Newbury and Thatcham councils step in to save ReadiBus
A CHARITY at the centre of a "gagging clause" funding dispute with West Berkshire Council has received vital funds from Newbury and Thatcham town councils.
As reported in the NWN, the district council has been withholding full funds from the ReadiBus charity after trustees declined to sign what they see as a censorship agreement as a precondition for their release.
Readibus, which has provided transport for residents who cannot use ordinary buses to get out and about since 1984, also had its council funding reduced by over two-thirds in 2019/20.
The charity has been able to run its service two days a week in Newbury and Thatcham following public donations. It needs to raise another £4,000 to continue this two-day per week service for the full year.
Now, Liberal Democrat-controlled Newbury Town Council and Thatcham Town Council have awarded £1,000 each to enable ReadiBus to continue operating. Greenham Parish Council is also contributing, and the grants will be matchfunded on the Good Exchange, taking the total to £6,000.
Speaking at a Thatcham Town Council meeting on Monday, Owen Jeffery (Lib Dem, Thatcham Central) said West Berkshire Council's "deeply regrettable and deeply irresponsible decision" had been made on "the most flimsy of grounds" - leading to the town councils stepping in.
Newbury Town Council leader Martin Colston (Lib Dem, West Fields) said he had spoken to "absolutely distraught and devastated people" affected.
He said: "We just felt we had to try and help. Unfortunately we haven't got that much money, but we felt it's such a good cause for people who really, really need it. And if it didn't happen there would be some people who would remain isolated even after the [coronavirus] restrictions had gone, and that didn't seem right."
At a recent executive meeting Jeff Brooks (Lib Dem, Thatcham West) asked what discussions had been held with ReadiBus to try to resolve the contractual impasse over the gagging clause.
Executive member for planning and transport, Richard Somner (Con, Tilehurst South & Holybrook) said that the council did not view the arrangement as a gagging clause, which was standard in contracts with other providers.
He said the council had had a number of exchanges with ReadiBus before the charity reduced its services and offered three variations of the "disputed clause", which ReadiBus rejected.
"It's regrettable, I think, that the disputed clause would actually have let the council have sight of the letters that ReadiBus sent to its users before they were issued, and that's something I was hopeful to see and wasn't able to," Mr Somner said.
"I think this would have reduced the potential for any unnecessary stress and anxiety to the service users."
Mr Somner said the council had not been inundated with calls from concerned residents about the reduced ReadiBus service.
Mr Brooks asked: "If it's a standard clause, why wasn't it in there before? Suddenly you've introduced it and ReadiBus are uncomfortable with it, and one of the reasons they are uncomfortable with it is it's not reciprocal."
He urged the council to find a solution that ReadiBus believed it could live with, adding "because while you are sitting on your high horse as a council saying 'we need this clause, this is essential' there are users who are having drastic aspects to their life hurt while you are playing around with clauses that should be able to be sorted out.
"You are looking like 'we are the big council, and you are small and you will do what we tell you'. That's how it's coming across."
Mr Somner disagreed and said that dialogue was continuing with ReadiBus.
"I don't think we're playing around. I absolutely do not accept that as a statement," he said.
"I will remind you that we have signed the same contracts with other providers, and on that basis we would also need to go through the entire process with every other provider, and I don't think that's acceptable."