Friday, 26 February 2010

Unified Opposition Defeats Developers: Campaign Round-Up

#rdgnews - The plan to build 750 new homes on Pincents Hill has been rejected at a meeting of West Berkshire council's planning committee at Little Heath School.

The Pincent's Hill site from the air

The issue became a highly controversial feature of the Reading West parliamentary campaign as candidates on all sides spoke up against the proposed development while developer Blue Living failed to turn up in person, instead sending legal representation who accused politicians of 'trying to win cheap votes'.

Linda Fort notes Labour and Conservative candidates welcomed the rejection.

Conservative Alok Sharma commented on the 1,400 people who signed a petition against the plan, stating that "local people are overwhelmingly opposed to any development on this site."

LibDem candidate Cllr Daisy Benson, who chairs Reading's housing scrutiny committee, paid tribute to the work of community activists organised by her party colleagues Cllr Ricky Duveen and Jean Gardener, as well as Joan Lawrie and the Save Calcot campaign, explaining that the reasons for the rejection are all "closely linked to the detrimental effect the development could have on the environment and the quality of life of residents. "

Meanwhile Labour's Naz Sarkar highlighted two 'major' points of opposition, namely that the site is located outside current settlement boundaries and that the greenfield site is a vital open space between Tilehurst and Theale. He also pays his tribute
"to the dedication of Joan Lawrie and the Save Calcot Action Group who have raised and publicised this issue providing detailed evidence of why this planning proposal should be rejected."
The Pincents Hill site from the ground

However Cllr Ricky Duveen picks out the continuing bone of contention between local and national government, asking,
"I wonder what a new Tory or Labour government would do to give local people more power to decide on planning issues for themselves rather than have their decisions made by an Inspector or the minister?"
This is significant, as Pamela Owen reports, because the Local Development Framework set out at national level continues to include a desired figure of 10,500 new homes in its' core strategy to be built in the area over the course of the next decade.

And Green Party candidate Adrian Windisch made it a full house by collecting a selection of sources on the subject, describing the 'rapurous applause' which greeted the decision.


Oranjepan asks:
After they criticised local politicians for hindering economic development by being disunited during this year's budget debate, will the good people in the local media now give credit to the political classes for being united on this issue or continue to stand full square on the bottom line?

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More on the campaign to save Pincent's Hill and White Hart Meadows.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

An Overview Of Democracy In Action

Reading Chronicle wades into the political arena by publishing a leader article commenting on the budget debate.

They say the different political attitudes are getting in the way of helping the region out of the recession, describing politicians who
"squabble and snipe like argumentative children, rather than climb down from their pet hobby horses and talk to each other like grown-ups for the good of the people they purport to represent."

Oranjepan says:
Clearly the editorial staff at the Chronicle don't watch PMQs!

While some may take a dislike to the personal styles of disagreement and think these means of expression are not the most productive, let nobody be fooled that there are serious issues at stake to be fought over and that these disagreements are not easily overcome.

So the estimable publication should themselves be warned that it is even more detrimental to the general well-being to sit on the sidelines bemoaning the actions of others without making any direct contributions to the debate, as this only adds to the apathy and disillusion that holds us all back.

Better a reliable result than a quick fix.

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More on Reading's Budget 2010/11

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Recommended Reading List #50

Sean O'Dell reviews Warren Berry's new book 'The Kennet And Avon Navigation: A History' for the British Association of Local History.


The lecturer on local and regional history concludes that "this is a concise, well-researched and informative book that will appeal to local historians and anyone with an interested in the origins and development of our inland navigations."

He describes how "the trading decline of the canal is examined, and detailed account of its subsequent rescue and restoration is provided," which from my point of view this will suggest some interesting insights into regeneration issues.

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More Recommended Reading List

Jolly Days

Reports that the Jolly Anglers riverside pub will now reopen are being met met with 'excitement' and speculation.

According to Facebookers the Jolly Anglers is scheduled to open at 11am on March 1st.

A spokesperson for L&J Partnership explained that the pub will operate without a tie to any major brewery and will be capable of running mini-festivals and music to suit the community.

LibDem candidate for Reading East and CAMRA member Cllr Gareth Epps previously called the green light to reopen the pub a "a massive victory for the local community" and said the campaign had been a "a spectacular success" which would prove a "victory of national significance."

Meanwhile Labour candidate Anneliese Dodds offered her support and agreed that the anti-competitive measures allowed by current law are "ripe for stamping out."

Adrian Windisch explains that the Green Party supports the CAMRA campaign to stop pub closures because of research showing 84% of people "
believe a pub is as essential to village life as a shop or post office."

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More on the Save Our Pubs campaign

Budget Debate Leaves Conservatives Red-Faced

Reading Borough Council passed the vote on the annual budget and Band D residents will see an average 2.2% rise in Council Tax this year (compare to other councils in Berkshire).

But the evening almost descended into chaos as the vote proceeded without Conservatives present. In the event the vote passed supported by 19 Labour councillors and opposed by the 8 LibDem Councillors.

The budget meeting went on for 6 hours as it was delayed by 5 successive amendments, each of which had to be debated in full.

Council Leader Cllr Jo Lovelock stated, "This budget achieves the right balance in uncertain times."

But the debate has spilled out onto the blogosphere as disagreements over the correct balance continue.

Cllr John Ennis was triumphant. He describes how the tactical manoeuver to call the vote whilst back-room discussions among opponents were ongoing saw Labour's proposals passed without amendment. He says tories attempted to 'hoodwink' the council by proposing a 0% rise involving no cuts to services without providing any details of how they would achieve this.

Conservative Cllr Richard Willis was bitter at the 'dirty tricks' played by the ruling party, but as LibDem leader Cllr Kirsten Bayes explained "The mayor was in the room and the meeting was quorate. You have to respect the democratic and legal procedures of the council."

As a council ruled with 'No Overall Control', Reading is in the slightly unusual position of having a Labour administration with a Conservative Mayor, and it was the veteran Cllr Fred Pugh who called the vote.

Cllr Willis goes to lengths to detail why his group were 'incensed' by Labour's conduct, which saw the vote 'bounced' in this way.

The Conservatives had circulated stories of a Lib-Lab pact beforehand and had their bluff called when the LibDems spoke against the proposed 2.2% rise and said they were willing to work together with the Tories to come up with solid solutions.

In an illuminating post Cllr Gareth Epps describes how LibDems had specific proposals which could have reached the £1.5m savings required to create a 0% rise, and states a deal could have been reached.

Conservatives were locked in discussions on their response to the LibDem offer of cooperation when the vote was called.

According to Cllr Ennis, the
"whole episode totally exposes the Tories as a sham. They can only gain support by trying to make the next election a referendum on our administration. They are bankrupt of ideas, offer no alternative or change and they are not fit to run Reading."
Cllr Willis struck back, saying Labour's tactics "smacks of the desperation with which they have continued to cling onto power in Reading" while arguing that the "Lib Dems also proved once again to be all over the place."

Meanwhile LibDems have seemingly refused to be bullied by the larger two parties.

Cllr Bayes said it was unfortunate that the outcome was reached in this way and expressed disappointment at the Conservative disorganisation and Labour's financial management, stating that she did "genuinely think the rise did not have to be as big this year," adding,
"I am glad we were able to stand up for our residents in what are very difficult times, and we will keep working to make the Council as efficient and effective as possible."
And Cllr Daisy Benson gives a detailed account of how the LibDems are being attacked for being prepared to listen without prejudice to alternative proposals from any source. She explains how she believes residents aren't interested in gestures, but in action.

Meanwhile Cllr Glenn Goodall posts an aggregated collection of his tweets from the floor of the chamber... it's live reporting and it really gives a sense of being there.


Oranjepan says:
setting a budget in election year inevitably mixes party politics with civic responsibility - so from the state of this debate it's clear this year's election will be highly contested.

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Update: Cllr Emma Warman returns to the blogosphere for the first time since October to express her astonishment that the LibDems weren't prepared to support the Labour party as they had 12 months ago.

She notes with frustration that LibDem leader Cllr Bayes offered to help defeat the Labour proposals by imposing a series of conditions and concludes this shows their opposition to her party's ideologically-based agenda of cuts.

Cllr Warren Swaine replies swiftly. He seems to think it is impossible to reach an agreement when there is nothing to agree to.

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More on Reading's Budget for 2010/11

Monday, 22 February 2010

The Berkshire Council Tax Debate: Views And Perspectives

The proposed changes in Council Tax is regularly the biggest debating issue of the year on the local scene - and it looks like 2010 will be no different!

The jockeying for position has already begun as each party sets out their stall ahead of the general election to offer indications about how they propose to balance economic and social pressures at hand.


RBWM grabs the headlines

Grabbing all the headlines has been the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, which has decided to buck the trend of perpetual rises to slash Council Tax rates by 4%.

The Conservative-dominated council has been held up as a model authority by party officials, which they suggest indicates exactly what they are possible of achieving when in power.

Leader of RBWM, Cllr David Burbage trumpets the move. He explains that the cut fulfils a 2007 manifesto pledge to deliver below-inflation rises every year - and that this was done by reducing expenditure by £6.2m without impacting frontline services.

He cites the example of car-maker Toyota's 'lean' business model as one which should be followed by councils, describing how his Conservative group are "rolling out Lean throught the council" - however this manages to overlook the recent scandal to hit the company which saw the recall of over 8 million vehicles after safety concerns were 'resisted' by the reliance on flawed reports which directors covered up by issuing 'misleading' statements.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda has since explained that "priorities became confused" at the company.

Unison's head of local government services group Heather Wakefield writes on this precise point in Public Finance magazine that the model of finding efficiency savings in 'back office administration
"is a crude mechanism that conveniently overlooks the fact that well functioning administration and technical support behind the screen are critical to effective and efficient front-line services,"
adding that "what this all means for Windsor & Maidenhead’s vulnerable elderly and children is clear to see."

Neville Hobson looks at the lasting implications and wonders whether their organisation can survive such a damaging blow to their public trust.

But the announcement that RBWM would be the second council in the country to make real-term cuts in council tax drew a range of excited responses from ideological 'cutters'.

The Daily Telegraph also noted that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had issued a directive that he would reduce the cap on rises from 5% to 3% due to the current economic circumstances.

The Tax-Payers Alliance described the development as all the more remarkable because it followed rises of 1.9% and 2.5% in the two preceding years.


Elsewhere in Berkshire

Meanwhile a similar refrain has coloured the issues throughout the county.

Commenters on Slough Forum were unimpressed by the lack of debate on the issue - with Slough likely to remain Labour-controlled for at least the short-term Catweazel suggests the only option is to move to Maidenhead!

Bracknell blogger Darren Bridgeman analyses the budget proposed by the ruling Conservative party in Bracknell Forest. Surprisingly Bracknell will have a near maximum 2.9% rise this year - the highest in the county.

Reading's Cllr Richard Willis was particularly impressed by the tough stance taken by his colleagues in Maidenhead saying it would cut the burden on the public. He argues that local services are 'inadequate' in a number of areas, and paid for by taxes which are the highest in the county (although this discounts any local factors within the borough).

Cllr Willis also offers the pledge from Reading Conservatives that Council Tax will be frozen if they gain control of the authority in May's local elections.

Reading's Labour party responded to this through Cllr John Ennis. He launches a volley against the Conservatives in Reading for failing to provide any concrete counter-proposals and he challenges them to be clear with the public about precisely what they would cut.

He highlights the case of Wokingham where the relatively low rise of 1.9% will be accompanied by 150 job cuts among council staff as the Conservative-dominated authority seeks to find savings of £9.5m after being severely hit during the Icelandic financial crisis.

Leader of Wokingham's opposition Liberal Democrat group, Cllr Prue Bray gives a particularly interesting insight.

She explains that Wokingham tories have passed an incomplete budget which will require a 'supplementary estimate' later this year, as she says, "the Tories have put together a budget which leaves out some of the things they know they are going to be spending money on."

She goes on to comment:
"The idea that you can actually PLAN to raid the reserves because you are deliberately setting an inadequate budget is, to say the least, unusual. What would you do if there was a real emergency?"
And in an odd reversal of affairs Woodley's ruling LibDem Town Council were attacked by Conservatives as 'out of touch' for setting a reduced rise of 1.45% - below the 1.9% set by Wokingham Borough (Woodley Town lies within Wokingham Borough).

Somewhat ironically a Conservative spokesperson described them as "inconsistent, unreliable and [showing] a complete lack of experience with financial matters."

But the final word goes to another Town Councillor, this time Wokingham's Robin Smith, who advocates for a complete reform of the taxation system, starting with an adaptation of the Council Tax.

He says, "everyone hates Council Tax no matter what you do."

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Update: Independent Cllr Tony Jones describes as 'bogus' Labour's claim that a 2.2% rise in Reading was kept "as low as possible, while protecting services."

LibDem Cllr Glenn Goodall takes aim at the Conservatives for moaning about cuts to sandwiches, while they 'put nothing on the table'.

In the event Conservatives in Reading were embarrassed when they missed the vote on the budget, allowing the Labour proposals to pass unamended.

The potential for another marathon 3-day session (as happened last year) was averted as the 18 Conservative councillors sat outside the chamber and Labour won the vote by 19 votes to 8.

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More on Reading Borough Council's Budget for 2010/11

Proposed Council Tax Rates Across Berkshire For 2010/11 Released

The proposed Council budgets for Berkshires 6 unitary authorities have all been released, so it is worth bringing the headline facts together to offer a chance to compare and contrast them.

Here are the changes to Band D rates by authority (and those from last year):

Bracknell Forest: +2.9% (+4.9%)
Reading: +2.2% (+3.99%)
Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead: -4.0% (+2.9%)
Slough: +2.5% (+4.9%)
West Berkshire: +1.9% (+3.9%)
Wokingham: +1.9% (+4.68%)


Oranjepan asks:
Notably the proposed changes are much lower across the board than 12 months ago - is this influenced by the national economic outlook, or because we are in a general election year?

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NB. Council Tax pays for a broad and specialised range of services required to be provided by the local authority to the community. These services include:
  • Education and Learning - adult and community learning, early years and childcare, schools and non-advanced education.
  • Health and Social Care - children and young people's services, care services for the elderly and those with disability.
  • Community and Living - community events, libraries and arts and leisure facilities.
  • Transport and Streets - traffic calming, street naming and numbering, parking, road maintenance and cycle routes.

Some of the amount collected also pays for Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service, Thames Valley Police Authority and your town or parish council.

The rate of Council Tax anyone pays is based on several factors:
  • the property you live in (i.e. its banding based on the historic capital value of property at 1/4/91);
  • how many adults occupy the property; and
  • the amount of income that the local authority needs to deliver its services once account is taken of grants and other income.

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More on Reading Borough Council's Budget for 2010/11

Friday, 19 February 2010

Round-Up: Conservatives Criticised For Hyping Fear Of Crime

Reading Conservatives have been slammed by local commentators after announcing their crime manifesto for the general election.


violent crime controversy

Rob Wilson MP outlined a selection of 'tough new measures' in their 'blue-print' to combat rising crime levels, as he said that violent crime has increased by 198% compared to ten years ago.

He was following the Conservative party line set out by shadow Home Affair spokesperson Chris Grayling MP - who has been roundly condemned for ignoring the changes introduced in 2002 in the way statistics are compiled as a means of manipulating public perceptions and undermining confidence.

Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, spoke out against the Conservative claims which were made 'without qualification' and could be deemed 'likely to mislead the public'. This was a powerful argument as it directly contradicted Alok Sharma who said Labour's initiatives had undermined public trust.

Datablog describes in more detail how the political row has been caused by distortions arising from confusion, while BBC's Mark Easton attempts to clear up any confusion with a selection of graphs.

Over on my other blog I suggest that 'ramping up' emotional responses to issues and offering knee-jerk reactions is always a sure sign of a party on the ropes.

Labour candidate Anneliese Dodds spots an opening to score a political point of her own by issuing a call for Conservatives to withdraw their discredited claims, while LibDem Cllr Warren Swaine was highly critical of the press release issues by Mr Wilson - which he says is manufactured outrage copied out from a central office press pack.

Earlier LibDems had picked out Audit Commission research into crime figures in the borough.

Cllr Gareth Epps, who is standing against Mr Wilson and Ms Dodds in Reading East, said, "considerable work remains to be done both to tackle crime itself and residents' perceptions and fears about crime."

And leader of the LibDem council group on RBC, Cllr Kirsten Bayes, identified the growth in economic inequality since Labour came to power as the primary cause of the problems which must be tackled, emphasising how the quality of services still do not match the levels needed.

This is particularly relevant, as Anna Roberts reports, there are still high levels of outstanding cases remaining unresolved.

Cllr Daisy Benson prefers to concentrate on more practical efforts to cut crime, explaining that LibDem proposals are endorsed by experts.

She explains that although crime is a perennial issue for local residents and there are some indications that anti-social behaviour has increased under Labour the way to solve crime is not by introducing more top-down measures in yet another crackdown, but by improving community enagement.

She argues that communication between authorities and the public is the only way to share information and help educate people who may be in vulnerable positions.


property crime controversy

The Daily Mash picks out how Burglary is a Dying Art as it is being replaced by online fraud as a more common threat - a claim which is backed up by official analysis.

Reading’s local police area commander, Acting Superintendent Jim Weems, recently explained that burglary has actually fallen by 9.1%.

But obviously this will come as no comfort to people who have become the unfortunate victims of the crime.

Paul Walter is particularly concerned that the tories are using sensationalist statements to pander to householders by pushing for a change in the law which would defend the use of 'grossly disproportionate force'.

He is strident in explaining how the tories have been spouting codswallop as a cheap way of gaining splashy headlines that will only make matters worse.

And Cllr Epps reiterated the LibDem position that there is much which can be done to beat burglary.

He promotes the very cheap and simple work done through the Safer Reading Partnership which has recently attracted funds to the provide basic safety measures that are the greatest deterrent.

In an almost identical article Reading Post picks up on the scheme which will continue to accept applications for grants until 31st March.

And finally, free-thinker Elizabeth Thomas has poured scorn on a recent intiative by the Christian Police Association to tackle burglary through faith.

This followed circumstantial reports that domestic burglary fell by 30% after a church-going Police officer began to promote prayer as an effective way to catch criminals.

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More stories about local crime issues

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The IT Crowd

Information Technology has become an almost universal truth in daily life (well it's certainly vital for the blogosphere) and its' position in society has been placed under the spotlight from a number of angles in the past few days.

On Tuesday evening the local branch of the chartered institute for IT, BCS Berkshire, held a meeting under the title 'Professionalism in the IT industry' to help explain why it should 'take its place as a valued and respected profession'.

The industry held 'Safer Internet Day' on 9th February to launch an advertising campaign to raise awareness of issues surrounding internet usage.


Insafe provide a round-up of reactions.

BCS has also been the inspiration behind two recent campaigns. The first advocated for greater help to reduce the 'online generation gap'

This was complemented by a government-sponsored programme to provide grants to 270,000 low-income families to widen access to the opportunities access to technology brings. Reading Borough Council helpfully advertises how to apply for the grants.

Labour's Rachel Eden was particularly pleased with this initiative. She says it will save money on physical resources and help remove the stigma and embarrassment between children from backgrounds with different income levels by giving chances to develop internet and computer skills.

Meanwhile the group has also lobbied political parties to push for quicker roll-out of universal broadband.

The Communications Managers Association (part of BCS) issued a statement that it
"understands the respective strategies by the Conservative and Labour Parties to provide universal broadband, it does not believe plans by either will achieve this quickly or comprehensively enough to take advantage of the potential opportunity for growth provided by the online economy."
CMA Chairperson Carolyn Kimber explained that their plans would require a relatively insignificant commitment of £150-200m of investment per year.

Mike MacNamara raises the question and explains that broadband is an electoral issue, as market forces are failing to deliver universal access and support is needed to build the national infrastructure for the next generation.

Conservative MPs Rob Wilson and John Redwood responded in kind to the criticism.

Rob Wilson picked up on the issue and argues against Labour's new £7 tax to be levied against properties with multiple fixed-line telephones, saying it is unfair that pensioners who have no interest in internet take-up will be forced to pay.

He says the sums can be paid for by introducing more competition into the telecoms market, particularly by opening up and unbundling BT's ongoing 'local loop' monopoly on infrastructure ownership, usage and maintenance.

Mr Wilson also gives space to West Reading candidate Alok Sharma, who explains the ideological reasons behind Conservative proposals.

Meanwhile John Redwood attended a business solutions seminar with over 50 companies where the issue of technology was addressed. He reprints a press release explaining that he takes the economic side of the argument because investment leads to commercial growth.

However in a poll conducted by the CMA opinions are divided on the tory proposal to bring in 100mpbs broadband connections by 2017.

Completely equal numbers (31.6%) say that their proposals are and are not an improvement on the current plans made by the Labour government, while 36.8% say there is wide scope for improvement.

So there's obviously some space for other parties to get involved in the debate.

Cllr Daisy Benson speaks up for the LibDems criticising Labour's plans as a one-off gimmick, which she describes as an "attempt by Labour to try win votes from working-class voters rather than actually getting to the root of the problem."

She argues that access to IT is a secondary issue behind adequate education in schools - where much money has already been spent on hardware and software, but the ability to learn is limited by class sizes and the quality of tuition.

Separately IT users have been having their say.

Scaryduck isn't convinced by the idea to give everybody and their dog greater access to the internet - he seems to be saying with greater access comes greater responsibility, and he clearly doesn't think everyone is completely responsible.

Elsewhere Mr London Street has been developing a new customer database at work which is designed to make lives easier, but he is not completely thrilled with the reality if what is on offer.

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Update: RU technology department has been set the task of living for a day without access to comupters. Understandably Shirley Williams found giving her lecture on programming a 'challenge', while Pat Parslow finds his world suddenly disconnected.

Meanwhile Elizabeth Thomas has started to feel an obligation to her blog, which she says is draining.

Chairman Bill offers some sanguine thoughts about how the obsession with technology can go too far - he clearly thinks the ground rules and basic human skills of effective communication are laid down during face-to-face human interaction.

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Background: Geeks Get Organised

More stories on the local media & communications

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Mass Demo Against Weapons Of Mass Destruction

It was billed as 'The Big Blockade'.

Aldermaston has seen the biggest demonstration in almost two decades outside the Atomic Weapons Establishment following the decision to allow a permanent Uranium store at the site on Wednesday last week [Chronicle, Post].


BBC Berkshire's Emma Midgeley provides some background of the controversy surrounding the site - which has now lasted over 50 years since the first anti-nuclear demonstration at Aldermaston.

Around 800 protesters including the Bishop of Reading, two nobel laureates and a Plaid Cymru MEP were expected from early morning in a day of angry confrontation. Campaigners travelled from as far as Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Spain to attend the protest organised by Trident Ploughshares.

Official estimates of the actual number of demonstrators placed the figure nearer 400.

Campaigners said an estimated £97bn will wasted on 'useless' weapons which will only encourage proliferation of nuclear arms in contravention of the stated aims of international treaties.

Carlsson Laska from Sweden said that what happens in Aldermaston "threatens the whole world," but local residents were more nonchalant about the disruption, explaining that "we are used to it by now," and that it is "only one day a year."

1,400 formal objections were lodged against the plans as campaigners reported 61% of respondents in a door-to-door survey at surrounding villages are opposed to developments at AWE.

Nuclear Information Service director Peter Burt described the consultation as "a shame and a sham" as the group accused West Berkshire council of 'sneaking through' the plans during the Christmas holiday period.

Meanwhile NIS has also has collected together a selection of 34 videos of protesters on their facebook page - you can view them here.

Reported arrests during the peaceful demonstration reached 26 (mainly for obstructing a public highway). 19 cautions were given.

Reading's Green Party members have shown their support for direct action.

Adrian Windisch was in attendance to show his opposition to a nuclear arsenal. He also provides a selection of other sources to show the interest in the story comes from as far and wide as the Tehran Times and the Morning Star.

Interestingly his colleague Rob White says the protest was aimed at highlighting the economic argument against nuclear weapons.

Elsewhere an independent blog was set up to cover the event.

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More stories about AWE Aldermaston

Monday, 15 February 2010

Tories Face Questions Over Funding

A blogstorm has broken out as political commentators have raised questions about campaign funding in the Conservative party.

Labour councillor John Ennis started the debate by suggesting tory parliamentary candidate Alok Sharma is able to "pay for people to deliver fancy leaflets of airbrushed politicians that actually say nothing about what they are going to do" because he is funded by the "an exiled Tory grandee who doesn't even live in the country."

West Reading independent left-wing councillor Tony Jones picked up on this claim asking:
"with all the fuss about MPs expenses, what should we think if Alok Sharma gets into Parliament with a campaign paid for by questionable money? "
This provided Linda Fort with the opportunity to give Conservative spokesman Paul Swaddle a right of reply.

However he could only state that Belize-based billionaire Lord Ashcroft does not directly provide any funds to Conservative campaigns in Reading.

He then attempted to deflect the attack by attacking the 'cheap political points' made by opponents and the holier-than-thou attitude of Labour activists who are funded by wealth donors themselves.

Meanwhile Liberal Democrats have joined in the debate.

Cllr Warren Swaine notes the "inevitable mudslinging" in the affair is the result of confusion caused by inaccurate details.

To clear up the confusion he corrects the mistakes by identifying from the official record the three millionaires who do contribute to Mr Sharma's campaign, explaining that Lord Ashcroft has provided direct funds to the Conservative campaign in Reading East - not Reading West.

He goes on to describe Labour's 'wallet envy' as an attack motivated by purely partisan interests which follows internal dissent in the trade union movement leading to reductions in their contributions to the Labour cause.

Tilehurst's Cllr Ricky Duveen joins in to say donations from such millionaires who fund party politics for self-advancement should be forced to repay the millions they have spent buying influence.

He comments that fraudulent tax-evaders who fund politics are a "disaster for democracy."

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More from on the election trail.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

R-Words

The annual tax deadline passed recently (31st January) and all eyes were turned to the economy.

Derek Smeeton urges everyone to get your accounts up to date now because of the fragile state of the economy.

He says this is especially important to avoid higher tax rates which are due to rise from the start of the next financial year in April, and partiularly considering there is a prospect of further increases whichever party wins the general election.

RU Henley Business School graduate Alex Bernard gives an overview of the current economic arguments.

He points out the continuing "struggle between 'tax cutters' and 'dig a hole and fill it up [theorists]' is still a matter of debate. Even worse, economists do not agree on which, how much, and how, [to] cut taxes."

Alex is worried that the only available answer to the problems is to increase an inflationary spiral to pay for all the debt that has been racked up.

So he'll be interested in the range of reports that have been springing up to show how behaviour is being influenced during these straightened economic times.

BBC Berkshire's Emma Midgeley provides some vox pops from people on the street.


Recession & Recovery

Slough Labour activist Andy Peacock notes the predictions of 0.4% growth for the previous quarter and implores the public for votes with an emotive appeal: 'Don't let the tories crush the recovery'

However Conservative Wokingham MP John Redwood howls at the cynicism of another over-estimated forecast as adjusted figures come in showing the real level of growth to be only 0.1%!

Maidenhead's Alistair McRonald also picks up on the statistical event, marking the end of the period described by David Cameron as 'The Great Recession', which he says is brought about by Labour's "vast failed social engineering experiment."

However Reading's Adrian Windisch is ever-fearful that the news will bring only some temporary respite as the effects of the stimulus are short-lived and we head to a 'double dip' recession'.

The Green Party candidate thinks we should stop seeking to grow the economy because this inevitably leads to environmental destruction.

Elsewhere, Sandhurst's top Berkshire blogger, Mark Reckons, notes how the economic news plays into the election narratives adopted by the two main parties and may affect the date of the election - he says:
"If we were to find that we had dipped back into negative growth in the first quarter of 2010 just days before a general election that would be devastating to Labour and their electoral prospects."

Regulation & Reform

Libertarian Rob Fisher believes in reform - he explains how the current tax system involves a
"whole raft of coercive relationships, broken promises, illusions, lies, twisted assumptions and mental gymnastics that stand between me and my wages."
He says the concepts which currently support current tax philosophy are 'completely alien'.

Robin Smith asks the fundamental question: 'what is government for?'

The tory Wokingham town councillor is an advocate of systemic fiscal reform, which would involve introduction of a Land Value Tax scheme to stop the expansion of state and corporate power over the individual and prevent government and council budgets from becoming overblown.

Although he is not in the mainstream of his party's thinking he may be able to find some common ground with his opponents.

LibDem candidate for Reading East, Cllr Gareth Epps has been pushing his party's manifesto agenda - saying "We'll put fairness first!"

He describes how the LibDems "will introduce fairer taxes by closing loopholes for the richest, introducing a tax on mansions and tax cuts of £700 for everyone else" in a way which rebuilds the economy based on sustainable principles.


Oranjepan asks:
There is much needed to be done to sort the economy out, a decisive election will provide some direction but will it stop all the umming and ahhing?

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Meanwhile: Bank of England Chairman Mervyn King reports the annual rate of inflation has increased to 3.5% for the 12 months to end-January, from 2.9% in December - the highest level in 14 years.

Background: Countdown To The Budget

Recommended Reading List #49

@bennuk is a recent arrival in this ole town of ours, so he offers an interesting perspective on the recent city debate.

Ben explains he moved from the "bustling metropolis of London" and "was worried that I’d be leaving a centre of culture and diversity for somewhere a lot… well… quieter."

He continues to say that he "couldn’t have been more wrong. Reading has proven itself to be a real hub of fantastic events that have captured every single interest I have."

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More Recommended Reading List

Volunteers Spring To Action

Spring is the season when fresh hope returns across the land and members of the community happily get involved in 'doing their bit'.

Reading's student population is showing their community spirit as Liberal Youth starts its' Clean-Up Campus Campaign.

They have organised a series of events culminating with a panel discussion from 7.30pm on Monday 15th Febuary 'Is the World Still in Our Hands?' which is open to the public.

Meanwhile Reading Post advertises the 21st annual Rivers and Environmental Spaces Clean Up Event (RESCUE), which will be held over the weekend of March 13th and 14th.

In 2009 28 tonnes of rubbish was cleaered from 35 sites by 464 volunteers.

You can get involved by calling 0118 937 2100, through the RESCUE website, or by joining the Facebook group.

But if you'd prefer not to get your hands dirty when you roll up your sleeves, Reading Half Marathon is looking for volunteers who will act as stewards for the route on Sunday 21st March - contact Jackie on 0118 901 6000 or email her jackie@bmstc.org

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Previous Reading: Environmental Rescue - report of RESCUE event in 2009

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Barriers To Safety

The fatal car accident in which a man from Wiltshire was killed after careering across the open central reservation on the A329(M) has stirred many in the local community to rise up in protest against poor road safety.

23-year-old RAF technician Paul Payne died instantly in the rush hour collision when he lost control of his Fiat Punto and hit a Ford Transit travelling in the opposite direction.

The driver of the van, Colin Cowdell, has called for barriers to be erected so that further deaths can be averted. He explained how he was driving at 50mph when he noticed the other car out of the corner of his eye before the impact occurred.

"It all happened in a microsecond. There was nothing I could do," he said.

Several accidents on the same stretch of dual carriageway have resulted in fatal injuries in recent years, all of which could have been avoided.

A 27-year-old woman from Caversham died in 'identical' circumstances in 2007. At her inquest coroner Peter Bedford highlighted the lack of safety barriers.

A spokesperson for the council authority explained that they were proceeding with moves to put barriers in place as a matter of urgency and would be introducing a speed limit as an interim measure, but nothing happened.

Reading Post is coordinating the campaign to raise public awareness of the issue to pressure Wokingham council to act - you can join the Facebook group here and there is an E-petitition lodged at the Prime Minister's site Number10.gov.uk which you are encouraged to sign.

In response Conservative leader of Wokingham Borough Council Cllr David Lee has pledged £650,000 start work later this month, but explains they simply don't have the cash available to spend the estimated £4-5m required.

Meanwhile Cllr Prue Bray, who is the LibDem parliamentary candidate for Wokingham as well as leader of the opposition group on the council, provides an illuminating account of the debate behind the facts.

She explains how the stretch of road is an anomaly caught between several stools - although it is classed as a motorway, maintenance and safety are the responsibility of the local authority rather than the national Highways Agency, as would be normal.

The council has requested assistance from central government for the work, but they declined. So the council is faced with a choice about how to find the funds.

Cllr Bray says she was "stunned" to hear Conservative proposals that funds could be shifted from commitments already made in the school-building programme and describes 'replacing schools v crash barriers' as a "completely false and unnecessary choice."

And she launches a powerful attack against John Redwood who was interviewed on BBC Berkshire to suggest the "extremely expensive" new school for Arborfield could be cancelled. She says this is unrealistic and potentially illegal, since it conflicts with the borough's agreed strategy that will see housing developers pay for the school as part of plans to build 6,000 new homes in the area.

But it isn't a forlorn hope to get the barriers up. She points out that a funding plan could easily be accomodated within the scope of other transport measures, such as the Transport Innovation Fund bid or the Local Transport Plan (which is currently being consulted on).

Clearly this issue threatens to turn into a major dividing line heading into the election period, as Cllr Bray concludes the public shouldn't be fooled by the choices as presented to us and argues that positive solutions are more matter of imaginative use of resources than trading favours.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Recommended Reading List #48

Libraries are one of my favorite places, so I enjoyed reading this paean to their wonders by Gio at Let's Push The Red Button Anyway.

He eulogises about the 'amazing' collections of books made available to the public in their physical form and online through e-libraries, saying "occasionally, I am amazed by the things that the government can afford to provide in the UK."

The 'massive' variety of genres available include everything from 'august classics like Moby Dick or Wuthering Heights' to 'scorned sci-fi and fantasy'. He is particularly impressed by the efforts to categorize stocks in online databases which enables you to reserve books and recieve notifications of their availability via email.

Giovanni adds that he reads far more (with the effect that it benefits his language ability), but is slightly embarrassed that his favorite authors may see their earning potential decline as he now buys fewer books.

Elsewhere the New Directions learning and education service which relocated to Reading Central Library earlier this year advertises a new selection of language and computer courses on offer - a free guide to courses can be obtained by calling 0345 845 0012.

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More Recommended Reading List

A 'Mecca' Of Immigration

According to a recent survey undertaken by Reading Borough Council over 150 languages from some of the furthest flung corners of the globe are spoken in local schools.

These include many of the world's more exotic languages, as well as those from Britain's European neighbours.

Natalie Slater provides the full list, describing how this rich mix can put teaching resources under strain as authorities struggle to convince all new entrants to adopt English as a way to smooth their integration.

At a meeting of the ethnic communities forum Lesley Reilly explained that it is the job of the council's adult learning department to encourage members of every section of the community to get involved in improving language and literacy as ways to enhance social cohesion and give individuals better life chances.

This is particularly important as there is a wide difference in education attainment levels between community segments.

Labour councillors blamed the 'low expectations' of demoralised teachers on their failure to achieve targets across demographic groups - Reading University lecturer Cllr Peter Jones made the unusual mea culpa, saying "We haven’t valued education in this country for 150 years."

But Conservatives were less optimistic about making any lasting differences. Cllr Jamie Chowdhary admitted his pessimism: "We will probably still be discussing this in 20 years time if we are still here."

Meanwhile the survey has been picked up by the national press who've used it to push their own agendas.

A brief unsigned article in The Daily Express quotes Conservative Phillip Davies MP, who blamed 'Labour’s lax immigration policies' and 'political correctness' for preventing authorities from forcing people to integrate into society.

Typically such language only encourages more extreme voices to be raised, and BNP member Ray Dawkins crops up proudly in the comments section to strike out at "EU federalism and the unfettered invasion of immigration."

Elizabeth Grice in The Daily Telegraph is a lot more considered - describing the town as A Babel of Dialects.

She describes how Reading has "always been a town built on immigration", but this week it
"ceased for a moment to be synonymous with traffic congestion and insurance salesmen and emerged in a new light as a mecca for sociological and linguistic tourists."
Reading East MP Rob Wilson describes the vibrancy of the town as he argues for assimilation rather than integration, explaining "I am sure there are times in the past decade when some industries would have ground to a halt without foreign workers," while reflecting negatively on the pressures on services caused by the "the pace and scale of immigration" in recent years.

Ms Grice then travels from Cemetary Junction across town, along the Oxford Road and visits Battle Primary School - where less than two-thirds of children speak English as their mother tongue.

However literacy problems exist across the board in every town and especially in areas where deprivation is high. For example Slough has a similar population mix, which "offers vast opportunities, but of course it asks a lot more of services than if you were in a homogenous area," according to Slough borough council chief executive Ruth Bagley.

Separately an Estonian man has been bailed after being caught unloading 8 illegal immigrants from Afghanistan at the Twin Bridges roundabout in Bracknell.

Commenting on behalf of the UK Border Agency's Berkshire local immigration team, Rob Allen said:
"Our policy is clear, when suspected illegal entrants are found on lorries, immigration officers attend quickly in all cases."
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Update: Reading Chronicle follows up with an editorial welcoming the contribution to our community whatever language people speak.

In a memorable comment, they say
"Sadly one or two national newspapers felt unable to resist seeking out a dial-a-quote Tory MP somewhere in darkest west Yorkshire who seemed only too delighted to bleat about immigration and use the figures as a stick with which to beat the Government."
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Oranjepan asks:

Where would all be without immigration?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Fit To Print?

The Trinity Mirror publishing company has acquired a package of 32 regional newspapers from Guardian Media Group - including the Surrey & Berkshire Newpapers stable of Reading Post, Wokingham Times and Bracknell Forest Standard.

Sly Bailey, Trinity Mirror's CEO, explained the deal was "a perfect strategic fit" for the group which is hoping to create a regional multi-media network 'of real scale'.

However Independent councillor Tony Jones commented that although he hopes it is a new opportunity for the local titles, the current environment of contraction may mean further upheaval for "this once integral voice in the life of the town."

Cllr Jones expresses concern that the recent reduction to a bi-weekly will be followed up by moves to make the paper a weekly freesheet as increasing choice and diversity in the means to access news has meant "people have just got out of the habit of buying a newspaper."

The Unison representative also highlights the sweetheart deal given to Trinity Mirror (which formerly owned the Reading Chronicle title) - he notes that the £7.4million cash downpayment includes a contract-release clause despite counting gross assets of £8.7 million on the balance sheet - which makes it a potentially juicy target for asset-stripping.

The deal was part of a £44.8m package headlined by the sale of the Manchester Evening News, which has been at the heart of the Guardian's operations and media platform for 85 years, or as Dominic Ponsford puts it, a case of 'jettisoning the regionals to save the mothership.'

GMG CEO Carolyn McCall explained that the sale was necessary to "secure the future of The Guardian inperpetuity."

FT's excellently named Salamander Davoudi rounds up a selection of analysis from the city, picking out the low sale price. This indicates market consolidation is increasingly likely as TM ups its share of the regional news market from 19-23% - although as Oliver Luft describes, this raises plurality issues.

David Prosser picks out GMG's contrary view, which is gambling Rupert Murdoch is wrong that paid-for online content is the way forward. And how often has that occurred?

Meanwhile Bracknell Blog's Dazmando provides a well-informed discussion of the issue of paid-content. He identifies divergent trends where the the evolving technology creates new opportunities at both ends of the market.

Where consolidation is the name of the game at the high-end and fixed costs are high, this is contrasted at the grassroots where costs are low and new news media are reporting different types of stories in innovative ways - so perhaps independent news reporters can 'address the balance'.

Mark Reckons takes himself along to a 'sceptics in the pub' meeting in Westminster to participate in a discussion suggesting blogs have the potential to replace newspapers, titled "What difference does political blogging really make?"

Among the high-ranking bloggerati present and giving their views were Paul Staines aka Guido Fawkes, Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, Jonathan Isaby of Conservative Home, Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole together with The Observer's Nick Cohen, as well as local blogger Rob Fisher. The event was chaired by Allen Green of the legal Jack of Kent blog.

Elsewhere Elizabeth Thomas points out how new media platforms opens up new avenues for individual intellectual curiosity as cynicism with stale industrialised news formats grows and people look for different ways of addressing issues.

She quotes former journalist Chris Anderson, who said, "There was a hole in the existing media diet."

He is enthused that all the 'brain-nuturing stuff' that has become 'squeezed-out' by sensationalised headlines, over-dramatised facts and 'celebrity tittle-tattle' is being replaced by discussion of ideas that gives a real sense of community engagement.

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Update: Peter Kirwan has a graph which shows exactly where GMG's problems reside. He quotes insiders at Hold the Front Page (report; analysis) who think the takeover will mean drastic job cuts.

Jane Griffiths is not particularly concerned whether Reading Post is saved of not.

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More stories about the local media environment

Monday, 8 February 2010

Top Of The Berkshire Blogs - January 2010

It's back! It's bigger and better than ever! Check out the risers and the fallers with Reading List's exclusive chart of the best blogs in the area!

Of course no ranking system will ever be definitive so don't forget to tell us about any sites you think we may have missed in the comments section and add them to the Wikio directory - the more the merrier!

Here's a rundown of the Top10 for January 2010:

#1 (><) - Mark Reckons
#2 (><) - John Redwood's Diary
#3 (><) - Boulton & Co
#4 (><) - left outside
#5 (><) - Bracknell Blog
#6 (NE) - Another Green World
#7 (+1) - Liberal Burblings
#8 (+1) - Reading List
#9 (-3) - The Salted Slug
#10 (NE) - The Cartoon Church

Check out the full chart for the month.

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Another competitive month as more new entries continue to push the standard higher - the local top10 are now all in the top350 nationally, compared to the top400 last month and the top700 only two months ago. Overall 159 blogs are listed on the chart, with 24 now ranked in the nation's top1000 (up from 18 in December).

The big climbers of the month were undoubtedly Clive Davis: Confab (19th) and Last Django In Paris (33rd), both gaining over 20,000 places, while Adrian Hollister (35th) deserves credit for gaining nearly 4,000 spots.

The notable trend since the beginning of the year has been the relative decline of the right-wing political commentariat as left-wingers begin to sense the urgency of the forthcoming general election - could this reflect a swing in the polls, or is it already too late for bloggers to start having an impact? Cllr John Ennis makes an impressive debut at 50th as the first blog from an elected Labour representative, to show there is still some fight in the old dog yet!

Kudos to all the local writers out there for making this one of the most vibrant local blogospheres in the country - keep it up and watch out for next month's list!

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Click here for the full archive of earlier charts.

Click here for run-downs and analysis of previous months charts.

And if you still want to know more, why not check out the guide: Why It Matters... Blog Rankings

Sunday, 7 February 2010

City Splits

#rdgnews - The decision to bid for city status has divided opinion across the community and continues to spur debate about the future of Reading.

In the two online polls surveying public opinion on the subject no clear message can be discerned.

Reading Post finds a neat 50% fully in support of the bid, with more than a third opposed. The remainding 14% offer potential support depending on the cost and other factors - a range of which can be seen among the comments.

A bit more pointedly Reading Guide notes the political unity between RBC's Labour and Conservative Councillors on the issue and asks whether we are happy to follow this coalition of our representatives. 53% of voters responded to say their lead is taking us in the wrong direction and should stop embarrassing everyone on a 'corporate ego trip' to concentrate on more urgent local problems.


Adam Hewitt sketches the battle lines.

Commenting, Labour's Anneliese Dodds said she was disappointed in the people who try to "run our town down and are constantly negative about it." She is clearly singing from the same songsheet as leader of RBC, Cllr Jo Lovelock.

They both played the jobs card, arguing that a change in title would "help attract inward investment," citing 'a number of local businesses' who are prepared to sponsor the bid to demonstrate their confidence in the value of it, however it is not yet exactly clear which companies have committed to step forward in the current climate, or if they will fully cover the costs.

Naz Sarkar joins in the attack on LibDems for playing 'petty' party politics, in contrast to his colleagues and him who "put the interests of the town first."

And Conservative Cllr Willis is in favour of a bid too. He argues that it would be just recognising the status quo, as Reading is already the effective capital of the Thames economic region.

He launches his criticism against the LibDems for misrepresenting facts about the funding of the bid (Cllr Swaine states the direct cost will be £60,000, in addition to the hours spent by council officers). He asks rhetorically "with no cost to the Council Tax-payers involved, what have we got to lose?"

Cllr Willis compares Reading to Newport (the third largest urban centre in Wales) which was made a city in the last round of bidding and argues this enabled large-scale regeneration to help communities in the transition to a post-industrial economy. He quotes the Conservative leader of Newport council Cllr Matthew Evans, who is proud that the city now "has the largest concentration of civil servant workers outside London."

And as previously recorded, Cllr Willis gives his backing to tory support for the expansion of Reading's boundaries to include Woodley, Earley, Calcot and Tilehurst.

Both Labour and Conservatives expressed their surprise and sadness that there wasn't unanimity on the vote, but Conservatives are themselves hopelessly divided on this matter, as his colleagues in those areas make plain - Cllr Keith Baker uses fighting talk, saying "we will be the first to man the barricades to keep Reading borough out of our areas," while Earley's Cllr Chris Edmonds says he was sure his party would oppose any expansionism by Reading 'quite robustly', as they had in the past.

It was sadly his final contribution to public life before the 46-year-old 'rising star' of the local scene suddenly and enexpectedly died within 24-hours of speaking against 'Trojan Horse' policies to push through changes against the public's wishes.

Commenters paid particular attention to the quality of basic services provided in the suburban areas compared to the more built-up centre.

Elsewhere Independent commentators have been finding their voice.

Reading Roar's John McGarvey asks can we do better than this?

He points out the fame of our local cultural assets reaches as far as Vladivostok and says "you could be forgiven for thinking we’re embarrassed by it all," since the establishment always emphasises "vague economic benefits and the notion of 'putting the town on the map'."

Community activist Colin Lee writes that "spin, hype and over-egging" are unhelpful distractions from the real problems facing the economy, and that the aspiration to build "a Utopian Dubai-on-Thames" is nothing but a mirage.

Meanwhile Battle ward Independent, Cllr Tony Jones has a proposition - he says the royal assent is an archaic procedure which is "just bafflingly stupid and out of touch," so he thinks it should be replaced with a simple petition which would be automatically be granted to anywhere which applies after meeting specific criteria.

...and finally, Paul Robins hails the independent spirit of Reading people.

He points social networkers in the direction of Facebook, with almost 2,000 members on a fan page of the town set up in December (there is also another with over 7,000).


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Background: Is Reading A City?; Reading's City Bid Approved

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Round-Up: Equal Opportunists

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK later this year was bound to cause controversy given recent arguments over the role of faith in society that have sprung up as a consequence of the 'war on terror', and this has been reflected in the local blogosphere too as all sides felt able to contribute.

Freethinker Elizabeth Thomas complains that UK taxpayers are funding the visit, while atheist Steve Borthwick clearly says 'Nope to the Pope' and the £20m cost to put up with someone who is ruffling feathers over his intervention in the debate over the Equality Bill currently passing through Parliament.

The hardline Pope has encouraged believers to fight against new legislation with 'missionary zeal' protecting homosexuals and people of transexual gender from discrimination which would force the church to abandon centuries-old doctrine on the grounds that the bill "violates natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed," adding that it "imposes unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs."

Tim Trent is particularly incensed, he says the Pope is "an old bigot preaching his hatred" who "protects paedophile priests and nuns."

Ever the opportunist, local Labour MP Martin Salter uses the occasion to exercise his peculiarly divisive way of making an argument by accusing the head of the Roman church of 'reprehensible hypocrisy', by attacking the church of intitutionalised corruption in covering up abuses and saying that it "could possibly be the first time that a bloke in a dress has complained about equality legislation."

Berkshire Humanist Rob Ager diplomatically describes this debating method as 'interesting'.

Jane Griffiths offers some insights into Mr Salter's thinking.

Such button-pressing was obviously going to cause a reaction and it appears the controversy has provided the local print media with exactly the excuse needed to provide Mr Salter's blog with some exposure (satisfied now Jane?) as Adrian Windisch (who is Jewish) felt it necessary to defend Christians against the perceived slight.

Adrian obviously senses an opportunity to attack the man he has stood against in elections, as he's attempting to coordinate a response saying "the millions [of] Catholics in this country should rise up against [Mr Salter]."

Linda Fort dutifully picks up on the manufactured controversy, ironically identifying Mr Salter's "deliberately misleading" quote.

A leader article from the Reading Chronicle is grateful for the 'good copy', but suggests Mr Salter is "a little demob crazy, or his party's given up hope of retaining the Catholic vote," while an unsigned article stirs the pot further by reporting the overwhelming and negative reaction to the his words.

Martinsnottheone enjoys taking pot-shots at his enemy, insinuating that only hypocrites make accusations of hypocrisy.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat opponents have also spotted an opening to launch attacks.

Cllr Richard Willis claims the outraged response of believers has overshadowed the debate as it descends into 'schoolboy' insults and states Mr Salter has scored a "spectacular own-goal."

Taking a slightly more detatched view, Cllr Warren Swaine thinks the Pope will probably rise above such electoral nonsense as Mr Salter's tactics are not the best way to win hearts and minds ahead of an election in which Labour is fighting a desperate rearguard action.

In the wider frame David Blackburn sides with the Pope saying that the bill is fundamentally un-British in its inappropriateness as "it ignores that toleration and freedom in Britain were derived from the right to religious observance free from state proscriptions."

Thinking Anglicans blog collects a range of sources, identifying the key passage from the papal speech: "Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others."

Meanwhile The Catholic Herald provides some background context.

The speech was given before English and Welsh RC Bishops on their five-yearly ad limina vist to Rome - the first since religious authorities lost control of its adoption agencies and only a week after the House of Lords rejected parts of the Bill that would have forced the traditionalist church to make ordinations against its' doctrines.

But the final word must go to the Pope himself, who said:
"In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises, it is important to recognise dissent for what it is, and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate."

Oranjepan says:

I'm sure Benedict XVI would find a hungry audience for his contributions here in Reading!

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More equality issues

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Pink Party

A row has broken out between local politicians over the issue of how to deal with homophobia in society.

Leader of the opposition Conservative group on Reading Borough Council, Cllr Andrew Cumpsty, accused Liberal Democrats of making it a political issue when Tilehurst's Cllr Chris Harris criticised them for sending out 'mixed messages' on the subject.

A motion presented was by Church ward's Cllr Tim Harris opposing bullying on the grounds of real or perceived sexuality. A report by gay activist group Stonewall was cited showing how this can have a major negative impact on young and vulerable people. It was proposed in support of implementation of a borough-wide anti-bullying policy in schools.

However Conservatives were criticised for their alliances with openly anti-gay parties at European level, but Cllr Cumpsty struck back saying it "amazes me and depresses me that people try to make a political issue about this."

It is worth noting that Labour parliamentary candidate Anneliese Dodds attacked tory hypocrisy for the same reasons after the annual Gay Pride festival in September.

Meanwhile at a national level equality has become a big political issue as LibDem leader Nick Clegg recently challenged Conservative counterpart David Cameron on a series of specific policies.

Reading Liberal Youth highlights how Mr Clegg has gone further than any other party leader in promoting the cause of equality.

Mr Clegg called for:
  • universal implementation of anti-homophobic bullying policies - including at faith schools
  • a change in the law to recognise gay couples equal rights by affording them full marriage status
  • a reversal on the ban on gay men giving blood
  • a guarantee on asylum for people seeking refuge from persecution because of sexual orientation, and
  • a review of Uganda's Commonwealth membership to revoke the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality
The Independent reported the national debate in some detail, while columnist Johann Hari offered a commentary explaining how Mr Clegg's position represents a brave step in pushing for full equality that Conservatives are lagging behind on.

Tim Trent was impressed by the five LibDem proposals, saying it was the first time any politican had come close to what he wishes for, arguing that it's a case of simple humanity.

Meanwhile on my other blog I gave Mr Clegg 'Top Marks On Equality'.

In completely unrelated news Reading Post agitates for a show of public support for the local LGBT community by encouraging readers to vote for Reading's Pride festival as the best festival of the year.

Former Government Advisor Leads Drugs Debate

The visit of Professor David Nutt to give a talk on drugs policy at Reading University provided an opportunity for students and political activists to discuss drugs policy. He gained a national profile when he was sacked as a government advisor - you might be forgiven for calling him an ex-expert.

The event was organised by his nephew Rob Nutt, who is an alumnus of the establishment, with the assistance of Reading Liberal Youth.

Local LibDem blogger Mark Reckons chaired the event advertising it as follows:
"Professor David Nutt is one of the most highly respected, yet controversial figures in drugs research and is the former Chairman of the government advisory body on drugs policy, the ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs).

In this role he was seen to be outspokenly critical of the classification of some drugs, publishing several papers in noted medical journals on the correlations between Dependence/Self Harm; risk assessments between taking some drugs and other activities (f.e. horse riding and taking ecstacy); and speaking out on these and similar topics in public lectures."
Prof Nutt has since set up an group of policy advisers and scientists to give independent advice on the relative harm each drug is known to cause. He argues this is the only way to clear up the confusion between the science and the politicking on the subject.

However as commenters note, drugs policy is influenced as much by political concerns as it is the real effects on individuals and society.

Dazmando was on hand to provide a comprehensive review of the event with supporting statistics.

He points out that Prof Nutt is a psychiatrist and leading neuropsychopharmacologist specialising in the research of drugs which affect the brain, and describes how the talk was broken down into stages dealing with each aspect of policy formation as follows:
  • The law on drugs and its history
  • The ranking system
  • Media reporting and bias
  • Drugs and politics and science
This was followed by a question and answers conducted with Prof Nutt's characteristic sense of humour.

Interestingly he notes that the illegal market in drugs is estimated to be only second in scale to the global oil industry and that fighting the flow of goods creates a pretext for criminal gangs to operate in an uncontrolled manner outside of regulation because they are driven underground.


Mark gained a private interview.

He also picks up a number of points including how Prof Nutt's personal opinion about the law has changed since he became involved with the government advisory committee.

He explained that the prohibition has given Police 'disproportionate' powers which are often counterproductive and that the results of current policy is 'difficult to reconcile' with present justifications of harm reduction.

Meanwhile ministers were criticised for twisting evidentially-based arguments through misrepresentation, citing a response given by Home Office minister Vernon Coaker MP who said "We look for evidence to support our policy decisions."

Mark describes the expert talk as 'extremely significant' and says:
"The government can keep sacking people who tell the truth but it cannot go on ignoring the reality of the pernicious effects of their drugs policies for ever."
Elsewhere, for a sidelong view at the subject, Jim Beeer thinks the current war on drugs is a waste of time because it simply misses the real targets and wastes huge amounts of scarce resources in a never-ending cycle of pointless repression.

He ends his plea for compromise with the depressing thought:
"Of course that’ll never happen in this pathetic country. There’s too many ignorant people here. And everyone knows that ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hate and hate leads to the dark side."

Oranjepan asks:
Whether or not you are a dope fiend your life is directly and indirectly affected by the far-reaching consequences of the law, so are you sufficiently swayed by the evidence, or do you think there are other aspects to consider?

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Background: Round-Up: The Drugs Debate
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