Plate Spinning

I’ve been struggling to find time to write my next blog post.  Since the May local elections, things have been a tad hectic, particularly in the lead up to the summer holidays and I find myself more and more starting replies to emails with “apologies for the delay”.  So what has been happening these last couple of months in the world of local politics?

Preparing for a council meeting whilst getting a pedicure on my birthday!

To begin with, there was quite a lot of organisational discussions within our party.  We grew from 8 elected members to 16, making us quite a substantial opposition and therefore have formed a Shadow Executive (the Executive is like the Cabinet at national level), and have assigned deputies to these areas as well.  Given my background, I have become the Shadow Executive for Arts, Culture and Libraries and am researching and putting together ideas of what we could and should be doing in Wokingham Borough.  As part of this, I’m currently looking through the process undertaken that got WBC to the decision to move the Wokingham library to the new Carnival Pool complex.  Is it the right decision in my view?  Watch this space…

I’ve also had a very productive meeting with my colleague Stephen Conway (Member for Twyford) and the new leader of WBC, John Halsall.  Stephen has been campaigning for approximately 20 years to get a new library in Twyford as the current facility is a temporary site in portacabins.  I am pleased to say that John sees the benefit and has agreed to put the recommendations forward to the Executive later this month. 

In addition to this position, I am also deputising on Children’s Services; Environment, Sports & Leisure; Equalities, Diversity & Inclusivity and the Voluntary Sector, working with my colleagues to research and set our position on these areas.  You’re probably wondering why I’m involved in so much, and sometimes I ask myself the same question.  These are the areas that interest me the most and the areas I want to make a difference in.  Truth is I want to make a difference in everything, but can’t, so have had to choose.  Plus, there are 15 other Lib Dem councillors who need something to do 😊. 

The Equalities, Diversity & Inclusivity portfolio has been busy for both myself and my colleague Imogen who leads this area.  My interest in politics in Wokingham started when I was campaigning to make the new marketplace safer for those with visual impairments.  The more I’ve dug up about it, the more I’ve realised that WBC needs to get a lot better at equalities.  On the back of this, I have submitted my first motion to council (a motion is a formal proposal that will be debated in the council chamber, and a decision made that the assembly takes a certain action), which I will fill you in on in a later blog (hopefully with a positive outcome). 

I’ve also been working with the CEO of Keep Mobile in trying to get a designated bus stop for the community buses (Keep Mobile, ReadiBus, Earley Bus and Crowthorne Bus) in town.  The challenge is that many of the customers of these businesses are disabled and many elderly, some with dementia.  When these buses collect customers, it takes about 20 minutes because they are loading and making secure people in wheelchairs, and sometimes the drivers have to go off and find customers who have memory problems.  Therefore, a regular bus stop cannot be used as they would be blocking it for a considerable amount of time.  Whilst the buses can use accessible parking bays, should they arrange to collect their customers from one of them, they then turn up and it’s been used by another vehicle, they can’t stop, and end up driving round the one-way system trying to find somewhere.  For customers with dementia this is actually quite frightening to see your ride drive past you.  My colleagues and I have been pushing to get a designated bay in the town for some time now.  We requested a line in the budget this year for one, which was turned down at council.  We have continued to push though via several different routes, and a couple of weeks ago, the CEO of Keep Mobile and I met with a WBC officer to look at locations.  The Exec for Highways also joined us part way through and we left the meeting with agreement from both her and the officer that we will get a designated bay.  Three locations have been identified and the pros and cons are being drawn up before a decision is made.  Whilst it’s not been physically done yet, we now have the commitment to do it, so we’re feeling very happy. 

With the other portfolio’s, we’ve been working hard, meeting various professionals and residents with insights into these departments, looking at where we are, and what we need to do moving forward.  This has been particularly eye opening in the Children’s Services department.  I’ve had a lot of residents contact me with challenges they have been facing with this department, and we have been seeing a recurring pattern.  I won’t go into too much detail here, and will write a separate blog post in the future about it, but lets just say, I’m witnessing the real day to day impact austerity has had. 

In addition to our shadow roles, there are also official WBC committees.  We have a function at the council called Overview & Scrutiny.  The role is to develop and review policy and make recommendations to the council.  We have a Management one, plus three sub committees called Children’s Services, Health and Corporate & Community.  I sit on the management one and am a substitute of children’s services.  These committees are made up of the political balance that we have on the council so I sit on the Management committee with 3 other Lib Dem colleagues.  I will write a separate blog post about this function of the council, but in short, WBC are not very good at it and it doesn’t fully achieve its objectives.  I’ve been to two of the management meetings so far and have observed the children’s services one.  We get the agenda 1 week in advance in order to prepare, and topics on the management committee agenda that we’ve scrutinised so far have included the housing consultation that is currently doing the rounds, the grass cutting contract, the local transport plan process, government statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny, WBC plan initial stages, overview and scrutiny training programme and the quarterly monitoring report looking at WBC’s KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).  It’s been an eye-opening experience. 

I also sit on the Licensing and Appeals committee which sort of does what it says on the tin.  Out of this come sub-committees for various things, so in time I could find myself reviewing various licence applications.  Out of this comes the School Transport Appeal Panel that I sit on as well as the Corporate Parenting Board and School Admissions Forum.  I will write about all of these separately.  I was also voted in to be the WBC representative to Keep Mobile and will have my first meeting with them this week. 

Alongside all these responsibilities, there is the case work I do for residents in the ward.  I can’t write about individual cases for confidentiality reasons, but the range of cases is quite diverse.  A number of parents have contacted me about problems they are experiencing with the SEND (Special Educational Needs & Disabilitie) department of Children’s Services, which many of you will have seen did not come out too well in the recent OFSTED inspection.  The department is significantly underfunded and as such, under resourced.  There are also concerns from a number of residents about whether we have enough secondary schools in the area.  This is something I am currently investigating. 

Adrian and I with the food caddies

I’ve also been working with residents from a housing perspective, dealing with the housing benefit team.  And then there’s the case work that relates to what is known as our localities team.  This includes highways, bins, planning, grass cutting etc, and this is probably where the most significant amount of requests from residents comes from.  The roll out of the food waste caddies, and the new contract associated with that has meant I’ve been kept quite busy.  Significant numbers of houses were missed when the caddies were delivered.  The team were excellent at getting Veolia back out to do them, but there were still a few residents without.  I grabbed a stack of them myself and took them round, however, if you still don’t have one, let me know and I can get one for you.  There were also a few houses not having their waste collected.  We managed to get this resolved and the complaints seem to have reduced now. 

There are a number of other things in the localities department that I’m dealing with at the moment and now have meetings with the head of the team at the council.  Discussions thus far have included progress on the local plan update, progress on the safety audit for the marketplace, the potential SANG at Foxhill, getting major planning application consultation periods extended etc.  These are all ongoing discussions amongst many others. 

I hope this has given a snap shot of what I’m up to.  I plan to write future blog posts about some of the topics I’ve raised above in more detail.  4 months in and the breadth of the role is still something I’m astounded by.  No two days are the same.  Sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall, but on the flip side, I’ve had many positive things happen.  It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. 

Law & Order

I’ve been a bit quiet on here recently.  Since the local elections, things have been pretty busy as we’ve been allocated our areas of responsibility, and the various committees have been divvied up between us.  And for anyone who’s been asleep for the last few months, we’ve also had the European elections.  I will go into the areas of responsibility I now have, and the work I’m doing on the various committees I sit on, in more detail in my next blog post.  For this blog, I wanted to talk about policing. 

Since I was elected, I’ve been on two ride-alongs with the neighbourhood policing team.  One of the biggest concerns residents have been telling me is the rise in anti-social behaviour, and the lack of visibility of the police.  I too share these concerns, and have become increasingly worried, especially since the knife attack outside the station last month and the assault just outside the town centre last week in broad daylight.  I wanted to try and understand from the perspective of the police what is going on. 

My first ride-along was on a Friday during the daytime.  I had to drive over to Loddon Valley Police Station in Lower Earley to meet the team who would take me out for the day.  There in itself lies a problem – Wokingham Town does not have a Police station anymore.  I have read many social media posts from residents about the lack of police station in the town, and it has also been mentioned on the doorstep several times.  Please believe me when I tell you that the front-line police officers are as equally frustrated by this.  My understanding is that the closure was for financial reasons, but it has had a huge knock on effect on the effectiveness of policing.  Our local police teams are not able to achieve as much during their shifts because they waste so much time going back and forth to Loddon Valley; time which could be used proactively patrolling.  I was given a scenario by one of the officers.  Police officers are supposed to work in pairs (although this isn’t always the case anymore due to numbers of officers being so low), and if an officer is taking a statement, or gathers some evidence, they have to take it back to the station, write it up and log it.  The other officer in the pair has to go back with them, and wait until they’re done before going back out on patrol.  When the station was in the town centre, the other officer, whilst waiting for their colleague could quite easily go out and patrol the town centre on foot for a few minutes.  Now they have to sit and wait at Loddon Valley (Earley is covered by a different team) for their colleague to finish, plus time is wasted driving back and forth.  As a direct result of the closure of the police station, the officers spend less time patrolling our streets. 

During my first ride-along we began by driving around Emmbrook, Woosehill, Evendons East, the town centre and Norreys.  We then spent a large part of the morning in Woosehill.  After driving up the full length of the spine road and along many of the side roads, we parked up at Morrisons and went on foot.  We walked around the field behind Morrisons, and through the various footpaths around the estate.  I didn’t expect to see much action on a Friday daytime, and I didn’t, although we saw quite a lot of evidence of drug use.  It did give me the opportunity though to discuss some of the problems many residents in Woosehill have been facing.  The car theft problems had recently been taking place, but I was pleased to hear that the offender had been caught and arrested.  There are however a group of people causing further problems in the community, and the police are aware of who they are and trying to gather evidence in order to build a case for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). 

We then spent most of the afternoon in Norreys, although we did take a stroll through Latimer Park in Emmbrook ward through to the bowling alley.  This is a known spot for trouble, and again we found evidence of drug use, not just in the field and by the bridges, but actually in the children’s play area, plus an abandoned bike.  In Norreys, the officers were on the look out for particular vehicles that they know are related to drug rings in the area.  They spotted one car parked that was on their radar, but there was no action, so after some time of waiting and watching, we drove on. 

The second time I was due to go out with the officers was on a Saturday night.  It was on one of the very warm weekends we had a few weeks ago, but when I turned up, they had to inform me that all the officers were dispatched so no one could take me out.  There had been a serious robbery happen, plus a large number of minor crimes that meant they were working at full capacity.  I rearranged for last night (Saturday 15th June).  The officer I was supposed to go out with wasn’t there as he had just made an arrest (drugs related), but there were two other officers who offered to take me out. 

Rather than go out on patrol this time, which is what the officers wanted to do, we were dispatched to Norreys again where there had been an incident that morning.  The officers were tasked with viewing CCTV footage where available and interviewing residents by going door to door.  The idea was to get as much evidence as possible to help build a case for the CPS.  I spent quite a lot of time in the office at Sainsbury’s viewing the CCTV footage, but it was just as well we did, as we got some good footage that was burnt onto a disc and taken as evidence.  We then knocked on the doors of some of the residents and managed to get a couple of witness statements. 

After this, we drove back to Loddon Valley with the evidence so that it could be logged, by which time it was around 10pm.  The officers had started their shift at 2pm and this was their first opportunity for a break and something to eat.  They never got the chance to patrol that evening. 

I know there is a lot of frustration amongst residents about lack of visibility of the community police team.  They want to be out patrolling our streets, and used to do it much more frequently, but we’re now seeing a knock-on effect of the big ‘a’ word – Austerity.  There just aren’t enough police officers.  I didn’t see this so much on the first ride-along because it was a quiet daytime and the officers were patrolling.  However, last night, I can see how easily patrolling takes a back seat when officers are called to assist other teams.  The officers I spoke with are as frustrated as you and I.  They deeply care about the communities they work in, and are doing everything they can, but without more funding that leads to more bobbies on the beat, they’re limited in what they can achieve.  What is fantastic to hear though is that despite this, our team, the team that covers Evendons ward, Emmbrook, Norreys, Wescott and the town, is the highest performing team that works from Loddon Valley. 

An area I wanted to discuss with the officers is around preventative measures that could be put in place; measures that reduce the chance of crime happening in the first place.  One of the officers I was out with yesterday also covers Finchampstead and I wanted to find out the impact the FBC has had on the community.  The perception I have is that community centres like the FBC work as preventative measures for anti-social behaviour as they are a hub for the community, and I would love to see a facility like this in Evendons Ward.  If you haven’t been to the FBC yet, you must give it a go – it is something quite special.  It was good to hear that anti-social behaviour in the area has gone down since the FBC opened and the officers would like to see more of these kind of facilities in the area. 

I also took a trip over to Maidenhead a few weeks ago as they had a particular area where anti-social behaviour was rife.  The council installed a MUPA (multi-use play area) which isn’t dissimilar to the area out the back of the FBC.  Levels of anti-social behaviour have dropped significantly as a result.  Whether we are in a position to implement something like this, I don’t know at this stage, but it is something I will investigate. 

I found both ride-alongs a real eye-opener and I have a huge amount of respect for the officers that represent our community, and I have requested that when they do patrol, to ensure they check out the Woosehill underpass as frequently as they can.  Moving forward, I intend to go on a ride-along every quarter so I can keep abreast of what is happening with community policing, and feedback to you.  Plus, a little part of me really wants to be in a police car with the sirens going! 

My son at a fayre attended by the Police

Be The Change

On Thursday 2nd May, or rather the early hours of Friday morning, there was a huge cheer from within the main hall at Loddon Valley Leisure Centre.  I’m not entirely sure of the exact time, but it was around 3am that the announcement came that Dr Maria Gee became Councillor Maria Gee for Wescott, knocking out the leader of Wokingham Borough Council. 

The whole evening had felt electric, despite the late hour.  Many of us had been up since the crack of dawn, and we were tired, but being in that hall as the results came in was worth it.  We (the Liberal Democrats) doubled in numbers overnight, bringing to the council a wide range of skills, including financial expertise and highways expertise among many others. 

Many of us have been out canvassing since mid-September last year, talking to residents on a weekly basis, usually several times a week.  Initially we were handing out surveys to try and gauge public opinion, then we moved on to election canvassing.  In Evendons, election canvassing started much sooner than we anticipated due to the by-election.  There are mixed views about canvassing.  The majority of residents are happy to see us and have someone to discuss their thoughts with.  A few people would rather we didn’t, but it’s a case of we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  My personal view is, I’d rather be as visible as possible for residents to interact with (and I do try and communicate in a number of ways), but if someone really doesn’t want to talk to me, just politely say so. 

When we canvass, we tend to work as a team, helping out in each other’s wards, and as such, I’ve spoken to residents in Winnersh, Emmbrook, Wescott and Hillside (Lower Earley) as well as Evendons.  There are a few ward specific, and even area specific concerns residents have, that for Evendons, I’m working on with residents.  However, there are a number of concerns coming out across all the wards I’ve been canvassing in – house building numbers, infrastructure, council spending and the town centre regeneration being top of the list.  The point I’m trying to make is, whilst Brexit was sometimes raised on the doorstep and would have influenced to some extent voting intentions, it was predominantly local issues that brought about the results of this local election. 

A question that was raised time and time again on the doorstep, and even in conversations I have with friends is, why are local councils political?  Our role as local councillors is to represent residents, but this can be split into two areas.  We have our case work, which is where residents contact us about an issue, and we help to try and get a resolution where possible.  This covers a wide range of areas and in the three months I’ve been elected, has mostly been highways and refuse collection concerns, although I’ve also had children’s services, anti-social behaviour and housing issues to address amongst other areas. 

The second part of our role is policy setting.  Sometimes we can’t get a satisfactory result in our case work due to the policy that’s in place, and we can try and change that policy (although it’s not a simple task).  A frustrating incident last week in planning committee was when a block of flats in Winnersh was approved despite there being inadequate parking.  It was a block of 12 flats, with a total of 15 bedrooms and just 11 parking spaces, plus one accessible bay.  It was approved because the number of spaces was in line with council policy. 

This is where politics comes into play as decisions need to be made as to how Wokingham Borough is run and what policies are needed.  This is where opinion will often be split.  There will be times when all councillors in the chamber will agree, but more often than not, there are disagreements.  As an opposition councillor, it will be much harder for myself and my colleagues to get policy changed should the leading party not agree, but this is why I believe cross party working is essential.  There will of course be compromise, but working cross party means everyone’s voice gets heard, and hopefully as a result, decision making improves.  And after the recent elections, we certainly have a louder voice! 

Independent councillors pose more questions.  I know many residents don’t like the idea of politics being involved at local level, and many have said they would vote for an independent candidate should one stand.  I completely understand why residents feel like this.  I too am sick of party politics.  However, what’s important to remember is that an independent councillor may not be part of a party, but they still sit somewhere on the political spectrum.  It’s really important to understand where, because by not being aligned with a party, it’s sometimes harder to know what their views are.  These views influence how they vote on policies, and what policy changes they may put on the table.  As mentioned in my previous blog, even within a political party there is a spectrum of opinion, but generally the overarching principles of the party are what they stand for.  What those of us in parties need to do is work within our parties, but still maintain that independent voice where needed.  I.e. not have our votes whipped. 

The final thing I’d like to mention is that whilst I was telling outside of Woosehill Church polling station, a number of voters commented to me about the fact we (the Lib Dems) had no town council candidate on the ballot paper.  We had candidates in other areas, but we did not have enough people wanting to stand for election.  This is something we were obviously disappointed about, but unless residents are willing to stand for election, our hands are tied.  A quote that I have on a notebook that I carry around in my handbag is “the most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity” – Amelia Earhart.  I was never that interested in politics before I had children.  Whilst I always voted, I tended to stay out of anything further.  A number of incidents have happened over recent years that led me to change my mind, but the real catalyst that made me decide to act was the shocking event at Grenfell Tower in 2017.  Having the option to not be that interested in politics is a privilege.  For many, that is simply not possible – they are quite literally fighting for their lives.  I felt I could no longer sit back and ignore things, although initially I still wasn’t sure what route to take.  I knew though I wanted to do something for my community.  So many residents have been saying that they want change, but my message to anyone who wants change (and I’m not just talking politics here) is please don’t rely on others to make that change happen.  If you want change then why not ‘Be The Change.’ 

This is what makes Wokingham’s politics different to the national picture

I have just had a short “Viewpoint” piece published in The Wokingham Paper . I thought you would like to read what I had to say:

This Thursday is polling day.  For some of us, we have lived and breathed local politics preparing for this day.  For others, it’s just another day. 

Last May, in the ward where I am a Councillor (Evendons), approximately 40% of eligible voters voted, and this surprisingly is a good number, and one of the higher percentages across Wokingham Borough.  

Over the last year I have spent a lot of time canvassing, firstly helping Helen Power in last May’s election, then surveying the ward from September, followed by election canvassing for February’s by-election and now for May’s election.

In other words, I’ve spoken with a lot of residents!  

Most people I have spoken with have been engaging and friendly, and we have had some wonderfully productive conversations. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been sworn at (although mostly directed at politicians in general).  

One of the key things that is being raised is this distrust of politicians, and I fully expect to see many spoilt ballot papers this evening at the count. 

At the Evendons by-election count, one ballot paper had scrawled across it, “You’re all as bad as each other.” So this leads me to ask, is change ever possible? I too feel the same as many of the residents I speak with, and decided to try and do something about it. 

I decided to throw my name into the hat and try and offer a different perspective.  

Here’s the catch though: I’m now a politician and I have been told numerous times that anyone who wants to get involved in politics is in it for themselves and can’t be trusted. So can this negative view of politicians ever change?  

The other thing that gets raised a lot are national issues.  There are residents that won’t vote for a party locally because of their national stance on something. Being a member of that party, means they endorse that stance I’m told. Many I’m sure will do, but please don’t assume that being a member of a political party means that person agrees with everything. 

The political system is a spectrum of opinion and within any party there is that spectrum. Just look at how divided some of our national parties are right now.  

I am a Liberal Democrat because I believe in the overarching vision of the party, but I do not agree with all of our policies. This is why it’s really important to understand the individuals that are asking for your vote.  

And if you still feel that there’s no one that represents you, then why not throw your name into the hat next time?

One final thing is a message to all current Councillors, and those elected this week. We are here to serve our communities and do the best we possibly can for our residents. In order to do this, we have to work together, cross party as much as we can. 

We all seek to represent our communities, we have different ideas as to how to achieve it, but we owe it to our residents to communicate, to be transparent, to engage with one another and give our residents faith in the political system again.  

Let’s see what we can achieve together! 

I am a Liberal Democrat councillor for Evendons ward on Wokingham Borough Council and am not up for election on May 2

Rolling In It?

Day two of the Easter holidays and it’s raining!  My weather app tells me that this miserable weather will be short lived (fingers crossed), so I’m taking the opportunity to catch up with my blog whilst the kids watch a movie.  All being well, we hope to be out and about as much as possible this school holiday, and spending some time sorting out the garden.  The kids want to make part of the garden a wildlife garden, and we’re painting the garden fence purple!

Council meeting

Just after I wrote my last blog entry, we had our final full council meeting before the May local elections.  On the agenda that evening was a review of polling districts and polling places, and the frequency of review of members allowances.  I welcome the fact that a committee has been looking at polling districts and polling places, and many of the changes made are positive.  However, whilst the changes are going in the right direction, I could not support the recommendations because 4 schools in the borough are still being used as polling stations.  Whilst these particular schools are not in the ward I represent (they are Hillside Primary School, Aldryngton School, Whiteknights Primary School and Oaklands Junior School), I cannot vote for something that means that schools have to be closed unnecessarily.  Using schools as polling stations disrupts children’s education, particularly when they have exams in May (when elections are usually held), and causes difficulties for many parents who often need to take time off work to care for their children.  Unfortunately, the motion was still passed.

Members’ Allowance

The members allowance item on the agenda resulted in quite a heated discussion in the council chambers.  Members in this context means councillors and the council commissions an independent remuneration panel (IRP) to review the scheme of how much councillors are paid on an annual basis.  The proposal up for debate was to move to four-yearly reviews (i.e. one review every 4 years).  The problem with the system though is that whilst an IRP reviews member pay, it is up to the members to vote on whether they accept the recommendations or not.  In other words, we get to decide whether we get a pay rise or not, which in my opinion is completely ludicrous.  A national pay scale in line with council turnover would make so much more sense, but this wasn’t what was up for debate today.

The reason why the frequency of these reviews was being raised is because they are labour intensive and at last year’s review, the recommendations of the IRP were not accepted (as members felt it sent out a negative message to residents at a time of financial challenges), and the IRP subsequently disbanded.  Several IRP’s have disbanded over recent years and it is a challenge to recruit new members.  We put forward an amendment to the recommendations to make the reviews every two years instead of every four.  If the reviews were held every four years, this would be too far apart, leading to large scale changes to the scheme (i.e. significant jumps in pay).  Many members still felt that our pay should be scrutinised every year, but the motion passed with the review taking place every two years.

The heated debate came from the fact that Labour members believed that we are paid too much and should have a freeze on our pay whilst the nation is still in austerity measures.  Many Conservative members then listed off numerous Labour run councils around the country where their members are paid much larger amounts.  I watched the whole incident in dismay because it was reminiscent of how MP’s behave in the House of Commons, with jeering from various members in the chamber.  It was completely inappropriate, irrelevant and a huge waste of time.  Whilst all members in that council chamber with the exception of the two independents are members of political parties, you cannot assume that a member agrees with 100% of their party’s policies or some of the decisions made by others members of that party.  We are all still independently minded, and I certainly would not like to be judged by a decision made by a Lib Dem council in another part of the country.

To clarify on pay, as a basic member of the council I receive £7,784 per annum before tax.  Those in executive roles receive more for their added duties.  I’m often asked how much time commitment my role takes and I guess it will be different depending on the person, where they’re a member for, and which party they represent.  Right now, this is practically a full-time commitment for me.  I am in a ward where I am the only representative for my party, plus the party I represent is in opposition to the ruling party – there are less of us trying to challenge the status quo, and therefore less of us to divide the work load up.  I honestly do not know how those with full time jobs do this role, because it is a big commitment.  Given the commitment required, I can honestly say I would be very surprised to find a councillor who is in this for the money.

With regards to how much money a councillor should receive, that’s a tricky one.  This isn’t about money, but service to your community.  However, I believe in democracy and fair representation.  I do not believe that being a politician serving the community should be restricted to the elite who can afford to do so.  I believe that people from all corners of society should have the opportunity to represent their communities, and finances should not restrict them in doing this.  We need diversity and balance.

Questions to the Executive

I also had two opportunities to ask questions of the Executive Members during the meeting.  The first was my members question (which is pre-submitted) as follows:

“On 28th September 2018, WBC received a joint letter from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and the Department for Transport, written in response to the Department for Transport’s publication of the Inclusive Transport Strategy. This publication asks local authorities to pause the development of shared space schemes whilst it updates its guidance to ensure that road schemes like this meet the statutory requirements under the Equalities Act 2010. The Department for Transport did this due to long standing concerns raised by vulnerable road users, and is the consequence of the recommendations of a Parliamentary Select Committee published on 25th April 2017 that recommended a halt to shared space schemes that remove kerbs and signal-controlled crossings as well as a review by the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation Review of Shared Spaces published in April 2018.  With this in mind, I have concerns about the redevelopment of California Cross given that the design that went to public consultation at the end of last year has several shared space characteristics. To add to these concerns, the parking bays of the design are at an angle to the carriageway which is a major route, and means that vehicles leaving the parking bays would need to reverse onto the carriageway. At the Community and Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee, earlier this year, where the new marketplace was under review, one of the senior highways engineers stated that parking bays like this were too dangerous to implement where a vehicle reverses at an angle onto a busy carriageway. As the California Cross parking bay proposals appear to be similar, and given the request from the government to pause the development of shared space schemes, what is happening with regard to your plans for California Cross?”

The answer I received from the Executive Member for Highways was:

“The California Cross proposals were progressed, as you said, and broadly approved as part of a planning permission obtained by the developers associated with the Arborfield SDL development. A decision was made by Council Members to take the scheme inhouse and widen its scope rather than let the developers deliver the scheme included within its application.

The Council is fully aware of the publications from the DfT with regard to shared space schemes. However as the DfT publications came at a point after the project had reached an advanced stage of design, and given that the scheme is not a fully shared space scheme, for example there are kerb upstands, which I now know is the way the kerb sticks up, a decision to progress with the project up to a concept design stage was made including public consultation on the proposals The progression to this stage allows us to gather valuable site data that can be used for whichever scheme design is progressed, to comply with the planning consent requirements, and to take on board consultation results. In addition, there is further time to consider the scheme, due to recently identified utilities works within the vicinity of California Cross, which has resulted in a construction embargo in this area until July 2020. Should further advice be provided by the DFT during this time, this will, where appropriate be incorporated into the scheme. WBC have followed the principles of the Equality Assessment guidance and during the consultation period including additional consultation with vulnerable groups and disabled users. The findings from these have been fed into the concept design and discussed in the public consultation.

With regards to the parking arrangements we are considering amending the design from the current proposal to stop vehicles using the parking bays reversing onto the main carriageway. We still have work to do on this to check the flows and turning circles which we will do when the project reaches the detailed design stage. You are not alone with this. I have also had feedback from Councillor Weeks whose ward this is in, saying very similar things to what you have said.”

I will continue to press the council on this matter.  I also had the opportunity to ask a ward related matter (which is not pre-submitted) as follows:

“I am really pleased to see the route beyond the Greenways being consulted on at the moment covers the west side of my ward. The east side of my ward which is the area west of Finchampsted Road, Evendons Lane and the surrounding roads there are provisional plans for a Greenways route called Route D. We are desperately in need of some infrastructure in this area which encourages active travel and takes cars off the network. However, the route suggested does not appear to take into consideration the key destination of potential users, particularly cyclists, for example there is no direct route planned to Wokingham train station or business areas like Molly Miller’s Lane. To unlock this demand and to make this more successful the route needs to help residents get where they want to go in the shortest, safest, most convenient route. Therefore, will various stakeholder groups be consulted on Route D at a much earlier stage in the process than Route B to ensure that the most appropriate route is identified to ensure that these Greenways reach their full potential, particularly for cycling groups?”

The Executive for Highways answered ‘yes’ and has since been in touch with me.  We are discussing this in more detail and I hope in a future blog I will be able to write more in-depth about encouraging more active travel in and around Evendons Ward.

Election

We are now in election period for the 2nd May local elections.  Whilst my seat is not up for re-election, I have colleagues on the ballot paper for several seats, and I am supporting them in their campaigns.  I am wishing all my Lib Dem colleagues the best of luck, and in particular Adrian Mather who I hope will be able to join me as an Evendons Ward councillor.

Whatever your political persuasion, I strongly encourage you to take the time to consider all prospective candidates, talk to them on the doorstep if they knock on your door, reach out and engage with them.  Politics seems fragile at the moment even at local level, which is why more than ever I believe it is important to exercise your democratic right.

Enough Is Enough!

 

This last couple of weeks has continued to throw a wide variety of case work my way.  One of the things I need to do is find a way of organising myself.  I am normally a highly organised person, perhaps annoyingly so, with a spreadsheet for everything, a holiday folder with dry and wet weather activities and a daily school schedule stuck to the inside of the front door (yes really!!).  I need a system to organise my workload as a Councillor, but I honestly have not had time to think about how to do this, and am currently scribbling everything down in a notebook.  Thankfully my colleague Adrian is a whizz when it comes to IT, so once we’re through the May election, he will get some kind of system in place.  Until then, I need to get a basic spreadsheet in place.  

Roads

Case work these last couple of weeks has included potholes (Lib Dems love complaining about potholes!) and the general quality of some of the road repairs that have been taking place (or not taken place in some cases).  The council is in the process of changing highways contracts which is why there have been a few quality issues.  Balfour Beatty’s contract finishes at the end of this month (March) and Volker Highways will be taking over from 1st April.  We have been assured that there are KPI’s in place for a number of things including quality, so hopefully from April we should see an improvement.  We are also moving to a new portal on the website to facilitate reporting of issues which hopefully will make things easier.  

Highways related issues continue to be the majority of the work that residents approach me about.  I am meeting one of the lead officers at the council regarding traffic enforcement to discuss a number of issues raised so I can understand what is and isn’t possible.  This includes the speeding down the Woosehill Spine Road which many residents have contacted me about.  Speed data has now been collected, and with the data, I need to see if it warrants any action.  

Residents of Oaklands Drive will also be pleased to hear that the double yellow lines should be extended past the postbox on the Molly Millars end of the road.  This has caused concern as it’s on a sharp bend where cars regularly park making it dangerous.  The work is just waiting for final sign off at the top level and I’ve been informed it should happen by the end of April.  

Housing

The big thing over the last couple of weeks was the demonstration along Finchampstead Road in opposition of Gladman’s proposal to put 216 properties there.  For those that aren’t aware, there is a section of land called Woodcray which is behind the golf course and next to Luckley School that Gladman’s has previously tried (and failed) to build upon.  There is a ‘Save Woodcray’ group that have been working hard to get local residents to object to the potential development.  

Many of you may be reading this and thinking NIMBY, but I am in complete agreement with the Save Woodcray group.  It is nationally recognised that we desperately need more housing, but it should be noted that it is not in the interest of developers to solve the problem.  Once housing demand is met, house prices fall and so do developers profit margins.  Developers want to build in Wokingham because of the high level of house pricing we have in the area (more profit), but the rate of building is at a level that keeps house prices high.  

Our housing quota is determined by a methodology called Objectively Assessed Needs (OAN).  The methodology is clearly flawed as our high level of house building does not seem to have been taken into account (and this isn’t just a problem in Wokingham).  Because of this, I have set up a petition calling on central government to redesign the methodology (link is at the bottom of this post should you wish to sign).  However, I have also been informed by MP Jake Berry, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, that “a housing need figure is not a target.”  Mr Berry states that local authorities use the quota as a starting point to help them make an assessment and consider “whether the need is more appropriately met in neighbouring areas.”  Talking to WBC officers though, the reality is not quite that simple.  We used to have a regional structure regarding housing quotas for the south east, but this has been removed and everything now falls on the individual local authorities.  In other words, there is not a high-level strategic approach.  

It’s also important to note though that the quota could be 850 1 bedroom apartments, or 850 6 bedroom houses – it does not specify.  There is more profit for developers in larger properties, but is this what Wokingham really needs?  We do want to have people move to our town as it’s good for our businesses, our diversity etc.  However, we must also cater for our own population, and this is something that has been greatly overlooked.  We have a large influx of big properties and not enough smaller properties for our children to move to and for our retiring residents to downsize to.  Whilst we may be attracting people to Wokingham, we will also be losing many of our residents who move elsewhere, and that balance needs to be redressed.  Wokingham Borough Council has its own building company Wokingham Housing Limited that also incorporates Loddon Homes.  We could have so much more control over the development of our borough. 

Green Space & Congestion

Addressing the concern of volume of house building, we do have areas of green space within the borough.  Does this justify concreting over it though?  Yes our population density is lower than a number of other places like Reading and Bracknell, but these are not comparable.  We have to respect that we are a market town without the infrastructure to sustain large levels of population increase and a semi-rural borough which I fear is being lost.  We have congestion issues on our roads, poor air quality due to this, very limited access to schooling (unless you go private), difficulty getting doctors appointments, this list goes on.  Our town and infrastructure was not built to accommodate the high increase in population that we have already seen.  The congestion on Finchampstead Road is already in a terrible state, and with the Southern Distributor Road due to be built over the next couple of years, will get worse.  What is the alternative?  We can look at cycle paths, greenways and other infrastructure, and this is something I am in discussions with at the moment, but this won’t fix the issue completely.  Building a by-pass road that runs parallel to Finchampstead Road and comes out away from town could work, but how do we pay for it?  The only way we would get the money for that would be by building more houses to get the levy money from the properties to build it, and we would need a huge number of properties to afford it.  This in turn would create thousands more cars which would add to the traffic.  Yes, we would have a new road to help, but the volume of cars could increase on our main roads, even with a by-pass built.  

Change from the Top

It’s all very well me ranting like this (and boy does it feel good to rant), but what is the solution?  Personally, I am in favour of garden cities.  There are many parts of the country where this could work and we’ve seen success with places like Welwyn Garden City and Milton Keynes.  Jobs and communities are created with the infrastructure from scratch, rather than trying to cram more into historical places.  We need change from the top though of our political system and that’s why we need to lobby our government.  My petition on its own won’t be enough, but it’s a start and I hope to come up with a range of initiatives that will help us have our voice heard.  In the meantime though, I would like the council to take control of the house building we have to do through their own company and keep the developers at bay.  

My petition can be signed at:

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/237564

Getting Things Done

To finish on a more positive note, I have had some success this week with a couple of things I’ve been working on.  After discussions with the Chair of our Neighbourhood Action Group (NAG), there was a decision not to hold the Evendons annual litter pick as the council would not be collecting the waste until during the week, so it would be left out for the rats and birds for a few days.  Having escalated this, the council agreed to collect on the day of the litter pick, but not in enough time for it to be arranged, so they are letting us hold it on another date – 30th March.  I do hope you can join us.  

I was also amazed to find that when it comes to consultations, the council did not have a list of disability groups they approach to ensure they are taking all view points into account.  After raising this at an Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting, this is now being undertaken.  

Small things at this stage, but you can get stuff done!  Now, time to rest up before my half marathon on Sunday for mental health charity Mind.  

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/lucyandsarah19 

New Girl on the Block!

At approximately 11:30 pm on Thursday 7th February 2019, the result of the Evendons by-election was read out, and life suddenly changed.  A wave of emotions came over me which resulted in a few tears as I hugged Helen, my husband and Daniel and Tim the other candidates.  I was then whisked firstly over to sign a book that is held by Electoral Services to confirm that I would become the new Liberal Democrat councillor for Evendons, and then out of the room for interviews with the local press.  I’m not sure what I said – I had been up since 5:30 am and it was getting close to midnight now and was still battling with a number of emotions.  My poor husband though settled the mood as he came trailing behind me with my bag and coat, begging people not to call him Denis Thatcher.  

Prior to the election, my husband and I decided it would be an idea for him to take a few days off work post-election.  The build up to the election had meant we had seen very little of one another, and whatever the outcome, we needed some time together.  He took the Friday, plus the following Monday and Tuesday off work.  However, a few days to collect ourselves never materialised.  After having crawled into bed at around 2 am after the election (we needed a G&T before bed!), and unable to switch off and fall asleep, our 5-year-old came bounding into the bed room at 6:30 am enquiring after the result.  And with that my mind was buzzing with all the things I needed to do, despite feeling like a zombie.  

I thought that once the children were at school, I would be able to have a fairly relaxed day, and I did get as far as having brunch in town with my husband and mum.  That soon changed though when BBC South got in touch with me.  I have been campaigning for some time to have changes made in the marketplace in town to ensure the space is accessible to all our residents.  A number of design features have contravened guidelines for minority groups, particularly those with visual impairment.  I have been putting pressure on the council to make a few alterations so that these safety concerns are rectified.  BBC South were going to run a feature and wanted to interview me as part of it on the following Monday morning, airing on the Tuesday.  Nothing like a baptism of fire when starting a new job that’s very much in the public eye!  I had no idea what to expect, so I contacted a friend who is interviewed a lot on television and radio to get some advice.  The main piece of advice was to be clear about the message I wanted to get across and try and put that message into every answer so that however the piece is edited, the message is present.  I can honestly say that is a lot harder than it sounds and I need more practice.  On the plus side though, I was asked if I could be interviewed by BBC Radio Berkshire on the Andrew Peach show about the same topic.  The difference with this interview was that it was live and therefore what I said could not be edited…No pressure!

The rest of the week carried on being just as busy, having part of my council induction and responding to a deluge of emails and phone calls.  I also attended a meeting with two of the lead campaigners against the potential development at Woodcray, along the Finchampstead Road.  I had received the planning application for a development consisting of 216 properties and met to discuss the proposal with them.  This also tied in with some of the work being done on the Local Plan Update consultation which was due to close at the end of the following week.  There are a number of sites submitted (including Woodcray and Fox Hill) affecting the Evendons ward.  The consultation process though was not straight forward and the range of questions and sites submitted made it a huge undertaking for residents to complete.  The more resident feedback though, the better, so I wanted to put out as much useful information as possible to residents to help them with their submission.  The Fox Hill group had written something incredibly useful which I wanted to build upon for the prominent sites across the ward.  

With all this going on though, I still had to balance the rest of my life.  I took a choir rehearsal one evening, and after the meeting with the Woodcray campaigners on Friday, I had to ice 60 cupcakes to take into school and help with the cake sale my oldest son had arranged (and only told me at the last minute)!  

The following week was half term and both my boys suffered with flu, so we were pretty much housebound for the week.  I did though have my first full council meeting to prepare for that Thursday and this one was the budget!  On Monday alone I spent 7 hours going through the documentation and I had what can only be described as brain fry.  I have watched many council meetings, but I am still astounded as to the behaviour that goes on.  It’s not quite the House of Commons, but it’s not far from it.  I think it’s best described as a pantomime and I can honestly say my children behave better.  

I made my maiden speech at the meeting, asking for there to be a line in the budget to have a designated bay installed in the town centre for the community buses that transport the disabled and elderly community.  My request was amongst other amendments that my fellow Liberal Democrat councillors asked for that we submitted in an amendment to the budget being proposed (all fully costed and put together with department heads), but unfortunately the amendment was rejected.  However, the Executive for Highways did make a statement in the meeting and also spoke with me afterwards about my request and it is something being looked at.  Fingers crossed we get a solution soon.  

The Liberal Democrat group also put in an amendment to the Council Tax Reduction Scheme which is there to support those on lower incomes.  The scheme proposed did not have a 100% reduction.  Should a resident not be able to pay, the council would have to take that resident to court and the cost of doing that would far outweigh the amount of money owed, so the amendment was to have a pot of money put aside for those in hardship.  The amendment was accepted and part of the new scheme going forward.  Whilst I support the amendment my party proposed, I still couldn’t vote for the scheme as a whole.  When calculating a person’s income to determine how much of a reduction they are entitled to, 33% of carer’s allowance is included as income.  This allowance is a life-line to people that are caring for others, and unable to work as a result, freeing up resources in our struggling NHS and adult social care services.  Therefore, I voted against this.    

Since the budget meeting, the range of areas I’ve been looking into has been quite extensive.  I’ve been spending time putting together my comments for the proposed Woodcray development (I am strongly against it), looking for any possible solutions for the huge levels of congestion we face on the Finchampstead Road (I am trying to acquire traffic data that will help with this, plus looking at potential sites for cycle routes), researching ways of tackling the increasing levels of anti-social behaviour (my first action on this is arranging a ride along with our local police team, and visiting an area in Maidenhead that has successfully implemented proactive measures to understand best practice methods), plus inundated our highways department with requests across the whole ward for a wide variety of issues to name just a few.  To say this role is varied is an understatement, but I am enjoying the challenge.  

And so the Journey Starts…

Welcome to my first blog post.  Since being elected as a Borough Councillor for the residents of Evendons in Wokingham, I have thought about the best ways to communicate with residents.  The role of Borough Councillor is effectively a communication role, facilitating two-way communication between residents and the Council.  

Residents can contact me through various media: my email address and phone number are available on our Lib Dem group website, on the Council website, and published on newsletters that are posted through letterboxes several times a year.  As a group, we also canvass periodically having many conversations with residents.  Not everyone is home, but we do our best to reach out and engage.  I am also available to contact via Facebook, having a presence on many of the local pages.  I do not do Twitter though, and don’t intend to – it’s not my cup of tea.  

I also need to communicate back to residents the things I’m working on and what is happening at the Council.  Our newsletters are a good method of doing this and give residents a snap shot of what we’re doing.  We produce 4 or 5 a year and distribute to the whole ward which is just over 3,500 houses.  For many, a snap shot of what we’re working on is sufficient information, but for others, I wanted to find a method of communicating more frequently and more in depth.  And so I have set up this blog.  I say I, but the truth is I haven’t got a clue about the technical side of blogging, so special thanks goes to my Uncle who has built this for me.  I should also thank Ian Hydon, a local resident and wildlife photographer who has provided the wonderful picture of our woodland, Fox Hill.  And of course, thank you, the residents of Evendons ward for giving me this opportunity to be your representative.