pauline jorgensen

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)

Seven Years Bad Luck

Without any consultation, Wokingham residents have been locked into a seven-year waste scheme which is already falling apart.

The new bin collection scheme in Wokingham started on Monday, to a less-than-triumphant reception for residents. Even the Wokingham Times lead story this morning brands it a “catastrophic failure

It’s not going well. So you might ask what can be done about it? Well, there are local elections coming up, which give a chance for residents to vent their frustration at the Conservatives, and maybe persuade them to change their mind. Unfortunately, due to the level of entrenchment with the Tory majority in Wokingham, the council cannot be wrested from their control until 2014, under the standard electoral schedule (obviously deaths, resignations or defections could change this).

Sadly, even that may not end this scheme. A correspondent of this blog who wishes to remain anonymous (incidentally, if anyone wants to contact me with information, I will always respect any requests to remain nameless) has been doing some investigating of their own, and has uncovered details of the contract. From what they have discovered, the contract with Veolia for this new waste system is seven years long. SEVEN YEARS! With no break clauses.

So, whilst by 2014 it is feasible that the council will be under control of a different party, they will be stuck to this scheme until 2019- unless Veolia fail on the terms of the contract, and even that would probably have to be expensively fought. There is, however, the option to extend it another seven years to 2026. Joy. It seems to me like madness to take on such wide-ranging change without any consultation.

The contract apparently saves the council £0.3m per year. Maybe I’ve spent too long reading local government documents, but £300,000 doesn’t seem like a lot compared the chaos this scheme is causing. And then there’s the increase in fly-tipping which the council doesn’t think will happen, but almost everyone else accepts as inevitable. How much will dealing with that eat into the savings, I wonder?

In other related news, I had a rather nice chat with someone at DEFRA about the new waste scheme. This revealed a couple of things. Firstly, I’m not the only person who has been contacting them about this. Secondly, they have been referring people to the joint letter from them and the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to councils regarding such schemes as Wokingham’s. I’ve been quoting said letter a lot, but I’d like to highlight this part in particular:

You may require that the receptacle meets reasonable specifications, such as being compatible with your collection vehicles, but if you require householders to purchase their own receptacle, whether for all or part of their waste services, you should refrain from creating a monopoly. You may not require the householder to purchase the receptacle from a single supplier. For example, if householders are required to present waste in black sacks, they should be able to choose where to buy their sacks, rather than being restricted to ‘official’ ones which are only available from the Council.

That sounds mighty familiar, doesn’t it?

And to top it off, the council have been threatening to use sinister-sounding “section 46 notices” against people who don’t comply with the scheme:

A section 46 notice is apparently a real thing, and is part of a criminal law process which can result in a fine of up to £1,000. A fine for refusing to comply with something that two government departments don’t believe the council can legally do. You couldn’t make this up!

(Also, it’s especially sinister given stories that have reached me of council employees threatening such measures to people merely asking about the legal issues)

Finally, I was asked by Cllr Pauline Jorgensen (CON – Hillside) on Twitter yesterday what my (the local Labour Party’s) policy for waste collection would be. Policy discussions in 140 characters are a pain in the posterior and as a general rule inadvisable, but for your information:

To which the good councillor even responded with agreement!