One Week to Go

This time next week the local election will be all but over, and in much the same way as the politicians are recycling campaign pledges from the last election in these particular seats four years ago, we’re recycling the same grumble about how the politicians seem to get this collective madness at this time and start saying and publishing stupid things.

Residents in Finchampstead may have had a few leaflets through the door, and if they’re really lucky a knock on the door, Arborfield on the other hand as we highlighted earlier in the campaign is a key target seat for the Conservatives, with their candidate putting on the miles coming many evenings a most weekends across to Arborfield from his home in Riseley, and seems to have put a veritable forest of leaflets through doors telling us how much the Conservatives care about the people of Arborfield. He’s not been alone. Amongst other guest canvassers we’ve had Fraser McFarland, the Wokingham Constituency campaigns manager and even Charlotte Haitham-Taylor, leader of the Borough Council. With the critical final weekend of the campaign coming up we can expect the Conservatives to throw everything they’ve got at Arborfield to try and persuade residents how much they care.

So lets take a look back at the campaign so far. Things started positively with the local Conservatives signing up to the party clean campaign pledge.

However hearing reports from various encounters over the past couple of weeks, the no attacks on other candidates part seems to have gone a little off the rails under the pressure of the campaign. One that has come up several times is a classic bit of whataboutery where in response to a comment about their candidate they highlight something totally irrelevant about the opposition, in this case claiming that Gary Cowan spends half the year at his “house in the south of France”. Unfortunately that is a lie, but as always sprinkled with some half truths. Gary does visit France quite frequently, but that’s because he has family out there. The lie is also intended to suggest that his trips to France detract from his role as a councillor – luckily Wokingham Borough Council records meeting attendances and you can easily check them out online, this is the page for Gary where you can see that he’s only missed three meetings he was required to attend since they started recording in 2015. The page also highlights that over and above his expected attendances at council meetings Gary has attended a significant number of additional Executive and Planning Committee meetings during the period either to ask questions, or when items relating to Arborfield were up for discussion. Certainly our experience is that we have no complaints about Gary’s personal life interfering with his work as a councillor. Gary arranges visits to his family to ensure he is around for important meetings, and even when he is away is keeping up to date with emails and what is going on locally, and will respond pretty swiftly if we’ve raised any issues.

The other doorstep gem is that Gary “wasn’t good enough to be a Conservative”. That’s slightly rich considering he was the official Conservative candidate for two decades, but is perhaps a compliment considering he was deselected because he didn’t do what he was told by the party over Grazeley, and instead remaining committed to a promise on which he was elected. He is continuing to remain committed to the promise not to back development at Grazeley in his manifesto for this election too. Probably a question to consider is that if a good Conservative does what he is told by the party, what does that mean about priorities for any Conservative candidates?

Anyway, enough of the Conservative personal attacks on Gary.

In both Arborfield and Shinfield there are independents running, Gary Cowan in Arborfield and Jim Frewin in Shinfield. Both are highlighting concerns about the secrecy with which the Conservative administration at the council operates, and in both seats the Conservative campaign is trying to highlight their apparent inside access to the secrecy of the Conservative administration as an advantage.

Probably the first thing to be aware of is that wards can’t be punished for voting for an opposition or independent candidate, nor can wards get special treatment as a reward for voting for the controlling party, indeed a council leader in Rochdale is facing a standards probe for suggesting that council might cut roads funding to wards that didn’t elect a Labour councillor. All the services such as fixing potholes, fly tipping and rubbish collection are consistent across the whole borough, Conservative wards get a weekly bin collection, so do the wards currently held by Liberal Democrats, Labour or Independent. Similarly the council officers all act impartially whatever the affiliation of the councillor they’re dealing with.

The Conservative candidates are selling their exclusive access into the secretive workings of the governing party, but of course we don’t really know what goes on inside the party, indeed we only found out about Grazeley as a result of Gary breaking ranks and leaving the party. The entire Grazeley bid was kept secret and only published online once the story had leaked out. In terms of asking public questions, the Conservative group is of such a size that they ration out questions, so any Conservative councillor would have to ask permission from the party to ask a question in public. An independent on the other hand is entitled to ask whatever questions he or she likes. The key point with the public questions to council meetings is the answers get minuted. Where do private meetings within the Conservative group get minuted? If we have a pressing issue in Arborfield, would a party affiliated councillor be able to ask the question in public, or highlight the issue to the local paper, or would they be restricted by party governance? An independent can table a question and go to the local paper or social media and highlight it immediately. Compare how much coverage Arborfield issues have had in the Wokingham Paper since Gary became independent, compared with when he was one of forty-five Conservative councillors.

Moving on, we have written separately about the medical centre, but the real problem with the campaign is that the CCG who would be responsible for providing the staff for it, have been consistent about it not being viable, and consistent about their policy of providing a smaller number of larger practices and closing or merging the small practices, and consistent about not being willing to fund it. It’s also consistent with the changes in general practice across the country of increasing the services GP practices provide such that there are simply not currently the numbers on Arborfield Green to justify a whole new practice given that Finchampstead Surgery is less than two miles away. The only way it would be viable is if the local area took a hundreds of extra houses such that existing Finchampstead and Swallowfield surgeries became too large. The CCG figures are that between Finchampstead, Swallowfield and Shinfied an additional 22,900 people can be accommodated before a new surgery is needed.

That brings us onto the perennial issue of housing numbers.

It’s fair to say that every single election for years and years the Conservatives have run on a plan to reduce housing numbers, most notably in 2010 when in the run up to the election they promised that if we elected a Conservative government and a Conservative council the imposed Labour housing numbers could be dropped and the housing numbers cut. In 2010 the Conservatives were elected locally, a Conservative led government elected at Westminster, the Westminster government abolished the top down housing targets, and Wokingham Borough Council then voted through exactly the same number of houses as the previous Labour government had mandated.

Similarly at a borough level this year they are running on a similar promise to cut housing numbers, but the question is whether this year will be any different from all the other promises that came to nothing. The government is still pushing councils across the area to build lots and lots of houses, and are offering financial rewards to those who do. In reality unless there is a significant change of direction nationally, whoever is in power in Westminster there will be a drive to build more houses, especially in popular areas such as the south-east of England.

More locally, both the Conservative candidate and Gary Cowan our Independent are talking about opposing housing development. There are differences though, in particular David Edmonds is explicit on his five point plan of opposing “housing development in Arborfield”, whereas Gary lists a number of other developments outside Arborfield but that will directly impact us.

An important point to remember here is that what most people think of as Arborfield and what is Arborfield in council ward terms are somewhat different. In council terms there has been no significant housing development in Arborfield since Poperinghe Way was built – all of what is known as Arborfield Green is either in Barkham or Finchampstead ward, even the twelve houses going in on the corner of Sheerlands Road. The significant numbers of additional houses expanding the Arborfield Green development still further are also not in Arborfield, they are in Barkham, so Edmonds can quite happily promise to oppose housing development in Arborfield, whilst the Conservative administration pushed forward with Barkham Square and Grazeley. Edmonds can quite happily go on opposing opportunist proposals like School Road because he knows Grazeley and Barkham Square alongside the existing build out of Arborfield Green will be supplying hundreds of additional houses for years to come. Maybe it’s local developments like Barkham Square and the additional residents those houses will bring that make Edmonds so confident he can get a medical centre?

Finally, the campaign this time has been conducted a lot more on social media. Over in Finchampstead there has been a good deal of discussion over local issues, in particular over the lack of progress on California Crossroads, and the failure to deliver the safe cycleway along Nine Mile Ride to Bohunt School, both issues we have campaigned on over the past few years. Unlike Arborfield candidates from all of the parties have been active in those discussions. Gary Cowan has been visible on many of the local pages and groups as he has been over the last few years as councillor, however David Edmonds has been primarily keeping himself on his private Facebook page where he can control the comments that are left – both the Arborfield page and ourselves have offered David an opportunity to participate, but he has unfortunately kept himself to his own page.

There have been a couple of quite entertaining discussions with “residents” over issues on David Edmonds private page though, although it doesn’t take much to discover that many of the supposed residents he’s discussing with are actually Conservative supporters from elsewhere in the borough. The “discovery” of the Neighbourhood Action Group and inviting residents along was also another entertaining moment – the Arborfield page which he has largely ignored has promoted a number of the public NAG meetings in recent months (it’s official name is the Fields Community Forum), and anybody signed up to the Thames Valley Police neighbourhood alert scheme would also get notifications, so it’s not exactly some big secret, indeed the Fields Community Forum is the same NAG that covers his own home village of Riseley.

The other slightly bizarre thing about his page is that he classified it as a personal blog rather than the more usual Politician or Political Candidate options. This has led to a number of people contacting us about the shocking sites his page links to. Whilst there are Conservatives with pretty shocking content on their pages we’re pleased that David Edmonds isn’t one of them. Whilst clicking on the link marked “personal blog” in the about box on his page does go to a list of links with some pretty surprising content, as you can see here, that is actually Facebook showing you other pages classified as personal blogs, not ones Edmonds himself has selected. Put it down to inexperience with social media rather than anything more worrying. If his campaign had correctly categorised the page, you’d be looking at a list of other politicians pages rather than all of these!

So who will be elected? As always it is up to you the electorate. As the Wokingham Paper editorial today said, vote for the vision of Wokingham, Arborfield or Finchampstead you believe in.

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