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.

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?

Scandal of Tory Government social rent proposals

From a recent LGA Lib Dem Group Press Release

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Tory Government proposals to reduce rents paid by tenants in social housing in England by 1 per cent a year will cost councils £2.6 billion by 2019/20, new analysis reveals.

The measure, as part of the Welfare and Work Bill, would see the rent reduction come into force from 2016 and last for four years. The cost to councils will rise from £234 million in year one, to £508 million in year two, £795 million in year three, and over £1 billion by 2019/20. By that point the annual funding gap will represent 60 per cent of local government’s total housing maintenance budget. Over the four years the total £2.6 billion will be equivalent to the cost of building almost 19,000 new homes.

Cllr Keith House, LGA Lib Dem Housing Spokesperson, said: “Liberal Democrats support moves to keep rents low but this move would hold back councils from helping government build more homes, boost growth and employment and reduce the welfare bill.

“Because around 70 per cent of council tenants receive Housing Benefit, any rent decrease will not impact them directly. Instead it will be reflected in the Department of Work and Pensions’ budget, while local councils will have to cope with the additional financial burden.”
Lib Dems are calling for the flexibility and powers for local councils to manage their own housing stock to meet the needs of local communities and employers over the long-term, as was intended by government in the 2012 housing reforms.

Keith House added:
“Many councils have already agreed long-term housing investment plans based on the future rent levels announced in March’s Budget. It is right that rents are kept as low as possible, but our analysis shows reducing rents in this way over the next four years will cost councils £2.6 billion by the end of the decade and lead to a further funding gap of £1 billion per year from 2020/21 onwards.

“There are millions of people on social housing waiting lists and councils want to get on with the job of building the new homes that people in their areas desperately need, which is the best way to reduce the Housing Benefit bill and boost growth. And Housing Associations will also be hit hard, estimating they would build 14,000 fewer affordable homes.

“It is therefore vital that these costs are considered by the Government as part of the wider debate of council funding to avoid the capacity of councils and housing associations to invest in this much-needed housing being put at risk. For instance councils should be able to keep all the receipts from the sales of their own housing stock.”

The Local Government Association has called on government to let councils take a lead role in housebuilding by lifting housing borrowing limits to allow councils to invest in new housing, giving councils the freedom to set Right to Buy discounts, and to retain 100 per cent of all council home sale receipts locally.

House Building

It was good to see that there was a marked increase in new homes completed in the first quarter of 2015, up around 25% over the same quarter last year but still the overall figure for the last year is just 125,000 houses when we really need more than double that number even to keep pace with growing demand, never mind reducing the backlog.

The really bad news is that only 20% of new homes in the last quarter were housing association builds and only 270 new council houses were built in that period.

These figures are dire and are condemning millions of people to live in unaffordable private rented accommodation for many years to come and it is the government that picks up much of the costs in meeting claims for Housing Benefit.

We desperately need more affordable housing all across London anmd the South of England. Councils need to be able to borow more money to build homes that people can afford to rent.

20 mph across Reading

Yesterday evening I heard yet again the same old story from Labour councillors about the need for 20mph limits in one particular estate in Reading. They do keep popping up with the same idea, namely that we can create a patchwork of 20mph areas across Reading, but they absolutely refuse to take the bull by the horns and implement 20mph limits on ALL residential roads in Reading. Do they really think that a patchwork of some 20mph alongside some 30mph zones makes much sense? Drivers need to know and understand traffic regulations and zipping between 20mph and 30mph zones does not make it easy for the driver to know which zone he is driving in.

What is so wrong with doing a big promotion across the town, engaging with residents (in a referendum, if necessary, next May) and going for 20mph limits across ALL residential roads in Reading. Why is it good for Dee Road Estate all of a sudden but not for Elvaston Way (where we asked for a 20mph zone six or seven years ago).

There is no logic to a piecemeal approach when almost everywhere you ask people they all want 20mph zones by a large majority.

Wake up Cllr Tony Page, smell the coffee, and move to implement 20mph along all residential roads across the whole town.

20 is Plenty for all of us! Visit the website at www.20splentyforus.org.uk

20s Plenty

Yet another smash in Mayfair

Mayfair smash 4 Aug 2014 cropped

I am losing count of the number of smashes in Mayfair since the council stopped residents parking on their own driveways. Today’s smash (see above) is the fourth or fifth involving cars running in to parked vehicles or drivers causing accidents whilst reversing out of their driveways between parked cars.

I am not sure how long it takes for this Labour council to recognise that stopping residents of Mayfair from parking on their own driveways is not just nonsensical, it is also downright dangerous.

Tilehurst residents overwhelmingly support the experimental ban on verge and pavement parking but the council’s pigheadedness over Mayfair is causing huge concern over the whole scheme.

New crossings for School Road

Council officers have revised the plans for School Road that I reported on in December. The plans now call for 4 new pedestrian refuges along School Road instead of the 5 in the original plan and the bus stop in The Triangle is staying put. The plans can be seen here:

TTMS 004

Even better news is that the works are due to start next week (from Monday 24 February) after the Transport Management Team re-arranged their works schedules in the light of recent flooding.

School Road will soon have 4 new crossing points making crossing the road much easier and safer along with a new 20mph speed limit and a new guard rail outside the library (thanks to my colleague Meri O’Connell who led a campaign for the guard rail). All in all this is a good response to a number of accidents along School Road involving pedestrians. It also means that parents with children in tow and elderly residents can use the new crossings to avoid the particularly dangerous crossing of Westwood Road at its junction with School Road.

We welcome the new crossings and look forward to a safer Tilehurst. We will continue to campaign for 20mph zones across the whole town to make our residential streets safer for all users.

People Power in Mayfair

One of the nice things about being a councillor is being able to help people and for me the really special times are when you help people to take action for themselves. A great example of this has been the protest by residents of Mayfair about the bizarre actions of traffic wardens to ticket residents for parking on their own drives.
Mayfair parking
I was first approached by a resident after one of his neighbours visitors was ticketed. I queried this with the council but officers took the view that the land in question was public highway and even thought the ban was aimed at cars parking on grass verges or blocking public footpaths and the Mayfair residents did neither of these things, just parked on the long driveways in front of their houses, traffic wardens took no notice of protests and gave out tickets to cars parked on the driveways. This seemed a bit of nonsense so I queried it with Tony Page, the Lead Councillor for Transport, but he also declined to do anything. So we took the story to the press and, after asking for a meeting between Cllr Page and the residents, we were invited to put our case to a meeting of the Traffic Management Committee.

Mayfair residents then organised themselves, called a meeting, appointed a spokesperson, gathered over 50 signatures from other residents of Mayfair. Dave Penn was the man who presented the case and was given some rousing applause by the 8 or 9 other residents who attended the meeting to support him. I have been able to work with residents all along the way but for me the key thing was to see people doing things for themselves and standing up to the council. It has been great to see and to be involved with. So well done to Wayne, Dave, Pat and Ray and all the others who have given their support.

The result of pressure press and a strong presentation of their case has been a promise to respond to the issue at the next Transport Management meeting.

Affordable Housing in Reading

I almost got a shock whilst reading the papers for this week’s Planning Committee. On two major developments the council appears to have negotiated 30% affordable housing. Not withstanding the fact that these were probably negotiated while the council was supposedly working to a 50% target for affordable homes on new developments, this is a very healthy improvement from the 20% and less that I have seen consistently approved by the Planning Committee over the last 18 months I have had the pleasure of being a member of the committee.

On both occasions (Station Hill and Kenavon Drive) Cllr Page pointedly mentioned the affordable housing levels in his comments, a clear sign that he has woken up to my calls for action to get more affordable housing from new developments in Reading. He knows that his record is poor on this matter and I have constantly hammered away at affordable housing at every opportunity in committee.

However, the council recently dropped its affordable housing target from 50% down to 30%. So if we can get 30% when against a target of 50% I worry that future agreements will be a lot less than the target of 30%. If that proves to be the case then I will, of course, have a lot more to say to Cllr Page.

The government has allowed some of the income from council house sales to be used for new affordable housing and with the economy now moving up the gears we should see more developments coming to Planning Committee. We need to ensure that they include higher levels of affordable homes than in in the last 18 months.

New plans for School Road

School Road at The Triangle

Traffic managers at the council have come up with new plans to improve road safety along School Road in Tilehurst, in part due to a number of incidents involving pedestrians in recent years. The plans call for:

1. A number of traffic islands along School Road to make it safer for pedestrians to cross.
2. Removal of the bus lay-by in The Triangle.
3. Creation of a new bus lay-by in Corwen Road.
4. A new 20 mph limit along School Road, Walnut Way and the closes off them.
5. A safety barrier (guard railing) in front of the library.

The lay-by in The Triangle is used by the 33 buses as a timing point so buses may be parked there for several minutes. Moving the lay-by to Corwen Road will allow pedestrians to cross using a new island in front of Barclays Bank without the buses holding up traffic. The 17 will continue to use the bus stop which will move slightly closer to the traffic lights, but on the road and it does not use this stop as a timing point. The lay-by outside the Plough will not be changed.

Pedestrians can use the new islands to cross over School Road and also to avoid the tricky crossing of Westwood Road where mums, schoolchildren and elderly folk currently have to walk in between cars.

All in all the plans are welcome although we would have preferred a much wider 20 mph zone incorporating a lot more of Tilehurst’s residential roads.

You can see the plans here on the main Reading Lib Dems website.

Feel free to send any comments in to the ouncil, in fact the more comments you send in the better. And do not forget to mention the need for a safety barrier outside the library to stop very young children from running out into the street.