Executive meeting: Council leader calls for residents to follow covid-restrictions to remain in Tier 1

Wokingham Borough Council offices shute end

LAST NIGHT, the leader of the borough council reiterated calls for the public to follow covid-restrictions and pledged to “eliminate poverty in the borough”.

Opening the executive meeting, he said: “It is now eight months since we had the first outbreak of coronavirus almost to the day. 

“Since mid-September the cases in Wokingham have been rising. Sadly, also deaths are rising. The hope that we would be able to return to normal for Christmas is fast receding.

“Our policy is to ensure as far we can to remain in Tier 1. This is consistent with our neighbours notwithstanding press reports to the contrary.

“We believe that Tier 1 gives our businesses the best chance to recover and allows for our residents to lead as full a life as possible. 

“Coronavirus is transmitted by contact or near contact. If we can inculcate a permanent behavioural change then we can slow the rate of increase and reduce it. Your council is doing what is within its power to do so.

“We are working with our care homes to keep them safe. Again, we are at odds with government policy in that we will not be dedicating a care home to Covid patients but are insisting positive evidence of Covid free status. So, the tower beckons. 

“We are asking our schools to help us by championing the cause. If we get recruit every school child as an evangelist, then the message will get into homes as it is in the homes where it is believed most of the transmission occurs. 

“Schools can also help by ensuring that when children leave school settings that the children remain separated and that parents picking up children do not mix.

“Our university has not suffered as other universities from the return of students by the exercise of careful and responsible control.

“Our trace system is now working well and this week we have started door knocking. We will be auditing our commercial and recreational premises to ensure the proper application of QR codes and adherence to regulation. This week we fined various establishments for non-observance.”

And the council will be launching covid community champions and marshals “to lead by example, spread the word and provide factual information about the impact of the virus across the borough”

Cllr Halsall said: “We are calling upon you, as our councillors to join this initiative and we will arm you with all the stats, advice and comms messaging you need to disseminate through your networks on a weekly basis. 

“Fortunately, our residents are discerning and sophisticated who in the main are observing the rules and understand our difficulties.  

“These programmes and more have had an effect. I am nervous to say that the curve is decelerating and flattening off. My nervousness is as I do not want to tempt fate but there are very cautious signs for optimism.”

He added: “I appreciate that everyone is tired, and it has been going on for a long time, but sadly it will go on for much longer. Whilst there is much energy going into a vaccine, it is not yet successful and if it were it would be at least six months before it can be relied upon. 

“So, we as a borough and borough council must plan for the winter and spring and be in hope that next summer we will return to normal – if we remember what that is.

“It is vital that our resources both human and financial are directed to alleviating need and are not frittered away by unnecessary work or tasks. We still have an obligation to balance the budget and it is still expected that we will not be fully compensated by central Government for all Covid related expenditures and losses.

“I ask all councillors to help in this. We will not be able to do everything which we have been for example residents may have to live with unkempt hedges, uncut verges or a pothole. councillors will not be able to rely upon the level of attention that they have been used to receive. 

“Having said that we have been at pains to reintroduce all the democratic processes as soon as possible and I point out to the naysayers that some of our neighbours have yet to have a full council meeting and many of our neighbours are still working to a scheme of delegation. It could be said of Wokingham that politics has returned with a vengeance, both in the second and third estates.

“Our task is now to ensure that every resident is safe, secure and not isolated. The key is to guarantee that everyone has a warm home, and they have food and the medicines they need. 

“This administration has worked very hard to ensure that the homeless in the borough are very low and to ensure that those who are homeless are looked after. We have housed all the rough sleepers except for one who insists that he prefers not being housed.”

Speaking about poverty levels, he said: “We will do the same with poverty, especially food and fuel. We are determined to eliminate poverty in the borough.

“It is extremely important throughout this emergency that our residents have confidence in the council. Statements that there are 6,300 children in poverty and rising and that there are one-in-six children living in poverty in the borough we do not believe to be accurate or responsible. 

“The indexes based after housing costs compared to median income have less to do with poverty and more to do with house prices and the structure of employment in the home counties. 

“Poverty measured by reference to the median income will by definition always be there. 

“We need to work with a definition of absolute need specifically with reference to hunger and warm homes. It is not a position of virtue signalling but of practical help.

“The borough is measured by ONS in the index of multiple deprivation 2019 as being the lowest after Hart in the table and the disparity between the highest Blackpool and Wokingham is huge.  

“We enjoy and have enjoyed the lowest funding of any unitary authority for many years consequently. It is inconceivable that we are the second to lowest in the index of multiple deprivation and that there are 6,300 children in poverty and rising or one-in-six children.

“Having said that, one vulnerable person, child or family is too much. And this is an area that I am taking very seriously. Especially so, in the light of the impact of Covid.

“Our model has been for the council to work with the voluntary sector using the CAB as the front door. We get the best when we work together with our partners and we do not plough our separate agendas; otherwise it’s confusing for our residents. 

“The executive, CLT and the voluntary sector will create the architecture for this important piece of work; both the chief executive and I will be intimately involved.  

“We must clearly identify where there exists need in the borough so that we can tackle the root causes of that need and support it until we have done so. I will consult with the leader of the opposition and keep other group leaders appraised of our progress.

“We shall hold special executive meetings to authorise the strategy and expenditure as we go along as this exercise must be at pace.  

“As for this half term, I am extremely grateful to all the restaurants, shops and pubs who have extended their services for free or subsidised school meals and to the Food Banks and our voluntary sector partners. 

“The pressure for the council to extend food vouchers came after it was feasible to undertake this through schools. 

“The council would have had to act unilaterally without the appropriate notice or case being made in the executive. This could have resulted in another expensive call in. 

“I want to effectively plan for the coming months and deeply understand poverty in this borough and the causes of poverty. I am also confident that we can more fully meet the spirit of the Government’s National Food Strategy.

“It must be remembered that although current publicity is being given to free schools meals, the biggest cohort of the vulnerable are likely to be the old where we may be required to shield again depending on Government Policy. It is this cohort, children and any others, whom we will be addressing in our Poverty Strategy.

“Finally, please help me to help you. Those on this call are councillors, the press and interested members of the public. What you do and say will have an enormous impact on public behaviour towards this virus. 

“Please do not make things up because it is politically expedient or provides a good story. 

“To get through this successfully, residents must have confidence in the council and the press. 

“Residents must feel that we are doing our best to keep everyone safe, secure and happy. Residents must be able to rely upon the rules and those propagate them.”

Citizens Assemblies to tackle the climate emergency

At the meeting, Cllr Gregor Murray, previously the executive member for climate emergency and now the executive member for resident services, communications and emissions said the council was considering forming Citizens Assemblies to advise the council. 

He was responding to a question from resident, Philip Cunnington, who said: “The Climate Emergency Task and Finish Group calls on the council to include progress of measures aimed at reducing consumption emissions coming into the borough. Other than asking residents to buy less, what can be done to reduce emissions that seem to me to sit outside of the council’s control?”

Cllr Murray said he hoped residents would make “informed purchasing decisions” and look at the ways their household generates carbon emissions.

He said: “The role of the council should be to focus on educating communities and businesses about the impacts of consumption emissions and encourage by making buying decisions that will reduce these emissions.  

“Therefore, the council wants to bring together residents, in the form of a number of Citizens Assemblies, to investigate, discuss and make recommendations to Wokingham Borough Council on how to respond to consumption emissions and other areas of our climate emergency and in particular to what needs to be done to change our current behaviours.  

“We believe that this will significantly strengthen our Climate Emergency Action plan and our efforts to promote behavioural change that promote new lifestyle choices.”

Mr Cunningham questioned how the groups could be kept free from political bias, and Cllr Murray said he hoped the members would be anonymous, so not to use their role for career advancement.

He said members would be chosen to create a “demographically balanced group” that would also include a vast number of our schoolchildren.

‘Errors and gaps’ in the climate report

Later in the meeting, Cllr Andy Croy, leader of Wokingham Labour asked Cllr Murray why “serious errors and gaps” in the Climate Emergency Action Plan have not been properly addressed. 

Cllr Murray said the plan is a “working document” and changes will be worked into it.

He said: “The plan is comprehensively monitored on a three month basis and as promised the highlight report will be shared with the Climate Emergency Task & Finish Group. 

“Not only is progress monitored but changes to the methodology and the form of the plan will also be reported. 

“The first highlight report will be ready to be shared in November. Going through the democratic process every six months will make additional demands on officer resources and given the existing regular reporting mechanisms and where we are with Covid — this may  not be the best use of officer time.  

“As suggested at the Climate Emergency Task & Finish Group members are encouraged to get in touch with officers to have discussions about specific issues that they feel would improve the plan. These will then be incorporated into the action plan on an ongoing basis.”

He said the plan is a “tool which is continuously being updated and helps give direction to what the residents, businesses, town and parish councils, charities and the council need to do to achieve net zero carbon by 2030.”

Cllr Croy said: “I think the fact is, the reason those gaps and errors in emissions won’t be corrected is because it’s politically embarrassing. Now it’s great to hear your newfound enthusiasm for Citizens Assemblies — to do a Citizens Assembly does cost money. Have you told Cllr John Kaiser how much the Citizens Assembly that you say you are planning will cost?”

Cllr Murray said he is working through the process, and is talking with environmental groups across the borough to run them in partnership. 

“I’m not concerned in terms of the cost of running Citizens Assemblies because it’s an important thing for us to do, and will help us address some of the challenges we currently face.”

Cllr Murray contered concerns over gaps in the plan, citing the prime minister’s announcement earlier this month that by 2030, all homes in the country will be powered by off-shore wind farms. 

Towards the end of the meeting, Cllr Murray presented the recommendations from the Climate Emergency Task and Finish Group, which were approved by the executive with no votes against, or abstentions. 

Trees Cities of the World

Joining climate discussions, Cllr Anne Chadwick, Conservative councillor for Loddon Airfield on Woodley Town Council asked Cllr Murray whether the borough would apply for Tree Cities of the World status, as part of their commitment to planting 250,000 new trees.

Cllr Murray said the council is keen to work towards that status, but must first “demonstrate that various standards have been met in relation to the protection, maintenance and planting of our trees”.

He said: “The first step towards achieving this recognition in Wokingham is underway through the proposals to plant an additional 250,000 trees within the borough.  

“As part of the proposals to deliver this number of new trees and maintain our existing tree stock, we propose to develop a Wokingham Tree Strategy. 

“This would set out how Wokingham could maximise the wide range of benefits that trees and woods can deliver in relation to health, amenity, climate change, and water management. 

“It will also explain how the council could protect and maintain council-owned trees and how we will engage with the asset holders in the council, other landowners, and the community to protect all of the trees across the borough. 

“An action plan will be produced along with the strategy, part of which will cover how we will work towards achieving the standards required for a Tree Cities of the World Status.  

“We intend to begin work on the strategy as soon as the proposals are finalised and once worked up to a stage suitable for public consultation we would very much value feedback and input from residents, including plans to achieve Trees Cities of the World status.”

Cllr Chadwick asked about plans for urban forestry rather than planting on existing greenland.

And Cllr Murray said he is committed to planting more trees in town areas, as they help to improve air quality, reduce noise, absorb carbon, reduce wind speed, lower pollution and look quite nice.

Mental health services in the borough

During the meeting, resident Ian Shenton asked Cllr Charles Margetts, executive member for health, wellbeing and adult services, what the council is doing to support mental health provision during the pandemic.

Cllr Margetts revealed that in the borough, 15% of residents have a formal diagnosis of depression and more than 40% of GP consultations relate in some way to mental health issues.

He said: “The borough’s community response has sought to reach out to those isolated and  vulnerable. Adult Social Care made over 6,000 initial welfare checks with some 16,000 follow up welfare calls via WBC Link Visiting Scheme and there have been some 4,000 calls to the One Front Door, supported by WBC and Citizens Advice.

“The one front door takes calls of any nature, many of which impact on mental health. These initiatives will be repeated or stay in place over the next few months as covid cases rise.”

Cllr Margetts explained the council is launching a pilot mental health programme in partnership with Earley Plus PCN and Citizens Advice.

The project will encourage people to call One Front Door if their wellbeing is suffering. 

“CA will try to resolve some of the underlying issues causing depression and anxiety, such as financial stress and relationship breakdowns,” Cllr Margetts said. “And part of their service is they can signpost to other specialist services, be it formal mental health services or other voluntary organisations. If successful, the project will be rolled out across the borough.”

Cllr Margetts said the council is also sourcing a “specialist voluntary sector partner” to provide support for people with mild to moderate mental health issues, which is hoped to be ready early next year.

He said the council set up a Recovery College that provides courses and workshops to understand mental health issues, manage mental health in a positive way and generally keep well. 

They are open to the public and take place online. 

“These resources are available for both children and adults and include information,  guidance, access to voluntary sector services and apps,” he said.  

Responding to culturally-specific mental health needs

Also questioning mental health provision was Cllr Andrew Mickleburgh, Liberal Democrat councillor for Hawkedon asked what is being done “when it comes to responding effectively to culturally-specific mental health needs”.

Cllr Margetts said he recognised that “older, deprived, male and from BAME groups have a higher prevalence and poorer outcomes” when it comes to mental health, and said that: “there is also evidence that BAME, older isolated, carers, LGBTQ+ and young mothers have suffered from a higher level of distress than the population as a whole.”

He said: “A survey  of over 14,000 adults by the mental health charity Mind has revealed that existing inequalities have had a greater impact on the mental health of people from BAME. 

“There is a higher incidence of mental health issues in the LGBTQ+ community.

“A study by UCL & University of Sussex noted an increase of 123% in crisis calls to the LGBT foundation during the pandemic.

“Non-paid carers as well. The increased sense of isolation, lack of face to face support and respite as well as anxiety related to caring for those at very high risk from Covid-19, has had an impact on this group. And 72% of carers said they had suffered poor mental health as a result of caring, prior to the pandemic.”

He said these groups have been supported by the Wokingham Community Response,  with welfare check calls to the vulnerable and to carers. 

He added: “Additional support for  young mothers was also put in place from WBC and Primary Care, for example, additional Health Visitor surveillance. 

While the key messages have gone to the population as a whole, in terms of advice and guidance to keep safe and how to access support, the BAME forum has been engaging specific groups. 

“Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust  jointly provides Community Mental Health Services in Wokingham Borough with Wokingham Borough Council and has BAME and LBGT leads and forums. 

“The Trust is committed to improving access by hard to reach groups and are connecting to local community groups in Berkshire to assist people in accessing  and navigating the mental health services systems.”

Cllr Margetts said the council is “trying to be proactive” and that it is “important that nobody is left behind”.

Age specific mental health support

Later in the meeting, Cllr Caroline Smith, Liberal Democrat councillor for Hillside asked what age specific strategies and actions the council has in place to identify and support the pandemic-related mental health needs in the borough.

Cllr Margetts reiterated his response to previous questions, adding: “The statutory mental health services in Wokingham have continued to provide services since the start of the pandemic in April. 

“Services have been delivered via telephone and online by using the NHS One Consultation facility. There have been face to face contacts with PPE being used when needed. 

“There is an IPS worker supporting people into employment within the service and residents have access to the employment services provided by Optalis.”

When questioned whether Wokingham is talking to other councils about services being provided, Cllr Margetts said he is not pretending for one second to have all of the answers, but is committed to supporting residents during this difficult time.

Visiting the GP

Resident Mike Smith asked whether there were any groups of the population proving hard to reach when it comes to public messaging about visiting the GP, having check-ups and tests done.

He pushed to find out whether any additional action could be taken to reach out to vulnerable groups.

Cllr Margetts said that it is important all residents of Wokingham continue to access their routine healthcare and screening appointments as well as seek medical care for new, concerning symptoms. 

“GPs are open, and I encourage people to use them,” he said. “To promote this message the Public Health team at Wokingham Borough Council have been working on a health promotion campaign with healthcare as usual as a core message.  

“This campaign focuses on four main areas; childhood vaccinations, routine screening for breast, cervical, bowel, pregnancy and newborn baby, seeking help for concerning symptoms and asking for help with mental health issues. 

“These public health messages will be disseminated over the coming weeks through a  variety of channels including social media, email newsletters to residents and WBC housing magazine.  

“In addition there is an active involvement of WBC Public Health Team in both regional and local work around health and wellbeing in the recovery phase of the Covid pandemic. 

“This work will provide early insight into groups that have been particularly disadvantaged with regard to accessing routine healthcare during the pandemic and allow us to work effectively to address these issues.”

Mr Smith said he was “slightly dismayed” that a lot of the messaging is “aimed at the digital approach” and he cited his elderley mother as an example of someone hard to reach.

Cllr Margetts said the council’s housing magazine arrives in the post, adding that the council has been ringing around 4,700 people who may be considered vulnerable. 

‘Action to change the lived experience of people with black heritage’

At the start of the meeting, resident Keith Kerr questioned the leader of the council over his previous postings and statements on Black Lives Matter.

Mr Kerr cited the Equalities Act 2010, particular subsection 149 that places a particular duty on the public sector.

He asked whether Cllr Hallsall believed he has “complied with the letter or the spirit of the law”.

Cllr Halsall said he was pleased to restate the council and his position, being anti-racist, promoting equality and celebrating diversity. 

He said: “You are correct in stating that the council has a legal duty under the Equalities Act 2010 to have due regard to eliminating discrimination, advancing equality of opportunity and fostering good relations as you set out in your question. 

“The council is committed to equality of opportunity and the delivery of high-quality  services for all our residents. We seek to ensure compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty through policy development, staff training, service delivery and work with our partners and stakeholders.  

“We are currently reviewing and updating our Equality Policy with a view to examining how we can improve. 

“You, and all residents, have my personal commitment that this, together with poverty, remains one of the council’s priorities notwithstanding the very necessary work we are doing in response to the Covid-19 second wave.  

“Examples of what we have done. We have appointed a director for equalities, Keeley Clements and an executive member, myself which will be followed by driving actions through the Equality Steering group which will include the Chief Executive and I.

“We have produced the equality monitoring workforce report which will go to the personnel Board in November followed by publishing an ethnicity pay gap report next year.

“We have committed to zero tolerance of harassment and bullying within CLT which will come to the executive in due course 

“We have signed up to the Business in the Community’s Race at Work Charter demonstrating our commitment to ensuring that equality in the workplace is the responsibility of all leaders and managers – this will be communicated to all eCLT, Manager Network  Briefings and to all staff.

“We take action that supports ethnic minority career progression and we will support this activity by whatever external resource is necessary.

“We are working through the implementation of the Equality Framework for Local Government (EFLG) in all that we do.

“The council has made a commitment to facilitating a discussion on the future purpose of the independent BME Forum and this group, as well as the council’s Black BME Employee Group, would be important contributors to future work on equality and act as critical friends, and we hope you’ll serve on it.  

“We are determined to be a beacon of best practise and good race relations. Black Lives Matter in Wokingham. 

“With regard to my postings and statements on BLM I have previously apologised publicly for any unintended offence I caused to residents who may have misconstrued my comments. 

“I would like to repeat this apology but I would also like to reiterate my request to you Keith, and all residents, to work with the council in ensuring all parts of our community are represented and their voices are heard. The prize of all our residents and employees feeling valued and included is very great and one to which we earnestly aspire.”

Mr Kerr said: “Of course I welcome, and I’m sure the whole community will welcome the change of tone.

“But of course at the heart of the matter is credibility. And what action will you take to educate yourself and direct Wokingham Borough Council that will change the lived experience of people of black heritage in terms of their interface with the council, and living in Wokingham itself?”

Cllr Halsall said that at the age of 70, it was “quite hard” but he is “doing his very best to understand”.

He added: “I think in the last six months, I’ve come a long way. As far as the council is concerned, we need to work through a serious piece of work, which is the Equality Framework for Local Government.

“We’ve just stepped on that path and it’s a very detailed piece of work so as we work through it, we need to set out the architecture so that the architecture can then lock-in the equalities and race relations work which we need to do.”

Lost revenue from leisure and parking fines

Cllr Daniel Hinton, Conservative councillor for Evendons West on Wokingham Town Council questioned how much revenue had been lost from leisure and parking fees since the start of the pandemic.

Cllr John Kaiser, executive member for finance and housing said the council has suffered considerable financial pressures, including loss of income.

He said: “We receive a management fee income contribution under what was a very successful leisure management contract and it is estimated we will forgo approximately £200,000 of this. 

“As for car parking, the estimated loss of income is more significant, at over £700,000. 

“However this council, amongst many other local authorities, have continued  to make representations to the government for reimbursement as to our lost income. 

“The lobbying has been successful and I am pleased to say that a compensation scheme is now in place. This scheme reduces the residual cost to the council to just over £300,000, but rest assured, we will continue to pursue this to wipe out the £300,000.”

Housing strategy

Cllr Gary Cowan, independent councillor for Arborfield, asked whether a crucial housing document was missing from the council’s website.

He said: “I note that the forward plan for WBC’s Executive calls for discussion on the Housing Strategy 2020-2024: and the notice of proposed decision was first published: 27th August 2019, 20 months ago. 

“The reason for consideration, to approve the council’s Housing Strategy for the next three years. I also notice that the decision was deferred from November executive in order that additional data regarding specialist housing can be accommodated and the decision is now due tonight by executive. 

“The document in question is the Housing Strategy 2019-2022 and although there are many references to previous housing strategies on the councils website it would appear that the key document Housing Strategy 2019-2022 is not mentioned.

“My question is as a three year housing strategy, 2019-2022 is a crucial document that will require considerable thought and deliberation by members and the public at large. Why has the Council not put it on the Council website so one can have proper sight of it?”

Cllr Kaiser said the issue was down to an administrative error.

He said: “As the strategy was originally planned to be discussed at executive in November  2019 it was anticipated that the new Strategy would cover the period 2019-2022.  

“The discussion was subsequently deferred until this year and therefore the new  Housing Strategy now covers 2020-24. Unfortunately the dates were not changed on the internal document control system. 

“I can confirm that the previous Housing Strategy covered 2015-18 and is available  on the Council’s website. That will be replaced by the 2020-24 Strategy when the final version is hopefully approved by executive in the new year following the consultation.”

Empowering people living in poverty

Cllr Tahir Maher, Liberal Democrat councillor for Maiden Erlegh asked whether the council would participate in the Poverty Truth Commission.

He said: “Ordinary people struggling with poverty are given a chance to relate their personal experiences by creating safe spaces for people to tell their stories and opportunities for those making and influencing decisions to listen.

“With rising numbers of individuals and families in our Borough facing significant hardships as a consequence of the pandemic, which in some cases has the potential to do irreversible harm, the need to examine all potentially helpful courses of action becomes all the more urgent.

“Is Wokingham Borough Council prepared to participate in the Poverty Truth Commission to build on a principle of collective decision-making to create meaningful and longer-term solutions and tackle poverty between those people with lived experience of poverty and those in positions of influence?”

Cllr John Halsall said: “The Poverty Truth Commission work that has taken place in those towns and cities appears to have been a valuable way to bring individuals and organisations together in conversation seeking to achieve progress in  addressing the complex issues of poverty.  

“Wokingham borough is a great place to live and there is no place for poverty. Regardless of whichever statutory benchmark you look at regarding poverty and hardship, Wokingham still has one of the lowest rates in the country, but even if one person or one child does not have fair and equal opportunity or need in our borough that is one too many and we are committed to fighting it in whatever form it takes, whether it’s homelessness, rough sleeping, fuel poverty or hunger.  

“The council already strives to have meaningful engagement with our communities and to listen and act on the feedback we receive. 

“We fully support people to share their views and experiences and be part of the decisions that impact them most.  

“We do this in various ways, through public consultation, facilitation of forums and through our involvement with residents groups and direct community outreach work, such as our active participation in Norreys Community Group and the Tenants Forum for example, where we seek to understand in detail the challenges that residents are facing and work with them to deliver positive outcomes. 

“But we know there is always opportunity to do more and as part of developing our strategic approach to addressing poverty, we will be exploring positive ways to engage with our communities, such as the approach taken by the Poverty Truth Commission which will form part of our considerations.”

Fixing roads

Cllr Chris Bowring, Conservative councillor for Wokingham Without asked the highways executive to summarise the road resurfacing programme in the borough.

Cllr Pauline Jorgensen said: “Wokingham Borough Council has invested £6.1 million in its 20/21 road resurfacing programme, with over 100 roads earmarked for resurfacing or  treatments to prolong their life. 

“The roads have been selected based upon our  comprehensive surveying of all of the borough’s roads by our highways teams  and means that we spend money on the roads which most need our attention. 

“Work originally scheduled to start in May was brought forward to early April,  with the programme accelerated due to the Government’s Covid-19 guidance.  

“Road usage dropped by more than 50% in the borough during the  lockdown and roadworks by utilities companies by more than 33%, providing an opportunity to complete work in potentially disruptive locations. 

“During this period the council carried out improvement works on some of the  Borough’s key commuting routes, including Showcase roundabout in Winnersh, the A4 Bath Road in Sonning, Finchampstead Road and Molly Millars Lane in Wokingham and Thames Street in Sonning, a key route between Berkshire and Oxfordshire. 

“During the summer we completed a large programme of surface treatment works, including around 11km of microasphalting on 67 streets and 17km of surface dressing on 22 streets. 

“Surface dressing and micro-asphalt treatments are used to seal the existing road surface from water ingress and add texture to road surface which enhances its skid resistance. 

“Both these types of surface treatment will prolong the life of a road by up to ten years. 

“Alongside the 17 accelerated plane an inlay resurfacing schemes that were completed at the beginning of the year, we have just started work on phase two of the plane and inlay resurfacing works and we anticipate that a further 13 streets will be resurfaced during this programme.”

Cllr Jorgensen said the council is “really getting cracking on the structural maintenance” and will be doing more resurfacing into the winter months.

Carers Policy

Cllr David Hare, Liberal Democrat councillor for Hawkedon asked whether the budget for the Carers Policy will be sufficient.

He said: Carers give excellent value for money and we need to ensure they are getting  the support they need. If the aspirations of the Carers Policy are met is the  budget going to be sufficient for the increased demand that there will be? 

“I believe we all want to ensure we support this very important resource, one of many modes of support is to ensure that money follows an increased and improved service.”

Cllr Margetts said: “WBC values the vital contribution that carers make to their local communities and we value their role, particularly in these unprecedented times. 

“We are fully aware of the pressures carers are under and since the pandemic we have been carrying out welfare checks on our carers to ensure they have access to food, medication but also emotional support by linking them up with services in the borough.

“The Carers Strategy gives direction as to how we will improve services for carers by fostering a more joined up approach across adult social care and our voluntary sector Partners. 

“Our Voluntary Sector Strategy and investment in that sector supports carers. 

“Our aspirations for carers will be realised by our commitment to proactively work with the voluntary sector in developing joined up community prevention services, ensuring our duties continue to be met as determined by the Care Act. 

“This includes offering needs assessments for both the carer and cared for and  where there is an eligible need ensuring services are in place to meet that  need. Continuing to support carers financially and emotionally through Direct Payments, commissioned home care, day services and respite for them.”

Cllr Margetts said in 2019.20, the council spent £347,000 on respite care, £516,000 for learning disabilities, £12,000 on mental health, £133,000 on older people, £60,000 for people with disabilities and £56,000 in direct payments to carers for their own needs.  

He added: “We will continue to fund these needs defined by the Care Act. We will be increasing our overall spend on carers in line with our Medium Term Financial Plan. 

“There is funding to invest in the voluntary sector, including support for carers, as per our demand management strategy. There is funding to meet  the anticipated demand; It is our expectation in the MTFP that we will fund of £400,000 in 2021/22, £500,000 in 2022/23 and £600,000 in 2023/24 to support this. 

“However, we will continue to look at this as it progresses, and adjust this if needed.”

Later on, Cllr Abdul Loyes, Conservative councillor for Loddon asked whether the council leader agreed that the method of creating the Carers Strategy was successful.

Cllr Halsall said: “I agree, the approach taken with the Carers Strategy is an excellent example of  how we can effectively work together with our partners in the Voluntary and  Community Sector as well as our health partners. 

“We work in partnership with the NHS, CCG and our local GP’s alongside the voluntary sector who are also  playing a vital role in tackling loneliness and mobility and it is hoped that this  will also be expanded into mental health.  

“Indeed this is how we have worked in our response to the pandemic emergency – and this would be a very good approach to tackling the issues of poverty across the borough. 

“Partnership has played a vital role in our response to the pandemic and residents can access a wide range of advice and support through the One Front Door via Citizens Advice Wokingham.  

“Our priority and focus at present must be on our response to the pandemic emergency, but that doesn’t mean we are complacent about other issues facing  our communities such as the issue of need and poverty. 

“Regardless of whichever statutory benchmark you look at regarding poverty and hardship, Wokingham still has one of the lowest rates in the country, but even if one person or one child does not have fair and equal opportunity in our borough that is one too many and we are committed to fighting this.  

“We are already doing a lot to address this issue, we are not starting from scratch. 

“For example, we have made good progress in addressing the drivers of poverty, through maximising affordable housing, providing good quality council housing and addressing homelessness and rough sleeping to ensure people have access to safe and secure accommodation.  

“Another example is through our out-reach work, often in partnership with the voluntary and community sector. We support our residents to lead self sustaining lifestyles, including addressing food insecurity through initiatives such as Grub Club and Social Bites. 

“Notwithstanding this positive work that has been taking place and is being strengthened in response to the pandemic, we know we can do more to ensure  those who really need our support can get it.  

“We are therefore looking to establish and facilitate a partnership to tackle poverty, like the model used in the development of the Carers Strategy which will also lead on developing a joint strategy for the borough.”

At the end of the meeting, the council executive approved the council’s Carers Strategy 2020-2025 with no votes against or abstentions.

Profit for housing companies

Cllr Graham Howe, Conservative councillor for Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe asked Cllr Kaiser to detail the profits made by the council’s housing companies.

Cllr Kaiser said: Through our housing companies we do  indeed deliver much needed housing provision for our community and this is an  objective that remains dear to my heart. 

“You will be aware that we have an ambition over the next four years to directly deliver more than 1,000 homes for our residents and make an income return for the council taxpayer in doing this. 

“The delivery of affordable housing and a financial return for the council taxpayer can go  hand in hand when properly managed.  

“It gives me great pleasure to inform you, that following considerable work undertaken over the past year including streamlining what we do and making our delivery more effective, the financial position of our council housing has improved tremendously.”

He said for the financial year ending in March 2020, Wokingham Housing Limited had generated £650,000 profit, Loddon Homes Limited had generated £54,000 profit, Berry Brook Homes Limited had generated £15,000 profit but Wokingham Holdings had seen a £62,000 loss.

He said this brought the total profit to £657,000.

“This is up from a combined loss of £508,000 the year before,” Cllr Kaiser explained. “Meaning the position has improved by over £1.1million for the benefit of our council taxpayers. 

“I would like to thank all those on the company boards and the supporting officers for their indefatigable efforts in making this happen.”

Delivering affordable housing

Cllr Prue Bray, Liberal Democrat councillor for Winnersh asked Cllr Kaiser what impact national planning reform would have on the council’s housing strategy.

Cllr Kaiser said: “Wokingham Borough Council have been very successful over recent years in delivering a high number of new affordable homes working with our own housing companies, housing association partners and developers.

“Through our last Housing Strategy we delivered 1,182 new affordable homes and, alongside  our ambitious targets through the Housing 1-4-5 initiative, expect to deliver at  least 800 new affordable homes through the period of the new strategy. 

“However there is no doubt that the Government’s proposed reforms will reduce our ability to meet those targets and secure much-needed affordable housing for our residents and so have strongly objected to many of the government’s specific proposals. 

“For example, whilst we recognise the new First Homes proposals may be an affordable option for a certain proportion of our residents we have objected strongly to the government setting a requirement to provide them as 25% of any affordable housing provision on new sites. 

“We strongly believe that decisions on the tenure of affordable housing should be made at a local level and we will make sure we address priority local needs.  

“The proposal to raise the threshold of the number of homes on any site at which there is a requirement to provide affordable housing to 40 or 50 is also of significant concern.

“In Wokingham we have been successful in justifying affordable housing thresholds below national minimum levels and have adopted a lower threshold of five dwellings. 

“This has not resulted in any reduction in new housing development activity in the borough. 

“We have also expressed concern that the value captured by the proposed new  infrastructure levy will not be sufficient to cover the cost of infrastructure, let alone infrastructure and affordable housing. 

“It would likely lead to the council having to make a decision between the two rather than delivering both which is of course unacceptable.

“So in summary our view there is no justification for developers to contribute  less towards affordable housing, even on a temporary basis, while building  new homes remains viable. Therefore the Government should think again.”

Cost of home to school transport

Cllr Imogen Shepherd-DuBey, Liberal Democrat councillor for Emmbrook asked why there was an overspend in home to school transport, when schools closed during lockdown.

Cllr UllaKarin Clark, executive member for children’s services said that many SEND schools continued to remain open, including Addington School.

She said: “The council contracts with a number of providers to transport pupils to school,  both mainstream and children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). 

“During the summer term, while the majority of children were not attending school, schools remained open for children of key workers and those most vulnerable. Appropriate transport arrangements therefore remained in place. 

“In addition payments to providers were made, as with other council contracts, under the Cabinet Office’s Procurement Policy Note – Supplier relief due to Covid-19.”

This, she said, helped keep some of the contractors in business during the pandemic.

And said the procurement basis meant contracts would be in place for when children return to school and require transport.

Financial situation

After resident and member questions had finished, the executive moved to discuss items on the agenda.

Along with the climate recommendations and Carers Strategy previously mentioned, the executive were also asked to note the council’s finances.

Cllr Kaiser presented the capital monitoring report for quarter two of the current financial year.

He said the impact of coronavirus was calculated at £2.629 million, an improvement on the £5.732 million reported in July.

“This improvement has been driven mainly from additional emergency government funding and reimbursement of lost income from the government,” he said. “These figures do not include at this stage the impact of any second wave of the pandemic and any associated local lockdown that may be imposed. 

“If this were to occur, then the cost estimates above are likely to increase.”

He said the general fund as of March, 32, 2021 is estimated to be £8.631 million, but he would like to see the council finances at £10 million plus.”

The executive also approved the capital monitoring report for the end of September.

This means £6 million of ring-fenced funded capital budget planned for next year was brought forward for the Winnersh Relief Road.

And £115,000 from a Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management grant will be used to fund a flood alleviation scheme in Shinfield, off Church Lane. 

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