Vote Remain in Europe on June 23rd.

Today I urge readers to do two things for me. You will no doubt be aware that there is to be a referendum on the UK remaining or leaving the European Union. This is such an important vote and I have some messages to help you make up your mind.

Firstly, please get registered to vote. If you are not registered you can’t vote. You must register by 7th June. Please go to Aboutmyvote.co.uk or GOV.UK/register-to-vote. Remember, if you don’t register, your voice and opinion will be ignored. Is that what you want? In particular I urge younger people to register and vote. This is about your future. Don’t let it be decided without you!

Secondly, I want you to vote to REMAIN in the EU. And here is why.

I can tell you all about the fact that 3 million jobs in the UK are linked to trade with the UK. Millions of people have a right to paid holidays and protections at work. I can remind you that the EU is the UKs biggest trading partner in what is the world’s biggest market that has no tariffs meaning lower costs for goods and services.

I could mention the UK gets £26.5bn of investment each year from other EU countries that could go elsewhere if we left.

And I might mention that a rise of just 0.5% in interest rates brought about by instability if the UK left would mean on average an extra £150 per month on the average mortgage repayment.

The economic case is made overwhelmingly to stay.

But I want to talk about what I believe this referendum is really about. I believe this referendum is giving a fig leaf of respectability to the issue that many that want to leave don’t want you to know about.

Their views on Race and Immigration. The two in their minds are linked.

You will always hear the leavers like Nigel Farage saying the UK needs control of its borders. Can I ask you: who controls the UK border now? The French? The Germans? The Italians? NO! It’s the UK!

Ah the leavers say. It’s these pesky Europeans getting in legally though. Particularly the Eastern Europeans. We don’t want them the leavers cry. Of course, all this conveniently ignores the fact that there are 4.5million Brits living abroad.

But don’t let facts get in the way of a good bit of xenophobia!

Anyone would think we have never had immigration in our country before listening to them. And in that lies a danger.

Beware of believing the rhetoric of the leave campaign. They use the same language that was used in the 1950’s and 1960’s as people from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean landed on our shores. The same rhetoric that led to hotels and guest houses putting up signs that said ‘No dogs, No blacks, No Irish.’ If the leavers like Farage have their way, you will see him turn on UK residents who are not like him. Be assured of that.

Any country that is sure about its place in the world can cope with all challenges that as an open and honest society we face. And with that, comes opportunities too. To travel, to trade, to broaden our minds and our horizons.

Finally, think on this.

In an uncertain world, why now would we fall out with our neighbours and retrench to a little England that in truth has never existed for most of us? And finally, tell me this: why are countries queuing up not to leave but to join the EU?

On June 23rd, vote to Remain.

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Bring back the cane……for the government

I can only believe the Tory government has finally flipped its lid. This happens when they start believing their own propaganda: lies for short.

The plan to force all schools to become academies is mad and it is wrong. Mad because it will cost money schools can ill afford. Wrong because there is no guarantee it will improve standards. If schools want to become academies then that should be up to the school, parents and wider community.

But this plan will fail. Why?

Because it is based on the lie that schools are “freeing” themselves from local authority control.

I wish someone could honestly explain what this daft notion of “freeing” is all about. As a governor of a community school over many years, the main role the local authority has had has been in helping when it comes to functions the school was not necessarily set up to deal with. This was often to do with legislative requirements brought about by government diktat. Or new government standards and preparing for a government inspection by OFSTED, the government’s school inspector.

Note all these are government requirements. However, according to the government, the council are interfering!

This will not end well.

On top of this you have the Free School agenda allowing schools to be opened in areas already well served by other schools, creaming off pupils at the expense of the others. Woodlands is the first of what will be other casualties.

A Day in the Life…..

As a local Councillor, I deal with all sorts of issues on behalf of my constituents. These can range in diversity from school places, parking problems, rubbish and fly tipping to complaints about the roads and council tax. What I have also had to deal with over the years is planning applications for students housing. When I say student housing, I mean purpose built blocks as opposed to houses which have been converted into Houses in multiple occupation or HIMO for short. This is a subject I hope to return to in the future.

Now, in the main, these blocks are fine in themselves. They serve a need and often use land which has long been left unloved and unused. Old factory sites, closed car parks, run down hotels or empty shop units have all seen new or refurbished purpose built student blocks. In the main, I have generally been supportive as it responds to an obvious demand and in time may free up one or two HIMOs along the way. That remains to be seen I know, but it does mean if a student is living in a block they are not living in a house.

However, those planning to build these blocks must be sensitive not only to architectural design but more importantly in my opinion to the impact the building and its occupants will have on the local population already in the area. Where they don’t take this into account or the site is obviously inappropriate, I have opposed on behalf of local residents who have contacted me or my colleagues.

A case in point is news as I write. Residents are worried that a 209 bed student block is going to be built right on their doorsteps in Hillfields. Currently the site is home to the recently closed Aylesford Intermediate Care Centre which closed due to budget cuts last year. Now, a developer from London has bought the site causing concern to local people. I have worked with my fellow St. Michael’s Ward Councillors Naeem Akhtar and David Welsh and asked them for their thoughts following a meeting with local people about the issue.

Naeem told me:

“It was a shock when I first heard of the plans. In general terms, I have no specific objection to purpose built student blocks providing good, safe and affordable rooms for the young people. However, to build one right in the middle of an estate which will overlook and over power residents properties is unacceptable. On top of that, it is quite a distance away from the university so I’m not really sure just how viable the plan is. I suspect the developer may be flying a kite to see if anyone bites.”

I also asked local resident Mrs Shanley who lives in Adderley Street right next to the proposed development what she thought:
“I am very upset with this plan. If this goes ahead, I will be looking directly at a brick wall. This part of Hillfields is a little cul de sac and this will totally over power us. On top of that, we will have over 200 young people right on our door step doing the things that young people do. It is far too many for the area to cope with. I am also worried about just what and who will be attracted to the area to prey on the youngsters.”

Cllr David Welsh added:

“Residents are concerned that whilst you can’t point to all young people causing problems with noise, parties and general anti-social behaviour, it is an inevitable consequence of such a building situated in close proximity to a settled community estate. On top of that, it will be the coming and going at all hours, the extra cars and the worry that this development will attract unwelcome attention.”

Naeem has organised a petition which he will take to the Council and planning committee.

The Police have also been contacted about this to see what they have to say too. Let’s be honest: Hillfields has its fair share of issues other parts of the city don’t have to contend with. Putting over 200 potentially vulnerable young people, often away from home for the first time in their young lives, in an area where they could become new victims of crime would be foolhardy in the extreme.

We shall have to see what the planning committee decide.

Tories attack Coventry and Labour voters

For the record, I post below a speech I made to the Council in Coventry on 23rd February. It’s in note form really but is easily readable and makes the points clearly enough I believe. I point to the last line which the Labour Party now appear to be using nationally so I am waiting for the cheque in the post. Any way, here goes…..

“Evidence is growing that both our economy and the world economy is going into reverse. Osborne describes a ‘cocktail of risks’ to the economy.
Oil prices have collapsed and US dollar strengthening meaning higher debts across the world. China is slowing down, Brazil is in recession with growth predictions across the world being slashed.

Migrant crisis is putting a strain on the European Union with the IMF recommending integrating refugees into the Labour market, bolster investment and advising any reductions in budget deficits should be ‘equitable and growth friendly.’

The Tories response is the exact opposite becoming more isolationist whilst continuing inequitable attacks on the most vulnerable in the name of austerity.

The Tories are deliberately attacking Coventry for daring to vote Labour locally and nationally.

Coventry has a proud history and with support, an exciting future
But it needs real help as it is still vulnerable to economic maelstroms.
Some stats courtesy of research and policy institute Centre for Cities:
• Employment rate = 66.1% 56th out of 63 cities in the country
• Population growth is high but its earning are 2.2% down in a year putting us 58th out of 63 cities
• 31,600 people with no formal qualifications 59th out of 63
• Unemployment is still higher than the regional and national averages
• Average income is £1800 less than the West Midlands which on average is some £2000 less than in 2008
• We have higher than regional and national NEETS

In response government have cut further education.

They have slashed early intervention grants.

Redistributed business rates to wealthy counties and boroughs.

Demolished Democratic Development agencies for unaccountable LEPS.

Funded locally unaccountable free schools at the expense of others.

Forced sell offs of social housing whilst denying Councils the ability to replace them.

Gave millionaires a £42,000 tax cut whilst increasing VAT to 20% and levied 24 other tax rises attacking the poorest in society.

They continue to ignore the growing crisis in social care and instead seek to pass the blame to local authorities by giving them the alleged ability to raise funds knowing full well the amount raised will not even scratch the surface.

And here’s something which has gone under the radar:

The Tories have scrapped a review into banking reform, a review they promised just at a time when predictions of another world wide banking collapse looms into view.

But at least they got a company with a turnover last year of £46BN to pay £130M in tax.

Not sure who I mean: just google it.”

Adopt modern adoption

I note the Tory Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, wants to “revolutionise children’s social work.” Interpreted, this means increase the number of social workers, get rid of regulation and help collective working between local authorities and other interested parties. It is designed to improve all aspects of social care they say.

Whilst no one can be in any doubt as to the need to continually improve by looking at and measuring performance, I do wish the government had acted earlier. It has been known for years that social worker numbers were declining whilst at the same time often knee jerk reactions from politicians resulted in the profession being totally trashed by a high profile case. This then would lead to increasing demand on the very service they have undermined by short term measures designed to demonstrate alleged accountability.

Nevertheless, if this is a road to Damascus moment, then let me welcome it but at the same time oppose privatisation of these incredibly sensitive and public services. This work is done because children need our help and should never be opened up to let big business make huge profits out of.

Finally, I welcome further moves to modernise adoption law which will ‘explicitly state that councils and courts must prioritise the quality of reparative care the child will need in order to recover from episodes of devastating abuse and neglect, and whether the placement will last through the child’s adolescence.’

This is absolutely right and we must never let lawyers or business ride roughshod over this important principle and human right.

Charterhouse and other houses!

I thought I would share my speech given to full Council at Coventry City Council on 12th January 2016 in reference to future planning and development issues in our city, so here it is.

“I wish to make two short but in my view and the view of my colleagues, Cllr Naeem Akhtar and Cllr David Welsh, very important points with regards to the Local Plan.

Firstly, we are supportive of the changes to land currently designated as green belt at Charterhouse Fields being changed to local green space, as long as this provides extra protection to the open green space for public use.

I understand in conversation with the Cabinet member that is indeed the case. That is very helpful confirmation.

The reason this is so important to us as the elected Councillors in St Michael’s is because we support the plans of the recently formed Historic Coventry Trust under the visionary leadership of its Chairman Ian Harrabin, to bring life back to the building and reinvigorate and reimagine the surrounding area. This includes the Sherbourne Viaduct and pedestrian tunnel designed by Stephenson on the world’s first intercity railway which was given grade 2 listing by Historic England just before Christmas.

This whole plot is an essential green lung enjoyed by both local residents and visitors alike which needs protecting from development falling outside those aims described and understood in the overall scheme of a redeveloped Charterhouse as a whole.

Lord Mayor, I just need some clarification on the following:

What has been agreed with Bluecoats School is that the school will transfer land to the trust to create an open view of greenspace along the river from Charterhouse to the newly listed Stephenson Viaduct. These areas currently include the all-weather pitch, tennis court and lower playground as well as the car park next to Charterhouse which is mentioned in the local plan draft. These incursions into the river valley will be removed and relocated onto the allotments site. The river frontage will then become local greenspace, wildflower meadows, wetland and woodland.

This forms part of the approved Heritage Lottery Fund bid and subject to match funding, the works for relocation and landscaping are funded. This will recreate the natural valley with the school screened behind a belt of trees and is important to create a parkland setting.

Here is the point:

The removal of all of the land from the green belt protection would mean the potential for building on the whole area. I am not saying that this will happen, but nothing is legally committed.
Therefore, only the land of the allotments up to an agreed boundary should be excluded from greenspace protection.

Subject to this small point of clarification, I understand this Local plan will ensure future development of the site is subject to sufficient protections and scrutiny within the new plan which we welcome.

My second point Lord Mayor relates to affordable and Council Housing. It seems rather timely that just after the last meeting of Full Council where the Housing and Planning Bill was debated in this chamber, we should be considering the Local Plan.

I note how the Housing and Planning Bill undermines totally the provision of affordable housing with the forced sell off of council houses whilst extending the right to buy to housing association tenants yet providing no answer to the critical shortage of such properties. At the same time, the government has resolved to introduce an end to life time tenancies and replace them with short term rents bringing back on age of insecurity we, and indeed our grandparents, all thought had been banished in this country after the war.

I suspect the government will not believe they have fully succeeded until they see a return to back to back tenements and outside toilets in our towns and cities.

That’s why I welcome any strategies in this plan which look to encourage, support and indeed favour the building of affordable and yes, Council Housing, to deal with the clear demand which is there and growing.

It should also be noted home ownership has fallen every year since 2010, a record of failure for the Tory government.

I urge us all to redouble our efforts in opposing Tory plans to break up communities and families by forcing people into shoddy or dangerous accommodation or to leave the area all together because they have been priced out of the market due to soaring private rents caused by profiteering or ever increasing house prices brought about because of under supply of houses for sale.

Lord Mayor, if we can achieve these aims, Labour will have done a good job for the citizens of this city.”

The end.

Abuse is always wrong

I see the Children’s Commissioner has highlighted how most sexual abuse is carried out by friends and family and up to 85% of it goes unreported. These are apparently shocking statistics but should they be so surprising?

I say this for the following reasons. For years, there was always a saying many will remember: “Children should be seen and not heard.” What on earth could that ever mean in a society always looking to keep up appearances?

The second reason is less obvious but important. Over the last few years we have seen countless historic investigations into all sorts of abuse mainly in so called institutions coupled with well-known celebrities charged and rightly convicted of such acts.

What this misses though is that it has been somewhat too easy to blame these institutions and the people who work in them and for the public and press to rather look down their noses at them and blame them for all the problems of abuse. The figures prove otherwise.

That has been a gross disservice to victims and survivors of this vile abuse and it really is time for those who are charged by politicians and the public to protect our children and keep them safe, to be given the credit they deserve instead of too often being vilified when some terrible abuse is uncovered, which let me be clear is always wrong. This will only lead to less people wanting to do this work and therefore more children being put at risk.

I support England’s Children’s Commissioner who said: “We must now wake up to and urgently address the most common form of child sexual abuse – that which takes place behind the front door within families or their trusted circles.”

How I agree.

Oh Lords!

New leader and new ideas abound like spring lambs in the autumn sunshine. I’ve just looked outside though and it is raining hard with no let up. Miserable, a bit like my mood at the moment. However, I have a plan. Or an old idea at any rate.

I don’t know why but was thinking about electoral reform. That’s what crap weather does to you! This one though is quite good.

I’m not in favour of wide electoral reform such as changing first past the post. I am though in favour of reform of the House of Lords. I don’t think that a fully elected chamber would do the trick though as it would ultimately become a challenge to the House of Commons. No harm in that you may think, except I personally don’t want to inflict yet more elections on weary voters. Turn out is pretty poor at the best of times and I’m not sure more elections can help with that.

Legitimacy can though. So here it is.

After a general election, the House of Lords should be populated on a proportional basis based on the results of the election. This should also be done regionally to ensure all parts of the UK are represented.

This would have a number of advantages. It would do away with hereditary peers who are an anachronism in this day and age. It would go some way to recognising proportionality in our electoral system whilst preserving the peoples say in the preceding general election.

I am open to suggestion or other ideas such as including cross benchers to include real expertise and specialisms which are a mark of our mature but at times aging system. I don’t believe the Church of England should be there but again am open to all faiths having representation as a proportion based on the overall method.

Who would choose them though? Good question. It would have to be done in conjunction with the Prime Minister of the day along with the leaders of all parties who had candidates and saved their deposit in the recent election. It won’t get rid of nepotism I suppose which is a great flaw I admit. However, no system is perfect.

There you have it. A reforming and revising chamber, still called the House of Lords because we must preserve our heritage, which has legitimacy and expertise. What could possibly go wrong?

Any thoughts welcome!

School governor stuff…….again!

There used to be a time when being a school governor, whilst time consuming, was something thought worthwhile and schools would be grateful for the involvement. Parents, community leaders and professionals could rub along, adding to the fabric and smooth running of the place whilst being a critical friend, supporter and champion of the kids. None of this can be done successfully though without a top notch and committed Head teacher.

I state from the outset that I have always had reservations about the role of school governors. I have long thought whilst the idea has merit, the execution leaves something to be desired. Where else and in what other industry would you give such potential power to often well-meaning but too often misguided individuals? How many often strive to see the school operate in their image or are left to exercise their belief that actually they know better than the professionals that run the school?

That’s why it has always been important to have both strong management and a diverse make up on the governing body which can see the school and its needs from the many different perspectives the governors come from. A counter balance in other words.

How things have changed though! OFSTED now rule with an iron fist and they are clamping down on the well-meaning worthies as Gove called them who are ruining our schools. The question is though: are they or were they ruining schools?

Their criteria for being a school governor now is nothing short of being the exact sort of professional I always believed were there to run the schools in the first place. I give one example.
Until recently, I was a governor at a particular school where I would attend various meetings to add my input. It became increasingly obvious though that something was wrong. Meetings were dominated by how the governing body could be more effective and conversant with the ever increasing and cumbersome demands of the OFSTED framework. Not only do you need to know what it is and how the school is performing but you must also have proof to back this evidence up.

How would you get this proof though? A council school adviser gave the following advice: start reading the children’s books. Check the marking and its consistency. This for me at one school was the final straw. Surely this is the teacher’s role I asked? But unless you can demonstrate you know what the teachers are doing, how do you know if the headline figures are correct he countered. So, I become a pseudo teacher I responded? No answer was forthcoming to that question! I asked two other heads from elsewhere about this advice and both were amazed by it. Certainly not they said.
Bottom of the class for that advisor I thought.

This is both worrying and counterproductive. Worrying because it is setting up governing bodies to fail. Counterproductive because it is driving often good governors away.

On the other hand, isn’t that exactly what OFSTED and the government ultimately want? A body full of new professionals. A new sort of worthy who will drive the school to do exactly what OFSTED want regardless of the needs of the children in the school. Taking no account at all of the makeup both of the area the school is in or the back ground of the pupils. This is not an excuse for failure as I have heard OFSTD say to me in the recent past but a real recognition of the complexities of teaching and their charges. There is no excuse for failure. But there is no one size fits all model either.

The sooner OFSTED recognise that the better.

Regional government

I print below exactly my words which were reported recently in the Coventry Telegraph following a debate in the Council Chamber at Coventry City Council recently where I first articulated this idea. This goes into some of the logic and is a genuine attempt to show a way forward by taking some political heat out of the idea of mayors which are unpopular and in my view unnecessary.

“Regional Ministers are not a new idea. Labour introduced them in 2007 with Liam Byrne MP being the first Minister for the West Midlands. He then famously moved on to be replaced by Ian Austin MP with Linda Waltho MP as his deputy. All three were MPs in the West Midlands.

“After the general election the coalition government did away with them. They talked about localism by wanting to transfer powers to local areas which in the end only resulted in referendums for elected Mayors which as you know were almost unanimously rejected across the country where polls were run. This ran alongside the ‘Big Society’ mantra which was going to be the saviour of all local services. That worked well didn’t it?

“I notice the government now have a Minister for Portsmouth believe it or not in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in the guise of Mark Francois MP. Seems to me that if there is a Minister for Portsmouth, why not for the West Midlands?

“My general point about the regional economy not recovering from the 1980s has merit when you look at unemployment statistics with our levels remaining stubbornly higher than the rest of the country. This shows that things need to be done differently and that our economy has unique features which need to be both understood and recognised so we can tailor policies to really tackle these structural faults.

“We are not the south east where virtually all the power of government and finance resides. The example I gave of when Peugeot closed could equally apply when Rover at Longbridge closed. DWP Job centres and taskforces were set up to help, support, train, educate and target both workers and employers to fulfil both the needs of the individual and the economy. It was to some extent a bespoke service due to the crisis at the time. That’s the sort of approach we need as a region all the time not just when a big employer goes to the wall.

“My idea of a Minster for the West Midlands is Labour Party policy. We proposed it in our manifesto. To quote: ‘Regional Ministers would facilitate relationships between Local Enterprise Partnerships, Local Authorities and central government; advise Ministers on the impact of local and regional policy; bring existing structures and the private sector together to encourage investment; and would be a visible representative of their area in Whitehall. Labour would set up a Regional Committee sitting in the Cabinet Office, made up of all Regional Ministers and Chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office to monitor local and regional policy outcomes.’

“Seems to me a Minister for the West Midlands could have clout, accountability and local connections. They could work across councils and government without the need to be seen as doing something special which is the case now. This would be real government at the heart of our city and region. Just like they have in the south east.”