Thursday, 30 December 2010

An unexpected accolade

Thanks to Simon McGrath, Lib Dem member and the man behind the 'Vote Clegg, Get Clegg' Facebook page who has today awarded me 'Grassroots Campaigner Of The Year' in his Lib Dem Awards 2010. He writes:
'The winner here is someone I have mentioned before Daisy Benson. She was the candidate in Reading West at the election where she increase the vote by 4.3%. Reading West was one of the constituencies the papers were saying we might take at the height of Cleggmania and if you are candidate however much you know it won’t happen you always have a bit of hope. Despite the disappointment she has carried on as a local councillor and is Lead Member for Housing, Health and Community Care on Reading Borough Council. She just keeps on working for her constituents and for Liberalism.'
I don't know Simon well but it is really nice to know I have supporters not just in Reading but elsewhere. Speaking personally 2010 was an amazing year for me politically and not one I'll forget in a hurry. I loved standing for Parliament as Lib Dem candidate for Reading West and I was delighted to be re-elected as a councillor on the same day with an increased majority.
Becoming a Lead Councillor has been a fascinating, engrossing, and at times stressful experience but I will never take the support local people have given me for granted. I will continue to strive every day to do my best by the them. It has been great to have a break over Christmas after a very hectic few months but I am really looking forward to getting back on the campaign trail.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Construction of first new Council homes in Reading for 20 years begins

Earlier this month I visited the site of the first new Council-owned and Council-managed housing in Reading for 20 years. This is quite an achievement given the pitifully small number of new council homes built by the previous Labour government.  This development of 'extra care' flats will provide excellent new homes for the over - 55s in Reading. When completed the development, on the former Avenue School site on Basingstoke Road in Katesgrove will consist of 27 one-bedroom flats and 13 two-bedroom flats for rent. The new homes are expected to be complete in spring 2012. The brand new accommodation will include communal areas with a restaurant, hobby rooms and a spa treatment area providing podiatry, hairdressing and other therapeutic services.

These facilities and a range of activities will be available to residents and older people living in the community.  The development will include private areas for residents only, including lounges, a roof terrace and a garden at the southern end of the scheme, where keen gardeners can practise their skills. Older people, including residents in sheltered housing and day centre clients were involved in choosing the design of the scheme. Their suggestions included a BBQ area and raised flower/vegetable beds in the garden. Future consultation will take place to allow choices to be made on colour options, furniture and fittings. All of the flats will be self-contained with their own kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, lounge and dining area. The building will be wheelchair accessible and all residents will have access to on-site 24-hour care staff, but not everyone will need this service. The site is close to local amenities and accessible by public transport, making it easy for residents to get out and about I'm pleased their ideas will be Incorporated into the scheme.
I am delighted that the Coalition Administration of Reading Borough Council succeeded in securing financial backing from the Homes and Communities Agency for this important development. The progress of the scheme had been threatened as a result of the dire state of the public finances left by the previous Labour government. I was actively involved in lobbying both Reading MPs and through them the Housing Minister Grant Shapps to help us win funding for the scheme. Rob Wilson, MP for Reading East was very supportive, as was neighbouring MP for Reading West, Alok Sharma MP.
I am pleased the HCA agreed with us that this project represents an excellent example of investing to save. It will help Reading Borough Council support more local people to live independently in their own homes for longer - this is much needed as the number of frail elderly people in our area is on the rise.  I will continue to campaign for more new housing to be built to meet local housing need and sincerely hope the Coalition Government is more successful in this regard than the Labour government was.

Caring for carers in Reading

A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to attend the launch of the new Action Plan for carers in Reading, as part of national Carer's Rights Day. This plan details real commitments to carers made by Reading Borough Council, NHS Berkshire West, the Princess Royal Trust Carers' Service, Crossroads and JobCentrePlus. It has been developed by members of the Reading Carers Steering Group which includes local carers and it is an excellent example of co-production.  It calls on local agencies to do more to support carers and help carers live happier, healthier lives.
I never cease to be amazed by the work done by thousands of selfless carers in our community.
The Council estimates there are around 11,000 carers in Reading - across all age ranges and backgrounds.The Council recently surveyed local carers. The survey revealed that more than 2,000 people spend more than 50 hours a week caring for someone close to them. More than 900 carers responded to the consultation and told the Council about their priorities. They said they wanted short respite breaks, access to on-call emergency assistance, advice in looking after their own health and general well-being, and to ensure new and existing carers had access to information and guidance on support and services.
 It is now up to the Council and other local agencies to listen to local carers and do more to ensure the support they need is available in the community. As I explained a couple of weeks ago our plans to transform community care in Reading (currently out to public consultation) include plans to improve the support available carers, as well as promoting the independence of carers via  direct payments and personal budgets.
We really do owe our local carers a debt of gratitude for the work they do week in, week out, which is why I am pleased that nationally the Coalition has placed carers at the heart of it's plans to improve social care services. I am particularly pleased that the Lib Dem manifesto commitment to provide guaranteed respite care for carers is now being implemented in government by Lib Dem Minister, Paul Burstow MP. This commitment to providing more support to carers was underlined recently when the Coalition published it's Vision for Social Care.
If you or a member of your family live in Reading and have caring responsibilities please visit the dedicated carers page on the Council's website which sets out the services which are there to help support you.
Finally, don't take my word for it - watch this video clip to see Paul Burstow MP talking about his committment to carers:

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Labour in Reading:a responsibility free zone

The Evening Post reports that more than one in five children in Reading are raised in poverty.
Senior Labour Councillor Mike Orton  is described in the same article as being 'horrified' by the figures and keen to challenge the current administration of the Council to tackle poverty in future.
I agree with Mike - these statistics are shocking and they highlight the scale of the task we face to try and make Reading a fairer, healthier, more successful Town for all residents. I am keen to make the Council focus more closely on what we can do to reduce child poverty although clearly responsibility does not lie entirely with the Council but other agencies too.
Sadly this issue is not news to me - in fact it was the basis for the cross-party scrutiny review I led with Cllr Mark Ralph (Conservative)  earlier this year which challenged the complacent attitudes of the then Labour administration towards health inequality, and called for a concerted effort across local agencies to break the cycle of poverty in Reading. How depressing that the response of Labour councillors at the time was characterised by repeated attempts to rubbish me rather than take the issue seriously - hence when the review reported to Cabinet I was forced to argue that child poverty was too important an issue to be reduced to a political football.
Indeed had Cllr Ralph and I not raised serious concerns child poverty would not even have been discussed by councillors last Tuesday (one of our agreed recommendations was regular update reports to councillors to enable them to more effectively challenge the Council).
So with this in mind, my colleagues and I in the Coalition Administration are grateful for Cllr Orton's backing in our efforts to reduce poverty where high-spending Labour councillors and a Labour government, has so comprehensively failed the poorest children in our communities.
But let's make one thing clear: this shocking picture of thousands of children living in real poverty did not develop overnight as the result of Coalition policies. The figures quoted in the article and the scrutiny panel meeting which relate to child poverty are based on statistics collected only a few months ago when Reading was still ruled by a Labour-run Council, and a Labour government.
All of which begs the question what was Cllr Orton doing to during that time to challenge Labour members and officers? I cannot for the life of me recall him or other Labour councillors making impassioned speeches about the need for action on child poverty. Those speeches were left to opposition members to make.
It is a mystery. What is widely known is that Cllr Orton  has been a Whitley councillor since 1975 (one of the most deprived wards in Reading), and is both a former Leader of the Council and former Lead Member for Community Care. Someone who has been well placed to lead change locally and not someone who has lacked power or influence over Labour policy locally or nationally.
However, sadly in this area like so many others the Labour Party in Reading has increasingly become a responsibility free zone, and in my view the people of Reading deserve better.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Reading GPs lead the way

This evening I was invited to a meeting of members of the South Reading GP Consortium - local GPs and practice staff from 18 practices across South and West Reading who between them serve nearly 100,000 patients. The Consortium of practices was set up in 2006 and is led by dynamic local GP Elizabeth Johnston, who I was delighted to meet. Under the Coalition Government's plans local GPs will have more power as PCTs and SHAs are to be abolished.
Today the Department of Health announced that the South Reading Consortium is one of 52 groups of practices chosen to be 'pathfinders' - this means they will be among the first group of GPs in England to take on and develop commissioning responsibilities.
The Health White Paper Equity and Excellence published in the Summer set out plans to devolve commissioning decisions and health budgets to GPs. This has been highly controversial but I hope that greater clinical involvement in decision-making will lead to better care for patients.
The fact that South Reading Consortium was selected for this programme is testament to the hard work done by  thesel local health leaders and it was a privilege to meet them. Between them these GPs represent some of the most deprived communities in our town so it is vital the Council and other local partners work with them to achieve the best possible health outcomes for all residents in the Reading area.

Government will deliver on commitment to extend "Talking Therapies"

On Monday, in a speech Lib Dem Care Services Minister Paul Burstow announced plans to make psychological therapies available to more people suffering mental health problems via the NHS. This is very welcome news indeed - particularly when we know that one in six people are likely to suffer from a mental illness and an estimated one in four people out of work claiming incapacity benefit are experiencing mental health problems. In his speech, Paul Burstow referred to his recent visit to an innovative "Talking Therapies" service at Shinfield Health Centre, within our local PCT area, Berkshire West, earlier this year .

Mr Burstow said:

"I had the pleasure of meeting some of your professional colleagues at a centre in Reading a few months ago.

I spoke to the service users, learnt about how these therapies had changed their lives, transformed their confidence, their outlook, their aspirations for the future.
There was a time when diagnosis of a mental health problem was the end as far as work goes. IAPT is changing that. Everyone I met there had had their lives turned round by the services they received.
One lady had suffered a serious physical illness and had to leave her job. Going in and out of hospital, and then being stuck at home, she became depressed and withdrawn.
And so when she’d recovered her physical health, she was paralysed with fear and anxiety and couldn’t return to work.
Therapy made all the difference. She regained her confidence, she eased herself back to work, she got back to her normal self.'

We are very lucky in Reading to have such an innovative service so close by.  And the results achieved for patients at the Shinfield Health Centre speak for themselves.  The Berkshire West plan was by March 2011 to get 106 people off benefits and back to work (either returning from sickness or into new employment). The service has surpassed this plan and, to date, has enabled 140 to move off sick pay and benefits since January 2009.  Leaving aside the benefits to them financially the benefits to their quality of life is hard to quantify but even more important.

The service has also exceeded planned numbers of people entering therapy and puts Berkshire West Talking Therapies among the top national IAPT services.
Last December, as the then Chair of the Reading's Health Scrutiny Panel I requested a report on this innovative programme being carried out in our area. The Panel noted that, as well as the obvious benefits to patients’ health and wellbeing, the service could also have benefits to the economy if it kept people in work. We recommended that the programme (which was being piloted by the then Labour government) be continued and extended.

I'm delighted that nationally the services being carried out by health professionals in the Reading area are being recognised and am hopeful they will be extended to enable more local people to benefit from them.

So what will the government do now to ensure this excellent work continues and more people benefit? Back to Paul Burstow's speech:

"First, we need to complete the existing training programme.

Two-thirds of the country already covered.

By the end of this financial year, 3,700 newly trained staff will be on board.

We will then go much further.

The funding we’re releasing from the Spending Review will mean that by 2015, every patient in the country should be able to get timely access to proven psychological therapies.
And, wherever possible, they should have real choice of approved therapies.
At the moment, IAPT is a little too much like Henry Ford’s business philosophy … you can have any therapy as long as it’s CBT.
To be fair, it wasn’t a bad model to get us on the road. But we do need to diversify. To open the door for other, equally effective therapies to help people with different needs.
So we’ll invest the money and work with the local NHS to upskill staff across four other NICE-approved therapies:-
- In counselling
- interpersonal therapy
- brief dynamic therapy; and
- couples therapy
Something the last government promised 12 months ago. We’ll actually deliver it."

You can read Paul Burstow's excellent speech in full here.

The government's strategy on mental health is expected in coming weeks. I am very encouraged by other public comments Paul Burstow has made on this issue so far which suggests that treating poor mental health will finally be seen as important as tackling other forms of ill-health.
As I blogged in April I am fully commited to doing everything I can to campaign for more support for people with mental health problems in Reading. This was a key plank of the Lib Dem general election manifesto in 2010 and included in the Coalition Agreement signed by Lib Dems and Conservatives.
I am very pleased to see the Coalition Government sticking to promises it has made in this regard and putting it's money where it's mouth is in relation to mental health.

Transforming Adult Social Care - Have your say

Following my post last week about our ambitious plans to transform adult social care in Reading, Cabinet has agreed to go out to public consultation on the proposals. This consultation will last for 3 months ending on 27 February 2011.
The Council is keen to hear from as many residents as possible - including people who currently receive services and carers before making future decisions on adult social care.
Reading residents can take part in the consultation online at or call (0118) 937 3747 to requests copies of the consultation. Officers will also be consulting on the plans at the following meetings:-

  • Physical Disability & Sensory Needs Network meeting, Civic Centre, 15th December 1.40pm-4pm
  • Reading Resource Centre drop-in, Resource Centre, Oxford Road, 12th January 2pm-4pm
  • Reading Carers Steering Group, Civic Centre, 26th January 2pm-4pm 
  •  Reading Older People's Partnership open meeting, Greyfriars Church Hall, Friar Street, 1st February 10.30am-12.45pm
  • Learning Disability Carers Forum, Civic Centre, 16th February 11am-1pm
I look forward to finding out what local people have to say on this important subject.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Coalition Council targets housing tenancy fraud

In March 2009 I asked the then Labour-run Council in Reading three questions about illegal subletting in properties managed by the Council - something which at that point had been identified as a big issue nationally. I have copied the questions I posed then, below:

Experts estimate that 5% of social housing properties in inner city areas could be being unlawfully sub-let.

a) How many Council properties is the Lead Member aware are currently unlawfully occupied within the Borough?

b) What investigations have been carried out by the Council into the extent of the problem of illegal sub-letting of Council properties ?

c) How many properties has the Council successfully recovered from unlawful occupancy in the past 12 months?
I was keen to raise these issues after nationally the Audit Commission found that 1,600 properties across 60 councils were recovered from unlawful tenants in 2009/10. The Audit Commission published a report: "Protecting the Public Purse 2010" which suggested that unlawful subletting could represent around 1% of all tenancies in metropolitan areas. This could mean up to 70 tenancies in Reading.

The response I received to my questions didn't say much at all. It suggested very little fraud took place. This indicated to me that that much more could be done and should be done to proactively identify potential housing fraud to protect Council tenants and taxpayers.
One year later, in March 2010, the Annual Fraud Report presented to CCEA Scrutiny Panel (which I was then Vice Chair) identified a  need for greater targetting of Council resources to proactively identify fraud. One of the areas identified for further investigation was Housing Tenancy Fraud.
In my role at that time as Chair of the Housing, Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel I requested a report be brought forward outlining progress so far and planned action for dealing with Housing Tenancy fraud in the Council's own stock.
Several months on, as Lead Councillor for Housing I was pleased to see report I requested all those months ago tabled at tonight's meeting of the Community Care, Housing and Health Scrutiny Panel.
This report revealed my close scrutiny of this subject has borne results, and an improved approach - exactly what scrutiny should do.

Key findings of the report included-
  •  A Housing Fraud Panel was set up in April 2010 to proactively manage cases of tenancy fraud. This approach ensures "a more joined-up and efficicent process for tackling individuals cases.
  • As a result of this closer working the team have looked at 21 cases of possible illegal subletting or non residency of RBC properties.
  • Of the 21 cases referred for further investigation a total of 5 (24%) of properties have been returned to RBC ownership or re-let.
  • The Council estimates that re-letting these properties to families temporary accomodation approximately £55k could be saved to date.
More work is planned by officers to increase awareness and knowledge of Tenancy fraud both with Council staff and the Council's tenants. We will also be investigating the use of civil proceedings to recover unlawful profits - something other housing providers have pursued successfully.

I fully support this work as Council houses are valuable  public assets in high demand. Any fraudulent tenancies represent an abuse of the public purse and damage the chances of people in housing need by putting increased pressure on waiting lists.
I am pleased that the questions I raised over a year ago led to this more proactive, robust approach. This approach was fully supported by all members (cross-party) of HHCC Scrutiny Panel this evening - including Labour councillors. I will be recommending to my coalition colleagues that we continue in this vein, as well as urging officers leave no stone unturned in identifiying potential housing tenancy fraud. This is in marked contrast to the complacent approach taken by my Labour predecessors which in failing to identify potential fraud failed tenants and taxpayers.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Some thoughts on housing

A few weeks ago I blogged about housing and the Coalition government's plans. Since then a couple of things have happened: firstly, a consultation paper was published on social housing, secondly the government has decided to review some of its proposals re housing benefit. As someone who is deeply interested and committed to housing issues it has been positive that people have been discussing housing and housing policy but frustrating that a number of Labour politicians, both locally and nationally have sought to inflame the debate rather than help to find solutions to the massive shortage of affordable housing we face in a very difficult economic climate.
As I said in my previous post on this issue I am actively monitoring announcements from government in relation to housing to ensure we get the best and fairest deal for Reading residents. I am keeping an open mind about proposals as far as possible whilst draft policies are put forward and seeking the opinions of others to test my own against. To reiterate, it is a Coalition government so I don't expect to like every policy that is published or even agree with it. That said no one Party won the election so it is important that politicians work together for the good of residents.
One size certainly does not fit all in relation to housing policy. In relation to the first paper, on social housing, Having looked at it and thought about it  I am not very keen on the proposal to introduce shorter fixed term tenancies for Council homes (2 years has been mooted) and would need to be persuaded that this was a good idea before I would consider putting it forward as a proposal in Reading. I would be concerned about upheaval for families and the impact it might have on neighbourhoods.
I personally would like to have seen more emphasis in the paper on tackling the problem of housing supply - this is the main reason housing waiting lists have increased. That said I am very pleased to see that the housing revenue account is set to be reformed and that empty homes may be counted towards new homes in future. We need to do more to increase housing supply after Labour so comprehensively failed on this despite 13 years to do it.
It's worth saying that at this point this is simply a consultation paper and the government is seeking feedback. Thankfully,  unlike the previous Labour government the Coalition Government is not forcing councils to implement every proposal it publishes. That is what localism means after all.  In relation to social housing the CLG consultation paper makes it quite clear that it will be up to councils and elected councillors to decide what is right for their areas. We are currently examining the detail of this paper - there is some welcome new thinking in relation to overcrowding, under-occupancy, empty homes and council house waiting lists which we should consider to ensure we are getting the most out of our social housing stock. The current system of social housing allocation and funding left by Labour is not unproblematic and there might well be things we can do to make it fairer and more equitable to local residents. It is good that these proposals are out to consultation and I look forward to reading others' responses.
In relation to housing benefit, I attended a  meeting a few weeks ago with a group of Liberal Democrat councillors with an interest in housing  to convey some concerns to ministers about some aspects of the proposed housing benefit reforms. Unlike Labour councillors I avoided speculating publicly and in the face of rumours circulating about rented rooms in Reading being block booked I preferred to go on what frontline officers were telling me. Which was...that rooms were not being block booked.
That said some aspects of the reforms do cause me concern and I am pleased that the government has listened to some of the thoughtful comments made by MPs, stakeholders and councillors and decided to delay the implementation of changes to housing benefit for existing claimants. I was concerned that the original timescales might be too short to enable tenants in private rented housing to seek alternative cheaper accommodation, particularly in Reading where rents are high.

Other changes the government announced today  include:
  • Temporarily widening the discretion of local authorities to pay housing benefit directly to landlords. This power will be used to secure tenancies where landlords are willing to reduce rents, helping to push down prices and minimise disruption to families.
  • The government has agreed new funding totaling £190m over 5 years (including £50m announced today) to smooth the transition for families who can no longer afford their rent and need help to adjust. The government has also committed to work with local authorities to ensure that these funds are used to help the most vulnerable, including the elderly, the disabled, and those with children at local schools.
  • The government has also said it will continue to examine options for improving ease of access to the private rented sector for housing benefit recipients.
That said we must not forget that Labour planned to reform housing benefit, however hard they try to deny it.
Despite the difficult economic circumstances we are in, housing projects are continuing to move forward across Reading: extra care and affordable housing is being constructed on Dee Park,  construction of new extra care housing on the old Avenue School site is set to begin soon, and empty homes continue to be brought back into use to name a few projects. In terms of improving existing housing, work continues to bring Council housing up to Decent Homes standard and enforcement activity continues in the private rented sector
As an administration we will continue to work hard to increase the overall supply of housing and ensure support exists for new and existing tenants in both the private rented and social housing sector. We are also in regular contact with tenants, residents, both our MPs, officers, and other stakeholders, to build local support for this vitally important agenda

Local leadership on public health

I have long been concerned about the state of public health in Reading. However, the more interested I was the more frustrated I became about the lack of influence local people, and local councillors have over local health matters.
I first got interested in the issue several years ago when I started reading public health profiles, published annually and distributed to all councillors. I was shocked by what I read about the extent of local health inequalities. I have blogged plenty of times about this over the last couple of years so I won't rehearse all the points here but the simple fact is life expectancy in our Borough varies widely between neighbourhoods and on many health indicators population health in Reading is a concern For example, not long ago tooth decay in Reading amongst the under 5s was amongstt the highest in the South East with too many young children having to have multiple extractions. It is well known that this is one of the key indicators of poverty. This was known about for years and yet nothing seemed to be said about it by politicians in charge.It's worth remembering that under Labour the number of children living in poverty in Reading went up not down. Good quality housing has a key part to play in improving the health of children and families hence I am committed to improving social housing and housing in the private rented sector.
Just over a year ago an independent assessment of Reading by the Audit Commission confirmed these depressing findings and indicated that health inequality in Reading was the worst in Berkshire . Reading this report and many others like was one of the reasons why I was motivated to lead a joint scrutiny review of children's health which revealed Labour's shocking failure to reduce poverty in Reading and the detrimental impact this was having on the health of local children.
At no point during my time as an opposition councillor or Chair of Scrutiny can I remember a Labour councillor in a position of influence showing anything resembling leadership on this issue. Who was challenging the PCT, GPs and the Department of Health - to find out what was being done to improve public health in Reading - particularly the health of the young children and famiilies? The silence from Labour seemed like complacency  at the time, or perhaps they had just run out of steam.
It was left to me as Chair of Health Scrutiny (2008-10) to get the issue on the political agenda and lead public calls for action. However, even as Chair of Scrutiny, HHCC Scrutiny Panel members and I struggled to land any meaningful blows - we found it near impossible to track all public spending by public agencies and to find out what was effective and why. Good quality, up to date data was thin on the ground and expert advice limited. Public involvement by health bodies on public health matters felt like an afterthought, an add-on, and council meetings just another bureaucratic hoop for health staff to jump through - rather than a joint-effort.
And it's not just just me saying it. Reading national reports produced by the Audit Commission and National Audit Office in recent years (for example on childhood obesity) make it clear that national targets and unprecedented levels of public spending on health have not delivered a reduction in health inequality - however well-intentioned. So we need to look at other models of improving public health - this must include looking at all the activities and policies led by councils including transport, housing and education to ensure they are leading to better health outcomes.
Today the Coaltiion Government made an important announcement which I hope will help us do more locally to improve public health: the responsibilty for improving public health is to be transferred from unccountable health bodies and civil servants to local elected councillors, as outlined in a white paper on public health, Healthy Lives, Health People. This is clear evidence of Liberal Democrat thinking on national government policy as Lib Dem MPs and councillors have spent years highlighting the lack of democracy in local health decisions.As Paul Burstow, Minister for Care Services outlines over on Lib Dem Voice, this will mean:

'An end to central control and a new opportunity for local government to lead with the freedom, responsibility and ring-fenced funding to innovate and develop local solutions to the local public health challenges they face. For the first time in a generation, central Government will not be pulling the strings.'
I've highlighted below some other key aspects of the proposals, care of the Department of Health website:
  • Directors of Public Health will be employed by the Local Authority and be the ambassadors of health issues for the local population.
  • Local authorities  will lead discussion about how the ring-fenced money is spent to improve health. This will include influencing investment decisions right across the Local Authority, with the goal of enhancing health and well-being.
  • Local authorities they will be able to make sure that public health is always considered when local authorities, GP consortia and the NHS make decisions.
  • To make sure that progress is made on issues like obesity and smoking, Public Health England will set a series of outcomes to measure whether people’s health actually improves.
  • Historically, money for public health has disappeared into other services. Under new arrangements, the flow of money will change so that: money will be allocated from the NHS budget and ring-fenced for public health; part of this will be used by Public Health England for population-wide issues; another part will provide a ring-fenced budget to Local Authorities.
  • A new health premium will take into account health inequalities and reward progress on specific public health outcomes, and we will consult on how we do this to get the detail right. The premium will be simple and driven by a formula developed with key partners. Disadvantaged areas will see a greater premium if they make progress, recognising that they face the greatest challenges.
Obviously only time will tell if these measures make a positive impact on public health in Reading. However, I believe they represent a step in the right direction towards improving accountability and transparency in relation to public health and I will be using all powers open to me to improve health outcomes for everyone in Reading, wherever they live and whatever their background.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Next steps in Transforming Adult Social Care Services in Reading

The national independent regulator and inspectorate of adult social care services in England, the Care Quality Commission has concluded that Reading Borough Council's adult social care services are performing well. From the official Council press release published earlier this week:
'CQC inspectors who have been monitoring the performance of the Council's adult social care service, graded the Council as doing 'well' against all seven criteria.
The Council was given particular praise from CQC inspectors for consulting with residents on the range of adult social care services available in Reading and how they could or should be receiving them in order to improve their lives, maintaining dignity, independence and well-being.
Inspectors said the quality of residential and nursing care commissioned by the Council was predominantly good or excellent and welcomed the Council's increased investment in intermediate care, falls prevention and end of life care including a range of specialist services which are provided for people with long-term conditions.
Reading's adult social care service was also found to be progressing well with regard to its Putting People First initiative, by offering more personalised social care services, such as reablement.'
This is a fantastic achievement by staff working in adult social care in Reading. Adult social care services in Reading have been improving year on year and this is entirely down to the hard work of the staff working to support some of the most vulnerable in our community.
As Chair of the Housing,Health and Community Care Scrutiny Panel (2008-10) I led active cross-Party monitoring of adult social care performance, regularly challenging officers to do more to improve services, and arguing for things like adult safeguarding training for all councillors. There has been a commitment across all political parties in Reading to see these improvements delivered and this has clearly paid dividends in terms of a better service for residents we serve.
A week ago the Chief Executive of the Council and I presented awards to a large number of staff who have completed qualifications in social work and social care. We are very lucky to have such a dedicated social care workforce in Reading, as well as a Council committed to real workforce development, and I would like to thank all staff involved in adult social care for all the work they do for the community.
But the hard work and the challenges we face in social care do not end here. On Monday I will be presenting a paper to Cabinet about proposed next steps on the journey we are making towards transforming social care services in Reading. This is part of our committment to delivering high-quality, well funded adult social care services.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that in relation to social care we are faced with a number of challenges and given the number of people who receive our services in Reading (currently over four thousand) and the millions of pounds of public money the Council spends in this area I think it is important to be open about them as we seek to find solutions. Nationally, the need to reform social care funding system to reflect the impact of our increasing ageing population is well understood and next year the Commission into Funding of Social Care set up by the Coalition Government will report.
Paul Burstow MP, Lib Dem Minister for Care Services, indicated in the recently launched Vision for Social Care he is looking to go further than the previous Labour government's Putting People First agenda by expanding the number of people who have access to a personal budget, and increasing help for carers - both very welcome initiatives.
Locally the challenges we face in adult social care have been known about for some time (predating the local coalition), and include demographic pressures such as an increase older people and  in the number of people with complex needs approaching the Council for support, as well as increasing expectations from our residents for more personalised care. We must also respond to the need to extend support for our amazing community of unpaid carers in Reading who between them provide hundreds of hours of care to needy people each and every week.
In order to safeguard care and support for those in our community who need it most  (including carers) we must firstly ensure that our spending plans are sustainable by this I mean affordable and targeted on the right areas.
Under the previous Labour administration spending on social care outstripped the planned budget allocation practically every year. Labour politicians response to increasing demand for services  was to plug the funding gap this caused by ratcheting up Council Tax (increasing the burden on the elderly and those on fixed incomes) and raiding the Council's reserves. And they did this in full knowledge that demand would continue to rise and that the Labour government planned to make over £40bn worth of spending cuts after the general election! This is a completely unsustainable and if we continue down that road we will break the Council's budget. Failing to keep within our budget in future or failing to plan our future spending carefully could jeopardise care for the most vulnerable as it could force the Council to ration care. This would also undermine all the work we are doing to put people in charge of their care.
This is not a path I or my colleagues are willing to go down. So we must plan to live within our means as a Council, without placing extra burdens on the worst off, which means facing up to, and not ducking some tough decisions.
It goes without saying, therefore, that we must analyse every penny we spend to ensure we are getting value for money for services we buy, so that every pound we save we can reinvest in frontline care and support. A number of our  inhouse services are high cost compared to other local authorities and as custodians of public money we owe it to local residents to look at ways of tackling this. But simply doing things more efficiently will not be enough to protect social care services.
We need to do more to ensure our spending is sustainable and fair. For example, on Council home care charges. Under the policy we inherited from the previous Labour administration we currently subsidise people who have been assessed as being able to pay. Is this fair if it means that sfuture services to the vulnerable are threatened because our budget doesn't stretch far enough? I don't think so.
But it isn't just about what we spend public money on but how we spend it. We need to invest more in keeping people active, healthy and in their own homes. This is what older residents told the Council they wanted two years ago. And a recent survey of carers found they desperately wanted to be supported to get breaks.
But our plans also need to be flexible enough so that  for people with complex needs for conditions like dementia wehave the right number and type of beds available.
All of these challenges require  us to make changes to our current policies, hence we are required to take proposals through Cabinet and to involve the public in any future decisions.
On Monday I will be seeking Cabinet approval to go out to public consultation on our eligibility criteria for social care and our charging policy. Currently Reading is one of the few councils that continues to provide support for people classed as having 'greater moderate' needs. I understand why the Council has felt this was the right policy in previous years but times change and challenges we face will not go away. I am not suggesting that the Council stops helping people who need support but that we need to change our approach to ensure we protect the most vulnerable and invest in preventative care. This means:
  • We need to offer more support to  people to stay active and in their homes through reablement services help them avoid repeat visits to the hospital.
  • Local people want choice and control over their care so we need to work with a plurality of providers to meet local needs. In order to deliver more personalised care that is affordable we must accept that the Council cannot and should not have a monopoly on providing care: we have a thriving voluntary sector (which the Council actively supports through grant aid) as well as an army of carers, faith, and community groups we need to reach out to. .
If the proposed changes to Reading's eligibility criteria and charging policy are agreed in future, all existing adult social care clients would receive a personal review and financial assessment to determine how they could be best supported in the future.
  • People with the greatest need would still receive services from the Council and people with the least money, would not be required to contribute to the cost of their care.
  • The Council already offers a number of preventative services to support residents to live independently and improve their quality of life for longer. This ranges from providing sensors and alarms to help make residents feel safer in their own home, to the relatively new Reablement (intermediate care) intensive support programme, which aims to get people back on their feet and live independently within six weeks. The Coalition Government is committed to developing and extending these services.
  • The Council has also just launched a directory of services, which gives residents a wealth of information on local and national resources to find advice, support and activities to help people stay healthy, maintain independence and live life to the full.
  • Preventative services will be further enhanced through the Council's ongoing work with voluntary and community organisations to ensure residents are aware of and receive the broad range of support services that are available in Reading.
  • Carers will continue to be supported to ensure they get access to services and support they need
  • The Council will also work with residents to make sure they receive any benefits they are entitled to.
If the paper I table is approved by Cabinet we will be actively consulting the public and those whose who receive our services from December to February to find out what they think the balance should be on adult care services. I look forward to having that debate about how we  can continue to build high quality, sustainable social care services in Reading in future years.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

National Empty Homes Week (21-27 November 2010)

This week in conjunction with National Empty Homes Week Reading Borough Council is urging residents to report empty homes to the Council so where possible they can be brought back into use.
Residents can report empty homes via email  or call (0118) 937 0088. Please visit for more information on how to report empty or derelict properties in Reading.
There are around 540 private homes in Reading that have been empty for six months or more. 340 belong to individuals, 160 belong to companies and 80 belong to housing associations. In recent weeks officers have worked with property owners in Christchurch Road, London Road (pictured) and Beecham Road to bring derelict properties into use. This follows a successful campaign fought by the local Liberal Democrats in Reading to get the issue taken seriously following years of inaction by Labour.
Nationally, an estimated 300,000 houses have been empty for 6 months or more which represents a huge wasted resource. Earlier his week the Coalition Government unveiled proposals to empower housing associations to bring empty mes back into use and manage them as affordable housing, helped by £100 million pounds worth of additional funding from the Homes and Communities Agency. Locally, as well as nationally I am pleased to see a a strong commitment from Liberal Democrats and Conservatives who are working together to get action on this issue - what a refreshing change from the complacent approach taken by Labour politicians.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Government unveils plans to reward councils that tackle empty homes

You may recognise the property in this photograph. It lies on the corner of Kendrick Road and Christchurch Road and it was empty for many years - a blight on the neighbourhood (a Conservation area) and a cause of frustration for residents. Thanks to the hard work of Reading Borough Council officers working with the landlord this property is now back in use. However, this house could still be empty if the Council did not have an empty homes strategy (and you could argue) a motivated ward councillor. Some councils do not have either of these things so shamefully thousands of homes lie empty. This is unacceptabe given the scale of the affordable housing crisis we face. However, if the plans put forward by the Coalition Government at the end of last week go ahead all councils will have more good reasons to bring empty homes in their area back into use.
Following my post last week the Government has unveiled proposals to incentivise councils to bring empty homes back into use via the New Homes Bonus
The consultation asks whether bringing long-term empty homes back into use should be counted as additional supply for the New Homes Bonus. Local authorities would then be able to consider these properties with equal weight alongside new build.
I've attached the relevant bits of the consultation document below:

'The Coalition Agreement set out the Government’s commitment to explore a range of measures to bring empty properties back into use.

'There are a number of reasons why properties become and remain empty including low demand, the cost of repairs, reluctance to rent, or personal circumstances. Around 300,000 privately owned homes have been vacant for over six months and many are in areas of high demand. Empty homes are a blight on local communities and a waste which we cannot afford. We need to harness this potential to meet pressing housing need.

'The Spending Review announced that the Government is investing £100m - through the Homes and Communities Agency - to support housing associations to refurbish over 3,000 empty properties and manage them at an affordable rent for up to 10 years.
'Many local authorities already work with property owners to bring homes back into use. Some also take enforcement action where advice and support fails. Through the New Homes Bonus, the Government proposes to strengthen the incentive for local authorities to identify empty properties and work with property owners to find innovative solutions that allow these properties to be brought back into use.

'Bringing empty homes back into use is also important in overcoming some local opposition to new housing. We therefore propose to reward local authorities for bringing empty properties back into use through the New Homes Bonus.'

The consultation document suggests that Council Tax data will be used to track empty homes and homes brought back into use. This makes sense (and it's one of the ways we track empty homes in Reading).
The practicality of these measures will need to be considered as part of the consultation (on until Christmas) but I really welcome this radical new thinking from the government. Empty homes are a wasted resource and we must explore more ways to bring properties back into use to aid housing supply - particularly when housing need is great and space for new build in many areas like Reading is in short supply.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Coalition Government develops radical new plans to tackle empty homes

Good news today which I discovered via the Department of Communities and Local Government's Business Plan, which was published by the Coalition Government today as part of a drive towards greater transparency.
Priority 4 of the Plan relates to housing aspirations:
'Meet people’s housing aspirations, including by providing local authorities with strong and transparent incentives to facilitate housing growth, as well as making the provision of social housing more flexible"
Action 4.8 of the Plan in particular caught my eye:
'Develop a strategy to bring more empty homes back into use, working with local authorities, housing associations and some of the property owners, neighbours and others affected.'
So far the Government has done the following:
  • Invited interested parties (including local authorities and registered social landlords) to submit views through the Homes and Communities Agency’s ‘Maximising the Use of Empty homes’ online debate
  • Considered the Homes and Communities Agency’s analysis of responses and develop plans to bring more empty homes into use
Later this month the government will:
  • Consult as part of the New Homes Bonus consultation, on provision to reward local authorities for bringing empty homes back into use
  • Work with the Homes and Communities Agency to develop a programme for empty homes
The fact that the Government is already developing concrete proposals to reduce the number of long-term empty properties across the country is fantastic news for everyone who wants to see councils and other public bodies makes the most out of existing housing stock.
It is a testament to individuals such as David Ireland, Chief Executive of the Empty Homes Agency who have been making the case for action for much longer than I have, and who originally got me involved in the campaign. The approach taken by the Coalition Government is in direct contrast to the timid, slow one taken by the previous Labour Government.
Locally, thanks to the Lib Dem campaign I led, Reading Borough Council is steadily bringing empty homes back into use following years of inaction by the previous Labour administration which meant the number of empty homes built up to several hundred. Disgraceful when you think this Council once won awards for its empty homes work.
It's worth saying that this work is about far more than simply bringing a home back into use as a new home - it can also be about reducing anti-social behaviour, helping individuals who have got to financial and legal difficulty and restoring pride in our neighbourhoods.
Details released today follow the announcement in the Comprehensive Spending Review that £100 million pounds would be allocated by the Government to bringing empty homes back into use - evidence of commitment at Treasury level to action in this area.
As someone who has been campaigning for over four years for action on this issue, I was very encouraged to see plans to tackle empty homes included in the Coalition Agreement. Both Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos contained commitment to action to reduce the number of empty homes. Earlier this year I went to meet Andrew Stunell MP, Minister for Local Government at DCLG to lobby him to deliver on this commitment. I found him very receptive. He asked me some challenging questions about how change could be delivered. I understood that he needed to find a solution that could be acceptable to the Conservatives but also one which was cost-effective and value for money. I am hopeful that progress can be made by councils working with the Homes and Communities Agency.
I am excited by proposals to incentivise councils to bring empty homes in their area back into use.  Empty homes work is currently a non-statutory function of councils - hence not all councils choose to act and a very patchy picture nationally. It must make financial sense as well as sense from a community perspective for councils to act as some of the powers have can be costly in terms of the time and resource needed to make them work.
This announcement today coupled with last week's announcement by Chris Huhne of the new Green Deal is yet more evidence that this Government is committed to getting the most out of existing housing stock, as well as building more homes. This makes environmental, as well as economic sense and I look forward to investigating the details when they are published in the coming weeks.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Why I'm backing Tim for Lib Dem Party President

I voted for Tim Farron for Lib Dem Party President because first and foremost he is a campaigner and as a campaigner I wanted to vote for someone who is prepared to fight for what they believe in and not "go native" in government.
I've known Tim for a few years now. I first met him in 2004 just before he was elected. I had only just started getting involved with the Party at that point and I found him down to be earth and friendly - happy to chat to ordinary members like me and listen to what we had to say.
A couple of years later after his stunning victory in Westmorland & Lonsdale, we invited him to speak to members in Reading, and his passion, plain-speaking and wit went down really well with people. Tim has a great way with words and we need that in the age modern communications.
Tim understands that as Lib Dems we are different from councillors and activists from other parties. We practice community politics and Tim gets this. When I was chosen to take part in the Next Generation 3 Programme for talented Lib Dem councillors a couple of years ago, Tim acted as a sort of mentor to me and my fellow NG3ers - popping up at Party Conference receptions where he would pull our legs remorsely about the need to avoid 'going native', and regularly reminding us our jobs as councillors were to represent the people to the Town Hall (not the other way around). Tim understands the need to campaign and knock on doors - he has never rested on his laurels and he won't let the Party leadership do that either, I'm sure.
It's worth mentioning that I also have a lot of time for Susan Kramer (the other frontrunner in the race who recently came to speak at a Pasta & Politics event down the road in Woodley) so choosing who to vote for was not an easy decision.
However, in government, particularly in a coalition government, we need someone who can help get our message across in the media and by that I mean get our message across to the public. But we also need someone who understands the Party, what makes Lib Dems tick, and can motivate members and activists. I'm confident Tim can do all those things.
At Lib Dem Party Conferences for a few years now Tim has spoken as a warm up act for various party leaders. Something tells me he won't have a walk-on part for much longer. Good luck Tim!

Reading Borough Council gets social media

I don't, I'm sure, need to tell you that I'm a fan of social media. I've been tweeting since 2009, blogging since 2006 and using video since 2008. I have also used Facebook extensively to consult and campaign on issues ranging from recycling to rented housing.
Last Winter social media came into its own during the period of severe weather we faced, when in the absence of a corporate policy opposition councillors helped spread the word online to residents via the #rdg hashtag.
But what's most excited me recently is the fact that Reading Borough Council has finally joined the 21st century and is now embracing social media as a way to engage and involve the public in its activities and decisions. Obviously this does not mean the Council will stop communicating with the public in more traditional ways. I hope it will lead to a Council more focussed on its residents and more tuned into local concerns.
The latest example of this new policy is the Council's: Your Money, Your Say Facebook page which encourages residents to be part of the Budget debate. This is something I can never imagine happening under the previous Labour administration.
My colleagues on the Lib Dem side Kirsten Bayes, Warren Swaine and Glenn Goodall have all energetically championed various aspects of this agenda in recent years and I am grateful to them for helping me make the case. Conservative councillors supported our proposal to web cast council meetings a little while ago, and Green councillor Rob White argued recently that Reading Borough Council should make better use of 'new media'. Every Lib Dem held ward in Reading has a local blog maintained by active councillors who are keen to engage with the public.The only Party in danger of being left behind in all this guessed it - the Labour Party. But then again this is the Party that for years included dinosaurs that argued that glass recycling was 'a waste of money' - meanwhile the public and public administration moves forward, leaving them behind.
One of the first but signficant acts of the new Coalition administration was to adopt a social media policy. Many other councils have had such policies for years - but not Reading when it was run by Labour. This decision links closely to the Coalition's commitment to greater openness, innovation and enhanced customer service.
The policy states that:
"rather than waiting for individuals or groups to approach the council, social media offers the opportunity of being able to connect to the community and deliver messages with greater conviction. It may empower local residents to speak up about their needs and influence decision making, in turn building trust and stronger bonds."
On the back of the Council's policy which helps free staff to communicate effectively with residents as part of a two-way conversation - a dialogue, rather than a broadcast. The Council now has a number of social media profiles covering a variety of services - find them all here.
I am particularly pleased to see the Streetcare Team responsible for the street environment on Twitter- enabling residents to report litter and graffiti quickly and easy for action. I am keen to extend this approach into housing and community care services - watch this space. I pick up lots of housing casework via Facebook - probably about 1/3.
Sadly some Labour councillors and activists continue to attack those of us that use social media. A few (mainly the newer ones) do use social media, but they are outnumbered by those in the old guard that don't. You only have to sit in Council debates and read some local Labour blogs to detect the Party's latent authoritiarianism. These days thankfully the Council is becoming much more pluralist and social media is just another tool to bring more voices into the debate - hopefully improving our decisions and our services.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Coalition Council tackles issues in rented housing

Well done Reading Borough Council. This week a rogue landlord was fined £60,000 for placing her tenants at risk in a rundown property in central Reading. This is believed to be the biggest ever fine resulting from intervention by environmental health officers in the UK. The landlord in this case was charged with 11 counts of failing to comply with housing management regulations. It says something about the demand for housing in our area that this landlord thought she could get away with charging tenants £700 for the pleasure of renting a substandard property.
Under my watch landlords the Council will continue to focus on rooting out poor quality housing and holding those responsible to account.
Locally my Lib Dem colleagues and I have led this agenda for the past four years, campaigning to improve the private rented sector - one of the biggest in the UK and home to 25 % of people living in Reading. Two years ago this month I led the most detailed scrutiny review ever into the sector.I did this because the worst housing standards at that time were in the private sector and also because I knew of issues in areas like Redlands with student housing that needed fixing.
I succeeded in engaging the public using public meetings and Facebook - the first time in the Council's history.
After the review we published detailed recommendations to the then Labour administration in May 2009 about how locally Council policies could be improved to deliver improvements in the sector. These touched on student housing, waste collection and enforcement action - all long-overlooked areas.
At that time Labour councillors had no choice, politically, but to implement these recommendations, after years of neglecting rented housing, as well as areas of the Town with a high concentration of HMOs and student housing. In the end 90 % were introduced and we succeeded in getting the Council's housing strategy re-written to include a greater focus on issues in the private sector.
Review of landlord accreditation
One of the key recommendations of the scrutiny review called for a review of the Council's landlord accreditation scheme which had been suspended by Labour a few years earlier. This is something that students had been calling for some time and I championed it.
When the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives took over the Council in May this year we inherited the review. 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.'
So, 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.
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.
Back to the news about the rogue landlord who was fined this week. It is worth pointing out to any reader who is concerned that the Council will be profiting financially from the prosecution I can reassure them that the fine (if collected) will go to the Crown. The Council has been awarded costs only. It is also worth mentioning that the reason why this fine was so large was because the landlord failed to heed warnings from environmental health officers over a period of two years. If problems are found in properties the Council will work with landlords to help them put things right. Going to court is clearly only something officers will do as a last resort.
If you or anyone you know are concerned about the condition of rented property please contact the Council on 0118 937 3737 or visit our website at

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Never let facts get in the way of a good (housing) story

Now that the local Labour Party is no longer running Reading Borough Council they clearly have a lot of extra time on their hands which, sadly, they appear to be using to spread misleading, inaccurate stories about policies of the Coalition Government and the Coalition Council. On the plus side they have finally discovered Twitter - which is to be welcomed. They were seemingly the last political Party in Reading to do so, but never mind they got there in the end.
Don't get me wrong - I have no problem with Labour issuing press releases. It's reasonable to expect politicians of all colours will try and political points - we've all done it.
What saddens me is the way in which the local Labour Party indulges in scaremongering in an attempt to grab the headlines. Who benefits from this approach? Not local people, that's for sure. The people it hurts is the worst off - people who are depending on politicians for help and support.
It's not a new tactic. We've seen it before in Reading. Yet again Labour are reverting to their age old tactic of scaring the electorate into voting for them - forgetting of course that local voters possess a) a memory and b) a brain which enables them to see through Labour spin.
The fact is, that since May I've yet to read a press release from Reading Labour Party iwhich has contained one constructive idea in it or indeed any details about how their policies would be paid for.
Let's not forget, going into the election Labour was committed to making £44 billion pounds worth of cuts. And at least part of those savings were going to be in welfare - that much is clear.
Take housing, for instance. You'd think wouldn't you that after the parlous record of the previous Labour government when it comes to building new homes, local Labour councillors would want to keep quiet on that subject locally. I've blogged loads about this in recent years because I think access to decent housing is a basic human right and I have spent the last few years campaigning to help make this a reality for people living in Reading.
Anyway, back to housing, and below are some statistics you won't be reading in a Labour Party Press Release any time soon:

Between 1997-2010:
  • New homes built = 559,000 (337,000 for rent and 192,00 low cost home ownership
  • Homes sold: 605,000
  • Reduction in homes in the overall social housing sector: 45,530 in 13 years
  • Reduction in homes available for social rent: 227,000 homes fewer homes to rent
  • Housing waiting list: nationally went up 741,000 - leaving 1,763,000 families waiting for a home
  • Unrealistic nationally-imposed housing targets: fell short by 78,000 homes last year
  • Housing benefit bill went from £10 billion to £21 billion

And locally, under Labour management of Reading Borough Council:-

  • Hundreds of family-sized Council homes in Reading were sold off and not replaced.
  • The waiting list for social housing rose to over 4,000
  • As a result the number of families in overcrowded accommodation soared.
  • Flats were crammed onto back gardens as a result of John Prescott's planning policies - over 90 % of new-build properties in Reading over the past two years have been flats adding to the pressure on larger properties
  • The private-rented sector expanded unchecked -with little or no regulation of the sector
  • A booming buy to let market which pushed up rents and that is quickly turning into a buy to leave market in some areas
  • Hundreds of private homes left empty because the Council had no strategy to reduce the number
  • The number of houses of multiple-occupation increased leaving many neighbourhoods struggling to cope until an in depth scrutiny investigation led by myself and Cllr Ricky Duveen prompted action

This week Labour activists were busy once again spreading misinformation about Coalition policies about housing.Their press release quoted pretty much wholesale in the Evening Post states:

"London borough councils are already block-booking B & B rooms in Reading to house people who will lose their homes."

Wrong. To my knowledge no such block-booking is taking place. And it really isn't difficult to find this out. All Labour councillors needed to do was to check with officers at the Council, as I did when I heard this rumour and they would have found there is not a grain of truth in this. Labour locally are simply repeating the misinformation promulgated by Ed Miliband and others.

It's disappointing that former 'independent' councillors in Reading have fallen into the same trap. In addition it seems the latest Labour candidate for Redlands (a ward Labour have failed to win for the last four years) is failing to check her facts before she opens her mouth, claiming that "Redlands is likely to be a ward hit by the housing benefit cap." She then misrepresents some recent announcements about HMOs and claims that the 'delicate balance' between family housing and HMOs could be at risk in some parts of my ward.

I can reassure readers that this description could not be further from the truth. I'm prepared to give Labour's latest candidate for Redlands the benefit of the doubt but on the evidence of this outburst she clearly doesn't know her ward that well.

I can show her plenty of streets where Labour councillors over the years turned a blind eye to issues such as HMOs and the housing mix - indeed any sense of balance of housing types! Until a couple of years ago you barely heard Labour councillors even mention the private rented housing sector, let alone student housing.

As Lead Member for Housing and ward councillor for Redlands I prefer to base my information on unbiased, professional sources - like the Council's housing department and the Department for Communities and Local Government. Based on current data I have seen the numbers of people in Reading who would be affected by the cap at the moment is likely to be very small.

It's worth saying that these proposals have not been introduced yet and at the moment Labour are dining out on 100 % pure speculation. This is pretty scandalous when you think that people on housing benefit are not well off and have enough to worry about without Labour adding to their concerns.

As a responsible administration we are monitoring the situation all the time and we will work to ensure support is available for those who find themselves in housing need as a result of any changes. Because I think the role of councillors is to find solutions, not cause alarm.

I do think it's right however that there is an incentive to work and I'm not sure it is fair if people claiming housing benefits can afford to live in areas other families cannot afford to. And that's not the only issue. Labour in government were happy to consign millions of people to a life on benefits and all the problems such as ill-health that can cause rather than helping them out of poverty. That is the real scandal.

Nowhere in the Labour press release do they spell out an alternative to a continuation of high rents and high benefits bills. And on the subject of facts, here is one that Labour activists new and old, from Redlands to Southcote prefer not to acknowledge: in their 2010 Manifesto Labour pledged to reform housing benefit and limit the amount of housing benefit families could claim.

When I raised this on BBC Radio Berkshire, Cllr Pete Ruhemann claimed not to have heard me - despite the fact he was sitting in a radio studio, presumably wearing headphones. Nevermind, I don't think the listeners will have misheard what I said or his silence on the issue.

On Coalition housing policies some facts:

  • Proposals to offer fixed-term tenure and alter rent levels are optional i.e. will not be imposed from the centre.
  • If adopted they will only apply to new tenants and with rents covered by housing benefits

It will be down to Reading Borough Council and councillors to decide in consultation with tenants groups what is appropriate for Reading. I will be scrutinising the proposals when they are published by government and only progressing them if I think they have the potential to help local families and individuals and improve the housing situation.

As I said on the radio, I do have concerns about some the proposals but in general I prefer to base my decisions on factual information not guesswork and scaremongering from the local Labour Party, who have demonstrated time after time they are not on the side of local residents and tenants.

Andrew Stunell, Lib Dem local government minister has pledged that the Coalition wil be the first government to make a net addition of homes to the social housing sector since 1979. This is a big ask and I am many others will keep the pressure on to ensure the government delivers where Labour so comprehensively failed. In the meantime, when it comes to housing, a little honesty and a little humility from Labour wouldn't go amiss.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Better services, better value, better neighbourhoods

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

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Back to blogging

First up, apologies for the lack of posts: I have not gone into hibernation nor given up campaigning! The simple fact is I have just had possibly the busiest five months of my political career, managing one of the most challenging portfolios on Reading Borough Council, and on top of that, I've started a new job.
My top priority first and foremost is to discharge my responsibilities to the people of Reading as a Lead Member, and to my constituents in my ward as a ward councillor. I really enjoy blogging, however, so I will do my best to post as and when I can.

Since I began blogging a few years ago it's pleasing to see that a number of local politicians of all political persuasions in Reading are now doing it. Due to time constraints I use Twitter more than other tools. I commute to work in London and am not always in front of a computer screen so I can tweet on the go (usually on my way to a meeting of one kind or another). I've recently also begun using Foursquare. My ward colleague Cllr Kirsten Bayes is ahead of me however recently adopting Posterous for audio blogging.

After four years as an opposition councillor I am really enjoying getting stuck into adminstration. As Chair of Scrutiny for years and a proactive ward councillor I was able to exert a big influence on policy and get lots of things done but being a lead member is a different matter altogether...and a lot more work.

But politics is very much a team game and I am very lucky to be working alongside many committed, hard-working and dedicated colleagues from both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups. The bit that the public doesn't often see is the many hours councillors and officers spend in the Civic Offices working on policies for the benefit of local people. It is is hard to balance this with other responsibilities and to ensure we still have a life!

These are not easy times and the financial position we have inherited from Labour locally and nationally means we have some very difficult choices ahead. That aside I am excited about the opportunities that there are to deliver better value, more personalised services to our residents in Reading.

Nationally politics has been very interesting. The Lib Dems did not win the election - no one Party did so I accept that there will inevitably have to be compromises. That said, I am pleased to see a number of Lib Dem policies we have long campaigned for in Reading, like the Pupil Premium being implemented.

That's all for now but if I get time I hope to post some thoughts on housing soon.