At Wednesday night’s Scrutiny Committee meeting, the Leader of the Isle of Wight council, Cllr Dave Stewart, said the floating bridge would give “a good and reasonable service” to the community.
He was providing an update on the long-running saga of the ‘new’ Cowes floating bridge (No.6).
Leader: “Making more journeys, faster, than the previous bridge”
During his update to the Scrutiny Committee, he told members that:
- When floating bridge 6 is in service – which it has been most of the time since 11 December (subject to issues committee members were aware of) – “it’s been making more journeys, faster, than the previous bridge”.
- IWC are having regular dialogue with the Solent LEP – who provided the funding – and conditions that are set have to be met for next 30 years – SLEP want to see it from a more strategic level.
- Vessel has not yet legally been accepted by IWC and won’t be until they are satisfied and verified that things are as they should be.
- The warranty has been extended a further year by Mainstay Marine, giving adequate time to make sure they have what they need.
- “The noise has been reduced on the ramps”, by fitting rubber which “has made a difference”.
- The broken prow chain has been replaced and a cable added – making it more reliable. They are now waiting for the MCA to sign it off.
- On the chain depth testing, which has been undertaken and “indicates that the standards needed have been met”, IWC are awaiting confirmation from the Cowes Harbour Master.
- Noise assessment is being verified.
Leader: “I think it will give a good and reasonable service”
Cllr Stewart finished the update by saying,
“Subject to all of the above I’m anticipating that a normal full schedule by the floating bridge will be instigated.
“I don’t think this [the floating bridge issues] can’t be resolved. I think it can be and I think that improvements can be made as we go forward and I think it will give a good and reasonable service to the community.
Breakdown in communication
The Chair of the committee, Cllr Paul Fuller, referred to the breakdown in communication between the stakeholders, such as local councils, councillors, business associations and the Harbour Master.
“If we’re having the reports – and monitoring this in the longer term – we want to make sure that they [the stakeholders named above] have the ability to give feedback to us, as the Scrutiny Committee, to make sure that the optimism that you’re showing us can be supported.”
Stewart: Officers must stay focused on Corporate Plan
Cllr Stewart responded to the Chairman by claiming he would not allow officers to spend “undue time” on the issues surrounding the floating bridge.
“We have a corporate plan and a financial strategy and that is absolutely the priority of this administration, and I have made very clear to officers that I do not expect them to be spending undue time dealing with something that is not a core priority for the council.
“And if people from outside were to send in 2,000 questions, they can do, but they don’t need to expect they’ll be answered, because if they are not in our priority corporate plan, that is not the best use of public money.
“I would put that air of caution up now, that not everything that everyone would like can always be done, because otherwise we won’t stay focused.
“So if you meet resistance, and I expect you will if you start bringing in all sorts of people to consume council time, I shall exercise as full a power as I can to ensure we remain focused. Because we have made a commitment to run this council and we will do that.”
Love: “It’s the future that I’m concerned about”
Cllr Peacey Wilcox and Cllr Karl Love were both invited to speak as local members and because, as the Chairman explained, they have to take the brunt of complaints from the public.
Cllr Karl Love said he appreciated the discussion and felt some reassurance from what had been said. He then gave an impassioned speech on behalf of East Cowes, saying,
“There’s the past and there is the future and it’s the future that I’m concerned about, and when we talk about the Corporate Plan, the floating bridge so far has cost somewhere in the region of £900,000+.
“Would you seriously invest in East Cowes, in Victoria Quay and Kingston Marine if you could not get your staff reliably from one side of the river to the other? It’s a laughing stock.”
Love: Wishy-washy comments rather than support
Cllr Love added,
“East Cowes Town Council have said quite clearly ‘send this bridge back’ because we have lost so much confidence in what’s happening. The language from the council could be so much more positive, saying to the people of East and West Cowes, ‘we support you, we will help you get your businesses back on course, we will invest into the town’s people’, but what do we get?
“We get wishy-washy comments and it’s the little things that sometimes matter, like, ‘we have no objection to cutting down a tree’ which symbolises the whole of East Cowes. You should be saying ‘we’ll be working with the people of East Cowes and doing everything possible to save that tree’.
“I would not invest a single penny into the Kingston Marine at the moment because I could not guarantee – talk about core values, we spent £900,000+, we have the potential to lose £800m if those businesses do not continue in our town because of the credibility of this Island.
“So I’m saying to you, PLEASE, start thinking about the future and let’s stop thinking about the past.”
Peacey-Wilcox: Users have lost confidence
Cllr Lora Peacey-Wilcox said how shocked she was at the number of cars that pull up to the floating bridge, seeing it not in and turning around to drive via Newport.
She asked Cllr Stewart,
“How on earth are you going to build the confidence of local people to start using the floating bridge to raise revenue for this council?
“I can assure you my family have lived the other side of the water since the 1600s, they’ve been using probably every floating bridge there was, but I’m telling you now, none of them are using it. I consider myself Mrs Average Isle of Wighter and if I’m not using it and my family are not using it, I can assure you the public aren’t.”
She went on to say,
“Everyone is frightened about getting on there and getting stranded either side or in the middle. How are you going to raise the confidence to even get the people to use this?”
Leader: “I understand fully the problems that have occurred. I’ve been living them for months now”
Cllr Stewart, who lives in Niton and works in Newport, replied,
“By providing a reliable service. I understand fully the problems that have occurred. I’ve been living them for months now – that I understand – but at the end of the day what we have is a bridge that is functioning and is nearing, from my view, a reliable service and will be proved when it gets to that stage.
“Once we’re in that position, people are going to grow in confidence.”
Leader: “Been over it three or four times”
He went on to say,
“I’ve been over it three or four times because I have deliberately made the effort to go over and understand the problems.
“We have other plans looking ahead as to what we’re going to do with Kingston and elsewhere. I don’t think it relies just on the floating bridge, but I think this council has shown good commitment to that floating bridge.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into that, for a non-statutory service, in order to make sure that connection is there and is reliable. I think we just need to let the process take its course.”
Brodie: Not interested in a fall guy
Cllr Geoff Brodie said he was aware the floating bridge is a massively important issue for people of Cowes, East Cowes and Newport.
“It seems to me there are a number of agendas here that we are not going to be able to fulfil.
“Firstly, there’s the desire for vengeance, for a public hanging. Someone hanging from that rail up there, who is to blame. Frankly, we’re not going to get that and I’m not really interested in that. I like to learn lessons from what happened in the past, but I’m not really interested in fall guy or fall girl.
“All I really care about is that we have a floating bridge that works. Whether it’s floating bridge 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10.”
He went on to say,
“The Leader of the council has said that it will provide a ‘good and reasonable service’. Which is what floating bridge 5 provided and if it’s now costing this council over £1m a year, then that is something I have to take your word for as a scrutineer.
“You’ve given that commitment now, to ‘a good and reasonable service’ and you believe that can be provided by floating bridge 6. And I think we should leave it here and if it proves to be case to this committee in months to come that it is not happening – if you sit here and it’s been out of service for three and a half weeks – your good and reasonable service is going to start looking a bit flaky, Dave.”
Brodie: Not interested in “finding a victim”
Cllr Brodie finished by saying,
“I’m a busy bloke and I have priorities in life. I represent one 40th of the Island, where I’m very busy with a number of issues that you’re aware of.
“Frankly the idea of me sat in some dungeon in this building for 30 hours ploughing through documents … If you’re not going to give it to me at home, I’m not going to do it.
“And why am I doing it? Just to find a victim? I don’t want to find a victim, I want to learn a lesson. I hope the officers we pay, some of them extremely well, are learning the lessons from this and that we don’t have the situation again.”
Garratt: “Scrutiny not just a concession”
Cllr Andrew Garratt referred to the Leader’s priorities being focused on the corporate plan.
Pointing to recent Scrutiny training, Cllr Garratt reminded members that the Scrutiny Committee is not just a concession, but that it has a statutory basis.
“The message that should go out from this committee is that we understand our statutory duty to challenge, to scrutinise and if that does mean we have to challenge and say ‘no, you can’t just say resources aren’t available we want to stay on our political programme’, then we’re going to have to say statue allows us to ask these questions and you will be held accountable.
“I understand there comes a point where too many questions is too many questions, but I think it’s for Scrutiny, in a sense, to take on board whether too many questions is too many questions, rather than the Cabinet.
“We take our statutory duty seriously.”
The Chair presented his recommendations as:
- In order to respond to questions raised in connection with the review, a meeting should take place between stakeholders, local councillors and key officers.
- Consideration should be given to the formation of a stakeholders users group, comprising local councillors, local town and parish councils, business associations and Cowes Harbour Commission to work alongside the Council in monitoring service outcomes and provide a regular update to the committee.
- The committee to receive the results of the recent tests and mitigation to address the depth of chains in the water and the noise problems.
- The restricted documents should be reviewed to see if these could be made publicly available together with the options for enabling all members to view all the documents without the need to visit County Hall.
Most members voted in favour, with three abstentions.