To receive notification from the Leader of his Deputy and the remainder of the Members appointed to the Executive; the scope of their respective portfolios; the terms of delegation to them; and Officers if applicable. (To be tabled)
The Leader of Council / Executive Members will be allowed to speak for up to 10 minutes in total. The Leader of the Opposition will be allowed to speak for up to 5 minutes.
Keith Baker, Leader of the Council made the following statement:
Firstly, Mr Mayor, I would like to add my thanks on what is a very, very momentous occasion for this Council. You are the first Sikh Mayor that we have had and that is really ground breaking. So congratulations.
I would also like to welcome Laura Blumenthal and John Jarvis to the Council Chamber. I am sure that they will be in for an interesting time as they learn the ropes and we go through the year.
Before I talk about my Executive for the coming year I would like to make a few comments on the recent “triple” elections. Due to the parliamentary elections many of us had a direct exposure of more than one local authority. Inevitably this leads to a comparison of each authority on their ability to run elections. I can say based on my experience and I believe of others, is that Wokingham is far ahead of these other authorities in the key areas of resident interaction and ability to run a complex operation. On behalf of all residents and candidates I would like to put on record our extreme thanks to Andrew Moulton, Alison Wood and her team for their sensitivity to residents’ issues, general helpfulness and smooth operation. I know that our neighbouring authorities could certainly learn a lot from them as I keep on telling them again and again.
What happened on 7th May was exceptional and the resulting success for the Conservative Party was a crystal clear endorsement of our policies both nationally and locally. Let me highlight just one of those local policies. For the second year in a row the Liberal Democrats had as a key election message opposition to the regeneration of the Town Centre, especially around Elms Field. Again, for the second year in a row their views were totally rejected by the electorate. Last year the Liberal Democrats dismissed the result saying that the low turnout meant it was not a true reflection of resident’s views as so many did not vote. Clearly with turnouts being above 70% in all town and Borough wards they cannot use that excuse this time!
In fact the rejection of their views on the town centre regeneration was emphatic by a huge margin. Just looking at the wards within Wokingham Town shows how much that rejection actually was. For the Borough the Conservatives had 48% of the vote compared to the Liberal Democrat vote of 23%. A similar comparison of the Town elections was not as easy as the Liberal Democrats only managed to nominate 3 out of the 25 candidates required. They were all standing in one ward leaving 7 wards without a single Liberal Democrat candidate. So much for their passion to defend Elms Field! However, there were other candidates so using them as the opposition the Conservatives had 52% of the vote whilst the opposition had 36% of the vote.
I hope now that the Liberal Democrats will accept this comprehensive rejection of their regeneration views and work with us going forward. Councillor Bray often lectures us in this Chamber that we do not listen to residents’ views. They have a great opportunity in the opposition leader’s speech to demonstrate that they do listen. They can do this by acknowledging that residents do want the regeneration, including Elms Field, to go ahead and that they will cease their total opposition and instead work with us to refine and improve the plans.
Now let me turn to my Executive including the Deputies. I can announce that there is no change in the Executive either in the membership or their portfolios. There are a couple of changes in the Deputy positions with Councillor Halsall taking on the Deputy role for Highways and Planning from Councillor Richards. My thanks to Councillor Richards and his predecessor Councillor Singleton for their efforts over the last year. I have also reviewed the role of the Deputy for Communications and have decided that this is no longer needed.
The next year is going to be a difficult but interesting one. We do not know what the financial landscape is going to look like but one certainty is that money will be “short”. Remember we are the lowest funded authority in the country. Notwithstanding that we will do our utmost to make the savings required whilst protecting key services. On the economic development front the introduction of a Deputy focussing on this area is beginning to get some traction both in the wider area through the LEP and more locally through assisting business start ups. In the next year we will build on this and keep that momentum going.
I have already spoken at length about the town centre regeneration, but there are other aspects to this portfolio. Community development and the voluntary sector have not had much focus over previous years and so I wanted to change this going forward. The Deputy for regeneration now has a specific role with the voluntary sector. The initial objective over the next year is to provide council with better visibility of the voluntary and community activity across our Borough. This third sector plays a vital part in many of our residents’ lives and needs to be recognised, supported and developed.
Education is extremely important to both residents and the Council and we will continue to have a strong focus this coming year. We will build on our strengths and formal partnerships to raise awareness, understand the changing patterns of the needs of children and young people and effectively meet them. We will improve emotional health services in partnership with Health, by leading with the police the Safeguarding Children’s Board, the Child Sexual Exploitation Strategy and deliver an integrated and holistic offer for children with special needs and disability. The school in the south, scheduled to open in September 2016, is progressing well with great involvement from parents, residents and providers alongside the Council. We expect to hold a strategic review of primary places throughout the Borough with a view to building potentially several new primary schools over the next few years.
As most of you know we have the highest car ownership in the country which means we have to build extra capacity through new roads. The next year will see the projects for the six new roads being progressed. This will include extensive consultation, as already carried out on a couple of them, to help us shape the roads both in terms of location but also in terms of design. The two new park and ride facilities should be completed and the “Greenways” project linking cycleways and footpaths will be progressed.
From an environmental perspective the impact of flooding will be a major focus this coming year. This will include a “Flooding Action Plan” plus flood relief for the A327. The other major area will be our country parks with a Country Parks Strategy being completed as well.
Whilst these are all outward facing activities the constant drive to improve internal services will continue. This will cover things like improved access to services and better responsiveness to residents. We will investigate every opportunity to save money through shared services with other local authorities. Transparency and governance for our companies will continue to be improved as we move into a different phase of their evolution.
Finally, I would like to say that these are only the highlights of our plans for the coming year. If you wish to find out more please do not hesitate to contact the relevant Executive Member.
Prue Bray, the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group made the following statement:
Mr Mayor, I would like to congratulate both you and your Deputy on your positions and we look forward to many exciting council meetings under your control.
I think we know that the elections earlier this month were not kind to the Liberal Democrats and locally, Dee Tomlin and Kay Gilder, two long serving and diligent councillors lost their seats. I would like to pay tribute to them for all their hard work on behalf of residents for over 20 years. They did not deserve to lose. The Conservatives gained two seats. I was going to say that this does not mean residents endorse everything they do, but clearly the Leader of the Council believes that is exactly what it proves. How people voted in these local elections had more to do with national politics and fear of a Labour/SNP Government than it did with local issues. You may pretend all you like, the wider world knows. Dee and Kay lost their seats not because of anything that they had done, but because of the General Election.
Now it is clear that the local election results are going to encourage Conservatives on this Council that they can do whatever they like. The Leader of the Council’s speech seems to indicate this is exactly what they do think. We know there is considerable opposition to the Council’s plan for the Town Centre, but contrary to what the Leader of the Council said we have never opposed regeneration per se and neither do the majority of residents. We recognise that something has to happen to the town centre and we have said that over and over again so please do not misrepresent our position. We do not agree with building on Elms Field and neither do a large section of the population. No doubt you are going to continue with it, that is your prerogative but the manner in which you do it could be a little bit more gracious than you have shown so far this evening. The Leader of the Council did however skip over the relatively good performance by the Liberal Democrats on Wokingham Town Council and neglected to mention that the Conservatives actually lost three Wokingham Town Council seats, two to independents and one to a Liberal Democrat. We will continue to fight hard to protect Elms Field and the other things that we believe are wrong with your plans we will continue to oppose in the coming year.
We also know that a lot people are unhappy with the state of the roads. The traffic, the parking and highways generally, that they have significant and justified concerns about the high levels of congestion on the roads of our Borough and about the routes of the proposed new roads. These concerns are reflected in our case work and in the calls and emails that we get from residents. You can therefore expect us to fight hard for something better on highways issues this year.
I have referred to the fact that it would be a mistake to think that gaining two seats from the Liberal Democrats was a ringing endorsement for the way the Conservatives are running this Council. But it would also be a mistake to think that the results of the elections mean that the Liberal Democrats are finished as a political party either locally or nationally. Party membership locally and nationally has risen about a third since polling day. These are new people, not former members who have re-joined. Why have they come forward now? Because they have recognised the need to stand up for liberal values, now more than ever, because like the councillors in this Liberal Democrat Group they believe in liberalism, in tolerance, humanity and community. They believe that civil liberties matter, that society should look after its disadvantaged and that as it says in preamble to our Party’s Constitution that no one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We may be fewer in number this year, but we know what we stand for and we are fully prepared to carry on fighting for what we believe in and I look forward to what promised to be an interesting year.