Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Does Berkshire have #opendata?

According to the Openly Local UK Councils Open Data Scorecard, only 3 of Berkshire's six councils have open data - compared to 85 out of 428 across the rest of the country.

So far Bracknell Forest, Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead and West Berkshire have responded to public demands for greater transparency, while Reading, Slough and Wokingham have not.

As part of the government commitment to create an Open Government License to ensure 'all public sector information is now available under a free, perpetual licence without restrictions beyond attribution' and thereby open up almost all non-personal data for free re-use, local councils are encouraged to put all information collected during official business in the public digital realm online.

The campaign has been supported by The Guardian newspaper, which operates the Free Our Data blog.

The power of information

Campaigners argued that open access to public data encourages greater participation and enables greater scrutiny of government spending, contracts and plans, while providing an insight into who is responsible for what so that higher levels of accountability are provided. Six areas of opportunity have been identified.

For policy geeks interested in discovering ways of using data more creatively to drive service improvements, open data provides the necessary means to 'catalyze innovation' in a modern modular system and improve sustainability - which means connecting different information sources from within large public bureacracies to help prevent problems and delays costing the public purse as much as £18bn-a-year from arising in the first place.

Among other things, all major expenses over £500 should be available to be viewed online by anyone wishing to do so, while real-time transport information could be used to develop mobile applications.

Read more about it in the Cabinet Office's Power of Information Taskforce Report (Feb 2009).

The official data.gov.uk website provides a national hub, while local blogger Countculture has been at the forefront of the open data campaign.

Oranjepan asks:
Why have only 3 out of 6 councils in Berkshire given us open data so far? If equal opportunity is good for half, why isn't it good for all?

Friday, 11 November 2011

Recommended Reading List #57

While the controversial aspects of poppy-wearing have caused consternation in the footballing world, Berkshire's own Internet Psychologist, Graham Jones, provides the best tribute to rememberance of the cause for which so many people have fought and died throughout the years.

He argues we should be proud even of all the 'rubbish and nastiness' we find online, because this is a perfect demonstration of the freedoms which we possess thanks only to the millions who made the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

Without condoning any of the 'disgusting, sickening and criminal behaviour' that we can become all too familiar with, he says, this is "a testament to the free society in which we live" because our ability to campaign against and reduce the nastiness we find in life simply would not exist without defending the right of those who wish to engage in it.


More Recommended Reading List

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Fostering International Understanding with Reading International Festival

Cross-cultural dialogue has been to the fore during this year's Reading International Festival - and there's been remarkable evidence that to be successful learning must be a two-way exercise!

Organiser Dave Richards explained the festival is designed to present "an amazing programme of events that will help you explore the world outside your comfort zone."

Iranian news agency Ahlul Bayt (ABNA) even picks up on one event - an exhibition at RISC showing the influence of Islam through British history, reporting links that go back to the invitation and reception of ambassadors from the Caliph of Baghdad by the Mercian King Offa in AD754 - in the century before Reading was founded.

Indeed, such events will be welcomed in all sections of the community following the less flattering incident earlier this summer when a lairy group disrupted an Islamic lecture held at the Rivermead centre - an event which saw all sides criticised after the drunken protesters claimed to represent the proto-racist English Defence League and the speaker Sheikh Khalid Yasin was denounced as a bigot and 'hate-preacher' promoted by the Berkshire Islamic Information Group without adequate reference to council guidelines.

Sadly however, confusion reigns among colonial counterparts in New Zealand, who appear happy to continue to labour under the delusion that London Street is in London!

Friday, 7 October 2011

A View To Local TV

#rdgnews - While parts of Berkshire completed the switch-over from analogue to fully-digital television on 28th September the government is moving forward with plans to liberalise broadcast media coverage across the country with a strategy for decentralising production and opening up ownership to new companies - and Reading has been identified by the DCMS as one of the 65 potential locations to be licensed.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP said, "I want people to be able to watch television that's truly relevant to them, about what’s happening where they live and featuring the people they know."

He spoke of a 'huge appetite' for local news and information which could be "a fundamental change in how people get information about their own communities, and how they hold their representatives to account."

According to media sources, the development will be supported by the £40m annual 'digital innovation fund' created from cuts announced yesterday as part of a wider strategy to reshape the BBC and open up the media sector to wider competition, although this remains subject to two separate BBC reviews as well as the official consultation process.

However media consultant Lin Glover noted this amounted to a 'volte-face' from Mr Hunt under pressure from industry experts and coalition partners, who was widely known to personally favour a new national network over a national broadcasting 'spine' of local operators. Although the financial dividend to the Treasury from the sale of more smaller license packages is expected to increase substantially questions remain over the scope for mergers between license-holders intent on creating a quasi-network.

Ofcom is also inviting tenders from technical companies to form MuxCo to oversee the allocation and maintenance of geographic interleaved (GI) spectrum freed up as part of the digital switch-over, with the first tranche of triple-stream multiplex stations due to go live in their areas during the second-half of 2012.

Meanwhile in separate news View TV Group has announced that it has selected Reading as one of it's first locations among an ambitious 660 town roll-out for channels dedicated to their locality, and "will join Nottingham, Luton and various [s]easide towns across the country."


More stories on the local media environment

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Round-up: Reading Festival 2011

Swamp-like conditions and motorway misery weren't going to stop the fun for thousands of visitors to Reading for the annual Bank Holiday festival washout - not that the hordes are known for their fondness for soap.

The event

According to one reviewer Reading is recognised as the festival which creates the most buzz due to its prestigious position at the climax of the outdoor season.

The festival traditionally represents the most democratic side of the music world offering a diverse and eclectic range of critically acclaimed contemporary music. However with shifts in music-buying trends organisers are increasingly encouraging a shift of emphasis away from the music towards the glamourised lifestyles of personalities and celebrity culture.

Celebrity strife is catnip to PR-obsessed tabloids - this year their focus was grabbed by a twitterstorm instigated as part of the Gallagher brothers' rivalry after Noel's latest project Beady Eye left Liam feeling out of the spotlight. Mike Skinner's on-stage announcement that The Streets are disbanding after live and chart success (as he pursues an acting career) was another attention-grabbing moment.

Exciting newcomers Viva Brother clearly aren't convinced by the theatrics of the headliners, describing the 'incredible' live show of Muse as "a polished turd".

Intimate backstage gigs for lucky prize-winners, VIPs and industry power players recreate the sense of exclusivity - We Are The Ocean were chosen by music industry social network Flowd for one promotion as an effective means of marketing premium merchandise on a highly-touted act.

Meanwhile local promoters Mechanical Republic were aggrieved only two bands from the surrounding area were in the line-up. They decided to organise a rival warm-up festival where talented groups including Circus Sands and Sleep Room could showcase themselves "instead of walking around the town with their hands in their pockets, kicking dirt up in to the air and feeling sorry for themselves."

RCRDLBL suggests the size of the festival may be off-putting to even energetic music lovers due to the difficulty in sampling more than a small fraction of performances. They get round this problem by selecting a 13-track recommended playlist - beauties each and every single one of them!

Curmudgeonly cartoonist Len can't keep up: he describes "a load of identikit whiny voiced nu-folk indie kids" corralled in "the middle of a field next to an industrial estate in Reading, breathing in smoke from a thousand fires fuelled by waxy paper beer cups" as the reason why he no longer attends.

Which may offer partial explanation why ticket sales were not as strong as in previous years - indeed this was the first time the event was not sold out in a long time and forums were advertising the £150 weekend tickets for sale at £80 throughout the lead-up week, despite official announcements to the contrary a month earlier.

For ActionAid's Kerstin Twachtmann the festival is a perrenial opportunity to raise the profile of the 'Bollocks to Poverty' Campaign and 'put hunger in the headlines'. A laudable aim, but this blog suggests she may want to look again at her methods if she's more interested in actual results rather than promoting the platform provided by the event.

Sadly for non-festival goers like Timbo he hadn't realised the bank-holiday is the time when revellers descend on the town 'in denim mini-skirts and jazzy wellies' (what, even the boys?), creating an atmosphere where anything goes - he worried about the safety of his bicycle being used as an ad-hoc form of transport from the town centre to the Rivermead location.

Vigilance is always advised, but he should be reassured as authorities celebrated a fall in the level of crime from 327 to 152 reports compared to last year after Police were granted use of dispersal orders to move on large groups of rowdy people.

The main event

YouFest collects a selection of videos for your enjoyment.

Drownedinsound publishes a selection of photos to give a sense of the event  (day 1, day 2, day 3).

Photographer Rene Ehrhardt makes the most of his free ticket to give a more in-depth view of the whole festival going experience, while one overseas visitor creates a photo narrative of the Reading Festival from a more personal perspective.

Paul Driscoll was another who jetted over from Boston to escape Hurricane Irene, but was blown away by the poignancy of a decade-and-a-half old song and the ability of a 'sassy-assed' northern oddball to seduce a crowd.

According to one mainstream review Jarvis Cocker was definitely a standout on Saturday, but The Strokes disappointed.

Peter Smith declares Muse a worthy headline act, while name-dropping Panic at the Disco, Twin Atlantic, Flogging Molly, Cage the ELephant and Little Comets among a selection of promising bands to emerge from what he says was 'another very good Reading Festival'.

Elsewhere the last-minute cancellation of Jane's Addiction left hardcore fans disappointed, while wonkyninja was impressed by Murkage's performance on the Introducing stage and says big things can be expected from them after a few of their 'warm-up riddims' showed some spark. The Joy Formidible are another group who've successfully used the festival circuit as a springboard and can look forward to a rosy future.

David Hayter scores the Friday setlist as he writes up a fullsome review, noting "those who've complained that Reading has moved away from its artistic roots towards more populist fare" will find themselves well catered-for away from the main stage where infectious enthusiasm isn't smothered by commercialism, though  the professional pageantry delivers on cue what no real art-form can.

For the rest of the crowd it was all about sampling the rock-n-roll sensibility in a very English - and sensible - way.


Previous Reading Festivals

Saturday, 27 August 2011

New application to develop Bath Road Reservoir

#rdgnews - Thames Water have returned with a new application to redevelop the former Bath Rd reservoir site.

Changes include another reduction of the number of residential properties from 96 to max. 80 homes and a restriction on the overall height of development. Additionally the Grade-II listed pump house visible to the public will no longer be converted to offices, but luxury flats instead.

The sensitive site became a hot topic as campaigners were courted by politicians during the General Election period, and controversy grew when suggestions of collusion were made suggesting the then-ruling Labour party was encouraging over-development in order to fill council coffers while opposing it at ward level and tories appeared split over support for economic development or residents.

Locals were also angered by the tactics of developers to lodge their applications during periods when they may easily be overlooked (school holidays, prior to bank holidays etc).

A fresh application was submitted in March 2010 and rejected before an appeal was lodged.

A public inquiry into the issue came in November 2010 (when this blog was on hiatus) raising issues of the character and context of the proposals within the neighbourhood. These emphasised the impact of transport and the ecology of the area, particularly considering the limited access to the 5.4 acre site on a main arterial route and the additional pollution likely to be felt in an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) by additional traffic while removing a principle 'green lung' designated as a 'brownfield site'.

The appeal decision was issued at the end of 2010 upholding the earlier rejection, explaining that the coalition government had expressed it's intention within the new Localism Bill to revoke the previous regime's Regional Strategies policy promoting developments of this sort. But agreement on protection for the site failed to be secured in January 2011 when the then-lead councillor for economic development and transport on the coalition council, Conservative Cllr Richard Willis, expressed doubt over the legality of creating an official policy for a single location.

Immediately following local elections in 2009 RBC issued an order replacing 6 seperate AQMAs with one covering the whole town centre (map), but has since removed the Bath Road continuous monitoring site adjacent to the reservoir and created a specific gap in its' diffusion tube network around the site (despite, or perhaps as a consequence of, recently being pressured into re-installing monitoring equipment on the other side of the town centre). Subsequently the latest application for the site was lodged.
Spokesperson for the Save the Bath Road Reservoir Group Mel Woodward explained the proposals were an improvement but they've yet to see any details of the new plans. "We still have significant concerns around numbers, density, heights and lack of community amenities," she added,
"any development of the site would have a massive impact forever on the day-to-day lives of residents living in the vicinity, so we continue to represent residents' views and concerns about how this would be handled."
Reading West's Alok Sharma MP paid tribute to campaigners who have fought 'incredibly hard' over a number of years to see reductions in the density of development down by a third, but said this was not enough for residents, indicating Reading Borough Council should bear their wishes in mind when they make their new decision on the plans.

Only 20% of the site will be retained as open space under the new plans, as a spokesperson argued turning the whole site into a wildlife haven would have 'significant cost implications' for customers of Thames Water. In the past financial year the company made £600m operating profit on £1.6bn turnover (download TWUL 2011 financial statement 3.5Mb).

Thames Water's Head of Property, Marc Selby explained,
"Our revised planning application will take into account all the recommendations made by the Government’s planning inspector at the public inquiry last November and address some of the concerns expressed locally."
Thames Water has announced a consultation will be held from 2-6pm on Saturday 24th September at All Saint's Hall, Downshire Square, Reading.

Oranjepan asks:
Why does Reading no longer have any means of monitoring air pollution in the AQMA anywhere near the reservoir site? Who was responsible for the decision to remove monitoring stations?


previous stories about the Bath Road reservoir

Friday, 19 August 2011

Recommended Reading List #56

This summer's archaeological dig at Silchester Roman town has already provided some interesting discoveries - notably that the site pre-dates Roman times where locals had adopted an urbanised living model before the 1st Century invasions.

Assistant Producer of the new BBC Two series 'Digging for Britain', Louise Ord, gives more details.

Among potentially exciting theories stylistic patterns and distributions of coins found across the area point to the ancient town being taken over by Caracatus as a regional capital from where he could organise defences against invasion.

Meanwhile a layer of scorched earth indicates a link to the rebellion of AD 60-61 in which the Iceni Queen Boudicca razed a number of Roman settlements, suggesting Silchester could be an overlooked site of those rampages.

University blog Silchester Digs has been covering life in the trenches for those who want to find out more about what it's like to 'do a dig', while The Silchester Town Life Project is their website hub.


More Recommended Reading List

Friday, 12 August 2011

Disorder spreading to Reading?

#riots - As coverage of rioting gripped the nation this week, locals have been keen to get in on the act.

Mike McNamara reports Thames Valley Police recorded several small incidents in Reading and Oxford, and  offered precautionary advice to carry on with business as normal so as "not to cause widespread public concern".

Bracknell's Cllr Alvin Finch says an additional Police street presence coupled with wet weather meant things have been quiet despite fears of more major outbreaks.

The most serious saw 11 people charged with 'burglary in joint venture with others' and 'violent disorder' after an incident at the Makro store in Reading - which has been linked to the rioting around the country, according to BBC reports.

9 people charged had their names released, while those of two others aged under-18 were not. All 11 were remanded in custody until Friday 12th August. The oldest charged was 39.

Jan Gavin gives further details, explaining that between thirty and forty 18-19 year olds were involved, many of whom were previously known to the police. She says there were signs of coordination, including use of BlackBerry closed messaging networks, although it was not described by Police as an 'organised crime'.

However she may not be fully heeding the official warning as she reports a variety of incidents of vandalism, arson and burglary along major arteries and known trouble spots.

The Redlands councillor also argues a clear message needs to be sent to 'young people' that there are no exuses for 'senseless' action.

Matt Blackall strikes back at the Labour politician, pointing out how demonising young people is a soft option. He refuses to defend the violence, but he uses his own experience to point out how the lack of youth provision leads to gangs forming on street corners with nowhere to channel their energies.

He explains that the motivations of disorder are fundamentally political, even if not directly or explicitly so - they expose a level of social inequality which dates back decades.

Matt's view is supported by University of Reading's Dr Matthew Worsley, who argues longstanding class identities have been 'eclipsed' by the lifestyle choices of consumer society and create a sense of political exclusion, explaining, "the politics of youth and the politics of the street do not reflect or recognise the traditional politics of party or ideology."

Greens and LibDems both agree on the need to tackle poverty and inequality - Adrian Windisch reprints a statement by his party's London Mayoral candidate made in response to the events while Cllr Daisy Benson gave a more detailed account of what practical measures can and should be made as part of her party's ongoing campaign in this area - as she points out, Labour's ambition hasn't been matched by results.

This site previously provided some statistics on unemployment and the level of NEETs.

Chairman Bill also notes that employment is a serious issue because minimum wage jobs provide no prospects of advancement and therefore disincentivises engagement with civil society. He thinks the riots are a direct response to urban decay and degradation of the fabric of society.

However Kirsten Bayes dismisses any pessimism about moral collapse with some powerful insights into the lack of empathy some people feel and points out unavoidable consequences have a way of reasserting natural order.

Wokingham's John Redwood MP is fullsome in his viewpoint, particularly as his outspokenness turns him into a lightening rod for opponents. He makes a withering attack on those who claim public policy under the coalition is to blame for the violence, saying they "are infected by the Ken Livingstone approach" - and that if they were accurate it would also be an equal indictment of Labour.

He argues it is less about economics than morality.

Meanwhile fellow Conservative Cllr Richard Willis uses some emotive language to argue 'lessons must be learned' from the events.

He criticises the 'politically correct' agenda of former years, arguing that parents of under-age criminals should be held to account. Although both agree on the need for reform of policing he also provides deepening evidence of a party split by saying his party's cuts to Police and defence budgets hinder the first duty of the government to provide security and will "send out all the wrong messages".

Elsewhere Orbilia eloquently expresses her anger at the anger seen on the streets, it's not only futile, but counter-productive: "if you were truly poor, you'd be stealing food, basic clothing, and the materials needed to build your own shelter."

Right-wing libertarian Rob Fisher complains that the middle classes have been disarmed and made powerless from intervening in situations where the Police can't or won't, which allows the bad guys to cause havoc - it's obvious to him who's guilty.

But left-wing libertarian Left Outside argues that is a simplistic outlook. While consumer electronics such as BlackBerrys are typically costlier purchases and property even in the capital's most deprived neighbourhoods is expensive wealth is a relative measure and it would be better to look beyond the headlines.

He states: "there appears to be a poverty of ambition in these riots" - a poverty which may not starve you, but will certainly disenchant you.

So the fascinating picture of life in Tottenham which Babyrambles' Emily O paints from her own time living in the borough as a poor student gives a handy insight into conditions facing such sections of society. Looking back at it might make it seem like a colourful experience full of entertaining stories, but she'd probably view it very differently if she'd known it wasn't just a temporary interlude.

Tim Liew writes an excllent post to argue that there was no single cause of the events. He also considers the longer-term impact of the events and the role of social media as a potential force for good.

And on another blog I write an account arguing that with everything we know it was easy to predict a riot - indeed, certain groups did just that!

On the other hand Wendy wonders if it was a revolution, a rebellion, a riot… or just the return of an ancient national pastime!

But the penultimate word goes to Steve Borthwick who writes a fantastic post complaining that he's suffering from 'analysis fatigue - so he, like the rest of us, will enjoy the inspired 100-word prose poem by the Baglady.

And that's one thing on which the vast majority agree - we might like words, but what we really want is action!


For the latest worldwide reaction BBC Monitoring based in Caversham provides an excellent rundown as standard.

Local PR guru Nigel Morgan discusses the role of social media as a communication tool with BBC Radio Berkshire's Anne Diamond. They conclude free speech is the price of democracy, which means the purpose social media is put to and the manner of expression depends on the intention of the people using it.


More about crime and policing

Friday, 5 August 2011

Round-up: Reactions to Swaine's return

#rdgpol - Controversial Katesgrove Councillor Warren Swaine has had his party membership reinstated after a drawn-out suspension lasting six months.

At a 2 1/2 hour hearing in front of LibDem officials in Basingstoke last Tursday he was asked to provide a detailed explanation for a light-hearted remark published on Twitter on 27th January during a #bbcqt session.

In an interview with Linda Fort he conceded, "If you have to explain a joke to that extent, then you probably shouldn't have made it."

The complaint which started the process was issued by former Labour Mayor of Reading and RCRE director Rajinder Sohpal, who suggested the intention was malicious, and commented sourly on the party order to undertake a course of diversity training, "It's the least he should do."

Cllr Swaine also gave a widely reported formal 'unreserved apology' (Reading LibDems, Reading Post, Reading Chronicle, LibDem Voice) in which he admitted his recklessness commenting in a way which could be misinterpreted as designed to cause offence - "that was never intended."

But there was clear personal relief that his part in the process was over as the fearless local satirist announced in a return to form, "The Independent Party in Reading is no more."

However the process suffered hold-ups and has not yet fully concluded, as a party spokesperson explained, "During the investigation into a comment by Cllr Warren Swaine, a number of other complaints and allegations came to light, which fell outside of the scope of the original investigation."

This has sparked rumours of a 'cover-up' and a new 'comprehensive' investigation has been launched "to ensure that all issues are investigated and dealt with in a robust manner."

These 'other issues' include further complaints to Reading Borough Council's Standards Board and the English Standards Board. They were not upheld and no further action was taken, although he was reprimanded for breaching the councillors code when he tweeted about a member of the public gallery during a full council session.

Cllr Swaine explained that although the individual was technically a member of the public he is a former Labour councillor and had declared himself as a candidate for local elections, making this something of a grey area at the time. He promised to be more careful in future, saying, "I hold my hand up to that one."

Hugh Muir says the whole affair has caused "a headache for party bosses."

He offers the interesting counterpoint that Cllr Swaine could have had a stronger impact had he not strayed into the politically sensitive territory of racial terminology. He suggests more effective words to put into the Labour MP's mouth for his ineffectual defence of a ridiculous policy would be: "Is it because I is a half-wit?"

The Grim Reaper described the original scene, "[Cllr Swaine] was getting extremely worked up over comments being made by Chuka Umunna MP. This is understandable, as [he] does seem to have that effect." adding his own judgement on the now-notorious tweet, "Moderately amusing, but the great comedians of our time can sleep easy at night."

LibDem blogger Spiderplant Land is confused about the matter, and says she'll need to lie down in a darkened room before passing judgement:
"Half of me thinks there is more to this than meets the eye and we should all take a step back, the other thinks we look like we are protecting a councillor who made a racist comment and I can't condone that."
Clearly she agrees that her party is taking the correct course of action and a further investigation is in order.

She is also concerned about how Labour activists have been attempting to make partisan capital out of the matter. Her ire is particularly drawn to Political Scrapbook - as its' name suggests it has made a variety of over-the-top and provocative claims gleaned from tidbits and gossip.

PS says that Cllr Swaine was 'fired' from his position rather resigning, then reinstated 'quietly' in order to "sneak the news of his return out at the beginning of silly season", not only "without making an apology", but refusing to do so for the whole period and with support from party leaders.

PS then followed up with the 'revelation' that the new investigation would be undertaken into the 'botched handling' of the affair as leading members of the LibDems Black and Ethnic Minority Forum expressed their dissatisfaction that issues of race remain in society.

Indeed, Duwayne Brooks, who was present when his friend the teenage Stephen Lawrence was murdered in a brutal racist attack and subsequently became a LibDem councillor in Lewisham, suggested he would reconsider his own membership if the party were found to support people who exhibit unapologetic racist behaviour.

Simon Woolley at ethnic minority campaigning organisation Operation Black Vote uses the incident to complain about the lack of progress on diversity, quoting senior LibDem Cllr Lester Holloway, but is clearly influenced by the more extreme reaction from PS. Simon finds it difficult to believe no offence was intended, arguing somewhat strongly, "It is incredible how local parties refuse to effectively deal with these simple matters."

Local Green Party chairperson, Adrian Windisch, also tips his hat to PS, repeating a succession of sensationalised points before concluding, "we may have reached the point where the handling is as damaging as the original remark," before going on to praise the bravery of Cllr Swaine for his apology.

Meanwhile praise is also forthcoming from the other side of the political spectrum, this time from Conservative Cllr Isobel Ballsdon. As she explains,
"Reading's Labour Group would really like Cllr Warren Swaine to shut up... Time after time they've made complaints about him and tried to discredit him. More fool them."
"Why?" she asks, "because he keeps on embarrassing them [...] with what he digs up."

On his own blog Cllr Swaine continues his barrage of attacks against Labour, this time at their "use [of] the local Standards Board as an instrument of suppression and oppression."

He fired back,
"Over the last year there has been a string of referrals about me from Labour councillors, union officials and their election candidates where I have exposed their hypocrisy, double standards, bare-faced lies and borderline illegality. These referrals have been made with only one aim - to shut me up."
Warren describes that this is a deliberate tactic on their behalf as the boards are required not only to consider the seriousness of a complaint, but also the volume of complaints made against an individual - something which incentivises frivolous time-wasting and gross exaggeration.

It sounds like there may be more to come!

Oranjepan says:
This story has been a journalistic jackpot - an incendiary indiscretion by a local public figure highlighting the increasing relevance of social media to political debate which handily required no further background checks and snowballed interactively into a campaigning issue as various vested interest groups were mobilised.

But perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this tale was Cllr Swaine's apparent ignorance or indifference towards the man he was criticising and which allowed his usual fearlessness to spill over into recklessness: Chuka Umunna MP has been touted in a variety of corners as a future leader of his party, and therefore potentially the first coloured Prime Minister of this country - which would undoubtedly provide him with an army of vocal defenders prepared to strike out at the merest slight.

Interestingly the saga bears comparison with a much more serious recent incident relating to three Newbury Town Councillors.


Previously: Councillor resigns under firestorm; Debating language

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Big Talk, Big Questions

#rdgpol - As part of coordinated efforts to encourage greater engagement with residents Reading Borough Council recently announced a new initiative to create a direct feedback channel to Council officials and councillors under the strident headline: "Difficult times, big questions…We need to talk!"

Respondants will be encouraged to discuss the "difficult decisions facing the council in the current economic climate and give local people the chance to have their say on the future of their local services," as pressure mounts to plug a £19m budget gap.

You can fill in the online questionaire.

According to the council statement this marks "the beginning of a new relationship between the council and residents."

After 12 months out of office Labour has returned with the announcement that "the new Council administration believes that Council services can work better and be more responsive if the people of Reading are more involved in how we run them," adding, "We believe it is more important than ever to listen to people’s views on how the council should spend your money."

Councillor Jon Hartley, Lead Councillor for Service Delivery and Improvement gave the official comment,
"You can help us to transform the way the council operates, so it more effectively responds to your views and those of your community, and so that Reading remains a great place to live."
However party colleague Cllr Rachel Eden thinks Cllr Sarah Hacker says it better when she describes the consulation as "a new parternship and conversation with residents."

Supporting his daughter Cllr Chris Maskell argues the initiative fulfils their election promise 'to work more meaningfully with people' as leaflets are distributed around leisure centres, libraries and various other council community spaces alongside the dedicated web-area on the council site.

Cllr Jan Gavin reprints the same post pro forma-style, highlighting a series of promises to 'listen to what you say, publish what you tell us provide, feedback to you on what you have said, ensure your community’s views influence our decisions and keep on talking to you as we go forward'.

And veteran representative Cllr Bet Tickner states the intention to get input from the public over a period of months and years has already produced some fresh ideas, concluding that "there is more we can do."

Yet an undercurrent of scepticism remains throughout the contrite enthusiasm with efforts to allay fears of an expensive paper exercise: "this is much more than a one-off consultation."

Cllr Warren Swaine couldn't be less scathing about this 'spam-sham'.

He argues it is all about 'passing the buck' to avoid the political price of the 'difficult decision' between being unable to deliver on 'uncosted election bribes' while implementing options for workable cuts which council officers are currently weighing.

Worryingly he also points out some discrepancies between data protection disclaimers, which potentially indicates that personal information will be sold to third-parties for commercial or other reasons.

Leader of the minority LibDem group Cllr Daisy Benson offers the warning that 'laudable and popular' initiatives are often 'far from benign'.

She explains that Labour's partisan interest to satisfy particular groups permeate their decisions, but although this is an effective election strategy "it is not a recipe for good, ethical [governance]".

Indeed, she says she's seen how the results of Labour-backed consultations are decided behind closed-doors before they are started, raising questions about the full range of reasons for gathering the information and whether their claims of 'a fair, open and transparent process' are accurate.

...which may explain why former Labour-insider Jane Griffiths is gleeful at the prospect of holding her ex-colleagues to account.

Oranjepan asks:
In the two weeks since public release this blogger has yet to find articles giving a follow-up or any more details about promised events anticipated by the announcement. When will RBC provide more definite information?

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Berkshire Employment Outlook

Official mid-year job figures have been published showing the strength of the local economy, as average unemployment rates continue to be among the lowest nationwide.

Slough and Reading lag behind on unemployment, reflecting the continuing existence of relative deprivation in these more heavily-urbanised areas. However joblessness fell across the six local authorities, each showing monthly reductions, with only Slough showing any deviation from the trend as JSA claimant numbers increased by 1.5% compared to 12 months ago.

As Louisa Peacock explains, the variability between unemployment and claimant counts masks changes to the way the labour market functions.

While more people are in work changes to the way figures are measured means the total claimant count also reflect shifts from other forms of welfare, such as incapacity benefit. With public sector cuts expected to bite in the next 12 months, she says, most analysts predict a 5% rise in national unemployment to around 2.6m.

In total there were 13,132 JSA claimants across Berkshire in June 2011. Among local recruitment websites jobsearch aggregator Adzuna was advertising 7,519 workplace vacancies in the county and totaljobs records 3,089 unfilled placements at the time of writing.

Reading East MP Rob Wilson expressed encouragement at the report,
"Reading is continuing its strong economic performance and continues to weather these tough times reasonably well. However, there is no room for complacency, so it is imperative that claimants continue to work together with local organisations such as the Jobcentre Plus, to help them back into work."
Yet an underlying threat still remains as the number of young people categorised as NEETs (not in employment, education or training) showed rises in the same period.

Cllr Daisy Benson highlights the positive legacy of increased emphasis on apprenticeships as a key method of improving life chances for young people, but warns that this may be undermined as Reading's new Labour administration have only promised to 'monitor progress' on this front.

Meanwhile, according to Ashley Curtis, the development of improved transport links such as Crossrail will only aid the local picture, giving a boost to the civil engineering sector with the creation of new rail and construction jobs in the area and reducing travel times to and between commercial centres.

This will be particularly significant in the future as Berkshire maintains one of the highest commuter populations in the country. The recently released 2011 Berkshire Economic Assessment complied by Berkshire Observatory shows Reading is also the only net importer of jobs among all neighbouring authorities, a product of the good communication links enjoyed by the would-be city.

Local Authority, JSA Claimants, Unemployment Rate, NEETs
Reading - 3,528 (3.3%), 299
Bracknell - 1,606 (2.1%), 155
Slough - 3,221 (3.7%), 167
West Berkshire - 1,781 (1.8%), n/r
Windsor and Maidenhead - 1,631 (n/r), n/r
Wokingham - 1,365 (1.3%), 155

National unemployment stands at 2.45m (7.7%) according to the ILO Survey, with 1.52m claiming Job Seeeker's Allowance.


more on jobs

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

'Limited Life' of Social Care Services

West Berkshire Council has promised to intervene despite not being legally responsible for the care of residents in three homes put at risk by the collapse of the country's largest private care home operator Southern Cross.

However, after receiving many similar public assurances and only weeks after being given a four-month period of grace to find a solution managers have forced the Darlington-based company to close and it will be broken up.

Trading in shares ceased as a plan was proposed which would see shareholders 'wiped out'. Under this scheme 250 homes are to be transferred to current landlords holding care accreditation and the remaining 500 are expected to be sold to other operators.

Problems arose as the company's economic model became unsustainable when property rental increases of 30% combined with consistent inflation of 4-5% over several years and reduced public fees caused by recent cuts to council budgets. The company posted losses of £311m in the last financial year and proposed slashing its workforce by 3,000. Shares trading at £6 each in late 2007 were suspended at 6.25p earlier this week.

Of the 752 centres threatened, the homes in Hungerford, Tilehurst and Burghfield Common providing places for 67 people are among those designated as on 'limited life', while six other residential facitilies in the county face a 'worrying wait' over their fate, including one with 137 residents in Rodway Road, Tilehurst, and those  on London Road, Ascot and Murdoch Road, Wokingham.

English Community Care Association chief executive, Martin Green, explained that the collapse of Southern Cross indicated funding in the independent care sector "is very much an issue that other providers are facing because of the levels of resource that they have to deliver care on."

David Rogers from the Local Government Association concentrated on the immediate, commenting, "a solution has been found which will hopefully avoid major upheaval for the vulnerable people involved."

Meanwhile Tracey Morgan, chief executive of Berkshire East Age Concern, 'hit out' at 'cracks in the system' of social care to back calls made by the Dilnot Commission in its' report 'How Will We Pay For Elderly Care?' fornational standards to raise the threshold for funded care by from £23,250 to £100,000, which should provide wider access for additional numbers of people as an aging population is squeezed by the double-whammy of rising costs and low personal savings.

Records show 3,052 people in Slough benefitted from adult social care last year, more than 2% of inhabitants, including 263 in residential care and 202 in nursing homes. The Economist reports demand for adult care has risen 9% in four years nationwide, but councils are now facing 5-8% cuts in this area.

Writing in a post in which she gives her backing to the coalition government's response to the Dilnot Commission report, 'Vision for adult social care: capable communities and active citizens', Labour's Cllr Rachel Eden trumpets Reading's signing of a cross-party declaration, arguing that 'now is the time to reform Adult Social Care'.

She also highlights the growing pressure on services as an aging population increases demand, blaming a  'postcode lottery' and budget cuts which she says are the product of low economic growth.

Wokingham's Conservative MP John Redwood discusses the proposals, casting the spectre of new taxes such as Dilnot's preferred option of National Insurance contributions to be paid by retirees or the resurrection of Labour's notorious 'Death Tax'.

LibDems understandably offered only muted support for Labour's move to support a Parliamentary Early Day Motion and their calls to 'build consensus on meaningful reform'.

Cllr Daisy Benson gives an extensive explanation that even according to the council's own findings council policies fail to meet the needs of carers, and emphasising the needs of formal care over informal care ends up putting more of a burden on the 'hidden heroes' who look after loved ones in their own homes and are often in an even more vulnerable position - she estimates there are more than 11,000 informal carers living in Reading alone, almost 1-in-10 of the whole population!

Gareth Epps is more sanguine about the Dilnot report, pointing out that the price of blanket funding increases for the 'baby-boomer' generation is likely to off-set by 'unjust' reductions for younger generations, contravening guidelines to ensure equality across age-groups in dealing with the spending implications of policy changes.

As if to prove his point Slough Borough Council came under heavy criticism by Ofsted inspectors in a recent report into child protection services.

Auditors described 'inadequate quality of risk assessment, care planning, managerial oversight' and highlighted several challenges in case work, such as cases where reviews to reflect changes in family situation were not undertaken, and difficulties in enforcing care agreements caused by insufficient and inaccurate communication with families.

They found a lack of contingency planning had resulted in 'systemic failure', although praise was reserved for consideration of equality and diversity issues and integration with other agencies.

The responsiveness of consultation with service recipients can also be seen in the open manner Slough Link publishes the results of surveys, although questions could be raised about any conclusions drawn given the size and relevance of a sample group from which only 76 responses included the most from pupils of Slough Grammar School.

The array of council-funded websites and directories for young people's services in Slough is remarkable, reflecting the borough's bold 2006 plan for young people and the active organisation of elections for a regular CYP Cabinet since then.

However Slough's officially-endorsed statement that their commitment made in the light of 'high-profile cases of child abuse, neglect and death' to make 'staying safe' their most important priority, and the promise in their statement of intent to provide 'safe access' to children and young people's services, will now be placed firmly under the spotlight as a new risk assessment of all current cases will be undertaken "to ensure the serious shortcomings in quality assurance arrangements are addressed by strengthening management oversight."

Since the authority was assessed 'good' in all departmental areas by a Joint Area Review in 2006 and began to implement measures to raise standards to 'outstanding' this updated report indicates major complacency has crept in and raises major concerns similar to those seen only recently in Wokingham and Reading.

Oranjepan says:
Whether from economic, financial or demographic pressure, or the bungling of management and the public ability to access services, social care in Berkshire is a precious resource which hits right at the heart of personal quality-of-life measures which could affect us all at some stage. Anything which destabilises support invariably has a disproportionate effect creating insecurity and chaos for those least able to cope - causing severe trouble for those who fall through the gaps when appropriate intervention is missed, not forgetting the wider social impact and problems of clear-up.

Calls for politicians and officers to 'get a grip' are all well and good, but events also show just how easy it is for them to lose their grip.


More on Social Care Services

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Maidenhead Banker now a 'Witch Doctor'

After a ceremony in which he endured significant hardships a 32-year-old from Maidenhead, Thomas Heathfield, has graduated as a Sangoma, reports Thabisile Khoza.

The process to become a traditional tribal healer culminated at Mangweni village near Komatipoort, in South Africa's Mpumalanga province, where he was given the new name, Gogo Mndawe. He kept himself isolated from all family and friends in the initiation period until he was able to prove himself in a series of tests which included a three-day mission to find an animal’s bladder and other body parts secreted in the nearby landscape, then performing the ritualised drinking and vomiting of goat's blood as onlookers ululated in an open-air twasa ceremony.

Lungile Tsetse, Gogo Mndawe and Gogo Dingani (l-r)
Three months were spent living rough in the bush, wearing traditional robes and hunting for animal parts. During training he would sleep for 4 hours, waking up every day at 2.30am to perform a ritual dance called kuhlehla, creating a spiritual trance. He also learnt about the uses for different herbs and divination through bone throwing.

Mr Heathfield only quit his job as a freelance consultant offering advice to banks on risk and information security in February this year, when he made the unusual decision to convert as part of what he described as a 'spiritual awakening' guided by his friend, Lungile Tsetse, who was a regular visitor to Berkshire.

Initially he had difficulties with the local SiSwati language, explaining, "It made me dig deeper and deeper to summon the will power to do things I never thought I'd be capable of."

"Some people might see this as a weird decision... Now I’m living in the real world more." He added, "there was a period of learning to renounce control, to think less and do more. Before, I was paid to ask questions but here, questions aren't important. It's about doing things without asking."

"This is a completely different cultural practice, but we are happy that our son managed to combine it with ours," commented his mother, Ally, who also attended the graduation.

Rachel Dalton suggests if you're desperate to escape the furiously competitive world of corporations and finance, it couldn't provide a greater contrast.

Yet as Jim West provocatively argues, to go from 'eating babies' to drinking goat's blood "isn't as big a stretch as you might imagine." The lutheran reformist obviously isn't fanatical about voodoo economics!

However, it was more of a personal quest to find himself a wife after a decade of being 'unlucky in love', according to Adrian Shaw.

Mr Heathfield described his plans to stay on for a couple of weeks with his trainer Gogo Dingani and her husband at their home in Mangawe, Zimbabwe (where over 500 Sangomas of different ethnic backgrounds have been accredited by the Traditional Healers Association), before moving to a thatched house in Cape Town where he will get married and set up a clinic to start his active vocation as social worker and psychological counsellor among traditional community.

Elsewhere Stephanie Hegarty investigates the charlatan healers and other 'shady characters' who promote Sangoma by preying on vulnerable individuals seeking greater belonging in hyper-mediated westernised culture - people who exist in both modern and traditional societies.

Over at Shaman Tube they notice the growing trend of Europeans undertaking the practice of Sangoma as it becomes 'big business' following legalisation after the Apartheid period.

Meanwhile Mike de Kock celebrates the 'feeling of oneness' befitting multi-cultural visions of 'a proper rainbow nation' as he encourages gamblers on Africa's richest horse race to make their predictions using any method they might be familiar with - though noticably not form or pedigree.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Images of Dereliction

Local digital artist @darrennisbett has opened a new exhibition in Eton to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

Boutique photo gallery Rhubarb & Custard is showing a series of his striking pictures captured with innovative techinques which offer a chance 'to discover a whole new light'. Infrared lenses, opaque filters and monochrome processing were all used by the artist to develop an analogue feel 'characterised by bright halo's and deep grain noise'.

The overall effect creates "other-worldly landscapes where foliage glows, colours are muted and skies look black, set against abandoned and neglected places" which deliberately transform into a 'dreamlike' image when seen by the human eye.

Darren said, "I wanted to capture the sense of forlornness, silence and the overpowering grey of the concrete and asphalt and the contrast with the plants and trees... as pools of toxic moss reclaim the landscape from crumbling monoliths."

Places that are off the beaten track and are associated with darker moments in history (Chernobyl exists to this day behind armed checkpoints) hold a deep fascination for him because the decay and abandonment build a 'surreal' atmosphere, as he explained, "I was interested in the objects and interiors of the buildings, and the lives of the people who were left behind."

Nothing on TV
During his second journey into the exclusion zone his project took on a new poignancy as it coincided with the earthquake in Japan which crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and provided a 'thought-provoking' reminder of Berkshire's own nuclear legacy, made all the more relevant by forthcoming decisions on the renewal on UK nuclear power generators.

One moment stands out in his memory - when he was offered the bizarre but highly appropriate piece of advice at the abandoned Pripyat railway station: "Dont lick the radioactive trains!"

The subject matter of the project had a profound impact on the artist's work which "has seen him rebel, in a very personal and constructive way, against the modern photography trends of sharpness and composition" promoted by more mainstream and commercial photography.

"It's humbling," he said, "I hope that showing my pictures and contributing to the charity in some way will help the people who are still affected by what happened."

All proceeds from the sale of printworks will go to Chernobyl Children's Project, a charity which works with children affected by health issues resulting from the disaster.

'Chernobyl's Zone of Alienation' by Darren Nisbett is open 11am - 4.30pm, Monday-Saturday until July 31st at Rhubarb & Custard Gallery, 4 High Street, Eton, Berkshire (details). Entry is free.


Update: Matilda Battersby in The Independent describes the photographs as 'breathtaking'.


More on Nuclear issues

Saturday, 9 July 2011

'Travelling in different directions'

Conservatives in Berkshire are standing accused of offensive and potentially racist attitudes towards Berkshire's travelling community after two separate incidents this week.

Newbury Town Council took the unprecedented step of issuing three personal apologies before a meeting of the Highways & Planning Committee when it was revealed an appendix to a report on planning for traveller sites had included statements contradicting race relations law.

The offending paragraphs claimed:
"We do not believe that travellers should be treated as a separate ethnic group or that policy towards them should be governed by such considerations. Because of the undesirable effects of the travelling way of life on receipt of social services, especially education, we do not consider that travelling in the sense used in this paper can be sustained in the long run," 
"It [travelling] is gradually disappearing and that trend should not be discouraged. We obviously agree on the measures to prevent abuse of the planning system by travellers."
Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera of the West Berkshire Ethnic Minorities Forum took issue with these claims, highlighting the fact that Roma, Romany Gypsies and Irish travellers are all recognized as ethnic minorities and are protected by the law.

He explained, "The intolerance shown towards these communities is still very obvious, and is even enshrined within some of the policies and procedures of our public authorities."

Committee member Anthony Pick (who admitted writing the report), committee vice-chair Adrian Edwards (who admitted responsibility for its' submission) and Council chief executive Graham Hunt (who accepted overall responsibility) offered 'unreserved' and 'full and unqualified' apologies. The specific paragraphs have been removed from the council website and 'equality training' will be introduced.

This wasn't sufficient for Labour party spokesperson Richard Garvie, however, who condemned the words of his opponents as "worthy of the BNP."

But this only inflamed the situation as the debate transferred to the boards of the NewburyToday forum and accusations of 'uninformed prejudice' and 'ignorant do-gooders' were quickly stirred up by either side.

Meanwhile Wokingham Borough Council will hear an appeal made by Henry Giles against a second refusal to turn a field into a permanent gypsy site for one family.

Cllr Annette Drake described the concern villagers in Hurst had expressed to her over their fears for the site in Islandstone Lane.

She said, "This is something people are very concerned about. It is something that is being talked about a lot in the village," and urged anyone who is interested in the outcome of the appeal to write to the planning inspectorate to express their opinion, adding that she will be lodging her objections.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The 106 Riddle

An outside review into the lack of accountability surrounding Reading's management of so-called 'planning gain' funds have confirmed that at least £325,000 was 'mis-allocated' over a period of 4 years.

Investigators from neighbouring Wokingham Borough Council discovered no senior manager had overall responsibility for Section 106 monies, and that "insufficient council-wide co-ordination, strategic control and direction" meant accounting for significant sums were defined as 'non-material'.

The review was instigated by Reading's then Conservative-LibDem coalition as allegations of a political slush fund operated by Labour circulated, and put on record by Reading West MP Alok Sharma, who described to the House of Commons
"allegations that Reading Borough Council, when last under Labour control, diverted section 106 monies to plug gaps in the general budget and fund unrelated projects."

Cllr Isobel Ballsdon followed up, noting "wildly varying standards of recording these financial contributions and that a number had been misused."

However Labour's Leader of RBC, Cllr Jo Lovelock, earlier rejected such a conclusion stating, "There is no evidence that the previous Labour administration did anything which was outside due process on Section 106s."

Cllr Warren Swaine agrees that nobody has suggested embezzlement, fraud or corruption for personal gain, but he points out there are deeper concerns about consistent patterns of spending which was not in accordance with legally binding agreements and that this could go much further than s.106 planning contributions.

Yet the story continues to be wrapped in controversy as the suggested complaints about a lack of transparency won't be helped by Labour's promise to release only 'an edited, shortened and diluted version' of the report, backed up with disciplinary threats against opposition councillors who might circulate any further 'leaks' - and this has lead to accusations that the report is being suppressed ahead of an attempted 'whitewash'.

Meanwhile Caroline Bywater raises the national significance of the ruling as she advises councils across the country to take note of the recommendations to ensure sufficient precedural safeguards are put in place to avoid further undermining of public confidence in local government.

You can download RBC's committee report (pp11-16) here.

Auditors drew particular attention to the example of funding for the Prospect Park Multi-Use Games Area, as the 2007/8 accounts clearly showed the allocation had been 'wrongly undertaken'. In all 8 recommendations have been made (7 high priority, 1 medium priority).

Oranjepan says:
Cllr Lovelock's attempts to suggest she innocently 'lost' £325,000 (for starters) and doesn't know where it went stretches credulity to it's limit and puts both the credibility and competence of her and her party in serious doubt. If she is to be believed the public will welcome her repayment of this sum to ensure there is absolutely no question of duplicity or deception.


Update: David Millward reports on the council meeting last Thursday at which the matters were discussed.

Leader of the LibDem group on RBC, Cllr Daisy Benson, commented that she was "horrified" by the findings of the "damning report".

Meanwhile Cllr Lovelock defended her conduct, flatly denying any deliberate misuse of public money or inappropriate spending, adding that although the procedures were 'insufficiently robust' they have already been put right and no further inquiries are required.

Subsequently RBC Chief Executive Michael Coughlin 'bowed to public pressure' with a promise to publish the Wokingham report in full and said that a full spreadsheet of all Section 106 money recieved and spent since 2007/8 would be made available to the public.

However Cllr Ballsdon continues her attack by explaining how Labour is undermining local democracy and rendering effective scrutiny of financial procedures impossible with a disregard for Decision Book reports and by 'trivialising' efforts to make systems more 'transparent' and 'robust'.

According to her the limited scope of the previous audit raises further questions about the scale of malpractise.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Searching for a Rescuer

Robert Bradley recently helped promote the efforts of local volunteers to raise money for the important work of SEBEV, Berkshire Lowland Search & Rescue - including the Skyscreamers charity skydiving team.

SEBEV also has a facebook campaign page which is worth visiting.

But these efforts are suddenly more urgent than ever as the related charity Berkshire Search & Rescue Dogs were this week given 4 weeks notice to vacate their headquarters at Easthampstead Park.

Both charitable groups are on 24-hour call, 365 days-a-year as emergency responders.

Chairman Daryl Toogood said the lease is under review and they must find alternative premises by mid-July.

He explained the group needs a storage area the size of a domestic garage for equipment and a meeting room to accommodate 20 people.

Daryl hoped local business and supporters would come forward to offer their help, adding a note of desperation has crept into their search for an interim home, "Ideally we would like these both in the same area, but we are more than happy to negotiate anything in the short term."

The K-9 SAR group was formed in 2002 and gained charitable status two years later. They are funded exclusively from individual donations and local companies in order to undergo the training required to maintain operational status.

They also perform demonstrations for interested spectators, and can next be seen at the Berkshire 4x4 show being held on the weekend of 20th-21th August at Mereoak Lane, Grazeley.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

EDL hit the streets in Reading

Politics came to the streets of Reading last weekend as the proto-racial English Defence League staged a march from Reading Station to rally outside the Old Town Hall.

Participants explained they were stating their opposition to the 'Islamification' of the country and described the Oxford Road mosque as an "absolute eyesore" which they don't want replicated in East Reading.

Official estimates of 200 attendees were met with a heavy police presence and about 50 anti-EDL protesters as onlookers described "a real feeling of menace and intimidation" surrounding the event.

EDL-supporter and anti-EU campaigner European Freedom Initiative was clearly proud of the turn-out, publishing a digital photo-album from the event.

Leader of Reading Borough Council Cllr Andrew Cumpsty condemned the activities of a small minority of 'hateful' voices, stating that nobody who preaches division has a place in civilised political debate, emphasising how "In Reading we celebrate all the varied parts of our town."

Indeed leaders of all three political groups on RBC maintained an officially-united front in support of political pluralism.

However the cracks in the facade were visible as Labour activist Richard McKenzie was "shocked, frustrated and disgusted" that the EDL are advertising their existence at all with their 'frightening' and 'apalling' opinions.

Via email while attempting to build a response, the Reading Against Racism group argues,
"Dont be fooled. We dont need no 'english' defence league. We only need working-class defence...[to] unite ordinary people of all backgrounds and support us to resist inequality, poverty, exploitation, authoritarianism and division."

On the other hand Jane Griffiths explains this is a counter-productive and contradictory attitude, as banning unacceptable views is authoritarian and simply plays directly into the hands of the intolerant by driving them into the shadows where they can't be challenged - and it certainly doesn't deal with any real concerns they may have.

Coincidentally Cllr Swaine also suggests the EDL may be approaching politics in completely the wrong way. As he says, drawing on the individual experience of suffering is a good way to identify shared universal truths but particular facts are easily obscured through mis-interpretation and re-interpretation, especially by those with wilfully ignorant, selfish or malicious motives.

And the plain intention of the march and rally was to try to stimulate a negative response, as an EDL spokesman indicated with a series of accusations,
"There are 12 Islamic centres in Reading and that's fine, within the Muslim community that's fine - but the trouble with the Muslim community is they don't want to interact with our ways and our laws and they start preaching their hate."
Meanwhile Reading Muslim Council showed how they're engaging with the suburban middle-classes as Berkshire Humanists advertise an Islamic Exhibition hosted at the Oakwood Centre in Woodley from 5-7th May.

Nonetheless full social integration still has some way to go, as Reading Council for Racial Equality's Ejaz Elahi expressed some reservations about the nature of identity,
"Obviously the Muslim community is unhappy about it. They don't like to be picked on by people who don't even belong to Reading."
Reading Police commander, Supt Stuart Greenfield, confirmed over 80 officers were on duty and no arrests were made on the day. He described the police's role in maintaining public order as a success, adding that officers mainly kept to a watching brief, before concluding,
"It's a democracy, people have the right to peacefully protest - but that's the key, it's about peaceful protest."

Oranjepan says:
EDL has recently been stepping forward with a series of political rallies as it tries to build popular momentum as a political force and potentially stand candidates at future elections.

Just seven arrests were made in Luton as 5,000 EDL supporters were confronted by the extreme Muslim group Islam4UK, but in Rochdale 31 arrests were the result of clashes between the 400 EDL supporters and 100 members of Unite Against Fascism (UAF).

Reading's public and authorities each deserve congratulations for preventing an outbreak of violence and disorder - it shows the high standards of local political debate and the value placed on contrasting viewpoints as a way to help produce constructive policy outcomes.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Round-up: The Power Generation

Events in Libya and Japan have caused Berkshire commentators to broach questions about the future of energy generation.

Across the spectrum

Eco-libertarian Robin Smith sets out the main groupings and attempts to position a safe nuclear option at the core of debate.

On the other side of the fence eco-authoritarian Adrian Windisch is implacably opposed to all nuclear sources. He describes Fukushima as a 'crisis' for the industry and hails the triumph of off-shore wind turbines which have 'kept the lights on'. He also highlights the theory of 'peak oil', using this populist argument against fossil fuel dependency to draw crowds, although he can't accurately predict at what level or when oil production will top out.

Meanwhile Darren Bridgeman provides a balanced summation of his party's position, arguing that nuclear can remain part of the energy mix provided it isn't shown any unfair favoritism and huge-scale commercial investments don't distort the energy production market, adding, "we can not just rely on green technology only at this point."

He may be surprised to find some overlap with Wokingham's John Redwood MP, who makes his support plain for greater efficiency and capacity on the grounds that this provides greater security and self-sufficiency.

However the arch-capitalist says that much will depend on Mr Huhne's judgement in setting the prices for the 'carbon floor' and any carbon taxes. He urges caution and says he should make careful consideration of all the facts.

Many overlooked the coalition government's new energy policy and carbon plan when it was recently announced as it got bounced by the more immediate and visceral events, all despite David Cameron's assertive attempt to attract attention by laying claim to be 'the greenest government ever'.

Adrian Windisch was first off the mark to report on the announcements, but he could hardly have been more scathing, using the phrase 'shambles', alongside what he calls a 'dodgy definition of zero' and a quote from his party leader of 'flimsy greenwash'.

Then in a strange twist he says he can't give his support to the plans because they are 'not ambitious enough'.

Elsewhere I also have a look at the same policies, and conclude that the reforms are generally positive, but the claims made for them are probably a bit too bold.

What's required is a sense of proportion and appropriateness.

So it's also worth having a look at what's happening around the county.

Solar power

St George's Church in Newbury has been praised by former Archbishop of Canterbury as an environmental leader, after it installed 129 photo-voltaic solar panels to become the first 'carbon-neutral' church in the whole country. Rev. George Carey said he hoped it would become a 'beacon' for others - you can check out some pictures of the panels on the blog set up for this purpose.

The initiative has certainly helped inspire parishioners to raise money as £40,000 was donated towards the £900,000 costs within 12 hours of opening the appeal.

In Reading Rachel Eden debates the merits of installing solar panels on her own roof, before concluding it is worth the investment on educational grounds as much as anything else.

Wind power

Controversy was raised recently when UKIP released figures showing wind generation doesn't pay its own way. The totemic turbine at Green Park in south Reading runs at 17% capacity and consequently requires a £30,000 annual subsidy from taxpayers.

And the new development of a 4-turbine wind farm at Rushy Mead near Arborfield is stirring opposition as residents say they haven't been consulted and the location may not be ideal.

But over in West Berkshire Adrian Hollister bemoans NIMBY's who threaten a new wind turbine at Sheepdrove Farm on the Lambourne Downs. He argues it is short-sighted not to ensure every farm has a wind generator and every new house maximises self-generation capacity.

Hydro power

Berkshire may be landlocked, but that hasn't stopped community activists from dipping into the well of history to infuse their imagination.

After previous suggestions to Newbury Town Council and West Berkshire Borough Council fell by the wayside, a discussion on Newbury Forum raised the prospect of using the Kennet and Avon to generate water power.

Greenham Mill previously supplied a constant source of electricity to the town in the early part of the last century, and over 200 businesses could benefit from fresh proposals which could be brought about as part of the government's Big Society scheme.

Mark Knight urged for a visible location to help transparency around the project,
"I think there is the interest, it is just about energising people and I think, we the people, can make it happen and make a sense of community."
The plan has been given impetus by the Sustainable Newbury group where supporter Cllr Roger Hunneman expressed concern about the possibility of exhorbitant capital costs, but was buioyed by attendees at a public meeting who suggested these could easily be surmounted if local experts volunteered their assistance.

Oranjepan says:
As Darren Bridgeman aptly explained,
"Those that don't want wind farms on their doorstep also wouldn't want a coal fire or nuclear power station in it's place. Energy generation is not pretty, but we all use it and all need it."
...so, to be able to understand how things can be used in our best interests we need to be able to reconnect with where they come from - and that includes our energy sources!


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