All posts tagged 'transport'

Cry Freedom - the Conservative budget dilemma over the Freedom Pass

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 31 2014

Kent County Council must have calculated that its plans for a £350 cap limiting the use of the Freedom Pass would trigger some controversy.

But any hope that it could ride it out and persuade parents and children that the new arrangements still represented a good deal is failing on quite a spectacular level.

Mounting pressure over Freedom Pass changes>>>

If you wanted an illustration of the backlash, you don't have to look very far. Two petitions calling for a re-think have already attracted about 8,000 signatures. One has been started by a Conservative councillor in Shepway, which must be pretty galling for County Hall.

Even schools are encouraging parents to get on the case, sending out messages on social media linking to the petitions.

There are mutterings in the corridors of County Hall that some backbenchers are not terribly impressed and speculation that come the budget meeting, the opposition parties will join forces and try to block the changes.

KCC's dilemma is that the scheme has proved too successful and as a result, is proving a drain on its dwindling resources. Not many councils could sustain a discretionary service costing £13m a year to run given the relentless pressure on their budgets.

It is doubtful, however, that hard-pressed parents who fear they will have to fork out hundreds of pounds once the £350 cap is reached will have much time for the distinction between mandatory and non-mandatory services.

Containing school transport costs is undeniably a big issue for Kent, partly because it is such a large county.

One of the key principles behind the Freedom Pass was that it was designed to enhance the concept of parental choice when schooling was concerned. It is impossible to know, but there will be many parents and children who factored in the availability of the Freedom Pass when making choices about schools.

The scheme was also lauded for its impact on cutting congestion during the school run and environmental pollution around towns but we are not hearing much about that, despite it being an integral part of KCC's "Growth Without Gridlock" agenda.

It is only two years since the county council made an equally unpopular decision to end a scheme that gave help with transport costs to those attending grammar schools and church schools, depending on how far away they lived from the school.

At the time, the Conservatives justified the decision by saying that it would not be an issue because...of the introduction of the universal Freedom Pass.

That decision also rankled with county councillors and Conservative MPs and continues to do so - about a year ago, under pressure from backbenchers, KCC initiated a review to see if they could restore some limited help to pupils but again emphasised that the Freedom Pass neutralised the impact.

A working group was set up but that has not reported on options and no-one seems to know if it will.

Many parents say they would be happy if the pass could be used just for the purposes of getting children to and from school, dropping the "leisure" use element that allows it to be used seven-days a week for any journey.

KCC is unlikely to want to get bogged down in changes which could create a bureaucratic and administrative nightmare. One of the virtues of the scheme has been its relative simplicity.

Either way, the council is in a political bind and the irony is that it is paying the price not for failure but success.

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HS2 - forget the pain, think of the gain

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Friday, January 6 2012

Hooray for the business people who have called for the HS2 to go ahead.

At long last, a real-world case is made for a project that would - albeit belatedly - put the UK on the right track in the new era of international high-speed rail travel.

We know all too well in Kent about the disruption and damage that construction causes. It was horrible while it lasted. There were ugly scars on the landscape.

But engineers did a great job. The wounds have healed. For all the protests about HS1 many years ago - similar to those we hear along the proposed HS2 - Kent now has a superb high-speed service, even though some of the advantages have come at the expense of old-style train performance.

Okay, fares are high but increased prosperity brings more wealth.

High-speed rail is slowly transforming the economy, with house prices leaping in towns like Ashford, Gravesend and Folkestone which are well plugged into the service.

It’s not just about people travelling to London, it also encourages people to commute into Kent, adding to the county’s skill base.

The same scenario will apply to Thanet when Manston, for example, has a Parkway station and journey times to London fall to an hour.

As for the feared landscape damage, few people now complain about the environmental impact of high-speed trains. It now blends into the landscape.

Initial Kent protests succeeded, forcing the then Government to abandon the initial route through South Darenth in favour of a northerly route. But thank goodness the principle of high-speed to the Continent was retained.

No doubt there were protests from residents between Settle and Carlisle about a “damaging” new line in Victorian times, but it is now cherished as a scenic and engineering wonder.

HS2 to Birmingham and beyond promises economic growth on the back of faster journey times.  It should help bridge the widening North-South divide.

The Chilterns are a precious asset but skilful - and no expense spared - engineering can mitigate the impact.

The French have led the way on Les Grands Projets while the UK is usually late into the big idea, frightened off by cost or public protest.

HS2 is a bold initiative that should be welcomed. OK, there will be pain, and plenty of fury from affected locals. But as we have found in Kent, both are temporary. The longer-term economic gain for the UK will be immense – and it should not be just business people who can see this light at the end of the tunnel.

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Categories: HS-1 | Regeneration | Thames Gateway | Transport

Kent MPs anger over County Hall's grammar 'attack'

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, June 17 2011

There is no denying that Conservative Kent MPs are pretty miffed by County Hall's Conservative leadership and its plans to scrap transport subsidies for pupils going to grammar schools.

MPs' backlash over grammar transport cut>>>

I gather that virtually every MP opposed the plans when they were first outlined  and left KCC in no doubt that they regarded it as a wrong move. Some have now broken cover to denounce the plan in public; others are keeping their powder dry.

One MP told me: "If this was a Labour run council, everyone would be seeing this as an attack on grammars." Another said KCC was "schizophrenic" over grammars and couldn't decide whether it liked them or not.

Either way, KCC has contrived to make a lot of people unhappy and I sense that relations are somewhat strained between MPs and the powers that be at County Hall.

The continued survival of grammars is totemic to many Conservatives, who feel David Cameron was fundamentally wrong to rule out the creation of new grammars and wish the party would be much bolder in support of selection. In Kent, these feelings run high and MPs feel rather let down that the area with the greatest concentration of selective schools appears set on penalising those who go to them and strive to go to them.

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It's about 18 months since Kent was treated to a whirlwind visit by KCC leader Paul Carter and architectural guru Sir Terry Farrell as the pair unveiled a masterplan setting out a vision of Kent as the UK's "super region".

But what has happened to "21st Century Kent - Unlocking Kent's Potential" that bold document that moved the council leader to say that it could herald an era that echoed the achievements of the Victorians?

Bold vision for Kent...>>>

The answer is, it seems, not a great deal. A report to a committee next week sets out how after various consultations and the commissioning of various - jargon alert - "workstreams" a series of "emerging actions are being mapped to produce an outcome-focussed performance and delivery framework."

And all this will be set out in a "high level" report (no low level reports at KCC) which will be used to take a "high-level strategic view of progress" and be used to further the "21st century brand."

So, that's alright then.

 

 

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KCC risks the ire of the squeezed middle as grammar pupils hit by spending squeeze

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, June 14 2011

FOR a Conservative education authority with the largest number of grammar schools in  the country, it can't have been easy deciding to end transport subsidies for those attending selective schools.

KCC to scrap transport costs help for grammar and church school pupils>>>

While KCC has been at pains to emphasise that it will look to offer support to children in care and those on low incomes who get a place at grammars, it risks antagonising those who fall the wrong side of this line and may well be on modest incomes and see - rightly or wrongly - that grammars offer their children a chance to get on.  The "squeezed middle" takes another hit.

And let's be clear - there are plenty of them: an estimated 4,199 pupils who currently get support for their transport wouldn't under the new arrangements coming in in 2012.

As education chiefs admit: "A significant minority are likely to be from families on low incomes surviving on low limited means."

But on balance, KCC is right to end these discretionary subsidies. There is an inherent unfairness in the current arrangements which could be  said to adversely impact on those parents who pro-actively choose a non-selective school for their children. (Hard for some to believe, but yes, they do exist).

There is no such support for children who attend a non-selective school which they may have opted for which is not the nearest to their home in the same way. So KCC could well have been legally challenged. The only way in which it might have preserved subsidies for grammar and church school pupils would have been to have extended the same right to those attending any other type of school.

Given the potential costs, that would have been a non-starter. More importantly, there is the principle of equity - why should only parents of church or selective schools enjoy this kind of support? It is true that the spread of these schools means they may be further afield than others. But we have been sold the idea that when it comes to schools, we have choice.

And it is this political obsession with the illusory concept of school choice - and the attendant pursuit of "diversity" within the school system - that can be blamed. Parents told they can exercise choice will inevitably look further afield than the nearest school down the end of the road if they think it might be better for their children.

And believe it or not, sometimes they opt for schools that are neither selective or denominational and which are also more than three miles away from their nearest appropriate school.

  

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Chard gets the chop as Carter shuffles his deck

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, January 31 2011

NOT quite the night of the long knives. More a subtle filleting. But there's no denying the most notable aspect of a cabinet reshuffle at County Hall is the demise of Cllr Nick  Chard, the man who was in charge of the county's road network as well as waste and the environment.

Cabinet reshuffle sees transport boss out>>>

Why has he gone? As ever, there appears to be a myriad of theories, none of which strike me as terribly persuasive or compelling. I do sense that it came as a bit of a surprise - not just to Cllr Chard - but to many others.

I think there's an interesting sub-text to the diplomatically-worded statement he sent to staff and colleagues announcing his departure - setting out the achievements of the directorate over his 18-months in charge.

And it is true that after a fairly chaotic and turbulent few years in the highways department, it appeared to be on a more even keel and under the management of John Burr enjoying a rather more settled period.

Yes, there have been problems but the authority's concerted efforts to tackle the spate of pot holes caused by two bad winters was, on the whole, reasonably successful and Kent appeared to have escaped major problems with gritting the roads this winter.

Only last week, Cllr Chard was talking about the authority's important rail blueprint detailing what KCC wanted under the new franchise.

Still, cabinet reshuffles are the leader's prerogative and he must have his reasons - indeed, highways and transport are issues that Paul Carter has taken a close interest in and has very firm views about. Which itself might be one of the explanations for the change. (Worth noting that at the last reshuffle after the 2009 election, the highways job was one of three key changes).

The rest of the changes are not quite as far-reaching as some might have expected. Indeed, the major cabinet posts remain pretty much the same albeit with some title changes. One other new face at the cabinet table will be Cllr Jenny Whittle, who takes on a role as member for specialist childrens services.

There are one of two changes in the deputy cabinet roles, with no jobs for Cllr Mike Northey, Mike Angell and Leyland Ridings, who has taken over from Chris Capon as the chairman of the backbench scrutiny committee on education, learning and skills. That's an interesting switch of roles as Leyland Ridings was the member who had responsibility for vulnerable children's services in his former deputy cabinet role.

Newcomers include Cllr Mike Whiting as deputy cabinet member for education, learning and skills, who was elected in 2009. Cllr Jeremy Kite, the leader of Dartford council and an occasional thorn in the side of the administration, is deputy cabinet member  for regeneration.

One issue raised by the shake-up is where the £200k that is to be saved on members allowances is going to come from. With the numbers of cabinet and deputy cabinet member roles remaining the same, it looks like an across-the-board pay cut might be the favoured option.

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Categories: Politics

Kent takes kicking on transport - but at least the PM grounds airport plan

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Wednesday, October 27 2010

The more you unpick the government's spending review, the more apparent it becomes that Kent has come off particularly badly on the transport front.

Strange, given that we all know that the forecasts for traffic growth are all pointing to a continuing upward trend and that the county, as a major gateway to Europe, has the additional burden of its roads coping with an extra 8million vehicles a day.

But there has been a steady trickle of bad news for motorists and others since George Osborne delivered his spending review. First, there was the news that Dartford tolls were to increase to £2.50 each way by 2012 - causing a few jitters for Kent Conservative MPs who had made great play of pledging to get rid of the toll charges before the election.

Then there was the news of a hike in rail fares for hard-pressed commuters, which have been widely condemned. And in the last 48 hours, the confirmation that planned improvements to the A21 are on hold til 2015 and that a scheme to improve Junction 10 of the M20 near Ashford is also under review.

This catalogue of delays and the prospect of paying more for travelling by train or crossing the Thames in a car makes up for a pretty dismal outlook - not even taking into account the fact that petrol duty is to go up in the New Year.

According to KCC data, nearly 80 per cent of households have one or more cars and six in ten drive to work. A further 74,000 people commute into Kent on a daily basis.

I don't know why Kent has fared so badly. I suspect that in addition to all the cost-benefit analyses, ministers took a cold look at the political conseqeuences of their decisions and came to the conclusion that however unpalatable they might be, they would be unlikely to have serious electoral ramifications come the next election. (That's sometimes a price you pay for having thumping great majorities - whatever the party.)

And I don't doubt that in a few years time - just before the end of Parliament -ministers will be making rather more optimistic noises about some of these schemes that have been kicked into the long grass.

Still, if the government was hoping to get onside with motorists and rail commuters in the county, it needs to do a bit more than simply postponing much-needed road schemes and hitting them where it hurts most - namely their pockets.

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Still, at least David Cameron appears to have grounded Boris Johnson's latest wheeze to re-examine options for an airport on the Hoo Peninsular. He stepped in today to declare at PMQs that the government has no plans for an airport anywhere in the county.

The question is whether BoJo is listening.There's a growing sense of exasperation among MPs and council chiefs in Kent that the Mayor being so persistent in pursuing his much-criticised airport plans, seemingly determined to do whatever he can to get them off the ground.

This exasperation is felt particularly by MPs in the county - it's not even as if the Mayor has any jurisdiction or powers in the area he feels would be so well-suited to a new airport. Perhaps our MPs should turn the tables and start talking up the idea of a new airport around the vicinity of City Hall.

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Categories: Commuting | Hoo peninsula | KCC | Local Politics | Politics | Transport

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