Saturday, 27 February 2010

Don't forget the Gurkhas!

This morning I was honoured to accept an invitation from my Lib Dem colleague Tilehurst Councillor Peter Beard, a Trustee of Reading-based charity 'The Forgotten British Gurkha' , to meet a group of Gurkhas currently living in Theale. Following the successful campaign last year for settlement rights led by Joanna Lumley, Nick Clegg and backed by Reading West MP Martin Salter to enable retired Gurkhas to live in the UK the latest battle the Gurkhas and their supporters are fighting is for decent housing and financial help to enable them to survive in the UK. They are also campaigning for equal pension rights as other British servicemen - at present the are only entitled to around one-third of the pension entitlement compared to other UK servicement which is grossly unfair.
Since the historic decision on settlement rights last year last year retired Gurkhas are arriving in the UK with nowhere to live and often very little money seeking a better life. Former Mayor of Reading Peter Beard has been working tirelessly alongside retired Gurkha Chandra Burathoki and the FBG welcoming Gurkhas and their families when they arrive at Heathrow and helping them find suitable housing in and around Reading. The charity recently worked with local councils housing bodies and were successful in helping Gurkhas and their families to move out of the cramped and overcrowded rented accomodation into homes provided by the James Butcher Housing Association in Theale. The charity is also working with Reading Borough Council's empty homes officer to see if empty homes can become much needed homes for Gurkhas and their families.
The Gurkhas I met in Theale today were very warm and friendly - it was a delight to meet them. During my visit I heard from Chandra Burathoki (who acts as liaison officer for the charity) about the difficulties faced by Gurkhas and their families many of whom cannot speak much English when they arrive in the UK and who struggle to navigate the complex UK benefit system. It can take several months for them to access benefits and finding work can be difficult due to the permits required. Chandra told me he accompanies Gurkhas and their families to the JobCentre and Council Offices to ensure they get the help they need. He is clearly a very special man. The charity is also helping the Gurkhas find employment and greater independence in the UK via social entreprise projects including contract work and community projects. I think this is a great way to support Gurkhas and their families.
The work done by the Forgotten British Gurkha charity is vitally important: since Gurkhas won resettlement rights last year it is estimated that up to 12,000 retired Gurkhas and their families may leave Nepal to settle in the UK. We must not forget the Gurkhas - an estimated 45,000 Gurkhas died fighting for Britain in the First and Second World Wars - the British government must honour the committment Gurkhas have given to this country and continue to support them.
Check out this video about the experience of Gurkhas in the Reading area and how the Forgotten British Gurkha charity helped Gurkhas families move into more suitable accomodation:

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Labour failing to use powers that would help keep parks clean

A few weeks ago I blogged about my support for the campaign led by local resident Tom Lendrum to get Labour-run Reading Borough Council to take action to deal with the problem of dog fouling - a major issue for residents living in Whitley and I have no doubt, other parts of Reading. I tabled a question to this week's full Council meeting on this issue -

"What is the Council doing to tackle the problem of dog fouling in the Borough, and how many fixed penalty notices have been issued for this offence by ward?" Note: my ward colleague Cllr Kirsten Bayes tabled the same question around the same time last year.

In order to prosecute people who allow their dogs to foul public places councils must first introduce 'Dog Control Orders'. DCOs were introduced in 2005 via the Clean Neighbourhod and Environment Act. Fixed penalty notices can then be issued in areas covered by these orders such as public parks and roads. The Labour Lead Member for the Environment, Cllr Paul Gittings confirmed in his written response to my question that since the Act came into force five years ago Labour-run Reading Borough Council has not introduced a single Dog Control Order anywhere in the Borough and as a result no fixed penalty issues have been issued for dog fouling. Cllr Gittings told me that 'dog owners are encouraged to clear up dog waste' via poop scoop signs which have been put up on lampposts to raise awareness. Encouragement is clearly not working as there is no threat of enforcement if they don't. It's pretty obvious you need to use a carrot and stick approach!
The written answer from Cllr Gittings says that the previous Dogs [Fouling of Land] Act 1996 (which made it an offence for persons who fail to clear up after their dog and gave RBC the power to issue fines of £25) but the administration didn't issue any due to 'health and safety concerns for officers and the requirement to return any monies collected to the Department of the Environment'?! This is ironic given the health hazard dog waste poses the public.
As I pointed out in my previous post on this issue dog fouling was recently identified in a survey carried out by RBC as the number one issue for residents living in South Reading. And it's not the first time the Lib Dems have raised it! It's time Labour politicians in Reading started taking this issue seriously. I have requested that the Environment Scrutiny Panel investigates this issue at the next available opportunity.I hope it will recommend to the administration of RBC that action is taken soon to introduce DCOs and go further towards making our pavements and parks more pleasant places for local people to use.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Well done to Pincent Hill campaigners

This evening I attended a special meeting of West Berkshire Council's Eastern Area Committee held at Little Heath School where plans for 750 new homes between Theale and Tilehurst were due to be discussed. This plan has caused a lot of disquiet in the community and attracted over a thousand written objections from residents when it was submitted. I attended the meeting with my colleague, Tilehurst Cllr Ricky Duveen and my friend Jean Gardner, longstanding chairwoman of Tilehurst Parish Council. Jean has long been concerned about the impact the proposed development could have on people living in Tilehurst Parish. Jean is a great community campaigner who is well-known across the area for her work representing local residents over the years.I have huge respect for her and everything she has done for the community - she's a great role model for me in my campaigning as well as a a great friend.
It was a packed house for the meeting - hundreds of residents gathered in the school hall to listen to listen the Planning Committee's response to the planning application submitted by developers Blue Living to build 750 new homes on land at Pincents Hill. Planning officers identified many valid planning reasons why this proposal should be rejected - all of which were closely linked to the detrimental effect the development could have on the environment and the quality of life of residents. The land earmarked for development by Blue Living is well used by the community for recreation and provides a natural buffer or 'strategic gap' between established urban areas. Campaigners are currently trying to get it designated as a village green to protect it from future development. Developing such a site would therefore be contrary to a number of local and national planning policies.
Reading West PPCs Alok Sharma and Naz Sarkar both spoke out ably against the proposals in the meeting along with Jean Gardner, members of the Save Calcot campaign and councillors. A statement on behalf of Blue Living was read out by a representative of the developers which proved very controversial with the audience - not least because it included some bizarre claims and accusations about the handling of the application by the Council. This was met with anger from councillors, officers and residents. The representative then made a quick exit, refusing to answer questions. This did not go down well!
There was a huge cheer from the audience when after a brief discussion members of the Planning Committee rejected the plans unanimously. This was clearly the right decision and it represents a great result for the local community. Well done to Joan Lawrie and the Save Calcot campaigners, also to all the local residents who have submitted detailed objections and campaigned against this flawed plan.The local politicians of all political colours who have actively supported the local grassroots campaign including local MP Martin Salter also deserve praise for their hard work on this issue which has helped to protect this vital open space. Sadly this is unlikely to be the end of the road for these ill-conceived proposals - many people at the meeting voiced their concerns that an appeal is likely and the fear is not so much if this will happen as when.

Reading residents hit by Labour's Council Tax hike

I have written extensively about how Labour's policies in Reading are hitting the poorest and most vulnerable hardest. Many of them despite Gordon Brown's recent pronouncements are just plain unfair.The most recent example has been imposing service charges on Reading's council tenants - for basic services they currently get as part of their rent.
Well, last night Labour politicians in Reading went one better (or rather one worse ) - pushing through a 2.2% Council Tax increase. The proposed increase was higher than the national average (1.9%) and many neighbouring authorities. The timing of this hike could not be worse for Reading residents. As I pointed out last week, the recession continues to bite - with the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits rising last month.
As a party we are opposed to Council Tax in principle. It is an unfair tax. It is not progressive - far from it: Council Tax hits those on fixed incomes hardest - elderly people in particular. And for all the Conservative's hot air last night about the iniquities of our Council Tax system the Conservative Party nationally have no plans to abolish it if they come to power - and why would they? Council Tax was after all introduced by a Conservative government all those years ago.
Only the Lib Dems are committed to scrapping Council tax and replacing it with a fair tax system. We would go further - raising the tax threshold taking those who earn £10,000 or less out of income tax all together.We would also return local spending powers and decisions to local councils, who have seen their powers gradually eroded under successive Conservative and Labour governments.
The Lib Dem Group on Reading Borough Council opposed Labour's Council Tax rise last night. Because it is unfair and because we believe it is possible to provide good services for less and to continue to protect frontline services - plenty of other councils have done it. We are campaigning for better services and better value for money for local Council Tax payers. Reading residents have said they want better value for money from their Council - when surveyed in 2008 for the government's Place Survey 69% of residents surveyed said they didn't think RBC offered value for money.
There are too many areas where the Council is not living up to local people's expectations. For example, the fear of crime in Reading is higher than elsewhere and local residents have said they have little faith in the Council's ability to deal with this problem. Residents have said in survey after survey carried out on behalf of the Council that areas they want the Council to focus on tackling are: levels of crime, levels of traffic and clean streets - hardly rocket science!! And yet we have a Labour leadership that thinks chasing city status should be a top priority for the Council. But Labour stopped listening to the views of local people in Reading many years ago and they will pay a high price for this at the coming elections.
It should not be up to residents to plug the massive hole Gordon Brown and the Labour party have blown in the public finances. Councils, like other public bodies must tighten their belts. Yes, demand for some important council service is growing - for example in areas such as community care. And these important areas must be protected from cuts. However, savings must be made and overall when it comes to budget setting Labour's solution to every problem is always to throw public money at problems and increase Council Tax year after year in Reading (although when an election looms they are miraculously able to find savings). This approach is simply not sustainable: the money for extra spending has been spent - locally and nationally the level of public debt is not sustainable.

We made clear last night we were against the proposed Council Tax increase Labour put forward and we were prepared to listen to an alternative proposal from the Conservatives (they are the largest opposition group on RBC) which would allow Council Tax to be frozen in Reading . We waited...but none was forthcoming. The Conservatives failed to put forward any costed proposals about how they would achieve a reduction during the meeting and failed to turn up to vote on Labour's budget when it mattered. Their behaviour has landed Reading residents with a massive tax increase.This was irresponsible, gesture politics at it's worst from the Conservatives in which they promised a Council Tax freeze but failed to deliver one - which sadly followed last year's pattern. Serious times demands seriousness from local politicians - particularly when it comes to making decisions as important as this one that affects so many people in our Town.
Last night gave us more proof if proof were needed that neither the Labour or Conservative parties in Reading are the right people to run Reading Borough Council. And If you live in West Berkshire things do not look any rosier - there as leading Lib Dem councillor and Newbury PPC David Rendel has pointed out 'the vulnerable will pay more and receive less'.
If you feel strongly that our current tax system is unfair, you are opposed to further tax increases from Labour and you want elected representatives who care about fairness and value for money services the choice is clear: vote Lib Dem - the real alternative in the forthcoming local and general elections. Because as we discovered again last night what you get from the other parties when it comes to tax and spend is just more of the same.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Scrutiny review on impact of alcohol launched

One of the issues I have been campaigning on in Reading is improving public health. This is closely linked to my passion for tackling inequality and campaigning for a fairer Reading. As Chair of the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel since 2008 I have led a number of scrutiny reviews on health issues in Reading including recent investigations into dementia care services, the local ambulance service and children's health. You can find out more about the campaigning I've been involved in on health issues over the past few years over on my ward blog.

As Vice-Chair of the Council's Corporate, Community & External Affairs Panel I have been involved in scoping a new scrutiny review that has been launched: into the impact of alcohol. The review to be led by councillors will investigate the impact of alcohol consumption on local families and communities - a huge issue, I think you'll agree. It will also assess the treatment services that are currently provided in the Reading area. The Council is currently developing an 'alcohol strategy' which our scrutiny review will help inform.

As part of the review an open meeting is planned to take place at the Civic Offices on Saturday 6 March between 10 am and 2pm. The meeting is open to members of the public. Please do come along if you are free. It is really important that the views of local people are included in the review. Following the open meeting the Panel will agree recommendations - to the Council's Cabinet but also hopefully health bodies and other partners.

So why is this issue so important? Some startling facts about the impact of alcohol in Reading taken from the scoping document we discussed last night:
  • In 2008 Reading had the highest level of recorded crime attributable to alcohol in the South East (17.28% compared to average of 9.18% in the region)
  • Anti-social behaviour related to alcohol use is a priority for 50% of Neighbourhood Action Groups in Reading (Tilehurst East, Oxford Road North, Town Centre, Newtown, Oxford Road South, Redlands, University and Katesgrove)
  • A 6.8% increase in alcohol-related hospital admissions between 2008/9 and 2007/8 was recorded
  • 68% of alcohol-related admissions in Reading are for chronic conditions
  • The largest number of hospital admissions occurs in the older age groups (over 35yrs)
The figures above show that alcohol has a big impact on health and public safety in Reading and affects many people in the community. Concerns have been raised locally about whether or not enough resources are put into helping people who are struggling with alcohol - compared to drugs. We will investigate what support is available in the course of the view. I hope we will be hearing from people who have used local services as well as those that deliver them.

I look forward to participating in this review and I'm hopeful it will help inform what Reading Borough Council, the Police and the Primary Care Trust do in the future to help reduce the harmful impacts of alcohol on the community.

Action not tough talk needed on anti-social behaviour

Last month I blogged about my long-running local campaign for a better response from the Police and Council in Reading to anti-social behaviour and crime reported by residents. This has long been a top priority for me as a councillor and if elected MP for Reading West I pledge to devote a lot of my time to getting action taken on anti-social behaviour.

I read on getreading today that the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson visited Dee Park in West Reading earlier this week to "discuss issues surrounding crime and anti-social behaviour" with councillors and community leaders. Although others may see this as simple electioneering (Reading West constituency is a marginal Labour seat), I think it was nonetheless a positive step by Alan Johnson to leave the cosy confines of the Home Office to come and speak to people here in Reading. The article says that Mr Johnson met community leaders and councillors as part of his visit. I hope he also found time to speak to local residents too.

I'm not sure how much Mr Johnson's visit will do for public confidence in the Labour Council or the Labour government, when it comes to anti-social behaviour, however, if that's what his visit was designed to do. The impression I get from talking to local residents right across Reading is that many people are fed up with the amount of anti-social behaviour they have to put up with in their area, and fed up with Labour's failure to tackle this problem effectively.

Local people want to see action to reduce anti-social behaviour, not words. All the evidence locally shows that local people think that tackling anti-social behaviour should be a high priority for the Council and the Police. The survey of South Reading residents carried out by Reading Borough Council last year found that residents ranked 'tackling anti-social behaviour' as the top local priority for action (after more Police and action on dog fouling).

An independent inspection of Reading Borough Council and its partners published last December highlighted the fact that fear of crime is higher than the national average. And as I reported on my ward blog last year, the continued failure of the Labour-run Council and Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnership to respond to community concerns relating to anti-social behaviour resulted in the Home Office announcing it would be sending an ASB Action Team to Reading - one of only 16 places singled out for extra help from government.

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of many years of Labour rule in Reading.

I am concerned about the fact that locally many people are no longer reporting anti-social behaviour because they have no confidence that action will be taken by the authorities. A few weeks ago a Home Office leaflet 'Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour' popped through my letter box. Adverts have also appeared in the local press. The leaflet reminds people that councils and the Police have powers and duties to act to tackle anti-social behaviour. This campaign is part of an intiative led by Louise Casey which I discussed on the blog a few weeks ago and I hope it encourages people to report crimes to the Police and Council in Reading.

If crime isn't reported it's hard to get action taken. I make a point of reporting anti-social behaviour when I spot it in Reading and encouraging other residents to do so. I would encourage you to do the same: ring Thames Valley Police's (24-hour) anti-social behaviour hotline on 0845 8 505 505.

My interest in this area is now new. I have been campaigning on this issue since 2006 - in my my ward and across Reading because it is such an important issue for local residents. In 2008, I called for improvements to Labour-run Reading Borough Council's flawed "Anti-Social Behaviour Strategy". I have also campaigned for improvements to Neighbourhood Policing in Reading. You can find out more about my thoughts and campaigns for action on crime and asb over on my ward blog.

Lib Dem Shadow Home Affairs spokesperson Chris Huhne revealed in a speech he gave on anti-social behaviour in the Commons last November some depressing stats about the Labour government's record on tackling anti-social behaviour. Such as:

- In 2008-09, the Police recorded more than 3.5 million incidents of antisocial behaviour-more than 10,000 a day;

- the Home Office estimates that responding to antisocial behaviour costs the taxpayer £3.4 billion a year.

- 17 per cent. of the population believe that there is a high level of antisocial behaviour.

- In low-income areas, this figure rises to 32 per cent. when people in so-called "hard-pressed" areas are asked.

Mr Johnson promised on his visit to Reading to 'crack down on yobs'. I don't doubt his commitment to do this. However, I wonder how many other Labour Home Secretaries have also promised this since 1997 - Mr Johnson is the sixth.

Labour politicians nationally and locally have had years to reduce anti-social behaviour in Reading and many local people I speak to have understandably stopped listening to Labour's tough talk. They want to see action taken and to be listened to - and rightly so. Talking tough about anti-social behaviour won't make it go away.

So what's the alternative? I blogged last month about the Lib Dems' practical plan to cut crime. I am confident that if implemented nationally and locally Lib Dem proposals would help reduce anti-social behaviour and fear of crime in Reading.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Not over yet: recession continues to make life difficult for many

Recently a number of commentators and pundits have declared the recession is over. However, the publication today of the latest figures relating to the number of people in Reading claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), by the independent Office for National Statistics. suggest that for many local people the 'economic downturn', 'credit crunch', or whatever you care to call it continues to bite.
The number of people claiming unemployment benefit - specifically JSA, rose in Reading in January: from 3,970 i(n December 2009) to 4,190. This is not good news and should serve as a warning to those who think that the impact of Gordon Brown's recession is no longer being felt here, as well as a reminder that more work still needs to be done to support those affected. The claimant count as a proportion of the working age population across the South East in January was 3.6% - but in Reading it climbed to 4.3%.
Nationally, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit is the highest since Labour came to power. This is hardly a great endorsement of Labour's stewardship of the UK economy and Gordon Brown's famous pledge to "end boom and bust". And as many have observed - it is young people who are bearing the brunt of the recession.
What continues to concern me, is the fact that the largest group of people claiming JSA in Reading are aged between 20 to 24. Today's figures put this at 730 individuals.
Being out of work for any period of time can have a very damaging impact on individuals and for young people in particular. Another cause for concern in Reading is the increase in the number of people who have been out of work for over a year (claiming JSA): this has increased from 585 (Dec 09) to 640. This is a concern not least because all the evidence shows that the longer someone is out of work the harder it is them to get back into the labour market.
Nationally, whilst overall unemployment is down, the South East saw the biggest rise in unemployment during this period. - up by 12,000.
This evening at a meeting of the Corporate, Community and External Affairs Scrutiny Panel which I am a member, we heard that the number of young people not in education, education, employment or training (known as NEET) in Reading has fallen from a high of around 13.9% of 16-18 year olds (September 2009) to 6.1%. This is something I have been concerned about for some time. The decline in the number of NEETs is very welcome news and testament to the hard work that many local agencies including RBC and Connexions Berkshire have put in.
We must continue to actively support our young people in Reading to ensure they don't get left behind. The news that a number of 20 to 24 year olds are struggling to find work in Reading should be a concern for us all. At the CCEA meeting I requested that the Council as part of it's work to reduce the impact of the credit crunch locally investigates ways to support this group more effectively.
Whilst some commentators may have decided the recession is over we must not turn our back on young people in our own backyard, many of whom are still struggling. I will continue to campaign to raise the profile of the problem of youth unemployment and do my best to get action taken locally to help those affected.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Home Access: another gimmick from Labour?

Today Labour-run Reading Borough Council Council issued a press release urging low-income families without a computer to apply for a grant to buy one. According the PR, the government's Home Access grant "will provide grants for 270,000 low income families across the country to have their own computer and Internet access."

The packages available to local families who apply are as follows:
1. Full package (a computer, one year's internet access, service and support)
2. A computer with service and support only
3. One year's internet access only

The Council is encouraging lower income families whose children are not on free school meals can call the 0118 939 0900 0118 939 0900, extension 74285, to see if they could qualify for free school meals and if this was the case they would also be eligible to apply for a computer.

People can also ring the Home Access local rate helpline on 0333 200 1004 0333 200 1004 to find out the full criteria for qualifying.

If you think this applies to you or someone in your family please do call the Council. I really hope it helps local families.

This initiative sounds great doesn't it? Too good to be true?

I've been campaigning to highlight the problem of "digital exclusion" in parts of Reading recently. Put simply, the sad fact is thousands of families and individuals in deprived neighbourhoods in Reading don't have a computer, let alone access to the Internet - because they can't afford one. This leaves them without access to services and opportunities other better-off people take for granted - as these days many things are geared to people who are online. This is bad news - particularly for children, because the evidence shows that children with access to computers also do better at school.

I haven't campaigned on this issue because my Party told me to: I'm doing it because I care about the fact that thousands of people in Reading are living in poverty and they are excluded from opportunities in their area whether it be jobs or education. When I knock on the door and talk to people in Whitley for example, I find many households where people do not own a computer - so they can't use email and the kids can't do homework at home, for example. This isn't fair when thousands of other families are able to do this.

I can't remember exactly when he said it, but I remember vividly Tony Blair saying in a speech to a Labour party conference early in his premiership that he had a vision of seeing everyone in the UK online. 13 years since Labour first came to power we are still a long way away from that vision.

On the face of it the government's scheme sounds brilliant - free computers: what's not to like? But, when I looked into it more closely I found:
  • The grant for families is a one off - and for one year only (what happens then? does the internet get cut off?)
  • Only families with children receiving free school meals are eligible for the grant (so those on or above the poverty line who might still not be able to afford computers lose out)

This plan seems like a bit of a gimmick to me- a sticking -plaster solution designed to grab headlines rather than actually solve the problem of digital exclusion. What about families that don't qualify but who need support? How will it help families and children in the longer term? How will a hand-out help families and children escape real poverty?What will happen when the money runs out?

Coming this close to a General Election I can't help but wonder this is yet another attempt by Labour to try win votes from working-class voters rather than actually getting to the root of the problem. This is a shame, because if it was part of a wider package of measures to help families and a genuine attempt to tackle digital exclusion I would be very much in favour of it.

Nick Clegg has made helping the poorest children perform to the best of their ability his top priority in the coming election. Labour have had years to help improve equality of opportunity in this country but all the signs are despite millions of pounds of our money being spent on education under a Labour government the poorest kids are still lagging behind. This isn't fair and it's not right.

It is Lib Dem Policy to give every child a fair start: Liberal Democrats will spend an extra £2.5bn on schools. The money will be targeted at schools taking on children who need more help, but will benefit every child in every school. The cash can be used to cut class sizes and provide one-to-one tuition or catch-up classes, ensuring every child gets the individual attention they need. An average primary school could cut class sizes to 20. An average secondary school could see classes of just 16.

See Nick discuss our policy a couple of weeks ago here:

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Campaigning for a cleaner, greener Whitley

    This afternoon local campaigner Roy Haines and I went to meet to Tom Lendrum, Whitley resident and Chair of the South Whitley Neighbourhood Action Group. I know Tom through my role as Chair of the South Reading Safer Community Forum which deals with crime and anti-social behaviour issues.

    Tom wrote to me recently as he is totally fed up with the amount of dog mess in Whitley - on pavements and in green spaces. and he's also fed up with the apparent lack of action by Labour-run Reading Borough Council on this issue.

And he's not the only person in Whitley who is annoyed about this: last year the Council carried out a survey of South Reading residents and dog fouling came out as the number one issue! So why hasn't the Council done anything about this problem? Let's be clear about this: allowing a dog to foul in a public place is illegal. Most people know it's illegal but the lack of enforcement gives people the impression they will get away this - and the reality is they probably will.

And Council do have powers to take action on this issue - under the Clean Neighbourhoods Act 2005 which came into force few years ago. These include the power to issue fixed penalty notices. Sadly figures released by the Keep Britain Tidy campaign last week found that across the UK dog fouling that was previously in decline has risen back to 2005/6 levels - which begs the question is this legislation (brought in by Labour) working?

Tom is involved in the Neighbourhood Watch scheme on Heroes Walk. You get a good view of the local park from his house. "42 dog walkers use this park every day" he told me. He sees them arriving - some use the dog waste bins provided by the Council, but many do not. We joined him for a walk around the park.The additional bins have helped (as they have helped in Cintra Park where I have been campaigning for action), but the lack of enforcement action overall means that the park is still dirty as many owners fail to clean up after their pets.

Last year, Tom got so frustrated at the amount of mess in his neighbourhood he wrote to all 47 Reading Borough councillors individually. He told me he got less than ten replies (and none at all from the Conservative councillors). My colleague Cllr Kirsten Bayes responded to Tom at the time on behalf of the Lib Dem Group. I dug out her response and read it again today:

"Dog fouling is clearly a significant issue in the Borough. Over the last couple of months, I have raised this concern twice with the Council on behalf of residents, once regarding a pathway to Cintra Park, and also regarding pathways on the Hexham Estate (these being in the Redlands Ward which I represent).

My colleagues Cllr Benson and Goodall have also raised similar concerns, in particular regarding Cintra Park - Cllr Benson has been campaigning for some time on this issue. As well as being unsanitary and unhealthy, dog fouling also serves to make pathways and open areas unusable, which especially affects children, the elderly and people with movement difficulties. We have been campaigning to keep all footways clean and clear of obstructions, and regularly survey residents to find out where problem areas exist."

Kirsten followed up her response with a question to Council. At the March meeting of the Council last year she asked the Lead Member for the Environment:

"What is the Council doing to tackle the problem of dog fouling in the Borough, and how many fixed penalty notices have been issued for this offence?"

The reply Kirsten received revealed that only ONE fixed pentalty notice had been issued by the Council since it first had the power to fine offenders.

I am not calling on the Council to suddenly start fining people but it's time the Council made it clear to the public that they took this problem seriousl. For example they could increase dog warden patrols in South Reading, monitor dog fouling levels and install additional bins etc. Fines should be a last resort but they do need to be used sometimes to get the message across that this is a crime. I have tabled the same question to Council that Kirsten asked last year to be answered at our next meeting to find out what Labour are doing about this problem. If this is the number one issue for people living in South Reading why is Labour ignoring it? I think local people deserve a proper answer.From Tom's point of view and it seems from the point of view of the vast majority of people who responded to the recent South Reading survey last year the problem of dog fouling in Reading is a real one and it is getting worse. And they don't think Labour think it is a priority.

Dog fouling might seem like a minor issue but it has a big impact on how people feel about their neighbourhood and by extension their quality of life. It's one of those things like litter, graffiti and fly-tipping that make neighbourhoods feel rundown and depressing: so it should matter to politicians!It's about time the Labour councillors running Reading Borough Council listened to local people like Tom Lendrum and did something about this problem: enough is enough!

I built my reputation as a local councillor by campaigning for a cleaner and greener Redlands. Visit my blog for more details of my campaigns in this area. As Reading West PPC for the Lib Dems I will make it my business to campaign for cleaner and greener neighbourhoods across Reading West constituency for the benefit of residents. As part of this, I have signed up as a supporter of the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign - you can here. And If you live in Whitley or any other part of Reading West and you have concerns about the cleanliness of your neighbourhood Roy and I would like to hear from you. Please get in touch!

Friday, 12 February 2010

Conservative policy 'U-turn' threatens empty homes campaign

I have been campaigning for the last four years for the need for urgent action to bring the hundreds of empty private homes in Reading back into use. As a direct result of the campaign I have led as Lib Dem housing spokesperson Reading Borough Council now has an empty homes strategy and resources dedicated to tackling this problem.To find out more, you can listen to my recent interview with BBC Radio Berkshire which I recorded just before Christmas here:

Despite our recent successes in getting progress on this issue I am not complacent about the scale of the problems we face and the amount of work still left to be done in this area in Reading. The recession has led to an increase in the number of empty properties in Reading - notably in Battle ward in West Reading (pictured) and with the housing waiting list currently standing at around 5,000 there is a pressing need and I would argue strong moral grounds for speedier action to make more housing available for local families.

Anyway, I like to keep up with what is being said and done nationally on this issue and to continue to campaign for action. In April last year I went to Whitehall to meet the government minister responsible for empty homes, Iain Wright MP, to press the Labour government to do more. And I didn't stop there. When he was reshuffled shortly afterwards I lobbied the minister who took over from him, Ian Austin MP and got him to back further action to help councils like Reading do more to bring empty homes back into use.

The problem of empty homes gained national prominence last year and I was pleased to see a consensus emerge amongst the three major political parties that bringing empty homes back into use should be a priority - this was largely thanks to active campaigns led by the Empty Homes Agency and Inside Housing magazine.

More recently the Lib Dems have led the way on this issue with Nick Clegg and Sarah Teather announcing a few weeks ago that action on empty homes would be a key element of our Party's manifesto at the coming general election - something I was obviously very happy about as it is a policy that will really benefit local people here in Reading.

I was dismayed, therefore, to read about the Conservative shadow housing minister, Grant Shapps, signal an apparent u-turn by his Party on this issue in this week's Evening Standard as I was travelling home from work earlier this week. In the article, Mr Shapps says that the Tories would abolish empty property management orders (EDMOs) which give councils the power to bring empty homes back into use. Mr Shapps attacked the powers as "draconian".

This strikes me as a potential backward step and gives landlords and local authorities the wrong message on empty homes. I have looked into this issue and found that EDMOs have only been open to councils since 2006, following Royal Assent of the Housing Act 2004 in 2006. Interestingly at the time they were proposed by the Empty Homes Agency these powers attracted cross-party support. Since the legislation was introduced councils have been encouraged to use these powers but most only use them as a last resort for various reasons not least because they can be time-consuming and costly. Sometimes, however, the threat of action by a local authority is needed in order to spur landlords into action.

The answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Sarah Teather earlier this year revealed that so far councils (and that includes Conservative-controlled councils) have used these powers a total of 15 times. This hardly gives the impression of councils using these powers excessively.

So I think the claims made by Mr Shapps in the article in the Evening Standard in which he attacks EDMOs as "bully-boy" laws which he says are being used to "seize the homes of the dead and vulnerable" risks being pretty misleading about both the frequency and the way in which councils have used these powers.

EDMOs have so far not been used in Reading as officers have felt it has not been necessary to use them. I notice they have been used by Conservative-controlled South Oxfordshire District Council, though. Here in Reading, a 'carrot and stick' approach used by officers is proving effective in most cases although it is a slow process and there is a backlog of empty properties to tackle (following years of inaction by Labour).

Officers I have spoken to working in the area of empty homes argue that EDMOs should be just one of a range of tools available to councils to tackle the problem of empty homes.

These powers do not need to be used in relation to every home - sometimes the threat of action by the local authority is enough to get landlords to return their properties to use after a long period of time. I would accept as well that these powers could be tweaked to make them more effective.

Without these powers it might make it more difficult for councils to persuade landlords to bring empty properties back into use. So, Conservative policy could lead inadvertently to an increase in empty properties.It would therefore seem that tackling empty private homes is no longer a priority to the Conservative Party.

The latest comments made Grant Shapps give out a very mixed message to the public, councils and landlords about his Party's approach to the problem of empty homes - not least because they appear to be in sharp contrast to Mr Shapps' public support for Inside Housing's 'Empty Promise' campaign last year .

This campaign sought cross-party support for three campaign pledges:

- calling for VAT to be cut to 5 per cent on home refurbishment and renovation;

- a grant for social landlords to buy and repair empty properties;

- and clearer guidance to help councils use empty dwelling management orders to free up homes.

According to Inside Housing when he signed up to the campaign last year Mr Shapps said he 'warmly welcomed' these pledges. It's not clear why Mr Shapps' and his Party have cooled towards the national empty homes campaign since then.

In contrast to the confused position of the Conservatives on empty homes, Sarah Teather and Nick Clegg have demonstrated a clear commitment to helping councils and landlords work together to tackle the problem of empty homes.

A Lib Dem government would empower councils to take a more proactive approach to dealing with the problem of empty homes in their area by giving them access to more grants and loans to incentivise landlords to help tackle this country's affordable housing crisis - and create jobs on the way!

Check out this video to find out more:

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Interview with TweetyHall

Last week I recorded an interview with FutureGov the highly-creative people behind TweetyHall the excellent website which aims to bring local councillors closer to the local people they represent throught the medium of Twitter.

If you visit the website you can find out if your local councillor is on Twitter. Tweetminister does the same for MPs and PPCs.

I am passionate about using social media tools in my role as local councillor, campaigner and PPC and think that innovative ideas like TweetyHall should be encouraged as they help break down barriers and to improve the relationship between government and the governed.

I think these tools help people relate better to politicians and help politicians relate better to their electorate.

I hope websites like TweetyHall help reduce the so-called 'democratic deficit' in this country that left many people feeling disconnected from political life and that they help improve local accountability.

If you want to follow me on Twitter you can @cllrdaisybenson

You can watch my interview here:

Thanks to Carrie, Katie, Mark and Dominic. Good luck to TweetyHall!

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Visit to Kentwood Lodge - supported living in Reading

Earlier this week I got a call out of the blue from a local businessman called Paul Wayman. Paul is based in Kentwood Hill in West Reading and he had seen an article in last week's GetReading about my support for Reading Borough Council's call for owners of empty properties in Reading to consider letting them out to local charities.

What had caught Paul's eye in particular was this paragraph:

'The council's learning disabilities team meanwhile, is looking for a number of homes for people with a learning disability to live in. Ideally, the properties should be family sized so that two or more people can live together and share the facilities'

This happened to be right up Paul's street, so to speak and he decided to pick up the phone and give me a call about a local business venture of his he thought I might be interested in.
Paul, a Reading-man born and bred, it turns out, has had a property portfolio in Reading for a number of years, as a private landlord. A community-minded sort of person, Paul already participates in the Council's highly-successful 'Deposit Guarantee Scheme' which helps people on low incomes on to the housing ladder.

But Paul wanted to goone step further as a landlord and recently trained for a diploma in caring for people with learning disabilities, and on the back of this he has recently set up a business in West Reading called Ultimate Choices in Care.
After completing his training qualification Paul refurbished and equipped Kentwood Lodge a former hotel on Kentwood Hill with a view to renting it out tenants with learning disabilities.

I went to meet Paul and Manager of Kentwood Lodge, Joy Sialwiindi to find out more earlier this week and I was really impressed by what I found.
Paul showed me round the large detached 6-bedoomed property. The rooms were airy, with all mod cons, and all kitted out to meet national care standards. They say the test is whether or not you would feel happy if a family member lived there and I have to say I think I would be. As Paul said, he is trying to get away from the stereotypical "care home" and towards giving people with learning disabilities a chance to live as independently as possible in modern, comfortable surroundings. This approach fits in with the national agenda of the Care Quality Commission, as well as the voluntary sector and local councils, which is to move away from residential care towards independent- something I have become familiar with as Chair of HHCC Scrutiny Panel on the Council in Reading.

Needless to say since Kentwood Lodge opened its doors back in January officers and social workers from Wokingham and West Berkshire Councils have been in touch wanting to procure rooms for clients. But Paul is adamant that people in Reading should get first preference. "I want local people to benefit' he told me.

We have a real shortage of specialist 'supported living' accomodation both for elderly people and for people with learning disabilities in Reading and it is great to see landlords from the local private rented sector stepping up to help provide this type of housing.
I have written to Reading Borough Council officers urging them to visit Kentwood Lodge to see if Paul might be able to help. I would like wish Paul and Joy all the best in their endeavours - we need more people like them in Reading!

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Council tenants fuming at Labour's "cleaning tax" on poor

I'm pleased to say my campaign for a fair deal for Council tenants in Reading is really gaining momentum. You may recall as part of my campaign I have been calling for better value cleaning services for RBC. tenants on estates in Reading.

The Labour politicians that run the Council in Reading are planning to start charging tenants for cleaning services later this year (due to the black hole in the Council's housing budget - courtesy of the Labour government's failed housing finance policies), and despite the fact that a recent survey carried out by the Council found that thousands of tenants are dissatisfied by the cleaning services they receive from RBC.

The scrutiny review I led towards the end of last year found that there was much room for improvement in this Council service area with cleaning in many areas patchy at best. Labour were forced to delay the implementation of charging for cleaning services after the poor feedback from tenants.

It is disappointing that so many tenants are clearly not getting value for money services from their Council. Anyway, this evening I received a letter from a resident who lives in West Reading supporting my campaign and deeply dissatisfied with Labour:

"I wish to say I was very pleased to see in the local paper that someone is standing up for Council tenants against these charges. My son who has earning difficulties...and his wife who has a part-time job...really can't afford extra with the rent going up as around £80 per week that they are expected to pay - and as there are only 2 other flats who pay full rent (no subsidy) - they are the only ones affected - it's certainly not fair on them."

My correspondent goes on to say that cleaning on the estate where her daughter lives receives very little thorough cleaning: 'only a sweep through every fortnight and no reports on items that need mending/repairing'.

I like getting feedback from local people as it helps me keep in touch with what they think as opposed to what Labour politicians think local people are thinking...

The letter finishes: "Thinking of you and hoping you will get help from other councillors."

I received an email along a similar vein last night:

"I would like to thank you again for all your sterling efforts...I know you will do your best to press the issue. I believe that a lot more Labour councillors will lose their seats in the May election, which can only help!

My campaign for fair deal for Reading's Council tenants continues.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Championing higher standards in and around private rented housing in Reading

Regular readers of my Redlands blog will know that I have been actively campaigning along with my Lib Dem colleagues for several years to get Labour-run Reading Borough Council to address issues connected with the private rented sector and Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs).
This week I welcomed news that the Labour government has listened to councils and councillors and has amended the law so that planning permission will soon be required to turn a house into an HMO. This is something that required action at a national level. As a ward councillor I have picked up many complaints from residents over the years about family homes being turned into HMOs and neighbourhoods changing out of all recognition in some parts of Town.
My starting point for all my campaigns has been my ward (Redlands) which has a high number of student lets and Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs) but really the more I have investigated the issues the more I have learned that the private rented sector (PRS) is a significant of Reading's entire housing sector - not just in East Reading but parts of South and West Reading too.

With a massive shortage of affordable housing in Reading and a long housing waiting list the private rented sector is performing a vital role: providing cheap housing for many individuals and families - and thereby relieving pressure on the limited amount of housing association and Council-owned housing stock.

However, what concerns me is that the majority of so-called 'non-decent' housing in Reading is in this sector and when things go wrong it can be difficult for tenants and residents to get action taken.

So why I have spent so much of my time campaigning for a better quality private rented sector in Reading? Some facts about the sector (source: RBC):

  • 27% of Reading's population lives in the PRS (compared to around 11% nationally)

  • There is a higher proportion of older terraces (pre-1910) and flats in Reading than the rest of the UK

  • 6.9% of properties Reading are HMOs compared to the national average of around 2%

  • 22% of houses in the PRS do not meet the national 'Decent Homes' standards (due to poor thermal efficiency)

  • 18% of the PRS are on Housing Benefit and occupy a disproportionate amount of non-decent properties

  • Non-decent properties are associated with heads of households that are under 24 or over 60, especially those above 85

  • The majority of empty homes are located within the private rented sector

Who lives in Reading's private rented sector? Answer = a whole range of different people - including a number of vulnerable groups:

  • Young professionals

  • Students

  • People claiming Housing Benefit

  • So-called 'slum rentals'

  • Tied housing

  • High-income renters

  • Immigrants

  • Asylum seekers

  • People living in temporary accommodation

Where is the majority of Reading's private rented housing? :(Data by ward - source RBC, October 2008):

  • Abbey: 3263

  • Katesgrove: 1849

  • Battle: 1714

  • Redlands: 1677

  • Park: 1515

  • Minster: 1415

  • Caversham: 1052

  • Norcot: 960

  • Church: 965

  • Whitley: 662

  • Kentwood: 654

One of the big issues in many parts of Reading is the growth of Houses of Multiple Occupation - HMOs. This has brought with it a range of problems including waste management, parking and hazards for tenants. The number of HMOs has grown in recent years and the Labour government has been slow to respond (see above).

Legislation was brought in a few years ago to enable councils to licence some HMOs (but not all of them) but councils have until now had very limited powers to restrict the number of HMOs and this has been a cause of frustration for residents living in some parts of Reading where people feel the balance between HMOs and other types of housing is wrong.

The majority of HMOs in Reading are currently in Park (356), Redlands (291), Abbey ward (253), followed by Katesgrove (231) and Battle (212) (data: RBC, 2008).

My campaigning for better standards in the private rented sector has been very successful so far:

  • The joint scrutiny review into the private rented sector I led last year with Lib Dem Cllr Ricky Duveen, Chair of the Environment Scrutiny Panel was the first in depth look at the sector for many years

  • As part of the review we held a highly-successful 'Have Your Say' event and my innovative use of Facebook to get as many students, tenants and landlords involved as possible
  • It resulted in a range of policy improvements and additional investment by the Labour administration to be focussed on improving standards

  • Our scrutiny review which attracted cross-Party support recommended that the landlord accreditation should be revived to give greater security to students and tenants. I'm pleased to say as a result of our campaigning a review of the scheme is now underway
  • The cross-cutting nature of our scrutiny review has made joined-up enforcement action connected to dealing with issues in the PRS across Council departments (such as Planning and Streetcare) more effective

  • The way I used social media to engage people led to me being nominated for a Lib Dem Voice award and being featured in The Times.

But my campaign to raise the profile of issues in this 'Cinderella' sector did not stop there. When I presented the findings of our review at a meeting of the Council's Cabinet in Reading last year I was adamant that it should not be left on a shelf to gather dust. The review had to be a first step on the path to triggering further action:

  • Our scrutiny review has already had a major impact on the Council's Housing Strategy 2009 -2014 which was adopted last October. Labour-run RBC has at last acknowledged that the private rented sector plays an absolutely central role in Reading's housing market but it must be actively supported and improved if this sector is going to be brought up to 'Decent Homes' standard.
  • Recently I have campaigned to highlight the plight of thousands of tenants in Reading who face eviction when buy-to-let landlords ran into difficulty during the recent recession.
  • And we are due to receive a report to HHCC Scrutiny Panel and the Environment Panel next month reviewing the impact of the review and the impact of the recent additional investment.

With thousands of people living in rented housing or next to it in Reading it's essential that politicians continue to engage with the issues connected with PRS not just now but in the years ahead. I will keep on campaigning to make sure this happens.

Crowded House: action needed for local families

I've been campaigning for many months now to raise the profile of the problem of overcrowding in Reading. As far as I'm concerned this is one of the most serious issues many families in our Town face and it is causing huge damage to the lives of children, young people and families.

We know that there are around 5,000 people currently waiting to move into social housing in Reading but we don't really know exactly how many families are living in overcrowded accomodation.

As Chair of the Housing Scrutiny Panel in Reading I have asked officers to produce a report for our March meeting on the problem of overcrowding in Reading. This is the first time such a report has been produced as far as I know - or at least the first that has been produced since I joined the Council in 2006.

The report will also investigate the sensitive issue of 'under-occupancy' as there are some RBC properties in Reading which are technically under-occupied.

Why does overcrowding matter? Because it ruins the health and quality of life of families. Over on my ward blog I have described some real examples of local people who are being badly effected who I came across as a ward councillor. Having witnessed real suffering in my own ward, I am now very motivated to get this issue on the political agenda and action taken.

There are potentially thousands of families in this position in Reading right now.

Earlier this year I supported Shelter's campaign to reform the outdated housing laws which relate to the definition of overcrowding. The legal framework matters because it is this which dictates the policies of councils like Reading.

I'm grateful to Shelter for highlighting some facts about the current law around overcrowding:

  • It hasn’t been updated since 1935. Back then they thought that smoking was healthy, too.
  • Living rooms and kitchens are considered acceptable sleeping spaces.
  • Children under 10 count as half a person, and babies under one don’t count at all.
  • According to the law, a family of five** living in a one-bedroom flat would not be classed as living in overcrowded accommodation.
  • Shelter research has shown that overcrowding causes anxiety and depression, limits educational success and harms health

In Reading, like a lot of other places, overcrowding is linked to a shortage of larger or 'family-sized' accommodation. I have been leading the campaign locally for more houses like these - more affordable homes, more Council houses and more empty homes to be transformed into cheap housing for local families.

I hope that by finding out the extent of the problem and gaining a better understanding about the challenges many people are dealing with we can go some way towards alleviating the problems many families are facing in Reading today.

Campaigning for a fair deal for Council tenants

It may not have generated many headlines but the Labour administration's decision to put the rent up on Reading Borough Council properties will hit many Council tenants - namely those who are not in receipt of benefits and who account around 30% of all RBC tenants (there are around 7,300 Council tenants in total).

As Chair of the Housing Scrutiny Panel in Reading I been actively monitoring the impact on the recession on residents in Reading over the past year to ensure people who needed help were getting it from the Council, and a couple of sad things this study revealed was the increase over the past year of number of people accessing RBC debt services, and claiming financial support to help them meet their housing costs.

As I said in a Council meeting when the issue of the proposed rent increase was debated a few weeks ago - it is with a heavy heart that as a political Party we, the Lib Dems, lend our support to plans to increase charges for some of Reading's poorest families many of them just living above or on the poverty line.

But thanks to the way that successive Conservative and Labour governments have messed up housing finance RBC is left between a rock and a hard place when it comes to securing the future of council-owned housing stock. The Council is forced to charge tenants more because government keeps taking money away from councils like Reading to spend elsewhere.

We do not and should not point the finger of blame at Council officers who are struggle to balance the books in the Council's housing department: the failure to reform our arcane system of housing finance is a failure of this Labour government over a period of years.

The same Labour government which has abandoned its commitment to fairness and demonstrated time and time again through its own policies that is is not on the side of the poorest, including Council tenants.

As Nick Clegg has said repeatedly: the only Party that is genuinely committed to fairness for all is the Liberal Democrats.

The way council housing is currently funded is unfair on councils but more importantly it's unfair on council tenants. The way that council housing finance is centrally controlled by government makes it impossible for councils to have any real power or autonomy over their own spending and by extension limits this limits power they have to set rents and manage their own housing stock.

Alongside my Lib Dem colleagues on Reading Borough Council, as housing spokesperson I have campaigned for many years for an end to the system of so-called 'negative subsidy' - an unfair tax on Council tenants.

The sad fact of the matter is that were it not for the millions of pounds worth of rent RBC is forced to pay back to the Treasury every year there would be no need for the Council to increase the rent.

The Lib Dems would like to see the cash raised by local councils through rent spent on improving council housing stock in local areas and on building more new council houses - not subsidising government spending elsewhere.

This time last year we won backing from Labour and Tory councillors in Reading for our campaign for action to reform our rotten council housing finance system.

And nationally reform is on its way, apparently, but the government's 'change of heart' will not bring change soon enough for tenants here in Reading or anywhere else. A consultation was launched by Labour nationally but nothing will happen this side of the General Election or this financial year. So the rent has gone up.

Service Charges

Problems for tenants do not end with rent increases. Thanks to the way Labour has structured finance nationally RBC has been forced to start charging tenants extra for services they used to receive as part of their rent.

I succeeded in getting officers to delay plans to introduce charges after the Labour administration got itself into a bit of muddle just before Christmas in a botched consultation. The new charges for lighting in communal areas are set to come in in April.

Several tenants contacted me recently angry about Labour's charging plans. One tenant wrote:

"It is clear to me that these charges represent just another tax on the hardworking families that the Labour government - and Labour-dominated Reading Borough Council claim they want to help."

A report going to Cabinet next week reveals 55 tenants have written to RBC saying they oppose the plans to vary tenancies to allow Labour to introduce service charges.

Higher rent and service charges will make life even more difficult for tenants who are in arrears. RBC plans to send out leaflets with all the rent increase letters to encourage tenants to "contact the rent service if they experience any problems paying their rent."

I challenged the Labour Lead Member for Housing, Cllr Deborah Edwards, at the last full Council meeting about the way the Labour-administration treats tenants who fall behind with rent payments.

Does threatening tenants who fail to pay their rent on time constitute support, I asked. I quoted from an incredibly crass article which featured in the Council Tax Payer funded December edition of Housing News entitled "Rent comes first: Don't be Ho, Ho, Homeless this Christmas"

Cllr Edwards failed to apologise publicly to tenants for the article despite my requests for her to do so, choosing instead to attack those tenants who contacted me who were deeply offended by the article for being "thin-skinned".

Is this what people expected when they voted Labour all those years ago? On seeing the article one tenant commented to me:

"This is the sort of thing you might expect from a Tory Council, not a Labour one!

But as Sarah Teather, Lib Dem Housing Spokesperson pointed out in her speech at our Party's Federal Conference last year the Conservatives have no plans to do things differently if they form the next government:

"Blue-red, red-blue, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown what’s the difference?

That’s why the Tories won’t change any Labour policies – because they’re all Tory policies in the first place."

But it's not all doom and gloom. I'm really pleased to see the Labour-administration have pledged the continuation and extension of the so-called Decent Neighbourhoods Fund in Reading over the next financial year. Investment in the infrastructure of housing estates in Reading is something I have actively championed and campaigned for over a period of years.

To the frustration of tenants and residents, Labour in Reading have taken their eye off the ball and allowed estates to become rundown and neglected in their headlong rush to chase 'Decent Homes' targets. Decent homes are important but so are our neighbourhoods: people want to live in clean and safe areas - and I think they have a right to expect that their Council will work to keep them that way.

I have seen the tangible benefits that investment in estate areas can bring communities on an estate in my own ward - Hexham Road. As PPC for Reading West I will campaign for estates across West Reading and West Berkshire to benefit from the same investment, and the same improved quality of life for the benefit of residents who live on them.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Lib Dems' practical plan to cut crime vs Tory spin

Earlier this week the Conservative Party made the headlines for all the wrong reasons as they were roundly criticised for misrepresenting figures on violent crime for political gain.

I caught a bit of Chris Grayling, Shadow Home Secretary being interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme and I cringed. He said something about how if you talked to people on the streets they would confirm crime had risen - hardly very scientific! The point there is that what people feel about crime is based on people's perceptions not hard data: and I would agree that fear of crime is an issue.

Let's not forget the key point that Louise Casey reminded me of recently: 80% of crime goes unreported. So we need to be very careful about how we use and refer to crime data.

If you've been reading this blog and my ward blog you'll know that one of my big issues is the need to radically improve public confidence in the Police and the Council's ability to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour.

I have actively campaigned for a more effective approach in Reading which involves more regular communication and a better dialogue from the authorities with the public.

Political stunts like the one launched by the Conservatives are highly damaging to public confidence (which is already low when it comes to crime) and I was pleased to see the response by the Chairman of the independent UK Statistics Authority which pointed out the folly of a politician attacking official statistics.

The British Crime Survey has been around since 1981 and although it may not be perfect I would suggest it is more credible than a certain political party when it comes to crime figures!

In stark contrast to the crude politicking of the Conservatives on crime this week (which was nothing other than damaging both to public confidence and to the Conservative Party's standing), I was really pleased to see Nick Clegg and Lib Dem Shadow Home Affairs Spokesman Chris Huhne set out the practical ways in which a Lib Dem government would make communities feel safer.

It's simple: Lib Dems would scrap ID Cards and spend the money on 3,000 more Police on the beat.

The plans called 'Safer Streets - more and better Police' include proposals to publish detection rates as well as ward level crime data.

It chimes in very much with the way we have campaigned to get crime tackled more effectively here in Reading and I think these proposals would be a very positive step towards making people feel safer and to improve public confidence in Policing.

Research published by the Lib Dems at the same time as the policy revealed:

  • Police numbers have fallen in 18 out of the 43 police forces (42%) in England and Wales since 2005. Two thirds of these police authorities are currently controlled by the Tories and one third by Labour
  • The new officers proposed under Liberal Democrat plans could be expected to make an additional 27,500 arrests and solve more than 24,500 extra crimes each year in England and Wales alone

Contrast these pledges with the actions of Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson this week - who campaigned on a crime ticket then announced he would be cutting 450 Police officers in the capital!

I look forward to finding out what local people in Reading think about these proposals when I talk to them on the doorstep over the coming weeks.

As a local councillor I have heard many complaints from residents over the years that there are not enough Police in their areas - right across Town.

I'm really pleased as a parliamentary candidate that I will be able to say hand on heart that I am standing for a Party ready and able to offer genuinely practical solutions to cutting crime.

Simply scaremongering as the Conservatives have done this week will do nothing other than damage what little confidence people have in the ability of the Police and councils to tackle crime.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Campaigning for decent homes for all

Housing - lack of good quality, affordable housing - is something that I care deeply about as anyone who knows me will tell you.

I spend a lot of time on housing casework because I think it's some of the most important work I do as a local councillor and because I have seen the difference better housing makes to people.

I feel good about campaigning for better housing and the more I do the more I realise the amount of work that needs to be done before everyone in Reading is able to live in what you and I would consider decent accommodation.

Good housing can transform someone's life chances - and bad housing can cause irreparable damage too.

A good home - a place where you can be safe, happy and comfortable - something many of us take for granted - is something I think everyone in Reading and everyone in Britain should have a basic right to.

I have been Lib Dem housing spokesperson on Reading Borough Council since 2006 and I have campaigned extensively for better standards in both the private rented sector and social housing (mainly council-owned properties) in Reading.

People who have been along to Council meetings where housing is on the agenda will have grown used to hearing me getting a bit steamed up about housing issues in Reading.

No doubt Labour and Tory councillors alike are sick of me banging on about bad housing (and Labour's bad track record) but I will continue to go on about this stuff as long as people keep on contacting me with their housing problems and I have breath in my body.

A Labour councillor accused me last week in Council of changing my tune since I've become a PPC.

As if!!

I haven't suddenly got worked up about housing because I'm now a prospective parliamentary candidate: I've been bothered about bad housing in Reading ever since I was first elected.

Labour-run RBC has neglected all types of housing over the years - this is something which surprised me when I first began campaigning because I thought Labour politicians were supposed to care about affordable housing.

Labour councillors have allowed developers to fill the Town centre with hundreds of executive rabbit-hutches but they have failed to build the type of housing local people actually need.

But housing is not just about bricks and mortar: neighbourhoods matter too, and I've campaigned long and hard to get estates made cleaner, greener and safer.

Why should the quality of life for residents living on estates be any less good than other residents? I think everyone has a right to live in a decent neighbourhood.

Labour's pursuit of the nationally-driven "decent homes" agenda has meant that council estates in many parts of Reading have been allowed to become rundown and blighted by anti-social behaviour. This is a direct result of a serious lack of investment in the right things over a period of years.

I persuaded Labour to back my plan for a 'Decent Neighbourhoods Fund' - a pot of money to improve estates in Reading. I've seen the benefits this can bring in my own backyard - on Hexham estate where genuine community-involvement is driving improvement from the ground up (not Labour's failed top-down approach).

I want everyone living on an estate in Reading to see the improvements we have seen on Hexham Road come to their area. The residents of Dee Park have had to wait too long and many tenants in other estates in Reading are still waiting for improvements.

After the millions spent by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair's governments in our name this really isn't good enough.

And its not just estates that have problems in Reading. Areas with large amounts of private rented housing - and HMOs (houses of multiple occupation) also have their fair share of problems - conversions without proper planning permission, overflowing bins, parking issues.

All these things make parts of Reading less appealing places to live. And this should matter to politicians.

I dedicated a large amount of my time and energy last year to getting the Labour-run Council in Reading to focus some effort into the much-neglected private rented housing sector.

The scrutiny review I led was very successful - we won £120,000 worth of investment in improving the sector and got officers to focus on finding solutions to the problems faced by tenants and residents living in parts of town with lots of HMOs.

More recently I campaigned for help for tenants in private rented housing who face eviction due to problems faced by buy-to-let landlords in the recession. I'm pleased to see that this issue is now getting more attention from MPs in Parliament.

For details of the housing campaigns I've run over the past four years check out my ward blog.

Anyway, back to today and I was alarmed by a report published by campaigning charity, Shelter, today which has found concrete evidence that lack of affordable housing in the UK is literally tearing families apart.

Shelter's study found:

- 1.5 million adults saying they are unable to look after their elderly parents because they can’t afford to live near them.

- 1.5 million grandparents say they are missing out on helping take care of their grandchildren because their own children can’t afford to live close by.

- One in ten parents believe their children want to live closer to them but are unable to due to soaring housing costs.

-22 per cent of 18-34 year olds stated that they were still living at home, with 45 per cent of these people blaming high housing costs.

- Over 50% this group reported that developing and maintaining relationships was harder because of living at home with their parents.

I see evidence of this everyday in my ward and across Reading.

So what does the housing crisis look like in Reading in statistics?

Questions I posed last year revealed:

  • 5,000 people waiting for Council housing

  • Average wait time for a three bed Council/RSL property in Reading: 20 months

  • Average wait time for a four bed Council property in Reading: 22 months

Behind these figures are heartbreaking stories of people young and old desperate to get access to better housing for themselves and their families.

I'm not blaming the Council officers, they do their best to help people get further up the ladder but their simply aren't enough houses to go round. The blame for the chronic shortage of social homes to rent being built in Reading lies squarely at the door of the Labour government which has failed to deliver on it's promise of decent homes for all, by failing to allow councils to build enough council houses for their communities.

I am particularly concerned about the number of families living in overcrowded accommodation so I have commissioned a scrutiny review into this particular problem to report back to HHCC Scrutiny Panel soon. I have led a campaign in Reading for more affordable family-sized homes to rent to help reduce the number of families who are currently overcrowded.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the radical Lib Dem plan to turn the thousands of empty homes in Britain into much needed homes to rent for people on low incomes.

I will continue to campaign to keep housing high up the local political agenda in Reading - even if Labour and the Tories would prefer not to talk about it.

I am supporting Inside Housing magazine's House Proud campaign to get housing on the national political agenda at the forthcoming General Election. Please add your name to the petition to ensure that the housing crisis is the focus of all the major parties' attentions in the coming weeks.