Prue Bray

The Curious Case of Mark Ashwell

The curious case of Mark Ashwell, Conservative candidate for Winnersh.

I’m venturing a bit out of my patch here, as I don’t have any vested interest of my own in Winnersh, but after a few weeks of observing the behaviour of the Tory candidate there I feel I can’t resist commenting. So here, for your enlightenment and entertainment, is the curious case of Mark Ashwell.

Some of you might recognise the name. This is almost certainly because he created local headlines in 2010 by resigning from the Conservative Party in order to stand as an independent against Wokingham MP John Redwood (indeed, his website still calls him such). The results of that little effort speak for themselves: fourth place with 4.3% of the vote. So less than a resounding success.

[UPDATE: I’ve been reliably informed that Mr Ashwell was expelled by the Conservatives, when he chose to stand as an independent, rather than resigning. Many thanks to @RTPeat]

Now though he’s been accepted back into the fold, rejoined the Conservative Party, and is fighting the Winnersh council seat as their candidate. For a bit of background, last year the Tories won Winnersh with a majority of 74 votes (2.3%). To say it’s marginal is an understatement, particularly in the volatile local political situation at the moment. Mark has been given, as a welcome back present, arguably the most marginal seat in the borough.

Mark has taken to Twitter as part of his campaigning, using the handle @mark4winnersh, and in doing so has created something of a stir. The Wokingham Times printed an article on Twitter use, particularly focusing on Mark and his Twitter tangle with Lib Dem leader and Winnersh councillor Prue Bray.

As far as I’m concerned, Mark living just outside the boundary of the ward is an irrelevance. He’s close enough to know the community, so if he’s capable of being a good councillor then who cares? But where Mark seems to have stepped off a cliff is with his dogged insistence that the new rubbish scheme is excellent, and alternating between believing nobody disagrees unless it’s political troublemaking, or it’s simply “teething problems”.

This, actually, seems to be the local Conservative line, so we can’t criticise him for that too much. But the problem really is that he seems to have no clear policies and nothing that he’s actually offering. I get that it’s difficult when you’re the party in power and your policies have failed, but he’s offering nothing but bland and naive positivity. Take, for example, this:

Mark’s election leaflet (which you can see here) reflects similar. It rests on the laurels of previous “achievements”, most of which would be disputed by residents, and promises little or nothing for the future. And, of course, it trumpets the council tax freeze without mentioning the stealth taxes that have allowed it.

But by far the most worrying thing about Mark is his reaction to being challenged. Yesterday I reported that he had been blocking people on Twitter. This wasn’t limited to myself and other opposition activists, but also unaligned voters who had called him out on some of his tweets. Just for context, I have in total blocked only one person and that was only because they were incapable of having a civil and polite discussion. I have no qualms about defending my beliefs and principles.

Mark has since unblocked myself and others, presumably after other local Tory figures stepped in to tell him how bad it looked. But the damage is done. He has behaved in exactly the same way as the council do- take inappropriate action, get called out on it, and flap around trying to back out.

This isn’t meant as an attack on Mark, and voters should make up their own minds about who to vote for. I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice man, but he hasn’t covered himself in glory during this campaign. The truth is that whilst I would happily buy double-glazing from him, but I wouldn’t vote for him to be a councillor.

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.

Budget-Making in the Dark

David Lee's arguments why local residents don't need to see his council's plans for their services and taxes holds neither intellectual weight nor sympathy.

Local budgets aren’t usually big news events, despite the fact that they are probably at least as immediately relevant to the lives of the ordinary person as their national equivalents. So most of the time when local authorities set their yearly budgets they are only of interest to those already interested in local politics. Julian Ware-Lane, for example, has posted a bit of a blog on Southend Borough Council’s budget.

For those of you worrying that I’m about to launch into a hugely technical dissection of Wokingham’s proposed budget, fear not. I’m not. I won’t. Why? Because the council are refusing to publish it until the point when the law forces them to. I’m not the only person to write about this, but I feel I have to vent my confusion and outrage at this decision.

Let me start by saying that I’m very much in favour of transparency at all levels of government. You won’t find many (if any) politicians disagreeing with this, but often actions tell a different story. Take Mr Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He very vocally espouses transparency in local government. He also advised local councils to refuse FOI requests on spending.

So to Wokingham. Cllr David Lee, the council leader who featured on this blog not that long ago, has refused calls for openness and consultation, on the grounds that it would “just be a PR exercise”. Sorry, what? Surely that depends on how you respond to the consultation? True enough I expect the Wokingham executive to ignore whatever local residents tell them, but actually coming out and saying it is frankly astounding.

He also says that any consultation would be pointless because the budget is already “cut to the bone”. Now, people might disagree with me on this, but when there is less money around it seems even more important that it is well spent and that allocation of funds is fair and responsible. Cllr Lee’s attempt to back up this argument with another claim about Wokingham’s poor funding (a subject that I’ve already addressed) lends it neither intellectual weight or sympathy. Publishing the budget would allow residents to have a look at it, and to feed back into the process.

In Brighton & Hove, the minority Green Party administration has launched rather a novel “open budget” process, where they published it long ago and invited councillors from all parties to participate. I’m not holding it up as a perfect example- and as Cllr Warren Morgan has told me, it’s become something of a political gimmick whereby the Greens can find popular dissatisfaction with particular measures and change them, whilst remaining vague on detail- but it certainly gives more of an impression of caring what residents think.

And honestly, I think I’d rather that than Wokingham’s secretive, high-handed approach.

This approach, where the decisions are taken by an elite group (the executive) and no heed is taken of the majority (the residents), is pretty typical of the one party junta-style approach in Wokingham. The Tories completely dominate the political scene, as they hold such an entrenched majority that they don’t believe they will ever be electorally challenged- so needn’t fear consequences of decisions they take. There’s some truth in that, but the comments on the aforementioned Wokingham Times article show a certain resident concern about what their taxes are to be spent on.

So there you go. I may, eventually, post some analysis of the Wokingham budget for 2012-2013. But since I won’t see the budget until 16th February, a week before it is debated at a full council meeting, it will neither be soon nor thorough. The decision to wait until the last minute stifles debate and analysis, and shows further that Wokingham Conservatives have nothing but contempt for the public they are meant to be representing.