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Go Digital Newcastle: Connecting the Toon!

November 26, 2014
Go Digital Sphere Logo

In August 2014, the residents’ support element of Newcastle City Council’s wider ‘Go Digital Newcastle’ programme was awarded a research bursary of £6,000 by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, Information Literacy Group for its ‘outstanding’ project proposal: ‘Go Digital Newcastle: Connecting Our City’.

This project brings together public, commercial and third sector organisations to create the best possible digital support network for residents and businesses in Newcastle upon Tyne: fostering personal relationships and mutual trust in the pursuit of a shared objective (raising levels of digital literacy) to ensure that people in Newcastle have access to the support that they need. Announcing the award, Nancy Graham, Chair of the CILIP IL Group, stated:

“The IL Group is absolutely thrilled to be funding this outstanding bid. This project has the potential to impact positively on the lives of thousands of people in Newcastle through dedicated training and support to access and make best use of information online. We look forward to seeing the progress of Go Digital Newcastle and the benefits that it will bring.”

As more services are delivered either predominantly or exclusively online, those without the means or skills to access the internet are at increasing risk of isolation. Newcastle – like many cities in the UK – has a vibrant third sector, active community groups and a wealth of education providers offering free or low cost internet access and training. Yet those who would gain most from this support either aren’t aware of the benefits (and increasing necessity) of being online, don’t know that help is available, aren’t comfortable or confident in the environments where assistance is offered, or are unwilling to ask for help.

‘Go Digital Newcastle: Connecting Our City’ provides relevant, local opportunities for those who feel digitally excluded to develop, or improve their digital literacy skills; enhance their employment prospects; demystify the online world and understand digital citizenship. The project works with, and for, local people to understand more about the existing barriers to digital inclusion, and to demonstrate to them how a few basic digital skills such as sending an email, accessing an audiobook, online map or bus timetable can go a long way.

In the space of a few short and very busy months, we have partnered with Northumbria University to develop digital skills and awareness sessions for Newcastle City Council staff; delivered digital inclusion activities for residents across the city to mark Older People’s Day, Mental Health Awareness Day and Alcohol Awareness Week; worked with partners such as Newcastle City Learning, JET, Building Futures East and the West Walker Check IT Out Project to offer new courses and training opportunities, and developed a (soon to be launched) interactive online map of Computer and Internet Access and Training facilities across the city. And doesn’t look like the pace will be letting up anytime soon!

If you would like to know more please contact me at: rebecca.cole@newcastle.gov.uk

Letting go of the reins…

October 31, 2014

An unstoppable force is sweeping through British politics that promises to change the way we are governed forever.

Ed Miliband’s announcement today of wholesale devolution for the English regions recognises and responds to the growing consensus that power needs to be spread across the country.

First, the Adonis Report recommended the North East Combined Authority receive control over full revenue from business rates. Second, the Chancellor threw his weight behind proposals for a northern powerhouse and the thirdly, just last week, the City Growth Commission report said London, Manchester and West Yorkshire may be ready for devolution and the North East is fast developing the process to take advantage of devolution.  Fourthly, add to this the Core Cities’ powerful campaign with the London boroughs, and the call for devolution is now deafening.

Ed Miliband’s announcement adds fuel to the fire and appears to be a commitment that if he were to be Prime Minister then the reins of power would be loosened and handed over to Britain’s towns and cities. Ultimately the public will decide but I welcome these proposals as another significant step along the road to devolution.
What is most striking is that the proposals recognise there is a need for a new relationship between local and national government. An English Regional Cabinet Committee which includes senior secretaries of state as well as local authority leaders is a major step forward. It will give added impetus to existing combined authorities and encourage councils that have not done so to join with neighbouring authorities.

In particular I welcome the move to enable councils to take control of local bus services. We are already leading the way on this in Tyne and Wear with our Quality Contracts Scheme which will provide lower average fares – with future rises capped to the cost of living – cheap travel for young people and a universal smart ticket as good as Oyster in London.  At the same time it will save the taxpayer money while protecting the routes and concessions which people rely on, because it will see more of the profits of the big bus companies now make put back into efficient, attractive local services.

Although the devolution juggernaut is now hurtling down the road I sincerely hope it is not overturned by a desire of those in Westminster to hold onto power.

It’s fine for the three parties to talk about devolution in the wake of the Scottish Referendum, but a bit rich to then starve local councils of the very funding they need to provide vital public services.

Powers and financial freedoms for cities will help set citizens free from a sense of hopelessness and neglect. They will also allow us to grow our own economies – boosting the national economy in an increasingly competitive world.

The rise of fringe political parties, some argue, are indicative of a general disillusionment with decisions made about us in distant Whitehall departments. They no longer believe that the person sitting in Westminster can make decisions to improve their lives and they want a new deal which enables decisions to be taken much closer to home.

It is now time for England’s cities and regions to take the reins of power so we can shape our own destinies.

A better deal for buses

October 24, 2014

Here in the North East buses are the backbone of our public transport network – on average every person in the region makes around 77 bus journeys every year, much higher than in many other parts of the country.

But, passenger numbers are actually in long-term decline – down by 13% since 2001 according to the 2011 Census. At the same time road congestion is getting worse as more and more of us are forced to switch from the bus to our cars. Something has to change if this trend is to be reversed – beating the traffic jams and making our bus services sustainable for the future.

That is why the proposal put forward by the North East Combined Authority earlier this week to shake up the way bus services in the region operate is so important.

The move towards introducing a Quality Contract Scheme for bus services in the North East may sound like technical mumbo jumbo – but it will mean a fundamental change which could bring huge benefits for bus users and help us to create a coordinated bus network across the region – just like the way that Transport for London run the buses in the capital.

We are the first region in the country to go down this route, and others are watching us with interest. The new arrangements will take time to establish, and there are still some legal barriers to overcome. The proposal will now be considered by an independent Quality Contracts Board who will decide whether the proposals are in the public interest. The new arrangements could be in place by 2017.

Back in the 1980’s all bus services across the country, except London, were ‘deregulated’ allowing bus operators a free market to operate services which were commercially viable to them. Council’s then had to complete the network by funding those less profitable routes that the bus companies could not operate commercially.

Over time this led to a fragmentation of the bus network as different companies competed for the most valuable bus routes whilst councils’ picked up the bill for the rest. For the passenger – working out information about bus times, ticket prices and routes required them to negotiate a confusing array of different information.

And, as council budgets have come under pressure, so has our ability to subsidise less profitable bus routes – putting at risk vital services which may have few passengers but which provide an essential lifeline for otherwise isolated communities.

A relatively small number of bus companies now control the bus networks across the country. Many have generated enormous profits since deregulation – but plainly they have not been able to sustain a network which meets the needs of its customers. There can be very few business sectors where profits continue to rise whilst customer numbers fall away so significantly. Something isn’t working.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the only place that bus passenger numbers have increased in recent years is in London – which escaped deregulation with Transport for London continuing to commission and coordinate the network. If this system is good enough for London it should be good enough for the North East.

Under the Quality Contract Scheme it will be the North East Combined Authority which decides which bus routes companies will be asked to operate – not market forces. And rather than letting the market decide the price – operators would provide services on a range of routes to a contractually agreed price.

This would lead to a range of benefits for passengers.

Bus contracts would be for the whole service – not just the most profitable routes. This will put the responsibility for sustaining less profitable routes back to the bus companies within the agreed contract price. In effect, some of the profits from the more popular routes would be used to support the whole network – including school buses and services to more isolated communities.

The bus network would be better coordinated across the region – on the basis of what bus users need rather than competition for profit. This would help make it easier to produce clear simple information about the bus network and the timetable across the whole region – available from a single source making it much more straightforward to find the bus you want when you need it.

Our new approach would be clear about the quality of buses to be provided and service standards that passengers should expect. On average buses would be no more than seven year old and there would be a clear expectation that the bus fleet should be clean and green – helping to reduce carbon emissions.

We now have an opportunity to plan routes more strategically, working closely with businesses to identify their future needs – and identify how more people can get to work on the bus, without the need for more cars on the road.

Ticket prices, along with concessionary schemes for older and younger people, would be consistent across the whole bus network making it much easier to work out how much a journey will cost. Average price rises will be capped at the level of inflation – making bus fares more affordable – and more attractive when compared to using the car. Concessions will include a flat fare for 16-19 year olds – meaning that families will no longer have to make difficult decisions about where a child should work or study on the basis of how much it costs to get there.

Joining-up the system in this way will also make it much more straightforward to introduce smarter ticketing systems – like the oyster cards used in London. These would work across buses and on the Metro system.

It was interesting that bus passenger groups turned out in force for the Combined Authority meeting to voice their support for the Quality Contract Scheme. People who are passionate about their bus services understand that it provides the right way forward.

The bus companies will be disappointed. The Quality Contract Scheme will have an impact on their profits. We have given careful consideration to their alternative proposals, but felt that they could simply not deliver our ambitions for better bus services. We were also clear that, without action, bus use would continue to decline, and the pressures on public funding would simply become unsustainable.

Why I’m coming round to rugby…

October 7, 2014

I must admit I didn’t used to be a big rugby fan. In fact two years ago one of my colleagues only half-jokingly told me it was the game played with the pointy ball, but even I’m genuinely excited about the Rugby World Cup coming to Newcastle next October.

Last Friday I spent most of the day taking part in a series of events to mark the final countdown to the start of the tournament.

Apart from meeting World Cup winner and Freeman of the City Jonny Wilkinson, I also got a taste of the wide appeal the sport has when I walked into Newcastle Racecourse. Jonny Wilkinson interviews Leader of Newcastle City Council, Councillor Nick Forbes at RWC2015

The Rugby World Cup road show was in town – and so was the media – not just to see Jonny or the Webb Ellis Cup but the ordinary men and women who were being trained up to be event volunteers. These are people who will welcome visitors to the city, give out advice and useful information and be the human face of a massive logistical exercise.

After the usual round of interviews I visited Leazes Park to watch a group of U13s taking part in a rugby tournament to demonstrate the importance of legacy that such a prestigious event brings to Newcastle. It occurred to me that this is a truly magnificent occasion for many reasons; here are just six:

  • Rugby is a sport with worldwide appeal, and the eyes of the world will be upon Newcastle when St James’ Park hosts its three fixtures starting with Scotland v South Africa on October 3 – how else could we achieve such a global audience?
  • The tournament will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city from other parts of the country such as Scotland and overseas including South Africa, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. Many will be first time visitors and a good number will come back again as tourists and will take away fond memories of their time here
  • Shops, restaurants, bars and other attractions will get a massive economic boost as experts predict at least £14m spent in the region’s economy in just a few days
  • The sponsorship and media build up to the tournament will inspire people to take up rugby and other forms of sport creating new health and wellbeing opportunities for those who may otherwise have remained inactive
  • Up to 300 local people will be trained and supported in their personal development to give a warm Geordie welcome to the city, and play a key part in the success of the games
  • But above all the Rugby World Cup will make Newcastle and the region feel good about itself in the same way that the Olympics made us all feel proud about what we can achieve when we all work together for the common good. Such feelings can’t be quantified or measured but they lift our spirits and inspire us to do things that we would not normally even consider. That’s the big difference that big sporting occasions bring – confidence in ourselves.

So although there’s no doubt that Newcastle is a footballing city, next year – for a few days at least – rugby will become our number one passion. I for one can’t wait. Bring it on!

Now is the time to devolve powers to cities

September 22, 2014

The people of Scotland have taken a momentous decision to remain part of the United Kingdom.

As Leader of Newcastle – a city with such close economic, historical and cultural links with Scotland – I’m delighted twe can continue to work together to build a more prosperous and above all fairer society across all parts of the United Kingdom.

We are, I believe, better together and the people of Scotland have endorsed that very principle in this historic vote.

But anyone who thinks this referendum is a reaffirmation of the status quo is sorely mistaken. This is not a case of constitutional ‘business as usual’. To use a much quoted phrase, the genie is out of the bottle.

The debate over the last few months in Scotland has given voice to a deep dissatisfaction with the centralised nature of our country – economically and politically.

From the perspective of a region much closer to Scotland than to London – geographically, and in terms of politics, culture and values – we have a similar passion and a desire to take our destiny into our own hands.

As a United Kingdom, we now have an opportunity – indeed an obligation – to address the centralisation of power which has come so close to fracturing the UK. That opportunity applies to the English regions, as well as to Scotland.

This morning, speaking on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister said he was going to deliver legislation on major constitutional reform by January and that further announcements on the future of cities will follow.

I believe an English Parliament, inevitably weighted in favour towards the needs of London and the South East, is not the answer.

It would replicate all the problems with the current Westminster system – remote decision making, centralisation of powers and a lack of local democratic engagement. From a political point of view it would almost certainly be dominated by Tories from the shires and counties, further marginalising our city and our region.

We need a timetable to devolve powers to cities like Newcastle, where we’ve got the appetite and zeal for reform, alongside the timetable for devolving powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Anything less would further stoke the flames of resentment within England’s cities and regions about once again being overlooked by a London-based political elite.

Rather than hurried proposals, made in the wake of this historic vote, we need a proper constitutional convention to discuss our nation’s future in depth. I don’t want a ‘talking shop’, but I do want to make sure we consider all the arguments and possibilities.

But there is also a need to take action now and I’m already talking with the big cities in Scotland, exploring areas where we can work together for the benefit of all our residents and businesses. To really deepen that relationship, places like Newcastle need the powers to be able to operate on a level playing field with Scottish cities.

Finally, I have been struck by how the referendum in Scotland has electrified political debate, with people of all backgrounds coming together to debate ideas and issues that matter to them. The voter turnout is unprecedented in modem times for elections in these islands.

So, I want to work with others across the political spectrum to ensure that future elections locally and across the UK inspire such passion and enthusiasm. There is real opportunity to make lasting change in our country. Things will never be the same again. I will make sure Newcastle is at the forefront of the debate to come.

Super fans unite us all

September 15, 2014

There are, from time to time, these events that happen in the world.

They shock us.

They appal us.

In some cases they may even makes us fearful. Yet we never expect to be connected to the pictures we see on the news.

The loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 in July was one of these events. And yet as the news emerged, many of us in this city and the wider area began to hear that in fact we were personally connected to it.

John Alder and Liam Sweeney were two of the most passionate supporters of Newcastle United. The former had missed one game of any description since 1973. He was kind-hearted, thoughtful and though I never knew him too well, I will always remember the time he took pity on a naïve, let’s just say 18 year old, who’d forgotten his wallet at one game in Germany and he along with many others took me under his wing and made sure the effects the morning after of consuming large quantities of hops, yeast, barley and water were suitably well-conveyed in a highly practical manner.

Liam I knew rather better. He used to regularly steward the supporters buses that I use. He was a contemporary of mine and had basically seen the same ups and considerable downs as I had over past decades. Though his desire and willingness to get to, or at least try and get to, every game far out-stripped mine. I remember one cold evening when we’d just been turned over 6-0 if I remember in Manchester. There were some road works on the M62 and what should have been a short 3 hour hop over ended up taking us nearer to seven. I was sat with Liam on the way back. Before the coach even started its engine he was asking if I was going to Portsmouth a few weeks later. Colleagues may not realise, but having lost 6-0, it takes a special supporter to focus on the mammoth day trip to Portsmouth, armed only with some sandwiches and a single functioning coach toilet.

But it was not just knowing John and Liam that made this a deeply personal event. As demonstrated by the magnificent fundraising efforts spearheaded online by some Sunderland fans. The community that supports football felt this deeply. Why? Because we all felt it could so easily have been us. We all would have been in New Zealand if logistics had allowed. John and Liam were two football supporters off to follow the team they loved. And through no fault of their own they never came back. Not only did we lose two individuals many knew. John and Liam are a symbol. They represent something that unless you yourself share, I accept it is hard to understand.

I have a love-hate relationship with the football club. I love the club with a passion. And that love leads to a certain upset when things are not done correctly. And in many ways it’s hard to define what correctly is. Ask on a Saturday afternoon, especially when we’ve lost, at about 4.55pm. You’ll get 50,000 different answers. However, the announcements by Newcastle United Football Club to commemorate John and Liam through the unveiled garden, the events around the first game of the season (which I can tell colleagues were very tasteful and deeply moving) and through the new Alder Sweeney Community Award are not just to be welcomed, they are to be praised and encouraged and given a place at the civic heart of this city.

Too often the portrayal of football supporters in this City is done negatively. Worse it is often done in a stereotypical or patronising manner. What I can say is that for some of us not only does it matter and we enjoy it. But it is often the basis of our friendships, our social lives, and is a solid base to which many of us have turned to when needing a distraction from the realities of our day to day lives. John and Liam like all us all did not choose to follow Newcastle United. It’s always something that chooses you.

The world can be a very dark place on occasions. However the actions of Newcastle United, and the football community in general have shown that despite no, almost because of that darkness, people can come together and really show what matters in life. And yes that does include us humble football supporters.

The late Sir Bobby Robson, whose own foundation has benefitted so well from the fundraising efforts of the football supporting community once very famously said the following, which I will end on:

“What is a football club in any case?” “Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it.” It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes.”

“It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.” “It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

State of the City Address

August 13, 2014

Many organisations like the Centre for Cities, together with all the English Core Cities, have been campaigning long and hard to encourage Whitehall to allow us to have greater control over how the taxes we raise are used to deliver the best outcomes for local people.

We believe that we have an inarguable case – and our goal is the ensure that this is reflected in the manifestos of all three major political parties ahead of next year’s general election.

We make this case not because we because we believe cities should be independent of central government – but because we are a vital delivery partner for a government seeking to accelerate growth. Our cities are at the forefront of social and economic change. We have led the way on everything from manufacturing technology to public health. Cities can be the engines of growth but they must be freed from the shackles of government control if they are to truly reach their potential.

Here in Newcastle, and in all the other Core Cities, we are taking responsibility for shaping our own future. Together, through our ‘City Centred’ campaign we are making some fundamental requests to the Government:

  • Extend the concept of the Local Growth Fund for capital funds – but make it big enough support cities and regions to make big decisions.
  • Lift the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap so that cities can fund more housing development.
  • Generate certainty with greater local control of public spending and budgets that are the length of parliaments.
  • Devolve property taxes to cities and enable them to control other local taxes.
  • Consider the formation of a Local Investment Bank across all the core cities

Core cities can be the standard bearers for a new way of thinking that benefit both central and local government, with new arrangements for shared accountability and joint responsibility.

By working together on shared priorities at the local level we can respond positively to the financial challenge to identify long-term commitments that allow us to plan and invest in better outcomes for our residents. We do this based on local knowledge of our own communities which cannot be matched by decision makers in distant Whitehall departments.

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