Coventry City Centre Listings explained truthfully

I acknowledge like most Coventrians that Coventry City Centre could be better. There, I’ve said it! Not a controversial statement at all though really, more a statement of the blindingly obvious. The question as ever though is what to do about it?

Let me set the scene.

Back in the 1950s after the war, government said to Coventry: rebuild and here’s both the money and permission to get on with it. What emerged was a municipal rebuild which most acknowledge was ahead of its time and set the standard for city centre retail for the next three decades.

Slowly though, through economic turbulence, the centre deteriorated. It’s no one’s fault, it was a simple sign of the times. Various schemes were brought forward to refresh the place with limited or varied success. Money was sought from all quarters to make plans a reality.

Fast forward to today and the days of municipal planning are a relic of the past. Ownership of buildings and land is complex and funding is no longer available directly from government as it was in the 1950s and 60s. We have to work with what we have.

So, what to do?

As a Council, we have a civic responsibility to work with all interested parties to see what is possible. For the first time in nearly 20 years we have owners who want to work to upgrade the Upper Precinct and restore it to its former glory. Owners of the various buildings want to invest and spend to make this happen. Everyone is agreed to scheme to get rid of the escalator and ramp is the right thing to do to recreate the original sight lines up and down the whole of the precincts, north, south, east and west.

Then along comes Historic England, an unaccountable Quango made up of non Coventrians dressed in tweeds and Rupert trousers to lay down the law according to Tarquin and his friends at the grouse shooting club. They decide they like the buildings so much they want to list them. Forgetting the damage to Waterstones of course, but don’t let the truth get in the way of their arcane hobby.

On the face of it, the listing present no issue in terms of the recognition of the buildings themselves. That goes without saying. That’s why the plans to modernise take the best of the old with the best of the new.

What I have a problem with though is this: rather than work constructively with the owners of these buildings (not the council by the way), they instead arbitrarily list regardless of the impact.

Why though is that a problem?

Simply put it is this. In order to remove the escalator, the two shop units beneath need to be removed to make space for a new access for escalator and lift. This means loss of revenue for the owner who not only loses that money but also has to find at their expense new premises with better terms for the displaced business and a replacement entrance.

Listing also has a direct impact on the future value of a building. Why? Because listing means buildings are less attractive to would be buyers in the future because of potential extra expense if they wanted to fit them out for a would be tenant.

This calculation is done over a number of years. Listing adds massively to cost which makes these calculations hundreds of thousands in negative numbers. Not my calculations but the owners who are spending their own money. If it doesn’t add up, why do it? Let’s keep it as it is bringing in the rental they receive now. Where’s their incentive to do the work and take the short term hit?

Remember, this isn’t tax payer’s money but private developers. It’s no good people saying they shouldn’t be greedy. They are doing it to protect their investors going forward. This is people’s savings and pensions we are talking about! Yes, as a Council we can help but the money will come from the owners. That’s why the figures matter!

Historic England know all this. Somehow, they think it doesn’t matter. It does and they don’t live in the real world.

Finally, Historic England praise the work done at the old COOP on Corporation Street. This is a project I have had intimate involvement in working with the developer EDG. Yes, a private developer. CCC locally listed the building to protect it and have worked to see the plan become a reality. They praise us for that but don’t trust us about the Upper Precinct. Is Historic England inconsistent or incompetent?

I know what I think.

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Tax explained sort of…

No one likes paying income tax do they? Council tax in particular gets people’s ire. I’d hope at least that we can agree it is needed. What annoys people is when they don’t know why they do pay tax!

Let me try and explain this dilemma.

In Coventry, if council tax is raised by 1% it raises £1.2M. If income tax was raised nationally, it would raise £5.5bn. If that money was then redistributed Coventry could get £32M. Notice the difference?

Why is this important? The cost of looking after our country and our people is rising. People are living longer. This is great but comes with a price tag. It doesn’t run into millions, it runs into billions. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, spending on social care across the country has fallen in real terms over the last few years whilst at the same time the demand is rising at unprecedented levels.

In Coventry over the last five years or so the number of people over 65 years old has gone up by nearly 5,000. Children in care across the country and in Coventry has also shot up. The price tag for this runs into tens of millions each and every year. In the same period, the grant from the government for the council has been stripped by over £500,000,000. In return the government have said Councils can raise tax by a maximum 6% over three years raising circa £7.2M.

If the government actually spread that £5.5bn properly and evenly, council tax wouldn’t have to go up. Instead they have abdicated their responsibility to the most vulnerable in society and passed it on to local areas regardless of need or poverty. And what have the Tories spent the money on instead? £1bn to the DUP to keep Theresa May in Number 10 and £4bn on reorganising the NHS. That worked didn’t it?

Coventry on the up

That’s been an interesting year! All sorts of elections, false starts and comebacks. The year not many predicted. All this and Tory austerity continues unabated with the use of foodbanks inexorably rising and government promises of jam tomorrow in the form of Brexit.

In the meantime, life goes on. Some initiatives I have been involved in are all designed to try to improve the quality of life for our citizens here in Coventry. This can be in the form of new jobs, creating income streams to spend on hard pressed services or securing investments in new developments or infrastructure to both encourage commerce and shoppers whilst creating jobs for local people. Not just for today but for many years to come.

Here’s a run-down of some projects and their progress as of today.

1. City Centre South. Agreed the money to be released in January with the first contract to buy and knock down Coventry Point due in the new year
2. Very Light Rail. £12M negotiated from the Combined Authority in November to create a prototype by 2019
3. Brought back into public ownership Coombe Abbey which the council already had the freehold ownership but which will now bring in 7 digit profits to reinvest in services year after year for Coventry people
4. Agreed for new electric power to be pumped into Whitley to help JLR expand creating further jobs with work ongoing now
5. Won the national competition to secure and locate the new Electric Battery Development Centre in Coventry making it the national centre of excellence and manufacture of battery technology in the country. Land currently being prepared for construction
6. Created a new company with the council as 50% shareholder to construct further buildings at Friargate thus securing both rental and business rates to be invested in services in Coventry. Building 2 starting in 2018
7. Secured the Financial Ombudsman Service to locate here in Coventry in October this year bringing 300 jobs and rental income for the city
8. Agreed to enter into agreement with the Historic Coventry Trust to bring old neglected buildings back into use over a period of 5 years
9. COOP. Negotiated a sale to redevelop the old COOP on Corporation Street into luxury flats, offices and restaurants bringing in Council Tax, business rates and jobs for Coventry people. Work in the building happening as we speak with a preview event happening in January
10. Agreed further changes to Coventry Train Station to enable redevelopment and modernisation with work ongoing
11. Made sure the employment support service for adults with enduring mental health and learning difficulties had funding and a sustainable future meaning the Job Shop goes from strength to strength
12. Made Coventry the test bed for driverless cars putting us at the cutting edge of new automotive technology and making sure we are in pole position for new investment in this emerging field. Trials took place in November with further tests in 2018
13. Made an investment in north Coventry bringing an £80K return per annum for tax payers
14. Set up a fund to help support business to the tune of £20M over 10 years creating 1400 jobs and help grow 360 small businesses locally

None of this is done in isolation. I am a Labour Councillor and I never forget that. All of this is done with an end goal in mind with a clear political philosophy. Simply put: jobs change lives and good jobs with good pay and conditions change lives completely.

It’s what Labour is all about. That’s what drives me and will continue to do so.

Happy 2018.

Very Light Rail for Coventry-Update

Whilst I have covered the proposed Very Light Rail (VLR) scheme for Coventry in the past, I wanted to give my readers further information regarding its development and progress. It is a scheme I am passionate about but recognise the challenges ahead.

Firstly, we have settled on a pre design for the carriage or car which is all based on proven technology within the car industry. This now needs to be turned into a demonstrator vehicle. It will be powered by the latest electric battery technology being developed by Warwick Manufacturing Group based in Coventry.
Secondly, we have mapped out Coventry to look at what the ground itself is like and what civil engineering would be needed. This should be fairly minimal due to a revolutionary design for track which is easy to lay and easy to lift for maintenance. This can be used on existing surfaces be it roads, pavements or soft ground if need be.

Thirdly, I wanted to touch on the cost. It is too early to be exact but overall to deliver a first route would be in the region of £42M. Compare that to Birmingham’s tram costing £150M per mile. Overall, once you extend VLR it is reasonable to say it will be about ten times cheaper than Birmingham’s tram. This is all subject to a solid business case being presented to the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) to access cash from the devolution deal agreed over 2 years ago. At the moment, £2.5M has been secured from the WMCA to develop a prototype therefore not costing Coventry a penny. Proof if ever was needed that Coventry can get a better deal out of the WMCA than Birmingham!

Finally, the idea of Very Light Rail is to provide a state of the art, world class public transport offer with zero emissions to the Coventry public. Every great city has a good transport offer. This could make Coventry’s offer not good but great!

Election in Coventry South 2017

Now that Theresa May has finished cobbling together her doomed coalition of chaos with the Democratic Unionist Party, I thought it was time to reflect on the general election result in Coventry South.

Looking back now with the result known, you could be forgiven for thinking what was there to worry about? A majority increased by 250%!
At the time, plenty! We were miles behind in the polls and the Tories were cock-a-hoop believing they would take two of the three seats in Coventry. Erroneously, the Coventry Telegraph had Labour losing Coventry North East whilst retaining the North West. Madness of course but that was the climate.

Firstly, we had to confirm our candidate. Due to short timescales, re-selection processes were bypassed by the NEC of the party in favour of sitting MPs indicating and signing their willingness to stand. If the incumbent decided not to stand, the party would impose nationally. Fortunately, Jim Cunningham signed on the dotted line. The challenge had been accepted and the game could commence!
Except, this was no game. This was a fight for the heart, soul and future direction of our country.

Next, we had to get a campaign together. Time was short if we wanted to hit the ground running. Leaflets and letters were written, ordered and printed all in the space of two or three days. A schedule was prepared of activities including door knocking and leaflet delivery. All at the same time as being under pressure to get a Mayor in the West Midlands elected. Remember that election? No? To be honest, best forgotten!

Basically, the heat was on and there was no time to lose.

However, we had some advantages. We had a good idea where we needed to concentrate to get the Labour vote out and we had members who wanted to campaign. And how they campaigned! Labour members, many I had never met before came out in droves bringing an enthusiasm that was inspiring. Indeed, we sometimes had to run to catch up with them to make their time as productive and efficient as possible. We have lessons to learn there to be honest!

We also made contact with the Labour club at Warwick University to emphasise the need to help support Coventry South. I admit, my hopes were not high but I needn’t have worried! As a group, throughout the campaign they were exceptionally hard working and enthusiastic. I can’t thank them enough.

All together, we had members and supporters of all ages working together in a way which demonstrated the best of the Labour Party in campaigning mode. Our members were amazing and inspirational. And from what I could tell, they enjoyed it too!
We also had a secret weapon: our canvassing system.

Basically, it is a Labour Party tool, which if used frequently is a campaigner’s best friend. It tells us where the vote is and urges us to contact voters to get out and vote. It is hard work and it can’t be done overnight. But, used properly and over a period of time, it can deliver a systematic and successful campaign. And boy did it work!

This, allied with Jeremy Corbyn’s inspired campaign led to a share of the vote never before recorded in Coventry South since its creation over twenty years ago. 55%. Incredible! Jeremy demonstrated a style and ability which reached out across generations and demographics. He was in his element and voters here liked it.

Contrast this with the shambolic Tory campaign which shot itself in the foot and head every day for weeks. Never have I witnessed such a mega melt down from a self-anointed strong and stable leader. Still when you believe all your own publicity, is it any wonder what you perceive to be strength is actually arrogance?

I don’t want to give too many of our campaigning secrets away suffice to say this. Based on all the data I have to hand, Coventry South Labour Party won every ward in the constituency. If local elections had been held on the same day, Labour would have won every seat on offer!

Truly remarkable.

We must now build on this success for the future because the future is less certain than it has been for decades. Just because the Tories have gone backwards, don’t believe they are finished. They are not. They are wily, and they will use every trick in the book to retain power as the shady and expensive DUP deal graphically demonstrates.

We must be ready. Here in Coventry South we stand ready to rise to the challenge.

Labour 4 Tory 0

It is interesting to note in Coventry how local Tories voted in favour of increasing the council tax by 4.9% whilst voting against the budget as a whole! No mention of why of course whilst ignoring the fact that because their government refuses to properly fund social care the rise would be 3% less.

No one wants to increase tax but equally no one wants to see care for our elderly and disabled further diminished either. Hence the need for the rise.

On top of that, at a time when workers need all the help they can get, we have the government ‘consulting’ on closing job centres in the city. Contrast this with the Labour councils continued commitment to the job shop which helped 7,506 people in the last year get out of dependence and into work.

Notice the contrast between a Labour Council and a Tory government?

Just to add insult to injury, it was announced last year, Amazon are due to open a European distribution centre in Coventry creating 1650 full time jobs. Tories in Coventry voted against it. Labour supported it.

Notice the contrast between Tories and Labour again?

Then they complain about crime rising in parts of the city and ask what the police are doing about it. Meanwhile, in spite of the Tory government cutting 20,000 police nationwide and another £12M cut from West Midlands police this year, the Labour Police and Crime Commissioner in the West Midlands is recruiting 800 PCs and 150 PCSOs to help tackle crime.

Notice the contrast between the Tories and Labour once more?

Democracy: for better or for worse

Just a few words about on-going controversy about Europe and so called Brexit (a made up word to describe something no one really understands, so very apt then!) and whether or not people knew what they were voting for.

You could always argue people didn’t know what they were voting for in loads of other examples.

Think about this.

Take every general election since virtually the dawn of time.
Has anyone voted in a general election where in one or any of the manifestos it said the government would go to war? Not as far as I know they didn’t. They would though have said that if they won the election they would defend the country.

Since 1948 has a mainstream party had in their manifesto that they would destroy the NHS? I can’t recall one. They all say they would defend the NHS.

Another example. Taxes. Parties generally pledge not to increase them, specifically income tax. 2001 may have been an exception where Labour pledged to increase National Insurance by 1pence in the pound for the NHS.

So what happens in the end? Unsurprisingly, events happen over time. We go to war not because we want to but because national security dictates we do. One can argue about the specific examples but you get my point I hope. We’re defending the country or our interests they will say.

Parts of the NHS have been slowly privatised and waiting times have gone up. It happens over time and the government can point to keeping their pledge with certain areas of spending increased but the evidence is there for all to see.

Taxes have been raised more times than we can all remember. VAT, National Insurance, Council tax. You name it, it happens!
Did anyone vote for any of this though? No is generally the response.

So my question is this.

When people voted in the European referendum last year, what were they voting for? To partially leave? To leave on good terms? To stay but change the agreement of our membership?

It seems to me the question was as straight forward as it could have been: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? Vote yes or vote no.

Your choice!

How all this will end up is anyone’s guess. The idea that we always know everything about what we are voting for is absurd. We may suspect of course in some circumstances!

However, that being the case, just like after every vote this country has ever had, the argument will and must go on. Our country must not descend further into the sort of intolerant abuse that too often these days blights public discourse. That’s the point of a democracy. Everybody, and I mean everybody, including Tony Blair, has the right to argue their corner.

To finish, I quote our American cousins and friends: ‘it’s the peaceful transition of power.’

Happy New Year! Jobs for 2017 and beyond.

It was recently announced that a big firm would locate to Coventry creating 1650 jobs. This was something I supported and publicly spoke in favour of to secure the investment. There were some dissenting voices, particularly local Tory Councillors who disgracefully voted against the plans at a planning meeting.

Why do I support these plans though?

I used the same public information available to anyone in coming to my decision. Coventry has higher than regional and national unemployment figures and has done for years. Secondly, we have a particular problem with young people seeking employment. Thirdly, whilst we have two thriving universities in Coventry, something I fully welcome, only about 40% of school leavers go. Fourthly, it will be built on the old Jaguar site on Browns Lane, a site which has had employment on it since the 1930s!

Which leads me to my final and most crucial point.

The company creating these jobs operate in a growing sector of the economy, a company used and known by just about everyone in the country. They have promised full time contracts, reasonable pay and conditions with opportunities for apprenticeships for all workers. Why would I deny that opportunity to Coventry citizens? And how could local Tories denigrate these jobs and deny opportunity for our own people? In short, snobbery is the answer! Tory Councillors would sooner see people languish with no hope or opportunity than actually support people to get up in the morning and go to work!

Fortunately though the decision was made positively by Labour Councillors and we move on. My work does not stop there though.

Jaguar Land Rover and the council are in constant contact about their ambitious plans to build and develop modern batteries for new electric Jags! Very exciting I can tell you! A lot of work still needs to be done and we need the government to help with infrastructure so these plans can come to fruition. It will not be without its issues and problems.

One thing I can guarantee you though whilst I am the Councillor in charge of Jobs and Regeneration: no stone will go unturned in our pursuit of sustainable, modern and good employment in all its forms for our people in Coventry. That is my pledge.

Merry Christmas and let’s make it a very Happy New Year for all workers and job seekers in our city.

Very light rail in Coventry?

A number of people have asked me recently for further details about a ‘plan’ to introduce trams back into Coventry. There has been some publicity in the local media about it and I thought I would take this opportunity to clarify what it is all about.

As you know, as well as being a local Councillor in St. Michael’s Ward, I am also the Coventry City Council Cabinet Member for Jobs and Regeneration. In short, this is the policy area which looks at inward investment, redevelopment, transport, tourism and many other exciting areas.

So, one of the first questions I asked on taking the job was: is our public transport system good enough in Coventry?

In general, the answer has been a resounding no! The question then is what to do about it?

You will have heard about the proposed High Speed Two (HS2) train which the government are pressing on with. Whether, you, I or anyone else agrees with the principle, the government are progressing with it, the biggest construction project this country has seen for decades? Its first stop from London will be right next to the NEC which is just a few short miles from Coventry down the A45.

You will also be aware of the new Combined Authority for the West Midlands which Coventry is a member of. Again, this is a government construct which they are determined to press ahead with as part of their devolution agenda. It has many flaws that we are all aware of but one of its potential strengths is that it comes with new government money and borrowing powers. The idea is that this will encourage further investment in the area and create jobs for local people.

This got me thinking.

Other than road and the train to Birmingham, how will Coventry be linked up to HS2?

The answer? A bus I was told! A sprint bus to be exact. However, it is clear there is no great desire nor love for this idea so I asked about alternatives.

I was told we have a world class organisation in Coventry developing alternatives to traditional trams and buses! Very Light Rail (VLR) is its name. This is happening at the Warwick Manufacturing Group at Warwick University in Coventry. It is light, flexible and more importantly, cheaper than traditional types of trams. It doesn’t require heavy infrastructure alterations either such as overhead cables or road and bridge strengthening. Surely, I should ask that we examine and explore this opportunity? If we can get the Combined Authority to free up some of the £370M agreed as part of the devolution deal to join the authority, we will be in business.

You might ask why though? Well, why not?

When was the last time Coventry had a unique, new and revolutionary public transport system? It could be linked to Jaguar Land Rover in Whitley and beyond. Coventry could have VLR running in and out of Warwick University who employ thousands of people. And it could eventually be linked up to HS2 and even a new Birmingham Airport with a second runway. We could build it too.

The opportunity is there and the economic prize for Coventry and our population is great. It would mean new jobs, a new 21st Century transport system and yes, a tourist attraction for Coventry too.

I owe it to our citizens to at the very least see what is possible and practical.

Labour Today

I’m glad Labour appears to be putting the leadership election behind it and moving on. Whatever people feel about why there was a leadership election or what the result was, in the end it was done in a democratic way with a democratic decision at the end of it. Nothing runs smoothly in any political party which is full of different opinions and ideas of what to do or which direction to follow. What a successful party can do though is have our discussions in private, agree a position and then all pull together in the same direction. We have done it before and we can do it again.

We must unite to take on the Tories as once again they seek to both shape the country in their image whilst looking to divide society one against another. Take grammar schools as an example.

Any objective look at the proposal for their reintroduction across the country must conclude they are divisive and not just because of the entrance exam. They are divisive because we all know millions of parents think their child will be the one to get into the school so they will be alright. What happens when they don’t of course ends up being a complete lottery that they will almost certainly lose.

This is why as a party we need to challenge this policy not just by saying that it is all about segregation instead of education, but by putting forward a realistic alternative that offers hope to all parents whilst demonstrating best practice in schools of all types in our communities that offer great education and life chances for our children. That is what parents will respond to positively.

We should also unite to take on the Tories on the economy. They have torn up George Osborne’s fiscal rules and given up on the idea that they want to balance the budget in this parliament.

Why?

Because they know it can’t be achieved in exactly the way Labour has been saying for years. We need to go on the attack and stop the Tories painting us the wreckers of the economy which we all know was damaged by a world-wide recession caused by the banks and not by Labour spending.

We need to defend our record which we haven’t done very well since 2010 and point out that the Tories want to break their borrowing rules yet at the same time plan to continue austerity policies which adversely affect the poor far greater than anyone else. I suspect they are lining up sweeteners to lull the public into a false sense of economic security and Labour must be aware of that.

Whatever their motives are such as an early election or softening the country up prior to a hard Brexit, we must redouble our efforts to be seen not just as an affective opposition but a government in waiting. Hearing of MPs returning to the front bench is another good sign which will help to hold the government to account.

To quote directly from Clause 1.2 of the Labour Party rules book: Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.

That is our purpose for being. We can only help those who need our help if we attain government so we can legislate to make our country fairer and our poor richer. But to gain the country’s trust, we must be coherent and united. Otherwise we will fail our great historical purpose.