Child Poverty – Guest Blog

COLDHURST has been in the headlines this week after a national study was published on child poverty.

I asked Abdul Jabbar, Oldham Council’s Deputy Leader, to guest-blog on the issues this has raised as he knows Coldhurst better than most.

He was keen to talk about the challenges and issues around child poverty, what we are doing – and what we need to tackle it more effectively.

Over to Abdul…

Oldham 23.2.16-9424COLDHURST is in my heart and many members of my family call it ‘home’.

I first came to live here when I was 14 years old and I’m very proud to have now represented this area for almost a quarter of a century as a ward member.

During that time I’ve worked among all our communities, probably knocked on every single door at one time, and seen all the kinds of challenges faced by local families.

I felt saddened this week when Coldhurst hit the news after a report by the End Child Poverty group said it has the highest child deprivation rate in England with over 60 per cent of youngsters living ‘below the breadline’.

Saddened, yes. Surprised? No.

I don’t fool myself that Coldhurst and other areas aren’t facing serious challenges because I see it every day around me.

The problems for our least well-off families are unrelenting and getting out of the poverty cycle has never been harder than it is today.

But there is something that is absolutely great about Coldhurst – the people who live there.

Yes, there are problems with crime and anti-social behaviour like fly-tipping, but walk around those streets and you’ll also find many friendly, positive people and a sense of community that you might not see in more affluent areas.

Within Coldhurst I know groups and associations, GPs, headteachers, community workers, voluntary organisations and residents who are all working hard to make the most of what they have.

Our challenge at local and national level is to match that.

There are a lot of factors behind child poverty.

The four-year freeze on social security benefits – amongst other welfare reform measures like the Bedroom tax – has been felt most by the poorest families.

UCREDITOldham was a pilot area for the rollout of Universal Credit which has caused huge problems by leaving families without money for several weeks, forcing many people into making desperate choices between heating the home or eating food.

Many people in Coldhurst do work extremely hard for long hours but due to low skills, stagnant wages and increasing living costs, things are tough. Many are also living in low-quality rented homes that are actually more expensive than social housing.

Worst of all is the fact that children are suffering. Not just because they are vulnerable now, but because if you have a bad start in life then your chances of success in adulthood are not good.

Coldhurst is not alone, however. Oldham has other pockets like this and so do our neighbours in Greater Manchester and big cities like London. End Child Poverty say that more than half of all children in the UK’s very poorest areas are now growing up in poverty.

We are trying to address these issues locally on many levels.

The Oldham Education and Skills Commission committed us to improving our education by 2020 and we are on target to achieve this, but it won’t be enough on its own.

We’ve introduced schemes like Warm Homes Oldham to help with fuel poverty, Get Oldham Working to improve employment prospects, Get Oldham Growing to improve health, and the Town Centre Masterplan to deliver significant opportunities in the local economy over the next two decades.

northmoorIn Coldhurst itself we invested £7.5 million to open the fantastic new Northmoor Academy (pictured) in September 2016. This three-form entry primary school on the former Grange school site was designed to cope with rising pressure on school places but also to provide a first-class facility where children can thrive.

As part of being a new Opportunity Area we’re also this week about to start rolling out the ‘Making it REAL’ programme in nurseries in Coldhurst. This is intervention in early years’ settings that targets improving literacy and giving children with disadvantaged backgrounds the language skills they need before they get to school. It involves home visits to support and train parents and group events – all have been proved to raise and sustain literacy standards in other areas. The reason we’re doing this is that it has also been shown that language and literacy skills are the most impactful intervention you can make for any child from a disadvantaged background, so we’re determined to get it right.

That kind of work will and must continue, but it still it won’t be enough on its own.

We have a Government that still refuses to set a target to reduce child poverty. For me, if you refuse to recognise a problem exists, then what hope can we have that you’re actually committed to finding – let alone funding – the solutions?

In families where it is hard to make ends meet, only one person is working, bills are paid late and loan sharks are circling, this is not the message they need to hear.

Last week we were told that more people are in work now than for many years. That might be true, but never have so many also been paid so relatively little and with work often on insecure terms like zero hour contracts.

Local authority’s children’s services are also being reduced to firefighting through Government cuts. Without the money we need to intervene at an early stage through important measures like parenting classes, substance misuse prevention and teenage pregnancy support, the impacts can be simply devastating.

This is also a false economy. If we can only get involved when children reach a crisis point then it will result in much more expensive steps in the long term, like taking young people into care.

In the budget we’re currently finalising for Oldham in 2018/9 we have an £8 million gap in funding for children’s social care services. That is a typical picture nationally and yet remains a problem which Government fails to address.

Making significant progress in living standards, wages and skills for everyone is our goal and it’s why we are championing the Inclusive Growth agenda so hard at Greater Manchester level.

As Deputy Council Leader and a ward member for Coldhurst I will continue my efforts for the people of the area alongside our MP, partners, communities and the voluntary sector, to help wherever we can.

But we also need the Government to finally listen and act.

The thought of having a generation of children suffering like this is heart-breaking and it also leaves me in fear of what legacy it will leave us with as a society.

Abdul Jabbar

Happy New Year for 2018…

OB YB 2018

I’D LIKE to wish all our residents a Happy New Year.

The last 12 months have seen some genuine highlights and progress for Oldham.

A personal favourite was confirming all the funding is in place for our exciting plans for a new Arts and Heritage Centre and Coliseum Theatre. Work starts imminently on-site and – alongside Gallery Oldham and Oldham Library – this will give us a fantastic Cultural Quarter we can all be proud of and enjoy.

EXTERIORAnother highpoint was opening our Digital Enterprise Hub as home to Wayra UK – backed by an £8m investment fund to help tech sector companies grow here – and Hack Oldham.

We’ve also unveiled the stunning Maggie’s Oldham cancer care centre and welcomed many new faces to our Independent Quarter, including Stocco and Furniture by Lauren.

Oldham showed great resilience this year responding to all kinds of events from flooding to police incidents and wintry weather with brilliant partnership working across all sectors and communities. We will need more of the same in 2018.

Looking ahead my priority is continuing the job of making this a place where everyone has a fair chance to access new opportunities and improve their lives. Better living standards, wages and skills are key to becoming an inclusive economy where nobody is left behind.

Get Oldham Working (GOW) made fantastic strides in 2017 having now created around 7,000 work-related opportunities, including more than 4,500 jobs, which is partnership working at its very best.

Many new businesses have also opened or relocated here including the Audi showroom for Jardine Motors at Chadderton, which is a high-end brand committed to GOW and working with local colleges and supply chains.

And there’s plenty more to come in 2018.

JEANHOLLINWOODA DPD delivery depot at Greengate with 350 new jobs is on-track and work is also starting at Hollinwood Junction, a hugely important strategic site, on a development creating new employment, retail, leisure and homes with 760 jobs.

Once legal issues are finalised, I’ll soon be able to announce next steps at the Prince’s Gate development and we’ll also be announcing another tenant at the Old Town Hall.

Our young and growing population is one of our biggest strengths and we must do everything to help them shine.

That’s why we’re working closely with Government, local education leaders, voluntary organisations and employers as one of six new Opportunity Areas in the UK. This focusses on social mobility and means extra funding from early years up to lifelong learning which we are determined will make a difference.

We’re also progressing well towards targets from the Oldham Education and Skills Commission. Having pledged that every child must attend a school rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted by 2020 we now have 98 per cent of primary and 81 per cent of secondary pupils doing just that.

Much work remains to be done but alongside proactive schemes like the £4m Oldham Enterprise Fund, the Skills for Employment programme and our Career Advancement Service, we’re deadly serious about helping people of all ages to get on in life.

That’s not easy when we’re continuing to take harsh funding cuts – with almost £25m to save next year – and uncertainty about the future from Government, but we’re unwavering in our ambition for the borough.

tidyoldhamKey to all our futures is the amazing co-operative work we’re doing with partners and residents.

An 8 per cent increase in recycling rates this year is all down to you doing #your bit: and schemes like Warm Homes Oldham, #1Pieceofrubbish, Get Oldham Growing – plus our work to integrate health and social care into one system – all point the way to a brighter future.

But challenges persist and we know many people are still struggling with problems with Universal Credit and welfare sanctions. We are still lobbying at the highest level for change and our Welfare Rights team have this year helped hundreds of residents to claim an extra £2million they were rightly entitled to.

Thriving communities also need new and aspirational homes that offer a better range and choice for families, so we’re continuing to deliver these with building work underway or due to start at sites including Broadway Green, the Lancaster Club and the former Counthill site.

We’ve had many positive accolades for our Old Town Hall, Bloom and Grow, community energy schemes and other initiatives this year, but it is what residents think that matters most.

Town_Centre_Master_Plan_HP_Rotator_RESIZEThe defining moment in 2017 for me was launching the Town Centre Masterplan – our biggest-ever forward planning exercise.

I thank everyone who’s taken part in the consultation so far and would encourage everyone to do the same. We certainly don’t have a monopoly on bright ideas and only you know best what kind of place you want Oldham to be in the future.

We’re doing all this because we must ensure that we are a place with a plan – and one that residents fully understand.

I’m fiercely proud of our place and will continue pushing to give us an even stronger voice within Greater Manchester in 2018.

Oldham is not perfect, but it is changing – and for the better.

Happy New Year!

Jean

Universally Discredited: Stop this madness 

UCREDITUNIVERSAL Credit is making headlines again – and that will continue throughout the winter unless the Government comes to its senses.

For the uninitiated, Universal Credit (UC), is this government’s flagship Welfare Reform.

It’s an all-in-one benefit system that replaces several existing benefits, including housing benefit and child tax credits, with one single monthly payment.

So what’s going wrong?

The main issue is that people moving onto UC are faced with a six-week delay before receiving their first payment. Nationally, more than a quarter of claimants have been waiting even longer than that. Months, in some cases.

stackSuch delays are totally unacceptable. They are needlessly pushing many people into debt and rent arrears, causing great stress, especially to the most vulnerable, and can lead to eviction or homelessness.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says UC is “an online service” and last week used that to justify their telephone helpline charging callers 55p per minute.

Well I’m sorry but how on earth can hard-up people be expected to pay a premium rate to get help in claiming money that they are actually entitled to? What’s morally defensible about charging those most in need of the money for help with their claims?

The DWP says encouraging people to use UC online helps with their digital skills and employability. That’s fine, but those struggling financially are less likely to have a smartphone, tablet, PC or even their own internet connection. And you can’t just cut people adrift like that.

For me, social security should do exactly what it is supposed to do – offer a safety net for those who need it and help to get people back into work.

When Oldham agreed to become an early adopter of UC in 2013 we envisaged working with the DWP to help identify problems and produce a more effective system before it was rolled out nationally.

That simply hasn’t happened and unless a debate led by Oldham East and Saddleworth MP Debbie Abrahams is successful in Parliament today (October 18) then I really fear the impact in the months ahead.

Sadly there’s a wealth of local data showing the true impact of UC here in Oldham.

Oldham Food Bank has seen a 77 per cent increase in people getting food parcels due to benefit delays or changes in the last two years, for example.

oldhamfoodbankAt Oldham Council our benefits advisers are spending an average of one hour and ten minutes on the phone just to help each claimant through the online application process.

Politicians – and that’s from all sides – are now uniting with public sector bosses, advice services and the voluntary sector in calling for the national rollout of UC to be stopped.

Even the National Audit Office, the body overseeing government spending, has said that UC is “driven by an ambitious timescale” with “weak management, ineffective control and poor governance”. We can’t all be wrong, surely?

Universal Credit just isn’t fit for purpose as it stands and our society should be treating vulnerable people much better than this.

Instead of continuing to try and save face and push on with this rollout, the Government should acknowledge these failings, press the pause button and stop this minimum six-week delay. And do it now.

The consequences of not doing so, for many people and families, don’t bear thinking about.

With winter on the horizon some could be facing the coldest months of the year making the hardest of choices, like whether to heat their home or feed themselves and their families.

This is a Government that has talked a lot about creating ‘an economy that works for everyone’ and its concerns for those who are ‘Just About Managing’ – so how on earth does the UC rollout fit with that stance?

Please spare a thought for those affected by this as we head towards the festive season and visit the Oldham Foodbank website here to find out how you can help make a difference for local people in crisis.

strictly-kershaws-2017_Facebook_and_webAnd finally this week: after thousands of steps, 12 weeks of practice, two outfits and two left feet, I am as ready as I will ever be to strut my stuff on Friday at Strictly Kershaw’s.

Although I’m used to speaking at public meetings and debating issues with large groups of people, this is really going to be something very different.

I’ll let you know how I get on in next week’s blog.

You can still buy tickets here and (please!) sponsor my efforts at my JustGiving page here to help keep Dr Kershaw’s on course for its challenging fundraising targets.

Jean