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Archive for February, 2016

Tameside Budget 2016-17 Agreed

Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

This Tuesday evening the Full Council met to discuss the budget for the financial year 2016-17. These discussions have been held in light of the release of the Local Government finance settlement, which imposed upon us a cut of £54 million over the next four years, on top of the £128 million we have already suffered since 2010. Instead of admitting that it has failed to fund local services adequately, the government has instead chosen to place the burden for maintaining these services on the shoulders of councils and local taxpayers.

As a result of this, councillors in Tameside have been forced, like the majority of other councils in the North West and throughout the country, to raise council tax by 1.99% and introduce the full 2% adult social care precept.

This is not a decision we have taken lightly, but due to government cuts our vital services are being put at risk. As an urban, Northern council we have also received no additional income from the government’s transition grant, most of which has gone to rural shire counties in the South and Home Counties. The 10 local authorities that received the most from the transition grant each received on average £12.72 million, over four times what we can legally raise through increasing council tax and the social care precept.

At the end of the last year, our online budget consultation showed that 75% of respondents were supportive of a council tax increase when they were made aware of the financial challenges that we face.

Tameside remains a low tax borough. Our total council tax increase over the last 10 years is lower than both the English and the North West average, and it’s a fact that even with this increase our council tax still remains one of the lowest in both Greater Manchester and the North West. The increase will also raise £2.8 million to ensure that we can continue to run the vital services that our elderly and vulnerable residents depend on.

We will keep making the case against austerity and for investment in local authority services at the regional and national level, as well as continuing our own plans to make Tameside a better place to live, work and do business in.

Austerity Isn’t Working

Monday, February 22nd, 2016

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I am not a fan of the cuts that have been imposed on us by this government since 2010. Now, I’m fairly sure that this is something I’ve made blindingly obvious multiple times on this blog. Today however, I want to go into a bit more detail as to why exactly I think that.

The first reason is the damage that they have wreaked on lives up and down the country. From the public health cuts, to the funding gap in adult social care, to a chronic lack of investment in housebuilding and transport infrastructure, the Chancellor and the Treasury have done everything in their power to make our country poorer, less compassionate and less competitive. Nor have the cuts been passed around the country fairly, with the poorest and most vulnerable people in the most deprived parts of the country disproportionately bearing the worst of the impact.

The second reason requires us to take a longer view. I’m sure there are some people out there who still swallow the line that cuts now are necessary for a better future. The Chancellor has said that further cuts up to 2020 will allow him to run a £10 billion budget surplus by the end of this Parliament.

I’ve never believed him, and this month the Institute for Fiscal Studies have done an excellent job showing up the Chancellor’s nonsense about budget surpluses for what it is.

The IFS’s Green Budget shows that a truly mind-boggling amount of the accounting going into calculating a budget surplus could politely be described as “creative”. Literally everything has to go right for a budget surplus to be even a remote possibility. To give some examples of the holes that could be blown in the Chancellor’s plans.

If the Bank of England’s prediction that wages will be 1% lower in 2020 than the budget surplus calculations hope is correct, that’s a £5 billion hole.

If the current turmoil in the stock market continues to drive down equity prices, that’s a £2 billion hole due to lower capital gains tax receipts.

If the Chancellor is forced to explain where the money for his income tax cuts is going to come from, something that he’s refused to do so far, that’s an £8 billion hole.

If the Chancellor doesn’t increase fuel duty in line with inflation every year from now to 2020, that’s another £3 billion gone. Now bear in mind that he hasn’t increased fuel duty since 2011.

And I haven’t even started in what could happen outside the cloistered walls of the Treasury. Everything from the EU referendum, to a rise in oil prices from their current unusually low levels, to another sweetheart tax deal with a multi-national will force the Chancellor into either further cuts or tax rises, or an admission that his plans weren’t worth the spreadsheets they were written on.

So this is where six years of austerity has left us, with our economy and public services sacrificed at the altar of chasing a delusional budget surplus. “More of the same” isn’t just morally indefensible, it’s economically illiterate.

The Great Public Health Carve-Up (Part 3)

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

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When people think of health services in this country they usually think of the NHS, but local government also has a significant role in keeping the citizens of the UK healthy. Local authorities such as the one I lead have a legal responsibility for a whole range of public health services, covering areas like sexual health, drug and alcohol misuse, stopping smoking and preventing obesity.

While these programs may go unnoticed by many people, they are absolutely vital to the health of our population and keeping the NHS running smoothly. Early intervention and prevention is always better than cure. Every person that can lose weight or beat addictions on a public health program is a person that won’t be costing the NHS far more time and money further down the line. It has been estimated that every £1 spent on prevention ended up saving £23 in health benefits.

But investment in public health isn’t just about saving money. It’s about helping our residents live longer and better lives as well. Through early intervention and prevention people can be supported to make healthier lifestyle choices that will ultimately help them to stay fit and healthy for as long as possible. When you combine them all: the smoker who died of lung cancer, to the heart-attack victim that never took any exercise, to the alcoholic whose liver finally gave out, we can drastically improve the quality of life of our residents while significantly reducing the demand for expensive health and social care services.

It’s in everybody’s interest to ensure that that opportunities to improve and sustain the health of our residents are as effective and well-funded as they can possibly be. Unfortunately, as I’ve written in the past, they’re currently suffering an all-out assault from government cuts. We had a £200 million cut last summer, which knocked £1 million off Tameside’s public health funding. Then, six months later, the government launched a consultation for a further cut on top of that £200 million.

Now the results of that have come in, and they aren’t pretty. We’re set to lose a further £363,000, which when combined with an increasing and aging population means a reduction on public health spending per head from £72 to £70. In Tameside, the average healthy life expectancy (How many years’ people can expect to live in a “healthy state”) is 57. Already there is a gap of 20 years in healthy life expectancy between the most affluent and most disadvantaged areas in the country.

This is unfair and unacceptable. It is absolute madness that councils across the country are now being forced to make savings now when we all know that those “savings” will be lost multiple times over by increased costs due to poor health outcomes and lives lost early. Once again, this government has proven that it knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

 

 

Giving our Children the Best Start

Monday, February 15th, 2016

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It’s often said that life is more complicated now than it ever was in the past. When it comes to bringing up your children, hardly the easiest thing at the best of times, this is absolutely true. When I was young the picture seemed to be simple; the mother stayed at home and looked after the house and family, while the father went off to work.

Obviously, that was not the case for every family, but there is a grain of truth in it. Two-thirds of working-age women in the UK now work compared to less than half in 1952. Far from being the secretaries and sewing girls of yesteryear, women now occupy some of the highest levels of their professions in both the public and private sectors. This is something that should be applauded, but as a country our childcare services have not yet caught up with this new reality. Increased population movements, both within the UK and from immigration, also mean that often the family networks that used to be able to help fill in the gaps are now no longer able to.

Research has shown that around two thirds of working women say that the cost of childcare has been an obstacle to them working more. Too many women still face having to choose between their careers or their children. It’s not good for them and it’s not good for our economy.

But childcare doesn’t just benefit parents. There is an ever-growing body of evidence that suggests that children who receive good quality childcare in the early years do better when entering school and later in life. This can be down to learning, socialising and developing their own identity through play-based activities and interacting with other children their age. For children from disadvantaged backgrounds, that’s the kind of leg-up that can make all the difference.

That’s why government legislation means that parents with children between the ages of 3-4 can access up to 570 hours of free TMBC-NURSERYearly education or childcare per year (which usually breaks down into 15 hours each week for 38 weeks of the year) from a range of childcare providers across Tameside. For those parents who meet certain eligibility criteria this free childcare applies to children aged 2 as well. To check what you’re entitled for and how to apply, visit the page on the council’s website here.

As much as I approve of these measures, I would like to see them go much, much further. For starters, I would like to know how
much investment the government will put into place to make sure that their commitment to 30 hours of free childcare is adequately funded. I also want to see how the government proposes to improve the quality of childcare available while at the same time their cuts are ravaging Sure Start centres across the country. Raising our children is one of the most important tasks we undertake, and they deserve every chance we can give them to have a fair shot in life.

Join the Fight Against State Pension Inequality

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

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Imagine this scenario. You’re a woman in her late 50s to early 60s; you’ve worked, brought up a family and contributed to society from an early age. You’ve made retirement plans based on what you were told your pension age would be. Then, with little or no warning, you are told that it will be years before you receive your pension, ruining all of your plans and potentially leaving you in desperate financial circumstances.

Surely this can’t be fair? Unfortunately, for up to 500,000 women in the UK it’s a reality, a reality that is already happening to them. That’s why the Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign is so important, and why the work that our MPs; Angela Rayner, Andrew Gwynne and Jonathan Reynolds have put in to raise this in Parliament should be applauded.

A bit of backstory is necessary here. Back in 1995, the Pensions Act passed by John Major’s Conservative government included plans to raise the retirement age for women from 60 to 65, bringing it into line with the retirement age for men. This process, known as “equalisation”, was due to be completed by 2020. In 2007, the Labour government also scheduled an increase in retirement age for both men and women to 66, to take effect between 2024 and 2026. Due to the long timeframes involved neither of these moves was particularly controversial. However, the 2011 Pension Act introduced by the coalition government accelerated the entire process. The rise to 65 for women would now happen between 2016 and 2018, and then both sexes’ pension age would rise to 66 by 2020.

What does this all mean in practice? In broad strokes, it means that millions of men and women will have to wait longer before they can claim their state pension. That’s bad enough as it is, but look a bit closer and you’ll see that it’s even worse than it sounds for women approaching pension age. Over half a million women born between 6th October 1953 and 5th April 1955 will now have to wait a year longer to collect their pensions. Of those, 300,000 born between December 1953 and October 1954 will see an increase of almost 18 months. When you add in the 1995 rise in pension age for women as well, many women who expected to receive their pensions at 60 will have to wait three, five or even six years longer than they planned before they receive their pensions. In some cases, a difference of a few months in age between two women can result in a delay of years in reaching pension age. To make matters even worse, many of the women affected received little or no warning of the changes, leaving them scrambling to fill in the gaping holes that have been blown into their retirement plans through no fault of their own.

The WASPI campaign are calling for transitional arrangements for soften this blow for women across the country, helping them get their retirement back on track. I urge you to join your voice to theirs by signing the petition here. Together we make the government offer women a fair deal on pensions.

Action on Flooding is Needed Now

Monday, February 8th, 2016

083For many people, the start of this year was one to remember for all the wrong reasons as heavy rainfall (the wettest January on record in some parts of the country) caused flooding that ravaged the North West, Yorkshire and the Lake District. Even Tameside, an area that most people wouldn’t associate with serious flooding, suffered as the River Tame burst its banks, most notably in Stalybridge, which led to the closure of Tame Street for a day over Christmas. Though the flood waters have now receded, too many communities in the North are still counting the cost, estimated by accountancy firm KPMG to be upwards of £5 billion.

All of which makes the government’s response even more incredible. Every scientist, every Environment Agency official, every person on the street with a grasp of the issue can tell you that this is a problem that will only get more severe if we continue to drag our heels over climate change. Instead the government seem happy to pass the buck entirely to councils, encouraging them to raise their own council tax (up to £15 a year on the average bill in Somerset, which piloted the scheme after the floods there in Christmas 2013) to pay for improved flood defences.

Frequent readers if this blog will remember that I am an avid supporter of councils being given more control over their own finances, but this is troubling on a number of levels.

Firstly and perhaps most importantly, this effectively punishes people, many of whom may already be in financial difficulty due to their homes and businesses flooding, with higher council tax bills for living in at-risk areas.

Secondly, defending the country against natural disasters should be a matter of the highest national importance, up there with preventing terrorist attacks and disease epidemics. If the government said that funding anti-terrorism measures was not its problem, there would be a deserved uproar. Anti-flooding measures should be no different.

Thirdly, it exposes the incredible hypocrisy at the heart of the government’s attitude to local government. For years they have 059lectured us about the need to live within our means, yet they continue to force more responsibilities onto us and expect our residents to pay for the privilege. To add insult to injury, many of these new funding obligations are in areas that the government have cut to the bone previously, only to realise that the consequences of doing so have been catastrophic. We’ve seen this with the “Osborne tax” on adult social care, and now we’re seeing it with this “flood tax” as well.

Enough is enough. This is not some kind of abstract, theoretical issue about funding and responsibility. It is a crisis that is affecting people right here and now. The government needs to put the safety of its people over its ideology and start taking flood prevention seriously. They could start by funding the 500 flood and coastal defences projects that currently will not see a penny until 2019-20 at the earliest, and by reemploying the 800 flood risk management staff they’ve sacked since 2010. We know that the waters will soon be rising again, and they will not wait for us to get our house in order.

Save Lives, Give Blood in Tameside

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

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Imagine for a moment that you had some kind of magic power. A magic power that made possible the treatment of serious medical problems and the performing of otherwise dangerous surgical procedures, a magic power that cost you nothing to use and never ran out because it always replenished itself.

You don’t have to imagine, because it already exists. It’s called blood, and people aren’t giving enough of it.

It is not an exaggeration to say that every single drop of blood donated helps save someone’s life. From all the blood that was donated in 2014, 67% was used to treat medical conditions such as anaemia, cancer and blood disorders, 27% was used in surgery (including cardiac and emergency surgery) and 6% was used to treat blood loss in women after childbirth.

To supply the needs of all the hospitals and patients in the country we need over 6,000 people a day donating approximately 470ml of blood each. Only 5% of the eligible population are down as regular blood donors. If we want to continue saving lives we need those donation numbers to go up.

I know that there must be many people out there in Tameside that would happily give blood if they could find a time and a place that was convenient for them. For those people, the https://www.blood.co.uk website is an invaluable resource, as it allows you to put in your postcode, check for blood donation sessions near you, and book an appointment all with a few clicks of the mouse.

The NHS Blood and Transplant service put on over 23,000 donation sessions at 3,000 different venues every year, so the chances of you finding one close to you are pretty good. When I put the postcode of Dukinfield Town Hall into the website I found seven donation sessions within five miles between now and May, including sessions in Oldham, Denton, Hyde, Ashton and Failsworth this month. Most of these run until 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening, meaning that people who work a regular 9-5 shift can pop in to donate on their way home. If you can’t make any of those sessions there are also permanent donation centres in Norfolk House and Plymouth Grove in Manchester, two of 24 dotted around the country.

Wherever and whenever you choose to donate, your contribution will always be important to ensure that a healthy and reliable blood supply gets to those who need it, and you can feel good knowing that you’ve helped saved a life.

A Healthier, Happier Greater Manchester: Starting here in Tameside

Monday, February 1st, 2016

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Last Friday it was my pleasure to welcome the joint meeting of the AGMA and GMCA executive to Tony Downes House in Droylsden. For those not familiar with Local Government acronyms, AGMA and GMCA are the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities and Greater Manchester Combined Authority respectively. AGMA has been in existence since 1986 and the GMCA since 2011, though with the Greater Manchester devolution deal these are two bodies whose roles and powers are set to change dramatically.

The meeting in Droylsden last Friday was important for both Tameside and the wider Greater Manchester region. Important for Tameside because it gave us an excellent opportunity to showcase some of our flagship developments, in the form of the Pension Fund HQ and Metrolink extension, to regional bigwigs. Important for Greater Manchester because it was the day that the £6bn devolution of health spending to our region started to take shape.

The announcement of the £6bn devolution deal was made in February 2015. 12 months on the average person in the street would be forgiven for wondering ‘What ever happened to that then?’. However, £6bn and the responsibility for the health and well being of more than 2 million people is not something that can be taken on overnight.

Over the last year our local health professionals have been working hard to build the systems and models that will be needed to successfully manage our own health and social care services. They’ve been working on the best and most efficient ways of targeting these devolved resources at our local priorities. And finally, they’ve been building the necessary safeguards to ensure proper scrutiny of the spending of such a large amount of money.

Friday was the day that all of this came together. It was the day that we were asked to support the ‘Implementation Plan’, endorse the ‘Locality Plan’ and approve the ‘Transformation Fund’. In layman’s terms, we agreed what we are going to do, how we are going to do it and how it is to be paid for.

There is no doubt that this deal comes with it’s risks, but as a local politician with perhaps more years’ experience than I’d care to mention, I know that the best decisions are almost always those taken closest to the communities that they effect.

In 5 years time when Greater Manchester is delivering better health outcomes at lower costs with greater local accountability, I’ll be looking back fondly on how the framework to achieve them was agreed on a wet January morning here in Tameside.

The GMCA have produced a short video setting out what health devolution means and the priorities for our region. It can be viewed here.

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