600 Homeless Deaths a National Disgrace

Figures released this week by the Government show that 597 deaths in 2017 related to street homelessness. Manchester, with 21 deaths, had the highest number. Birmingham (18) and Bristol, Lambeth and Liverpool (all 17), also registering more than one death a month.

Our view is that the fact that nearly 600 people died on our streets in 2017 is not just a tragedy, but a national disgrace of which we should be deeply ashamed.

These figures show that all over the country, our homelessness crisis is at epidemic levels and people are indefensibly losing their lives. Liberal Democrats want the Government to be building up to 100,000 affordable social homes a year and to provide accommodation and support to those in need.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, prior to his election, promised to “end rough sleeping in Greater Manchester by 2020”. This is only 10 months away, and we need to hold the Mayor to account for his promise.

A Freedom of Information request by Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran has shown that 6,518 ‘offenders’ were found guilty under the Vagrancy Act (1824) between the years 2014 to 2017 in England and Wales. Greater Manchester Police made 441 prosecutions in the four year period.

“The Government, and local authorities, should be ashamed that they have continued to allow the use of a law that makes rough sleeping a criminal offence, and for it to be used so prolifically with little regard for the people afflicted.This law was controversial 200 years ago, and it has no place in a modern, compassionate society.I call on the Government to back my cross-party campaign to scrap the Vagrancy Act, a Bill which criminalises and degrades the most vulnerable, and should bring shame to those who allow its use.”

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran is campaigning to scrap the 1824 Vagrancy Act.

Reporting Back: Greater Manchester Budget Scrutiny

Last week was an important opportunity to scrutinise the Council budgets which are set at a Greater Manchester level with the regular meeting of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority ‘Corporate Issues and Reform Scrutiny. Bury’s Lib Dem Councillor Tim Pickstone represents Bury on the Committee and reports here:

Mayor’s General Budget
A part of our Council Tax bills are paid directly to the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s office. A large part of this is for fire services, for which there are no major changes this year in total costs.

In 2018-19, for the first time, the Mayor levied an extra General Levy to residents of £8 a year (for a band D property). The proposal is that this will increase by 125% to £17 per band D property.

The rationale for this increase is around buses. They Mayor wishes to introduce free bus travel for 16 and 17 year olds – estimated at costing up to £9 million. There are also significant monies set aside for future ‘bus reform’ – this is recent changes to legislation which gives city regions like Greater Manchester the potential to have a more regulated bus system.

Bus travel in Greater Manchester has been steadily declining over the last 20 years (as with most of the rest of the country), but the Mayor sees improved bus travel as a key solution to congestion. We’re less convinced this is the only way forwards and would like to see significant investment in all pubic transport options (tram and train) as well.

I asked the Mayor about the 16/17 year old free bus travel. One question is that this is only buses (so not free travel on trams and trains) which I feel will limit the usefulness off getting young people to opportunities (like apprenticeships) which are difficult journeys by bus. A second concern is what measures will be taken to make sure all bus users feel safe using the bus, for example at night.

There is not proposed to be any increase in the amount local councils have to contribute to Transport for Greater Manchester in 2019/20 – though there is extra money for bus reform and 16/17 year old travel (see above). The largest expenditure items in Transport are – concessionary travel for pensioners, subsidised bus services and the cost of borrowing (largely the cost of building new Metrolink lines in recent years).

The proposal from the Greater Manchester Police and Crime Commissioner (who is Greater Manchester is the Mayor) is that the police element of our Council Tax should go up by the maximum allowed by Government which is £24 per year (for a band D property).

The final element of GM revenue finances is the waste disposal service which has been undergoing significant changes in recent years as the Council’s bought ourselves out of the previous contract with Viridor Laing and are now re-tendering the service. 

Capital Budgets
A large amount of money also flows through the Combined Authority around capital or investments – around £1/2 billion in 2019-20. The largest individual items here are the continuing work on the Trafford Centre line extension to Metrolink and the Housing Investment Fund on new houses.

More information and the full set of Committee papers are here. Any questions please ask!

Greater Manchester Spatial Framework – One month to have your say!

The formal public consultation on the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework ends a month from now on 18 March 2019. This is your opportunity to have your say on these important plans which will have a massive impact on our local area for generations to come.

You can take part in the consultation online, or in the post. Details of the online consultation are here.

Responses sent in the post should be to: Planning Team Consultation, GMCA, Churchgate House, 56 Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 6EU

The GMSF proposes 202,000 new homes in Greater Manchester (to put that in context the whole of the city of Manchester is currently 200,000 homes). That includes:
– 9,500 in Bury – 5,000 of which on Green Belt land.
– Greater Manchester will lose 4% of its green belt land, but in Bury the figure is 12% and in Prestwich and Whitefield significantly higher (37% and 33%). 
More details on the big Prestwich/Whitefield/Middleton Development here.
More details on the other big Bury plans (Elton Reservoir and Walshaw) here.

Our view is that we do need some more housing, but this needs to be the homes that people need and can afford. We would do this on existing brownfield sites and be regenerating town centres – with no loss of green belt land.

Sign our petition to say Hands off our Green Belt here. 

The map below is the proposed Northern Gateway site across Prestwich, Middleton and Whitefield where green belt land would be lost.

Reporting Back: Bury’s School Standards

Just before Christmas Liberal Democrat Group Leader Councillor Tim Pickstone caught up with Bury’s recently appointed Assistant Director of Education and Inclusion, Paul Delbridge-Smith, who took up post with Bury Council in August.

One of Paul’s first priorities was to get an accurate picture how Bury’s schools are doing and how well they are performing in educating children in the Borough, as well as to look at the role of governors in securing good quality schools.

The overall picture is extremely concerning given the recent declines in school performance and standards, in Ofsted judgements, and in the rankings of Bury local authority when compared to other local authorities across GM, the North West and nationally. However, it is important to stress that behind these headline figures are some excellent and successful schools, including many close to me here in Prestwich, and also the hard work and commitment of all our teachers, teaching assistants and support staff.

The headlines are: 
– In 2007, Bury was doing OK. It was ranked 45th best out of 148 local authorities in England in headline results (5 A*-C GCSE including English and maths)

– By 2017, Bury was doing badly. I is ranked 141st worst out of 162 local authorities in England in headline results – that is the 21st worst out of 23 local authorities in the North West.

– Bury is the worst local authority in the country for permanently excluding children (ie in 2017 we permanently excluded more children than anywhere else, as a proportion of children).

– Bury is bottom of the table in Greater Manchester for the % of good or better schools (10th out of 10) according to www.watchsted.com

Moving Forwards
The very good news is that the new Assistant Director and his team have a clarity and clear vision for rapidly improving and transforming Bury education and its schools and academies. Some of their aims and priorities include:

– getting Bury back into the top 10% in the country (for education quality and standards, through securing exceptional educational provision and leadership
– ensuring children make continued accelerated progress in their day to day learning, growth and development.
– raising aspirations and ambitions for Bury children, young people and families, particularly the disadvantaged, most able, children from black and ethnic minority communities, and those with special educational needs.
– tackling poor performance through investing in school governance,
– tackling poor behaviours in the education system by ensuring high standards and expectations in school attendance, inclusion, and support services
– tackling inequalities and disadvantage for all children
– ZERO permanent exclusions through providing inclusive settings, inclusive schools and inclusive communities where every child in Bury can stay in a Bury school and be well supported
– ZERO out of borough placements – keeping children safely placed in Bury schools and settings.
– ZERO NEET (not in education, employment or training) – so securing the life chances of all young people as they move successfully into adulthood.

We would fully endorse the plans. As we understand the road to this might not be easy. As Bury’s schools come up for inspection by OFSTED in the coming years some schools that are currently rated as ‘outstanding’ may well (on their current performance) be downgraded.

The ’shape’ of our schools is likely to change with more schools becoming ‘Academies’ (or joining existing schools who are academies), or more working together between schools in different areas, through forming management partnerships, federations or cooperative trusts.

Hope this update is useful and please do not hesitate to ask if you have questions.

Reporting Back: Full Council

Bury’s final ‘Full Council’ of the year took place at the end of November. This is the meeting, normally six times a year, where all 51 Bury Councillors meet to undertake some of the important functions of the authority.

Gambling Policy
Every few years local authorities have to publish a ‘Gambling Policy’, which was agreed by councillors. Liberal Democrat councillor Tim Pickstone asked the Cabinet member what consideration or changes to the policy had been made in the light of recent reports about the number of children and young people who were involved in gambling at worrying levels. The response was that there had been input on this area at the consultation stage and that this is an important issue for us to take forwards.

Risk Register Annual Report
The Council has to present an annual report of it’s ‘Risk Register’ which sets out how it is managing risk going forwards. We have previously raised concerns about the fact that almost the very high number of risks which are marked as serious – particularly the ability of the Council to deliver financial savings. Liberal Democrat councillors asked what the Council is doing to plan around the risk of a ‘no-deal Brexit’, and the impact this might have on things like staff who work in the health and care sectors – the response was that this was being done at a Greater Manchester level.

Liberal Democrat councillors always ask the maximum number of questions at Council meetings and this was no exception. At this meeting our questions included: police and fire call-outs around bonfire night, plastic recycling, World AIDS Day, Council use of bailiffs, process for resident parking schemes and amount of fly-tipping reports. For the full questions and answers see here.

Council meetings consider one motion per political party. The Lib Dem motion was on ensuring future council houses are built to a high standard. We also supporter the motions from other political parties on police funding and ‘planning gain’ monies.

The full papers for the meeting are here.

GMSF Proposals Due in January

Greater Manchester Councils have confirmed that the next set of proposals for the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) will be published in early January 2019 for an eight-week public consultation.

The bad news is that the Government seem to be expecting Councils to go for a higher number of homes than had recently expected which would mean the plan has to provide the space for over 200,000 new homes over the next 20 years – in additional to land for jobs and industry.

Prior to his election the Mayor of Greater Manchester had promised “No net loss of Green Belt”, but according to the Manchester Evening News this will NOT be the case in the proposals.

Liberal Democrats in Bury are 100% opposed to loss of green belt land. We do need more homes, but should always use the many ‘brownfield’ sites to do this.

Building homes ‘Fit for the Future’

At the most recent full meeting of Bury Council, the Liberal Democrat group of councillors were successful in getting the whole Council to sign up to a principle of building future homes which are ‘fit for the future’.

Recently the Government has announced a relaxation of the restrictions on Councils which will hopefully mean that Bury can soon finance building new homes, including new Council Houses, something that has not happened in any numbers for many decades.

For us this is a really important opportunity to make sure that people have homes that they can afford and are right for people. These homes will be in use in 100 years so we need to get things right.

Our proposal committed the Council to putting into practice important ideas that will ‘future proof homes’, for example:
– Low carbon energy efficiency homes, with solar panels, underfloor heating, and high quality insulation, doors and windows – both reducing carbon emissions and future fuel costs for residents;
– Clean air, with electric charging potential ‘designed-in’ and sustainable street trees on new roads as a norm.
– Active lives built in, with high quality cycling provision and ‘child-friendly’ low speed or shared space a standard for new residential roads.

The proposal received all-Party support and is now Council policy. A report and update on the issue will be prepared for the Council’s Cabinet on the issue in the next ‘municipal’ year.

The full text of the motion is here.

Reporting Back: Council Finances

Last week was the meeting of Bury Council’s Cabinet, and earlier this week the meeting of the Council’s Audit Committee. Both meetings considered the mid-year financial report for the Council which raise some very concerning issues. Councillor Tim Pickstone was at the Cabinet, Councillor Steve Wright was at the Audit Committee:

Both meetings heard that the Council is currently estimating a roughly £3.5 million overspend for the current financial year, which would take the Council’s usable reserves down to just £2.5 million.

At both meetings we raised concerns about the significantly more worry size of overspending that is behind this figure:

  • The Council is expecting to overspend by £7.8 million on ‘demand pressures’ – mostly additional children with special needs and older people’s increasing care needs, both of which obviously need to be covered.
  • The Council is overspending by £11.3 million on savings it has failed to achieve. These are savings that have previously agreed by Councillors, but not delivered. Mostly this is failures to achieve savings in the Council’s Communities and Wellbeing directorate (£9 million) on issues such as older people’s care, leisure services and the council’s civic suites. It also includes a failure to deliver £1.2 million of savings on waste collection which the report says could be achieved by charging residents for garden waste.
  • There is then a shortage of income for the Council of £2.9 million – anything from less than expected rental income or less than expected parking income.

In the short term these overspends are mostly being covered by ‘one off’ items:

  • Using one-off grants from Government
  • Using up some of the Council’s reservers
  • Other one-off savings

Our worry is that this is not sustainable into the future. The massive problems that the Council has this year (demand pressures, failure to deliver savings and income shortfall) are not going to magically disappear over the next few months, and in February Councillors will have to, by law, set a balanced budget   for 2019-20 in which even more savings will be required.

At the Audit Committee it was revealed that one of the three commercial properties the Council has purchased outside of Bury using taxpayers money – the Prezzo in Lytham St Annes, has now closed as a restaurant, so the the Council is getting no income for this investment.

This is the second year running that the Council’s Labour administration has produced very worrying financial reports at this stage in the year. This is now getting very worrying given the low level of Council reserves.

The full report is here.


Stop the Delay in the FOTB Gambling Cap

Liberal Democrats in Parliament are backing a cross-party amendment to the Finance Bill to ensure the maximum stake for fixed-odds betting terminals are introduced as planned within six months.

Currently the maximum stake for Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals is £100, but the Government’s own review has concluded that this should be reduced to just £2. However the proposal in the Budget is to delay this change for nearly a year until October 2019.

Liberal Democrat Leader Vince Cable said:
“A few months ago I was approached by a mother who was distraught after her son had committed suicide as a result of distress caused by debts that had accrued from compulsive gambling.”

“I and the Liberal Democrats will therefore work with others to stop these abusive practices and introduce a crackdown as promised. The Government is giving in to lobbying from the industry and must now back the cross-party amendment.”

“Further delays are causing more and more vulnerable people to face financial stress, mental health problems and worse.”

Reporting Back: Greater Manchester Scrutiny Committee

Last week was the regular meeting of the Greater Manchester Corporate Issues and Reform Scrutiny Committee. Prestwich Councillor Tim Pickstone represents Bury on the Committee:

This months meeting focussed on three issues:

Kerslake Report Implementation
Following the Manchester Arena attack, an Independent Review of the events and aftermath of the attack was conducted by five independent members and chaired by Lord Kerslake. This led to the publication of a report making 50 recommendations. The Committee is receiving updates on the implementation of this Report.

Some of the recommendations need to be addressed nationally, and contact has been made with Government to progress change here. Other issues are the responsibility of specific services, and we heard specifically from the Fire Service about changes they were making learning from the attack. The implementation of the recommendations is being led by the Greater Manchester Resilience Forum, which brings together all the agencies that need to be involved in a major incident or disaster like the Arena bombings, to ensure that all agencies are working together.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority Budget Update
The Greater Manchester Combined Authority now brings together a large amount of public spending. This includes everything to do with police, fire, transport as well as the new work and new spending which is being done directly by the Mayor or the Combined Authority at a Greater Manchester level. The functions of the former Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority are being brought into the CA this year.

In total the revenue budget of all these functions combined together is around £900 million this year. The capital budget (spending on one off projects) is around £500 million this year.

I asked about two issues: firstly, the underspend this year on money from Government for cycling projects (£10 million this year and then £50 million a year fort he next three years) and how we make sure this money is spent on cycling and walking. Secondly I asked about the money being spent on the Mayor’s promise to end homelessness in Greater Manchester and the costs of the ‘bed for all’ scheme this winter (and how this can be sustained going forwards).

Greater Manchester Waste Procurement Update
The Committee also received an update on the procurement process for private delivery of waste disposal services. This item was held in private because it is confidential commercial information about the different companies that are bidding to provide this service to Greater Manchester (which also means I cannot report on the detail).

Two years ago Greater Manchester spent a lot of money buying itself out of the previous contract with to deliver waste services and is now re-tendering.I asked questions about the sustainability of what we are tendering for – particularly with the changes in waste going forwards that we are  hearing about with plastic waste.

Any questions please ask. The papers for the meeting are here.