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Posts Tagged ‘Government’

A Shocking Lack of Priorities

Wednesday, February 1st, 2017

Regular readers of this blog will know that I take every opportunity to criticise the hypocrisy of the government’s ideological austerity. The kind of austerity that sees services and investment cut to the bone but always seems to make vast amounts of money available for pet projects. After some excellent work by our very own Angela Rayner we’ve recently been given a clear example of the damage this kind of thinking has done to our country’s education system.

Cast your minds back to March of last year, when the then-Cameron government announced plans to force all schools in England to become academies. I wasn’t alone at the time in thinking that the plans were ruinously expensive, massively impractical and unlikely to increase standards. In the face of opposition from Parliament and the teaching profession the government was forced to first shelve and then abandon the plans completely.

“What does that have to do with what’s happening now?” I hear you ask. At the time the policy was announced the Treasury allocated £500 million of funding to support the mass academisation process. Now that it’s not going ahead, the government has clawed back £384 million of that funding (The rest, according the Department for Education, had already been spent on “other education projects”, whatever that means).

Let me say that another way. The government was willing to spend £500 million on making every school in England an academy. When that project was dropped they could have chosen to redirect that freed-up money to other forms of investment in our schools. Investments like smaller class sizes, better equipment and materials, or training for teachers. Investments that, unlike academisation, have solid evidence behind them to show that they lead to improved standards. Instead, they chose to let the money disappear back into the bowels of the Treasury. Probably never to be seen again.

It would be somewhat justifiable if our education system was already swimming in funding. What’s actually happening at the moment is the worst crisis in teacher recruitment in living memory and a warning from the National Audit Office that we’re on course for a £3 billion cut in school spending by 2020. The Grammar School Head’s Association say that their schools may resort to asking parents for hundreds of pounds a year to plug the gaps in funding cuts, and Cheshire East Council have gone as far as to confirm that they are looking at moving to a four day school week to make ends meet.

Tameside’s share of that £384 million would have amounted to almost £70 for every pupil in our schools. We’re probably not going to see increases in funding from any other source either. While on paper the government’s latest reforms to school funding gives Tameside a little extra money, Angela’s work has shown that when you throw in inflation and the impact of further cuts that we know are coming down the pipeline it amounts to slapping a sticking plaster onto a gaping wound.

If you thumbed through a copy of the Prime Minister’s Industrial Strategy you’ll have seen that one of the longest chapters is on “Developing Skills”, or to quote it verbatim “ensuring that everyone has the basic skills needed in a modern economy”. The kind of education system that delivers that isn’t something that happens by itself. It needs strong and fair funding. It needs to be run by people who know what works and have the freedom to put their expertise into practice.

What it absolutely doesn’t need are Ministers in Whitehall letting ideology and bias dictate their funding and policy decisions. Britain’s future and our children’s education is too important to be turned into a political football.

The Teaching Crisis Cannot Be Ignored

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Ask me what part of the public sector has undergone the most radical change in the last decade or so and my answer will always be “education”. From the (thankfully) dropped lunacy of making every school an academy, to the newer but equally hare-brained policy to reintroduce grammar schools, barely a day goes by where the government doesn’t have a new kick at the political football that our education system has become. The people affected by this the most are, of course, the pupils themselves and the teachers who work with them. For teachers in particular, their job is a hard enough one at the best of times, but over the last six years they’ve had to put up with their roles changing beneath their feet as well.

Is it really surprising that so many of our current and potential future teachers have decided that they’ve had enough? Two recent events have pulled the crisis we face in recruiting and retraining teachers into the public eye.

The first is a report by Sir Michael Wilshaw, which concludes that constant structural changes to the education system have meant that staffing concerns have taken a back seat, with disastrous results. In the year 2015-16, 15 of 18 secondary subjects had unfilled teaching places and 43,000 qualified teachers (or one in ten out of the entire workforce) left the state education sector entirely. These shortages have not been felt evenly. While ¾ of physics teaching vacancies have been filled, that goes down to less than ½ with design and technology places. Schools that face more challenging circumstances are also feeling the impact, with the percentage of unqualified teachers in schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils close to double that of schools with few disadvantaged pupils.

The second warning sign is the spectacular failure of the government’s plans to get more people into the teaching profession. The National Teacher Service (NTS) announced by the-then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, aimed to recruit 1,500 teachers to schools with the highest need. The initial pilot ran here in the North West and aimed to find places for 100 applicants. A Freedom of Information request by the Times Education Supplement has revealed that only 116 people applied to the scheme in total, of which only 54 were recruited. The entire scheme has now been closed down, and what was supposed to be a flagship policy has been shown up as a waste of time, effort and money in the face of growing crisis.

I have a personal grievance with this as well. For the past few years the Council and our partners have been fighting tooth and nail to raise exam results and give our pupils and teachers the best possible environment to excel and achieve. We invested over £250 million in state of the art facilities and supporting the setting up the A+ Trust to share expertise and best practice. Our percentage of pupils receiving at least 5 A*-C grades has gone up for three years straight, putting us above the English national average. We’ve done this in spite of and not because of many of the actions of this government.

Having enough teachers is important. Having enough good teachers is even more important. When people look back to their school days they think about the teachers that really knew their stuff and made them care about the subjects they taught. The right teacher in the right place with the right resources can make an incredible difference to the lives of so many people. The damage that the government’s self-inflicted teaching crisis is doing to school standards and the life chances of our young people is incalculable. We cannot let them endanger our children’s education any further.

Solving the Productivity Puzzle

Friday, October 7th, 2016

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If you follow economic or financial news you might have heard the word “productivity” being thrown around quite a bit, usually in a negative sense. Newspapers and publications of every side of the political spectrum have had headlines about the UK’s productivity crisis, from The Guardian’s “Stunted Growth: The Mystery of the UK’s Productivity Crisis” in April this year to The Telegraph’s “Never Mind Benefits, the Problem is UK Productivity” the month before. Well, for once, the headlines are spot on. We do have a productivity crisis, and today I want to explain what that means and why we should be worried about it.

Put simply, productivity is a measure of how well an economy turns inputs such as labour and capital into outputs like revenue, products and services. A high level of productivity means that you can create more stuff with less work/investment, which translates into greater levels of profit for businesses, better wages for employees and higher growth for the economy as a whole. Of course, a low level of productivity causes the opposite.

Historically, UK productivity has typically grown at a steady rate of around 2% a year. Since the 2008 Financial Crisis it has flat lined entirely, to the extent that the latest figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility show an increase in productivity of only 0.1% in eight years. Our productivity now lacks so far behind the likes of France and Germany that workers in those countries can finish on Thursday afternoon what it would take an average British worker until Friday to do.

The picture looks even worse when you break it down to a city-by-city level. Only six of the UK’s 62 cities are more productive than the European average, and five of them are either London or satellites of London (Reading, Milton Keynes, Aldershot and Slough). The odd one out is oil-rich Aberdeen. 38 out of the 62 are not only below average, they’re in the bottom quarter of the table. Productivity in Manchester is 35% lower than in Hamburg, despite the two cities having very similar economies.

We’ve reached this point due to 30 years of economic, social and political decisions from Westminster that have benefitted London and the South East at the expense of the rest of the country, decisions that have been made “to us” instead of “with us”. We lag badly behind when it comes to developing skills and talents; more than ¾ of UK cities are below the European average when it comes to proportions of high-skilled residents. We need massive levels of investment in transport infrastructure outside London to both get goods and services to where they need to be and to increase the size of the pool of employees that businesses can recruit from. We need to encourage, by any means necessary, banks to lend money to the small and medium-sized businesses that could potentially create the next generation of innovative products and services. This is precisely why devolution is so important; it will give us the freedom (and indeed, the responsibility) to meet these challenges head on, delivering Greater Manchester solutions for Greater Manchester issues.

We’re already doing some of this in Tameside and Greater Manchester through skill-boosting projects such as Vision Tameside and infrastructure improvements like electrification of the North West railways, setting up superfast broadband and building the Tameside Interchange. But let’s not kid ourselves; more needs to be done. If we want to continue to be taken seriously as a major economic power outside of the EU, we need to solve Greater Manchester and Britain’s productivity puzzle sooner rather than later.

Britain’s Olympic Success Shows the Power of Investment

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

374EB3EA00000578-0-image-m-83_1471394263779There is nothing in the world that can bring a country together like sport. After a summer in which the only constant seems to have been national argument and division, how refreshing was it to come together to celebrate the British men and women who return back from Brazil with a record haul of 67 medals? We ended up in 2nd place, with more gold medals than China. If Greater Manchester was a country we’d be joint 17th with Spain in the final standings. No matter which way you look at it, the achievements of our athletes has been nothing short of incredible.

It wasn’t always like this. At the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, despite some excellent performances by the likes of Sir Steve Redgrave, Denise Lewis and Ben Ainsley; Britain finished a woeful 36th in the medal table, behind countries like Algeria, North Korea and Kazakhstan. Much of the blame for the debacle was put down to a lack of funding and investment in elite sport. Newspapers at the time contained stories about British athletes selling their kits to raise money, and Chris Boardman, who won a bronze medal in cycling, famously had to prepare for the humidity of Georgia by training in his London bathroom with the shower on.

The channelling of National Lottery funding into elite sports began the long, slow process of turning around the decline. In the Sydney games British athletes received £59 million of funding, which increased to £71 million in Athens, £235 million in Beijing and £264 million in London. The medal count duly increased as well, from 15 in Atlanta (36th), to 28 in Sydney (10th), 30 in Athens (10th), 47 in Beijing (4th) and 65 in London (3rd).

This is the lesson we should learn. Identifying and investing in our strengths, with clear goals and strategies of how to meet them, is the surest path to improvement and results. If it works for our Olympic athletes there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t work for our infrastructure, for our public services and for our economy.

It doesn’t have to happen at the national level either. Our £20 million investment in our leisure facilities is an example of how we can drive this locally. We’re not investing to win medals or awards (although I definitely won’t complain if we get them), it’s investing to help people change their lifestyles and improve their health and quality of life. The objectives may be different, but the path to getting there looks remarkably similar. All you need then is the political will to make it happen. That’s why I’m particularly disappointed by the government’s watering down of their much-hyped obesity strategy last week. We know that what you eat is as important for a healthy lifestyle as how much you exercise, but we do not have the power at a local government level to regulate and legislate against junk food and sugary drinks. As our athletes show what can achieved with investment and commitment, our government continues to lag behind on both counts.

Let’s start to change that, and make 2016 our national “Atlanta moment”. The momentTLR - Twitterstraps V33 where we realise that continuing on the path we’re on is letting our potential as a country go to waste. The moment where we decide that now is the time to arrest the decline, and back that up with real investment, real strategies and real leadership on healthy living and many other national issues. That would be as fitting an Olympic legacy as I could think of.

A Privatisation Too Far

Friday, July 15th, 2016

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Amidst the drama of the last few weeks it’s easy to forget that the business of running the country is still continuing. For people who are concerned about the actions of this government it is especially worrying, as they have a golden opportunity to push through unpopular or controversial policies while the attention of the media and the population is concentrating on the fallout from the referendum.

One of the biggest issues that could slip under the radar in this manner is the government pushing ahead with the privatisation of the Land Registry. Established in 1925, the Land Registry is, quite simply, a record which holds information about land and property across England and Wales. It is estimated that 87% of all the land in the country is covered by the Registry, adding up to a total value of £4 trillion (including £1 trillion in mortgages). If you’ve ever bought or sold any kind of property (a house, a shop etc.) odds are that a record of it will be found on the Land Registry.

But the Registry is more than a simple record of who owns what and where. An entry on the Land Registry means that your property rights are protected by the state. Governments and markets use information about house prices and sales to judge the health of the British economy. While it costs money to run, the fees it charges mean that has also delivered back a profit to the Treasury for 19 years out of the last 20.

Put simply, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and it makes money for the country while doing it. Furthermore, unlike utilities, transport and other public service sell-offs of the past, there isn’t an argument to introduce more competition. It’s easy to image several competing electricity companies or bus operators; it’s a great deal harder to imagine several competing Land Registries.

But there is a bigger argument than simply efficiency and profit. At a time where the housing crisis and large-scale tax avoidance have become massive political issues, a transparent and impartial Land Registry is required now more than ever. Handing it over a private company that may want to reduce transparency to protect their commercial confidentiality or hide conflicts of interest is utterly counter-productive to achieving this. It’s not just me saying this, as an attempt to privatise the Registry in 2014 was vetoed by the Liberal Democrats. Two years later, MPs from all the major parties (including a former Conservative minister) along with non-partisan bodies like the Law Society and the Competition and Markets Authority are still united in their belief that this is a privatisation too far for those who value transparency and impartiality.

I pride myself on being a supporter of strong, independent businesses. If a serious case can be made for a service being run better or more efficiently by the private sector, then I’ll give it a fair hearing. What I’m against is privatisation that aims for nothing but a short term monetary gain, regardless of what the negative consequences will be in the future. Selling off the Land Registry is about as clear cut an example of this “bad” kind of privatisation as I can imagine. I urge the government to look again.

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.

The Great Public Health Carve-Up (Part 2)

Thursday, October 15th, 2015

Almost half a year ago I reported in this blog that the government had announced a £200m cut in local health spending. Local authorities such as the one I lead have had a legal responsibility for improving the health of our residents, for running public health services such as sexual health programs, alcohol and substance abuse treatments, and for providing advice and information so those who need our help can access it.

I bring this up today because the government has now launched a consultation on a further cut to our public health funding next year on top of what we have already suffered. Greater Manchester as a whole is losing almost £10 million in public health money after April 2016, but that figure hides more than a few other stories. I said last year that while these responsibilities often go unnoticed, they are absolutely vital in keeping the NHS financially sustainable. A penny spent by local authorities on helping someone give up smoking is hundreds of pounds the NHS doesn’t have to spend when the same person develops lung cancer.  Furthermore, many of the frontline health services we use are commissioned from NHS providers. A public health cut would add more pressure to beleaguered NHS finances, either from reduced income from commissioned services or from increased service demand in the absence of preventative care. It’s a classic example of robbing Peter to pay Paul in the name of “austerity”.

It’s no secret that Tameside suffers from poor health outcomes. The recently released Index of Multiple Deprivation shown that Tameside was the 16th most deprived out of 326 local authorities studied for health deprivation. Our healthy life expectancy (How many years people can expect to live in a “healthy state”) is 57. We desperately need investment in the kind of preventative measures that public health services specialise in. So how has the government responded to this need? By cutting our health grant next year by £1 million this year and £340,000 next year. Worst still, the cuts are being distributed in a manner that breaks the link between an area’s need for public health services and the funding given to run those services. This is due to two things: Firstly, the new figures to calculate how much funding is required for sexual health and substance misuse services are not connected to either the level of need or the harm caused by drugs and alcohol in the area. Secondly, the government has reduced the amount of funding that children in poverty receive compared to children not in poverty.

Across the board the story of this cut is that deprived areas with higher levels of premature morality have lost out to affluent areas with ageing populations. A public health system that favours authorities with aging populations is worse than useless when most of the people in your authority won’t live long enough to benefit from it. We need a funding system that lets us improve health equalities across the country, giving people the chance to grow old no matter where they are born. The current system of cuts is the exact opposite, widening gulfs in health outcomes and making the most important factor to a long life being what postcode you live in.

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