Monday, 31 January 2011

New Crime Maps

A few weeks ago I blogged about Coalition plans to review approaches to tackling anti-social behaviour.
A new website went live today which helps residents find out about crime in their area. The data available goes beyond previous websites and goes down to street level. It also points people in the direction of their local Police Team via social media as well as traditional beat meetings.
The offences that are listed on the website will relate to the previous month and the website will also detail which Police officers are responsible for their area, have Twitter feeds, crime appeals and information about local community beat meetings.
This website builds on the information available via the Thames Valley Police website which recently began using local crime data. The Police have been making data available to the public at Neighbourhood Action Group meetings for a few years now although it was always frustrating when data would say things like: "anti-social behaviour above average" as this wouldn't give much detail about where it was taking place or how crime levels compared to other areas.
It is always a struggle to get people to report crime - hopefully this website will encourage people that crime reports are taken seriously.Information is power and I hope this data will be a useful tool for residents, community groups and councillors in Reading to find out what crime problems are being reported in their area and more importantly get action taken.

Visiting Community Care Services in Reading

Today I took some time out to visit a number of staff working in Reading Borough Council's Community Care Directorate who work to support elderly and vulnerable people in Reading. I have wanted to do this for a long time but my work and Council diary have meant my free time has sadly beenlimited.
As Lead Member my weeks tend to consist of a regular diet of officer briefings, both oral and written. These briefings are obviously necessary to get a thorough understanding of current policies and issues.
However, if you are not careful as a councillor you can become an expert on policy and you can lose sight of what your role is. Councillors are not elected to become policy experts. This is what we elected highly-trained officers for. Councillors are elected to bring insights from the local community and represent the views of local people. We are also elected to take decisions and to do this we need a good understanding of issues affecting the full range of our services.
With this in mind I am keen to get out of the Civic Officers as often as possible to meet staff and service users and to get a better understanding of how our services work on the ground.
My visit began with a trip to meet Community Care staff working in  Intermediate Care/Reablement  some of whom are based at The Avenue Centre in Tilehurst. I found it really interesting meeting the service managers and speaking directly to staff about the impact of recent innovations on them and local residents.
One such innovation includes the new REACT service (Reading Adult Contact Team) where social care telephone calls from the public into the Council's corporate call centre. This new service was launched in November 2010. It means older residents and their carers now only need to make one phone call and not be passed around the houses to get support and advice.
Another innovation has been co-locating staff from a variety of professions in the same team i.e. occupational therapists working alongside social workers. This is leading to a more integrated, joined-up service and is leading to better outcomes for residents.
I spoke to staff about how our Reablement services work as I am keen to understand this service better. Reablement packages are individually tailored to residents by trained staff from a range of disciplines who are focussed on getting an individual back on their feet. Services are delivered in intensive 6 week bursts and involves agreeing goals with service users i.e going shopping, cooking meals where they have stopped being able to do these tasks for whatever reason. The aim is to get people back to full independence although if further services are still needed they can be provided.
We are already seeing the positive impact our local Reablement services are having on residents. Many residents do not need further care or support after they have been reabled. This is fantastic news for those individuals who previously may have languished in hospital or struggled on at home. This service is also having a positive impact on the number of hospital referrals in our area - good for residents and budgets. For this reason it is good news for Reading that the Coalition Government is committed to investing in local Reablement services so we can help more people.
I also spoke to staff who help residents manage long term conditions by arranging things like home adaptations and telecare.This is vitally important as it helps residents live independently and enjoy a good quality of life. We talked about the way in which self-directed support or personal budgets work and the potential benefits for service users. The Government has already signalled that it would like to see councils go further on this and we are making good progress in Reading in supporting people to use personal budgets.
My next stop was to visit the Community Mental Health Team who are based at Prospect Park Hospital. I spoke to a range of practitioners about the full range of services they provide to adults across the Borough. It was encouraging to hear of the wide range of support available to people with a range of mental health problems. I spent some time talking to the team that works with people who have had mental health problems to help them find work, and to staff who signpost people with mental health problems to activities in the community. All really worthwhile.
Finally I went to visit staff working in social care services based in the Whitley Health Centre. Staff there identify support needs of hundreds of residents living in and around South Reading.
All in all it was a really interesting, inspiring afternoon. I was struck once again by the enthusiasm, energy and dedication of all the staff I met today. I am very grateful to them for welcoming me into their workplace and responding to my questions and comments. I am very grateful to for all the hours they devote to helping and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our Town.
In turn I hope staff found it useful to meet me and to put a face to a name. I try to make myself accessible as I think it's really important for councillors to be visible not just in the Council Chamber but to staff and the community - particularly as we are charged with making decisions on behalf of residents.
I am always keen to learn more about our services and policies to help make better decisions, so I am planning further visits to staff and service users in future.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

More Trees For Reading

At local level the Lib Dems in Reading have campaigned for many years for Reading's urban trees to be protected and enhanced. Trees have been disappearing from our streets in many parts of Reading - not least in my own ward of Redlands and have not replaced. This has been a source of frustration for many local residents and despite warm words Labour failed for many years to develop a strategy to protect this important public asset .
Lib Dems in Reading have campaigned energetically both in our wards and in the Council chamber (tabling questions and motions to Council) to get action on this issue. Last March we forced the then Labour administration of the Council to stump up with cash for trees at the eleventh hour ahead of the local elections.
Credit for this successful campaign should go to my colleague Cllr Glenn Goodall who led this campaign which culminated in the adoption of a new Tree Strategy in June 2010.
When the new Coalition running Reading Borough Council was formed both the Lib Dem and Conservative groups made it clear they were committed to maintaining this important investment in our local environment - despite huge budget pressures.And as a team we have also been very pleased by the supportive response we have had from our Conservative colleagues who are working with us on the Council to implement the strategy.
  • As part of the Council's newly adopted Tree Strategy a new Tree Warden Scheme has been launched encouraging people to help conserve local trees in their area. Recently residents were encouraged to nominate their favourite tree - to raise public awareness about important trees in our Borough.
  • The Liberal Democrat - Conservative Coalition Administration of the Council has also committed to investing £50,000 this year and next year to planting new street trees.
From the Council's press release:
"The street tree planting programme has been put together following the adoption of the Council's Tree Strategy in 2010. It involves planting around 100 trees on verges and pavements in various locations around the borough up until the end of March 2011. £50,000 was set aide for the work this year, with an additional £50,000 set aside for an additional 100 trees to be planted in 2011/12."
In these incredibly difficult times financially for councils it's heartening to see the two political parties running Reading Borough Council working together to protect and enhance the local environment for future generations.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Reading Borough Council bucks the national trend on libraries

Across the country many councils are closing libraries. In the neighbourhood that I was born Labour-run Camden Council is making cuts of 20% to its library services, a move which has been opposed by Lib Dem councillors who have argued that these cuts could have been avoided by making savings in other areas.
I'm proud to say that in Reading we are moving in the opposite direction from many other councils - with the welcome news announced earlier this week that the Council is extending opening hours across the local library network.
  • Opening hours at Caversham library have risen from 36.5 a week to 50.5
  • Palmer Park it has gone from 29 to 41.5 hours,
  • Tilehurst is up from 36.5 to 42.5 hours,
  • Battle has risen 29 to 39.5 hours,
  • Whitley from 29 to 34.5,
  • Southcote from 29 to 33.5
  • Central from 50 to 52.5 hours
This follows a survey of library users which found that people would like to see more local libraries open at lunch times, for example. We hope this will make our libraries more accessible to residents.
As Labour Councillor Mike Orton noted at Full Council this week politics is about taking tough choices.
As I said in my recent speech on social care, if we do not make better use of available resources rising demand will have a big impact on the amount we have to spend on discretionary services such as leisure and culture.  The Council's auditors KPMG echoed this in their annual audit letter which was presented to Cabinet a couple of weeks ago:
"facing up to these challenges will require revolutionary transformation of public sector services, rather than tinkering. Strong leadership from Members and senior management will be essential as it may be the case that further savings over and above those in the performance improvement plan are required."
I'm pleased the Lib Dem-Conservative Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council has made the decision to expand rather than reduce library provision for residents.  We have only been able to do this because we are facing up to the financial challenges the Council faces whilst also prioritising the areas that matter to residents.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Residents prioritise social care and housing services

As custodians of the public purse I think it is vitally important that local councillors spend Council Tax payers money in line with local priorities - after all it is residents' hard earned cash they are spending.
When councils are forced to reduce the amount they spend it is even more important to ensure they are spending it on things that matter to local residents. Labour councillors have found themselves in very hot water on this recently.
Last October, following the Comprehensive Spending Review the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition of Reading Borough Council conducted the first ever public consultation about which Council services matter most to local people ahead of setting the Budget for the following year (2011/12).
Residents were invited to comment via a Have Your Say survey form about what services matter to them. The findings helped to inform the budget savings options Lib Dem and Conservative Councillors have been developing in recent months, and which were discussed at full Council earlier this week.
The closing date or the consultation was 19 November 2010. Over 900 completed surveys were received by the Council and the summary of findings were presented at Cabinet on 17 January.
Residents who responded ranked services in the following priority order
  1. Children's Social Care Services
  2. Adult Social Care Services
  3. Education
  4. Housing Services
  5. Waste, Refuse and Recycling
  6. Streetcare
  7. Roads
  8. Planning and Building Regulation
  9. Public Health & Safety
  10. Community Safety
  11. Leisure, Culture and Sport
As someone who cares deeply about safeguarding and protecting the vulnerable in our community I was very pleased to see children and adult social care and housing services ranked so highly by the public.
Over 50% of respondents rated adult social care services as very important, with housing services close behind on over 45%.This closely reflects the priority the Coalition Administration in Reading has given to investing in education, protecting vulnerable adults and children, and promoting excellent housing standards across all housing types. I am personally leading focussing resources on social care and housing. I am doing this not only because I think it is important but because I know from talking to residents it matters to people in Reading.
Digging deeper into the results it was interesting to read that 68% of respondents felt that the Council should provide adult social care services with over 30% of respondents feeling that others could provide this service. On housing services opinion was quite evenly split with 53% of residents believing that others could provide housing services (compared to 46% who felt the Council should).
This is the first such consultation carried out by the Council since I was first elected (2006). When Labour councillors were in power did not consult residents in this way as part of the budget process. I really hope it becomes a regular part of our budget setting every year.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Team work between Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust and Council helps patients

Yesterday evening I attended a meeting of the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust Council of Governors. I  am a Partner Governor of the Trust as part of my role as Lead Member for Health on Reading Borough Council and since I became Lead Member last May I have worked hard to build up a good relationships with our local NHS hospital to ensure Reading residents get the best possible care and services.
We are very lucky in Reading to have an excellent local hospital on our doorstep. However, the Trust serves a large population beyond our area so it is important the views of Reading patients are represented and officers held to account for the services they provide - hence the important role Trust governors, particularly Public Governors (who are elected) play.
Like local councils the Trust has some substantial savings to make over the coming years. Senior Trust staff acknowledge that the £20 billion pounds efficiency savings the NHS has been asked to make by Sir David Nicholson, Chief Executive of the NHS (started under the previous Labour Government and continued by the Coalition) is going to be one of the Trust's biggest challenges - even bigger than the proposed NHS reforms they reckon.
One of the ways the Trust will be saving money is by investing in an Electronic Patient Record system which is set to save over £29 million pounds over seven years. This innovation should also benefit patients by reducing problems caused by lost paperwork and missed appointments. Work is also ongoing to save money in the back office by sharing services with other NHS bodies.
Despite the savings the Trust has to make I was reassured to hear that senior officers and staff at the Trust are still totally focussed on improving patient care. The number of formal complaints by patients relating to care they had received at the Trust has fallen substantially compared to last year and patient satisfaction is very high - with over 90% of patients saying they would recommend the Trust to their family or friends.
There were a number of interesting issues on the agenda at the meeting across a range of subjects relating to the performance of the Trust.
I was particularly interested to hear how the Trust coped with the recent flu outbreak.The Chief Executive reported that there had been a significant increase in flu-related illness during the Christmas and New Year period across the local NHS.
There was a big spike in the number of emergency admissions between 28 December and 12 January.
This put local health and social care services under immense pressure - and life was made more difficult due to the poor weather and the fact it was during the holiday period.
The number of GP admissions to the Trust was 27 % higher than the same period in 2010. As a result the Trust increased the number of beds in line with its agreed Winter Escalation Plan. We heard that this was implemented successfully and the number of beds opened was 20 beds less than last year.
The Chief Executive of the Trust, Ed Donald publicly acknowledged in the meeting that Reading Borough Council social care staff had played an absolutely critical role during this difficult period helping NHS staff at the Trust free up beds for those that needed them by helping manage discharges and care in the hospital and out in community. For any elderly or vulnerable residents admitted to hospital with flu at this time this must have been a very stressful experience. Having social workers on hand must have made a real difference to them and their families. I was aware of the work staff did  from conversations I had with RBC staff a few weeks ago but it was fantastic to hear a local partner thank Council staff publicly in this way. taff in our social care teams are a credit to the Council and to the people of Reading.
I was also pleased to hear in the meeting Ed Donald mention the recent highly critical Care Quality Commission report about stroke care for patients in our area. This report said that inpatient care was excellent but that rehabilitation services in our area are lacking.
I was pleased to secure reassurances from Ed that the Trust would work with the Council and the PCT to improve stroke care services in the community. This follows the letter I have written to the Berkshire West Primary Care Trust calling on them to make urgent improvements to stroke care services.
Lots of other interesting and important issues were discussed at the meeting including recruiting more members of the Trust. Membership is open to all members of the public with an interest in the running of the Trust. If you would like to find out more about the workings of our local NHS Foundation Trust Hospital why not become a member? It is free to join and you find out more details here.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Speech on social care

As has been widely reported, Reading Borough Council, like all other local authorities is faced with the need to make big savings as a result of the reduction in the amount available to the Council via the Local Government Settlement.

This was the subject of a Council debate at the full Council meeting yesterday.

Draft savings proposals were outlined for inclusion into the 2011/12 draft budget - to be approved in a few weeks time.

In total the Council needs to find £17.8 million pounds worth of savings - an unprecedented amount.

Finding this level of savings has been incredibly challenging within my portfolio, and finding a way of protecting key housing and social care services and vulnerable residents has occupied much of my time over the past few months.

Thankfully throughout this process  I have had the support of councillor colleagues as well as an excellent officer team.

Politicians talk frequently about needing to take tough decisions while I find myself in the position of actually taking them which is far from easy.

It was a pity that at the meeting a number of Labour councillors spurned the opportunity to work with us to protect services, beyond proposing an amendment that looked to have been prepared on the back of an envelope (and which they subsequently voted against when it became part of a substantive motion).

Labour councillors attacked a number of individual savings we proposed but put forward no alternative savings options themselves or any kind of explanation as to how they planned to continue to fund particular services. Yet again this is the behaviour of an ineffective opposition, not a credible alternative administration.

At the meeting for my part I took the opportunity to set out my thinking and general approach to developing social care services in the current very difficult financial climate.

My speech is attached  in full below:-
"Myself and others have spent many months considering the best way to manage social care spending into the future,

We have thought carefully about the safest and fairest way to do this whilst knowing that the public finances are not a bottomless pit and that demand for our services is expected to increase.
Our priorities are clear:

We must prioritise protection of the most vulnerable in our community.
We must build a system of social care that is sustainable.
We will continue to drive up standards and care quality.
          We will continue to support carers.
 We will increase choice and independence for vulnerable people.

Based on these priorities, the savings proposals we have put forward are based on sustainable and tested transformation of our existing services e.g. moving people with a learning disability out of high cost residential accommodation into independent living within the community –
this promotes choice and independence at the same time as saving money or the reablement service where we estimate we will around £730k next year alone.

And thanks to the hard work of our amazingly dedicated team of social care staff we are making good progress on this agenda.

Thanks again our staff adult social care in Reading is performing well – we will for example have 1 in 3 of our clients using a personal budget by the end of this financial year.

Protecting the vulnerable:

Within a very difficult financial environment we need to build a local care system which ensures the most vulnerable receive care whilst ensuring that resources are available for people who most need them in the future.

Increasing numbers of elderly and vulnerable residents placing huge pressures on our social care services – we have had to budget £2 million pounds just to cope with this growth alone

The Government has recognised this hence the Council is receiving additional funding via the PCT to help reduce hospital admissions and extend our highly-successful reablement services - 6 out of every 10 people who go through these services require no additional support.

We are currently consulting service users and the public on proposals which help us target resources on those that need them in the years to come.

We are also consulting on a potential change to eligibility criteria – this would help us to manage growth demand in years to come.

People already within the system will be reviewed and offered an alternative if they need it.

People who might otherwise have come into the formal care system will be able to access a range of preventative services e.g. help with cleaning/shopping or activities that ensure they are still part of the community and not socially isolated

We have set up and the public are using a single point of contact (ReAct) and a resource directory that lets people know what is happening and sources of help and support available to them

We have taken the difficult decision to merge our dementia care facilities to improve care and make better use of Council resources

We are committed to increasing the support available to carers and extending independence of vulnerable people via the use of personal budgets.

What are the alternatives to this approach?

I’ll list them as Labour so far have failed to come up with any convincing answers.
If we continued spending taxpayer’s money on social care according to the practices and policies of the previous Labour administration we would ultimately break the Council’s budget.

This would have the effect of seriously jeopardising in future years the vital services many vulnerable people in our community rely on.
One way we could cut spending substantially would be to bring in demand management as some other councils have done.

We rejected this option early on as we felt the risk to vulnerable people was not a price worth paying and it conflicts totally with our commitment to protecting the vulnerable.

Another option might be to increase Council Tax and and shift the burden back on to the elderly and those on fixed incomes

This is what the previous Labour administration did every single year.

But neither the Coalition Government nor my colleagues on the Council are prepared to go down this road.

Or we could continue to subsidise people who have been assessed as able to afford to pay for certain care services– this is what Labour did and it is simply not sustainable.

Continuing with such an approach would place severe pressure on the amount of resources available for other Council services.
 So there are no easy alternative options open to us if we are going to fund social care for those that need it into the future.
 I am not at all complacent about the challenges we will face both now and in the future.  I am confident, however, that the approach we are taking- that of focussing resources on those that need them most and ensuring that our services are sustainable not just now but in the future, is the right one.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Coalition Commitment contrasts with Labour opportunism on Council Housing

This evening the Council debated the Housing Revenue Account - Financial Plan 2011/12. I proposed this as Lead Member for Housing, expecting it to be fully supported by Members across the Council. I had not bargained for the political opportunism of the Reading Labour Party.

Labour councillors are clearly settling into their role as an ineffective opposition and sadly they completely failed to represent the interests of local Council tenants effectively.

A couple of weeks ago when this matter came to Cabinet I blogged about the thinking behind our proposal to increase rent  by 4.9%  and introduce a service charge for building cleaning and increase in landlord lighting charge of 82p per week.

Although I deeply regret the need to increase charges we are committed to continuing to invest in Council Housing and thanks to the finance regime we have inherited unreformed from Labour we have very little room at the moment when it comes to rent setting.

We have done our best to keep rent and service charge increases as low as possible, whilst ensuring we continue to improve local Council housing stock .Tenants who pay rent are also set to benefit from the proposed Council Tax freeze - due to be agreed next month.

I pointed out that in coming up with this proposal we had actively consulted with Reading Federation of Tenants and Residents Associations and they were fully supportive of our proposals.

So I could not believe my ears this evening when Labour councillors queued up to attack the proposals and ultimately vote them down.

Labour raised concerns in the meeting about the increased landlord lighting charge. This was news to me. When Labour councillors had the opportunity to comment on the proposals or raise concerns with me directly they completely failed to do so:
  • They failed to raise these issues with me directly in my role as Lead Member.
  • They didn't raise concerns when charges were discussed in detail with RFTRA at the beginning of the year, 
  • They didn't raise concerns publicly when the proposals were agreed by Cabinet.
This is a complete u-turn on Labour's previous position on service charges.Which leads me to the conclusion that their recent opposition is entirely motivated by a desire to score cheap political points at the expense of tenants. This does Council tenants a disservice and once again it begs the question what would Labour do to fund Council housing? To which there was no adequate answer.

A reminder: Labour councillors originally took the decision to introduce service charges in 2006. This fact is well-documented, and yet you rarely here a Labour councillor admit it.

After taking the decision in 2006 Labour then delayed implementing charges for many years for fairly obviously for political reasons although they had planned to implement them around the time they lost office.

Labour expressed concerns in the meeting about the impact of service charges on tenants not in receipt of benefits. I found this deeply ironic given I had raised concerns about this over a year ago in my role as Chair of Housing Scrutiny when Labour first planned to introduce charges.

I implemented a full review of service charges and insisted on this being written into the Coalition Agreement. The findings of this review have been published and are available for all to see.

In the meeting I expressed regret about the byzantine housing finance system we inherited from Labour whereby rent from Reading Borough Council Council tenants is diverted to Whitehall.

This year alone we will be paying out over £7 million pounds in negative subsidy to the Treasury. This is money that will not be spent on improving Council housing stock or building new Council homes.

Labour councillors complained that housing finance was being reformed too slowly by national government - How ironic! I pointed out that after 13 years of promises from Labour about reform it was the Coalition Government which would be delivering on self-financing of Council housing - next year.

In the meeting I was pleased lay to rest the misinformation that Reading Labour Party has been recently been promulgating via inaccurate press releases on Council housing tenancies in particular and to be able reaffirm our commitment to providing lifetime tenancies for existing and future tenants.

Yet again I was forced to explain to Labour councillors what localism means i.e. councils in consultation with residents decide local policies - not government! We will shortly be developing a tenancy strategy in consultation with tenants and residents - one that suits Reading not officials in Whitehall or politicians in Westminster.

Anyway, despite Labour's pointless point-scoring I am pleased to say the proposals were approved by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups so the planned investment in Council Housing will continue.

Anyway, for what it's worth I've attached below my speech from the meeting - hope it's of interest to some readers!
Housing - Our commitment to tenants

This report sets out the administration’s ongoing commitment to investing in and improving this Council’s housing stock both now and into the future

It outlines our commitment to get value for money for every penny of Council tax payer’s money we spend

And above all it demonstrates our commitment to our delivering excellent quality housing services to Council tenants in Reading

As I said at the June Council meeting, I will be robust in standing up for the rights of both existing Council tenants and prospective tenants to ensure they are not disadvantaged by any proposed changes to tenancies.

It is regrettable therefore that in recent months the Labour Group has sought to spread misinformation about this administration’s plans – specifically in relation to tenancies for political reasons.

So I would like to use this opportunity to reassure tenants and place on our record our commitment to continuing to offer lifetime tenancies for those who need them and have no plans to introduce fixed term tenancies

The proposal

Cabinet has agreed and I am recommending tonight an average rent increase of 4.9% to our tenants

I am also proposing the introduction of a new service charge for building cleaning and an increase in the landlord lighting charge

These proposals have been drawn up in consultation with Reading’s Federation of Tenants and Residents

It is with regret that I propose any rent increase or additional charges as I am aware this adds to the costs a small but significant proportion of our tenants have to bear in these challenging times,

Review of Service Charges
It is for this reason I commissioned a review of the impact of service charges on working tenants – the first of its kind and further evidence of this administration’s commitment to supporting the vulnerable

The review also investigated the quality of building cleaning services and value for money – both areas which were neglected by the previous Labour administration

Thanks to the byzantine housing finance system we have inherited this year’s rent rise is unavoidable. It it is essential that this Council is able to continue to improve our own stock

Thankfully By 2012 we will be moving to a new self-financing system
 For the first time Reading Borough Council tenants rent will be spent locally, not sent back to the Treasury

In this year alone that figure amounts to over £7 million pounds

Thanks to reforms campaigned for by Liberal Democrats on this Council

Promised by the previous Labour government,

And delivered by the Liberal Democrat- Conservative Coalition Government

In these tough times this Council is committed to investing in improving Council housing

Over the next year £10million of public money will be invested by this Council on repairs and maintenance

Over 99% of local Council homes now meet Decent Homes standards and over the next year £1.25m will be spent on replacing kitchens and bathrooms across the borough

To ensure our tenants are warm, safe and secure we will be spending £250,000 on a wide range of things including communal heating systems, door entry systems fire alarms and fire extinguishers

We are setting aside £800,000 in next year's budget to improve brickwork, windows and doors, roofs, guttering and vent pipes,

£300,000 will be spent by this Council on rewiring homes, and £600,000 earmarked for boilers and heating repairs.

Our commitment to tenants

This administration is committed to doing more to support tenants

For example, we are helping Council tenants cut their energy bills by almost doubling the amount of the money being spent on insulation setting targets - higher than national decent homes standards dictate

We will continue to provide dedicated housing, welfare benefits and debt service

We are improving the service tenants receive on repairs – with 7 out of 10 calls now ‘right first time’

We are also committed to doing more to improve the quality of local neighbourhoods and reduce anti-social behaviour

We will be investing £400,000 across the Borough to improve many estate area

We are merging anti-social behaviour teams and co-locating them at Thames Valley Police station to improve the local response to nuisance

I hope all councillors will support this proposal.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Centre for Cities tips Reading to benefit from localist approach

In their report, Cities Outlook 2011 the Centre for Cities has identified Reading as one of five cities to watch. OK, so technically Reading isn't a city...yet. But the conclusions of this report are interesting.
It concludes:
"Five cities to watch: Milton Keynes, Reading, Aberdeen, Leeds and Bristol.  These places will be better-insulated from the economic impact of the spending squeeze, and have high potential to create private sector jobs. They have lower vulnerability to public sector job losses and spending cuts, and given the right powers and freedoms could make an even bigger contribution to the national economic recovery."
The conclusions here are very welcome but generally speaking pretty non-controversial. The Centre for Cities and others have been saying for a number of years that Reading has all the right ingredients to prosper for a whole range of reasons - not least excellent transport links, a number of blue-chip and high-tech employers, as well as a World class University on our doorstep.

In the past I have pointed out that this narrative while compelling has a tendency to ignore other less rosy realities about Reading - that of a widening health and skills gap and pockets of real poverty. Sadly these problems still exist and is one of the reasons I work the hours as I do as a councillor.

As an administration it is encouraging to hear positive things about Reading but we are in no way complacent about the role the Council and others needs to play to support economic recovery and growth and to support individuals who find themselves in difficulty.

The final part of the paragraph above is the bit that interests me in particular: the suggestion that with greater freedoms and responsibilities Reading could not only become more independent but also make an enhanced contribution towards the national economic recovery.

For many years Reading has been described as the economic powerhouse of the Thames Valley by commentators both local and national:
Last May in the Coalition Agreement the government a commitment to devolving more power and responsibility to local councils:
'We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a review of local government finance.'
This policy shift follows a 13 year period of unprecedented centralisation by the previous Labour government which forced councils like Reading to follow central diktats not only in relation to particular policies but also in relation to things like council housing rent - millions of pounds of which was diverted back to Whitehall each year.

A hangover of this is that like other councils Reading is also unable to set business rates. I raised this last point with Danny Alexander, when he visited Reading as part of the Spending Review consultation last summer and he made positive noises. More recently Nick Clegg has argued for more powers for councils over raising and spending revenue.

Plans to reform business rates were included in the Liberal Democrat Manifesto in 2010 and I am pleased to see it continue in Coalition Government policy. The Centre for Cities in their manifesto in 2010 argued strongly for the re-localisation of business rates, the benefits of which they suggested were as follows:-
  • The UK is one of the most highly centralised states in the developed world. Currently, the only source of local tax revenue is Council Tax. Local government raises 17 percent of its income from local taxation, compared to the OECD average of 55 percent.
  • Giving local authorities more control of the business rate provides them with a stronger incentive to support the right local conditions for economic and jobs growth because councils themselves will reap more of the financial benefits. For example, this should make Councils more pro-growth in their approach to dealing with planning decisions. Businesses regularly identify delays in the planning system as a major barrier to their growth.
  • More control over the way business rates are raised means more freedom over how funds are spent locally – with less reliance on centrally distributed grants, with strings attached.
I hope Nick Clegg makes progress on this issue in Cabinet as I think the benefits to Reading could be substantial.

Supporting students in the community

Students, like all residents in Reading deserve to be effectively represented by their elected representatives on the Council, and for their voices to be heard. So today I met with Steph Johnson, Vice President (Welfare) of Reading University Students Union to discuss both ward and Borough matters. It was great to meet a fellow English Graduate and Londoner (!) and we chatted about our shared love of Zadie Smith novels among other things. I was very impressed with Steph's enthusisasm and determination to stick up for local students on important issues such as housing and crime.
Over the past few years I have worked hard to build up good relations with officers in the Students' Union as well as at Reading University, and to raise the profile of student issues more widely. Reading students make a fantastic contribution to local life in Reading and representing a ward with a large student population I have always found it important to find out what the key issues are and to involve students in decisions.
As a councillor I have also argued for closer working between Reading University and Reading Borough Council on issues such as housing and community relations as inevitably there have been some issues that have called for greater joint-working on problem-solving. This led me to set up and  lead the scrutiny review into private rented housing in 2008 and to request a review of landlord accreditation which led to the adoption of the Council's new scheme via the National Landlord Association.
Going forward there are a number of issues relating to Reading University, students and housing that will need to be considered and I will be doing my best to ensure that as far as possible we manage them as fairly and equitably as possible.
 When I was first elected I think it would be fair to say that relations between students and the local community in parts of Reading were not fantastic and thanks to the energetic work of RUSU officers and Ann Westgarth working alongside residents, councillors, the Police and Neighbourhood Action Groups the situation is now much better. That said I do still pick up complaints from residents about parking problems and noise which we do our best to try and tackle at a ward level.
In the meeting today we discussed student housing, including recent developments including the new  Landlord Accreditation Scheme and planned award for good landlords. This is part of the Council's carrot and stick approach to ensuring that excellent standards in private rented housing standards in Reading are encouraged and maintained for the benefit of students and other residents. Bearing in mind we know there continue to be examples of very poor housing in our Borough which is why officers will be focussing on rooting out bad landlords and taking enforcement action.
We also discussed issues around regulation of Houses of Multiple Occupation, as well as the development of new student accomodation both on and off campus which is currently taking place. This is a highly sensitive area to both residents and students, understandably. The issues around it are not straightforward and it is worth bearing in mind that HMOs provide accomodation not only to students but to non-students too who require low cost housing.  It is important that we try and get the balance right between housing and community needs and that we use the tools available to the Council to protect the character of our neighbourhoods and to support residents and students. I'm not sure Labour councillors got this approach right in the past which has led to for example environmental problems in some neighbourhoods. With this in mind I find it ironic that some local Labour activists have been so quick to criticise the policies of other parties so early in the Coalition's term of office both locally and nationally.
One problem continue students face, Steph told me, is anxiety around finding good quality housing to rent. This is not helped by some local lettings agents warning students if they don't rush to find a house they will be stuck with nowhere to live. It was good to hear the University and Student's Union doing more to make this a less nerve-wracking process for new students. This includes putting on housing talks for new students and a find a housemate evening.  I pointed out the Council's role in tackling poor housing and urged Stephanie to contact me direct if students came to her with any horror stories. I have helped a number of students in the past in this way. The Council also has a register of licensed HMOs which enables students to check if properties are licensed and to contact officers if they have concerns.
Over the years one of the key issues for residents living in the University area has been the build up of waste at the end of University terms.This has not helped student-resident relations or indeed resident-Council relations! The Council and the University have been working hard to tackle this problem more effectively, after years of lobbying by local Liberal Democrat councillors including myself. Also Last year RUSU ran some very effective community clean up events which really helped - I really hope officers will consider running these again as as well as making local streets look better they send out a very positive message to the local community.
Steph had some great ideas for more initiatives to improve student welfare and community relations including encouraging students to recycle more, raising awareness about burglary, and introducing a student community warden scheme - based on an idea from Birmingham University. I think this is a great idea and I will be spreading the word.
 Finally we discussed the Council's Big Society vision which was endorsed last week at Cabinet. Steph talked about volunteering projects carried out by students at Reading University which are now being recognised on their CVs. Listening to this I thought this could be a great opportunity for more student/community involvement on some important local agendas and I will be pursuing this idea further. All in all a really positive meeting. We will continue to meet regularly throughout the coming year.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Difficult decisions on Dementia care

Another busy week is finally at an end. On Monday Cabinet agreed to my recommendation to merge Edward Hughes, a care home run by Reading Borough Council with Tanfield, another local facility. It follows a public consultation and detailed options appraisals by officers.
Recommending this course of action was without question one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my Council career as I had to balance the needs of current residents, alongside best use of Council resources and the needs of future dementia care clients. People suffering from dementia are some of the most vulnerable people in our community and I take my responsiblity towards them as Lead Councillor very seriously indeed.
A number of families attended the meeting to find out the decision and for obvious reasons feelings ran high.
Although familes felt the process was to short, it feels to me like the whole process has been going for quite long time as I have been involved long before I became Lead Councillor.
I have been closely involved in discussions around planning dementia future care provision since 2009 when I led a detailed scrutiny review on the subject as Chair of the then Housing, Health & Community Care Scrutiny Panel. I chaired a public meeting and as a result of the review a number of detailed recommendations were made to the then Labour Cabinet.
My conclusions at that time are worth highlighting as I think they are still pertinent:
'As this year's budget discussions showed, demand for care in Reading is growing, year on year, and Council resources are not limitless. This will not change next year, or the year after. It will be a challenge facing whichever party takes overall control of Reading Borough Council in the future.

My view is we have a duty of care to the elderly and it is incumbent on all parties to think long-term about how care will be provided by the Council.
Any decisions about care must be fair to all but they must also be sustainable. That means fair to people of all ages in Reading, both the elderly receiving care and younger generations helping to pay for it.'
When I wrote this I had no idea that less than 2 years later I would be be faced with taking the decision or that the Council's finances would have come under such severe pressure on top of massive growth pressures (of elderly people coming into the system).
I have found the whole process very difficult, particularly as I have got to know family members personally both during the scrutiny review and during the more recent formal consultation.The way they have conducted themselves and spoken up for their loved ones has been exemplary - a real credit to the local community.
I am determined to ensure that the Council continues to support them as much as possible both now and in the future.
As I said in the meeting I wish I had a spare £2 million pounds available in my budget to make the necessary improvements to Edward Hughes so that it could remain open. However, even if I did leaving Tanfield just 20% occupied would not be a good use of the Council's resources. With this in mind I do think this is the right decision. Merging Edward Hughes and Tanfield enables the Council to continue to provide inhouse Dementa care service. Throughout the consultaion period family members were clear they wanted see the continuation of a Council-run service - this is a real endorsement of the excellent care provided by the Council's care staff. I was pleased that the Tanfield option gave us the opportunity to continue to provide care.
Concerns were expressed by famliy members about family members potentialy moving into private sector care homes. This is understandable but it's important to state that th Council only purchases good or excellent homes and the Council is willing to act quickly where substandard care or services are identified.
I'm pleased to say that this has not become a party political issue and the support of councillors from all parties has made a real difference.
Our focus now must be on ensuring that the transition for clients from Edward Hughes to Tanfield and elsewhere is as smooth as possible.
With increasing numbers of elderly people expected to suffer from dementtia in the future (there are estimated to be over 750, 000 people in the UK with dementia and numbers are expected to double in the next thirty years) we must plan for the future to ensure services are in place for people that need them.  With this in mind I am pleased that the Coalition Government has pledged to prioritise Dementia research 

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Only connect

So far this week I haven't had much time to update the blog due to the number of meetings and work I've had to do but I thought I would post links to a couple of videos and blogs I've enjoyed reading lately.
They are on the subject of that much misunderstood, much maligned beast - the modern politician.
They feature perspectives from two commentators who are not themselves politicians but who have worked closely with them particularly on communication and polling.
The first is from Matthew Taylor, former Downing Street Adviser under Tony Blair and now Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts who proposes a website to promote the good work politicians of all parties do to help give a more balanced picture and encourage people to get involved. I don't suppose this will catch on (!) but I support the principle. Too often the media presents a very negative view of politcians at all level and all political colours and this only goes to diminish and damage trust in our political process.
The second is a video interview with Deborah Mattinson who argues for politicians to do more to embed themselves in their communities to give their constituents a better understanding of what they do and to represent their electorate more effectively. Both links are well worth checking out.
I am currently also in the middle of reading the second volume of Chris Mullin's diaries Decline and Fall (given to me as a Christmas present).  They are highly-recommended because as well as being very amusting and interesting they provide an excellent insight into the workings of our modern Parliamentary democracy from the perspective of a backbench MP - not something you often get unspun.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Office Hours

The latest Front Office statistics have been published over on my Cabinet colleague Cllr Richard Willis's Blog. Front Office is the system used by most councillors to record individual pieces of casework they do on behalf of constituents. It helps councillors and officers to keep track of issues once they have been reported to thee Council. It's also a useful guide to councillor workload.
For most of the time between 2006 and 2010 I topped the list but I'm not ashamed to have been knocked off the top spot. If publication encourages a bit of healthy competition and councillors to work harder than I'm all for it - it can only be good news for residents!
The Council's stats for May - December 2010 reveal that I reported 55 individual issues to the Council for action. This is more than many other councillors but fewer than I reported when I was a backbench councillor.
This is not surprising given most people would acknowledge that I have one of the biggest portfolios of any councillor on Reading Borough Council (I am responsible for housing, adult social care and housing). I also combine my public duties with a part-time job which I commute into London to do.
Cllr Willis is right to point out that Front Office does not record all the work that councillors do for residents.The big difference between my current role and my previous role as a backbench councillor has been the amount of time I now spend in addition to my ward work being briefed by officers on policy, representing the Council at external meetings, responding to questions and petitions councillors and from the public, and preparing for and taking part in Cabinet meetings. Although it can be exhausting I get a real kick out of all the things I do as as councillor - particularly the opportunity to meet and help people.
This data confirms that despite being elevated to the Cabinet last May I have not neglected my responsibilities to my constituents and I continue to be one of the hardest-working councillors on Reading Borough Council. You can keep in touch with my activities on a ward level over on my ward blog.

Improving housing and services for Council tenants in Reading

I have been passionate about improving Council housing and services to Council tenants in Reading for a number of years now. I first became interested in 2005 when I began campaigning around Redlands and gradually my interest grew from ward level to Borough-wide through my role as Lib Dem Housing spokesperson (2006-10) and later Chair of Scrutiny (2008-10).  So I was delighted when the Leader of the Council Andrew Cumpsty invited me to become Lead Member for Housing in May 2010 as this has given me a real opportunity to campaign even more strongly for better housing for Council tenants and residents as a whole in Reading.
 The key watchwords of the local Coalition are value for money and better services for our residents. With this in mind one of the commitments we made in our local Coalition Agreement last May was to review the implementation of service charges for Council tenants to cover building cleaning and lighting services.The decision to introduce new charges in addition to rent was taken by the then Labour administration of Reading Borough Council back in 2006 as there was a need to plug a black hole in the main (council) housing revenue account. Labour delayed the introduction of these charges for years for political reasons until finally deciding to bite the bullet last year. I raised concerns about this proposal in December 2009 when I was Chair of the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel. Labour's plans included proposals to introduce a charge for cleaning services.
However, at that time a number of issues about the quality of building cleaning services had been raised by tenants. I was concerned as a result of these complaints that Council services were not offering tenants good value for money. In addition, I was also concerned about the potential impact that service charges could have on Council tenants who do not receive Housing Benefit.
A few months on, it is now my role as Lead Member for Housing to recommend to Cabinet and Council the level of rent increase and to grapple with the issue of service charges.I have given this issue considerable thought, consulted with officers and tenants and prepared proposals following a thorough review of service charges. This process included seeking reassurances from officers around the quality of building cleaning service and analysing potential impact on tenants who do not receive benefits. You can read the full review here.
In order to minimise the impact on working tenants I have sought to keep the average rent rise as low as possible (and less than the ceiling set by Government - the 'Guideline rent').  Before coming to a recommendation I held a consultation meeting with Reading Federation of Tenants and Residents Association and was pleased to gain their full support for the options we are proposing. Council tenants who do not receive Housing Benefit or Council Tax Benefit will also benefit from the proposed Council Tax freeze - another key pledge of the Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council which has never been offered by Labour.
Proposing to increase rent and introduce service charges is not a decision I relish. However, the byzantine system of Council housing finance I have inherited from previous Governments means I did not have a lot of options to choose from if I want to continue to improve our stock. I have a responsibility to ensure that any rent rises are as fair as possible but also that Council housing improvements in Reading are well funded and the Housing Revenue Account is sustainable over the longer term.
It really saddens me that millions of pounds worth of tenants rent currently goes to the Treasury - something the Lib Dems locally have campaigned to change both locally and nationally. However, I am pleased that a significant proportion of rent collected will be spent on improving Council housing for tenants and I welcome the fact that the new Government has committed to reforming the system to allow councils to keep rents in future.
For any residents with concerns about paying their rent the Council offers tenants a debt advice service with information on national and local support groups, where they can discuss their financial situation. Council officers are on hand to talk to residents about managing their debt and finances to make manageable payments. Please call 0118 937 2197 for more information.
On Monday I will be setting out to Cabinet our plans to continue to invest in Council housing and estates in Reading. As well as £1.8m on day to day repairs requested by tenants, £1.25m will be spent on replacing kitchens and bathrooms, and £250,000 on communal heating systems, fire alarms and fire extinguishers, warden call system maintenance, burglar alarms and checks and repairs to door entry systems. £800,000 has been set aside in next year's budget to improve brickwork, windows and doors, roofs, guttering and vent pipes, £300,000 on rewiring homes, and £600,000 earmarked for boilers and heating repairs.
I am particularly proud of the fact that we are proposing to almost double the money being spent on insulation setting targets higher than national decent homes standards dictate. All these measures in addition to being beneficial to the environment will help tenants save money on their heating and utility bills.
These plans set out once again the committment of the administration to continue to improve Council housing and support tenants and  I very much hope they will be agreed by all members of the Council.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Local stroke services must improve

Today saw the publication of a national report by the Care Quality Commission into the quality of stroke services. Stroke is the biggest single cause of adult disability with an estimated 50,000 people per year left with disabilities following a stroke.  The report published today found that many stroke rehabilitation services across the country were lacking. I downloaded the local report assessing stroke care in Berkshire West PCT area (which covers Reading) and was shocked to find that services in our area have been rated among the worst in England. Berkshire West PCT was rated 127 out of 151 PCTs in England. Services in Berkshire East were found to be even worse.

This is disappointing news for patients and carers of people with stroke - people in living in Reading should have access to high-quality services and therapies offered to people living in other parts of the Country.

As Lead Member for Health on Reading Borough Council I am responsible for representing the interests of patients and working to improve local health services. With this in mind I penned a letter to Penny Henrion, Chair of Berkshire West - the text of which is below:
As Lead Member for Health on Reading Borough Council the wellbeing of stroke patients and their carers in Reading is of utmost importance to me. I am committed to representing the local patient voice and also ensuring there is accountability in our local health system. For this reason I have copied this letter to Cllr Mike Orton, Chair of the Health Scrutiny Panel on Reading Borough Council so he is aware of my concerns.

I am aware of the difference timely, high quality care can make to individuals and families. Recent innovations in rehabilitation and stroke treatment locally and nationally have led to better outcomes for patients and this is to be welcomed.

However, I am concerned that stroke services in Berkshire West are not as good as those offered to patients in other areas and I look forward to hearing how you plan to address these issues. It is important not to overlook the positives, however.
Firstly, I would like to congratulate you for the work you are doing with local agencies including Reading Borough Council, GPs and the Royal Berkshire Hospital Foundation Trust around early supported discharge.
This is very important work which benefits many residents in Reading and the surrounding area and it is good to see the efforts of NHS and Council staff recognised in this way by the Care Quality Commission.
However, I am very concerned about the areas highlighted in the report where weak performance has been identified:
• Providing a range of information for patients who have suffered a stroke (score – 1 out of a possible 5)

• Involving stroke survivors and carers in planning and developing stroke services (score – 1 out of a possible 5)

• Helping people to participate in community life (score 1 out of a possible 5)

• Helping people to choose services they want (score 1 out of a possible 5)

• Reviewing progress after people have left hospital (score 2).

I was also concerned to read in the report that the PCT has scored only 2 out of 5 in relation to working together across health and social care services. Reading Borough Council is committed to working with local health partners to improve the care pathway for patients.
If you have any thoughts about ways joint working could be improved please let me know and I will do my best to make this happen.
I would be grateful if you could respond to me as soon as possible about how you plan to address the issues raised in the report for the benefit of stroke sufferers and their carers.
I look forward to hearing what the PCT's response is. Meanwhile if you or anyone you know in Reading has experienced local stroke services please do get in touch with any feedback.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Council Housing: No plans to introduce fixed term tenancies in Reading

Earlier today I met tenants representatives at a meeting of the Reading Federation of Tenants and Residents Association to discuss my response (as Lead Member for Housing) to the Government's consultation on the future of social housing. At that meeting I was able to reassure tenants  that the Government is not proposing scrapping lifetime tenancies for existing tenants, and that following careful consideration the Coalition Administration of the Council has no plans to introduce 'fixed term' tenancies to new Council tenants in Reading. This is because we feel the negative impacts could outweigh the benefits for residents and communities. That said, we are pleased that the Coalition Government is giving councils the choice - rather than foisting changes on us from the centre (as Labour used to do!).
No thanks to the national media and the local Labour Party there has been considerable confusion and concern stirred up about the Government's housing proposals, and I was pleased to be able to put our continuing commitment to tenants and residents on the record again today.
There are several elements of the Government's consultation we are supportive of - including giving councils more power to decide allocations policies (in consultation with tenants), requiring councils to consult and publish strategic policies on tenancies in their area, and giving councils more flexibilities to best meet the needs of their local area - after years of micromanagement from Whitehall (under Labour).
At the meeting today we had a very positive discussion about various issues linked to increasing availability of council housing including whether or not we need to do more around banding and allocations to avoid people being stuck on waiting lists for long periods of time, homeswap and empty homes. A number of tenants spoke out against the Right To Buy policy which has led to a net loss in the number of family-sized homes to rent - I agreed that this was a very damaging policy.
If the Labour Group Spokesperson disagreed radically with our response she did not express this at the meeting and I was pleased there was a broad consensus about the need to increase the supply of Council homes - something we hope will happen when councils get to keep council rents - part of the Government's housing reforms.
The reality in Reading is that we have half as many council houses now as we did 10-15 years ago thanks to the Right To Buy policy introduced by the Conservatives and not curbed by Labour. In addition, let's not forget also that in 13 years of a Labour Government no new council houses were built in Reading.
As a result the number of people on the housing waiting list has rocketed and overcrowding is a real problem for many families. This is a concern and I really hope the Coalition Government's record in relation to council housing is better - only time will tell. Reading is a phenomenally popular place to live and work but rest assured that in my role as Lead Councillor I am doing all I can locally to ensure that local people have the widest possible choice of and access to good quality housing from council, housing association and private rented sectors.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Eric Pickles misfires on EDMOs

Back in February, during the General Election campaign I raised concerns about a Conservative Party manifesto commitment to scrap powers councils have to take over privately owned homes that have been empty for six months or more. I was concerned that scrapping these powers would reduce councils' ability to tackle empty homes. Empty Property Management Orders (to give them their full title) were introduced in 2006 as part of the Housing Act (2004) to help local authorities do more to reduce the number of empty homes in their area.
Today I read that the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles had moved to modify EDMOs so they can only be used by councils 2 years after a property has become empty. Mr Pickles has attacked these powers as 'heavy handed' and likely to infringe homeowner's rights.
This is disappointing news and I wish he had consulted a bit more widely before making the announcement. While I welcome the fact that EDMOs are not being abolished altogether I am concerned that they could make it harder for councils to tackle the problem of empty homes and lead to an increase in this blight.
This announcement gives the impression that councils rush to use these powers to harass homeowners. The reality is in most cases this is a long way away from the truth. As I pointed out in February, very few councils have actually had cause to use EDMOs. An answer to a parliamentary question by then Housing spokesperson, Sarah Teather MP revealed EDMOs had only been used by councils 15 times since they had been reduced.  Councils see these powers very much as a last resort as they can be very expensive to use (they involve lengthy legal action). In Reading to my knowledge the Council has never used this power despite having for a couple of years had a very effective strategy for bringing long term empty homes back into use.
In most cases councils use a combination of encouragement and enforcement activities to persuade landlords to do something about empty homes.However, I think EDMOs can be a useful deterrent landlords from leaving their properties empty indefinitely.
My experience in Reading of campaigning on the issue of empty homes has taught me that there is no one way to bring empty properties back into use. Flexibility is the key. Empty homes officers use a range of tools and powers - a carrot and stick approach if you like. For that reason I would not like to see these powers curtailed without careful thought.
On a wider point it does puzzle me how Eric Pickles can preach localism and yet at every turn appear to want to direct councils from Whitehall. Thankfully, however, this is not a Conservative government but a coalition of two parties hence Empty Property Management Orders have not been dropped (as the Conservatives pledged to do in their manifesto) but modified.
This is clear evidence of the influence of Liberal Democrats such as Andrew Stunell in government (a minister in the same department as Eric Pickles). When I met him earlier this year to discuss empty homes policy he explained that there was difference of opinion between Conservative and Lib Dem MPs on policy but there was clear willingness on all sides to do more to tackle the problem, by blending the best policies from each Party.
Overall the Coalition Government has signalled it is much more committed to dealing with the problem of empty homes than the previous Labour Government ever were: As I blogged last November the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition has developed ambitious plans to reduce the number of empty homes in the UK - including using financial incentives to reward councils for bringing empty homes back into use.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Progress on landlord accreditation in Reading

Back in November I blogged about tough enforcement action Reading Borough Council was taking against a rogue landlord. However, when discussing issues in the private rented sector it is important also to highlight the examples of good landlords we have in the Town and this week I was pleased to hear that the first local landlord has become accredited via the National Landlord Association's accreditation scheme.
Last year the Coalition Council took the decision to join the NLA's scheme as it offered better value for money for taxpayers, and importantly offered more benefits to tenants and landlords than running our own inhouse scheme. This move was roundly criticised by some Labour councillors, rather predictably. For some reason Reading Labour councillors seem permanently wedded to supporting outdated policies even when all the evidence shows they are expensive and don't work.
As part of the administration's commitment to continuing to drive up standards in the private rented sector by working with landlords a training event is being held in Reading organised by the NLA on 24 February to help landlords learn new skills and take steps towards accreditation. If you are a landlord in Reading and would like to attend you can find out more information about the event and accreditation more generally here. As a councillor representing a ward with thousands of students I have campaigned for a number of years to improve the quality of private rented housing around the edge of the University - hence my support for landlord accreditation. With this in mind I will be meeting the new Vice President (Welfare & Representation) of Reading University Students Union soon to discuss what more we can do to help students on housing matters.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A new approach to tackling antisocial behaviour where Labour failed

Lib Dems firmly believe in protecting the rights and freedom of the individual. I think one of the key freedoms that should be protected is freedom from fear. Everyone has the right to feel safe in their neighbourhood whatever their background, but sadly not everyone does, and fear of antisocial behaviour leaves too many people fearful of stepping outside their front door and unable to enjoy life to the full.

Antisocial behaviour is not an insignificant issue:-
  • 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.
When Labour was last in power at national level home secretary after home secretary launched countless initiatives designed to tackle anti-social behaviour but despite this in places like Reading asb and fear of asb continued to be a problem. And once again it is a problem the Coalition needs to face up to and adopt a new, more person-centered approach.
Towards the end of the last government's term of office a perceived lack of public credibility on crime issues  became a political problem for Labour - so much so that Gordon Brown visited Reading just before the last election to launch...yet another initiative aimed at delivering soundbites and headlines. This came one month after a visit by then Home Secretary, Alan Johnson!
Tough talk is all very well but I believe the public deserve more than gimmicks and soundbites from politicians on issues as serious as antisocial behaviour and I am deeply committed to doing everything within my power both at a ward and Borough level to improve the quality of life of all residents. and to help them feel safer in their neighbourhood.
For me this ensuring that the Council and other agencies deals promptly and effectively with calls from the public in relation to anti-social behaviour right from the word go and regardless of whether the problem is in accomodation managed by the Council, housing association or a private individua is essentiall. If you or anyone you know in Reading has had a bad experience of this please get in touch as I am determined to help improve the service the Council provide for local residents.
Over the years I have campaigned extensively for a more joined up response to anti-social behaviour from the authorities in Reading. This is because as a councillor I have been contacted at various times by residents who have complained that they have reported issues and no action has been taken or the response they have received either from the Police or Council has been lacking. This experience has left some residents feeling helpful and desperate: this is completely unacceptable.
On the back of this I raised the specific issue of difficulty reporting anti-social behaviour  at Lib Dem Federal Conference a couple of years ago (the first time I spoke), as well as directly with Thames Valley Police and the Home Affairs Select Committee when it visited Reading in 2008.
 I also led a delegation of residents to Thames Valley Police's call centre in Kidlington so they could hear directly from residents utterly frustrated by the lack of Police response at that time (to motorbike nuisance).
So I welcomed the news today that the Coalition Government is launching a pilot programme to look at ways of improving the way anti-social behaviour is recorded and complaints from the public are handled.
The trial will take place in 8 Police authority areas.The volunteer areas will trial a new approach based on five key principles, which will be tailored to each area:
* Creating an effective call handling system where each individual has a log of complaints created from the very first call;

* introducing risk assessment tools to quickly identify the most vulnerable victims;

* installing off-the-shelf IT systems to share information on cases between agencies, removing the need for meetings;

* agreeing a protocol across all local agencies setting out how they will manage cases; and

* engaging with the community to clearly set out the issues which are causing the most harm to individuals and neighbourhoods, and setting out how the police, other local agencies and the public can work together to address them.

I will be interested to see what the outcome of the pilot is and if successful I hope it will be rolled out by Thames Valley Police in the near future.
Later this year the Government will also be announcing the results of its review of the existing tools and powers available to local authorities, such as ASBOs, and launching a consultation setting out a new way forward in how ASB is both viewed and tackled.
I think this is timely: almost 15,000 ASBOs were issued between 2000 and the end of 2007, and according to Home Office data, and more than half of all ASBOs were breached. I think it is also highly sensible that Ken Clarke is reviewing sentencing and the effectiveness of short sentences to try and reduce reoffending and the damage this does to individuals and communities. Home Office figures for 2007 show that 75 per cent. of 10 to 17-year-olds reoffended within one year of being released from custody, and the reoffending rate for a young man serving his first custodial sentence is 92 per cent.
This approach is not about doing things top down from Whitehall but is all about empowering the individual and local communities - a world away from the failed approach adopted by New Labour which saw fear of crime in places like Reading rise.