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?
"Reading List... is fantastic, it could help revolutinise politics in Reading"
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