Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Fools rush in

I always like to keep an eye on what other councils are doing to see if there are things I can learn from. Or avoid!

I noticed today that one of the first decisions of Newcastle City Council which was run by the Lib Dems before the May elections but is now run by Labour was to to reinstate neighbourhood warden posts.

This sounds like a popular move - but on balance a rather foolish one.

Crime fell when Lib Dems were in control of Newcastle and the administration was nationally-recognised for the way in which the Council and the Police tackled issues in partnership.

I have confidence that Lib Dem councillors in Newcastle (several of whom I know well from my work on the Local Government Association) would not have restructured the warden service unless it was to improve use of resources.

The 'Notes to editors' at the foot of the Council press release caught my eye:
" The six reinstated posts were originally part of 11 street warden posts - five of which were vacant and deleted, and six of which were filled by staff who took voluntary severance.
Their work will be directed by the Safe Neighbourhoods and Problem Solving (SNAPS) process which co-ordinates the police and council to tackle anti-social behaviour and crime based on community intelligence.

Now six vacancies will be filled by staff whose jobs are at risk as a result of the council’s Service Transformation and Efficiency Programme designed to help the council save £44m this year.
Reducing the 11 posts would have saved the authority £300,000. Reinstating six posts will cost about £180,000 and will be funded from the council’s underspend for 2010/11. It will however avoid making six staff redundant and so save the council redundancy costs.'

So only weeks after getting back into power Labour in Newcastle are racking up more debt and adding to the financial pressure on other Council services.

I wonder if the new Labour administration will do the same in Reading?

Labour councillors in our area actively campaigned against our plan to merge frontline warden services which aimed to deliver a more efficient and cost-effective service.

As I blogged back in March:
"The review [of the warden service] identified waste and duplication of resources under the previous scheme operated by Labour.The new warden service which we are launching is an excellent example of doing more with less.
Survey after survey the Council conducted of residents found that local people wanted to see action to tackle environmental crime. This came as no surprise to me or my Liberal Democrat colleagues - residents have been telling us this on the door step for years!"
So will the new Labour administration bring back their original warden scheme or is this another of their pre-election promises they have no intention of keeping?

If the latter is true this is a shameless manipulation of residents' fear of crime.

If they reverse the saving what service will they cut to pay for it?

A reminder of Reading Labour's original warden scheme:
  • Under Labour three different teams of Council staff from two Council departments carried out walkabouts in the same areas of Reading.
  • In Labour's scheme all three roles involved estate inspections in the form of 'neighbourhood walkabouts' and regular liaison with the public through Safer Reading and Neighbourhood Action Group (NAG) meetings.
Our plan which ended Labour's waste of resources was on target to save £170,000 from Council budgets - reducing the need to put up Council Tax and delivering residents more for their money.

Our improved scheme delivered:
  • Enforcement powers to enable RBC officers to issue fixed penalty notices for offenders.
  • A team of 12 officers dedicated to working on the frontline line.
  • 6 focussing on environmental enforcement.
  • 4 officers working on crime prevention.
  • 2 officers assisting residents with waste and recycling issues.
Labour's manifesto talks about 'pioneering the community warden service'.

Does that mean going back to their original failed scheme?

I think local people have a right to know and I hope Labour councillors will think carefully about consequences before they try and turn the clock back.


I see over in Oldham the new Labour administration is reversing the decision by the previous Lib Dem - Conservative Council to close a care home. The new administration is planning an 'emergency budget' in July.

In a report on the proposal which is due to go to Cabinet to be agreed next week officers admit the former Council-operated home does not represent value for money to the taxpayer:
'The next cost of each bed in 10/11 was £43,000 per annum, compared to £14,000 in the private sector. There are considerable risks as to whether this significant cost differential could be afforded in future, as budgets face futher reductions.'
Lib Dem Council Group Leader Howard Sykes hits the nail on the head when he says:
"They are entitled to do that but my question is how are they going to pay for it. That’s the bit the Labour group a very silent on. We’ll see when they get this emergency budget out.

"From memory only 50 per cent of Limecroft was occupied and others are already being operated by the health service and providing a better service than before. You have to ask where are they getting the money from to re-open this."
All sounds rather familiar, don't you think?

Friday, 27 May 2011

Labour's Hidden Agenda

The agenda for the next Cabinet meeting on 6 June makes interesting reading:






The Chair to inform the meeting of relevant issues.




Councillors to declare any personal and prejudicial interests they mayhave in relation to the items for consideration in public session.





To confirm the Minutes of the meeting of the Cabinet held on 11 April 2011

To receive the minutes of the meeting of the Mapledurham Playing Fields Management Committee held on 1 March 2011.





To Receive any Questions from Councillors and the Public, and any petitions from the public.




To consider any matters referred by the Corporate, Community and External Affairs Scrutiny Panel and Council.




To receive any Decision Book call-ins.





Councillor Lovelock


To Follow

Report by the Leader.



Councillor Lovelock/Head of Central Administration


To Follow

To agree the Lead Councillors’ portfolios.




Councillor Orton/Director of Housing and Community Care


To Follow

Report to follow.
So much for Labour having a fully-worked out plan for leading the Council!

They clearly have absolutely no new ideas and are planning to revert to type.

Labour are already promising Council Tax freezes without even having studied the budget figures.

When they do get round to working out what their priorities are for the year they will realise they will not be able to deliver on them (because of the financial situation) and will have to make cuts.

Where will Labour find the savings?

Your guess is as good as mine but I fear it will be frontline services given they are opposed to raising revenue to protect services.

As I pointed out their local manifesto was full of holes and uncosted commitments they can't deliver.

I am particularly alarmed by Labour's plans to halt our reforms to social care which could bankrupt the Council and threaten the survival of key services many people depend on.

Delaying these plans will cost the Council £100,000 - per month.

When we took control of the Council last May in coalition with the Conservatives we published a detailed coalition agreement which was agreed by full Council at the 29 June meeting.
We were open about our priorities for the town and  we didn't wait for Cabinet to announce what we plan to do.

When will Labour publish the full details of their deal with the Greens, rather than the edited highlights?

It hardly looks as though they have hit the ground running,

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Labour's Mortgage Rescue Scheme declared an expensive failure

A couple of years ago when I was Chair of the Housing Scrutiny Panel in Reading I drew attention to the previous Labour government's Mortgage Rescue Scheme in a post entitled: 'The recession, housing and health in Reading today"
"As predicted we had a very interesting discussion on all things housing-related, spending a fair amount of time discussing how Reading is coping in the recession.

I was very impressed by the way officers in Reading Borough Council are coming up with policies and approaches that are really helping to support people in Reading. As one officer remarked 'we've never been here before' - is an element of trial and error involved but the fact that the Council is willing to be flexible to ensure people don't slip through the net was encouraging.
This pragmatic approach is quite different from some much-hyped government initiatives like the ill-fated Mortgage Rescue Scheme which it was revealed recently has only helped 6 families in the UK so far!'

Earlier this week the independent National Audit Office published a damning report claiming that this scheme helped less than half of people expected and went £35 million pounds over budget
"The Mortgage Rescue Scheme, launched in January 2009 by the Department for Communities and Local Government, in two years achieved fewer than half of the rescues expected.
The National Audit Office has reported that the Department directly helped 2,600 households avoid repossession and homelessness at a cost of in excess of £240 million - but it originally expected to help 6,000 households for £205 million.
The Department has spent on average £93,000 for each rescue completed – it expected to spend £34,000."

Preventing homelessness is vitally important.

Staff at Reading Borough Council work hard every day supporting families and individuals who find themselves in impossible housing positions.

But with less money around it is vital that taxpayers' money is spent wisely on organisations and schemes that deliver for residents.

I hope the present government learns from this expensive failure and works with councils to come up with a better system to support people faced with repossession.

Reading Labour Promise Council Tax Freeze in 2012

Good if rather surprising news for Reading residents today as Labour are publicly promising not to increase Council Tax whatsoever in 2012.

See this exchange from Twitter earlier today:
Disappointed to see @CllrDaisyBenson using twitter to dispense worry on the #rdg hashtag. Labour have no plans to raise Council Tax. None.
When Labour ran the Council in previous years they increased Council Tax year on year adding to the burden faced by residents - particularly those on fixed incomes.

So if they deliver this it would be a first for them.

There was no reference to such a pledge in the Labour manifesto so it is a surprise promise.

Labour have also promised no cuts in services.

As I have already stated, the Lib Dems will be keeping a close eye on the new Labour administration and making sure they keep all the promises they made to residents before, during and after the election.

Seeing the bigger picture

John Maynard Keynes famously said:
"When the facts change I change my mind."
This quote came to mind when I was thinking about Reading's City Status Bid which is being formally submitted to government tomorrow.

Reading is currently favourite to win city status in 2012 but faces tough competition from a number of other towns across the UK.

I highlighted the fact that Reading was hotly-tipped for even more success by Centre for Cities back in January.

I am not ashamed to say that last year when the bid was announced I was firmly opposed to the bid and spoke against it in Council.

My scepticism stemmed from the belief that I thought it would be a waste of taxpayers money and would not be the answer to any of the issues facing Reading.

Several things have changed since then which have made me reconsider:-

1. I have seen more details about the bidding process and I am satisfied that huge amounts of public money will not be spent on the bid.

2. The bid application has been developed with the involvement of a wide range of community and business leaders - not just politicians.

3. After a year in charge of the Council I have gained a better understanding of the issues facing the town and come to the view that attaining city status could bring positive benefits to our area.

4. The Coalition Government is committed to devolving more powers and responsibilities to local areas.

 Reading needs to take every chance to exercise more control over it's destiny - including over business rates raised in the town - something that the Lib Dems nationally are campaigning or.

Becoming a city could help Reading do this.

As I said back in 2010:
"This Council should be about serving the people: not serving ourselves.
Improving the lot of people who live in our town should be our top priority: not selling the town's soul to the highest bidder.
I still believe this to be the case and as a someone who has represented local people for five years I feel strongly that I am first and foremost a servant of the people not a bureaucracy.

This is not to say I think the pursuit of city status is the be-all and end-all.

Clearly it isn't.

City status is not a panacea.

But, taking these points on board opposing the bid for opposition's sake just looks churlish particularly for any political party that has lead Reading and wants to lead it in the future.

There is no doubt that Reading is a fantastic place to live and work but the main reason I am involved in politics locally is because I feel strongly that it can be even better: fairer, greener and more prosperous.

But we have to work together to make it happen.
So I am happy to back any scheme or initiative that takes u forward and helps us meet those key objectives.

As I said at the Council's AGM last night ,as Lib Dems we are acutely aware that Reading is a deeply divided town.

Health outcomes, life chances and life expectancy vary widely depending on where you live.

This is not right and we should all strive to change this.

As Nick Clegg has said: birth should not mean destiny.

I referred to this last night as 'tale of two cities' and I am proud that the Lib Dems over the years have consistently campaigned to close the gap while the other parties haven't.

In my opinion, we must use every tool, every opportunity open to us to build a more successful, healthy and happy community where everyone can share in the benefits of prosperity.

The city status bid has the support of all the main political groups on the Council in Reading apart from the Greens who I fear are too wedded to gesture politics to see the bigger picture i.e. beyond the confines of Park ward.

I notice that Reading West MP Alok Sharma has secured a Westminster Hall debate next month to promote the bid - good on him.

We can't change Reading's past but all politicians should get behind this opportunity to build a better future for our community.


Reading Council has produced this video to promote the bid:

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Housing matters

I read with interest who the Reading Labour Party is putting forward to take on Cabinet positions at the Council's AGM tomorrow.

I note that my portfolio has been split into three - do we infer from that it will require three Labour councillors to cover the work I did across housing, health and community care?

As I suspected Whitley Councillor Rachel Eden will be taking on the housing portfolio.

I wish her the best of luck.

She will need it.

The wellbeing of thousands of local people young and old depends on her and the decisions she makes.

After the previous Labour government in coalition with the bankers bankrupted the country spare money for new housing is short.

We face an affordable housing crisis in Reading and for many years I have been a lone voice in the Council campaigning for more and better quality housing for all.

Local Labour councillors have been silent on housing issues for years (not a record they were proud of?) and even Cllr Eden failed to raise a single question with me on the subject during my time in office.

In contrast since I was first elected in 2006 have championed the rights of Council tenants and thousands of people who live in Reading's large private rented sector and exposed the scandal of Reading's empty homes.

You only have to visit many Council estates in Reading to see what years of Labour neglect looks like and thanks to the Decent Neighbourhood Fund which we campaigned for improvements are now starting to take shape.

I wish I had longer to put right years of Labour non-delivery on housing but I am proud of our local record of action on housing and the work I have done leading the debate both in opposition and in power.

Working with the the town's two Conservative MPs I have helped win more funding for new homes and set up innovative new partnership arrangements with neighbouring councils to save Reading Council tenants money.

Working in coalition the Lib Dems delivered Reading's first new Council homes for over twenty years and sent a clear message to government that fixed term tenancies were not wanted.

I also launched a new Landlord Accreditation Scheme in the face of stiff opposition from Labour councillors - is this now under threat?

For the sake of the thousands of families stuck in overcrowded homes I hope Labour's tribal appoach to local politics doesn't damage this important progress.

I have tabled a question to the Council's next meeting on the subject of affordable housing - in my view one of the most urgent issues facing us as politicians.

It will be interesting to see how Cllr Eden and her Labour colleagues respond.

But whatever happens I won't fall silent about housing - there is too much at stake.

And I will not rest until every man, woman and child in Reading has access to an affordable, comfortable and above all safe place they can call home.

Monday, 23 May 2011

A sad day for Reading

Well, the worst kept secret in Reading politics is out.

The Greens have confirmed they will enable Labour to form a minority administration on Wednesday at the Council's AGM.

But whatever they say in press releases or blog entries about preserving their independence the die is cast.

From now on Greens will be responsible for every decision Labour makes, including every cut and every pet project because they put them there.

Despite an almost impossible budget settlement the Lib Dems fought hard last year to protect key services to the most vulnerable people in Reading.

For the first time ever, the adult social care service stayed within budget enabling the Council to increase funding to the voluntary sector, among other things.

Faced with these tough choices we didn't whinge to government but got on with the job in hand and showed real leadership.

However, this was always going to be a difficult message to get over on the doorstep and like many Lib Dem groups aross the country we suffered heavy losses at the recent elections.

But being in government isn't a popularity contest it's about doing the best you can within the budget you're given.

Over the coming months we will be working even harder at local level to listen and respond to local people's concerns building on our record of action in recent years.

We wil be taking the opportunity to articulate more clearly to residents what makes us different from the other parties in Reading.

I am personally looking forward to having more time to campaign outside the Council offices building on my record as one of the hardest working councillors in Reading.

Since taking over the Group Leadership of the Lib Dems on Reading Borough Council I have made it clear it is not 'business as usual' and that with no Party having enough seats to run the Council we would be willing to talk to all political parties to deliver our policy priorities and importantly, set a legal budget.

We met with the Greens and the Conservatives and set out a clear list of policy priorities based on our manifesto which started with protecting services to the most vulnerable people in Reading.

Leaving aside the Green's qualms about working with other parties and fears of being tagged as part of the 'Con Dem coalition' what is clear is that with Labour taking control of the Council these services have never been under more threat than they are today.

Look across the country and it is Labour-run councils which are making the biggest cuts to services and shedding the most jobs.

The evidence of the past year and longer has shown that the local Labour Party's only interest is power for its own sake and a record of spending money local taxpayer's haven't got.

While I respect the Green councillors as individuals  it looks as if like Labour they too have put their own short-term party interests ahead of the good of the town.

Hopefully they will learn from the error of their ways before Labour are allowed to do too much damage to services and the Council's reputation.

But forget the raw politics for second, the real losers here are not ourselves or the Conservatives, but the people of Reading.

As I pointed out Reading Labour's pre-election promises were nothing short of reckless and their record in local government locally absolutely dire.
To name a few.

The Lib Dems and Conservatives in Reading were faced with a tough challenge this year to deliver the Council's budget after facing unprecedented reductions in funding from government.

The choices we made were not ones we entered into lightly but ones that were needed to ensure the Council could continue to deliver key services.
  • We did so without closing a single library, leisure service or children's centre.
  • We froze Council Tax for the first time in Reading's history.
  • We won funding for Reading's first Council homes for over twenty years
  • We put political differences aside side and worked together for the good of the people of Reading.
  • We increased transparency around Council spending and increased support to community groups
This is not a record that Labour will be able to match, as their previous record shows.

As Labour politicians have already stated publicly it is clear they cannot and do not want to work with any political groups, not even bothering to speak to us as they pursued Route One back to power.

In opposition Labour councillors opposed every attempt we made to save money or raise revenue to fund services.

But this year to set the Council's budget they will have to find even bigger savings around £9 million (if they stick to our agreed budget or closer to £15 million if they scrap social care charges, green waste charges and the like.

I don't envy them.

But it's the elderly, the vulnerable and those who care for them I feel most sorry for.

We will continue to speak up for them and to campaign to protect vital services.

And we will be watching Labour like hawks to check they keep their pre-election promises to the people of Reading and see that public money is spent wisely.