By Scaramouche.

Reading Borough Council treated the town to a masterclass in diversion and obfuscation at their council meeting of 26 February, only managing to clarify that councillors were not obliged to clarify anything, and that rather than asking pettyfogging questions about how they were spending their money, the public should bask in the glow of virtue signalling instead.

Reading’s mayor Councillor Deborah Edwards started the meeting by laying down the law.

The council’s standing orders state that the time limit at each council meeting for petitions and questions for members of the public is 30 minutes. This time limit cannot and will not be extended.

Except, of course, the time limit could be extended if the council wanted it; such rules are not the ineffable will of the almighty. She continued:

Could members of the public asking questions this evening please note that to clarify the reply of your question, you may ask one supplementary question only. Your supplementary question must be to clarify the response you have been given. It is not an opportunity to make a statement or ask a further question not directly related to the response you have been given.

If I decide your supplementary does not meet these requirements, you may not receive an answer to it. Please could everyone note that once a supplementary question has been answered, I will move on to the next question as there is no future right to reply given to a supplementary question.

The mayor thus clarified that in addition to being allowed to filibuster, councillors are now allowed to issue no-come-backs if the questioner points out that they haven’t answered anything.

So how did this work in practice?

Well, the first question was asked by former (Labour) councillor Glenn Dennis about how many residential properties had been left unoccupied in Reading for more than two years, and he got a full and direct response from (Labour) Councillor John Ennis.

The second question was asked by former (Labour) councillor Richard Stainthorp about redevelopment plans for Station Hill, for which (Labour) Councillor Tony Page gave a full response, caveated by concerns over commercial confidentiality.

Perennial thorn-in-the-side of the council Peter Burt then asked what had de-railed the council’s 2016 plan to open a replacement swimming pool for the Arthur Hill Baths by January 2020. Councillor Graeme Hoskin referred Mr Burt to his responses (not answers) in previous meetings, denying that the plan had been de-railed. In his supplementary question, Mr Burt asked if a 2021 completion was unrealistic. In an uncharacteristically terse reply, Councillor Hoskin said “no.” And no come-backs!

But the council weren’t finished with Mr Burt yet; in a new question he asked how the council planned to improve its decision making and spend money on local services rather than (his estimate) of £2.5 million over recent months on auditor’s fees, abortive mass transit schemes, leisure outsourcing and legal fees in the council’s equal pay case.

Leader of the council, Councillor Jo Lovelock, answered that the audit fee was not a consultancy cost (although nobody had said that it was) and that the audit fee rates were agreed nationally. The councillor failed to register that the more chaotic the accounts, the more audit work that needs doing and the more fee needs to be paid, which was clearly Mr Burt’s point. She went on at enormous length justifying the council’s spending and blaming previous auditors KPMG for failing to spot the council’s financial incompetence before Mr Burt asked his supplementary, which was to ask again how the council planned to improve its decision-making. The councillor a took a long time to say the council had plans and new staff in place, and ended by attempting to re-assert her authority by asking Mr Burt to make “constructive” suggestions about air pollution at Cemetery Junction, presumably because only a really, really bad person wouldn’t want to reduce air pollution and ask awkward fiscal questions instead.

Had Mr Burt had enough? Hell, no! He asked Councillor Hoskin when the public would be consulted on Reading’s sport and leisure services as promised; Councillor Hoskin replied that this would be in the next couple of months.

There was no time left for public questioner Colin Lee to ask all his questions about the £30 million “sweetener” (his words) given out as part of the privatisation of Reading Sport and Leisure, how the performance of these private contracts should be measured, or the costs of termination of the Rivermead contract. Mr Lee only had time to ask a supplementary to his first question, out of context, since there was no time to ask the original question, and Councillor Hoskin was cut-off by the mayor in mid-response to the second question as time had run out. The final questioner, John Hoggett, was thus unable to ask how the council justified increasing charges for some of its services at rates greater than inflation.

These missing questions and their official answers have been minuted in written form.

We’ve saved so much time, so what do we do with it all?

The council also took questions from councillors, discussed council finances, its budget and set council tax. But cutting off public questions allowed plenty of time for an industrial level of virtue-signalling as the council declared a climate emergency, because only an alt-right, MAGA-hat-wearing, illiterate redneck could object to the futile chutzpah of a local authority representing 163,000 people issuing climate decrees about a planet of 7.5 billion.

Reading’s full climate emergency statement is available here, and it ends thus:

The Council calls on the Government to accept its moral and ethical responsibilities and give Reading as soon as possible the additional powers and funding needed to ensure that Reading is carbon neutral by 2030.

The Council therefore instructs the Chief Executive to write to our local MPs, and to the Prime Minister and to relevant Government departments… setting out the above requirements and the need for new legislation and financial support to deliver this radical agenda.

This statement requires other people to do something – the national government, in this case. It has to be so, because there’s not much a local authority can do about it, so one has to ask what difference does such a decree make, and why is the council making it? Perhaps the sense of righteous virtue engendered by this global decree compensates for the local authority’s failure to manage local issues, or perhaps it’s merely intended to distract us from them.

No. Can’t be that. Cynical, cynical me.

  1. Council meeting 26 February papers and webcast
  2. Constitution of Reading Borough Council (Questions from the public, Standing Order 9).