Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Learning for the future

I have been a long-time supporter of devolution, which is why I’ve supported the development of the Sheffield City Region (SCR), because the current economy and the future economic challenges for South Yorkshire are quite different from those facing North Yorkshire or the East Yorkshire coast, let alone Yorkshire or England as a whole.
In 2015, the Government began to devolve powers to mayoral combined authorities. While there were and still are differing views about the requirements to have a mayor there was general agreement that devolution should be based on city regions as coherent areas of local economic activity. The powers to be devolved were related to improving the economic performance of those areas such as skills, transport and new business development, which is quite distinct from devolution to Scotland and Wales and to the Regional Assembly proposals of a decade ago.
A recent research report clearly demonstrated that adjacent smaller towns acting in cooperation with bigger successful cities are economically and socially much healthier than towns which sought to go it alone. That is why a devolved city region model is so important to Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. It is also crucially important to the travel-to-work areas In North Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire. I am sure that is why, when the SCR is up and running, there will be a renewed interest in engagement from those areas.
The challenges for SCR are not just about economic regeneration but also about diversifying the economy, securing additional jobs which match the potential highly qualified workforce who come from our universities and want to stay in the area. But, with too few jobs to match the talents of our cities, we need to focus on nurturing and supporting 21st century businesses. And we need more training opportunities to improve the skills and pay levels of the population in general.
We have some excellent examples of what can be achieved when councils, education institutions at the forefront of technological change, skills providers, and businesses and entrepreneurs do get their act together. The development of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, with its 600-place apprentice training facility, the opening of plants by Rolls Royce, Boeing and McLaren and the proposal for an innovation corridor stretching from the Olympic Legacy Park to the Doncaster-Sheffield Airport are some of the many positives already happening.
All of that has been achieved despite the government’s failing further education and skills’ development policies.
  • The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recently concluded that “The government’s target of 3 million apprenticeships has prioritised quantity over quality and should be scrapped.”
  • The Chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, says that the sustainability and quality of further education and skills provision have been hit by the cuts to their funding.
  • Further and adult education have suffered severe budget cuts of more than £3 billion in real terms since 2010, that’s over one quarter of funding. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies states that further education has been ‘the biggest loser’ in education spending over the last 25 years.
  • The cuts have had a huge impact on the number of adult learners. In the last ten years, the number of enrolments has declined from 5.1 million to 1.9 million, a drop of 62%.
  • And, now, in the last year, after the apprenticeship levy was introduced, we have seen apprenticeship starts fall by 157,000, a decline of 34%.
The sooner the Sheffield City Region is up and running properly and taking over responsibility for local further education and skills’ development the better it will be for all of South Yorkshire.
In other research published this week, over-65s are much more likely to think that apprenticeships offer the best opportunity for progression, compared to the young people that many of these roles are aimed at. Younger people, in comparison, thought higher education offered a better opportunity.
That means that we all – employers, teachers, parents and grand-parents – have a huge task in persuading our teenagers that a modern, high-quality apprenticeship is worth chasing and securing. Their futures and our economic future depend on it.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Not bothered, don’t care, we’ll blame you anyway

Not bothered, don’t care, we’ll blame you anyway…” was the message that the government sent to councils, of all political controls and none, when it cancelled the Local Government Finance Settlement announcement last week and deferred it to a date yet to be announced.
Only a few weeks ago, I wrote that, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had brought forward his statement on the Budget and Spending Review for 2019/20, there was absolutely no excuse for the government to repeat its trick of delaying the announcement, until the last day that parliament sits before the Christmas recess, to avoid scrutiny and challenge.
There was no excuse for this delay which showed the Government has lost touch with the reality facing councils. The delay just adds further uncertainty and chaos for councillors who are desperately struggling to maintain important, effective services to their local communities.
The debate is no longer party political. Conservative council leaders across the country are shouting about the impact of the government’s cuts on their services. Just how out of touch is Mrs May when she announced ‘the end of austerity’?
You deserve to have the facts, as confirmed by the National Audit Office (NAO), the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and many more reputable commentators:
  • Since 2010, the government has cut grant to councils by 60%. To think about it another way, just consider the impact on your household if, for every £1 you earned in 2010, your employer was now just paying you 40p.
  • By 2020, local authorities will have faced cuts to core funding of nearly £16 billion since 2010, compared to 2000/10. The Conservative-led Local Government Association (LGA) says a further £1.3bn will be cut in 2019/20 under current plans. This amounts to 36% of their budgets. Research by the LGA has found that local government will face an almost £8 billion funding gap by 2025.
  • There has been no fairness about the distribution of the cuts. The poorest local authorities (which tend to be northern and urban) have had their spending cut by £228 per person since 2010, but the richest councils (mainly southern and rural) have had their spending cut by only £44. I leave you to draw your own conclusion about the reason for this but, let’s just say that, there is an absence of political impartiality. Next year, 168 councils will receive no more core central government funding at all.
  • What this government gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. Having made great play of its decision to devolve public health services to councils – good news – the government immediately announced that it was cutting the funding for public health by around £531 million (over 14%). It then proceeded to blame councils which had been forced to cut services previously funded by that budget. Talk about blaming the victim!
  • Income support – like for Council Tax – is meant to be part of a national policy to get a minimum income to the lowest earners. But, between 2013 and 2020, the government is cutting nearly half of the original funding – a £1.7 billion cut – meaning that nearly 600,000 low income households no longer receive any council tax support at all and millions more low-earning households have had that benefit cut.
  • Despite an increase in the elderly population and an increasingly care-and-support needing elderly population, there have been big cuts in government financial support for adult social care. There are 500,000 fewer elderly people receiving support now than in 2010, and charges have rocketed. Councils are spending £6 billion less in adult social care, despite making big cuts to other council services to help fund care. Councils are receiving almost 5,000 requests for social care every day. Over the last six months, more than 8,000 people have been affected by care homes or home care providers either pulling out of contracts or closing completely.
  • This government’s shambolic housing policy – as well as cutting home ownership by making it unaffordable to young buyers and forcing big rent increases and lack of security on private tenants – has left local councils currently housing more than 79,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation. More than 120,000 children will spend this Christmas in over-crowded and poor-quality temporary accommodation and hostels, often many miles away from adults’ jobs, children’s schools and family support.
  • Last year, we saw the biggest annual increase in children in care since 2010 and councils are now starting 500 child protection investigations every day. The cuts and increased demand for urgent intervention has resulted in councils spending less on early intervention and cuts in grants to the voluntary sector. Children's services face a £3 billion funding gap by 2025.
  • In 2017/2018, councils spent more than £816 million over budget on children’s services and adult social care. They did this by making big cuts in other important services. That’s why there have been big cuts in, especially rural, bus services leading to fewer routes, fewer passengers and increased car congestion. Hundreds of libraries have been closed, the number of youth clubs has halved as has the budget for services designed to prevent teenagers falling in to crime, the numbers of potholes have dramatically increased (Sheffield being an exception) and park maintenance has taken a big hit.
Mrs May and her government are not only responsible for the Brexit shambles, they are also responsible for the big cuts in the local services which we all rely on. It’s little wonder that people think the country is going downhill under her leadership.