Monday, 18 July 2011

Action overdue to combat child poverty and health inequality in Reading

Get Reading today carries an article based on this year's Annual Health Profile which shows that public health in Reading continues to be significantly worse than other parts of the UK and health inequality continues to be a major issue.

This is not news but the fact that health inequality is still such a major issue should concern all of us.

Locally I have led calls for action by both Reading Borough Council and local health partners to close the gap - and in particular do more to reduce the impact poverty is having on children's health.

Two years ago I co-chaired a cross-party scrutiny review into this issue with Cllr Mark Ralph (Conservative) which made a series of recommendations to Labour councillors.

Our review reported just ahead of the General Election and disgracefully some Labour councillors
tried to use it as a political football - no doubt in an attempt to deflect attention from their failings in office.

The new Labour Lead Councillor, Cllr Tickner is pledging to take a hard look at the issue - which is very welcome.

Sadly, the new Labour administration has already signalled that tackling child poverty is not a priority and Cllr Tickner herself led plans to divert funding away from helping charities support children in poverty to community cohesion.

I really hope that as they become more familiar with the facts about the reality of child poverty in Reading  Labour councillors will change their minds and resolve to take action.

The Coalition Government is restoring powers and responsibility for improving public health back to councils - a move not seen since the Victorian era.

For the first time councils will receive funding to improve public health in their area - according to level of health need.

So far Labour councillors have spoken out against every aspect of proposed health reforms.

When it comes to something as important as  public health I really hope Cllr Tickner and her colleagues will feel able to put politics to one side and use new powers and new funding to fight poverty and the impact it has on health of children and adults across Reading.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Reading Labour's Political Priorities

Labour councillors were keen to point out to those of us in attendance at Cabinet on Monday that they had different, superior, priorities from the previous Lib Dem - Conservative Coalition administration of the Council.

We were given a steer about Labour's priorities at the June Cabinet meeting but Monday evening's meeting was where the rubber hit the road, so to speak and smoke began to clear about what Labour priorities will really mean for residents.

And, as laudable and popular as many Labour priorities may seem - and some of them we are very happy to support - the reality is that for the residents of  Reading the effects of reorganising the Council's budget to reflect some of them are far from benign.

On Monday, the phrase that fo me defined the evening came from the Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr Tony Page:
"We won, you lost!"
He repeated this at least three times in the evening.

So much for an and to Punch and Judy politics signalled by the Leader of the Council, Cllr Lovelock at the last meeting.

But why is Cllr Page's outburst important?

Because it tells you all you need to know about the thinking behind all Labour's decisions in power.

For Labour, regardless of the subject under discussion - whether it is community cohesion, free schools, social care -  everything is political.

For Readng Labour Party every decision boils down to satisfying particular interest groups or groups of voters.

Ensuring that these groups or individuals are not disadvantaged by any decisions lies behind every decision Labour councillors take.

And if you are not in Labour's list by virtue of your background, location or voting habits you will not benefit.

To give Labour credit this is a highly effective politicial strategy.

But what it is not  is a recipe for good, ethical government.

And it is in fact very bad news for taxpayers and everyone who relies on Council services.

Turning to Cabinet, what did we learn from Monday evening's exchanges about Labour's real political priorities?

1. Reducing child poverty is not a priority for a Labour administration

Read documents about Labour's priorities for the year and you will not see child poverty identified anywhere as an issue that needs to be addressed.

On Monday Labour councillors did not bat an eye lid when public money previously ear marked for tackling child poverty was 'reallocated' towards funding Reading Council for Racial Equality and a vague notion improving community cohesion.

Improving community cohesion and promoting equality is one thing but why do other areas of Council activity have to suffer in order to deliver it?

The fact is the number of children living in poverty rising to one quarter when Reading had a Labour government and a Labour Council.

Last December, one of Reading Borough Council's longest-serving Labour councillors Cllr Mike Orton, who represents one of the most deprived wards in Reading said he was horrified at the levels of child poverty in our area.

And yet, he along with his Labour Cabinet colleagues agreed to this dreadful cut.

I questioned this decision and was roundly attacked by Labour councillors in the meeting.

This latest decision however follows a clear pattern of spending by Labour.

They have a long history of spending large amounts of public money on projects and areas where spending is not tied to any particular outcomes or objectives.

Lack of transparency over decision-making in the Council before has made this hard to question but recent development led by Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors have made Labour's ability to avoid public scrutiny much more difficult.

Furthermore, Labour may have got away with throwing good money after bad in in the past but at a time when all public spending is being reduced their approach looks reckless.

Nationally, the Coalition Government has signalled that cutting child poverty is a priority with the publication of a Child Poverty Strategy, increased early intervention and improvements to years education, and the launch of the Pupil Premimum which will see spending on the poorest children in Reading rise significantly.

2. Labour councillors are in favour redistribution of wealth: from those on low or middle incomes to those on high incomes:

Labour's Cabinet approved plans for Council Taxpayers to foot 70% of the bill for people with savings over the minimum threshold to attend day centres. I am aware of at least one case of someone with in excess of £100,000 savings who will benefit from this - part of Labour's pre-election bribes.

This generous move (who wouldn't want to introduce it?) will set the Council back £123k adding more pressure to the Social Care budget which is already facing in-year demand pressures of just under £400k through demand pressures alone.

Labour councillors also agreed to scrap Green Waste charges and revert to a situation where thousands of people with no gardens will subsidise residents who do. This move will add £180k to this year's budget.

Labour councillors rejected a proposal put forward by officers whereby people on low incomes should get concessions on the charge preferring to introduce a scheme whereby some of Reading's wealthiest residents will be subsidised to get free collections by some of the town's poorest Council Tax payers on low and fixed incomes.

3. Arts , Parks and Planning are not priorities for the Labour administration:

On Monday we learned that Labour's free green waste election pledge will be funded by:
  • 70k from Cultural Head of Service staffing budget
  • £40k from restructure of Cultural Services
  • £30k from Parks and ground maintenance efficiencies and seasonal maintenance
  • £30k from Planning Delivery Grant
  • £10k from Joint Strategic Planning Unit
These cuts were tabled at short notice at Cabinet making detailed pre-scrutiny by opposition councillors impossible.

To suggest these cuts will not affect front-line services is laughable given we know they involve job losses and reductions in services.

4. Labour have no plans to bring back their 'gold standard' concessionary fares scheme.

Labour councillors pledged to reinstate concessionary fares only for people with Access Passes (5,000 residents) - funded through a one off £65k windfall to the Council's coffers via Bus Lane fines, something we are happy to support and something we would have done had the money been available.

Labour made clear they have no plans to reinstate concessionary fares for the 30,000 or so pensioners.

This would cost the Council £300k.

5. Labour's idea of consultation: agree consultation behind closed doors first

The Lead Councillor described as 'politically neutral' a letter that was circulated by a Labour councillor to residents before Cabinet had even met to agree a public consultation should take place on the issue.

Is this what Labour councillors mean by 'a fair, open and transparent process' to consultation as set out in their Priorities for the year at June Cabinet meeting?

6. Labour councillors have no idea how much their pre-election pledges on changes to Residents Parking will cost.

When we took control of the Council last May, Labour's Residents Parking Scheme was running a deficit of £300k.

Labour are reviewing the new scheme but made no promises about delivering any changes.

A report will be brought forward to September Cabinet about the financial impact of Labour's planned changes to the scheme.

7. Labour's approach to promoting community cohesion and equality under the microscope

Despite an independent review of their own community cohesion policies  in 2007 which identified a number of flaws in the Council's approach to promoting equality (including LGBT equality) Labour councillors are only now getting round to promoting the full range of equalities.

Labour councillors have agreed to fund RCRE by a further £45,000 on 'a defined piece of work to be agreed with the Head of Policy, Performance and Community but failed to restore RCRE's  core funding grant as according to the Cabinet report on the issue the service outlined in the service level agreement  'was limited to race equality, where a wider equalities perspective is now envisaged'.

Labour councillors have agreed to set up a new equalities body which will...scrutinise the Council among other public bodies (despite being dependent on the Council for all it's funding).

8. Absent Friends

Finally, it's easy in the discussion of Labour's priorities to forget the two councillors that helped make all the above happen: the Greens.

Their two councillors didn't turn up to Cabinet on Monday and once again where absent during discussions about the Council's Budget.

It's possible to draw several conclusions from this and I'm afraid none of them are positive.

At the moment, Reading's Labour councillors are tweaking this year's budget.

The budget we successfully set without closing a single library, sure start centre or leisure service.

For Labour this is the easy part.

But as we speak, officers are preparing options for next years budget.

As I explained last month this will involve needing to find at least £9 million pounds worth of savings or potentially more if they don't stick to our budget.

Behind the scenes Labour councillors are already preparing the ground to make massive cuts to key services in Reading.

The time to start worrying about the future of  those areas we have highlighted which are clearly not priorities to Reading Labour' Party's Town Hall bosses is now.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Reading Labour play politics with Welfare - again

It's disappointing to see that less than two months into the job Labour's new Lead Member for Housing, Cllr Eden, seeking to make political capital out of Welfare in Get Reading this week, a tried and tested tactic of her Party.
A lead councillor in Reading is calling on the town’s two MPs to oppose plans to put a cap on housing benefit.

Councillor Rachel Eden, lead member for housing and neighbourhoods, said Government welfare reforms could make 40,000 families homeless and put a huge burden on council finances.

The reforms cap the level of housing benefit which would mean in expensive areas, the benefit may no long meet the actual cost of rent.

Cllr Eden said: “Here in Reading we’ve known for months that the Government’s proposals would be likely to strain the council’s resources, while causing problems for many residents. I am calling on Reading’s MPs to meet with us and to withdraw their support for these proposals .”
The issue of changes to Welfare is an important one and we should be concerned about.

I and many other Liberal Democrats have real concerns about the impact some of the changes to welfare policies families and vulnerable people.

I and others have raised these issues with our MPs and Ministers and they are well aware of the need to get them right.

Labour councillors and MPs, on the other hand need to face facts: they went into the last General Election planning to cut welfare and pledging specifically, to cut housing benefit.

The way to address genuine concerns about these changes is to engage properly with MPs and to champion these issues in Parliament as a number of Lib Dem MPs such as Jenny Willott and John Leech have continued to do.

The way not to do as Cllr Eden has done is via cheap newspaper headlines which seek to spread concern amongst some of the poorest people in our community.

When I was Lead Member I worked hard to build good relationships with both Reading MPs because I felt strongly, and still do, that the the needs of residents should come ahead of party politics.

The approach I and other Lib Dem councillors took led to increased funding for a number of key housing projects including the regeneration of Dee Park and building of much needed extra-care homes on the former Avenue School site in Katesgrove.

Cllr Eden, in her failure to articulate a) her Party's real position and b) accept her Party's responsibility for the financial crisis that has led to a need to reduce public debt so dramatically does nothing to to move the debate forward or help those who may be affected.

I'm sure this is a well intentioned error by Cllr Eden who is new at her role and as such does not shoulder the entire blame for this mistaken position.

Hers is simply the latest in a long line of hypocritical attacks by Reading Labour politicians.

Last November, when I wasLead Member for the same area and proposed reforms to housing benefit were announced Cllr Pete Ruhemann, the Labour Group's longstanding 'official press spokesperson' took to the airwaves claiming that London Boroughs were already block-booking rooms in Reading as a result of people being forced to move out of London due to benefits changes.

He did not have the imagination to think up this line it was being spun by the Labour Party nationally too: I was rung up by the Daily Mail on the back of this story and when I investigated with officers at the Council it proved to be whollywithout foundation.

All Cllr Ruhemann's comments did was to increase fears amongst people living on some of the lowest incomes in Reading.

Which is just what Cllr Eden is doing.


Let's be clear, these attitudes are expounded by councillors from a political party that was committed to making £44 billion pounds worth of cuts going into the last general election.

Ex Welfare Minister James Purnell admitted Labour planned to make cuts to Welfare and he wished he had gone further.

And both Cllr Eden and Cllr Ruheman come from a Party which fought the last General Election on a platform of pledging to cap housing benefit.

So, in future, when it comes to Welfare a bit more honesty, a bit less piety and a lot less politicking from our Labour councillors would make a nice change

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Lib Dems in Government invest in greener Reading

Good to see the announcement by Norman Baker MP, Lib Dem transport minister earlier today that Reading is set to benefit from government cash to develop greener solutions to transport issues via the Local Sustainable Transport Fund.

Devolving transport decisions to councils has long been a Lib Dem policy priority. As has been investing in low-carbon transport solutions.

The thinking behind the LSTF was included in the transport section of the Coalition Agreement:
"We will support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking, and will encourage joint working between bus operators and local authorities."
Reading Borough Council when under Coalition control submitted an ambitious, forward-thinking bid to the fund and has been successful to the tune of just under £5 million pounds of additional investment in transport solutions in our area.

This will go towards developing a new bike hire scheme for Reading, which could eventually include around 1,000 bicycles available for hire at 100 - 150 docking locations across the town.

Other key elements of Reading's successful bid were:
  •  Better and more effective 'real time' passenger information by linking transport databases
  • Packages to encourage walking and cycling through improved street lighting, speed limit reviews, dropped kerbs and cycle training
  • Making travelling around Reading easier for people by extending 'smart ticketing' to include car parking and bicycle hire, all on the one smartcard
  • More discounts and incentives, route extensions and expanded park and ride opportunities.
Commenting, Norman Baker MP said:
“I am delighted to be able to fund these excellent projects.
“All the winning schemes have one thing in common – they will help build strong local economies while addressing the urgent challenge of climate change.

“We have empowered local authorities to create packages of sustainable initiatives that are tailored for their local areas, and this is only the beginning – even more funding will be announced next summer following a second round of bids.”
We will be pushing the Labour administration of the Council to use this investment innovatively and wisely to help deliver a greener Reading for residents and visitors.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

7,922 Reasons for Action on Affordable Housing in Reading

Earlier this week I tabled the following question to the Labour Lead Councillor for Housing:
“What steps does the Lead Councillor plan to take to address housing need in the Borough after 24 years of failure by Labour to new Council homes in Reading?”
I was attacked by Labour activists for 'bringing my political campaigning agenda' into the Council.

I make no apologies for that - after all as an opposition councillor that is what I'm there for!

I will continue to fight to get this issue on the Labour Council's agenda because lack of affordable housing is a real problem for thousands of people who live in our area.

I was pleased to hear the Lead Councillor agree to look at 'all options' to increase the supply of affordable housing although disappointed she failed to set any target for increasing the supply of Council properties.

We will be holding her and the Labour administration to account to ensure they deliver for thousands of people waiting for housing.

Officers have confirmed that there are currently just under 8,000 people stuck on the housing register in Reading.

And people who are on the list face a very long wait:

  • There are currently 238 x3 bed homes available to rent – average waiting time 1 and half years
  • The are 44 x4 bed homes currently available to rent – average wait – 21 months
I have been raising the the problem we face of lack of family-sized homes for social rent for several years now.

Many families are living in seriously overcrowded homes and so far I've been the only politician in Reading to raise this issue and force councillors and officers to look at the issue of under-occupancy.

This problem was exacerbated by the Right to Buy policy introduced under the Conservative government and continue by the previous Labour government which saw thousands of family-sized council homes sold off and not replaced.

In Reading in recent years the majority of new homes that have been built have been executive flats in the town centre - failing to address the need for larger affordable properties for families.

Finally, some facts:

Last year the Coalition Administration of the Council brought about the construction of Reading's first new Council Homes for twenty years.
Labour's original scheme was for this development to be owned and managed by a housing association.
In government Labour’s total net increase in social housing stock was less than 20,000 – and waiting lists rose by 800,000 because they sold off more Council homes than they built

The Coalition Government has pledged to increase social housing supply by more each year than Labour achieved in thirteen years added together.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Campaigning for better facilities for residents in Southcote

This afternoon I popped down to Coronation Square in Southcote to support a campaign being led by local Lib Dem campaigner Dave Warren to get the Council to ensure developers include delivery of new community facility as part of the redevelopment of the former Happy Prospect pub site.

It was great to catch up with Dave who along with local shopkeepers and residents is collecting signatures for a petition to Reading Borough Council to be presented later this year.

Clearly it is important to provide more housing on the site but given the loss of a pub is also the loss of a local community facility there also should be some compensation for residents who live in the area.

Hard copies of the petition are being circulated but you can also sign it online here.

Dave is a great community activist who lives in the heart of Southcote and cares deeply about his area.

I was shocked the way that Cllr Pete Ruhemann, local Labour councillor for the area tried to misepresent the campaign at the full Council meeting.

This was totally uncalled for and not what I would expect from someone who is both a ward councillor for the area and Chair of the Planning Applications Committee.

Doing this hardly encourages residents to get involved in improving their neighbourhoods.

I hope going forward Labour councillors can put politics aside and support Dave's campaign

Anyway, it was good to speak to local shopkeepers in the area today and hear of their support for what we are doing.

This is the latest in a series of things local Lib Dems have have done to improve Southcote for residents.

In fact, Lib Dems have led improvements in Southcote in recent times via the Council's innovative Decent Neighbourhoods Fund, including:
  • Funding of a water supply to enable an allotments project to proceed in Southcote (part of the ‘Surf and Turf’ initiative)
  • Delivering a new outdoor gym specifically aimed at older people. Improvements to the nearby children’s play area are an additional part of this project.
  • Additional street lighting
We also supported the local GrowAllot Campaign for a community allotment and it was great to see this win funding for the project from the Big Lottery Fund.

We'd love to hear from residents who would like to get involved in our campaigns to improve Southcote after years of neglect by Labour councillors for the area.

Please join us on Facebook or contact me.

Gurkha Justice Campaign

This morning I was privileged to be invited to the launch of the British Gurkhas Ex-Serviceman Assocation campaign for justice held at the Wycliffe Church in East Reading.

I have been involved with Reading Gurkhas through my colleague Tilehurst Lib Dem Cllr Peter Beard who helped set up the Forgotten British Gurkha charity.

Although Gurkhas were granted indefinite leave to remain following the campaign led by Joanna Lumley and supported by Nick Clegg they currently do not have full British citizenship and associated rights i.e. pension rights.

We heard at the meeting that on a visit to Reading David Cameron pledged to act but that since then he has done nothing.

I was asked to say a few words at the meeting and I  promised to take up the matter with Nick Harvey MP, Lib Dem Armed Services Minister and Nick Clegg MP.

The Association launched a nationwide petition today that I have signed. The launch was attended by former Conservative councillor Tom Steele and Cllr Rob White, leader of the Green Party.

I did not see any local Labour councillors at the meeting although Cllr Bet Tickner (Lead Councillor, Communities) was invited by the organisers.

Perhaps it was not one of her 'favourite' community groups.

This is a pity as the Nepalese community in Reading, comprising many ex-servicemen and their families is large and growing.

In recognition of this the Coalition administration of Reading Borough Council awarded grant funding to the Nepalese Community as part of the Council's grants to the voluntary sector. The first of it's kind.

I have requested that the issue of how we respond to the needs of migrant communities is added to the Council['s Internal Scrutiny Commission's list of issues to investigate.