I’ve been struggling to find time to write my next blog post. Since the May local elections, things have been a tad hectic, particularly in the lead up to the summer holidays and I find myself more and more starting replies to emails with “apologies for the delay”. So what has been happening these last couple of months in the world of local politics?
To begin with, there was quite a lot of organisational discussions within our party. We grew from 8 elected members to 16, making us quite a substantial opposition and therefore have formed a Shadow Executive (the Executive is like the Cabinet at national level), and have assigned deputies to these areas as well. Given my background, I have become the Shadow Executive for Arts, Culture and Libraries and am researching and putting together ideas of what we could and should be doing in Wokingham Borough. As part of this, I’m currently looking through the process undertaken that got WBC to the decision to move the Wokingham library to the new Carnival Pool complex. Is it the right decision in my view? Watch this space…
I’ve also had a very productive meeting with my colleague Stephen Conway (Member for Twyford) and the new leader of WBC, John Halsall. Stephen has been campaigning for approximately 20 years to get a new library in Twyford as the current facility is a temporary site in portacabins. I am pleased to say that John sees the benefit and has agreed to put the recommendations forward to the Executive later this month.
In addition to this position, I am also deputising on Children’s Services; Environment, Sports & Leisure; Equalities, Diversity & Inclusivity and the Voluntary Sector, working with my colleagues to research and set our position on these areas. You’re probably wondering why I’m involved in so much, and sometimes I ask myself the same question. These are the areas that interest me the most and the areas I want to make a difference in. Truth is I want to make a difference in everything, but can’t, so have had to choose. Plus, there are 15 other Lib Dem councillors who need something to do 😊.
The Equalities, Diversity & Inclusivity portfolio has been busy for both myself and my colleague Imogen who leads this area. My interest in politics in Wokingham started when I was campaigning to make the new marketplace safer for those with visual impairments. The more I’ve dug up about it, the more I’ve realised that WBC needs to get a lot better at equalities. On the back of this, I have submitted my first motion to council (a motion is a formal proposal that will be debated in the council chamber, and a decision made that the assembly takes a certain action), which I will fill you in on in a later blog (hopefully with a positive outcome).
I’ve also been working with the CEO of Keep Mobile in trying to get a designated bus stop for the community buses (Keep Mobile, ReadiBus, Earley Bus and Crowthorne Bus) in town. The challenge is that many of the customers of these businesses are disabled and many elderly, some with dementia. When these buses collect customers, it takes about 20 minutes because they are loading and making secure people in wheelchairs, and sometimes the drivers have to go off and find customers who have memory problems. Therefore, a regular bus stop cannot be used as they would be blocking it for a considerable amount of time. Whilst the buses can use accessible parking bays, should they arrange to collect their customers from one of them, they then turn up and it’s been used by another vehicle, they can’t stop, and end up driving round the one-way system trying to find somewhere. For customers with dementia this is actually quite frightening to see your ride drive past you. My colleagues and I have been pushing to get a designated bay in the town for some time now. We requested a line in the budget this year for one, which was turned down at council. We have continued to push though via several different routes, and a couple of weeks ago, the CEO of Keep Mobile and I met with a WBC officer to look at locations. The Exec for Highways also joined us part way through and we left the meeting with agreement from both her and the officer that we will get a designated bay. Three locations have been identified and the pros and cons are being drawn up before a decision is made. Whilst it’s not been physically done yet, we now have the commitment to do it, so we’re feeling very happy.
With the other portfolio’s, we’ve been working hard, meeting various professionals and residents with insights into these departments, looking at where we are, and what we need to do moving forward. This has been particularly eye opening in the Children’s Services department. I’ve had a lot of residents contact me with challenges they have been facing with this department, and we have been seeing a recurring pattern. I won’t go into too much detail here, and will write a separate blog post in the future about it, but lets just say, I’m witnessing the real day to day impact austerity has had.
In addition to our shadow roles, there are also official WBC committees. We have a function at the council called Overview & Scrutiny. The role is to develop and review policy and make recommendations to the council. We have a Management one, plus three sub committees called Children’s Services, Health and Corporate & Community. I sit on the management one and am a substitute of children’s services. These committees are made up of the political balance that we have on the council so I sit on the Management committee with 3 other Lib Dem colleagues. I will write a separate blog post about this function of the council, but in short, WBC are not very good at it and it doesn’t fully achieve its objectives. I’ve been to two of the management meetings so far and have observed the children’s services one. We get the agenda 1 week in advance in order to prepare, and topics on the management committee agenda that we’ve scrutinised so far have included the housing consultation that is currently doing the rounds, the grass cutting contract, the local transport plan process, government statutory guidance on overview and scrutiny, WBC plan initial stages, overview and scrutiny training programme and the quarterly monitoring report looking at WBC’s KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). It’s been an eye-opening experience.
I also sit on the Licensing and Appeals committee which sort of does what it says on the tin. Out of this come sub-committees for various things, so in time I could find myself reviewing various licence applications. Out of this comes the School Transport Appeal Panel that I sit on as well as the Corporate Parenting Board and School Admissions Forum. I will write about all of these separately. I was also voted in to be the WBC representative to Keep Mobile and will have my first meeting with them this week.
Alongside all these responsibilities, there is the case work I do for residents in the ward. I can’t write about individual cases for confidentiality reasons, but the range of cases is quite diverse. A number of parents have contacted me about problems they are experiencing with the SEND (Special Educational Needs & Disabilitie) department of Children’s Services, which many of you will have seen did not come out too well in the recent OFSTED inspection. The department is significantly underfunded and as such, under resourced. There are also concerns from a number of residents about whether we have enough secondary schools in the area. This is something I am currently investigating.
I’ve also been working with residents from a housing perspective, dealing with the housing benefit team. And then there’s the case work that relates to what is known as our localities team. This includes highways, bins, planning, grass cutting etc, and this is probably where the most significant amount of requests from residents comes from. The roll out of the food waste caddies, and the new contract associated with that has meant I’ve been kept quite busy. Significant numbers of houses were missed when the caddies were delivered. The team were excellent at getting Veolia back out to do them, but there were still a few residents without. I grabbed a stack of them myself and took them round, however, if you still don’t have one, let me know and I can get one for you. There were also a few houses not having their waste collected. We managed to get this resolved and the complaints seem to have reduced now.
There are a number of other things in the localities department that I’m dealing with at the moment and now have meetings with the head of the team at the council. Discussions thus far have included progress on the local plan update, progress on the safety audit for the marketplace, the potential SANG at Foxhill, getting major planning application consultation periods extended etc. These are all ongoing discussions amongst many others.
I hope this has given a snap shot of what I’m up to. I plan to write future blog posts about some of the topics I’ve raised above in more detail. 4 months in and the breadth of the role is still something I’m astounded by. No two days are the same. Sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall, but on the flip side, I’ve had many positive things happen. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.