Tony Page has been a councillor for 45 years and is lead councillor for Strategic Environment, Planning and Transport and deputy leader of Reading Borough Council. The Whitley Pump interviewed him at the beginning of December at the Civic Offices on Bridge Street and we started with a local topic.
Whitley Pump: What were the objectives of the A33 relief road and were they achieved?
Tony Page: I remember when there were posters in windows along the Elgar Road championing and pressing for the relief road. The project was intended to achieve two objectives; remove the volume of heavy traffic including lorries from residential areas and take forward growth in (South) Reading in a manageable way. The southern stretch services some important industrial areas and has helped open up Kennet Island for example, serve the Re3 recycling facility and other sites to the south ear marked for future development.
I would have liked to have seen at the time more provision for public transport. The southern mass rapid transit works which are still underway are intended to deliver a seamless public transport link from Mereoak park and ride to the centre of town. Unfortunately in those days provision of public transport, was being planned by Berkshire County Council and they were not focused on Reading’s needs.
WP: I note that you have been Reading councillor for 45 years and have made a significant contribution to Reading’s development. What has been your greatest success?
TP: The thing I take greatest pride in is protecting and expanding Reading Buses. I was chair of the bus company for 19 years (1986-2005) and during that period council owned bus companies went from 80 plus to 12. It is now down to 9 and the other leading example is Nottingham; we are one of the three largest. We have been able to expand the operations, which has been challenging.
Working with Council colleagues to relocate Reading Transport from Mill Lane to Great Knollys Street facilitated the Oracle development, otherwise the Oracle would have been on one [northern] bank of the Kennet. The other benefit to the Council is that we did not sell the land, although they [Hammersons] wanted to buy it. Our ownership was our stake in the development as a land owner and we get the rental of about two thirds of a million pounds which is important.
WP: Conversely, what has been your biggest disappointment?
TP: In the collective sense, probably the last eight years of so called austerity, which has been very austere for all local government. It has been at times a very tearful process which is not at an end either, contrary to what Mrs May has said we still have £25-30million cuts to come over the next three years.
On a personal level, losing the parliamentary election by such a narrow margin in 2005 in Reading East, particular losing to somebody who I did not think was fit to be an MP. It gave me great satisfaction last year to see Matt Rodda winning the seat, I was there at the count and I took a very childish satisfaction in the result.
WP: In the general election of May 2005 you failed to win the Reading East parliamentary seat by 475 votes, why have you not stood again?
TP: It is a hugely demanding commitment. I was selected in controversial circumstances when the previous MP, Jane Griffiths, was deselected mid way through. I had two pretty gruelling years. I had thought of standing again in 2015 but the time commitment is so great and I would have had to stand down from a front line job on the borough council; no senior councillor can do that and be a parliamentary candidate. Then I had my cancer treatment after 2015 and before 2017. I was glad to encourage Matt to stand again.
WP: In an era where politicians are labelled by the subgroups they belong to, are you a Blairite or Corbynista or something else?
TP: I was never an enthusiastic Blairite but I did vote for Tony Blair. I would describe myself as a classic or vintage Labour not so much by age but more by tradition.
I made no secret that I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn, not so much because I disagree with a lot of his politics, a lot of what he says I agree with, but I am of that mainstream old school that recognises that parties must appeal, given our antiquated and outdated electoral system, to a centre ground and there will be problems making that appeal.
Locally, I would point to our record, particularly to those who think somehow the council has been particularly compliant around some of the cuts agenda. We have strong commitment to in house provision of services, we are proud of our bus company, we have a large direct labour organisation, which we believe we can make more of by selling services to adjoining councils. So there are elements of a traditional left wing agenda but we also recognise that in winning elections you have to be able to win over Conservatives. Blair was successful at that and that we must repeat that.
WP: Does vintage Labour mean a supporter of ‘clause IV’?
TP: I did not have any problems with the old clause IV [of the Labour Party constitution] and I frankly thought that putting it to sword, in the way Tony Blair did, was not necessary. Would I bring it back in its old form? No, I could see a version of it being brought back. It is one of the issues that the Labour party has to address in selling an agenda that has aspects like nationalising railways which many more people are sympathetic to and some of the utilities. It has to be about improved services not just for the sake of bringing things back into public ownership.
WP: Politicians being rude to each other or to residents asking legitimate questions of the Council seems to have the effect of turning people off the political class. What do you think?
TP: I like to think that in my time on the council, I have rarely been rude to members of the public or colleagues on the council. If people want to dish it out, I am quite capable of reciprocating. I must say I do have a problem with some of the people who ask questions regularly who have as much, if not more of an agenda than councillors sometimes have.
This completely bogus and malign attempt to depict the council as a secretive organisation wanting to do Reading down and that there is a conspiracy of secrecy is complete and utter rubbish.
This organisation which fraudulently describes itself as ‘Reclaim Reading‘ is a disgrace. Never let the facts stand in the way of their stories. We have to rise above all of this but there are times when such blatant porkies are being told that we have to defend ourselves. It is difficult to calibrate because if you are seen to be too accepting it sends a signal and they think they have got you, if you over react you are too defensive. We need to look for a middle way.
The interview continues with part two tomorrow.