West Berkshire Council’s Draft Council Strategy 2023 to 2027 – the good, the bad and the missing

West Berkshire Council (WBC) is inviting residents to have their say on its “Draft Council Strategy 2023 to 2027” by Sunday 26 February 2023. I’ve had a quick read of this and you can find my thoughts below. However, let’s start with how WBC itself describes the exercise.

“Our Council Strategy,” says WBC’s website, “is written every four years to align with our local electoral cycle and refreshed every other year. It explains what we want to prioritise and improve, whether that’s a statutory service such as emptying bins, fixing potholes or safeguarding vulnerable children, or a new area of focus such as reaching zero net carbon. It also explains how we propose to achieve our priorities and work with our communities and partner organisations to deliver the strategy.” So, like the good citizen I am, I clicked and started reading.

My first impression is that it seems to be a rather odd document – and not just because of the timing, just before an election (though as stated above this is apparently part of a cycle, in which case it should perhaps be called a “manifesto”) and almost exactly overlapping with the much more important Regulation 19 consultation on the local plan.

The term “strategy” is a misnomer as the document is mainly a summary of worthy aspirations, statutory responsibilities and statements of the obvious. Few would argue with ambitions such as “good educational attainment results”, “preventing homelessness”, “effective deterrence of fly-tipping”, “keeping roads in a good state of repair”, “children and young people being better heard” and “enabling physical activity” but the document is silent on how any of these are to be realised and does not “explain how [WBC] proposes to achieve [its] priorities” or “deliver the strategy”. Parts are so vague and fluffy as to make comment or criticism almost beside the point. One might as well use a chain-saw to cut up a soufflé.

I wouldn’t want you to think I’m dissing the whole exercise. Any organisation needs to have goals and this document mentions several things (like the Covid response, the various support hubs, keeping the leisure centres open despite fierce financial pressures and the number of newsletters it produces) that WBC has done well – or which are done well in West Berkshire, which might not always be quite the same thing. It also contains a useful statistical summary of the district. It has a separate document with sources for its claims (which I haven’t had time to check). Finally, it covers some of the work the council has done since 2019: either of its own volition; or, in the majority of cases, as an agent of central government in fields such as social care, education and recycling, which it seems to have performed fairly well. Compared to some like Croydon and Slough, WBC seems in decent financial shape. Things could be a lot worse.

In one sense the document is an apologia for the activities of the last four years. If so, it’s a highly sanitised one. You will search in vain for any mention of the London Road Industrial Estate, Faraday Road, Community Infrastructure Levy charges, Sandleford, Readibus or north east Thatcham, all matters for which a new strategy could profitably be proposed.

I said above that in many cases “comment is almost beside the point”: but there are others where it seems worth comparing what we have here with the reality of some of WBC’s current behaviour. If these points prove to be of any use when making  your response, please have these on me.

Priority area of “Protecting and enhancing our environment”

In this section the following statements appear:

  • Residents and businesses are enabled and encouraged to act on what they can do to contribute to carbon neutrality. Assuming that “businesses” applies equally to WBC itself, the long-running problem with getting the Chestnut Walk social-housing development in Hungerford built to standards that would satisfy this environmental ambition (or built at all) undermines this claim. Hopefully this will soon be resolved but, if it is, it’s worth recording that this didn’t happen without a good deal of pressure needing to be applied.
  • Installation of more renewable energy capacity. The same point applies.
  • Sustainable building. The same point applies.
  • Additional electric vehicle charging points installed, both in Council car parks and on residential streets without off-street parking. We’re still in Hungerford (and perhaps elsewhere too). The struggle by the Town Council to get WBC to install EV charge points in the either of the two WBC car parks in the town has reached the level of a black farce.
  • Our land’s natural beauty is conserved and enhanced by integrated working with other local authorities, AONB and the Government. Well, WBC has to work with the government and other authorities. As regards the AONB, it’s hard to see how this goal – or the general protection of “natural beauty” and the thus the avoidance where possible of developing greenfield sites – is satisfied by the plan for the 1,500-plus homes in north east Thatcham.
  • Better travel options available to our residents. It’s impossible to regard the pointlessly deteriorating relationship between WBC and Readibus as helping achieve this goal for those residents – particularly in Newbury and Thatcham – who have mobility problems.

Priority area “great place to live learn and do business”

It’s hard to disagree with the points made in this section. However, all these are predicated on one basic assumption.

This is that the district is capable of providing the homes that people need. The current, developer-led system, is good at providing (i) three-plus bed homes on new estates and (ii) studio or one-bed flats carved out of previous commercial properties under permitted development rights. The gap – one- and two-bed homes for young couples or families, for sale or for rent, ideally with a small garden – is not something that the current system can provide as easily.

The obvious solution for this is for WBC to become a home-builder, using its own land or acquiring land from others in suitable locations (ie not just one site) and entering into whatever partnerships with home-builders to provide what is needed. This is the major problem the district faces which is also in the council’s power to remedy. Although, thanks to Liz Truss, borrowing rates from the preferential source of the Public Works Loan Board are currently high, they are falling. WBC has land of its own and both the financial ability (through the PWLB) and the legal power (through compulsory purchase orders) to acquire more. It doesn’t have the in-house expertise to build homes (something it’s never done) but this can be obtained through partnerships.

The document is, however, completely silent on this. Given the nature of the problem, this seems the most glaring omission of all.

Priority area “Building public services for the future”

In this section the following statement appears:

  • Continually improving customer experience and enable digital access option to services for the residents that want and can access them in this way. The digital aspect isn’t the issue. Particularly since the pandemic, for largely sensible and expedient reasons, the council has been digital by default. The problem is how it is going to engage with two other groups: those under about 25 who are constantly online but see the council’s work as being irrelevant to them; and those, generally over 70, who are online only fitfully or not at all. These are serious challenges (and ones faced by all such bodies) but the document makes no attempt to address, or even acknowledge, them.

Overall, my criticism of the document is less about what it contains than what it leaves out. As far as it goes, it’s fine but it airbrushes away a range of problems and challenges and fails to suggest how these (and indeed all the others) might be addressed. This does not, however, make them disappear.

Taking part in any consultation is a worthwhile exercise and I don’t intend that this should prevent your doing so with this one. To do so, please click here for the summary and links to the strategy, the supporting evidence and the consultation itself. You have until midnight on Sunday 26 February 2023 to have your say. Completing the consultation should take “about ten minutes”: though that will depend on how much you want to write…

Brian Quinn
brian@pennypost.org.uk

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