Over the past year, we’ve been working behind the scenes improving the council’s website. It’s all part of our move to becoming digital by default, making all of our services available online.
Technology is changing and is transforming our daily lives. All the regular things we used to do have now been transformed in this new digital era, from shopping online, checking our bank accounts, to communicating with friends and family through social media. We’re now used to being connected from anywhere with any device and as a council we need to transform our services to meet this demand.
Our website gets over 250,000 visits a month, and it is the most popular channel for citizens – whether they want to apply for planning permission, pay their council tax or report missed bin collections – we already offer a lot of services online.
The changes we’ve done are building on what we have and making the website more user-friendly. We’ve listened to what a panel of users has had to say and all the improvements have been based on the feedback they and others gave.
A big part of the improvements has been around the content, keeping what’s necessary to allow people to find information easily, updating information so you don’t find pages are out of date, and improving the ‘user journey’ to complete tasks on the website quickly.
More and more people are now using their smartphones to browse the web. Visits to the council’s website from mobiles and tablets account for more than 25% of total visits. We’ve redesigned the website so it works and looks better when you’re on the move.
We hope you like our new-look website as much as we do!
(This blog is based on a speech delivered at the Core Cities Summit in London on 21st November)
There’s a mistaken perception put about that local government is always reluctant to embrace radical change. That we’re the last bastion of outdated working practices, the barrier to progress.
We all know that is not true, and I wanted to start by reminding us all of our radical roots. Two centuries ago, in cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle, people started to come together to talk about the big issues of their time. The coffee houses where people from Hall Green, Gorton or Grainger Town met were the birthplaces of movements that changed British society for the better.
Those reformers had that precious resource that tends to galvanise any social movement: anger. Anger at injustice and a vision for a better, fairer world. All of England’s core cities played a role in achieving badly needed social change, fighting against an establishment that – when not indifferent – was actively hostile.
The cities were home to revolts and uprisings around everything from rising food prices to the threat of machines in textile mills.
And as well as occasional violent revolt, our radicals engaged. They published pamphlets, formed movements for change, lobbied their often hopeless corrupt MPs and gradually achieved real change. They formed power companies, transport boards, housing corporations. They invested in clean water supplies and sewers, built schools and provided health care facilities. And so the concept of municipal local government was born.
Centuries on, we need to demonstrate that spirit of radicalism again if we are to meet the challenges of an age of austerity.
- Our predecessors fought against of the exploitation of child labour and intolerable factory conditions – we fight against youth unemployment and for a living wage;
- They fought to demolish slums – we plan for housing growth and decent neighbourhoods.
- They tackled the scourges of cholera and dysentery – we strive to address deep seated health inequalities.
These are the new campaigns that England’s great cities now need – to address the challenges of the present, and create the opportunities for the future, with the same passion we applied to solve the problems of the past.
Let me give you some examples of how we want to do things differently.
In the core cities, we know from our own communities the devastating effects of long-term unemployment. A complex mix of barriers to opportunity: poor health, poor housing, poor skills. Insecurity in work. Inequality in access to work. 1.3 million people out of work in our core cities, costing £5.7 billion in welfare benefits.
These challenges require local solutions, tailored to the needs of individuals and their communities. They cannot be addressed through contractual relationships with prime providers covering whole regions, through complex payment-by-results mechanisms which distort activity towards those least expensive to help.
The nationally-led, regionally-contracted Work Programme is simply not delivering. From the core cities, on the current level of performance, half a million people will complete the programme without finding work.
In contrast, locally-delivered programmes are delivering better results. While the national Youth Contract programme underperforms, the locally delivered pilots in Leeds, Newcastle and Gateshead are delivering results that are nearly twice as effective. And our work with individual families has shown that, through comprehensive support and early interventions, we can save up to £75 million for every 1,000 families that we work with.
We’re also prepared to take more responsibility for the other big challenge of our time, and respond more effectively to the needs of an aging population.
We want to create age-friendly cities that value the tremendous social and economic contribution of our elders. Instead, we are faced with spiralling bills for social care, creating unsustainable costs for councils and crowding out spending on services which help keep people active and healthy. This is driving pressures on our A&E departments, while the services that could have prevented the need for emergency care are struggling for resources.
The core cities are willing to take responsibility for a new approach. We need to break through the institutional barriers that get in the way. A more locally-accountable health and social care service, a whole system approach which saves money, and improves care and life chances.
The evidence has shown that this integrated approach could save up to 15% on delivery costs, for reinvestment into services which improve outcomes for our most frail and vulnerable citizens.
So this needs to be a two-way conversation. If we are prepared to be radical, we must persuade Whitehall – which has its fair share of outdated working practices and methods – to do the same and join us on the journey.
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.
To do this we need “place-based” settlements for public spending in each of our major cities, rather than the fragmenting of scarce resources through multiple Whitehall departments and agencies.
We need long-term commitments that allow us to plan and invest. Not short term salami-slicing.
And we recognise that this approach requires a culture change in our cities, as well as in Westminster and Whitehall.
Instead of only seeing deficits and dependency, we will build on the considerable assets and talents of our communities.
A step our radical forefathers would have approved of, moving power to local people, and trusting them to deliver.
A cooperative future for public services with the community – our citizens – at its heart.
A new, meaningful, localism, founded on mutual respect between central and local government.
A new generation of social entrepreneurs, seeking to shape the future not trying to change the past. This is our task. This is our offer. And, as core cities, this is our promise.
Our management agreement with Your Homes Newcastle (YHN), set up in 2004, is gradually drawing to an end. YHN has been a great success and has an outstanding record of service delivery and is greatly trusted and valued by its tenants.
In particular, the YHN Board and its staff deserve great praise for successfully implementing their Modern Homes Programme – the city’s biggest ever housing-improvement scheme – in which hundreds of millions of pounds were invested in modernising our council homes.
This mammoth undertaking took seven years to deliver and was completed in December 2012
For these reasons, the council has categorically ruled out selling it off to another provider or bringing it in-house.
Indeed, YHN’s long-term future as managing agent of the council’s social housing stock is secure and very positive.
We are in a difficult operating environment brought about by significant reductions in local government funding and this has caused us to review our relationships with all partners. In the context of the new reality we are confronting, our relationship with our arm’s length organisation (ALMO) cannot sit still. So we will now look to work with YHN to develop proposals which will bring greater certainty to the future management and financing of Newcastle’s council-owned housing stock.
The discussions will reflect the council’s vision for a new future; one in which tenants have a stronger voice; one in which tenants help lead the direction of the organisation; one in which tenants have a direct influence in all decisions made about them which effect their lives.
The objective will be that tenants will notice no day-to-day difference. This means YHN will still collect their rent, organise their repairs, deal with face-to-face queries and issues of concern and help with advice about welfare. YHN will continue to manage our council-owned housing stock.
Any changes will largely be invisible to them, though the impacts will be hugely beneficial.
We will ensure that there is closer alignment between YHN and the council’s priorities through a joint approach to business planning. It will help to more effectively align our investment programmes and allow us to maintain a 30-year business plan.
It will also help us to develop a model for direct tenant involvement in governance arrangements. Last but not least, it will identify efficiencies and every penny saved can be re-invested into frontline services.
There is still a good deal of work to do work through these proposals and, if approved by cabinet, we anticipate that the new arrangements won’t be fully in place until April 2016.
But the future for YHN, as an organisation with tenants more fully in the driving seat, is a bright one.
We are beginning to see the harsh reality of welfare reform in our city and these effects are being felt by almost a third of our households.
Some politicians would have you believe through deliberately divisive language that benefit reform is all about punishing other people – for example the lazy neighbour whose curtains remain drawn while you go out to work.
But the truth is far more complex, benefit reform affects all sorts of people and the greatest impact falls on those who are working hard but still struggling.
We knew that we had to work with our partners in reacting to the challenges we face, putting together a broad team of people from a range of organisations.
We started with our biggest immediate problem, the bedroom tax and its effects on Your Homes Newcastle’s (YHN) tenants.
YHN did sterling work, going out into communities, visiting over 6,700 households, preparing people for the approaching sea-change in their benefits and incomes.
Thankfully, the numbers facing eviction as a result of the bedroom tax remain small. And while we expect this number to increase, our commitment to keeping the number of evictions down will not waiver.
In order to act effectively, we had to understand the impact welfare reform was likely to have.
Instead of talking about welfare in isolation, we must talk about the wider issue of people’s incomes falling below what they need to survive.
A big part of the support we offer is making sure that people have access to affordable credit and don’t fall prey to both legal and illegal money lenders. In signing up to the Fair Finance Pledge and promoting credit unions across the city we were awarded for our hard work by winning a Stop Loan Sharks award from the England Illegal Money Lending Team.
We also continued our lobbying pressure on the legal money-lending sector. We blew the whistle on Newcastle United over its agreement to advertise a payday loan company on its shirts.
But we also do equally important work behind the scenes. For example between April and June, Five Lamps helped more than 6,000 people secure almost £10 million in unclaimed benefits- many of whom are often too busy caring for loved ones that they don’t have time to seek help.
In Newcastle we know the best solution to increasing incomes is through the creation of good quality jobs that give people aspiration and hope for the future. We’re working hard to make Newcastle a Working City by attracting employers to the city and encouraging existing businesses to grow.
You can see this in the work the council is putting into a pilot project in Walker, the area most affected by bedroom tax, helping people find work with local employers.
We’ve also worked closely with Newcastle Futures to support families affected by the benefit cap, supporting people and family members into jobs education.
But as I mentioned earlier, the council doesn’t have all the answers and there is no doubt that people in our city are facing tough times. The landscape is changing forever and we must continue to adapt. But I believe we are all responding magnificently and will continue to offer help and support over the months and years ahead.
For advice and information including debt and money advice, you can visit the Welfare Rights pages on the council website.
Cycling in Newcastle is about to undergo a quiet revolution.
We have seen an increase of around 30% in cycling in the past three years, but we know we need to do much more to catch up with some other cities in England.
And we are braced to do just that.
We are investing more in promoting cycling and doing more to promote cycling than any other council in the North East, but our ambitions extend way beyond the region.
We aspire to be one the UK’s leading cycle cities.
We have secured over £7m from funding bids in the last year to help improve cycling infrastructure and with council funding we now have a war chest of over £9m.
That doesn’t include the £20m being channelled into promoting sustainable travel options in Tyne and Wear through Go Smarter project which is targeting schools and places of employment and business. Cycling is a huge part of this.
An investment of this magnitude is a game changer for cycling in Newcastle.
We have set ambitious plans to increase the number of people using bikes for short journeys and are committed to enhancing the network of cycle routes and making Newcastle a ‘city fit for cycling’.
Importantly, we are also ensuring that the needs of cyclists (and pedestrians) are specifically considered at the planning stage of every new development in the city. To this end, the city’s highways officers are receiving cycle infrastructure design training.
The multi-million pound renovation of Central Station is a good example. We worked with representatives from the cycling community to develop the whole scheme. As a result, we installed cycle lanes on Neville Street to make east/west movement easier for riders and created a two-way cycle track to the south of St. Mary’s Cathedral.
So far, We have:
- adopted a cycling strategy drawn up in consultation with the Cycling Campaign and other groups
- Agreed £1.5m capital funding for Strategic Cycle Routes
- Installed more than 100 cycle parking spaces in the city centre
- Put in place cycle route to some secondary schools
- Offered cycle training to all adults in the city and all schools in the city
- Secured £1.3m for cycling improvements in Gosforth
- Held cycle infrastructure design training for the council’s planners and engineers
- Worked closely cyclists in the city through the Cycling Forum and e-newsletter
- Welcomed nearly 8,000 riders to the city for the Sky Ride
Next month, we are hosting a ‘Love Cycling, Go Dutch’ event to highlight the benefits of Dutch style infrastructure design. The conference event brings together speakers from the Dutch Embassy, DfT, nationally recognised transport academics and Sustrans as well as representatives from our neighbouring six North East authorities.
There is much more to do if we want to become a trailblazing city for cycling – and we have to consider the needs of other transport users too – but the important thing is that we have the desire, the commitment and the funding to succeed.
It’s been a really busy summer with a successful Newcastle Fair on the Town Moor, the 20th Newcastle Mela, Northern Pride, Sky Ride and the Great North Run among other major events in the city. Work started in Scotswood and on Science Central. There were major investment boosts for broadband and cycling. The council won a national award for our financial inclusion work and signed a multi-million pound deal to help people stay warm in their homes. The council’s public health team pioneered an innovative health bus project to complete health checks right across the city.
Looking to the future there we have a three point plan to help us get through these tough times.
- Balancing the books
- Changing the way we do things
- Investing in the future
Balancing the books
At the moment cuts and austerity are an unpleasant and unavoidable part of life. The implications are painful. Given the clear and obvious impact cuts have on people it is regrettable that the Government has announced further cuts for local government. We consulted on a budget which needed to cut £90m over three years. The Government announced an additional £10m of cuts for Newcastle in the Autumn statement and then up to another £8m in the comprehensive spending review earlier this year. Our best estimate is that the £90m over three years could in fact be as much as £108m.
Newcastle’s Cabinet will continue to make the robust case to Government that continued cuts are having a huge impact, and that is damaging and counterproductive. We will stand alongside our regional partners, Core Cities and the LGA in making that case. We have been clear from the start that we will be honest with staff and residents alike and will continue with that approach. We will also continue to apply the principles identified by the Fairness Commission to our decision-making.
Changing the way we do things
With the Government cutting our budgets year on year we could start to feel powerless, that Newcastle is a place that has things done to it rather than a place that does things. Our longer term approach to the budget is about taking control of what we’re doing, thinking about how the council might look in 2016 and how we could continue to provide services with the resources we will have. The council has four clear priorities and they will guide us and help focus services on the outcomes we want to achieve.
To take just one example, staff have developed a project called ‘chain reaction’ which provides flexibility for people who are eligible for social care. Chain reaction works with people to identify what they actually want from our services. This might involve people meeting together in their local café, or it might join people with others in their neighbourhood who can support each other. It allows people to be supported in their neighbourhoods, it is tailored around what people need and want and is based on cooperative principles. It is helping to support people in such a way that it is successfully avoiding them requiring high cost care packages. In short, it is both cheaper and more effective. It shows in one area what can be achieved and the potential to do so much more across the council.
Investing in the future
We need to keep focussed on the longer term future of the city. I signed an ambitious City Deal with Government which will unlock £92m of investment. It could ultimately be worth up to £1bn in total and bring up to 13,000 jobs to the city. The council is investing at Central Station to create a world class gateway to the city. We have unlocked stalled investment in the historic Stephenson Quarter around Central Station with developer Silverlink in a £200m scheme which will bring 2,200 much needed jobs. The first building is also going up on site at Science Central. We have secured £6m of Government funding to improve broadband connectivity across the city, and £5.6m for cycling connectivity across the city. We are investing £25million in our future homes fund and working with a private sector consortium on the expansion of Newcastle Great Park which will produce more than 2,500 much needed family homes. Work has also started on the £265m redevelopment in Scotswood which will create a new 1,800-home sustainable neighbourhood over the next 15-20 years. Our Apprenticeship Plus programme has created apprenticeships for young people both in the council and in local businesses.
These major projects are our statement of confidence in the future and is the biggest programme of investment in the city for decades. They are a visible sign of our concrete commitment to the city. However tough it might be we have to remember that better times will lie ahead.