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Newbury charity ReadiBus battling West Berkshire Council over service deal

Clients of the ReadiBus charity in Newbury and district are in limbo this week as a furious political row raged.

A wave of public support has reportedly “created a short-term lifeline” for local users of the dial-a-ride service for people of restricted mobility, including the elderly.

But meanwhile the issue has become a political battleground.

West Berkshire Council
West Berkshire Council

West Berkshire Council is said to be withholding full funds because ReadiBus trustees have declined to sign a censorship agreement as a condition for their release.

This week, West Berkshire Conservative administration flatly denied trying to impose the ‘gagging clause’ on the charity following previous articles in this newspaper on funding cuts.

But a contract seen by the Newbury Weekly News appears to completely contradict that statement.

In a public announcement, under a heading of ‘Liberal Democrat False Statements’, the West Berkshire Conservative Association claims: “The clause does not restrict the operator from making a statement.”

Elsewhere, it reiterates that the clause is merely a device to ensure the council is “notified by an operator of any proposed press releases or statements relating to transport services in the district before they are issued”.

The Conservative statement quotes executive portfolio holder for transport, Richard Somner (Con, Tilehurst South and Holybrook) who said: “We are astounded that the benefits and security of a contracted partnership are not valued by opposition members.

“The Conservative administration have a sound track record of careful financial management and this includes ensuring that council tax payers’ money is spent carefully and within the terms and conditions that are agreed as the prerequisite for receiving such money.

“Opposition parties appear keener on grabbing headlines, making ludicrous allegations to mislead residents, and scaremongering by disregarding the communications provided to them both internally from the service and externally by the council – communications that have given information to all residents of alternative solutions via established and experienced service operators, but which the Liberal Democrats choose to ignore.”

However, the contract seen by the NWN clearly states the following: “The charity shall not, and shall take reasonable steps to ensure that staff shall not, make any press announcement or publicise the agreement or any part of the agreement in any way, except with the prior written consent of the council.”

It goes on to try to reassure charity trustees that such consent “will not be unreasonably withheld”.

The chairwoman of ReadiBus trustees, Sophie Bowlby, said: “Why does the council want to use its modest contribution as leverage to control what the public is allowed to know in this way? Isn’t it public money that the council is spending, after all?”

She revealed that the public outcry had included “offers of financial help to keep the service going amid great public concern about the extreme negative impact of the council’s actions on the service’s elderly and disabled users.”

Ms Bowlby added: “The pledges that we have received in the last week mean that we can maintain some service provision for a few more weeks. It will only be for one or two days per week but we hope that this will help and will enable more time for the council to reconsider whether it is fair for it to continue to withhold these budgeted funds which, if released, could enable us to maintain some service for longer.”

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