Monday, 31 October 2011

Labour councillors have questions to answer on bus lane fines

This evening at a meeting of Reading Borough Council's Cabinet I posed some questions to Labour's Transport Chief, Cllr Tony Page:
"The aim of bus lane fines is to deter people from driving in bus lanes.
Given the sharp rise in fines– an extra 6,000 since you took over rising 3,000 per month ever since (apart from August)
What are you doing to address this and reduce the number of vehicles abusing bus lanes?

Or have you become so financially dependent on this income stream that you no don’t care if people drive in bus lanes?"
I asked these questions because of these striking figures in this month's budget monitoring figures:

Bus Lane Enforcement PCN Activity Data (2010 figures in brackets)

April 2011 - 2,282 (2,713)
May 2011 - 8,289 (1,901)
June 2011 - 11,942 (2,075)
July 2011 -  11,413 (2,310)
August 2011 - 8,473 (3,661)
September 2011 - 11,930 (5,149)

The same report says:

Bus Lane Enforcement – if the current trend of infringements continue as they have for the past 3 months then we forecast the revenue to increase to £575k although we should note this income is not guaranteed. In addition there are other income pressures within Transport that are being assessed.

Cllr Page decided to launch into a series of bizarre personal attacks.

Did I hit a raw nerve, perhaps?

You know when a politician plays the man not the ball [sic] they are in trouble
However, he acknowledged there have been a sharp rise in fines since the Town centre changes were introduced.

Despite this he was unrepentant rounding on residents and visitors who 'knowingly drive in bus lanes'.

The signs in the Town Centre are not at fault, apparently.

Then, in an apparent u-turn he said: "we will not build next year's budget on bus lane fine income".

That's odd as this appears to be exactly the way Labour councillors have chosen to do since taking over control of the Council in May this year.

Then again, Reading Labour Party's relationship with the motorist has been far from a happy one in recent years*

Reading residents, take note.

*See the Shinfield Road and One Way IDR debacles for details.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Local, Social, Digital

Earlier this year I was invited by Lucy Watt, former Lib Dem Councillor from innovative consultancy FuturGov to  take part in a fringe event about how politicians can use social media to engage.
I was chuffed to be invited to speak at the event alongside such luminaries as Lib Dem Voice's Mark Pack and Julian Huppert MP (Cambridge).
Lucy has kindly uploaded my personal take on using social media which you can watch below. I spoke about using Facebook and Twitter alongside blogging to get my message across and get feedback from residents.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Labour U-Turn on Landlord Accreditation Scheme

Interesting to note today that the Labour administration has dropped it's previous opposition to our plans to introduce a new, more cost-effective landlord accreditation scheme in conjunction with the National Landlord Assocation  to improve standards in Reading's large private rented sector.

I launched this scheme last year, when I was Lead Member for Housing and was attacked by Labour's then housing spokesperson for 'abandoning' Reading tenants - when of course I was doing nothing of the sort.

The Council has announced that a further training session for landlords of rented properties in Reading is to be held on October 27th in The Avenue School in Tilehurst - details can be found here.

I have led calls for an effective landlord accreditation scheme in Reading since 2008 when I chaired the first ever scrutiny review into Reading's private rented housing sector.

Until then, Labour councillors had ignored calls from Reading Students Union for more to be done to offer reassurance to students others looking to rent properties in Reading.

A scheme Labour had operated stalled a few years back until we called for a review.

When I was lead member for housing I was charged with responding to the review led by officers into the Council's old inhouse landlord accreditation scheme (LAS) which had been operated under the previous Labour administration.

The review found that 'while LAS is a useful tool to stakeholders, the re-launch of Reading’s current LAS would not deliver outcomes in the most cost-effective way.'

The review also found:

'The (previous)scheme did not drive up house conditions significantly because landlords attracted to LAS are generally those with property in good order already. The soft outcomes of running the scheme are outweighed by the fact that the scheme had contact with only 2.3% of Reading’s rental market despite vigorous promotion and a cost of circa £34k per annum.'

As I blogged last November:
'In line with our local Coalition Agreement with the Conservatives to deliver better, value for money services to our residents we agreed not to revive the scheme in it's current form but instead sign up to a National Landlord Accreditation Scheme. The scheme is run by the National Landlord Association and offers landlords and tenants a range of benefits, whilst enabling the Council to focus more effectively on it's core duties of ensuring that the most poorly-maintained and hazardous properties in the sector are identified and appropriate action is taken against landlords.'

And how did Labour respond to our plans at the time? Back to my blog entry in November 2010:
'Locally, Labour's response to all this has been interesting. For one thing they appear to be a lot more interested in housing and the private rented sector in opposition than they ever were when they ran the Council. This would be welcome were it not that they appear to driven by a desire to score political points, rather than campaign for better housing.

For example, when I announced our plans to join a national accreditation scheme they didn't support it, arguing we were abandoning tenants - when it was Labour who suspended the Landlord Accreditation Scheme (LAS) in the first place!

At full Council last month, Cllr Paul Gittings attacked me for failing to implement 'a proper landlord accreditation scheme' whatever that means, suggesting that things like fire safety would be put at risk by our decision not to resurrect an in-house landlord accreditation scheme.

This is utter hogwash. All the housing regulations that exist to protect tenants will continue to exist. The decision to adopt an LAS is entirely up to individual councils i.e. it is non-statutory.

Let's be clear: all the Council's statutory functions to ensure housing standards are maintained will continue. All that we have done is ensure that taxpayer's money will not be wasted on something that does not work. And once again Labour councillors find themselves arguing for the continuation of schemes that are ineffective and are not value for money. So much for constructive opposition.

The last Labour government proposed setting up a national landlord register and a number of other regulations. These plans were reviewed by independent experts and the Coalition Government and were found to be ineffective, burdensome and expensive so were not carried forward. And yet at a recent Council meeting I was challenged by a Labour activists to support these regulations. Bizarre.'

Since Cllr Rachel Eden has taken over the housing brief from her colleague Cllr Deborah Edwards Labour's housing policy seems to have been slightly more progressive although there still are major problems with Labour's approach to housing. For example, Cllr Eden's plan to increase support for homeless people in Reading,  is welcome. However, her planned cuts to Sheltered Housing, are not.

Back to the private rented sector, we learn today that Cllr Eden has dropped Labour's previous opposition to the scheme, declaring in an RBC press release today:
"This initiative is one example of the Council working with landlords and other agencies to increase the availability of good quality, private rented accommodation for Reading's residents. Accreditation is a mark of commitment by landlords to delivering decent accommodation."

I'm pleased Cllr Eden has seen for herself the benefit of the scheme we launched last year and has belatedly given it her backing publicly.

Whether or not her colleagues have now dropped their thoughtless opposition to it, remains to be seen.

For the sake of Reading tenants, landlords and taxpayers this successful scheme should stay.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

When it comes to health, Reading Labour would always rather play politics

Last night at full Council Cllr Bet Tickner, Labour Lead Councillor Health tabled the following motion:

“This Council notes that:

  • Through the Health and Social Care Bill, the Government is currently pushing through the biggest and most disruptive reorganisation in the history of the NHS, at a cost of £2bn.
  • The Bill removes the fundamental responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health to provide a health service free at the point of need. 
  •  Despite the “listening exercise” over this last summer the bill will still put decisions about the future of the NHS in the hands of EU competition lawyers and allow private healthcare companies to make major inroads into NHS provision.
  • The Bill is designed to produce a postcode lottery of care, with potentially two commissioning consortia operating within Reading Borough, and would allow NHS trusts to treat as many private patients as they wish, so long waiting times would be back for very many Reading patients.
  • The messy reorganisation set out in the bill is not only costly, but will cause massive anxiety among all dedicated NHS staff over a prolonged period, in addition to the job losses, cuts in pay and projected costs in pensions which are being implemented at the Royal Berkshire Hospital and elsewhere in the NHS locally.
  • The Bill creates more quangos with unclear roles, meaning more money spent on bureaucracy, not less.
  • The NHS was cut in real terms by £800m in 2010-11, despite the Government’s promise to give the NHS a real rise in funding every year of this Parliament, and to stop top-down reorganisations of the NHS.
In view of the detrimental affect of the above on Reading residents, this Council resolves:
  • To write directly to the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary urging them to scrap the Health and Social Care Bill.
  • To urge Members of the House of Lords who oppose this Bill to seek to amend radically those provisions which directly threaten the very foundations of the NHS.
We voted against this motion. Below is the speech I gave in response.
'It is with dismay that once again Labour councillors are using valuable time in the Council Chamber to make a party political broadcast.

How does this debate help the people of Reading we are supposed to represent?

If we are to believe Labour genuinely care about our NHS

Where were the motions attacking the previous Labour government’s marketization of the health service – which enabled private providers to be paid more than those from the public sector,

Where were the motions attacking the target-driven culture which grew up under Labour and which led to failings in basic care such Mid Staffordshire?

Where were the motions attacking the £20 billion-pound of taxpayers money Labour wasted on a failed NHS IT system ?

Where were the motions attacking the 66% rise in the number of NHS managers – six times as fast as the number of Nurses – under a Labour Government?

There are no shortage of health issues where it would be helpful if the Labour councillors supposedly running this Council took a lead

Reading is a town with massive health inequalities

Children from poorer backgrounds have worse health than those in other areas

And people in poorer areas die younger

People in Reading suffer more early deaths from heart disease and Stroke

There are more teenage pregnancies

These should be the issues occupying us as councillors

And yet we have a lead member for health who spends more time politicking then getting down to work to improve health outcomes for all our residents

This motion says more about Labour’s political priorities than it does the real issues facing residents

 It was a liberal, working in a Coalition, who first imagined the NHS and its values of healthcare available to all, free at point of delivery, based on clinical need, not ability to pay.

 And so we on this have more faith in Dame Shirley Williams and her colleagues in the House of Lords doing whatever is necessary to safeguard the NHS both and in the future than we do in Reading Labour Party. '

We must keep fighting to support Reading's Carers

Last night the Council agreed two important motions calling for justice and action to support two vulnerable groups in our community: Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender people and Reading Gurkhas and their families.

I was delighted to support both.

In the same meeting I spoke up for another group of unsung heroes: carers.

Over the past couple of years I have actively campaigned to raise the profile of issues facing carers and improve the lives of carers in Reading.

The carers I have met here have been some of the most selfless people I have ever encountered. I am grateful to them for sharing their struggles with me so I can better understand the challenges they face.

My Grandfather cared for my Grandmother in the last years of her life and I honour his memory in part by standing up for others who give up their time to care for their loved ones.

We are lucky that in Government we have a Liberal Democrat Minister in Paul Burstow standing up for carers. When he visited Reading in April I took him to meet a couple who had benefited from direct payments for carers - something he is pushing to extend to more people.

Last night I tabled a question asking for an estimate of the total number of carers in Reading and to outline the steps the administration is taking to identify carers and ensure they get access to services  of the total population.

I did this because I want to ensure that carers in Reading remain at the top of the political agenda regardless of which political party or parties are running the Council.

The answer I got confirmed that at the last count (2011 Census) 10,854 people in Reading were carers - 7.6% of the total population. Reading's total population has grown since 2001 and currently estimated to be around 154,000. This suggests there are between 11,873 and 16,972 carers in Reading.

We await the results of the 2011 Census but it is highly likely that the actual number of carers in Reading is even higher.
  • In 2010, nearly 1,599 carers benefited from receiving an assessment or review of their needs through Adult Social Care. This puts Reading in the top 25 % per cent of similar local authorities.
  • RBC has 307 identified young carers in Reading receiving support from our youth team - a 46% increase on the number identified in 2010.
  • The number of carers benefiting from a Direct Payment to meet their own support needs has quadrupled in the three years to 2010/11 through the Council's Carers' Breaks and Opportunities Fund.
In my supplementary question I pointed out that last year in response to demand I agreed an increase of £50,000 over above the agreed budget of the Carer's Breaks and Opportunities Fund to ensure that carers got the breaks they need in response to increases and in many cases previously unmet need.

A survey of Reading carers in 2010 found that the number one priority for local carers is supporting carers to get breaks.

When I was Lead Member or Adult Social Care I placed support for carers at the heart of our policies. I asked the Lead Member if he would undertake to do the same when he sets next year's budget.

I was pleased to hear the current Labour lead councillor Cllr Orton confirm that I did indeed increase the budget and that he would seek to maintain spending carers breaks at current levels.