State of the City
Welcome to the third State of the City event held in Newcastle. Over the last year, through our Policy Cabinet meetings, we have heard about some of the major issues we face as a city. This event today is an opportunity to reflect on how we are doing as a city, to debate our big opportunities and challenges and to ensure that we make the most of the assets, talents and ambition that we, the leaders of this place gathered here today, have to offer.
This conversation comes at a time of immense difficulty for the city, and no doubt everyone in this room has been touched by the economic crisis the country has faced since 2008 – when Newcastle, as the home of the Northern Rock bank, found itself at the epicentre of a world financial meltdown. In the subsequent years businesses have seen a deep recession with slow signs of recovery. In the voluntary and community sector, despite talk of a big society, funding and resources have been squeezed. And many in the public sector recognise the new challenge of today, doing more with less.
I can tell you – it is not an easy time to be leader of a council. It is not a happy time to be leader of a council. The LGA have warned of the end of local government as we have come to know it, predicting a bleak future of skeleton services. Even the Audit Commission is warning of councils facing bankruptcy. Our long term approach to the budget will avoid such a fate but we know that we face a severe strain on services. My colleague Lord Beecham, Leader of the Council for almost 20 years to my 2 so far is on record as saying he never faced anything as severe in his time as leader. We have a generation of public service managers who have only ever managed growth, and therefore find the concept of dismantling what they have created very difficult. And politicians – at the sharp end of public opinion – who instinctively feel uneasy about the speed and magnitude of deficit reduction.
As we think about the state of the city it is difficult to speak about it with one voice. The scars of inequality mean that the people of Newcastle are engaged in a two horse race – some face a bright future as they benefit from the upturn in the economy. Others face a more uncertain future. I was horrified recently to hear that in my own ward the food banks, an embarrassment to any developed society, have had to alter what they put into food parcels as there are people who can no longer afford to heat the food they are given.
So it is all too easy to be ground down by austerity, deflated by economic recession, focused on the here-and-now. In other words, to be victims of the circumstances created by outside forces who do not understand the city and do not share our values.
But instead, we have kept our heads up, looked ahead. For every challenge we face we are looking to develop a Newcastle response. That response is based on our priorities, of creating a working city, maintaining decent neighbourhoods, tackling inequalities and making sure the council is fit for purpose. When I say the council needs to be fit for purpose I don’t just mean it runs efficient services, which is of course important, I mean that it needs to be enabling and leading rather than directing. I hope that these priorities can bring us together as a city, and help us all understand how we can make progress together.
The first priority is to make Newcastle a working city. This isn’t just about getting people into work to reduce the welfare bill. It’s about recognising that work reflects dignity, self-respect, hope for the future. Good quality, stable employment gives people the ability to put down roots, raise a family, be part of a community. And well paid work means that people can plan for their future, rather than be reliant on the state.
View the NewcastleGateshead – Genuinely inspiring video from last night’s event.
In the last 6 months we have put forward ambitious proposals to invest in the future of this city. We have established a £450 million capital investment programme, in new jobs, new homes and modern infrastructure. This is designed around the twin principles of identifying new sources of income for the council, and reducing our predicted future cost pressures. It was our Plan B for the economy – and it’s working. Everywhere you look in the city there are now works going on, diggers moving earth, cranes moving bricks into place. We’ve unlocked development in the Stephenson Quarter, are providing a new gateway to the city at the Central Station and – top secret, this one – have our own coal mine in the heart of the city. Not so much coals to, as coals from, Newcastle. We’re accelerating brownfield development with a £25m Future Homes Fund, investing with the University in the North Bank of the Tyne, and are establishing Newcastle as a low carbon Pioneer City taking the lead on developing new “green collar” jobs. We’re developing a skills hub to ensure our skills system meets employers’ needs and boosts apprenticeship numbers, and this week, alongside Gateshead, we have published our local plan which will support a projected 14,000 new jobs and provide 21,000 new homes by 2030. We have set the shape of future development in the city and allocated space for business to grow – including a new international business park at the airport. I refuse to let this city stagnate and the plan is our prospectus for growth in the coming decades.
We have a successful Local Enterprise Partnership, to ensure that the priorities we set for investment maximise the positive impact on the wider economy, creating the private sector jobs we need, and applying business acumen and expertise to expand our economy for the future.
Our Science City partnership is inspiring new generations, creating the buzz of a city which welcomes high technology jobs and businesses. We are looking forward to hosting Europe’s largest science festival this September. The Business Improvement District Company, NE1, a business partnership, has introduced Alive after 5 bringing evening shopping, restaurant week, fashion week, new wayfinding signage and a team of city centre rangers. I’m confident they will lead a successful campaign to renew their mandate this Autumn.
This week we launched our new culture fund, a radical new way of funding arts institutions in our city. This is our innovative solution to funding the arts in a climate of austerity, taking funding for art galleries, theatres and cinemas out of the revenue budget where it will always be under pressure, and mobilising investment in the arts from individuals and organisations.
And just as the city came together to celebrate the Olympic torch and Olympic football, we now have the opportunity for a further celebration of sport: as a host city for the Rugby World Cup 2015.
Of course, there is much to do to shape the economy of the future. We will be campaigning and lobbying for the interests of the region…..
- For future investment in the East Coast Main Line, protecting our station and our services from a misguided re-franchising.
- Creating an inspiring gateway to the region at Newcastle Central Station.
- Securing a trans-Atlantic flight
- Re-establishing a ferry route to Scandinavia
- Bringing high quality offshore engineering jobs to the banks of the Tyne.
- Locating public institutions in Newcastle, rather than assuming that they must always be in London.
- Securing the North East’s position as a centre of expertise for exports, for advanced manufacturing, for new technology and new ideas.
It’s my vision, and my ambition, for Newcastle to once again take our rightful place as a world class city, proud and confident of who we are and what we can achieve.
But we can’t do this without our residents.
What people see and feel when they step out of their front door is the key to the success or otherwise of any place. Again, people are working together to make the city a better place to live and work.
For example, our partnership for an Age Friendly City, led by our Elders Council, is bringing together our GPs, communities, universities and businesses, to create a city which understands and makes a reality of the great economic and social opportunities arising from a growing older population.
Or our work in support of the many Newcastle residents who are veterans of the armed forces. We’re helping local organisations and charities win funding for supported accommodation, helping people to re-enter the jobs market, and get better access to housing.
We have great partnerships with our Universities, students and the students’ unions, working together to create a safe and welcoming city that continues to attract young people from across the UK and around the world.
Local services the council can no longer afford are being given a new future. This council has not just walked away, or sold services to the highest bidder. We have invested the time in developing community capacity, working together wherever we can.
I want to pay tribute to people like Nicola Vose, working with us to secure the future of the Castle Dene and Cheviot View respite centres.
To the communities in Jesmond and Dinnington coming forward to secure the future of their library services.
To the Grainger Park Boys Club, who are working with us to secure the Scotswood Sports Centre.
To places like the Cowgate Centre, the former Football Development Centre in Benwell, Eastfield Avenue Recreation Ground and Monkchester and Broadway West Cricket ground – all run by the council in days gone by and all now thriving under the stewardship of community groups with the passion, energy and know-how to safeguard them for the future.
The biggest challenge we face as a city will be to maintain our level of care for the elderly, as demands on health and social care systems rise, and the resources available to meet those demands is cut back each and every year.
As a city, we start with excellent services. But we know the national care system is unsustainable. It’s our biggest area of spend, our greatest population challenge – and the area of the council’s work that people know the least about. As soon as 2015, we will be unable to continue the support we provide for the most vulnerable older people. This is a national crisis of massive proportions. We’re already creating radical new solutions, helping people use personal budgets to support local shops, cafes and community centres, but it’s a race against time.
And we cannot provide high quality care by people on poverty pay.
That’s why I’m proud to pay a Living Wage to our own employees, and to advocate it city-wide. A Living Wage that could also reduce pressure on our social security system, by tackling the root causes of the rising costs of welfare, rather than stigmatising those who need our help.
And, as I said earlier, we face the danger of a more unequal city. We know that a rising tide does not lift all boats; some are holed, and others are sunk altogether. A city can never be truly at ease with itself if the talents of so many are wasted. And so to ensure that everyone benefits from investment in our city our Fairness Commission, a true partnership of people from across all sections of city life, led by Chris Brink, the Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University, set the standard for a new way of managing the challenges we face as a city. Encapsulated in the title of their report: Fair Share, Fair Play, Fair Go, Fair Say. In keeping with those high standards, we’ve applied a fairness test to all our decisions.
Our new Wellbeing For Life Board, has developed a common assessment of the future needs of our city – tackling the underlying social and economic determinants of poor health and inequality which have scarred our city for generations.
In the 19th century, it was councils who led the fight against insanitary conditions and slum housing. We now need a similar commitment to tackle the public health crises of the current era, in particular smoking and drinking.
Last week we were given an award for our work to reduce the prevalence of smoking. More than 10 Newcastle residents a week die from a smoking related diseases. 45% higher than the national average. Losing on average 16 years of their lives. From April the Council has new public health responsiblities, and we’re taking those seriously. Our Newcastle Declaration on Tobacco Control is now being promoted to every council in the country. The leadership shown here on our biggest killer is now being followed by the rest of the UK.
I once described Newcastle as having a drink problem.
The Prime Minister came to Newcastle, to see the excellent services at Newcastle’s hospitals, just over a year ago and committed to introduce a minimum price for alcohol. That commitment has not been met, so we need to redouble our efforts to address the problem head-on.
We are prepared to take action against shops which abuse their licence conditions. We are setting standards on pricing and tackling irresponsible discount promotions.
And I’m proud that we will be the first city in the country to introduce a Night Time Levy, in close partnership with Northumbria Police, helping to sustain and expand the services which make Newcastle a safe place for a night out.
One of the greatest threats to the cohesion of life in Newcastle is the cuts to benefits, without seeing a growth in jobs to offset them. The cuts will take up to £80m from the city economy. We all want to see the welfare bill cut – but through people being in decent well-paid jobs – not through cuts and the demonisation of people who are in need.
In particular the government are removing what they call a “spare room subsidy”. This is a tax on some of our most vulnerable people, people with disabilities, people who care for a sick relative, people with loved ones serving in the military overseas, single parents struggling to make ends meet.
Early indications are not good. Our social landlord Your Homes Newcastle is reporting that rent arrears are rising fast as this damaging new initiative takes hold. From us the message is clear: for those that access help, we will do all we can on a case-by-case basis to avoid the threat of eviction from their homes. We’ve checked more than 7000 council houses and already re-classified over 400 bedrooms that have been converted for other uses, such as walk in showers, making a difference for at least some of the people affected.
All sorts of benefits are being cut or disappearing entirely as the government pursues its welfare reform agenda.
But it’s no good just wringing our hands and doing nothing. We protected face to face advice services in our budget. We’ve campaigned against legal loan sharks and made £1m of additional loans available through our credit union. We’ve also increased the numbers of staff in our call centres so they can point more people to the help they need.
As I said, the council works best when it works collaboratively. Forming the North East Leadership Board of the seven council leaders into a Combined Authority is a momentous change. As a region we will be able to manage our resources, securing devolution of funding, power and responsibility: for jobs, skills, transport and economic investment to be determined here, in the region, on behalf of the region.
But there’s a job to be done in our city too. And that is why we have invited you here tonight. We are all leaders of one sort or another, business leaders, community leaders, or faith leaders. We all know our city from different angles and perspectives, have a different understanding of its strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows.
In 1967, Newcastle University gave Martin Luther King an honorary degree, the only European university to do so in his lifetime and just months before his brutal murder.
He concluded his acceptance speech by describing a humanity “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality … transforming jangling dischords into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”.
Powerful words, spoken here in Newcastle 45 years ago, and as relevant now as they were then. For they remind us we have permission to dream of a better world, not just accept things as they are now. But they also remind us we have a responsibility, each and every one of us, to make that better world a reality. We don’t all walk at the same speed, but as long as we’re all walking in the same direction then we’ve made a good start.
This is a speech from Cllr Nick Forbes given at the State of the City debate on 10 July.