Agenda item

Statement by the Leader


This is going to be a long evening with the penultimate Executive of the year and the last Full Council of the Municipal Year. To complete the business in the allotted time Members will need to be efficient in their interventions.


The pandemic started a year ago. The first lockdown started on 23rd March 2020.  It has been a long hard road. The weekly rate to 11th March in Wokingham is 35.1 today, which is well below the peak of 606 on the 4th January but still compares very badly to below five in August. We suspect that it will be adversely affected by the schools going back and conversely favourably by the rollout of the vaccinations. Happily, both hospitalisations and deaths are declining. Our lives have changed, unrecognisably for some, and many lives have so sadly been lost.  I can only restate my condolences for those that have suffered so much.


Deaths within the UK for those who have been diagnosed with Covid within 28 days have now risen to above 125,000.


Please join me in a moment’s silence for those who have died of this dreadful pandemic in Wokingham, the UK, and all around the world, and those who have suffered not just the effect of the virus itself, but the problems which have accompanied it.


Please also remember in your thoughts the very sad death of Sarah Everard.


Thank you.


Our GPs continue to be magnificent.  All the over-50s in England are now able to get an appointment. It means the final group in phase one of the inoculation programme can get a vaccine and just confirmed by the Prime Minister, just 5 minutes ago.  So, the light at the end of the tunnel is getting ever brighter.  We must, however, nervously look across the Channel at what seems to be a third wave, which is bedding in with ever increasing lockdowns. We are grateful to our Government who has had the foresight and acumen to establish the research into the vaccination programme and the unequalled roll-out.


It has never been more vital that we play our role and continue to observe the rules.


Again, a big thank again to all the carers, doctors, health staff, social care staff, health, police, fire, rescue, ambulance, teachers, school staff, charities, volunteers, our staff, and in particular our staff.  In short everybody who has stepped up to the plate and made it possible for life to continue during these appalling times.


Many of our critical proactive measures 'going over and above' would not have been possible if we did not have a stable and strong financial foundation on which to fund our numerous measures intended to assist our community.


Despite, new responsibilities that needed funding, losing vital income sources such as car parking and leisure, and cost reduction programmes on hold, we had the financial resources to go well above the bare minimum. It is with this that illustrates the true strength of our financial management; CIPFA has rated WBC in the top 20 of upper tier councils for financial sustainability.  Our current borrowings are very far short of the £750m irresponsibly quoted in some election literature.


Our response in many ways has been astonishing and has been being widely held up as an exemplar of good practise. It is being considered by the Council tonight. It is worth reiterating some of the essential measures employed during the pandemic, which have touched every resident and enterprise:


  • the emergency planning processes;
  • the protected residents in care homes;
  • supported care homes by supplying PPP, critical advice, and staff;
  • resisted national policy to discharge early from hospital to care homes;
  • reduced homelessness to a single rough sleeper, and I haven’t given up on him yet;
  • widely introduced lateral flow testing;
  • set up a Community Hub with our voluntary sector partners;
  • created the concept of the one-front door;
  • provided extended care support for vulnerable children;
  • worked closely with GPs to enable vaccinations to be rolled out;
  • maintained critical services for the most vulnerable residents;
  • maintained universal services;
  • financial support to local businesses;
  • redeployed staff;
  • we started our local democracy speedily;
  • communicated regularly and clearly;
  • considered the impacts on particular groups;
  • positively impacted on Climate Emergency Action;
  • managed the financial impacts of Covid-19;
  • developed a risk-based approach to decision-making;
  • planned ahead for the “Restart” and “Recovery”; and
  • advanced the highways programme.


As I have previously said, the Council will not be found wanting to support residents; be it child hunger, poverty, or homelessness. Next week we are proposing a supplementary estimate to the winter grant fund.


It has never been of such profound importance that local government plays its role for their local community. With a steady hand, we are now navigating to recovery and business as usual, changing the way we work, supporting all our residents, and ensuring that services run as normally as possible.  The Medium Term Financial Plan enshrines recovery and enumerates our twenty-five-point published Council Plan providing a clear pathway for the future.


Britain is halfway to its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. Greenhouse gases have fallen by 51% against the Government’s baseline for measuring progress towards net zero, an analysis of official data reveals. Carbon dioxide emissions fell by 13% last year to the lowest level in nearly 150 years. I am delighted that your Council received a huge grant, with this week announcing a Woodland Trust’s grant of £300,000 to plant 250,000 trees.


The roll out of the waterproof recycling bags together with green bags for food waste and blue bags for non-recyclables is now happening. Sadly, this was delayed due to the call-in, but we believe that we have been able to mitigate the adverse cost.  Minimising wet waste and persuading more to actively use food waste should improve our recycling from a currently remarkable 50% and above should help further to achieve our climate change goal.


We are delighted that we have been designated the healthiest place to live in addition to one of the most desirable, which is a true complement to this Conservative led Council.


Having fiercely and successfully opposed central Government’s plans for considerably more houses in our Borough and having maintained our infrastructure payments from those which are built, we will be pleased to lay before the Council our revised local plan shortly, which will include an even higher number of affordable houses. The housing policy will come to the Executive next week.


The rollout of MIND in the Borough generously funded by a local resident will provide a service for adults, youngsters and children for mental health.


Nobody understands the importance of tackling violence against women better than the Prime Minister’s fiancée. At the age of 19 she was a victim of the black cab rapist John Worboys, who picked her up while she was waiting for a night bus after an evening with friends. “I will never truly know what happened after he drugged me.”  Carrie said.  Carrie was one of the fourteen women who gave evidence at Worboys’ trial and later campaigned against his early release.


The public outpouring of grief and, increasingly, anger after the death of Sarah Everard has been profound; all women recognise that fear. The lurch in your stomach as you hear footsteps that little bit too close behind you, the keys gripped in your hand as you walk down a badly lit street, the heart pounding in your chest as you cross a dark park: these experiences are, to an appalling extent, an integral part of being female.  Even a future queen is not exempt from the anxiety, as the Duchess joined the tribute at Clapham Common. 


We should not stray into what are national interest, but this is a Wokingham issue and underwrites much of what we are discussing tonight. The protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation; all of them and they are equally important.


The Council is the golden thread that runs through our Borough, the indispensable partner for our residents and businesses. Diversity, equality, anti-racism and addressing need must be at the heart of everything we do and of the example we set. No rational person would take a different point of view. Every one of our residents must be able to lead the life that he or she wishes without fear from harm and without harming others. The Equality Policy that we put in front of you today is the first step in this continuous journey in which every day we must strive to do better.


Taking responsibility for what has been delegated to others provides some of the essential means to achieve these goals and keep our residents safe, secure and happy. Combined with the work we are doing with the health sector, the voluntary sector and the police we should be able to make a material difference to our residents’ lives.The increase in violent crime in Wokingham Town, reported by the Wokingham paper, underwrites this need.


It is that cultural and social change in attitudes which is required to ensure women and all our residents are heard and protected. It will not happen quickly but step by step over a long period of time ingraining work practises, culture and attitudes into life in Wokingham Borough. When I am not even a memory in this Council, I would like that architecture to continue to flourish and keep giving.


On Saturday the Prime Minister and his partner lit a candle in Downing Street in memory of Sarah. Carrie’s trauma underlining an understanding of the significance of her death at the heart of our society.  It is a survivor talking to her partner about a horrific experience that shaped her. On this issue at least, she is tapping into the public mood.


But it is we at Wokingham Borough Council who need to act and by agreeing the two papers tonight we take a significant step in that direction.