Last Thursday, the 18th February 2021, Wokingham Borough Council had its Budget Council meeting. This is the meeting where the Council set the Council Tax and decide on its spending for the the next year, with a plan for the following years.
The meeting was a four hour long virtual meeting, starting at 8pm and ending just before midnight.
Our Council Tax payments do need to go up, because of the large, Covid sized hole in the Council Finances. There has been no income from Leisure centres and a much reduced amount from car parking and licensing. The central government funding to cover the costs from the pandemic have not covered everything that the Council needed to do.
In summary, the key things that came out of this meeting were:
1) Council tax will go up 4.99%
2) The Council’s borrowing will pass £3/4 Billion by the end of 2024.
3) There is NO Covid Recovery Plan
4) Locating the right information in the Council Finance reports is a complex task.
5) Wokingham Town Centre Regeneration has, so far, not contributed any money to Wokingham Borough Council.
6) The Council leadership ignore the Constitution.
These are all things that we would seek to change if we were to get control of this council in May.
Wokingham Lib Dem councillors have criticised the government over their late announcement on school closures. Lib Dem Group Leader Councillor Lindsay Ferris said “It is quite appalling that the government left it until the term had officially started to announce that schools will be returning to lockdown conditions. Communication locally has not been helped by a statement from the council, confusingly headed ‘School Re-opening in Wokingham’ – the opposite of what is happening.
“We feel great sympathy for all the school staff, who had only 12 hours’ notice that everything had changed. We also feel sympathy for parents, trying to juggle work and childcare, with no time to prepare. The decision should, and could, have been made much sooner, as many were urging. But dither and delay is what we have come to expect from this government.”
Cllr Imogen Shepherd-DuBey, Leader of Wokingham Town Council says "I am dismayed to find that residents in Wokingham received parking tickets for parking in Wokingham Borough Council's Car Parks on Boxing Day. Boxing day fell on a Saturday, in 2020 and would normally be a bank holiday. All of the other Saturdays in December were given free parking, but not the 26th December. Therefore, it has been no surprise that many residents believed that the 26th December was a bank holiday and as a Saturday, would also be a free parking day.
The official Boxing Day bank holiday was Monday 28th December, which meant that many people were given tickets on Saturday for failing to pay the full parking fees. In a disgraceful lack of communication, there was no signs or warning from Wokingham Borough Council that this would happen & there should have been posters in each car park, clearly showing what dates were free. We feel that these parking fines should be refunded, and we need to make sure that this does not happen again."
Many Councils were treating both the Saturday and the Monday as a bank holiday - Wokingham Liberal Democrats are asking why Wokingham Borough Council didn't do the same? In 2021, December 25th will fall on a Saturday - will residents be expected to pay the full parking fees on Christmas day? If the Liberal Democrats were to gain control of Wokingham Borough Council in 2021, we would make sure these important dates were respected and charges would not apply to Christmas Day or Boxing Day, no matter which day of the week they fell on.
COVID has made 2020 a tough year for everyone, and even more damage to our country is expected from further lockdowns and Brexit as we roll into 2021. During the Leave campaign, Johnson, Gove and Patel promised our European friends and neighbours that they would automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain – but this was just another Brexiter lie. EU citizens will now see their right to stay taken away at the end of June unless they have been granted ‘Settled Status’.
EU citizens pay their taxes and deserve to play a full role in our democracy, and with the local elections coming up in May, EU residents have been left confused about their rights.
Wokingham Town Council’s Liberal Democrats brought forward a motion to ensure that adequate communication is provided on who can vote. This motion was passed unanimously with support from all parties and independents, and the Town Council formally requested support from Wokingham Borough Council and John Redwood. WBC has confirmed that they will ensure EU residents are fully informed about their rights – but unfortunately John Redwood declined to offer any support, hiding behind the Electoral Registration Authority.
While we appreciate that he may not want to encourage voters who had no reason to support Brexit, we believe that democracy flourishes when everyone is encouraged to participate.
On Wednesday 16th December 2020, the supreme court overturned a February judgement that a third runway at Heathrow airport was illegal. This is extremely disappointing and adds uncertainty to the future of a climate damaging airport expansion.
Since the original approval of the runway in 2018, the UK has committed to net zero emissions by 2050 and only a few weeks ago it pledged to cut emissions by 68% by 2030.
Back in February this year the government chose not to challenge the Court of Appeal’s ruling that the policy concerning Heathrow’s proposed third runway was illegal as it had failed to take account of the climate change targets set out in the Paris Agreement.
It was Heathrow Airport that had gone ahead to challenge the judgement by the Court of Appeal.
The Climate Change Committee also announced last week that “any growth in capacity would have to be accounted for by the same reductions at another airport, to ensure no net increase in emissions”
Cllr Paul Fishwick, Liberal Democrat Highways & Transport Spokesperson says: “With a worsening climate crisis attention must now be focused on stopping the development consent order and the stricter pledges to cut emissions recently announced by the UK government.
The supreme court judges explicitly stated that Heathrow airport’s plans would still need to satisfy climate tests during the planning process. And the government could still scrap the policy decision to support the expansion of Heathrow airport.
If enough of us speak out by writing to your MP and objecting to this climate damaging airport expansion it can still be stopped.
The Liberal Democrats have grave doubts whether there can ever be any such thing as a carbon neutral airport expansion but of course we are opposed to any airport expansion that isn’t carbon neutral.”
Councillor Paul Fishwick
Lib Dem lead on Highways and Transport
Councillors in Woodley are angry and appalled that rules designed for emergencies are being subverted to permit the council to operate without public scrutiny and without the majority of the council being aware of the decisions being made. The Lib Dem Town Council group in Woodley are trying to bring to light this abuse of authority.
Carol Jewell, Leader of the Lib Dem Town Council Group explained: "We have been strongly objecting to the Urgency Committee making decisions outside of the normal committee process, which has meant that facts are being hidden from Councillors. It completely excludes the public and the Labour representatives on the council. This is an affront to democracy".
Lib Dems believe that openness and community thinking is important and that Woodley residents should not be kept in the dark. Only 4 of the 25 councillors are members of the Urgency Committee, which is making important financial decisions without consulting the council.
The Lib Dem group, wanting to see a more democratic and transparent approach, made a proposal at a recent meeting to achieve this; but it was voted down by the Tories without discussion. It seems they want to continue to operate behind closed doors without anyone seeing what is being done.
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On 12th November 2020 Wokingham Borough Council formally announced the completion of the A329 London Road cycle route.
The news release stated, “The new off-road cycleway will provide a link for cyclists from the Coppid Beech/A329M roundabout into the town centre.”
However, the off road route, a shared footway and cycleway suddenly ends at a point between Rances Lane and Binfield Road (see photo). This is just over 1 KM short of the town centre.
The news release also stated, “Completion of work on London Road means the council has completed its parts of the National Cycle Route 422 and one seamless route through Berkshire.” It is quite clear that the route has not been completed there are similar gaps in the route west of the town centre and beyond and it is not seamless.
Would you allow a 12-year-old child to cycle on the London Road from this point into the town centre on their own?
Wokingham Liberal Democrats are pleased that the issue of poverty is finally on the Council's agenda. Cllr Sarah Kerr, Liberal Democrat member for Evendons Ward said "for too long the issue of poverty and the inequalities associated with it have gone under the radar in Wokingham Borough. The narrative being pushed out there is that Wokingham is one of the least deprived authorities in the country and levels of poverty are relatively low. What this says to me is, 'we're doing OK,' but the truth is we're not. Wokingham Borough Council is benchmarking against other authorities in a country where poverty levels are increasing and social mobility is decreasing, and this was pre-Covid. How can over 7,000 children in this Borough be living in poverty and 3,500 households in fuel poverty be seen as 'we're doing OK?' This is why the Liberal Democrats requested this pressing issue is brought to the forefront and meaningful strategies and actions to effectively tackle poverty in our Borough discussed."
The Liberal Democrat team made 3 proposals during the council's Overview & Scrutiny Management Committee meeting report on poverty on Wednesday 21st October, all of which were adopted as recommendations to go to the WBC Executive.
- This committee recommends to the Executive that this Council will limit use of comparative data and benchmarking narrative, such as being ranked the least deprived upper tier authority, when talking about poverty except when making specific reference to reduction in poverty.
- This committee recommends to the Executive that this Council will co-produce an anti-poverty strategy.
- In view of the multi-dimensional nature of 'poverty', that all discussions, data, policy and actions focus on all who are suffering different types of rising and significant hardship.
Cllr Paul Fishwick, Liberal Democrat member for Winnersh ward said "we're pleased that this committee not only recognises the need for an anti-poverty strategy, but that it needs to be co-produced with partner organisations and the voluntary sector. This is something that any Council would struggle to tackle on its own, but can be achieved locally with some real partnership working. I strongly urge the Council's Executive to approve this and get the ball rolling."
Cllr Rachelle Shepherd-Dubey, Liberal Democrat member for Winnersh ward added that "what we saw in tonight's report, in addition to the alarming data on poverty in the area, was the support that the council and it's partners are currently providing. There is much that needs to be done in this area, and most of the current support is in effect a sticking plaster to treat the symptoms rather than the cause. We need to address the drivers of poverty and hope that we've started to take a step forward in doing so."
Two other recommendations were made during the meeting. The first was that "The Executive urgently re-examine the issue of 21-25 year old care leavers paying Council Tax for the rest of this Financial Year." Cllr Andrew Mickleburgh, Liberal Democrat member for Hawkedon ward said "we are equally pleased that this recommendation was approved. It is our duty to ensure that all children in care in Wokingham Borough always receive the same support that we would give to our own children. As they move into adulthood, we continue to support them up to the age of 25. Currently, the Council has removed the requirement to pay council tax up to the age of 21, but this request is to extend that to the age of 25. This would help provide the stability required to do well in life for the young people in our care."
Council officers have confirmed that the budget approved for the council tax exemption for care leavers scheme up to the age of 21 has enough money left in it now to extend it to care leavers up to the age of 25 without needing to request any further budget. Cllr Sarah Kerr added "whilst we're pleased that this recommendation was approved, it was very disappointing that all but one of the Conservative councillors voted against giving this much needed stability to our care leavers."
One recommendation made in the meeting, was rejected by all Conservative councillors and therefore fell. The recommendation that didn't get approved was "the Executive instruct officers to urgently engage with poverty facing charities to formalise communications and support offered by WBC to charities." Cllr Kerr said "I struggle to understand why this couldn't be approved, given everything we heard from the charities about what was required. We thought we were getting through to the Conservative administration that there is a very real poverty issue that needs addressing, but when they vote down a recommendation like this, it feels like we're taking a step backwards. We just pray that for the sake of our many residents who are facing real, growing and significant hardship, that the Conservatives quickly revisit this issue."
I spoke at the Liberal Democrat Autumn 2020 Conference on supporting the motion against the government land grab on planning. You can watch me in action below!