Sackgate

By now most of you will have seen the debacle I have started referring to as Sackgate.  This is the decision taken by WBC to replace the black box recycling system with polypropylene sacks.  The decision has caused a huge amount of controversy and in this blog I will attempt to decipher what has been going on, outlining the facts and dealing with the mistruths. 

In October 2019, the European end markets (where WBC’s recycling is sent) introduced higher quality standards in response to the widespread global economic changes happening at that time. This resulted in significant proportions of WBC’s paper and card being rejected, due to the high moisture content which lowered the quality of the material.  Anything above 10% moisture was and continues to be rejected because we have open black boxes that don’t keep the rain out. 

This means that what is rejected is not recycled, reducing how much we recycle and increasing costs for alternative disposal.  Financially and environmentally something needed to be done. 

The problem is more of an issue in the Autumn and Winter months due to weather patterns and WBC were rightly keen to have a solution in place for the start of Autumn 2020.  They have had a year to do this. 

In early 2020, WBC planned to trial lids for the existing boxes in 2 wards to see if this was a solution that could work.  This was due to happen long before lock down was even on the horizon.  Nothing happened though.  When enquiring as to why it didn’t happen, we were told it would be a waste of time to trial in case it went wrong.  I wish I was joking but I’m not.  There’s me thinking that a trial is to test a solution to see if it does or doesn’t work before committing lots of money, but clearly not a view shared by WBC. 

The next step was to hire consultants to do the leg work and write a report with a recommendation for a solution.  We (my Lib Dem colleagues Paul, Clive and myself), who have regular meetings with the officers who are responsible for the borough’s waste, were waiting on news that the report had been done, and a business case put together to progress a solution.  Instead, we found out that a solution had been found when the Executive Agenda (a public meeting of the Conservative Executive members) for the 30th July was published a week before the meeting.  Under the item Capital Monitoring 2020/21 there was an item that stated

to approve borrowing of £288k for the purchase of hessian sacks which will have the effect of increasing recycling levels and generating a beneficial financial impact far in excess of the cost of borrowing, as set out in paragraph 8 of the Executive Summary

Paragraph 8 stated

Changing global paper markets have created an increasingly restrictive approach towards wet waste. This emerging issue together with the Council’s commitment towards higher recycling targets (consistent with its Climate Emergency declaration) makes it is necessary to replace the current open black plastic boxes with sealable hessian sacks. The annual costs of the new sacks and an extra vehicle and crew to maintain existing collection standards with a sealable sack receptacle is estimated at £295k p.a. The financial benefit arising from increased recycling and reduced disposal costs, as a result of this initiative, is estimated at £698k p.a. There would therefore be a net saving of £403k p.a.

This was it.  No further information was provided.  We had a meeting with the officers 2 days before the Executive meeting to ascertain what was going on.  We were informed that a solution had been recommended by the consultants.  We asked for the options appraisal with the recommendation which was not included in the Executive papers, and told that whilst officers had the options appraisal, we couldn’t see a copy.  The reason why is because the Executive Member for Environment who was making the request for the finances to implement this solution had not seen the report.  Once again, no I’m not joking.  He was asking to spend money for a solution when he’d not seen any information to know whether this was the right solution or not.  Not only that, he was asking the Executive to approve the money without them seeing not just the options appraisal, but a business case.  This is a breach of the Council’s constitution as a formal business case is required for any procurement with a total value above £50k. 

In fact, there were a lot of issues with what had happened and as such, several of my colleagues decided to call-in the decision.  A call-in is a process to decide whether a decision should be looked at again.  The Constitution states that all decisions of the Council will be made in accordance with the following principles:

a) proportionality (i.e. the action must be proportionate to the desired outcome);

b) due consultation and the taking of professional advice from Officers;

c) human rights will be respected and considered at an early stage in the decision making process;

d) a presumption in favour of openness;

e) clarity of aims and desired outcomes; and

f) when decisions are taken by the Executive, details of the options which were taken into account and the reasons for the decision will be recorded.

The call-in was requested based on the sack decision not meeting principles b, d, e & f. 

The call-in is dealt with by the Overview & Scrutiny Management committee, a committee that is politically balanced, and which I am a member of.  It was our role to assess the evidence and decide whether the Executive had followed the correct governance procedure, or to send it back to them to reconsider.  In theory, the committee should be independent. 

The call-in meeting was held on Wednesday 26th August.  As part of the agenda pack, we finally got to lay eyes on the options appraisal, and sadly it wasn’t a pretty site.  The best way I can describe it is that the decision to have sacks was made, and a report was written around it to make that the outcome.  Not only this, it was just an options appraisal.  There was no procurement plan, no timeframes, incomplete costings etc.  Below are some examples of what’s wrong with the options appraisal:

  • The sacks according to the report have a life span of approx. 5 years.  However, under the annual revenue results for which 30% weighting is applied, it states that the replacement rate for sacks is 7.5%.  100 divided by 7.5 is 13.3.  They’d worked out the replacement rate when working out the costings to be 13.3 years.  This error could have a material impact on the outcome of the appraisal. 
  • Under public acceptability which has a 10% weighting, the report uses 90 litre sacks for it’s modelling stating that “option 3 (sacks) performed the best with a score of 6.7 owing to increased capacity at the kerbside.”  The sacks being purchased though are 60 litres.  What’s more, whilst 2 sacks will be distributed to every household, just like the black boxes, households can request more, meaning there is infinite capacity of any solution. 
  • The finances are incomplete.  One example is that they haven’t demonstrated how they’ve factored in collection and disposal costs of the black boxes (let alone the environmental impact)
  • There are lists of other authorities who use sacks, but some of the information is misleading.  Cheltenham Borough Council for example don’t use sacks but boxes for their paper. 
  • No consideration is given to co-mingling, i,e, whether we should separate out various kinds of recycling as many other authorities do. 
  • Monmouthshire County Council are being held up as the authority that WBC are looking to.  However, the report fails to mention that Monmouthshire are only trialling the solution at the moment so there’s no concrete evidence to base anything on.  Since this meeting, we have also asked a number of questions of the Monmouthshire trial and WBC don’t know the answers so haven’t fully assessed this. 

Then there’s the long list of assumptions that have not been tested:

  • They state it will be quicker for the refuse collectors to open the Velcro, shake out the sacks and replace the Velcro than it will to take a lid or shower cap off, empty a box and put the lid/shower cap inside.  This in turn impacts the finances because they state that the sacks will need one extra vehicle and the other options, two extra vehicles due to the length of additional time to empty them. 
  • They state that the lids and shower cap options scored badly when it comes to messaging because the messaging “will need to be instructive to enforce the importance of utilising the coverings. Option 3 (sacks) scored the highest, reflecting the positive messaging related to increased capacity at kerbside and the ease of use in covering due to the Velcro fastening at the top.” 
  • The report states that recycling rates will be lower with lids and shower caps as it is residents discretion whether to use the lids or shower caps and many won’t, but they can be trusted more to use the Velcro fastening. 

This is just some of the points in the report that are questionable.  The assumptions in particular warrant testing as many of them are far-fetched.  What we also pointed out however is what is missing.  As I mentioned, the finances are incomplete, but there was no mention of how procurement would be undertaken, we didn’t have sight of the equality impact assessment that was cited in the report, there were no timeframes.  Honestly, with the information in front of me, I could not make an informed decision as to which was the best decision.  No one could. 

We asked many, many questions and sadly we did not receive satisfactory answers.  The main answer was that the 30th July meeting was just to ring-fence funding and a full report would go to the next Executive meeting on 24th September.  This doesn’t add up though either.  Firstly, you do not ring-fence money for something in your control.  They very clearly voted to approve the borrowing for a large amount of money for a specific solution.  If it was to ring-fence money, it should have been for a solution to the wet waste issue, not for a specific solution. 

What’s more, we were attacked in the press before the call-in for holding up the purchase of these sacks.  A call-in process stops actions of an Executive decision until the outcome of the call-in is reached.  However, if they genuinely were waiting for the business case in September, they wouldn’t be purchasing the sacks until after the call-in, so it wasn’t holding anything up.  If they were going to purchase them after the 30th July meeting though, this demonstrates there was every reason to call-in the decision because it was made without the necessary information.  And if that was the case, then it was their inability to produce a business case at the time of requesting the funding that would have held up the purchase. 

At the end of the call-in meeting I made a proposal that the decision be referred back to the Executive for further consideration, to include a fully costed business case (as set out in the Constitution) and trialling of potential solutions.  This went to the vote, and sadly all the Conservative members voted against this proposal so it fell.  The committee therefore decided to uphold the Executives decision – i.e. approve the spending of public money without a fully costed business plan which is unconstitutional as I pointed our earlier. 

Following the call-in, the Executive brought their meeting forward to 11th September.  They produced more information for this meeting in order to make a decision, but there was still lots of information missing.  The same options appraisal was being used, holes, untested assumptions and all.  It also transpired that the equality impact assessment had been completed without consulting anyone, meaning those with disabilities hadn’t been properly considered.  A member of the public asked a public question and made the point that those with arthritis in their hands hadn’t been mentioned at all in the report as they will find it difficult to open the Velcro sacks.  We still don’t know what the disposal plans are for these sacks.  The material they’re made of is technically recyclable, but requires specialist methods meaning only 1% is recycled.  I’ve repeatedly asked what the plan is here and never had a response.  I should point out that they are not hessian sacks as was initially suggested. 

The reason we are told that a trial was not done is because WBC are basing the evidence from other authorities to make their decision.  My colleague Paul asked the question “could you tell me how these authorities collect paper and card, when they introduced this system and what impact it has had on recycling rates?” referring to the authorities listed in the options appraisal.  In the public meeting at which he asked this, the leader of the council said he couldn’t answer the question as they didn’t have all the information, blaming Paul for a late submission of question (which was submitted well in advance of the meeting). 

I could go on as there’s still so much more to say, but I think you get the gist of it.   

This debate has not been about the sacks themselves but about process (or lack of).  Many people may think this isn’t a big issue.  When you are responsible for the finances for a public authority at any time, let alone when things are tight such as at the moment, it’s imperative to be fiscally responsible.  Approving hundreds of thousands of pounds for something without the necessary information to make an informed choice is irresponsible. 

The question you’re probably wanting to ask me now is, do I believe the sacks are the right solution.  I still can’t answer that question, as I still don’t have the information to make that informed decision.  One way or another though, if I was running things, I would trial the options before spending money on something that may or may not work. 

A Hard Morning’s Work

Last year you may remember the 2 street cleaning sessions we held along the Finchampstead Road.  Over time detritus builds up on pavements narrowing them, and in the case of this section of Finchampstead Road, it was no longer possible for a wheelchair to pass along the full length of the path.  We held 2 community events to clear the detritus and widen the footpath. 

The issue of footpaths narrowed due to encroachment has been a problem for a long while, but with Covid and the need to distances ourselves from others, it’s become even more of a problem.  The council is working to get as many pavements cleared back as possible, particularly around schools now that children have returned.  However, years of neglect means this is a big task. 

We were hoping that the footpath outside Evendon’s Primary School woodland play area would be cleared of detritus prior to school resuming last week, but sadly that wasn’t the case.  Active travel infrastructure in the vicinity is poor anyway, so getting this pavement cleared was a priority. 

As such, 3 of us decided to grab a wheelbarrow, some shovels and our gardening gloves, and after 3 hours of pretty tiring work, cleared back to the edge of the pavement from the crossing to the school gate.  We put the waste into some sacks that I was able to grab from one of the Localities officers at the council and one of the council’s contractors will collect in the morning.  The sun was shining though and we feel proud of a good morning’s work. 

If there are other pavements in the area that are suffering from encroachment, this is the place to report it on the council website https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/roadworks-and-outdoor-maintenance/street-cleaning/.  Alternatively, if you fancy having a go yourself (and with a couple of other people, it’s a good laugh – promise), just let your local councillor know to arrange some sacks and collection of the sacks.  They can also provide high-vis jackets and put you in touch with someone who can help with any health and safety concerns. 

For this particular stretch of road, the council is also planning to put some temporary chicanes outside the school in order to slow the traffic down.  The implementation of these will happen very soon once all the signage has arrived. 

Now for a long hot soak in the tub! 

What’s Wrong With Local Politics

For those that know me, and for those that read the communications I put out, you’ll know that I’m generally quite positive about the work that goes on at Wokingham Borough Council.  I get on pretty well with most of the other elected members at the council across all parties, and believe in constructive challenge, avoiding the petty point scoring that so many of us despise in politics.  One of our duties as elected members is to keep the community informed of what is taking place at the council, and as such, I feel that I am obliged to write the following blog post regarding last night’s full council meeting.  I take no pleasure in writing this and genuinely wish I did not have to, but you need to know what happened. 

Council meetings are open to the public.  Under normal circumstances, there is a public gallery in the council chamber, but during the current restrictions, council meetings are live streamed on You Tube.  But how many people watch these meetings?  The press are also in attendance and choose which aspects of the meeting to report on.  If you haven’t watched a council meeting before, I would recommend it so you can witness the theatre that takes place. 

The Council has a constitution which sets out “how the Council operates, how decisions are made and the procedures which are followed to ensure that these are efficient, transparent and accountable to local people.”  You can find a copy of the constitution here.  My experience thus far of being an elected member is that these meetings revolve more around who is best at utilising the constitution to their political advantage over decision making for our community, and last night’s meeting was the worst experience of this that I have witnessed in the 18 months I’ve been involved in these meetings.

I remember when I was campaigning for the seat I now hold, knocking on doors in Woosehill, speaking with and listening to many of you, I remember one guy who told me that all politicians are the same.  The system is a farce and he would not vote again as he didn’t trust anyone in politics.  I remember feeling a little disheartened by this because there are some genuine people in the political world trying to make a difference, and unfortunately, we seem to be living in a society where having a difference of opinion leads to quite a lot of nastiness out there.  We live in a society where often people are so blinded by party lines, that they automatically berate those that aren’t part of that same party.  I got into this to try and change that and I ended the conversation with this guy saying that I wanted to show him that politics didn’t need to be like that.  I was clearly naïve because after last night’s meeting, I completely understand his distrust and feel as disheartened as he does about our political scene. 

Doing my best to avoid boring you, I’ll briefly explain the construct of full council meetings.  The order is typically as follows:

  • Apologies for absence
  • Minutes of previous meeting
  • Declarations of interest
  • Mayor’s announcements

These are generally relatively quick and straight forward and don’t have any time limitations associated with them as set out in the constitution. 

  • Public questions time which is limited to 30 minutes in total. 
  • Petitions
  • Various reports – these change from meeting to meeting and if any amendments are tabled, this is limited to 30 minutes of debate before voting takes place. 
  • Member question time which is limited to 30 minutes in total. 
  • Committee and ward question time which is limited to 20 minutes in total. 
  • Statements by the Leader and Executive which is limited to 20 minutes in total.
  • Statements from Council owned companies which is limited to 10 minutes in total. 
  • Motions which are limited to 30 minutes each of debate before voting takes place. 

In last night’s meeting, there were 6 reports presented to council before member’s question time.  Full council meetings start at 7:30 pm and are constituted to finish by 10:30 pm, unless members vote to extend the meeting, by which the meeting can run until 11pm. 

The first problem that arose last night was in the first report that was presented to council Addendum to the Constitution: Protocol for Holding Virtual Meetings.  The constitution is not currently set up for virtual meetings so we needed to vote to include changes that would allow virtual meetings to run more smoothly.  However, there was one element that we were not happy about, and as such, two of my colleagues (it needs to be proposed and seconded) presented an amendment.  The bit we wanted to change was the public and ward member participation aspect of planning committee meetings. 

Prior to lock down, at planning committee meetings, the developer, a ward member and a member of the public are each allowed to make representation, speaking for up to 3 minutes each to the planning committee, before they debate and decide which course of action to take.  With the move to virtual meetings, this has been restricted to a 390 word written submission that needs to be supplied to the council, several days before the planning committee meeting.  In all other virtual council meetings, the public are able to speak for their public questions through the Microsoft Teams function we have, and they can even dial in on the telephone if there are technology constraints.  The rationale we are told as to why this can’t happen for planning committee is in case members of the public are disruptive.  As with all Microsoft Teams meetings, the organisers of the meeting (Democratic Services) can mute and/or remove people from the meeting, and it’s a lot easier than physically removing someone from the council buildings should the same thing happen.  

You may wonder what the difference is between providing a written statement and speaking to the planning committee.  It is the democratic right of members of the public to have their voices quite literally heard on these matters.  Planning is where members of the public are most engaged in council matters.  The first virtual planning committee meeting I attended to speak against a development, I submitted my written submission as requested.  So did the developer.  In that meeting, neither of our statements were read out and I was not privy to what the developer wrote.  It wasn’t until the minutes of the meeting were published that I could see what the developer’s submission was.  His submission changed a large aspect of the development, and had I been aware of what his submission was, I would have changed my statement.  I could not speak on behalf of my residents on the comments he made.  Giving people the chance to speak at any council meeting is how our democratic process works, and we tabled an amendment to reflect that. 

The amendment got voted down.  My frustration though stems from the comments made by an elected member who questioned the fact that we debated these constitutional changes, and also to the previous changes that were proposed earlier this year.  In fact, the words he said were “it’s a complete and utter waste of time.”  The previous time constitutional changes were presented in the council chamber, some of the changes would have restricted diversity in the council chamber and we had a debate that actually changed the course of the vote.  It is unacceptable to state that it is a waste of time to discuss and debate the democratic right of members of the public to make representation at planning committee. 

The next frustration was in relation to a question my colleague Cllr Prue Bray asked.  She asked:

“The Liberal Democrats have become increasingly concerned about the fact that due to the time constraints artificially imposed on them, meetings of full Council do not manage to complete all the business that is on the agenda. This has gone on for some time and means that important issues do not get discussed.

In an effort to try to ensure this Council meeting is at least able to reach the motions, which have been waiting some months to be debated, the Liberal Democrat group is submitting only this one written Member Question, saving time but sacrificing our limited opportunities to hold the ruling group to account in the process. At Annual Council the Conservative leader withdrew Conservative questions to get the meeting finished in time. Our question is: what will the Conservatives do at this and future meetings to try to ensure we reach the end of the agenda?”

To provide some context, back in September we submitted a motion to full council for debate.  We are now in July, and it’s still on the agenda because we consistently don’t get to the motions.  We also had another 2 motions on the agenda that were also from previous meetings. 

The problem is that the council meetings get filled up with opportunities to grandstand.  The Leader of the council and the Executive, as you’ll remember, get an opportunity to make statements about what they and their department are up to.  Why then is the Deputy Executive for Climate Emergency asking the Executive for Climate Emergency in the members question time “Now that we are emerging from lockdown how can this Council work to continue the huge benefits that the environment has received from lower carbon emissions?”  And why was the Deputy Executive for Regeneration asking the Executive for Regeneration in the members questions time “What are we doing to help the Towns and Villages recover from the emergency?” 

In answer to Prue’s question, she was told that we shouldn’t debate reports, ask questions or even submit motions if we are to finish an agenda.  As members of the opposition in a council where we have a cabinet style system, this is one of our only opportunities to give the opposition a voice and we were told not to use it. 

All of the above is not new.  These are issues that arise time and time again.  What has made me incredibly angry though is what happened at the end of the meeting.  At 10:10 pm, Cllrs Andy Croy and Prue Bray proposed and seconded a request to extend the meeting to 11pm as we were yet to start on the motions.  All opposition councillors voted for it and all ruling party members voted against.  This meant that we would only be able to debate the first motion, and the rest would fall.  This includes the 2nd motion on the agenda which was the air pollution motion that I tabled.  It’s hardly controversial tackling air pollution, so I’m completely bemused as to why we could not extend the meeting to debate and vote on this incredibly important issue.  The other motions (that have also been carried forward from previous meetings) included one on EU nationals, adopting council tax collection protocol to assist those in financial difficulty, and the installation of sprinklers in buildings. 

The rules of the constitution meant that we had to finish the meeting by 10:30 pm and so we had little time to discuss the 1st motion which was “This Council does not support the expansion of Heathrow airport.”  Wokingham Borough Council is a consultee on this matter, but the decision was never brought to full council to debate and discuss, so we had to bring the motion to ensure it was a whole council decision and not a single member of the Executive. 

At approximately 10:20 pm, an amendment to the motion was tabled by the ruling party that changed the motion.  This had to be proposed and seconded in that time, debated and voted upon.  As such, debate could not happen as we were out of time.  The amendment was changed to “This Council does not support the expansion of any airport unless it can be proven to be carbon neutral.”  This may seem like a trivial change, but given that you can only prove something after the event it actually makes it quite a dangerous stance.  What is to stop Heathrow claiming they can be carbon neutral and build with conditional support to later find out that this isn’t the case.  We had no opportunity to discuss as a party as to whether we wanted to accept the amendment or not and I barely got the opportunity to make my arguments.  We were backed into a corner by running down the clock in the meeting to ensure that deliberation and debate of something that has a huge impact on climate change could not happen.  Where is the sense in that? 

What was very apparent to me last night was the rules around these meetings were used in order to stifle debate and restrict democracy.  I left that meeting feeling not just angry, but incredibly upset that this kind of thing is happening.  I described these council meetings as theatre, and they are just that: Punch and Judy politics. 

If you want to watch how it unfolded, here is a link to the recording on the Council website. 

Save The Arts

When it comes to the arts, taste is personal.  Maybe you love going to the theatre to watch Shakespeare, or perhaps you prefer the panto, a musical or a good comedy night.  Orchestral music could be your preference or maybe you prefer it in the latest blockbuster. 

We all benefit from the arts whether we actively participate or not and your world will feel very quiet if the arts were to disappear.  Can you imagine a wedding with no music, a film with no lighting design, a children’s book with no illustrations, a nursery with no-one to lead the Christmas play, a film where none of the actors had costumes?  Whilst we’ve all been in lock down at home, how many of us have turned to this industry to entertain us? 

On a personal level, I cannot wait to get back to rehearsing and performing again with my lovely choir.  We’ve had regular Zoom catch ups and have even put together performances with us all contributing remotely (watch via this link).  It’s been a huge learning curve in the use of technology, and we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved, but it doesn’t beat performing together and musically bouncing off one another. 

Creative industries are a huge part of the enrichment of our society, making us healthier and happier.  An active participation in the arts improves mental and physical wellbeing, increases the employability of people by developing confidence, resilience and soft skills, makes us more socially cohesive by developing tolerance and empathy and makes us more engaging and engaged.  Creative industries have been growing at twice the rate of the economy and account for more than 5% of the UK’s economy which is bigger than the automotive, life sciences, aerospace, oil and gas sectors combined.  The government’s own figures show that the creative industries contributed £111.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018, before allowing for the related impact on the hospitality industry (every £1 spend at the theatre sees £3 spent in restaurants, hotels and bars). 

With all this in mind, I continue to be perplexed as to why an adequate rescue solution for this industry before it collapses beyond repair has not been forthcoming. 

Most venues are utterly dependent on ticket sales to cover their overheads.  Every day now brings news of another venue closing or another swathe of redundancies.  The Old Vic in London and the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon are struggling and even the Royal Albert Hall could face bankruptcy in months and not reach its 150th anniversary without an injection of funding.  The National Theatre has just axed 400 casual staff.  The most at risk are those venues in the regions: The Nuffield Southampton Theatre, which is in the hands of administrators, has been unable to find a buyer and has made 89 members of staff redundant.  It would be criminal to allow the demise of the main points of cultural access outside of our major cities.  The performing arts industry has been stripped of its ability to earn revenue and large swathes of the industry could be wiped out within 6 months. 

The infrastructure of the cultural industries means that everything is interconnected and for tens of thousands of individuals across the country, their livelihood has vanished overnight, and in many cases, it seems unlikely to start up again until well into 2021.  A significant number of people in the industry have not qualified for furlough nor self-employment aid. 

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has released documents containing guidance as to the phased return of sport and reopening of recreation, museums and visitor attractions.  But the list of sectors to which the DCMS has contributed guidance contains no mention of live performance.  The Cultural Renewal Task Force that has been set up doesn’t even have a representative from the music industry. 

I am frustrated when I look at the pictures in the news of inebriated revellers not socially distancing with pubs being allowed to open from 6am on 4th July.  I am frustrated at the fact that people can now travel on airplanes with recycled air.  And yet, am astonished that it is felt that theatres and classical music venues with distancing measures and ordered seating present a higher risk.  The continued restrictions on our activities as performing artists would seem confused and unjustifiable when compared to other sporting and leisure activities, and effectively suffocate any glimmer of hope for independent recovery for artists and venues.  A comprehensive, informed and far-sighted rescue package from the government is therefore even more important to achieve; it is already long overdue. 

I fully appreciate that the situation is complex but with willingness, creative thinking and discussion, a way forward must be found.  #savethearts #letthemusicplay

Getting ready to perform some Wagner.

Air Pollution & Covid-19

It has been ages since I last wrote a blog post.  Like many of you, I have been juggling not just my councillor role, but home schooling my 2 primary school aged boys, and doing what I can to help in the community. 

Many of our statutory committees at the council have not met since the beginning of March.  These meetings were originally postponed or cancelled due to lock down measures.  However, the technology and legislation are now in place to allow these committees to continue their valuable work.  We are yet to see many of them reinstated, and continue to push for this to happen so that democracy can resume (key decisions are still being made, and effective scrutiny is part of the governance structure of local authorities), but we have now been informed that Full Council will be back on the schedule.  This is really good news, for many reasons, not least because we finally get to debate and vote on my air pollution motion. 

Much of the air pollution we experience is created by the burning of fossil fuels.  Man has been creating pollution in the air ever since we learnt to make fire.  Today, a lot of the air pollution created by the combustion of fossil fuels comes from generating heat and electricity and powering vehicles.  This combustion process releases gases such as nitrogen oxides (NOX) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) as well as small particles.  NOX is the generic term for both nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide.  These gases can also react with other pollutants in the air to create secondary pollutants such as ammonia.  It’s also important to note that small particles are also in our atmosphere due to other sources, such as dust and soil blown by the wind, including road dust. 

As I’ve written about before, it is the fine particles that are of most concern.  Particulates are defined not by what they’re made of, but their size.  Larger particles known as PM 10s can be seen as smoke or haze and our bodies natural defences filter them out, such as nose hair.  It is the smaller particulates, PM 2.5s, that are concerning as they are often carcinogenic.  They can penetrate much further into the body and enter the bloody stream causing all kinds of damage and are attributable to 4 out of 5 deaths from air pollution.  Whilst the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set maximum limits for PM 2.5s, no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.  As Public Health England state, “current levels of particulate air pollution in the UK…[has] a significant impact on the life expectancy of the population.”[i]

Local authorities are required by law to identify areas that either exceed or risk exceeding national objective levels of air pollution for particular pollutants, and develop action plans to meet those objectives.  So you may be wondering why I’m bringing up this subject again, and trying to address the issue of air pollution at a time of national and international crisis.  Well, I’ve been reading some very interesting research on the subject that links with the Covid-19 situation. 

In a research paper from Havard School of Public Health[ii], is a study of whether long-term exposure to PM 2.5’s is associated with an increased risk of Covid-19 deaths in the United States.  We already know that there is a greater chance of a severe outcome in patients with certain infectious respiratory diseases with a greater exposure to PM 2.5’s and that air pollution causes inflammation and cellular damage.  The study has made adjustments “for a wide range of socioeconomic, demographic, weather, behavioural, epidemic stage, and healthcare-related confounders.”  With all that taken into account, it found that an “increase of only 1 𝜇g/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”  This means that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” 

In another study from the University of Birmingham[iii], scientists have analysed the impact the lock down has had on air pollution in Wuhan, China, and how this has affected the death rate.  The study has found that nitrogen dioxide reduced by 63%, which in turn prevented 496 deaths in Wuhan itself, 3,368 in Hubei province and 10,822 in China.  The official death toll from Covid-19 in China is 4,634.

This leads to the question of how do they know how many lives have been prevented?  There is a lag between the exposure and effect of air pollution (i.e. people don’t suddenly just die), so it’s not a straight forward answer to define death rates from air pollution.  Deaths attributable to air pollution are calculated based on the total years of life lost.  For example, “in the UK, air pollution is shortening life expectancies by 3 to 7 months on average, amounting to 340,000 years lost across the total population.  Divide this by the average lifespan, and you get to a figure of around 40,000 deaths.”[iv]  However some people’s exposure shortens their lives by a day, whereas some could lose 10 years.  Estimating the number of deaths makes it much easier to communicate to the public.  It’s important to remember though that, whilst the mortality effect of air pollution is not instant, not only does air pollution shorten our lives, it can lead to chronic and debilitating illnesses that make those shorter years more painful.  If you want to read up further on how this is calculated, particularly in the UK for local authorities, Estimating Local Mortality Burdens Associated With Particulate Air Pollution[v] by Public Health England explains it all. 

I am sure that we’re going to see many more studies come out in due course, but I’m sure many of us can recount personally how the air has tasted so much cleaner whilst we’ve been on lock down.  These initial studies have shown the importance of continuing to enforce measures that clean up our air.  Therefore, I am proud to present a motion for our next Full Council meeting to take the next steps in tackling this issue.  Whilst I believe we can do more, this is a starting point, and we need to take the public with us on this journey.  Therefore, I am asking the council to:

  • Monitor the level of particulate matter 2.5 across the borough. 
  • Review the work done on No-Vehicle-Idling nationally in other local authorities and integrate this into an Action Plan for No-Vehicle-Idling zones covering the Wokingham Borough Council area with a view to implementing No-Vehicle-Idling zones, around as many schools in the Borough as possible, by the end of 2022, and in other identified areas such as taxi ranks and close to level crossings
  • Encourage local businesses to sponsor green walls on school buildings and tree planting near schools and the appropriate executive member includes this in their action plan.
  • Increase spending on active travel in future budgets, especially safe cycle lanes. 
  • Produce a strategy for implementing a car club scheme across the borough. 

This motion follows on from my colleague, Cllr Paul Fishwick’s motion last year for the creation of a low emission transport strategy (including an electric vehicle strategy) which is underway. I look forward to being able to update you with the outcome of the above motion in due course. 

Stay Safe! 


[i]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332854/PHE_CRCE_010.pdf

[ii] https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.05.20054502v2.full.pdf

[iii] https://airqualitynews.com/2020/05/15/wuhans-lockdown-cut-air-pollution-by-up-to-63-new-research/

[iv] Smedley, Tim, Clearing The Air

[v]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332854/PHE_CRCE_010.pdf

Enough is Enough…Again!

Today was the first day of the public inquiry for Woodcray countryside.  Woodcray is a piece of countryside land next to Finchampstead Road backing onto Luckley School.  Gladmans have put in an application to build 216 houses on the land, and Wokingham Borough Council turned it down for a number of very good reasons.  I’m not going to go into detail on all the aspects as you’d be reading this all day, but if you want to dig into detail on certain aspects, the documents are on the WBC planning portal under application number 190286. 

In short, WBC is fulfilling its housing quota and the location is unsustainable for a number of reasons.  What has been amazing is seeing the team effort, spear headed by a group of residents, into scrutinising all the information submitted and co-ordinating our responses.  Today, 10 members of the public and councillors (cross-party) spoke against the application, and there are more to come on Friday morning.  This group of amazing residents worked with us to ensure that we all picked up on different aspects so we weren’t all repeating ourselves.  The result today was some incredibly powerful statements that demonstrate why the planning inspector must turn down this application.  It was a fantastic team effort, and I am also impressed with WBC’s barrister and the effort the officers have put in in preparation for this inquiry. 

The inquiry continues with the following itinerary:

  • Wed 11th – Landscape character and appearance – evidence and cross examination
  • Thur 12th – Round table – trees in the morning and highways and pedestrian safety in the afternoon.
  • Fri 13th – Public statements followed by round table – access to local services and public transport (finish by lunchtime)
  • Tue 17th – Round table – housing land supply in the morning and affordable housing and planning evidence in the afternoon
  • Wed 18th – Affordable housing and planning evidence continued
  • Thur 19th – Planning conditions and S106 agreements followed by closing statements.

Therefore, if you wish to speak either for or against this application, there is another opportunity on Friday morning. 

What was also incredible today was the number of people in the council chamber opposing the development.  Not only was the council chamber full, so was the public gallery.  Please do continue to come down and support us all on this.  It sends a very strong, clear message to the inspector making the decision. 

Please see below, the statement I made today for the inquiry. 

Junction Design

The design of the junction onto the A321 Finchampstead Road to and from the proposed development, is substandard and consequently dangerous, for the following reasons;

The access road from Finchampstead Road is the only public access road to the proposed development, which for a development of this size, contradicts policy.  Policy that is there for the safety of people.  Both the Highway Design Guidance and Living Streets states that in a development that proposes an access with no through movement and is a cul-de-sac, a maximum of 100 homes would be allowed.  This application has more than twice that number of homes. 

Finchampstead Road is an A class road with a speed limit of 40 mph at the point of the proposed junction.  In order to determine visibility for junction design, either the speed limit is used or the 85th percentile speed from a speed survey.  Although reference is made to a speed survey in the application, there is no speed survey.  Therefore, visibility for the design must be determined from the stated speed limit of the highway – 40 mph. 

There is some confusion as to which highways guidance should be used for this application.  At the point of application, the Wokingham Highway Design Guide 2006 was the document on the council’s website to use.  On 1st October 2019, the council released Living Streets: A Highways Guide for Developers in Wokingham.”  As the latter is still draft policy and has not been adopted yet, the 2006 Design Guide is the policy which should be accorded most weight in determination of this appeal. 

The Wokingham Highways Design Guide 2006 states that for a road with a 40mph speed limit, the ‘Y’ distance, which is the visibility a driver would have looking out along the Finchampstead Road, must be 120 metres.  Not the 59 metres that this junction has been designed to. 

Even if this application is determined in accordance with the guidance set out in Living Streets, this requires that the Manual for Streets 2 should be the basis for determining the ‘Y’ distance for a 40mph road. The Manual stipulates that the ‘Y’ distance should be based on ‘safe stopping distance’ as determined in the Highway Code. This is 36 metres (12m thinking distance and 24m braking distance).  However, the Highway Code also states at Rule 227

“..in wet weather, stopping distances will be at least double those required for stopping on dry roads…”

Under these circumstances, to allow a safe stopping distance in accordance with the Highway Code, a ‘Y’ distance of 72m should be provided. Either way, whichever policy framework is applied, the 59m ‘Y’ distance proposed in the design of the junction is well short of what is deemed safe. 

These images demonstrate what the proposed ‘Y’ distance of 59 metres looks like.  Please note that the ‘X’ distance of 2.4 metres, which is how far back the driver is set, cannot be demonstrated as there is too much hedging in the way.  Note, you are looking for me in a high vis jacket in each image. Image 3 you can’t see me due to the bend in the road. As you can see from these images, there is very little time for a vehicle travelling at 40 mph to react. 

The safety audit even highlights that the ‘Y’ visibility is not right for the speed of the road stating it “may result in an increased risk of vehicular collisions.”  So the probability of an accident is increased by the poor junction design.  This design is not safe for road users and it is not safe for those living in the development.  Approving this development puts people’s lives in danger. 

Air Quality

Air quality in the area also concerns me greatly.  I frequently walk and run along Finchampstead Road and I can actually taste the pollution, it’s that bad.  I have 2 young boys at Evendons Primary School and my youngest, Leighton, since starting at the school has developed a severe allergy to cats.  Prior to starting school, Leighton had no issues around cats.  Now, even after taking antihistamines, with some cats he not only gets red and itchy eyes, he gets a rash all over his face and body, his breathing becomes very laboured and wheezy and he coughs so much he cries because its hurts.  The children’s play area at the school backs onto Finchampstead Road. 

More and more these days, people are suffering with allergies, and science has proven that one of the main contributing factors is the rise in air pollution.  And it’s not just allergies that air pollution causes or affects.  There are a whole range of chronic illnesses people suffer from that are either caused or made worse by the poor air that we breath, including heart disease, asthma and cancer amongst others.  Air pollution stunts lung growth in children and in Wokingham, according to the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, we are above national and regional averages for children being hospitalised for respiratory tract infections. 

Air pollution is now the number one environmental cause of premature death in the world.  A major contributor to air pollution is transport, and Wokingham is one of the highest car owning boroughs in the country. 

The proposed development is approximately 1 km away from an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) where we have hard data showing that we are in breach of the Nitrogen Dioxide limits.  Don’t let people tell you that it’s getting better there.  When the levels dipped in 2018, the town centre, where the AQMA is, was being regenerated and the road was closed.  Preliminary Nitrogen Dioxide testing has also been taking place through Friends of the Earth outside Evendons Primary School, and the raw data is showing levels of nitrogen dioxide that breach World Health Organisation (WHO) and EU limits. 

The British Heart Foundation have been doing a lot of research into air quality and interestingly, have produced quite different results in the area of this proposed development that contradict the air quality report done by Wardell Armstrong. 

Using the same source of data, Defra, the British Heart Foundation have found through their methodology that the average level of particulate matter 2.5 in the vicinity of the proposed development was 10.13 micrograms per cubic meter in 2017 and 10.18 micrograms per cubic metre in 2018, i.e. it’s on the rise.  Particulate matter is the solid matter that gets absorbed into your blood, is often carcinogenic, and is attributable to 4 out of 5 deaths from air pollution.  The amount of particulate matter 2.5’s in the vicinity of this proposed development is already above World Health Organisation (WHO) maximum levels.  Please bare in mind that small particulate pollution has health impacts even at very low concentrations – indeed, no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.  10.18 micrograms per cubic metre of particulate matter is equivalent to smoking 129 cigarettes per year.  No wonder my little boy is suffering!  And we’re talking about putting more polluting cars on the road! 

This leads me to question why there’s such a difference between the British Heart Foundation (BHF) Research and the Wardell Armstrong research.  Firstly, whilst both are using the Defra data, Wardell Armstrong are using 2015 data, and BHF are using 2017 data.  Secondly, Wardell Armstrong appear to use a composite approach where they show the background levels of pollution then superimpose the traffic levels on top, based on estimations, as there is no monitoring in the area.  This is different to how BHF do it, who use Defra’s raw output data and don’t use a composite approach.  (Link to BHF methodology https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/assets/documents/reports/cat09/1903201606_AQ0650_2017_MAAQ_technical_report.pdf).  With particulate 2.5’s, you would typically see between 10 and 20% of the total amount attributable to traffic, but the data in the Wardell Armstrong report is substantially lower, with figures between 6 and 8%.  This doesn’t make any sense given the traffic movements on this major A road.  And if you compare this report to the air quality report submitted with the previous application for this site in 2017, which was done by the same company but different authors, the levels of particulate 2.5’s in the previous application’s report is substantially higher and breaching WHO limits.  The air quality report for this application is showing a substantial decrease in particulates, which goes against the national trends which demonstrate it increasing, and as previously stated, the 2017 and 2018 data from BHF demonstrate exactly that.  In addition, there is no mention in the report from Wardell Armstrong of the Southern Distributor Road that will be coming out at the Tesco’s roundabout which will accommodate the 2,500 houses being built there, and will be placing even more vehicles onto this route.  In short, something is wrong with the Wardell Armstrong report, and it does not reflect the reality of what we are breathing every day. 

The British Heart Foundation has also produced research that demonstrates how many of the annual deaths due to heart and circulatory disease in Wokingham were attributable to air pollution.  The most recent data they’ve produced for Wokingham was for 2017 and that figure is 65.  Let that sink in for a moment – 65 people died in Wokingham alone from air pollution in just one year! 

Gladmans will tell you that people can travel without using their cars.  The reality is that the infrastructure for this is extremely lacking.  This is an unsustainable location.  The bus service is so infrequent, very few people use it, and throwing a small amount of money at it, isn’t going to fix it long term.  The footways, where they exist, are narrow and right next to this busy major A class road.  Gladmans may very well state that residents of the development can use their new cycle and walking access route, but it doesn’t stretch the whole length of Finchampstead Road.  They will join this heavily polluted road at Tangley Drive, and that’s if they’re heading towards town.  There are other locations they may be travelling to, such as towards Finchampstead, that would mean they would be accessing and using Finchampstead Road from the poorly designed junction I mentioned earlier.  If they were trying to take one of the infrequent buses, they still have to stand and wait on the side of the road breathing in the polluted air.  And what about those of us that aren’t living in the development?  We all still have to carry on using a heavily polluted, narrow and dangerous footway with no safe cycling infrastructure with even more cars either driving or idling next to us.  Think for just a moment about those children being walked or who cycle on the narrow footway to school having to have the growth of their lungs stunted by the pollutants coming out of those car engines.  And most children do walk and cycle to Evendons Primary School despite the terrible infrastructure, the school having recently won an award for this. 

Do not tell me for a single moment that this development is not going to make air quality worse.  It’s already damaging us and our children and this development will make it worse.  This development is unsustainable and must be rejected. 

Nevertheless, She Persisted…

This Sunday it’s International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women across the globe, raise awareness against bias, and strive for a gender equal world.  There may be many of you wondering why we need this day, but the scary truth is that in 2020, we still have a long way to go.  In the UK last year, we actually fell 6 places in the global rankings for gender equality from 15th to 21st.  Not only are we not making progress, we’re going backwards. 

I have never been what I would call an active feminist, despite having been the victim of gender inequality.  This is in part because I just accepted this was how society was, but as I get older and wiser, and am in a position of influence, I want to speak out and do something about it. 

One thing I believe that as a society we need to appreciate more, is that in order to provide equal opportunity you have treat people differently because everyone is different.  This doesn’t just relate to gender equality.  In order to ensure a wheelchair user can use a bus, special provision has to be put in, above and beyond what other users would need.  Why then do so many not recognise this with other protected characteristics, such as gender?

I had many experiences early on in my career that have happened based on my gender.  These have ranged from experiences of inequality in the workplace to attempted sexual assault.  I am not saying that these things can’t happen to men, (men can be sexually assaulted), but it was me being a woman in these circumstances that led to the behaviour. 

The experiences that stand out include:

  • The boss who on a business trip knocked on my hotel bedroom door under the pretence of wanting to discuss something business related, and resulted in me having to kick him in the nether regions as he tried to force himself upon me;
  • The time I had my drink spiked in a bar after work.  What was equally upsetting was the reaction I got from my colleagues who I was with.  My colleagues blamed me for not having taken greater care of my drink.  I was in central London and I somehow made it home to my place in Surrey and my neighbour found me passed out on my front lawn.  Not one colleague helped me or even checked I made it home safe.  I was just 22 years old! 
  • I worked for a large American IT firm in my mid 20’s and was very good at my job consistently achieving well above my targets.  I went on maternity leave and when I returned, after a couple of months, applied for a promotion that had become available.  I didn’t even get an interview being told “we need you to reprove yourself.”  I would happily accept if I wasn’t right for the role, but my maternity cover hire, doing the exact same job was the one who got the promotion and to have been denied even an interview on the grounds of needing to reprove myself is unacceptable. 

I am not alone in these experiences.  The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimates that 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, and according to research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, 77% of working mums have encountered negative or discriminatory treatment at work.  These are just some of many examples of what I experienced, and I am ashamed to say that I did nothing about any of them.  I just accepted that this is what society is like.  I felt I didn’t have a voice to use and didn’t want to lose my job.  So why am I speaking out now? 

I was elected onto Wokingham Borough Council just over a year ago and in that short time, have been dismayed at the inequality that prevails, and believe that I have a duty to inform in order to incite change.  Looking outside of the council chamber and the services that WBC provides, I was shocked to hear that women only swimming sessions had been cancelled.  I was in a meeting where we were discussing how to engage more residents in sporting activities and exercise.  As I stated at the beginning, in order to provide equal opportunity, you have to treat people differently because everyone is different.  Women only swimming sessions were offered because there are a number of women in society who won’t or can’t access public swimming pools whilst men are using them.  For some this is due to their religion, and for some, they could have escaped domestic abuse and are too traumatised to want to be seen in their swim wear by men.  Yes, I appreciate that domestic abuse happens to men as well, but it is something that disproportionately affects women, and I’m using this as an example.  There are women in society that having men in the swimming pool provides a barrier for them to use the facility, and a way of overcoming that was provided.  What was shocking to hear was that this service was stopped because men complained that they weren’t getting equal treatment.  If there were genuine grounds for a mens only session, that is another matter, but to claim inequality demonstrates how far we still have to go in society. 

Back inside the council chamber, we currently have 18 female elected members out of 54, yet the latest numbers show that more than 50% of Wokingham’s population is female.  In order for good democratic decision-making, local politicians need to reflect the diversity of the communities we represent, and when it comes to gender, we’re not doing that.  There are a number of barriers in the way and these need to be addressed. 

In January’s full council meeting, it was proposed to move full council meeting times earlier by 30 minutes.  I’m sure many people would believe this not to be a big deal, but I spoke that evening about how it’s yet another barrier to diversity in the council chamber, and thankfully the chamber voted against it.  Whilst a small move, the shutting down of diversity leads to poor democratic decision-making, and we should be moving in the other direction. 

I would like to see positive changes made at the council that open us up and make us more diverse so that we can truly represent our community.  My fear though is that there is an engrained attitude that will make this hard to overcome.  If anyone remembers Charlotte Haitham-Taylor’s exit speech when she was bullied out of her position, you’ll remember she spoke of the old boy’s network. 

In the year since I’ve been elected, I’ve had inappropriate comments made about my appearance (inappropriate enough that other councillors have jumped in and said something); I had a late night intimidating phone call from a senior councillor, trying to shame and belittle me because I dared to stand up to them; I have been told that I am too naïve and unintelligent to be any good at my role and voters were conned into voting for me due to my appearance…(no, I’m not joking); The scariest experience though is the print media and online bullying and intimidation I’ve been subjected to.  Bullying and harassment has been an ongoing problem in national politics, and in recent times has become quite high profile in the media.  QC Gemma White led the independent inquiry Bullying and Harassment of MP’s Parliamentary Staff last year, and several female MP’s stood down from re-election for last year’s election, citing the nastiness and intimidation that has become commonplace.  My experiences conclude that the problem is at all levels of politics. 

To quote Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, “I do not think, sir, you have any right to command me, merely because you are older than I, or because you have seen more of the world than I have; your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.” 

We have got to overcome this inequality and I will continue to push to break down these barriers at the council.  I also want to take the opportunity to thank all those out there, women and men, who are fighting to break down the barriers we have throughout society.  In particular I would like to thank Louise Timlin and Juliet Sherrett for helping me put this piece together.  To still have to fight in 2020 is quite frankly unbelievable, but I hold out hope that one day, we will get there.  #eachforequal #IWN2020

Air Pollution & Carbon

Part of being a local councillor means receiving phone calls and emails from journalists wanting my views on a range of topics.  As a party, we have local spokespeople for certain topics depending on our areas of responsibility and the local press have a list of who to contact depending on the nature of the story.  I am the spokesperson for Wokingham Lib Dems on arts, culture and libraries, but I am also deputy spokesperson for children’s services, equalities and environment.  We also get contacted about matters arising in the wards we represent.  In addition, I am the vice-chair of the climate emergency working group at WBC, so it will be of no surprise that I get contacted by the press in that capacity as well.  The last week has been no exception with 2 environmental stories running in the Wokingham Paper, one on air pollution, and the other in response to John Redwood’s blog about climate reduction. 

Air Pollution

Data released by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has revealed that the residents of Wokingham Borough are breathing in polluted air that exceeds guidelines set out by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

BHF has been measuring particulates which are the fine particles (solids) that float in the air and are emitted from a number of sources, including vehicles, along with the various gases they emit.  Particulates are defined not by what they’re made of, but their size.  Larger particles known as PM10s can be seen as smoke or haze and our bodies natural defences filter them out, such as nose hair.  It is the smaller particulates (PM2.5s) which are typically created by modern combustion techniques that are of most concern.  PM2.5s penetrate much further into the body and can enter the blood stream causing all kinds of damage.  Depending on what they are made of, many are classed as carcinogenic.  The European Environment Agency did a study looking at premature deaths attributable to PM2.5s across 40 European countries in 2012.  PM2.5s were credited to 432,000 deaths.  To put this in perspective, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, combined were credited to 92,000 deaths.  Across global studies, approximately 4 out of every 5 deaths attributed to air pollution are caused by PM2.5s.[1] 

It is the PM2.5s that BHF have been measuring and have found to be above WHO recommended limits (although any amount is not good).  There is some information on their website about the study, but I’ve put in a request for further information which I am waiting for.[2]

At the moment WBC measures just nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across the borough through diffusion tubes.  Diffusion tubes measure ambient levels of NO2 and are removed monthly and tested.  There’s a lot of holes with what WBC are doing (which local authorities up and down the country are also doing):

  • All WBC receives is a monthly average reading – this gives them no indication of peak hours or peak days – it’s an educated guess.  
  • There is relative uncertainty with the data collected +/- 25% which is worrying.  This is why 3 years of data is required (3 years of potentially being exposed to harmful pollutants before action is taken)
  • This only measures NO2 – WBC are not monitoring other harmful pollutants such as ozone, sulphur dioxide and particulates (and in particular PM2.5s) that has been highlighted by BHF research.  
  • Wokingham Borough has 3 air quality management areas where levels of NO2 have exceeded the maximum.  In one of those locations, Wokingham Town Centre, the Borough Council has an automatic monitoring station that continuously measure NO2, so more accurate, but still just NO2.  
  • World Health Organisation maximum levels of pollutants are typical much lower than what nations adopt.  For example, WHO recommends public exposure of no more than 8ppb (parts per billion) in a 24 our period of sulphur dioxide.  The EU has set its cap at 48ppb.  

WBC just does not know the level of pollutants in the air that we breath.  Given that air pollution is the number one environmental cause of premature death in the world, this is worrying.  There are a whole range of chronic illnesses people suffer from that are either caused or made worse by the poor air that we breath, including heart disease, asthma and cancer amongst others.  The recent Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA)[3] report that came out demonstrated that the number one cause of death in the borough is cancer, and we are above regional and national averages for young children being hospitalised for respiratory tract infections.  The fact that we’re not monitoring air pollutant efficiently and effectively is a serious concern. 

With or without effective monitoring, the council is focused on the climate emergency, and the fear is that tackling air pollution will be pushed to one side.  At the moment, it’s been mentioned a couple of times in the climate emergency action plan, but given that the climate emergency action plan is about reducing carbon dioxide, air pollution needs to be treated as the separate issue that it is.  It needs a public health campaign around it, a bit like the government did around smoking several years ago as well as effective monitoring and a wide range of actions to go with it.  I have requested that air pollution is given the spotlight it also needs, and my colleague Cllr Paul Fishwick proposed the strategy to lower transport emissions that was approved at council last Autumn.  It’s a step in the right direction, but so much more needs to be done. 

In addition to putting pressure on the local authority to implement monitoring and measures to reduce air pollution, I’m also working with my local primary school to look at a planting scheme for around the children’s play area to create a natural shield and reduce the air pollution being breathed in whilst the children play.  The play area is next to a major A road which is frequently heavily congested.  Whilst air pollution and particulates are bad for all of us, they are especially bad for children whose lungs are still developing. 

Carbon Emissions

Yesterday morning I was contacted about the following article written by our MP John Redwood asking for my thoughts on it:

“The UK has many campaigners against carbon dioxide who worry about levels of man made gas being put into the atmosphere. I suggest today to them that the UK has been one of the most successful countries at getting its CO2 emissions down. They should now divert their energies to cutting CO 2 in places putting out much more and not cutting in the way the UK has.

They should start with China. China adds around 30 times more CO2 to the atmosphere each year than the UK. It also puts out considerably more CO2 per head. At around 30% of world new CO2 output it is surely the place to start, as its output is still increasing.

If that is too difficult then surely they could turn their talents to changing the EU. After our departure they account for around 8 times our output with a higher CO2 output per head. They still mine and burn a lot of coal, which we have stopped doing,

Germany in particular needs attention. At more than double our CO2 output there could be quick wins. They might also like to campaign about the German motor industry which is still based around fossil fuels for most of its output.

Clearly it is much easier and cheaper to cut CO2 output in a country like China where there are quick wins and easy changes the UK has already made. It should also be welcome to the EU if we offer them advice on how we got to much lower levels per head than them, as their whole new economic and regulatory policy is based around CO2 reduction.[4]

I have to admit, when the journalist told me the nature of the article, I thought she was joking.  Whilst John Redwood is right that other countries round the world need to be changing their ways when it comes to tackling climate change, campaigners should not be taking their eye off the ball away from the UK’s role in this, particularly as the UK government continues to make decisions at odds with tackling the climate emergency.  We must continue to challenge and hold our government to account and attempting to divert our attentions elsewhere is unacceptable.

Developed countries like the UK have caused huge amounts of damage to our environment with developing countries following suit.  We should be using our position in the world to lead the change that is required and encourage others to follow.  It’s imperative that the UK continues to work with its European neighbours especially, and continues to fight for and implement change.  Within Europe, many countries from the most recent data we have are leading the pack well ahead of the UK such as Sweden, Portugal and France.  

We must also be mindful that the data is always out of date.  For example, the Wokingham Borough Council climate emergency action plan is using the most recently available data which is 2017.  Countries like China have been making huge advances in their fight against climate change since the most recent figures were published, such as with the introduction of their solar farms, which means China now has more solar energy capacity than any other country in the world.[5]  

Whilst the UK has met its first and second carbon budgets as set out through the Paris Agreement, and is on track for the 3rd, it is not on track to meet the 4th carbon budget and has some huge changes to make in order to reach those[6].  It is therefore worrying that our government continues to make decisions that would take us backwards.  The Heathrow expansion springs to mind.  Heathrow is already the single biggest source of greenhouse gases in the UK, and adding capacity for an additional 260,000 flights a year will only send emissions in the wrong direction[7].  Added to this, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom went against the government’s own planning inspectorate recommendation and gave approval to the company Drax to build Europe’s largest gas-powered station in the North East of England[8].  Plus, the government has given a green light to a new coalmine in Cumbria[9].  And the government continues to fund fossil fuel projects abroad through an investment group.  Other governments have contributed to this fund, but the UK government has provided 70% of the money[10].

Whilst individuals are doing their best with tackling climate change, this is being undermined by the actions of our government.  There is plenty of evidence that demonstrates campaigners are right to continue challenging the UK government on climate change. 


[1] Smedley, Tim, Clearing The Air

[2] https://www.bhf.org.uk/toxicair

[3] https://jsna.wokingham.gov.uk/

[4] http://johnredwoodsdiary.com/2020/02/10/campaigning-against-carbon-dioxide/

[5] https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180822-why-china-is-transforming-the-worlds-solar-energy

[6] https://www.theccc.org.uk/tackling-climate-change/reducing-carbon-emissions/how-the-uk-is-progressing/

[7] https://www.heathrowexpansion.com/uk-growth-opportunities/facts-and-figures/

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-49960817

[9] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cumbria-50274212

[10] https://www.globalwitness.org/en-gb/campaigns/climate-breakdown/aid-who/

Pointing At Potholes

There’s a bit of a joke in the Liberal Democrat party that we like pointing at things, particularly potholes.  In fact, our current party president, Mark Pack has set up a website www.libdemspointing.co.uk with the subheading “Liberal Democrats in their natural habitat.”  So to buck the trend, here’s a photograph of myself and local campaigner Ian Shenton pointing at a pothole on Finchampstead Road near Carnival pool. 

I spotted this pothole yesterday (Saturday 1st Feb) when walking up to the sports centre with my kids for a swim, and used the WBC app on my phone to report it.  I was surprised that this pothole had not already been reported.  Given that we’re in the winter months when potholes are more frequent, I thought it a good idea to remind everyone how to report potholes and the council’s processes. 

Wokingham Borough Council, as the highways authority, has a responsibility to maintain all adopted roads that fall under its authority.  This means roads that are private or larger roads such as the M4 that passes through the borough, fall outside of its responsibility, but the majority of the roads that we use in the borough, WBC has to maintain. 

In April 2019, WBC entered into a new maintenance contract with Volker Highways, the contract having previously been run by Balfour Beatty.  As part of the contract, Volker’s will do inspections of the roads in the borough, and will repair defects that they come across as part of their inspections.  How frequently these inspections take place varies depending on the kind of road.  A major ‘A’ class road would have more frequent inspections (monthly) due to the high level of traffic. 

Defects though do appear in between inspections, and can be dealt with if the highways authority is made aware of them.  Members of the public can report potholes via the council’s website https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/report-problems/ (click on ‘p’ for pothole, or type in pothole to the search bar) amongst many other things.  You can also report on the WBC app on your phone, although appreciate at the moment, the app is a bit clunky.  If however, the pothole is urgent, do please call 0118 974 6000 (0800 212 111 if out of hours).  Volker’s aims to repair urgent defects within 24 hours and non-urgent within 28 days. 

Below is the website version of how to report potholes which I’ve taken you through step by step.  The app is similar and as I’ve already mentioned a bit clunky.  I have raised this though with the contract owner at WBC as a way of improving the service to residents. 

Landing Page
Click on the blue button that says “report a pothole online”
You can either zoom in or start typing in the location
As you start typing you can choose the location from the drop down options
You can see other potholes that have been reported (or if they one you’re reporting has already been done). You can click to get updates sent to you on ones already reported.
Click on the screen of the location where the pothole is and choose the option “report pothole here”
Fill in any details you can and click next. On the next screen you can attach a photo if you have one.
Enter your details and click submit. You’ll get an email with a reference number

The pothole I highlighted at the beginning of this blog though upon going back today (Sunday 2nd Feb), had become much worse.  I therefore had the opportunity to test the ‘reporting an urgent pothole’ function.  As it’s the weekend and out of hours, I called the out of hours number (which I could only get by phoning the regular number as the out of hours number is not listed on the website).  I have to admit, it wasn’t the best or easiest service to use, and will be feeding this back to the contract owner at our next meeting.  I was left on the phone with no one answering and music playing for over 10 minutes without any kind of message to give me confidence that my phone call would be picked up.  I nearly gave up!  Someone eventually did pick up, but it was quickly apparent that they weren’t local when I said that the pothole was on Finchampstead Road near the town centre, and they didn’t know what part of the country I was in.  They also didn’t have access to the online reporting system so I couldn’t give them the reference number from the online report I made yesterday.  It’s not too difficult for someone with local knowledge to describe where a pothole is, but if you don’t have local knowledge (people passing through are just as entitled to report defects), it would put you off doing it.  Given the highways authority is reliant on members of the public reporting defects in between inspections, the process needs to be as easy to use as possible, and this is an area where I would like to see some improvements. 

In my own experience I found that before the new Volker contract came into play, there were some issues with the quality of repairs, and as such, many potholes are reappearing after a short period of time.  I also felt that there were some teething problems with the new contract.  There was a pothole that I reported before the new contract that didn’t get fixed, and I re-reported it twice more at the beginning of the new contract, to ultimately have to take it to the contract owner to get some action.  Problems do happen, but on recent reports, I’ve found the service to be much better and the fixes of a far better quality.  There was one pothole on the road at the foot of my drive.  Not only was it fixed within the timescale, the quality of fix is good, and the team fixing it did knock on my door first to see if I needed to get my car off the drive first. 

The pothole that was fixed at the end of my drive

I would like to point out that elected members of the council do not get any special privileges when it comes to reporting defects like potholes.  We also use the method(s) outlined above.  Where we do come in useful though is if problems arise with the above system, such as defects not being repaired properly or in a reasonable time, or at all.  We can also feedback to the contract owners anything we feel relevant.  With regards to quality, Volker’s themselves quality check 10% of the work carried out by their employees.  WBC also do spot checks, but will be doing a thorough review of the quality in the coming months as the contract comes up to its first anniversary.  I have also requested that the Volker Highways contract comes to the Overview & Scrutiny committee for a thorough review. 

And now for something completely different – Lib Dems not pointing at something for a change.  

Ian and I not pointing at the double yellow lines that have gone in on Oaklands Drive (a section wasn’t done when the lines were first put in and we’ve been pushing to get them extended for safety reasons)

Full Council January 2020

It was full council last night, the first one since September last year due to November’s being cancelled in the run up to the election, and it was a packed and varied agenda. 

It started off with some fantastic public questions, but what stood out for many of us in the council chamber were the teenagers from Bulmershe school who asked several public questions related to climate change.  It’s quite an intimidating environment in the council chamber, so fantastic to see them there, not just asking those pre-submitted questions, but also challenging supplementary questions. 

We moved onto the Homeless and Rough Sleeping Strategy where we were asked to approve it for 2020-2024.  Below is my colleague Cllr Prue Bray’s speech which was particularly moving.

The week before last, I left the council offices after a meeting using the back door out down the steps to the car park.  Shockingly, there was a homeless man wrapped in a sleeping bag at the top of the steps. 

Many of you will remember a recent council meeting during which the deputy chief executive was called out to try and deal with a woman who had presented herself at reception having fled the place she was staying because she believed it was unsafe, and had nowhere to go.  And unfortunately this council was unable to help her in the way she needed, not for want of trying, but because her specific circumstances didn’t qualify her under the rules that are in place. Equally shocking.

Nothing like either incident has happened before in all my time as a councillor, and I will have been elected for 20 years in May.   Something is wrong and getting worse and we need to fix it.

But we won’t fix it by the government simply spouting rhetoric, telling councils they have to do something, giving them extra duties and making them write a strategy. There is nothing wrong with this strategy, as far as it goes.  I don’t doubt the commitment of officers trying to help people.  The actions this council will take through the strategy will make a difference at the edges.  But it won’t solve the problem of homelessness. 

Providing more affordable homes, and other housing-related actions like reforming the private rented sector and tackling empty homes will also not be enough to fix it.  That’s because it isn’t just a housing problem. 

People are homeless for all sorts of reasons and to reduce the numbers we need  far more resources to tackle mental health, particularly for forces veterans, we need to focus on ex-prisoners, drug and alcohol dependency, family breakdowns, domestic abuse, uncertain and fluctuating employment and income, and, of course, sort out the welfare system.   Unfortunately, I don’t see any sign that this country is about to start doing any of those things.

In the absence of action on a wider scale, we need to do what we can here in Wokingham.  That means agreeing this strategy and acting on it, because it could make a difference locally.  But as I say, no-one should be under any illusion that it is going to solve homelessness or rough sleeping.”

The council chamber voted unanimously for the recommendation. 

We moved onto council tax and in particular the Council Tax Reduction Scheme 2020/21 which you may remember last year was brought back a second time as the first version had included child maintenance payments as income in it when making assessments.  My colleague Cllr David Hare proposed an amendment to the recommendation which was

that when reviewing the Council Tax Reduction Scheme for 2021/22 the disregard of the whole amount of carers’ allowance be included as an option.” 

Currently part of the carer’s allowance is included as income during assessment.  I personally feel quite strongly about this because carer’s allowance is just £66.15 a week as it is.  Carers are actually saving the state money by freeing up part of the health service.  Many carers have given up their jobs in order to care for a loved one which is a 24/7 job.  Cllr Shirley Boyt from the Labour party, herself having been a carer for a number of years, made a very moving speech explaining the implications of what the original recommendation was.  We would have loved to have removed the carers allowance inclusion this year, but it needs to go through a judicial review and out to consultation meaning that the council tax bills would not go out on time.  Many of you may be happy about that, but it would put a huge hole in the council’s finances so the proposal was to fix this problem for next year.  The ruling group agreed to the amendment and the item was passed. 

The next item was Declaring a Climate Emergency Initial Action Plan.  The recommendation that we were asked to vote on began with “That Council approves the Climate Emergency Action Plan.”  I contacted the Executive Member for Climate Emergency earlier in the week to ask that the word ‘initial’ be put into the recommendation because we could not recognise this as a complete document at this stage, which he duly agreed to do.  My speech on this item is as follows:

“I would like to take the opportunity to thank this council chamber for unanimously voting for declaring a climate emergency.  This will be one of the most important decisions we will ever have made.  I would also like to thank you Cllr Murray for agreeing to the change in recommendation at my request.  I also want to pass on my thanks to the officers and Rhian Hayes in particular for all the hard work they’ve put in to producing what we see before us – an update on what is a work in progress.  

This is a momentous job and some of the ideas in this action plan have legs.  It’s a really good start.  But it is just a start and whilst I appreciate this is a living document that will evolve, there’s still a lot more work that needs to be done before the first draft can be published.  There are still conversations to be had as to the scope of this document, how we scrutinise the actions we’re proposing, but most importantly, will it actually work. 

Currently, the document does not contain a carbon budget.  This is an estimate of the carbon savings for each of these initiatives.  When all added up, will they result in us being a carbon neutral borough?  My fear at the moment is that, whilst there are some really great ideas, we’re just scratching the surface.  Some tough choices will have to be made that aren’t going to be popular if we’re truly serious about this, but I don’t see much evidence of that yet.  I am more than happy to be proved wrong and find out that these actions will reach carbon neutrality, but until we have that carbon budget, how will we know? 

The governance and scrutiny structure also needs tightening.  It was stated in the local paper at the beginning of the month in a feature piece about this very document that the cross-party working group had written this document.  We haven’t.  At the point of that article being printed, we had only had a meeting to agree terms of reference and throw a few ideas forward to be considered.  We saw the first draft copy 2 days after the news article had been printed.  The working group needs much more of a handle of the steer of this than it currently does.  We also are yet to debate changes to the overview and scrutiny function of this council in order to accommodate this climate emergency agenda.  We currently do not have the capacity to scrutinise the actions coming out of this plan.  And with an initial three-year budget of £50 million, this needs careful scrutiny. 

I look forward to when, in July, this item is brought back to council, and ready, having addressed many of the points I’ve made, for us to properly consider whether we commit to it.”

There were a number of speeches made and there appeared to be some misinterpretation that all opposition councillors were voting against this item.  One of the councillors from the ruling party stood up in a moment of anger and expressed his anger at the opposition.  My colleague Cllr Stephen Conway calmed things by explaining that the Lib Dems would vote for it, and of course we want to do everything we can to tackle the climate emergency, but we had to express our thoughts on the journey thus far and provide constructive challenge to ensure the best possible outcome. 

Next up was the item Changes To The Constitution which was split into two part.  The second part were minor changes that needed to be done and we all voted for, but the first part was a little more controversial.  It was proposed to change the full council meetings to start even earlier than they do now.  The speech I gave is as follows:

“I am going to start by repeating the words from my closing speech to the Equalities motion last year.  Look at the diverse society out there that we represent.  And now look around this council chamber.  Why are we not reflecting that diversity?  There are too many barriers in the way. 

I appreciate that there is not going to be a solution to the matter of meeting start times that suits everybody.  However, bringing meeting times forward will only make it harder for those of us that are already underrepresented.  I will probably sound very selfish by stating that I find it incredibly difficult to get to the evening meetings we have here on time, especially the committee meetings that start at the earlier time being proposed tonight.  However, I don’t know how many other mothers there are in this council chamber of primary school aged children, but given that we’re in short supply, maybe I need to be a little bit selfish on this matter and make that minority voice heard. 

As a parent of very young children, children who cannot be left without a responsible adult, I am trying to juggle my role as a representative of my residents, with being the best mother I possibly can.  I am also reliant on my husband returning from work before I can then leave to come out to evening meetings.  We do not have local family that can help us in this regard.  I love the role that I do at this council.  I am truly honoured to have this opportunity to speak up for my residents, to scrutinise policy, to suggest policy even.  Why make that even harder for those of us that are already in the minority? 

I know that committees start at the earlier time proposed, but they didn’t always.  They too used to start at 7:30 even as recently as 2017, but that’s been changed making it harder for many of us.  As such, I would request that the constitution review working group would move the times of committees in line with the current full council meeting times, not the other way round as is being proposed.  I know that these meetings finish late and we’re making important decisions, but the difference of half an hour at the end of the meeting is minimal in this regard.  Putting up more barriers to diversity is not a solution for a problem that doesn’t really exist.  It creates a far worse problem.  If it really is that much of a problem then we should be considering changing the structure of these meetings in another way. 

There has been no equality impact assessment done for this proposed change.  In fact there is no evidence of how minority groups have been considered in this regard and it is the council’s responsibility as part of the public sector equality duty to evidence how protected characteristics have been considered when making its decisions.  I would also suggest that it is not solely down to the decision of the current elected membership of this council.  There are members of the public who are prospective candidates.  Have we consulted with the public? 

For many of you, this change would be a nice to have, not a need to have.  It doesn’t really matter one way or another to you.  Please consider those of us that it really does matter to.  Those of us that want to be good parents and give a voice to our residents.  Do not put up more barriers to diversity in this council chamber.  I am urging you to please vote against the recommendation for making council meeting times earlier.”

There was a shift in mood after this.  I went to the back of the chamber to fill up my water at the water cooler and a member of the ruling group approached me and whispered that he agreed with everything I said and had made up his mind not to support the recommendation.  Then various members of both the ruling group and opposition parties stood up and spoke in support of what I’d said.  The recommendation fell as a result with very few members supporting it.  I am very grateful that the council chamber showed compassion over this and I extend my thanks to all those members who were supportive. 

Next up was member’s questions.  I asked “What mandatory training are social workers in adult social care and children’s social care required to do on domestic violence?”  The response I got from the Executive member for Children’s Services I will give more detail on when I get the minutes from the meeting, but to give an overview, there is a bespoke 1-day course for all social workers.  This covers a range of elements including harassment, stalking, violence and domestic abuse.  There are also a range of non-mandatory e-learning courses that social workers can do.  I followed up by stating that perhaps the non-mandatory training should be mandatory and by asking if the mandatory training was also being done by locum social workers given the high percentage of them in our teams.  This would require a written response because she didn’t know the answer. 

We then moved onto ward questions, where I asked the following question:

“Molly Millars business estate is in my ward.  Molly Millars business estate, the way things are going, will probably no longer be a business estate.  It is a core employment area for the borough, but through permitted development laws, offices are gradually being converted to residential units.  For the benefit of the public, permitted development laws allow developers to convert office space to residential without planning permission from the local authority.  There are benefits to having residential properties so close to public transport links and town centre amenities, but by bi-passing the local planning authority for permission, we are all left in a situation where flats are provided without consideration for amenities such as school provision, doctors surgeries, no affordable housing has to be provided, no CIL money has to be provided, the list goes on.  What is the point in producing a local plan where we designate core employment areas and consider the infrastructure that that entails, when this law exists to override that?  I have already contacted John Redwood to help lobby for a change in the law, and I would like to know if you too will join in this fight and help protect our residents?”

The executive member for planning completely agreed with me and has been contacted by John Redwood.  Moving forward he has promised to work with me on this. 

Molly Millars Lane – Wokingham

Normally we move onto the final 3 items at this stage in the proceedings: Statements by the leader of the council, executive members and deputy executive members, and Statement from council owned companies and finally Motions.  Normal proceedings are that council meetings end at 10:30 but can be extended to 11pm by way of a vote.  My colleague proposed extending the meetings in order to get to the motions, but the ruling group voted against.  I am frustrated because there are some very important motions that needed to be debated and voted upon, particularly the first one which is about the council’s response to the Heathrow expansion consultation.  This will now move to the March full council agenda. 

It’s clear that the fact that we can’t get through a full agenda in the allotted time for the second full council meeting in a row now demonstrates that something is not right with the structure of these meetings.  I don’t have the answer right now, but discussions need to be had because we cannot continue to ignore important issues, such as the ones presented in the motions to council.