Mark Flewitt’s Southend railway delusion


Mark Flewitt is right (on this issue).

Not often you’ll see me blog those words, but the latest post on his perennially entertaining blog actually has a point. In a blog entitled “Rail disgrace…….but is here hope?” (n.b. I’m far from sure that is the precise number of periods he uses in his overextended ellipsis) Mark says:

I am determined to work with Abellio Greater Anglia in their efforts to improve but the starting point is too low at the moment and the delays suffered on this line with no cooling system, poor old carriage stock from about 1987 means passengers are fleeced financially without any real return

I pointed out on this very blog a few weeks back that Southend is a case study of the best and the worst of rail privatisation, and in my experience the Greater Anglia Southend Victoria to London Liverpool Street line is one of the worst examples.

So Mark has correctly, if lately, identified the problem. Prices on that line are sky high, and have marched ever upwards over the years, and yet far too little has been invested in improving the service or giving passengers value for money.

Sadly, though, Mark seems blind to both the causes of and solutions to these problems.


A Tale of Two Rail Lines

greater anglia c2c

You can, I believe, tell a lot about a party’s policy by how it’s opponents react to it. When Ed Miliband announced an energy price freeze, the Conservatives denounced it as dangerous socialism, even as those at the sharp end of ever inflating bills welcomed it. When Labour announced measures to prevent excessive rent hikes and landlords turfing tenants out, Grant Shapps labelled it “Venezuelan-style rent controls”.

So when the Labour Party announced that they would permit the state to bid for rail franchises, the Tory reaction was of great interest to me. And, predictably, this was what James Duddridge (who may as well be Grant Shapps’ puppet) tweeted:

Like I said, predictable. And a shame, too, because not only is Mr Duddridge willfully misrepresenting the policy, but Southend is actually one of the places which it would best serve.


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.

A Borough in Uproar

My letter in the 23rd November 2011 Wokingham Times

Regular readers of this blog may recall that last week I related the utter chaos of the Wokingham Borough Council debate on the library privatisation plans. More than just the foolishness of the plans to privatise (or, in Tory parlance “outsource”) the services, I was outraged at the disorganisation and incompetence which the council executive displayed.

Wednesday is, of course, the day when the Wokingham Times is published, and true to form they have included my letter-

sent on Friday morning, the day after the debate. For those who can’t read the photograph, I’ll relate the text here:

As a book-lover, and indeed an author, I have been very concerned about the implications of the planned privatisation of the library service (indeed, it was the cornerstone of my campaign in the recent Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe by-election).

It was because of this that I decided to attend the council meeting on Thursday night, where it was to be debated.

But sadly, I found it an intense disappointment.

The Conservatives had clearly already made their decision, and were uninterested in what the public thought.

Their arguments centred around an artificial distinction between “outsourcing” and “privatisation”, and that somehow since they were only selling off the service and not the buildings, it was alright.

But more so than the content of the debate, its organisation was the greatest embarrassment. When it fell to Cllr UllaKarin Clark to put forward a proposal for the council to vote on, she did not have one which met the requirements.

There was then a farcical scramble as the executive attempted to write one, there on the floor of the chamber!

Eventually a Liberal Democrat proposal to review the decision was voted down, and a meaningless proposal to review once the tendering process is complete was taken up.

But my abiding memory will be the utter disorganisation of the Conservatives.

To come to the debate without having prepared shows not only a sickening disinterest in the views of the public, but a worrying level of incompetence.

Matthew S. Dent

Twyford & District Branch Labour Party

However, this was not all. My letter was joined by another three: one by Woodley Labour’s Greg Bello, also criticising the utter shambles of the debate; one by a Ms Ann Smith, expressing shock at the way the Tories conducted themselves at the meeting; and one by a Mr Alan Wylie, criticising the privatisation plan itself.

This was contrasted with a petty, partisan letter from Cllr Keith Baker on the other side of the page, sniping at Labour’s comparative lack of resources in the local area. It comes across as very immature, especially placed against such a damning verdict on the same page by local residents.

It’s clear that not only are the people of Wokingham dissatisfied with the way their library service is being handled, but also with the way their council conducts itself. If every resident could have seen the shambolic scenes on Thursday night, then the Conservatives would find their safe majorities severely shaken, I believe. Let’s hope that the people of Wokingham will soon come to realise just how incompetent the Conservative group on the council are.

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…

Bins and Libraries

Eric Pickles thinks that his £250million weekly rubbish collection fund can help improve (save) the Conservatives' standing in middle England. I think it could save Wokingham's libraries, if councillors have the balls.

Regular readers of this blog (or people who paid attention to my by-election campaign) will know that I am seriously concerned about the state of the libraries in Wokingham Borough. For those new to this issue, the Council are planning to privatise the library services across the borough, putting the whole thing at risk.

The petition against privatisation was recently handed into the council, and has forced a debate on the issue on November 17th. I’d urge everyone who is bothered by the impending privatisation to write to their local councillor to express that concern, and if possible attend the meeting.

But something that has happened today has got me thinking. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and [insert far too obvious joke here], has announced that he will be launching a £250million fund to “persuade” councils to collect rubbish weekly, rather than fortnightly. I don’t want to focus on how this is the abandonment of the government’s localism policy, or what else the £250 million could be spent on, or even how this is a shameless bout of Daily Mail headline chasing ahead of the Tory party conference. If you want that, you can amusingly go and read the comments on Conservative Home, where Pickles get’s taken apart over the policy.

Wokingham Borough Council had already retained weekly rubbish collections (admittedly with an entirely arbitrary 80 bags per year per household limit). I don’t really have much opinion on this, surprisingly, though if the limit was less arbitrary, I’d be much obliged. I’m sure the Green Party will fill your ears with objections, if you ask nicely.

But here’s what I’m thinking: Eric Pickles wants to bribe councils to hold weekly collections. Fine. So why doesn’t Wokingham change its mind and adopt fortnightly collections, and then take Pickles’ bribe in order to bump up the frequency to weekly, and plug the money saved into saving…I don’t know, the libraries?

I realise that it’s a hugely cynical use of central government funds, but honestly it’s a hugely cynical fund in the first place. If Pickles wants to scrap localism, then it’s the duty of local authorities to try to twist what they’re given into what’s best for their residents.

I’m sure plenty of people have reasons why this is a bad idea or won’t work, so feel free to post them, but you can see where I’m coming from. I plan to write to both of my councillors with this, so I guess we’ll see what Cllrs Halsaal and Pitts have to say about it.

Your move, Pickles.


Or, as is becoming apparent, vice versa.

Does anyone remember that poster that the Conservatives plastered over billboards up and down the country in the lead up to the 2010 General Election? The one with that airbrushed picture of Cameron saying that he’d cut the deficit not the NHS? Or maybe you remember the part in the coalition agreement where the government promised to “stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS”?

Well, the first pledge has been broken; the NHS is being cut in real terms under the present government. And the second is being broken by the Health Bill currently going through parliament. Since it’s introduction, this bill has been one almighty headache for the government. There seems no end of problematic clauses within it, but the one which grabbed headlines first of all was the plan to allow “any willing provider” to bid for NHS contracts- essentially opening the NHS up to European competition law for the first time in the history of the health service.

This was diluted down to “any qualified provider”, after the Lib Dems found their backbone (only temporarily, and only after another slating by the media and pollsters). But the Bill is still dangerous. Between the plans to put hospitals in competition with each other, open the service up to privatisation, and turn your local GP into an administrator rather than a physician.

The NHS is, to my mind, the greatest achievement by any post-war government. It was introduced by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, over the staunch opposition of the Conservative Party of the day. It seems that nothing has changed. Despite Cameron’s attempts to “detoxify” his party, it has only been a superficial change. The Tories still can’t be trusted on the NHS.

So today I joined other Labour activists (including a contingent from Maidenhead CLP) and trade unionists in Reading town centre, to

Maidenhead CLP defending the NHS, in Reading town centre. Myself with (left to right) John Healey MP, Patrick McDonald and Nigel Smith

try and raise the profile of David Cameron and Andrew Lansley’s devastating plans to destroy this British institution. We handed out informative flyers, and gathered signatures on a petition. We were even joined by John Healey, the shadow health secretary.

This is a very real threat. I am, like most people, firmly of the opinion that health is a fundamental right. I believe that healthcare should be available to everyone, not just the rich. This legislation is the first step in a conservative (big and little c) plan to privatise off the NHS, and move towards a situation similar to that in the US- where doctors will look for your wallet before your pulse, and where the poor suffer a vastly inferior standard of care.

If you agree that the NHS must be protected, if you want to do something to stop this bill, then please sign this petition. Beyond that, the only suggestions I can make is to write to your local MP, and to never trust a Tory on the NHS.

The Word on the Street

So this weekend was spent on the campaign trail. It was almost a relief to, after spending a couple of weeks working hard online and in the papers, get out and start talking to people. After all, that’s what I’ve been intending to do from the start.

Truth be told, it was all very encouraging. I was fearful that I wasn’t going to receive a terribly friendly reception, this being Berkshire at it’s truest, bluest Tory. But actually, the more I spoke to people, the more receptive they were to what I had to say. Not that there weren’t some displays of staggering rudeness, but I’m counting only one door slammed in my face to be a win.

Proving me wrong, both the Tory and Lib Dem candidates were out canvassing on Saturday. I really didn’t expect it, but actually I don’t think it did me much harm. I covered Highfield Park in the morning, and then moved onto Victoria Road in the afternoon/evening, which meant that I hit it after both of the others had already done so. A lot of people were confused by the wildly differing accounts of the two, so were looking to me as the moderate, sensible alternative.

The lines the other two have taken seem broadly concurrent with what I’d expect. John Halsall is pretending none of the issues exist (with a particularly fine argumentative line blaming Cllr Stretton’s resignation on her having elderly parents, rather than her own political aspirations). The Lib Dem guy, on the other hand, is doing what Lib Dems do best: complaining in a shrill voice about everything that anyone mentions. They’ve been dropping particularly drab “letters” through doors. I thought my leaflet was fairly minimalist, but this looks like the kind of letter you’d get from a bank, explaining changes in interest rates.

The things people were concerned about fall, broadly, under a number of headings:

  • The Library- there’s a lot of love in Wargrave for what Ros Fernley, down at the library, does. And there’s a lot of concern about the privatisation plans. And John Halsall’s denial that anything is going on was blown clean out of the water by the Daily Express article claiming that LSSI are due to take over in May.
  • Litter – This comes under rubbish and general littering. Curiously, a newsletter from Wokingham Borough Council came through doors yesterday, neglecting to make any mention of the 80 bags per year limit. Now, this could be because the Council have been persuaded by opposition to it. Or they could be trying to pretend it isn’t happening, like with the library. My money is on the second. And there’s still a load of rubbish left at the junction of Purfield Drive and Blakes Road by contractors resurfacing the road. It’s been there for the better part of a month. Just saying.
  • Fuel hikes – Not a local issue, but still a bugbear for a lot of people. An 18% hike by British Gas is unacceptable, and will result in people encountering severe difficulties this winter. Something needs to be done.
  • “I’ll be voting for you, because all the others are bastards!” – Am I allowed to say that? Someone genuinely did say that to me, so really it’s a quote. Not my words. I do agree though (well I would, wouldn’t I?).

Reassuringly, one of the positives people have most commented on is the fact that I’m actually going door to door talking to people. Sure, some don’t want to hear it. Sure, sometimes I’ve been met with rudeness or hostility. But most people, even if they don’t support or intend to vote for me, appreciate the effort. Which is nice. Which is very nice.

And this is only the start. I feel like I’ve walked miles, but there’s still much to do. And that means more folding leaflets. Who said politics was glamorous?

A Response to John Halsall

Whilst Conservative candidate John Halsall shrugs off the issue and pretends there is nothing to talk about, Matthew S. Dent has been vocally and tirelessly campaigning against the privatisation of local library services

I mentioned yesterday that, whilst I was away this weekend, the Conservatives had been out leafleting. I don’t know the extent of the area they’ve covered, but since the Tories have more manpower and funds than we do, I’d imagine they’ve covered all of the ward by now. I’d also be surprised if they feel the need to go out again, unless my door-knocking starts to get some serious traction. Which, of course, is what I’m aiming for.

But the purpose of this post, coming so hot on the heels of yesterday’s, is that I have now read the leaflet of Conservative candidate John Halsall, and I feel that there are some responses that need to be made.

Firstly, there is absolutely no mention of the circumstances of the by-election. This isn’t surprising from an electoral point of view, as the fact that their previous councillor resigned four days after an election, costing the local taxpayer an extra (and unnecessary) £9,000 for a by-election, does make Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe Conservatives look rather bad. But there’s no attempt to disown the Councillor Stretton and her decision, which given Cllr Baker’s previous assertions, I would have expected. And there’s no apology for the massive expense, which really confirms what I’ve said all along: the Tories just don’t care.

But beyond that, Mr Halsall makes several comments regarding the library. Specifically, the leaflet says “John is disappointed that the Liberal Democrats and Labour have totally misinformed the electorate about the future of Libraries in the Borough. Furthermore they are getting residents to sign a petition against something which has not been agreed. Next time any one from these parties knock on your door simply ask them to prove their allegations. They will not be able to!

Ten points for effort, John, but I’m afraid you’re wrong on a number of counts. Firstly, I haven’t misled anyone. Whilst strictly speaking, the privatisation hasn’t yet been agreed- it’s still in the stage of being put out to tender- the tendering process has now closed, and the Council is considering the offers. No official announcement has been yet made as to the  result of the process, but there was an interesting article on library privatisation in the Daily Express recently. It’s a long article, but I’ll quote the specific passage I mean:

LSSI [an American libraries services company, which has a spotted record over in the US] has spoken to “dozens of local authorities” over the past three years and held meetings with five councils last week, with Croydon becoming the latest borough to consider a deal. LSSI’s first contract is expected to start next May in Wokingham.

Now, this isn’t anything definitive, but it seems pretty damning. This isn’t in some small local newspaper, or the online blog of some annonymous nobody. This is in a major national newspaper, the Daily Express. It seems like a leak to me, whether from the Council (unlikely; they’re trying to bury this as deeply as they can since the news broke and caused a massive outrage amongst residents), or from LSSI themselves. It certainly seems to disagree with Mr Halsall’s claim that the privatisation isn’t happening.

There is, perhaps, a slight qualifier later on: “‘…if elected I will join Bob [Pitts, the other Tory councillor for Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe] in making sure that a Library provision continues.’” Note the a. He doesn’t make any assurances that the standard we’re used to will continue, and how can he? If the service is privatised, and doesn’t earn enough profit, smaller libraries such as Wargrave’s and Twyford’s would likely close down, whilst allowing Mr Halsall to claim that indeed a service does exist, even if it means residents must travel as far as Woodley.

It doesn’t seem Mr Halsall himself is terribly active online, but if he or anyone else from Wokingham or Maidenhead Conservative Associations (or anyone else, for that matter) would like to respond to what I’ve said here, I welcome your doing so in the comments section below.

Read All About It

So, after being disappointed yesterday that the Wokingham Times hadn’t printed the letter I sent in, about the by-election and myself as the Labour candidate (never mind- there’s still a few weeks ’til the election, maybe it’ll be in next weeks), today I’m mentioned in both the Maidenhead/Twyford Advertiser and the Reading Chronicle. As some might say: result!

"By-election candidate pledges to always put people of ward first" - My letter in the Maidenhead Advertiser

The Advertiser has very kindly printed my letter, of which I have included a photograph. Since it’s a little on the small side (the picture), I’ll quote here the text:

On July 21 there will be a by election in the ward of Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe. This election has been triggered by the resignation of Cllr Claire Stretton (Conservative) after her election to Windsor and Maidenhead Council, in a shocking display of arrogance and disregard to the people she was supposed to be representing. The election, however, gives the people of Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe the opportunity to voice their dissatisfaction with the Conservative Party, who arrogantly expect that they can still breeze to victory, even after their previous councillor has caused an expensive by-election. It also gives residents a chance to make their feelings known on other local issues, such as the planned privatisation of the library, which puts a vital community service at risk. As the Labour Party candidate, I will be fighting all such cynical and ideologically-motivated moves by Wokingham Council and, if elected, I will always put the people of the ward first. I will be campaigning throughout the ward in the coming weeks, and I strongly urge residents with any questions or issues they would like to make me aware of to contact me by email at, or by post at 3 Newalls Rise, Wargrave.

Not bad eh?

And the Reading Chronicle article, rather than being a letter in which I spout my positions, is a

"Library Plans Slammed" The article on Wokingham BC's plans to privatise the libraries, in the Reading Chronicle

piece on Wokingham Borough Council’s plans to privatise the library service. The reporter contacted me after my comments on their website criticising the plans, and the article includes a couple of choice quotes with my feelings on the matter. Again, since the photograph is rather small, I’ll quote the relevant text:

…Matthew Dent, who lives in Wargrave and uses the library regularly, said: “Once the libraries are outsourced to a private company the focus will be on profit and if it all goes wrong it will be the smaller libraries which suffer- even though they do more for the community. Mr Dent, the prospective Labour candidate for the village’s vacant borough council seat, added: “Wargrave’s library gets very involved in the annual festival and other activities, but I can’t see that staying a priority if a private company steps in”…

Again, not bad? Although, I didn’t say that the festival was annual (it’s biennial), but I think we can excuse them that? Neither piece is up on the papers’ websites yet, although I will add links when they appear.

Other than that, it’s a very busy period for me. In an hour or two I’m off down to Brighton, to collect my University results tomorrow (on which there will certainly, be a blog). And from there, it’s up to sunny Scunthorpe for a family gathering, to which I will alas not be the person who has travelled furthest (we have some Australian relatives joining us, for a rare treat). And then next week I will be hitting the pavements, and starting canvassing. So if you live in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, you can expect to see me very soon. I look forward to it!

(Oh, and I now have a Facebook page. I’ll keep it updated with everything that’s going on with the election and my campaign, so if you want to keep up with it all, please click “Like”)


UPDATE: Here is the link to the letter on the Maidenhead Advertiser website, in case anyone wants to see/comment on it in its natural habitat.