Library Privatisation

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)

Advertisements

Tories and Libraries


The local Conservatives have axed the money put aside for Twyford's new library without a second thought. What do you think they'll do when privatising Wargrave's library?

Last November, when a popular petition forced Wokingham Borough Council to debate the planned privatisation (or “outsourcing” if you prefer, Cllr Keith Baker) of the libraries, we were assured by Cllr UllaKarin Clark that she and her fellow Conservatives cared deeply for the borough’s libraries. My opponent tomorrow in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, Cllr John Halsall, has said in his election literature that “The Conservatives are commited to the Library service…

But actions always speak louder than words, and on the libraries the Tories’ actions expose and drown out their misleading rhetoric.

From the shambolic performance in the aforementioned debate, where Tory councillor after Tory councillor stood up to lambast and insult the poor foolish people who had signed the petition, to the present situation it has been clear that they don’t care about the library service. They talk the talk when it comes to elections, but between them they utterly fail to walk the walk.

The plans to sell off the libraries was introduced last year, a few days after local elections. There was no discussion of them in election debates, and there was no consultation with the public. It was decided in secret and behind closed doors that they would open for tendering, and then they could complain that their hands were tied and they couldn’t talk about it whilst offers were being made- conveniently forgetting to mention that it could have been discussed before.

And now, as we approach another election, the council have quietly axed £1.3m that was earmarked for a new library in Twyford. At the moment, Twyford library is in a port-a-cabin, and has been for years. The plan, once upon a time, was to put a new library in the unit which the council ended up leasing to Tesco instead. This spectacularly ill-judged decision left to what is probably the best piece of vandalism I’ve ever heard about (and which I in no way endorse, support or excuse).

Finding an alternative venue would have been a pain, but not unachievable. But without the money that had been put aside for it, the dreams of a new library have gotten a lot more distant.

I know this is outside of my patch- though not by much- but my point is this: if the Tories can gleefully axe longstanding plans for a new Twyford library, what will they be prepared to do with Wargrave’s? We’ve been promised that our libraries will be safe under the privatisation plan, but bearing in mind that we heard nothing about it until after the last elections I’m wondering what nasty surprises are going to appear when the tendering process is complete.

Whoever you’re planning on voting for tomorrow, remember this: you won’t get another chance to vote for your local representatives until 2014 at the earliest. By then it will be too late, and whatever plans the Conservatives are keeping under their hats will already be in place. Everyone is pledging to protect the libraries, but there is one party you cannot trust to put the good of the library service ahead of  base profit: the Tories.

My Response to Cllr John Halsall


So I finally have a copy of the Conservative leaflet for Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe (thanks to the generosity and sense of fair play of Cllr Halsall himself), and can thus make my response to it.

At last year’s by-election there were five candidates, and so plenty of rival literature for me to blog about. This year only the three main parties are fielding candidates, and if my suspicions that the Lib Dems are focusing their attentions and resources elsewhere are true then this could be the only leaflet (other than my own) that residents see.

So on that note, what does it say?

[Here’s a slightly lower-tech download link, if Scribd isn’t working for you, or a link to the leaflet on ElectionLeaflets.org if you’d prefer not to download]

The first page has the usual ode to [insert local area here], which to be honest is more or less universally unobjectionable. An interesting addition is a vote of confidence from Theresa May, who “looks forward to working with him over the next four years“. I imagine she’d look forward less to working with me, but given her apparent failure to grasp elementary timekeeping, I might choose to take that as a compliment.

John is also described as “the LOCAL & EXPERIENCED choice”. Which presumably is a shot at my age. I’ll grant that he is more “experienced” than I am, but I’d dispute that age necessarily makes a better councillor. I’d counter that what the council needs is an injection of radical new ideas, that are a bit more grounded in common sense and reality than what the council has been producing lately.

Inside, we’re treated the usual (possibly obligatory?) refrain about how poor Wokingham is. This is the Tories’ first, last and only line of defence against criticism. They have to sell off the libraries/sell off social care/stealth tax residents/treat voters like mugs, because they’re the worst funded local authority in the world. I won’t take up words here dispelling that particular myth, but suffice it to say it isn’t quite as simple as that.

Moving forward, John has identified three key areas where he intends to focus his efforts if re-elected:

  • Roads and traffic: John has correctly identified parking as a problem, especially around the centre of the village. This has been a problem since before I moved to Wargrave, and boils down to two simple facts: too many cars, not enough space to park them. There isn’t a quick or easy fix to this one. Restrict parking, and whilst making residents happy you make local businesses unhappy. Leave it unrestricted, and residents have to compete with customers for parking space. This one is going to run and run.
  • Green belt and planning: John is concerned with the preservation of green-belt land around the village(s). This is a pleasant, rural area, and I imagine a lot of people would agree. I tend to be somewhere in the middle of the “build” and “don’t build” camps. I accept that there is a need for increased housing provision across the borough, but would rather not see my favourite views and walking routes paved over. Of course, what John doesn’t mention is that it’s actually the Conservative-led national government’s planning reforms that are threatening green belt land. Don’t just take it from me; that’s the opinion of the Daily Telegraph.
  • Wargrave library: I’ll admit, this made me giggle. “The Conservatives are committed to the Library service by improving the efficiency of service delivery whilst maintaining and bettering what is offered.” Oh really? Then why are you selling it off? And why, John, are you failing to address the concerns over privatisation, by offering only a bland, manufactured non-statement?

Have you noticed what’s missing though? For the last couple of months, the local press has been alive with the complaints of residents that the new waste scheme is unfit for purpose. I’ve written plenty on this, and have conversed with John himself on the matter by email. But all his leaflet has to say on the matter is that if elected he will:

Address the concerns of the new waste collection scheme

And that’s it. How, John? I’ve quite clearly laid out what I think the council should do. The scheme hasn’t just had teething problems, it has been conceptually flawed from the start. People on the doorstep are angry that this has been sprung on them and that no one is listening to their complaints. This won’t address anyone’s concerns- though I confess it’s a little better than a certain Winnersh candidate’s adamant insistence that the scheme is perfect.

As I’ve said before, I like John Halsall. He is a very nice man, and every time I have had occasion to converse with him he has been polite and a joy to talk to. Sadly, though, this election comes down to policy. I strongly suspect that John himself is displeased with the waste scheme, and the library plans, and a host of other WBC policies. But he’s been left no choice but to try to defend them.

Cllr John Halsall represents the status quo. I can’t promise that I will be able to right all the wrongs in Remenham, Wargave and Ruscombe, because I won’t. But I am the candidate for change, and a change is very definitely what is needed.

The Chronicle Joins the Chorus


An article about the libraries debate in the Reading Chronicle, quoting me extensively, and heavily critical of the council.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another day, another local newspaper. Today the Reading Chronicle was published, and like yesterday’s Wokingham Times the libraries debate at last Thursday night’s full council meeting features amongst the local news. And the Chronicle seems to have taken about as critical a line on this as a local paper can be expected to.

Without wanting to sound boastful, I do seem to have the staring role in the article:

A WARGRAVE villager has slammed a debate on the future of libraries- the first in the history of Wokingham Borough Council to be triggered by a petition- as ‘a shambles’.

Matthew S. Dent was joined by more than 40 other worried residents at the council offices in Shute End last Thursday when a petition with more than 1,500 signatures- enough to force councillors to debate it- was handed in

He said ‘I think this would be a very short-sighted move by the council. At the debate, they seemed to miss the point that it is both services and buildings that people are concerned about.’

But Mr Dent said: ‘The whole debate was a shambles. I’d expect the council to review everything after the tender process anyway, regardless of the petition, not to go for it without a second thought. I don’t think this should be touted as a victory.’

So well done Reading Chronicle. I said yesterday on Twitter that I’d love to be a fly on the wall of council leader David Lee’s office. I think that the mood of Wokingham’s Tories will be even more sullen today. Perhaps they should start listening to their electorate? Just a thought…

Freedom of Information and Wokingham Borough Libraries


It's been a fair few years since I studied maths, and it was never my favourite subject, so I offer this to you as a labour of love!

The Freedom of Information Act is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? It allows me to request any information from a public body, and they must respond within 20 working days with either the answer to a question or an explanation as to why that answer is not forthcoming. And anyone in the UK can make such a request.

Over the last few months, I’ve made a couple of such requests to Wokingham Borough Council, regarding the library service which they want to privatise. Specifically, I asked for the number of visits to each library in the last financial year, the number of registered users at each library (broken down into age groupings), and information regarding the libraries budget.

The information was forthcoming, and those interested person can find the result here:

Wokingham Borough Library Statistics

This is not, I should point out, exclusively the raw data that was provided to me (though I would point out that it is there). I have done some mathematical acrobatics in order to coax some of the interested facts out of it (pick your jaw up- yes, I can do maths!).

One such interesting point is that, for the financial year 2010-2011, the Borough spent an average figure of £24 per registered member of the library. Also, that the whole library system costs the Borough £193.28 for every hour which it is open (of which there are 12,944.5 each year). This works out at costing the borough £5.41 per visit to a library. Which doesn’t sound too bad to me. It makes a library cheaper than the cinema, certainly.

Other interesting facts emerged in the demographics. The largest age group of registered members in the Borough was 25-40, though this varied between individual libraries, as you would expect. I was quite heartened to see that my own local library in Wargrave has under 18s as its largest age group.

The problem with this data is, of course, the lack of a context. £5.41 per visit sounds pretty good to me, but given that I’m not privy to the intricate and mysterious workings of library services, I have to accept that it could be a woefully inefficient use of money. If I’m to use this data to assess whether the council’s privatisation plans are a justified attempt to increase value for money, or trying to fix something that isn’t broken, I’m going to need to know how other councils are doing.

And to that end, I’ve sent out some more FoI requests today. 152 of them, to be precise: one to every county council, london borough and unitary authority in England (non-metropolitan districts do not have responsibility for libraries). So in 20 working days (10th November, by my watch) I’m going to be swimming in numbers. Hopefully I’ll manage to hammer out something coherent in time for the council debate on the matter, on 17th Novemmber.

One interesting result is that I’ve been left with a rather lengthy list of all of the contact address for FoI requests for all of the local authorities in England. I may need to post it up here, later, along with a guide to FoI requests, and help bring power back to the people…

Campaigning in the Rain


The Newalls Rise street party was a welcome break from pavement politics, and a fantastic day.

It’s been a few days now, since I’ve updated my blog, but they’ve been a busy few days.

Pavement politics has been in full swing, and I’ve now door-knocked most of Wargrave, and a good part of Ruscombe, and leafleted a lot more. Some areas of Wargrave, and of Remenham, won’t have had a leaflet through their door yet. I’m working to remedy that in the next few days, but if you haven’t had one yet and want to give it a read, you can do so here.

Thanks is owed to a few people, starting with Brian Scott, who has twice run leaflets around to me on weekday evenings so that I can get them out through letterboxes. Also, to Roy Mantel, Nigel Smith, and Spike Humphreys (especially Spike, who joined me for a morning door-knocking in Ruscombe in the pouring rain). Also to my gorgeous Ashleigh, who helped me leaflet all across Ruscombe today.

There’s been a fair amount of walking through the rain, but it hasn’t all been so arduous. Saturday saw the Newalls Rise street party! It started off looking questionable in the rain, but thanks to 1st Twyford Scouts, we got hold of a marquee, and a day of barbequed food and karaoke ensued. A great time was unquestionably had by all, and I can only apologise to neighbouring streets for our loud, often-questionable quality singing until midnight.

But back to the campaign, having spoken to an awful lot of people about an awful lot of things, I’ve been staggered at the positive reception I’ve been getting. There is a lot of anger at the Conservatives both nationally and locally, and a lot of feeling that ordinary people are ignored by the council. I think there’s some truth to that. Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe is on the outer edge of the Borough, and is a safe Tory seat. The Tories don’t feel it matters what happens here. They’ve failed to disown Cllr Stretton’s actions (the current party line being that she moved to Maidenhead and resigned because she has elderly parents, which really is neither here nor their).

I hope that every resident will go out and vote on Thursday, whether they vote for me or not. Democracy is important, and this is the chance to have a say on what’s going on locally at the moment. I haven’t spoken to anyone who’s happy about what the Tories are doing to the libraries. I’m offering an opportunity to reject moves towards privatisation.

And I hope that people will consider their vote, and not simply vote Conservative because that’s what they’ve “always done”. I hope people will read my campaign literature, and think about the issues. I don’t think anyone is completely happy with how the council are doing things, or how they are being represented. I ask you to think about who will work harder for you: another Tory careerist in a safe seat, or a Labour councillor in a generally quite Conservative area?

Introducing the Labour Candidate for the Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe By-Election…


I will be the Labour Party candidate for the by-election in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe ward, on 21st July 2011

…Yours truly.

Yes, I am standing in the by-election on 21st July 2011, as the Labour candidate. The nomination forms were delivered to the returning officer this morning, and at noon the deadline passed. So it’s now official.

My campaign will centre on two things; the reason for the by-election, and the plans by Wokingham Borough Council to privatise the library service. I have previously made my feelings known in relation to the library, and you are welcome to read them on this blog, so I will focus on the first of these issues now.

The by-election in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe ward comes as a result of the resignation of Claire Stretton, one of two Conservative councillors representing the ward. Thusfar nothing particularly unusual. However, the reason for her resignation was that she had four days previously won a seat at Boyn Hill ward, in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. As she was now a councillor on a different council, she resigned her seat on Wokingham.

She could have resigned in the run up to the May local elections, rather than afterwards. If that had happened, then the by-election could have been run on the same day as the local elections, and the AV referendum. There was, as things were, no election in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe on May 6th. However, there was the referendum. So the polling stations were open, and facilities in place for a ballot to be held.

Because Councillor Stretton did not do this, a separate by-election must be held. It has been estimated that this will cost the Borough an extra £9,000 (Henley Standard, 31st May 2011). And who fundamentally picks up this bill? The local taxpayer.

In a time of deep cuts and austerity for the people of Wokingham Borough, and of the country generally, a Conservative councillor has caused residents a large expense for no reason other than her own political gain. Councillor Stretton had one year left of her term- but if she had simply stood down at the election next year, she would have had to wait another three years before she could stand in Maidenhead. Her decision to resign afterwards cannot be seen as anything but a cynical ploy to ensure that she would remain a councillor regardless.

This shows a staggering arrogance, and to my mind demonstrates just how much the Conservatives take so-called “safe seats”, and the people living in them, for granted. Councillor Stretton did not think about the people she was supposed to be representing, she only thought about her own political career.

As Labour candidate in this election, I want to offer the people of Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe a choice. I will be a councillor who will fight for the issues residents care about. I want to give people an alternative to always voting for a Conservative Party which isn’t interested in them, or a Liberal Democrat party which cannot be trusted.

In the next few weeks, leading up to the date of the by-election, I will be campaigning across the ward. I will be speaking to residents, letting them know the ideals and principles I stand for, and listening to what they care about. If anyone wishes to contact me, to ask questions, to let me know their thoughts and feelings, or simply to offer their support, they may do so on this blog, by emailing me at matthewsdent@gmail.com, or by writing to me at 3 Newalls Rise, Wargrave.

I pledge to always listen to, read and  respond to any correspondence I receive.