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.