Wokingham Borough Council

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.

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A wokyrubbish update: obstinancy, but also progress


Before I went up to Manchester for the Labour Party conference, I attended a meeting with Councillor Angus Ross, who after the May elections took over responsibility for the new waste collection scheme. As meetings go, bin bags aren’t the most exciting of schemes, but after over six months of debating them it was refreshing to be able to discuss it frankly and openly with the man in charge.

There were good and bad points to the meeting, but I was reassured that the purposes behind the scheme are sound, even if I think the details are a little misguided. The fact is that cutting down on the amount of waste going to landfill is a noble aim, both for reasons of avoiding the incurrence of extra cost to the council and for the sake of preserving the environment.

Equally, I was surprised to find good answers to my questions on the sorely limited range of materials which are able to be recycled. The council wants to be able to track the materials they send to be recycled, in order — presumably — to make sure they actually are being recycled. If waste is sent abroad, then tracking it is impossible.

I’d like to see more recycling, but it looks like that’s going to take wholesale investment in recycling as an industry, something which will need to happen at national rather than local level — and with George Osborne squatting on the Treasury and the economy like an anti-green tumour, I think it’s safe to say that won’t be happening soon.

But Wokingham Borough Council could increase the range of materials collected. Glass, for example, and Tetra Paks, which are able to be taken to static sites, but a door collection would be a great boost to take-up.

On the subject of the much-maligned bags, there was acceptance that the bags aren’t fit for purpose, without actually saying that. In fact, I was specifically told that Veolia had been directed to look into a new model of bag. So there’s a partial victory.

But there’s still a partial (at least) obstinacy on the part of the council administration, to accept that mistakes were made. I can understand Cllr Ross’ point that the consultation would naturally bring out a lot more of those against the scheme than those signing it’s praises, but it still seems a stretch when Cllr Ross claims:

I haven’t seen the breakdown yet, but inevitably a number of people who respond will have concerns and issues rather than the vast majority who are happy.

I’m not sure a vast majority is happy with it, from my canvassing in the May elections. In fact, I think the vast majority are quite unhappy.

Still, if the problems are addressed, then this will all have been successful. The results of the consultation  as well as a recommendations for changes, will be presented to the executive next month. I’d very much like to see a change of bags come out of that meeting, but we shall see what results come back. I don’t want to over-egg the positive murmurs just yet.

How to Win Friends and Influence People – The Wokingham Borough Council Way


Wokingham Borough Council — continually plumbing new depths

Some readers of this blog will know that I volunteer as an Assistant Cub Scout Leader. Some locals to the Twyford area will know that there has been a lot of roadworks going on lately. Whilst these are an annoyance in many, many ways, they are very necessary.

My problem is not with the roadworks.

Last night, going to help lead the Tuesday night Scouts session, there was road resurfacing going on on London Road. The actual work started just north of Loddon Hall Road, where the Scout HQ is. However, the road was blocked off both at the crossroads, and just south of Loddon Hall Road. It appeared, to a casual glance, as if the Scout HQ is inaccessible.

My problem is not even the sinage.

Today I thought it would be wise to email parents of Cubs attending tonight’s session to tell them that the HQ is accessible. I also thought that it would be wise to check first that it will be accessible. So I called Wokingham Borough Council. I started as number 3 in the queue, and waited about 10 minutes with some of the most godawful hold music in the world before the phone was answered.

My problem is not the hold music.

Part way through explaining the situation and the information I wanted, the woman at the customer service desk hung up on me. Hung up on me. I was a little mystified. I hadn’t been belligerent, or unreasonable, or even critical. I was just explaining the situation, and what it was I was looking for. I have no idea precisely how long I was talking to myself for. I then tried to call back, to be greeted by the same hold music, as well as:

You are currently number five in the queue

My problem is this terrible standard of customer service.

I’ve listen to residents complain before about the way the council treats them when they make contact with it. As for myself, this was my first cause to call them — excluding one occasion when I reported a fallen tree blocking a road, when I recall they were more difficult than the situation called for, too — so I had expected it was just the stress of complaining about difficult situations.

But being hung up on mid-flow is just rude. I’m always at pains to be polite and reasonable when talking to someone on the phone, so I expect the same in return as simple common courtesy. To be blown off so radically by a taxpayer-funded organisation is mind-boggling.

Our councillors go on about the need to keep the tax burden on residents to a minimum. Maybe they should look at spending the tax they do take a little more wisely.

And for any Cub parents who may be reading this: Cubs is going ahead tonight. Loddon Hall Road and the Scout HQ may be accessible. If you want to make certain, you might want to call the council to check.

But I wouldn’t advise it.

Wokingham Bins Consultation – the Waiting Phase


This morning, an email dropped into my inbox:

Thank you for giving up your time to respond to the consultation exercise on the Council’s new Waste and Recycling Service. Your feedback is very important to us and will help us consider improvements to the scheme for next year.  The results of the consultation will be set out in a report to the Council’s Executive in November 2012. The report will also include recommendations on proposed improvements to the scheme.  You will receive a copy of the consultation analysis in November 2012.

Mark Moon

Strategic Director – Place Based Service Delivery

Hopefully there were an awful lot of other people across Wokingham Borough who received identical emails.

Considering that a public consultation was one of the main demands I made during my election campaign earlier this year, I’m feeling pretty vindicated right now. I hope that the consultation will be properly considered by the council executive, and will lead to real change to rectify this poorly-thought out policy.

I’m also glad that they have promised to send copies of the analysis to the respondants. Too often people respond to such consultations never to hear anything again. If consultation is to be real, it must encompass the whole process.

That said, I hope that they will release the full raw data too, to allow others (such as myself) to conduct our own analysis. If they don’t, then the can be sure that I will use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to push for its release, but for now all we can do is wait and see.

Wokingham Bins Consultation – the Final Days


There are only a few days left to tell the councillors and officers at Wokingham Borough Council what you think of the bins scheme.

The much-fought-for local consultation on the new Wokingham waste scheme has been running for a few weeks now, and I’ve done my best to publicise it. My view has been that the more people who answer the questions, the more accurate the view that is presented to the council will be — and the more likely it will be that they will listen.

I’ve spoken, since it started, to a number of residents sceptical that it will make any difference. I can understand this view, and I’ve complained myself numerous times that nobody at Shute End is listening. But I do think that this survey is worth filling out.

  1. If people who are opposed to or critical of this scheme — and I know that there are a sizable number — don’t reply to it, then it will be held up as an indicator that the residents of the borough are happy with it.
  2. Despite previous obstinance, I genuinely believe that the council are genuinely interested in hearing what we have to say about this. They attracted a lot of criticism for the new scheme during the election period, and even lost two seats. It’s not a huge landslide, but it’s a big movement in an area which traditionally runs between blue and yellow — with little usual movement. Several changes to the executive also indicate an increased willingness to listen.
  3. If people respond to this consultation in large numbers, then the council may be persuaded that such exercises are worth considering before undertaking drastic and controversial changes to public changes. The council has been playing a lot with public services lately (libraries, anyone), and if they’re going to carry on — and, for that matter, mention nothing of it in elections — it would be quite nice if they felt they had to listen to the people anyway.

The consultation closes on Friday 14th September 2012. That’s tomorrow. So please, if you live in the Wokingham area and have any opinion of the new waste scheme, take a few moments out of your day to complete the survey. You’ll find the link below.

Wokingham Waste Consultation

At Long Last – Wokingham Bins Consultation


Paul Daniels apparently thinks that Wokingham’s new waste collection scheme is “useless”. Thankfully, he can now tell them in their new consultation.

When, a few weeks ago, I emailed Wokingham Borough Council to find out why they were seemingly keeping their consultation on the bins so secret, I got an interesting reply. I am, in fact, going to post it here in its entirety:

Dear Mr Dent

The consultation is starting this week, and it will be appearing on the consultation section of the website shortly. It will also be sent out to the Town and Parish Council Offices. So far it has only been sent out to the Wokingham Borough Council Citizens’ Panel, and a press release is going out this week to all the local press.

It will be publicised on the main page of the website also, and it has been sent out to residents who complained about the service.

The web link for the survey is
http://consultations.wokingham.gov.uk/waste_collection_review/waste_collection_review.htm

I hope that helps. If I can be of any further assistance please let me know.

Kind Regards

Carla Chappell

Which is nice.

I don’t know, the cynic in me wonders if this is the God’s honest truth, or whether I just caught them with their pants down. It really wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m prepared to take them at their word, given that the consultation is really what I care about (Though… “ So far it has only been sent out to the Wokingham Borough Council Citizens’ Panel“… Why?)

But the consultation is now live. I haven’t seen anything about it at GetWokingham, but I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of this week’s Wokingham Times, so there’s every possibility that it’s in there and just not on the site yet. But it is now in the consultation section of the council’s website at least.

So, if you’re slightly irked with the council’s new money-making saving scheme, if you have a tale to tell of your own about how the new bin bags, then you can finally go and tell the council. They probably don’t want you to, but I’m sure that won’t give you too many sleepless nights, right? Just click the link below:

WOKINGHAM BC WASTE SURVEY

I’d also point out that the consultation is only open until 14th September 2012, so you only have two weeks to have your say.

And on a related (and entertaining) note, it seems that problems of bin bags has even extended to local Wargrave celebrities Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee. The magician and his wife have had the same problems getting hold of bags as other residents. Mr Daniels himself blasted the scheme, saying:

We have been trying to get bags for ages. You have to ring up the council, which costs money every time, then when you pay by credit card, it costs money too. And the bags cost four times what you can buy plastic bags for, even in Waitrose. I would like to know why they cost four times the amount — they are only plastic sacks. The fact that we can only buy 10 at a time is a joke. I used to be a local government internal auditor and if I was running this, that company would be dumped — that’s if I had a bag to put them in.

Ouch. Maybe he’d like to put it to the council’s consultation?

Jobs for the Boys?


An evening at Shute End

Last night, I took a trip to an extraordinary meeting of the Oversight and Scrutiny Management Committee, at Wokingham Borough Council. I know it sounds like a fun day out for a local politics anorak — and being just such an anorak, it was a fascinating excursion!

A little background: the meeting was called to deal with the council executive’s decision to pay an extra £6,000 per year allowance to councillors chosen to serve as Non-Executive Directors of the new wholly-0wned companies that have been set up to manage certain council services. There are three of them: Optalis, to manage adult social care; Wokingham Enterprises Limited, to manage the fabled town centre regeneration; and Wokingham Housing Limited, to provide affordable houses.

Now, without wishing to go into too much detail on the companies themselves (though I have serious reservations about profiteering out of social care and vulnerable people who need a home), the issue was that the council had previously said these roles would not be paid, and the change had been sprung on councillors with zero notice. There was a very worrysome appearance of “jobs for the boys”.

The debate was fascinating. Particularly the cross-examination of council leader David Lee. He didn’t seem at all happy about being challenged in committee, but his position was that if you want the best people to fill these roles then you have to pay them. Which isn’t an altogether unreasonable stance, but it didn’t explain why local government officers (council employees) were paid no extra to perform the same functions, which were outside of their job.

One of my favourite exchanges, between Cllr Lee and Lib Dem leader Prue Bray, was as follow:

Cllr Bray: “Is it not true that the companies have indemnity insurance for directors?

Cllr Lee: “You can’t indemnify against criminality.

Cllr Bray: “Surely we wouldn’t want to pay councillors to commit criminal acts either?

Cllr Lee’s back was towards the public gallery, but I am told the expression on his face was priceless. I can quite imagine.

When it was put to a vote, the result was not a surprise. The committee, with a majority of Tory members, approved the decision of the executive. Beyond this, there was some discussion of the process used, and in future referring the amount to an independent remuneration committee.

So the result was as expected. But it was the body language and reaction of the Conservative councillors which was the more interesting part. For the most part, they were either scared or enraptured of Cllr Lee. There were a few, whose modesty to save I shall not name, who seemed deeply uncomfortable with the process and the idea of payment for such roles. Which I can understand — after all, if the Big Society is about people volunteering in the community, how does this gel with it.

But it is Cllr Ian Pittock whose response most intrigues me. Whilst his peers were either scared or eager for a pat on the head, he was not. He was the only Tory to vote against the council executive, and he actually challenged Cllr Lee. There was one remarkable part where, David Lee all but came out and threatened Cllr Pittock directly.

As we all left the committee room, at 10pm in the evening, someone commented to me that “He’ll be in the shit tomorrow!“. And he probably will. But the best part: he just doesn’t care.

I’m rather impressed.

Wokingham Borough Council and the Secret Consultation


I think this sums it up rather neatly.

Back in the local elections, three plus months ago (was it really only three months ago?) one of the chief criticisms I had of Wokingham Borough Council’s new waste collection scheme was that it was a profound change to the system, and it had been done completely without consultation.

Well, it seems that the council are somewhat belatedly running just such a consultation. Sort of.

A thirty-four question online survey inquiring as to residents thoughts, opinion, and experiences of the new waste collection scheme has appeared, introducing itself with the line:

…the Council would like to know your views about how the scheme is working and whether it is delivering on its intended improvements.

And about time two. Except…good luck finding said survey. I consider myself a reasonable competent researcher — it’s included in my job title, after all — and after a good hour with a search engine I was still drawing a blank. As far as I can tell, you cannot find the survey unless you already have the URL. Which is an interesting approach, don’t you think?

The funny thing is that the council website already has a section of its website dedicated to consultations. The list of open consultations isn’t exactly long, but I don’t see anything related to waste collection there.

So we have a waste consultation, but it’s unfindable. The only reason I even know about it is because a neighbour happened to receive the link in an email and forward it to a family member. Even the leader of the Lib Dem opposition didn’t seem to know anything about it.

As I see it, there are two possible explanations:

  • It’s not real. Which seems strange, since it looks like it’s hosted on the council website.
  • The council doesn’t really want people to find it, apart from people who they show the link to.

No prizes for guessing which I think the answer is.

So going forward, what to do. Well, firstly I suggest you all go to the survey, fill it out, and tell the council what you think of their waste scheme. I’ll even give you the link, free of charge:

http://consultations.wokingham.gov.uk/waste_collection_review/waste_collection_review.htm

Secondly, there’s an email address on the consultations section of the Wokingham website, for someone called a “Consultation Officer”. This sounds like someone who should know about any consultations being conducted, so I’m going to send them an email asking for clarification. I’ll let you all know what response I get.

And thirdly, I will be meeting with Cllr Angus Ross at the end of the month to discuss the new bins scheme. Amongst a few other things, you can be very much sure this will be mentioned.

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)

A Pot to Piss In


The boarded-up toilet block in Twyford, and the sign pinned to the door.

The elections are over, but the problems assailing Wokingham borough are still here. Despite the fact that local Tory leader Cllr Lee reckons that the results were terribly unfair on his party, they are still in control and their unpopular, controversial and unworkable policies roll on unhestitatingly.

And we’re still resisting them.

Case in point, the closure of public toilets across the borough. Despite the problems raised, despite the objections from the elderly, the disabled, those with children, the council remain convinced that the local loos scheme is an adequate replacement for the closed public toilets blocks.

We, the local Labour party, have raised in conjunction with other local community groups a petition against the policy, calling for the council to reconsider. Attention has largely been focused, so far, on Wokingham town centre and Woodley. But recently the prospects for public conveniences in those places have increased: Woodley Town Council have their eye on money from development to re-open the toilets, and certain executive council members have been hinting that the Wokingham town centre regeneration will include new toilets.

So with these developments, the petition appears to have more significant for other areas of the borough: for Winnersh,  Finchampstead, and Earley- and the northern parishes. Twyford and Wargrave, which I consider “my patch”, also have closed-down toilet blocks. They sit, boarded-up and half-derelict, whilst an inadequate agreement with local businesses replaces them.

The petition has crossed the requisite number of signatures, and will be presented to the council at its meeting next Thursday (24th), and will trigger a debate at the meeting on 19th July. It will be interesting to see whether this follows the pattern of the previous debate, on library privatisation, where the Conservatives were disdainful and dismissive of the signatories. I don’t suppose they will change their minds, but at least they won’t be able to ignore it.

I fully expect that Cllr Lee’s favourite excuse will make an appearance. It’s already seen an outing this week in the Twyford Advertiser, which referred to “Cllr Lee’s cash-strapped council“. I’ve already laid out how Wokingham’s “worst-funded” status is more than mitigated by its high council tax take. And the idea that we are too poor to provide public toilets is patent lunacy.

I will be there in the public gallery of the council chambers both on Thursday, to see the presentation of the petition, and in July, for the debate. I would urge any residents who have become disillusioned and sceptical of the Tories’ methods and attitudes to join me there. You never know, we may even force them to deal with Wokingham’s problems, rather than simply insult its people.

UPDATE: It’s been brought to my attention that, in much the same manner as their Woodley counterpart, Winnersh Parish Council are planning to build a public toilet. The difference here is that Winnersh is doing it out of its own budget. So it seems that the the slack left by the borough council’s cost-cutting abdication of responsibility is being taken up further down the chain at the parish council level. Wonderful.