Monday, 28 February 2011

Newsweek

Newsweek is an edited selection of local news, as reported elsewhere in the week to 26th February:

Along with an abnormal flurry of reports about violent crimes and trials across the county recent budget cuts have placed the perpetual fight against crime firmly under the spotlight over the course of the past week.

Concern is obviously high that economic hardship will impact the ability to protect the public. So the correct response to reassure us is with a proactive approach to crime reduction - prevention is always better, and cheaper, than a cure!

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Previous Newsweeks

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Round-up: RBC's £125m budget battle

It wasn't a marathon 3-day stalemate between the parties which characterised this year's budget decision, but an extreme polarisation of opinion between coalition supporters and opponents.

Councillors passed a below-inflation £1.5m budget increase which will see a 6% workforce reduction as part of a £28m savings package over two years. This will be 'front-loaded' so that £18m is found in 2011/12, however real headcounts are expected to fall by around half this figure due to the high level of currently unfilled positions.

Cuts came in some unexpected places too as time pressures resulting from party positioning meant individual arguments couldn't be made in full.

LibDem cabinet member Cllr Daisy Benson reprints her planned speech emphasising the urgent need for action and bemoaned Labour's "large number of... politically-motivated amendments" which all failed to stall progress on vital decisions.


Identifying interest and self-interest

Conservative 'finance Czar', Cllr David Stephens, pointed out how Reading's public debt had ballooned under Labour from £41m in 2002 to £200m in 2010 and insisted that although the cuts were necessary "not one member of this coalition... took any pleasure in making those decisions."

He added that the coalition had used public consultations responsibly to listen to potential concerns and offered as an example the extension to library opening hours which is being made while other councils are  cutting back.

And LibDem Cllr Gareth Epps provided a further support to this side of the debate by explaining how  success in budgeting is more about sticking within projected forecasts to enable long-term planning. He noted the official audit report into borough finances had stressed "inadequate supervision of over 100 consultancy arrangements worth over £10 million" and another £6m on agency staff, both of which previously contributed to excessive costs.

But Labour's ex-leader of the council, Cllr Jo Lovelock, refused to defend her party's record on borough finances. She countered with generalised criticism of what she called the Tory-led coalition's determination to "to slash public services with an ideological fervour."

Outside the Civic Centre Reading Trade Unionists staged a demonstration against the cuts agenda in an attempted show of force to coincide with the vote.

Unison representative Kevin Aubrey said, "We deplore the loss of jobs on that scale," and argued services would see a 'substantial' impact.

Tories attacked this line of thinking. Cllr Richard Willis, picks up on the 'symbiotic link' between Labour and Trades Unions to suggest there is a vested interest at work and imply this makes them incapable of any impartial analysis.

LibDem counterpart, Cllr Warren Swaine, also attempts to put the debate in perspective by recalling last year's claims by Labour that services were already cut to the bone and further efficiencies were unrealistic - something he helped disprove in drawing up proposals.

Meanwhile Unison's former Labour councillor, Tony Jones, is clearly confused whether the budget is better or worse than it might have been - he hails the coalition for listening on a parking subsidy for Reading Farmers Market and then claims this shows a lack of vision.

Similarly, another former Labour councillor, Chris Goodall, backtracked on arguments to help encourage political representation from all socio-economic groups ...if it would ensure the future of the concessionary bus fares policy for pensioners which he helped introduce nearly forty years ago - well, he is retired now!


Identifying 'the vulnerable'

Leader of the council, Cllr Andrew Cumpsty, argued that ordinary tax-payers hit by the credit crunch and the squeeze on incomes are currently most vulnerable and proposed the freeze on Council Tax would bring widespread relief to help maintain living standards.

Meanwhile deputy leader of the coalition council, LibDem Cllr Kirsten Bayes, has been prominent in arguing that this budget successfully balances financial and social pressures in a situation forced on the council by changes to the government grant formula.

She said, "This is a budget that protects the vulnerable and makes the very best use of the resources available," arguing that cuts to adult social care are offset by increases for child protection, support for the elderly and people with learning disabilities, while the voluntary sector would see a shake-up to see funding directed to areas where it can better used.

But Reading's sole Green, Cllr Rob White, can't condemn the coalition enough. He notes the headline figures to assert his opinion that the Conservative-LibDem partnership are "villains preying on the weak and vulnerable", vowing to ensure the public remember this message come election time.

Election campaigning is uppermost in the minds of his Park ward opponents as Labour activist Richard McKenzie also refused to be convinced, preferring instead to hark back to the 1980's and repeat a classic piece of fear-inducing polemic: "I warn you not to be old, not to be ill, not to be weak..."

So it'd be very interesting to see how they actually voted... handily Cllr Benson provides a record.

And she says the opposition voted decisively against everything they are claiming to support!

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More Round-ups

Monday, 21 February 2011

Newsweek

Newsweek is an edited selection of local news, as reported elsewhere in the week to 19th February

This week official budgets were finalised for the year ahead, which resulted in concern for the economic outlook and an obvious focus on the hoped-for transfer of jobs from state to private sector. However authorities were also busy preparing themselves should the unexpected happen and things turn from bad to worse.

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more Newsweeks

Friday, 18 February 2011

A house divided is a house to be united

The demands on housing in Berkshire continues to cause pressure for families, but it also threatens to open up a major divide between members of the Conservative and LibDem coalition partnership.

In a pair of personal posts Bracknell's Darren Bridgeman writes to explain the challenge of starting a new family in a one-bedroom flat.

He expresses his frustration that, despite having a household income which far outstrips the national average even after the loss of one income, he finds himself in the so-called 'squeezed-middle' where the triple-impact of reduced state support, higher costs and no equity means he must question his support for the policies his party is committed to nationally.

Darren then takes a step back to explain a defensive reaction against the coalition is understandable, but that it's also important to bear in mind the wider context.

And this debate is also playing out in the corridors of power.

In West Berkshire discussions over changes to the Local Development Framework between ruling Conservatives and opposition LibDems has spilled over into open warfare as major plans to develop several prominent sites came into focus.

Over 10,000 new houses are hoped to be built in the Newbury area by 2026. This will include 1,000 at Sandleford Park, where there is potential for that number to double in the following decade.

But the identification of this as a 'strategic site' where new housing in the borough will be concentrated has aroused widespread opposition due to the manner of selection.

Conservatives were forced to put on hold their motion for approval by council officers, as the framework requires all strategic sites to be included together unanimously.

Basildon's executive member for housing, Cllr Alan Law, said LibDems had made "a 180-degree about turn over a decision they supported last year," and accused the opposition of blatant populism and electioneering. LibDems rejected these 'false' claims that they were attempting to 'rewrite history', with Burghfield's Cllr Royce Longton pointing out a consistent record of opposition to development of this site since 2009.

In an earlier move which surprised many, the executive director of proposed Sandleford Park developer Beyond Green, Jonathan Smales, intervened to raise questions about the processes involved behind the decision:
"The mysterious elevation of Sandleford Park as a strategic site is inappropriate, unfair and another example of the politicisation of the planning process."
He added that the site had been 'clandestinely promoted' by the Conservative-dominated council 'acting against all of its own advice' at the last possible moment from bottom of a list of 12, in what he described as a 'political stitch-up'.

And in Wokingham similar issues are causing equal anxiety as six villages comprising the borough's Southern Parishes Planning Group have launched a legal challenge against the Conservative council's support for 10,000 new homes by seeking a judicial review against the development of on green-belt land to the immediate south and south-east of Reading.

David Savage, speaking on behalf of University of Reading (which is the major landowner at the Shinfield portion of the LDF plan), said redevelopment would offer 'an improved outlook' for neighbours and 'provide much needed high-quality housing' to allow reinvestment into the institution's higher education research facilities.

During the forestry consultation debate John Redwood MP recently declared himself a 'tree-hugger' in defiance of his reputation as an 'economic realist', although he immediately tempered this by adding "there are occasions when Planning authorities need to grant development permissions... to make space for new homes or factories."

But the LibDem Leader of Wokingham's opposition, Winnersh's Cllr Prue Bray expresses some concern that public comments on individual portions of the 'complicated scheme' are likely to be discouraged by the 200 pages of accompanying documents, despite remaining open for submissions until March 6th.

Continuing the spread of suburbia may still be an option for the ruling administrations in Berkshire's rural districts, but in already heavily-urbanised Reading and Slough the demand on land is that much greater and policy-makers face a different set of challenges.

In Labour-controlled Slough the problem of housing shortages has uncovered different consequences - particularly when locals discovered a group of squatters cramped into derelict property.

Residents were outraged at the new arrivals who were causing disturbances, living in unsanitary conditions and illegally reconnecting utilities in the makeshift shelters. They soon organised a petition to ensure they were evicted by Police (source photo).

Meanwhile in Reading, Conservative Alok Sharma MP recently praised the successful efforts of local campaigners in fighting against the unpopular redevelopment of the Bath Rd Reservoir which would have seen the loss of a rare green space described as a vital 'green lung' in a built-up area.

But lead councillor for housing in Reading's ruling coalition, LibDem Cllr Daisy Benson, has obviously been working overtime to bring about more detailed and creative solutions to residential problems.

For her the challenge is in combining social, economic and environmental factors to help improve the quality of life, especially those who need greater support - and this means creating decent neighourhoods for all local residents.
 
She notes the problem of overcrowding and the shortage of affordable housing suitable for families and older people as market forces resulted in a shift of emphasis towards younger, single professionals.

But awareness-raising and analysis is matched by action too - as she also admits being 'obsessed' about tackling empty properties and ensuring council-owned homes in the Reading meet national standards of decency.


Oranjepan says:
Maybe the Bracknell blogger could find a happier home for him and his family in Reading!

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More housing matters

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Round-up: The Big Society in Berkshire

#BS - Prime Minister David Cameron's has undertaken a major relaunch of his Big Society scheme following the withdrawl of Liverpool City Council as one of the four pilot areas.

Conservative MP for Wokingham, John Redwood, offers the veiled criticism that more effort are needed to fully explain the idea that "the public good can be furthered by private and voluntary action" in addition to support from the public purse.

Now local commentators have pitched in.

Former Reading Mayor, Labour's Cllr Chris Maskell enthusiastically supported the decision by his colleagues in Labour-run Liverpool.

He describes coalition spending cuts as "brutal slash and burn" and "politically-driven," before quoting the central political question at the heart of the debate as posed by Liverpool's Cllr Ian Anderson in his letter to Mr Cameron (though it's not quite as rhetorical as intended):
"How can the city council support the big society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?"
Berkshire's Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead is one of the three remaining councils involved in the pilot scheme seeking to give community groups and volunteers more control over local services.

RBWM leader, Cllr David Burbage, has been a leading spokesman for his party on the Big Society, 'bullishly' defending the policy.

Cllr Burbage wasn't surprised that Liverpool decided to step back. He argued the Prime Minister's personal commitment to the policy made the matter a 'political football' subject to partisan manoueverings.

On his own blog he attacks opposition detractors - specifically shadow frontbencher Ed Balls - for making a 'simplistic' assertion that sustainable communities must depend upon taxpayer funding to ensure fairness. He cites Francis Maude MP who claims as many as 3 out of 4 voluntary organisations recieve no statutory funding whatsoever.

But retiring chief of Community Service Volunteers, Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, notably spoke out against the plans, claiming the government had no real strategic vision and that it was subject to the deficit reduction plans which are undermining the policy before it has even begun.

Cllr Burbage counters this with the argument that unecessary dependance on the nanny state is more damaging to individual life chances than the loss of unaccountable services.

On the other side of the county Conservative leader of West Berkshire Borough Council, Cllr Graham Jones offered to step into the breach left by Liverpool. He said,
"We are well placed to join the scheme as we already have Beacon Status for our Parish Plan programme, and have many other relevant projects doing extremely well around the district." 
He cited the Greenham Common Trust, the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire and the Greater Greenham Project as examples.

Meanwhile Thatcham LibDem Paul Walter is sceptical about the overall impact of the policy, pointing out there is something ironic about the use of initials 'B.S.'.

He calls it little more than a slogan: "It is a label to pull together a rag-bag of things that would be happening anyway." Paul advises LibDems to support no more than is sensible, such as the Big Society Bank (set up with £200m contributions from the bailed-out banking sector).

Labour activist Richard McKenzie is less kind in his attempt at wit, describing the policy as 'complete BS'.

He identifies the fact that less-organised and less-articulate members of lower classes have less time and opportunity to take up the mantle of running community services for themselves (such as libraries) and are therefore more vulnerable to a shift in service provision from state to voluntary sector. However, an earlier post seems to offer the clearest articulation of his true feelings.

In local news the high-profile campaign to save Windsor Fire Station night operations came under focus yesterday as Royal Berkshire Fire Authority met to discuss the £1.48m budget cut it faces.

Windsor Fire Station has been trumpeted by Cllr Burbage's RBWM as an example of the Big Society in action where greater community involvement can save a public service, but with understandable backing from the Royal Family and a range of celebrity supporters who live in the area this may be considered an exception, rather than the rule.

Elsewhere I consider the context of the proposals and conclude Cameron's Big Society is "starting to look less like a glorious 'vision' or a vicious 'mask' and more like a desperate 'stop-gap'."

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Update: Scaryduck satirises the proposed initiatives.

Alistair says, "It's all rather laudible axing these public services and putting them into the hands of a keen band of volunteers." So to do his bit and help out the NHS, he offers to take up a scalpel and work as a doctor - luckily he's watched enough Casualty to know one end of a cadaver from the other!


Oranjepan asks:
Is a bigger society a better society?

Round-up: Freedom of Crime Information

The launch of the new police.co.uk website with their online crime maps caused a public sensation recently and overloaded servers with an estimated 50m+ hits in the first couple of days alone.

Local reaction has also been forthcoming to expose the debate more fully.

Laura Herbert reports the launch was 'broadly welcomed' locally.

Home Secretary, Maidenhead's Theresa May MP explained of the launch, "This is a major achievement, reconnecting the police and communities through the power of information."


Reading Area Commander, Superintendent Stuart Greenfield, praised the concept, dismissing questions about the prospect of rising fear of crime,
"Most people are concerned about crime figures and why shouldn’t they have detailed information?"
He argued that wider public access to information helps set the agenda and this is actually the best defence against becoming a victim - which corresponds with the recent shift in policing policy to place more emphasis on prevention rather than detection.

Caversham's webtools expert Karen Blakeman follows up with an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the police.co.uk website.

In a top quality post she engages with the reasons why residents would be interested in finding out more information.

Karen recalls it is less than 2 years since Thames Valley Constabulary launched their own CrimeMapper site, which gave a clear overview of the general levels of crime in a neighbourhood. Version 2.0 is integrated into a national site and comes with the promise of detailed data and "many other enhancements".

As a communication point to connect with local policing teams it works well, she says, but since the government's Information Commissioner intervened to advise against "tying crime reports to postcodes or streets with fewer than 12 addresses," protection of privacy for victims means accuracy of information on locations has been compromised.

The datasets are limited to one month, down from three months, while they also no longer provide comparisons to show the trend in the area (though this may be due to the street-specific focus, where low volumes reduce relevance).

Furthermore, the website notes make it unclear how the data has been categorised, which allows users to make unjustified assumptions. She is convinced greater openness to allow users to manipulate the data and create their own visualisations would be a bigger help in understanding how to protect themselves and their property.

She argues these are three major problems with the website and that for all the money spent on the website and the potential it offers it actually represents 'a retrograde step'.

In conclusion Karen makes a final plea:
"We need transparency and clarity rather than the muddle and confusion that has been generated by the lack of information on what is being provided."

Elsewhere Reading West's Alok Sharma MP gets down to the politics of the issue:
"Under the previous government the police were directed by Whitehall diktat. They spent their time chasing centrally-defined targets, not responding to the needs of local communities they were supposed to be serving."
LibDem challenger Cllr Daisy Benson agreed, taking a residents-first approach,
"It is always a struggle to get people to report crime - hopefully this website will encourage people that crime reports are taken seriously."
But opposition Labour party activist Peter Kayes was less enthusiastic about being sidelined, "I don’t think it is a great revelation," asserting that current ad-hoc arrangements within Neighbourhood Watch groups are 'more efficient' at spreading information.

And prospective Green party politician Adrian Windisch argues he doesn't need a website to find criminals - he claims that he can find plenty of them currently residing in the Houses of Westminster. To prove his point he links to a year-old pre-General Election report on bbc.co.uk!

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Previous Reading List: Online maps for local crime statistics

More local crime stories

Facing Recoil

The lucrative arms trade has been widely glamorised by Hollywood, but the grimy reality was uncovered in a pair of cases this week.

David Mabey and Charles Forsyth, former directors of Reading-based engineering firm Mabey & Johnson, were found guilty of breaching sanctions by inflating costs involved in the supply of bridge materials paid for as part of the 'UN Oil For Food Programme' in order to pay 'kickbacks' to Iraqi officials between 2001-2002 during the regime of deposed leader Saddam Hussein.

Company owner David Mabey (seen here in 2009, source), of Burchett's Green near Maidenhead, is one of Britain's richest people, with his family earning an estimated £200m from the business.


Prosecutors from the Serious Fraud Office explained to Southwark Crown Court that cash from exaggerated costs in these and other deals were used to circumvent international restrictions and were used as a way to channel funds intended for humanitarian purposes to private bank accounts. These accounts were then able to be used to purchase everything unavailable to the regime from luxury goods and military hardware.

The company admitted participating in corrupt dealings in Iraq, Ghana, Jamaica, Angola, Madagascar, Mozambique and Bangladesh in September 2009 and was forced to pay a series of fines totalling £6.5m. £618,000 went into the Iraq reconstruction Fund.

The case was the first conviction for overseas bribery in the UK and was a landmark in dealing with the international business of corporate corruption. A new Bribery Act comes into force in April to make similar prosecutions easier in the future.

Meanwhile a man convicted of running an 'underworld weapons factory' from Three Mile Cross has been ordered to pay back £33,897 within six months.

The Economic Crime Unit told Reading Crown Court Gavin Wilkinson had earned nearly £1/4m from the sale of converted imitation machine guns to criminal gangs in London and the midlands.

The Mac-10 guns have been traced to a series of 51 shootings - but according to witness Guy Savage of Sabre Defence Industries firearms dealership Wilkinson paid £55,000 in 2004 for the 90 replica firearms he would later convert because they were 'to be used in a James Bond film'.

Wilkinson was sentenced to life imprisonment in August 2008 (with a recommendation for 11 years before parole) in a case which hit national headlines. 40 of the guns were unaccounted for and a reward had been offered for their retreval.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Newsweek

Newsweek is an edited selection of local news, as reported elsewhere in the week to 12th February.
The main theme of the week was a series of stories charting efforts to smooth the sometimes rocky relations between authorities and residents.

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Previous Newsweeks

Reading Romantics

St Valentine's Day is a day when everyone's encouraged to show their intimate and vulnerable side.

CoR thinks it's a challenge for a Monday, but has a few suggestions for the best way to feel that special feeling - strangely they mostly involve alcohol.

Amateur designer and stay-at-home-mum Anna from Cookham prefers to use a bit of creativity to express herself, offering a template for you too.

Christina Jones knows pure passion is 'The Way To A Woman's Heart'!

Marriage proposals are common today and wedding-planning is in the air (and on the airwaves) almost as much as love. Well, there's always a buck to be made from the freshest of novelties!

But after seven years the BagLady sums up marital bliss in the significance of a shared spontaneous recipe for stew, just the way it should be made - this could be a euphemism, but we're not quite sure...

For others romance turns to reminiscence.

Wendy get's all hot and bothered over an American Gigolo - she particularly liked the gender role reversal!

Child of the 80's recalls cartoon strip 'Love is...' (if you're of a younger generation, it's not anything kinky, though the nudity aspect was controversial at the time).

The Virtual Victorian is of a completely different vintage altogether. Yet even back in the 1850's malicious humour intermingled with the tortured misery of virtue when kisses could be saved or stolen!

So, typically, the blokish Scaryduck builds up a sweat about pre-packaged fish-finger sandwiches for breakfast!

Friday, 11 February 2011

Financial 'crackdown' starts

Balancing budgets is the thought on everyone's minds, but it's not all about cuts, cuts, cuts!

A new policy paper called Growing Revenues and Cost Recovery was presented to Reading Borough Council outlining potential increases to revenue, more efficient cost recoveries and better procurement plans.

Cllr Daisy Benson provide some official comment,
 "This is not something any of us might want to consider but we need to find new ways to pay for services which does not involve increasing Council Tax and to go some way toward filling the hole in the Council's budget after years of  mismanagement of our local and national public finances."
HM Courts Service is running a month-long 'blitz' on fine dodgers across the region during February.

Operation 'Crackdown' will see greater coordination between Police and bailiffs to ensure financial rules are enforced more strictly than before.

And HM Revenues & Customs are celebrating a rare successful prosecution against a gang involved in an global VAT fraud conspiracy which spanned eight nations and could have raked in £300m. One man from Farnham Royal was jailed for his role alongside two West Midlands men and six others jailed in December.

HMRC's Gary Lampon commented,
"We all end up paying extra taxes to compensate for the money these criminals steal and with the economic challenges being faced by everyone our focus remains relentless in bringing these conspirators to justice and to reclaim their criminal profits."
Business fraud has rocketed in recent years and may account for over £30bn/year - four times previous estimates. With new markets opening up new opportunities for criminals scams are created - a potential £5bn 'carousel fraud' involving European carbon-trading permits recently resulted in charges against seven men - so authorities must be ever-vigilant.

Local blogger Eve Anna was recently a victim of credit card fraud and she expresses her frustration this caused.

Elsewhere in the news Berkshire credit union Community Savings and Loans has announced expansion plans to counter debt-dependency and the risks posed by the credit culture. The not-for-profit company plans to add new shops in Newbury and Bracknell in addition to those already found in Reading, Maidenhead, Slough and Wokingham.

The company is offering a new fixed-rate 16% APR loan deal targetted at customers who want to reduce credit card debt - provided they cut up their credit cards at the same time!

Berkshire CSL CEO, David Screen, said this would provide help to people who want to avoid loan sharks, and offered a warning to always check the small-print on all credit arrangements, "0% deals... on the internet are designed to trap people into debt that is often later charged at 35% or more."

Meanwhile a new All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Financial Education for Young People was launched last week with the assistance of two local MPs, Newbury's Richard Benyon and NW Hant's Sir George Young.

Mr Benyon described his long-standing desire for greater 'economic literacy' to help ward off debt-related problems in society. In a veiled dig at the national curriculum he said simple terms like 'APR' should be commonly understood by schoolchildren as this would help with budget-planning later on.

Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert.com offered this powerful statement in support:
"It's a national disgrace that in the 20 years since student loans launched we've educated our youth into debt, but never about debt. Now as tuition fees are getting bigger and some will pay commercial rates of interest for them, we simply can't let students take this debt out unless they know how it works."
Opposition politicians, however, decry rising prices and taxes and are attempting to pin blame squarely on the junior partner in the coalition government. Former Reading Mayor, Labour's Cllr Chris Maskell, argues,
"Lib Dems politicians [sic] alone are responsible for what is happening in our country today. They alone handed our country over to the Tories. They alone stand accountable."
Strangely he then undermines his own criticisms to bemoan a lack of gratitude for providing the bail-out - which begs the question, who was responsible for ensuring things didn't go wrong in the first place?

But as the debate rages about how blame for our economic problems should be shared out others are considering potential longer-term policy shifts to prevent a repetition of the boom-and-bust cycle.

Wokingham's Robin Smith is holding a talk on the strategy for economic reform at the School of Economic Science's Henry George Foundation on Friday 11th February at 2.30pm.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Councillor resigns under fire-storm

RBC Cabinet member, LibDem Cllr Warren Swaine, has resigned as the Lead Councillor for Environment and Sustainability. He will be replaced in this role by Cllr Kirsten Bayes.

Tory Cllr Richard Willis is saddened at the announcement, noting that the reasons were 'external' and reassures supporters that it was 'nothing to do with coalition relations' as their two parties continue to work constructively overcoming differences to make effective policy.

Former Labour representative Tony Jones leaks the decision (an act which raises questions it's own questions) of a recent RBC standards committee held on 2nd November:
"Councillor Swaine had breached the Members' Code of Conduct by virtue of his failure to treat others with respect and bringing the Council and his office into disrepute."
The move comes as opposition councillors were increasingly targetting Cllr Swaine as a weak link in the regime - so the storm is not immune from partisan motivations either. Cllr John Ennis recalls he 'advised' the noted local satirist that he should 'concentrate on representing the people of Reading.'

On 15th January Cllr Ennis accused him of 'fiddling while Rome burned' over recycling in the borough and engaging in 'yahboo politics at its' worst' by using social media to be 'rude and abusive' about Labour counterparts.

The announcement comes days after Cllr Swaine was involved in another controversy which played out during the weekly #bbcqt twitter debate, in which he was accused of racism (definition of muppet) against Labour high-flier and mooted future leadership candidate Chuka Umunna MP.

However Cllr Swaine points out the irony of this latest criticism and the politics behind it, explaining how he has also suffered from racial prejudice and that it plays into opposition fears stirred up around budget reductions faced by Reading's ethnic minorities support infrastructure:
"Labour's anti-racist credentials are flawed and self-serving. They don't give a toss for ethnic minorities unless they can deliver votes to the polling stations in taxis."
RCRE chairman, Rajinder Sophal (himself a former Labour Mayor of Reading), defended the accusation of racism against criticisms of political motivation, suggesting Cllr Swaine's Sri Lankan heritage was no defence, saying, "You don't need to be white to be a racist." A comment which cuts both ways, perhaps.

Meanwhile Labour activist Richard McKenzie argues against personal attacks as a way to cover up uncomfortable policy choices, suggesting the episode is a cautionary tale for local bloggers. Concluding that it is a 'disgrace' which will require Cllr Swaine to 'rebuild his tarnished reputation'.

And Jane Griffith's picks up on the words of the former representative known in private circles as 'Basher', suggesting he speaks with the voice of experience.

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Update: Reading Post's comments (67 currently) show a spread of opinion towards Cllr Swaine and his accusers over the incident. You can join the debate to have your say.

Leading social media expert Neville Hobson publishes a timely exploration of how the medium of Twitter is affected by privacy laws.

After a complaint about a national newspaper publishing the tweets of an individual the PCC recently ruled that only direct messages and private accounts are covered by this law, so Cllr Swaine's boigraphical note that "They are my personal tweets. If you don't like them, no one forced you to read them." doesn't function as an effective disclaimer - they remain public property.


Oranjepan says:
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Cllr Swaine's actions and those of his detractors he ought to have adjusted the style of persona he wished to project to fit more closely with the position he filled within the administration. After all political leaders must work in coalition with humble service deliverers too and he should know coalition is about cooperation and compromise, not confrontation.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Vote Bloggies

@MrLondonStreet is an old blogging acqaintance, so Reading List is proud to note his nomination for a respected blogging award, The Bloggies.

Campaigning is underway, so despite his modesty and humility before his running mates, we'd like to urge you to go and vote for him in the Best European Weblog category... and check out some of the competition at the same time!

Recommended Reading List #55

@emma_cossey specialises in media content debates... or should that be generalises about blogging dilemmas?

Either way the social media trainer writes an excellent post on the split impulses for more personality and more professionalism which can cause headaches for writers.

Well, if you don't know what to write, write that - it all adds to the mix (and that's her job)!

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More Recommended Reading List

Monday, 7 February 2011

Newsweek

Newsweek is an edited selection of local news, as reported elsewhere in the week to 5th February 2011.

The main theme emerging in the past seven days was a series of high-profile local planning issues.

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Previous Newsweeks

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Blogging Birthdays

Two of the earliest adopters on the local blogging scene celebrated the anniversary of their start-ups this week.

Wendy was six, and Scaryduck is nine years young.

With so many writers not managing to stand the test of time within the medium their longevity is a testament to their quality.

We'd like to offer our congratulations - with a recommendation to check them out!

Tributes to Jim Hanley

Whitley councillor Jim Hanley collapsed suddenly on Friday morning after suffering a suspected heart attack. The 51-year-old was taken ill at his Caversham home before being moved to the Royal Berkshire Hospital where he died.

The former chair of RBC's planning committee and member of the influential CCEA scrutiny panel was respected on all sides for his diligence and hard work.

Labour's group leader, Cllr Jo Lovelock called him "a hardworking colleague and a good friend," and Cllr Bet Tickner agreed, "He was such a nice guy, very helpful and very hardworking."

Whitley's Cllr Rachel Eden says he was "a passionate and kind ward colleague" with strong political beliefs who "also consistently stood up for Whitley residents."

Former Labour representative Tony Jones describes him as 'a councillor of distinction' and 'one of the good guys'. He recounts Cllr Hanley's leadership of the official inquiries into criminal street activities along the Oxford Road, ensuring no 'quick or superficial answers' were found to the serious problems that had arisen.

Jane Griffiths concurs (but then adds this).

Labour activist Duncan Bruce remembers him as kind, funny and intelligent - a truly rare mix!

Opponents were also shocked by his passing.

LibDem Cllr Daisy Benson recalls the generous spirit he showed to her when first elected, "he went out of his way to be friendly... in what was an otherwise pretty hostile political environment." She praises his legacy of a series of health and social care scrutiny reviews which have had a lasting impact on borough policy.

And Cllr Gareth Epps voices his personal sadness at the loss of an effective and popular man, which he says will be felt by all who knew him.

Cllr Hanley had recently announced that he was not planning to seek re-election after 12 years in the role of elected representative, having newly qualified as a social worker.

In unrelated but timely news, Reading Borough Council recently announced it had become a signatory to the national charter for the bereaved, which ensures 'the highest standards of care for people who have lost loved ones'.
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Update: An outpouring of sincere grief has been added with various new comments from Cllrs Willis, Warman, Swaine, Chowdhary.

These include "one of life's gentlemen," "charming and friendly," "one councillor who bore no grudges," "a credit to public life," "the nicest guy in the Labour group," "a genuine community champion."

Richard McKenzie adds his recollections.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Cleaning Up in Park

RBC's solo Green councillor, Rob White, has smashed previous records for casework totals by logging 467 problems on behalf of residents.

Cllr Willis records the full list for the 8 months from May to December 2010.

He refuses to speculate on the actual content of the reports his fellow councillor undertakes, but notes casework is only a part of a councillors workload - hinting that as a lone councillor with no group mechanics to manage and no prospect of running the council the full policy component of the role has been down-played in favour of building up support with voters.

This is backed up by comparison with previous years, as LibDems have significantly reduced their reporting figures as they entered the ruling administration in partnership with Conservatives.

Cllr White's numbers still stack up impressively against his two Park Ward colleagues. Conservative Cllr Wazir Hussain logged 26 and Labour's Cllr John Hartley 46 pieces of casework - between July 2009 and February 2010 the three community representatives (then two Labour and one Conservative) only logged 32 cases between them - local residents will definitely be pleased at the increase!

Meanwhile Reading Post's Linda Fort contends that hard-pressed council workers "must be relieved" there is only one Green councillor.

She reports Cllr White has complained a number of times about 'bread-and-butter issues like fly tipping, broken street lights and potholes' in addition to more complex matters, and balances this against Cllr Willis' critique that serving the community can sometimes spill over into overuse with reports of 'sometimes trivial' or repeat problems.

However it's also worth questioning whether Cllr White's total reflects the work of a whole team of activists which would be shared out if additional Green Party councillors were elected, and if he is in fact reducing a backlog of problems which have stored up in a neglected area with some of the highest areas of deprivation in the borough.

Future reports will provide the answers!

Sadly, as yet, no Labour commenter has responded with a contribution to the debate to provide their rationale for the changes.

Nevertheless the figures show an intriguing 3-way electoral battle is shaping up in Park Ward, which stretches from the highly-urbanised Newtown area up to more verdant areas between Reading University's Whiteknights campus and Lower Earley.

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More on 'Who is your hardest working counillor?'

Friday, 4 February 2011

Vindication or Vindictive?

The battle over cuts is getting personal.

Police are investigating a 'public order incident' which occurred in Redland ward's Kendrick Road last Saturday afternoon.

Former Labour councillor for Battle ward and Unison honcho Tony Jones airily describes the scene on his blog:
"Walking with my family into town today I came across Cllrs Bayes and Goodall distributing a newsletter from the LibDems."

He describes several points of content in their political leaflet as 'potentially libellous' (although he doesn't give any details), and was clearly more than upset that "they didn't want to stop and discuss these and other issues."

An obvious admission.

Jane Griffiths uses her intimate knowledge of her ex-party colleague to fill in several of the gaps in her own inimitable style.

She notes that the leaflet referred to the blog of Labour's candidate in Redlands, Jan Gavin (find it here), in a critical manner. The former MP then goes on to ask several further questions about the dubious, underhand and possibly criminal past behaviour of the longstanding Labour member.

The 'other issues' Mr Jones refers to are less explicit.

Meanwhile, in not altogether separate news, leader of the opposition Labour group on RBC Jo Lovelock has referred coalition councillors Warren Swaine and Richard Willis to the council standards committee.

She alleges they brought the whole council into disrepute and are resorting to 'unfounded personal attacks' by calling 'corrupt' the facilities agreement which saw hundreds of thousands of pounds pay for trade unions officials and seeking to remove this cost from the taxpayer.

Cllr Willis voiced his disquiet at Labour's 'misuse' of official processes 'to put up a smokescreen around their discomfort' over past abuses of power.

And Cllr Swaine responded immediately to stand up to what he describes as Labour's bullying behaviour (something Tony Jones complained about during his hiatus from Labour).

He argues the Labour leadership is wasting more public money by 'using the standards committee for political purposes' as a means to silence the efforts of the new coalition to reform the council administration by  covering up the facts that they were not open or transparent about the deal signed in 1998 - either at the time or at any point since - something Labour will now have to demonstrate was not the case in order to make their charges stick.


Oranjepan asks: Labour thinks it is the coalition who are making personal attacks, so why are the Police investigating Labour members?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Facilitating Union Interests

As coalition efforts to reduce spending and balance budgets continue to take hold their representatives seem to have hit gold in discovering untapped mines of waste.

Accusations of a 'secret subsidy' given to local Trade Unions under the previous Labour administration have rocked the local political scene: according to Conservative Cllr Richard Willis £1.4m was provided over an eight-to-twelve year period.

Labour's leader on RBC, Cllr Jo Lovelock struck back calling her opponent's criticisms 'hysterical nonsense' used to justify their 'politically-driven cuts'.

Labour explained the money paid for three officials (one each from Unison, Unite and the NUT) through a standard 'facilities agreement'. They are given titles of Staff Side Secretary, Joint Shop Stewards Secretary and Education and Community Panel Secretary. The current post-holders are Angela Williams, Stan Cooke and Rob Ketley.

And Southcote's Cllr John Ennis pens a lengthy rant in defence of union funding, calling the tory claims 'ideological', 'reactionary' and 'fantasy'. He also repeats the point that it is important to "recognise the role of the Trades Unions in good staffing relations and service delivery."

In a separate piece against the 'obsessive' allegations Cllr Ennis switches seamlessly from restraint to refusnik, stating,
"While there may be a legitimate debate about the nature and quantum of facility time it is a massive stretch to suggest this is in any way ‘corrupt’. The attack is shameful – 100% spin and 100% malicious,"
before completely avoiding the very debate he acknowledges. He suggests the story is nothing more than part of 'a co-ordinated campaign' to discredit his party ahead of local elections, which would result in effective 'de-recognition' of unions by Reading Borough Council.

However the coalition's Lead Councillor for Sustainability and the Environment, Cllr Warren Swaine pointed out that the costs are not itemised in any council documents or on it's website. He states union activities for council employees are already funded through normal working contracts and the public funding for 'facilitation' is extra - indeed, nationwide the public sector provided direct payments of £18.3m to unions in 2009/10 in addition to an estimated £67.5m staff time.

The LibDem ex-union rep follows this up by explaining how these same union officials failed their members by refusing to reach agreement on equal pay claims for women under the Labour administration even though they are on the same side. This delay has inflated the eventual sum involved in settling back-dated compensation claims just as purse-strings are tightening, adding a new 'toxic time-bomb' component to budget pressures. And union leaders did it all the while accepting financial support from their political confederates who allowed the problematic situation to build up in the first place - which he says does make it tantamount to a political 'bribe'.

Unison regional officer Kelvin Aubrey responded that almost 100 cases of equal pay claims against RBC are being brought to employment tribunals this week, and used this fact to rubbish arguments that they weren't fighting for workers rights. However it is perhaps convenient that Reading Post's Linda Fort doesn't ask how the timing impacts upon negotiating tactics.

The evidence was reliable enough to be raised during parliament's primetime PMQ's by Reading West tory Alok Sharma MP, who asked the pertinent question,
"Does the Prime Minister agree with me that this is an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money and that full-time union officials should be paid for by union subscriptions?"

Mr Sharma argued that councils are facing the choice whether to protect frontline services or to fund union representatives whose job it is to protect frontline services.

BBC South political editor, Peter Henley takes up the baton, investigating the claims of each side.

He notes it is an odd claim by Conservatives that these costs were hidden from them, as they took seats on the committees which gave approval, even if the decisions weren't recorded in official minutes. He also concludes Labour haven't adequately responded to claims they were 'siphoning' the cash given to paid-for officials.

Meanwhile Reading East Conservative Rob Wilson MP avoids commenting on the subject, getting round the controversy by running a poll on his website (it's still live, so go and vote).

Currently (as of 3/2/11) 83.3% of respondents say union members should pay for their representatives, and only 16.7% say this is the responsibility of the taxpayer.

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Update:

Elsewhere LibDem Cllr Gareth Epps explains his separate reasons for resigning membership of his Trade Union.


Oranjepan says: Political funding is a notoriously muddy area, but given Labour's direct affiliation with these trade unions they've left themselves wide open to accusations that tax-payers are supporting unlegitimated partisan activity at odds with the wider public interest.

Unions will only remove this stain from their reputation by being held accountable to the same standards expected of other council managers. This could easily involve adding the same political restrictions as a condition of their employment and requiring proof of how they spend their time - if they are to be employed by councils, then they should not be exempt from normal council practice.

Additionally, we notice Reading's Trade Unions have recently begun publishing various blogs to promote their political campaigns in tandem with Labour members. This blog at least thinks it would be more in-keeping with their 'all-together' slogan if we could read more about how they actually help us, rather than just about how we can help them.
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