – or cuts, depending on your point of view.

We would have liked the budget to be completely reshaped with money put where it is most needed to protect services such as adult social care and local highways – rather than £2 million on PR and money piled up in reserves.  However, the Tories have a majority and a mandate to set a budget – even though less than half of Surrey’s residents think that they get value for money from the County Council.

Following my earlier posting on our Lib Dem call for a fairer deal for Surrey – I am pleased to confirm our motion won unanimous support from all County Councillors just after the budget decision.

Our motion called for more local decision making on funding and less central government control.  Local residents and businesses should reap the rewards of their own efforts without excessive central government control.

Although I disagree with how the County Council’s budget was divided up, this motion was about us locally getting full control of that budget – and ensuring local residents decide where our money goes, not Whitehall.

The amount of funding available to Surrey is effectively decided by government, this is because the government decides the amount of money available to County Hall from itself in the form of a grant and it effectively decides the level of Council Tax that the authority will charge, with very little room for manoeuvre.

This central control is excessive especially given the Localism Act, which was supposed to give more freedom to local people to make decisions affecting their communities.  Localism is sadly more apparent than real at the moment.  The Surrey economy grew by 8% in 2012, the proceeds from that growth would be used to fund services to the growing number of older people, much needed extra school places, flood prevention and repairing our crumbling highways and pavements.

Calling for a fair deal for Surrey

January 27th, 2014 by willforster
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Surrey County Council will soon be setting it’s next budget and Council Tax levels – as part of this, the Surrey Lib Dem Group are calling for a fair deal for Surrey, with more local decision making on funding and less central government control. Particularly, Surrey should be allowed to keep a fairer share of the money generated within the county.

Surrey residents and businesses should reap the rewards of their own efforts without excessive central government control.  The amount of funding available to Surrey is effectively decided by central government.  This is because central government decides the amount of money available to the County Council from itself in the form of grant and effectively decides the level of Council Tax that the council will charge, with very little room for manoeuvre.

This central control is excessive especially given the Localism Act, which was supposed to give more freedom to local people to make decisions affecting their communities.  Localism is more apparent than real.  It should be County Councillors that are held accountable to residents at election time, not to central government.

Surrey is an economic powerhouse, and it is only fair and reasonable that it should be able to keep a greater share of the money that it generates.  This could be used to fund services to the growing number of older people, much needed extra classrooms, flood prevention and repairing Surrey’s crumbling highways and pavements.

We have submitted a motion for debate at the budget Full Council on 11th February – are calling on the County Council to lobby central government to give Surrey more freedom over its own funding and finances, allowing more money generated by Surrey’s residents and businesses to stay in Surrey to improve services.

Prey Heath Road to get raised walkway

January 14th, 2014 by willforster
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Worplesdon Station

I am pleased to confirm that I have succeeded in getting Surrey County Council to agree to construct a raised pedestrian walkway under the Prey Heath Road railway bridge by Worplesdon Station.

Safety under the railway bridge on Prey Heath Road is appalling and I’ve wanted it improved ever since being elected – so I’m really pleased that the Woking Local Committee have now committed to fund and install the walkway in the 2014/15 financial year.

Currently, cars and pedestrians face each other head on in a pinch-point under the bridge.  Unlike under most bridges, vulnerable pedestrians have no protection or refuge from the passing traffic.

On top of that safety problem – as highlighted with the recent weather, the road underneath the bridge floods.  Pedestrians all too often have to wade through water to get to the station, leading to some commuters and children asking for lifts from passing motorists to the other side of the bridge.

The plan is to design a raised walkway, with a closed guard rail to protect people from falling off the walkway or getting splashed by passing vehicles.  As the width of the road under the bridge would be reduced, traffic would operate under a priority system, with traffic heading towards the A320 having priority over traffic going away from the main road.

Report on the December County Council

December 16th, 2013 by willforster
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The focus of last week’s Full Surrey County Council meeting was on the five motions submitted for debate – three from the Lib Dem Group, one from the majority Conservative Group and the other from Labour.

The living wage

The first was from the one Labour County Councillor calling for the Council to pay the ‘Living Wage’.  As I have tried this before at both County Hall and Woking Borough Council – the Lib Dems supported this move again, even though we had a feeling it was sadly doomed.  Which it was, as the local Conservatives continue to oppose the living wage.

School transport

The next motion was my Group’s first of the day – were we called for home to school transport to be improved – since the Council had recently announced a review of the policy, but from the start has said that it wasn’t proposing any changes.

I know from casework that many children and parents face difficulties with the present arrangements.  There are a number of anomalies that mean that it can be unfair for many children, who are denied free school transport by the County Council – which causes them major problems in getting to school.  It is a total nonsense for the Conservatives to announce a review but say the status quo is fine, it’s pre-determination and makes a mockery of the consultation process.

Us Lib Dems wanted a full review by Councillors of how home to school transport in Surrey is run so that urgent changes can be made.  We wanted a review of six major problems with the present arrangements which have been raised by Surrey parents.  They are:

- The discouragement that the present system gives to parents returning to full time work, given the Government’s focus on getting people off benefits and into work.  At present if parents cease to receive maximum Working Tax Credit or a child ceases to qualify for free school meals, Home to School Transport stops immediately.

- The difficulties in obtaining school transport by children living in rural parts of Surrey, especially for pupils wanting to go to their nearest school within the Borough where they live, where there are community ties, but who live close to Borough or County boundaries.

- The difficulties caused by the nearest school to a child’s home being denominational when a child is of a different religion.

- People being denied free Home to School Transport when the shortest practical route is far longer than the distances used under the qualifying criteria because there are major physical obstacles (such as railway lines, major roads and reservoirs).

- The difficulties caused to children who live more than 3 miles from any school but who are denied free transport to the parent’s school of choice because the parents have not opted for the nearest school.

- The difficulties caused when a child does not live in a school’s catchment area, even though it is their nearest school.

Sadly this motion and the merits of setting up a full review was deferred to the Cabinet, so I don’t hold out much hope that much-needed changes will be made.

Young people and politics

County Councillors from across all parties voted to support the motion from my colleague Ian Beardsmore for better youth representation across the county.  This will mean the establishment of a County-wide youth democracy platform which will include representatives of young people from schools and colleges – complementing the existing youth councils at Borough level.

Badgers

Then we had a motion from me, calling for a ban stopping any culling of badgers on Council land – the idea behind this was to head off any Government plans to cull Surrey badgers like they have tried to do in Gloucestershire and Somerset to fight Bovine TB.  I’m a strong supporter of protecting our countryside and environment, and that must include all the species that make it their home.

I had hoped I would be pushing on an open door with this call, as Conservative-run Hampshire County Council agreed a similar ban there – and the science is not proven nor conclusive that a call of badgers is the answer to eradicating Bovine TB from the countryside.  The pilot culls in the West Country have been so unsuccessful that Owen Paterson  infamously blamed the badgers for moving the goal posts!

However, my hopes were misplaced – the Conservative majority (joined by Independent and UKIP Councillors) voted down my motion thereby encouraging a badger cull locally.

Apprenticeships

Finally, we had a motion on apprenticeships.  Despite the continued tough but improving economic climate, both County Hall and the Coalition Government has managed to do a lot of good on apprenticeships.  For example, 520,600 new apprenticeships were started in 2011/12 – that’s an 86% increase since 2009/10.

So although it was a very self congratulating motion, apprenticeships are thankfully a real success story.

No Crossing for Egley Road

December 6th, 2013 by willforster
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Egley Road

Following a two-stage public consultation on a possible crossing on the A320 Egley Road – Surrey County Council will not be proceeding with a crossing there in the foreseeable future.

As I’ve covered earlier – the first stage of consultation found where was the most popular place along Egley Road for there to be a crossing, this place was just north of Blackbridge Road near the post box on Egley Road.  However, as there was a low level of enthusiasm for a crossing and many local residents objected to the idea – a second stage of consultation was required.

Out of the 63 responses to this further consultation, 56 people were against the crossing and only 7 in favour.  As that’s a huge majority against, no crossing will be built.

Although it seems the County Council proposed and consulted on an idea that wasn’t needed or popular, I am still pleased they did.  As it’s wrong for the Council to sit back and wait for the public to present petitions calling for something – local authorities should be proactive and engage with residents as a matter of course, and not always being reactive.

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South Woking Division - Election Result 2013

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