Surely Game Over?

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For the Sake of Children

On Friday, 9th June Wing Commander, Councillor Richard Willis was sentenced by Lincolnshire Crown Court to 8 months in prison and 8 months on licence for taking and distributing images of children being sexually abused, some of which were in the worse category possible.  In addition, Willis has been placed on the sexual harm register for a period of 10 years.  As we know, before residing in Sleaford, Willis was a prominent member of Reading’s community and served as a Conservative Lead Councillor.  Although I have no reason to believe he committed any offenses in Reading, I also cannot rule it out by dint of the secrecy surrounding that sort of repulsive activity.

I have tweeted much about the state of Reading’s Children Services.  For too long its performance has been substandard and presently the department is under review by a Government appointed Commissioner.  The case of Richard Willis focuses the mind on the reasons why this important department cannot be left to wallow in its failings.  Children’s services need to be resolved efficiently and effectively and for that process to happen it requires fresh leadership and competent management.

Reading Borough Council needs to put money behind child protection and safeguarding rather than reducing its funding even more, which it has done.   It is not palatable to see the vast sums spent to support property developnent in the Borough when the basic foundations of a civilised community are dispensed with.  The Council’s excuses proffered – the cuts are due to Government austerity measures and have to be imposed to deliver a balanced budget, a requirement in law – deserve our ridicule and contempt.  The issue is far too serious a matter for the usual platitudes of Councillors.

A month or so ago, the distinguished Chair of Reading’s Child Safeguarding Board resigned in protest at the further funding cuts imposed by the Council, handicapping the board’s role.  It was not a sudden decision.  Warnings had been issued which should have been followed up.  The seriousness of this departure cannot be overstated.  A highly respected professional working across other Boroughs concluded to opt out in the face of cuts to a service already in dire straits.

The Council’s Children’s services have a very chequered history.  The department has seen extraordinary breaches of practice for example “Shreddergate”, where three social workers destroyed records one Saturday when the department was off limits.  The Council has a habit of scoring own goals which are papered over.  I would have expected that a vote of no confidence passed against another holder of the office of Lead Councillor would have been a sufficient signal that change was essential.  We should all be concerned that a flawed system will ultimately fail a vulnerable child; in short a “Child P” waiting to happen.  And that is the worry and the ticking time bomb.  It is not sensationalism, but the hard reality that lies ahead for a department which cannot meet caseload demands, a department which is overpopulated by temporary staff and is incapable of keeping those who have the ability to resolve the problems.

As a very average town Reading has its share of paedophiles, but their presence within the community is more worrying when they come from within local government departments and schools as in the case of Rev. Peter Javis, a former Chaplain at the John Madejski Academy and Richard Willis.  Whilst West Berkshire held a serious case review into Jarvis I have not known such practices here in Reading.  These are known cases and there are many more that have reached public attention.  There are also those that have been settled by resignation.

Safeguarding children means checks and balances are in place, that there is proper oversight, sound vetting and that cases raised are investigated.  If Reading Borough Council does not give resource they surely, at the least, are failing in their duty of care and that I think is a great indictment of democracy where an overabundance of resource for vanity projects on rail, roads and buses can be found whilst prime services are cut.  Personally I find the state of Children’s Services as morally offensive as it is concerning; particularly as the town learns today, 6th July 2017, that yet another former Councillor, a Reading Council cohort of Willis, Warren Swaine, a Liberal Democrat, was given a suspended sentence for possession of child sex and bestiality images.

What are the odds that a council of 46 members of whom roughly two-thirds  would be male, at a point in time, have two people serving on it that would be in the future convicted of crimes of a gross sexual nature?  Add those convicted of a sex related crime, in 2010 would be three, with further accusations made against another for sexual harassment.

I attempted to ensure that all Councillors are properly vetted before taking office as members of public are if they work with children.  That campaign failed.

I started my tweeting on children’s services over a year ago with a warning that the Council was not going to fool anyone into believing that they were serious about providing a strong social service.  At that time they, as is there modus operandi, reverted to setting up systems to show process in order to avert criticism of them from Ofsted.  It did not work and Reading continues to fail with each and every assessment.  I gave the Lead Councillor in place today the benefit of the doubt, but not now.  I now am in no doubt that Children’s Services will benefit from new external leadership, not just because of the lack of progress in fulfilling their obligations, but because of Council’s ineffectiveness to recruit and to keep the right senior staff which surely leaves improvements a distant pipe dream. Then there is the overreliance on temporary staff which has not been addressed. The overall result is the department’s inadequacies has impacted its reputation and puts the very people they are there to assist in jeopardy?

The Council has just seen a senior, newly recruited competent officer resign.  We can move forward on a bus route (MRT), but we cannot behave responsibly and in the interests of the town’s needy children?  And people wonder why I single out Whitley as being in Crisis.

Houston we have a problem and it is this.  We can wait till the cows come home for change or the Government steps in now, as it should, to convert the service into an externally managed trust run by professionals, not the lay wisdom of Councillors.  I am 100% certain that the Council will do everything in its power to ensure that does not happen and they no doubt will lobby from all angles, but it is the right thing to do.  It is a matter of confidence.  It is a matter of Child safeguarding.

I would not be comfortable leaving the lives of vulnerable children in the hands of Councillors from any party and strongly believe politics should not be played in the care of the weakest in a society – it should be provided as a matter of course and in a timely manner.  I hope the Secretary of State, who, will ultimately be called on to make the decision, concurs.  Procrastination is unhelpful.  What if……?

Challenging Times

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Growth or Social Development – hard choices?

There can be no bitterer pill to swallow for Reading Borough Council than the recognition, to put it mildly, of a decade of incompetence that has straight jacketed the future of a generation or two of young people.  This systemic failure is beyond doubt as a result of the inadequacies of educational, social and leisure provisions within a notorious conurbation for poverty and deprivation – Whitley.

The demise of the John Madejski Academy should be welcomed as, like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, there now is fresh ambition.  There has to be.  There cannot be spin and hype or the cover-up which papers over problems that need dealing with.  There is a pragmatic lesson that needs to be learned and with it the ridding of the pretense that money thrown by Government on prestigious and a hugely expensive building is the catalyst to for educational attainment and community.  Of course, educational achievement will succeed only if the Council also changes its policies and practices within the community and throughout the borough.  What I mean by that is obvious in both my tweeting and blogging here; essentially “People first not developers”. Sound planning and not dysfunctional solutions are required and I am not thinking just of the Madejski Stadium area development which I am clear provides little community benefit, if any at all.

Surely, it is people interacting in organised pursuit that is the catalyst for evolving change – charismatic, knowledgeable and engaging teachers change young lives (not the walls), or attentive carers to help support fragility and insecurity, community spirited events led by the Church, notwithstanding the camaraderie of organised sport constructed under defined standards for discipline and health.  Remove any of these social building blocks and the community stumbles and falls.  How much of that chimes with Whitley?  To whom does the finger point?

Correction of the imbalance begins with ensuring that those of tender years do not encounter the same substandard offering given to the community by way of social structure. And, presently, it is this dimension that perhaps scores best; not least because a spotlight has been cast on historic failings within children services and in safeguarding.  Sadly there are more independent reports coming which continue to expose the flaws, but essentially will structure improvements.

Space, which now is at a premium, is a necessary prerequisite for change and for interaction.  Yet space is the commodity that can be converted easily to generate cash or plug budgets and in these austere times frequently is.   Sadly the ability to socially engage also is governed by disposable income.  Perhaps it is why Whitley remains lacking and in crisis?   Although the self-inflicted woes of the Council’s finances need to be resolved, they also need to be divorced from the planning and operation of local infrastructure.  You cannot move forward with the motto: “The Council has no funds”.  Whitley needs its own pot of money for some serious structural community projects.  The council needs to be as dedicated to Whitley as it is to funding the search for a long lost king; essentially bones.  Somewhere there has to be a vision of meeting community needs and aspirations and not just at South Reading Youth and Community Centre, which is dilapidated?

I cannot push aside that Whitley has been duped by development of Hewlett Packard site, Green Park, Kennet Island, Madejski Stadium etc. which promised transformation of community offering.  It has contracted hugely instead – the library being rehoused is the latest in reductionist planning.  Surely schools being over built and packed out is proof of this?  It appears to me that the more we allow developer progress, the more we see our resources for public service dwindle.  What value is S106 other than a means for some bus route and increasing rat running which you subsidise?  Last year the town reportedly gained 54 affordable homes.  There was a waiting list of 10,000 for housing until the statistics were altered to present a rosier picture.

Whitley needs focus on the community, not on the developers, so where to next?

From the people it has to be Community, community, community.  I hugely respect the efforts of community groups, for example the Big Lottery Fund projects establishing a tea room or the new Whitley memorabilia room.  What it says is that the community had to deliver what the Council has failed to even start – meeting places for basic types of social interaction.  Perhaps they should take the tea room to South Reading Leisure centre and utilise the open air to encourage and support activity more than football on the open space.  Home for a Tesco sculpture perhaps?  Home for a sculpture park, a free to enjoy natural gym or for resuming an annual Guy Fawkes celebration or band concerts?

Indeed it is the mind-set of Councillors that needs to alter not the needs of the public. What must be cultivated is a homogeneity of service to the community and not gratuitous contempt from bigots who champion for exclusivity and not inclusively and for profit.  And there has been too much of that in Reading.  How high is Whitley on the political agenda?  Whitley faces the Marie Antoinette moment: let them ride buses.

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For me the pride of Whitley is the incredible work being done by the Churches within the community who lead by example and who have set up the Summer Fair and play groups.  Churches that undertook the biggest Street Party ever are at the forefront of national celebrations within the community.  The Council could not and would not even organise a beacon for the Queen’s 90th.  What the Council is good at is making excuses.  And let’s face it; surely the Council is an antisocial activist – closure of pools and leisure, lack of art and cultural spaces and the freewheeling disposal of open space and heritage.

Moaning can be cathartic especially if it shakes people to rethink what it is that is stifling their opportunities for personal and family growth.  I would like to see the reinvented Academy as a place for self-development and not just for pupils but for their parents, and for the community in pursuit of life-long learning.  It is space which is underutilized.  It could offer space for community art groups to meet.  It could add a rehearsal room for local poets, playwrights – it has always had the scope to be far more unifying and encompassing than ever it was.  The goal of Whitley should firmly be set on an open door agenda: an agenda that builds social integration.  Football has its place, but it is merely one small thread in the huge tapestry of culture and activity that needs to be brought into view and promoted.  Football alone being centre stage and the only stage is limiting and not progressive as we now learn with the new plans at the ‘Mad Stad’?

South Reading Leisure Centre has been returned.  It lost money, £107,000 last year, even with our subsidy.  The Council is deliberately eroding public services and their externalising of leisure is a very pertinent example of how to fail the community.  What the council has succeeded in is the unthinkable of turning the town into a land exchange which pumps up the problems for those who are constantly struggling to meet the rising cost of living?  Property value and land speculation drives Reading’s economy and this of itself fuels inequality and poverty.  Can it be right; it is the Council that has been fueling the poverty trap?  They certainly have deprived Whitley of important community infrastructure and therefore are complicit, indeed most likely the main protagonist for a dysfunctional society.  You only need to look at the proposed Madejski Stadium development to shudder at the consequences for Whitley in traffic and disruption?  Development there surely should be about football, but no it appears about land and the profit it returns.  Is Whitley getting a fair deal?  Is Whitley being plunged into greater crisis as a result of the lack of social infrastructure and planning?

Councillors, Councillors, Councillors.

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Honest Discussion on Leisure and Challenges facing Whitley needed.

It, finally, has been announced and may I say only because of a public question to Reading Full Council, that John Madejski Academy will be under new management with South Reading Leisure Centre firmly back under the control of the Borough Council.  Earlier articles on this blog apply.

You would expect that a matter of such seriousness is properly dispatched with Jo Lovelock, Council Leader, making at the very least a statement to Policy or Full Council.  Second best would be her deputy or the lead member for education.  However you look at it, the public, in my view, had a right to know at the earliest opportunity, especially parents with pupils at the school.  Councillors, certainly, were aware, not in the last few weeks, but back in 2016 when the accounts confirmed the school to be insolvent.  Technically, I put it to you, that the Academy is the first to go bankrupt and not Maidenhead’s academy.

If Whitley were a country in Europe, I would certainly urge a complete withdrawal from Council Political control – a ‘Whitsit’.  My view, simply expressed, is that Whitley is in crisis and being used as political pawns.  It is worth listening to the remarks of the Lead Councillor for Culture and Sport responding to public questions, who, at best, demonstrates that he was misinformed and was inadvertently propagating misleading information (Council – Agenda Item 5)

The reasons for fresh hands at the helm of the hugely expensive academy had little to do with the Academy being in special measures.  A plan was in place, accepted by Ofsted, to improve standards.  You would expect that Councillors would move hell and high waters to ensure that the academy status quo remained, not least because it was their flagship achievement.  When Ofsted condemned the standards of education in the town, there were robust assurances that the Council would step in.  So this matter is not isolated to the Academy, but firmly includes Reading Borough Council.

There are on-going negotiations with, as I understand it, “Reach 4” and the chestnut which I raised a decade ago was centre stage a while back – “why run a leisure centre, especially a  loss making one?” and “was it in fact legal to do so?”

At this juncture, I do not wish to dwell on the sad state of the Academy, but to turn my attention to South Reading Leisure Centre and its future.  Cllr. Gittings, in his statement, made it clear that this important facility would be part of the package offered in their search for a partner to run Rivermead, and Palmer Park.  As I face déjà vu, the immediate thought that runs through my head is a repeat of history, a repeat of incompetence, a repeat of financial mismanagement, a repeat of second-hand logic.  And the one thing I am certain is that the Lemming approach to public services prevails.  It is a blatant demonstration of political contempt. Certainly it is a repeat of failed and tired promises.

The independent auditors failed the Council on delivering “value for money”.  What better example do you need than the externalisation of leisure?  What better example is there than leisure promises?  I remind that the taxpayer has invested over £1.5 million in capital expenditure in AcademySport and many hundreds of thousands of pounds in subsidy.  Councillors have much to account for in their poor oversight?

On the 10th April the fate of Arthur Hill will be decided by the Council’s Policy Committee.  They, in my view, will most certainly decide to reject the plan put forward by a Community Interest Company formed to take charge of the facility.  It is clear to me that the Council has, like their approach to the Academy, been economical with the truth.  It is again worth listening to the Lead Councillor responding to another public question (Policy Committee: Agenda item 4).  Here he implies that the Council listened and, out of the goodness of their heart (my interpretation), acceded to the public want for Arthur Hill not to be drained when in reality the matter was in the courts to decide.  Reason: there was a high likelihood that draining would cause the pool to collapse; pretty sure Council knew that.

You can be sure I will have much more to say on this over the coming weeks to ensure debate.  There now is the opportunity for sound restructuring of Whitley – putting the community and particularly the children first.  Can you leave it to Councillors?

Whitley in Crisis – Where to start for a solution?

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EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION

At the corner of Hartland Road and Northumberland Ave stands a taxpayer funded £28 million building on supporting land, purposefully “designed” for education.  Was it money well spent?

Since its inception, 10 years ago, the Academy has extended its reach to property once designated for community leisure and for other important community services like “Sure Start”, (now housed in the dilapidated South Reading Community Centre and under threat).  The purpose of this extravagant school was to provide education within a community that historically returned poor educational achievements.  And let’s confront it, the school is still returning the lowest standards in the Borough as it hops in and out of special measures.  Ostensibly there is little noticeable change in standards from when it was Thamesbridge School, save that its catchment has extended to as far as the borders with Abbey Ward and include Kennet Island.

The school bears the name of one of Reading’s leading developers and publisher; at least that is how I look at John Madejski in the context of the town.  The Council provided land for Reading Football club which now is extending into a controversial complex of flats, conference centres, more hotels etc.  The land included the site on which a substantial retail park was built, housing B+Q through to PCWorld.  Then there is Station Hill, and its humongous plans.  Into the Academy, Sir John, as he is today, generously donated £2 million to support the school’s charitable goals, as stated in the 2007 accounts.  The purpose stated at the time by the Department of Education was to gain local support and insight, hence leaving overall management to the sponsor.  Its sports specialism (football and basketball) together with its direct links to Reading Football Club and Reading Football Club Community Trust provide arm’s length chargeable services to the school and essentially delivers the USP of the academy over other Reading schools.

I say this because I want to focus on the school and not personalities.  The media in Reading has made it very difficult to separate the generosity of a person from utilitarian essentials and life-skills; yet, this Whitley must do.  A society is made up of a network of public funded connections – leisure, schools, social services, transport, policing etc.  The Academy is publicly funded by the Education Funding Agency.

Unless I have missed something I do not think that Sir John would say that he is an educationalist, but would acknowledge that he intended through his donation and support of the school to facilitate education within Whitley, South Reading.  I will go a step further by saying that he should be given credit for an academy being built in Reading as the Government wanted his sponsorship for a London school.  It was not without its dissenters.  I recall the teachers’ unions being opposed to the academy and perhaps in hindsight, arguably correctly so.  If my memory serves me, Thamesbridge’s standards were improving at the time.

I think a bit of context would help here.  Whitley children before the Academy was built had the option of Wokingham run Ryeish Green School, (now the free school, Oakbank).  These doors soon closed as a decision was taken to exclude Whitley intake with the advent of the Academy.  The Academy therefore had greater responsibility for their local catchment.  The new school on the block ultimately had a huge unintentional impact on the community.

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Whitley needs to have a serious conversation about “education, education, education” and why this school has ostensibly failed in its goals and essentially why it needs to change its ways?  The philosophy behind the school from what I have seen in its accounts, in its decline, in its approach is as far as I am concerned bankrupt – its eagerly anticipated 2015/16 set of accounts will be telling in terms of sustainability.  Until the Council and the Government acknowledge this, all that is being grown is denial – denial that several generations of children have been failed badly and irreversibly – their life-chances have not improved and at best stagnate.  My view is the Academy will progressively worsen as a result of Reading’s increasing demand for good quality teachers, who can energise learning – the foundation of education.

Change at the Academy cannot be achieved by tinkering at the edges and changing head teachers.  It needs to be consumed as bankrupt stock and the government charged with delivering a new approach.  Politics, being what it is, will continue to throw good money after bad because of overhype and pride – may I say the two killers of progress in Reading?  I am not so naïve to think that a change in control alone is the answer, but it brings about fresh thinking and Whitley is capable of playing more than second fiddle to the aspiration of lead councillors’ fantasy plans for a densely constructed city which is not inclusive of the needs of all.  Whitley’s foundations are rotten to the core.  The Councillors’ failing is simply put as indulging unsustainable development of the area.  There lies the conundrum, the ability of those in less well to do families to change their destinies.  How can they benefit from an employment market which demands educational attainment – is that not the direction set for the town?

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I am in no doubt that the academy has taken some pupils to entry standards required of universities, but it is something I would expect given the extended catchment from Thamesbridge days. Yet, given the growth in population, the school is not functioning anywhere near full capacity with 885 pupils (925 in 2014/15).  The signals that all is not well are the numbers of pupils who are persistently absent, (some 9.2% against a national average of 2.76%*). Unquestionably the school’s pupil profile reflects their financially and socially challenged background with some 25% of pupils receiving free meals.  And this is both the root cause of the problem and essentially an indicator of its failure.  Is the Academy and Reading Council doing enough to change their ethos towards study as a means towards self-improvement both within the pupil population and importantly among their parents?  Success is achieved by facilitating change both within and outside the school ground. And Whitley is in crisis because it totally lacks the facilities to expand social horizons within the community and I am not just highlighting AcademySport.  Plans are there to close the library and reduce children’s centres.

This brings me back to the point I am making in this piece.  The school was built to improve the life chances of pupils from a group of families who face, even without austere times, meagre job prospects delivering hard grafted, well below average incomes of the town.  For Whitley to get away from being the underprivileged sector of Reading they now have the opportunity for change by taking a crisis, and the Academy is in crisis, to a new positive future.  However, it demands that the role of the school and its management is redefined and AcademySport jettisoned or at least focused on the community and not the football club as the recent pitch improvements indicate.  It demands that the school is not looked at in isolation of the community but integrates into community.  Notwithstanding this Reading Football Club is a very different creature to the one 10 years ago and is of itself in a state of financial and ownership limbo.  The rationale for the school needs to be entirely re-examined and now is the time to do that in public.

At the heart of education are teachers and whilst it is all well and good for the Council to pledge to reduce their working hours, the Councillors should perhaps have debated how they were going to fill the hours lost to such a move, because surely what the teachers are saying are they cannot cope with the demands being made on their time in the service of education, as it now stands.  The crisis in education is brought about because there are too many schools chasing after the crème de la crème of educationalists and schools with motivated parents like the new Heights School will ensure that they get more than their fair share and at the expense of others.  The John Madejski Academy lost a great many of their solid teachers because of management.  No school can afford to lose that dedication to supply teachers if for no reason than on recruitment costs as the Academy demonstrates; especially when your income is derived per pupil.

Whitley is not geared, as Caversham is, to challenge the status quo and by that I mean challenging the politics which is playing havoc with the prospects of a society prone to servitude and who, perhaps, kowtow too much to the pressures of their perceived betters – their employers, and their benefactors.  Whitley is not ordered with groups like CADRA or WADRA or a civic society, but is pervaded with an attitude that believes people who have achieved or belong to Labour know what is best.  Perhaps I am being too simplistic here, but it serves to illustrate that part of the problem is reliance on others to develop a cohesive society when in a less sufficient position.  And you should never bite the hand that feeds or puts a roof over you, should you?

I have shown that Councillors have got leisure so wrong and others have proven that they failed at the JM Academy (and indeed at Reading Girls School), at social care, and at planning.  Indeed the Council have demonstrated poor financial management as exampled by their recent audit.  There lies the real issue – not the school, not the people, not the area, but he who has authority to shout loudest gets the better of those who are humble and expecting of the modest, when an educationalist might say: we are all created equal and deserve equal consideration.

It is essential that John Madejski Academy is turned round and that, I am afraid, means the Government, not the Council needs to intervene.  But surely it cannot be turned round without being critical of what the Council offers by way of services to Whitley either?

Whitley in Crisis – What Crisis I hear the Council say….

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Well they would, wouldn’t they?

There is a catch, if the Council can move forward with the right decisions it is no longer a crisis, but the turning point.  Now you can see where I am coming from and where I am taking this.

So let’s firstly add some flesh to why I have concluded Whitley is in crisis.

Do you remember when AcademySport was South Reading Leisure Centre – a facility for the community?  The taxpayer gave £1.5 million to alter it to meet the needs of an incomplete school which for some inexplicable reason wanted to run and manage an apparently failing, no hope leisure centre of claimed junk status.  That curious position was part of detailed discussions I had with the then Academy Head and with Lord Adonis, the then Minister in charge of Academies.  I discussed both with Lord Adonis and with the Department for Education whether it was intentioned that Academies run sports centres.  The answer was, “no”.

Thamesbridge, the school that was obliterated to make way for the £80 million new build, had as much access as it required to the facilities so why should this stop for the academy?  Notwithstanding this, the academy was purpose built and designed to fulfil a specialised educational need.  I argued that the taking over of a leisure centre was a preposterous proposal, particularly as I did not accept the rationale or the business plan that had been at the heart of the deal between the Academy or latterly arm’s length trust – Academy Sport Leisure Centre Limited and the Council.  Out went the crèche, and in came a superb heavy weight gym, in part, funded for the centre by a bank, which attracted drug dealers and steroid driven body builders.  Where was the investment by the school itself, you might ask?

There was an instant mismatch between the needs of the real public, the grass root, and the strategic approach to alter the behaviour and attitude of the attendees of the school.  I do not want to give a history of the exclusive club that the Academy Head wanted to create and extoled by the then academy appointed manager of the centre. Let me opinion that it was offensive as certain groups would be excluded including the unemployed.

One point I did agree with was that the young needed all the opportunities afforded by a good education to gain self-respect and a fulfilling future.  There needed to be a paradigm shift in attitudes to Whitley and to retrospectively bring on those in the community who had been failed by the system.

This vignette is to give a flavour of the challenge I took up then.  I find myself now almost back to square one, because what the centre’s biggest failing was, was the lack of investment to create a community facility that brought people together.

What we now have is a facility where limited repairs have been made since our investment and many more hundreds of thousands of pounds spent by the Council against an ill-conceived plan.  A temporary AcademySport banner (almost a decade old) on the outside of the building covers over South Reading Leisure Centre branding and has been in place since the building was handed over.

The centre once again shows signs of significant deterioration.  If the keys were to be returned and the Academy has a right to do so, then where does this leave the taxpayer; entirely out of pocket?  Crisis. I do not see any sign that the Academy has maintained the building to the standard we built for them, nor have they tackled the full upkeep and improvements promised to the pool – under threat is how I look at it.

Why do I raise the question of Academy Sport at this juncture?  Have we a situation like Rivermead?

In recent years AcademySport has sustained itself with an agreed grant from RBC, when in the hands of competent managers with a focus on community – out went the heavy weight kits.  That was one of many fundamental changes needed which finally occurred with a change of management at the academy.  But because of history the focus is still built on school-tied interest, like the pitches, and still not designed for the community as a whole.  If you look around Whitley there are few community facilities left which are not under threat of closure.  My definition of community is inclusive not exclusive.  This is one of the key indicators why Whitley is in Crisis.

I am aware, obviously of the predicament of Arthur Hill, of Rivermead and of Palmer Park.  In looking at the plan for leisure and within it I cannot see a coherent strategy let alone a policy that does not result in the sad position of Academy Sport.   What concerns me is that the Labour Council had repeatedly promised new pools like some mantra for the uninitiated to their ways.  I can show you their commitment and their deadlines. It is a sad tale of woe like Chatham Place’s offer of a pool – one example of an opportunity lost.

Let’s cut to the chase and get back to basics with a solution not just for Whitley which is in crisis, but for the whole of Reading. This preamble starts that debate for meaningful change and again calls our Councillors to account.

Reading Borough Council – The Constructive Destructor

Arthur Hill Swimming Pool, London Road, Reading, 10/06/2015
Arthur Hill Swimming Pool, Reading

What is going on, Reading?  How can any municipal body that professes to be interested in the well-being of its people create a void in leisure provision?  Answer: When it is a Borough Council who readily protests that reductions in services have been caused by cuts in their overall budget.  Indeed, and as a result it is the perfect excuse to do so and in the face of jeopardising the health of many in the process.  I am writing here on leisure, but the same conjuring tricks can be applied to other issues that are being forced through on similar disingenuous arguments.

Are the funding cuts imposed by Central Government the real reason for changes across the town and behind forcing the immediate closuree the Arthur Hill Bathing Pool and to decommission it on the Council’s age old chestnut of a rationale – health and safety grounds?  Funding cuts are a misrepresentation of the actual reason and a complete absurdity, demonstrating a ‘straw man’ argument not sound reasoning in my opinion.  The short and sweet answer is therefore no.  And as that answer is correct in its emphatic conclusion, it requires the Council to explain in more detail why their decision is in the public interest and needs to be concluded with such haste when daft schemes like ReadyBike are supported with no visible usage.

I think we will have to wait a long while for that explanation to materialise and, at any rate, Council to their heart’s content can draw out and frustrate any meaningful dialogue with the public forever and a day – such is the low standards of democracy under which this town functions.   I cite the Shinfield Road debacle as an example – a point I will touch on later on Twitter and there are a great many more examples.

So let me approach the topic from the perspective of why there is no need to close the pool at this juncture.  Over a decade or more, Reading Borough Council has been actively abusing their position as custodian of a whole range of significant assets by bringing them into disrepair through neglect and contempt.  Arthur Hill like Kings Meadow Baths, the Civic Office, Abbey Monument simply were not given any priority or lifesaving maintenance and make no mistake the list is extensive.  It is a monumental failure of duty and trust.  However, you will notice a new fleet of buses and bicycles with infrastructure for those commercial bodies and indeed substantial funding for AcademySport and for Rivermead whilst Council run and managed buildings received little or no support.

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Now we can begin to ask the real questions – why should AcademySport have got £1.2 million to modernise the centre for their unrealistic and dare I say it fanciful proposals, when at that time the Council run centres were turning themselves round, and proving their worth to the community and with the potential ability to self-fund, even in rundown states?  We continued paying AcademySport extortionate subsidies far greater than budgeted too.

Why have we ploughed millions of pounds into Rivermead which before the GLL partnership generated profits and was fit for purpose?  It is now set to multi task with an Adult day care centre and to extend into open space with a pop-up pool to facilitate the sale of Central Pool which yes, you guessed it, is not fit for purpose.  Rivermead now has to expand because of, at best, Council’s failure to maintain our assets across a wide spectrum of community needs during a time when we were not subject to austerity measure – far from it.  Indeed, the Council was in the fortunate position of being able to borrow funds at low rates unavailable to commercial enterprise.  It begs the question, “Was asset stripping or asset disposal the real goal?”  We were not onto the “Win, Win, Win” situation Councillors’ boasted.  What makes the Council look outside and more significantly give away the crown jewels to an external body that fails year on year to deliver the type of performance which returned a profit to the Council and gives satisfaction to its customer base?  That is at the nub of the issue.

The Council auditors have correctly questioned the value for money we get from some of the town’s extraordinary partnerships.

The indications for the lack of support for Council run centres was and is, because the plan has been to rid the Council of any duty outside of that needed to fulfill its statutory obligations.  In a nutshell, the commercial interests of external bodies override any obligation a municipal body should have for the security, well-being and interests of its people.  I represent the situation as a policy to turn the public into cash cows for commercial enterprise to milk.  I am very clear that Council policy is corrupt and far removed from the interests of the public.

The motive behind the closure of Arthur Hill is commercial.  In no order of importance – to decommission the bath is to force swimmers to other locations, to provide further development space, to restrict your choice so you become victims of market conditions – look at the costs of a swim at Kings Meadow in the future.  A hidden consequence is that some people may give up sport all together.  You are being deprived of a facility to produce, as has been done in other sectors, a commercial monopoly for someone else to profit from; hardly a socialist approach to community and to equality.   Am I being too harsh on the Councillors who are responsible for the people’s interest?

The Council is looking for a partner and that statement alone should send warning bells ringing as a bodged policy will expand into a scheme for – here we go again – a developer – albeit on this occasion of leisure!

You may like to consider the term asset stripping because that ostensibly is what our Councillors have been doing in your name and I am clear would be the judgement of public opinion if you take the actions of the Council in the round.  Have they behaved illegally – not a question I can decide, but they have flouted at best ‘good practise’ to achieve their goals: yes and that is a serious indictment of mismanagement.  I can say that the Council did not directly compare Council performance (RSL) with the bids they received and they clearly were ‘pie in the sky’ bids.  For me, RBC’s policy of externalisation always had the odour of the town’s infamous whiff – it cost jobs and reduced community/public service.  The bottom line is the Council found funding for external groups when it was economically prudent for the Council to do so itself and to have run Arts and Leisure through a trust for tax advantages; it is what gave the external bidders the edge.

Many of you will remember the Olympics and the embarrassment that we could not host any Olympic team despite the fact that austerity measures was not on anyone’s mind.  Sport and in particular the provision for future generations was the goal of Central Government and sporting bodies.  We made no effort and that was demonstrated at the bitty Olympic torch broadcast and the near deserted Madjeski Stadium.  Funding has only until recent policies been the problem, but in my view is ultimately the excuse.  If the Council did what was expected of it, when it should have and with the talented teams it had before the many rounds of redundancy, the town would be a richer and more self-sufficient pleasant land able to weather budget cuts.  The final humiliation, Velodrome fell into disrepair and declared not fit for purpose. No Olympic legacy.

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The Public have come forward to keep the pool open and they have correctly identified a way forward which in my view is a rational and realistic opportunity.  They have asked for time to draw up a business plan and has this been warmly greeted by the Council: no.  Perhaps platitudes and contempt is the best descriptive.

It is time for Reading to expect the Council to act with integrity and keep the Arthur Hill Pool open until such time that there has been a thorough debate on how this town should progress leisure into the future.  It is a debate that appears frightening to the Council as they would no doubt have to explain where all the funding for the promised pools in three or four years’ time is coming from.

I have not seen any document delivered to Councillors which fills me with any sort of comfort that the interests of the people are being fully and correctly served.

I have more than indicated that Reading Borough Council was in a position to deliver leisure on its own accord and indeed I can argue that a whole range of lead Councillors on Leisure have been complicit in its demise at a time when it warranted their unreserved commitment and the town today would be culturally and socially richer for it.  Let’s call these Councillors the Constructive Destructors.

On the 18th December the Council’s continuing policy of genocide to the town’s services will see the doors close on Arthur Hill Pool.  I doubt that any amount of protest will stop that, but it is not the end of the debate nor the people’s ability to now call the Councillors to fully account for their actions.  And they should.

It is transparently clear that there are public support for the bath and demonstrable willingness for the public to take charge of its future as they are entitled to do so under the Localism Act.  The first step has to be to set up that tax efficient trust – a community interest company and the funds for that are rolling in as the Council can evidently see – and to present the missing business case for keeping the bath open to the Borough Council.

What behind closed doors discussions have already taken place with a leisure developer, that is the question Reading should look for answers. and why is the Council moving in their uncharacteristic manner to reduce access to sport?  The original concept was sport for all and easy access on the doorstep.

The essential question, as it was an option to renovate, upgrade and put together a functioning and commercially viable scheme for Reading, why has the Council delivered the must sell policy which leaves the town exposed and open to overpricing or private club prices?  What is the plan?

My conclusions are sadly that with the “constructive destructor” policy of the Council, fit only for developers, leaves leisure bankrupt. I do not doubt that the bath is nearing the end of its life, but there is enough life left to keep the bath open until at least there are substantive plans for the whole of leisure in Reading.  The persons to carry the blame for the disastrous state of leisure and the arts are the Lead Councillors for Culture and Sport over the past decade and a half – Not one of their promises have as far as I can see been delivered.

In entirely supporting the work of the current campaigners for the Arthur Hill Pool, I wish them well and like saving the South Reading Arts Centre earlier this year, I strongly believe that the Council needs to step off their condescending high stools and stop treating the Reading public with disdain and contempt.  The campaigners have asked for time and that is precisely what the Council should ensure happens –there is no need to close the pool in such haste.  The developer of your leisure plans does not need it out of the way yet.  Let’s face it there are vanity schemes which should close first.

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Attempt at a DRY SWIM – exhausting
Letter to Myself

Letter to Myself

Why do you put yourself through this madness – challenging the status quo?  Is Reading politics within the Borough Council truly as corrupt as you believe?  What does the body of evidence which you have now gathered suggest – conspiracies, cover-up or commonplace incompetence?  It is obvious for all to see that Councillors are unwilling to explain away outrageously bad policy and misinformation?  How can you therefore accept such bad practice as incompetence, when you do not think it is?  Surely the arrogance of the ruling Labour party is merely the cut and thrust of democracy, as is constantly suggested to you?  And yes those suggestions emanate, of course, from those who are the guardians of the status quo.  I guess your understanding of what has transpired within the town over a decade and a half has informed your opinion and views, and, as a result, you know a little bit better than most that the Council has crossed the line.  You have demonstrated the same time and time again.

The madness of your task now is to make change, but that presupposes that you have all the answers. That is not you and that cannot be the case; you firmly believe in the “Court of Public Opinion” and value social justice: surely that is why you write? It was why you took the Council to task on the one-way IDR, their determination to externalize leisure, adult education, the Shinfield Road and a great many other issues. How popular you are. Lol.  Indeed.

Fundamentally, I guess, recent events indicate that the line has been crossed such that to err on the side of doubt no longer is judicial.  After all, it’s been well over a year since you came out with your position that the town has been tipped into a black hole and its soul sold to developers. Do you go as far as political backers as a contributory factor or include the rise of career politicians and lobbyists? The logical conclusion, in all conscience, is abuse of power rather than ignorance and misjudgement, bullying rather than free-will, and the complacency of the people that democracy prevails.  Whilst Councillors are reluctant to be held to account and to be transparent in their dealings, and, yes, in limited committees that defy the principle of joined up thinking, it is difficult to conclude otherwise.

Reading has been led on a path of self-destruction, don’t you think?  If your foundations are not sound, you simply do not build until they are.  I note you date the start of Reading’s decline as far back as the conception of The Oracle. By the way, will you ever find the brains behind the new world plan set in motion then?  Definitely not conceived by anyone with the vision of a Christopher Wren or for the people?  You need developers to be reasonable both in the practical and for the sake of the town’s economics at the very least. You would think that is the task of planners? Social integration demands developers demonstrate that they value our community and not merely the profits from aiding pollution of the town.  The buildings may operate in an environmentally friendly way, but they sure do not represent that in the destruction of the old or the build of the new.   What they demand of our infrastructure turns the indigenous population into victims.  Do you doubt the taxpayer has been paying heavily for this unwarranted and unsustainable revolution?

Now I’ve exposed your thinking, where do you go from here?  I say let your task begin.