Saturday 21 April 2012

Why I Got Into Local Politics

In 2001, when my children were 5 and 3, Labour-controlled Reading Borough Council changed the primary school catchment areas in Caversham.  Like now, they failed to ensure sufficient places at all schools.

My children (2001)

My son was at our local primary school but my family, together with nearly 30 others, were faced with little chance of our younger siblings joining them at the same schools.  This was due to the bureaucratic decision not to treat "Now Out of Catchment" (NOOC) siblings equally with those still in the catchment.  To my mind this was barmy.  We hadn't moved, yet our younger children were being unfairly disadvantaged.  How were our families meant to get our infants to two separate schools at the same time?  Why should we have to?

I thought if I spoke to the Cabinet Lead for Education as well as the Director for Education pointing out the injustice they would listen respectfully, agree and make the appropriate amendment.  However I was mistaken so together with another mother, Linda, we mounted the NOOC campaign. 

We lobbied all councillors at their respective ward surgeries.  We had a receptive audience from our (Conservative) ward councillors: Fred Pugh, Jeanette Skeats and Richard Willis.  They encouraged us & pledged their support.  The Lib Dem councillors appreciated the problem but weren't quite so helpful.  Our local MP, Labour's Jane Griffiths supported us, but sadly she had little influence by then over her Labour colleagues who were trying to depose her. When we tried to speak with them [the Labour councillors] the majority refused to discuss our concerns.  In fact one in particular was extremely rude and dismissive - more on this later. 

To cut a long story short, Linda & I campaigned for several months.  We attracted substantial local support and media coverage, so much so Jane Griffiths joked we were in the papers more than her!  Eventually, due to the sheer weight of public pressure, the bad publicity on Labour's administration together with our perseverance, we won.  The NOOC siblings' priority was elevated to be equal with siblings still in the catchment.

However I was very unhappy at Labour councillors' treatment of us and wanted to actively do something to improve the situation for other residents.  My children were too little at the time but in 2006 with both of them settled in school I put myself forwards for selection in Thames Ward and was successful.

Returning to the Labour councillor, I have her to thank for inspiring me to get involved in local politics.  Because of her dismissive response, uninterested attitude and unwillingness to help I thought I could and would do better.  Local councillors have a duty to listen and respond to residents.  They are elected as representatives; not elected to do what they like because they can!