A Labour county councillor was the only one to vote against cutting the number of council staff employed to maintain the county's Highways, and the closure of the Highways depot for the north of the county at a recent meeting, as the Tory leadership pushed through their plans for the transformation of the Highways and Transport service at West Sussex County Council.
The Tory leadership at the county council's Environmental and Community Services Select Committee outlined a further £1.3 million of cuts to its Highways staffing budget on Wednesday, as well as plans to sell off its Highways depots at Broadbridge Heath and Midhurst to private developers.
The cuts in current numbers of county council staff will be the equivalent of reducing all Highways employees by one fifth. The Highways depot at Broadbridge Heath, which serves as the office for all highways issues in the northern part of the county, which includes Crawley, Horsham and Mid Sussex, will be closed and the land sold off to housing developers. This means that the nearest remaining depots will be in Drayton, near Chichester, Clapham, near Worthing and Hurstpierpoint.
The closure and sale of Broadbridge Heath is likely to be as soon as April, with the intention to use part of the profits made from the sale of the land to fund a central "super depot" which the county council claim will effectively serve the entire county. The proposed super depot is not due be built for at least two years, during which time residents affected in the north of the county will have to put up with interim arrangements, where staff and equipment will either be based at the remaining depots, or the council claims, remaining staff may be able to hot-desk if there are spaces at council offices.
Labour County Councillor Michael Jones expressed deep concern, noting that the council employees trade union, UNISON had written to councillors highlighting employees' concerns that the changes could damage the council's ability to meet its legal obligations on highways standards. Speaking against the proposals at the meeting, Cllr Jones said, "There's been a large response from staff and most of it is worried and concerned about the practical implications. Does this not give you cause to re-think whether this should go ahead? I'm very unhappy with the proposed 'interim arrangements'."How will highways inspections retain the highest priority, we'll have no defence to legal action against the council? What about concerns from staff that multi-functional officers will compromise safety and customer service?"
The Tory and UKIP members of the Select Committee all voted to support the proposals, while the sole Lib Dem member of the committee abstained. Cllr Jones, the sole Labour councillor on the committee, was the only councillor present who voted to reject the proposals. Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Jones added, "This is going to be a disaster, as far as roads in West Sussex are concerned. It's next to impossible for councillors and residents to get effective action on many of the problems with our roads now, never mind how bad this is likely to become after this latest 'reorganisation' by the Tories. "The fact that the official bases for our local highways teams are going to be moved so far away from the places they are supposed to serve, is yet another obstacle being put in place to delay the repairs and improvements the county's highways regularly need. The county council already suffers from a poor reputation with residents for its record on insufficient spending on our roads. This just looks like it is going to make a bad situation even worse. The last thing we can afford is to lose more experienced staff."
Speaking after the meeting, County Labour Group Leader Sue Mullins agreed with Cllr Jones' objections, adding,"This has been rushed through. I'm far from convinced that the county council will be able to serve residents effectively from one super depot. The county is a large place - there's no doubt this could stop the council getting through to areas needing action."