Monday 30 January 2012

Uproar at Labour's Fait Accompli

At Tuesday 24th January's RBC Council meeting there was uproar from the Conservatives and Lib Dems over the way Labour axed the Chief Executive's (CE's) post.

No evidence was provided of any meaningful assessment of the consequential risks and opportunities of their drastic action.

Since RBC is under Labour's minority control, Labour should have consulted the other parties before coming to this decision.  Instead Labour tipped off the press earlier this month after someone their side leaked the behind-closed-doors deal.  You can read the press story here - strangely there is no sign of RBC's press release on its website here which is where it should be found.

Tuesday's Council meeting was the first opportunity for Labour's Cllr Lovelock to account for her decision.  Cllr Lovelock disingenuously made out the decision was yet to be taken: this was quite ridiculous given Labour had agreed redundancy terms with Michael Coughlin, the CE already.  The deal was a fait accompli.

Labour didn't have to use their Mayor's casting vote as both Green councillors supported the axing of the CE role, as well as the 2nd in commands role: Director of Resources.

Cllr Lovelock failed to respond to my questions which were:
  1. Why has Labour deliberately chopped and destabilised the top leadership posts at this time of huge change and need for strategic leadership?
  2. Has Labour really learnt from its financial mismanagement of Section 106s?
  3. What measures has Labour put in place to prevent similar mismanagement in the future?
Michael Coughlin was selected as CE with all-party agreement in Spring 2008.  He is well-respected and has shown no political bias.  Labour's forced unscheduled announcement of his departure was disgraceful:  Neither he, nor any other Council employee, deserves this shameful treatment.

Michael Coughlin's departure is a great loss to Reading.  Amongst many achievements, he has demonstrated a commitment to transparent local government.

It is worrying to witness Labour's arrogant, undemocratic behaviour.  I hope residents will heed this and vote against Labour gaining an outright majority on the Council this May.

Thursday 19 January 2012

If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is!

Last year one of my Ward residents was duped by a doorstep trader saying he could repair his roof very cheaply.  The trader had gained the resident's trust by doing a simple job first and then (as is common apparently with rogue traders) asking to do something else for a bit more money.

When a neighbour spotted that the men on the roof were acting oddly, seemingly pretending to work, the quick thinking neighbour contacted RBC's Consumer Protection Team.  In turn RBC rang the Police and within about half an hour the Police and Consumer Protection Team were at the house, and the workmen fled.  The Police said the roofing group is being investigated by several different authorities.

I was struck by why these traders targeted an elderly resident.  He is no fool, but possibly because of being of an older generation, not up-to-date with the going workmen's rates and perhaps being more trusting of people, he was taken in. 

As a result I looked into the matter.  I chatted with one of the Consumer Protection Team who coordinated the joint response with the Police.  Also I found out about the Office of Fair Trading's (OFT's) campaign warning constituents to be on their guard against unscrupulous traders. 

This year the OFT's campaign is targeting traders selling mobility aids on the doorstep.  I contacted both of Reading's MPs, Rob Wilson & Alok Sharma, and as a result I'm very pleased to say they are both supporting the OFT’s campaign.  They have put out the following valuable information:
Mobility aids are products that are used by the elderly or disabled such as mobility scooters, wheelchairs, and walk-in baths. These items are often sold to vulnerable people in their home.

Consumer Direct, the OFT-managed advice service attracts a large number of calls from people complaining or asking for advice about mobility aids and in 2010, over 4,500 such calls were made.

Wilson said: “Mobility aids are important products for elderly and disabled people, which can significantly improve the quality of their lives. For many, they are an absolute necessity. We are supporting the OFT’s campaign for consumers to become more aware of the risks of doorstep sellers and the tricks they use to get people to agree to buy products that they may be able to purchase at a cheaper price elsewhere.”

Sharma added: “The OFT offers some practical tips on how people can avoid being scammed by rogue doorstep traders and the key thing is not to be forced into making any snap decisions which you may afterwards regret.”

The OFT advises:

• Do not make snap decisions. Take time to talk to someone you trust before you make a decision

• Shop around. Compare pricing and information on the various options available to you so that you are not over-charged

• Even if you invite a trader into your home, you should still be on the watch out. Consider asking a friend or family member to be with you when the trader visits you in the home

For advice on doorstep selling, please contact Consumer Direct on 08454 040 506 or visit or

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Requires Improvement

Critics have tried to dismiss David Cameron's intention to scrap the 'satisfactory' judgement for school inspections & replace it with 'requires improvement' as mere semantics.  However I believe the PM is absolutely right.  Our schools should aspire to be at least 'good': 'satisfactory' isn't good enough!

On a similar vein I was delighted by Michael Gove's announcement last week to make it easier and quicker for Heads to get rid of poor teachers.  Why should our children have to put up with anything less than 'good' teachers?  I know the Education Secretary's reforms have alarmed Unions, but hope that with careful thought the latter will realise it is wholly appropriate. 

The vast majority of teachers engage & inspire their pupils, making learning fun.  There are teachers out there who, for whatever reason, are unable to do this.  Their pupils know this and switch off or muck around.  Being taught by a poor teacher for a whole year can have hugely damaging consequences on a pupil's future education and life chances.

It's obvious to fellow teachers and it creates tensions in the staff room.  They know if inspectors observe a teacher delivering a poor lesson this can drag down the Ofsted rating of their entire school. 

This policy should enable Heads to dismiss teachers who cannot or will not improve their teaching despite a targeted program of help from advanced teachers.

Surely therefore for all these reasons Gove's desire to speed up the capability process stands to reason?  Our children deserve the best chance of a decent education: not to be turned off by someone who would probably be happier in a different career.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Finely Balanced Decision

At Wednesday's Planning Applications Committee, Highdown School sought permission for 8 x 15 m high floodlight columns for their recently upgraded football/hockey all-weather pitch (near the transmitter tower).

Kidmore End view: floodlights will be to the left of the transmitter
The elements making this a tricky decision included on the one side: the lie of the land & elevated position of the pitches, proximity to & lower level of the housing, location next to the wildlife corridor & proximity to open countryside, accepted fact that floodlighting would have a detrimental impact on the character of the area/residents' quality of life/the environment.  On the flip side there are obvious health benefits of increasing the hours sport is enjoyed, as well as giving people of any age a positive pastime.

When the application came to the October meeting I asked for a deferral because the applicant's submission didn't take into account the change in levels between the proposed siting of the floodlighting and the surrounding housing.  This month the application came back to Planning with the addition of a Floodlighting Impact Assessment.

Residents and I were left unconvinced by the submitted predicted light pollution drawings.  I truly hope that I am proved wrong in my belief that the light spill will be a blight to the area.

After the officer's introduction I highlighted the choices before the Committee.  I discounted the applicant's desired 10 pm curfew out-of-hand.  I said it was between accepting the officer's proposal of 8 pm Mon-Fri, 6 pm Sat-Sun plus a variance in September to accommodate bats; seeking an earlier curfew; or refusing the application outright.  I added that it was an incredibly finely balanced decision and that my belief was the negative impacts outweighed the benefits.

Sadly Labour's Deputy Leader, Tony Page had a conflicting opinion - and the predictable block voting of his colleagues, added to the 2 Liberal Democrats' votes prevented a refusal.  Thankfully though Cllr Page agreed with me as far as a 10 pm week-day curfew would be inappropriate, but he & his Labour colleagues as well as the 2 Lib Dems - voted against my compromise of a 7 pm Mon-Fri and 6 pm Sat-Sun to accommodate young children being disturbed by the floodlighting.  I'm happy to note that Green Cllr Melanie Eastwood supported me in this bid because of her first-hand experience as a mother of a 3 year old, together with my Conservative colleagues.

However the final vote came down in agreement with the officer's recommendation, with 5 against.  The proof of the level of intrusion will be when the floodlighting is put in place and turned on.  I sincerely hope the fears shared by local residents, Cllr Eastwood, my colleague Ed Hopper, Conservative colleagues on the Committee and me are proved wrong.  This is a unique, elevated position adjacent to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty; I fervently hope this creeping urbanisation will not have a dramatic negative impact on this beautiful valley.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Child Safety Improvement

Thanks to excellent collaborative work between Caversham Primary School's Headteacher - Ruth Perry, PCSO Karen Vaughan, Ed Hopper and me, the Council has painted yellow zig zags and "School Keep Clear" by the school's main entrance to the playground.

The new sign has been working well, improving drivers' visibility of children using Victoria Road's big gate, previously obscured by parked people movers and cars.

Safety has been an ongoing concern with several near misses when children shorter than the height of a car stepped out in front of oncoming traffic.

Conservative activist Ed Hopper & I spoke with Victoria Road residents last November establishing complete support for zig zags.  I spoke with RBC's Transport Department to find out the logistics.  Next PCSO Karen Vaughan and I met with Ruth Perry, as often Karen has witnessed the risk to toddlers and children obscured from drivers by parked cars at school pick up time and wanted to improve the situation.  Naturally the school's governing body agreed to the improvement and the paint went down just before Christmas.

Residents, parents and Ruth Perry alike are all pleased with the change.  Practically everybody is respecting it: anyone who has dared try to park there has been moved on swiftly by parents!

Friday 13 January 2012

Junction Review

Last year when I saw the aftermath of an Albert/Highmoor Road junction crash I spoke with the policeman at the scene to find out what was thought to have happened.  Once finished I chanced upon a resident who lives a few doors away from the junction and is a civil engineer specialising in traffic and highways. 

The resident is on the Caversham & District Residents' Association's committee (CADRA).  CADRA is apolitical and does an invaluable job for the community.  Its mission statement is to "preserve and enhance the quality of life in Caversham and the surrounding District".

To cut a long story short, the resident/CADRA committee member went to considerable trouble, writing up a detailed report which I asked officers to review.  You can find the link to it which has now been uploaded onto this page of CADRA's website.

The officer response judged that CADRA's proposed removal of the red central hatching so the stop line can be moved forward thus improving sight lines, is unlikely to have prevented either the May '11 or previous accident.  Considering the current accident data, the officer states it is very difficult to justify any change at this junction.  However the officer concludes
"what this exercise has shown is that the current measures must be well maintained to ensure drivers appreciate the presence of the junction.  Regular maintenance of overhanging vegetation and of the lining, signing and red surfacing is essential to ensure the very best safety of the junction is maintained."
Furthermore, the officer has agreed to CADRA's request for the central hatch and red surface to be reviewed at the time of any surfacing.

[Note:  Apologies for the delay in publishing this update.  I was awaiting the necessary permission from CADRA and the RBC officer]

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Recent Events

A Happy New Year to you!  I hope you've all had a relaxing Christmas and enjoyed the holidays.  Thank you in particular to all the emergency staff who worked over the festivities, forgoing celebrations for the benefit of everyone else.

In the last few days much has happened in just a small area, mostly within Thames Ward (which I represent until May)
  • On Friday a No 22 bus was involved in a crash with a VW Polo on the Hemdean Road near the mini roundabout with Oakley Road.  Although the car driver had to be cut out of his car, thankfully neither he nor anyone on the bus was seriously injured.  One resident who heard the accident and saw the aftermath said she thought it was caused by the Polo driver failing to see the oncoming bus before pulling out of a driveway, however anyone who actually witnessed the incident should speak with the Police
  • On New Year's Eve nearby in Rotherfield Way a man was "bottled" by youths as he walked back home with his girl friend in the early hours.  According to Getreading his injuries weren't life-threatening though he needed stitches in his neck.  The youths are said to have all been white and wearing base ball hats.  If you know who they are, tell the Police: they could do it - or worse - again
  • In today's strong winds a mother and child narrowly missed being hit by a falling tree as they walked along the footpath between Surely Row (off Rotherfield Way) and Eliot Close.  RBC has said the tree will have been cleared this afternoon
  • Further trees are reported to have fallen - in Gravel Hill (now cleared) and across in Peppard Ward, a tree fell from Clayfield Copse across Kiln Road onto an unoccupied, parked vehicle (also now cleared - the vehicle is probably a write-off)