Wokingham

Tories/ Lib Dem coalition slashes Southend’s funding by £11 million


southend civic centre

Can you picture £11 million? I mean, actually picture it? In cash, in change, in whatever denomination you like. Can you see it in your mind’s eye?

I cannot.

But the number is one which I haven’t been able to escape. £11m is how much Southend-on-Sea Borough Council’s funding has been cut for the 2015/16 financial year. £11m is how much less that the council have to spend on local services for Southenders.

So when you’re writing your Christmas thank you letters, don’t forget to thank the Tories and Lib Dems, and especially Uncle Eric at the DCLG. Because of them the council will have to make some tough decisions next year, and won’t be able to fulfil as much as it would like to to make your lives better.

Cheers for that.

Read on…

Bin Bags Deja Vu in Wokingham


wokingham blue bags 2013

I seem to recall that I was at this around the same time last year; moaning about blue bin bags. Well, with apologies to readers who were thoroughly bored the last time, but I’m at it again.

Last year, when Wokingham Borough Council’s stealth-taxing bin bag scheme was new, one of my many complaints was that the delivery was botched. Rolls of bags — limited to two per household — were left on residents’ doorsteps where many were stolen.

This year we were promised that lessons had been learned. Instead of simply being left on doorsteps, residents who were not there to receive their bags would be able to claim them instead through a voucher system. No more stolen bags, right?

Except this, at the top of the page, is what I was greeted by this morning.

A leaflet, pushed through the door, explained what a *ahem* success the first year of the scheme has been, and how we would be able to collect our bags if they had not been delivered. It was only as I was leaving for work that I realised that the bags has been left there, without so much as an attempt to notify us.

Lessons learned indeed. Exactly the same thing a year on. Wokingham deserves better than this merry-go-round of incompetence.

Thames Valley Police Commissioner Hustings in Wokingham


The most common thing I hear from people when I talk to them about the Police & Crime Commissioner elections —  now less than three weeks away — is that they have no idea who the candidates are, or what policies they are standing on.

It’s an understandable problem, really. The Thames Valley is a big area, and the elections have been both terribly timed and remarkably unpromoted, given that they’re for a major new public office. Unless voters have specifically gone looking for candidates’ positions (or maybe not even then) or they have been canvassed by activists then there is little chance they will have much idea what each candidate is proposing.

So local hustings have been of primary importance in this campaign. There have been several already, but Wednesday will see the candidates coming to Wokingham for a public debate. The Finchampstead Society will be hosting a debate at 7:30pm at the Memorial Hall (Wokingham, RG40 4JU) where the candidates will be speaking and available to answer questions.

As far as I’m aware, only the three main party candidates have confirmed attendance: John Howson (Lib Dem), Anthony Stansfeld (Conservative), and Tim Starkey (Labour). Which leaves the two remaining independents and the UKIP candidate may well not be there. But it’s better than nothing.

I shall be there, and I urge any residents of the Thames Valley area who can make it to join me. This is a serious and major public office, and we are running a real risk of allowing a candidate to sleepwalk into it with no real scrutiny or democratic process. Come along on Wednesday evening, and put your questions to the people vying to be your first Police & Crime Commissioner.

Voter apathy: a serious problem for the left


This weekend I was out and about in Maidenhead, canvassing for the Pinkney’s Green by-election next week. A  bizarre practice, canvassing, where we few political enthusiasts go door to door, bothering people who most of the time don’t want to be bothered in an effort to persuade them to vote for our candidate.

Like I said, a bizarre practice. But it’s one that forms the cornerstone of our democratic system.

And yet, knocking on doors on a brisk Saturday morning, I was alarmed at just how many people said that either they weren’t planning to vote or didn’t even know that there was an election on. The overwhelming majority of households showed a worrying disconnection and disaffection from their local democracy.

There are a number of reasons why this shouldn’t be surprising:

  1. Democratic involvement and thus electoral turnout has been down on trend since the 1950s.
  2. Turnout at the last local elections in Wokingham (the neighbouring authority to Windsor & Maidenhead) was only 30%, despite some serious local issues framing the ballot.
  3. After the expenses scandal, Nick Clegg’s u-turn on tuition fees, the hacking scandal, the Tories’ NHS u-turn, and a host of other incidents, the public’s distaste for politicians is higher than ever.

But still, if you were to ask most people they would probably say they aren’t happy with the government — local or national.

It’s never been any secret either that conservative voters are more likely to go out and vote. There are all sorts of reasons, but it gives right-wing parties an electoral advantage (remember that when you hear Tory MPs talking about boundary reviews and Labour advantages). Those who would naturally support the Conservatives are more likely to go down to the polling station on election day than those who would naturally support Labour.

Part of it, I’m convinced, is down to a sense of empowerment. The more affluent voters more inclined to vote blue feel that they have a stake in the system and that their votes count. The poorer, more vulnerable voters who would be most helped by policies of the left do not. In the words of one gentlemen I spoke to on Saturday:

Whoever I vote for, it makes no difference to me, it makes no difference to my life.

Whether or not that’s true is up for debate, but what isn’t is that him and a lot of other people like him feel that way.

The truth is that politics is often boring. For every exciting moment of heated debate, there’s a boring committee meeting about details which would bore the pants off most. This is doubly true with local government. And yet, this it is through these mechanisms which their lives can be enhanced and improved.

This is a serious problem for the left, although I don’t have a solution. But a turnout as low as (or lower than) one third is not accurately representative of the public view. The only real remedy to this that we have at our disposal (excluding making voting compulsory) is party infrastructure, “getting the vote out“.

In the longer term, though, we need to do something to make people, all people, feel that their votes matter and make a difference.

Wokingham Bins Consultation – the Waiting Phase


This morning, an email dropped into my inbox:

Thank you for giving up your time to respond to the consultation exercise on the Council’s new Waste and Recycling Service. Your feedback is very important to us and will help us consider improvements to the scheme for next year.  The results of the consultation will be set out in a report to the Council’s Executive in November 2012. The report will also include recommendations on proposed improvements to the scheme.  You will receive a copy of the consultation analysis in November 2012.

Mark Moon

Strategic Director – Place Based Service Delivery

Hopefully there were an awful lot of other people across Wokingham Borough who received identical emails.

Considering that a public consultation was one of the main demands I made during my election campaign earlier this year, I’m feeling pretty vindicated right now. I hope that the consultation will be properly considered by the council executive, and will lead to real change to rectify this poorly-thought out policy.

I’m also glad that they have promised to send copies of the analysis to the respondants. Too often people respond to such consultations never to hear anything again. If consultation is to be real, it must encompass the whole process.

That said, I hope that they will release the full raw data too, to allow others (such as myself) to conduct our own analysis. If they don’t, then the can be sure that I will use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to push for its release, but for now all we can do is wait and see.

Wokingham Borough Council and the Secret Consultation


I think this sums it up rather neatly.

Back in the local elections, three plus months ago (was it really only three months ago?) one of the chief criticisms I had of Wokingham Borough Council’s new waste collection scheme was that it was a profound change to the system, and it had been done completely without consultation.

Well, it seems that the council are somewhat belatedly running just such a consultation. Sort of.

A thirty-four question online survey inquiring as to residents thoughts, opinion, and experiences of the new waste collection scheme has appeared, introducing itself with the line:

…the Council would like to know your views about how the scheme is working and whether it is delivering on its intended improvements.

And about time two. Except…good luck finding said survey. I consider myself a reasonable competent researcher — it’s included in my job title, after all — and after a good hour with a search engine I was still drawing a blank. As far as I can tell, you cannot find the survey unless you already have the URL. Which is an interesting approach, don’t you think?

The funny thing is that the council website already has a section of its website dedicated to consultations. The list of open consultations isn’t exactly long, but I don’t see anything related to waste collection there.

So we have a waste consultation, but it’s unfindable. The only reason I even know about it is because a neighbour happened to receive the link in an email and forward it to a family member. Even the leader of the Lib Dem opposition didn’t seem to know anything about it.

As I see it, there are two possible explanations:

  • It’s not real. Which seems strange, since it looks like it’s hosted on the council website.
  • The council doesn’t really want people to find it, apart from people who they show the link to.

No prizes for guessing which I think the answer is.

So going forward, what to do. Well, firstly I suggest you all go to the survey, fill it out, and tell the council what you think of their waste scheme. I’ll even give you the link, free of charge:

http://consultations.wokingham.gov.uk/waste_collection_review/waste_collection_review.htm

Secondly, there’s an email address on the consultations section of the Wokingham website, for someone called a “Consultation Officer”. This sounds like someone who should know about any consultations being conducted, so I’m going to send them an email asking for clarification. I’ll let you all know what response I get.

And thirdly, I will be meeting with Cllr Angus Ross at the end of the month to discuss the new bins scheme. Amongst a few other things, you can be very much sure this will be mentioned.

Wokingham Borough Council’s Cabinet Reshuffle


Wokingham’s cabinet reshuffle has seen Cllr Angus Ross (right) take over responsibility for the controversial waste collection scheme from Cllr Gary Cowan (left).

With the “unfair” election behind him and, despite his belief that voters were mean to him, his overwhelming majority intact, Wokingham’s Tory council leader David Lee has reshuffled his top team. This is presumably a search for a little inspiration, following the last lot’s sparkling success in alienating vast chunks of the populace.

The most notable change is the jettisoning of two of the executives who were arguably the most damaged: Cllrs Gary Cowan and UllaKarin Clark.

Cllr Cowan’s performance regarding the new waste system was something of an unmitigated disaster. From day one the scheme was clearly flawed, and when those flaws became clear he alternated between joining his fellow cabinet members in the bunker, and giving disastrous interviews on BBC Radio Berkshire’s Andrew Peach show. I can’t decide which was my personal favourite moment: his 9m long bin bags, or his insistence that four different sizes of bags all across the borough were the result of a single defective batch.

This one isn’t a surprise for me. The scheme was unpopular and unsuccessful, and Gary was the council’s face of it. Losing two seats might not seem a huge setback, but it will have been a blow to David Lee’s ego. I expect Gary has taken the bulk of the blame, so his absence from the top table is no great surprise.

His replacement is Angus Ross, the former executive member for  planning (I think). I don’t honestly know much about Cllr Ross, he’s not been a particularly high profile member of the executive, so I’ll be interested to see how he performs now he’s been thrust into the spotlight.

The departure of Cllr Clark is, to me, equally unsurprising. Her brief of Internal Services included the library service, and with the announcement of who it’s being sold off to expected pretty imminently, it’s going to become a political hot potato (I say that because I’m going to make it a political hot potato).

I’m sure Cllr Clark is perfectly capable, but her defence of the library privatisation plan has been less than robust. She was the respondant to the petition against the plans, and her conduct was shambolic. She and her colleagues spent the debate chastising those who signed the petition, rather than taking the opportunity to explain, defend and persuade. And when the time came for voting on a motion, she was wholly unprepared and the executive had to write one there on the floor of the chamber.

But it’s the choice of her replacement which is the most interesting part: Hillside’s newly re-elected Cllr Pauline Jorgensen. This just might be the first piece of sound political manoeuvring I’ve seen on David Lee’s part, and an excellent choice. Cllr Jorgensen is sharp, keen and will make my job significantly harder. I know this because I’ve already had many debates and discussions with her on Twitter. I disagree with the vast majority of her policy positions, but I won’t deny that she’s very capable, and I hope she’ll raise the quality of debate in the chamber.

In other news, Cllr Keith Baker has added planning to his pre-existing highways brief, so please direct all planning permission complaints thither. Given that Cllr Baker is one of the highest profile executive members, readers might wonder at the consolidation of roles in his portfolio, but I would imagine David Lee decided that he needed someone who would be able to defend the building of 13,000 new homes by 2026.

Newcomer to the executive Cllr Alisatir Corrie takes on Matt Deegan’s brief for the regeneration, after Matt stood down in May, and Cllr Charlotte Haitham-Taylor has taken over on Children’s Services from Rob Stanton, who remains deputy leader. The cabinet in full is as follows:

Council Leader – Cllr David Lee (Norreys)

Deputy Leader – Cllr Rob Stanton (Finchampstead North)

Highways and Planning – Cllr Keith Baker (Coronation)

Finance – Cllr Anthony Pollock (Shinfield South)

Health and Wellbeing – Cllr Julian McGhee-Sumner (Wescott)

Internal Services – Cllr Pauline Jorgensen (Hillside)

Regeneration and Affordable Houses – Cllr Alistair Corrie (Evendons)

Evironment – Cllr Angus Ross (Wokingham Without)

Children’s Services – Cllr Charlotte Haitham-Taylor (Shinfield South)

Thames Valley Police Commissioner – Labour Nomination Hustings


Tim Starkey and Jon Harvey- the two shortlisted candidates for the Labour nomination for Thames Valley police & crime commissioner.

Last night, Wokingham Labour Party held a hustings for the two shortlisted candidates for the Labour nomination in November’s elections for the Police & Crime Commissioner of the Thames Valley region. The two candidates are Tim Starkey and Jon Harvey, who not only have satisfactorily near-rhyming names, but who both have shiny websites so you can read up on their policies.

It was a fairly well attended affair, with party members present from Reading East, Bracknell and my own Maidenhead as well as Wokingham, and the questioning was lively. It was, I thought, an excellent hustings.

Both candidates were well qualified for the job, and were brimming with ideas of how to improve policing in the Thames Valley. Tim is a barrister, who has worked in prosecution and defence, and a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate who defected to Ed Miliband’s Labour in protest against the coalition policy. Jon is a lifelong Labour man with experience working as an adviser to police forces and politicians, and a town councillor in Buckingham.

One of the most positive things to come out of the hustings, I feel, is a very genuine belief from both Tim and Jon that a Labour candidate can win this. I think the local elections two weeks ago were something of a game-changer. Whilst Labour progress in Wokingham was a little stalled, elsewhere across the Thames Valley area we made big gains. And here we have something to offer.

One of the most interesting ideas I heard was from Tim. It’s number one on his list of five pledges:

To restore officer numbers in the Thames Valley to 2010 levels could be paid for by a rise in the police precept of £4 a year for band D properties. I believe this is a price worth paying.

I reckon he’s onto something. I believe that people are quite happy to pay taxes, if they can see where those taxes are going. And £4 per year is a small price to pay for a full-strength police force, and the piece of mind that would provide residents.

Jon touched upon another policing matter, of equal importance I would say to the drastic cuts in numbers: police privatisation. Back in March it emerged shockingly that two police forces had already offered major contracts to private security firms, and that others were considering following suit.

He also showed this worrying image:

Police privatisation is a serious threat. It also seems to be Conservative Party policy. Like Jon, I think that a great many ordinary residents of the Thames Valley area would find the idea of a private security guard patrolling their streets very worrying.

Like I said before, Labour do have a real shot at this. And though I haven’t made up my mind yet whether I’ll vote for Tim or Jon, I know whichever of them wins the selection, they would both make an excellent candidate and an excellent Police and Crime Commissioner.

Wokingham Tories to close Fosters care home


Despite the valiant efforts of residents, their families and Labour’s Greg Bello, Wokingham’s Conservatives have decided that they WILL be closing down.

As I predicted, so has it sadly come to pass. Not even two weeks on from the local elections, and all of the bad news, all of the unpopular decisions that the local Conservatives sat on during the election campaign are coming out. First off the blocks? The council will be closing down Fosters care home.

I’ll admit it, this one hurts. Elderly and vulnerable residents will have to move to other care homes in the Wokingham area, which will be a very traumatic process causing harm to their physical health and entirely possibly deaths as a result of the stress.

And that’s not even considering the harm to the families of residents, as well as the staff who face job uncertainty in an already terrible economic situation.

It also hurts, because my friend (and Labour candidate for Bulmershe & Whitegates) Greg Bello has been working hard campaigning to save Fosters. This went beyond just an election issue, when I spoke to him the other day he was genuinely upset that this decision had been taken.

The thing that really grates, though, is the habitual dishonesty which seems to have surrounded the decision. I did quite a bit of canvassing over in Woodley, and we were pushing hard on the Fosters issue, warning people that it was under threat. The Tories’ response was that no decision had been made. Except, that doesn’t seem to have been true, does it? Whether or not the official decision-making process had been gone through, the Tory administration already knew what they would decide.

This is the Conservatives’ modus operandi. They know that some of their plans are going to be unpopular, so rather than try and explain their reasoning they keep it secret until after the election, so it won’t damage their chances or risk their hegemony. They did it with the libraries last year, only announcing that they were selling off the service a week or two after the election, with no prior mention given in campaign materials. They did it with the new bins scheme, suppressing news of the scheme and leaving a situation where an unfit scheme was rendered worse by lack of awareness of it.

If you’re interested in reading more about how Wokingham Conservatives do business, it’s worth reading this blog from a (non-partisan) local resident about how they (specifically council leader David Lee) lied about housing policy and their core strategy, back at the 2010 local elections. I wish things like this would get a wider airing, because if people knew what was going on I think they’d be shocked and appalled.

But the nub of this issue, here and now, is that some of the most vulnerable of Wokingham’s citizens are going to suffer because the council wants to pay less for their care. That, to me, is disgusting. My grandfather suffers from dementia and a few years back had to go into residential care. Initially there was some trouble, and he moved through three homes before he was settled, and the physical impact of the stress on him was heartbreaking to see.

I shudder to think of the damage that this short-sighted decision will cause to so many.

A Pot to Piss In


The boarded-up toilet block in Twyford, and the sign pinned to the door.

The elections are over, but the problems assailing Wokingham borough are still here. Despite the fact that local Tory leader Cllr Lee reckons that the results were terribly unfair on his party, they are still in control and their unpopular, controversial and unworkable policies roll on unhestitatingly.

And we’re still resisting them.

Case in point, the closure of public toilets across the borough. Despite the problems raised, despite the objections from the elderly, the disabled, those with children, the council remain convinced that the local loos scheme is an adequate replacement for the closed public toilets blocks.

We, the local Labour party, have raised in conjunction with other local community groups a petition against the policy, calling for the council to reconsider. Attention has largely been focused, so far, on Wokingham town centre and Woodley. But recently the prospects for public conveniences in those places have increased: Woodley Town Council have their eye on money from development to re-open the toilets, and certain executive council members have been hinting that the Wokingham town centre regeneration will include new toilets.

So with these developments, the petition appears to have more significant for other areas of the borough: for Winnersh,  Finchampstead, and Earley- and the northern parishes. Twyford and Wargrave, which I consider “my patch”, also have closed-down toilet blocks. They sit, boarded-up and half-derelict, whilst an inadequate agreement with local businesses replaces them.

The petition has crossed the requisite number of signatures, and will be presented to the council at its meeting next Thursday (24th), and will trigger a debate at the meeting on 19th July. It will be interesting to see whether this follows the pattern of the previous debate, on library privatisation, where the Conservatives were disdainful and dismissive of the signatories. I don’t suppose they will change their minds, but at least they won’t be able to ignore it.

I fully expect that Cllr Lee’s favourite excuse will make an appearance. It’s already seen an outing this week in the Twyford Advertiser, which referred to “Cllr Lee’s cash-strapped council“. I’ve already laid out how Wokingham’s “worst-funded” status is more than mitigated by its high council tax take. And the idea that we are too poor to provide public toilets is patent lunacy.

I will be there in the public gallery of the council chambers both on Thursday, to see the presentation of the petition, and in July, for the debate. I would urge any residents who have become disillusioned and sceptical of the Tories’ methods and attitudes to join me there. You never know, we may even force them to deal with Wokingham’s problems, rather than simply insult its people.

UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention that, in much the same manner as their Woodley counterpart, Winnersh Parish Council are planning to build a public toilet. The difference here is that Winnersh is doing it out of its own budget. So it seems that the the slack left by the borough council’s cost-cutting abdication of responsibility is being taken up further down the chain at the parish council level. Wonderful.