Thursday, 24 February 2011

How local do you want your councillor?

Earlier today I had an illuminating conversation with my Conservative Wokingham-based ward colleague Councillor Hussain. The discussion went something like this:

Councillor Hussain: "Because I live in Wokingham, I can be a better councillor, because I have no personal interest in the local area. I can be more objective."

Councillor White: "I follow your logic, but I disagree [no personal interest means no passion for an area]."

Councillor Hussain: "Also, I see more of the ward than you because I drive through it every day on my way from Wokingham into Reading."

Councillor White: "You may see more of the main roads in the ward by driving through it. But you would know the ward better if you lived in it, walked round in it more and met people.

I then suggested to him that if he truly thought that living in Wokingham made him a better councillor maybe he should put it on his next newsletter as a selling point. I won't hold my breath.


Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Full council budget meeting

Yesterday was a historic day in Reading. The Lib Dem and Conservative councillors who voted the budget through will be remembered. But not as heroes who saved the day, as villains preying on the weak and vulnerable.

New Labour raised the axe, with a continuation of Thatcher's policy agenda -- privatisation, deregulation of financial markets and repression of trade unions -- but last night it was the Tories and the Lib Dems who brought it down locally.

Labour's three amateur amendments all fell. As did mine to reverse the grant cut to Reading Council for Racial Equality -- thanks to Councillor Tickner for seconding it. Although, at least mine was complemented for being costed, which none of the Labour amendments were in any detail.

So the budget went through unamended containing £19 million of cuts. Thousands of people will lose care from the council. School meal prices are going up. Local pensioner bus fare concessions have been cut. The list goes on. Depressing.

300 council jobs will also go. The worst-case scenario is a £2 million redundancy payout, 300 people not paying tax and 300 people claiming benefits. Is this good? No. Will it stimulate the economy? No. Will it result in a fairer Reading? No. And this is just the beginning. We have at least three more years of this to come if the Lib Dems and Conservatives continue to be able to advance their agenda.

The meeting finished just before midnight, so I was glad that I had taken some lasagne that I cooked earlier in the week to eat in one of the breaks! Very few members of the public made it to the end.

So where next? Well better late than never the leader of the Lib Dems locally Councillor Bayes has joined with other Lib Dems in saying that the settlement from the government is unfair. Does Councillor Cumpsty, leader of the Conservatives, have the courage to start pushing back too?

But really neither the councillors nor the MPs are powerful. It is the people of Reading, the people who came to the demonstration last night against the cuts, and the people who stood in the public gallery and the foyer listening who have the power. I am sure those people will use their power at election time to show what they think of the Coalition locally, and I'm sure they will use their power more creatively in the interim.

I will continue to work with local people for a fairer deal for all of Reading.

Monday, 21 February 2011

How will the cuts impact on you?

Tomorrow (Tuesday February 22), 6:30 p.m., at the Civic Centre we have the most important Council meeting of the year. At this meeting councillors set council tax and the Council budget -- which dictates how much money there is to spend in different areas in the coming financial year. The budget papers are on the Council's website, but are heavy going. So I have worked with Reading Save Our Services to produce the information below summarising how the cuts in Reading will impact on people.

The council meeting is open to members of the public and there will be demonstrations starting at 5 p.m. from various groups -- such as Reading Council for Racial Equality (pictured) -- who will be devastated by these cuts pushed through by the Conservatives with covering fire from the Lib Dems.

Alternatively give your local councillor a call or e-mail informing them which services you would like to see protected.

How much will be cut?

· The Council is looking to make savings of £18.8 million in its budget for next year (2011/12 financial year). The cuts package will hit the most needy and least well off the hardest.

· At an earlier Cabinet meeting it was announced that this will result in the deletion of around 300 posts, with 150 potential compulsory redundancies. £2.2 million will be spent in redundancy payments next year.

· There will be no Council Tax increase in Reading, so no money will be available to offset the cuts by increasing tax locally. The Council is aiming to increase charges for certain services to increase its income by £3.2 million.

· This is just the beginning: the cuts will continue for at least three years and the council intends to continue with “cost reduction and efficiency” and maximising income generation. Assuming the Council continues with its policy of freezing Council Tax, savings of £14.2 million will be needed in 2012/13; £9.2 million in 2013/14; and £12.3 million in 2014/15.

Hitting the neediest hardest

The Council's cuts will hit the least well off and most disadvanted people the hardest. Children, the elderly, and people with special needs will all find that their services and care will be reduced. Examples include:

· Merger of Edward Hughes and Tanfield residential homes and reduced use of other residential accommodation for the elderly will deprive vulnerable pensioners of Council care in their twilight years.

· Eligibility criteria for elderly people and others with social care needs will be tightened drastically, meaning that many with medium and lower level care needs will no longer receive vital care support from the Council.

· Cuts in the Early Years Service will result in a reduction in nursery care and services supporting the youngest children.

· A reduction in school meals subsidy will increase the cost of meals and will reduce meals uptake for those not entitled to free school meals.

· Increased play charges will result in reduced uptake of play schemes and closures of after school and holiday play provision.

· Concessionary bus fares for pensioners will be reorganised so that they can no longer travel free of charge during peak hours.

· Cuts in the Youth Service and Intensive Services and in Prevention and Support Services will mean that services will have to be targetted, resulting in less capacity to respond to areas requiring early intervention and leading to more youth offending and anti-social behaviour.

· A review of Behaviour Services for children with behaviour difficulties will result in increased school exclusions – and increase associated costs.

· Cuts in front line education posts and buyback of services for schools from the Council will lead to reductions in service to vulnerable families.

· Domestic Violence staff levels are to be cut increasing the risks of domestic abuse and leading to abusers escaping the law.

· Transport services for school children, patients, the elderly, and those in care will be reviewed and cut with Readibus, the NHS, and Reading Buses expected to take up the slack.

The Council admits that cuts in its Education and Childrens Services budget will increase social care referrals and costs, increase the need to use expensive agency staff; and divert money away from prevention programmes as demand pressures increase.

From Cleaner and Greener to Leaner and Meaner

· Cuts in Street Care will result in reduced environmental cleansing and graffiti removal.

· Charging for the collection of green waste and big increases in charges for collection of bulky waste mean that an increase in fly tipping and rubbish dumping is likely.

· Cuts in enforcement teams working on Houses in Multiple Occupation, Public Health, Trading Standards, Licensing, and Environmental Health will increase safety and environmental risks for the public. Cuts in planning enforcement and monitoring will enable unscrupulous builders and developers to ignore planning laws.

Rents up and pay frozen

· Council house rents will increase by 4.9% (higher than the inflation rate) bringing the average weekly rent to £89.26.

· Council staff will receive no pay increase in 2011/12.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Berkshire save our woods

I got the following from Berkshire Save Our Woods:

Who are we and what are our aims?

We are "Berkshire Save Our Woods " a grassroots movement formed from an objection to the Government's proposals to dispose of all of England's public forests. As well as campaigning against the Government proposals in general, we have a specific focus Sulham Woods. We have a Facebook campaign that has attracted plenty of members within the first few days and are organising a peaceful protest to take place at Sulham Forest Carpark just next to the woods, Saturday 5th March 2011.

Why was the group formed?

Like many people, woodland is close to our hearts and we have a desire to protect it. Local woods are a wonderful place for people of all ages to enjoy and the Forestry Commission land is very accessible and allows people to pursue many different activities, including walking, cycling, riding, running and is a great place for children to play and learn about our environment. Woodland is an important natural resource, wildlife habitat and carbon sink. We want to keep this within the public domain so we have a real say in what happens to it.

What are our concerns?

For the purposes of the Government sell-off, woodland will be categorised into 4 types -
- heritage woods (such as the Forest of Dean and New Forest) which will be gifted to a charity with initial Government funding which will eventually be reduced and the charity will be expected to become self-sufficient
- mixed woodland, where there is a mixture of commercial forestry and leisure interests(Sulham Woods fits this category).
- large commercial forests which are predominantly for timber production
- small commercial forests, mainly timber on a smaller scale.
-Mixed woodland and large and small commercial forests will be offered for sale, and the Government proposes that they should be offered to community groups to buy first. This sounds good in theory but in reality, the window of opportunity for community groups to buy these areas would be 28 days before they are offered up to commercial buyers and with the market value of a wood such as Sulham Woods being around £2million, it is pretty unlikely that a community group could find this sort of money within a month. Inevitably the woods will end up in the hands of commercial buyers such as leisure operators, logging firms, etc, or perhaps bought by individuals seeking a tax break, known as woodlands relief, where inheritance tax can be avoided if the money is sunk into woodland. Once sold off, access rights for walkers would remain, under the CRoW Act (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000), although the new owners may neglect footpaths and close down car parks making access more difficult. Horse riders and cyclist currently enjoy a permissive arrangement with the Forestry Commission allowing them to use the land, however there is no obligation for a new land owner to continue this so cyclists and horse riders would only be allowed access if a bridleway or byway crosses the land.

Another concern is that the new owners may have no interest in managing the woodland well, and despite vague references by the Government that safeguards would be put in place to maintain biodiversity, it is unclear how this would be monitored and enforced once individual tracts of land are sold off.

What about the current halt on some woodland sales, what does this mean?

The Government have temporarily halted the sale of 15% of the public forest, although they are still going ahead with the consultation to sell off the rest of our woodland, so the fight is by no means over. They are clearly feeling the pressure from the numerous opposition groups and need to hear our voices louder than ever at this time. Please come along tomorrow to the protest at 11am and let them know we won't back down!

I hope to hear back from you with ANY HELP you can provide to inform the community of Berkshire\Reading about this issue?

I have the backing of The Reading Post and we are to be featured in next weeks newspaper, we have just been featured on BBC SURREY and am hoping to the interest now for BBC BERKSHIRE.

This is the link to the facebook group.

Maiden Erlegh consultation deadline approaching fast!

By working cross-party -- sort of. By having a campaign from local families, of local families, for local families. And through a lot of hard work. We have put a lot of pressure onto Wokingham and Reading to do the right thing in the short term and get a fair deal in Reading children. In the medium term we have started the cogs moving for a solution to the various schools related problems in the area. It is hard to see exactly which way things will go. But I think everyone involved should be proud we have achieved so far.

From the Parents' Campaign:

"Please can I remind anyone who has yet to reply that the closing date for responses is THIS MONDAY 14th Feb 2011.

There is still time to complain by email to:

If you need ideas for letter writing visit our website for a sample letter.

Or you could add your comments directly to the WBC questionnaire here.

Thanks again for taking the time to add your voice to the consultation.

All the views expressed should be reviewed by WBC and passed on to the
Admissions Forum - so please please respond!

As soon as we have any news we’ll let you know."

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Primary and secondary places in the east of Reading

In the east of Reading we have problems with shortages of both primary and secondary places. I have been working with parents to try and resolve this problem. There is an interesting report "additional school places" on the agenda of the next Cabinet meeting which provides some hope for primary school age children in Newtown, but it still looks pretty depressing for older children.

On the primary school places front the report recommends spending £165,000 on a new temporary classroom at St John's School to be ready for September 2011 which will provide a badly needed extra 30 places.

On the secondary schools side of things the report states that in addition to the loss of choice if Wokingham gets its way changing the Maiden Erlegh catchment area -- excluding Reading children -- over time -- unspecified as to exactly how long -- Reading will lose access to about 70 places if Wokingham's population increases as it continues to predict. The report then goes on to talk about there being a lack of funding for a new secondary school in east Reading and talks about a possible free school, but is then very vague.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Weekend action session -- petitioning and working to help elect Reading's second Green Councillor

At the weekend we had one of our actions sessions. We are currently doing a petition against cuts to care -- which will impact on many elderly and vulnerable people in Reading.

We assembled and had a bit of training, before going out and doing the petition for an hour or so. We then met up again for a debrief and a cup of tea. An enjoyable afternoon, a good number of signatures collected and another road completed.

If you are interested in coming along to our next action session let me know.

What do you want your local councillor to fight for?

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

A month in the life of a Green Party councillor -- Maiden Erlegh, cuts, electoral reform plus more

It has been a busy couple of months and so I have rolled the December and January update into one. Working with my colleague Melanie Eastwood we have been continuing to support parents on the issue of changes to Maiden Erlegh's catchment area. We have been pushing for a meeting to resolve parking problems in the east of Newtown, but unfortunately progress continues to be slow. One of the other big areas we have been working on is a solution to the traffic problems in Talfourd Avenue. However, it hasn't all been work, I managed to get away at Christmas to visit my parents in Congleton, Cheshire.

Council meetings and briefings -- 5
Surgeries -- 2 stationery
School governor meetings -- 3
Community meetings and events -- 15
Enquiries and requests for repairs from residents -- 113

Some of our action:
· supported the community walk down to the Maiden Erlegh catchment area consultation and asked a question at full council on the same issue
· continued to work against unfair cuts to public services as the budget looms
· campaigned for a fairer voting system
· lobbied for cheaper bus tickets

Some of our results:
· got the Council to publish advice for members of the public on clearing snow
· got the Council to reverse plans to charge an eye watering £300 for a discretionary parking permit -- which was free -- but they are still charging £50
· thanks to our campaigning the council is now looking into taking action against dumped trolleys
· as usual we got countless instances of fly tipping cleared, graffiti cleaned, potholes filled and residents' questions answered.

· None claimed.

Gifts to declare -- over the value of £25:
· None.

My interests are published on Reading Borough Council's website.

Monthly councillor allowance (pay) before deductions: £685.08