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Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Free Schools: Benefits for Reading's Families

At tonight’s Reading Borough Council (RBC) meeting, the Greens’ Parliamentary Candidate for Reading East was electioneering by tabling a motion (the full text of which is here) asking for RBC officers to bring a report back on the impact of free schools in Reading taking his concerns into account.  He said that he and the Green Party would like to stop “the free school experiment”.

Below is my response:

“Before the arrival of Free Schools, parents dissatisfied with the education at their local school had limited options.  They could hope that a better school further away would offer their children places, or they could move home – if this was an affordable option, or they just had to make do.

However there is hardly any spare capacity in Reading’s schools, leaving very little chance for any family getting a place at a good school beyond their local catchment area.

Put simply I don’t think the local Greens have thought through the impact of their Party’s Education policy  in particular on disadvantaged families; nor those families within the part of Reading they represent who have campaigned to have the benefit of a Maiden Erlegh School education.

Yesterday’s Guardian had an interesting article in which Labour’s Tristram Hunt attacked the Green Party Leader.  Hunt said “Natalie Bennett speaks a language of low aspiration and defeatism.  Great schools can be the only hope for some children from disadvantaged backgrounds.” 

I agree with Hunt and am astounded that tonight’s motion fails entirely to mention, let alone focus on, the children & young people’s quality of and access to good schools.  Don’t Reading’s young deserve an education which will help them thrive and aspire?

Not only have Free Schools empowered parents by enabling them to set up schools where they are dissatisfied with standards, but also Free Schools have helped parents to set up schools where there are shortages of school places, or a lack of choice of provision. 

Without Free Schools, Reading would not have All Saints Junior School in Brownlow Road – a school set up by parents with the help of the CfBT Education Trust providing school places for children progressing up from the Infants School. 

Another example is The Heights Primary School – which has given families in the west of Caversham a realistic chance of a school place locally in Reading when for over 10 years families have had their children scattered around to schools elsewhere, for example out of borough, or across to the east of Caversham.

I am a firm believer that with schools one size does not fit all.  For some a secondary school will enable them to reach their full potential, whereas a grammar school might best suit others.  Hopefully The Avenue School Special School Academy will get the go ahead to open a new Free School which will be a linked Special School.  It will cater for yet more students and help keep Reading’s SEN students within the town, preparing them for life after education. 

Also thanks to the Free School programme students keen to progress into the IT or engineering industry can opt for a place at Reading’s University Technical College (UTC). 

Turning back to the Green’s motion before us, it is obvious they haven’t understood the massive benefits Free Schools and Academies have brought Reading’s families.  Nor have they understood the pressure Council officers are under to deliver the school expansion plan.  The Conservative Group will not be supporting their motion as the resolution is utterly pointless and would waste valuable officer time.  Delivering the school places needed, with the help of Government funded Free Schools, in time for the next academic year has got to be this council’s priority.”

RBC’s Labour administration agreed with me that the Green’s resolution was a waste of officer time and also agreed that Reading’s children & young people deserve at least a good education.  Their amendment, however showed that they are against enabling parents who are without a good local school from having the option to set up a free school in their statement "that funding for new schools will be prioritised in areas of acute need rather than waste money building free schools in areas with surplus need to suit the Coalition ideological and political experiment of free schools".

The Labour administration failed to acknowledge the many benefits families are getting as a result of the free school programme.  I think their ideology got in the way.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Consultation Given Go-ahead & Why Labour hasn't looked after Mapledurham Pavilion

Two petitions & twenty-two questions were put to Cllr Jo Lovelock, Leader of Reading Borough Council (RBC), at Monday night's Policy Committee.  The focus was on where the permanent site for The Heights primary school should or shouldn't go in the views of various local groups, as well as on details about the consultation RBC will carry out at the request of the Education Funding Agency (EFA).

You can read the petitions and questions here.

Some supplementary questions were put to Cllr Lovelock, the most memorable of which came from Andrew Rogers after he had asked the following question which in itself needs careful thought:
"Considering the current status of the proposed location of The Heights free school in Caversham, does the Council think it is appropriate to pledge £100,000 to extend and refurbish the Pavilion at Mapledurham Playing Fields?"
Cllr Lovelock's response was:
"This is a long-standing commitment by the Council.  The Pavilion is a valuable community facility and we are committed to its redevelopment or refurbishment.  This is why we will continue to make £100,000 capital funding available for this purpose.
"How and when this refurbishment takes place may indeed be impacted upon by any proposal by the EFA to locate the new free school on the Mapledurham Playing Fields."
Andrew Rogers' supplementary question was along the lines:
If the Pavilion is so important to RBC, why has it been left to fall into such a dilapidated condition?
Labour's Leader Cllr Lovelock replied that RBC's priorities are elsewhere.  She started saying that RBC is building new schools, then seemed to correct herself saying that RBC is expanding existing schools. [I think she realised her mistake as it is the Government, not RBC, which is building the town's new schools, eg UTC Reading, The Heights, Maiden Erlegh in Reading and the Hodsoll Road primary, as well as the completely new school building for Reading Girls].

Site Visit of Pavilion June 2013
It has been abundantly obvious for years & years that RBC's Labour administration has chosen to invest in facilities elsewhere over Mapledurham Pavilion, long before the migration to Reading and sharp rise in the birth rate came about.  I remember a Planning Committee site visit in June 2013 when I managed to get some Labour councillors including the then chair, Cllr Lovelock's husband Cllr Ruhemann (now deceased), to Caversham Heights to see the Pavilion.  They were visibly shocked by its dilapidated condition.

Apart from central government funding, local authorities get money from a variety of sources including Council Tax and something called Section 106 monies (s106).  This post I wrote in 2011 highlighted the Labour administration's poor record keeping of how RBC spent s106 monies.  Local Conservatives & I campaigned against Labour's lack of transparency.  In case you don't know, s106 monies are paid by a developer to help ameliorate the extra pressure put on services close to their development, eg on roads, schools, leisure and housing.  The money should be spent on upgrading facilities including increasing school capacity in accordance with a calculation set out in RBC's policies. However what Conservatives uncovered was that s106 monies had been used for developments miles away from where the impact of the developments was being felt, eg north of the river s106 monies had been used south of the river in west Reading.

In light of the above, you will not be surprised to know that Andrew Rogers' supplementary question to Cllr Lovelock made me laugh, as put on the spot she publicly had to admit what locals have known all along.  Labour has not prioritised Mapledurham Pavilion, but I know and appreciate just how crucial the hall and changing rooms are to our local community.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Wait and see: Highmoor Road junction with Albert Road

Regular readers will know that Rob Wilson MP, local residents and Conservative councillors have been pressing Reading Borough Council (RBC) to improve safety at the Highmoor Road junction with Albert Road.
Junction from east before the tree (see arrow) was felled

RBC’s latest proposal was shelved at Thursday’s Traffic Management Sub Committee meeting thanks to representations by two local residents, my colleague Cllr Ed Hopper and me, as all of us were concerned the proposal would make the junction more - not less - dangerous.

Last year RBC recommended closure of the west side of the junction to general traffic (travelling from the west) with access remaining only for buses, emergency & refuse vehicles.  The proposal was deeply unpopular, with 91% of residents objecting in their responses to Rob Wilson MP’s survey.  The Traffic Management Sub Committee asked RBC officers to have a rethink.

At Thursday’s meeting, a change of priority from Albert Road to Highmoor Road was proposed, meaning that traffic travelling north or south would have had to stop at the junction whereas east or west traffic would have been able to drive straight through, no longer having to stop.

In the run up to the meeting it appeared to me that there was far less awareness of this latest proposal amongst Mapledurham Ward residents [the geographical part of Reading I am elected to represent], so I distributed over 200 letters to those most likely to use the junction regularly.

The results were that 84% of households strongly objected to RBC’s proposal to change the priority from Albert Road to Highmoor Road as they felt it would increase the number and quite possibly the severity of collisions.  This left 12% who supported the proposal and 4% who didn’t feel they knew the area well enough yet to give an informed opinion.  [The response rate was 12.5%]

West side - newly painted double-yellow lines, tree felled
Points raised included that: "If people cannot obey stop signs then why should changing the priority change anything?"  "The majority of cyclists commute along Albert Road: A number are a law unto themselves and will ignore traffic priorities." "Albert Road traffic has had priority for time immemorial and the public will forget!"  "It would be a worse situation all round: I can foresee numerous accidents!"

Suggested alternatives mentioned included improved signage.  There is only one STOP sign on the western side of the junction, which is where Police have identified drivers had failed to stop in three crashes they investigated.  A matching second STOP sign on the right hand side would get over the problem of the sign on the left hand side sometimes being obscured by a parked vehicle or overhanging branch.

I asked the Committee to reject RBC's proposal.  I asked them instead to slow down (speeding) traffic on Albert Road, enhance signage at the junction with an additional STOP sign on the right hand side of the western approach, and further improve visibility on the western side of the junction.  

The Committee decided that as sight lines have been improved by the recent painting of double yellow lines around the corners of the junction; and a large tree in the front garden of a corner property has been felled by the homeowners (which had overshadowed the junction), they would ask officers to improve signage and review the junction at the Committee's November meeting before putting forward any new schemes.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Clampdown on Pavement Cycling

Illegal pavement cycling
TVP's signs in Caversham
Thames Valley Police (TVP) officers have been out in force stopping bicyclists riding on pavements in Caversham this week.  The aim is to make pavements safer for pedestrians.

The local TVP have been raising awareness that it is illegal to cycle on the pavement, unless of course a pavement has a designated cycle route.  I joined them this morning to see how the campaign was going.

The move follows complaints from residents about this dangerous phenomenon which is a pet hate shared by many.  It is one of the most common complaints raised with the local police, Sgt Nigel Scarratt told me.

As from tomorrow, Thursday 14 January, TVP will be fining anyone caught cycling on the pavement £30.  In addition, anyone riding without lights after dark may be fined £30.  Signs have been put up around the area to help promote this campaign.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

No more Waiting for Godot at junction

Ever been brought to a halt at traffic lights, frustrated that needlessly they are red?
Vastern Rd lights working properly: bus exiting Trooper Potts Way

If you regularly travel along Vastern Road, Reading, you will no doubt have had to stop at the junction by Reading Station, the road recently named Trooper Potts Way. Needlessly because there are no pedestrians, buses, taxis or bikes crossing the junction.

Well I am happy to report that Reading Borough Council (RBC) officers looked into my complaint and agreed there was a problem. RBC hopes that the replacement of the detection cards for the controller has resolved it.  When I checked last night the lights only changed when needed.

If however you witness these lights going red unnecessarily, please let me know and I will pursue the matter further.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Update: Consultation on Permanent Site for The Heights

Today Reading Borough Council (RBC) has published a report to be discussed at the forthcoming Policy Committee meeting (RBC's executive decision-making committee) on Monday 19 January in the new Civic Offices in Plaza West.  Members of the public are welcome.

This report follows on from the Education Funding Agency's (EFA's) request to RBC for help to find a community-backed permanent location for The Heights primary free school.  More information can be read in my earlier post.

The report to Policy Committee proposes the scope, approach, output and timetable for the consultation which RBC officers estimate will cost about £31,000.  In addition it sets out the overall decision making framework for Free Schools.

The proposed timetable is for the consultation's results to be passed on to the EFA on 30 March.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Fresh Proposal for the Dangerous Highmoor/Albert Road Junction

Rob Wilson MP with residents July 2014
It has taken Reading Borough Council’s (RBC’s) Labour administration many years to finally acknowledge that action needs to be taken to tackle the accident hot spot at the Albert Road/Highmoor Road junction. 

When I represented Thames Ward (within which the junction is located) I lobbied RBC for improvements to be made, the conclusion of which you can read here but sadly the administration failed to prioritise the matter.

Last summer, following further crashes, Rob Wilson MP campaigned with local residents putting renewed pressure on RBC to prioritise works to reduce the junction’s accident risks.  This resulted in RBC recommending a closure of the west side of Highmoor Road at the junction to general traffic with access only remaining for emergency & refuse vehicles and also buses.

The results of Rob Wilson’s survey showed strong opposition (91%) to RBC’s proposal and, having submitted my own objections, I was happy to see RBC accept that an alternative solution be sought.

A report to next week’s Traffic Management Sub Committee on 15 January proposes the junction’s priorities are changed to make traffic stop on Albert Road instead of Highmoor Road, and permitting Highmoor Road traffic to drive through the junction without stopping.

If you live in Mapledurham Ward, which is the area that I represent (the polling station for which is Mapledurham Pavilion) do let me know what you think before the meeting.  My email address is:  mail@isobelballsdon.com  Do copy your thoughts to RobWilsonMP@parliament.uk  If you live closer to the junction (and your polling station is St Andrew's Hall) then write to my Conservative colleague Ed.Hopper47@gmail.com as he sits on the Traffic Management Sub Committee, as well as being one of the 3 local Thames Ward councillors.