Wargrave Library

UKIP – Talking in Circles

I wasn’t going to do this. I really wasn’t. The idea of a response to UKIP’s election literature seems like the epitome of daft. But I know that some people like their ideas, and what seems silly to me doesn’t to everyone else. But the rubbish that came through my door, from UKIP candidate Andy Heape, was more than rampant euroscepticism. It was just barmy.

I’ll confess that I haven’t seen much of UKIP’s election literature before, apart from a few national leaflets which were exactly what I would have expected. This is the first local leaflet I’ve seen, and it seems to be mostly waffle. Really, there are a few problems I see with it.

Firstly, it seems to have no bearing on the Ward. This is a by-election in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, with a very specific cause behind it. Now, the main people UKIP would be aiming to take votes from are the Tories, whose fault this by-election this is and all of the other parties are hitting them over it. But strangely not UKIP.

Equally, all of the pledges made seem horribly general. For example, saving hospital services. The nearest major hospital is the Royal Berkshire  Hospital. To the best of my knowledge it isn’t under threat, and even if it was, it’s outside of Wokingham Borough Council’s jurisdiction, and so is irrelevant to this election. The only pledges with any locational specificity are for a purpose-built library, and regarding green belt and urbanisation in East Berkshire. The latter is very general, and the former doesn’t make any sense. Wargrave library is perfectly adequate, and a fantastic old building. It most certainly doesn’t need to be replaced.

But maybe he means Twyford library. For the uninitiated, Twyford library is a series of portacabins, which isn’t really fit for purpose, and does need replacing. Plans have even been approved by Twyford Parish Council for the building of a new Community Hub, incorporating the library. But there’s one slight problem: it’s not in the ward.

Now, I’m sure plenty of people in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe do use Twyford library. I’ve used it myself. But this is indicative of something bigger. Mr Heape is not a resident within the ward. It doesn’t even seem that he knows much at all about the ward and the concerns of the people there. And this sort of thing seems very close to the problems with Cllr Stretton, to whom the concerns of local residents didn’t matter.

But beyond Mr Heape himself, there are problems with some of his ideas. Leading the UKIP local agenda is the suggestion that local people should be able to call a binding referendum on local issues. It’s a nice idea on paper, giving local people a direct say over local issues. But that’s what we elect representatives for. And elections  (including referendums) are expensive. A parish election costs in the region of £3,000. This by-election will cost £9,000. Do we really have the money to call a referendum over every planning permission request?

I agree that there needs to be greater transparency and representation in local government. But the turnout in the AV referendum was painfully low. The turnout in this by-election probably won’t be high. Local people will be too apathetic to troop to the polling station every week to vote on an incredibly minor issue, and it will end up costing a fortune to achieve nothing at all.

The ironic part is that the leaflet header bears the legend “Straight talking”. This tosh seems anything but.

Letter in the Wokingham Times

As I predicted, so has it come to pass!

Actually, my claim to Cllr Baker that I am not in fact blessed with clairvoyance is still accurate, as I was more or less told by the team at the Wokingham Times that my letter would appear in the paper this week, after an inundation of letters last week kept it out. Actually, their letters section this week goes over one (broadsheet) page, so it seems they’re fairly busy still.

"Make Tories pay for costly by-election

Predictably, it’s the same letter as was sent to the Maidenhead Advertiser and the Henley Standard, and hopefully will appear again in the Reading Chronicle tomorrow. Then, potentially, begins the fun of replied from Tories, and whoever else, which I look forward to, and will faithfully report here. But once more, I will relay the text below:

ON JULY 21 there will be a by-election in the ward of Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe. This has been triggered by the resignation of Cllr Claire Stretton (Con) after her election to Windsor and Maidenhead Council, in a shocking display of arrogance and disregard for 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 to breeze to victory even after their previous councillor has caused an expensive by-election for her own political gain. It also gives residents the chance to make their feelings known about local issues, such as the planned privatisation of the local library, which puts a vital local service at risk. As the Labour Party candidate, I will be fighting all such cynical and ideologically-motivated moves by Wokingham Borough Council, and, if elected, I will always put 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 matthewsdent@gmail.com, or by post at 3 Newalls Rise, Wargrave. Matthew Dent, Wargrave.

By and large, it seems to be free of any editorial jiggling. But take a look at the title they’ve given it: “Make Tories pay for costly by-election“. Compared to the titles given by other papers (The Advertiser: “By-election candidate pledges to always put people of ward first“, and the Standard: “Less Cynical Candidate“), this seems to be coming down rather aggressively on my side. So good on the Wokingham Times! My campaign is very much a moral one, so it’s good to see subtle support coming down from various quarters.

As a final note, my letter rather ironically appears directly beneath one from Cllr Philip Houldsworth (Con, Winnersh), in which he does what Wokingham Tories are becoming very good at, and flat our refuses to admit that there’s any risk to the libraries. Admittedly he did so in order to beat the Lib Dems, which may or may not be a worthy aim, depending on how you see it. But the fact is that with the libraries, the Tories are doing the political equivalent of putting their fingers in their ears and shouting “LALALALALALA I’M NOT LISTENING!”

UPDATE: I’ve been made aware of this impressive site, which follows library privatisation plans across the country. It’s a fascinating, if somewhat chilling, read, and if libraries are something, like me, you care about, it’s definitely worth checking out.

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.

A War of Words

Joining in a cross-party campaign against the privatisation of Wargrave library

So now that I’m the Labour candidate for Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, I’d better get campaigning, right?

Well, becoming the candidate hasn’t really changed a great deal from my point of view. I’m still fighting the same battles I was before, over the same issues as before. Particularly, the library.

Today saw me down at the library, joining in with the Save Our Libraries campaign. What really gets me about the library is just how little input by anyone other than the Council executive there has been. The privatisation issue wasn’t mentioned at all during the campaigning for the recent elections (which, I feel I must say, saw the Tories gain two seats). And it’s been rolled out so quickly, that it has to have been planned beforehand. The “competitive tendering” process has already closed, less than two months after the votes were counted. So why no mention in your campaign literature, Wokingham Conservative Association?

And beyond that, there hasn’t even been a consultation. The Tory party like to shout about democracy and the will of the people, but why not here? Could it be because the local residents wouldn’t stand for such shocking treatment of their library services? Government by the Tories, for the Tories, it seems. And as a result, a truly fantastic library is being put at risk. The place goes beyond the lending of books. Ros Fernley and her team run a great community service, providing an endless cavalcade of fascinating events.

So what can I do in all of this? Well, for residents of Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe, I’m offering you an alternative. A genuine alternative, not just the non-choice between blue and yellow. I live locally, I’m active locally and I’m always happy to listen to residents. This, it seems, is a heck of a lot more than the Tories have been willing to do. I would urge every local resident who wants to protect the library to sign the petition (if you haven’t already). But beyond that, when you go down to the polling station on 21st July, cast your vote for a candidate who will represent you and your interests in local government. Vote for me, and I will always stand up for local residents, and not give in to ideological experiments to the detriment of public services.

Words in Wargrave

This humble building (Wargrave Library) houses a vital element of local community life, and is under direct threat from the local council.

I love libraries. I think it’s probably a by-product of my love of books. The primary school I went to was  next door to the village library, and as soon as I could read, I used to love going in after school and picking out a book to read. There’s something beautiful about the concept; enough books to keep you fascinated and entertained forever. Books on all manner of subjects, you can literally learn anything you like in a library.

So it should be no surprise that, having gotten back to Wargrave yesterday afternoon, one of the first things I did today was get myself down to Wargrave Library. I joined a few years ago, when I moved to the area, but being at university for the past three years, I hadn’t used it in a while, and couldn’t for the life of me find my library card. Fortunately, the lovely staff helped me out by providing me with a replacement, and I’m now sat reading a lovely copy of “The Drowned World” by J.G. Ballard.

The reason that I bring this up, is because library services are currently under threat. With central government piling cuts onto its local counterpart, library services are at risk the country over. In many places libraries are facing closure, in an effort (hugely misguided, in my opinion) to save money. That is not happening in Wokingham Borough. Instead, they are resorting to traditional Tory fare, and handing the whole lot over to the private sector.

The party line is that this will save jobs and services, preventing the council from having to resort to harmful closures. Except, I’m not so sure. Granted, I’m an ardent critic of the Tories, but I think there are some distinct flaws with this idea.

Firstly, and most obviously, privatisation means that profit will automatically take precedence over any concept of duty or public service. In a small village like Wargrave, the local library provides a central focal point for the community. As I learnt last night, at a fantastic Wargrave Words event for Wargrave festival (featuring fascinating talks from crime authors Sophie Hannah and Simon Brett), there are ten book clubs in the village. Ten. In a village of roughly 4,000.

If a private company takes over this service, they will want to make a profit. I struggle to see where this will come in (maybe someone can enlighten me?) save for cutting back on the quality and breadth of services provided. And if there isn’t a profit margin, then the company will be forced to shut down the library. Hence there’s even less protection against the risk of closure than if it was still council controlled. Local residents can at least exercise a level of control over the council, after all.

So here it is. The library provides a key community service. A place where learning and entertainment can be attained without charge. A place where residents can socialise and form community bonds. A cornerstone of the kind of involved society which the government claims to want to promote. Any threat to the library, therefore, is a direct threat to the community.

There is an online petition, and a fledgeling campaign, already set up to lobby against this decision. I strongly urge you, if the library matters to you, to speak up and sign it. Petitions can make a difference, and the will of the people is a tremendous force in a democracy. And beyond the petition, there will in the near future be a by-election in Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe ward (the precise details of I will certainly be blogging about at a later date). This will give Wargrave residents an opportunity to protest against this Conservative disregard for their library. And I can promise you now, the local Labour Party will always be a strong and vocal advocate for the importance of local library services.