Thursday, 26 July 2012

Lax Attitude to Planning

Serving on the Planning Committee is an onerous task.  Often a resident's only dealings with the local authority is when trying to get planning permission - or objecting to someone else's plans.  

At last night's Committee meeting two residents were fuming.  They'd come for a bungalow application but just 30 minutes before the meeting were told the application was being deferred for a Site Visit.  They were extremely put out - and said so at the beginning of the meeting - because the Committee had visited 30 Cockney Hill at the beginning of the year.  They couldn't fathom the further delay.  The chairman said it was because it was a new committee.  I couldn't contain my indignation as the application was in the chairman's own ward.  I don't think he'd bothered to go and see it - certainly he'd said he hadn't seen it at Monday's Management meeting.  

Another councillor and I were shocked, particularly because not only is the application in the ward the chairman represents (Southcote) and therefore it is his residents who are affected, but also as chairman he gets an extra allowance to fulfil his duties.  We felt it was reprehensible and showed a complete lack of interest.

I've sat on Reading's Planning Committee for over 5 years, 1 of which as chairman.  Before me was Labour's well-loved Jim Hanley who was extremely popular both in this role and as a kind, gentle man.  His sudden death was a huge shock to everybody.

For tricky applications it is usual  practice (across the country) for the Committee to visit the site before it is debated & decided.  Proactive ward councillors visit any contentious applications within their ward to enable them to speak with authority.  The chairman is made aware well in advance of Committee about forthcoming applications.

Last year Labour selected a chairman who wasn't available for Site Visits.  A half-hearted attempt was made to change the well-established timing, but the majority were against the change - so the chairman didn't attend.  He didn't stand down either to make way for a Labour colleague who could make the timing. In fact even when a Labour councillor did bother to come along, often they'd only go to sites south of the river.  Of course for some councillors with full-time jobs in London it can be extremely difficult to get time off work.

In May officers and I were sat on the hired coach waiting on the off-chance one or more of Labour's councillors  might show up for Site Visits.  My Conservative colleagues had told me they weren't able to make it.  In contrast apart from one or perhaps two, the Labour councillors simply hadn't bothered to say one way or the other.  The officers and I gave up waiting after quarter of an hour.  We agreed to cancel one visit (I'd been to Kennet Island a couple of times before so it would have been a waste of everybody's time to go again just for my benefit), but did go ahead with our visit to The Restoration Pub on the Oxford Road.  The developer was there to greet us.  His face fell when officers & I had to admit that I was the only councillor on the visit.  It was extremely embarrassing.

As Labour kept the same chairman after May's elections - who still couldn't manage the timing of Site Visits - I researched what other authorities did, wrote a 2 page report that you can read here and then tabled it at a Planning Management meeting. I am glad to say my words were heeded, the timing was changed and so far the attendance has improved.  

Returning to last night's meeting, it does the chairman no favours if he fails to familiarise himself even with applications in his own ward. It sets a poor example to other councillors and does a disservice to the residents we as elected members are here to serve.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Reading's Treasured Gardens

Caversham Court from St Peter's Church's entrance
Caversham Court has hosted a couple of events recently, namely the Olympic Torch Relay (about which I've written previously) and also the Church Fete a week ago last Saturday.  I went to both, as did hundreds of others and the Fete raised an amazing £7,000!

The gardens are looking absolutely fabulous thanks to the dedication of Head Gardener Graham Spiller and his band of volunteers.  Of course without the funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund which brought the neglected gardens back into order, we wouldn't be able to enjoy them in their current state.  This fact makes the current Labour administration's intention to cut this year's funding for overnight security completely barmy.
View of one of Caversham Court's borders

To many, including me, Reading was exceedingly lucky to convince the Heritage Lottery Fund to inject the substantial amount of funding necessary to bring back both Caversham Court and the Forbury Gardens to their former glory.  A total of £5 million pounds was invested.  We all owe the wonderful staff in the Parks Department for their hard work putting together the bids and to the gardeners for bringing the plans to life.  Once successful, for the administration to then cut the overnight security for a paltry saving was short-term and crass, to say the very least.

View from under the tree canopy towards the main entrance gate
Both Caversham Court and Forbury Gardens are jewels in Reading's crown and should be protected from the tiny, moronic percentage of people who fail to appreciate their worth and take any opportunity to vandalise or abuse these gardens.  Thankfully due to the public uproar and in particular both the Caversham & District Residents' Association (CADRA) and The Friends of Caversham Court - as well as Conservative Councillors, the Labour administration did a U-turn deciding not to cut the security this year.  However I am sorry to report that when questioned at the last Council meeting by my Caversham colleague, Cllr Tom Stanway, Labour failed to give reassurance that security would be maintained for future years.

In the meantime, last week Caversham Court and Forbury Gardens both received the Green Flag Award which is a sign to visitors that both parks are well maintained, well managed and have excellent facilities.  Winning parks have to demonstrate not only that standards are maintained but that continuous improvements are being achieved.

All the more reason for RBC to ensure the ongoing security for both!

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Out and About

It has been a busy week with lots of meetings, end of term commitments at The Avenue School (where I'm the Chair of Governors) and getting the latest north of the river Community News out in my Ward. Thankfully the improved weather has made the leafleting far easier and more enjoyable - plus I'm getting lots of exercise!

I've still got a couple of tricky cases hanging over from before May which are taking up a lot of time liaising with both the Police and RBC staff.  So far I've managed to sort out the majority of Mapledurham Ward residents' concerns pretty quickly.  Anyhow today it was great to once again get out and meet lots of residents, going back to Shepherds Lane to hand out an update on the main issues raised from last week and also leafleting Silverthorne Drive as well as the St Peter's & Chazey Road area.

The main concerns have been speeding along Shepherds Lane, the need for RBC's grass cutting team to catch up their schedule and repairs to the Kidmore Road/Toker's Green & Shepherds Lane junction.  I'm glad to report action is being taken to address the speeding; the grass should be cut this week - or next (with Caversham Heights being tackled within 2-3 weeks); and the junction will be resurfaced on 21/22 August.

Other concerns raised included the state of Gravel Hill.  Many people have told me that although they are inconvenienced by having to go via Oakley Road/Rotherfield Way by car, they are enjoying walking/cycling & or horse-riding along the closed part of Gravel Hill.  It has returned to being a quiet country road and as such is treasured.

A recurring theme is people not wanting to trouble me with their small issues - to which I reply it is my job to try and sort out any council-related matter!  So no matter how trivial or otherwise your problem, you can always drop me a line or call me and I will try to help.  I do have several years' of experience under my belt of dealing with the various departments within the Council and also the outside bodies, so although locals tend to be extremely well-informed I may well be able to give useful advice.

If you'd like more details on any of the above, do get in touch.

In the meantime please see below the Council's resurfacing works to be carried out by Tarmac Ltd over the schools' summer holiday north of the river:

The planned programme is as follows:

Hemdean RoadChurch Street to Rectory Road (Caversham Ward) – The works will be carried out on Sunday 29 July and the working hours will be 8am to 8pm. A full road closure will be required and a signed diversion route will be in operation for the duration.

Gosbrook RoadGeorge Street to Briants Avenue (Caversham Ward) – The work will take place on Saturday 4 August and will last for 2 days. Working hours will be 8am to 8pm. A full road closure will be required and a signed diversion route will be in operation for the duration.

Henley RoadGrosvenor Road to Westfield Road (Caversham / Thames Wards) – The work will start on Wednesday 15 August and will last for 4 days. The working hours will be 10am to 8pm on the Wednesday and then 8am to 8pm for the remaining 3 days. A full road closure will be required and a signed diversion route will be in operation for the duration.

Oakley RoadHemdean Road to Kidmore Road (Thames Wards) – The work will start on Monday 20 August and will last for 2 days. The working hours will be 8am to 8pm. A full road closure will be required and a signed diversion route will be in operation for the duration.

Kidmore Road / Tokers Green Lane / Shepherds Lane junction (Mapledurham / Thames Wards) – The work will start on Tuesday 21 August and will last for 2 days. The working hours will be 8am to 8pm. A full road closure will be required and a signed diversion route will be in operation for the duration.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Olympic Torch in Caversham Court

1948 Olympic torch bearer with Reading Scottish Pipe Band

This morning hundreds gathered for the Olympic Torch relay which started from the 17th Century Listed Gazebo in the historic gardens of Caversham Court.

The Reading Scottish Pipe Band played beautifully, entertaining the swelling crowds in anticipation of the first torch bearer.  Young and old shared the excitement and there was a wonderful air of anticipation.
The Mayor of Reading with my daughter

The Right Worshipful Mayor of Reading, Jenny Rynn, greeted and chatted with people including Mr Tutton who was a torch bearer at the 1948 London Olympics.

The crowds were taken a little by surprise when the torch relay started early, which also meant the bell ringers in St Peter's Church from above the gardens were unable to synchronise.  However this aside everybody was relieved the sun shone down and made it a memorable occasion.

Hundreds more lined the streets along to Caversham Bridge, enjoying the spectacle before dispersing and getting back to the routine of normal life.  I'm sure everybody who watched will remember today as there is a magic about witnessing the build-up to London 2012.

Update:  Tuesday evening's event in the Madejski Stadium was enjoyed by those lucky enough to be in front of the stage.  I gather from friends who were seated on the sides that sadly they were unable to hear what was being said.  Although they could see everything, they couldn't even speak with one another as there was an unintelligible din.

Many seated on the sides left early as they found the situation intolerable. It would seem that this was because the event organisers didn't use the Stadium's own sound system.

The first torch bearer sets off from Caversham Court

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Confirmation of U-turn

Further to my article (& updates) Labour's Clayfield Copse Clanger it is good to see the report to the forthcoming Cabinet meeting on 16th July about the scrapping of their micro Park & Ride scheme.

Ruth Leuillette, the report's author and Deputy Head of Highways & Transport, (who attended the public meeting organised by my colleague Cllr Richard Willis last Monday) recommends:
"That following the announcement of the Lead Councillor for Regeneration, Transport and Planning at Council on 3 July 2012 to withdraw the proposals for Micro-Park and Ride, that the proposals are withdrawn with immediate effect."
This recommendation, which will have been decided by Cllr Tony Page, will be carried by Labour's Cabinet as that is their way.  On the odd occasion when they want to keep the Opposition and public in suspense they withhold a report's recommendation until the Cabinet meeting itself.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Action for Children

On Thursday evening my husband and I went to a charity wine tasting evening at the Penta Hotel in Reading arranged by a group of people including Wokingham Conservative Cllr Paul Swaddle.

Cllr Paul Swaddle (centre)
All the raffle, auction and ticket money went to Action for Children, a charity which supports and speaks out for the UK's most vulnerable and neglected children and young people.  Laithwaites provided the wine and well over £2,500 was raised (the final amount still to be announced).

As a councillor, the most fundamental responsibility we have is as corporate parent to the children in our authority's care.  I was very pleased to see this week the Government is bringing in measures to make it harder for councils to place looked-after children in care homes outside of their local area.  This is important as when a child or young person is miles away it becomes increasingly more difficult to ensure their safety.  There are of course exceptions.

A task and finish group has been put together to make urgent recommendations on criteria that local authorities should have to satisfy before making a placement outside their home borough.  The Government will consult upon changes this autumn.

The group is also tasked with reporting on how councils should monitor the quality of care in homes in their own area and will help develop "risk maps" for areas where there are high concentrations of children's homes, to assess whether homes are located alongside hostels and other accommodation for adult offenders, or in areas where there is known to be a high level of prostitution.

These, amongst other measures, are being instigated following Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children's commissioner's, report into the horrendous Rochdale case where nine men were sentenced for grooming and abusing young girls.

Returning to Action for Children, Paul is taking part again in the annual IT industry sleep-out in October.  If you too would like to sponsor him for this worthy cause please visit his Virgin Moneygiving page

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Labour's Clayfield Copse Clanger!

Cllr Willis chairing, with Cllr Stanford-Beale in red  flanked by 2 RBC officers
Last night I attended my Conservative colleague & transport spokesman, Richard Willis's public meeting in Emmer Green about Labour's proposed Park & Ride scheme.  He organised and chaired the event to enable residents to listen and question Ruth Leuillette, the Deputy Transport Head of RBC.  His new Peppard Ward colleague, Cllr Jane Stanford-Beale sat with him to listen to and take notes of residents' concerns.

The Emmer Green Youth & Community Centre was packed with over 100 residents, unanimous in their opposition to the scheme.  They raised a multitude of worries that the Labour-run Council - one can only suppose - weren't interested in as no consultation whatsoever was carried out before Richard Willis spotted and objected to Labour's plans at last month's Cabinet meeting.

Clayfield Copse is enjoyed and loved not only by Caversham Park Village and Emmer Green residents, but also Caversham Heights residents in my Ward and further afield.  I myself have walked and ridden (a horse) in its beautiful woodland and fields.  Yesterday I delivered a letter to a boy in Chazey Road who regularly goes to the skate board park there as we don't have one here on Mapledurham Playing Fields - much to his chagrin.  

One resident at last night's meeting who walks her dogs at Clayfield Copse said she'd spoken to another walker to raise awareness of the Council's plans only to discover they came from Sonning Common.  Apparently when she asked the latter if they approved of the Park & Ride she was told no they were against it as they'd got an excellent bus service in Sonning Common!  Indeed another attendee questioned why anyone would want to pay more to park if the scheme goes ahead when drivers could park elsewhere nearby for free [at the detriment to local residents] and save themselves money!

On top of organising a well-attended protest in Clayfield Copse and last night's public meeting, Richard & Jane plus supporters have leafleted a substantial part of the local area with a residents' survey. You can read further about this divisive scheme on Richard's blog and in this article on Reading East Conservatives.

This Park & Ride proposal is just one example of how Labour tries to foist unwanted and ill conceived plans on residents, not giving a monkeys over the impact - even of just the idea - that it has on residents.  Fortunately because of Richard & Jane's hard work raising awareness the Labour administration has started back-tracking and my colleagues are hopeful that their joint effort together with that of the local community will completely overturn Labour's clanger!

Breaking Update: At tonight's (Tuesday's) Council meeting Labour has U-turned, scrapping their highly contentious micro Park & Ride proposals, both at Clayfield Copse and also Palmer Park!

Further Update: You can read the Post's coverage of Tuesday night's Council meeting here

Monday, 2 July 2012

2nd Annual Mapledurham Charity Dinner Dance

In June over 120 residents gathered for the second charity Dinner Dance at Caversham Heath Golf Club.  Building on last year's successful occasion when over £3,000 was raised, this year the venue was packed with tickets having sold out well in advance and over £5,000 raised in aid of the Mapledurham Pavilion and community hall regeneration.

Elisa & Kevin Miles, Alok & Ingela Sharma, my husband & me and guests
The Warren & District Residents' Association chairman, Robin Bentham, welcomed everybody and treasurer Mike Eggleton proposed a toast to the Queen.  A delicious meal was enjoyed by all, followed by an auction which was made very entertaining by local professional John Holland of Thimbleby & Shorland Auctioneers.  Thanks were given by Reading West's MP Alok Sharma - a good friend of the main organiser Elisa Miles - then dancing went on into the early hours.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening with great music and it was lovely to see lots of people join together for this great cause.  Photographs of the evening can be bought from Kathryn Fell Photography with 50% of the proceeds adding to what has been raised so far. 

Thanks especially go to Elisa for her tremendous hard work and everybody else in the group.  Many local businesses supported the Dinner: Pertemps sponsored the reception drinks, Atuweni Fischer provided the music, Cherubs the table and room decorations and SuperStars the Silent Auction.  Items provided by: Festival Republic, Jacobs Jewellers, Caversham Heath Golf Club, Caversham Solicitors, Ian Kendrick Inc, Robin Bentham, Bluefern Landscaping Deisgn, The Crown at Playhatch, Ultima Business Systems, Waltons Jewellers, Reading Football Club, Kathryn Fell Photography and The Club at Mapledurham were auctioned off by the experienced hands of John Holland.