The Wokingham Paper

TONY JOHNSON: It's a lock-out

Wokingham Borough Council offices shute end
Wokingham Borough Council

Readers with long memories may recall the television game show, It’s a Knockout with its now-disgraced presenter Stuart Hall, stripped of his OBE and jailed in 2013.

Transmitted between 1966 and 1982 the programme was a competition between people representing their towns, taking part in a sequence of silly games while dressed in improbably large foam rubber suits.

Stand-up it wasn’t and the laughter gave the game away as to the show’s comedic value. Like marmite, you either loved or hated it.

Political Games

Quite why January’s full council meeting should remind one of a game show will probably remain one of life’s mysteries.

Perhaps it was the artlessly choreographed antics of a ruling group that’s lost its way.

Or perhaps WBC’s leader and staff can’t stomach their approach being debated or questioned?

Whatever it was, reducing one of the few opportunities for genuine debate into a political farce wasn’t the best choice that the ruling group, its executive team and particularly its leader could have taken.

Good question

It’s rare to have members of the public come to Shute End to question those in charge. Particularly when they’re asking about what they (staff as well as councillors) have learned to improve their behaviour.

Reading from a written answer, the leader of the council plodded through the panegyrics of what a great council this is and how successful it’s been with planning enforcement. He droned on and on for so long, he was ruled out of time.

On being asked whether he had a supplementary question, the member of the public’s response was “Yes, could I ask the leader of the council to continue what he was saying?

As many are aware, the “real” question is always, always, always the supplementary and it’s usually as barbed as it is unwelcome. Such was the inadequacy of the leader’s dreary monologue that this impromptu supplementary made everyone laugh.

Questionable Applause

Five pupils from Bulmershe School asked good questions about the climate emergency which was being launched later that evening.

After the answers were given, a councillor proposed that the council show its appreciation to “these young people” who “showed such bravery to come here and speak in front of all of us” – so all the councillors stood and applauded. Perhaps overlooking the fact that age is one of the protected characteristics and that their applause could be seen as tantamount to breaking the law. 

Timed out

In an ill-judged set of constitutional amendments, one of the proposed changes was to bring the start time of meetings forward to 7pm.

In an impassioned speech by Cllr Sarah Kerr (Lib Dem), councillors were shamed into realising that this would be discriminatory against working mothers (as well as others who work for a living) and the proposal was eventually kicked out.

Locked out

Nipping out to get a coffee during this debate on council minutiae, the vending machine immediately outside the public gallery being out of cups, the next nearest was downstairs.

Back upstairs, coffee in hand – only to discover I was now locked out.

WBC locking members of the public out of the public gallery? You couldn’t make this up.

Crime ate emergency

The launch of what should have been a flagship policy fell utterly flat when the much-vaunted cross-party working group turned out to be very cross parties indeed as the debate revealed some of what had actually been going on.

It fell further into disrepute with its costs at a time when council papers make it clear that we’re supposed to be saving twenty million, not spending an extra fifty.

New dogs, old tricks

The meeting also considered the homelessness and rough sleeping strategy which, while serious and affecting circa 250 households in 2019, could have been decided by an Exec. member individually.

What didn’t get debated was the much delayed Local Plan Update, which affects ALL the Boroughs households for the next thirty years or more.

Lost in space

In a meeting that was over-running, a proposal was made to extend it by 30 minutes. 

The majority voted against this and so the Leader and the Executive were relieved of their duty to make statements as were the councillor-directors of WBC Companies. Most fortunate in view of the management meltdown at WBC’s Wokingham Housing.

Going through the motions (not)

But in chucking out the dirty bathwater, the babies got chucked out too with no discussion on WBC’s Heathrow expansion policy or Single Use plastics.

Seems the emergency was more ‘time it’ than ‘climate’ then.

The Acton Diet

During his all-but-irrelevant answer to a public question, the Leader stated that “The Council has been successful in all its actions against Hare Hatch Sheeplands”.

Had he forgotten Reading Crown Court’s 2018 verdict against WBC?

Or overlooked the High Court’s 2019 verdict chucking out WBC’s appeal?

Or was he ignoring the minutes of WBC’s March 2019 Exec. meeting?

Or just role-playing in a Shute End fantasyland?

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