This has been an amazing year, with Conservative/Lib Dem coalitions formed locally and nationally. I have received many messages from people who like the fact that two previously competing parties are prepared to work together in the national (and local) interest. After so many years of Labour rule it seems that much of the population appreciates the difficulties faced due to the debt and years of poor decisions.
Here in Reading the coalition formed at the end of May 2010) has had a very difficult legacy to tackle. We have uncovered numerous unfunded spending commitments, decisions that have horrendous unintended consequences, favoured client groups, and an absence of real political leadership. These problems will not be addressed overnight but a good start has been made.
The first task was to form a coalition Cabinet. After several years of mutual combat in the Council chamber this could have been problematic. However, both parties entered into the task with a spirit of good will and one of the first decisions was to cut Lead Councillor allowances by 10%, saving the Council Tax payers many thousands of pounds. The new Cabinet has nine members, with 6 Conservatives and 3 Lib Dems.
I was faced with the decision by the Labour Cabinet in Autumn 2009 to go ahead with the Shinfield Road scheme. £750,000 of Central Government funding was committed to the scheme through a contract which had been let in February 2010. I was advised that cancelling the scheme could lead to the £750,000 having to be refunded to the Government plus penalty payments to the contractor. Substantially amending it could also lead to the same outcome, as well as the need to go through another lengthy process on a new scheme. The technical assessment was also that the scheme would deliver the benefits which the previous Labour administration had trumpeted. We all know that this is not what has happened and I have spent a huge amount of time trying to sort out the problems caused by some aspects of the scheme.
One initiative which I was keen to press ahead was a review of all traffic lighted junctions across the Borough. I invited the public to submit their least liked junctions and a big response was received with 28 junctions identified. The process of reviewing those junctions is now well underway, with the first lights switched off at Jackson’s Corner and 5 more junctions to be changed, including the removal of the build-out on London Road.
There has also been a lot of work put into securing the Reading Station upgrade. With the enormous debt left by the outgoing Labour Government it was inevitable that expensive schemes like the £850m station plan would be under considerable scrutiny. It was therefore great news when we learned that the money was to be granted for the scheme to go ahead. However, it left a battle still to be fought for the Council to get the money we need to ensure that the new rail facilities will have modern and improved interchanges to the north and south of the station. There would have been little benefit to local people if the improved capacity at the station was not complemented by improved facilities at the entrances. There is also a desperate need for a decent new entrance and transport interchange on the northern side of the station. A combined effort of Councillors, Council officers, MPs and other groups, such as the Reading Taxi Association, came together to lobby Ministers to release the necessary funds. My earlier decision to stop the Labour plans to replace roundabouts at Caversham Bridge and TGIs with traffic lights enabled us to take £5.2m off the bid. It was therefore fantastic news when Transport Minister Norman Baker came to Reading to announce that we had £9.6m to complete the project.
The Residents’ Parking scheme review has been completed and I have announced that free first permits will be retained (Labour had planned to charge £100 for many residents’ permits), electronic proofs of residence will now be accepted (removing one of the biggest causes of complaint) and we are working to allow automatic renewal for those on the Council Tax and electoral databases.
I have also announced that: we will not close the Chatham Street slip roads, we have purchased 2 new mini snow ploughs, we have protected the tree planting budget for two years, we have frozen short term car park charges and cut long term charges, we have introduced pay and display in a small number of bays in the town centre and have listened by making overnight free of charge.
My colleagues have not been idle either:
David Stevens has spent a huge amount of time reviewing all aspects of Council spending, preparing for a budget next February which will deliver a Council Tax freeze while preserving spending on front-line services and reprioritising away from Labour’s pet projects.
Daisy Benson has been conducting a review of social services with a view to focus resources on the most vulnerable in our town. She has also announced a new extra-care housing scheme in Katesgrove; the first new Council properties built in the Borough in more than 20 years!
Tom Stanway has announced long-overdue investment in the refurbishment of the Central Pool as well as several plans to improve our leisure facilities across the town.
Mike Townend and Jeanette Skeats have begun a process of reviewing the grants process to ensure that it is more open and transparent. It should also permit more small groups doing excellent work in the community to apply.
Recently it has also been great to see the rate of local unemployment fall and the number of young apprenticeships double. Central government has averted the possible disaster of an economic collapse of the type seen in Greece and Ireland, while in Reading we have been working hard to get the town on a sustainable path. Clearly 20+ years of Labour waste and inefficiency will take a long time to address but we are well on the way.
I have been interested in the number of people who have messaged me to express dismay at Labour’s entirely negative approach. Labour has clearly been shocked and surprised at how well the Coalition has worked. Cabinet members of both parties have found that we like and respect each other and have been very happy to mutually support people who were once political opponents. Inevitably there have been compromises by both parties but also a surprising (to some) amount of agreement.
The problem seems have been within the Labour camp. They were obviously shell-shocked to have lost control of Reading after 20+ years and initially seemed unsure as to what to do. Labour Councillors were reported as saying that the Coalition wouldn’t last and seemed content to wait for it all to collapse and the people of Reading to petition for them to take over once again. When that obviously was not going to happen they convened a briefing session on how to be an effective opposition – something they clearly needed! However, it seems that whilst they have found their voice as an opposition, they have yet to find a message or tone which chimes with the public mood. Labour has resorted to a consistent knee-jerk opposition and when they can’t oppose what the Coalition is doing they have stooped to lies and fabrications. From the messages I have received this is not going down well with anyone other than a small clique of Labour stooges. The conduct of one of their candidates over the Maiden Erlegh School consultation was an example of how not to win friends and influence people.
It has also been noticeable how the number of local Labour bloggers has taken off in the last few months. However, in most cases the stories are almost identical and written in the same style. Jane Griffiths has suggested that several are written by the same hand (one John Howarth) and that would seem to make sense. They also share a common characteristic of being unremittingly negative. Labour has yet to find a credible message or to work out how to “do” opposition. I suspect that they will have quite some time to improve their performance.
2011 will be another year of hard work and difficult decisions but the outlook is promising. The local elections will be interesting as Labour seek to pin the blame for their legacy on the coalition parties and no doubt Labour will spread their usual mix of half truths and down-right lies. However, Reading people are not daft and can see through Labour’s lies. I am confident that come May they will not want to see a return to a Labour administration which had run out of ideas and money!