Free elderly transport heads for the chopping block in Darlington

2 08 2010

Darlington’s council cabinet has agreed to axe transport concessions for the elderly and disabled as part of its £2.6m first round of spending cuts.

The council is cutting its discretionary travel scheme for bus passholders to travel for free before 9.30am and after 11pm on weekdays (they have a statutory right to free travel at other times), as well as scrapping its taxi vouchers scheme, which enables bus passholders to use taxis to reach locations off bus routes.

In addition, Darlington is cutting its subsidy for the Shopmobility service, meaning users are likely to have to pay £2 per trip. This particular cut will save the council a whopping £8k per year. The less-used Ring a Ride service is also being cut.

The council’s equalities impact assessment describes the concessionary transport cuts as ‘high risk’. Darlington has 21,000 bus passholders, 1,600 people who use taxi vouchers – mainly over-75s living in care homes and younger disabled people – and around 1,600 registered users of Shopmobility, with 350 usages per month.

‘The withdrawal of taxi vouchers combined with the termination of Ring a Ride could have a significant impact on the more infirm older people, particularly those on lower incomes who are both less able to use buses and less able to pay for taxis,’ according to the impact assessment.

School crossing patrols are being axed where automated pedestrian crossings exist – because children always pay attention to red and green lights. They might do with full road safety education – except Darlington is also cutting this budget by 45 percent, which will affect provision for older junior school children. The council’s impact assessment describes the health and safety impact of these cuts as ‘high risk’.

Darlington is cutting £100k from after-school clubs and £240k from its Connexions budget in a salami-slice response to the government’s in-year cuts, as well as withdrawing concessionary transport for children who are not eligible for free home-to-school transport. In total, £355k is being cut from the council’s schools services budget.

More than 10 percent of funding for the council’s ethnic minority and traveller education service is being cut, as the council reduces the service by deleting vacant posts. The service provides targeted teacher and bilingual classroom assistant support for children for whom English is not their first language, and provides training for schools on raising achievement among ethnic minority and traveller children.

In a classic example of how sterile sounding administrative cuts can actually have risks at the frontline, Darlington is cutting ‘service auditing’. This rather dry process actually involves checking the quality of council services, such as school meals, against set criteria – and according to the council’s own risk assessment, frontline staff are in no position to carry out this work themselves.

The council’s assessment admits that “this would significantly reduce the quality checks and audits on services”, and will lead to an “increased risk of service failure, e.g. food hygiene standards”. Presumably the risk of an E.Coli outbreak is worth the £25k this cut will save the council each year.

In addition to these cuts, Darlington is also scrapping capital spending on ten planned playground schemes in response to the government’s de-ringfencing of the Playbuilders grant,

This first phase of cuts will lead to 20 job losses and 13 unfilled vacancies; this is on top of 33 redundancies that are already underway. As the cuts programme develops, far more job losses can be expected.

The council’s own description of its strategy is telling – it is ‘moving towards a strategic commissioning organisation’, ‘structured around broad outcome groups (as against specific services’.

This shunt from provider to commissioner reflects the direction local government is set to take nationally. Councils will be expected to pay social enterprises and companies to provide services for them, in the vague expectation that this deliver better services. If it doesn’t, tough.

But the worst part is that all this is just the tip of the iceberg. The £2.6m of announced cuts barely dents the £22m the council expects to have to save to 2015. Darlington will have to endure plenty of pain yet in order to meet the coalition cuts.




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