Are Wiltshire Council Conservatives planning secret changes to the Area Boards?
Marlborough.news has seen an emailed invitation from Councillor Laura Mayes to a meeting of the Conservative Group of Wiltshire councillors.
It is headed "Cabinet update with Conservative Group" and invites a list of 56 email addressees to meet in the Ceremony Room at County Hall on 1 May 2018 for a two hour session.
The invitation reads: "Further to our discussion to share key decisions with the Group, you are invited to attend a session to discuss the future plans for Area Boards and Special Schools. We look forward to seeing you."
The invitation raises three points of interest or concern. First, the invitation is in the name of Councillor Mayes - although one of the two issues is outside her cabinet responsibility. What is her role on the Conservative Group?
Secondly, of the 56 people invited 26 are no longer serving Wiltshire councillors and none of the current Marlborough Area Conservative councillors are included. At least one of those invited no longer lives in the county and, in the words of one person on the address list, "Some of them may be dead." This person goes on to ask: "How many more confidential documents have gone astray?”
Thirdly, and most importantly, is the choice of policy topics to be discussed.
The Council's policy on Special Schools for young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) comes before cabinet on Tuesday (May 15). Unlike Outdoor Education, Special Schools are a statutory - and closely regulated - responsibility for Wiltshire Council.
The Council finds itself short of places now and for the future as demand increases and the county's population rises - with, for example, the return of Army families from Germany.
As the report to cabinet puts it: "It has been established that Wiltshire's Special Schools system needs additional capacity. There aren't enough places, they're in the wrong locations, and overcrowding of some schools, whilst well managed by their leaders, has had the unintended consequence of disguising the shortfall."
That overcrowding could mean two of the schools having between them to lose 100 pupils - creating an urgent need for more places.
Among the three options put forward is the closure of three schools and building a new one in Chippenham - with all the local sensitivities that would involve. One large school would bring economies of scale. But sources for about £30 million of capital spending for this or other options have not yet been found. The Council have considered approaching the Regional Schools Commissioner for Free School funding, but that programme is on hold.
This crisis - though the cabinet documents do not use that word - comes as regulators have praised Wiltshire's partnership between the Council and the NHS Clinical Commissioning Group for their 'effective partnerships' in looking after SEND children. It will be interesting to see whether this joint working between health and education stretches to requests for NHS funds to help with the Council's problems.
Oddly, the regulator's report in March made no mention of the overcrowding at those two special schools in Wiltshire.
Cabinet's decision will go out to a three month 'preliminary consultation' starting this month.
The other issue discussed at the Conservative Group briefing was 'future plans for Area Boards'. The main costs in running the county's eighteen Area Boards are salaries for the Community Engagement Managers and the grants each Area Board can hand out. The Marlborough Area Board has a 2018-2019 budget for grants of £32,000.