Friday, 12 March 2010

Working hard for better health and housing for residents

I love my role as councillor and the opportunities it gives me to help local people and improve their quality of life - not just in my ward but right across Reading. I particularly enjoy my role as chair of scrutiny as it enables me to get a better understanding of issues Borough-wide and to hear from other councillors and other bodies not just the Council in relation to a number of key local issues. In scrutiny we have no budget or decision-making power as such but we can recommend action to the executive and external agencies - including health bodies on matters of public interest or concern. Last night in HHCC Scrutiny Panel (which I chair) I got cross-party support for recommendations I drafted which aim to improve children's health in the poorest parts of the Borough. This follows an in-depth Scrutiny Review into the issue last year. I will link to the recc's here when they are available online. To me these issues and what lies behind them - pockets of real poverty and deprivation in our town - are so important that they should be above party politics. Commitment from politicians is needed to make a difference to communities in the longterm. Sadly not everyone shares my view and lately some politicians have descended into playing politics rather then working to improve life for residents. I try to avoid playing the man, not the ball - others don't and I think it damages our politics in Reading. There are no easy solutions to improving children's health tackling child poverty and many of them lie at a national level and require fundamental changes like a fairer tax system to deliver change. However, I am campaigning to ensure that child poverty and poor health stay at the top of the local political agenda in Reading to focus the minds of politicians and key partners - i.e. the PCT. The recommendations will go to to the Labour Cabinet meeting in April (hopefully) for a response. We must not accept the status quo - children only get one chance at life and in 2010 everyone should be able to enjoy equal life chances wherever they live in Reading.
The review I requested of the impact of the NHS Walk In Centre revealed it to have been a huge success - with around 15,000 visits from patients since it opened. This is great but access to healthcare must be better in other parts of town - notably Whitley and Battle (Oxford Road area). We heard that the long promised Battle Health & Wellbeing has not progressed as a direct result of the recession. This is a concern giving health inequality in our area has worsened during that time.On overcrowding, something I've been campaigning on for months now, I was really pleased to secure cross-party support for a greater focus on helping support tenants who are over-crowded but also investigate ways to make more housing stock available. The 30% increase in the number of people on the Council's housing register (up to 6,000) is putting real pressure on stock. Lots of ideas were discussed and a full review and potentially scope for policy change will be put forward in October. It will need to include a combination of solutions - including making better use of existing stock and the private rented sector. 186 families are suffering living in overcrowded housing and I will not rest until that number has reduced significantly.
Housing repairs to council houses is something I have regularly received complaints about from residents over the years. This is doubtless the same for many other councillors - so I got the issue on the scrutiny agenda. Last night we discussed what could be done to reduce the number of 'avoidable calls'. Housing repairs relate to 47% of all contacts from residents to the Council - around 41 thousand calls! This is bad for tenants and a bad use of time and money for the Council. An action is being developed and HHCC Scrutiny Panel will be monitoring delivery closely.
Following the CQC inspection of Older People's Services a few months ago I had requested an update to scrutiny as to what is being done to improve areas where areas of concern had been identified by inspectors. There is no doubt that this more in-depth scrutiny of key services over the past 2 years since I've been chairing HHCC Scrutiny Panel has delivered improvements in key areas faster, as well introducing more accountability for members and local people.
This is just a brief snapshot of some of the issues we discussed last night - all of them really important. Being involved in scrutiny is one of the more hidden aspects of a councillors' work but I am hopeful we can make a real impact on housing, health and social care for residents in Reading. We had 20 items on the scrutiny panel agenda last night - not too bad given when I took over in May 2008 there were something like 32 on an average HHCC agenda.I still think we need to consider setting up a separate health scrutiny committee in Reading just to be able to do justice to all the health issues that come up. But overall it was a good, productive meeting and I'm pleased to say pointless party political bickering was kept to a minimum!

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