In April The Whitley Pump interviewed councillor Jason Brock because of his local connection as a Katesgrove resident. He also appeared to be part of the new guard of politicians eager and ready to step up in the Labour Party hierarchy and surprise, surprise he has now been promoted to lead the party in Reading Borough Council (RBC).
There is perhaps a hint of his ambitions in his response to some of our questions.
How did you come to be living in Katesgrove and what are your impressions of the area?
By happy accident rather than design. I was living off the Oxford Road and my landlord wanted to sell the flat. In some degree of haste, my wife and I had to find another flat and we came across this lovely place on East Street. It is a convenient place that fitted at the time and we still privately rent.
The area is strikingly vibrant, has a nice mix of people and businesses and Pau Brasil just up the hill has the best coffee to be found in Reading. I really like it as a place to live but I suspect because of the Southcote connection on the council we will end up back in the west at some point.
Councillor Brock is an expert on John Atkinson Hobson‘s economic concept of underconsumption. We asked him to explain it in simple terms that we and Whitley Pump readers could understand.
Classical economics has always maintained that the production of a given thing produces exactly as much wealth to purchase that thing. Underconsumption was one of the earliest economic theories that challenged this supposition because it was necessary to explain economic crises and it maintains that even though this may be true in terms of wealth production some of that wealth may be misappropriated. This means that you end up with periodic crises of consumption because too many people save or hoard wealth that they have gained through illegitimate means.
To explain that in a little more detail, John Atkinson Hobson maintained that the production of any given object was a social phenomenon and because collaboration enables people to produce something of greater value than they could working simply as individuals in isolation there must be a social factor of production. The proceeds of that social factor of production was being misappropriated by capitalists rather than given over to society via the mechanism of the state.
The important thing about underconsumption as an economic theory to me is not that it is totally correct, Keynsianism is a much better explanation of economic phenomena, but that it is a good way to start exploring issues of morality in economics. I have always lamented the fact that economics is considered a science rather than an art; it is fundamentally a creation of humanity and should be understood in that way.
Why did you want to become a councillor and what are your political objectives?
I have always had an ethos of public service but until I moved to Reading I had never considered being a councillor. I moved here having lived in Oxford for some time and before that Egham. But Reading felt like home, it had a strong community about it and a strong sense of itself, and felt like an inclusive town; Oxford felt like an exclusive town to me.
In Reading I felt at home very quickly and very comfortably. As I became active in the local Labour Party, having been a member for some years before I moved here, I got to know the place really well. I was particularly keen to stand for election in Southcote because it had a really profoundly strong sense of community which kind of reminds me of the village I grew up in. So becoming a councillor was as much about Southcote as anything else. Had there been an opportunity in another ward maybe I would not have thought so much about standing.
What I want to achieve is to strengthen Reading as a town. When you look at Reading, you can see there is a lot of economic boom but the benefits are not felt by everybody equally. As a council we have a very important role to play in trying to redistribute some of the benefits of Reading’s strong economy so that everybody can benefit from it.
Beyond that, I would really like everybody in Reading to feel a great sense of pride in the town and again the council can help achieve that by supporting cultural groups, community groups, arts groups, supporting local sports teams and show that Reading is a place there is something for everyone, where you can lead a stimulating and interesting life.
Do you want to be an MP?
No, it is not something that appeals to me.
Some of your colleagues clearly see being a councillor as being a stepping stone to becoming a Member of Parliament.
I think that is true, and kind of understandable. I think it would be a shame if everyone saw it that way because being a councillor is a very rewarding experience in itself and there is a great that deal can be achieved. I would say personally that a council has a much bigger impact, in a positive sense, on peoples’ day to day lives than an MP.
My interests are very much more local perhaps because I grew up in a village, I am a very parochial person.
Do you have any feelings about Reading being a town or a city?
I have always thought in some ways wouldn’t you rather be the largest town rather than an average size city but for some people the title comes with a lot of meaning. Perhaps if you could use city status as a way of trumpeting the various things which happen in the town and use it to create new initiatives it maybe worthwhile but it would not be a priority to me.
You are [at the time of the interview] the lead councillor for corporate and consumer services. This is a new portfolio which was created in 2018. What do you think is the importance of this portfolio and what are its challenges?
In some ways it is a re-creation of earlier portfolios that did exist before my time on the council. It was a decision made collectively by the Labour group to establish a new role that allowed a bit more focus on the internal transformation within the council as an organisation. That transformation will underpin how we deliver services in the future.
We all know about the tremendous difficulties created by cutting £58 million from Reading’s budget, thanks to the Tory government. We need to do things differently and we need think about how we can deliver the best solution for residents. I have always been committed to the idea that changing the way you deliver a service does not mean that the service does not need to necessarily need to diminish.
An example of this is the relocation of wedding ceremonies from Yeomanry House to the Town Hall which actually delivers a better service for residents and introduces more people to the Town Hall, a magnificent building, but at the same time it does save costs.
I remember when we discussed the portfolio’s creation it was very important that it had an external focus as well, hence the consumer services component. The portfolio ranges from emergency planning to the crematorium. Some of the regulatory services such as trading standards which fall within my portfolio are very easy for residents to miss but do have a positive impact on their lives by preventing abuses of regulations in shops and businesses. It is very stimulating portfolio, it is challenging in its breadth and the time in takes and I have had a very interesting year and I have learnt a lot.
How would you measure success in this portfolio?
By re-establishing financial stability around the council. Since the election of the coalition government in 2010, we are finally getting towards a place of greater financial stability and it has been a very difficult thing to achieve.
Stability without compromising the delivery of services and particularly help people in our town who might struggle if those services did not exist. It is very important to help people to live the kind of lives that they want to live as far as we are able to support them.
The RBC corporate plan set a target of November 2018 for sign off of the 2016/17 and 2017/18 accounts which might have seemed conservative at the time. Given the number of false dawns from RBC finance department about accounts production what qualifies you to ask the right questions?
I have come at the portfolio fresh because it is new. The accounts in question are in fact for the year when I was first elected part-way through the year. I would like to think that freshness has helped. Although I am competently numerate with a background in economic history, I am clearly not an expert in terms of technical accounting, sometimes the distance is quite a helpful thing to have.
The reason the accounts have taken so long is because of some very difficult technical issues which do not affect the bottom line, we do not have a massive black hole which we did not know about.
I am very pleased that the accounts have now been submitted to the auditors and I look forward to them being signed off imminently. It has been a long time.
As a member of the planning committee you have commented positively on Reading’s heritage. What interests you most about the heritage of the town?
I have always been a modern historian and I am very much fascinated by Reading’s more recent industrial heritage. I find the remnants of that strikingly beautiful in many cases, when one walks along the Kennet or somewhere like that.
I commented once in planning committee that I thought that the Gillette building was the best looking building in Reading; I stand by that. There is a dynamism about that industrial heritage which I hope is captured in the energy that Reading has today.
The reason I like that is because I know that Reading went through a period after the 70s especially in the 80s when the dynamism was not there like it is today, so it is nice to see a town around me that is vibrant and thriving and recapturing something of that spirit of endeavour in the past. But having said that the medieval heritage of the town is similarly fascinating, it is wonderful to see the abbey ruins reopened. I hope that Reading, by its nature and having been here a long time, has something for everybody.
- Reading Borough Council Corporate Plan
- Reading Borough Council Constitution 2018 – lead councillor for corporate and consumer services p116
- Gillette building on Basingstoke Road has been listed
- A right Reading re-opening!