A look at “In Touch: News from the West Berkshire Conservatives” (March 2023)

We recently received a leaflet through the door from the WBC Conservatives: you may well have had the same one, with the strap-line “In Touch”. I had a look through it and append below a few thoughts.

Please click here to see a similar article about the Lib Dem’s election material.

Please click here to see a similar article about the Greens’ election material.

These manifestos and leaflets fall into two distinct camps. Those of the party in power are justifications for what they’ve done. Those of the opponents are criticisms of this and suggestions as to how, given the chance, they would do things differently. The former will omit aspects of the past four years where things have gone badly: the latter will omit aspects of the last four years where things have gone well. Viewed individually, none paints a complete picture. Each reveals more by what it omits. Only a study of all of them will offer any kind of balanced view of the issues and even then will be a version of local life viewed through the political bubble.

Electoral communications are, of necessity, brief to the point of being simplistic. Complex matters are reduced to single phrases; references and sources are generally absent; and the tone is combative, presenting a stark choice between us and the rest. As any comparative exercise (as well as common sense and experience) will reveal, no one party has a monopoly of the truth, although the material generally suggest otherwise.

In considering this and the other ones, I deliberately did not contact any of the local party members for information but made my comments based on what I read and what I already knew. This seemed most closely to mirror the way in which most people would assess them.

Given all the above points, all I’m trying to do is what we always do: provide a bit of context, background and comment. I have no political axe to grind because I don’t own one. I’m just making some observations and suggesting places where more information can be found and what questions you might like to ask the candidates. I hope this will all prove useful before you decide where to put your X on 4 May.

In Touch: News from the West Berkshire Conservatives

This double-sided A4 document included the following observations…

WBC is independently recognised as the best overall performing local authority. I have already dealt with this misleasding assertion and explained in this separate post the numerous problems with it, not least of which was that the fact that this was never published. I have also explained why there were several claims  – and one in particular – which would have made far more positive stories for the administration. They were all hiding in plain sight in the background data, had anyone bothered to look for them.

At the same time, our council tax rises have been among the lowest in the country. At the same time as what? Most of the figures to which the Money.co.uk report was published (the background data for which was incorrectly used to draw the above conclusion) was from 2020-21 and 2021-22: so let’s look at those two years and 2022-23, the current year. According to tables available from this Gov.uk site, in 2020-21 WBC’s Band D council tax (including parish precepts) rose by slightly more than the English average in 2020-21 (4% v 3.9%); quite a bit less in 2021-22 (2.5% v 4%) and more in 2022-23 (4.1% v 3.5%). For 2023-24, WBC raised its council tax by the most that was permitted for an authority with adult social care responsibilities (4.99%) and this was followed by many others. Going back to 2005-06, WBC’s council tax increases were on nine occasions higher and on seven occasions lower than the average for England.

(As I mentioned in this post, WBC derives a particularly high percentage of its income from council tax: some authorities, particularly in urban areas, rely on other forms of income which may hit some residents far harder: WBC’s rate was the 169th highest out of 304 but this crude figure probably paints an unfairly harsh picture of the local taxation burden in the district.)

Our council has been widely and independently recognised as a high performing authority. This is a reference to this report in Money.co.uk from June 2022 which considers “The UK regions getting the best return on their council tax” based on six very specific measures: which is not quite what the above phrase suggests. See this separate article for more on this and the many problems . On this measure, WBC came a highly creditable eighth out of 304.

94% of our schools are rated good or outstanding. Using the same background date provided for the Money.co.uk report, in 2022 WBC comes 29th out of of the 287 councils for which data was available. However, over a third of councils score over 90% by this measure. The vagaries of Ofsted’s system – which have been unfavourably highlighted by the recently publicity surrounding the tragic suicide of a teacher in Caversham – mean that all such figures are partly due to the timing of inspections. In any case, I suspect that success at our schools are due much more to the teachers and staff and to WBC’s officers than to any local political involvement.

We have resurfaced 93 miles of road. I haven’t been able to find out how this exact figure compares with other authorities and so is another example of information which is largely meaningless without context. Drawing once again on the background Money.co.uk data, between April and June 2020 (when the data was reported), 2.04% of WBC’s roads required repairs, putting in in 25th place out of the 257 for which data was available.

We have consistently delivered our services despite a very challenging few years. I have no argument with this praise of WBC’s apolitical officers, which is what this remark can most usefully be taken as being. I have been impressed not only by how good WBC’s staff seem to be at securing grants but also how they have distributed them.

We have delivered on our promises in 2019. Here’s the 2019 manifesto: I haven’t had the time to compare and contrast the promises, is so far as they are measurable, with the achievements.

We have dealt with the pandemic. Wow: a truly impressive claim. “We responded well to the challenges it posed” I would accept: but “dealt with” implies “solved once and for all by WBC”. Sadly not.

We helped our communities when they needed it (during the pandemic). Fair comment. The communities were doing pretty well too but WBC certainly helped. Without doubt a number of things improved when local councils, rather than Whitehall, were involved in the test and trace scheme. No arguments here.

Our finances are in good shape. I’m aware that there are other points of view about how investments might have been made but in general I’d probably agree with this, financial ignoramus though I am. We are not Slough, Thurrock or Croydon, that’s for sure.

Together we can build an an even more prosperous West Berkshire. Prosperity, however defined, is largely a result of individual or corporate enterprise operating under whatever constraints or encouragements are provided by government policy. Unless one lives in councils like the above-mentioned ones, there’s not much that a council can do to affect this. Certainly no examples have been provided to explain how WBC has assisted a growth in prosperity – if there’s been one – in the last four years.

Together we can built an even more safe West Berkshire. Crime stats are open to many interpretations but the phrase “even more safe” suggest that crime, however measured, has been declining in the district. These figures from Varbes suggest that, though crime is still below the national average, the incidence in West Berkshire has risen by 14.5% in the year ending July 2022 compared to the year before. This source may be flawed: but what is the manifesto’s to suggest the improvement?

We promise to care for vulnerable people. This is a statutory responsibility.

We promise to protect our environment. Ditto, up to a point. I concede that WBC has made some useful initiatives. However, this is too general a statement to be useful excerpt as a general aspiration with which few would disagree.

We promise to strengthen our communities. I’m not sure what exactly this means, certainly in the context of a promise.

We promise to be open for business. Is this referring to the Council’s opening times? If so, between what hours? Or is is a general welcome to anyone who wants to set up shop here, regardless of what they want to sell? I’ve yet to see a manifesto from anywhere which says that the council is “closed for business”.

We promise to deliver services for the future. Does this mean “in” the future, ie it won’t stop delivering services (not that it can, by law, stop delivering its statutory ones)? Or is is an aspiration to deliver some services later, even if they might need to be paid for now? I’m confused.

We supplied 2,500 trees to 67 charities in 2022 as part of the Queen’s Green Canopy. This is a laudable project and I have no arguments with it. However, once again, we’re left floundering for the lack of any comparison. The QGP, I think, provided about a million trees in 2021-22. West Berkshire is about 0.3% of the UK’s area so if these were spread equally one might have expected the district to have taken more like 3,000. However, in this, as in so many things, WBC is a conduit between the government or national organisations and local groups. In this and other ways (such as by getting grants) I think WBC has done very well and I have been impressed by the response of the Countryside officers to a couple of tree-related issues I’ve raised with them. I’m less sure, however, that this counts as an achievement by the administration.

We introduced a new, carbon-neutral road surfacing project. That’s great. The first of these was done in Cumbria in January 2021 and seems to be about 6km. I’m not sure how WBC’s unspecified project compares to this. None the less, it’s a good initiative but needs to be qualified with aspirations for future expansion.

We increased recycling by launching a separate food-waste scheme. This was a requirement placed on all councils under the 2021 Environment Act and so is merely a recognition of legal compliance.

We are working towards carbon neutrality by 2030. (This is carbon neutrality for WBC’s operations, not those of the district as a whole, a distinction that is often blurred.) The vast majority of councils have declared a climate emergency and set 2030 as their municipal zero-carbon date so this is more of a confirmation of inclusion in a national aspiration. I concede that progress is hard to measure and even harder to compare with other authorities. This leaflet does not attempt to do either of these.

We provide more than 700 different services. I’m not sure what the point of mentioning this is, but I know where the phrase came from: page two of the Local Government Structure Overview from 2010. These are all statutory responsibilities and yet they are referred to in a political document as if they were discretionary.

We have delivered high-quality services that provide outstanding value for money. A typically thunderous major chord for the leaflet to end on. Individual reactions to these and many other statements in the leaflet will, of course, depend on personal experience of any dealings people have had with WBC over the last four years.

As mentioned above, we’ll be having a look at similar leaflets from the other parties in the coming weeks. If you have any comments on this please use the “Leave a reply” box below or email brian@pennypost.org.uk

 

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