Using the pavement

We all get mad about the state of our roads these days and especially about the number of potholes. However, we seem to ignore the state of our pavements which are also in a dreadful state but are much less bother to most people, perhaps because we, as a nation, use our cars a lot more and walk a lot less.

However, with the rise in numbers of mobility scooters and more joggers than ever before, the state of our pavements is becoming more important to many more people.

There are two key issues with our pavements that really annoy people. Firstly, they are often uneven (especially after being dug up by utility companies) or they have a significant slope. Both of these conditions make life awkward for mobility scooters and pedestrians.

Secondly, we now park on the pavement by default but in parking our cars ‘safely’ with two wheels on the pavement, we seem to forget that other road users use the pavement and that if we do not leave enough space for them, we are forcing mobility scooters, mums with prams and toddlers and elderly folk with walking aids, out in to the middle of busy roads to get around thoughtlessly parked cars.

We need to spend more money of maintaining our pavements and we need to be more considerate when parking our cars ‘safely’.

Government cutbacks are beginning to show

Some of the cuts that our council has made are really beginning to bite. Footpaths are not being cleared of overhanging vegetation, graffiti is not being cleared up and traffic wardens are a rare sight in Tilehurst. Plus the library is open for even fewer hours and potholes take even more time to get filled in.

None of these issues are vital in themselves and other, vital services are being maintained but the effects of continued austerity on council budgets leaves us watching our village slowly sink in to decay.

Austerity is delivering death by a thousand cuts. We need a change in government.

The truth behind the cuts

Local residents who are concerned about the cuts to local services need to understand how much the Conservatives are cutting from local authorities.

By 2020 councils will have lost 60p out of every £1 they used to receive. This is why Council Tax is going up and essential local services are being cut back or stopped altogether. There are few further efficiency savings to be made and the Tory Government (in which local MP Alok Sharma serves) needs to be honest with residents about why they are paying more Council Tax to receive less services.

Brexit thoughts

We are getting ever closer to 29 March 2019, the date on which we are due to leave the EU, and minds are beginning to focus on what that might actually mean for this country, especially if there is no agreement with the EU in place by then.

After 40 years of hate against anything European in the Daily Mail, the Sun and like-minded sections of our press, we should not, perhaps, been surprised by the No vote in 2016.There are still millions of UK citizens who do not recognise any benefits emanating from the EU, and believe that British is always best in any circumstances. They are the believers in Little Britain. For them, all the talk about consequences for this country if it leaves the UK are all part of Project Fear, designed to overturn the verdict of the 2016 referendum.

However, the Remain camp seems to be growing in strength the closer we get to cutting ourselves off from Europe. The petition by the Independent calling for a second referendum has already reached 700,000 and is growing strongly. There is clearly a growing body of opinion that understands the potential effects of leaving the EU and a changing demographic that is seeing an older generation (majority Leave voters) dying out and being replaced by young teenagers (most of whom support Remain).

As ever, the only major UK party that has been consistently pro-Europe are the Lib Dems, but we are still stuck at around 10% in the opinion polls. The other two main parties are totally split on Europe, The Tories are led by a Remainer who leads a party whose members seem resolutely Leave supporters. Labour, on the other hand is led by a Leaver but whose parliamentary party is overwhelmingly Remain supporters.

Theresa May will do anything to avoid a general election (and possibly resulting loss of power) and but has failed to find a sensible way forward that suits the remainers in her party.

Jeremy Corbyn (if he ever escapes the anti-Semitism row) has been steadfastly against a second referendum but there are significant voices now urging him to think again on this.
It is not inconceivable that the government may be defeated on a vote on Europe in the Commons and would be faced with a choice of calling a general election before the end of March or agreeing to hold a second referendum to decide on our future in or out of Europe. This might also be followed by a general election in which Labour would hope to gain power without having taken a definitive stand on Europe which might divide their party.

Either way, neither of the two main parties has provided any real leadership on Europe and the one party that is absolutely solid on Europe (apart from UKIP) is being ignored. The Lib Dems have a fight on our hands if we are ever to make our voices heard on Europe before it is too late.

Affordable Housing and the Viability Test

In the Independent today an article by Rob Merrick (see here) lays bare the way developers avoid including large numbers of urgently needed social housing units in their developments. As a member of Reading’s Planning Committee I have watched time and again as big developers plead the ‘viability’ option to reduce the amount of social or affordable housing that they include in major development schemes.

The viability test allows developers to put to the council their own assessments to show that if they included any more social housing units they would not make enough profits to make a scheme viable.

I am heartened by the noises coming from the Labour Party that they will seek to end the use of viability tests in planning applications. It is just a pity that here in Reading we are seeing huge numbers of flats being built in our revitalised town centre but we have never challenged developers over their viability figures and allowed them to ride roughshod over the needs of people in our town. We have over 5,000 families on our housing waiting lists but despite the thousands of new flats being granted planning permission only a handful are actually for social rents. The viability figures are never contested in Reading’s Planning Committee despite my pleas to stand up to these bullying developers. We have even had statements from Planning Inspectors describing the housing crisis in our town but we have never, as a council, challenged a developers viability figures in front of a Planning Inspector, however absurd the figures might be.

Even the current Housing Minister, one Alok Sharma MP, agrees that the system is not working but has yet to suggest anything like a solution.

We all know that the viability test is used by developers to avoid building social housing and I challenge the Labour Party in Reading to stand up to these money-grabbing moguls and challenge them to defend their figures in front of an independent Planning Inspector. And let us bring out in to the open their ridiculous attempts to avoid building the homes that Reading desperately needs.

Free school meals and the poverty gap

Recent reports in the national press have indicated that the attainment gap between rich and poor children at school is still growing wider despite the Lib Dems introducing the Pupil Premium (extra cash for schoools for children receiving free school meals) and increasing the coverage of free pre-school hours and free school meals for younger children.

This is a worrying trend that may take some time to reverse. It mirrors that situation in the adult world where the disparity of outlokk between rich and poor families is barely getting any smaller year on year. On reflection I also think that there is a connection between this and the relative take-up of free school meals here in Reading. Only 75% of those entitled to free school meals in Reading actually apply to get them. This brings on a double whammy whereby the school does not get the cash it neds to help children from poorer backgrounds and the parents still have to fork out their own money to provviide lunches for their children.

We need to look at what schools and the local council are doing to ensure that every child who is entitled to free school meals actually receives them. Poorly fed children do not learn as well or as fast as well fed ones.

It is time for a Low Emissions Zone in Reading

Well, what a really environmentally focussed minister we have got in Michael Gove! He has seen so clearly the problems of air pollution in our towns and cities that he wants to ban the manufacture of any petrol or diesel cars. Full marks for this environmentally friendly thoughts that brought this on.

Only one minor problem with this new policy – what about the 40,000 people that die annually from the effects of air pollution between now and 2040. That is some 920,000 UK residents who will die of causes associated with air pollution between now and 2040 when the ban comes in to effect.

How is it possible to understand the problem bur let the odd million people die before doing something about it? Has it anything to do with big car manufacturing companies that might find their profits curtailed if they have to switch to electric cars any time sooner than 2040?

We need Clean Air Zones NOW, in all our town centres where we regularly exceed European limits on poor air quality.
We know what the problem is – Internal combustion engines.
We know what to do to clean up our act – implement Clean Air Zones either charge for polluting cars to enter them or ban them entirely from entering.
Why should we wait any longer before acting to save the thousands of people who suffer from poor air quality now?

We have been proposing a Low Emissions Zone (Clean Air Zone) for Reading town centre for many years already but our Labour Administration is too full of the Mass Rapid Transport scheme for East Reading which will have zero effect on air pollution but allow buses to get to Heathrow 10 minutes quicker (until the rail connection to Heathrow is built).

Our residents are suffering from asthma and other chronic diseases resulting from air pollution so what we need is action now on the Low Emissions Zone. Will Cllr Page (Labour’s lead Councillor for Transport) ever realise that peoples’ lives are at risk and they are more important than even good bus connections.

What is happening in our schools?

The last few days have seen a number of stories appearing in the press about our schools. Not a great surprise as this is the time of year when the teaching unions hold their annual conferences. However, taken together they paint a picture of a system falling apart at the seams.

• £130m wasted on setting up new schools that have already closed

• Large numbers of teachers leaving their posts due to pressures in the classroom and on work/life balance

• Inability to recruit enough new teachers

• Cuts to school budgets meaning some teachers are losing the jobs in schools up and down the country

• Headteachers sending round begging letters to parents to fill in the holes left by underfunding

The Government’s answer to the crisis in our schools is to build more socially divisive grammar schools despite just about every shred of evidence pointing to their failings in social mobility and deleterious effects on other schools in their neighbourhoods.

How pig-headed can an ideologically driven Tory government be?

Does Mrs May really believe that grammar schools are the answer to an education system in crisis? An answer that will benefit the poorer sections of our society?

Road resurfacing programme 2017

Residents and motorists using Mayfair will get an unexpected surprise this summer when the Council finally resurfaces the road. It has been getting worse and worse every year and the current asphalt layer has broken up leaving the bare (and very noisy) concrete blocks. Mayfair has been included in the annual plans for resurfacing roads which will be implemented in the summer.

Along with Mayfair the section of Norcot Road between the Tylers Rest and Blundells Road will also be resurfaced as will Ash Road.

As a Local councillor I have received numerous complaints about these roads and about Mayfair in particular so it will be a big relief when the resurfacing work is caried out.

That still leaves many of our roads in Tilehurst in a disgraceful state of decay, not least of which is School Road, the main road running through the village.

Reading BC’s Audit & Governance Committee

I brought a motion to Council last Tuesday asking the council to remove Lead Councillors from the Audit & Governance Committee where they, in effect, scrutinise their own actions and policies. The subject was brought up by the council’s own external auditors in a report last year but has never been acted upon. Here is what I said in the council meting.

Aside from a number of recommendations regarding financial controls the Ernst & Young report last year made a point of questioning why the Leader of the Council and her Deputy sit on the Audit & Governance Committee, the key scrutiny committee within this Council. It must seem absurd to outsiders that the Leader and her Deputy sit on the committee that scrutinises much of their decisions and policies. Indeed an outsider would wonder how we allowed this to happen when clearly it goes against most ideas of good governance. We should be grateful to Ernst & Young for pointing this out and calling for a review of the make-up of the Audit & Governance Committee as it currently runs against CIPFA guidance on these matters.

I think that the arguments about having the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council sit on the Audit & Governance Committee also extend to other lead councillors and that all Lead Councillors should stand down from the Audit & Governance Committee.

Whilst Lead Councillors sit on the committee it is difficult to maintain that the committee is truly independent of the Administration as it needs to be in order to carry out its functions in auditing the council’s finances and scrutinising the decision making.

Whilst Ernst & Young have called for a review I believe that is audit-speak for they should stand down from the committee and I do not think a review is necessary to bring us in to conformance with CIPFA guidance.

When I approached the Chair of the Audit & Governance Committee, Cllr Stevens was not unhappy about the presence of Lead Councillors on his committee, hence the motion this evening.

Lead Councillors may still attend meetings of the Audit & Governance Committee if this motion is passed. Indeed, they are in a position to answer many questions on why actions were taken but they should have no role in its decision making if we are to adhere to standards of openness and good governance.

We need to think seriously how this important committee must appear to the good citizens of Reading. Would they not think it odd that Lead Councillors sit, in effect, in judgement of their own actions?

The National Anthem – time for a change?

CrownI was not surprised to see the Daily Mail and other tabloids getting all upset about a politician not singing the National Anthem. Apparently, even members of the Labour Party (Margaret Beckett on the BBC this morning for one) now also think that you cannot be patriotic about the UK without singing along to this relic of our imperial past. It is about time that such people realised that many of us in this country are not monarchists and that others of us have long ago ceased to believe in any sort of god.

As an avowed democrat and atheist, I absolutely reocgnise Jeremy Corbyn’s right not to sing the National Anthem. I take the same stand myself. I would never sing it either. To do so would be about as hypcritical as it is possible to be for a republican like me.

Where other national anthems sing of love for a particular country, ours pleads with god to save our hereditary monarch. It is about time we consigned ‘God Save the Queen’ to history.