A look at “West Berkshire Gazette: News from the Liberal Democrats” (April 2023)

We recently received a leaflet through the door from the WBC Liberal Democrats: you may well have had the same one, with the strap-line “West Berkshire Gazette”. I had a look through it and append below a few thoughts.I also took a look at two other documents from the same party.

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

The Lib Dem’s West Berkshire Gazette tabloid-format newsletter

After years of being taken for granted by the Conservatives. It’s certainly true that the blues have had the upper hand here since 2007.

13 headlines. All are from the NWN (other media outlets are available) and most from the last 12 months. I would divide these into four pots.

  • Pot one (five items) relate to matters such as sewage, dentists’ and doctors’ waiting lists and funding cuts for schools and surgeries that seem to me more fairly to be laid at the door of other organisations, such as the government. All would have affected a local council of any complexion.
  • Pot two (two items) relates to WBC’s finances: again, these seem largely due to external factors. One relates to a £15.8m shortfall in November 2022 (about two thirds of this due to increased social-care costs and the rest to general inflation) which would have been similar to those faced by many other councils. This was addressed in the final budget and without, as the administration claimed, any loss to front-line services, though I concede others will have different views on the details of this. The other relates to the rise in council tax. Pretty much all councils raised this in that year, by 3.5% on average. WBC raised its by 4% in 2022-23: 1% for the general council tax and 3% for the social-care precept (which could go above the normal 2% as WBC hadn’t raised this the previous year).
  • Pot three (two items) relate to very specific social-care issues about which I don’t know enough to make any comment, and which in any case may not suggest a systemic problem.
  • Pot four (four items) refer to matters which I think are fair criticisms. These relate to (i) the discord that broke out in the Conservative Party’s ranks, particularly in the last few months; (ii) the “rushing through” of the final stages of local plan; (iii) the expenditure on the London Road Industrial Estate; and (iv) the Readibus debacle. All of these I’ve written about a good deal over the last few years.

Residents and no better off [for years of Conservative rule] and in recent years things have only got worse. Being “better off” can be defined in many ways, not all of them financial. The leaflet offers no examples. Many people across the country are now worse off financially, and perhaps in other ways, than five years ago: but how much of the well-publicised challenges are the fault of their council?

Local services are under strain. So they are everywhere.

White elephants, vanity projects and incompetent decisions. I think the first two at least are mainly pointing to the LRIE and related matters of the old football ground at Faraday Road and the new one (though not a replacement for it) at Monks Lane. Regarding the third, a number of decisions can in retrospect be seen as possibly having been incompetent. Certainly its hard to see how the decisions to close Faraday Road or to impose a gagging clause on Readibus were competent, given the respective consequences. Oddly, both of these had their origins before the last election – yes, they’ve been going on that long and still with no end in sight.

West Berkshire is in desperate need of a fresh start. Some would agree that, as part of the natural process of churn that affects most councils, a change may well be due and may be beneficial. A new administration would bring new ideas and changes to some of the ways things are done. However, as mentioned above, a lot of the challenges the district faces to which the leaflet refers are national, or international, in origin and also not political.

Praise for Newbury and Thatcham Town Councils. The leaflet refers positively to these two Lib-Dem-run organisations. I would agree that both have in many ways been effective advocates for their towns, often in opposition to West Berkshire such as on matters such as pedestrianisation and the THA20 housing plans for NE Thatcham. (Most other town and parish councils, such as Hungerford, also get a lot of ticks but are not cited here or in any other leaflets as they are apolitical). More importantly, I’m not sure that one can compare a unitary authority and a town council as they have very different responsibilities and budgets.

A whopping 40% cut in Newbury Town Council’s carbon emissions. This is indeed an impressive claim but the document doesn’t say over what period this happened nor what further cuts can be expected in the future. WBC itself has claimed that its (not the district’s) carbon usage has fallen by 25% between 2019-20 and 2021-22. However, as the table on p16 of the latest Environment Strategy Progress Report shows, the vast majority of these have come from plucking one piece of low-hanging fruit in the form of a change of energy supplier. From where have Newbury TC’s cuts come?

£10m of waste. The sports hub is an expensive and divisive issue but it’s nor fair, as the leaflet claims, to suggest that this estimated sum could be used to support WBC’s “underfunded basic services” as the money spent on Monks Lane will be capital expenditure, probably largely funded by a loan from the Public Works Loan Board, which can’t be used for normal expenditure. That said, the whole LRIE and football ground saga is in need of a major re-boot. Whether the Lib Dems can accomplish this, if they win control, is another matter. Speaking of which…

Only voting Lib Dems can beat the Conservatives. This isn’t true. As the table that’s helpfully printed above this claim shows, there are currently 24 blues, 16 oranges and three greens. 22 seats therefore gives any party a majority. The Conservatives would thus be defeated if the Greens took three seats off them and the Lib Dems stayed as they were with 16. The leaflet is, however, right to say that the Greens have no chance of winning as they’re only fielding 18 candidates.

The Lib Dem’s Hungerford & Kintbury leaflet

Between them they have years of experience. This is certainly true: one the candidates is a current WBC councillor and the other two have been.

Three claims. One is “supporting local residents.” I don’t see how this applies as the Lib Dems currently have no councillors in the ward and didn’t in 2015-19 either. The second is “standing up to Thames Water on sewage”. I’m sure they’ve done their bit but I’d welcome some evidence of a result, which “standing up to” implies (see also “Thames Water” section below). The third is “saving a care home.” This is a reference to Notrees in Kintbury. The implication that this was saved solely, or even mainly, by the efforts of the Lib Dems is not correct, a view that Kintbury PC also seems to agree with. See Saving Notrees on 2 February 2023 and Kintbury’s Claims on 9 March 2023, both in this archive of our Hungerford Area Weekly News section.

Three promises. These are financial competence, environmental protection and a fairer deal for residents. These are laudable goals and few would argue with them. How, however, will these very general goals be accomplished? Also, how will they be paid for?

Fixing the potholes. This is certainly a live issue as there seem to be more and more of the things. It’s also true that WBC sometimes has a two-step approach (confirmed at the Hungerford Town Council meeting on 3 April) of a quick temporary patch-up followed by a more permanent one a week or so later; whereas the Lib Dems say that they will fix all of them properly first time round. From my understanding, this isn’t possible. WBC has three grades of pothole response: within two hours, within 24 hours and within 28 days. The first two tend to use the two-step method, for reasons of safety and available staff, whereas the others tend to be given a single fix. I also understand that WBC is following DfT guidelines on the matter, so this is hardly a political matter anyway.

Holding Thames Water to account. This is presented as a future ambition in the leaflet (which slightly undermines the earlier claim that this “standing up to Thames Water” has already happened). Few would disagree with the ambition, though again this is something that requires action at a higher level than WBC, regardless of the party. Measures that would be more in WBC’s reach are (i) ensuring that policies are in place, and conditions attached, to new developments to deal with, for instance, preventing rainwater running off houses from entering the foul-water system; and (ii) using nature-based solutions such as reed beds to mitigate waterway pollution. I’m not suggesting these are absent from the ambitions of the Lib Dems or any other party: merely that it’s easy for any party to make big claims – or big blames – which are often way beyond the responsibility of the council to influence.

Note: interviews with all seven candidates for this ward can be seen here.

The Lib Dem’s press release on 27 March 2023

This listed the party’s “big six to fix”. These were:

Taking all available action to fix the flawed local plan. I agree that serious doubts remain about the THA20 allocation in NE Thatcham. This has now been submitted to the Planning Inspectorate which may, assuming regime change on 5 May, make it harder to withdraw or amend it. This is indeed a big one.

Bringing back football to the Faraday Road site in Newbury. I agree with this ambition as well. This is vastly easier to accomplish and should have happened years ago. In fact, the ground should never have been closed until a better plan could be proposed for how to use it (which hasn’t happened).

Fixing the potholes first time, and dangerous ones within 72 hours. See section above, though this is a slightly different claim. Moreover, this could be worse than the situation that prevails at present as (i) as I understand dangerous potholes are generally quickly fixed within two or 24 hours; and (ii) no time target is here proposed for the permanent fixes. I can’t help feeling that more useful than any claims by any parties would be a wider understanding of the constraints under which the officers have to work on what is not in any case a political issue.

Re-establishing kerbside recycling of green waste without cost to residents, by phasing out the “Green Bin Tax”. An interesting one. There’s a whole new debate to be had about whether to not such services should be paid for centrally or by the users, the landscape on this having changed since since the charge (I share the Conservative’s view that this is a more accurate, if less emotive, term than “tax”) was introduced. On the other hand, it’s perhaps fair that the charge should be paid only by those who need the service.

Making West Berkshire Council carbon-neutral by 2030. We’d all go along with that. The current administration has this as its ambition, so for the LDs to propose this implies (i) the they don’t think this will be hit as matters stand; and (ii) that they have a better solution. More information would be useful.

Ensuring care packages are in place as early as possible through earlier initial care assessments. I don’t know enough about this issue and am awaiting some replies so I’ll hold this over until then.

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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