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James Palmer: Devolving adult education is helping to give the young the skills they need

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

With the creation of the Combined Authority in 2017 and the devolving of power, a budget for Adult Education initially seemed a surprising addition coming alongside our primary responsibilities of Transport and Housing. Unlike secondary level education or post-16 skills, the adult education budget had not been a famous topic for national discussion. However, in the short two years I have been Mayor of Peterborough and Cambridgeshire, the skills agenda has increased the pace of progress more rapidly than anyone had previously anticipated.

Being given a budget of £11.3 million, we were keen to cut the red tape attached to Adult Education as soon possible. The previously centralised direction of spending was unimaginative to say the least. Time and money were being spent on ‘leisure and pleasure’ courses such as basket weaving, bridge playing, and language teaching – prepping people for their holidays. Not only that, but these were being used largely by people already equipped with high-level qualifications; that is not the priority of a budget for Adult Education and it has taken the creation of further devolved government to recognise this and to bring immediate change. Of course, there will always be a welcome role for community learning as it does much to tackle social isolation for the elderly – and yet the balance of this with skills is something that needed immediate revision.

This September will be the first year that the Combined Authority will be delivering a revitalised budget. The last two years have been spent working with the educational providers and hearing from local businesses to ascertain the demand of skills required in our job-laden area. As a result, we are placing a far greater emphasis on those with lower level qualifications and on courses that meet the skills needs of the area. Running closely alongside our work for Adult Education has been the development of our Local Industrial Strategy in which we see education playing a key role. In pooling two separate spheres of research, we have chosen educational courses that will actually enable students to get on and grow in skills, confidence, and ability; thereby improving the spread of employment throughout the area.

Previously, the Whitehall approach placed a large onus on getting ‘bums on seats’, regardless of what course or what qualification the students were entering in on. With our new approach, we are able to ensure that this budget is benefiting those with little or no qualifications first and foremost.

This again signals the wonder of devolution. As here in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough our economic backdrop contains a mixture of agri-tech, manufacturing, and engineering companies requiring more skilled workers. Whereas in Andy Burnham’s region of Greater Manchester, the skills needed will no doubt be different from ours and in Andy Street’s West Midlands, different again. Regardless of the differences, we can now be more confident that local people relying on these services will be provided with the opportunities to get on in life, right where they are.

My driving vision is to ensure that more people across my region can benefit from the strong economic growth that is taking place across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. In focusing our budget with a localised view, areas such as Fenland are seeing record amounts of spending on the Adult Education services.

Building on our new approach to adult education, our programme to provide additional skills is being continued with the creation of the University of Peterborough – a uniquely technical and skills based university that will serve the needs of the local economy. With this skills based university, we are wanting to do something completely new. To enable this, we have been working closely with the business community of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire and the surrounding areas where the need for skills-based work is high. We carried out a survey of local businesses to help us shape the University’s curriculum and over 60 per cent of local businesses who were contacted responded, demonstrating the clear appetite and support from local business to this kind of approach to higher education.

Those that will attend Peterborough University will have an opportunity to undertake a vocational course whilst also gaining the socially developmental experience of studying at university. Many young people today are weighing up the cost benefits of a university education as the cost of tuition fees can be off-putting for many; this project can be used to encourage further education that is future focussed and vocationally driven. By tailoring the courses to the needs of the local economy, the skills demanded by local employers can be met in a self-sustaining fashion, thereby furthering the economic success of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

Degree apprenticeships will be based upon training students for the needs of prominent local businesses such as agricultural technology. Resultantly, the supply demands of businesses and services in the area can be met by those local to them; as well as attracting others to enter in to work in the area.This will help our young people into well-paid secure jobs fit for the rapidly evolving 21st Century workplace. The university is on course to open in September 2022 to its first 2,000 students on the embankment site in what is planned to be an iconic building for Peterborough.

By continuing to streamline the Adult Education budget and making a success of the University of Peterborough project, I believe a strong case can be made for further devolution of Education. This could pave the way to see the overall transformation to regional Education that people in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have been longing for. In order to unleash the potential of this area we will continue to focus on stream-lining Adult Education, building momentum for the inclusion of post-16 skills.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Mark Weston: The system of a directly elected Mayor has worked badly in Bristol

Cllr Mark Weston is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Bristol City Council.

A referendum held in Bristol on 3rd May 2012 returned a vote in favour of adopting the Mayor form of governance in place of the Leader and Cabinet option. It was a run close run thing (41,032 for with 35,880 against) on a low turnout (24 per cent). Across the country, there was a widespread rejection of the idea. In fact, the City of Bristol was the only one of ten major cities in England also holding referenda on the same day to back this change.

Locally, the Conservative Group campaigned strongly for making the switch, despite some internal opposition against what was essentially national party policy. The deciding factor in our internal debates were the failings of the existing political leadership in our city, arising from having to hold elections-in-thirds over a four-year cycle.

In Bristol, throughout the noughties, the traditional structure had produced a series of unstable, minority administrations, or Parties with vulnerable majorities. This not only resulted in a high level of churn; it effectively stymied important strategic decision-making, as politicians diverted their energy towards either fighting, or preparing, to fight the next election. This was proving to be resource sapping, as well as confusing for the electorate.

The advantages and disadvantages of directly elected Mayors were well-known and fully debated at the time. The main positives being:

  1. This would introduce stability in office through fixed four year terms (no need to worry about annual leadership elections)
  2. It provided a city-wide democratic mandate
  3. Post holders will have a higher profile and engage with more people
  4. Lead to a reduction of political in-fighting as more Parties could become part of the Executive/Cabinet
  5. Result in substantial financial savings by reducing not only the number of councillors needed to run the city but also see the abolition of the most expensive senior bureaucratic tier of Chief Executive.

Against these ascribed benefits was set the case that

  1. Councillors – especially backbench members – would lose influence and status within the organisation.
  2. There was always the risk of mavericks getting elected who could make disastrous decisions for the city
  3. Too much power would be invested in an individual politician over whom there was little to no checks and balances (admittedly a deliberate design feature to encourage dynamism)
  4.  An increased scope for nepotism and cronyism in appointments or favouring pet political projects
  5. The danger of actually creating another level of control which ends up costing taxpayers even more for little tangible benefit.

Be that as it may, on 15th November 2012, as a result of the referendum, Bristolians ultimately chose an Independent, George Ferguson, to be their first elected Mayor by 37,353 votes to Labour’s Marvin Rees on 31,259 (on a 28% turnout).

Ferguson maintained a largely politically-mixed Cabinet right up to the end, but eventually excluded one Party (Lib Dems) entirely from his executive and disposed of other individuals who differed with him over policy. It is also true to say that incumbents, as the result of events and political pressure, seem to quickly become much less collegiate and far more defensive in their dealings with opposition Parties.

Tables were turned on Ferguson in 2016 when he lost his campaign for re-election to our current Rees. A nascent Independents’ movement had stalled in Bristol. Rees won by 56,729 votes to 32,375 on quite a high turnout (45 per cent). This defeat was due as much to Ferguson’s unpopularity following some controversial and divisive decisions taken over the imposition of RPZs, the introduction of 20mph speed limits across most of the road network, and costly, largely superficial, Green Capital projects.

However, another important element in Rees’s victory was the fact that following a Boundary Commission review in 2015, the city had now moved to holding all-out elections (every ward seat) to coincide with the Mayoral electoral cycle. This enabled Labour to maximise its vote against a sitting marmite Mayor.

Well, since then, the weaknesses of this elected office have become ever more apparent. Rees started off by honouring his manifesto pledge to share decision-making with a cross-Party Cabinet. But, after some early skirmishes, this commitment was ditched entirely by November 2017, when we saw tribal loyalties reassert and excuses confected to justify Labour ending such collaborative working.

However, this is not the deepest flaw of this governance model – its real flaw is a complete lack of checks and balances on the executive powers of the Mayor. Experience has shown that without counterbalance, this is a profoundly undemocratic position. The current post-holder has been damaged by controversial severance payments made to two departing Chief Executives (a £200,000 package for the first and a non-contractual payment of £98,000 to the second).  So no financial savings made here. The cost and size of the Mayor’s political office has grown just as valued frontline services have been cut.

Rees has favoured constitutional gerrymandering, and used his slim majority of councillors to ram it though, which minimises scrutiny and limits opportunities to challenge executive power. There is a growing tendency to create strategic management boards without political opposition representation, scrutiny, or input. Moreover, one of his most contentious decisions – taken against a majority view of elected members – has seen the agreed location of a long-planned indoor arena unilaterally moved from its original site to the outskirts of the city. Such political hegemony is almost without parallel or precedent.

Besides, the political landscape has shifted considerably since 2012, with the creation of City Deals and Regional Mayors. Since February 2017, we have had a West of England Combined Authority headed by Metro Mayor Tim Bowles, who is required to work cooperatively with the leaders of Bath and North East Somerset, South Gloucestershire County Council, and Bristol. This approach, involving mutual respect, in strategic planning, transport infrastructure, and training matters is working very well. Arguably, it is this structure which has rendered a City Mayor superfluous. Indeed, with the latest talk around the formation of a ‘Western Powerhouse’ linking Cardiff, Bristol, and Swindon, I very much doubt the Bristol example will be something many other local authorities in this part of the country will be eager to follow.

In the Referendum of 2012, the people of Bristol voted for leadership – what they got was dictatorship. A four yearly electoral cycle of councillors can provide the stability needed to prevent continuous infighting. The Mayoral position just isn’t needed. The reality is that the Prime Minister has greater checks to her authority. It is the fig leaf of democracy, and I would advice against any other authority ever adopting this model of Government. In fact, I sincerely hope that at the earliest opportunity, 2022, that Bristol holds a new referendum, and its citizens terminate the role for good.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Rachel Wolf: Not much changes when councils change hands. And voters know it.

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Soon, each prospective councillor across the country will know if they have persuaded voters to choose them as their representative. In the somewhat confusing patchwork of our local government, most but not all of the unitary councils are completely up for grabs, most but not all of the metropolitan boroughs are contesting one third of their seats, and a large number of district councils are also fighting it out.

I hope that hard working Conservative councillors and candidates are able to convince voters that – regardless of their view on national issues – they deserve to be elected. But what exactly are they being elected to?

Just before I left the Conservative Party to set up my education charity, the New Schools Network, in 2009, I was given one of the overnight shifts for local council elections. It was a fun night because we kept winning things. My job was to send out briefings to MPs, press people and others so they could play the expectations management game – ‘this is not only great, it’s much better than we could have possibly hoped for’ – that often seems the main purpose of any local elections.

But at no point did the conversation focus on what might change as a result of these victories. I wonder if that is because for most of us the answer is ‘not very much’.

Councillors can, of course, make a difference locally. But it’s also the case, as it has been for some time, that they can make much less of a difference than most of their Western counterparts – in Europe, in the US, or in Canada (where 50 per cent of revenue is raised locally compared with five per cent in the UK).

Their powers over crime, transport, education, and – crucially – the funding for those services – remain in most cases extremely limited. I spent some time working in New York for Joel Klein – Bloomberg’s famous schools chief who was able to control and reform all of New York’s schools (and did so very successfully). This is vastly more power and leverage than the London Mayor.

When the Conservative Party came into power in 2010 it promised to change this. It began one section of its manifesto with language that could have been written today (with Brexit exchanged for the MPs’ expenses scandal):

‘The events of recent months have revealed the size of the fissures in our political system. Millions of people in this country are at best detached from democracy, at worst angry and disillusioned. This endangers our ability to work together to solve our common problems. Just putting this down to the shocking revelations of the expenses scandal would be a great mistake. MPs’ expenses might have been the trigger for the public’s anger, but this political crisis is driven by a deeper sense of frustration – that people have too little control over the decisions that affect their daily lives.’

The Big Society agenda – which has since been dropped down a large hole – was supposed to be accompanied by elected mayors in 12 cities, and an increasingly vibrant local media (I’m not sure how we planned to achieve that).

Of course, every opposition is localist and every government is centralist. But it did look for some time as though the localism agenda was gaining momentum, particularly after George Osborne became a late convert (some would argue he starved local authorities of too many funds to be able to use any additional powers sensibly, others that the constraints have forced ingenuity and innovation in local government that was much needed).

The devolution process has always been a bit all over the place – perhaps suiting the already higgledy-piggledy nature of local government (and I do not have the space in this column to go through every new layer including LEPs and local industrial strategies). Bespoke deals based on individuals as much as areas were put in place with different powers and money attached to them.

In general, the responsibility has been less than the hype – Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, who is a deeply impressive Conservative, still has vastly less power than Birmingham council, which in turn has vastly less power than central government. The PCCs do not actually control the police– their lack of real power is possibly reflected in the tiny percentage of the electorate that can be bothered to vote for them. The money that Whitehall has supposedly devolved – such as adult education budgets – are slow to arrive and extremely small compared to the rest of education spending.

It also seems as if even recent progress has stalled. While the new mayor of North of Tyne is due to be elected today, experts I talked to see no new metro mayors anywhere on the Government’s depleted domestic policy agenda.

This is, presumably, yet another casualty of Brexit and also a reflection of the fact that our Prime Minister and Chancellor are more instinctively authoritarian than their predecessors. Whitehall never likes relinquishing control, and nor does this Prime Minister.

Does it matter? It’s obviously not as simple as ‘give people local control, and their dissatisfaction will disappear’. Trump’s election in the US and protests in France – both far more devolved countries – make clear that there’s no easy inverse correlation between devolution and populism. Nor do more powerful local governments necessarily perform better; poor policy and underwhelming administration are not the preserve of Whitehall.

But there is good evidence that devolved public services do a better job than big centralised ones. That doesn’t have to be to local authorities – schools have been substantially devolved below the local authority level and are performing increasingly well.

We also do a disservice to very talented administrators and politicians outside London and the South East who could – if allowed – make a substantial difference to their areas.

Finally, we miss the opportunity to discover what is effective by allowing areas to try policies. The charter school programme in America has improved consistently by seeing where different states have got it right and wrong – and those experiments in turn made it much easier for us to design good school reform here in the UK.

I wish Conservative candidates campaigning for these elections the best of luck. I also hope that in future they inherit a position that gives them the power to do more for their constituents.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Andy Street: Cleaning up pollution of the past to build the homes of tomorrow

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Housing is one the biggest challenges of the 21st Century. While Conservative policies continue to build a strong economy and create job opportunities, there is no doubt that, as a nation, we face a huge challenge in simply providing enough housing for our population. Over generations, we have failed to ensure that house building has kept pace our needs. Reversing this will be a key way in which the Conservative party can become attractive to younger voters for whom this is a critical issue.

Here in the West Midlands, by closely working with our constituent Local Authorities, we are leading the way in dealing with this challenge, and are seeing housebuilding rising substantially year on year.

This is being driven by our strong economic growth and sustained improvements in our transport infrastructure. But as we build the housing stock of the future, we are also addressing some of the residual problems of our industrial past, by repurposing contaminated land and reopening transport links.

Happily, the latest figures show that this housing surge is not just confined to our economic hotspots, such as Birmingham and Coventry, but is now being shared with communities where economic growth has been slower. Within the West Midlands, the number of homes started last year went up the most – by 18 per cent – in the Black Country.

This is important as I am determined that the whole region benefits from the resurgence of the West Midlands. The spread of high-quality new housing is a vital proof point for our plan.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has committed to delivering 215,000 new homes spread across the region by 2031 – easily the biggest number outside London, which reflects our growing population.

House prices and rents are also rising faster here than the rest of the UK, a double-edged sword that benefits some while impacting on younger people.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that 10,640 new homes were started in the WMCA area last year – a seven per cent increase on 2017. Across England, the average increase was zero.

Housing completions in the West Midlands increased by 13 per cent to 10,960, compared to the average increase of one per cent in England.

The highest rise in housing completions was in the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) area, where 40 per cent more new homes were finished than in 2017.

Creating more affordable housing remains a challenge. While the number of affordable homes built across the region last year was considerably more than in the previous 12 months, we know we must do better. We have a target to triple the numbers being built, and are working with partners to achieve this ambition.

While the sight of cranes dotting the skylines of city centres may be a sign of economic confidence, people want to see redevelopment and regeneration reach out to their communities, too.

This is not happening by accident. As Mayor my focus is jobs, transport and housing, all of which are intrinsically linked. Transport investment is key, as we map out where new housing developments can support economic growth.

In the Black Country, for example, the £449 million extension of the Metro will spearhead regeneration along its route through Sandwell and into Dudley. In Walsall, we are re-opening railway stations like Willenhall and Darlaston, which have been closed to passengers since the Beeching cuts.

This joined-up approach is providing a network that not only transports people around our region, it encourages development to spread out. A good transport network not only moves people, it moves investment. The Government is playing its part in this, investing £200 million in expanding the West Midlands Metro network.

But perhaps the most resonant example of our housing revolution can be seen in areas where for decades regeneration was simply impossible. Like many of the UK’s regions, the West Midlands is scarred by the remnants of our industrial past. These derelict ‘brownfield’ sites, once the homes of industries that made our region an industrial powerhouse, are often contaminated, polluted and unsuitable for redevelopment.

It is vital that we address these areas, not only to unlock the valuable land that they represent, but to rebuild communities from within, to give them new heart. This has become a central plank of our housing policy.

Again, the Government is playing its part in this new approach. We secured £350 million from the Chancellor in our Housing Deal to transform swathes of redundant and derelict former industrial sites, bringing them back into use for jobs and homes.

It is crucial that more investment is made in this exciting area. Government must not only provide financial incentives to persuade developers to look at brownfield sites first, it must also ensure that planning processes do not put brownfield developers at a disadvantage.

Locally, we must be as efficient as possible, too. In the West Midlands, we are setting up a single framework to distribute over £600 million of regeneration funding quickly, speeding up development.

We are seeing tangible change. For example, in Walsall the 44-acre derelict site of a former copper works has been the subject of stalled regeneration plans for more than two decades. Now known as the ‘Phoenix 10’ site, it sits near Junctions 9 and 10 of the M6 – a visible sign of stagnation. It will now come back to use – great evidence of effective teamwork to make this happen!

I am proud that, as a Conservative mayor and with the backing of a Conservative-lead council and a Conservative Government, this blot on Walsall’s landscape is finally being turned to good use.

The highly-polluted site is now being cleared and cleaned-up to create a modern employment park, bringing more than 1000 jobs. Elsewhere in the region we are seeing sites that have lain dormant for a generation or longer brought back to use.

In Wolverhampton, a £185 million city living development, called Brewers Yard, is planned for a ten-acre brownfield plot near the university. Just a stone’s throw from the city’s new rail and bus interchange, this mix of luxury and affordable homes is a great example of how transport investment and brownfield reclamation is encouraging building in areas that developers once avoided.

Fittingly, the Black Country, synonymous with the heavy industry of the Industrial Revolution, aims to take the lead in building this new science of reclamation. The University of Wolverhampton plans to be the home of a new National Brownfield Institute, which will feature labs and testing facilities as part of its £100 million Springfield Campus development.

There are other real benefits to reclaiming the derelict sites of the past. While transforming urban communities, it helps us protect the cherished greenbelt land around the edges of the conurbation. What’s more, by shifting the emphasis of home building from the suburbs to urban living, we can also potentially help the high street by increasing footfall.

We have a long way to go to meet the housing and regeneration needs of our region. But here in the West Midlands we are unlocking the huge potential of these wasted sites and making “brownfield first” a reality.

By addressing some of the remnants of our industrial past, we are rebuilding communities for the future – and providing new housing that gives hope to young voters.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com