West Berkshire Council

West Berkshire Council Weeknotes

West Berkshire Council Weeknotes #68

Written on: 10-9-2021

The first topic for this fortnight's week note did not take much consideration. The words extraordinary and unprecedented have been used so often in the context of the pandemic that they have begun to lose their meaning; however they perfectly capture what this week has been for us in West Berkshire.

When we found out from the Home Office last Thursday that the district would be home to two temporary hotels for Afghan refugees with less than 24 hours' notice, we couldn't have possibly imagined just how much could change within the space of just a few days.

Since last Friday, officers from the Council have welcomed men, women and children to the hotels, quickly assessing their needs and putting plans in place to make them safe and comfortable. Whether this has been by providing essential supplies, healthcare or befriending, we have been working to ensure that each of them is cared for and supported while they are with us.

Over the course of the week we have both visited the hotels where we have met our guests, spoken to them about their experiences and helped to get them settled. This has been both humbling and rewarding as both the unimaginable hardship they have faced and the impact of the safety we have been able to offer are clear to see.

We have also been overwhelmed by the generosity shown already by residents and businesses and the warm welcome being afforded to those who have served alongside British Forces at great personal risk. We have been working in partnership with the Community Furniture Project to receive donations of goods from local people and are also grateful to Greenham Trust, who will be match funding financial donations £ for £ up to a value of £25,000. You can read more about how you can help at westberks.gov.uk/afghanaid

Eventually, we will host three families in the district long term and we know that they will quickly become part of the community. We very much looking to supporting them, too, as we have those who are with us for a short time.

Another key issue in the news for us this week has been adult social care. A national conversation on the future of funding for social care has been mooted by successive governments over the course of a quarter of a decade but this week it began in earnest in Westminster. As a unitary authority, we are responsible for meeting the social care needs of residents, which is done in a combination of residents' own homes, supported accommodation, care homes managed by us as the local authority and others managed by private providers.

Providing care of a high standard is one of our key priorities, with almost 40% of our annual budget being spent on adult social care. For this reason, we feel that the voice of local government must be central to this conversation, for it is councils who deliver this vital service on the ground.  We welcome the Government's renewed focus on this issue as the increased demand we are seeing set against workforce challenges mean that the need to address funding levels becomes more pressing as time goes on. Additional investment is vital and we will continue to lobby ministers for this, as we have done over the past few years. We will wait to see the form that these new proposals take and look forward to participating in the debate, making the strong case for a sustainable long term solution that meets the needs of those to which we have a duty of care in West Berkshire.

Of course, although these two topics have been setting the agenda both locally and nationally this week, we cannot forget that local Covid cases continue to rise. The return of large events, such as the nearby Reading Festival over the August Bank Holiday, have had quite clear impacts on our numbers so we must, as we have so often done, remind residents to remain vigilant and to do what they can to minimise the spread of the virus.

We wish you and your families a healthy and happy fortnight.

 


West Berkshire Council Weeknotes #67

Written on: 27-8-2021

As you will remember from our last weeknote, we said goodbye to our Chief Executive of 16 years, Nick Carter, earlier this month. We're pleased to have recruited a new Chief Executive, Nigel Lynn, who will start with us in October. In the meantime, however, Sue Halliwell- our Executive Director of Place- will be Acting Chief Executive and will be co-authoring these fortnightly updates.

We're sure you all will have been affected, as we have, by the situation in Afghanistan and the coverage in the news of the plight of refugees, among them young children. Here in West Berkshire we have always taken our moral obligation to those in need very seriously, having taken in asylum seekers, including unaccompanied minors, in the past to help them through difficult times. Now will be no different. We also know, both from our experiences before and during the pandemic and from the many offers of help we have received as a result of the crisis in Afghanistan, that local residents and businesses will want to play their own part to help those who need us.

We have already made a public commitment to take part in the Afghan Locally Employed Staff (LES) Relocation Scheme at a recent Executive meeting. This scheme will protect the human rights of Afghan people who have supported the British Forces deployed in Afghanistan and are now at serious risk since we have withdrawn from the country.  We are not able to provide full details of the support we will be offering as we are still liaising with Central Government but we will offer an update as soon as we can, which will also include details of how local people can best assist if they wish to.

Back in July we used our weeknote to discuss the review of our Local Plan, the long term document that all local authorities must have in place to plan for the necessary housing, land and infrastructure to meet the changing needs of the population. We have always prided ourselves on being a plan-led authority, and we have been working hard over the past few years to prepare a plan that would pass muster with a Planning Inspector in order to continue to protect the district against speculative development.

You may have seen that late last month the Government reviewed the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which we must follow when developing our Local Plan. The revisions made to the NPPF were extensive, made without warning and included a requirement to provide a 30 year vision document when proposing any large scale development, including for urban extensions such as the one we are proposing in North East Thatcham.

As we have reflected in the past, home ownership is too often out of reach, particularly for younger people who have grown up in the district and wish to buy a home of their own. We are also committed to carbon neutrality in the district by 2030, so recognise the need to deliver the housing local people need whilst mitigating the environmental impact of development. While it is frustrating that the changes to the NPPF mean we must pause work on our draft plan until we have clarified with Government what their implications are, we remain committed to delivering a Local Plan that meets the needs of all who live in our district. We will continue to work closely with our residents, town and parish councils and other stakeholders to do just this.

We have also had some good news this week, as 16 and 17 year olds have begun to be offered Covid vaccinations. The first pop up vaccination bus was out in West Berkshire over the weekend and take up was very high, with demand far outstripping supply. As we all know, getting vaccinated is our best chance of protecting ourselves and others from the virus and it has been great to see so many young people doing so. If you are a young person of this age or know someone who is, we would encourage you or them to get vaccinated when offered. We will continue to use our communications channels to let you know when and where vaccinations are being offered in West Berkshire, but do keep an eye on the NHS website in the first instance.

As young people prepare to return to school next week, we are going to be focussing over the next month on the support offered in West Berkshire across all educational stages. We'll be using our various social media channels to talk about the investment being made in our school buildings as well as the importance of safe, active travel and the emotional impact on young people as they make the transition from nursery to primary school, from primary school to secondary school or from secondary school to work or further education. We'll also be offering tips for parents whose children may be experiencing anxiety about the return to school, so do look out for details of these shortly.

We hope you all enjoy your last few days of the summer holidays and wish you and your families well for the new school year.


West Berkshire Council Weeknotes #66

Written on: 12-8-2021

To mark his retirement, Chief Executive Nick Carter has used his final Weeknote to reflect on his 24 years spent at West Berkshire Council.


I joined West Berkshire in January 1998, a few months before it came into being. A quick trawl of the internet (to help jog my memory) revealed nothing overly interesting was happening nationally at the time. Spiceworld was on at the cinema and the Teletubbies were riding high in the charts.

1998 was however a notable year for West Berkshire and in particular Newbury. In September the Newbury Bypass opened and Northbrook Street was subsequently pedestrianised. Those with longer memories than me (and of a greater vintage) will recall the opening of another Newbury Bypass in 1966. The then A34 (now A339) opened to relieve through traffic which used to come down Northbrook Street and over the Town Bridge. 

Roads, traffic and Newbury seemed to be a major feature of my early years in West Berkshire. The opportunities provided by the new Bypass, coupled with concerns over Newbury's slide down the national retail league table, led to the Newbury 2025 Vision. There was a sense that something needed to be done but not always agreement as to what. The need for a new shopping centre was perhaps the most widely accepted proposal. Attempts to regenerate the Parkway area of the Town had started in the 1980s but the complex land ownerships across the site had thwarted progress. It was the 'No 1 project' when the 2025 Vision got underway in the early part of the new century and in 2008 Standard Life finally agreed to push ahead only weeks before the Financial Crisis of that year hit the world. The Town is lucky to have the asset.

The Cinema was borne from a ground swell of community action. The debate focused around where to put it - in the town centre or outside? The decision to locate it in the town centre was in my view the right one. If town centres are to remain a focus for economic and social activity then leisure will surely need to be part of the mix. The compromise was that it had to be built on a rather constrained site.

Pedestrianisation split local opinion when it was introduced in 1998 and today that seems to continue. It has been extended over the years and Newbury now has one of the most extensively pedestrianised town centres in the country. The area has been enhanced over time, including the refurbishment of the Market Place. Many complained at the loss of the car park at the time but Newbury now has a very attractive market square for residents and visitors alike to enjoy. I think more needs to be made of it although the typical British summer has not helped!

The urban village development in Market Street took 13 years to make happen but as many of you may have seen it is now finally 'coming out of the ground'. The urban myth that the Council gave the land away is not true. A new bus station and a new multi storey car park have been created and money has also been received to help fund new affordable housing. Perhaps most importantly Newbury will get new homes and a very attractive link between the railway station and the town centre - something that has been missing for many years.

The regeneration of the London Road Industrial Estate has been the subject of a great deal of debate. The new road junction off the A339 has provided the opportunity to support a new development that will create jobs and homes for many years to come. In my view the whole area remains something of an eye sore and sits uncomfortably with Victoria Park and Parkway on the other side of the A339. Hopefully over the coming decade it can be transformed into something that compliments the Town. Perhaps the BT exchange building on Bear Lane could be  wrapped up into the same enhancement programme!

I was outside Newbury Library last week when a gentleman came up to me and said that the town's main asset has still yet to be capitalised on - the K and A. He was right. Other towns along the Canal have seen what water can do to add to the attractiveness of their area. In my opinion the main opportunity lies at the Wharf and the return of water basins in front of both the Museum and Library. Attempts have been made to pull that off but have been scuppered largely because of cost and concerns over the impact on Victoria Park. If people are going to spend less time shopping in town centres then it seems Newbury's canals, rivers, green spaces and its surrounding countryside are some of its hidden gems that need to be made more of. Given all of these challenges and those posed by the current Pandemic the emergence of a new Newbury masterplan seems very timely.

With such a focus on Newbury I would not want to leave you with the impression that I have failed to meet my responsibilities to the rest of West Berkshire whilst I have been Chief Executive. Aside from the Pandemic, flooding has probably been one of the biggest challenges the District has faced in recent years. The 2007 floods left 1500 homes under water - 1000 in Thatcham. A great deal of work has been done since then to protect the Town and I must pay tribute to the Town Council, residents and West Berkshire Council staff who have dedicated time and resources to making that happen.   

My thanks also to all of those communities that have worked tirelessly over the years to make West Berkshire a better place. Visions, parish plans and neighbourhood development plans have all played their part but at the end of the day it is the people on the ground who have made the difference. I hope you feel that the Council has been there if you have needed us.

When looking back there is an inevitable tendency to focus on what you might see as the big achievements and challenges, I have highlighted some of those already, however much of my time, and that of my staff, has been focused on providing some 400 or so different services that many residents need from the Council at various stages in their life. As Chief Executive my primary aim over the past 16 years has been to try and improve the effectiveness of those services whilst at the same time managing with a shrinking budget in real terms. It some areas we have had to stop providing some services altogether or we have asked others to assist with their delivery. In the main though we have generally seen our services improve as evidenced both by data and independent inspections.

That said we do not always get it right and I will have emails daily from residents who need our assistance or who feel we should have done more. My greatest satisfaction though comes from being able to put such things right as well as reading emails from residents who are grateful for us having gone the extra mile.

One of the positives to come from the Pandemic has been the realisation that as a Council we need to get better at communicating with, and engaging our communities. This Weeknote is but one example but it is an approach that will remain when hopefully Covid-19 is far behind us.

Looking forward I have no doubt that West Berkshire will remain a great place in which to live, work and visit. Its inherent assets will surely guarantee that. There is however more to do. We need to build more affordable homes and address the inequalities that exist between our communities, and which have widened during the Pandemic. We also need to recognise and respond to the fact that West Berkshire's population will get increasingly older over the coming years - and of course we need to do a great deal more to address climate change.

I will not be around for that journey, but I wish those who are, every success. To those who have shared my West Berkshire journey over the past 24 years - thank you.

Nick Carter

Chief Executive

August 2021


Coronavirus Weeknotes #65

Written on: 23-7-2021

The restrictions may have eased this week, but the responsibility remains on us all to continue taking sensible steps to keep ourselves and others safe as the risk posed by the virus is very much still present in our community. It has been reassuring in the past few days to see the majority of people making a personal choice to wear a mask, and to keep their distance from others. The virus will continue to be here for some time, and we have to live with it whilst continuing to take steps to keep ourselves and others safe.

The vaccination programme continues to roll out and we are only a matter of weeks away from all adults having been offered the opportunity to have both doses of the vaccine. It's still our best defence against the virus so if you still haven't booked yours then please do so today.

Regular testing also remains really important and can be done at home or in one of our assisted testing centres. It's quick, delivers results quickly and helps to identify cases early and break the chain of transmission in our communities. We appreciate it's another thing to do, but it will give you peace of mind as you go about your day.

There has been much discussion in the media this week about the numbers of people needing to self-isolate - which is another reminder that Covid is still circulating. We've seen the impact this can cause with delays to our garden waste collections, but we would urge people to comply with any requirement to self-isolate to stop local rates increasing further. We appreciate it can be inconvenient but it will keep others safe, and is a small price to pay to reduce the impact of family or friends getting Covid, or long Covid.

From the feedback we have had from the community, we know that our weeknotes have been well-received and that it has been good for us to reflect on the impact of global and national events or decisions on us here in West Berkshire. Now that there is less of a need to focus exclusively on our local response to Covid, we've decided to continue with these updates in the form of a fortnightly blog in which we'll talk about issues that are important to our community and what we are doing to address them.

In light of this new focus, we want to use this fortnight's blog as an opportunity to talk about paving the way for those who come after us. One of the most important ways that we as a local authority do this is by developing our Local Plan, which is a long-term strategic document that local authorities use to plan for housing and commercial development in their respective areas. All local areas need an up-to-date Local Plan to prevent poor, speculative development happening in the wrong place. In it we must ensure that we have the necessary housing, land and infrastructure in place to meet the changing needs of our population.

This is no easy undertaking, particularly when competing priorities and conflicting views are evident within the community. For this reason, it is important that the approach we take is grounded firmly in evidence. As part of the process we have to consider a number of complex and inter-related factors:

  • Affordability - how do we deliver affordable housing for all residents?
  • Environment - how do we balance new housing with our carbon neutrality aspirations?
  • Transport - how do we put in place the walking and cycle paths, bus links, road and rail links needed for new developments?
  • Connectivity - how do we future-proof digital infrastructure across the district?
  • Access to services - how do we ensure people can access local schools, GP surgeries and other services close to their homes?
  • The Rural v Urban balance - where is the best location for new development?

Over the past few years, we have been collecting data about all of these and have engaged closely with our residents, stakeholders, businesses and parishes in order to plan where in the district is best to site new development. You can read more about how we have done this and also view a Facebook Live session we held on the topic back in March here.

Of course, any level of housing growth will have some impact on the community surrounding it and this cannot be avoided. What can be avoided, however, is poorly planned development without the necessary infrastructure and services which would then lead to ongoing negative implications for the community. When we go out to consultation on the Local Plan, our focus will therefore be on listening to the views of local people in order to deliver a final plan which properly plans for their needs and those of future generations.

As the parents of young people who will be hoping to get on to the housing ladder in the next decade, we are acutely aware - as many of you will be - that the dream of home ownership or of living somewhere as desirable as West Berkshire seems unachievable for many. As a council we have a responsibility to fully consider this so that those who follow us are able to access the opportunities that we have. Inevitably, the eventual outcome will be popular with some local people and less so with others. This will always be the case with any Local Plan. Here in West Berkshire, however, we are committed to creating a district fit for now and for the generations to come, which is exactly what our Local Plan will deliver.

  • Join Council Leader Lynne Doherty for a live update on the Covid-19 response and recovery locally. Lynne will be live on Facebook at 5pm on Monday 26 July talking about what the Council is doing and answering your questions. You can find more details and request a reminder when the live video starts here: https://fb.me/e/4d6sdknYD.

Coronavirus Weeknotes #64

Written on: 9-7-2021

"Personal responsibility" has been the buzz phrase in recent days with the announcement on Monday that the legislative elements of the coronavirus restrictions are likely to end on 19th July - subject to a final decision next week.

Once we move to Step 4, we are being asked to make the right choices for ourselves and those around us, and to accept that we now need to learn to live with the virus. Although the national approach is changing, we cannot drop our guard with cases rising nationally and locally - so what can we all do?

Most importantly, everyone needs to have their first and second dose of the Covid-19 vaccination when offered them, and this is something we will continue to be pushing locally. As well as running the existing vaccination centres, the NHS is operating a Health on the Move mobile vaccination service which will be in Thatcham and at Newbury College on Monday and Tuesday next week. There will be further dates for other locations announced soon.

There is growing evidence that the Covid-19 vaccine significantly reduces the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths but it does not eradicate it completely. Furthermore we need to stop the virus from mutating and spreading.

It is for these reasons that community testing continues to be important, with twice weekly testing encouraged to quickly identify cases in the community. To support this, we will be offering testing and home test kits for some time to come from our three community testing sites and Community Collect mobile van service. You can also collect free testing kits from your local pharmacy.

Our sites and van service also provide help to those people taking self-tests for the first time to ensure they are done properly.  For further information, please visit Community Testing in West Berkshire (Lateral Flow Testing - Rapid testing for Covid-19)

If you have a positive test, you experience Covid symptoms, or are told to do so by the NHS Test and Trace service, you must self-isolate to protect others.

Government guidance is expected on the use of face masks as we move into Step 4, but we are continuing to recommend that people wear face coverings in crowded or indoor spaces and if meeting people you don't see regularly. It comes down to personal choice, but communities in West Berkshire have shown consistently through the pandemic that they will do the right thing and we know that this time will be no different.

Opening up is not without risk but the restrictions are also not without cost, and living with the virus is the only way to reduce the economic and social restrictions which have been in place for the past 15 months.

The end of restrictions is good news for businesses and the end of social distancing will make it easier for many of them to operate. To support businesses in opening up we've been offering local businesses grants of up to £10,000 to help pay for temporary changes or host events to celebrate reopening after a very difficult time. Almost all of the £140,000 set aside for this has now been allocated, with the first grant to be awarded helping to bring the Little Yum Factory to Newbury Market tomorrow (10th July). It is a win-win - the business will reach new customers whilst shoppers will have even more choice at the market. If you are in Newbury on Saturday do pay a visit to the stand - it's open from 9am to 4pm.

Looking beyond the pandemic we are progressing with plans for the Council's own recovery over the coming years. This week we announce plans to move to adopt hybrid working on a permanent basis. Flexible working has been in place for some years, but staff will soon be able to work from home three days a week if they would like to do so. The past 15 months has shown that we can work remotely whilst delivering our services, and many staff have found the work-life balance to be better. It will mean we can move all staff into one building in Market Street - and with fewer town centre officers we will be reducing our energy bills and saving some money too. We'll also be introducing a new environmentally-focused travel policy with staff encouraged to walk, cycle or take public transport to work wherever possible.

We very much want to lead by example in terms of our work to protect our green district. Next week our Environment Strategy Delivery Plan goes to Executive and sets out how we will deliver on our commitment for a carbon-neutral district by 2030. It will be a document we update regularly so that communities can easily see how we are performing in an area we know is important to many of our residents.

We cannot do this by ourselves and a core part of our strategy is to support communities in working actively to make a difference in their own towns and villages. As an example, the Hungerford Environmental Action Team held an event last weekend to give residents a chance to look at a wide array of electric vehicles and to speak to their owners. It was a great event, and will have shown that switching to EVs is not the huge leap many think it to be.

For our part, we're in the process of installing charging points for electric vehicles and just this week have put new facilities in Thatcham and Pangbourne. Charge points are also going in at Lambourn, Hungerford and Newbury as part of a pilot project and from there we will assess how best to rollout charge points more widely.

There will soon be a new Chief Executive at the helm to work with the Executive and deliver on our ambitions for the Council, and our aspirations for the district in the coming years. Yesterday evening Council approved the appointment of the preferred candidate and we expect to be able to announce more details in the next few days. In the meantime, Susan Halliwell, one of our Executive Directors, will be acting as our Interim Chief Executive from 12th August and until the incoming candidate can begin. We wish Susan every success in this role.