For as long as I have lived in Reading the nearby Woodley Town Council (in Wokingham Borough) has been under Lib Dem control. Indeed when I moved here in 1995 the Conservatives only had a single Councillor on the authority, in Loddon Airfield. At the last local elections in 2011 the Lib Dems held onto control with a slender majority of 13 seats to the Conservatives’ 12. Since then 1 Lib Dem and 1 Conservative have gone Independent leaving the Council as 12 Lib Dem, 11 Conservative, and 2 Independent. At tonight’s Annual Meeting of the Council the 2 Independents sided with the Conservatives to ensure a change of control for the first time since Woodley Town Council was formed.
Woodley TC is not like most Town Councils. It has power and a sizeable budget. The average precept on the Council Tax is around £115 and overall expenditure is just under £2m per annum. With 26,000 residents, the Council provides leisure facilities and deals with the lower level issues which are delegated by the Conservative controlled Wokingham Borough Council. The 25 Town Councillors are unpaid.
At the Annual Meeting Cllr Bill Soane was elected to be Mayor of Woodley for the next year. Bill is a fantastic guy, who has been deeply involved in Woodley for many years. He is a local businessman and a key organiser of the Woodley Carnival Committee, the biggest single event in the town. Cllr Keith Baker was elected to be Leader of the Council dynamic local politician who has worked his way up to his current position the hard way, helping local residents with their issues and campaigning for many local Conservatives across Woodley and Earley. Keith with be well placed to take up the reins from Cllr Kate Haines who has ably led the Conservative Group for the last several years. He will be the first Conservative leader of the Council in 39 years!
I wish Keith and his team well. I am sure that they will do a great job!
Today the news has been leaked by Reading’s ruling Labour group that their nominee for Mayor in the next Municipal year is to be Minster ward Councillor Marian Livingston (left). Marian was elected in May 2010 and is up for re-election in 2014 at the end of her Mayoral year. Minster ward has for some years been marginal between Labour and the Conservatives. Marian is a personable individual who is liked across the political divide. However, it is difficult to judge how she will conduct herself in office. As a former teacher I am sure that she will find Chairing the Council meetings brings back some memories!
Labour’s nominee for Deputy Mayor is Cllr Tony Jones (right) of Redlands ward. Tony was previously Mayor in 2001-02 when he represented Battle ward. Holding the post of Deputy Mayor in 2013/14 would normally mean that he would succeed as Mayor in the 2014/15 Municipal year. Jones is seen as something of a maverick in the Labour Group and is not afraid to speak out and annoy colleagues. He is fond of describing himself as a real “Socialist”, in contrast with some of his colleagues. I was told a few months ago that his nomination was likely as a way of neutering some of his more “political” maneouvres within the Labour Group. Tony was an effective Mayor last time around, which was my first year on Reading Borough Council, and I am sure he will ensure that the Mayoralty is high profile in his year. It will be interesting to see who is eventually put forward as his deputy!
Labour’s nominees will come to the Council’s annual meeting in May. As the Labour group has a majority on the Council, their nominees are now as good as elected!
Conservatives spoke up for the 1,264 families on Reading’s Housing waiting list suffering from overcrowding at last Tuesday’s Council meeting (which I was unable to attend due to a work trip overseas). The so-called “Bedroom Tax” is designed to ensure that the social housing stock is best used to relieve over-crowding and free up larger Council houses for families who desperately need the accommodation.
However, at Full Council Labour used their majority to vote through a motion to write to government asking for the under occupancy reform to be suspended because they said it isn’t fair on the 1,008 households in Reading’s social housing with a spare bedroom.
After the meeting Conservative Housing spokesman Cllr Isobel Ballsdon said “There are 9,636 families and individuals on Reading’s Housing waiting list, many having been on it for a number of years. The overwhelming majority of residents I’ve spoken to support making better use of the town’s limited supply of social housing to help tackle the backlog. Despite this Labour wants to stop the Government’s reform which will get more families into housing right for their needs.”
Cllr Ballsdon met with Mrs Chidsey who together with her husband decided to downsize last year from their 2 bed Council bungalow to a one bedroom maisonette. Mrs Chidsey said, “We didn’t need all that space. We moved so a disabled person with a carer or a family could benefit. Our utility bills are cheaper now and we are happy we made the right decision. Our daughter lives next door to a man who has a 3 bedroom council house all to himself. What a waste when there are families out there squashed into tiny flats or temporary housing.”
Cllr Ballsdon continued, “At the Council meeting I proposed some exceptional cases which officers should prioritise for using the town’s share of the £155 million Government pot for Discretionary Housing Payments. These are households needing a spare bedroom because of medical or disability needs, residents registered to foster but temporarily without a foster child; residents with a grown up child living with them who is away on active duty with the Armed Forces. Labour ignored our reasoned argument and our proposal to work cross-party for the good of residents. It was very disappointing.”
Cllr Tim Harris, Conservative Group Leader said, “Labour’s motion did nothing to help a single household on the Housing waiting list. Instead all they are doing is scaring vulnerable residents. It is totally unacceptable behaviour; especially given they don’t know all the facts nor have any idea how to deal with the problem of people in over-crowded housing. It shows them caring more about political point scoring than the needs of residents.”
I made my views clear on the matter in 2010 here.
For the second time in recent years, Mr Wilson has stepped in to stop funding to the centre being either withdrawn or reduced. This funding arrives in the nick of time as the centre was due to run out of resources by the end of March this year. Alana House in South Street, central Reading provides support to some 300 women from across Reading and West Berkshire who are at risk of offending. With a small team of five staff and volunteers, the centre works with a number of local agencies such as the NHS and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau to provide a one-stop-shop of help and support.
This good news follows on from a politically motivated attack on Mr Wilson from the newly selected Reading East Labour candidate, who made a fool of himself by failing to check his facts or even visit the centre in the ward he was elected to represent.
The confirmation of further funding to keep the centre running until March 2014, came shortly before the visit of Helen Grant MP, Minister for Victims and the Courts at The Ministry of Justice, to Alana House. On 7th February Mrs Grant went to see for herself the vital work that Alana House does for women who are experiencing problems or whose life circumstances and behaviour have been shown to them at risk of offending. The centre has been successfully helping women since it opened in 2009 and provides the courts with an alternative to custodial sentences in order to help vulnerable women tackle their problems.
Helen Grant’s visit followed intense behind the scenes and public lobbying by the Reading East MP, including raising the matter on the floor of the House on 18 December 2012. The funding that Rob has helped secure means that Alana House can continue to go on to help many more women in the future and continue the good work that it does in Reading.
Rob said: “This is good news, I have fought extremely hard to continue funding for Alana House and today we achieved a great result for the centre and for the women who turn to them in their time of need. I am extremely grateful to the minister for listening and for coming to see the service on the ground for herself. Nobody can doubt my commitment to Alana House having saved its funding under two consecutive Governments. But it’s time for someone to give it some honest advice and some tough love and I suppose that, as a friend, it falls to me. I’m not sure it will get straight advice anywhere else.”
“It is now important that Alana House uses the time and space that this funding has given them to increase its own funding streams. It cannot go on having a hand to mouth existence and running the risk of almost closing as it has again. With the best will in the world public money is very tight and public money is unlikely to continue to cover the bulk of its costs. Now the issue for Alana House is to get out there and work with potential donors to give it a financially secure future. I am happy to assist. I know that many associated with Alana House are very disappointed by the negative and unhelpful attitude that the local Labour Party has taken. At a time when it could have worked with us to secure the funding, it simply carped and seemed to want me to fail. That is very sad to see in a political Party.”
Jan Fishwick, Chief Executive of PACT, the organisation that runs Alana House, said: “We are delighted to announce that Alana House services have received full funding for 2013/14 courtesy of Thames Valley Probation and J P Getty charitable trust. We are very grateful to all involved in achieving this outcome and we will continue to work hard to ensure we can continue to support the 300 vulnerable women that rely on this service for many more years. We are pleased that Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East, raised awareness of the need to continue funding Alana House services in Parliament, and arranged for Helen Grant the Minister for Justice to visit Alana House last week in order to see first-hand the holistic approach we take in order to address a wide variety of complex issues in order to help transform the lives of hundreds of local women.”
Conservative Group finance spokesman, Cllr David Stevens, said; “At Westminster and in Reading Labour still fail to grasp the seriousness of the dire financial situation they have caused. They really think that borrowing more, taxing more and spending more will save the day. Only Conservatives fully realise how much has to be done to rebalance the public finances. The coalition at Westminster is making progress but it will be a long and painful haul. Meanwhile we have to protect an aging population and find school places for Reading’s children. When will Labour acknowledge their responsibility for creating the crisis in the public finances?”
Group Leader Cllr Tim Harris said, “It is disappointing, but unsurprising, that Labour controlled Reading Borough Council revert to raising Council Tax. They invariably express their concern about pensioners and the low paid, but then hit them with more taxes. In levying this additional tax, Labour has chosen to reject a grant from the Government worth £700,000. Instead they land local residents with an additional bill of £1.2M. Was it not possible to find any other savings in the council’s budget?”
It is interesting to note that whilst many people are suffering pay freezes or having to find additional part time work, the Council’s wage bill is forecast to rise by almost £1M next year. After paying off one chief executive with an extremely generous severance cheque they now employ a new one on a salary and benefits worth around that paid to the Prime Minister.
It is also worth noting that until the Conservative-led coalitions took control at Westminster and in Reading and introduced a Council Tax freeze, local taxes in Reading rose by more than inflation year on year, making it the most expensive Unitary authority precept in Berkshire.
At last week’s Audit and Governance Scrutiny Committee during discussion of the Strategic Risk Register I quizzed Council Emergency Planning Officers over the testing of fire alarms in Council owned properties and the conduct of regular fire drills. Under pressure Officers admitted that not all properties had been tested regularly and not all fire drills had been conducted as required by legislation.
The report highlighted that the residual risks around the maintenance of the fabric of Council premises had increased, mainly as a result of a recent case of Legionella. However, my questioning highlighted that essential fire prevention measures have not been properly conducted in some buildings. Management action was stated to be underway to address the problem but Officers seemed reluctant to commit to a timescale or to state what action would be taken if proper checks and drills were not conducted in future.
I will be asking further questions to keep up the pressure to ensure that all Council properties are properly managed and that employees, residents and other visitors are never put at risk by a failure to carry out mandated safety procedures.
Peppard ward Conservative Councillors Jane Stanford-Beale and Richard Willis are pressing for urgent action to repair dangerous deep pot-holes in the Budgens’ Precinct car park in Emmer Green.The car park is privately owned, and managed on behalf of the shop keepers by Wolfe Property Services Ltd, a London-based management company. In August 2011 Cllr Richard Willis wrote to Wolfe to ask them to take action to deal with the poor state of the car park. Wolfe responded with a planning application (12/00351/FUL) to replace the paving slabs in front of the shops with Tarmac, and to properly resurface a large part of the car park. This was approved by the Council but unfortunately proved unaffordable for many of the smaller shops, some of which are struggling to remain in business (“Blockbusters” is currently in the process of closing down).
In summer 2012 some repairs were undertaken to fill the existing pot-holes but new cracks developed over the winter and these have now developed into a massive hole around 6 inches deep and several smaller growing pot-holes. With recent wet weather it is impossible to see how deep the holes are and there is a real risk of a cyclist coming to serious harm or a driver suffering serious damage to their vehicle.
Cllr Jane Stanford-Beale said, “I have recently written to Wolfe Property Services to point out the dangers being caused by the growing pot-holes and calling on them to take urgent action to make the car park safe. I am also contacting the head offices of the national chains like Budgens and Lloyds Pharmacy to urge them to use their larger resources to ensure that the car park is repaired. They have a duty of care to their customers and other car park users.”
Both Jane and I are determined to get urgent action on this. I have discussed the state of the car park with some of the shopkeepers this month and understand that they are now pressing Wolfe to undertake smaller scale emergency repairs to the pot-holes. It is important that whatever happens, the cost of repairs does not drive the smaller shops out of business, but the car park must be made safe as soon as possible for the public to use.
Conservatives have condemned the chaos across Reading resulting from the discarding of Christmas trees in parks and car parks across the Borough. Hundreds of Christmas trees have been taken to former collection points across Reading by residents to be recycled as in previous years. However, Labour-run Reading Borough Council has scrapped the collection facility and has completely failed to communicate this to residents.
Conservative Councillor Isobel Ballsdon said “I was surprised to learn from a Council officer this week that the service has been axed by the Labour Administration. No press release was issued and there is no obvious notice on the Council’s website or at the former collection points. Apparently this year the Council advises that residents should cut up their Christmas tree and put the pieces in their green waste bin or alternatively take it to the Civic Amenity Site at Smallmead but residents are clearly as unaware of this change of policy as I was.”
Cllr Ballsdon who represents Mapledurham Ward continued, “I went to Mapledurham Pavilion’s car park this afternoon and saw three massive piles of discarded Christmas trees. I understand from colleagues that the same is true at Clayfield Copse and the other former collection sites. This wasn’t a great surprise given that households were taking down their decorations by the 6th January. The Labour administration has once again completely failed to communicate the change of policy and now any financial saving they had budgeted for will disappear due to the unplanned for cost of clearing up their mess.”
Conservative Leader Cllr Tim Harris said, “Once again Labour has failed to communicate effectively with residents. At a time when the Coalition nationally is clearing up Labour’s mess, they are wasting public money locally and letting residents down.”
UPDATE: It seems that Labour has done a swift U-turn as today a press release was belatedly issued naming last year’s tree collection points as tree collection point. Right result but a planned saving not made!
Today the national Labour Party published its list of 106 target seats which it wants to gain at the next General Election in order to achieve an overall majority of 60 seats. Unsurprisingly the list includes the Reading West seat, which Labour only lost at the 2010 election but which now needs a swing of over 6% to win back. More surprising was the absence of the Reading East seat from the list. Rob Wilson gained the seat from Labour in 2005 with a tiny majority but consolidated his position in 2010 gaining a substantial majority (7,605) and pushing Labour into third place.
Seats designated as “target seats” by the major parties receive extra campaigning resources and visits from senior party figures during the run up to and during the election campaign. Whilst the press release does say that the list will be kept under review, Reading Labour Party members in the West will get extra resources, and once again members in the East will be the poor relations. This will be a big blow for their local Councillor candidate who has already crossed swords unsuccessfully with Rob Wilson MP.
Perhaps Labour has concluded that with their candidate in third place last time and a popular and active local Conservative MP readopted unanimously their chances in Reading East are slim. It does seem so!
The Reading East Labour candidate Matt Rodda has not got his campaign off to a good start with a petty, personal and inaccurate attack on sitting Conservative MP Rob Wilson. Rodda, who is also a Reading Borough Councillor for Katesgrove ward, is quoted in a Labour press release at the end of December attacking Rob Wilson for planning to bring Government Minister Helen Grant to visit the women’s centre at Alana House in South Street in support of their campaign for continued funding.
Rob Wilson has a long history of working with local groups and societies to support their activities. When Rob was approached again by Alana House last year he spoke to Ministers and raised the matter of their funding in the House of Commons on 18 December. In response Minister Helen Grant acknowledged Wilson’s long interest in Alana House and promised to visit the centre.
In the Labour press release (which can be found in full here) Rodda is quoted as saying, “Rob Wilson visited the centre before the 2010 General Election to get a photo taken which then appeared in his election literature, but slowly over the last two years since the election, the budget has been cut…… The reality is that this excellent project, which supports 300 women, has deliberately been run down by the Coalition Government in which Rob Wilson is a Minister…… What Alana House needs to hear from Rob Wilson is not that he is bringing a Minister so he can have another photo-call but that the Minister is bringing a cheque.”
However, Rodda failed to check his facts. He also appears to have not actually visited the centre despite it being in Katesgrove ward. Had he done so he would have discovered that it was Rob’s intervention which stopped the previous Labour government from cutting the centre’s funding in the past.
Rob Wilson, who has now put out his own press release, said, “This is a very disappointing start for the Labour candidate, who appears to be putting Labour politics before achieving a successful outcome for Alana House. He has never visited Alana House and never shown any interest in it before I raised the matter in Parliament, despite it being in the ward where he is a Councillor. He also does not appear to understand the history of its funding. It was the last Labour Government that proposed cutting the Ministry of Justice funding but I managed to stop that in its tracks. I have already fought and delivered for Alana House, and they will no doubt vouch for that fact. My visit in 2009/10 to Alana House, at their request, was not for a photo opportunity but to celebrate securing the funding.”
Labour Parliamentary candidates in Reading do not have a good track record for displaying local knowledge but I would have expected better from Rodda who is at least a local Councillor. Sadly, the poorly judged Labour attack has only served to politicise what is a very deserving cause.
Rob Wilson highlighted this point in his final comments, “Instead of embarrassing himself with his lack of understanding and local knowledge I would urge the Labour candidate to do something more positive than simply sending out inaccurate and negative press releases. If he had contacted me I would have been happy to give him the true picture. He should work with me to resolve the funding shortage not jeopardise the funding by making this matter political.”
Peppard Conservatives have been out supporting tree planting in Peppard ward. Local residents worked in partnership with Reading Borough Council over many weeks to purchase and plant more than 30 new trees in Brooklyn Drive, Courtney Drive and Burnham Rise in Emmer Green at the end of November and early December. Under the Council’s Tree Strategy, which was brought to Council in June 2010 by Cllr Willis, the Council funded the tree root barriers and planting expertise, and local residents paid for the trees and agreed to undertake the ongoing task of watering.
Ward Councillors Jane Stanford-Beale and Richard Willis joined local residents to help with the digging of the holes to plant the trees and install the supports which will protect the young trees from being broken or blown over.
Cllr Jane Stanford-Beale said, “This is a fantastic example of local residents working with the Council to make limited resources stretch further. Local people have come together to ensure that their streets remain beautiful tree-lined roads for decades to come and I was delighted to turn out to help them plant the trees.”
Cllr Richard Willis said, “I am continuing to lobby the Council to protect the tree planting budget for another year. Trees make our environment look better and help to absorb carbon in the atmosphere. I am delighted that local people in partnership with the Council have managed to plant so many new trees in Peppard ward and I was keen to attend to help and show my support for this initiative.”
There are plans for more planting in the area, with one signature tree to be funded by the Emmer Green Residents’ Association.
For the last couple of years I have published the DEFRA statistics on local authority recycling rates and I have looked them up once again this year.
DEFRA issued its data tables for 2011/12 in November and yet again Reading languishes near the bottom of the local table for Berkshire:
West Berkshire – 46.2% (10/11 – 42%)
Windsor & Maid – 43.2% (10/11 – 39%)
Wokingham – 42.6% (10/11 – 41%)
Bracknell Forest – 42.5% (10/11 – 40%)
Reading – 36.8% (10/11 – 35%)
Slough – 30.7% (10/11 – 31%)
Over the last year Reading saw a small improvement in its performance but most others in Berkshire made greater strides. The only authority to do worse was Slough! So Reading was again second from the bottom in 2011/12. Compare that with our immediate neighbour to the north:
South Oxfordshire – 67.9% (10/11 – 65%)
Not only did South Oxfordshire manage an excellent rate of recycling again over the last year but they further improved on what was already an amazing performance. Reading clearly still has a very long way to go to match the performance of the best of the other (Conservative controlled) Berkshire authorities and even further to catch up with (Conservative controlled) South Oxfordshire.
As promised earlier in the year, Reading East MP Rob Wilson has been working on plans for a new Secondary School for East Reading. As you would expect, a lot of background work has to be undertaken before proposals can be revealed, and this has led to some rather petty sniping from the Reading Labour Party.
Rob has now sent out a notice to local residents who could benefit from the school to invite them to a meeting next week:
Tuesday 11 December at 7pm, Rob Wilson MP Invites Local Parents to a Meeting on Plans for New Secondary School in East Reading
Do you have a child in Year 5 or below? Are you concerned about the secondary school options in East Reading for your child?
If so come and join other parents and other east Reading residents at a meeting to discuss an opportunity to create a new school in East Reading that meets needs. All members of the community are welcome, but it will be specifically for parents who will be interested in sending their children to the new school.
The meeting will be hosted by Rob Wilson MP and will be a discussion of plans and progress for a new local school. It will take place at Reading College on the King’s Road, RG1 4HJ, starting at 7pm and ending at 8:30pm.
Rob is also working with people elsewhere in Reading to support plans for new schools, more details of which will be revealed in due course.
Rob has a long history in Reading, having attended Reading University and then made the town his home. He was elected to Reading Borough Council in 2003 for Caversham ward, having fought the ward in several previous years, and beaten Labour to make the first Conservative gain for many years.
Rob won the Reading seat in 2005 by fewer than 500 votes following the deselection by Reading Labour Party of sitting MP Jane Griffiths who had won the seat from the Conservatives in 1997, and retained it in 2001. In the 2010 General Election Rob won re-election with a majority of over 7,600 pushing Labour into third place behind the Lib Dems.
Rob has a track record for being a very active local MP with deep roots in the local community. He has young children who attend local schools and he and lives in the constituency he serves. Labour will have an uphill struggle to dislodge him in the foreseaable future.
Reading Labour Party has selected its candidate to fight the Reading East seat at the 2015 General Election. The final list was somewhat longer than for Reading West and contained three local Reading Councillors and two people from Slough. Whereas for West Labour selected a millionaire outsider from leafy Buckinghamshire, for East they have played much safer and chosen Borough Councillor Matt Rodda. Rodda lives in Reading and is married with two young children.
Rodda won a seat in Katesgrove ward back from the Lib Dems. In the 2010 General Election he was the Parliamentary candidate for the safe Conservative seat of East Surrey.
The new Parliamentary candidate will take on sitting Conservative MP Rob Wilson who hugely increased his majority at the last General Election. Rob is a Reading man through and through and will continue his hard work as a local member regardless of the Labour candidate.