Rolling In It?

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!

Council meeting

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.

Members’ Allowance

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.

Election

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.

Enough Is Enough!

 

This last couple of weeks has continued to throw a wide variety of case work my way.  One of the things I need to do is find a way of organising myself.  I am normally a highly organised person, perhaps annoyingly so, with a spreadsheet for everything, a holiday folder with dry and wet weather activities and a daily school schedule stuck to the inside of the front door (yes really!!).  I need a system to organise my workload as a Councillor, but I honestly have not had time to think about how to do this, and am currently scribbling everything down in a notebook.  Thankfully my colleague Adrian is a whizz when it comes to IT, so once we’re through the May election, he will get some kind of system in place.  Until then, I need to get a basic spreadsheet in place.  

Roads

Case work these last couple of weeks has included potholes (Lib Dems love complaining about potholes!) and the general quality of some of the road repairs that have been taking place (or not taken place in some cases).  The council is in the process of changing highways contracts which is why there have been a few quality issues.  Balfour Beatty’s contract finishes at the end of this month (March) and Volker Highways will be taking over from 1st April.  We have been assured that there are KPI’s in place for a number of things including quality, so hopefully from April we should see an improvement.  We are also moving to a new portal on the website to facilitate reporting of issues which hopefully will make things easier.  

Highways related issues continue to be the majority of the work that residents approach me about.  I am meeting one of the lead officers at the council regarding traffic enforcement to discuss a number of issues raised so I can understand what is and isn’t possible.  This includes the speeding down the Woosehill Spine Road which many residents have contacted me about.  Speed data has now been collected, and with the data, I need to see if it warrants any action.  

Residents of Oaklands Drive will also be pleased to hear that the double yellow lines should be extended past the postbox on the Molly Millars end of the road.  This has caused concern as it’s on a sharp bend where cars regularly park making it dangerous.  The work is just waiting for final sign off at the top level and I’ve been informed it should happen by the end of April.  

Housing

The big thing over the last couple of weeks was the demonstration along Finchampstead Road in opposition of Gladman’s proposal to put 216 properties there.  For those that aren’t aware, there is a section of land called Woodcray which is behind the golf course and next to Luckley School that Gladman’s has previously tried (and failed) to build upon.  There is a ‘Save Woodcray’ group that have been working hard to get local residents to object to the potential development.  

Many of you may be reading this and thinking NIMBY, but I am in complete agreement with the Save Woodcray group.  It is nationally recognised that we desperately need more housing, but it should be noted that it is not in the interest of developers to solve the problem.  Once housing demand is met, house prices fall and so do developers profit margins.  Developers want to build in Wokingham because of the high level of house pricing we have in the area (more profit), but the rate of building is at a level that keeps house prices high.  

Our housing quota is determined by a methodology called Objectively Assessed Needs (OAN).  The methodology is clearly flawed as our high level of house building does not seem to have been taken into account (and this isn’t just a problem in Wokingham).  Because of this, I have set up a petition calling on central government to redesign the methodology (link is at the bottom of this post should you wish to sign).  However, I have also been informed by MP Jake Berry, Minister for the Northern Powerhouse and Local Growth, that “a housing need figure is not a target.”  Mr Berry states that local authorities use the quota as a starting point to help them make an assessment and consider “whether the need is more appropriately met in neighbouring areas.”  Talking to WBC officers though, the reality is not quite that simple.  We used to have a regional structure regarding housing quotas for the south east, but this has been removed and everything now falls on the individual local authorities.  In other words, there is not a high-level strategic approach.  

It’s also important to note though that the quota could be 850 1 bedroom apartments, or 850 6 bedroom houses – it does not specify.  There is more profit for developers in larger properties, but is this what Wokingham really needs?  We do want to have people move to our town as it’s good for our businesses, our diversity etc.  However, we must also cater for our own population, and this is something that has been greatly overlooked.  We have a large influx of big properties and not enough smaller properties for our children to move to and for our retiring residents to downsize to.  Whilst we may be attracting people to Wokingham, we will also be losing many of our residents who move elsewhere, and that balance needs to be redressed.  Wokingham Borough Council has its own building company Wokingham Housing Limited that also incorporates Loddon Homes.  We could have so much more control over the development of our borough. 

Green Space & Congestion

Addressing the concern of volume of house building, we do have areas of green space within the borough.  Does this justify concreting over it though?  Yes our population density is lower than a number of other places like Reading and Bracknell, but these are not comparable.  We have to respect that we are a market town without the infrastructure to sustain large levels of population increase and a semi-rural borough which I fear is being lost.  We have congestion issues on our roads, poor air quality due to this, very limited access to schooling (unless you go private), difficulty getting doctors appointments, this list goes on.  Our town and infrastructure was not built to accommodate the high increase in population that we have already seen.  The congestion on Finchampstead Road is already in a terrible state, and with the Southern Distributor Road due to be built over the next couple of years, will get worse.  What is the alternative?  We can look at cycle paths, greenways and other infrastructure, and this is something I am in discussions with at the moment, but this won’t fix the issue completely.  Building a by-pass road that runs parallel to Finchampstead Road and comes out away from town could work, but how do we pay for it?  The only way we would get the money for that would be by building more houses to get the levy money from the properties to build it, and we would need a huge number of properties to afford it.  This in turn would create thousands more cars which would add to the traffic.  Yes, we would have a new road to help, but the volume of cars could increase on our main roads, even with a by-pass built.  

Change from the Top

It’s all very well me ranting like this (and boy does it feel good to rant), but what is the solution?  Personally, I am in favour of garden cities.  There are many parts of the country where this could work and we’ve seen success with places like Welwyn Garden City and Milton Keynes.  Jobs and communities are created with the infrastructure from scratch, rather than trying to cram more into historical places.  We need change from the top though of our political system and that’s why we need to lobby our government.  My petition on its own won’t be enough, but it’s a start and I hope to come up with a range of initiatives that will help us have our voice heard.  In the meantime though, I would like the council to take control of the house building we have to do through their own company and keep the developers at bay.  

My petition can be signed at:

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/237564

Getting Things Done

To finish on a more positive note, I have had some success this week with a couple of things I’ve been working on.  After discussions with the Chair of our Neighbourhood Action Group (NAG), there was a decision not to hold the Evendons annual litter pick as the council would not be collecting the waste until during the week, so it would be left out for the rats and birds for a few days.  Having escalated this, the council agreed to collect on the day of the litter pick, but not in enough time for it to be arranged, so they are letting us hold it on another date – 30th March.  I do hope you can join us.  

I was also amazed to find that when it comes to consultations, the council did not have a list of disability groups they approach to ensure they are taking all view points into account.  After raising this at an Overview and Scrutiny Committee meeting, this is now being undertaken.  

Small things at this stage, but you can get stuff done!  Now, time to rest up before my half marathon on Sunday for mental health charity Mind.  

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/lucyandsarah19