Pointing At Potholes

There’s a bit of a joke in the Liberal Democrat party that we like pointing at things, particularly potholes.  In fact, our current party president, Mark Pack has set up a website www.libdemspointing.co.uk with the subheading “Liberal Democrats in their natural habitat.”  So to buck the trend, here’s a photograph of myself and local campaigner Ian Shenton pointing at a pothole on Finchampstead Road near Carnival pool. 

I spotted this pothole yesterday (Saturday 1st Feb) when walking up to the sports centre with my kids for a swim, and used the WBC app on my phone to report it.  I was surprised that this pothole had not already been reported.  Given that we’re in the winter months when potholes are more frequent, I thought it a good idea to remind everyone how to report potholes and the council’s processes. 

Wokingham Borough Council, as the highways authority, has a responsibility to maintain all adopted roads that fall under its authority.  This means roads that are private or larger roads such as the M4 that passes through the borough, fall outside of its responsibility, but the majority of the roads that we use in the borough, WBC has to maintain. 

In April 2019, WBC entered into a new maintenance contract with Volker Highways, the contract having previously been run by Balfour Beatty.  As part of the contract, Volker’s will do inspections of the roads in the borough, and will repair defects that they come across as part of their inspections.  How frequently these inspections take place varies depending on the kind of road.  A major ‘A’ class road would have more frequent inspections (monthly) due to the high level of traffic. 

Defects though do appear in between inspections, and can be dealt with if the highways authority is made aware of them.  Members of the public can report potholes via the council’s website https://www.wokingham.gov.uk/report-problems/ (click on ‘p’ for pothole, or type in pothole to the search bar) amongst many other things.  You can also report on the WBC app on your phone, although appreciate at the moment, the app is a bit clunky.  If however, the pothole is urgent, do please call 0118 974 6000 (0800 212 111 if out of hours).  Volker’s aims to repair urgent defects within 24 hours and non-urgent within 28 days. 

Below is the website version of how to report potholes which I’ve taken you through step by step.  The app is similar and as I’ve already mentioned a bit clunky.  I have raised this though with the contract owner at WBC as a way of improving the service to residents. 

Landing Page
Click on the blue button that says “report a pothole online”
You can either zoom in or start typing in the location
As you start typing you can choose the location from the drop down options
You can see other potholes that have been reported (or if they one you’re reporting has already been done). You can click to get updates sent to you on ones already reported.
Click on the screen of the location where the pothole is and choose the option “report pothole here”
Fill in any details you can and click next. On the next screen you can attach a photo if you have one.
Enter your details and click submit. You’ll get an email with a reference number

The pothole I highlighted at the beginning of this blog though upon going back today (Sunday 2nd Feb), had become much worse.  I therefore had the opportunity to test the ‘reporting an urgent pothole’ function.  As it’s the weekend and out of hours, I called the out of hours number (which I could only get by phoning the regular number as the out of hours number is not listed on the website).  I have to admit, it wasn’t the best or easiest service to use, and will be feeding this back to the contract owner at our next meeting.  I was left on the phone with no one answering and music playing for over 10 minutes without any kind of message to give me confidence that my phone call would be picked up.  I nearly gave up!  Someone eventually did pick up, but it was quickly apparent that they weren’t local when I said that the pothole was on Finchampstead Road near the town centre, and they didn’t know what part of the country I was in.  They also didn’t have access to the online reporting system so I couldn’t give them the reference number from the online report I made yesterday.  It’s not too difficult for someone with local knowledge to describe where a pothole is, but if you don’t have local knowledge (people passing through are just as entitled to report defects), it would put you off doing it.  Given the highways authority is reliant on members of the public reporting defects in between inspections, the process needs to be as easy to use as possible, and this is an area where I would like to see some improvements. 

In my own experience I found that before the new Volker contract came into play, there were some issues with the quality of repairs, and as such, many potholes are reappearing after a short period of time.  I also felt that there were some teething problems with the new contract.  There was a pothole that I reported before the new contract that didn’t get fixed, and I re-reported it twice more at the beginning of the new contract, to ultimately have to take it to the contract owner to get some action.  Problems do happen, but on recent reports, I’ve found the service to be much better and the fixes of a far better quality.  There was one pothole on the road at the foot of my drive.  Not only was it fixed within the timescale, the quality of fix is good, and the team fixing it did knock on my door first to see if I needed to get my car off the drive first. 

The pothole that was fixed at the end of my drive

I would like to point out that elected members of the council do not get any special privileges when it comes to reporting defects like potholes.  We also use the method(s) outlined above.  Where we do come in useful though is if problems arise with the above system, such as defects not being repaired properly or in a reasonable time, or at all.  We can also feedback to the contract owners anything we feel relevant.  With regards to quality, Volker’s themselves quality check 10% of the work carried out by their employees.  WBC also do spot checks, but will be doing a thorough review of the quality in the coming months as the contract comes up to its first anniversary.  I have also requested that the Volker Highways contract comes to the Overview & Scrutiny committee for a thorough review. 

And now for something completely different – Lib Dems not pointing at something for a change.  

Ian and I not pointing at the double yellow lines that have gone in on Oaklands Drive (a section wasn’t done when the lines were first put in and we’ve been pushing to get them extended for safety reasons)

Full Council January 2020

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. 

Molly Millars Lane – Wokingham

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. 

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. 

A Million Metres

Running an obstacle course race a few years ago

This blog post isn’t directly about my role on the council, however, it is loosely related to the climate change emergency we have just declared, and I felt benefited from a bit of explanation. 

I’ll take you back to approximately 9 years ago when I took up running after giving birth to my first son.  I started running for a couple of reasons: I wanted to lose the baby weight, and I wanted to deal with my mental health as I was struggling with depression.  I like exercise classes, but I’m quite a goal driven person, and wanted to target something, so signed up to a half marathon.  Plus, I could run when it suited me rather than to someone else’s timetable which fitted in perfectly with a new baby.  I quickly caught the running bug!

Fast forward a few years and I became a British Athletics qualified leader in running, and have coached lots of ladies for a range of distances (from complete beginner through to half marathon distance) through local firm Elite Conditioning.  I have loved being involved with this fantastic company who have inspired me and many other local women. 

In the lead up to the by-election campaign in February this year, I decided to take some time out from coaching as I was trying to keep a lot of plates spinning, but I carried on running for myself and in March, did the London Landmarks Half Marathon.  That was the last time I ran until the summer holidays.  Despite lots of people warning me, I stopped looking after myself, no longer finding the time to do what I loved, that had the added benefit of keeping me physically and mentally well.  I don’t want this to put anyone off considering standing for council, because believe me, it’s a real privilege to do this role, but should you find yourself in this position, don’t let the role consume you. 

I decided during the summer holidays that I needed to find a better balance and was thinking of how to motivate myself to get back out there again.  Then, one of my friends from school gave me the perfect opportunity.  He had started something last year called the Million Metre Tribe.  The idea is to complete a million metres in whatever discipline you like over whatever time scale works for you.  It’s about setting goals, pushing yourself, but most importantly, getting out there and doing something.  Last year he rowed it.  One of his other friends took part in it last year and did 10km a day running for 100 days.  I liked the sound of that – if I started in September when the kids were back at school, I’d be done by Christmas and can indulge myself over the festive season knowing I’d earnt it. 

I discussed the challenge with an experienced running friend of mine (I say experienced, she is medal winner for Team GB no less), and she suggested that mixing up running and walking to reduce the chance of injury, so I committed myself to 1 million metres over 100 days on foot, mixing up running and walking where appropriate.  And today (8th October), I am one month in and have achieved 30% of that target so far. 

You’re probably wondering why this is relevant to the scope of this blog page, so let me explain.  The biggest challenge for me hasn’t been the physical aspect (although I do have a purple big toe), but the time commitment.  I can run a 10km in under an hour, although when you’ve been doing it several days consecutively, that sometimes is more of a struggle.  Walking obviously takes considerably longer.  What I have found though, is that whilst I have slightly less time to do my work, I’m more focussed and achieving more in that time.  But the most important change is that I’m incorporating it into my role and making active choices about how I travel to meetings.  The council offices are 2.5 km away from where I live, so a 5km round trip which is approximate 1 hour.  Other than evening meetings (I don’t feel safe walking home in the dark on my own at 11pm at night), I almost exclusively walk to council meetings now, and make sure I schedule meetings that allow me the time to walk in.  I did find myself in a pickle the other day when I didn’t quite have enough time, so I ended up running to the meeting.  No one seemed too fussed that I was in this meeting with my sports clothes on, although someone did point out that the building had a shower I could use (they did say that they were just informing me and that I didn’t smell 😊).  I walked over 13km yesterday (7th October) by attending several meetings within my ward.  Rather than driving around the ward between meetings, I timed them so I could walk to each of them.   I’ve also taken to having my phone with me and as I run around the area, picking up defects/issues that I can report to the council.  It’s been a good way of keeping on top of what’s going on in the ward. 

I still have another 70 days to go, and whilst most days I love it, there is the odd occasion I question why I’m doing this.  The benefits I expected are there (the physical and mental health benefits), but the added benefit of organising myself to actively travel places and take my car off the road was one I hadn’t contemplated at the beginning of this challenge, and actually has in my mind been the biggest benefit.  I hear a lot of excuses for not doing these things, and I for one have been guilty of it myself.  There is a lot we can do as a council to help make active travel easier and I am working hard to push this agenda because we need to reduce congestion, air pollution and our carbon emissions.  But there is so much we can already do as individuals, and one of those barriers is ourselves.  For many I totally accept this won’t be possible.  My husband’s commute is quite a way away and there are no public transport services that can get him there in a timely manner.  However, he is getting ready to make the plunge into the second-hand electric vehicle market.  We are making other conscious changes in our lifestyle that are better for our planet, but this one was kind of accidental, I guess.  What I’m getting at is there’s always lots of reasons not to do something, but why not look at the things that we can do and change for the better and just go for it.  This planet will thank us. 

Should Heathrow Grow?

It has been a little while since I last wrote a blog post.  The summer holidays meant balancing my council duties with my two young boys, and of course the family holiday I desperately needed.  Now school is back in action, I’m playing catch up. 

There’s a lot going on in local politics at the moment, and the big topic is the Heathrow expansion.  I would like to give special thanks to my friend and colleague Paul Fishwick for all the research he has done regarding the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport, which I am including in this article.  Apologies for the length and detail of this article, but I hope it provides you with the facts that have helped determine my position on this. 

Heathrow Airport is already the largest UK airport with a capped 480,000 annual flights.  A third runway could mean 260,000 additional flights a year taking the total flight movements to 740,000[1], impacting on the surrounding area, including Wokingham Borough.

Why is a third runway required?

Apparently, there is an urgent need for new capacity for business travelers.  However, according to the Civil Aviation Statistics report that looked at the UK’s five largest airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stanstead and Manchester) between 2006 and 2016, the number of flights made for business at these airports has not increased.

Also, the Department for Transport (DfT) UK Aviation Forecasts (2017)[2] suggest that a new runway will make little difference to the number of flights taken for business across the UK in the future with the Transport Committee’s report (page 17) stating that “the passenger growth facilitated by a North Western Runway scheme is accounted for almost entirely by leisure passengers and international transfer passengers”.

Most flights are leisure flights, and most of these leisure flights are taken by a small number of wealthy fliers who take multiple flights each year. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, just 15% of the UK population take about 70% of all flights[3]

A bigger airport would only really serve the interests of frequent flyers, with the majority of the population paying for the consequences (of which I discuss below). 

Impact on regional airports

The Department for Transport (2017)[4] indicates that the latest forecasts suggest that regional airports will lose out from a Heathrow Expansion since, with the third runway, they will have 17 million fewer passengers by 2050 than they would without it.  This means people would be travelling further to get to larger airports like Heathrow, putting more traffic on the roads which is not only an inconvenience, but increases pollutants into the atmosphere. 

The Effect on Climate Change

The Committee on Climate Change has stated that Heathrow is already the biggest single source of greenhouse gases in the UK[5].

According to the latest Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (DBEIS[6]),  the 1990 to 2017 Greenhouse gas emissions for the UK Transport sector covers 27% which is now the largest of any sector. In addition, between 1990 and 2017 the percentage drop in greenhouse gas emissions has been a tiny 2%, and zero between the latest reporting years 2016-17. By contrast energy has reduced by 60% and waste management by 69%. The Aviation sector (Table 14) has not improved between 1990 and 2017. Adding another runway, with more flights will only make matters worse.

Heathrow’s own figures[7] show a total of 173 MtCO2 MORE carbon emitted, over 2022-2050, with the 3rd runway than without building it. The emissions could reach 25MtCO2 per year from flights alone. The increased CO2 would be as much as 9MtCO2 per year more, in the peak year (2035) than with 2 runways. The total extra CO2 from more surface access transport would be 7MtCO2 over that time period. The extra CO2 from all the construction work would be 3.7MtCO2, to build it all. The total of all that would be 173MtCO2 MORE carbon produced in total (flights, surface access + construction) than if the runway was not built. The estimates may be on the low side, as Heathrow has factored in future carbon efficiencies. Heathrow has taken no account of the fact that we now have a net zero target for 2050.

Further Developments

Since the third runway was approved in June 2018, there have been several developments in climate science and policy that make an even stronger case for withdrawing and reviewing the decision to proceed.

In December 2015, the UK – along with almost every other country in the world – has agreed to a global deal to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with an aspiration to limit rises to 1.5°C. However, emissions reduction commitments currently fall well short of what is needed to achieve this aim. Even if all existing commitments were met, the world would see warming of 3 to 4.5°C – which would be catastrophic for millions of people. In this context the UK must do far more to reduce emissions.  

However, since Parliament approved the Airports National Policy Statement[8] (NPS) on 25 June 2018, several scientific and political developments have further demonstrated the incompatibility of the decision to expand Heathrow with meeting the UK’s climate goals:

  • On 28 June 2018, the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) annual progress report to Parliament[9] warned that “the UK is not on course to meet the legally binding fourth and fifth carbon budgets” as set out in the Climate Change Act, and that much greater action is required, particularly in the transport sector. The stalled progress of the last five years was described as “now an acute concern”.
  • On 8 October, the IPCC’s special report[10] laid out in sobering clarity the catastrophic impacts of 2 degrees’ warming compared to 1.5 degrees. The report, coordinated between 2,000 climate scientists, reiterated the need for “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” and made clear the necessity of halving global emissions within just 12 years. 
  • The following week, the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments formally requested updated advice from the CCC regarding tightening long-term emissions reduction targets and the transition to a net zero-carbon economy, in light of the Paris Agreement.
  • On 26 November the Met Office’s UK Climate Prediction 2018[11] provided the clearest assessment yet of what the UK will experience from the changing climate: rising sea levels, increased temperatures, and changing patterns of rainfall[12].
  • On 27 November the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2018[13] set out the gulf between action required to meet Paris goals and that so far pledged by national governments. The report outlined humanity’s current trajectory – more than 3 degrees of warming by 2100 – and the scale of action required to get back on track: a fivefold increase in ambition compared to current ambition.

Western Rail Link and Southern rail Access

As indicated in the DBEIS[14] all sectors of the economy, especially the transport sector must make deep cuts in emissions and that includes aviation. Expanding Heathrow Airport will only increase greenhouse gas emissions from more flights and road transport cars, vans, freight etc as there is no provision for expansion of the rail network to include the Western Rail Link from the Great Western railway and the Southern Access Link.

The Heathrow Airport Consultation document[15] page 4 table 2 only states “work with stakeholders to influence the delivery of the Western and Southern rail links”. That statement provides little guarantee that either of the rail accesses will be provided at any time.  

With no direct rail access to Heathrow Airport, residents living to the west and south west of the airport are more likely to drive or use a taxi, including those who live within Wokingham Borough area to get to the airport as the alternative modes are considerably lengthy and not cost effective for example via London Paddington.

Additional Housing

An expanded Heathrow Airport with an additional 123,000 jobs (currently 110,000) [16] will also put pressure on more housing development along the ‘M4 commuter corridor’ in areas such as Wokingham Borough where a recent Housing Consultation has given a 95% No to more housing[17]. Additional housing will also put pressure on the local and strategic highway network as there is no programme for the introduction of the two-rail links highlighted above.

More Air Pollution and noise

Air pollution locally is way above legal limits and gets worse towards Heathrow.  Heathrow, and the surrounding area, already suffers from illegal levels of air pollution. Dirty air already causes over 9,000 early deaths in London each year[18]. Not only will expanding Heathrow mean more flights, but more traffic on the roads from people travelling to the airport. This is likely to cause even more air pollution, including additional traffic locally which will add to the poor air quality in many parts of the borough and make the goal of Wokingham Borough becoming carbon neutral by 2030 even more difficult.

The Heathrow Expansion summary document page 26[19] states; “When public transport improvements are in place, there could be a case for introducing a congestion charge.” However, there is no time planned for the introduction of the Western and Southern Rail links and there are doubts now over the delivery of HS2.

Additional car parking

However, there are plans to construct a Southern and Northern Parkway car parks[20] within the phased development and this has been quoted as the “worlds largest car park for 50,000 vehicles”.[21] The traffic for these car parks will use the existing highway network, where Heathrow Airport are planning on improvements to create more capacity at congested locations. More traffic getting to Heathrow Airport equates to more air pollution.

Flight Paths

Already local people must endure around 1,300 noisy planes landing and taking off at Heathrow every day, many flight paths are over Wokingham.  It should be noted that this is with 2 runways with around 480,000 flights per annum. With a 3rd runway this could rise by 250,000 flights.  There are significant differences in take-offs and landings when the wind is in the ‘easterly’ half as they fly low over this area including up to midnight and from 05:30am.


Wokingham Borough Council, along with many other local authorities and the UK Government, have agreed to a Climate Emergency[22]. The details of the Climate Emergency have yet to be developed and agreed, but there is only 10 years to take drastic action and if Wokingham Borough Council are serious about Climate Change they must object to the expansion of Heathrow as you can’t be

Supporting the Climate Change Emergency and Heathrow Airport Expansion?

The two are incompatible and no amount of conditions being attached to the support of it will make a difference.  Heathrow cannot as we’ve seen from the evidence comply with the emissions conditions that would need to be attached in order to make this compatible with our commitment to climate change.  They claim they can and will proceed to build with conditional support, but it is only after it is built that we will see that they can’t meet those conditions and then it’s too late.  The only way forward is for this council to firmly state that it does not support the expansion.  Any conditions attached will just weaken that stance.  My colleagues and I (the Wokingham Liberal Democrat Group) have submitted our own response to the Heathrow consultation giving a firm ‘no.’ 

[1] https://www.heathrowexpansion.com/the-expansion-plan/facts-and-figures/

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/781281/uk-aviation-forecasts-2017.pdf?_ga=2.30499709.376903101.1566914938-1912789317.1546118658

[3] https://bettertransport.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdfs/Air%20Traffic%20Controls%20report.pdf

[4] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/653879/updated-appraisal-report-airport-capacity-in-the-south-east.pdf

[5] Airportwatch

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/final-uk-greenhouse-gas-emissions-national-statistics-1990-2017

[7] https://aec.heathrowconsultation.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/5/2019/06/11-Volume-1-PEIR-Chapter-9-Carbon-and-greenhouse-gases.pdf

[8] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/airports-national-policy-statement

[9] https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/reducing-uk-emissions-2018-progress-report-to-parliament/

[10] https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/11/pr_181008_P48_spm_en.pdf

[11] https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/approach/collaboration/ukcp/index

[12] https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/collaboration/ukcp

[13] https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2018

[14] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/final-uk-greenhouse-gas-emissions-national-statistics-1990-2017

[15] https://aec.heathrowconsultation.com/

[16] https://b9kdp3cmc3m1gtje53fj9gdn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Taking-Britain-Further-Summary-Pages-200dpi_easyread.pdf

[17] Wokingham Borough Council meeting of the Council 18th July 2019.

[18] https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/environment/pollution-and-air-quality/health-and-exposure-pollution

[19] https://b9kdp3cmc3m1gtje53fj9gdn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Taking-Britain-Further-Summary-Pages-200dpi_easyread.pdf

[20] https://aec.heathrowconsultation.com/plans/phase-4/

[21] https://stopheathrowpollutingus.org/

[22] https://wokingham.moderngov.co.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=131&MId=3269


I am writing this a bit bleary eyed after last night’s full council meeting.  It didn’t finish until just after 11pm, after which I was buzzing so didn’t sleep.  I will give a more detailed update on the meeting last night in a subsequent post, but wanted to take this opportunity to discuss one of the agenda items – the equalities motion. 

This was my first motion to council since I’ve been elected, and given that I’m still learning the ropes, I was a bit nervous.  If you’ve ever been in that council chamber, you’ll understand why.  It’s quite an intimidating place. 

The rules on motions are that they can only be submitted after the previous meeting has ended, and then they are debated and voted on in order of submission.  Each motion has a maximum of 30 minutes to be debated upon and the full council meeting has a maximum length (10:30pm, but with agreement from the chamber can be extended to 11pm), with motions being the last items on the agenda.  In other words, if you get to 11pm and a motion hasn’t been debated, it doesn’t get heard.  However, the motion doesn’t automatically go to the next meeting.  It has to be resubmitted to be considered.  And not all full council meetings has a place for motions in the agenda (such as the first meeting of the municipal year), so not that many motions have the opportunity to be debated and voted on. 

The motion I presented to council last night was the following:

“Local Authorities have a statutory requirement to demonstrate their compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) of the Equalities Act 2010.  This act requires Local Authorities to consider how their work affects people of different ages, disability, sex, sexual orientation, religion or beliefs, marital status, pregnancy and maternity and gender identity. Everyone that lives in, works and visits Wokingham Borough needs to have confidence that this is being done throughout the Borough.  This Council will evidence its compliance with the PSED through undertaking Equality Impact Assessments (EqIA’s) when required, and ensure they are included in public reports and are easily accessible on the Council’s website.  In addition, all newly elected Members will have PSED and EqIA training as part of their induction.  Executive Members will also have to undertake PSED and EqIA training.” 

This motion is printed in the agenda and what then happens is, the Mayor asks who is the proposer and seconder.  In this case the proposer was myself and the seconder was John Halsall the leader of the council.  I sent the motion to the other parties and the independent councillors several weeks ago to let them know about it and give us the chance to discuss (and tweak if necessary), to increase the chances of it gaining cross party support.  For this to pass, I needed the Conservatives to vote for it as they have the majority.  When John said he was happy with it, I asked him to second it to demonstrate that commitment.  Both he and I had spent time with officers at the council to ensure that what I was proposing could be acted upon – motions cannot be just words; they have to be practical as well. 

Once it’s been established who is proposing and seconding a motion, the proposer gets to speak for 5 minutes.  The below is my speech:

“I got involved in politics as a result of what happened at Grenfell Tower.  Innocent people lost their lives due to poor political decisions.  This ignited a desire in me to want to stand up for people in our community who are often overlooked by our political class.  People who are often seen as the minority. 

I am fortunate to have my Grandad.  My Grandad is 96 years young and fit and healthy, except for his poor eyesight.  He is registered visually impaired.  Every Tuesday I take my Grandad out to Morrisons in Woking where he lives to get lunch and do his shopping.  As such, I know the visual and physical cues he uses to navigate safely. 

When the Wokingham Town marketplace reopened last year, it was immediately obvious to me that something was wrong due to the experience I have with my Grandad.  This led me to investigate and I discovered that people with visual impairment had not been fully considered throughout all stages of the process when designing the marketplace.  In fact, not all stages of the process were fully documented from an equalities perspective, and as such, there have been a number of issues raised regarding safety for people with protected characteristics.  These concerns are being investigated by the council, and I welcome improvements that address these concerns, but we should not be retrospectively considering the impact on vulnerable residents. 

The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) contained in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, requires public authorities to have due regard to a number of equality considerations when exercising their functions. 

As part of the PSED, Local Authorities must evidence their compliance with the Equalities Act.  An Equality Impact Assessment (EqIA) is an analysis of a proposed organisational policy, or a change to an existing one, which assesses whether the policy has a disparate impact on persons with protected characteristics.  Assessing the impact on equality is not just something the law requires, it is a positive opportunity for public authorities to ensure they make better decisions based on robust evidence and are transparent in the process.  If records are not kept it may make it more difficult, evidentially, for a public authority to persuade a court that it has fulfilled it’s duty. 

The marketplace regeneration is just one example of where this council is not fully complying.  There needs to be a shift in culture at Wokingham Borough Council.  Considering equalities is not something we should be doing because the law tells us to.  We should and must be doing this because we are here to serve ALL of our residents.  Just because the majority are catered for, does not make it acceptable to ignore the minority.  And in order to change this culture, it must start from the top.  That is every single one of us in this room.  We are the faces of this council, and we have to lead by example and be the change. 

Currently, senior officers undergo mandatory training on this subject.  There is an online training course on the council intranet which is available for elected members to partake, and I strongly urge all of us sitting in this room to do it please.  This training will also be available to all new members once they are elected.  In addition to this, training must also be given in the new councillor induction session, and at the first Executive Briefing of the municipal year.  Currently, the attendance record of elected members is available on the council’s website.  Any training undertaken by elected members will be published in the same way.    

Transparency is crucial for anything the council undertakes, but particularly when it comes to equalities.  All EqIAs will be made publicly available on the council website.  In order to determine whether an EqIA is required, an initial impact review is done, and where an EqIA is deemed not required, the initial impact review will also be made publicly available on the council website.  In addition to this, when policy papers are presented to us, currently there is an emphasis on the financial implications of the recommendation listed.  The measure of success of this or any council cannot rest on its finances.  We are dealing with people – our residents, and every policy paper put before us, also needs to include the impact on them as well, including those with protected characteristics.  We must give confidence to everyone that lives, visits and works in Wokingham Borough that we are considering everyone’s needs.  What I am proposing is a very simple and effective way of doing this.  I strongly urge this council to demonstrate it’s support to ensure that Wokingham Borough is a great place to live and an even better place to do business for everyone.”

The seconder is then given the opportunity to talk, although they can reserve comment until other members of the council have spoken.  John chose to speak in support of the motion and indicated that this is something we already do.  This frustrated me somewhat as you will see later on. 

Now the other members of the council get to speak and debate, although John tried to take this motion straight to the vote.  You might think that given it was clear this motion was going to pass, so what, go straight to the vote.  However, one of the big problems we have is that many members of that council chamber don’t get how serious an issue this is, and debating a motion in council, is an opportunity to speak to the public.  Full council is a public forum and a mouthpiece for the council, and this needed the air time to show that we’re taking resident’s concerns seriously.  The labour leader Andy Croy requested the debate continue (quite rightly) and the Mayor agreed. 

What was notable is that the only speakers on the motion came from Labour and the Lib Dems.  They highlighted a number of points, some talking from personal experience, and all discussing the negative impacts on the public many decisions have had.  One of the great comments made was by Imogen Shepherd-Dubey who said:

“Do we truly understand what it is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes?  As an Autistic woman who is married to another woman, I can’t think that many of you have the same perspective as me, but I don’t know what it is like to be you either – so I think we are even.” 

And Caroline Smith also said:

“Discrimination of the elderly is not often up for public debate, but one thing I am sure of, is that this is something that can affect us all and cane be affecting a member of our families today, so let’s make sure they are treated equal at all times.” 

One everybody has had the chance to speak, the proposer gets a right of reply and can speak for up to 3 minutes before it goes to the vote.  This is an opportunity to address anything that has been raised in the debate and to sum up.  I made a few notes as others were speaking and addressed those, and then read the following:

“Thank you for all your comments and the debate and I’m pleased that this council appears to be behind this motion.  It’s not exactly a controversial issue.  What I am concerned about though is the reasons for this council backing the motion.  This organisation has to be more than just words and promises – it has to deliver on those as well.  My concern is that this motion will pass (and believe me, I hope it does pass), but without fully grasping why this motion is here in the first place.  So let me try and change that. 

In yesterday’s Bracknell and Wokingham news, in an article about this motion, a senior member of this chamber was quoted as saying “it is the sort of thing we are already doing anyway – we already do what the motion says so it is just reaffirming what we do.”  Rubbish!  Why would I be wasting time on something that’s not necessary.  If this council was doing this kind of thing, we wouldn’t have the problems that have been highlighted here tonight.  And it goes much deeper than this. 

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 can say this from personal experience.  In my time so far at this council, I have on more than one occasion been spoken to in an unacceptable manner including had comments made that would not have been made to my male counterparts.  These comments only serve to belittle me.  And the thing is, we’ve heard this before in this council chamber when an outgoing leader of this council commented on the old boys network.  It feels like some of us in this council chamber are seen as a tick in the diversity box.  Believe me, we add a hell of a lot more value than that. 

This isn’t about me or the other few people in this council chamber that represent protected characteristics though.  The point I make is to demonstrate that the problems we have of equality in this council are engrained to the point that not everyone can see it.  This is a very real issue and the attitude and culture has to change to address this.  This is not about saying the right things for the press – enough of the words – do something!  I appreciate I won’t succeed in changing everyone’s minds.  But what I will have done is to bring the problem to the forefront, raise awareness and start to do something about it.  Are you with me?”

I was shaking as I read this – a combination of nerves and in some respects anger.  The vote was unanimous, and now the Head of Governance at the council has the mandate to insist the words of this motion happens.  There is a long way to go still, but we have taken a massive step in the right direction.  The final statement below is my party’s mission statement:

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

Plate Spinning

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?

Preparing for a council meeting whilst getting a pedicure on my birthday!

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. 

Adrian and I with the food caddies

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. 

Law & Order

I’ve been a bit quiet on here recently.  Since the local elections, things have been pretty busy as we’ve been allocated our areas of responsibility, and the various committees have been divvied up between us.  And for anyone who’s been asleep for the last few months, we’ve also had the European elections.  I will go into the areas of responsibility I now have, and the work I’m doing on the various committees I sit on, in more detail in my next blog post.  For this blog, I wanted to talk about policing. 

Since I was elected, I’ve been on two ride-alongs with the neighbourhood policing team.  One of the biggest concerns residents have been telling me is the rise in anti-social behaviour, and the lack of visibility of the police.  I too share these concerns, and have become increasingly worried, especially since the knife attack outside the station last month and the assault just outside the town centre last week in broad daylight.  I wanted to try and understand from the perspective of the police what is going on. 

My first ride-along was on a Friday during the daytime.  I had to drive over to Loddon Valley Police Station in Lower Earley to meet the team who would take me out for the day.  There in itself lies a problem – Wokingham Town does not have a Police station anymore.  I have read many social media posts from residents about the lack of police station in the town, and it has also been mentioned on the doorstep several times.  Please believe me when I tell you that the front-line police officers are as equally frustrated by this.  My understanding is that the closure was for financial reasons, but it has had a huge knock on effect on the effectiveness of policing.  Our local police teams are not able to achieve as much during their shifts because they waste so much time going back and forth to Loddon Valley; time which could be used proactively patrolling.  I was given a scenario by one of the officers.  Police officers are supposed to work in pairs (although this isn’t always the case anymore due to numbers of officers being so low), and if an officer is taking a statement, or gathers some evidence, they have to take it back to the station, write it up and log it.  The other officer in the pair has to go back with them, and wait until they’re done before going back out on patrol.  When the station was in the town centre, the other officer, whilst waiting for their colleague could quite easily go out and patrol the town centre on foot for a few minutes.  Now they have to sit and wait at Loddon Valley (Earley is covered by a different team) for their colleague to finish, plus time is wasted driving back and forth.  As a direct result of the closure of the police station, the officers spend less time patrolling our streets. 

During my first ride-along we began by driving around Emmbrook, Woosehill, Evendons East, the town centre and Norreys.  We then spent a large part of the morning in Woosehill.  After driving up the full length of the spine road and along many of the side roads, we parked up at Morrisons and went on foot.  We walked around the field behind Morrisons, and through the various footpaths around the estate.  I didn’t expect to see much action on a Friday daytime, and I didn’t, although we saw quite a lot of evidence of drug use.  It did give me the opportunity though to discuss some of the problems many residents in Woosehill have been facing.  The car theft problems had recently been taking place, but I was pleased to hear that the offender had been caught and arrested.  There are however a group of people causing further problems in the community, and the police are aware of who they are and trying to gather evidence in order to build a case for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). 

We then spent most of the afternoon in Norreys, although we did take a stroll through Latimer Park in Emmbrook ward through to the bowling alley.  This is a known spot for trouble, and again we found evidence of drug use, not just in the field and by the bridges, but actually in the children’s play area, plus an abandoned bike.  In Norreys, the officers were on the look out for particular vehicles that they know are related to drug rings in the area.  They spotted one car parked that was on their radar, but there was no action, so after some time of waiting and watching, we drove on. 

The second time I was due to go out with the officers was on a Saturday night.  It was on one of the very warm weekends we had a few weeks ago, but when I turned up, they had to inform me that all the officers were dispatched so no one could take me out.  There had been a serious robbery happen, plus a large number of minor crimes that meant they were working at full capacity.  I rearranged for last night (Saturday 15th June).  The officer I was supposed to go out with wasn’t there as he had just made an arrest (drugs related), but there were two other officers who offered to take me out. 

Rather than go out on patrol this time, which is what the officers wanted to do, we were dispatched to Norreys again where there had been an incident that morning.  The officers were tasked with viewing CCTV footage where available and interviewing residents by going door to door.  The idea was to get as much evidence as possible to help build a case for the CPS.  I spent quite a lot of time in the office at Sainsbury’s viewing the CCTV footage, but it was just as well we did, as we got some good footage that was burnt onto a disc and taken as evidence.  We then knocked on the doors of some of the residents and managed to get a couple of witness statements. 

After this, we drove back to Loddon Valley with the evidence so that it could be logged, by which time it was around 10pm.  The officers had started their shift at 2pm and this was their first opportunity for a break and something to eat.  They never got the chance to patrol that evening. 

I know there is a lot of frustration amongst residents about lack of visibility of the community police team.  They want to be out patrolling our streets, and used to do it much more frequently, but we’re now seeing a knock-on effect of the big ‘a’ word – Austerity.  There just aren’t enough police officers.  I didn’t see this so much on the first ride-along because it was a quiet daytime and the officers were patrolling.  However, last night, I can see how easily patrolling takes a back seat when officers are called to assist other teams.  The officers I spoke with are as frustrated as you and I.  They deeply care about the communities they work in, and are doing everything they can, but without more funding that leads to more bobbies on the beat, they’re limited in what they can achieve.  What is fantastic to hear though is that despite this, our team, the team that covers Evendons ward, Emmbrook, Norreys, Wescott and the town, is the highest performing team that works from Loddon Valley. 

An area I wanted to discuss with the officers is around preventative measures that could be put in place; measures that reduce the chance of crime happening in the first place.  One of the officers I was out with yesterday also covers Finchampstead and I wanted to find out the impact the FBC has had on the community.  The perception I have is that community centres like the FBC work as preventative measures for anti-social behaviour as they are a hub for the community, and I would love to see a facility like this in Evendons Ward.  If you haven’t been to the FBC yet, you must give it a go – it is something quite special.  It was good to hear that anti-social behaviour in the area has gone down since the FBC opened and the officers would like to see more of these kind of facilities in the area. 

I also took a trip over to Maidenhead a few weeks ago as they had a particular area where anti-social behaviour was rife.  The council installed a MUPA (multi-use play area) which isn’t dissimilar to the area out the back of the FBC.  Levels of anti-social behaviour have dropped significantly as a result.  Whether we are in a position to implement something like this, I don’t know at this stage, but it is something I will investigate. 

I found both ride-alongs a real eye-opener and I have a huge amount of respect for the officers that represent our community, and I have requested that when they do patrol, to ensure they check out the Woosehill underpass as frequently as they can.  Moving forward, I intend to go on a ride-along every quarter so I can keep abreast of what is happening with community policing, and feedback to you.  Plus, a little part of me really wants to be in a police car with the sirens going! 

My son at a fayre attended by the Police

Be The Change

On Thursday 2nd May, or rather the early hours of Friday morning, there was a huge cheer from within the main hall at Loddon Valley Leisure Centre.  I’m not entirely sure of the exact time, but it was around 3am that the announcement came that Dr Maria Gee became Councillor Maria Gee for Wescott, knocking out the leader of Wokingham Borough Council. 

The whole evening had felt electric, despite the late hour.  Many of us had been up since the crack of dawn, and we were tired, but being in that hall as the results came in was worth it.  We (the Liberal Democrats) doubled in numbers overnight, bringing to the council a wide range of skills, including financial expertise and highways expertise among many others. 

Many of us have been out canvassing since mid-September last year, talking to residents on a weekly basis, usually several times a week.  Initially we were handing out surveys to try and gauge public opinion, then we moved on to election canvassing.  In Evendons, election canvassing started much sooner than we anticipated due to the by-election.  There are mixed views about canvassing.  The majority of residents are happy to see us and have someone to discuss their thoughts with.  A few people would rather we didn’t, but it’s a case of we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  My personal view is, I’d rather be as visible as possible for residents to interact with (and I do try and communicate in a number of ways), but if someone really doesn’t want to talk to me, just politely say so. 

When we canvass, we tend to work as a team, helping out in each other’s wards, and as such, I’ve spoken to residents in Winnersh, Emmbrook, Wescott and Hillside (Lower Earley) as well as Evendons.  There are a few ward specific, and even area specific concerns residents have, that for Evendons, I’m working on with residents.  However, there are a number of concerns coming out across all the wards I’ve been canvassing in – house building numbers, infrastructure, council spending and the town centre regeneration being top of the list.  The point I’m trying to make is, whilst Brexit was sometimes raised on the doorstep and would have influenced to some extent voting intentions, it was predominantly local issues that brought about the results of this local election. 

A question that was raised time and time again on the doorstep, and even in conversations I have with friends is, why are local councils political?  Our role as local councillors is to represent residents, but this can be split into two areas.  We have our case work, which is where residents contact us about an issue, and we help to try and get a resolution where possible.  This covers a wide range of areas and in the three months I’ve been elected, has mostly been highways and refuse collection concerns, although I’ve also had children’s services, anti-social behaviour and housing issues to address amongst other areas. 

The second part of our role is policy setting.  Sometimes we can’t get a satisfactory result in our case work due to the policy that’s in place, and we can try and change that policy (although it’s not a simple task).  A frustrating incident last week in planning committee was when a block of flats in Winnersh was approved despite there being inadequate parking.  It was a block of 12 flats, with a total of 15 bedrooms and just 11 parking spaces, plus one accessible bay.  It was approved because the number of spaces was in line with council policy. 

This is where politics comes into play as decisions need to be made as to how Wokingham Borough is run and what policies are needed.  This is where opinion will often be split.  There will be times when all councillors in the chamber will agree, but more often than not, there are disagreements.  As an opposition councillor, it will be much harder for myself and my colleagues to get policy changed should the leading party not agree, but this is why I believe cross party working is essential.  There will of course be compromise, but working cross party means everyone’s voice gets heard, and hopefully as a result, decision making improves.  And after the recent elections, we certainly have a louder voice! 

Independent councillors pose more questions.  I know many residents don’t like the idea of politics being involved at local level, and many have said they would vote for an independent candidate should one stand.  I completely understand why residents feel like this.  I too am sick of party politics.  However, what’s important to remember is that an independent councillor may not be part of a party, but they still sit somewhere on the political spectrum.  It’s really important to understand where, because by not being aligned with a party, it’s sometimes harder to know what their views are.  These views influence how they vote on policies, and what policy changes they may put on the table.  As mentioned in my previous blog, even within a political party there is a spectrum of opinion, but generally the overarching principles of the party are what they stand for.  What those of us in parties need to do is work within our parties, but still maintain that independent voice where needed.  I.e. not have our votes whipped. 

The final thing I’d like to mention is that whilst I was telling outside of Woosehill Church polling station, a number of voters commented to me about the fact we (the Lib Dems) had no town council candidate on the ballot paper.  We had candidates in other areas, but we did not have enough people wanting to stand for election.  This is something we were obviously disappointed about, but unless residents are willing to stand for election, our hands are tied.  A quote that I have on a notebook that I carry around in my handbag is “the most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity” – Amelia Earhart.  I was never that interested in politics before I had children.  Whilst I always voted, I tended to stay out of anything further.  A number of incidents have happened over recent years that led me to change my mind, but the real catalyst that made me decide to act was the shocking event at Grenfell Tower in 2017.  Having the option to not be that interested in politics is a privilege.  For many, that is simply not possible – they are quite literally fighting for their lives.  I felt I could no longer sit back and ignore things, although initially I still wasn’t sure what route to take.  I knew though I wanted to do something for my community.  So many residents have been saying that they want change, but my message to anyone who wants change (and I’m not just talking politics here) is please don’t rely on others to make that change happen.  If you want change then why not ‘Be The Change.’ 

New Girl on the Block!

At approximately 11:30 pm on Thursday 7th February 2019, the result of the Evendons by-election was read out, and life suddenly changed.  A wave of emotions came over me which resulted in a few tears as I hugged Helen, my husband and Daniel and Tim the other candidates.  I was then whisked firstly over to sign a book that is held by Electoral Services to confirm that I would become the new Liberal Democrat councillor for Evendons, and then out of the room for interviews with the local press.  I’m not sure what I said – I had been up since 5:30 am and it was getting close to midnight now and was still battling with a number of emotions.  My poor husband though settled the mood as he came trailing behind me with my bag and coat, begging people not to call him Denis Thatcher.  

Prior to the election, my husband and I decided it would be an idea for him to take a few days off work post-election.  The build up to the election had meant we had seen very little of one another, and whatever the outcome, we needed some time together.  He took the Friday, plus the following Monday and Tuesday off work.  However, a few days to collect ourselves never materialised.  After having crawled into bed at around 2 am after the election (we needed a G&T before bed!), and unable to switch off and fall asleep, our 5-year-old came bounding into the bed room at 6:30 am enquiring after the result.  And with that my mind was buzzing with all the things I needed to do, despite feeling like a zombie.  

I thought that once the children were at school, I would be able to have a fairly relaxed day, and I did get as far as having brunch in town with my husband and mum.  That soon changed though when BBC South got in touch with me.  I have been campaigning for some time to have changes made in the marketplace in town to ensure the space is accessible to all our residents.  A number of design features have contravened guidelines for minority groups, particularly those with visual impairment.  I have been putting pressure on the council to make a few alterations so that these safety concerns are rectified.  BBC South were going to run a feature and wanted to interview me as part of it on the following Monday morning, airing on the Tuesday.  Nothing like a baptism of fire when starting a new job that’s very much in the public eye!  I had no idea what to expect, so I contacted a friend who is interviewed a lot on television and radio to get some advice.  The main piece of advice was to be clear about the message I wanted to get across and try and put that message into every answer so that however the piece is edited, the message is present.  I can honestly say that is a lot harder than it sounds and I need more practice.  On the plus side though, I was asked if I could be interviewed by BBC Radio Berkshire on the Andrew Peach show about the same topic.  The difference with this interview was that it was live and therefore what I said could not be edited…No pressure!

The rest of the week carried on being just as busy, having part of my council induction and responding to a deluge of emails and phone calls.  I also attended a meeting with two of the lead campaigners against the potential development at Woodcray, along the Finchampstead Road.  I had received the planning application for a development consisting of 216 properties and met to discuss the proposal with them.  This also tied in with some of the work being done on the Local Plan Update consultation which was due to close at the end of the following week.  There are a number of sites submitted (including Woodcray and Fox Hill) affecting the Evendons ward.  The consultation process though was not straight forward and the range of questions and sites submitted made it a huge undertaking for residents to complete.  The more resident feedback though, the better, so I wanted to put out as much useful information as possible to residents to help them with their submission.  The Fox Hill group had written something incredibly useful which I wanted to build upon for the prominent sites across the ward.  

With all this going on though, I still had to balance the rest of my life.  I took a choir rehearsal one evening, and after the meeting with the Woodcray campaigners on Friday, I had to ice 60 cupcakes to take into school and help with the cake sale my oldest son had arranged (and only told me at the last minute)!  

The following week was half term and both my boys suffered with flu, so we were pretty much housebound for the week.  I did though have my first full council meeting to prepare for that Thursday and this one was the budget!  On Monday alone I spent 7 hours going through the documentation and I had what can only be described as brain fry.  I have watched many council meetings, but I am still astounded as to the behaviour that goes on.  It’s not quite the House of Commons, but it’s not far from it.  I think it’s best described as a pantomime and I can honestly say my children behave better.  

I made my maiden speech at the meeting, asking for there to be a line in the budget to have a designated bay installed in the town centre for the community buses that transport the disabled and elderly community.  My request was amongst other amendments that my fellow Liberal Democrat councillors asked for that we submitted in an amendment to the budget being proposed (all fully costed and put together with department heads), but unfortunately the amendment was rejected.  However, the Executive for Highways did make a statement in the meeting and also spoke with me afterwards about my request and it is something being looked at.  Fingers crossed we get a solution soon.  

The Liberal Democrat group also put in an amendment to the Council Tax Reduction Scheme which is there to support those on lower incomes.  The scheme proposed did not have a 100% reduction.  Should a resident not be able to pay, the council would have to take that resident to court and the cost of doing that would far outweigh the amount of money owed, so the amendment was to have a pot of money put aside for those in hardship.  The amendment was accepted and part of the new scheme going forward.  Whilst I support the amendment my party proposed, I still couldn’t vote for the scheme as a whole.  When calculating a person’s income to determine how much of a reduction they are entitled to, 33% of carer’s allowance is included as income.  This allowance is a life-line to people that are caring for others, and unable to work as a result, freeing up resources in our struggling NHS and adult social care services.  Therefore, I voted against this.    

Since the budget meeting, the range of areas I’ve been looking into has been quite extensive.  I’ve been spending time putting together my comments for the proposed Woodcray development (I am strongly against it), looking for any possible solutions for the huge levels of congestion we face on the Finchampstead Road (I am trying to acquire traffic data that will help with this, plus looking at potential sites for cycle routes), researching ways of tackling the increasing levels of anti-social behaviour (my first action on this is arranging a ride along with our local police team, and visiting an area in Maidenhead that has successfully implemented proactive measures to understand best practice methods), plus inundated our highways department with requests across the whole ward for a wide variety of issues to name just a few.  To say this role is varied is an understatement, but I am enjoying the challenge.