Day two of the Easter holidays and it’s raining! My weather app tells me that this miserable weather will be short lived (fingers crossed), so I’m taking the opportunity to catch up with my blog whilst the kids watch a movie. All being well, we hope to be out and about as much as possible this school holiday, and spending some time sorting out the garden. The kids want to make part of the garden a wildlife garden, and we’re painting the garden fence purple!
Just after I wrote my last blog entry, we had our final full council meeting before the May local elections. On the agenda that evening was a review of polling districts and polling places, and the frequency of review of members allowances. I welcome the fact that a committee has been looking at polling districts and polling places, and many of the changes made are positive. However, whilst the changes are going in the right direction, I could not support the recommendations because 4 schools in the borough are still being used as polling stations. Whilst these particular schools are not in the ward I represent (they are Hillside Primary School, Aldryngton School, Whiteknights Primary School and Oaklands Junior School), I cannot vote for something that means that schools have to be closed unnecessarily. Using schools as polling stations disrupts children’s education, particularly when they have exams in May (when elections are usually held), and causes difficulties for many parents who often need to take time off work to care for their children. Unfortunately, the motion was still passed.
The members allowance item on the agenda resulted in quite a heated discussion in the council chambers. Members in this context means councillors and the council commissions an independent remuneration panel (IRP) to review the scheme of how much councillors are paid on an annual basis. The proposal up for debate was to move to four-yearly reviews (i.e. one review every 4 years). The problem with the system though is that whilst an IRP reviews member pay, it is up to the members to vote on whether they accept the recommendations or not. In other words, we get to decide whether we get a pay rise or not, which in my opinion is completely ludicrous. A national pay scale in line with council turnover would make so much more sense, but this wasn’t what was up for debate today.
The reason why the frequency of these reviews was being raised is because they are labour intensive and at last year’s review, the recommendations of the IRP were not accepted (as members felt it sent out a negative message to residents at a time of financial challenges), and the IRP subsequently disbanded. Several IRP’s have disbanded over recent years and it is a challenge to recruit new members. We put forward an amendment to the recommendations to make the reviews every two years instead of every four. If the reviews were held every four years, this would be too far apart, leading to large scale changes to the scheme (i.e. significant jumps in pay). Many members still felt that our pay should be scrutinised every year, but the motion passed with the review taking place every two years.
The heated debate came from the fact that Labour members believed that we are paid too much and should have a freeze on our pay whilst the nation is still in austerity measures. Many Conservative members then listed off numerous Labour run councils around the country where their members are paid much larger amounts. I watched the whole incident in dismay because it was reminiscent of how MP’s behave in the House of Commons, with jeering from various members in the chamber. It was completely inappropriate, irrelevant and a huge waste of time. Whilst all members in that council chamber with the exception of the two independents are members of political parties, you cannot assume that a member agrees with 100% of their party’s policies or some of the decisions made by others members of that party. We are all still independently minded, and I certainly would not like to be judged by a decision made by a Lib Dem council in another part of the country.
To clarify on pay, as a basic member of the council I receive £7,784 per annum before tax. Those in executive roles receive more for their added duties. I’m often asked how much time commitment my role takes and I guess it will be different depending on the person, where they’re a member for, and which party they represent. Right now, this is practically a full-time commitment for me. I am in a ward where I am the only representative for my party, plus the party I represent is in opposition to the ruling party – there are less of us trying to challenge the status quo, and therefore less of us to divide the work load up. I honestly do not know how those with full time jobs do this role, because it is a big commitment. Given the commitment required, I can honestly say I would be very surprised to find a councillor who is in this for the money.
With regards to how much money a councillor should receive, that’s a tricky one. This isn’t about money, but service to your community. However, I believe in democracy and fair representation. I do not believe that being a politician serving the community should be restricted to the elite who can afford to do so. I believe that people from all corners of society should have the opportunity to represent their communities, and finances should not restrict them in doing this. We need diversity and balance.
Questions to the Executive
I also had two opportunities to ask questions of the Executive Members during the meeting. The first was my members question (which is pre-submitted) as follows:
“On 28th September 2018, WBC received a joint letter from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and the Department for Transport, written in response to the Department for Transport’s publication of the Inclusive Transport Strategy. This publication asks local authorities to pause the development of shared space schemes whilst it updates its guidance to ensure that road schemes like this meet the statutory requirements under the Equalities Act 2010. The Department for Transport did this due to long standing concerns raised by vulnerable road users, and is the consequence of the recommendations of a Parliamentary Select Committee published on 25th April 2017 that recommended a halt to shared space schemes that remove kerbs and signal-controlled crossings as well as a review by the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation Review of Shared Spaces published in April 2018. With this in mind, I have concerns about the redevelopment of California Cross given that the design that went to public consultation at the end of last year has several shared space characteristics. To add to these concerns, the parking bays of the design are at an angle to the carriageway which is a major route, and means that vehicles leaving the parking bays would need to reverse onto the carriageway. At the Community and Corporate Overview and Scrutiny Committee, earlier this year, where the new marketplace was under review, one of the senior highways engineers stated that parking bays like this were too dangerous to implement where a vehicle reverses at an angle onto a busy carriageway. As the California Cross parking bay proposals appear to be similar, and given the request from the government to pause the development of shared space schemes, what is happening with regard to your plans for California Cross?”
The answer I received from the Executive Member for Highways was:
“The California Cross proposals were progressed, as you said, and broadly approved as part of a planning permission obtained by the developers associated with the Arborfield SDL development. A decision was made by Council Members to take the scheme inhouse and widen its scope rather than let the developers deliver the scheme included within its application.
The Council is fully aware of the publications from the DfT with regard to shared space schemes. However as the DfT publications came at a point after the project had reached an advanced stage of design, and given that the scheme is not a fully shared space scheme, for example there are kerb upstands, which I now know is the way the kerb sticks up, a decision to progress with the project up to a concept design stage was made including public consultation on the proposals The progression to this stage allows us to gather valuable site data that can be used for whichever scheme design is progressed, to comply with the planning consent requirements, and to take on board consultation results. In addition, there is further time to consider the scheme, due to recently identified utilities works within the vicinity of California Cross, which has resulted in a construction embargo in this area until July 2020. Should further advice be provided by the DFT during this time, this will, where appropriate be incorporated into the scheme. WBC have followed the principles of the Equality Assessment guidance and during the consultation period including additional consultation with vulnerable groups and disabled users. The findings from these have been fed into the concept design and discussed in the public consultation.
With regards to the parking arrangements we are considering amending the design from the current proposal to stop vehicles using the parking bays reversing onto the main carriageway. We still have work to do on this to check the flows and turning circles which we will do when the project reaches the detailed design stage. You are not alone with this. I have also had feedback from Councillor Weeks whose ward this is in, saying very similar things to what you have said.”
I will continue to press the council on this matter. I also had the opportunity to ask a ward related matter (which is not pre-submitted) as follows:
“I am really pleased to see the route beyond the Greenways being consulted on at the moment covers the west side of my ward. The east side of my ward which is the area west of Finchampsted Road, Evendons Lane and the surrounding roads there are provisional plans for a Greenways route called Route D. We are desperately in need of some infrastructure in this area which encourages active travel and takes cars off the network. However, the route suggested does not appear to take into consideration the key destination of potential users, particularly cyclists, for example there is no direct route planned to Wokingham train station or business areas like Molly Miller’s Lane. To unlock this demand and to make this more successful the route needs to help residents get where they want to go in the shortest, safest, most convenient route. Therefore, will various stakeholder groups be consulted on Route D at a much earlier stage in the process than Route B to ensure that the most appropriate route is identified to ensure that these Greenways reach their full potential, particularly for cycling groups?”
The Executive for Highways answered ‘yes’ and has since been in touch with me. We are discussing this in more detail and I hope in a future blog I will be able to write more in-depth about encouraging more active travel in and around Evendons Ward.
We are now in election period for the 2nd May local elections. Whilst my seat is not up for re-election, I have colleagues on the ballot paper for several seats, and I am supporting them in their campaigns. I am wishing all my Lib Dem colleagues the best of luck, and in particular Adrian Mather who I hope will be able to join me as an Evendons Ward councillor.
Whatever your political persuasion, I strongly encourage you to take the time to consider all prospective candidates, talk to them on the doorstep if they knock on your door, reach out and engage with them. Politics seems fragile at the moment even at local level, which is why more than ever I believe it is important to exercise your democratic right.