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Change in voter registration could be a recipe for disaster for our democracy

February 26, 2015

FEBRUARY has been designated as a National Voter Registration month according to the independent Electoral Commission. Although most adults have registered to vote with their local councils, a huge number of our citizens haven’t, including young people who have just turned 18. According to recent figures released by the Commission, there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of youngsters not registered to vote. It’s been estimated that from March to May 2015, the number of 17 to 18 year-olds being placed on the official Electoral Register could be down by 100,000 in contrast to 2014.

In Newcastle, 18,000 people are missing from the register, who are legally entitled to vote in this year’s general and local elections. In the 2010 general election only 44 per cent of young people aged 18 to 24 exercised their right to vote. Unless radical action is taken this figure could be much lower, which would be a recipe for disaster for our liberal democracy. Thousands of people across our region have simply vanished from the Electoral Register as every individual is now responsible to register to vote themselves. What’s wrong with the old system we had where households could register their partners and their teenage sons and daughters. In short these reforms could have a big impact in cities and towns like Newcastle, Durham, Sunderland and Middlesbrough which have high numbers of young people and students.

According to some experts this year’s general election could have a major influence on young people. The outcome could affect education and vocational training at schools, colleges and universities as well as the contentious issue of tuition fees and bursaries, together with the lack of affordable homes and sky high rents. It could have a huge consequence on the number of jobs available in light of soaring youth unemployment, especially up here in the North- East. Newcastle, for instance, has the highest number of NEETS aged 16 to 24. A staggering 18% are neither in work, education or training!

Although electoral registration officers in most local authorities are doing their best to get the missing thousands to register, much more needs to be done to preserve our democratic way of life. The following measures could be adopted to reverse this disturbing trend:

  • A legal duty placed on school sixth forms and further education colleges to give details of youngsters approaching 18 to electoral registration officials;
  • Encourage local politicians from all parties who are genuinely committed to democracy to address groups of Post-16 learners about the value of voting;
  • Encourage universities and colleges to register blocks of students living in halls of residence;
  • Place Citizenship Studies at the heart of post-compulsory education;
  • Pilot election-day registrations.

And finally, let’s broaden the franchise so that 16 to 18-year olds in England and Wales, like their peers who voted in last summer’s referendum to decide whether Scotland should go it alone or not. Evidence suggests that many young people north of the border were not only registered to vote, but did cast their vote in the ballot box to determine Scotland’s future.

Young people should be allowed to have a say in all UK elections which will determine their futures. That’s why local councils , schools, colleges, universities, youth clubs, politicians and campaign groups need to work together to register young people to vote and make sure they don’t lose their voice. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of the next generation.

Investing in our future will create the jobs and growth our city needs

February 25, 2015

Today I’ll be joining Cities Minister Greg Clark and the Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University Chris Brink to mark an important milestone in the regeneration of our city.

The formal opening of the Science Central site that stretches from St James’s Park to the West End of the city is the result of a ten year partnership between the City Council, the University and the Government.

Without council and its partners matching ambition with cash and commitment, the creation of one of Europe’s largest city centre development opportunities would never have happened.

It will be good to welcome Greg Clark back to Newcastle, because through him the Council was able to secure an ambitious City Deal which helped us to unlock £92 million of investment across Newcastle and Gateshead. This deal allows us to fund development of sites like Science Central, and others across our Accelerated Development Zone, using the additional business rates generated from the investment to pay back the borrowing.

It is a strategy based on being prepared to take prudent risks to make our vision for the city a reality. Success depends on us now attracting the major investors we need to locate on the site, which we are working hard to do. But Newcastle is a much more attractive proposition to potential investors with several acres of prime city centre real estate to offer, rather than a derelict brewery site sitting on a maze of unstable mine workings.

People may ask how I can talk of investing in the city in one breath, whilst arguing about cuts to council services in the other. But these issues are not incompatible. Government cuts impact on the Council’s revenue budget which funds day to day services. But the council’s ability to borrow to support capital investment in the infrastructure, highways and homes which create the conditions for business to grow are not affected – provided we can show that our investments are based on a sound business case which generates a good return for the city. Throughout the economic downturn we have sustained our ambitious plans to support the city’s economic future – because ambition, vision and a commitment to make things happen are what great cities need to thrive.

The unique partnership between the City Council and Newcastle University has been central to our approach. It allows us benefit from the university’s global expertise, and focus delivery around its research strengths, allowing the council to invest in the city long term, to create the jobs and economic growth. This is precisely what we’re trying to achieve on Science Central.

The site will combine cutting edge architecture with new public spaces, new family homes and apartment living, world-renowned scientific expertise and leading edge companies, all working together to maximise social, economic and environmental benefits. Supported by the partnership, Science Central will be a hub for innovation, creating a lasting legacy of for the North East.

At the heart of the Science Central development the first building on the site, the Core, is a symbol of Newcastle’s bright future. Built and entirely owned by the council, space in the building was 90% pre-let before the doors opened. Companies genuinely want to be a part of a vibrant emerging business community. The crossover between new technologies and how they can help meet future challenges that cities face is clearly interesting to a host of exciting new businesses.

Newcastle University itself is also investing in Science Central, and has unveiled its plans for a £58 million Urban Sciences Building, which will house their world-class School of Computing Science, putting Science Central at the forefront of urban innovation.

The prestigious Future Cities Catapult recently recognised Science Central as an exemplar of how to address the future challenges of growing cities, through urban innovation. Interest in the site is growing, with the scheme attracting positive attention by investors and businesses from across the world.

From its days as the booming Elswick Colliery – to its time as the home to the Scottish and Newcastle brewery – this site has always been a place where innovation, industry and community grew side-by-side.

And it is this inspiring legacy of energy and innovation which has been adopted by the partnership. This is the core to our success. We’ve kept our ambitions for this site alive through a damaging recession. And when the government abolished the Regional Development Agency and its funding in 2010, it was the strength and commitment of the partnership between the council and Newcastle University that allowed Science Central to proceed, by buying out the government’s stake. By working together our partnership has grasped with both hands the opportunity to create an exciting environment for the businesses of the future.

Opportunities to invest in Newcastle have never been better.

Investments made by the council and its partners are now being delivered, and the city’s skyline is changing. We are seeing exciting new developments at Central Station and the Stephenson Quarter, and on the North Bank of the Tyne. Investors are bringing new jobs, recognising that Newcastle is a great place to locate and grow a business.

The council’s programme of renewal and reinvention is delivering the biggest transformation of the city’s infrastructure in a generation. We are improving national and international transport links. We are making our city centre easier to get around on foot and by bike. We are putting in place the superfast broadband connections that today’s businesses need to connect to their markets. We are building new homes across the city, creating new communities for our growing population. And we are creating new business districts, which will attract international investors and create thousands of new jobs.

Science Central is a site that reflects important aspects of Newcastle’s past, it is creating vital new jobs in the present, and it will be an essential part of a bright economic future. I am proud to lead a council which is prepared to invest today for a better tomorrow.

Mental health: Challenging the stigma and ending discrimination across the country

February 11, 2015

THE decision of top retailers such Tesco and Asda to withdraw offensive adverts depicting people with mental health related issues as a danger to society is to be welcomed by all those who seek a better understanding of mental illness and its impact on individuals and families.

It’s estimated by MIND and other charities that 1 in six people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in any given year – a conservative figure according to lead campaigners on the issue such as Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor. Amongst teachers one in three will experience some form of mental health problem according to one trade union. Mental illness has replaced unemployment as the country’s largest social problem. More people with mental health issues were drawing incapacity or DLA benefits than there were jobless people on the ‘dole’. The World Health Organisation indicates that clinical depression will be the second most common health condition both in the UK and elsewhere in the world by 2020.

Mental ill health costs some £105 billion each year in England alone. So depression is not only bad for overall happiness, it’s bad for GPD too. Alarmingly, citizens with a severe mental illness die up to 20 years younger than their peers in the UK, and there remains a clear link between mental ill-health, bad housing, unemployment, family problems, debt, poor education, learning disabilities, crime, alcohol dependency, social isolation. All this is compounded by stigma and discrimination ,despite the Equality Act of 2010.

Negative stereotypes still exist about those suffering from depression and other mental health problems. It’s suggested that people with a mental illness are more likely to commit crime. Wrong. Many victims of crime tend to be people with mental health problems, according to the official crime figures. Also, many students in FE experience mental health issues, but few are prepared to disclose this on application forms or at interview for courses.

Much has been achieved by charities such MIND, Rethink Mental Illness and the Time For Change campaign to break down stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness. But perhaps, one of the biggest and bravest attempts to highlight this issue was the decision by four M.P.s last Autumn, including North East MP, Kevan Jones, to describe their own experiences of depression. Moving accounts, from all four parliamentarians, ranging from Conservative MPs to Labour ones, which attracted a lot of positive public support helped place mental health higher up the political agenda last July.In October 2012, Newcastle Councillors from both parties drew on their own personal experiences of this horrible condition in a constructive and informed debate in the Council Chamber – an excellent example of cross-party working and thinking on one of society’s most pressing issues.

As Alistair Campbell rightly points out, depression is a horrible illness for which there is too little understanding. He says: ‘’The nearest I can come to describing it is that when its strikes you feel dead and alive at the same time.’’

But more needs to be done to challenge negative stereotypes and mental health discrimination. To their credit, some larger employers in the region, such as NCG have designated themselves as ‘Mindful Employers’ and ‘Positive About Disabled People – though this may command overall support from Executive management, much more needs to be done to educated junior managers and other staff members about the issue. It’s still the case that many employees who disclose having a mental health issue at the workplace experience indirect discrimination and low-level bullying from inexperienced and ill-educated managers – some whose ambitions exceed their abilities! Moreover, there’s a clear case to toughen up the Equality Act and the DDA, which offers some legal protection from discriminatory practices at work by bringing in an Anti-Mental Health Discrimination Act.

Too often mental health services provided by the government are patchy and treated like a ‘cinderella service’. According to Campbell in his book, ‘The Happy Depressive’, only a quarter of those suffering from mental health issues such as depression or anxiety are getting any kind of treatment or support, and that usually meant drugs. One of the country’s lead thinkers on the condition, Richard Layard in his influential work, called the’ Depression Report,’ recommended training an extra 10,000 clinical psychologists and therapists to provide cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for those suffering clinical depression through 250 local treatment centres, providing therapy courses costing £750. This would save the state millions of pounds in paying out disability benefits and lost tax receipts.

Earlier this month Newcastle Council re-affirmed its commitment to those experiencing mental health issues. The council believes it has a role to play in improving the mental health of everyone in the community and tackling some of the most entrenched inequalities. Mental health should be a priority across all functions of local authorities, colleges and universities who can play a positive role in championing mental health on both an individual and strategic basis. Improving mental health should be seen as an integral part of a holistic wellbeing approach to citizens who live, learn and work in the UK.

Devolution Summit – 9 February 2015

February 10, 2015

Speech given at the Devolution Summit on 9 February 2015.

My name is Nick Forbes, I’m leader of Newcastle City Council and I also lead on Public Sector Reform for Core Cities UK.

Before I respond formally to Phillip, I want to say how great it is to be here in Glasgow today. It was a privilege to sign the Charter for Local Freedoms in a city that saw such a renewal and resurgence of democratic debate and engagement during last year’s independence referendum.

I want to thank Phillip and the ResPublica team for their dedication to produce a radical vision of how devolution to our cities might ‘work’ in practice. It makes a valuable contribution to what is becoming one of the ‘great debates’ of British politics.

ResPublica has set out a clear and achievable timetable for action and produced a report that underlines how close the links are between devolution and reforming our public sector.

They also set out a compelling vision of how a ‘smarter state’ might work, empowering our citizens and renewing our localities.

The key to this vision is in the ‘local’, the places that we all call home. But I don’t see the future of these places as City States, as referenced in the title to this report. To me, that sounds like something out of 16th century Europe.

Instead of the walled city, I see places that are open to new ideas and that spread their wealth and knowledge around their localities.

Our cities are more than just buildings within tight boundaries, they often serve as drivers of their regions. For many people a nearby city provides education, employment and entertainment.

I want shared states that help UK plc become more globally successful whilst maintaining their strong local identity.

There is a strong Public Sector Reform element to this report. Public Sector Reform. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting subject does it? If someone approached you at a party and introduced it as a conversation topic, you might try to edge towards the door.

But as I’ll demonstrate, Public Sector Reform will touch and improve millions of lives. It has the potential to make people across the UK happier, healthier and more prosperous. We can produce a smarter state that meets their needs despite this era of austerity.

It might seem strange to you, to hear a Labour politician endorsing a report by a Think Tank that’s often described as ‘right of centre’.

But Public Sector Reform is also not political, at least not with a big ‘P’. It’s embraced by everyone who wants a smarter state, anyone who is sick of seeing valuable resources wasted, anyone who wants the potential of millions of lives to be fully realised.

And if done correctly and with the involvement of local people it can transform neighbourhoods and give our local democracy a much needed shot in the arm.

And one of the best things about Public Sector Reform, is that it’s actually happening right now, it towns and cities across the UK. We need to start talking about it as a concept but as a movement that is already taking hold.

Like the devolution debate itself, it is gradually moving from Think Tank to mainstream. From policy to people.

But first I need to tell you what Public Sector Reform is not.

It is not a ‘silver bullet’, it will not automatically provide a solution to the terrible toll austerity is taking on the people of Newcastle and our other great cities.

The clue to Public Sector Reform is in the title – it will require a decent and fairly funded Public Sector to work.

As I’ve said before, devolution is all very well – but you need something left to devolve down to. If Government continues on its single-minded ideological course to reduce public spending to record low levels there may simply not be the capacity to manage the transformation from old to new.

We may differ on the detail, but the general consensus is that there’s a better way to manage the state and our millions of interactions with it.

A way to avoid the duplication, waste and artificial separation that holds us back and wastes so much talent and energy.

If we adopt a ‘whole place’ approach and devolve budgets downwards to a local level, we can begin to make a difference to our most complex and hardest-to-solve social problems.

And we need to remember that those successes when they happen, aren’t just ticks on a spreadsheet. They represent lives that have been improved, transformed, turned round, even saved.

So in the city I lead, the success of our Newcastle Families Programme, our version of the Government’s Troubled Families initiative – which uses local know-how to break down the barriers between services to get children into school and parents into work – shouldn’t be seen in terms of numbers of families reached or the payments by results we receive from Government.

It should be seen in the difference that our local approach has made to lives blighted by poor expectations and poverty.

The hope it has brought to people who in the past felt written off and frustrated by the state.

The family who now have a decent income and can afford a holiday or to move to a better home, the child who no longer sees school as something to avoid or disrupt but as somewhere they can learn and feel safe.

One parent, asked what another local version of this national programme had changed about their lives, said: “Everything, we’ve gone from being a household not capable of anything to a rebuilt family.”

Imagine the difference doing things differently, of joining up services and setting simple, clear, objectives, made to that family.

Imagine the savings it will make to the public purse, the future precious revenue that won’t have to be spent on reactive health, education or policing.

The fact that it is so local, that it is managed by people who know and care for an area and the people in it means that families now have a chance to contribute, they feel for the first time that they have a stake in the system.

And that’s not just good for them, it’s good for our democracy and it couldn’t have been realised using the old ‘top down’ way of doing things where solutions were imposed from a Whitehall mandarin’s desk hundreds of miles away.

It’s an example of how devolution does not weaken, it strengthens and enhances – it underlines the enormous potential of what we are discussing today.

And that sense of the local should be key to any talk of public sector reform. As the Respublica report makes clear, reform won’t take hold unless it is locally driven.

It simply won’t work unless cities have the right financial freedoms to be able to make a difference on the ground.

It cannot be a top-down reform, to really make it work we need to return to the beginnings of local government, before our country became the centralised and inflexible state it is today.

We need to return to a radical reforming spirit that saw our civic forefathers take matters into their own hands, driven by an anger at social injustice and a desire for a better state.

It was civic leaders in the 19th century who invested in clean water supplies and sewers, saving thousands of lives. It was they who built schools and provided health care facilities.

They founded the principle of municipal local government.

But over the last 60 years, somewhere in that post war consensus that brought us a welfare state and a National Health Service – we lost that spirit of freedom and radicalism. We mistakenly thought that a ‘one size fits all’ central solution was best and slowly and surely Whitehall took over.

Local Government became seen as a barrier not an enabler to progress and its spirit of innovation and difference became something to be feared, not celebrated.

Now we need a new settlement with Government so we can return our town halls to their radical ‘can do’ roots. Today’s Charter for Local Freedoms and this valuable report set out how might be able to do that.

It is the only way we will successfully meet the challenge of austerity, delivering high quality services, enabling economic growth and looking after the vulnerable.

No change is not an option, the world is moving fast and people expect their public services to match that pace of change.

Many aspects of our lives, from dating to travel, from selling a car to buying music, have been changed forever by a technological revolution.

Our citizens, and everyone in this room, expect and deserve faster, better, more local solutions that take account of the diversity of their lives and their neighbourhoods.

It is only through devolving powers to a more local level that can make this happen and only by doing this will we renew our democracy and make our cities truly great again.

National Voter Registration Day

February 5, 2015

Today is National Voter Registration Day (NVRD) – we’re supporting it because we want as many people as possible in Newcastle to be registered to vote.

As the returning office responsible for the elections it is really important to me that everyone has the chance to vote. We know that once the deadline to register to vote before an election has passed, we often get calls like “I didn’t know I needed to register to vote”; or, “I meant to register but I forgot”; or “It takes too long”.

Well, you may not know this, but you can now register to vote online at http://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. It takes just a few minutes to complete a form. It’s a quick, easy and convenient way to register to vote. So take advantage of NVRD and go online now to register.

Please help us spread the message amongst your family and friends who may not have registered yet that it only takes a few minutes to complete the form. Tweet your support by using the #NVRD hashtag or share our Facebook post. You can also share this fun, short, video of Ballot Box Man, which has been put together by the Electoral Commission to show what can happen if you haven’t registered.

And remember – Your vote matters! Make sure you’re in!

Pat Ritchie
Chief Executive
Newcastle City Council

Going Digital Out and About

January 8, 2015

During the latter months of 2014, the Digital Inclusion team were invited to take part in a number of events that were not on the face of things obviously ‘digital’. In October we helped to deliver activities to mark Older People’s Day and joined dozens of other local support organisations at Grey’s Monument to commemorate World Mental Health Day. In November we played a key role in promoting Alcohol Awareness Week and at the end of that month we met Newcastle residents and carers at a lively Carers Right’s Day event.

 

The Rossetti Studio Ukulele Group at a Grainger Market Event

The Rossetti Studio Ukulele Group play the Grainger Market Event

 

All of these were fantastic and incredibly valuable occasions. We spoke to residents and to other organisations; we gave out dozens of ‘how to’ guides to ipads, androids, online shopping and staying safe online, as well as mouse mats, flyers for free digital skills training and information on local IT courses. We met a lady so frustrated with technology that she had almost given up and persuaded her to attend a local drop in group to improve her confidence. We met an aspiring entrepreneur – forced to give up work due to ill health but determined to start his own eBay business and eager to find out how.

 

During Alcohol Awareness Week we helped to publicise social activities for older people that provide alternatives to depending on alcohol for diversion. We ran two ‘Techy Tea Parties’ where we talked to people about how to get the best from (or just start using!) their tablet / ipad devices, and attended the ‘Main Event’ at the Grainger Market with music, dancing, information stalls and taster activities. At the latter we gave people information on healthy living and local events, but we also promoted the ways in which digital technology can help to alleviate loneliness and social isolation, whether by the safe use of social media, online discussion groups, Skype and FaceTime, or simply sharing personal interests such as games, crosswords and reading.

 

The fact that digital inclusion was considered by the organisers of these varied events to be relevant to their work; the interest and discussion that our stalls attracted, and the range of concerns and motivations of the people we encountered, is indicative of the permeation of ‘digital’ into multiple spheres of modern life. As Jeh Kazimi observed in a recent blog: ‘Reaching the hard to reach isn’t about hitting a numerical target. It’s not about how many people are connected…We don’t just need to get them online, we need to give them the motivation to stay there. And that means finding a version of the Internet that’s relevant to them’.

 

 

 

Why nobody need be homeless in Newcastle

December 9, 2014

What is your first instinct when you see someone on the street with a sign that says “please help me – hungry and homeless?” Do you offer to help? Leave it to someone else? Or do you let them help themselves? What if this was you or your child? Why does this happen in modern Britain? And what could be done to prevent this?

The compassionate reaction is to want to give the person some money or maybe even a coat or a sleeping bag. However, we have found that a longer-term partnership approach is far more effective.

The Homelessness Act 2002 requires councils and its local partners to come up with a clear strategy for homelessness prevention. It compelled councils to consider homelessness as more than a simple housing supply problem; it made us ask why some people face a greater risk of homelessness than others and to examine the root causes, the risks involved, and the possible solutions.

We see no reason why anybody should be homeless in Newcastle. I think we have done extremely well preventing homelessness in our city. I touched on this in my blog in January entitled ‘fighting the scourge of homelessness’, and we have the figures to back this up:

• The council and its partners have reduced statutory homelessness by 80% since 2003
• Not since 2006 have we relied on B&Bs as emergency accommodation
• The number of evictions by Your Homes Newcastle has reduced 50% since 2008

Partnership working is at the heart of our approach to preventing homelessness – a fact recognised by the previous government, who made us their Homelessness Champions in 2008 and Rough Sleeping Champions in 2009.

In 2013, an independent report by Heriot-Watt and Northumbria University found that our homelessness prevention work – particularly YHN’s – was ‘highly effective’. The big challenge now is to maintain this track record in the face of the largest ever disproportionally high public sector cuts, by working closely with our partners to ensure we make fair choices for tough times.

Funding for people at risk of homelessness was cut by 24% in 2014-15 but organisations in Newcastle have worked closely with our commissioning team to make the most of the funding available. Despite these cuts, the council has retained a budget of £5.5 million to commission local services to prevent and respond to homelessness – providing a daily outreach service to find and help rough sleepers; 832 units of accommodation; and flexible support for up to 1,081 people to help them to sustain their independence. These local services also secure an additional £10 million per year from other sources.

I know that when you see people asking for money on the street, because they are homeless, it might look as though the council and local charities aren’t spending that money wisely or aren’t doing enough to help.

The dilemma homelessness services face is what to do when people aren’t ready to change their anti-social behaviour. In Newcastle, we think we’ve got the balance of fairness right and that the services we provide create the right conditions for people to change. Whilst we don’t give up on people, that doesn’t mean that ‘anything goes’ and that people don’t have to take any personal responsibility.

This is just a glimpse of the work that’s going on in the city to help everyone enjoy good wellbeing and health. It includes the recent winning of up to £2 million by a partnership bid led by Home Group, from the Fair Chance Fund, to help young homeless people into work; Tyne Housing’s 42 new flats in the Ouseburn Valley; a bid by Changing Lives to secure £5.5m from the Big Lottery Fund to tackle complex needs; and the wonderful compassion shown every day by the volunteers at the People’s Kitchen.

We are doing our best to make fair choices to help people cope in tough times. There aren’t enough hours in the day to talk about all the good work that goes on in our city – but if you want to know more about volunteering, or how to donate to homelessness charities, please contact activeinclusion@newcastle.gov.uk.

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