Cleaner and Greener

Community Clean Up Day – photograph courtesy of Tony Johnson

I’ve been a little bit quiet with my blog of late and for that I can only apologise.  The last one I wrote was during the school summer holidays.  I have very young children, so once school restarted in September, I had a mountain of work to catch up on as I spent much of the summer holidays entertaining them.  Things started to calm down by half term, and I spent a lovely few days away with my family, only to return and spend 2 days in hospital.  The excruciating pain half way down my chest after many tests transpired to be a fish bone stuck in my oesophagus.  The procedure to remove it (an endoscopy), despite having sedation, was probably one of the worst experiences of my life and I spent the next couple of days feeling very sorry for myself. No sooner had I recovered and a general election was called.  And the rest, as they say, is history. 

So much has happened in the last few months with regards to my role as a local councillor, that I have decided to write a series of shorter blog posts, as there’s just so much to write about.  This one I’m focusing on the cleaner and greener aspect of the council’s role. 

One of the things I’m really keen to help facilitate further is active travel, i.e. walking and cycling, to get to one’s destination, and one of the prohibitors (note I said ‘one of’) is the fact that so much of the vegetation is growing over and covering our footpaths. 

I took a couple of walks around the ward I represent with an officer from the Localities team at the council; one walk round the east side of the ward and another round the west side.  The aim was to identify problem areas and discuss solutions.  There is a legal requirement for vegetation to be removed should it be blocking the highway, which includes footpaths, but vegetation isn’t always on WBC land.  Where it is on WBC land, Tivoli is the current contractor responsible for maintaining and cutting it back as part of the grass cutting contract.  (It is under another contract, street cleansing, when the problem is in alleyways).  Where it isn’t on WBC land however, it is up to the land owner to maintain and cut back. 

During these walks, we identified several areas that were WBC owned land and needed some attention, and the localities officer soon got these dealt with.  Of particular note was a bush along Sirius Close that had brambles so long, they were covering the footpath and into the road.  The path was not usable.  However, within 24 hours, the contractor had this cut right back.  Please note the picture below was taken from several weeks before that a resident had taken.  By the time it was brought to our attention it was far worse. 

In October of last year, I had the opportunity as part of the council’s Overview and Scrutiny function to scrutinise the Tivoli contract alongside several other councillors.  I raised a few points, but the key thing I wanted to highlight is that whilst the grass cutting this last year has been for the most part very good and proactive, the vegetation cutting back has been more reactive.  Some areas we noticed on our walk arounds had been dealt with, but it was too hit and miss.  There is an opportunity for residents to report vegetation overgrowth through the council’s website, (https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/report-problems/), and I do urge residents to do so, but I believe this should be a last resort, and the service much more proactive, and hope that this will be the case next season. 

When it comes to vegetation that is not council owned, the land owner must maintain it.  For the most part, land owners do, but not everyone does, and when it is blocking access to footpaths and roads, it does sometimes need some intervention.  The council can send a letter to the land owner requesting the vegetation be cut back.  Should this still not result in the work being done, they can write again stating that if it’s not done, the council’s contractors will do it and the bill sent to the land owner.  However, I would rather this was a last resort, particularly as in some instances, the land owner could have personal circumstances that make this harder for them.  A simple knock on the door may be all that’s required.  I’m certainly more than happy to give a hand to any of my neighbours if they need it, as I’m sure most of us would. 

Whilst walking round the east side of my ward, one of the big problems I wanted to highlight to the localities officer, is how some footpaths are narrowed by years and years of detritus building up.  I had received an email from a wheelchair user earlier that week mentioning that she could not use the footpath along the side of Finchampstead Road opposite the pub from Eastheath Avenue to Molly Millars Lane.  It was simply not wide enough anymore.  The problem was that cleaning this up was outside of the contract we have and would require additional money.  Getting hold of that money when the council is stretched financially would prove to be a challenge.  The officer and I came up with a more community based solution – Wokingham Community Clean Up. 

A very narrow Finchampstead Road footpath – photograph courtesy of Tony Johnson

On Sunday 13th October, with the assistance of the Evendons and Town NAG (Neighbourhood Action Group), a large group of residents came to help and we cleared away as much of the detritus as we could manage.  I am truly amazed at the amount of support and hard work people put in, particularly at 10am on a drizzly Sunday morning (when we anticipated the road would be at its quietest).  We even organised a second one for November to continue the work we started.  It was tough going because root systems had effectively formed a carpet across part of the path, but we are proud of what we achieved, and the idea has been picked up by Wokingham Without Parish Council who have arranged their own community clean up day.  I hope that other communities across the borough will also take this idea forward.  Not only does it help make our footpaths easier to use, it’s a great way to meet others in the area, plus it feels good to get stuck in, and of course enjoy a drink in the pub afterwards with everyone (it was noted that we effectively cleared a path to the pub 😊). 

A much wider footpath – photograph courtesy of Tony Johnson

What I am conscious of though is that this doesn’t happen again.  I’ve met with the contract owners to understand how the path had gotten into this state and what we were going to do to ensure we’re not in the same place in a few years.  This falls under the street cleansing contract which is coming to an end, and a new contract (with a new contractor) is beginning in April 2020.  It was identified that whilst street cleansing was taking place, if the machines had not been able to reach a part of the footpath due to vegetation being overgrown, they simply went around the vegetation, missing out the detritus on the footpath, but then didn’t let anyone know.  Years of this has resulted in the problem I described above.  As part of the new contract, if vegetation prohibits them from reaching a section of footpath, there will be a reporting function that means WBC are made aware and then Tivoli can deal with the overgrown vegetation.  It has simply been a case up until this point of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is up to.  I have been assured that going forward this will no longer be the case. 

Do please use the council’s reporting tool (link above) to report any problems with overgrown vegetation, but should you feel that the problem hasn’t been resolved, or if you want to make suggestions/feedback about the service and/or highlight anything further, you can always get in touch with me.  Whilst I live in the ward and report what I can, I won’t pick up on everything.  And if anyone wants to organise a community clean up day, do let me know and I will help facilitate, and if I’m available, will come with my shovel and gardening gloves to get stuck in. 

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