I was shocked by some of the things said by opposition speakers at tonight's meeting. In particular I found Cllr Ralph's comments about the Avenue school (apparently rebuilding it was 'excessive') extremely worrying, since he is still their spokesperson for Education. As I said in the debate his views do not reflect that of the council, we put the highest priority on the education and welfare of Reading's children with complex special educational needs. It was also clear that they had either regardless misunderstood or were deliberately muddying the waters regarding last years accounts. Under their Conservative-led administration several million pounds worth of capital expenditure on schools, housing etc had been delayed and carried over to this year. We chose not to attack them on this as it is the sort of things that can happen. However what it means is that some borrowing was moved from the accounts in the financial year in 2010-2011 to the accounts in 2011-2012. The same money being spent on the same things, just a couple of months later (and approved by their administration I should add!),
So what is the response? To say they are 'disgusted' and to try to imply that the Labour administration had somehow managed to increase the councils borrowing by millions of pounds in 6 working days! It's one thing to look at a budget and disagree with policy priorities, it's quite another to completely fail to understand it. We need an opposition who will hold us to account, not misread the accounts.
Anyway back to the positive agenda that we are bringing forward here are our priorities in my cabinet area:
Council housing: Labour remains committed to retaining Council housing in Council ownership and to maintain it at the “Decent Homes” standard. We plan to work with tenants on improving homes and neighbourhoods still further. We are also committed to keeping secure tenancies and reject the government’s proposals to change that. We will also ensure that the carbon footprint of our housing stock is further reduced which will help to prevent fuel poverty. We will consider new ways to involve tenants through RFTRA and through new structures.
Housing Associations: The government has created a confused policy environment and incentives for housing associations to increase rents to up to 80% of private sector levels through their funding regime. The previous administration took little action on this and we need to ensue that we work with Housing Associations to influence their decisions quickly, so that rents are not put beyond the means of many families in Reading. We will continue to work with partner Housing Associations to ensure that inward investment for more affordable housing in Reading is achieved.
Private rented: We will continue to work with responsible landlords to improve the quality of private rented accommodation. We believe that every home in Reading should be a decent home and we will work with private tenants and landlords to drive up standards. We will also work with students, other tenants and their neighbours to ensure that Houses in Multiple Occupancy do not become a problem in the wider community and instead can contribute positively to their neighbourhoods.
Safer Reading and Neighbourhood Action Groups: There is still some way to go in ensuring that all the NAGS are effective ways for the Council and the Police to engage with local residents in ways that work for them. This will mean using a range of different communication methods to ensure that all residents of all backgrounds and ages understand how to influence local initiatives involved in improving their neighbourhood. In particular we will be focusing on recruiting effective chairs where there are vacancies; using social media to engage younger people, busy parents and others; and encouraging mentoring between successful NAGs and those still developing.
Anti Social Behaviour: While a number of areas have seen a reduction in ASB due to the closer working between the community, the police and the council, we will ensure that good practice is shared between communities and we will encourage communities to problem solve and find ways to overcome this blight on our neighbourhoods. We are very aware that the police are also facing cuts and that this is likely to affect what they can do in the future to support communities in tackling anti-social behaviour. We will work with our neighbourhood police teams and with residents to find ways to minimise the impact of this.
Community spirit: There is already wonderful community spirit in Reading with volunteers giving hours of time to improve their local community and help their neighbours. We want to celebrate that but also encourage all residents to feel connected to their neighbours. We will work for more cross-generational and local involvement so that young and old and neighbours from different cultures don’t just respect each other but can help each other and enjoy spending time together. We will work with the established voluntary sector, new community groups and bands of neighbours to support their activities.
Neighbourhood events: We will be exploring how we can use the Jubilee celebrations, the bid for city status and the upcoming Olympics and other events such as the Big Lunch to help neighbours come together for both special events and regular community events. We will also look at how our cultural and arts life can be part of the local community and how we can foster local grassroots initiatives such as community gardening.
Domestic Violence: It is fundamentally important for residents to feel safe in their own homes. We will re-focus the council’s work in this area and make it a priority and work with the police and the voluntary sector to prevent and tackle domestic violence throughout our borough.