Saturday, 28 February 2009

HE Under The Spotlight

BBC South Today reports that the proposed closure of Reading University's School of Health and Social Services in only part of a wider problem.

Oranjepan asks:
Can the needs of society be reconciled with our economic concerns?

Friday, 27 February 2009

Tomorrow PM?

107FM's Andy Jones thinks Oranjepan is the only qualified man to take over from Gordon Brown.

Oranjepan says:
I'm flattered, but perhaps he's just having a giraffe.

Recommended Reading List #10

BBC Berkshire's Clare Catford interviews Wyndham Clampett, founder of the Reading Gay Christian Forum.

Politicians Show United Front

Whoever said politicians spend all their time bickering was proven wrong by the sight of Reading councillors reaching consensual agreement in support of a LibDem motion to counteract the University of Reading's proposed closure of the School of Health and Social Care.

Oranjepan says:
Ok, so there's always a bit of banter, but we'd never know what everyone really thought if there wasn't!

Update: Cllr Daisy Benson refocuses attention on the substance of this important matter, stating that "no politician or political party in Reading should feel complacent" about the issues on which our taxes are spent.

Reading Chronicle belatedly reports.

Budget Delay: The Free-Market View

Arch-freemarketeer and local MP for Wokingham, John Redwood, has hit back at the extremists on either side of the Council Tax debate.

While clearly on the side of reducing the tax take in real terms, it would also appear Mr Redwood opposes the public demands by Conservative partisans in Reading for a nominal reduction or freeze [1].

Oranjepan says:
The confrontational approach which has been adopted by both Cllr Cumpsty's Conservatives and Cllr Lovelock's Labour is a blatant gambit designed to avoid any compromise - their duel for political dominance is at the expense of economic good sense and our social well-being.

Budget Delay: The Common Sense View

Self-styled voice of 'common sense', Howard Thomas, sticks his oar in to the growing debate to argue that the Council Tax is unfair and needs replacing.

Oranjepan says:
Council Tax may be unfair, but as Government's preferred 'least worst option' it would require significant new analysis to suggest a better alternative.

Budget Delay: The Independent View

Cllr Tony Jones reports that the delay in setting the annual budget may have already cost the council £60,000.

Oranjepan asks:
How much would it cost the local economy to set a bad budget?

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Budget Delay: The Media View

Reading Evening Post has entered the political fray to apportion blame for the delay over setting the annual budget.

Oranjepan asks:
Why do they always blame the little guys?

Recommended Reading List #9

Bronagh Miskelly writes about Reading University's commercial imperative, while Daniel Lombard goes into greater depth on the axing of the School of Health and Social Care.

Budget Debate Assumes Greater Significance

Another lengthy council session reached no decision on Reading's annual budget and lead to warnings from Chief Financial Officer David Peasley that failure to reach agreement could see services temporarily halted.

Council Leader Cllr Jo Lovelock (Labour) repeated declaredly her impatience with the refusal of the town's eight Liberal Democrats to be 'bounced' into supporting her minority administration.

Conservative leader Cllr Andrew Cumpsty also pushed for a more polarised debate saying that the parties are too far apart to make negotiations worthwhile.

LibDems defended their position on pragmatic grounds, stating that they remain open to negotiation (and what lengths they have gone to achieve it) but added that agreement is possible only when parties are prepared to make concessions.

Councillors will now will reconvene for a third time on Monday evening as each side battles to influence the direction for the next generation. The meeting starts at 6.30pm and is open to the public.

In the meantime Conservatives have launched a press campaign to appeal to the public over the heads of elected representatives while they attempt to bring about the collapse of the current regime.

Oranjepan asks:
Why are Reading's Conservatives attempting to mount an undemocratic coup to bring about tax restraint while their party colleagues across the county are doing the exact opposite?

Update: Janestheone throws a couple of curve balls.

LibDem Cllr Warren Swaine accuses the tories of lying to the public and issues a rallying call to stand up to the bullying tactics of the larger two parties.

An intemperate Reading Chronicle describes the delicate process of negotiating under a minority administration as 'farcical'.


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Click here for a full comparison of Council Tax rises in the different local authorities across Berkshire.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Second Reading For Private Member's Bill

Ambushes continued apace yesterday as the unusual sight of a Private Members Bill passing it's First Reading occurred by a margin of 247 to 203.

This amendment to the Planning Act 2008 involved a move by opposition MP for Richmond Park, Susan Kramer (LibDem), introducing a legal block to the extension of Heathrow airport by requiring parliamentary approval for the proposals, with the support of Reading West's Martin Salter.

The Second Reading on March 20th could prove equally uncomfortable for the government as a number of Labour MPs are expected to rebel from the party line under pressure from active residents' groups in affected constituencies.

Oranjepan asks:
This will be the first chance for Martin Salter to show his true colours since he declared he will not stand for Parliament again. Will he backtrack, rebel or will he abstain?

Update: Reading Evening Post takes more than a week to get a quote from local MP, Martin Salter.

Council Reaches Impasse on Annual Budget

Reading's local politicians will reconvene tonight after another marathon session in which they failed to reach a decision on the borough's Annual Budget.

Residents will now need to wait to find out by how much our £100m+ income will vary and how it will be spent.

Jane collects a couple of reactions from opposition bench councillors Richard Willis (Con) and Glenn Goodall (LibDem), but Labour have yet to react to their humiliation and are still publishing their proposals as news.

The rundown: Labour proposed a rise in Council Tax to increase spending on areas of weakness, which was defeated by an alliance of opposition parties.

The LibDems moved a compromise amendment to trim spending on waste (on consultancy and agency fees), introduce a levy on bulky waste and keep wasteful tax rises to a minimum, but this was also laid to waste - this time by a grand alliance of the two larger parties.

The Conservatives made it plain that they support a variety of across the board but unspecified service cuts and charge increases as they seek to implement a unilateral freeze on Council Tax. However they actively worked only as wreckers to any agreement without introducing any proposals themselves.

Oranjepan says:
Cllr Willis's references make it plain that the Conservatives are preparing to mount a revolution outside of an election year. Will they succeed? We'll find out tonight!

Update: Welcome back to the blogosphere to Cllr Emma Warman (Con). She says her party opposed raising the Council Tax to stop Reading being squeezed dry, but she doesn't explain why Reading's group of opposition Conservatives contradict Conservative groups across Berkshire where they are in charge. Neither does she explain why no alternate proposals were forthcoming from her side.

Reading Chronicle fails to meet it's publishing deadline.

Former LibDem Councillor Annette Hendry has added an informative comment:
I sat and listened to the Budget debate from the public gallery on Tuesday. I was particularly worried that Reading has a bunch of Conservative Cllrs, who are aspiring to take control next year, but seem unable to make any positive contribution to setting the Council's annual budget - a basic responsibility for a council. Their speeches raised more questions than they answered. Where will they get the extra money they want to spend on some services while freezing council tax? If they're so concerned with keeping down costs, why did they oppose the cuts put forward by the Lib Dems? Why did the Tories have no specific costed suggestions of their own to make? Why did the Tory leader oppose the budget by saying, "It's not right for these times", without any indication of what would be right? This poor performance won't do. Neither is it advisable to make statements like, "If you want the lowest possible council Tax then Conservatives will provide that", when Conservative controlled Wokingham have just announced a Council tax rise of 4.68%! This compares with Labour's proposed rise of 4.24% and the Lib Dems' proposal of 3.9% in Reading.


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Click here for a full comparison of Council Tax rises in the different local authorities across Berkshire.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Feud Ignites Over Local Political Funding

Berkshire-based Bearwood Corporate Services has come under increased scrutiny this week over allegations that the 'Billionaire from Belize', Lord Ashcroft, is to be investigated over his funding arrangements with the Conservative Party for campaigning in marginal constituencies.

Almost 200 articles published in recent days attest to the significance of this news and the controversy it has caused.

Here is a selection of sources: The Times and The Guardian report the news and the Financial Times quotes a Conservative spokesman (identified by The Independent as Dr Liam Fox MP) arguing that the donations were "legal and permissible" (ie that they don't want to give them back and would struggle to do so if forced).

Elsewhere the staunch Tory tabloid Evening Standard is forthright about the risks the Conservatives are taking; even The Sun decides that this is a newsworthy story.

The Times' Red Box blog follows the money trail and asks why the law can effectively be bypassed by a person (albeit a peer of the realm) who refuses to answer questions. In their view the investigation into Lord Ashcroft's 'failure to comply' with requests to give additional information to the Electoral Commission is fully justified.

The Spectator asks the underlying question of where the Conservative party would be without Ashcroft's dirty money and praises a Guardian editorial which underlines how this is only the latest in a long line of stories which show how our democracy is being successively undermined by politicians who can't recognize, or choose to avoid, fair play.

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On the local scene, hatchet-man Cllr Richard Willis has attempted to deflect the glare of national attention by asking questions about the transparency in local party accounts and has elicited an angry response from LibDem Cllr Warren Swaine.

Oranjepan says:
It seems odd that according to Cllr Willis Reading's LibDems are the best funded party, until you note that his figures do not include non-cash items, operational income or funding from other sources (small donations, MP's expenses etc).

Perhaps it should be asked which party offers highest levels of transparency and disclosure. Though not here, of course.

Taxpayers to Pay for 'Free' Festival

Journalists and commentators across Reading are bewildered by the announcement that tickets for the Heavenly Festival will be free for all.

Some don't know whether to bemoan the loss of exclusivity on their freebie junket, while others appear more pleased by the fact they will no longer need to organise VIP entry passes.

The event, which is designed to replace the internationally recognized WOMAD festival after a change of locations, is to be held on July 10th and 11th, but the decision to operate without ticketing charges (at a cost of £75,000 from council funds) will still require last minute approval at the next Council meeting on March 16th.

Reading Arts Box Office (tel: 0118 960 6060) has announced that full refunds are available to anyone who has already purchased a ticket (though it may be wise to wait until the move is confirmed).

Further details and news on acts can be found here.

Labour's lead councillor responsible for the leisure service, Cllr Graeme Hoskins, moved to preempt accusations that the reduced levels of income would lead to organisational shortcuts if large crowds of freeloading revellers descend upon the riverside location, saying, "obviously there will be no compromises on safety. Health and safety issues are paramount."

Oranjepan asks:
If it is so obvious why did Cllr Hoskins feel the need to spell it out?

Update: Isn't it nice to know that people are reading and taking notice!

Friday, 20 February 2009

Children's Services Fallout Hits Wokingham

Ofsted's Joint Area Review into the provision of children's services in Wokingham has claimed it's first major scalp as it emerged directorate boss Wendy Woodcock has resigned.

Meanwhile, Wokingham's opposition LibDems are furious that papers released under a Freedom of Information request show ex-council leader and the then lead member of children’s services for the Conservatives, Cllr Frank Browne, was told by officers before September 2007 that 'children’s social care was underfunded and there was an over-reliance on agency staff'.

LibDem group leader Prue Bray placed the blame squared at the door of the political adminstration. "You are all collectively responsible," she said.

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For full coverage of the events which have rocked Reading since the death of Child T and the continuing political fallout, go to the Special Report on Children's Services in Reading (see sidebar).

Wokingham Announces Council Tax Rise of 4.68%

Wokingham Borough Council has announced the annual average increase in Council Tax (based on band D properties) will be 4.68%.

Conservatives rushed to defend their budget claiming that local challenges in social care meant it was their 'toughest' yet and blamed underfunding by central government, although they also showed that it is in line with increases being levied in other Berkshire councils.

Meanwhile Wokingham's opposition LibDems pinpointed Conservative failure as the cause of the larger-than-expected rise.

LibDem leader, Cllr Prue Bray, explained that the annual increase is limited to 5% maximum and that additional funding into services labelled 'inadequate' by inspectors is only possible by painful cuts elsewhere.

Cllr Bray also criticised the Conservative's dishonesty in their attempt to accept power but avoid responsibility.

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Click here for a full comparison of Council Tax rises in the different local authorities across Berkshire.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

University Decision 'Ridiculous', 'Deplorable' and 'Irresponsible' say Protesters

A snowball of outrage has started gathering momentum since the University of Reading announced on 9th January it's decision to close it's School of Health and Social Care for corporate reasons.

Here's how Reading List first reported the announcement.

An online petition is growing rapidly and a facebook group has been set up to keep campaigners informed of developments.

Meanwhile Reading LibDems have called the decision 'irresponsible and short-sighted', explaining that is it in contravention of recent ministerial guidelines and said they will be presenting a motion to council urging for the decision to be reversed.

Redlands Councillor Daisy Benson goes into greater detail and Green Party member Adrian Windisch offers his support.

Ann Quinn, Director of Social Work Studies at the University of Reading, said "I know we have good programmes, strong links with local partner agencies and with people who use services, and very committed students. The university has a responsibility to local social work services and service users, and must reconsider its decision."

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For full coverage of the events which have rocked Reading since the death of Child T and the continuing political fallout, go to the Special Report on Children's Services in Reading (see sidebar).

Call-in Success

Following the decision to make use of the 'call-in' procedure for the first time, opposition councillors have shown that they now have the teeth to hold the minority Labour administration to account.

Labour had proposed to increase the public subsidy to the managers of South Reading Leisure Centre in Whitley by £72,000, but the additional scrutiny has secured assurances over marketing to ensure visitor numbers return to a more viable level.

Cllr Graeme Hoskins, lead councillor for culture and sport, said he was "extremely disappointed" that he was asked to justify the decision and modify his plans.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Strike Ballot Confirmed

Following the announcement that Thames Water plans to cut 300 staff, spokesmen for the GMB trade union have confirmed their decision to ballot over strike action .

Filling A Gap

In response to a report from BBC South Today and the personal experience of local bloggers, Reading List recommends this reporting service as one which we can personally vouch for.

Fill That Hole and the linked Clear that Trail are excellent public resources operated by the Cyclist's Touring Club.

At this time of year potholes can become a big problems according to Malcolm Simms of the Asphalt Industry Alliance, who said:
"If you’ve got an existing defect, cracks in the surface, water will get in, penetrate, as it freezes it expands and blows the existing materials apart."
With every pothole costing around £70 to mend, Council maintenance budgets are being stretched even further at a time when cutbacks are being made in many areas of council budgets, so please don't abuse the service.

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According to CTC's league table of local authorities ability to clear up reported damage to road surfaces, Reading is ranked at #25 out of 206, but there are many more unreported potholes lurking out there!

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Update: Kategrove LibDems have responded.

Apparently Reading Borough Council has completed 8219 road repairs since last April, but with cutbacks and poor coordination between the authority and utility providers problems are likely to continue.

If you see a pothole they encourage you to report it to councillors or call the local council directly (RBC telephone: 0800 626 540).

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Recommended Reading List #8

Reading List is grateful despite the lateness, but I'm sure the editor of TLS, Peter Stothard, will be forgiving if we make it a double date.

Strife Spreads Among Tory Ranks

Just a couple of weeks after claiming the scalp of her opposite number in the Children's Services scandal Conservative councillor Isobell Ballsdon has suffered the indignity of a sideways promotion.

In a backhanded compliment to her successful criticisms of the Labour regime, Conservative group leader, Cllr Andrew Cumpsty, announced himself "delighted to add even more breadth and depth to the Conservative team."

Cllr Jamie Chowdhary will replace Cllr Ballsdon on the Education & Children's Services Scrutiny Panel and the Parenting Panel, who now takes over the shadow planning brief for the party group.

Oranjepan asks:
After holding the ruling party to account with little support from her superiors, which member of the Conservative hierarchy did Cllr Ballsdon upset to receive such a reward?

What was it in her newspaper article that opened up a festering internal party schism which required her to be moved away from this area with such haste?

Update: It appears that someone in the local press agrees, though we don't know about Mr Howarth's description of Cllr Ballsdon as 'fearsome'. Mick's satire also cuts close to the knuckle.

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For full coverage of the events which have rocked Reading since the death of Child T, go to the Special Report on Children's Services in Reading (see sidebar).

Electoral Fraud Case Opens

The trial of a former Berkshire councillor suspected of committing electoral fraud has begun at Reading Crown Court.

Conservative Mohammed Aziz is accused of rigging the vote in 2007 which saw a popular veteran Slough councillor unexpectedly ousted from her seat with a large majority on an unusually high turnout.

The subsequent investigation showed that the electoral register had seen a sudden rise from 6,600 to 7,215, with a large proportion of postal votes - many of which were registered at the same address. Investigators discovered 19 postal votes had been granted for one address which turned out to be derelict!

Oranjepan says:
Following the irregularities which were felt in Reading it is good to see Thames Valley Police following through on their promise!

Labour Avoids Fact-Finding

Local Councillors and members of the Safer Reading Campaign have visited the regional Police control centre to gain a better insight into the process of policing.

The visit included a tour of the Thames Valley Police call centre, requested by Cllr Benson after concerns were raised about the handling of enquiries. The busy Redlands representative also provides comprehensive information on how the issue has effected local people.

Questions were raised by both LibDems and Conservatives over the reasons why Labour failed to send one of their 3 committee members or any of their 19 councillors on the fact-finding mission to investigate the quality of public service given by the Police.

The visit was arranged shortly after the announcement of an inflation-busting 4.89% hike in Council Tax precept was agreed (this compares to 4.24% overall) by members of the Thames Valley Police Authority to pay for 12 new front-line officers in the borough.

And all this massive expense at the same time as small-scale community-based solutions are struggling to survive.

Update: Outgoing Labour MP for Reading West, Martin Salter, has reiterated his demand for additional allowances to be paid to Police Officers across the region, without which he says mean "council tax payers in our constituencies are in effect subsidising the training of Met police"

South Oxfordshire is to receive 20 extra officers under the plan.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Council Tax Updates

On Thursday Wokingham residents will finally discover how much extra council tax they will have to pay after being kept on tenterhooks by the ruling Conservative group.

Council leader David Lee explains that redundancies are to be expected as they plough an extra £1m into Children's Services and £2.7m into Community Care after his administration was slammed by recent inspections.

Meanwhile Conservatives have attempted to deflect attention from this series of bad news stories by blaming LibDems on Woodley Town Council.

The tories accuse the LibDems of wastage, while the LibDems have struck back saying they have been defending much needed public services and amenities: LibDem Cllr Coling Lawley said "without the town council stepping in there would be no leisure services in Woodley."

In West Berkshire the feuding between the Conservative-run borough council and LibDem controlled town councils continued as LibDems argue it is possible to avoid neglecting vital services while keeping costs down.

Former Newbury MP, now Cllr David Rendel, said "Despite some tough financial times it is clearly possible to do more with less without punishing the taxpayer. Liberal Democrat-run Newbury Town Council and Thatcham Town Council have both managed to set much lower tax rises."

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Click here for a full comparison of Council Tax rises in the different local authorities across Berkshire.

Recommended Reading List #7

If the economic arguments about the current downturn are giving you a headache here is a helpful analysis which explains why we would be right to worry about the direction of travel.

The article may be text-heavy, but the graph speaks volumes.

Recommended Reading List #6

Local bloggers are not happy about the latest imposition made by central government in the name of combatting terror - banning photographs of police officers.

Here is a sample of what they have to say on the subject from Beasley's Place, Graspthemettle and Parly View.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Pro-Business or Not Pro-Business?

Hopeful Conservative candidate for Reading West, Alok Sharma, has run into trouble over a local campaign.

After collecting 896 signatures on a petition against the proposed Pincent's Hill 'sustainable village', Mr Sharma's has managed to simultaneously aggravate environmentalists and the local business community amid accusations of partiality and lack-of-objectivity.

Housing developer Blue Living has responded to the results of a survey conducted by Mr Sharma questioning the Conservative's methodology and their statistical conclusions.

According to Reading West Conservatives, 96% of the respondents are 'concerned about the impact of traffic from any development', 87% are 'concerned about the loss of a green space', 86% are 'concerned about the pressure on local public services such as education', while 82% are 'worried about the impact of development on the environment and wildlife'.

Yet the survey contained no reference to the actual plans for the 37-acre site, so how could they then conclude that 85% of the respondents are against the development, spokesperson Jonny Anstead asked. He admitted the survey did highlight local concerns, but added that plans were in place to increase biodiversity and promote environmentally and socially-sustainable community living.

Mr Sharma is quoted as describing the company's comments as “a cocktail of gibberish”.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Angling for a Headline

Here are some further updates to Martin Salter's sensational decision to take early retirement (perhaps he's already got a cushy position lined up to tide him through).

His selfless dedication to the cause of angling has seen industry publications pacnews and Fishing Magic hooked by events.

Elsewhere on the net Spectacular Fishing and African Tuna Fishing have been caught up in reporting the announcement.

Child Protection Update

Following the Joint Area Review of Children's Services which resulted in the resignation of the lead councillor responsible as well as disciplinary action against staff, it has been announced that an overhaul of the scrutiny system is to be discussed at the next Cabinet session.

Under consideration is an extension of Reading Children’s Trust Board to introduce cross-party evaluation into the policy area for the first time following LibDem proposals to ensure partisan interests no longer override the public interest.

As Cllr Bayes explains, it is important to be able to listen to the voiceless.

However, the task of filling vacant positions with qualified social workers will only get harder with the closure of a local training college, adding a new set of victims to be claimed by the credit crunch.

BBC reports that there could be a "huge increase" in the number of vacancies within social services in Berkshire as a consequence, according to the British Association of Social Workers. BBC South Today also covers the story, highlighting the contention in any move to close the school.

A final decision on the closure of the department (which would be the third in 4 years at the University of Reading) will be made in March.

Oranjepan asks:
fewer qualified professionals fighting to fill more front-line vacancies at a time of rising unemployment won't help raise standards or keep costs down; what is the University thinking?

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For full coverage of the events which have rocked Reading since the death of Child T, go to the Special Report on Children's Services in Reading (see sidebar).

Thursday, 12 February 2009

More Council Tax Rises

West Berkshire has become the third local council in the county to announce the increase in Council Tax levels.

The authority has declared that the average rise (based on band D properties) will be 3.9%. This adds to above-inflationary rises for parking and other income streams.

Meanwhile, Bracknell Forest became the fourth as the Conservative-dominated council declared it would push for a near-maximum rise of 4.9%.

Maidenhead will see an increase of 2.9%, while Reading has announced a rise of 4.24%.

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Click here for a full comparison of Council Tax rises in the different local authorities across Berkshire.

Taking Stock of AWE

Readers are encouraged to respond to a consultation over the proposals to construct a new nuclear warhead processing plant at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston.

Click here to respond online at the council's planning portal, or email comments to planningcomments@reading.gov.uk - by 20th Febuary.

Environmental and peace activists are mounting a concerted campaign with the help of LibDems councillors and the local Green party.

Redlands LibDem Glenn Goodall provides some background and
some personal opinion, while Rob White reprints a list of the major objections submitted by Reading Peace Group.

Housing Event Reports

Reading Chronicle reports on the housing consultation held at the Hexagon this week.

Landlords and students packed out the event, showing the level of public concern on the issue, which has turned into a bit of a political football in recent years.

LibDems have been pushing for the re-introduction of the landlord accreditation scheme which was recently abolished in order to be able to ensure minimum standards are met and vulnerable people are not disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, Labour group deputy leader, Cllr Tony Page, claimed a £120,000 allocation in RBC's proposed budget for 2009/10 represented new resourcing rather than replacement for earlier cuts.

Elsewhere Mark Reckons provides a personal view of renting in the private sector and some of the problems which can arise.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Recommended Reading List #5

High praise indeed from the BBC's Paul Fletcher.

Perhaps Nicky Hammond and Steve Coppell could provide an executive training course for some of our local politicians and bureaucrats!

More Complaints Please!

RBC has finally grasped the mettle that the only way to resolve problems is to understand them first - and now that if they know what they are they may also be able to understand and resolve them!

As a consequence they are calling on sections of the community to get in touch to help them get on with their job.

Click here to visit their complaints department.

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NB Reading List also welcomes and encourages all feedback

Thames Water Strike?

In protest at the announcement that Thames Water is to cut 300 jobs for corporate rather than operational reasons, the GMB trade union has said they are considering balloting for strike action.

GMB national officer, Mick Rix, described bosses as using the recession as an excuse, and said that the utility should be run for the benefit of customers - not shareholders.

The GMB union will meet on 17th February.

Salter's Final Bow

As a matter of record Reading List notes Martin Salter's final pronouncement before he declared his intention not to seek re-election.

Oranjepan asks:
Was this the straw that broke the camel's back?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Round-up: Martin Salter MP Stands Down

After recently celebrating 25 years in active politics Reading West MP has announced that he will not be the Labour Party candidate at the next General Election (which must be held before May 2010). He has also been asked to join Labour’s national general election campaign team.

The news has hit the grapevine like a bombshell and reports are flooding in. Reading List summarises the response from commentators.

Rumours have been floating around for some time, as confirmed by Douglas Alexander MP, who said "Martin told me more than a year ago that if this parliament ran longer, he was unlikely to stand again."

Official confirmation was finally made at 2pm this afternoon.

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Here is the official announcement from his recently set-up website and the announcement from LabourHome.

The BBC offers an impartial view of his track record and quotes Mr Salter's effusive thanks to his constituents.

The Spectator's Coffee House blog reported simply (but effectively) on the news, admitting this took even their experienced spectators unawares.

Reading Chronicle starts it's coverage by hinting at Mr Salter's desire to retire early with the inference that he and his party are worn out.

The local Conservative-leaning paper continues by giving space for Reading East MP, Rob Wilson, to thank his colleague while ushering him quickly out of the door.

Reading West Parliamentary spokesmen Alok Sharma (Conservative) and Patrick Murray (Liberal Democrat) are quoted as expectations grow that the battle for the parliamentary seat will now be a two-way fight.

Separately they collate reactions from across the board. RBC Labour group leader Jo Lovelock said she wasn't surprised, while LibDem leader Gareth Epps spoke for all concerned to say that "Reading politics is going to be very different. It will be interesting, to say the least".

Loyalist newspaper Reading Evening Post appears shellshocked by the announcement as it is unable to add anything to the news, but it does nevertheless provide access for the voice of the people to be made clear where an mixed undercurrent of bottled-up frustration and relief is the general trend.

Newbury Today (which covers the outlying areas of the Reading West constituency) also record the news.

Local radio station 107FM also reports the news, regurgitating the press release that "a new candidate [will] have long enough to establish themselves in the constituency" in order to defy "political gravity."

Jane Griffiths, Salter's former Reading East Labour MP who turned into his long-time antagonist, reported the event here and has since added the internal Labour party communique of the announcement which has been passed to her.

Local Conservative councillors were cock-a-hoop at the announcement, jumping to the conclusion that their party candidate is now a shoo-in and immediately began speculating on the identity of who could fill Mr Salter's shoes.

Cllr Willis expressed the closeted perspective that Labour often depended on their MP for political direction and leadership and offered failed 2005 Reading East parliamentary candidate Cllr Tony Page, Cllr John Hartley (who lost by 880 votes in Basingstoke in 2001) and stalwart Reading councillor John Ennis who recently took over the Children's Services portfolio after recent controversy (a "poisoned chalice").

Cllr Tony Jones, who worked alongside Mr Salter for many years pours scorn on any chances that Labour may retain the seat in future parliamentary elections by quoting Labour Cllr Gittings, who said after the most recent local elections in the borough that Labour is "fighting elections with an ever-dwindling and under-motivated activist base".

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Update: Green Candidate Adrian Windisch has expressed his relief at the news, while trade union councillor, Tony Jones, passes comment on those of his former colleagues who are being touted as a potential successor.

LibDem PPC Patrick Murray makes an official statement and Cllr Swaine adds his two cents.

Howard Thomas of Reading's own 'Common Sense Party' speaks up.

Mental Health Conference in Reading

Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust is to hold a conference on mental health issues on March 3rd at the Calcot Hotel.

Latest research will be presented and seminars with experts in the field and those effected by the issues will be held.

According to Professor Roz Shafran, Co-director of the Charlie Waller Institute of Evidence-Based Psychological Treatment at the University of Reading, suicides in men outnumber those in women by 4:1, but reasons for this high rate of suicide is a difficult question to answer.

170 British Soldiers have died in action during the Iraq conflict, but in a similar period 6,729 young men aged 15-34 have killed themselves in Britain alone.

CALM (The Campaign Against Living Miserably) explains that in times of economic trouble financial stress can be an additional pressure which may contribute to people deciding to end their own lives.

Booking forms can be found here and all proceeds will go to the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust.

Your Home Matters; Your Views Count

As Reading List previously advertised, Reading Borough Council is undertaking a consultation exercise on privately rented housing.

LibDem councillors have clearly been pushing hard on this issue, recognizing that with 1 out of every 5 houses across the borough (compared to a national average where 1 in 9 houses are rented from commercial landlords) this is of major importance to the quality of life experienced by Reading citizens.

So get on down to the Hexagon Theatre between 6.30pm-8.30pm tonight where you can have your say.

If you can't make it then the council website has a form you can complete to make your voice heard (before February 19th), and Cllr Benson has set up a facebook group.

AboutMyArea and Green campaigner Rob White have also advertised a series of events organised by Reading Energy Pioneers where homeowners can discover way to save money on their energy bills by cutting down on energy waste.

Update: Local newspaper Reading Chronicle has given their audience hasty notice of the event.

Monday, 9 February 2009

All Atwitter?

Matt Brady has helpfully introduced a debate about the use of social networking medium Twitter which seems to be sparking off in a pretty big way.

Opinions are divided over the future for this new technology and it's development potential.

Will it help to break down barriers and increase engagement, or will it just massively increase the banality and gossipy nature of our social dialogue?

Matt himself appears to be on the neophyte side of the argument - with Katharine Robinson - as evangelists for the social networking technology (both are signed up to attend forthcoming twestival events).

Ferocious exiled sarcast-o-matron Charlie Brooker traverses his instinctual nausea and becomes compelled by "the online equivalent of popping bubble wrap" - but then his gratitude does stem from an unexplained haggis-cooking urge...

Local councillor Glenn Goodall offers a note cautious scepticism while perhaps the greatest word of warning for those who are tempted into twittering addiction comes from Graham Jones, who notes the mass of popular interaction could soon be swallowed up by an irresistible tidal wave of commercialisation.

Does tweeting enable twitterers to spread their wings and fly away to explore the unknown pleasures and possibilities of an emerging digital universe, or will the new medium place a new shell of technological wizardry around our core humanity to alienate us still further from our real needs and desires?

It's over to you.

Update: z0man has asked an interesting question.

Recommended Reading List #4

Here's on oldie. But as you'll see it's a smooth, mellow goldie.

And here are the 1, 2, 3 local reviews it links to.

Literally Reading

In commemoration of National Storytelling Week 2009, Reading List offers Readers a list of 10 works which use the fair town of Reading as a backdrop or inspiration for the plot.

Classics:
1. Belford Regis, by Mary Russell Mitford
2. Our Village, by Mary Russell Mitford
3. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
4. Jude the Obscure, by Thomas Hardy
5. Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome
6. The Wind in the Willows, By Kenneth Grahame

Contemporary:
7. A Melon for Ecstasy, by John Fortune and John Wells
8. The Big Over Easy, by Jasper Fforde
9. The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde

And the poem:
10. Reading Races

If we've missed anything please let us know.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Round-up: The Council Tax Divide

Reading's three main political parties have set out their stalls regarding the latest round of council tax rises.

Reading Conservatives were first off the mark, making a typically large splash against all and any tax rises.

This preempted the official Labour group proposals to "both protect vital services and keep the council tax increase as low as [possible]."

And finally we have had the LibDem response, arguing for reform of the system to make it fairer and more responsive.

The LibDems explain that the low increase in the central government grant (which makes up about 3/4 of all councils income) has forced the hand of local authorities - according to their spokesman, pretty much anything local politicians can say about these local taxes is spin designed only to influence local voters.

Council's are restricted in their ability to raise income to a maximum increase of 5% on property tax and are simultaneously prevented from varying other tax levels by the Exchequer, so there is a natural inclination to squeeze every last drop from other sources such as parking fines, speeding fines, littering fines, as well as late payment fines - all of which hits the most vulnerable the hardest.

Oranjepan asks:
How can cabinet members on our local council actually influence any changes or meet local priorities while they remain target-driven from Whitehall?

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Click here for a full comparison of Council Tax rises in the different local authorities across Berkshire.

After the Snowfall Comes the Thaw

The one story which has been gripping the country over the past few days has been the seasonal levels of snow - proving the old truth that one thing Britain loves talking about more than anything else is the weather.

Reading List was almost tempted to do a full round-up of what Readers have been writing, but it's just impossible to keep up with the blizzard of material. However in a modest attempt to prevent white-out on the subject we'll concentrate on the fallout from the events.

Criticism has been growing over the suggestion that political leaders have left the transport network horribly exposed by underinvestment as they attempted to cut budgetary corners.

REP receives the prize for the pithiest story title and Mick Spreader is typically forthright.

Local MP, Martin Salter (Labour), is never one to miss a bandwagon sliding past on the ice, so he jumped right on in an attempt to grab a headline without any qualms or hesitation over accuracy (he really should read the local press more - see above).

Oranjepan says:
If Readers can't get enough then I'll leave it to Google to sate any remaining appetite.

Reading - In Java!

No, 'the beautiful borough' hasn't suddenly been transported half-way round the world to the East Indies!

In their wisdom, council bosses have launched a new service application for mobile phones which will provide visitors with access to live information on traffic flows, parking spaces, train and bus timetables, cinema listings and maps highlighting the location of petrol stations, shopping centres, cash machines, hospitals and tourist attractions.

The free public service provided by mxData is the fifth such service provided by local authorities across the UK and can be downloaded from the company's MetroTV website.

The news is causing a buzz on tech sites. Mobile Entertainment is excited about the opportunity to directly target advertising to potential customers and the enhanced features including cinema listings, though The Register is less enthusiastic - judging the VMS (Variable Message Signs) technology inferior to Google Maps (also available on mobile).

Oranjepan says:
Remember, just don't use the travel information service while driving!

Update: Public TechnologyNet reports Marc Allen, RBC's UMTC systems manager, as delighted with the successful launch of the service, with over 1,000 downloads of the new application since the start of the month.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Editorial: How Free is Your Media?

Reading List has caused a bit of a stir!

Whether or not the breaking of an embargoed document by sections of the media is a major story, it nonetheless does expose their double dealings and explain why members of the public may be getting a raw deal.

If elected councillors are being hindered in their ability to hold the ruling party group and the bureaucracy to account, then how can they ensure that events such as those that ultimately resulted in the death of Child T don't happen again?

The relationship between the provincial press, local authorities and local politicians needs to face up to closer scrutiny and procedures must be followed with more rigour. Freedom of the press means not only freedom to report, but also respect for guidelines and embargoes.

RBC's new Chief Executive, Michael Coughlin, has started with a clean slate but it is now time for him to clamp down on unhealthy and self-interested behaviour - in everyone's best interest!

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This post provides some good background, particularly Cllr Swaine's contribution.

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For full coverage of the events which have rocked Reading since the death of Child T, go to the Special Report on Children's Services in Reading (see sidebar).

Recommended Reading List #3

Wendy has some sweet words to say on Nestle's marketing!

Friday, 6 February 2009

Council Tax Rise Leaked to Local Press

Reading's Council Tax will rise by 4.24% this year.

At least it will if the minority Labour party group get their way, according to reports in the local press.

The announcement comes as council's across the county announce their budgets for the upcoming financial year. Maidenhead were the first to declare, stating that their rise would amount to 2.9% on an average house.

Labour Leader Jo Lovelock told the Evening Post, "this year’s budget is more challenging than usual."

Reading Chronicle takes a slightly different angle, highlighting the impact on council jobs.

Oranjepan says:
1.9% in an election year, 4.24% in a year when there are no council elections in Reading - say no more!

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Click here for a full comparison of Council Tax rises in the different local authorities across Berkshire.

With Friends Like These, Who Needs an Opposition?

John Howarth, the election supremo for the local Labour party who lost his own seat, has finally caught up with the tragic events which resulted from failings in the Reading's Children's department.

In his regular column for the Evening Post the voice of wisdom declares that "political resignations rarely solve anything".

But let's not be too hasty in forgetting that Cllr Ruhemann (Mr Howarth's fellow Labour party collaborator and former council colleague) would have been forcibly removed had he not resigned. Instead Howarth attacks the ratings system which obfuscated the quality of Reading's service and points to the faulty statistics which said his friend was doing a perfectly acceptable job.

Mr Howarth asks an important question: "why did Ofsted’s inspections of 2005, 06 and 07 fail to detect what we are now told are systemic failures? "

So scraping the froth away from his palaver, Mr Howarth tacitly accepts the systemic failures existed, which were under the responsibility of Cllr Ruhemann, and he blames the regulatory system run by his party at a national level for failing to do it's job.

Oranjepan asks:
which government minister will Mr Howarth be defending over the systemic failings in Ofsted?

(Clue: Ed Balls MP is the Minister for Children, Schools and Families. Mr Balls is a protege of PM Gordon Brown and is married to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. So not him then.)

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Update: Cllr Swaine is particuarly aggrieved by Mr Howarth's spin and exposes the behaviour of entrenched and unaccountable officials beholden to their political masters.

Jane Griffiths gives Mr Howarth a thorough fisking and strikes a couple of personal blows for good measure too.

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For full coverage of the events which have rocked Reading since the death of Child T, go to the Special Report on Children's Services in Reading (see sidebar).

Thursday, 5 February 2009

More Views on Heathrow Expansion Proposals

It has been brought to my attention that the somewhat overlooked South East England Regional Assembly (SEERA) has spoken out against the proposals for expansion of Heathrow.

In its capacity to decide regional transport priorities Assembly Chairman, Cllr Paul Carter spoke up: "Heathrow plays a critical economic role but the Assembly remains against a third runway at the airport. We are sceptical that expansion can be squared with our own, and Government's, commitments to tackle climate change."

He also argued that the government let the unelected representative body take up the role it was designed for and called on the government to let it's Committee on Climate Change (CCC) offer a broad-based independent view. He also reiterated the urgency of stronger commitment to high-speed trains and the delivery of Airtrack.

Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce has also issued a statement offering cautious support for the plan on behalf of the 2,500 businesses it represents. Spokesperson Claire Prosser stressed the need for improved surface access (including high-speed rail links) to ensure the location remained a viable transport hub.

In the interests of balance here is the BAA site promoting expansion.

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In depth coverage of the controversial plans to expand Heathrow can be found here (see sidebar).

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

RBC Spends Extra on Childcare

Reading Borough Council spends double the national average on children in care compared to other councils around the country.

Council spokesman, Chris Branagan, said this was justified by "considerable investment in the fostering and adoption service over previous years, and more recently, plans to provide local care for disabled children with specialist needs."

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For full coverage of the events which have rocked Reading since the death of Child T, go to the Special Report on Children's Services in Reading (see sidebar).

The Wages of Spin

Richard Willis has picked up a report published by the unofficial Conservative pressure group the Tax-Payers Alliance stating that the number of Council workers earning high wages has increased unjustifiably in recent years.

The claim is that Reading currently has 139 employees earning over £50,000pa and 52 on more than £60,000pa - and that this is the cause of recent large Council Tax rises.

However questions of partiality and bias hang over the paper; without providing information on the number of workers who earned just less than the threshold in 2006 it is made impossible to judge whether the increase is a result of excessive wage inflation or if it has been caused by a huge influx of new middle managers.

Reading Chronicle reports Conservative MP Rob Wilson arguing recent rises in Council Tax are not being spent on frontline services, as Labour claims.

And yet when council tax rises have been lower in Reading's Labour-dominated council than in local boroughs run by Conservatives they have faced criticism of "selling off the family silver" in order to do so.

Oranjepan asks:
why is it that according to Conservatives our council taxes are in all cases both too high and too low - except where they are being set by Conservatives?

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Here is a list of Council Tax rises for most Berkshire local authorities in the past two years.

Reading - 3.5% (07/08), 1.9% (08/09)
Bracknell Forest - 4.94% (07/08), -(08/09)
Slough - 4.99% (07/08), 4.85% (08/09)
West Berks - 2.9% (07/08), 3.9% (08/09)
Wokingham - 3.24% (07/08), 4.94% (08/09)
Windsor & Maidenhead - 3.8% (07/08), 2.3% (08/09)

[07/08]
[08/09: Reading; Slough; West Berkshire; Wokingham; Windsor & Maidenhead]

Windsor & Maidenhead have announced that in the year ahead (09/10) Council Tax there will rise by an average of 2.9%. They are the first local authority in Berkshire to publish figures.

NB. Rises are capped at 5% by central government. The headline figure is generally calculated as the rise of tax on Band D properties. Council income from Council Tax amounts to about 1/4 of the total (Berkshire borough councils each budget on incomes around the £100m mark).

I would be grateful if any reader could provide the comparable figure for Bracknell Forest in 2008/09 to complete the list.

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Click here for a full comparison of Council Tax rises in the different local authorities across Berkshire.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Editorial: House Rules for Commenting

Firstly, a big thank you to everyone who has commented on the stories covered by Reading List.

This blog welcomes contributions from all readers and hopes to stimulate discussion on the topics and issues which concern us. Encouraging participation in political debate is the best way in which we will spread the ideas and knowledge which will resolve the problems that impact on our lives, so constructive comments are much appreciated.

However it can be a concern that comments are being made anonymously, as this may lead to readers being influenced in negative ways.

Of course there's nothing to stop sock-puppetry, astroturfing or a variety of other deceptive and manipulative online habits, but the purposes of such behaviour is invariably destructive and shall be discouraged.

The editorial team understands the reasons why many people may desire to keep their true identity hidden, but in the interests of fostering openness and honesty (if not complete transparency) we recommend choosing a pseudonymous moniker to prevent confusion.

Oranjepan says:
if I can do it, so can you!

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For anyone who is interested this debate is active here.

Step-gate

It was supposed to be a place where residents could escape the traffic fumes and enjoy a little piece of rest and tranquility for a short while - a green lung at the heart of the urban metropolis.

But after the elegant Georgian square was reclaimed in a recent make-over as an example of low-level community-led regeneration, Eldon Square gardens have now become the focus of a political spat.

REP reports that a Reading East PPC, Labour's Anneliese Dodds, has been approached by a local resident to find out why no wheelchair access was provided at an entrance during the renovations (despite the fact that there are two alternative entrances within 50 yards which do so).

Ms Dodd's has advertised this failing as the fault of a group of local opposition councillors who have recently taken control of the ward after several decades of decline allowed by her own Labour party.

The LibDem councillors in question have hit back arguing that their local election success is the result of local campaigns to improve community facilities.

Cllr Bayes said Labour's candidate was engaging in naive partisan electioneering, “[Ms Dodds] should apologise to the people of Redlands for deliberately misleading them – the decision to install a step in Eldon Square gardens was taken by Labour’s ruling executive last year, not local councillors.”

The Labour PPC then contradicted her earlier statement by admitting the project had been ok'd by her party colleagues, who'd also previously tried to claim credit for it, and to cap off the affair she added a new accusation of party political game-playing.

Councillor Glenn Goodall takes up the case, while Redlands LibDems provides the background of the campaign and the completion of the project.

NB. RBC stated that the step was required to traverse a tree root, but that the decision to go ahead had only been made after referral to the access forum on July 7 last year where this issue should have been raised.

Oranjepan asks:
Is the complainant, Diane Goodlock, a Labour party stooge?
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