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Why I walk with Pride…

July 23, 2015

This year I walked with over 10,000 people through the streets of Newcastle City Centre, celebrating Pride.

Like many people attending, I marched because I believe equal rights are for all, and that we all have a duty to safeguard those rights.

This is the eighth year that that the City of Newcastle has hosted Northern Pride with over 28,000 people joining in the celebrations. It has now become the largest free festival in the country for lesbian, gay, bisexual and Transgender people and their friends, families and allies.Picture from Pride event

The sky over central station was lit up in the colours of the rainbow to provide a warm welcome to those visiting Newcastle. A wide range of events and activities took place as part of the celebrations, including, film screenings, gallery exhibitions and concerts which adds to the vibrancy of our city.

Pride is organised by community volunteers, who commit their time and energy to host a festival that brings together people from all communities and cultures. Entertainment is on offer for both families and people of all ages which delivers huge benefits to our local economy.

We can learn so much from events like these. Pride is not only a time to celebrate it is also a time to remember those who have protested, campaigned and struggled in the past to gain both acceptance and equal rights.

It is an opportunity to reflect how laws which once oppressed have gradually been replaced by laws which empower. From equalising the age of consent, improving adoption and fostering rights to most recently legalising same-sex marriage.

The vigil that I attended to close Pride remembers those who still face prejudice or violence each day because of who they are and who they love. Things are changing, but we need to continue to tackle ignorance, intolerance and hatred so that all people, everywhere, are accepted without exception.

I strongly believe that we should do everything that we can to make this world a place where everyone can be safe and be proud of who they are. Until that time I will continue to walk with those who fight oppression and tackle injustice.

Cracking down on yob behaviour in our city

July 1, 2015

Councillors like me know from talking with and listening to working people and their families on the doorstep that the vast majority care deeply about where they live and that issues like litter, fly-tipping, low level ASB and dog mess are top of the list of their concerns.

It’s an issue that affects virtually every resident across our city. And what’s more it’s backed by numerous surveys and Focus Groups all telling us that ‘parochial issues’ – the physical condition of streets, pavements, the state of local parks, community safety – figure more highly than some national politicians imagine.

So, it’s time to get real. Crime in Newcastle is down by about 25% since 2008/09 according to the City’s ‘Safe Newcastle Plan’. 2,000 fewer people became victims of crime last year and crime in the city has fallen by a third. In Cowgate, one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, crime has fallen by a massive 55%, thanks to work by Northumbria Police’s Neighbourhood Team, working alongside other partners such as the City Council, YHN and the public.

Despite this improvement, anti-social behaviour and ‘hate crime’ still plagues some pockets of our communities, especially in the more deprived areas of the west and east ends of the city. Figures released by the Home Office reveal that ‘hate crimes’ rose from 579 cases in 2012 to 683 the following year. Too often the victims of this intimidating behaviour are the poor, the white working-class, lone-parents, some BAME groups and adults with physical and learning disabilities. The latest example is the brutal murder of Lee Irving, 24, a vulnerable man with learning difficulties.

It’s clearly a class, disability, race and gender related issue which has little impact on the lives of those who live in middle-class, comfortable neighbourhoods, outside the city, such as Darras Hall, Ponteland, some of whom are magistrates or JPs, who too often issue ‘soft sentences’, to the perpetrators of such behaviour.

Once again let’s not forget the victims here, especially old folk or disabled people who constantly have eggs pelted at their windows on a weekly basis or are subjected to vile verbal abuse. We know from survey evidence and group interviews that the ‘law-abiding’ majority of residents want the Council, police, Probation Service and the Courts to get tough on the hard-core of people who carry behaving badly and send out a clear message that hate crime, spitting, dropping rubbish and fag ends, unkempt front gardens, dog dirt, and unsupervised dangerous dogs who terrorise too many disadvantaged communities, is unacceptable.

That’s why the Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Vera Baird QC, and the City Council, have pledged to:

  • Protect and support vulnerable people such as those with disabilities;
  • Prevent and reduce crime and ASB;
  • Protect young people;
  • Reduce violence against women and girls;
  • Reduce adult offending and reoffending;
  • Reduce the harm and impact of substance misuse.

In practical terms this means retaining Neighbourhood Police Teams, modernised CCTV cameras, which can capture in great detail offences being carried out, on-the-spot £75 fines for dog fouling and regular visits by Your Homes Newcastle (YHN) to inspect ill-maintained tenants’ gardens. And the Council working with the police have increased prosecutions of those who park irresponsibly on pavements – a problem that isn’t always only dangerous for pedestrians, but costs the Council £250,000 a year to replace broken pavement stones.

Too often that’s something that people forget – littering, dog mess and bad parking eventually costs city council taxpayers money because the local authority has to clear it up.

In the past we haven’t been tough enough – we’ve kidded ourselves it’s inevitable that this type of behaviour goes on some of our communities by members of what some Sociologists refer to as a ‘’Feral Under-Class’. That’s a notion we need to challenge – wherever it takes place. We must stop the excuses and start to find answers.

The Council aims to work with, support and celebrate citizens who make a positive and worthwhile contribution to their neighbourhood. Community litter Picks have now become a central feature in some Wards across the city. Community groups such as ‘Friends of Kenton Dene’ have been re-established to look after green public spaces. Local businesses such as Bradley Hall has taken ownership of keeping the Kenton Park Shopping centre free from debris and dumped rubbish. Projects such as ‘Skills-Mill’, involving ex-offenders, have been put to work on environmental projects such as cleaning out ‘Devils Burn’ next to the Town Moor and watering Communal planters in nearby Westerhope. A ‘Boot Camp’ Initiative is soon to start in Kenton. The Council’s ‘Let’s Talk Process’ found that over 80% of the city’s residents backed the ‘get tough’ approach and welcomed ideas on how we can make the quality of life better for the law-abiding majority.

For example in 2013, a ‘U-Decide’ project (directly involving the community, Newcastle College, YHN and the Council) tackled the scourge of binge drinking amongst youngsters living in Elswick and Benwell and was warmly welcomed by local residents and voluntary groups.
Clearly, the causes of some of this behaviour are complex and multi-faceted, rooted in everything from socio-economic decline, structural inequality to ‘’dysfunctional families’’.

The longer-term solutions demand far more investment from central government to sort out, but by working together at a local level, we can make a difference to some of our citizens’ basic concerns now. For instance, by getting tougher, and sending out a clear message that bad behaviour and incivility won’t be tolerated. And finally, putting the victim first when it comes to our flawed criminal justice system.

Rebalance, reform and renewal at the core of devolution – Nick Forbes speech to the Core Cities Cabinet

May 14, 2015

Today we come together as Core City leaders and mayors to set out a vision of how we can make our country a better, fairer and more successful place. Today we launch our Devolution Declaration.

We’ll talk this morning not just about what we want from the new Government but what we can offer. The difference we can make to our country together.

You will hear today about our version of the ‘three rs’ – rebalance, reform and renewal.

The UK is one of the most centralised states in the world. Canada for example, holds ten times more tax receipts at a local level than the UK, Germany six times.

This has made the UK the country in Europe with the greatest regional economic disparity.

It’s not good for regions, for cities, for our residents or the country. Now is the time to do more.

Today we’ll set out how we can rebalance and grow our economy to create more jobs and eliminate the deficit, reform public services to improve outcomes and renew democracy.

You’ll also hear from a variety of experts from think tanks and academia that will set out some of the key challenges facing the city devolution agenda. As a Vice-Chair of Core Cities UK, I am proud of the role we have played in the great debate about the future of our country.

We have helped turn the UK’s cities from a problem to an opportunity, from a peripheral element in the debate about devolution, to a fundamental element of the solution.

And, while Westminster debates, local communities take action. In every one of the Core Cities, new partnerships are being created – between authorities, between the public and private sectors, and above all within communities.

The Devolution Declaration is our vision of a modern state for a stronger Britain.

But we’re also clear that devolution isn’t just about grand constitutional settlements. It’s about people.

It’s about finding better solutions for the citizens who struggle to make sense of the support available to them from a myriad of centrally-directed agencies and departments.

It’s about the business that wants to recruit skilled labour from their local communities.

It’s about finding a solution to the big public service challenges which face our communities – from the crisis in health and social care, to the need to improve bus services, to support for people suffering from poor mental health.

It’s about reducing poverty, addressing the deep seated inequalities in health, wealth and wellbeing which blight our communities.

The challenge is nothing less than the creation of a modern state – fit for today’s local and global challenges. A state that works for people not against them.

As people grow increasingly distant from Westminster politics and distrustful of politicians of all parties, they are more keen than ever on local solutions.

The last five years have seen unparalleled cuts to public services. More has been cut from local government than central government. More has been cut from the cities than from other, more prosperous areas. We’ve been forced into false economies which cut one part of the public sector – only to see higher costs emerge in other services.

As core city leaders we have fronted–up some of the most damaging implications, explained them to our communities, and won their support for radical reforms.

This experience tells us that a crisis in public services can only to averted through radical new approaches, delivered locally. Devolution is not just a constitutional issues – it’s a necessity if we’re to deliver the “bolder, better, braver” approach to public services, the only solution we have to continued austerity.

There’s increasing evidence that a place-based approach to spending and budgeting can save money, create a smarter state and improve outcomes.

We saw progress under the last Government. As well as the much heralded, Northern Powerhouse, the last few months of the coalition administration saw Manchester’s local authorities given control over their NHS budgets, a host of city deals and a massive change of policy direction on bus re-regulation.

The period at the start of any new government creates a window for long-term thinking. We need to move from sporadic and piecemeal devolution of short-term, inefficient funding, towards a more fundamental transfer of long-term responsibility for our local economies – rebalancing, reforming and renewing Britain through action in our cities, our communities.

The new man at the top of DCLG, Greg Clark has built a credible relationship with the core cities, through the deals we’ve done so far. While our politics differ, we know him as an honest and principled support of devolution.

Without him the modest steps we have already taken would not have been possible. In my home city, I can show you the jobs and investment that have createdas a result of the deal that Greg and I did for Newcastle.

His appointment creates an opportunity to re-set the relationship between central and local government. The core cities will be constructive partners in that process – pathfinders for a new national settlement to rebalance power and rekindle our democracy. So – in our focus on rebalance, reform and renewal – we as core cities are stepping up demonstrate our commitment to a fourth “r” word: responsibility.

Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have already made encouraging noises on city devolution. Earlier this week during a visit to Stockton, the PM talked about the need to ‘driver power’ out of London to the regions.

And as well as getting its own minister, Northern Powerhouse was also mentioned in George Osbourne’s acceptance speech on election night.

But we need more than warm words. Today our message to the new government is clear.

Seize this opportunity and commit to work constructively with core cities to create a better future for our country.


March 16, 2015

Today, March 16, is Devo Day, a chance for all of us to have a conversation about what devolution can achieve in Newcastle and across the North East.

Devolution means giving cities and their regions more freedoms over their own affairs, unfettered by interference by central Government. It also means working to empower local communities to do more for themselves.

It may seem like a bit of a distraction at a time when services are closing and people are losing their jobs, but for me it is the only way we can begin to fully meet the challenge of austerity and build a city that we can all be proud of.

Devolution can be a multi-faceted, complex and dense topic, and not the kind of thing you hear discussed often at bus stops and in pubs. But at its heart is a simple argument. Local decisions about local issues should be taken locally – not 300 miles away in an increasingly remote Whitehall.

Did you know for example, that 95 per cent of the taxes collected in Newcastle – e.g. income tax, business rates, VAT, road tax – go straight to the Government?

Some of that money does come back to us, with strings attached, but we often have to bid for it in competition with other areas. And even Council Tax – the one tax raised and spent locally – is increasingly being spent on priorities determined by national, rather than local, government.

All the evidence from Europe and across the World shows that countries that give their cities more freedoms to grow and spend money raised locally perform better and are more successful. So devolution isn’t a narrow political debating point – the scale of powers and responsibilities we can take on locally will determine how fast we grow our economy, build the houses we need and create the next generation of jobs.

Devolution also gives us the opportunity to ‘join up’ public services making sure that we cut down on duplication and waste. Our Newcastle Supporting Families programme is a trailblazer for this approach, co-ordinating interventions between public agencies and reducing long term costs to the state.

Newcastle and the other ten UK Core Cities have produced a graphic that aims to give you some practical examples of how devolution will make a difference to your life. How it can improve transport, help build more housing and create jobs. You can take a look at it here.

I’d urge you to sign up to the Core Cities’ Modern Charter for Local Freedom.

And I’ll also be talking about the issue via social media throughout the day, using the hashtag #DevoNE on the council’s Twitter account @NewcastleCC.

Saving Newcastle’s ‘forgotten generation’

March 11, 2015

As thousands of youngsters celebrated ‘good’ A-level and GCSE results across the city last summer, a significant minority didn’t achieve or dropped out of formal education for whatever reason.

According to recent official figures, the city has the highest number of NEETS (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) amongst all core cities in the UK. 18 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds are not in further education, employment or training and the picture gets worse when examining the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the city. Recent data leaked indicates that almost 10% of 16 to 18 –year olds are NEETS. Economic analysis reveals that the biggest percentages can be found in Walker, Benwell, Scotswood, Byker, Westgate and South Heaton. In both Walker and Byker, riverside wards of the city, more than 17% are classified as NEETS.

The independent Children’s Board trust implies there’s clearly a ‘’social divide’ when it comes to youngsters taking part in learning and training after the age of 16, a point re-affirmed by lead expert, Professor Robin Simmons and his colleagues at Huddersfield University.

According to the newly published report, the NEET group of youngsters are mainly defined by chaotic lifestyles; family breakdown, poor attendance at school; lower levels of prior educational attainment: learning disabilities; behavioural problems; informal caring duties for disabled parents; youth crime and workless families. In other words, vulnerable young people living in our most deprived communities. According to a recent report by Newcastle’s CSV many of these youngsters, especially living in the Walker area, lack the ‘self-confidence’ to stay on at school or attend college.

Clearly, as the Trust Board rightly points out, there needs to be a ‘’stronger, integrated partnership approach to NEET reduction with key stakeholders ‘’. Put simply, the City Council, secondary schools, academies, the ‘Third Sector’, and Newcastle College need to be working more closely than ever before to tackle the city’s biggest social problem. Most of these youngsters want paid work or get onto a meaningful apprenticeship scheme . This idea of a free market in post-16 education where schools, colleges and other post-16 providers compete against each other for learners is fast becoming discredited and costly according to Professor Simmon’s in his recent book, ‘Education, Work and Social Change’ (2015), and fails to meet the significant number of disaffected young people who want to access the jobs market.

Furthermore, we need more detailed localised empirical research into why many youngsters across the city don’t access training or educational opportunities beyond the age of 16, and more so why a significant minority won’t attend school even at primary level, which clearly restricts their employment ‘life chances’. That’s why Newcastle Councils recent policy decision to establish a Learning Challenge scheme with other partners is to be warmly welcomed. This project is designed to run alongside a North East Local Enterprise Partnership initiative to raise standards and attainment across the region.

The city-wide challenge will be co-ordinated by the Council in partnership with ’’our family of schools, businesses and further and higher education’’. The Council is fully committed on improving results from youngsters who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and reducing the number of NEETS which we all recognise is unacceptably high. There’s a clear need to close the gap in achievement between the most deprived children and their better-off peers, which is particularly evident between key stage two and key stage four. It will run in tandem with the Government backed NELEP plan to raise attainment across the schools and college network. It’s important to ensure that as many young people as possible get on and acquire good vocational and academic qualifications. It’s worth noting that the Ofsted ratings across Newcastle’s schools and college are well above the national average, but not all young adults are benefiting from this improvement. The attainment gap between children who are eligible for free school meals and youngsters who come from better off backgrounds is much higher than the national average. That’s why the Newcastle Learning Challenge’s remit will be to get to the bottom of why this is and what we can all do to solve it.

Learning to be a model citizen

March 9, 2015

Over 1,000 learners are following AS/A-level ‘Citizenship Studies’ courses across the country as part of their overall A-level programme, including Newcastle Sixth Form College in the city. This is to be welcomed by all those who want to see a ‘politically educated electorate’ in the second decade of the twentieth-first century.

Numeracy, literacy and information technology (IT) – commonly known as ‘functional skills’ in the further and adult education sector – are all taught in our school sixth forms and further and adult education centres. Yet post-16 courses in Citizenship Studies remain neglected, with the exception of the 250 providers across the UK.

Like fixing a plug or mending a fuse, citizenship education is a ‘life and social skill’ that we all need, irrespective of age, socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and ability or attainment.

One crucial aspect of citizenship education is a grasp of political, legal, economic and social processes. For instance, politics is concerned with power in our society. It affects nearly every feature of our lives. Decisions not only have to be taken in national, local and European settings, but also need to be taken within day-to-day social relationships. In essence, this is what politics is all about.

To participate effectively within the various decision-making processes, it’s essential that people are suitably equipped with the relevant civic or political knowledge, skills and confidence.

The last thirty years has seen the rapid development of society with the consequences of more centralised political-decision making, despite devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Centralised power has reduced the ability of citizens to actively influence decision making, let alone understand it. More disturbingly in last decade, a huge chunk of the population feel ‘alienated’ from the democratic process, especially youngsters, adults with learning disabilities or mental health issues, some minority ethnic groups and a section of the white working class. About four out of 10 of those registered to vote in the 2010 general election didn’t bother. Turnout in the 2014 council elections was even lower and only 15 per cent of the region’s electors turned out to vote for the election for a Police and Crime Commissioner in November 2012.

If this is unsettling consider voting among young people. According to Angela Ellam and Peter McBride in their important book, ‘A Councillor View of Modern Local Government’, only 20 per cent of 18 to 21-year olds voted in the 2005 general election, and a derisory one in 10 put a cross on a ballot paper in the last European elections!

Such a degree of ‘apathy’, it’s argued by some, stems from a lack of confidence in elected representatives’ ability to tackle the problems that affect everyday lives – an issue that’s become more acute in light of the revelations concerning the ‘expenses’ scandal amongst some Members of Parliament including M.Ps and members of the House of Lords.

Yet, ignorance about the issues at stake and of people’s own role in implementing change is a major factor in accounting for this ‘disillusionment’.
Citizenship education in the post-compulsory sector can help to create an active and informed electorate. The maintenance of a successful mature democracy is dependent on people exercising a choice between political parties and policies. Civic education can provide an awareness and deeper understanding of the ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ of citizens. It’s essential that people know how to keep and exercise these rights, something which can’t be achieved without an understanding of the democratic and political process.

It’s in post-16 schooling and at college that young adults need to acquire the skills and attitudes which make them better informed about politics, the law, how our economy works, and social issues and their participation in public life. Youngsters need to be able to appreciate and grasp the point of views of others, to present arguments based on ‘empirical’ evidence and to recognise and evaluate bias.

It’s crucial that young people by the age of 19 understand how their local council works, what the various political parties stand for, what a local councillor, M.P, M.E.P or magistrate does and how the British legal and government system operates. Furthermore, they need how to get involved in a local charity through voluntary work such as Oxfam, MIND or Cancer Research. Lessons in citizenship can help combat voter apathy, low levels of civic participation and create a politically aware, literate adult community.

Some policy- makers are sceptical about the role of citizenship in the post-16 curriculum as there’s the danger of dogmatism or bias. Yet history, which is widely taught across state and independent schools across the city can’t possibly avoid value judgements. Bias can’t be eliminated, but it can be recognised. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to maintain professional integrity, to acknowledge and encourage an awareness of a diversity of viewpoints on important civic, economic, legal and equality related issues.

Open, honest bias is often employed in universities to stimulate learners into a reaction; though in secondary or further education it ought to be rejected as some students are not ‘mature’ enough to challenge the views of their tutors and may even accept them as gospel.

Nevertheless academic reports and OFSTED Inspection feedbacks have shown that few problems have arisen from allegations of indoctrination or bias in the teaching of citizenship studies.

In an era of rapid change and declining participation in public affairs together with the Coalition Government’s interest in the ‘Big Society’ and Labour’s renewed commitment to the ‘rights and responsibilities’ agenda, the need for citizenship education in the post 16 educational curriculum could not be greater.

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.