Yesterday I attended the Council's Cabinet meeting where I responded to two petitions from residents in Dee Park and Coley Park concerned about changes to the Neighbourhood Warden service. One petition requested that the Cabinet reverse its decision in favour of 'maintaining' services organised by Labour. To do this would represent a failure to deliver the services residents across the Borough have consistently asked for, and a failure to deliver services that demonstrate value for money for taxpayers - so unnacceptable to us on both counts.
Cabinet took the decision to redesign the service earlier this year following a review of neighbourhood services across housing and environment teams. At the time of taking the decision there was cross-party support for a more joined-up service which suggests current opposition to the changes by some Labour councillors is perhaps more redolent of political opportunism than anything else. So far, so predictable.
The decision to change the service was taken to deliver better value for money and better service for residents across the Borough - something we committed to doing in our local coaliton agreement with the Conservatives. And it is pretty clear from surveys carried out by the Council that services in some key areas need to improve in line with public expectation.
I understand the genuine concerns raised by residents, however, they should not see a detirioriation in their neighbourhoods but hopefully an improvement through reduced anti-social behaviour and environmental problems. My colleagues and I will of course be monitoring the changes at local level to ensure this happens.
Last night, in presenting their petitions several residents raised the 'reassuring' presence of wardens on the estate. This is a testament to the hard work done by those individuals - and as a ward councillor I have seen this at close quarters in Hexham Road. We are grateful to the wardens, indeed to all Council staff who work hard to keep our estates and neighbourhoods safe.
However, it would be wrong to suggest that wardens alone are the only way in which community reassurance and support can be provided. Since wardens were first introduced they have been joined and supported by a number of individuals from the Council, local Neighbourhood Police teams and the public carrying out walkabouts and other estate-based activites. So, estate inspections by Council officers and others at local level will continue, ensuring communities continue to be supported.
It's also worth pointing out that the changes followed a review of neighbourhood services that was initiated under the previous Labour administration. As with many policy areas across the Council's activities, Labour councillors have not indicated what they would have done in response to their own review. Nor, if they were to continue to provide these services how they would pay for it.
In addition to identifying duplication, the review found that there was a pressing need to focus resources more effectively on issues that are a priority to residents across the Borough: namely tackling anti-social behaviour and environmental issues.
My Lib Dem colleagues and I have been campaigning for years to get the Council to respond more effectively to these two issues in particular. This is based on regular feedback we have had from residents. Our informal findings were backed up by Council surveys which put cleaner streets and action on anti-social behaviour as two of the highest priorities. For years, the previous Labour administration shamefully ignored public calls for action on these issues. Even when the powers existed to take action at local level, Labour did not empower staf t use them. We are committed to delivering more responsive services.
The third theme in our local coalition agreement is about building on and improving the sense of pride in our neighbourhoods and communities, making them more pleasant places to live. One of the key aspects of the new approach to neighbourhood services goes under the heading 'no one walks past a problem' - in short this means extending enforcement powers to more officers at street level to tackle issues. For years we have been campaigning up for a more joined-up approach to enforcement in Reading, including action to reduce dog fouling to improve the quality of our neighbourhoods. Following the changes approved by the Coalition administatration of the Council more officers will have the power to fine people who let their dogs cause a mess in public places. Under the previous regime, promoted by Labour councillors, no-one was penalised for this offence.
As one of the people who has led the campaign in Reading for decent neighbourhoods I will continue to fight to ensure residents in estates get the best possible services and that as far as possible the services the Council provides respond in the most effective way to problems communities face at local level.