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!
The first part of the project involves replacing the rail bridge over Caversham Road. In order for this work to go ahead, Caversham Road will be closed to vehicles and pedestrians between Tudor Road (Station Hill) and Caversham Road roundabout from 8pm, Thursday 30 December 2010 to 6am on Monday 3 January 2011.
During the closures a diversionary route will be put in place via Vastern Road.
Network Rail need to replace the Caversham Road bridge to make way for more track to serve new platforms they are building at the station. The new bridge will have a lifespan of 120 years.
For more information, residents are asked to call Network Rail’s dedicated 24-hour Helpline on 08457 114141 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For information on the Reading rail redevelopment go to www.networkrail.co.uk/reading
Traditionally Christmas is a time of peace and goodwill to all men. So I will avoid the temptation to include any political comment! Suffice to say that usually hostilities are suspended for this festive season.
I was delighted that yesterday (Christmas Eve) I had the most people viewing my blog of any day so far. I had over 2,100 hits yesterday which is hugely more than expected, or than experienced in previous years. Thank you!
Anyway, have a great Christmas and let’s look forward to a productive and successful 2011!
In November 3,500 people were recorded as claiming Job Seekers Allowance, down from the previous month when 3,590 people were reported on the claimant count. November was the ninth consecutive month that claimant numbers in Reading reduced; there are now approximately 180 fewer people claiming than recorded in November 2009.
3.3% of the working population in Reading claim Job Seekers Allowance. The rate has reduced for the second month in a row. The Reading rate is 0.9 higher than South East rate of 2.4% and is 0.2 lower than the GB rate of 3.5%, both rates remained unchanged.
The majority of claimants (580 people) are aged 20-24 – 17% of all claimants fall within this age group. Annually, this age range has had the biggest drop in claimants with 165 less people claiming than in November 2009. Those aged 25-29 make up 13% of claimants but reported a slight increase in numbers claiming. Young people (those 24 and under) still represent just under a ¼ of all claimants.
Male claimants now make up 68% of all job seekers, compared with 72% in November 2009. Female claimants are growing slowly and have annually increased by 4%.
In November 15% of all claimants have been claiming for over 12 months, this is down 1% from October. 5% of those who have claimed for over 12 months are under the age of 24, down 3% from October suggesting that long term claimants tend to be in the older age brackets.
Approximately 520 people aged 25 plus have claimed for over 12 months down on last months figure. Around 230 people aged 50 and over have been claiming for over 6 months and this accounts for 61% of all the claimants in this age group, down 4% from last month but still relatively high.
There has been minimal change in the occupations sought by jobs seekers. The majority of job seekers are looking for elementary occupations (no or low skilled jobs). In November over a quarter of people (28%) were looking for this type of work. Sales and customer service (18%) administration and secretarial (12%) and skilled trade (11%) jobs have a high proportion of interest. There was minimal change in the proportions and choice of occupations in which job seekers would like to join throughout 2009 and this has continued right through 2010.
November vacancy numbers were up 1% from the same month last year and unfilled job centre vacancies are now reported at 1067, a marginal increase from last month. Unusually the spread of vacancies across occupation types saw minimal change from October to November, bucking the trend of the see saw reporting that is often seen. Annual comparison show the largest rise in vacancies came for Process Plant and Machinery occupations followed closely by Skilled Trade occupations, both having relatively low vacancies this time last year.
Reading reported 3.3 claimants for every vacancy which is the lowest it’s been throughout 2009 and 2010*. The Reading rate is 0.9 below the national figure and 0.3 above the South East rate. (*September 2010 figure not available.)
The proportion of Reading’s population claiming Job Seekers Allowance matches those of 14 authorities in Great Britain including, Neath Port Talbot, West Lancashire and the Isle of Wight. Across the South East, Reading is in 10th place with 9 other local authorities with a higher rate.
Locally Reading’s working age adults claiming Job Seekers Allowance is particularly high compared with West Berkshire (1.8), Bracknell Forest (2.0), Wokingham (1.4), Windsor and Maidenhead (1.8) all of which stayed the same from October to November 2010.
Reading is celebrating a huge boost to the number of young people who have been given a chance to start on the first rung of the employment ladder. The number of 16 to18-year-old apprentices who started training in Reading has more than doubled compared to the same time last year and is the biggest increase across 19 councils in the South East.
The latest figures produced by the National Apprenticeship Service show that, from July to November this year, 267 of Reading’s young people aged 16 to 18 started apprenticeships compared with 124 in the same period last year. This is an increase of 115.3 per cent. The next highest increase for a council in the South East region over the same period was 44.2 per cent.
The number of people of all ages who started apprenticeships was 501, up by 99.6 per cent (from 251) on the same four months last year. The improvement is a major boost for the effectiveness of partnership work between the Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition Council and a range of public and private sector organisations that have been working together over the past year to increase the number of apprenticeships available to Reading people.
A recent meeting organised by the Council to look at ways of further boosting the number of apprenticeships in Reading attracted 23 training providers and associated organisations. The group agreed to work together to encourage even more employers to take on and train apprentices.
A business breakfast is also being organised during National Apprenticeship week in February [Thursday, 10th February, 8.00am to10.00am at the Pentahotel in Reading] to explain to local employers how apprenticeships could benefit their business and to encourage them to take on apprentices.
A further initiative in the New Year is the 100 in 100 Apprenticeship Campaign that will be launched at the business breakfast. The Campaign will encourage the region’s businesses – both large and small – to play their part in recruiting 100 apprentices in 100 days.
Cllr Andrew Cumpsty, Leader of Reading Borough Council applauded these excellent figures, commenting: “Reading is leading the way in the number of young people being given hope and opportunity in the form of apprenticeships.”
Once again the Coalition is delivering where Labour only talked about it!
There is a new YouGov poll reported in tomorrow’s Sun newspaper showing Labour taking a small lead after several days of small Conservative leads. The Lib Dems are up slightly to 9%:
The Government’s approval rating is now at minus 19% (33% approve and 52% disapprove).
Changes shown are compared to the last daily YouGov poll I reported on 15 December.
Conservative 37% (up 1%)
Labour 39% (up 1%)
Lib Dem 13% (down 1%)
All changes are within the margin of error. However, the Lib Dems are now at the lowest level in an ICM poll in recent months, albeit higher than the the 8-9% found by recent YouGov polls.
Interestingly ICM found the “Yes” to AV campaign ahead of the “No” campaign by 44% to 38%. I have yet to decide how I will vote in the referendum. Instinctively I like the existing First Past the Post system for its simplicity but AV (the Alternative Vote) system has some merits as well. I will post more fully on this debate soon.
In the last couple of days we have seen several inches of snow fall in Reading. It was the first real test of the Council’s preparedness following the heavy snow fall last winter. Several things were different this time. The primary and secondary gritting routes had been reviewed and emphasis put onto keep the bus routes open. More grit bins have been provided in the areas away from the gritting routes and two new mini snow ploughs have been bought to more effectively clear pavements in the town centre and some areas outside.
I was impressed at how Council staff responded to the latest snow fall. Major roads were kept open and traffic flowed, most buses continued to run as normal, and the town centre was open as thousands of shoppers flooded in to do Christmas shopping. The few bus routes that were truncated in the morning were largely back to normal by the afternoon. Yesterday afternoon I drove into the town centre to do my own shopping and was pleased to see that the two bridges pathways had been cleared using the two mini snow ploughs.
The messages I have received from members of the public are encouraging, as most people realise that so far this winter the Council is better prepared and better organised. I pay tribute to the many Council staff who have worked hard to ensure that the rest of us can go about our business almost unaffected.
I am also pleased to note that more people are clearing paths outside their properties. The Council has published new Central Government advice that individuals should not fear prosecution if they clear paths, unless of course they do something very silly and are grossly negligent. As an aside it is rather amusing to see one of our Labour Councillors criticising the then Labour controlled Council and Labour Government for “not being in a position to give advice”. I am sure he will now welcome the sensible advice issued by the new Conservative/Lib Dem Government and Council!
Conservative 37% (up 1%)
Labour 39% (down 1%)
Lib Dem 11% (down 1%)
Ed Miliband is turning out to be a good leader of the Labour Party (Net -16%):
Don’t know 50%
Nick Clegg is turning out to be a good leader of the Liberal Democrats (Net -23%):
Don’t know 26%
David Cameron is turning out to be a good prime minister (Net -2%):
Don’t know 21%
ComRes interviewed a random sample of 2,017 GB adults online between December 15-17, 2010.
It was on 18 Dec 2008 that I embarked on blogging for the first time. Having seen lots of other blogs and being encouraged by friends who blogged, I found a format and launched with an article about the speculation surrounding a possible early General Election. I stated my view that Gordon Brown would not dare call an early election and that he would wait until the last possible time in Spring 2010.
Since then I have written almost 1,000 postings, mainly about politics (local and national) but also opinion polls, film reviews and defence issues. There have been over 3,000 comments and almost 370,000 hits in that time. On the busiest day for hits (27 Sep 09) there were 1,738 page views. The busiest month was May 2010 with 24,613 hits. The most read article was on Samoa deciding to switch to driving on the left with 10,447 hits. At the moment I am getting 500-900 hits per day.
There are times when finding something to write is a chore but mostly I find subjects that I feel motivated to comment on. Occasionally I have to restrain myself from writing on some issues, particularly when I disagree with the Coalition government nationally or our local coalition but generally I feel it is better to comment in an open and frank way when I am motivated to do so. It is great to hear from people who read what I write and in almost every instance they are friendly and share my love of debate. However, there are a small number of unpleasant commenters who prefer to hide behind anonymity. They usually damage their own arguments by their confrontational approach but it is mercifully rare that I have felt the need to block a comment.
I am surprised that some respected bloggers have decided to call it a day but understand the occasional frustrations and burdens that blogging brings. I am still enjoying my blog and very much expect to be here in two years time. Do keep reading and commenting, and most of all keep dropping me notes with useful information and suggestions!
After months of lobbying by Reading Borough Council and local MPs, the Department for Transport (DfT) today confirmed it would provide £9.6 m in funding to pay for the new interchanges, which will be located to the north and to the south of the redeveloped Reading station building. The announcement also means work on the new interchanges can be delivered at the same time as Network Rail’s main station improvement works. The new interchanges will provide open access to a refurbished and widened subway giving a significantly improved direct route across the station area for all.
In March this year, the DfT gave ‘conditional approval’ for the Reading Borough Council scheme. This was frozen as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review but in October reinstatement was offered pending future discussions on the scope and cost of the highways project.
Since then, Councillors and Council officers have met with Ministers and officials at the DfT for detailed discussions on the project, with a view to reducing costs to central government, increasing private sector investment and delivering a high quality public interchange area. This has been achieved and Reading Borough Council has now been told that it can progress the scheme which runs parallel with the main rail scheme.
Today’s announcement by Transport Minister Norman Baker at Reading Station means that subject to a successful tender process £9.6 million in funding will be released by the Government to progress the scheme. Reading Borough Council will contribute, mainly through private sector funding, £3.6 million.
This ensures that residents in the Reading area as a whole, and especially the development areas immediately around the station, will have excellent access to all the rail facilities that will be part of the new station.
This is great news and I am really delighted. Securing another £9.6m investment into the town centre will ensure that there are effective integrated transport interchanges to the north and south of the new station. It will allow the Council to deliver improved access for pedestrians, cyclists, taxi and bus users to the new interchanges in partnership with Network Rail.
Today’s news follows the earlier announcement that the £425 million contribution to Network Rail for the next funding period required to complete the station area works is in place. In November it was confirmed that electrification of the Great Western Mainline will take place through Reading Station by 2017.
The main rail scheme will provide more platforms, a new transfer bridge and two new entrances to the station on the north and south sides at the new transfer bridge location just west of the Three Guineas pub. The station upgrade includes new escalators to platforms and new structures throughout the station and this includes changing all the existing canopies.
The Government’s approval rating is now at minus 15% (35% approve and 50% disapprove).
Changes shown are compared to the last daily YouGov poll I reported on 8 December.
Following news that former Labour MP Phil Woolas has lost his appeal against the election court declaring his election void, the major parties have been selecting their candidates for the imminent by-election in Oldham East and Saddleworth. This will have to be in the New Year and early February is considered the favourite time.
Labour has selected Debbie Abrahams (left) to fight the seat. She stood in Colne Valley in the General Election. She defeated Riaz Ahmad and Abdul Jabbar, both of whom were previously Oldham Mayors, to win the candidacy. However, many see it as a poison chalice for her. She will undoubtedly be dogged by reminders of the reasons that the by-election is taking place; namely the scurrilous campaign fought by Woolas.
The Lib Dems have reselected their General Election candidate Elwyn Watkins. It was he who complained to the courts that Woolas had fought a campaign based around outright lies about him and his associates. In the General Election he was just 103 votes behind Woolas but saw his vote share decline slightly (0.5%).
The Conservatives have also reselected their General Election candidate Kashif Ali (right). He came in just behind the Lib Dems but saw his vote share surge by almost 9%. Ali is genuinely local, having been born and bred in the area and he is well known locally for his work as a barrister and with a national charity supporting those with mental illnesses.
The BNP have announced that they will stand their Party leader North West MEP Nick Griffin. UKIP have selected Paul Nuttall who is also an MEP for the North West. It is likely that the Greens will also stand but I have not seen an announcement of their candidate yet. I have also heard that we can expect an “anti-fees” candidate back by the NUS and student campaigners, which would probably hurt the Lib Dems the most.
In normal circumstances I would have expected the Lib Dems to take the seat from Labour. However, these are not normal circumstances. Labour will be handicapped by their history in the seat and the fact that Woolas has been convicted of lying about his opponent but the Lib Dems have lost around half of their opinion poll rating and are down from 25% to about 10-15% now. There is also a history of challengers of election results not doing as well as they might have expected.
There is a buoyant mood in the Conservative camp where this is being treated as very much a three-way fight. I am told that the Conservatives have been quietly campaigning for a while now but that now that a candidate has been confirmed the campaign will step up into a new gear.
It will be a very interesting by-election. All three major parties will have high hopes but have certain problems to over-come if they are to take the seat. One thing is for certain, if Labour lose the seat it will be a body blow for new leader Ed Miliband who has yet to really make a mark on either the political landscape or his own party.
The General Election result was:
Woolas (Labour) – 14,186 (31.9%)
Watkins (Lib Dem) – 14,083 (31.6%)
Ali (Conservative) – 11,773 (26.4%)
Stott (BNP) – 2,546 (5.7%)
Bentley (UKIP) – 1,720 (3.9%)
Nazir (Christian) – 2.2 (0.5%)
UPDATE: I understand that the Lib Dems intend to move the Writ for the by-election tomorrow (16 Dec) and have the election on 13 Jan 11.
There is a new Ipsos MORI poll reported tonight in the Guardian showing the Conservatives closing the gap on Labour and the Lib Dems dropping to just 11% (it is now clear that this is the monthly Reuters commissioned poll):
Conservative 38% (up 2%)
Labour 39% (no change)
Lib Dem 11% (dow 3%)
Despite Labour’s lead Ipsos Mori shows Ed Miliband, has only a +1 satisfaction rating after three months in office, the lowest in Mori polling for a new leader, apart from Michael Foot, William Hague and Nick Clegg; Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair, Michael Howard, David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith all had higher ratings after an equivalent period. Only 26% of respondents thought Miliband was a capable leader, 15% good in a crisis, and 24% more honest than most politicians. A spokesman for Ipsos Mori said: “This is bad news for Ed Miliband. We have to go back to Michael Foot who led the party to a crushing defeat in 1983 to find a lower satisfaction rating at this stage.”
Ipsos MORI interviewed a representative sample aged 18+ across Great Britain. Interviews were conducted by telephone 10-12 Dec 2010. Data are weighted to match the profile of the population.
Today I have announced more good news for residents and visitors to Reading town centre. The Borough Council has responded to feedback by removing overnight charges on Pay and Display bays. On 17 January I will take a report to Cabinet to seek my colleagues’ agreement to restrict pay and display charges to the hours of 8am to 8pm.
In October this year we introduced a trial of Pay and Display parking in the town centre. The scheme itself and all public comments have been closely monitored since its introduction. A total of 196 pay and display bays, serviced by 31 solar powered Pay and Display machines, are located across the town centre. Some additional Pay and Display bays have been created where there were once yellow lines. In total, there are 8,000 parking spaces serving the Town Centre.
The move means Town Centre residents with little or no parking facilities at their properties will be able to use the Pay and Display to park ‘on-street’ for free from 8pm onwards. These residents are however reminded they will need to move their vehicles before the bays become operational again at 8am the following morning.
It also means that late night visitors will be able to park for free in Pay and Display bays from 8pm onwards, taking full advantage of all the town centre facilities without having to rush back to their vehicles before their two hour maximum stay is reached.
The changes have been put forward to make the scheme even more flexible for residents, to make visiting the town centre easier for everyone and to benefit the town centre economy. Relevant changes to signage will be made before the revised scheme is introduced.
It should be noted the change in hours of operation of Pay and Display apply only to those bays which were previously in operation 24/7. They do not apply to Pay and Display bays located within residents parking zones, where the hours of operation will continue to be 10am to 4pm.
When the pay and display scheme was introduced I stated then that it was an experiment. Evidence suggests that while daytime charges have generally been accepted, overnight charges have caused some problems for a small number of residents and businesses. Unlike Labour when they were in office locally, we have listened to feedback and adapted to meet the needs of local people. Together with the freeze in short-term car parking charges announced last week, this change ensures that town centre visitors and businesses are supported by the Council.
Today I also announced that there will be no charges in Pay and Display Bays on Christmas Day – starting at midnight on Christmas Eve (00.00hrs December 25), until Midnight on Boxing Day (00.00hrs December 26). Notices will be placed on all Pay and Display machines to this effect.