Wednesday 21 December 2011

Bringing some Christmas Cheer

Tomorrow morning local residents and I will be helping pack bags for Waitrose shoppers in Caversham.  We will be raising money for Mapledurham Pavilion's replacement hall.
You'll be able to spot us a mile off as we'll be sporting red Christmas hats at the tills.  Please support the fund raising as the community needs a new hall - the Pavilion is in dire need of replacing, but the Council doesn't have the funds to do so.

I hope to see familiar faces during my stint - apologies in advance if my left shoulder slows me down.  I had a cortisone injection in the joint today which left it feeling most peculiar.  Anyway, you're invited to let us help pack your bags, or indeed pay us not to - your choice!

You can read more about the history of the Pavilion, together with the ongoing fund raising here

Update:  We raised £527, including a £25 donation from Waitrose.  Thank you all very much for your support!

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Demand for Transparency in Union Officials' Declarations

Trade Union Officials
Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government
2:30 pm 5 December 2011
Rob Wilson (Reading East, Conservative)

If he will take steps to end the practice of employing publicly funded full-time trade union officials in local government.
Eric Pickles (Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Brentwood and Ongar, Conservative)

All local authorities need to make sensible savings to protect front-line services and keep council tax down. Councils should be reviewing the merits of publicly funded full-time union officials. Those are non-jobs on the rates and it is wrong that council tax should be used to subsidise trade union activity.
Rob Wilson (Reading East, Conservative)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Given that union leaders and officials are full-time politicians in all but name who receive more than £113 million of taxpayer funding each year, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for the implementation of a register of interests for union leaders, thereby subjecting them to the same level of public scrutiny as all other politicians?

·           Eric Pickles (Secretary of State, Communities and Local Government; Brentwood and Ongar, Conservative)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I was shocked to hear what he said, because I was not aware that trade union officials did not have a register. I would have thought that in this age of transparency, we should urge them to do that. I know that Opposition Front Benchers are keen for everybody else to have such restrictions. Why should trade union bosses not be a little more open about their funding and their interests?

Monday 5 December 2011

It'll Cost You Nothing But You Could Save a Life

As we approach Christmas and the season of giving, please think about all the people in the UK who need life-saving blood transfusions.

Could you become a donor?  There are exclusions like if you've had hepatitis, jaundice or more obvious illnesses which wouldn't make it safe for someone else to receive your blood.  Many of the population could donate but haven't ever thought about it.

Take a couple of minutes and check out the NHS Blood & Transplant's website.  It details who, where and when.

I started donating in July 2009.  I often went past my local church hall and noticed the Blood Service but didn't realise you don't have to have an appointment - though you can book one if you prefer. 

I don't look at the needle.  It doesn't hurt and it only takes a few minutes. Reading a Kindle is perfect as easily done one-handed!  Afterwards the staff provide a free drink and biscuit and then you're free to go.

For just a few minutes of your time you could help save someone's life.  Come on, do something amazing!

Friday 2 December 2011

A Fascinating & Unique Role Model on the Empowerment of Women

Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, co-chairman of the Conservative Party, visited Reading last week.  She spoke at a women's meeting organised by Cllr Shahid Younis.

Sayeeda is a fascinating and unique role model, not just for women, but for anyone and everyone.  Born in Yorkshire to a mill worker who had immigrated to England, she has an impressive CV culminating in becoming the first female Muslim parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives in the 2005 General Election and then in 2010 becoming the first female Muslim Cabinet member.

We heard about some of the challenges Sayeeda has faced, most recently how she juggles her family life (husband & 5 children) with her extremely busy work life. 

Talking about the start of her career, like many Asian female graduates, she chose law.  She started out as a prosecutor, going on to set up her own private practice with a partner and being a defence lawyer. 

9/11 was a life-defining moment for her.  Since that disaster she feels she is seen as a Muslim rather than anything else.

After her speech she took questions.  Several were about specific cultural difficulties Asian women face in Britain.  However it didn't take long before everybody acknowledged that many challenges are common to women whatever their heritage, eg the perception by many older people that women should stay at home to bring up the children and look after the husband; or that a woman's career is secondary to that of their husband.

After a personal chat about the tremendous support her husband is; about her extended family; and the juggling act of trying to achieve a happy work/life balance; she admitted that it isn't easy to get it right.

Everybody agreed with her that all mothers feel guilty - that's part and parcel of our lot. She told us her belief that one of a mother's most important jobs is to bring up our sons to respect and treat women equally. We shouldn't leave this task just to men.  We should instill it in our sons ourselves starting as soon as they are born. Sayeeda joked that if our own households are based on equality then when our sons get married their wives won't have to retrain them!

At the end Sayeeda challenged everybody 'to help yourself - if you won't, why should anyone else?  Help someone else - because no one else will; work out your action plan, where you want to get to in life... and go for it'.

Meeting Sayeeda was thoroughly enjoyable and highly stimulating.  No wonder she has got to where she is today

Mugabe's Racist Land Reform

Yesterday BBC Radio 4 had an interesting programme in Crossing Continents which will be available on iPlayer until 1st January.

Reporter Martin Plaut looks at the consequences of Robert Mugabe's highly controversial land reform programme which was started in 2000.  The Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University has been studying the progress of new farmers and it is interesting to hear from both black and white Zimbabweans.

Commercial farmers were Zimbabwe's biggest employers - Zimbabwe used to be called the "bread basket of Africa".  However evidence like the displacement of workers by the new settlers; much agricultural land lying dormant and unfarmed; and the fact that Zimbabwe has had to import food every single year for the last 11 years when in the previous 100 years Zimbabwe only had to do so twice; clearly demonstrates the failure of Mugabe's land reforms.

I've written about Zimbabwe before and can't rate highly enough Ben Freeth's (a cousin of mine) book, Mugabe & the White African

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Kidmore Road Today - Two Birds with One Stone

RBC's tree gang with me, Oxfordshire countryside behind
Much of my time is spent in front of a computer or in meetings, so it was great to get out this morning to help plant a Sweet Chestnut where last season's evergreen Holm Oak hadn't taken.

Three Kidmore Road residents were pleased when we told them what we were doing, however another complained the Council should not waste its time over trees but instead sort out things like potholes. 

I asked him if he knew of any potholes nearby - he took me over to one.  Had he reported it, I asked.  He said there was no point as the Council never fixes them.  So I reported the pothole.

It is unrealistic to expect the Council to fix a pothole it is unaware of existing.  If you see one, please either get in touch with your local councillor or alternatively go to and log it to the Council yourself.

This Sweet Chestnut is the third tree I've helped plant in Kidmore Road.  As many residents know from joining the Tree Warden scheme set up by our administration last year, being involved in tree planting, caring for the town's trees and watching them grow, is thoroughly rewarding.

You can learn more about the Tree Warden scheme here

Monday 14 November 2011

Police Launch New Number

Today the Police launched the new non-emergency number "101" to replace the old, longer number 0845 8 505 505.

I had cause to use it at lunchtime to report a vehicle jump a red light that forced another pedestrian and me to run out of the way.

As I was ringing from my mobile, the automatic router put me through to a Police operator to ask my location.  My call was transferred to the local area Thames Valley Police.  My call was answered quickly and I passed on the incident's details.  A couple of minutes later a reference number was texted to me.

The Policewoman was optimistic the driver might be caught as I'd notified the Police within 2 minutes and there's a camera monitoring traffic at Caversham Bridge.  I was only able to give a partial number plate, but that still can be used.

Do dial "101" to report non-emergencies like mine.  It is worth it as the Police use reported incidents to plan how to target their time & resources.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Temporary Traffic Lights

The Council has just been informed that Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) are preparing to conduct some urgent works to restore electricity supplies to a number of properties off Church Road, Caversham.
The fault has been located in the carriageway very close to the junction with St Anne's Road and will require 3-way portable traffic signals to be erected.
SSE will be working to restore the services and the running carriageway as quickly as they can, and RBC has stated that the signals must be manually controlled between the beginning of the morning, and the end of the evening peak periods to avoid conflict with the permanent signals at the Church Street junction.

The timing of this extra set of temporary traffic lights is unfortunate as there is another 3-way set at the bottom of Priest Hill at the Hemdean Road junction.  Last night motorists suffered chaos when the Priest Hill lights stuck on red.  I and others reported this to RBC security, who in turn got the contractors out promptly to fix the problem.

Update - Thursday 10th November

Scottish & Southern Energy located and repaired 2 faults with their electricity cable from yesterday afternoon, restoring supplies to those affected.  They have managed the site with manually-controlled 2-way portable traffic signals, and are reinstating their excavations presently.

It is anticipated that the site should be cleared before this afternoon's peak traffic period.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Changes to Bus Route 22 - Update

Further to Reading Buses' temporary change to Number 22's route last month, tomorrow outbound (from town) buses will revert to turning left from Oakley into Kidmore Road, along to The Mount and Albert Road.  More details are here

James Freeman, CEO of Reading Buses, has pledged to keep the Number 22 under close review.  He has agreed in principle to a public meeting early next year.

To help ensure buses run on time a further tweaking will happen from 12 December.  Early morning outbound journeys (before 10 am) will turn up Priest Hill to help ensure smooth running to schedule inbound journeys for commuters, workers and school children.  This will shave off approximately 4 minutes without impacting travellers as the vast majority of early morning bus users are inbound only.

Friday 4 November 2011

Dog Walkers Be Warned! Assault near Chazey Heath Golf Course

According to GetReading, a 15 year old girl was sexually assaulted in woods near to Chazey Heath golf course yesterday lunchtime. 

She was walking her dog in the woodland near the A4074 when reportedly two men grabbed her.  At 12.30 Police were called.

If you go walking in the local area please consider going with a friend for the moment.  Spread the word.

If you were in the area and saw any parked vehicles or two men please phone the 24 hour Thames Valley Police enquiry line on 0845 8 505 505.

Monday 31 October 2011

Give a Child a Home

The Prime Minister said "It is shocking that of the 3,600 children under the age of one in care - only sixty were adopted last year".  David Cameron is launching Give a Child a Home today at the start of National Adoption Week.  This campaign aims to encourage people to foster and adopt.

The PM's speech at the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month voiced concern that "we've got people flying all over the world to adopt babies, while the care system at home agonises about placing black children with white families."  This promoted healthy debate with the public supporting interracial adoption.

The need for adopters is vast.  An adoption match should be as good as possible, but surely what the PM is concerned about are cases where a child's adoption is delayed purely because a perfect ethnic match cannot be found.  The search needs to be broadened to include prospective adopters of other ethnicities.  Not every prospective adopter would feel able or willing to do this, but many are and have done. 

Our society, even over the last 20 years, has become noticeably more multicultural.  Mixed race families are common place.  Our education system celebrates the many different cultures and promotes acceptance of people's ethnicity.  It is right for adoptions to reflect this.

Although some will argue the Government's initiative to publish performance tables in itself won't help increase the number of children being placed promptly into loving and nurturing families; however raising the profile of the need for people to become adopters and foster carers is definitely for the good of our country's most vulnerable children.

[FYI I'm Reading Borough Council's representative on the Berkshire Adoption Panel]

Thursday 27 October 2011

Uplands Road Concrete Panel Repairs

Works to repair several damaged concrete panels in Uplands Road is programmed to commence on Wednesday 2nd November.

The work will consist of excavating the concrete panels then re-instating the road using traditional flexible construction materials. The main excavation and construction work will take place outside house numbers 4 and 2A but this work may infringe slightly on the surrounding areas. The road will remain open although a short section of 1 lane will be closed off to traffic for the duration of works. Residents may find that vehicle access to properties might not be available for a short period of time although our contractors will try to accommodate this when practical.

The works are programmed to last for approximately 3 days and the working hours will be between 08:30 and 18:30 but please be aware that poor weather may delay the works. Reading Buses have been informed and their service should not be adversely affected by these works.

Monday 17 October 2011

Replacement Hall for Mapledurham Pavilion: Meeting this Wednesday

At 7.45 pm this Wednesday, 19th October, a public meeting is being held to discuss the future of Mapledurham Pavilion. 

The meeting is the Warren & District Residents Association's AGM, however all residents including users of the Pavilion and playing fields (no matter where they live) are welcome and should attend.

The Pavilion needs replacing as it is not deemed viable to refurbish.  The community values having a hall and changing rooms here and fundraising from a dinner dance, car boot sales and a metal recycling weekend have raised over £6,500 this year. 

The previous Conservative-lead administration committed £100,000 from s106 contributions; and Festival Republic has committed £50,000 for the reprovision of a new hall and changing rooms.

You can read further details about the meeting here including the other matters on the agenda.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

New Secondary School Secured for Reading

Great news was announced earlier this week that a new school has been secured for Reading.

After years of under provision of school places under Labour’s rule, Michael Gove MP (Secretary of State for Education) announced in the House of Commons that a new school will be opened in East Reading. The school will be a new University Technical College catering for 14-19 year olds and will be on Crescent Road.

For further information see my colleague Cllr Richard Willis' article here

Monday 10 October 2011

Jane Eyre

I highly recommend seeing this beautifully directed (Cary Fukunaga's) version of one of my all-time favourite classics. 

The casting is inspired with Mia Wasikowska in the lead role, Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester, supported by Dame Judi Dench as Mrs Fairfax. 

Understandably not all of the novel's scenes are included and I would have preferred a slightly longer finish, but overall it was breathtakingly exquisite.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Schools' Insight: Children's Welfare

BBC News - Rethink on schools' duty to work with councils on welfare
Ministers have abandoned plans to remove schools' duty to work with England's councils to improve children's welfare.

With reference to the above article by Angela Harrison, although it is good the Education Bill will retain the duty of schools, I think a more important issue is for councils to take a fresh look at whether they really heed child protection issues raised by schools.

From what I've seen and read (as a local councillor and school governor) it can be fiendishly difficult for a school to make a strong enough case for a pupil to be protected meaningfully (and promptly) by their local council.  Since school staff do have daily contact with their pupils, they are often the professionals best placed to spot behavioural or performance changes, and the ability to spot physical signs, all or any of which could signal a child protection issue.

It surely must be desperately disheartening and upsetting for school staff when their council fails to take robust action to protect a pupil.  I know a huge amount of time goes into case preparation by schools, so school staff need to see justification for what action their council does or doesn't decide to take - don't they?

Friday 7 October 2011

Immediate, temporary change to Number 22 Bus

As from tomorrow, Saturday 8th October, the Number 22 Bus route will change temporarily to the originally registered route via Oakley Road until Wednesday 9th November.

This means the 3 bus stops in Albert Road between The Mount and the junction with Highmoor Road will not be served.  This is particularly undesirable for residents with mobility problems trying to access the Albert Road Day Centre.

Reading Buses has been forced into tomorrow's change upon the instructions from the Traffic Commissioner for the Western Traffic Area.

You can read more about it here on Reading Buses' website

Friday 30 September 2011

Pickles Enables Return to Weekly Collections

Today Eric Pickles, the Community Secretary, announced a quarter of a billion funding to enable authorities to return to weekly bin collections as a result of a waste review over the summer.

Authorities who believe a return to weekly collections is right for their area may bid for a share of the money as long as they can improve recycling, efficiency and procurement.

Last year, here in Reading, our local Coalition administration identified roads where fortnightly residual waste collections were most problematic primarily due to lack of storage space and/or access problems for bin men. 

We announced a consultation of the first batch of roads.  As long as the majority of residents in each road wanted a return to weekly collections we were going to provide just that.  However in May - with the support of the 2 Green councillors - Labour regained control of the Council and halted the process.

It will be interesting to see whether the Labour minority administration is prepared to listen to those residents wanting a return to weekly collections, particularly in the light of the serious rat infestations the town has suffered from this summer.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Reading Buses' Change of Heart for No 22

Many Caversham Heights residents in my Ward were very concerned at Reading Buses' proposal to divert the No 22 bus to travel via Hemdean Road and Oakley Road instead of Priest Hill and the southern end of Albert Road.

My colleague Cllr Richard Willis (Conservative lead for Transport), together with many local residents attended a meeting on Monday 5th September to which Chairman of Reading Buses, James Freeman, was guest speaker.  Further to this meeting, as well as discussions with Rob Wilson MP, Reading Buses is now going to make a small diversion to its new service, operating via Hemdean Road, the lower part of Oakley Road, Kidmore Road, before resuming its present route at The Mount going on into Albert Road. This means that people who live on The Mount area and the southern section of Albert Road will not after all be losing their service. The new arrangement operates in both directions.

You can see the map here

Rob said: "I am delighted that Reading Buses have listened carefully to the concerns I put to the company and have made a change that is significant in providing a better service to residents in the Priest Hill, Mount and Kidmore Road area. I know that from the huge correspondence I had that many people were concerned about this change and it was important for me to ensure that Reading Buses understood this and reacted positively, which I am delighted to say they have."

Councillor David Stevens said: "I understand the financial pressures on Reading Buses, but it is important that we continue providing a decent service in an area with a significant number of elderly residents that depend on the bus service. I am pleased that we Conservatives have managed to achieve these important changes to the route and that Reading Buses have listened."

Reading Buses registered the change with the Traffic Commissioner yesterday (12th September) using a special short notice provision so that it will come into force on 26th September

“We are pleased with these last minute changes, which show that we do listen and are willing to respond to what people tell us,” said James Freeman, Chief Executive Officer.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Dawn of a New Era

Sunrise, Kithnos Island, Greece 1st September 2011
The Avenue School converted to Academy Status on 1st September.  Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, sent his congratulations, as did Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West.

The Avenue, together with 11 other special schools, are the first to gain Academy status.

I'm fortunate to be the Chairman of the school's Governing Body.  It is fantastic news and is the start of a new era for The Avenue School, one which I am sure will enable us to provide even better care and education for our pupils, as well as opening up further opportunities for staff to share their expertise with others.

Headteacher Sue Bourne commented "I am delighted that the outstanding success of the school has been recognised, and to be one of the first to achieve this status is a real tribute to the whole team.  Aileen McCallion, the school's Finance Manager, has devoted much time during the school holiday to ensure that all the required documents were completed and that the whole team working on the conversion were fully informed, even whilst on summer holiday.  The school's thanks go to her in particular, but also the many people who have supported the conversion along the journey."

Sue added "The school is indebted to the people of Reading and the team at Reading Borough Council who ensured that the school is now housed in a wonderful building.  It values its relationship with the Local Authority with whom it wishes to continue to work closely, for the good not only of the pupils with special needs who attend the school, but also those with special needs in other schools."

Alok Sharma MP said "Congratulations to Sue Bourne and her whole team on achieving academy status so quickly.  The Avenue is a truly outstanding school in every way, and I am certain that, as an academy, it will continue to set the pace nationally as a centre of excellence for teaching students with complex special educational needs."

Monday 1 August 2011

Mugabe & the White African

Ben Freeth (a cousin of mine) has written Mugabe & the White African which gives far more detail than the film of the same name.  The forwards: the first by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the second by The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, show the high regard in which Ben is held.

The book is a staggering account of Mugabe's evil regime, contrasting with Ben's solid Christian beliefs, his bravery and that of others.

Ben was awarded the MBE by the Queen last October for services to the Zimbabwean agricultural community.  His Christian conviction saved his parents-in-law's and his lives when Mugabe's mob savagely beat them in 2008.  He told the BBC's Hardtalk about the experience, a short clip of which you can watch here.

Do read his book (also available in e-book) and you will discover what life has been like for black and white Zimbabweans under Mugabe's brutal rule, as well as what a truly inspirational man Ben is.

Monday 25 July 2011

Read Why Labour Want To Shut Him Up

Reading's Labour Group would really like Cllr Warren Swaine to shut up.  Why?  Because Warren keeps on embarrassing them.  His latest post is well worth a read.

Do not dismiss Warren and what he digs up: Labour certainly doesn't.  Time after time they've made complaints about him and tried to discredit him.  More fool them.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Financially Inept - Reading Labour Again

Reading's Labour administration has once again displayed its lack of financial responsibility.  Labour, with no strings attached, has given Reading Council for Racial Equality (RCRE) a further £60,000 funding.

To give you a bit of background, I'd like to take you back to January. I've attended the Holocaust Memorial Ceremony in Reading for the last few years. I believe for mankind to try to avoid repeating the unspeakable atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jewish population, it is crucial to acknowledge and remember the Holocaust.

I've close links, both through an inter-generational friendship dating before World War II; and also with two wonderful Jewish men for whom I once worked.

As usual I went to this year's Memorial ceremony. As you may imagine, they are solemn affairs, often with a survivor recounting his or her story. Prayers are said, candles are lit, the community grieves and remembers together.

RCRE (the organisers) this year turned the evening into a political opportunity. They launched an attack against the Coalition administration. Why?  Because they didn’t want to have to justify where they would spend their RBC grant money (in line with every other charity).

Though I’m Christian I was disgusted, furious and upset how RCRE abused and hijacked the event.  As I’m not Jewish I felt I couldn’t create a bigger scene by walking out, though desperately I wanted to.  I took my lead from the Rabbi and since he stood firm, so did I.  After all, the event, fundamentally, was for the Jewish community.  

To come back to this week, news reaches me that RCRE has been ordered to pay a former employee over £3,100 for unlawful deduction from his wages and breach of contract, plus a further £570 in compensation for unfair dismissal.  The Tribunal’s 16 page judgement stated Mr Sohpal’s evidence and that of his witnesses, especially Mr Elahi (both of RCRE), was not accepted: A damning indictment of RCRE staff's conduct.

As my colleague Cllr Richard Willis has stated, it is ironic that one of the services RCRE offers is to help with employment tribunal hearings.  RCRE’s track record does make me question whether they are fit for purpose.  By extension, I question what on earth Reading Labour thinks they are doing giving £60,000 of council tax payers’ money to such an organisation – no questions asked.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Section 106 Update

At a Council meeting back in June 2008 I asked for a breakdown of S106 receipts by Ward and intended purpose for the 3 previous years:  I was given just the amounts (which turned out to have mistakes).

I, and other Conservative colleagues, continued asking for information on how S106 monies were spent.  What little information we got back was always very much delayed. [From our time in control of RBC, we discovered that officer answers could be delayed by Lead Members] 

A Section 106 is a legal agreement.  It is entered into between the developer and RBC, and both parties have to abide by it.  However RBC did not have one single system to track and monitor S106 monies until our coalition with the Lib Dems came into power last year. 

Before May 2010 nobody knows if, or how much, S106 money due for payment was left unclaimed by RBC because of the lack of a proper audit trail or triggers in place to prompt officers to chase developers at the appropriate time.  Conversely RBC's shambolic record-keeping has left the authority open to potential legal challenge from developers. 

Why has RBC not published Wokingham's findings in full?  The problems happened under the pre-May 2010 Labour administration.  Even though an internal RBC audit in 2008 (finalised in 2009) highlighted the serious lack of a proper accounting system for S106's, necessary remedial action did not kick in until the Conservative-led coalition took control. 

I've read and got both of Wokingham's independent reports (carried out earlier this year on the request of the Conservative-led administration) but because I was given them on a confidential basis by the Chief Executive, I'm prevented from revealing their contents.  Worryingly, the second "legally privileged" Wokingham report was not provided to last week's Audit & Governance Committee panel even though the first report was (albeit on 'blue' confidential paper).  If the second hadn't become available before Labour regained control of RBC, I very much doubt I would ever have known of its existence.  So much for Reading Labour's pre-election statements about their new-found desire for transparency!

One question posed by members of the public today has been "surely all councillors have a responsibility to ensure RBC's accounts are in order".  Well yes we do: however when procedures are disregarded, ie Decision Book Reports are completely ignored even though they have been agreed, opposition councillors effectively are rendered impotent. 

A second question has been "why wasn't the local coalition able to bring the S106 debacle into the public sphere when in control?"  The answer is we tried extremely hard to be able to do so, though were unable to for a number of reasons.  Our aim has always been to open up the system to public scrutiny as soon as possible whilst at the same time minimising the risk to Council Tax payers.  We sought independent legal advice (through Wokingham's investigation) so that we had a better idea of where the Council stood.  We acknowledged that monies might have to be paid back but our coalition agreed it was imperative to clean up the previous administration's mess and create a robust & transparent system.

It is a great shame the current administration has not recognised the need for calling the District Auditor in.  I do hope Labour will think again rather than just burying their heads in the sand whilst continuing to trivialise this serious issue.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Aung San Suu Kyi: A Heroine of Our Time

Aung San Suu Kyi, pro-democracy leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party in Burma, is an inspiration to the world.  Her slender physique belies her sheer courage and determination.

She is symbolic of Burma's struggle against the repressive military dictatorship that holds over 2,100 political prisoners without trial in the country.  Her father, Burma's independence leader Aung San, was assassinated when she was just 2. 

She has spent more than 15 years in detention, much of which was under house arrest.  When her husband, Michael Aris, was dying from cancer in London, the Burmese dictatorship refused him permission to visit her in Burma.  Instead of risking being barred re-entry back into Burma she made the decision to stay, so did not see Michael before he died.  She has long campaigned for people to "please use your liberty to promote ours"

Do make the time to listen to her two talks about freedom on BBC Radio 4.  You will find few people able to speak so eloquently and knowledgeably: The Reith Lectures Securing Freedom I and Securing Freedom II.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Legally Bound

Sometimes pictures can speak louder than words.

At Thursday night's inaugural meeting of RBC's Audit & Governance Committee the subject of developer contributions - Section 106 monies (S106's) - was discussed.  However I was, and still am, constrained from revealing details of the independent reports carried out earlier this year by Wokingham Borough Council officers into Reading's management of S106's because of legal privilege.  Only an edited, shortened & diluted version of one of the reports has been published by the Labour administration.

Reading's internal audits from October 2006 and Spring 2008 (the latter finalised May 2009) highlighted serious concerns.  The 08/09 report stated
"there is no coherent specific control system to support the identification, recording, receipt and spending of monies and the reconciliation of it to Council financial systems."
You may well ask yourself why on earth the authority did diddly-squat to sort the situation out back then...

On Thursday I asked for Wokingham's investigation reports to be published.  Also I, supported by the Lib Dem's Cllr Daisy Benson, asked for the District Auditor to be invited in to carry out a further investigation to more thoroughly probe into the pre-May 2010 Labour administration's 'management' of S106 monies. However Committee member & Leader of the Council, Cllr Jo Lovelock, was dismissive.

I remain concerned that the salient facts are being suppressed from public scrutiny.  Ask yourself this question:  If Wokingham's investigation had failed to throw up any damning evidence, would Reading's Labour administration have had any problem with publishing Wokingham's results in full?

As I said at the meeting, I want this S106 debacle cleared up once and for all.  In my opinion this can only be achieved by having a further, more comprehensive investigation by an independent body: hence my call for the District Auditor to be brought in.  The published extract from Wokingham's limited terms of reference investigation does not provide sufficient information for councillors - let alone members of the public - to even scratch through the surface and see what has been going on.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Report into Section 106 Accountability

This Thursday (30 June) the Audit and Governance Committee will have its inaugural meeting at which the long awaited results of an external investigation into Reading Borough Council’s management of Section 106 developer contributions will be discussed.  You can read the Committee report here, pages 11-16

Back in November 2009 Conservative councillors raised concerns with the then Director of Planning over the lack of accountability and the need for a robust system to handle Section 106 developer contributions (S106).

Investigations revealed that the then Labour-run administration had little interest in how S106’s were recorded or allocated, that departments had wildly varying standards of recording these financial contributions and that a number had been misused. S106’s are given to the council by developers to deal with the impact on the local community surrounding each development. Examples of how S106’s may be used legitimately are: increasing the capacity of the local school, providing new benches or play equipment to the nearby park - thereby reducing the extra pressure and making the development sustainable.

Under last year’s Conservative-led administration a new single system of properly recording and tracking S106 contributions was introduced. Following a lengthy internal investigation, my paper entitled RBC’s Usage and Accounting of Section 106 Receipts, and our Coalition partner's - the Lib Dems' - support, Council officers agreed to call in an outside team from Wokingham Borough Council for an independent investigation into past practices and to make recommendations for the future. The report makes a number of “High Priority” recommendations to address the failings of the earlier Labour administration, some of which our local Coalition administration had implemented already.

The meeting starts at 6.30 pm in Kennet Room at the Civic Centre.  The public are welcome to attend.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Lollipop Person Needed

Due to the Oakley/Kidmore Road lollipop lady's relocation abroad, a replacement lollipop person is needed by Caversham Primary School.

In June 2009 local parents supported by Rob Wilson MP, Cllr Richard Willis and me, campaigned for improvements to children's safety at the junction.  We asked the Council to introduce a school crossing patrol.  You can read the Reading Post's coverage here.

Two parents addressed TMAP, the Council's transport committee, reinforcing the message that urgent action was needed.  As a result of the campaign, funding was given for the installation of signs and flashing lights, together with a salary for a term-time lollipop person.

If you are interested, please apply by 30 June to this job advert.  Do pass this on to anyone else who may like to do this very rewarding community job.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Vandalised BT Telephone Kiosk

The red telephone kiosk on the 90 degree bend where Albert Road becomes The Mount was vandalised 3 weeks ago.  I reported it to the Council asking officers to inform the relevant BT Department.

I received acknowledgement from RBC this morning that BT has been informed. 

BT has said they will repair the smashed windows, but haven't said exactly when the work will be carried out.

I am fond of the old-style kiosk, but do wonder how well used (for its intended purpose) it is, given that most people have a mobile phone these days.  Do let me know how you feel about the retention of the kiosk.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Obstructive Pavement Parking

Residents rightly are annoyed when prevented from walking or wheeling along pavements by selfish pavement parking.  Whether wheelchair bound, partially sighted, pushing a buggy or simply holding someone’s hand, why should people be forced onto the road?

Over the last few months Labour campaigned against the previous administration’s plans to enforce a pavement-parking ban.  As you can see from the Coalition’s February Cabinet report, 2.1 states there’d be “exemptions of certain roads”. 

However Labour has continued to peddle the sneaky lie that the local Coalition was bringing a “town-wide scheme”.  [See agenda item 7, Labour's June Cabinet report, 4th last bullet point under Regeneration, Planning & Transport]
As evidenced by the Chronicle's article to the right, the Redlands/University area NAG's survey results name parking and traffic as residents' top concerns, as their chairman states:
"Particular problems are also experienced by motorists parking on and blocking footpaths, creating serious difficulties for disabled people and families with pushchairs."
As I said above, the Coalition was going to have exceptions – for roads too narrow for emergency vehicles or dustcarts to drive unless cars park partly on the kerb - so was Labour just opposing to be awkward? 

How long will it take Labour to realise they shouldn't support illegal parking; and that sensible enforcement is what the electorate want?

Wednesday 8 June 2011

City Status for Reading - Westminster Hall Debate

Alok Sharma MP
Reading West's Member of Parliament, Alok Sharma, secured a debate yesterday on Reading's bid for City status.

Alok spoke eloquently about Reading's many attributes including the excellent businesses; the leisure, shopping and sporting facilities (mentioning the Oracle, the Farmers Market and Madesjski Stadium), cultural (eg Reading Festival). 

He picked out the education establishments that are excellent in the town.  I was especially pleased by his comments about The Avenue School which teaches children with complex special educational needs and where I am chair of governors.  Alok said
"I have seen first-hand the work the staff do with pupils at the Avenue and it is truly outstanding.  A real benchmark of excellence for special schools up and down the country."
Rob Wilson, Reading East's MP, joined in the debate, carrying on the education theme
"According to DoE figures, Reading is the highest ranking authority for 'A' and 'AS' Level results. Of course this is nothing to do with the LEA, which has been consistently hopeless on education matters, but has much to do with Reading's two state grammar schools – Kendrick School for Girls and Reading School for boys.  Both consistently lead the country in exam results.  Reading School has been named as the best state school in the country by the Times.  I also have a crop of very fine independent schools in my constituency in the Abbey School, Queen Anne's and Leighton Park.
Reading is also taking advantage of new government policy, with Highdown becoming an academy and showing huge improvement.   I am hopeful that a bid in east Reading for a first class university school, backed by world class companies Microsoft, Cisco, BT and Blackberry, will be successful and lead to further improvement in the quality of education in Reading."
Neighbouring MPs John Redwood (Wokingham) and John Howell (Henley) also spoke.  They both wanted reassurance on behalf of their respective constituents that Reading's bid for city status would not threaten their boundaries before they felt able to give their unequivocal support to the bid. 

Mark Harper MP, Minister for Political & Constitutional Reform concluded the debate providing Redwood and Howell with the desired reassurance that
"The local authority is bidding for city status based on existing local authority boundaries. Nothing in what the Government will recommend to Her Majesty about city status will affect the powers that that town has. On that specific point, I hope that I have reassured by my hon."
You can watch the whole debate here

Monday 6 June 2011

Labour Talk Rubbish - Aided by the Greens

Labour has cut the student waste end of University year collections.  To top it all, they've had the temerity to blame their cuts on the last administration - our local Coalition.

To make cuts, an administration puts the sums in the 'gold pages' budget report for the forthcoming year.  Our Coalition made no such cut.  So why is the new minority Labour administration making this cut?

It appears to boil down to the Greens & Labour's pre-election pledge to halt the implementation of our Green Waste collection charge (£22.50 in comparison with Labour-run Oxford's £35).  Invoices should have gone out and been paid by the end of May.  But the Greens & Labour stopped this at a loss to the Council of tens of thousands of pounds.  We were going to use this income towards paying for the service; a service which after all is optional as composting in your back garden is the environmentally sustainable answer. 

This is an extract from what Kirsten Bayes (ex-Deputy Leader of the Council) has written "This is what has happened: Reading Labour have chosen to reverse the garden waste charge, which would have mostly been levied on those with larger properties with bigger gardens (i.e. the better off), and to pay for it have decided to impose a service cut on those living in the most densely populated (and poorer) areas. The garden waste charge would of course have been optional (other alternatives such as local composting being available), whereas the loss of end of term collections will affect everyone. It is clearly going to be taking place without wider consultation: there is no time to do otherwise.

"Say what you like about Labour, but politically naive they are not. They know that people who would pay for garden waste collections are a vocal, swing voting minority. Those who live in the poorer areas affected by their cut will, they believe, vote Labour anyway and are often old, disadvantaged or from minority communities.

"This cannot be the only cut to pay for Labour's election day bribe: the budget is just too finely balanced. Keep an eye on flytipping service levels, graffiti clean up service levels, food cleanliness enforcement, dog fouling enforcement. All affecting the poor more than they do the rich, and all unnecessary cuts: solely so that local Labour politicians can stay in office by appealing to swing voters while they dump on the disadvantaged."

For Cllr Jan Gavin to try and blame Labour's cut of the student waste collections upon us is rubbish.  If she lived anywhere near the University or Redlands (the ward she is meant to represent) she would know that student dominated roads have masses of extra waste at the end of the academic year.  There is absolutely no way the Lib Dems or my party would have sanctioned this cut; even if officers had proposed it as an option (which they didn't).

The Greens should shoulder their responsibility for this short-sighted and ill-judged cut, as it was they who ensured Labour got back into control of RBC last month by failing to support the Deputy Mayor, Cllr Jenny Rynn stepping up to be Mayor - as is customary.  This meant a Labour councillor was parachuted into the Mayor's seat to get the casting vote necessary (Labour's 22 + casting vote: versus Coalition's 22).  The Greens 'bravely' sat on their hands so Labour regained RBC.

Time will tell how many other cuts Labour will foist upon the public in order to deliver their rash, but nice-sounding, pre-election promises.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Mapledurham Pavilion - Community Hall Regeneration Charity Dinner Dance

Mapledurham Pavilion/Community Hall in its current state
On Friday 10 June at 7.15 pm the Community Hall Regeneration group is holding a Charity Dinner Dance at Caversham Heath Golf Club.

You can read the details here.

A raffle and auction of promises will be held which we hope to open up to include those unable to attend the Dinner.  I'll post details in the next few days.

To give you some background, in 1938 Charles Hewett gave the Playing Fields in Trust to the residents of Mapledurham Parish and Reading.  In the late 1940s a wartime hut became the War Memorial Hall.  In 1975 the Hall was rebuilt, with the addition of changing rooms & a Tennis Club Room, and it became known as Mapledurham Pavilion.  Recent surveys have stated it is not viable to refurbish.  As a result of strong community support for a replacement Hall, fund raising kicked off and this Dinner Dance is the latest in a series of events.

Our aim is to preserve Charles Hewett's legacy for Reading and Mapledurham Parish.  Some funding currently exists for reproviding the changing rooms.  There is also money from Festival Republic (Reading Festival organisers).  We intend to pull together further funds to built an attractive multi-use hall facility which is environmentally sustainable.

Do get in touch for further details.

Update:  Unfortunately as the raffle tickets are the 'cloak room' type, we are unable to sell them in advance of the day.  (A licence is required to be printed on formal raffle tickets to enable selling them outside of an event)

Monday 30 May 2011

Adult Social Care in Reading

Kirsten Bayes has written a very interesting post on a review she has been told Labour is launching into Reading's adult social care.

For years the previous Labour administration boasted about their thresholds being lower than other authorities; however they neglected to acknowledge achieving only a 2 star rating (out of a possible 4 stars) and further more that they failed to stay within the service's budget.  It wasn't until the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition's year in power the service improved to 3 stars and the service budget was adhered to.

I await the review's outcome - and no doubt Labour's spin!

Friday 27 May 2011

New School Admissions Code Consultation

Michael Gove has launched a 12 week consultation today into simplifying and making fairer the School Admissions Code.  The Code applies to all maintained schools in England and also, through their funding agreements, to Academies.

The most interesting proposal put forward is to enable Free Schools and Academies to set aside a percentage of places for children eligible for free school meals, thereby giving priority to the disadvantaged.  This is an excellent move forward and absolutely right in my opinion.  I think it ironic that Labour never thought to represent their supposed core voters in this way.

I haven't as yet been through the whole document, but here are my thoughts so far:

I welcome the proposal to remove the requirement on local authorities to coordinate in year admissions.  This will cut out needless bureaucracy and most importantly, speed up getting the child back into education.  I've known instances where the delay has been several weeks, when all along the school has an empty space!

I see the logic behind allowing schools to increase their Planned Admission Number (PAN) to admit pupils in-year without the need to seek their local authority's approval.

I'm pleased with the proposed exceptions to the infant class size limit of 30, having had residents in my Ward being given places at two primary schools for their twins.  Understandably the family turned down both places, choosing instead to go further afield to the next county where their twins were offered places together.

I agree with Toby Young in his Telegraph blog when he says "Whoever takes the credit, it’s hard to imagine this consultation not being a political triumph."

One point to note is that proposed changes to the Admissions Code will not come into play until the September 2013 intake.

Junction Crash - Suspected Driver Error

On Wednesday morning a BMW & Vauxhall were involved in a collision at the junction of Highmoor and Albert Road in Caversham Heights. I saw the aftermath and spoke with one of the Police. He said the people involved were okay.

As local residents will know, several accidents have happened at this junction. RBC officers made junction improvements a few years ago which reduced the accident rate substantially. However this didn't prevent Wednesday's accident - nor a similar one last year in which a Land Rover failed to stop at the junction, was hit by a car which caused the Land Rover to spin and crash into the boundary wall of the corner property.

I've asked for a meeting with officers, together with a local resident who is a civil engineer who specialises in traffic and highways, to see if any further improvements can be made.

Thursday 26 May 2011

The Mayoralty Trashed

Cllr Richard Willis has written up a detailed report of how the Greens enabled Labour to trash the Mayoralty this evening.

We boycotted the Mayor's reception as none of us had the appetite for it.

I've come back from a delicious meal at Art of Siam with the ex-Deputy Mayor, Jenny Rynn, and practically all the Lib Dem and Conservative councillors, together with our guests. The staff coped fantastically creating a huge long table and we had a thoroughly enjoyable time.

Update: GetReading has posted the following article

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Welcome letter to the new Deputy Leader

Kirsten Bayes, who was until 5 May the Council's Deputy Leader, has written a powerful letter to Cllr Tony Page here. It is insightful, poignant and witty.

I've added a link to Kirsten's blog to my list.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

The Human Cost of Politics

Cllr Jenny Rynn, Reading's current Deputy Mayor, is a good friend of mine. Reading born and bred she has done nothing but good since her election in 2006. Jenny has served the Right Worshipful Mayor Cllr Gul Khan dutifully over the last year as his Deputy; however as Cllr Swaine has pointed out, Gul has accepted a financial incentive to do the dirty on her. So much for his words about being an "honourable man" and him supposedly respecting the mayoralty as being non-partisan!

Jenny has worked and supported Gul unfailingly: Her reward however will be him voting instead for his Labour Group's candidate Cllr Edwards. Ms Edwards has not served her apprenticeship as Deputy. Ms Edwards has brazenly leapt over Jenny into the mayoral chair. Don't ask me why, because for the life of me I can't get into her mindset.

Why should people be bothered by Khan & Edwards' behaviour? The office of mayor is all important for promoting and enhancing Reading - locally and beyond. As the public saw from the Royal Wedding, one of the many things our country excels at is pomp and circumstance. But with Reading's Labour and Greens turning their back on tradition here in Reading, together they're making a mockery of it.

At this point, why should anyone respect the mayoralty again? Simply put it will leave a bad taste in the mouths of anybody with a shred of integrity.

As for the Greens, Rob White - who omitted to tell his own party he'd already promised to support Jenny's natural elevation to the mayoralty - words fail me. I agree with Warren that the words on White's blog, namely: "fairness & integrity" are simply laughable.

White has shown his naivety in his dealings with Labour. Nothing tangible is in his Party's agreement to deliver a Labour minority administration. It looks like he values being able to sit on his (and his new colleague's) hands this coming year higher than finding a spine and delivering anything not already in the pipe-line for his Party's supporters.

Together, Labour & the Green's display is of politics at its very lowest. They haven't given a second's thought to Jenny's feelings.

Friday 20 May 2011

Is Labour doing a U-turn on Free Schools?

I welcome Free Schools. If there is the local energy and enthusiasm to form one, it follows that there is a local deficiency of decent education in the area. Often in life the things worth fighting for are the most rewarding.

I was interested to read this in the Telegraph - hence the title of my post. Education of tomorrow's adults is a huge responsibility; one that shouldn't be tarnished by the foisting of personal or political agendas. Surely the common aim is to excite, motivate & challenge the next generation: To do otherwise is a disservice and potential barrier to liberating their minds and ambitions?

As I've said before, I believe personal excellence and achievement should be celebrated. I don't mean necessarily that someone has to be, for example, the best long-jumper (though I'd celebrate this achievement): I appreciate that for each young person - whether they are in a special needs school or main stream setting - the right encouragement and teaching can help an individual make amazing, life-changing leaps forward.

Whether you are a governor, teacher, politician or parent, our responsibility is to try to find and deliver the best education for each and every child. If there's the local need and the desire, of course we should work together and deliver a Free School, no matter what our own political beliefs.

Thursday 19 May 2011

Save Our Grammar Schools

In the news today has been Rob Wilson MP's press release about defending Reading's two excellent grammar schools (which have recently become academies).

My friend and ex-councillor for Park Ward, Wazir Hussain, has posted on this here.

I went to my local comprehensive. Sadly the good headteacher retired after I'd been there for just 1 year. After him, the culture inhibited celebrating success. You kept quiet about good results. It wasn't until sixth form, when I went to a private school, that I saw a complete culture change and any success was celebrated big time.

A friend of mine has a couple of girls at Kendrick. She's told me that the culture is very much on celebrating achievement. I wouldn't wish for anything to jeopardise this.

Like Wazir & Rob, I too would welcome greater Reading designated areas for Kendrick and Reading Academies. For pupils with substantial commutes, they cannot possibly get or give to the school as much as a local pupil.

When these two top UK schools are performing so superbly it does seem very misguided for 10 people to try and dumb them down.

Wednesday 18 May 2011


It was my first Prime Minister's Questions today.

I've been in the public gallery before, behind the glass protective screen, when my then Member of Parliament, Jane Griffiths, presented the Kings Meadow Campaign's petition of over 10,000 signatures.

The chairman of Reading East Conservatives, Alison Swaddle, had a spare ticket for today's PMQs and I leapt at the chance to attend!

We were seated over the Government so could only really see David Cameron and the opposition, unless we switched to watching the monitors.

The person with whom I was most struck was Ed Miliband. The features of his voice were far more pronounced than I'd noticed over the television or radio.

Afterwards we met up with our constituency MP, Rob Wilson, for a very civilised chat and cup of tea in the Pugin room.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Select Committee: Special Educational Needs Green Paper

Yesterday morning I sat in the public area for the Education Select Committee *. I've watched proceedings on television before, but it was much more exciting being there in person.

Sue Bourne, Headteacher of The Avenue School (where I'm chairman of governors) was one of 5 expert witnesses called to give evidence. I was keen to accompany Sue to give her moral support & hear the discussion.

Sue has a huge amount of experience and passion for Special Educational Needs (SEN) having worked in the field for 22 years. Sue was appointed to The Avenue School 8 years ago when closure was anticipated. However Sue, supported by her strong team, turned the school around to achieve numerous major awards including the prestigious Specialist Status for Performance Arts and The Full International School Award, as well as being rated "outstanding" by Ofsted in the last 4 inspections.

The Expert Witnesses welcomed speeding up & simplifying the process for families; having a combined assessment and standardising assessments across the country. Concerns were mainly on funding; responsibility; and capacity. There was acknowledgement that transitions for post-16 have been in a mess and that adequacy of such provision needs further examination.
Following on after the hour's session, Sarah Teather MP, Minister for Children & Families, was questioned for a further hour.

Sue & my morning was topped off by a meeting with Alok Sharma MP, in whose constituency (Reading West) lies The Avenue School. Alok has been extremely supportive of all Sue's and the School's achievements over the last few years.

* A departmental select committee examines the spending, administration and policy of the specific department and related public bodies. It consists of members from all the major parties in the House. A Select Committee therefore holds the Government to account.