Tag Archives: Wokingham

Don’t Be Fooled

As we approach the local elections on Thursday, and with the Tories rocked by a succession of scandals and crises since the Budget, the local Tory candidates can increasingly see the writing on the wall.

It’s even worse if you happen to be standing in an area with local issues – around Wokingham it’s the ongoing disastrous introduction of an unpopular new rubbish collection scheme coupled with other issues around housing development, the privatisation of the library service, removal of public toilets, school provision amongst other things.

As a result there seems to be an increasing attempt by Tory candidates to disassociate themselves with their own party, taking the local battle that’s been attracting most attention, the very marginal ward of Winnersh, the initial leaflet from Tory candidate Mark Ashwell is quite clearly Tory.

But on this page are pictures of the latest ‘leaflet’, an apparent copy of a handwritten letter. It does mention he’s the Conservative candidate in the second paragraph, but the required declaration on the bottom of the second page lists only his agents name, and the address of the local Conservatives, without actually highlighting that this is the Conservative HQ. There is no Conservative branding at all.

So what is going on? This is not the only place it is happening, elsewhere local Tory candidates are starting to see the Tory brand as toxic.

But as you come to the booth on Thursday to cast your vote what do you do? Don’t be fooled, whatever the leaflets say, if you vote for a Tory you get a Tory, if you vote for a Liberal Democrat you get a Liberal Democrat, if you vote for a Labour candidate that’s what you get too. If you want somebody independent who will stand up for wherever you live then you need an independent – but there are precious few of those around. Also don’t forget that around here you’ve got the Green Party and UKIP vying for your vote as well, in fact they’re running in more seats than Labour this time around.

Certainly with the unpopularity of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats nationally and the memory of Labour still pretty fresh (and not really a big force around here) the election in Wokingham is going to be interesting. The rubbish issue really has got an awful lot of people annoyed, especially when, like most things around here it was brought in with the minimum of consultation and many people were totally unaware of it until blue bags started dropping through their door. Could it be the issue that results in a dent in the local Tory parties absolute power and domination of the Borough? But if people are also wary of the Liberal Democrats over national issues, and have doubts over Labour, could we be seeing some UKIP and Green councillors by the end of the week?

Is Wokingham Really the Worst Funded Local Authority in the Country?

It may have escaped your attention, but it’s election time. Across large parts of the country people will be delighted to have Eastenders and Coronation Street interrupted by a knock at the door, a local politician of one colour or another who you won’t have seen since the last election tell you a whole load of reasons why you should vote for them in a couple of weeks.

Around these parts one of the favourite claims of Wokingham Borough Councillors from the ruling Conservative group is that Wokingham is the poorest funded council in the country. Indeed the claim has been made so frequently that it’s made the BBC news site.

It has to be said that when I tell people outside the borough what is said reactions range from regarding it as a ridiculous statement, to people on the receiving end of very real cuts to council services regarding it as a pretty crass and insensitive statement for leaders of the council in one of the richest and least deprived areas of the country to be moaning about money. Much the same reaction as to a banker moaning that his bonus isn’t big enough, or a millionaire moaning about the size of his tax bill. But the question is, is it actually true?

To answer the question we have to look at how local government is funded. Broadly speaking a local council gets money from two sources, the first is the money it raises through the council tax. This is collected in a banded scheme whereby each property in the country is allocated to a band between A and H, based on the capital value of the property in 1991, and the tax bill graded up or down so higher band properties pay more. There is a Wikipedia article that explains how the system works. The second source is from central government and consists of business rates and a block grant, the level of which is set by central government as explained in this plain English guide. Interestingly the example authority used by the document is Wokingham, and the document makes clear that needy areas such as Hackney deliberately get more funding via the grant than well off areas such as Wokingham.

So if you look purely the government grant component of the council finances, Wokingham does get the smallest grant, however as the governments own document explains Wokingham as one of the least deprived areas in the country, and with a well off population and high value housing has more resources of it’s own.

Tories would be the first to highlight benefit scroungers claiming money when they aren’t entitled, and yet our local Tories regularly bleat about poorly funded Wokingham. Whilst all local authorities are seeing real cuts in funding, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation lays out the effect of cuts on Wokingham in table 2 – a tiny cut in spending power compared to places like Liverpool and Manchester.

Shock! Are There Actually Some Wokingham Tories With Integrity?

During the run up to the recent local elections I swapped a number of e-mails with both Gary Cowan, the sitting Tory councillor, and Steve Bacon, the Liberal Democrat challenger and former local councillor for our ward who had also run against Gary in the 2006 election. It started because I sent both of them an e-mail asking that they could run a campaign with integrity, and not produce a repeat of the last campaign with blatant misrepresentation particularly over housing. Sadly although Steve Bacon gave me an assurance, Gary didn’t, and then proceeded to campaign on a totally mythical and ludicrous assertion that the Liberal Democrats were proposing to put 12,000 houses on the Garrison site (yes that would be houses at a density of central London for those with calculators), and that the Tories were the only option for protecting Arborfield.

In the run up to the election Gary, like most of the other Tory candidates and Wokingham Borough Council itself had been squarely blaming the Labour government for the current housing numbers. One of Gary’s election flyers said the following:

The extra homes in Wokingham’s Core Strategy are required by the Labour government’s national policy and regional housing targets. If a Conservative government is elected they will abolish the high housing targets forced on Wokingham, leaving Wokingham Borough Council free to amend its plans and scale down the targets. If re-elected, as the lead Councillor for planning I would then ensure that our local plan was revised to spare the greenfields of Arborfield.

As we know, a Tory led government was elected on May 6th, and they duly abolished housing targets, therefore it was a bit of a surprise to most people in Wokingham to find that despite pressure from our local MP, who of course had been around on the doorstep backing the cut housing numbers message, and highlighting the same thing in his blog after the election, and the well known opposition of the vast majority of local residents to large scale housing developments, the local council seemed to be suggesting that numbers wouldn’t be cut significantly as they had already adopted their core strategy. This is even more peculiar considering that they, like many other councils had received this letter in August 2009 highlighting that an incoming Tory government would abolish regional spatial strategies and urging councils not to adopt core strategies – Wokingham Borough adopted their strategy in January 2010, four months before the current Tory government was elected and abolished housing targets.

Were the local Tories telling any old lies on their election material to win votes and never had any intention to cut housing? Did they not expect a Tory win at the General Election? Or are they just total muppets with no clue what they were doing when they adopted the strategy? I really don’t know, suffice to say back in June it really did start to look like Wokingham was doomed to go under a swathe of concrete and large scale housing development. I may not agree with John Redwood (@johnredwood) on many things, indeed I’m probably diametrically opposite to his position on some things, but at least he’s being consistent on this – he was elected on abolishing housing targets, his party has done that, and it’s the local council that is dragging and threatening to U-turn.

Roll forward to this week, and the headline on the Wokingham Times is “War breaks out over Wokingham housing targets”. The article again highlights the calls from residents to cut the numbers, and the intransigence from council leader David Lee who is unwilling to commit to reduce the target. Paul Gallagher, chair of the Emmbrook Residents Association highlights one possible reason – the new government still requires houses, so has switched from the Labour stick to a Tory carrot – Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) saying a couple of weeks back that “those councils who go for growth by providing planning permission now will reap the rewards” – so Paul is quite clear that the council, who regularly moaned about lack of funding almost as often as they moaned about Labour housing targets, would carry on with the unpopular targets to fill their coffers.

However, all is not lost, as the headline implied, the governing group on the council is not united. A number of local councillors have come out and said that if it comes to a vote over retaining the existing numbers, or cutting them, they would go for a cut. However there are suggestions from some of the Tories that they are worried that it will never come to a vote – the ten person executive, only one of whom has come out to say they are opposed to retaining the current numbers (and you guessed it, it isn’t Gary Cowan, despite his promise to protect the green fields of Arborfield), would take the vote alone without consulting the other 33 Tory councillors.

So are there some Wokingham Tories with integrity? Lets be fair, if you’d been saying for years that the numbers were too high, and being imposed by the Labour government, anyone with integrity could not do anything else but vote to cut the numbers could they?

Standing Up for England's Counties

There is a bit of a double act going on between Grant Shapps (@grantshapps) and Eric Pickles (@ericpickles) on Twitter at times with one promoting the other. One such bit of promotion came last week when Grant Shapps tweeted the following:

Eric Pickles standing up for England’s counties and 1,000 years of English history – http://bit.ly/aD1Z0Z

The link points to the Telegraph letters page of August 11th which part way down features this letter from Eric Pickles:

SIR – I share the public’s concern (Letters, August 9) at the recommendation of the Postcode Address File Advisory Board to delete counties from the Royal Mail’s address database by 2016. It speaks volumes that unelected officials regard our counties – and over 1,000 years of English history – as a “vanity attachment”.

But the new Government is taking steps to defend our counties. We have scrapped Labour’s gerrymandering which sought to break up the counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk for electoral advantage and we are dismantling the tiers of regional assemblies and development agencies.

It is a response to the recent news that the Royal Mail will no longer include counties in official addresses – and as you can see Eric Pickles uses it as an opportunity to pledge to protect English counties.

I have to say I greeted that with a good deal of amusement, the reason being that I live in what was once the county of Berkshire one of the oldest in the country, which exists now purely as a ceremonial county, and it’s not been Labour gerrymandering for electoral advantage that has reduced the county to a mark on the map, it was the Tory Local Government Act 1972 that transferred a chunk of the county including the former county town of Abingdon to Oxfordshire in 1974, and then the previous Tory administration gerrymandering for electoral advantage that abolished the whole county in 1998John Gummer chose to ignore the recommendations of the commission leaving Berkshire with six unitary authorities.

So what is the effect? For us in our little village at a simple level it means significantly less representation. We have a single local councillor, who we can only vote for once every four years, for the other three years our opinion counts for absolutely nothing. Under the old two tier system we had representation at both local and county level, and many more opportunities to vote.

Looking wider, we now have six authorities fighting with each other. We saw it with the endless debates over housing allocation where Wokingham District fought and lost the battle with the other authorities – each authority purely focused on their own people. Even government documents such as this concede that the six small unitary authorities don’t work in the best interests of the people, check out this paragraph on page 5:

The unitary structure of local government across Berkshire makes it difficult for other stakeholders to engage on issues that cut across boundaries. This is further complicated by the range of political views and agendas within and across the local authorities, and by the fact that changes across other public sector bodies do not align with the Local Authorities or each other (e.g. Police, Primary Care Trusts and Learning and Skills Council)

The size of the authorities causes problems too, I remember a number of discussions with local teachers of the problems, for example the peculiarities caused by Wokingham outsourcing much of their education to next door Surrey, or the fact that school repair projects that were approved by Berkshire were dropped by Wokingham who had more limited funds. We still have the effects now more than a decade later with many students being educated in schools in adjacent authorities rather than their own, purely because villages in the west of Wokingham are closer to schools in West Berkshire, students in parts of Reading are closer to schools in Wokingham.

That also highlights a missed opportunity – Reading still doesn’t have one authority overseeing a strategy for the whole town. A large chunk towards the south east of Greater Reading is in Wokingham, indeed most of the University of Reading is in Wokingham. Over in the west another chunk of the town is looked after by West Berkshire. In both cases there is no clear divide between the areas, but the historic borders were retained.

So will the Tories stand up for England’s counties? I don’t know, but as a resident of the former county of Berkshire their past record doesn’t bode well for the future.

Business as Usual?

On Thursday I wrote a post discussing my thoughts about the election. Now two days later we have had the results, and at a national level are still going through the machinations caused by the results.

I have heard it said often that whatever people tell pollsters, when they get into the polling booth they can do something totally different. The 1992 General Election is a good example of this effect where the polls were predicting a Labour victory, but the country returned the sitting, and apparently deeply unpopular Conservative government for another term. For decades the government of the UK has been flip-flopping from Labour to Conservative and back to Labour again, usually with a large pool of floating voters who are voting to get rid of something they don’t like, rather than voting for something they do.

This time around according to the polls Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had made a big impression during the campaign, and according to the pollsters had historically high poll ratings, at times pushing Labour into third place. But on the day all these poll gains evaporated – across the country people were desperate to get rid of an unpopular government and saw voting for the Conservatives as a way to do it.

It was against this backdrop that we must look at the results for Wokingham. John Redwood our sitting Conservative MP was returned with a significant increase in majority. In the press this has been reported as a swing from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives, but when you look at the votes this is misleading. There was a significant increase in turnout over 2005 – in actual fact of the three main parties only Labour had less votes – the Liberal Democrat candidate received more votes. However most of the additional turnout went to the sitting Conservative candidate. Mark Ashwell the independent candidate polled a couple of thousand votes, noticeable, but not enough to really impact the vote.

Locally, there was a big jump in turnout – the last time this ward was elected it wasn’t on the day of a General Election. Occurring on the same day it is rare for people to vote differently in the two elections, so again the local councillor was returned with a sizeable majority. Indeed across the whole of the borough only one ward changed hands, passing from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats. In the run up to the vote I had been swapping e-mails with our local councillor who had been defeatist right from the off, saying that our Resident Action Group website was going to lose him the election, that he knew his time was up, and during the course of the campaign we had more than double the number of flyers through from him. In my e-mails I’d repeatedly said that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was still the village councillor on May 7th, and I’m not – this is a staunchly Conservative area, and whilst there is a good deal of anger amongst some of the residents it is a big step for many from being angry about what is going on to actively voting for someone else. The big disappointment is that his insecurity in his electorate led him to produce election literature with some truly ludicrous and unfounded claims that do nothing for the reputation of politicians. I have much more respect for someone who has run a clean and honest campaign and lost than someone who has run a dishonest campaign and won.

Reflecting on the local situation, we now have a very interesting situation developing nationally, as the two parties who on a local level here seem to truly loathe one another find themselves thrust together as the Cameron led Conservatives find themselves with no option but to ask the Clegg led Liberal Democrats to support them to allow them to form a government. Thanks to the British constitution the incumbent Prime Minister stays in the job if nobody gets an overall majority. The Conservatives need the Liberal Democrats. More ironically any decision to support them needs a positive vote from 75% of the parliamentary party and 75% of the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive, and if they can’t agree it needs a ballot of the members. Suddenly in order to have any chance of forming a government the Conservatives need the support of the self same people who in our area they have been making ludicrous accusations about just days before.

The situation is also causing people to reflect on the absurdity and perverse nature of our venerable first-past-the-post voting system. The whole system favours parties with dominant pockets of support, as a result of the system country wide it took the vote of 35,021 Conservative supporters to elect one MP, and 33,338 Labour supporters to elect one MP for them. However it took the vote of 119,397 to elect on Liberal Democrat MP – the final seats in the Commons fail to reflect the votes cast nationally. Other perverse results include the City of Oxford, which is split into two constituencies. Across the whole city 41,087 people voted Liberal Democrat, 33,633 voted Conservative and 27,937 voted Labour, however because of the distribution of the voters the city is now represented by one Conservative and one Labour MP. Similarly in Wokingham Borough across ward after ward the Liberal Democrats come a strong second, but they have vastly fewer seats on council because the same unfair voting system operates in local council elections.

However thanks to the failure of the Conservatives to win a majority they now need the help of the Liberal Democrats to govern, and whilst elements of the press seem to think that they should quietly trot along and just prop up a minority Conservative government who only gained the support of 36% of the electorate, there are other groups who see this as a golden opportunity to properly reform our voting system. Today a fair votes demonstration that was going on largely unnoticed in Trafalgar Square, decided to go and visit the building where Nick Clegg was discussing the offer made by the Conservatives to try and get Liberal Democrat support – an offer that doesn’t include the promise of a change in voting system, this was the result:

Could this be the dawn of a new age in terms of British democracy – or will it just go back to business as usual?

Now We Wait

This morning on the way to work I did my civic duty and cast my vote in both the General Election, and also for our local councillor in Arborfield, as thanks to our unitary authority this is the one year in four when the people of Arborfield actually get to vote on local issues.

In Arborfield the vote is pretty well a straight rerun of the vote four years ago with the incumbent Tory, Gary Cowan, running against a Liberal Democrat, Steve Bacon, who was the local councillor beaten by Cowan thirteen years ago. As last time the only other candidate is from UKIP, Labour don’t even bother to field a candidate.

Sadly the campaign is also a rerun of the previous efforts with the sitting Tory producing leaflets spouting the most ludicrous claims about Liberal Democrat policy locally – this years gem being that the Liberal Democrats want to put 12,000 houses into the Garrison SDL. Bear in mind that taking the average household size of 2.36 that would be a population almost as big as Wokingham itself crammed into the Garrison SDL, at a density equivalent to some of our major inner city areas. The reality is that the Liberal Democrats have much the same policy towards Arborfield as the Tories – as one of the biggest potential brownfield areas in the borough it is a much more attractive location for houses than the other much more greenfield SDL’s, so even if a new government drops housing targets it’s more than likely that Arborfield would still be a prime site – and a careful reading of our Tories flyers show that he doesn’t say that housing won’t come to the Garrison site even if the numbers are scaled back across the borough. Sadly our one and only local councillor is also executive member for local and regional planning, so whilst his campaign leaflets bang on about him putting Arborfield first, second and third, he has a Wokingham wide view through his executive role, hence on occasions he can’t answer questions from his voters because they might compromise his executive position, and repeatedly he turns up in the press highlighting the next stage of the plan, only to object to the same plan in his role as local councillor.

Whilst there is a good deal of anger across the village, especially after the meeting earlier in the year where Gary refused to answer questions, Arborfield is one of the safer parts of one of the safest Tory councils in the country (Tories hold over 75% of the council, and even if they lost every ward today they would still be in control) I’m doubtful whether even that level of anger could swing the ward. Ironically though from e-mails I’ve swapped with our local councillor he seems a lot more pessimistic – indeed when his fifth flyer of the campaign popped through the door, following on from Redwood himself going door to door earlier in the week, he does seem increasingly desperate and unsure of his core vote. The count starts at 2pm tomorrow, so we’ll have to wait until then to find out if he was right.

By far the more interesting campaign though is for the constituency.

The Wokingham area was one of only thirty in the whole country that have been continuously represented by one party since the 1850’s. Our current MP is the well known John Redwood. Considering how safe the local council is people often assume that the constituency would be equally safe but it isn’t. The fact is that Redwood isn’t nearly as popular locally as he should be given the area, indeed his share has been steadily falling, and at the last election he could have been beaten had that Labour and Liberal Democrat vote combined. Into this mix comes Mark Ashwell, a local businessman standing as an independent. Traditionally independents don’t do well, but being well known locally, on the ground at least he seems to be making headway. Travelling around Wokingham you see vastly more Vote Ashwell boards than for any other party. He has also managed to grab a lot of good headlines in the local paper, and the various polls the local paper has run give him surprisingly high totals. Indeed the online bookmakers have cut his odds over the course of the campaign indicating that a good few people think he might win.

Considering the comparatively low majority that Redwood has, even a modest showing from Ashwell could cause a major upset, especially if a goodly number of disgruntled Labour voters swap to the Liberal Democrats. Whilst realistically the most likely outcome is still for Redwood to take the seat, albeit with a reduced majority, Ashwell has the possibility to either cause a major upset by taking enough of the Tory vote to let Prue Bray, the second placed Liberal Democrat candidate last time, and Liberal Democrat PPC this time in, or even more spectacularly by taking the seat himself.

There is the potential for things looking rather different tomorrow morning. Could Wokingham become a lone Liberal Democrat seat in Berkshire? Or might we be one of the few constituencies in the country to return a true independent? Now we wait to find out…

Gambling on Arborfield

Today I received what will be the first I’m sure of many notices shoved through my door asking for my support at the upcoming election. Whilst there are many national issues to be dealt with in the general election, on a local scale there are big decisions to be made. And what a decision, there has never been so much need for a “none of the above” option.

I’m sure I don’t need to highlight the massive housing plans that are currently being touted by our council, with the sitting Conservative administration having voted to buldoze swathes of the land around Three Mile Cross and Shinfield, both north and south of Wokingham, and development primarily in outlying areas of Finchampstead and Barkham around Arborfield Garrison. What is interesting from the point of view of a resident of Arborfield such as myself is that the last time our elected representative, Gary Cowan stood for re-election three years ago, he did so promising to try to minimise the housing that would be built – now he is standing for re-election again with his name on the planning documents that bring over ten thousand homes across the district, and three thousand five hundred on his own doorstep – although his election materials repeatedly highlight that the majority of the houses are to be built in Finchampstead and Barkham, not Arborfield.

It doesn’t take much digging around to find the flaws in the current housing proposals. Going through all the glossy pictures and grand plans, and talk of build dates, you’d think that there was a definite departure date for REME and the Arborfield Garrison. If you thought that you’d be wrong.

REME have been “about to move” for years, and the move keeps being pushed back. The original defence training review was over a decade ago and it still hasn’t been implemented. There are local protests against the scale of the new training site in Wales, and recently the government yet again has pushed back a definite decision on the move, now waiting on making the controversial decision until the summer, after the General Election. With tightening defence budgets concern is continuing to be expressed about the £13 billion price tag for the project, with some politicians already highlighting the plan as an ideal candidate to be cut. David Cameron has spoken out about the uncertainty for the people of Wales, but has noticeably refused to commit a possible incoming Conservative administration to the move, instead mentioning just the kind of defence review that could cut an expensive plan such as this. With the need to save billions from national budgets, why waste so much money on a move like this?

Whilst all of this is going on, the Arborfield SDL is still being pushed as a brownfield development by our unitary authority. However in order to make a “viable community” many homes need to be built on greenfield sites – sites that would still be available if the Garrison moves or not. If the plan goes ahead and is adopted but the Garrison fails to move, without the brownfield areas the developers will only have the greenfield sites – the adopted plan is tantamount to outline planning permission. Even building on all the planned greenfield areas there will be so many fewer houses such that key trigger levels for the desperately needed infrastructure improvements such as additional schools, the district centre and a bypass for Arborfield will not be met – the whole reason for focusing on strategic development locations in the first place.

But then what of the extra houses that then could not be put on the site at Arborfield? The council is committed to build over twelve thousand over the next fifteen years, and as many people may know, the SDL’s do not meet the total housing allocation for Wokingham anyway. Several thousand are going to be in unspecified small scale developments scattered across the borough – if the Garrison fails to move that will be several thousand more that will end up as infill and backyard development, just the kind of thing that is regularly rejected when the residents of the area are consulted on what development they would like because it doesn’t give the significant funds needed for the infrastructure we as a borough desperately need.

What was needed from the council were clear and realistic plans as to where new development was able to go, what we’ve got is our unitary authority taking a massive gamble on Arborfield Garrison moving to Wales and the brownfield site being able to take the largest proportion of the new housing in the borough. If that doesn’t happen – and concerns were being expressed in the national press in 2008 that it wouldn’t – all we’ll get is more piecemeal development, more lack of investment in infrastructure and more unsustainable communities.

So where was the opposition on our council when this was going ahead, plans that are obviously gambling on the future of our communities across the whole borough by picking a site that is increasingly unlikely to be available? Were they calling the governing body to account for potentially dooming Wokingham Borough to many more backyard developments? No. It seems the Liberal Democrat group abstained en-masse from the key vote.

Never has there been so much need for a “none of the above” option.

Whilst I’m sure what I’ve written above will be seen as NIMBYism, it is worth saying that as any resident of the Garrison area, we moved here in the full knowledge that the future of the Garrison was uncertain, whatever was said at elections, a look at proposals going back years always finds Arborfield touted as a potential development site. However what we have always been promised is a sustainable community, one that can accommodate the extra people the redevelopment of the base will bring. Sadly with the ongoing unrealistic attitude to the floundering plans for the move from our council, and with the planned locations of two of the three schools and the district centre sitting squarely on the Army owned land, that in such a scenario would not be released, it seems we will instead be left with hundreds of extra houses and none of the infrastructure such a new development would need, and a consequential impact that will be felt across the whole of the rest of the borough.