Wednesday, 27 February 2013

No to bedroom tax from #rdg Council

Last night at full Council as well as the budget we debated the bedroom tax.

In Reading we have 9636 people on the Council housing waiting list. This is wrong. And Labour must take some of the blame for this through their failure to address this during their 13 years in government.

Following the bedroom tax getting more attention in the media I have picked up casework on this issue. One person, a single parent, living in a council house with their two children. One of the children is disabled and there are good reasons for each child having their own bedroom. However, the government views this property as under occupied, and so the tenant was worried that they might lose some of their housing benefit.

I took up this case and was able to find out that this person would most likely get a discretionary housing payment which would make up the shortfall.

So, this policy caused this resident undue stress, is in this case creating no extra accommodation and leaves the resident in a precarious position – as discretionary housing payments are reviewed on a regular basis, it is also underfunded nationally and no one knows how long they will run for.

There are over 1000 households in Reading the government deems as under occupying. Many of these households include someone with a disability.

In wanting to get people adequately housed, the motivation for the bedroom tax is reasonable. But the mechanism is unfair that is why we voted against the bedroom tax at Council last night. The motion was carried.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Natalie Bennett opens the Green Party conference in Nottingham 2013

Natalie's conference opening speech is in two parts. They are both below. If you agree with what Natalie is saying about fairness, integrity and the environment why not join the Green Party?

Part one

Part two

Your guide to the most important Council meeting of the year, the budget

We have the full Council budget meeting on Tuesday this week. This does what it says on the tin and is the most important meeting of the year – everything else happens within the budget envelope which is set tomorrow.

Given that the budget report runs to 169 pages this isn't the most accessible bit of Council business for residents to engage with. The full report can be found here:

In order to try and make it more accessible I will try and provide a few headlines and page numbers below.

The total budget for 2013/14 is £130.9 million – see page 161 for last year's budget breakdown and this year's budget, the following pages have it broken down by directorate.

The budget contains £13.4 million worth of savings (achieved through cuts and increasing income through raising charges etc) forced on us mainly through cuts from the Tory led government, but also from Labour's reluctance to raise council tax earlier. There is a summary of the savings proposals by directorate over the coming years on page 51 and then the following pages break it down by directorate. Last year we had to make savings of £12.6 million. The year before it was £18.8 million. The latest prediction is that government funding for Councils will have been cut by 32% by 2014/15.

This is a more risky budget than previous years with the number of risk points rising from 142 to 167.

90 posts will go this year. We have lost 573 posts since 2010. This is 18% of the workforce – excluding schools. Still lots of work to do though!

The biggest directorate is the Directorate of Education and Social Services and Housing (DESSH). Some of the areas which will be negatively impacted by the cuts include:

"There will be fewer staff working on community safety issues like antisocial behaviour. Although essential work will still be covered, this may have a negative impact on continuing to make Reading a safer place to live and work in." – See page 59

"Transport for older people and people with disabilities will be reviewed and although we will continue to provide this vital support; some journey times are likely to be longer." – See page 3

"Money that was used to provide housing support for vulnerable people will be cut meaning that people for whom this help is an important part of allowing them to live independently will not get support with issues like household management and budgeting." – See page 3

"Enforcing SEN (special educational needs) home to school transport eligibility policy" – see page 61. This one takes a bit of interpretation as little explanation is given. Simply put, this money is being reduced, so with new cases or when existing cases are reviewed there will be less money to spend helping children with special educational needs get to an appropriate school. Rather than changing the policy to fit the commonsense approach which has historically been used, the current policy will be stuck to more closely.

Last year – when there were elections – Labour opposed our call for a Council tax increase. We argued that this was necessary to protect public services on which we all depend, especially the vulnerable and to give the Council more financial security in the medium term. This year – no elections – Labour are choosing to put Council tax up, but the increase limit which triggers a referendum has been reduced from 3.5% to 2%. So Labour is proposing a 1.9% Council tax increase. See page 11 for more information. Those notorious lefties in Wokingham are doing the same.

To sum up, against the austerity backdrop benefits are being cut, unemployment is high, poverty is on the increase. In short need and demand for services is going up. Yet, the Tory led government continues to force more cuts on councils weakening their ability to deliver public services for us all. Looking to the future, the Council is getting to the end of savings that can be made through efficiencies. Cracks are starting to show in the form of services being nibbled away. Unless the government has a radical change of mind in the near future we will be losing whole chunks of front-line service.

Reading and other councils need to work together, to say' enough' and to get this message across to the Tory led government.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Are you getting the cheapest bus ticket? #rdg @reading_buses

I used to think I had got to grips with the bus ticket pricing. And I smiled smugly as I paid with my Easy Saver 10 card – 10 singles £16 = £1.60 per ticket.

However, recently I discovered some other tickets there are worth considering:

4 go together

simplyReading group only £8 and valid all day. Any 4 people travelling together, can be a combination of adults & children, all adults or all children. It's only £5 during evenings after 7pm, weekends and public and school holidays!


Cheap evening return - special offer!

We have reduced the cost of travelling after 7pm every single night!

If you are travelling within the simplyReading boundary, you can now get a return for £2.20 (a saving of over a quid!) or a Group Ticket for up to four people for just £5 (even 3 people will save!)

Terms and conditions apply. Return and group tickets are not valid on NightTrack buses. Valid only within the simplyReading boundary.

Full and current information on the Reading Buses website.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Speed of the computers in the libraries

I picked up a piece of casework recently asking for improvements to the computers in libraries. As more and more stuff moves online the performance of these computers is going to become more and more of an issue. I have posted the response below as I thought it is of general interest.

What has your experience been with the computers in the libraries?

"Good morning.
I have been asked to reply to your enquiry about public access computers in Reading Borough libraries.
I sympathise with Mr X, who is a regular user of our ICT facilities.
We have had our system monitored for speed on several occasions, and had an additional server installed at the end of last year to maintain line speed. The network is not particularly slow, although this does occasionally vary according to the period of the day, as indeed does the speed of the council staff network.
More critically however speed depends what internet site the library customer is using – some sites are slow, but this is of course an issue with the site rather than anything within our control.
The issue of Office Suite products e.g. Word; of file download; and of USB sticks, are all related, and have the same answer.
When the library system was first installed a decision was taken by the then Head of ICT that a thin client installation would be used, operating in a Citrix environment. I believe there were many reasons for this decision. The set up is much easier for the council to maintain. It is more robust. It allows cheap, continuous and reliable access to the internet. Crucially, it protects the council’s network, as there is no possibility in a thin client environment of being able to hack through to potentially sensitive information stored and maintained by other departments e.g. Social Services. It also allows the use of reasonably robust filtering software on all terminals, although misuse causing distress to other library users has still occasionally been an issue despite this.
The thin clients are not pcs, they are essentially dumb terminals with no processing power, which is provided by the servers. They therefore do not have any physical means of allowing uploads or downloads, including USB ports. This is also a means of protecting the network and equipment, as they cannot be used to import any viruses which might affect the system.
Office products including Word are provided for public use on stand alone pcs, which do not have a connection to the internet as they would otherwise incur all the problems identified above. These can be booked, as can the internet machines. As they are not networked there are no speed issues and as they are pcs, USB sticks can be used.
Although I appreciate that some users find it frustrating that they do not have access to the same set up as they would with a home pc, or at an internet cafĂ©, the current system has allowed us to continue to provide free public internet access while protecting the council network. Free internet access for all via public libraries was the aim of the People’s Network, which partly funded our current set up (as it did in most public libraries).
Any other system (for example one which was pc based) would not only require considerable capital input, which I believe is unlikely to be available in the current funding climate, but it would also be prohibitively expensive to maintain. This would also, I would think, make it less likely to remain free for the public to use, and a number of public library authorities are now charging for internet provision.  A pc environment would also of course potentially have all the attendant issues around security which thin clients prevent, and therefore would be unlikely to be acceptable to those with responsibility for the network.
We have a considerable number of users of the internet each day in our libraries, all of whom benefit from the free provision. I do certainly understand the frustrations of those users who have a higher expectation of the ICT set up. Our current remit however is to maintain and enable the provision of free access to information for all residents via the internet – the aim of the People’s Network - rather than the replication of the features of a home pc system. As far as I am aware, there are no plans to change that, for the reasons I have highlighted above.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Alfred Sutton bulge part 2 public exhibition #rdg

I just got back from the public exhibition on the work to accommodate a second bulge class at Alfred Sutton. The exhibition runs to 7 PM tonight, Thursday – a perfect start to a Valentine's Day night out! I have blogged previously on other expansion public exhibitions here.

Briefly the plan is to locate a four classroom, two floor modular building south of the recent single floor modular building – taking up a small bit of playing field – and putting a temporary playground surface nearby expanding the playground area. Click on the image for a larger version.

A planning application will be submitted in the next month or so and detailed drawings will be available then online.

It is important that we have enough local school places for our children, but at the same time we need to hang onto as much of the playing field as possible and be mindful of the impact of expanding the school on the wider area – Crescent road for example is congested and in need of some footpath modernisation, a 20 mph limit etc.

At some point in the future a decision will have to be made as to whether Alfred Sutton should be permanently expanded.

I have copied and pasted a briefing note below with a bit more information.

"Alfred Sutton Primary School Expansion

Proposals to expand Alfred Sutton primary school are confined at this stage to introducing a a further modular unit behind the existing nursery unit. The new unit will be a 2 storey 4 classroom unit, providing sufficient capacity to manage the 2 additional bulge classes as they move through the school.

Officers briefed the A S governing body on Weds 23 January on progress to date which we are planning to see completed before the last week in August this year. At this point we have yet to appoint contractors, but have engaged modular building suppliers in a tendering process for the range of buildings required on all the educatuion expansion projects this year.

Whilst it is too early to confirm whether we will be seeking to formally expand Alfred Sutton to 3 Form Entry, we talked through the possibility with governors, and sought their informal view of whether they will be willing to support such a move, if or when asked. Simply unless we have a 2FE free school proposal in East Reading, the Council will need to establish those 2 forms of entry. Logic suggests that Alfred Sutton Primary and Newtown Primary are the only obvious for expansion in the East. At Newtown we can locate the additional children without a building extension. Not so of course at Alfred Sutton where we would need the purpose built new classroom block."

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Reading Green News – school expansion, cycling and benefits cuts

Hello all,

We have been continuing to work hard on local and Borough wide issues. With government cuts continuing to hit people hard it is an uphill struggle at the moment!

Here is a brief update on what Reading Green Party has up to recently:

Reading Green Party selects East parliamentary candidate

Benefit cut will hit the poorest even harder

Public exhibition on walking and cycling improvements in east Reading

Fears over structural safety of buildings halts work at nuclear weapons factory

And the events which are coming up:

School expansion public exhibitions

If you've got any feedback, ideas or want to get more involved please get in touch.

Please feel free to forward this on to other interested people and as always, for more recent news from the Green Party, to join us, or to find out more about our policies, go to:

Best wishes

Rob White, Melanie Eastwood and Jamie Whitham

Green Party councillors

Saturday, 9 February 2013

How can we help you? Green surgery dates

Melanie, Jamie and I will be holding the following a residents' advice surgeries. No appointment is necessary.

Saturday, March 23, outside the post office, 75 Wokingham road, 11 AM to 12 noon
Saturday, April 27, outside the Co-op at cemetery junction, 11 AM to 12 noon

If you are unable to come along, and want to raise an issue, please get in contact via e-mail.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Local councillor shadowing by young people #rdg

I was lucky enough to participate, with Councillor Ennis, in the trial of local councillor shadowing (by young people) this year.

First off I had to get a CRB check done. I was surprised at how quickly it was turned around once I had completed the form – from memory a few days.

Next I had an initial meeting with youth workers and young people. It was interesting hearing the diverse interests of the young people and this helped us decide what to do.

The young people shadowed me and participated in doorknocking reviewing a local transport scheme, full Council (asking a question on youth services) and a Council run conference on young people and unemployment. They did about 10 hours in total each.

I recently signed off one of the handbooks, and was pleased to see that the young person had enjoyed the experience, learnt a bit about what councillors do and develop her skills.

For me, young people are always a struggle to engage with. When you knock on a door, you inevitably end up talking to the adults, parents being more experienced and understanding the role of councillors tend to be the ones who get in contact etc. So for me it was really useful finding out a bit more about the interests of young people and how I can be effectively represent them.

I hope the Council decides to run this scheme again next year...

If you are a young person reading this – or an older person with a good idea – please let me know what you would like to see me working on or how I can better engage with young people.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Reading school expansion 2013 public exhibitions #rdg

Just in case parents have missed letters in the pupil post and for the wider community:

"Dear Councillors

The Schools in the table below have agreed to expand their reception intakes in 2013-2014, by an additional 30 places (except Caversham who took a bulge last year), and we have been working in collaboration with the schools to plan the additional classroom space required. Based on the plans agreed between the school and the Council, we will be submitting formal planning applications by 22nd Feb, for determination at a Planning Committee in April. If approved we will want to let a contract to install the new buildings to enable the school to accept the additional children for September 2013.
We will be holding open afternoons at the Schools where there will be a planning exhibition for the proposed new buildings. School staff and Officers from Reading Borough Council will be on hand throughout this period to discuss the proposal. We intend the afternoon to be an informal drop in session where parents and local residents are invited to view the plans and discuss details and the background reasons for the proposal.      

Alfred Sutton Primary 14 Feb 3.10 – 7pm
Caversham Primary 12 Feb 3.00 – 6pm
The Hill Primary 25 Feb 3.15 – 7pm
Ridgeway Primary 13 Feb 3.15 – 7pm
St Michaels Primary 11 Feb 3.10 – 7pm

We look forward to seeing you there if it is convenient."