Thursday 31 January 2013

Latest on Serious Water Mains Leak

Bricks being delivered for contractors to repair resident's collapsed wall
On 22nd January a water mains burst near the start of Westdene Crescent which is off Woodcote Way.  I happened to walk by at about 11 pm and witnessed the huge lake of flooding spreading across both footpaths and the road.

I spoke with the gas contractors who were waiting for a Thames Water man to shut down the mains.  They told me the water had made the carriageway collapse above the mains so once it was shut off they would get to work to repair the damage.

As I’ve posted before, the gas road works in the area are in themselves disruptive.  The Thames Water issue has made things much worse.

Residents contacted me last night complaining the refuse vehicles hadn’t been able to drive along Westdene Crescent so their bins hadn’t been emptied.  They also wanted to know how long repairs were going to take so here is my update.

After my email to RBC last night and phone calls this morning I’m happy to report bins were emptied today.

Thames Water’s contractors are excavating to a greater depth than normal to ensure they can incorporate any potential damage that may have been caused to deeper layers of the carriageway structure into their reinstatement works.  As long as they don’t find any significant damage, they anticipate completion and clearance of their works on the carriageway by the middle of next week.

Taken this morning before talking to residents

The above works will be conducted on one half of the carriageway at a time.  It has been observed on site that their current works area leaves a narrow running lane which should be increased when they switch sides.  However this avoids a closure of the street.

I’ve been informed that refuse vehicles have been turned away by Southern Gas Networks contractors.  The contractors have apparently stated that the carriageway plates, used to span their trench across the entrance to Westdene Crescent, could not support the weight of a standard refuse collection vehicle.

RBC has contacted the contractors in question, concerned that such plates were being used and that the Council had not been notified of any potential weight limits.  RBC has been assured that reinstatement material has been ordered for tomorrow (Friday) morning and that this section of their carriageway excavation will be fully reinstated by mid-morning.
Do get in touch with me if I can help further.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Who Should Be Housed?

The draft Tenancy Strategy was debated and adopted at last night's Council meeting in Reading [Here is the link]

This is what I said on behalf of the Conservative Group:

Drilling down to the purpose of social housing, it is to protect, ie house, those in society who would otherwise be homeless or unable to afford housing to meet their needs.

Therefore the Government's intention to introduce fixed-term tenancies to residents new to social housing for as long as that tenant is assessed as needing one is the fairest way forward.

With the UK's dramatically increasing population the country cannot afford to let residents new into social housing have a home for life.  This change will make it easier for residents to move according to their needs, whether that is up or down-sizing and also within a specific area - as supply will increase and flexibility will be gained.

We have a long waiting list for housing in Reading.  I'm sure we all want those with the greatest needs to be housed suitably as soon as possible.

Many on the list are desperate for larger accommodation as currently they are suffering from appalling overcrowding.

Despite the Council increasing incentives for tenants considering downsizing voluntarily back in February last year, just 14 tenants moved to smaller accommodation in 2012 - which was in fact one less than had downsized in 2011. [The incentives are detailed in RBC's press release]

The response rate to the Council's consultation - a mere 22 residents - is shockingly bad and therefore results are fairly meaningless.

To conclude: As a result of the points I have raised, our Group opposes Labour's strategic aim to try to dissuade private landlords against fixed term tenancies as we believe it is to the detriment of our most vulnerable residents.

I cannot see justification, either for Reading Labour Group or their Party's statements that they want 'tenancies for life' to continue.  Add to the dramatic rise in birth rate the net migration figure of 2 million into Britain [given during Prime Minister's Questions today which, as Julian Brazier MP pointed out has put massive pressure on the UK's housing and other infrastructure] it simply isn't possible to build social housing at the rate necessary to accommodate those who need it, even though the Conservative led government has reduced net migration down by a quarter.

The Labour Party has opposed all £83 billion of welfare savings.  Ed Miliband's 3-point plan - David Cameron pointed out today - is "spending more, borrowing more and more debt".  Labour nationally and locally needs to wake up and open their eyes.

Locally, the Labour Group's attempt at freeing up larger social housing property by giving (amongst other things) £2,000 to help those who volunteer to downsize with moving costs patently isn't getting anything like the numbers downsizing to appropriately house those on the waiting list. 

As the February 2012 RBC press release sets out, an elderly couple Molly & John Barton had lived in a 3-bedroom Council home for 53 years.  "They are both disabled and found it increasingly difficult over the years to manage the stairs and maintain their home and large garden."  They moved into a one-bedroom Council home "and are very happy.  The smaller size property is much more manageable for them."

Given the present reality, surely it is fair that once a resident* is able to provide for their own housing needs they should move out of social housing thereby freeing those on the waiting list to be housed suitably? 

* NB Since April 2012 social landlords, including local authority landlords, have had the option of granting fixed-term tenancies to all new tenants.  Before that date all social landlords were expected to provide permanent tenants with lifetime tenancies.

Monday 28 January 2013

School Places, Siblings and s106 Transparency

Last week I attended a variety of meetings, the first of which was Monday's Cabinet.  I spoke on two agenda items on behalf of the Conservative Group.

To the School Places Update report I highlighted the inadequate notice given to residents by the administration for the "Let's Talk Education" consultation meetings.  The Reading Post published RBC's press release on the Wednesday, 3 working days before the first meeting (the newspaper's first opportunity to do so).  Attendance at RBC meetings was poor.

In contrast I cited the Caversham & District Residents' Association (CADRA) which had given more than 2 months' notice for their October meeting, having identified the widespread concern about pressure on school places and booked senior RBC education managers to come and speak.  As a result, CADRA's meeting was packed out.

As an aside I raised the point that all councillors share a responsibility to raise awareness of events that affect our residents.  I said everybody in Reading knows how the Royals are doing, however it is self-evident that hardly anyone was aware about the Education consultation.  Councillors therefore could use social media, eg Twitter, to help promote such important events.

My second point related to the forthcoming Education consultation (due March-June).  With the lack of flexibility in pupil spaces in Reading's primary schools, the over subscription criteria are absolutely crucial:  Places must be offered in the most sensible order to serve residents.

I said the wording for sibling questions in the October Consultation's accompanying survey was flawed.  As many of the town's primary schools are near the edge of their respective catchment, families living very close to the school, ie in the local community, can in fact be out of catchment.  [Note: The Conservative Group successfully pushed the Schools Admissions Forum to agree the need to re-consult residents on the level of protection siblings deserve.]

I summed up my comments asking for as much notice as possible to be given to the public for future consultation events; and said I was looking forward to learning residents' views on sibling priority for primary school admissions.

On the Budget Monitoring report I made a single point, namely highlighting one of the improvements to accountability of how RBC spends s106 developer contributions which came about as a result of Conservative concerns and investigations.

I reminded Cabinet members that under the local Conservative led coalition, with the support from our Liberal Democrat colleagues, in 2010 an external investigation was commissioned which reported a number of high priority recommendations to address the failings of the previous Labour administration in Reading.

Both reports can be located here the former is item 9a, the latter 15 (ref paragraph 5.3 and Appendix 3)

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Labour Scaring Patients

Today's Reading Post and last week's Chronicle covered Reading Labour Group's launch of an ill-informed petition deliberately scaremongering patients.

Priory Avenue Surgery
As a long-standing patient of Priory Avenue Surgery I was surprised and concerned by Labour's petition and their Caversham Councillor's letter (in today's Post).  Am I, my family and other patients at risk of being without a GP?  Is the Surgery on the "slippery slope" towards privatisation?  Will standards slip?  NO!

Priory Avenue Surgery is simply following the process created by the last Labour government.  As the GPs at Priory Avenue no longer wished to continue with their contract, NHS Berkshire put out the GP service to contract - as happens all over the country in these circumstances.  Contracts can be managed by a group of GPs, a private company, or sometimes a combination of the two.  Importantly it is always a NHS service, therefore governed by strict quality standards.

A local extremely well-used example is Broad Street Mall's walk-in Health Centre run by a partnership of local GPs and Virgin Care (formerly called Assura Medical).

Labour's silly petition
How else is Labour's petition misleading?  It was the last Labour government who introduced the current tendering process for private GP services.

Neither my family nor anybody else's family should worry about Labour's silly petition.  Read Priory Avenue Surgery's website and see the facts for yourselves.

The Labour councillors neglected to mention their Party supported patients having the right to choose any provider (including private) at the last general election.  They also omitted to say that as a result of changes made by the previous Labour government over a quarter of walk in centres are run privately.

It is interesting to note people who can't possibly be Priory Avenue Surgery patients are amongst the 22 who have signed since the petition was started on 31 December last year.  Also many of those 'brave' enough to have their name published are known Labour activists.  Strangely though neither Labour councillor mentioned in the publicity appear to have signed!

Friday 11 January 2013

Gas Roadworks Update A4074

Further to my post in November, I've received an update from an RBC officer of Southern Gas Networks' proposals for Upper Woodcote Road.

It reads as follows: 
"We were notified by Southern Gas Networks that there was likely to be a slight delay to their proposed start date on Upper Woodcote Road.  Through discussions, we have jointly proposed a new start date of 18th February 2013, which coincides with the school half term holidays.  The anticipated duration for the works has not changed, but it seemed sensible to start the works during a week where anticipated peak-time traffic levels will be lower.

We will make Thames Travel aware of the changes and Southern Gas Networks will be erecting advance warning signs on site at least 1 week prior to the 18th February."

Labour U-turn on Christmas Tree Collections!

GetReading's front page written before news of U-turn
In my original post on Tuesday I wrote how Reading Borough Council had cut the Christmas tree collection service.  I'm delighted that the service has been restated across Reading's former collection points just days after Conservatives highlighted the chaos caused by Labour's failure of communication with residents over the scrapping of the service. 

In the Council's pre-Christmas communication issued on 11 December no mention was made of the former recycling points, with residents being advised to take their trees to Smallmead or to chop them up and dispose of the remains in the green bins.

On 7 January I rang officers to check if the Christmas tree collection service was running as nothing was written on RBC's recycling card calendar and there was no announcement saying it was operating this year.  I was told the service had been cancelled however since many trees had been dumped, officers were arranging to collect them for chipping.  I was phoned back by a senior officer who said officially he could not advise me to tell residents to take Christmas trees to the former collection points and that if residents did, effectively they would be fly-tipping.

Yesterday (10 January) I was pleased to be told that the Labour administration has done a U-turn and posted a statement on RBC's home page restoring the service.  Any resident yet to deal with their Christmas tree can recycle it at their local former collection site without fear of being accused of fly-tipping.  The list is: Mapledurham Pavilion's car park, Clayfield Copse's car park, Kensington Road Recreation, Meadway Recreation, Prospect Park, Whitley Wood Recreation, Palmer Park, Tilehurst (Poors) Allotments off Armour Road.

Conservative Leader Cllr Tim Harris said "Reinstatement of this service is great news.  I'm disappointed though that Labour hasn't had the decency to apologise for the confusion and come clean.  If Conservatives hadn't spotted this and raised the matter residents would have been left with a sub-standard service."

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Cash & Wake-up Call

I was interested to read Paul Cassell's report in today's Reading Post which says Schools Minister David Laws wrote last month to Reading Borough Council (RBC) as well as 14 other councils, requesting an urgent reply asking for RBC to set out plans on how to improve the town's schools' performance.

KS2 Local Authority 2012 extract
The letter was prompted by RBC coming in the worst performing quarter in the country in last year's SATs results for children receiving free school meals (a measure of deprivation).

The Conservative led government has agreed to fund the pupil premium for all 259 children taking a free meal in an attempt to narrow the attainment gap between these children from deprived homes and those more advantaged.  The gap is 23% between Reading's children achieving at least level four in both English & Maths at Key Stage 2, one of the biggest gaps in the country.  Here is the link to the DfE's KS2 results table.

The confirmation of funding from David Laws is very welcome and I hope his letter will force the Labour administration to focus on reducing the gap in attainment.  The Minster said "We simply will not stand back and allow failure on this scale to continue".

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Christmas Tree Chaos - So Much for "Let's Talk!"

I was surprised to learn from a Reading Borough Council officer this week that the service of collection points across the town has been axed by the Labour Administration.  No press release was issued and there is no obvious notice on the Council's website or at the former collection points.
Mapledurham Pavilion's car park Monday afternoon

Apparently this year the Council advises that residents should cut up their Christmas tree and put the pieces in their green waste bin or alternatively take it to the Civic Amenity at Smallmead: But residents are clearly as unaware of this change of policy as I was.  Hundreds of Christmas trees have been taken to former collection points by residents to be recycled as in previous years.

I went to Mapledurham Pavilion's car park yesterday afternoon and saw three massive piles of discarded Christmas trees.  I understand from colleagues that the same is true at Clayfield Copse and the other former collection sites.  This wasn't a great surprise given that households were taking down their decorations by the 6th January.
Palmer Park's car park Monday afternoon

The Labour administration has once again completely failed to communicate the change of policy and now any financial saving they had budgeted for will disappear due to the unplanned for cost of clearing up their mess. 

Is it any wonder the public's ongoing scepticism of Reading Labour's "Let's Talk" programme? 

Conservative Leader Cllr Tim Harris said, "Once again Labour has failed to communicate effectively with residents.  At a time when the Coalition nationally is cleaning up Labour's mess, they are wasting public money locally and letting residents down."