A look at the West Berkshire Green Party’s manifesto for the 2023 local elections: “Vote Green to Make a Difference” (April 2023)

A few weeks ago we received a link to the Green Party’s manifesto for the 2023 local elections. You can read this here. The points below are taken from a press release I received from the Greens which is in essence a summary of the manifesto.

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

Please click here to see a similar article about the Liberal Democrat’s 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.

1 Climate change and the environment

Green councillors will continue to lead the way towards zero carbon emissions by 2030. Good. All the parties are saying this.

We will hold Thames Water to account and prioritise an urgent end to the dumping of sewage in our rivers and chalk streams. All the parties are saying this as well. However, this is largely outside the gift of councils. I would welcome more information on what solutions, nature-based or otherwise, are envisaged which are within WBC’s power to create or encourage.

We will do much more to protect our countryside, green spaces and waterways. Good: examples?

We will continue to oppose the destruction of the countryside around North Thatcham and Wash Common. This is, I think. a reference to the THA20 plans for a massive development between Thatcham and Bucklebury and the Watermill Bridge proposals. I completely agree that THA20 is misguided in a number of ways. Watermill Bridge has, I think, some points in its favour (this one is also not in West Berkshire but fractionally over the border into Basingstoke & Deane, so it is that council that will decide the matter).

We will bring landowners, developers and communities together to create bigger, better quality, and more connected spaces for nature. Sounds interesting…

We will provide a proper EV charging network across the district, with dedicated charging bays. The administration has a programme for this: in what ways would the Greens improve on it?

We will improve kerbside recycling to enable people to recycle more items, such as plastic trays. There is an increasing number of mini-recycling centres in the district: would more kerbside collections be more efficient given the number of different baskets that would be needed?

2 Housing and development

Green councillors will shift strategy away from large developments on greenfield sites and give priority to brownfields and sustainable, human-scale development. I agree with this. There are, of course, a lot fewer brownfield sites than greenfield ones in the district.

We will divest from the council’s £60 million commercial property portfolio and invest directly in West Berkshire, including social and affordable housing for local families. An interesting idea. I’d like to see some comparative figures on the returns. It also must be admitted that this policy has a local and societal benefit that cannot be expressed in financial terms.

We will insist that developers meet the council’s requirements for the number of affordable and social rent homes on major developments. I think all parties would agree on this. However, the planning system permits such exemptions through viability assessments and negotiation. How would the Greens ensure that what was agreed was actually provided?

We will demand that developers and Thames Water work together to ensure major developments do not put extra pressure on existing infrastructure. I’m not quite sure what this means but doubt that WBC or any other council can compel any water company to do anything it doesn’t want to do or isn’t forced to do by national legislation.

3 Safer roads and cleaner air

Green councillors will press for reduced traffic speeds, including 20mph limits near all schools and in the centre of villages, and we will streamline the Speed Limit Review process. We will fully implement and expand the School Streets scheme. Certainly speeding is one issue that crops up in just about every parish council meeting as an ongoing problem, particularly near schools. You can find more information on the School Streets Scheme here. As for the speed limit review process, that involves following guidelines set down by the government. The introduction to this document from 2013 states that “traffic authorities are asked to keep their speed limits under review with changing circumstances, and to consider the introduction of more 20 mph limits and zones,” which suggests that 

We will make walking and cycling a safer, healthier and more enjoyable experience. A laudable aim. However, making cycling safer and more enjoyable will require investment in cycle lanes (of whatever kind) and a change of attitude by some motorists. This will also cost money.

4 Better public transport

Green councillors will improve public transport so that trains and buses become a realistic alternative to car journeys. This might be possible in some cases but cars aren’t going to go away and recognising this needs to form part of the solution. Hybrid schemes such as lift sharing and on-demand buses will be part of these “realistic alternatives.”

We will restore council funding to Readibus. Good. See this article on subject (from February 2012).

5 School funding

We will give our headteachers the resources they need. Too many West Berkshire schools have lost teachers, teaching assistants and other staff as a result of spending cuts. Indeed; agreed: but this will cost a lot of money, even if the staff can be found.

Since the pandemic, there has been a big increase in children who need additional emotional support and we will ensure that schools are given sufficient resources to cope with this. The same comment applies.

6 Social care

Green councillors will seek to end the local crisis in social care by investing properly in staff and care facilities. I’m not aware of any social-care crisis that’s specific to West Berkshire. It’s beyond doubt that there is a national one but I’m not sure how much power WBC has over this.

We will ensure that the voices of unpaid carers are heard when planning and delivering adult social care services. Seems reasonable. Surely this happens already?

7 Sport for all

Green councillors will reopen the Faraday Road ground in Newbury for use by football clubs and the wider sporting community. Good. It should never have been closed (in June 2018) in the first place, particularly considering the total lack of any plan for what was going to happen to it, a situation that has not been remedied since (if you discount asset stripping, arson attacks and expense).

We will extend opportunities to participate in sport across West Berkshire, including sports that have been starved of funding and adequate facilities. Again, a laudable though possibly expensive aim. Which other sports are being referred to? (If swimming, then I commend WBC’s decision to keep all the pools open (some councils have closed theirs) and proceed with the Newbury Lido development.)

8 London Road Industrial Estate

Green councillors will put a stop to the council wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds of council tax payers’ money, to little or no effect, on the continuing LRIE fiasco. “Fiasco” is probably the right word, nothing positive having happened there despite a lot of time and money being spent. See also this article (written in September 2022).

We will stop the sell-off of council-owned land to developers and initiate discussions with the Greenham Trust with a view to a partnership to manage the LRIE, revenue to be shared between the council and the trust. Another interesting idea…

9 Support for small businesses

Green councillors will keep business rates as low as possible, to help small businesses compete with large corporations, and introduce measures to help small businesses, such as town loyalty schemes. The trouble is that business rates make up about 16% of WBC’s income (about £25m).

We will ensure that the council uses local businesses wherever possible when awarding council contracts. Is such positive discrimination legal?

We will support the hospitality trade by creating attractive, traffic-free outdoor seating areas. I don’t think any pedestrianisation scheme has yet been created which meets with the approval of all the many people who are affected by it. That’s not to say that such schemes shouldn’t be consulted on and tried.

10 Better governance

None of the above can happen without an overhaul of the undemocratic, unaccountable and increasingly untenable way West Berkshire Council is run. I accept that there are criticisms of WBC’s operation but it seems to me that it’s democratic, if you accept the idea of the cabinet system of governance (which the Green Party does not). Also, all the members are elected. Certainly aspects of its accountability could be improved.

Green councillors will abolish the Executive system where a handful of councillors make all the main decisions without democratic accountability. The leader and cabinet system – which WBC follows and which is in many ways a mirror of the way central government works – is the most common. I believe that any change from this to a committee system would take some time as it would require re-drafting parts of WBC’s constitution. This article on the Local Government Association’s website provides a useful introduction to the issue. It states that “one system is not intrinsically better than another. Any system can be managed to be democratic, to be accountable, and to work in the interests of local people.” It goes on to say that “within a governance system, there are many things to consider before making any change, whether formal or informal, to the previously established system.”

We will ensure that the oversight and scrutiny committee is chaired by an opposition councillor. I agree with this. A couple of years ago I had a look at about 30 neighbouring councils and roughly a third of them did things this way. Why it isn’t the norm I cannot imagine.

We will end the secrecy of the advisory groups and open up the process to outside organisations and members of the public. And with this.

We will ensure that residents are not charged CIL erroneously and will repay the sums wrongly charged. And with this. See also this article (written in December 2020: the situation doesn’t seem to have changed since then).

 

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