Friday, 25 February 2011

Southcote benefits from Decent Neighbourhoods Cash

This morning I went to Virginia Way in Southcote to help launch the new 'outdoor gym' which has been built paid for out of the Council's unique Decent Neighbourhoods Fund. This was created following a request from residents in the area. Southcote has an older population than most of Reading so it is important that the Council provides activities for the many older people who live in the area so they can stay active and healthy for as long as possible.
 Residents were involved in selecting the equipment and road-testing it first.
Talking to older residents who came along for the press launch they were delighted to see the new gym in place. It was clear talking to them that this new gym would meet a need in the area and help keep older people active. They told me that at the moment the nearest gym is at Prospect School (and this is not free!).
I spoke to a couple of older ladies about other Council matters and they were really pleased to hear they would be getting a Council Tax freeze - the first for many years.I am so pleased that the Budget we agreed on Tuesday includes £400,000 to be spent in the next financial year on improvements to estates and neighbourhoods across the Borough. How sad that Labour councillors voted against this along with our plans to continue to invest in Council housing across the Borough .
The next area set to benefit from the DNF is the Aveley Walk Play area in Katesgrove - a neglected area that Lib Dem councillors have long campaigned to be improved.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

First Person

This week the Reading Evening Post published a 'First Person' article written by me on the tough choices we face in social care in Reading. Read it here.

'Citizen Eric' gets it right on blogging

Thanks to Mark Pack for drawing my attention to this announcement by the Department for Communities and Local Government:-
'Councils should open up their public meetings to local news 'bloggers' and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said today.
To ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government, Mr Pickles believes councils should also open up public meetings to the 'citizen journalist' as well as the mainstream media, especially as important budget decisions are being made.
Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or 'hyper-local' bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.'
The letter sent today reminds councils that local authority meetings are already open to the general public, which raises concerns about why in some cases bloggers and press have been barred.'
Good on the much-maligned Mr Pickles! I find it pretty shocking that some local councils have ben banning bloggers and press from their meetings (and thinking they could get away with it).

That has never happened in Reading, I'm pleased to say.

I have been tweeting from Council meetings and blogging for a little while now - most recently the Council's important Budget meeting. This has got up a few people's noses but reporting events in this way is now pretty much the norm amongst counciillors.

The online political debate in Reading has grown from what it was when I began blogging and is now pretty lively with most political parties represented. I think this is healthy for local democracy.

I would like to see more 'citizen journalists' attend local meetings and report on events. One of the best is Oranjepan who runs the reliable and well-informed  Reading List site which aggregates local Berkshire blogs. I also enjoy Reading Roars and Bracknell Blog.

The new Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council implemented a social media strategy as part of our plans to open up the processes of the Council and engage the public.

That said I think we do need to do more to reach out to people and involve them more in decision-making. For example I would like to see the Council introduce web-casting as soon as a cost-effective solution can be found.

Progress on finance review could spell greater freedom for Reading

Interesting news in The Guardian today that the Coalition government is making progress on reviewing local government finances with an announcement expected within the next two weeks. This is something the government pledged to do in the Coalition Agreement:
"The government is planning to cut many richer local councils loose from Whitehall control in one of the biggest shakeups of local government funding since the 1980s.

Between a quarter and a third of local authorities will become "free councils" entirely independent of central government grant by the end of the parliament in 2015, under plans to be unveiled by the coalition in the next fortnight.

Many richer boroughs such as Westminster and big metropolitan councils would no longer be required to use their business rates to subsidise other parts of the country, although ministers say there would still be "an element of redistribution between wealthier and poorer councils".

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are close to agreement on the terms of a quick six-month inquiry into the future of local council funding.

This will focus on how to restore the right of councils in England to retain the bulk of revenue from business rates, as well as to keep more council tax revenue. At present business rates are collected by local government, but then all sent to central government for redistribution using a complex and little understood formula."

 The article continues:
"It is estimated that at present about 300 councils receive subsidies from business rate redistribution and 80 or so councils, such as Westminster and the big metropolitan authorities, put money in from the business rate."

It has long been known that only 25% of Council Tax is spent locally and the majority of the Tax revenue raised in Reading is spent elsewhere. This is a source of frustration for councillors in Reading as it limits the amount we are able to to improve the town for local residents and to develop a sustainable, thriving local economy.

I blogged last month about the positive impact this localist approach to finance could have on Reading.

The last time local government finance was investigated in depth was in 2007 by Sir Michael Lyons. The Labour Government failed to implement his recommendations and shelved plans to re localise business rates.

Guardian political commentator Simon Guardian has long championed devolution of tax-raising powers to councils. In 2007 he wrote:
Local government is, according to the Audit Commission, now more efficient than central government. No city council is run as incompetently as the Home Office or the defence, health or agriculture ministries. Councils cannot and do not bust their budgets. They cannot borrow at will or indulge in ludicrous computer schemes. Council schools are clean, government hospitals filthy.
Each year new burdens are imposed on councils under statute, through targets and by centrally negotiated, usually inflationary, wage deals. This, coupled with an ageing population and soaring inward migration, imposes costs on councils that are well above inflation, hence the severe upward pressure each year on council tax.
As the burden of meeting local spending has shifted to the centre (from 60% local in the mid-1980s to 25% now), the local share must be covered by an unbuoyant, fixed-band council tax. Business and income taxes and VAT, which benefit from economic growth, are retained by the Treasury. The government will not tolerate revaluation or introduce higher tax bands, as in Wales. A revaluation due before the last election was postponed by the then local government minister, David Miliband, out of sheer fear. Britons now pay among the lowest local taxes in the world, limited by a petrified Treasury...

Councils should levy what they need for such services as they supply, and answer for it to their electors. They did so before the myth of "local overspending" was disseminated by the Thatcher government, now repeated by Brown and Cameron. Where overspending occurred in London in the late-1960s, the Tories swept to power in 1968 - even capturing Lambeth and Camden. The franchise can bite if allowed to.
Today's Guardian article describes a genuine tussle going on within government between the Conservatives and Lib Dems on local government finance. This is healthy and what one would expect in a coalition.

I am pleased that this long-held Lib Dem policy aim - to give more financial independence to democratically-elected councils is still in play and edging closer to being delivered.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Budget speech

Below is the speech I planned to make on the Budget last night.

In the end I gave a much edited version due to the large number of poorly thought out, ill-conceived and politically-motivated amendments to the Coalition's proposed Budget tabled by the Labour Group at full Council last night which meant that the meeting to agree next year's Budget did not finish until about 12am.
"The need to set a fair, balanced budget for this Council, has never been more urgent or more important:
  • Over 900 members of the public have had their say via the Council’s first ever ‘Have Your Say’ consultation.
  • Over 600 people have responded so far to our social care consultation.
Now it is time for Reading’s political parties to put their cards on their table.

Or rather put their money where their mouth is.

As the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne observed: “There is no money left”

And the Labour Party’s dire financial legacy he spoke of is now having a profound effect on us here in Reading.

None of us on this side, least of all me went into politics to inflict damage on local public services or harm the life chances of individuals – quite the opposite.

When the Coalition was formed we were united in agreement that that we must make the best of resources available to us to help protect the most vulnerable in our community and fund the services local people value.

We were under no illusion that the challenges we faced would be easy but we firmly believed there was a better way of doing things, focussed more on outcomes than inputs and longer term stability than quick fix.

The Liberal Democrat and Conservative Groups in Reading have embraced new politics -

Putting aside narrow political interest to work together for the good of the people of Reading.

In the course of preparing for this important debate I was struck recently by something Theodore Roosevelt said.

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing”

The do nothing option is not open to us.

In my area of housing and community care demand for affordable housing is rising and the number of older people and vulnerable people needing support grows year on year.

In health, after record investment by the last Government we find pockets of serious deprivation leading to health inequalities across the Borough that we must tackle.

There will always be budget pressures in Community Care and Housing regardless of the financial situation the Council is in.

However, the public finances are not a bottomless pit.

In 2009/10 when the Council was Labour controlled Adult Social care overspent its budget by £1million.

This is not something this Council can afford to do any longer.

How we respond to this financial challenge says a lot about us as an administration.

  •  In this financial year (2010/11) the Council's Housing Community Care Directorate has managed growth pressures of around £2.3 million and is predicted to break even at year end.
  •  In 2011/12 this administration is proposing a budget for Adult Social Care Services of £43.27m
  • To meet these growing social care needs the Council is proposing to increase funding in 2011/12 by £2.6m, with the majority of this funding supporting individuals with Learning Disabilities (£0.9m) and Older People (£0.84m).
  • Adult Services are have a targeted expenditure savings and income generation programme that is supporting the Council to achieve the £18.8m savings target of £5.2m.
  • These savings are mainly part of the transformation of Adult Services and are focused on areas of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the services
  • On Housing, this administration has gone out and secured funding from government for much needed extra-care housing to provide homes for older people
  •  We will be investing £10 million pounds in improving Council properties and £400,000 in improving local estates
  • Next month sees a report to Cabinet on generating income for the Council by providing a housing repairs service to Wokingham borough council – helping to make our own service to our tenants more sustainable
  • On empty homes this Council is continuing to support efforts to bring long term empty homes back into use where other Council is cutting back
  • On Community Care this Council is leading the way on reablement services and active ageing helping hundreds of residents regain their independence
Let’s be clear this budget will protect the vulnerable.

In social care we are proposing to move to a system which makes public money go further,

As system where those who are assessed as needing support but who are unable to afford pay will continue to receive care free.
  • We have rejected proposals to cut back on domestic violence support – there was an error in the papers
  • We have rejected proposals to ration care to people that need it (demand management)
  • We have rejected proposals to reduce much needed breaks to carers
One of the ways we are able to fund social care services in the future is to reject policies which do not represent a good use of resources – take for example the Disabled Facilities Grant:
when I took on this post we inherited a policy for allocating grants from Labour which was not sustainable in the long term – if we continued spending at such a rate there would be nothing left in the future.
We scrapped a failed landlord accreditation scheme brought in by Labour – it cost roughly £16k per annum and reached less than 3% of the private rented market
Aneurin Bevin said about the NHS:
“We shall never have all we need, expectations will always exceed capacity and the service will always be changed growing and improving.”

but it could just as easily have been written about social services.

A world of finite resource and growing demand is the world we live in today.

And it is time that all members of this Council faced up to this reality and adapted our policies to meet the challenges we face.

This budget protects the vulnerable.

This budget enables us to continue to improve the quality of services we provide to residents.

This budget ensures that highly valued services like libraries service can continue to be funded.

This budget should be supported by all councillors."

Questions and Answers on Adult Social Care in Reading

Last night Cllr Tom Steele asked me a couple of questions about funding for social care in Reading and growth pressures we are experiencing. I have attached them in full below:-

Social Care Funding

Councillor Steele to ask the Lead Councillor for Community Care, Housing and Health:

What level of funding is proposed to be spent on social care 2011/12 and how does this compare with previous years?

"In 2009/10 Adult Social care overspent its budget by £1million. In this financial year (2010/11) the Directorate has managed growth pressures of around £2.3 million and is predicted to break even at year end.

Following the 2010 national spending review there has been a radical change to Local Government Grant Funding streams. The Council is proposing a budget for Adult Social Care Services of £43.27m (Gold Book report 2011/12); however, it is not possible to make a direct comparison to the position for 2010/11 due to some changes (i.e. specific grants received by the Directorate in 2010/11 have now become part of the formula funding the Council received).

Adult Services are have a targeted expenditure savings and income generation programme that is supporting the Council to achieve the £18.8m savings target (a full break down of these schemes is included in the Gold Book report to Council, page 56) of £5.2m. These savings are mainly part of the transformation of Adult Services and are focused on areas of improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the services.

Social care services are experiencing significant growth pressure from across the client groups supported. To meet these needs the Council is proposing to increase funding in 2011/12 by £2.6m, with the majority of this funding supporting individuals with Learning Disabilities (£0.9m) and Older People (£0.84m).

The Council will not be reducing spend on voluntary sector support and will continue to support a range of discretionary activity, for example support for carers. The major focus of activity will be to complete the transformation of care so that everyone is offered a personal budget and continue to focus activity on the most frail and vulnerable."
Social Care Pressures

Councillor Steele to ask the Lead Councillor for Community Care, Housing and Health:
What growth pressures is the Council experiencing in relation to social care services?


"Adult Services in Reading is undertaking a major transformation of its services to delivery improved outcomes, but in a more cost effective way. An example of this is our reablement service which is delivering considerable savings and better care outcomes by enabling people to regain their independence. A further example is the merger of Edward Hughes and Tanfield homes – creating a centre of excellence for intermediate care, providing a better physical environment for frail elderly people and saving money.

I am pleased to say that because of this type of service transformation the Housing and Community Care budget will break even in this financial year.

However, even with substantial change to service delivery, Social Care Services are experiencing significant growth pressure from across the client groups supported. This is partially because people are living longer and partially because we are managing much more complex cases within the community.

In response, the Government has established a Commission on Long Term Care which will report in July this year and made additional moneys available to promote better integration of health and social care (around £1.1 million across the PCT area in 2011/12)

At local level the Council is proposing to increase funding in 2011/12 by £2.6m, with the majority of this funding supporting individuals with Learning Disabilities (£0.9m) and Older People (£0.84m)."

Open Government

Yesterday evening the Leader and Deputy Leader of Reading Borough Council's Coalition administration in Reading tabled the following motion. I drafted the motion. It reads:
"In line with the Coalition Agreement agreed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Groups in May 2010, this Council is committed to conducting its business with greater openness and transparency to increase public confidence in the activities of the Council.
This Council is also committed to ensuring every penny of Council Tax payers money is spent wisely and for the benefit of residents.
This Council rejects those policies and practices adopted by the previous Labour administration which sought to spend Council Taxpayers money furthering narrow political interests.
This Council therefore pledges in line with the principles of open, good government to:
  • Publish invoices relating to payments over £500 on its website every quarter
  • Publish details of the salaries of senior staff on its website
  • Adopt clear and transparent policies for commissioning (so residents have a clear understanding what services are commissioned and why)"
This motion was agreed by Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors.

All Labour councillors voted against it.Below is the speech I wrote in support of the motion.

Given the late hour it was tabled I was only able to give part of it:-
"The roots of this motion lie in reinforcing and revivifying the following key values of local democracy
  • Transparency
  • Accountability
  • Governing in the public interest
As councillors we should seek to govern by these principles or risk losing the trust of those who put us here.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant” - so said Louis Brandeis in 1913.

“Restoring transparency is not only the surest way to achieve results, but also to earn back trust in government” –

“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing” – so said Obama

As the Leader of the Council has observed it is not our own money, this Council is spending,

It is the public’s money.

Yet for years, many of the activities of this Council including its expenditure have remained a mystery to local people.

Information, and by extension power, has rested in too few hands.

You don’t have to look very far to find examples of this –

  • Remember when scrutiny panels were chaired by administration councillors?
  •  Remember when grant funding decisions were made by the Lead Councillor in consultation with officers?
This happened under the previous, Labour administration of the Council.

I believe strongly that the public have a right to know what we are spending their hard-earned taxes on and to use that information to challenge us.

If we want local people to trust us then we must trust them with the information.

This is particularly important in an era when there is likely to be less money around and more competition for public funds.

Under the watch of the last Labour government public perception of parliamentarians slumped to an all time low.

The widespread belief that MPs were “in it for themselves” was hugely damaging to public confidence in our democracy both nationally and locally.

Closer to home there have been examples recently of spending by the previous administration of this Council which would have.

The Coalition Administration of this Council has sought from the word go to inject Council business with a greater openness and transparency – as our coalition agreement stated.

We in this administration have sought to shine a light on spending, processes and decisions which for years have been kept hidden.

- Take for example my colleague Cllr Willis’s thorough investigation of what went on in Shinfield Road.

- Or the uncovering of millions of pounds worth of secret spending on consultants by the previous Labour administration of this Council, uncovered by my colleague Cllr Epps in recent days.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the way we have reformed the grant funding process.

3 years ago I jointly tabled a motion with Cllr Townend on this very subject.

We were roundly attacked for it by Labour councillors keen to defend the status quo.

We are opening up the process to new groups and giving everyone a fair chance of bidding for funding.

This is decidedly pro-public interest and anti-vested interest.

I hope all councillors can back this motion and work together to restore trust in our politics."

Supporting Carers in Reading

Yesterday evening at full Council Cllr Tom Steele (Conservative, Kentwood) tabled a written question to me asking what support is planned in Reading to support unpaid carers. Below is the response I gave:

"Carers in Reading make a hugely valuable and important contribution to caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

As an administration we are committed to placing support for carers at the heart of all our policies and at the top of our local agenda for transforming community care.

The Coalition Government’s Agreement sets out that the Government will look to provide increased support to carers particularly through:

  • Extending the roll-out of personal budgets to give people and their carers more control and purchasing power;
  • Using Direct Payments to carers and better community based provision to improve access to respite care;
  •  Extending the right to request flexible working to all employees, consulting with business on how best to do so; and
  • Establishing a commission for long-term care which will consider how to ensure responsible and sustainable funding for long-term care.
Locally, The Carers Action Plan 2010-12 details how RBC, along with other partners will support carers in Reading.

The top priority areas for 2010 and beyond were identified by carers as:

  • Supporting carers to get breaks
  • Promoting the take-up of Direct Payments from the Carers 
  •  Offering back up support for carers in an emergency
  • RBC currently funds Crossroads to provide the Back Me Up emergency support planning and emergency respite scheme
  • Helping new and existing carers access information and guidance on support and services.
Developing a Reading Carers Communications Plan to reach more carers and ensure carers amongst whom service take up is currently low are targeted for more work.

This will form part of the tender for carers re-commissioning services and will make available out of hours support:

  • Supporting carers to look after their health
  • On-going work with partners to encourage carers to draw up emergency back up plans
  • Offering training to carers and to ensure carers can access appropriate peer support
  • Promoting awareness of carers as expert partners in care, through ensuring social care professionals and other teams (i.e. GPS) are aware of the carers information pack and trained in improving carer recognition
Work in progress includes:
  • Continuing the Carers Steering Group to ensure local agencies continue to collaborate for the benefit of carers
  • Making a positive contribution by ensuring carers are including in service development
  • Improved quality of life through raising awareness of services available and to engage with other providers to negotiate better access to services for carers
  •  Encouraging take up from underrepresented groups, RBC has funded an additional BME carer support group to complement existing ones offered by PRT
  •  Working with JobCentre Plus to make sure employers in Reading are aware of flexible working rights for carers
  • Community development work alongside the Thriving Neighbourhoods Programme to ensure carers are identified
  • A series of events in 2011 to link in with national events and promote carer rights, support available to them and how to access this."

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Response to Petition on Social Care Eligibility Criteria

At the Council's Budget meeting I was due to respond to a petition from Green Party Candidate Melanie Eastwood (Save Our Services) on Social Care. Sadly due to the large number of public questions and other petitions the time allotted ran out so I was unable to give the response verbally.

Below is the response I would have given (and which was circulated in the meeting):
'I would like to thank everyone who signed this petition – it is clear that social care is an issue that matters to many people in Reading.

As an administration we believe that the protection of vulnerable adults and children must be our highest priority.

I am honoured to serve as Lead Member for Community Care and I take the responsibility attached to this role very seriously indeed.
It is my responsibility to ensure that we are providing the right services to people who need them, and to ensure that the money is there to provide them in future.
Funding for social care is a national issue and I am pleased that the Coalition Government has taken the courageous decision to seek a fair, sustainable solution to this issue which affects us all where the previous Labour government failed.

Throughout the challenging budget-making process I have subjected all our community care policies to a series of rigorous tests:
  •  Will this policy protect the most vulnerable in our community?
  • Does this policy promote independence for carers and those with care needs?
  •  Will this policy deliver an improved quality of service for residents?
  • Will this policy be financially sustainable in the longer term?
  • Does this policy deliver value for money for taxpayers? 
In Reading, like many other areas we face an inescapable reality of increasing growth in demand for our services.

This is not new and it would be the case regardless of the financial position this Council finds itself in.

We face a choice in how we respond to this challenge.

We could have buried out heads in the sand, as Labour did for years and continued to beg for more money from Council tax payers and borrow more money we do not have to pay for services - including services for people who have been assessed as able to pay.

This is not a sustainable and it does not meet the test of ensuring funding is available in the future to provide care to vulnerable people.

Neighbouring Councils have opted to adopt ‘demand management’ which is effectively rationing care. We rejected this because it failed the first test – it places vulnerable people at risk by delaying access to support and help. It also creates huge problems for other local agencies e.g. bed blocking in local hospitals.

We are not proposing to do any of these things.
In Reading:
  •  we are consulting about eligibility criteria
  • we are proposing to increase and enhance support to carers
  • we are proposing to expand our preventative and reablement services
The Council put these matters out to public consultation on 6th December and the Transforming Adult Social Care Services consultation is open until 27th February.
Any changes to Adult Social Care can affect very vulnerable people, and we are keen to hear from as many people as possible with their views on these proposals.
There have been in excess of 600 responses to the consultation so far, and approximately 20 meetings held to discuss the proposals.
The majority of responses have come from people who have indicated they have a care and support need themselves or care for somebody who does.

A full report on the consultation will be presented to the Health, Housing and Community Care Scrutiny Panel on 10th March.A decision on what action to take in the light of the consultation feedback will then be taken by Cabinet on 14th March.
We recognise that any change in eligibility for Adult Social Care would increase people’s reliance on other support – from families, communities and voluntary groups. Within the consultation we are therefore asking people for their views on what sorts of support like this – which we have described as ‘preventative services’ - they feel are most important.
There are already a range of excellent services like this in Reading, including the free reablement service offering up to 6 weeks of tailored support to regain maximum independence after an illness or injury.
Consultation feedback will be used to inform our ongoing programme to ensure that the funding Adult Social Care already invests and will continue to invest in carers and community support is meeting local people’s priorities.'

A Budget to protect the vulnerable

Yesterday evening Reading's Liberal Democrat and Conservative Groups agreed a budget to protect the most vulnerable in our town and deliver a Council Tax freeze - the first in many years.
I was particularly pleased my detailed plans to protect vulnerable adults won support from members across the Council including from Cllr Mike Orton, former Labour Council Leader and my predecessor as Lead Member for Community Care.
Labour's opposition group voted against and failed to come up with an alternative budget despite 23 years previous experience of running the Council.

In doing so Labour councillors voted decisively:
As Cllr David Stevens, Lead Member for Finance, confirmed that the Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council had managed the Council's finances in such a way that we had come in under budget. When the Coalition was first formed Labour councillors claimed we would not be able to manage the budget.
In 2009/10 Labour overspent to the tune of £1 million pounds on adult social care.
Cllr Stevens pointed out Labour's spending plans would result in a 30% rise in Council Tax in Reading. However, as the Coalition Government has said it would cap councils that failed to freeze Council Tax Reading Borough Council would be penalised i.e. lose grant if it attempted to increase Council Tax to this level.
In total Labour tabled amendments that would deliver only £500k savings when the savings the Council needed to find was approaching £19 million pounds - totaly inadequate and showing once again they are not up to the task of running the Council and managing the public finances.
During the debate Labour  councillors tabled amendments opposing increases in fees and charges. This is not surprising given they opposed innovative ideas to recover the Council's costs at the last Cabinet meeting.
This follows the past 9 months were Labour councillors have opposed every cut the Coalition Administration has proposed.  Once agains Labour failed to demonstrate even a shred of economic competence.
During the course of my remarks I quoted Peter Watts, former General Secretary of the Labour Party who recently commented:-
"We lost the general election because we were seen as being arrogant and out of touch. We lost because we were seen as being economically illiterate and having massively overspent. And we lost because we were seen as being in favour of top down big government.
If we are to win the next election, we clearly need to detoxify our own brand. However, it is not clear that we have as yet fully appreciated just how toxic and unpopular we had become. The recent travails of the government, our riding high in the polls and by-election wins have masked this...
Far from detoxifying, we currently risk retoxifying. Ed Balls has done a great job of challenging the government over the pace of deficit reduction. But we are still opposing every cut, every library closure, every reduction in police numbers and every job loss. It might make us feel better and win some short term popularity. But it isn’t an answer to the charge that we had become economically illiterate and had allowed massive overspending.
Attacks on the big society are fun and are incredibly easy at the moment. But does it help to explain that we fully understand the danger of being perceived as a party of “big government”? And we are still out of touch and arrogant, still seeming to think that we are the party of all that is good in the world and everyone else is either flawed or worse. We need to wake up to the fact that right now that is not how we are perceived by much of the public."
I think this description sums up the approach of Reading Labour Party very well. I believe that if they regained control of the Council, Labour councillors would push the Council to the point of bankruptcy - threatening the very services, jobs, and vulnerable people they claim they exist to protect.

In conclusion this evening proved that the Coalition Administration can deliver a balanced budget, can deliver a Council Tax freeze and can deliver a budget which prioritises protection to the vulnerable.

In contrast Labour councillors proved once again they are not a credible alternative administration and they remain unfit to run the Council in Reading.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Reading Yes To Fairer Votes Campaign

I'm backing the campaign for fairer votes. Find out more how about you can get involved in the campaign at Yes to fairer votes.

The Reading Yes 2 AV campaign is launching, find out more details about the launch event from the the Reading Yes 2 AV team below:-
"Our grand launch will be on Tuesday 1st March from 7pm. We will carry on until late in the evening.
Come to The Rising Sun Arts Centre, 30 Silver Street, Reading, RG1 2ST. It’s just five minutes from the Oracle car park. Head up London Road and cross over at the traffic lights. It will be on your right.
There will be cake, pizzas and drinks. You can meet the campaign team, find out more about the referendum and talk about why this change is needed.
Don’t worry if you can’t make this event. You’ll be able to come visit us from 11am to 7pm Monday to Friday every day afterwards. And you are, of course, welcome to bring friends.

Come meet us and find out why we are saying “yes” to fairer votes."
To confirm your attendance, or for more information including directions, e-mail:

Tenant scrutiny In Reading

I am a firm believer of the positive role effective scrutiny of Council policies and services can.  Scrutiny plays a key role in terms of developing policy, improving services for residents and holding elected politicians to account. Sadly some politicians use it to score political points which isn't very productive.
For many years in Reading councillors have led the scrutiny process and I am pleased that  the Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council is doing more to open up the Council to the public - the people the Council is there to serve for example making Council spending more transparent.
When I was Chair of Scrutiny (2008-10) on the Council I worked hard to increase public involvement in the scrutiny process by involving residents in detailed scrutiny reviews of dementia care and private rented housing.
As a Council the next step is to develop the scrutiny role of our own tenants to improve the Housing services all tenants receive and to put more power in the hands in the hands of tenants themselves. Co-regulation has been around as a concept for a couple of years now but remains relatively under-developed in Reading. The government has signalled that it wants to see a bigger role for The housing co-regulation model allows for tenants and housing providers to work together to challenge, raise performance and share best practice.
Effective tenant-led scrutiny will be at the Council's new approach. This will help the Council as a landlord to focus more on what matters to local tenants. I will be joining tenants, senior managers housing staff and councillors at a workshop next month to discuss how we are going develop and embed tenant scrutiny into the way we work in Reading. I think this is the right way to go.

Council moves to support local Farmers' Market

Good news today as Reading Borough Council has announced it is introducing a new 50p short stay tariff for visitors to the  Farmers Market. This follows concerns being raised with the Council by market traders and residents that parking charges were deterring customers.
I have been to the Market a number of times - it is a fantastic asset to the Town.

This new rate is a significant reduction on the £1.50 parking rate previously charged when the Council was Labour-controlled.

It  is yet more evidence that the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council is committed to listening to the public and supporting local business.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Coalition Government makes real progress on empty homes

Last November the Government launched a consultation on plans to reward councils for building new homes and bringing empty homes back into use.

Today the New Homes Bonus was formally launched.:
"Through the New Homes Bonus the Government will match the council tax raised from new homes for the first six years. The bonus available for an affordable home will be up to 36 per cent more than for a similar market home, equivalent to an extra £350 per house premium every year. Empty properties brought back into use will also receive the cash bonus for six years.

This works out at payments of over £9,000 paid on average to each Band D home or almost £11,000 for an equivalent affordable home. So if an area increased the number of homes by 1,000 units this could earn a community £10m to spend as they see fit - significant funding at a time when public finances are tight."
Over 500 organsations including my local council responded to the consultation with the majority of responses very supportive of the plans. You can read a summary of e responses here.

Of the 189 groups that responded to the question about empty homes 92% supported plans to reward councils for bringing empty homes back into use. This is a very positive endorsement of the direction of travel taken by the Government in relation to this issue.

This approach is radical change from the approach take to tackling empty homes under Labour where local councils were not incentivised into bringing empty homes back into use, so as a result many councils failed to take steps to deal with this problem in their area.

Thankfully as a result of years of campaigning by myself and other Lib Dems in Reading, Reading Borough Council is one of the most proactive local authorities in the country in relation to empty homes.

£100 million pounds earmarked to help tackle empty homes

Earlier this week the Homes and Communities Agency published the Framework for its Affordable Homes Programme 2011-15. In addition to providing details about investment for the construction of new homes it includes plans to invest in bringing long term empty properties back into use:
'£100m has been earmarked for work to bring empty homes back into use. Funding will be available from April 2012. The funding will be targeted at long term empty properties which are blighting neighbourhoods, and which would not come back into use without intervention.

 We recognise that there are a very wide range of possible approaches to tackling empty homes, and that different approaches might be most effective in different circumstances. We want to offer providers as much flexibility as possible to take the most effective approach locally, whilst ensuring a rigorous approach to value for money. We will shortly be seeking expressions of interest from providers who are interested in applying for funding to tackle empty homes.

Providers are asked to indicate in the standard information template whether they are interested in participating in bringing empty homes back into use once further programme detail is available. Providers who have schemes to bring empty homes back into use which are ready to deliver before April 2012 should provide information through the standard information template.'
Theory aside it will take effort to make these proposals work on the ground, but overall this has been a very good week for those of us who have been campaigning for years to get empty homes on the political agenda and most importantly, back in use.

Lib Dems win key changes to Welfare Reform Bill

More evidence today of Liberal Democrat influence in Government with the news that Nick Clegg blocked plans to cut Housing Benefit for people who have been unemployed for more than one year.

This is a really welcome development and I am certain it would not have been brought about had it not been for Liberal Democrat MPs in the Coalition.

The original plan was unduly punitive and I was concerned about the impact it could have on people living in Reading already struggling to find a job.

Last year I blogged my thoughts about housing and  planned reforms to benefits. It's worth remembering that Labour also planned to reform Housing Benefit - it was in their manifesto.

I hope the reforms announced today will be an improvement on the broken welfare system which traps too many people in poverty.

As Lead Member for Housing I will be keeping a close eye on the impact of any changes to benefits and ensuring the Council is doing all it can to support people who find themselves on hard times or in housing need.

Lib Dem Minister for Pensions Steve Webb MP explains over on Lib Dem Voice argues that the new Bill is a 'radical improvement' on the current framework for benefits:

"Universal Credit will be flexible and dynamic, taking into the account the month-by-month changes every person experiences. This will be in marked contrast to the fiendishly complex tax credits system where people faced recovery of overpayments years after they received the cash. In all, this new system will lift 950,000 people – including 300,000 children – out of poverty and 2.7m households will be better off as a result."

I really hope he is right - we'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Inspiring Lib Dem Women

This evening I spent a rare night off from my Council duties to attend a networking event organised by the fantastic Lib Dem Women's Network. This network was set up by my good friend Jo Shaw who stood for Parliament as the Lib Dem candidate for Holborn & St Pancras last year and who is a member of the Party's Federal Executive.
Although the Liberal Democrats have more formal structures in place to support women, and increase the number of women MPs in Parliament, Jo and I agree that it is important to encourage informal networking between women in the Party as a means of supporting women become more involved at all levels of the Party.
As a young woman involved in local politics I try and get along to these events to encourage other women who are interested in getting more involved in the Party. Also as a relatively inexperienced politician myself I also like to go to these events to pick up tips from my more experienced colleagues - for example on policy and more practical matters like public-speaking and campaigning.
Lynne Featherstone MP Liberal Democrat Equalities Minister was the special guest at the event tonight. Lynne is a bit of a mentor to me on the side and I am lucky enough to call her a friend. She is one of the people I respect most in politics and she has inspired me achieve things in politics right from the first moment met her a few years ago.
Lynne's constituency borders the area I grew up in in North London so we have a lot in common. When I go home to visit family and friends no-one has a bad word to say about Lynne (including non-Lib Dem supporters!) . She has an incredibly high profile in her local area because she always gets involved and stuck into local issues.
One of the amazing things about Lynne is she got into politics late - at the age of 41 but despite this she has risen from local councillor in Haringey to Minister, taking her seat in Parliament from third place in 2005.
One of the things I love about Lynne is the fact she speaks her mind and does what she thinks is right, not what she is told to do by others or necessarily what is popular. Take for example her stance on prisoner voting. This quality can mean she gets into trouble sometimes but it also means that she is incredibly well-respected by constituents and colleagues alike.
If you get the chance to speak to Lynne she really doesn't sound like a politician and she is always interested in what other people have to say whatever their role or background. This self-effacing, down to earth quality makes her very easy to talk to and I have been known to bend her ear every now and again!
I also love the fact that Lynne has kept up with blogging despite becoming a minister and that on her blog she gives equal prominence to work she does as a constituency MP as she does as a member of the government. Lynne's Blog was definitely an influence on mine (although I fear mine does not touch hers in terms of readability or popularity!) Lynne has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to communication and social media - and way ahead of most MPs.
Anyway, itt says a lot about Lynne that she found time in her busy diary to speak to a group of female Lib Dem Party Members this evening. That said whenever I have had a reason to contact Lynne about something she always responds which is pretty amazing given the amount of emails and casework she must receive.
Lynne has achieved such a lot in her role as Equality Minister - including recently campaigning to lift the ban on civil partnerships in religious settings.
The event tonight was held at Lib Dem HQ in Cowley Street and it was lovely to catch up with friends, fellow former parliamentary candidates, and activists. Politics can be a tough, unforgiving environment and we all do our best to support and encourage each other. It was really nice to see plenty of young female members there who are getting involved in campaigning and activities right across the Party.
I had a chat with Caroline Pidgeon who is doing great things on the Greater London Assembly, as well as Belinda Brooks-Gordon who as well as being a senior academic and mother is a fantastic Lib Dem campaigner on equality issues. My friend Jo Shaw who set up the group is campaigning both inside and outside the Party on a number of key issues relating to human rights.
Talking to all these talented women reminds me that we have so many bright stars within our Party and I am confident that many of them will go on to achieve great things both inside and outside Parliament.
Locally I think it is very important to lead by example and to encourage and support women who want to get involved in politics. You can never have enough female role models as far as I'm concerned. As a councillor I have developed a strong network of female friends who are councillors - many of whom are much more experienced than me! They include Cllr Erica Kemp from Liverpool, along with the fantastic Hull Lib Dem team, Cllr Sarita Bush and Cllr Abi Bell , and Cllr Marie Jenkins in the West Country - all of whom I met on the Next Generation course run by the Leadership Centre for Local Government.
I spoke on the subject of women in politics last year at Reading University and I am proud to have been able to recruit, promote and support new female activists in Reading - including my friend and colleague Cllr Rebecca Rye who was elected in Katesgrove last May.
Talking about inspirational women this post would not be complete without a mention of Cllr Kirsten Bayes, my esteemed ward colleague, Deputy Leader of the Council, campaigner and close friend - to whom I dedicate this post.

Reading Borough Council Housing Meets Decent Homes Standard

More good local housing news this week - Council-owned housing in Reading has met Decent Homes Standard. The standard requires that social housing:
  1. Must meet the current statutory minimum standard for housing
  2. Must be in a reasonable state of repair
  3. Must have reasonably modern facilities and services.
  4. Must provide a reasonable degree of thermal comfort.
From the Council's official press release:
"In the last six years the Council has replaced over 2,000 bathrooms, 2,500 boilers and 2,600 kitchens in addition to over 1,300 homes fully refurbished in north Whitley under the Affinity PFI project.
In 2000, the Government set local authorities a target to ensure 'all social housing met set standards of decency by 2010'. The Council has now achieved this major long-term target, which saw a full and detailed survey of more than 7,500 Council managed properties in Reading, including homes in north Whitley which are managed on behalf of the Council by Affinity.

Tenants all over the borough have had their kitchens and bathrooms modernised, improved heating, electric re-wiring, as well as new doors and windows and also the repair of roofs to the outside of their properties. And with tenants facing increasing gas and electricity charges from utility companies, the Council has put significant investment into insulation so tenants can save money on their fuel bills."
I am delighted that Council houses in Reading are now meeting this standard. This has come about through years of work and cooperation by surveyors, tradespeople, Council staff and of course tenants.

The Decent Homes Programme is one policy from the Blair-Brown era that I do agree with and one I have supported locally as it has delivered tangible improvements for tenants. It is a pity that the Labour Government so comprehensively failed when it came to building more much-needed council homes.

 My only real criticisms of the policy is that the then Labour Government's focus on improving council homes led many estate areas to be neglected and also meant some councils including Reading (when it was Labour controlled) to overlook housing quality in the private rented sector. 

The new Lib Dem-Conservative administration in Reading is working hard to tackle some of these issues via our unique Decent Neighbourhoods Fund and using a variety of tools to improve private rented housing including the introduction of a new Landlord Accreditation Scheme.

Council homes need ongoing maintenance to ensure that they remain decent so we will be investing over £10 million pounds as a Council in these properties in the coming year to ensure they continue to meet required standards.

An Emergency Call

This morning on the way to work I helped a young woman who collapsed in the street in front of me in on a traffic island on Caversham Road in central Reading. I did what I hope anyone would do in an emergency situation and stayed with her while I called for help. Although I am Lead Member for Health I am not a medic and I would like to pay tribute to the other passers by who assisted her and also to members of the South Central Ambulance Trust who on the scene arrived so quickly after I called them despite it being the middle of the rush hour.
I tweeted my experience and subsequently got a phone call from the Reading Evening Post. As I was about to leave the office for the day I got a call from the same journalist to tell me that the family of the young woman had got in touch with the Paper after reading the article to pass on their thanks.
I was able to speak to both the young woman and her mother earlier this evening. It was good to hear she was recuperating at home (after being discharged from Royal Berkshire Hospita) after what must have been a very stressful experience. I'm really glad I was able to help.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Supporting Migrant Communities in Reading

This afternoon I  was invited to speak at a conference organised by South East England Councils on the subject of housing and migration. The conference was called 'Housing the SoutEast: Opportunities & challenges.' Below are excerpts from my presentation.

One of the things I love about living in Reading is its diversity. I am not from Reading,. I moved here to take up a job in the town - and I am not alone in this.

Reading has enjoyed record migration from many parts of the world - this has enriched the town and provided many businesses and sectors with access to much needed skills. The recent Place Survey which was carried out in 2009 found that people in Reading tend to be very comfortable living alongside people from different backgrounds - this is a real plus point about Reading and one of the reasons Reading is such a popular place to live.

International migration to Reading

As the Centre for Cities has recognised Reading is a vibrant place with a dynamic economy which attracts migration from both inside and outside the UK. Reading access to a highly-skilled workforce is one of the reasons global businesses like to base themselves in the Reading area and there is no doubt that migration has had a very positive impact on our economic performance as a town.
Annual population surveys suggest that 25% of the residents in Reading were not born in the UK Since 2004 there has been a substantial flow of economic migrants in to the borough. Official statistics show that most migrants were male between the ages of 18024 and were predominantly from Eastern Europe ( 60% from Poland alone). In 2009 ethnic minority pupils made up 45% of the school population up from 27% in 2004. In addition to Eastern European, Nepalese is a growing community in Reading. And in 2008 migrant workers accounted for 14 out of every 1000 people in Reading.
My brief presentation today focussed on the impact of migration on housing.

Impact on housing and the community

In Reading there has been little impact on social housing as migrant workers are not able to apply until employed for 12 months. One issue officers have identified has been an increase in overcrowding of HMOs, and tenants accepting poor quality accommodation. We have also seen an increase in rough sleeping - 38 % of rough sleepers have been Eastern European. There have also been some problems around anti-social behaviour and street drinking. Other impacts have included an increased need for translation services and higher demands placed on health and education services.

How has the Council responded?
  • A Polish speaking officer has been employed 2 days a week at the main customer service desk at the Civic Centre to provide advice and information to new arrivals in Reading.
  • A welcome pack has been produced aimed at new arrivals (this includes information on tenant rights/expected standards of accomodation).
  • Immigration advice provided by Citizens Advice Bureau has been grant funded by the Council
  • A Polish Saturday School has been funded by the Council
Housing Interventions
  • We have increased inspections and enforcement in the private rented sector (in particular in relation to overcrowding inspections)
  • Rough sleeping has been challenged - including using a Polish speaking worker in outreach team
The Reading 2020 Partnership successfully bid for funding from government via the Migration Impact Fund. Ths has helped us to invest in front end services to help support integration. This activity is still ongoing.

Current initiatives

The Council is continuing to invest in community development and outreach in Polish communities in Reading. In addition this week the Council pledged to grant fund to community groups £45,000 to provide much-needed advice services to Reading's growing Nepalese community A range of other activities are planned.

Looking to the future

Due to the economic downturn the number of economic migrants has decreased but in the longer term it is predicted that pressures on school places and housing in Reading will continue.
The Council has recently introduced a flexible approach to grant funding community groups which will enable us to support communities to support themselves. Funding will be based on transparent criteria so that different communities  and groups have an equal chance of accessing funding. We will continue to enforce standards in the private rented sector to ensure everyone has access to decent housing.

Housing Advice

At the conference I was recommended this website aimed at new arrivals in the UK and people looking for clear information about housing rights for migrant workers and others. This website is also a useful source of information for anyone who is in housing need in the UK.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Tax and Spend: Reading Labour Rejects Ideas in Favour of Old Certainties

Yesterday evening at Cabinet we considered a paper on ways to raise more revenue as a Council. This is not something any of us might want to consider but we need to find new ways to pay for services which does not involve increasing Council Tax and to go some way toward filling the hole in the Council's budget after years of  mismanagement of our local and national public finances by Labour.

The Growing Revenue and Cost Recovery Project involved inviting Deloitte to identify a series of business cases to reduce the Council's net budget and improve cost recovery for our services, and it is in addition to a number of projects that are currently ongoing to place the Council's finances on a more sustainable footing.

Over 10 weeks 12 business cases were developed with a potential net cumulative benefit of £3.4 million over 5 years. Not a huge amount but a step in the right direction.

Not all of the cases will be taken forward but some of them for example where it is proposed that the Council changes its existing processes to recover lost revenue in the delivery of services seem to me to be sensible.

Many such revenue-raising projects have been undertaken by other councils for many years. But not RBC when it was run by Labour. As councillors in my view we need to be open to new ideas, identify the best and then work out which proposals are right for our area.

At the meeting Cabinet we were requested to endorse 10 business cases to explore further. To be clear, to be taken forward any such proposals would need to be worked up into formal proposals in consultation with residents and stakeholders before being formally adopted.

At the Council Meeting of 25 January the administration accepted an amendment tabled by Labour councillors to the motion on Budget savings proposas for 2011/12 which instructs the Chief Executive to include proposals to increase revenue as an alternative to cuts in services.

Following that meeting you might have expected then that Reading Labour councillors would endorse the approach the Coalition Administration is taking then in exploring ways to raise extra revenue.

But no. They rejected them all.

But as we have found since taking over the running of the Council last May it is all about political point scoring to Labour rather than working as an effective opposition i.e. with other political parties for the benefit of Reading residents.

Labour councillors clearly did not expect Conservative or Liberal Democrat support for their amendment that evening in the first place so ended up in the embarassing position of voting against their own motion.

The Deputy Leader of the Labour Group began by saying the previous Labour administration had been working on a number of cost recovery ideas for years (but had clearly never got round to implementing them) before proceeding  to dismiss without exception all the proposlas contained in the paper as 'unimaginative'.

Here is yet more evidence if it were needed that Labour councillors have completely run out of ideas after more than years running the Council.

I waited but no alternative ideas for raising revenue were put forward by either the Leader or Deputy Leader of the Labour Group in their response to the paper.

Once again this left me wondering exactly what ideas Labour in Reading actually have to pay for Council services given they have opposed every single budget saving we have proposed thus far.

Clearly not committing themselves to any proposals for raising revenue ahead of the coming local elections is a greater priority to Reading Labour Party than helping to repair the Council's finances and ensuring funding is available to protect vital services - cervices which they themselves say they have pledged to protect.

As I said in the meeting their non-contribution to this important discussion leads me to reach the inevitable conclusion that the only 'idea' Labour are likely to put forward at next week's crucial budget Council meeting next week is a massive increase in Council Tax.

Thames Valley Police Pledge To Protect Neighbourhood Policing in Reading

This evening we received a presentation from Sara Thornton, Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police. Over the past few months we have rightly focussed on Council spending and building a sustainable budget for the coming year in the fact of big reductions in our grant settlement.
This evening we gained an insight into the budget-making process Thames Valley Police has been going through, as well as local policing priorities.

Ms Thornton explained that the Force would need to make milllions of pounds worth of savings and confirmed the following in TVP's  budget plans over the coming four years:-
  • Frontline Police Officer numbers will protected from cuts
  • Neighbourhood Policing Teams will be protected and officer numbers maintained
  • 417 PCSO posts will be maintained
  • Savings will be found from rationalising back office and management functions e.g the Basic Command Unit management tier will be abolished
  • Efficiencies will be achieved by sharing services and more collaboration across areas
  • Number of Special Constables to be increased
  • ASB hotline to be improved
Given the significant savings TVP has to make it was encouraging to hear Ms Thornton confirm that Neighbourhood Policing remains top priority and that what she called 'visible policing' was also a priority - so contrary to recent scaremongering by Labour politicians according to the most senior Police Officer in our area Police officers will not be disappearing from our streets.

Obviously we will need to keep a close eye on local Policing services but I have every reason to believe Ms Thornton when she pledged to maintain Police numbers on the ground - a priority at both national and local level.

"101" Non-Emergency Number to be introduced soon
I asked Ms Thornton a couple of questions following her presentation.

Given 12 Neighbourhood Action Groups in Reading have identified anti-social behaviour as a priority what plans has Thames Valley Police in relation to continuing to respond effectively to anti-social behaviour?

Ms Thornton acknowledged the important role the Thames Valley Police Non-Emergency (0845 8 505 505) had played and said that TVP would be looking to introduce a universal reporting hotline telelphone "101" number in the coming weeks. This proposal was outlined in the recent Home Office consultation paper on anti-social behaviour published a few weeks ago.

This proposal was promised by Labour but never delivered. I hope it will lead to a better, simpler reporting mechanism for residents.

I also asked Ms Thornton about Neighbourhood Policing, in particular how we can encourage more community involvement in areas where there is low public confidence in Policing. I was thinking of my local Whitley North Neighbourhood Police Area when I asked this where we have struggled to attract public support.
Ms Thornton said she believed "One size does not fit all when it comes to Neighbourhood Policing". She reiterated her previous statement that Neighbourhood Policing would continue to be a top priority of the local force. I agree with her on this. What works in Tilehurst does not necessarily work in Whitley and the Police needs to identify what works best for residents. I was pleased to hear her response.

Her colleague new Reading Area Commander Stuart Greenfield said he planned to promote and publicise the good work done by Neighbourhood Action Groups and Police teams to build public confidence - I think this will help get the message across to residents about why it helps to get involved.

My colleague Cllr Kirsten Bayes challenged Ms Thornton about what TVP are doing to tackle burglary in East Reading - a big problem in our ward. I was pleased to hear her say that the Police should work more closely with landlords who manage HMOs and student lets. I will also see what more RBC can do in this area wearing my Housing hat.

Both Chief Sup. Greenfield and Ms Thornton warmly welcomed new crime maps which Ms Thornton said would help residents keep the Police and Council 'on our toes.'

Five years since Neighbourhood Policing was first introduced in Reading I am pleased to hear Thames Valley Police and the Government have no plans to scrap it. It was reassuring too to hear that frontline Police numbers will not be reduced in Reading.

We are very lucky to have such committed officers working to tackle crime issues in our area. We are also lucky to have officers in the local Police force who are willing to attend Council meetings to account for the way in which they plan to spend public money in an honest and open way.

Investing In Decent Neighbourhoods For All

One of the areas of housing policy I am most passionate about is around improving the quality of life of residents - regardless of where the live and what type of housing they live in, but particularly those residents living in areas that have been neglected for whatever reason.

I first became interested in this when I was first elected and I noticed areas of Reading including my own ward which were rundown and in need of some TLC - in part because the then Labour-controlled Council focussed on meeting Decent Homes targets and forgot about improving estate areas.

In particular I am thinking of Hexham Road which until we began campaigning was largely overlooked by the then three Labour councillors and Labour-run Council. As I blogged in 2008 over on my ward blog:
"There is no doubt that the whole estate is in need of urgent regeneration. With the Council's focus on meeting the government's target on decent homes, it's hard to know where the investment will come from. It's certainly something I will continue to campaign for as much as I can, as I think decent neighbourhoods are as important as decent homes.
As we we walked round we noticed that there was evidence of vandalism inside the flat blocks on Hexham Road, but thankfully less of the graffiti that had been a problem last year. It seems too easy for yobs to get into the flats, break glass and do damage inside the blocks. The Council's attitude seems to be "there's no point repairing things as they will just get damaged again' I don't think this is the right thing to do by local residents who have to live in the blocks. Everyone deserves to live in a pleasant environment - particularly if the accommodation is owned by the local council.'
It was around this time I developed the idea behind decent neighbourhoods. Between 2006 and 2008 I campaigned both in and outside the Council Chamber around the theme of improving estate areas which had been neglected by Labour. 

In 2009 the then Labour-run Council bowed to pressure from me and other Lib Dems and created a new funding stream from the Housing Revenue Account to fund estate improvements in areas where the majority of housing stock in Council-owned and managed. Since then this money has funded a number of improvements in estates across the Borough including Hexham Road estate in my ward where the fund contributed to new trees and bulbs being planted to improve the look and feel of the estate.

Other works funded by the Council's Decent Neighbourhoods Fund include:-
  • The youth development project at Hexham Road
  • Landscaping projects in Caversham, Southcote, Coley and Whitley
  • An anti cycle/motor bike chicane has been installed at Hexham Road,
  • Additional street lighting in Whitley Wood and Southcote
  • Improvements at Aveley Walk play park.

The work that has been undertaken has been done in close consultation with ward councillors and residents so it is not about imposing the Council's vision on a neighbourhood - quite the opposite.

In my role as Lead Member for Housing, I am delighted in building our budget we have been able to keep our commitment to improving estates.  In the coming year we will be investing £400,000 in this important work to improve local neighbourhoods. This is not something we have to do as a Council but I think it is very important and demonstrates our committment to improving the quality of life of residents in all our neighbourhoods.

The next area to benefit is Southcote where a new bespoke outdoor gym is being constructed. This follows a consultation with residents which identified a need for healthier activities for residents in their locality.

If you live on an estate in Reading and have an idea for something to improve your local environment please contact me and I would be happy to pass ideas on to the Neighbourhood Team.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Campaigning for more for support older tenants and families in housing need

Locally one of the issues I have actively campaigned on is in relation to overcrowding. This is a significant issue in Reading where we have a real shortage of affordable housing for families. I care about it because i have seen in my own ward the damage overcrowding does to the health and well children and families in our area.

We are a small Borough geographically so we do not have lots of sites available for big housing developments so it is essential we make the best use of the housing we have already got. By this I mean best use of housing in all sectors - privately rented, council-owned, housing association and empty properties

We do not only lack affordable housing but in particular family-sized homes. The Council's stock of family-sized housing is much smaller thanks to the disastrous combination of the Right To Buy policy plus the fact that under Labour no new Council houses were built.

Another key factor has been the fact that around 90% of new housing built in the past few years has been flats rather than houses.

I investigated the extent of the problems this caused when I was in opposition when questions to Council I tabled in 2009 revealed:
'Average wait time for a three bed Council/RSL property in Reading is a shocking 20 months
Average wait time for a four bed Council property in Reading is currently 22 months
435 council homes have been sold off by RBC since 1997'
As I commented at the time:
'These figures confirm my experience supporting constituents in the ward: there is a chronic under-supply of affordable family-sized (3 and 4 bed) housing in Reading and the time some families are having to wait for housing is far too long.'

I used this information as Chair of Scrutiny to champion action to help families stuck in overcrowded accommodation.

I am pleased to say I have been able to help a small number of families who were previously overcrowded but I am conscious that there are hundreds more families who need my help and support so I must keep campaigning in my role as Lead Councillor.

The flip sized of overcrowding in under-occupancy where family-sized houses are not fully-occupied. This is a very sensitive issue as many people are understandably keen to stay in homes they have lived in for many years.  However, as people get older they often find they are unable to manage larger properties and smaller properties are more suitable and for example cheaper to heat. The need to give older people more housing choice is one of the reasons I have been so keen to champion new developments of extra-care Council housing currently under construction in the Town.

For the reasons I outlined above it is incumbent on the Council to ensure that it is utilising all housing stock to address housing need most effectively, so we must look at how we reduce under-occupancy.

Why blog this today? Well, last month Grant Shapps MP, Minister for Housing announced £13 million pounds worth of additional funding for councils to help older tenants move into more suitable accommodation.

This announcement follows research commissioned by Mr Shapps into the reasons why older people often do not want to move. I was disappointed to learn that Reading Borough Council was not one of the 50 councils which were set to benefit from this additional cash as there are good reasons why we could put it to good use:
  • The high levels of pressure on the Council housing stock, especially in relation to large family sized units.
  • The disproportionate number of elderly tenants who are on a low income and would struggle to maintain larger properties
In Reading it is estimated that 26% (35) of Local Authority-owned four-bed properties are under occupied and in the last three years, only 19 under occupied properties have been released via a transfer to a smaller property. As a result of this the Council is already undertaking a review of incentives and our approach to reduce under-occupancy.

Our recently adopted Housing Strategy which enjoys cross-Party support identifies the following priorities in relation to this issue:
  • Tackling under occupation in our own stock
  • Approaching households on the waiting list requiring large family units on a case-by-case basis to assess other options to reduce over crowding, for example, assisting adult dependants into their own tenancy
  • Assessing a household’s current property for practical measures to increase space and reduce over-crowding
I have written to Mr Shapps and our two local MPs today arguing that Reading should benefit from additional support so the Council can better support older tenants find alternative accommodation and the hundreds of families in desperate need of family-sized housing. I really hope we can gain their support on this.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Housing & Community Care Services To Residents Continue To Improve

Long before I became a Lead Member and my days spent as Vice-Chair of the Council's Corporate Community & External Affairs Scrutiny Panel and Chair of Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel, I have taken a keen interest in improving the services residents receive from the local Council.

In my opinion, one of the most important roles councillors have is to challenge officers to improve service delivery and to champion good customer service.

So I was very pleased that better services for residents is right at the heart of the Coalition Agreement the Liberal Democrats and Conservative Groups running Reading Borough Council signed last May.

Over the years I have focussed on the need to improve the service tenants receive in relation to housing repairs, social care assessments and when generally reporting issues, so I was really pleased to see the most recent data showing improvements in these areas

A report due to be discussed at a meeting of the  CCEA Scrutiny Panel next week Council performance is on the agenda finds:
"Highways, Street care and Housing Repairs have all recorded improvements over the year to date. Greater feedback and assistance from the customer service call centre is likely to have been a considerable factor in this improvement. There are likely to be further opportunities to improve the avoidable contact performance in these areas and both service areas and customer service centres are expected to continue to identify opportunities"
Award-Winning Call Centre

One of the key findings is the positive impact the highly-professional service provided by the Council's award-winning in-house Call Centre is having on customer service across the Council:
"The Call Centre handled15,439 with service level 93.6%, 0.5% abandoned and average speed of answering 9 seconds in Qtr 3.The Customer trackbacks for Qtr 3 shows that 48% rate the Call Centre as Excellent,47% as good, 3% fair and 2% as fair."
An increasing number of Housing and Community Care calls from the public are being routed through to the Council's Call Centre. This has had the effect of giving residents a more professional service and freeing social care staff up to concentrate on other areas - improving the service that residents receive.

I have been to visit the Call Centre twice and every time I go I have been really impressed by the work done by Council staff who work there.

Housing Repairs Service

Having been The Lib Dem housing spokesperson since 2006 I am well aware that at times the Council's repairs service has at times left something to be desired when it comes to customer service. I have continually challenged officers in recent years to do more to improve the service, and the latest statistics show how far the Council has come.

According to the latest data, on the Council's Housing Repairs Service specifically:
"Performance in 2009/10 resulted in 96.34% of all'right to repair' jobs being completed within the set timescales. There have been issues with the data following the implementation of a new ICT System in April 2010 where RTR jobs were miscoded. This means that the data needs to be viewed with caution.

At the end of June 2010 performance was at 83.07% and at the end of December performance had improved to 84.95%. Notwithstanding IT problems, samples of performance against national targets indicate that the service continues to perform at the 95/96% level and there has been no increase in tenant or member led complaints about timeliness of service."
Decent Homes

Our Decent Homes programme currently on 'green' with over 99% of Council properties having been brought up to Decent Homes standard. This is good news for Council Tenants.

However, I am acutely aware that the majority of non-decent properties in Reading are in the private rented sector - hence the need to focus on tackling the worst properties and encouraging good landlords via our new Landlord Accreditation Scheme.

Reducing Avoidable Contact

One of the big programmes of work the Council is undertaking to improve customer service is to reduce avoidable calls. This means doing our best to respond to residents first time and reducing the need for people to make repeat calls to the Council for problems to be sorted out.

The report to Scrutiny next week confirms the huge strides that the Council is making in this area, particularly in relation to Housing Services:

"Qtr 3 sampling showed that the overall level of Avoidable Contact for the Housing Service has reduced from 46% in the July sample to 33% in the December 2010 sampling exercise. This shows a significant improvement and an overall service wide reduction in Avoidable Contact of 13%.
Housing is now achieving the target set earlier this year of 35% overall. Qtr 3 sampling still showed wide variations between teams for volume of calls received and AC rates. There were also changes to individual team performance. The overall volume of calls across the two sample periods remained similar from 4184 in July to 4037 in December (slight reduction of 3.5%)

I am really pleased to see that the most significant improvements (reductions in avoidable contact) have been in Housing Options, ASB, Rents and Repairs teams. These teams are providing  really important frontline services to Council tenants and residents.

Increases in avoidable contact have occurred in Revenues, Income Recovery & Property & Support teams. I will be speaking to officers about what can be done to tackle this.

Community Care Services

In Community Care, the Council continues to improve the service it delivers some of the most vulnerable people in Reading.  The latest official data shows the Council is currently on track to achieve around 28% of clients receiving self-directed support (or personal budgets) by the end of March 2011. As at Q3 we have over 300 more clients receiving self directed support than we did at the same time in 2009/10. 

The Government has set a target of 30% of service users and carers to be receiving self directed support from councils by 2011. We are also seeing improvements in the speed of social care assessments and the delivery of social care assessments - both really important indicators of service quality.

In the last quarter 92.5% of assessments were completed within 4 weeks and 85.7% of services were delivered in 28 days following assessment.

I have written to officers to thank them for the hard work they and their teams have put in to deliver these service improvements to residents in Reading.

However, I am not complacent - where service has dipped or stalled I have written asking for updates about what plans are in place to improve services.

If you are a resident or Council tenant living in Reading and you have a comment to make about Housing or Community Care services - positive or negative please do contact me so we can continue to improve the services the Council provides.