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Archive for January, 2017

Creating the Next Generation of Coders

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Coded on a BBC Micro and released in 1984, space trading simulator “Elite” went on to sell over a million copies and influences the genre to this day.

If you went to school in the 1980s you’ll almost certainly have run into the BBC Micro at some point. Launched in 1982 and designed with an emphasis on education, this unassuming grey box became the gateway for an entire generation of young people to learn about coding, computing and software development. British technology luminaries such as David Braben (who used the BBC Micro to develop “Elite”, one of the most influential and best-selling video games of all time) and David Darling (founder of Warwickshire-based games development company Codemasters) owe their careers to a decision 30 years ago to not just teach young people how to use new technologies, but to provide the resources for them to apply their own creativity as well.

Fast forward to 2017, and we have access to technology whose power and scope is beyond anything that could have been imagined by those 1980s schoolchildren. Now more than ever, it is important to make sure our children have a solid understanding in how these technologies work. We don’t expect them to all become technology and computer entrepreneurs, but we don’t expect everyone who learns English to become a writer or everyone who learns Maths to become a mathematician either. We teach reading, writing and maths because they are essential to understanding the world in which we live. If it isn’t already, knowing how technology works will soon be as important to get on in life as those other basic skills.

With that in mind, the BBC has updated the venerable old Micro for the 21st century. The BBC Micro Bit, inspired by similar devices such as Raspberry Pi, is a far smaller (about half the size of a credit card) but also far more powerful device than its predecessor. Simple programming tasks, like setting its LEDs to light up in a certain pattern, can be done using just the Micro Bit itself. However, it can also be connected up via Bluetooth or USB to other Micro Bits or electronic devices to create and use more complicated programs. The dedicated www.microbit.org website also contains enough software and tools so that the Micro Bit’s possibilities are limited only by the imagination of its user.

The Micro Bit has already made its way to our country’s schools, but here in Tameside we want to go above and beyond in the name of teaching our children about technology. Our commitment was enshrined at the start of last year in our “Every Child a Coder” 16 for 2016 Pledge, and after the success of our Tameside Hack in the summer we’re in the process of finalising our plans to hold a second Hackathon over the February half-term. We’re also putting on free starter sessions for young people in Years 6, 7 and 8 at Hyde Library to help them find their way around the BBC Micro Bit and program some great projects. The first session took place this Monday, but spaces are still available at the time of writing for the second session on the 30th January. The event is completely free and you can book your place on the dedicated webpage here.

I’ve always had the view that education is not just a means to get a job and build a future, although those are undoubtedly important. It is a valuable thing in and of itself. Maybe one of the children at our Hackathon or Micro Bit sessions will go on to create the next great video game or computer program in 20 or so years, but I won’t consider our work a failure if that doesn’t happen. If we can open our young people’s minds to the possibilities and opportunities that technology can offer them to understand not just the world, but themselves, then that is an excellent return on investment in my book.

Is there still life in the “Northern Powerhouse”?

Wednesday, January 25th, 2017

£556 million of investment has been announced for the North, but is it enough?

There we have it. Seven months to the day after the EU referendum Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her plan for a post-Brexit Britain. A plan which means that, for the first time in a long time, Britain will have an industrial strategy of some description – which I welcome.

Setting aside the question about whether such a plan should have been formulated prior to June 23rd so that we were prepared in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote, let’s look at the proposals, particularly what they mean for the North, in more detail.

As part of the plans the government has pledged £556 million to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, an initiative that myself and counterparts in other northern local authorities believed to have gone with the sacking of George Osborne last summer. These were fears which were compounded when the new government also withdrew support for EXPO 2025, planned for Ashton Moss, late last year. It was therefore a relief to see the phrase ‘Northern Powerhouse’ reappear in the government’s industrial strategy press release.

However this was only a small comfort. Whilst £556 million sounds like a lot of money, what will it actually buy for the combined regions of the North West, North East and Yorkshire? To put it in to context the total budget of Manchester City Council in 2014/15 was £563 million. The money pledged is therefore less that the amount that just one small part of the North, which in total has a combined population of almost 15 million, had to spend on its half a million residents. £556 million also pales in comparison to the £1.2 billion pledged for the London Underground’s Northern Line extension!

On the government’s project list to be funded by this cash are: an intermodal transport terminal on the East Yorkshire coast, a ‘21st century’ conference centre and hotel at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, £10 million for the Manchester and Cheshire life sciences fund and some flood defences in Yorkshire. I’m not suggesting for a moment that these aren’t worthy projects, but where is the ambition? Where is High Speed 3, the East-West high speed rail link? Where are the plans to build the homes we need for the 2 million on housing waiting lists nationally? Where is the money for the circular Metrolink line that would connect Greater Manchester’s satellite towns without the need to travel across the city centre?

I know I’m not the only one who is disappointed with the underwhelming announcements from the Prime Minister and Business Secretary yesterday. Indeed, senior figures in the Leeds City Region criticised the announcements for handing almost double the amount of cash that Leeds is getting to Greater Manchester. So if I’m annoyed about the lack of ambition and meagre amounts of money pledged when other areas think we’ve done alright, colleagues from elsewhere in the north must be positively furious!

I began this blog by welcoming the industrial strategy, and I do. Despite its shortcomings it is, after all, more than anything else we’ve had for a long time. Though my message to the government is – don’t do things by halves. This is a good start, but if this is it the ‘Industrial Strategy’ and ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will be things that will exist in name only.

Why I welcome the Bus Services Bill

Thursday, January 19th, 2017
First Greater Manchester operate a high proportion of services locally

First Greater Manchester operate a high proportion of services locally

If ever a list were to be drawn up of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed, the 1985 Transport Act would be on it. The deregulation of bus services outside of Greater London that it implemented (why was London exempt if it was such a good idea?) led to fragmentation, higher fares and falling passenger numbers. Greater Manchester is a prime example of this.

Locally there are two major players in the bus market, Stagecoach and First. It was claimed that deregulation would drive down fares by allowing competition between operators, however there are very few places in Greater Manchester where the two companies actually compete. Instead the conurbation has been carved up with First operating the majority of services in the North and Stagecoach in the South. Essentially we’ve swapped a public monopoly for two private ones.

This has allowed the two firms to charge whatever fares they believe they can get away with and flood the profitable corridors with buses to keep any sniff of competition of the road – despite many of the vehicles running barely half full for much of the day. For example, if I want to travel from Ashton to Oldham on the bus, what choice do I have? It’s First’s 409 or a fair old walk! Equally, from Hyde to Manchester it’s just Stagecoach’s 201. And if you ever do need to make a journey that uses services operated by more than one operator, from Mossley to Denton for example, you’ll have fork out for a more expensive ‘System One’ ticket.

Even more frustrating is when you consider the public money given to the firms in the form of subsidies. Bus operators receive a fuel subsidy called the ‘Bus Service Operator Grant’ for all services they run, even those on the profitable corridors. The operators then ask for an additional grant to run services that are not profitable but are deemed socially necessary such as those serving the more rural parts of Tameside which would otherwise be cut off. That’s a lot of tax payer’s money being paid to essentially enable large multinational companies to make a profit. There has to be a better way surely?

Now make no mistake, I’m not calling for more on road competition. The bus wars on Oxford Road in South Manchester are the clearest local example that such a thing recreated on Hyde Road, Ashton New Road or Oldham road would be a disaster for air pollution and congestion. However, if we are to have competition, we must have a system that ensures that it is genuine and that gets the biggest bang for the public buck. That’s why I welcome the 2016 Bus Services Bill.

The Bus Services Bill will hand power over the regulation of bus services to the new Greater Manchester Mayor. Just like in London, locally accountable politicians will be able to control the routes, frequency and fares and design a network that is responsive to local need, affordable, and complements, rather than competes with, the heavy rail and Metrolink services. The competition will be taken off the road and in to the process of letting the contracts to run services. This regulated system in the capital has led to a flat £1.50 single fare and a strong upward trend in the number of passenger journeys on London’s buses since 2000. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the country where bus use is in steady decline.

And so the improvement on offer for transport is one of the many reasons I am such a fierce supporter of the Greater Manchester Devolution deal. Devolution is a journey and as the combined authority grows and shows that it can make a success of the powers it is entrusted with in my view we should look to expand our reach. Whilst it may be bus services today, in transport terms the next logical step in my mind is railway stations and local commuter railway services. Then where, who knows? But whichever path we take I am firmly of the view that there are many powers, currently exercised in the corridors of parliament that would be far better exercised in the corridors of Greater Manchester’s Town Halls.

How To (And How To Not) Call Time on Excessive Pay.

Monday, January 16th, 2017

The city of Portland in America, which has recently passed a law raising taxes for businesses whose CEO-to-workers pay ratio is over 100-1.

If you watched the news last week you can’t have helped but have noticed the furore that the Leader of the Labour Party kicked off when he suggested that there should be some kind of cap on high earnings.

Excessive pay is more than an economic problem. At a time where salaries and job prospects for those on the lower end of the scale are getting more precarious by the day it becomes a moral problem as well. I agree with Corbyn insofar as he says that inequality, especially income inequality, is harming our society and our public services. It’s no secret that levels of pay at the top of business and industry have skyrocketed far beyond anything resembling sanity. The High Pay Centre, an independent think-tank, estimate that FTSE 100 CEOs are now paid 130 times more than the median pay of their staff, compared to 45 times more two decades ago.

Where I disagree with Corbyn is on what should be done about it. I am, and continue to be, against a hard cap on earnings. It’s a crude and blunt instrument, the financial equivalent of performing heart surgery with a sledgehammer. It also runs the risk of incentivising behaviour such as hiding pay through share options and payments-in-kind.

I’ve always made it clear that I have no issue with people reaping the rewards if they work hard and are successful. What has happened in recent years is that CEOs and executives are receiving colossal pay packets for just getting by or, in some cases, even failing completely. The example I highlighted the last time I wrote about this subject was Bob Dudley, the chief executive of BP, who received a 20% pay rise last year despite the company recording the biggest operating loss in its history under his watch. When we also start seeing massive pay ratios between workers and executives the question has to be asked if their performances could ever justify it. You could potentially make an argument that a top notch chief executive is, say, responsible for 20 times more than an average employee and therefore deserves to be paid 20 times more, but can you make the same argument for 50, 100, 150 times more?

So if I think something needs to be done but I’m against a hard cap, then where does that leave me?

Luckily we already have a way to move money around society to benefit us all, a way that has been proven to work for centuries across the world. It’s called the tax system. That’s why I’m interested in an experiment conducted by the city of Portland in America, which is introducing tax increases of 10% and 25% for business whose CEOs are paid more than 100 and 250 times more than the median employee respectively. This “inequality tax” would help pay for basic public services in the city, such as housing and police/firefighter salaries. If Portland can pull off a long-term shift in cultural change towards executive pay while raising money for public services at the same time, then why can’t they do the same thing here in the UK? Its questions like this that I’ll be asking the Prime Minister over the next year.

Inequality is not inevitable, but it will take serious action to turn around a ship that has been allowed to get out of control for far too long. The fightback must start here. A fair society is a stronger society, and I will do everything in my power in Tameside Council and in the Greater Manchester Pension Fund to make it happen.

Major progress on Vision Tameside

Friday, January 13th, 2017
The steel signing ceremony in December last year

The steel signing ceremony in December last year

Late last year I had the pleasure of visiting the site of the former TAC in Ashton-under-Lyne, now demolished to make way for a new state of the art joint public service centre. The visit was an opportunity to see the progress that had been made in laying the foundations for the new building and ceremonially sign the first part of the steel framework that will support the building.

Something that struck me when arriving in the compound was just how large a site the former TAC occupied.  Built in 1981 to replace a range of offices across the Borough, TAC brought together Tameside Council staff and facilities under one roof. By the end however the building was half empty and costing more to keep open then was either justifiable to local taxpayers or affordable in the age of austerity. Whilst TAC was an innovative idea and facility when constructed, the 1980s specifications it was built to were unsuitable for the 21st century, and architecturally it’s unclear whether the design was ever consistent with any fashions.

When we commissioned the new building we were determined that we wouldn’t repeat previous mistakes. The new public service centre currently under construction will meet the highest energy efficiency criteria possible and cost significantly less that the £1.7 million per year that TAC cost to run. It will be shared with Tameside College and house their advanced skills centre, further reducing the costs to local taxpayers whilst providing our young people with the skills they need to be successful in life in a first class setting. There will be space for Wilko to return to the site from their temporary home in the Arcades and the historic stone façade, behind which the Co-operative Bank and the Cheshire Building Society were housed, will be retained.

At the time of my visit in December only one staircase had been constructed. Having been in Ashton this lunch time significant progress has been made since. It’s clear that 2017 will be where the building will really begin to take shape and residents will see major changes even from outside the site barriers.

There has been significant progress on site since last year

There has been significant progress on site since last year

Whilst the signing ceremony itself was a major milestone in the beginning of construction work, the more significant milestone will be the completion. The regeneration of Ashton Town Centre and wider Tameside that this project has kick-started is more significant than anything else since the formation of the Borough in 1974. Jobs have been, and continue to be, created as ‘Vision Tameside’ progresses, and the local economy has been boosted by the money these workers spend locally and the increased footfall in to the town centre.

As I look back at the Council reports that were considered to agree the construction of this building I recall one of the reasons listed as making TAC’s replacement necessary was its £2 million maintenance backlog. Whilst I could spend time wondering how and why it was allowed to get to that point I am more minded to think that we were fortunate not to have spent that money keeping up to date with the maintenance of a building that had not been fit for purpose for some time.

 

Caring Together for Tameside’s Mental Health

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

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Over the course of their lifetime one in four people will develop some kind of mental health issue. As things stand, few of them will go and see a doctor about it and even fewer will get the treatment they need. Levels of self-harm among young people have increased by more than 50% between 2010 and 2015. In 2015 alone there were over 6,000 deaths recorded as suicide. It’s estimated that mental health issues cost the country up to £15 billion a year in lost productivity.

I usually try to avoid so stark an opening in my blogs, but in this case I think the severity of the situation justifies it.

How on Earth did it come to this? The sad fact is that for many the stigma against being open and honest about mental health remains strong. Far too often people who (quite rightly) would go straight to the doctor if they broke their leg would never do the same thing if they felt depressed or anxious. At the same time the rapid changes in the society we live in, particularly globalisation and the rise of social media, have created stresses and strains on our mental health that governments and health services are only just beginning to understand. While progress is being made in both these areas, there’s still a way to go.

And as always when I talk about issues like this, we can’t ignore the impact of austerity. Although it can be definitely argued that mental health has been historically underfunded, the last half a decade of cuts have undermined improvements to mental health services at a time where it has never been so vital to make them. The Prime Minister may have announced this week that her government will make mental health a priority, but at the same time national newspapers were reporting that hospitals were using hundreds of millions of pounds earmarked for children’s mental health to plug gaping holes in their budget left by government cuts. I know I sound like a broken record when I say that actions speak louder than words, especially with this government, but one speech does not undo the damage that has been done.

All this means that we’ll need to take matters into our own hands if we want to see serious changes made in how we deal with mental health. Fortunately, our work on integrating health and social care allows us to do just that, bringing together hospitals, communities and employers to create well-rounded treatments for both mental and physical health, tailored to individuals and the local area. As a council, we’ve also made mental health a priority through pledges such as signing the “Time to Change” mental health pledge and supporting national events promoting good mental wellbeing. In 2017, wtimetochangejpge’re going to build on both of these, transforming the way we do health in Tameside and Greater Manchester.

In the 21st century, access to high-quality mental health services is not a nice-to-have. As people become more open about the mental health challenges that they face, it falls to us to make sure that the help they need is available whatever and whenever they need it. At both the local and national level, we must take a stand and say that these people will no longer fall between the cracks in our healthcare systems. The hard but necessary work starts here.

New Year’s Resolutions

Friday, January 6th, 2017

one-you-localised-postNew Year, new you, or so the saying goes. We’re now a few days in to 2017 and all but a very small number will likely have managed to stick to any New Year’s resolutions so far.

I’ve heard a few from friends and family about giving up particular foods, drinks and even social media. Though if, like millions of others, your resolution relates to improving your health and fitness then the Council, in partnership with Tameside and Glossop Clinical Commissioning Group and Public Health England, will be able to help.

Public Health England has launched a national campaign to mitigate the impact of modern life on the nation’s health. Research has found that the effects are particularly acute amongst the middle aged. 87% of men and 79% of women aged 40-60 are overweight or obese, exceed the Chief Medical Officer’s alcohol guidelines or are physically inactive. Obesity was found to be the biggest problem for this group with 77% of men and 63% of women overweight or obese, an increase of 16% in the past 20 years. `These problems, if not tackled, can lead to more serious illnesses, such as diabetes, later on. Since the mid-90s the number of middle aged people being diagnosed with this illness has doubled.

But help is at hand. The experts at Public Health England have devised a quiz that asks a few simple questions about diet and exercise and offers advice at the end based on your responses. There are also a range of smartphone and tablet apps available to help guide you. They’re all very easy to use and I can strongly recommend them.

Here at the Council we’re doing our bit too. This time last year I was writing about the £20 million investment in our leisure facilities that would see Tameside’s sports facilities drastically improved with new centres being opened and upgrades to existing ones. The first, which opened in Novemeber last year, was the conversion of the Active Longdendale gymnastics centre in to trampoline and soft play centre Total Adrenaline. This is a facility that will encourage young Tamesiders to get active from a very early age.

Total Adrenaline opened in November 2016

Total Adrenaline opened in November 2016

Later this month will see the opening of iTrain gym in Dukinfield. Making use of the old Dukinfield Baths, which had reached the end of its life, the gym will offer 24/7 access plus a crèche, café and meeting rooms for use by community groups. It will be a true community hub.

In the longer term Hyde leisure pool will be extended to house a regular swimming pool alongside the existing leisure pool, Ashton leisure centre will be refurbished or rebuilt and Denton will have a new state of the art ‘Wellness Centre’.

I have long believed that the success of a place is about more than just shiny new buildings or ‘physical regeneration’ to use the technical term. It’s about the health and wellbeing of the people who live there too. Our partnership with Tameside and Glossop CCG, Active Tameside and Public Health England and this investment demonstrates that, under my leadership, Tameside Council is committed to this agenda. As the year progresses many more plans and projects will come forward that will back this up and lays the foundations for the success of Tameside, as a place, long in to the future.

Avoiding the Christmas hangover

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017
£1.5 billion was borrowed by households this year to pay for Christmas

£1.5 billion was borrowed by households this year to pay for Christmas

For this first blog of 2017 I want to talk about ‘catching up’ after the festive period. Not the catching up that thousands of Tameside residents are doing at work or school this week, but the financial catching up following the cost of Christmas.

With families wanting to make the most of the time with their loved ones that the Christmas period affords, many will have gone the extra mile to make the celebrations special. Whether that’s the new smartphone craved by the teenage son or daughter, the piece of jewellery for a partner or just keeping the fridge stocked with food and drink, all of this adds up.

Clearly though this is not something that anybody would want to be thinking about at the time, and that’s sadly why many will have a ‘Christmas hangover’ when overdrafts are maxed-out and credit card bills arrive in mid-January. It’s for this reason that debt charities Citizen’s advice and National Debtline are expecting January to be a busy month.

Citizens advice offers support to those in financial difficulty

Citizens advice offers support to those in financial difficulty

But where’s the news in that? People spending more money at Christmas – that’s nothing new is it? Though what is new is that the two debt charities are predicting that not only will this January be a busy time, it will be their busiest January in years. As well as having to pay for festive indulgence, in 2017 residents are set to be met with higher prices, rising utility bills and wages that are failing to grow at the same pace as inflation. It’s no surprise then that social research charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 55% of people classed as in poverty are from working households. This is a figure that, on the current trajectory, is only set to grow.

And so what is the solution? In my view it’s not simply extending the credit fuelled consumer boom with more personal and household debt. It’s about creating more well paid jobs.

We do that through the investment in infrastructure that I’ve long championed as both Leader of the Council and Chair of the Greater Manchester Pension Fund. By building the decent homes that the thousands on housing waiting lists are crying out for. And by training people to do the well paid, skilled jobs that will allow them to put food on the table for their families and not have to worry about money when Christmas or a birthday comes around.

National Debtline offers advice to those in debt

National Debtline offers advice to those in debt

The Council, with our jobs and employment pledges, and the Pension Fund, with our infrastructure investment pot, have shown that we are more than prepared to play our role in building an economy that works for everyone, though we cannot do this alone. Only a clear change of direction in government policy from austerity to investment will end the precarious existence of what Ed Miliband termed the ‘squeezed middle’ and Theresa May calls the ‘JAMs’.

I hope that, for the sake of those who could be described by these terms, in 2017 more effort is expended in pursuing policies that we improve living standards than in coming up with jargon to make the description of their decline more accessible on the six o clock news.

 

For those in need of debt advice or otherwise, visit the website of Tameside Citizens Advice.

Alternatively, the contact details of debt charity National Debtline can be found on their website.

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