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.

Questions
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.

Motions
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.

Budget 2018 – Missed Opportunities

Much of the media attention on this week’s budget from the Chancellor was on some of the tax cuts that have been made (or brought forwards one year). These mean that those people who pay income tax will be slightly better off from next April.

Whilst this is welcome, the Chancellor failed to grasp some of the real problems that face public services up and down the country:

  • There was nothing to help the Police, who are struggling to provide enough police to provide adequate community policing or investigate crimes.
  • Local Councils will still have to make £1.3 billion worth of cuts to services as no extra money was found for long term funding.
  • There was a tiny bit of extra funding for schools, but when many schools are having to lose staff at a time of rising costs this works out at less than the cost of a single teacher.
  • Taking action on tacking plastic waste was dodged by failing to provide a tax on single use items like takeaway plastic cups.

On social care funding, the Chancellor announced £650 million of extra money for local councils to help with the enormous costs of social care. While £650 million for social care sounds a lot, this includes £240 million already announced for reducing winter pressures. Adult and Children’s social care faces a funding gap of £2.6 billion in the next financial year, so the £410 million extra isn’t enough to fill this. For example, the increases in the Budget for the National Living Wage for care staff, while very much deserved, need to be paid for.

What would we have done differently?
A Liberal Democrat budget would:

  • Secure the future of our NHS, focusing on social care and mental health with an extra £6bn per year, funded through a penny in the pound on income tax.
  • Improve living standards for 9.6m parents and children, by reversing George Osborne’s cuts to the “work allowance” under Universal Credit, costing £3bn.
  • Invest an extra £2.8bn in to the schools budget, by reversing the Government’s proposed cuts to school funding.
  • Scrap business rates – replacing them with a tax on land values known as the Commercial Landowner Levy.  The reformed system would increase incentives to invest in new equipment and renovations, and cut taxes for businesses in nine out of ten English local authorities.
  • Reverse Conservative cuts to Corporations Tax – still leaving the UK with the lowest rate of corporation tax in the G7.
  • Work with the EU to crack down on tax avoidance by the tech titans, and working to secure agreement on taxing multi-nationals’ profits.
  • Reform wealth taxation – bringing capital gains and dividend taxes into line with income taxes, removing the most generous pension tax reliefs from the highest earners, and replacing the inheritance tax system with a fairer lifetime transfer tax.

 

 

Reporting Back: Answers to Questions

Just to report back on some of the questions that the Liberal Democrat team of Councillors on Bury Council asked at the last Full meeting. Please let us know if you have any comments or ideas for questions in the future.

Greater Manchester Spatial Framework
There had been significant concern in local councils across Greater Manchester that there had been a ‘downgrade’ in the status of the final decision on the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework when it happens (presumably next year). Originally the GMSF would have to be voted on and agreed by all 10 local councils, including Bury, but there had been fears that the downgrade of status in the decision meant that the 10 Leaders (and Mayor) could make the decision on their own.
Councillor Tim Pickstone asked: “Could the Leader reaffirm previous commitments, that members of this Council will vote on final proposals of the Greater Manchester Spatial Framework?

Answer: “It is our intention that Members will ultimately have to vote on the implications of the GMSF through the adoption of our Local Plan which sits under the GMSF and will act in accordance with it.”

Further clarification confirmed that Bury Council WILL get a vote on the final GMSF, which is very welcome.

Large Class Sizes
Councillor Steve Wright asked about the worrying number of secondary classes in Bury which are over 30. Last year, research from the Lib Dems found out that there had been a 265% increase in classes over 30 pupils in 2016/17 school year.
Question: “Could the Leader update members on the number of secondary school children in Bury who are taught in classes of more than 30 children, and how this compares to previous years?”

The answer was that in the 2017-18 school year, there was a further increase, to 65 classes across Bury, with more than 30 pupils in it. That was a total of 2104 pupils. The highest number was St Monicas (441 pupils) followed by Elton and Parrenthorn. (To be fair on these schools some of the classes were 31 pupils, including 10 classes at Monicas.)

Council Culture
Residents may remember the very serious issues 18 months ago around a child protection issue which led to the departure of the Council’s Chief Executive and Director of Children’s Services, and a major independent investigation. When receiving the report of the investigation, Councillors agreed on 20 July 2017 to undertake “an all-party piece of work, involving Officers and Members, with outside support as appropriate, to ensure that the Council has an appropriate culture of working at senior levels in the Authority, which reflects the highest standards for public office and public service.”
Councillor Tim Pickstone asked: “Could the Leader update members on this piece of work?
The answer: “The all-party piece of work on culture within the organisation of the Council has been scoped and a proposal obtained. The Chief Executive has reviewed the proposal and is of view that this work would be most valuable if deployed after a corporate review of the organisation planned for later this year. This will allow the work to be part of a wider improvement plan for the organisation as a whole.”
We will continue to pursue this issue…

Council Property outside of Bury
Finally Councillor Mary D’Albert asked for an update on the property which Bury Council has bought outside of Bury.
The properties which the Council has bought are:
Northern House, Fenay Bridge, Huddersfield – acquisition cost £2,300,000 (Capita offices)
43 to 45 Lever Street, Manchester – acquisition cost £2,560,000 (Bakerie restaurant)
18 to 20 St Anne’s Road West, Lytham St Anne’s – £1,010,000 (Prezzo resteranno)

 

Calls for more Multinational taxes on Tech Giants

Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader and Leader Jo Swinson MP and Vince Cable MP have written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer calling on him to throw his weight behind a new Europe-wide tax initiative on tech giants.

This urges Philip Hammond to use the Budget to set out how he will incorporate what is currently an EU’s initiative into any Treasury initiative to tax big internet firms.

Jo Swinson said:
“Tech giants are getting away with not paying their fair share of tax because we make it easy for them.

The time to act is now if we want to create a level playing field for businesses in the UK and give our struggling high streets a much needed boost.

Britain is always at its best when it brings countries together in a common cause. If we want to tax tech giants we must work together with our European allies and others around the globe.”

I urge the Chancellor to focus his energy on making this EU-wide tax happen. This is a golden opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.”