The Research Trap


Over the weekend, Ash introduced me to an interesting blog post from her one-time lecture and novelist David Rain, busting the “Seven Myths of Writing. I don’t usually go in for writing advice much, partly because the craft is such a personal thing. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is a book I really enjoyed, but it was “how Stephen King writes” rather than “how you should write”.

David’s approach, however, was interesting. It wasn’t advice per se, but rather challenging some common pre-conceptions. Myth number two in particular leapt out at me, “The Myth of Perfect Preparation“:

…the truth about research and planning, for fiction at least, is this: Do the minimum. Do just enough to get going, and no more… Research is a bottomless pit. If you do it without knowing where you’re going or what you need…it’ll be a long time before you write Chapter One…

Read on…

Wokingham libraries not to be sold off

A little piece of good news this weekend, courtesy of the folks over at Save Wokingham’s Libraries. They quote a press release (which I have seen, and can therefore vouch for, even if it’s not online for me to link to), which seems to indicate that Wokingham Borough Council have decided not to go ahead with the proposed privatisation of library services.

Which is excellent news, frankly. It was the libraries issue (primarily) which brought me into local politics a year and a bit ago, and it has been key to the two local election campaigns I’ve run. It would be churlish of me to claim that it was my efforts personally which have led to this change of heart, but I have no doubt that it is the tireless campaigning by the cross-party group Save Wokingham’s Libraries and also concerned local residents that we have to thank for this.

Cllr Pauline Jorgensen, executive member for common sense and disaster aversion (also, Internal Services), announcing the decision, said:

The council has been working with interested parties in a competitive dialogue process to see if there are ways that we can work with the private sector to improve the library service we offer. The result is that we haven’t been convinced there will be enough benefits for our library users to continue with the process. We also don’t want to take the risk the key objectives would not be achieved for our users.

Well done Pauline. I feel that this is the correct moment to point out that when she was appointed to the executive, I hailed it as a shot in the arm for sound politics and administration in Wokingham local government. And well done to the people of Wokingham Borough.

Now let’s hope for some headway on the bins next month.

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)

Why Not to Trust Tory Promises

The Conservatives have broken so many promises, in Wokingham and nationally; how can they be trusted now?

As 3rd May, polling day in the local elections, draws every closer, reasons not to trust the promises that the Conservatives make seem paramount. Just how many of them have they broken? They must be competing with Nick Clegg about now.

So far, we’ve seen:

  • A massive, widescale reform of the NHS, despite a promise that there would be no more top-down reforms.
  • An attempt to sell off the country’s forests to the highest bidder, having promising to care better for the countryside.
  • Despite pr0mising to fix the economy and cut the deficit, they’re borrowing more and the country is back in recession.
  • A promise to be the “greenest government ever” met by…well, nothing.
  • Scrapping EMA for poorer students, despite promises not to before the election from both David Cameron and Michael Gove.

And those are just the ones off the top of my head.

Additionally, those who read the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto might remember this line:

…we will not allow the poorest people in Britain to pay an unfair price for the mistakes of some of the richest.

And yet since being in government, they have hiked VAT (which hits the poorest hardest), and increased tax on pensioners to fund a tax break for millionaires. That seems like a broken promise to me.

Of course, this being a local election local issues will be rightfully taking centre stage. But to think that the Conservatives in Wokingham borough are more trustworthy would be a mistake.

This blog, from November 2010, by local resident Richard Peat shows up just how conniving they are. Essentially, they promised in advance of the 2010 general election that a Tory government would reduce housing quotas, allowing the council to reduce the number that they would be building. The Tories got votes, as a result, in both national and local elections, and unsurprisingly the quota reduction didn’t happen.

So essentially, they lied in order to win votes at election time. Not exactly shocking, you may be tempted to think.

Look, also, at the library privatisation plan. It was announced last May, conspicuously just after a local election in which a third of councillors faced the public vote. So you’d expect it to have been a major issue in the campaign for that election.

But you’d be wrong. No mention was made, and the idea was not put to the public. A cynic might suggest that this was because the Conservatives knew it would be a vote loser, and decided that it was easier for them to subvert the democratic process and do it in secret. But I’ll let you make up your own mind.

My point is this: the Conservatives cannot be trusted to stand by their campaign pledges. They promise that they’ll iron out the “teething problems” with the new rubbish collection scheme, but you weren’t asked or consulted with about it. They promise the libraries are safe, but they’ve broken their promises many times before. And how can we know that Monday 7th May won’t see the announcement of some new policy we’ve heard nothing about before?

Matthew S. Dent for Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe

Matthew S. Dent, Labour and Co-Op candidate for Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe

With nominations closed, all of the forms in, and the full list of candidates to be officially announced next week, I think this is as good a time as any to make my own announcement: I am standing on May 3rd as the Labour and Co-operative candidate for Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe.

This has been something of a given for a long while now, but my nomination forms went in last Wednesday without hiccough, and so pending Tuesday’s announcement everything will be official.

Over the next few weeks, I will be putting leaflets through letterboxes, and talking to people all across the ward about the issues they are concerned about, and what I can offer them if elected. The advantage of being involved in local politics all year round, not only at election time, is that I’m already familiar with most of the issues.

On a national level, the economy is still in the doldrums and the Conservative-led economic strategy seems only to be making things worse. There is a real risk that we will shortly be back in recession- officially; many households will testify that the struggles they face day to day already speak of recession- and what are the government focusing on? Taxing pasties; taxing pensioners; snooping in our emails; shutting down transparency; cutting tax for millionaires; ending child tax credits for ordinary working families and a whole load of other unhelpful and regressive measures.

One thing is becoming very clear- we are not all in this together.

But this is a local election, and whilst the national picture cannot be discounted or ignored I want residents to cast their votes based on local issues. So here is an overview of some of the issues I will be campaigning on:

  • Bin collection: the new scheme has proved disastrous. The scheme is a stealth tax on residents, and even central government has serious concerns that the council have no legal basis for doing this. Residents are in uproar, and the councillors who implemented this scheme are nowhere to be seen. My view on this is simple. We are calling for three things: firstly, the scheme should be suspended immediately; secondly, there should be an inquiry into what has gone wrong with the scheme, particularly the problems besetting the launch; thirdly, the consultation with residents that the council didn’t think was necessary should be conducted, and no new scheme introduced without public approval.
  • Libraries: the plan to privatise libraries across the borough was central to my campaign in the July by-election, and since then it has dropped off the agenda a little. I am not happy about this; the council dismissed residents concerns when a petition triggered a debate, and have done nothing to mitigate the damage that I believe this plan will cause. Privatising libraries will lead to corners being cut in the pursuit of profit, and our currently great libraries will be at risk of decline. The decision is due to be made in May, so this is a vital issue on the doorsteps.
  • Real democracy: At the moment, the Conservative elite who rule Wokingham seem completely disconnected from residents. Time and again, they do exactly what they want with concern neither for the views of voters or whether it is a good idea. There is little to no debate, and a sense of aloof disdain for disagreement. They have even admitted that they don’t think they need to listen to residents. I believe that the way to solve this is by putting different voices, of different parties, on the council. If elected I will make holding the council to account my primary business, and pushing for better policies for the borough.

I will be expanding on and adding to these points as the election grows closer, and as I receive more feedback from residents on the doorstep. If you live in the ward and want to get in touch with me, I welcome any and all contact, and you can do so by:

Or simply wait until I knock on your door.

The Importance of Variety

Yours truly, trying to save the endless variety provided by libraries.

It’s strange, but as a writer one of the questions I most dread being asked is one of the most frequent: “So what do you write then?” It’s not so much that I don’t like talking about my writing- though I do get a strange modesty conflict- but more that I’m never sure how to categorise myself.

Look at the last piece of writing that I had published. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”, a psychological horror published in the Night Terrors II anthology (which, I’ve recently discovered, is only £3.88 on Kindle. Just saying…). Last night I finished and submitted a near future SF story with an environmental bent. The next story I write will, it seems, be harder SF centred around augmented reality. And I have *holds breath* recently started a novel that seems like it will be a mixture of medium-hard SF and light fantasy.

So it’s a little hard to categorise my writing as a whole. When asked about it today in the barber’s chair, about all I could manage was “dark, horror-y, science-fiction-y stuff”. Which is somewhat embarrassing for someone who is supposed to be good with words.

But “dark” is about the only common thread running through my writing. Whether it’s overt horror, or SF exposing the darker side of humanity, I have an almost macabre fascination with the shadier side of life. I take heart that, whilst he started off with undeniable horror, Stephen King has matured into a taste for variety in the extreme. How would you categorise Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, for example?

My reading patterns are, generally speaking, just as varied. I make a special point to read a wide range of fiction, since I strongly believe that we write what we read in the same way that we are what we eat. Sameish reading results in stagnant writing.  The last book I read was Tom Fletcher’s The Thing on the Shore, a strange and introspective horror novel which was frankly excellent. And I’m currently reading two books: the first is Greg Egan’s Quarantine, which represents my first forray into reading full-length hard SF. The second is a physical copy of Dragonheart by Todd McCaffrey.

I grew up on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, and was deeply saddened last year when she passed away. I hadn’t read any of the later novels in the series by her son Todd, but seeing it on the shelf at the library the other week I just couldn’t help myself.

Which brings me neatly to another thing that’s been on my mind. Wokingham Borough Council’s plan to privatise the libraries rumbles onwards. The matter has seen scant attention from this blog of late, partly due to the exploding incompetence of the waste collection scheme and partly due to the fact that it’s all being done in secret. The council can claim that the secrecy is due to EU tendering rules, but those rules didn’t prevent the Conservatives from proposing it at the last election, or consulting on it before opening it up to tender.

When I go to the library for a book, I don’t go looking for anything in particular. I look for something that catches my eye, whatever it might be, and that contributes greatly to the variety in my reading. This is why I am determined to make sure that the libraries issue doesn’t drop off the agenda. As I have said before, the world would be a far poorer place without them.

A Smoke and Mirrors Budget

For a document that was supposed to say where local taxpayers' money is going, the budget left a lot of confusion about what is being spent on what.

I’ve spent a while sat here, trying to decide where to start with this recount of last night’s local budget debate. I think I’ll begin with the esteemed John Halsall, councillor for Remenham Wargrave & Ruscombe and my opponent in last July’s (and the coming May’s) election. On his feet, speaking during the debate, Cllr Halsall claimed that this budget was preventing Wokingham from turning into Greece.

That is the sort of night, and the sort of debate, that it was.

The budget passed of course, though with the Conservatives having a majority of 36 (and all of them willing to gush over it like it was the second coming of Christ) you’d be staggered if it hadn’t. The Lib Dems abstained on all but the last vote, which they voted against. Which probably means something grand, but I’ll let them spin it for themselves to be honest.

So what was the most notable thing about this budget?

It wasn’t the that the council’s plans to limit the number of household waste disposal bags to residents, and sell them extras, is probably illegal. It wasn’t Cllr Anthony Pollock (executive member for finance) saying that the council were “right” to keep the public in the dark about the budget. It wasn’t the fact that the Tories demanded to know why nobody had come up with amendments and alternative budgets, despite the budget only being released for a week. It wasn’t the obsession with a short-sighted council tax freeze that will require a 2.5% hike next year just to maintain the same funding level without the one-year central grant. It wasn’t the endless tiresome (and inaccurate) claims that Wokingham is the worst funded local authority in the country.

It wasn’t even the mindblowing revelation that the council makes a frankly embarrassing profit on the green waste bins and bags it will be selling under its new scheme. (Incidentally, the council will be charging £60 for the bins and a previously free service. The bins cost them £25. That’s a profit of 48.3%. Similarly, the bags will be sold for £1 each, but cost the council only  15p each- a profit margin of 85%!)

No, far and away the worst thing was just how much of the local authority finances were not included within it. This is the real danger of the way Wokingham Borough Council has been operating. Over the last few years, many parts of local government in the borough have been spun off into separate and private companies. Adult social care is now handled by Optalis Ltd. Wokingham Enterprise Ltd controls the town centre regeneration.

These bodies don’t appear on the budget in their own right. Why not? And since the plan is still to sell off the library service (which Cllr UllaKarin Clark had the audacity to boast in as she packages up and price-tags it), how will that fare? Will it too disappear off into a black hole of unaccountability?

It is, really, just the same as the games before the budget was released. The Conservative administration believe they have an absolute right to rule, which will never be taken away, and thus there is no need for them to be at all open in their activities. They have failed any openness test, and as Cllr Pollock’s attitude shows up, they don’t care.

Cllr David Lee, leader of the council made some bold promises tonight:

“We will not cut any services, we will not cut our contributions to voluntary services, we will not raise council tax, and we will maintain our reserves.”

The question of the hour, Cllr Lee, would be how? And from everything that I have seen tonight it is a question which seems still to be worryingly unanswered.

But, at least Wokingham isn’t going to turn into Greece. Thank God for that.

Bins and Stealth Taxes in Wokingham Borough

The rubbish bin- where, I humbly submit, Wokingham's new plans for their waste collection services belong

Timing is a funny thing, isn’t it? Just last night I blogged about the Wokingham council meeting tonight, calling upon residents to come along and help hold the council to account, and today three pieces of related news drop into my lap.

Firstly, The Wokingham Times run a story titled “Council defends bid to privatise libraries“- about that libraries plan which definitely was outsourcing, not privatisation, and they absolutely aren’t the same thing, not even a little, no sir! Anyway the article didn’t reveal anything much new, apart from that libraries are going to be debated tonight at the Executive meeting. And, of course, the universally hostile response in the comments was uplifting.

Secondly, in the course of my day job over at Political Scrapbook, we published this story about waste collection. The basic thrust of the story is a letter, from Bob Neil MP and Lord Henley at the Department of Communities and Local Government, which seems to indicate that the the Department considers some of Wokingham’s plans to be illegal.

A bit of background first. Wokingham are planning on a number of changes to their waste collection services. Chief amongst these are the rolling out of new bags for household waste, which each household will be limited to 80 per year. Anything required beyond this will have to be purchased, at a rate of £0.40 per bag. In addition, there will be a new £60 annual fee for green waste collection, a service which was previously free. Somehow, Cllr Gary Cowan thinks that this will increase recycling, rather than fly tipping, in the borough.

But take a look at what Bob Neil thinks about this, in a letter published on their website:

“…it has come to our attention that a small minority of local authorities may be exceeding their legal powers in relation to charging householders for waste services.”

“In short, councils cannot introduce ‘backdoor’ bin charging for mainstream waste collections or waste disposal. Such stealth taxes are not legal and are contrary to the policy direction of the new Government.”

The “not legal” part seems particularly conclusive there to me. I’m reliably informed by local Lib Dem leader Cllr Prue Bray that this matter has been raised before. Apparently they were brushed off by the Chief Executive at the time. I hear that her successor is looking more deeply into it, and I commend him for it, as I really don’t see any room for ambiguity here.

So if even Eric Pickles and co think that Wokingham’s plans are illegal, the residents don’t like them, and they aren’t even going to work, it might be fair to suggest that the policy is a bit of a mess. Especially when I bring in my third piece of news: that the council spent £90,000 of local taxpayers’ money coming up with a mission statement that seems oddly similar to the last one:

“A great place to live, an even better place to do business”

When you’re facing your library services being sold off, adult social care services already sold off, new charges for waste collection (what was it that council tax was supposed to pay for again) and a local government that seems uninterested in what residents think, that seems like £90k well spent, at least! Right?


Making the Case for Libraries

Think of all the knowledge, stored in all the libraries, in all the world. Breathtaking, no? Is that really something we deem expendable?

Today is National Libraries Day. There, I bet you didn’t know that?

It’s pretty much what it says on the tin- a day for raising awareness of libraries, and of celebrating all that they contribute to our lives and communities. It’s also of special significance to me, both as a writer and as a campaigner to save Wokingham’s libraries from privatisation.

To me, the library is the mark of civilisation. It shows that we value knowledge so highly, and believe so strongly that it should be available to all (and for the betterment of all) that we are willing to provide access to it to everyone. A bold idea, but a good one, and fundamentally a right one.

A library, to me, is like a magic cave in a children’s story. Filled with untold wonders, just waiting to be uncovered. I have been lucky throughout my life to live in very close proximity to excellent libraries. As a child, learning to read at primary school, I savoured the hour or so after the day finished, when I could go and lose myself amongst opening pages and chapters as I tried to narrow down my decision to just one book.

More than ever, our libraries seem to be under threat now. In these hard times, they present an easy target for the pruning shears of local government. So many are being cut back, closed down, or (in true Wokingham Tories’ style) sold off. On today, of all days, we need to understand and appreciate how short-sighted and foolish that is.

Libraries offer so many things to us. To the our children, they give endless worlds of fun and imagination right at our fingertips, never to be cut off by the parental cry of “We can’t afford it”. They offer a lifeline of internet access to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it, so essential in our increasingly digital and virtual world. They offer every one of us the answers to so many questions we wonder both casually and urgently.

Every pound spent on library services is an investment, never a waste. The influence libraries had on me was a lifelong passion for reading, and an avenue of escape which I now look to make a career. And if they did that for me, imagine what they could do for others.

Can we live without libraries? Of course we can. But ask yourselves, what sort of life would that be?

100 Days

If all goes to plan, the next 100 days will see the return of Matthew S. Dent, Labour candidate for Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe (probably with a new candidate photo...)

Thanks to someone on Twitter, for drawing my attention to the fact that we’re now less than 100 days from the 2012 local elections, on May 3rd. It’s nothing official yet, but I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m hoping to run again in Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe. My last run at the by-election was an amazing experience and gave me a whole new outlook on politics.

In the interim between then and now, I’ve gotten much more involved in politics on a local level. I have clear expectations for what will meet me on the doorstep, and an understanding of what a successful candidate will and won’t be able to do. The EU, the national economy and bankers’ bonuses (am I the only one who thinks that plural should be bonii?) are bound to be emotive issues, but are largely beyond the ambit of a local councillor.

That’s not to say they shouldn’t be engaged with, or that I won’t. Thursday’s meeting of Maidenhead CLP saw a very lively and involved discussion of what needs doing to fix the economy, and amid the competing ideas the one consistent strain was that the government’s approach was making things worse, not better (hurting, but not working).

Local elections in May will be taking place across Wokingham, and I expect to be travelling far and wide across the borough to support candidates in other wards (including the excellent Greg Bello over at Bulmershe & Whitegates).

Many of the issues elsewhere in the however, don’t really apply to the northern parishes. For example, the Wokingham town centre regeneration and the utter mess that has been made regarding public toilets in Woodley is of only tangential interest to Remenham, Wargrave & Ruscombe residents. Instead, they have their own worries. I expect the dominant issues in my own campaign to be:

  • The library: the issue that initially brought me into the July by-election and local politics is still going, and the war of words between myself and Conservative councillors in the local press has only hardened my opposition. The announcement of the tender process results should be made in May, so I expect the Tories will be looking to brush this under the carpet. I don’t plan to let them.
  • Waste disposal: one of the Tories’ pet issues nationally, locally Wokingham are retaining a weekly collection service, but are introducing limitations on how much waste will be collected, as well as a £60 opt-in scheme for garden waste. Expect a fuller analysis nearer to the polling day, but with household budgets already stretched, I’m not convinced residents will welcome the extra concerns.
  • Local democracy: this is something I’ve been banging on about to anyone who will listen. There is no political plurality in Wokingham, only utter dominance by the Conservative Party. As I discovered when I attended a council meeting in November, the executive makes the decisions between themselves, and the legions of backbench Conservative councillors are used to rubber stamp it through. They have no fear of facing electoral consequences of their actions, so the result is a disconnect between residents and representatives; as clearly demonstrated by the refusal to pre-publish the budget, which feeds down into a whole council operation which the people feel they have no stake in.

These are only the issues that jump out at me as the biggest at the moment. There will be countless others, and I fully intend to address and discuss those as they arise. But there is certainly fertile soil for local political debate, which I hope to be able to use against the Tories’ “Here we are, vote for us again please!” approach.