Monday, 29 March 2010
Monday, 22 March 2010
I have spoken out extensively about the real impact poverty and deprivation is having on families and individuals in parts of Reading. It's one of the issues that gets me out of bed and out campaigning as it affects every area of community life - health, housing and quality of life. As Nick Clegg has said repeatedly bright children from the poorest families are also being overtaken before they even reach ten years old by children from wealthier backgrounds. This is grossly unfair. I am concerned that too often this issue has been hidden from view or overlooked as it not something that is visible when people visit the centre of Reading or when they read about Reading as a 'boom town' in the national and local media. Obviously many parts of Reading's economy are incredibly successful. However, there are pockets of real poverty all over Reading. All the evidence I have seen both in official reports and on the doorstep is that the recession has increased the number of families living in poverty in our area - the number of families where more than one state benefit is claimed being the usual indicator used. Young people have also been disproportionately affected by the recession and the Labour government has not done enough to help them. As a councillor I have campaigned to get this issue more attention from politicians, the media and officers of the Borough Council and the PCT. There is some great work going on locally to help children from some of the poorest families in Reading do better in life. I visited a SureStart Centre in Whitley last week to see what staff there are doing to improve health outcomes of local children and I was really impressed by what I saw. But more needs to be done at a national level to make sure more children are not left behind and to support people who can help families out of the poverty trap. Despite 13 years of a Labour government and economic success in some areas of the Town he gap between rich and poor and Reading is rising and this is really bad news - for all of us, not just children and their families. We heard in a Council scrutiny meeting last week that the latest figures show that the percentage of children living in poverty in Reading was 22.3% (of all Reading's children under 19) and 23.3% of all those under 16 are classified as in poverty (at last count). The Council has developed an extensive anti-poverty action plan but it is very dependent on national policy and a commitment from politicians to see it delivered - there is only so much local bodies can do. Locally all the evidence I have seen is that poverty is having a terrible impact on children's health and their wider life chances, including education in Reading. This is why I was one of the councillors that successfully called for a scrutiny review on children's health & deprivation to look at ways that the Council and the PCT can work together to help more children in Reading's poorest communities live healthier lives. But we need more action at a national level to make a real difference to children. I'm pleased that Nick Clegg has identified tackling child poverty and improving equality of opportunity for those children as one of his top 4 priorities under the banner 'giving children a fair start. This is key issue for us because Liberal Democrats believe that everyone, regardless of background, should have the same chance to make the most of their life. So how would the Lib Dems help reduce child poverty and help children?
1. We will continue to support the Child Poverty Bill currently making its way through Parliament. This Bill includes a duty on local authorities and agencies to reduce inequality int their areas. We believe the Bill needs strengthening because it may not pick up the poverty suffered by certain families, for example when a member of the family is disabled or they live in an area where accommodation is very expensive. Steve Webb MP has been leading our campaign to get a better Bill.
2.Lib Dems believe that education is vital if we are to reduce child poverty in the long term. Therefore we will introduce a pupil premium giving £2.5 billion to schools taking on children from deprived backgrounds. This will increase the funding for each child on free school meals by £2,500 on average, to the same level as money spent on children in private schools. The pupil premium will cut class sizes, to ensure every child gets the individual attention they need.
3.The Labour government has relied on complex means-tested benefits for dealing with poverty, but the rise in child poverty since 2005 shows the system is not working. As a more effective way of easing the financial strain on the most vulnerable, we would concentrate tax credits on low income families and people would pay no tax on the first £10,000 they earn. We would also reintroduce fixed tax credits awards, so that families are freed from the financial rollercoaster of underpayments and overpayments of tax credits which can then be reclaimed years later.
4.The Lib Dems support the concept of a global financial transaction tax and it is something which we would be happy to pursue on a multilateral basis. Any action would require agreement from the US, European and Swiss governments but the proceeds from such a tax could provide a source of revenue to be used to fight international issues such as poverty and climate change.
And what about on international child poverty?
- The Liberal Democrats are committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Despite progress in many areas, the MDGs on infant and maternal mortality have seen little progress. We want the MDG review summit this autumn to focus on these areas and to ensure urgent progress is made.We remain committed to achieving the UN target of spending 0.7% of GNI on aid by 2013, and would ensure that measures to tackle malaria and dehydration (two of the biggest killers of children) are adequately funded and prioritised.
I will continue to do all I can to keep this issue on the local political agenda. If elected MP for Reading West I pledge that reducing the number of local children living in poverty and campaigning to ensure every child in our area gets a fair start in life will be one of my top priorities.
Friday, 12 March 2010
The review I requested of the impact of the NHS Walk In Centre revealed it to have been a huge success - with around 15,000 visits from patients since it opened. This is great but access to healthcare must be better in other parts of town - notably Whitley and Battle (Oxford Road area). We heard that the long promised Battle Health & Wellbeing has not progressed as a direct result of the recession. This is a concern giving health inequality in our area has worsened during that time.On overcrowding, something I've been campaigning on for months now, I was really pleased to secure cross-party support for a greater focus on helping support tenants who are over-crowded but also investigate ways to make more housing stock available. The 30% increase in the number of people on the Council's housing register (up to 6,000) is putting real pressure on stock. Lots of ideas were discussed and a full review and potentially scope for policy change will be put forward in October. It will need to include a combination of solutions - including making better use of existing stock and the private rented sector. 186 families are suffering living in overcrowded housing and I will not rest until that number has reduced significantly.
Housing repairs to council houses is something I have regularly received complaints about from residents over the years. This is doubtless the same for many other councillors - so I got the issue on the scrutiny agenda. Last night we discussed what could be done to reduce the number of 'avoidable calls'. Housing repairs relate to 47% of all contacts from residents to the Council - around 41 thousand calls! This is bad for tenants and a bad use of time and money for the Council. An action is being developed and HHCC Scrutiny Panel will be monitoring delivery closely.
Following the CQC inspection of Older People's Services a few months ago I had requested an update to scrutiny as to what is being done to improve areas where areas of concern had been identified by inspectors. There is no doubt that this more in-depth scrutiny of key services over the past 2 years since I've been chairing HHCC Scrutiny Panel has delivered improvements in key areas faster, as well introducing more accountability for members and local people.
This is just a brief snapshot of some of the issues we discussed last night - all of them really important. Being involved in scrutiny is one of the more hidden aspects of a councillors' work but I am hopeful we can make a real impact on housing, health and social care for residents in Reading. We had 20 items on the scrutiny panel agenda last night - not too bad given when I took over in May 2008 there were something like 32 on an average HHCC agenda.I still think we need to consider setting up a separate health scrutiny committee in Reading just to be able to do justice to all the health issues that come up. But overall it was a good, productive meeting and I'm pleased to say pointless party political bickering was kept to a minimum!
Tuesday, 9 March 2010
Overcrowding - a Reading-wide issue
As a local councillor I have been contacted countless times in recent years by families in the same predicament as the women who called me earlier this week. I have long been concerned that the people contacting me in my ward are the tip of the iceberg so last October I tabled some written questions about about this issue which revealed the true extent of the problem faced by hundreds of families. With this in mind I have been campaigning for more family-sized houses to be built in Reading in the coming years to meet local need. I was keen to dig deeper to get more information about this isue and get more attention from politicians and officers in Reading on this issue so via my role as Chair of Scrutiny I asked officers to prepare a focussed piece of work on the issue of overcrowding. We are due to discuss that report on Thursday evening in a meeting of the HHCC Scrutiny Panel. The facts contained within the report I commissioned are worth highlighting:
- The number of people on Reading on the Council's 'housng register' has risen from 4,400 (April 2008) to around 6000 in February 2010 - an increase of 30%
- This increase is partly due to the impact of the recession but one of the most common reasons given is overcrowding
- In February 2010 there were around 186 families in Reading registered with RBC as needing a propertywith 4 or more bedrooms
- Data is not available for overcrowding in privately-rented housing -which could also be a signficant figure
The supply of larger family homes either housing association or Council-owned is in short supply and the local authority in Reading is simply unable able to meet demand. Too few affordable homes are being built each year in Reading. Under successive Labour governments councils have been prevented from building the number of council houses that local communities need to replace the loss of thousands of council houses which were sold off via the disastrous Right to Buy policies introduced by the Conservatives. Officers in the local authority are doing everything they can but their hands have been tied by government which has dicated housing policies to councils far too much. Currently the pressure is greatest on properties that are 4 or more bedrooms.
- The Council currently owns 133 x 4 bedroom properties and 3 x 5 bedroom properties
- RSL (housing assocation) partners built 28 x 4 bed and 2 x 5 bed properties in the last 2 years
- 22 x 4 bed and 1 x 5 bed houses are planned by 2013
I'll leave you to do the math...!
Overcrowding is a problem across Reading, but there are some wards where the problem is particularly acute. Based on figures about percentages of tenant transfer requests these are - Caversham (20.5%), Minster (14,8%), Battle (10.3%) followed by Katesgrove and Southcote (8.3%), Redlands (8.2%) and Abbey and Church (8.1%).
In Reading and many parts of the South-East the affordability of housing is a major issue. A recent national survey showed that only 23% of families under 40 living in the South East can afford to get on the housing ladder. More council homes must be built in Reading to meet the needs of our growing population. Larger affordable homes for families are urgently needed and thanks to pressure from the Lib Dems on the Borough Council the Council's Housing Strategy 2009 -2014 the blueprint for future housing in the Town includes plans to alter the housing mix towards more family-sized housing. There are very few large sites in Reading and the outskirts of the Town where large-scale new housing can be developed so we need to get better at getting more out of our exisiting housing stock. Long-term empty properties being brought back into use must also be part of the solution which I have actively supported. RBC is looking at ways of getting the most out of existing council stock - including extending some properties and encouraging some tenants who are technically 'under-occupying' council homes to move into smaller properties. As you can imagine, persuading people to downsize is not easy. A report on this is due in the autumn.The private rented sector has a key role to play - hence the need to raise standards in the sector - since 2008 600 households have been placed by RBC's housing team into the private sector via the increasingly-popular Deposit Guarantee Scheme. On a national level I am grateful to Shelter for pointing out the terrible impact that overcrowding is having on children and families. I will continue to campaign to get action taken to help families affected here in Reading.
Latest facts and figures from RBC on empty homes in Reading, via the report to Scrutiny this Thursday:
- On February 9 2010 there were 489 private sector homes in Reading that had been empty for 6 months or longer
- This is a reduction of 28 homes since October 2009
- The majority - 38% of empty homes in Reading have been empty for 1 year
- 26% have been empty for 2-3 years and 2% have been empty for 5 years
- Empty home numbers have increased in 4 wards and dropped in 11 wards
- Wards with the highest numbers of empty homes are: Southcote (82), Battle (70), Abbey (68)
- There have been increases in my ward of Redlands - up from 30 to 36, and a big increase in Park ward - up from 31 to 43
- There have been falls in Katesgrove (down from 39 to 27) Whitley (from 20 to 18) and Minister (32 down from 40).
Officers have a range of tools and powers open to them to bring empty homes back into use. During this period a 'multi-enforcement team' approach has been applied to 3 empty homes and 2 homes in Battle ward have been returned to use using 'economic and legal powers of persuasion.' I have nothing but praise for the dedicated team of officers who are involved in this painstaking work. They do a very important job in my view. It's also great to see the Council linking up with local charities to try and find homes for people that need them via empty homes. I will continue to campaign to ensure that empty homes work done by RBC officers continues, after the issue was ignored for years by the Labour administration. Nationally, the Lib Dems are committed to bringing in legislation to return thousands of empty private sector homes to use as social homes to help address the huge need for affordable housing in the UK. In contrast the Conservatives have said they would scrap powers Councils have to tackle empty homes.
Tuesday, 2 March 2010
Residents in my ward in Redlands are lucky as most of them live quite close to the excellent Royal Berkshire Hospital. However, I have been concerned for some time about residents who live in parts of South and West Reading who are not so lucky.
The NHS Walk In Centre which was set up last year in Broad Street Mall in the Town Centre was set up in an attempt to address this gap in provision. The idea is simple - you don't need to be registered or to have an appointment to get treatment or advice. It sounds great as a concept but I have to admit I was a bit sceptical when the idea was first mooted as I was concerned it would be a 'polyclinic' and could post a threat to existing GP services. However, the feedback I have received from the PCT so far has been very positive. As Chair of the HHCC Panel I requested a report be presented to councillors on Thursday 11 March to review the impact of Reading's NHS Walk In Centre . We will be quizzing Berkshire West PCT, commissioners of the new service to find out whether or not the new service is doing what it was set up to do: improve access to NHS services to the highly-mobile population of residents living, working and shopping (!) in the Town Centre and improve public health.
Have you used this new service? If so, we'd love to hear from you about your experience. Please drop me an email firstname.lastname@example.org The meeting is kicking off at 6.30pm in the Kennet Room at the Civic Centre. The meeting is open the the public and if you would like to ask a question to the PCT about the service you can please get in touch.
Sadly two other health projects that could help improve access to services have still not come to fruition - in Whitley and Battle. The PCT has long identified other parts of Reading including Whitley need additional services to meet growing demand in the community. Residents living in and around Oxford Road are still waiting for the new Battle Health Centre to be developed - something Reading West Martin Salter MP and Battle councillor Tony Jones campaigned for all those years ago. It was supposed to be built in 2009. Back in 2004, Martin Salter said:"Local doctors' surgeries are pretty full around here and there is a need for more NHS dentists as well as a range of specialist services that can be delivered locally without people having to trek across town to the Royal Berks," he said. "It is great news that Reading PCT has identified the Battle site for a local centre." I agree with Martin - delivering services locally is what's needed - it reduces the need to travel and ensures everyone gets fair access to those services. The major fly on the ointment as far as this scheme is concerned is that it can only be built when the housing on the former Battle Hospital site is sold. The recession is basically to blame. This is a great shame. A lot of local residents must be feeling very disappointed about this after all the promises from Labour both locally and nationally. It must be disappointing for Martin Salter too that the Centre won't be built during his time in Parliament as Member for Reading West after his campaigning on this issue. I will continue to campaign for better access to healthcare for all Reading residents irrespective of where they live, and continue to press the PCT and the Council at every opportunity to speed things up on the ground.
The PCT has supplied us with a written report on the NHS Walk In centre which we will be discussing at the scrutiny panel on Thursday. Some interesting facts from the report:
- Between August 2009 and February 2010 13,778 patients had consultations at the new centre
- 59% of those patients live within Reading
- Patients attending are mainly indicating convenience is the reason they visited the centre
- The top four medical issues presenting are: upper respiratory infection, medication and skin infections and contraception
- 78% of patients attending are aged between 16 and 65
- 95% of patients are seen within 30 minutes
- 90% of patients are reporting satisfaction with the service
Monday, 1 March 2010
Mr Brown's visit comes just days after a visit to Reading by Home Secretary Alan Johnson. These visits don't change public perception of crime or public perception of the Labour government. This is because people in Reading are sick of spin from Labour politicians on crime and anti-social behaviour, and after years of rhetoric and countless pieces of ineffective criminal justice legislation they want to see is action and they want a better response when they report crime. It's not rocket science but after all these years Labour still haven't quite got the message on what local people want.
In 2008 when I was Lib Dem safer communities spokesperson I went to Reading Town Hall with a message on crime from the local community for Reading's top cops and members of the Home Affairs Select Committee (which included Reading West MP Martin Salter). My message was simple: why is the local community still not being listened to when they report anti-social behaviour? I was then and still am now campaigning for improvements to Thames Valley Police's Anti-Social Behaviour Hotline and a better response from Reading Borough Council. In January 2009 I led a group of residents from across Reading on a visit to TVP's call-centre in Kidlington to allow them to put their questions direct to the Police. Because I believe strongly in putting power back into the hands of local people. Sadly the Labour councillor responsible for tackling crime was too busy to join us. In October 2009 my Lib Dem colleagues and I successfully amended Labour's flawed anti-social behaviour strategy to include more support Neighbourhood Action Groups and better engagement by the Council and the Police with residents.
I've been asking searching questions about the authorities' response to these issues since my election to Reading Borough Council in 2006. Questions like:
- Why are there 2 numbers to report crime and anti-social behaviour in Reading?
- Why when residents report anti-social behaviour to the Police do the Council so often then say they have had 'no reports' on asb?
- Why doesn't the Council analyse more closely whether the money it is spending on local crime-reduction projects is value for money?
I keep on asking these questions not because I am obsessed by crime problems but because the response I get from residents about their experience of anti-social behaviour across Reading is so often overwhelmingly negative. I also ask these questions because councils have a duty to tackle anti-social behaviour. As part of my campaign for a better deal for Reading residents on crime and asb last week I asked the Council:
- How many reports of asb has the Council received from residents by ward and by type over the previous 12 months?
- How many calls have been received to RBC's hotline? reports to the websire
- How many asb reports have been received by ward?
Finally my questions also revealed that it is not currently possible for the Council's ASB teams to capture whether or not the report was received via the website. According to data provided to me by Reading Borough Council the four wards where residents reported the highest levels of anti-social behaviour in Reading are: Redlands (58), Norcot(54), Southcote (49) and Whitley (41). 3 out of 4 of these wards are in Reading West constituency - and the other one is my own ward where I know that asb is a big concern with my constituents. Answers to my questions revealed that overall n 2007 there were 408 reports of asb, 2008 (302) and 2009 (397). However, I don't think for a minute that these stats capture all the anti-social behaviour going on in the Borough over the past 3 years. I think the actual level is far higher but that people simply don't see the point of reporting it.
I was fascinated to see that in his speech today Gordon Brown pledged that a new single non-emergency number would be introduced. As the Guardian newspaper pointed out tonight this was something Labour pledged in their manifesto in 2005 but that was axed by the then Home Secretary John Reid. This is something the Lib Dems in Reading have been calling for, for years.In 2008 I tabled an amendment to the Council's ASB strategy which specifically called for: "to increase reporting of anti-social behaviour, members of the CDRP establish, promote, and jointly-fund a Reading-based telephone hotline line for residents to easily report anti-social behaviour". Gordon Brown also pledged to extend powers to residents to call for action on crime via online petitions to councils - this is all very well but in my experience it is the poorest people in Reading that suffer the most from crime and many of them do not have access to the internet. I don't see how this 'power' would help them.
Anyway, whilst Gordon Brown was busy pressing the flesh I was out campaigning in Southcote with local resident Susan Bicknell, a lifelong Labour member who recently joined the Lib Dems. Susan was a Labour member for 20 odd years. She joined us because she was fed up with Labour politicians non-response to issues in her area and because she is fed up with Labour's failure to deal with the problems that really matter to local people - including anti-social behaviour. We spent some time today talking to shopkeepers on Coronation Square. They told me about the serious anti-social behaviour problems they had faced in recent years and praised the work done by local PCSOs. It is clear that a visible presence from people in uniform (including Council neighbourhood wardens) has increased their confidence. They were less impressed by signs dotted around the presinct that pledge '24 hour CCTV' as it's not clear who is monitoring them and what action is being taken as a result. It's worth pointing out as Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary Chris Huhne did earlier today that for all Brown's promises today only the Lib Dems are committed to putting more Police officers on the beat.