may 3rd

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.

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Not Fit for Purpose


Cllr Gary Cowan and council waste boss Peter Baveystock proudly show off their new stealth tax wheeze- the green waste bins.

We’re on the eve of the local elections now, and as it’s almost alarming that it’s here so quickly. This has been an exciting election campaign, charged by the fact that people have a fair amount that they want to discuss with the candidates who come to talk to them.

By far the most popular subject is the new rubbish scheme, and I’m afraid the vast, overwhelming majority has not been positive. On the whole, single people and couples without children have no real problem with the scheme, whilst families with children are finding it impractical and unmanageable.

What’s become clear is that this is not simply teething problems. Yes, the execution has been awful. Bags the wrong size have been distributed, they have been carelessly left on doorsteps and stolen, and more than a month into the scheme there are still residents who haven’t received bags.

But the problems with the scheme run deeper than that. I have found myself largely focusing on the blue bags, but the green waste scheme is just as flawed. What was previously a free service now costs £60 (per year) for a brown bin or £1 each for individual compostable bin bags. 5,000 have reportedly signed up for the bins, which is much less than the council expected and has resulted in them halving the number of bins that they’ve ordered- from 10,000 to 20,000.

Let’s look at the money in this for a moment. With 5,000 bins sold at £60 each, the council have already received £300,000. Now, if we take away the cost to the council for each bin (which, after the local budget, we now know is a mere £25) and we get £175,000 profit. An extra £175k to plug the gap in finances created by a smoke-and-mirrors council tax freeze, by paying for a service which was previously paid for by that same council tax. 2,000 bags have been reportedly sold, so that’s £2,000 minus the 15p-per-bag cost to the council: £1,700. So that’s £176,700 made out of the scheme in the first month alone.

And this is just the first year. The charge is annual, but the bins are (I believe) for life. So whilst the first month of the scheme this year has raised £175k, if the same people renew their participation in the scheme next year the council will make the full £300k as profit. I defy anyone to explain to me how this isn’t a stealth tax.

Aside from that, there are the bin bags themselves. “Compostable” might work well as a buzz word, but as Jonny Vaughan pointed out you’re still creating something to be instantly disposed of. And given that they’re compostable, they will fall apart readily. I wonder what all this rain has been doing to them…

Finally, I’ll close with something else I’ve found. Three Mile Cross Info (a blog belonging to a resident of Three Mile Cross village) has posted a letter from the council, which seems to indicate that they are rethinking the legality (questionable at best) of the scheme.

…we have agreed that there will be a review of the collection services in the next few weeks and until then our contractors have been told to accept refuse in any form of plastic bag.

A review, in the next few weeks. Conveniently, just after the election. So here’s where your vote tomorrow counts. If Conservative candidates are returned on mass across the borough, the council will descend back below the parapets to ignore you all until 2014. The only way of smoking them out and making them listen is to hit them where it hurts: and elect non-Tory candidates.

Do not underestimate how much your vote tomorrow will count.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery


Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, so I'm taking John Halsall's apparent conversion to my position as a massive compliment.

[UPDATE: Subsequently to publishing this blog, I have discovered that the premise of this blog is based upon a mistake in the Henley Standard article. As a result, I have published this correction of my own claims]

This week’s Henley Standard (published yesterday) contains a “Local Elections 2012” page, in which they give an overview of the candidates standing for election in the areas they cover. Since this includes Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, there are profiles of myself, Cllr Halsall and the Liberal Democrat candidate Martin Alder.

This is the first sign of direct campaigning from Martin, which is strange for a candidate who put out three leaflets at last summer’ by election. But since it’s been confirmed to me by a neutral resident this week that the Lib Dems haven’t even distributed a leaflet this time, I’m pretty confident that this is part of a strategic concentration of resources.

But it’s Cllr Halsall’s bio that interests me. It’s nothing particularly new or ground-breaking, but there is one line which particularly grabbed my attention:

Both [the bins problem and the libraries issue] show a dangerous disconnect between the council leaders and ordinary people.

Which sounds…familiar. Very familiar, in fact. And looking back through the archives on this very site, I come across this line, from the blog where I declared my candidacy back on April 6th:

At the moment, the Conservative elite who rule Wokingham seem completely disconnected from residents.

In fact, the fact that the council leadership isn’t listening has been the central point of my campaign. Time and again I’ve pointed out serious failings that stem from this simple truth. From the libraries, to the disaster that is the new bin scheme, to the borough’s development “plan”, the message has been clear: the Conservatives don’t care what you think. And it’s very odd to hear my songs sung by others.

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, so I’m taking John Halsall’s apparent conversion to my position as a massive compliment.

John is a very smart man. I would never seek to deny that, and surely anyone who has spoken to him will recognise it. He’s clearly been knocking on doors, and been hearing the same views from residents as I have. He recognises that his party has a poor record for competence at the moment, both nationally and locally, and that clinging to indefensible positions will only lose him votes and support.

But this doesn’t escape the fact that John is a Conservative councillor and the Conservative candidate. He may well disagree with the actions of the leadership, and think that there is a disconnect. But he is an agent of that leadership, and his power to hold it to account is somewhere between slim and nil.

Re-electing John will send no message to council leaders to whom your votes matter and your voices don’t. Nice man though he undoubtedly is, John Halsall is not a credible candidate for change. But I am. If you want your council to change the way it operates, and to start to ask you what you think of its plans, then vote for me on May 3rd.

Vote for the original, not the tribute band.