Earlier this week I attended a business hustings organised by the Thames Valley Federation of Small Business. Karen and Nicky from the FSB who both live locally put a lot of effort into planning and organising the event and it showed. I found the meeting very interesting and useful both to gauge local opinion and what matters most to local business people and also to listen to the other candidates responses on some key issues. I was looking forward to meeting the UKIP candidate but sadly he didn't attend. A wide range of issues were raised on the night by local business people and members of the community including parking problems for businesses on Oxford Road, procurement, and tackling youth unemployment. As a councillor for an edge of Town Centre ward in Reading I have a lot of experience of dealing with parking problems and it is definitely one of the major issues for residents and businesses right aross the Town. It's not an easy problem to solve but in my opinion the Council needs to do a lot more to listen to and support small businesses to help ensure our local shopping areas thrive. Recently in Tilehurst Lib Dem councillors prevented the Labour adminstration making a big mistake on parking charges which could have hit local business hard. The Labour adminstration failed to listen to local businesses in Tilehurst Triangle when it mattered.
Getting action to reduce youth unemployment and support young people is a big priority for me personally as a young Reading politician and I've campaigned on it for some time now. The impact of the recession on young people in particular continues to come up a lot on the doorstep - it is clearly a concern for many people in the community from business-owners to families and young people themselves. It was raised at the Denefield School hustings a few weeks back by a teacher and another teacher raised it again at the hustings this week. Last summer a long time before I was selected as a PPC I was alarmed by rising youth unemployment in Reading and the fact that neither of the two Reading MPs seemed to be taking it seriously. I got the Council to organise a special summit on the issue - one of the most poignant events I attended last year with some heartbreaking accounts from young people out of work for months. This event resulted in greater attention being paid to the issue and more practical help being provided to young people. I didn't stop there though and I raised it nationally too. I was concerned at that time that as a Party we weren't doing enough in policy terms to plan to provide real support to youngsters so last autumn I backed an emergency motion at our party conference calling for urgent action to expand opportunities for young people hit by the recession which was voted through as party policy. This is the beauty of being a member of a truly democratic party where the leadership listens to party members...because party members make the policy! I'm really pleased that Nick Clegg has made supporting young people in these difficult times one of his top priorities and put it at the heart of our manifesto and the election campaign.
Before I attended the hustings I spoke to a local business owner from Tilehurst to find out what her number one issue was at the moment and she said without hesitation "everyone (me included!) is really fed up with banks not lending" and this turned out to be one of the main issues raised by audience members at the hustings. Business people were understandably angry with the failure of banks to lend to small businesses - something that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable pledged to sort out last week in their radical plan to reform the banks. I think it is right that banks should be required to meet targets for lending to small businesses given many of them have been underwritten to the tune of millions by the UK taxpayer. Vince Cable is right that so-called Casino-style banking should be separated from high-street banking. The economy and the recession dominated the questions. In addition, unsurprisingly perhaps, issues related to expenses and trust/public confidence came up - symptomatic of the widespread anger on the doorstep towards Westminster politicians and the political system in the campaign. Anyway, it was a lively debate and I was particularly pleased to see people of all ages in attendance - including a large number of young people. Check out short video clip here (courtesy of the Evening Post).