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.
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.