Thursday, 19 October 2017

Bus changes could put us on the road to nowhere.

What came first, the bus or the passengers? That is less of a trick question than it might at first seem.

First Potteries have announced another round of cuts to their services, with routes from Longton to Hanley (6) and Newcastle to Ball Green (98) among those affected. The company has blamed a ‘continual downturn' in passenger numbers in the evenings and on Sundays for forcing the change.

Speaking to the Sentinel over the weekend First Managing Director Nigel Eggleton said he ‘understood' the changes would ‘not be well received', but added that it was ‘neither practical or cost effective to run busses with no-one travelling on them'.

Responding to the cuts Councillor Daniel Jellyman, cabinet member for transport, also speaking to the Sentinel said the council was ‘naturally disappointed' and they are contacting other operators to see if they will take on the journeys that are being removed, adding that ‘bus operators are private businesses' and will only run busses ‘if it is good for their business'.

Public transport isn’t sexy; but politicians ignore it at their peril, because when the system fails it can open the door to some truly ugly problems.

If older people feel trapped in their homes because they can’t get into town then their health may decline, putting pressure on our tottering social care services. The lack of a reliable bus service could be a barrier to people finding and staying in work, adding to existing social and economic inequalities.

You don’t need to be Professor Brian Cox to understand the physics of what happens when you give the first in a line of dominoes a push. There is though a certain sort of politician who manages to ignore the obvious.

The sort that twitters brightly about attracting ‘young professionals’ to cities like Stoke-on-Trent to drive its regeneration. They usually do so as they gurn for the cameras at the launch of another plan to a build shopping mall or apartment development.

Their defining characteristic is an ignorance of their quarry and its habits to rival that of Elmer Fudd. The young professionals they hunt so determinedly belong to a generation that values authenticity and originality, the last place they want to live is another clone town.

They are also the greenest generation ever, to them an interconnected public transport system isn’t a nice to have optional extra; it’s a necessity.

Sadly, First Bus don’t have the ambition to create one, neither do the other important players, the train companied and the council. You can, perhaps, forgive businesses for ‘lets please the shareholders myopia’, but politicians without a vision are like fish out of water, all they do is flop around helplessly.

There is something rather sad about an Independent group that aspired to put trams on the streets when in opposition washing their hands Pilate style as the bus service dwindles to nothing now they’re in power.

First say they have a long -term strategy for creating a ‘sustainable’ bus network for the area; their passengers may take some convincing. The changes are set to come into force next month.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Labour must learn that winning an election is a marathon not a lap of honour.

These must be ‘epic' times in which to be a Labour activist. The party's conference in Brighton this week is shaping up to be something of a celebration, rather than the cross between a cat fight and a wake everyone was expecting.

In many respects, it has been more like the sort of conference a party had in the Autumn before an election it is odds on to win, not after one it lost, if by less of a margin than expected.

The announcements of bold new policies have poured down from the platform, with shadow Chancellor John McDonnell pledging to help people ‘trapped’ by sky high credit card interest rates. He called on the government to apply a cap like that imposed on payday loan companies, saying that if they don’t so; then the next Labour government will.

Elsewhere there have been pledges to take PFI contracts back in-house, to renationalise the railways and utilities and to pour billions of pounds into the NHS. Residents of Islington who reported hearing a mysterious rumbling below ground can be reassured what they heard was just New Labour reaching optimal velocity in its casket as every one of the red lines it feared to cross was trampled into the dust.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, until recently the ‘dead man walking' of British politics he has been transfigured into the most unlikely Messiah figure since Brian himself. Every time he steps outside it is into a crowd scene of the sort Cecil B DeMille used to direct as the multitudes press forward to touch the garment of their idol.

Quite how this relates to the cross geography teacher persona he exudes in TV interviews or his low wattage speaking style I don’t know and nobody else seems to care.

Yes, these are glorious days for the faithful, it is a brilliant Indian summer and Labour is the sun warming their hopes.

I hate to be the wicked fairy at the christening, but there is a long way to go and a lot of pitfalls to face before, or if, they get across the finish line. Labour need to learn that winning an election is a marathon not a lap of honour.

Despite all the adulation and the gig at Glastonbury the flaws inherent to Corbyn and the movement he aspires to lead are very much still in place. Cheerfully amateurish chaos is an acceptable way to run your back office if you’re an insurgent disrupting the status quo, it’s a ticket to disaster if you aspire to run the country.

New Labour, for all their cynicism and sense of entitlement, were brilliant at being organised. That bought them a lot of credibility when they were seeking to displace Major's Tories, the tabloids like to stereotype the left as agents of chaos, Corbyn's neglect of the need to be organised gives them an open goal to aim at.

For all the applause, they get in Brighton this week, or from the CLP meetings that suddenly need to book a bigger room for the first time in years, those platform promises might yet become a millstone around the party’s collective neck.

Labour won praise for going into this year’s snap election with a manifesto that was both ambitiously left wing and fully coated. Their next effort will no doubt be less adventurous, the proximity to power always encourages caution.

That is sensible, a government in waiting should talk about what it can deliver, not what it would like to do. If it does want to do bold things, like renationalisation or buying back PFI; then they must be totally up front about how much it will cost and that we will all have to pay.

Labour deserve their moment in the sun, after years spent either gripped by the dead hand of Blairism or floundering in the wilderness, they suddenly look like a party with a purpose. Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for giving them a sense of direction and for being a conviction politician in a Parliament where many of his colleagues should just be convicted.

Charisma, particularly the fragile sort he has discovered of late, will only take Labour and its leader so far. Particularly if the Tories cling on for the next five years in the desperate hope that something, anything, will turn up.

Labour and the leader they never thought would take them so close to the prize should enjoy this unexpected lap of honour. Then get on with putting in the hard yards they need to if they want to win.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

‘Broken’ PIP assessment system isn’t working for people living with MS.

North Staffs Green Party today put its support behind a campaign by the Multiple Sclerosis Society calling for an improvement to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments.

A report published by the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) this week has shown that PIP is not working for people living with long term medical conditions and disabilities.

Since the introduction of PIP in October 2013 people living with MS have lost some £6million in benefits.

Figures obtained by the MS Society from the Department of Work and Pensions show that between the introduction of PIP in 2013 and October 2016, 2600 people previously on the highest mobility component of the old Disability Living Allowance have had their payments cut; 800 people claiming the highest care component on the old system have also lost out.

The report shows that over half the people who responded to a survey conducted by the DBC felt that DWP assessors didn’t properly understand their condition. Three quarters of respondents said that applying for PIP had caused them levels of anxiety that made their condition worse.

MS Society Director of External Affairs Genevieve Edwards said’ these staggering figures show how PIP is failing people with MS who need the highest level of support’.

She added that it ‘doesn’t make sense that people are losing money they once qualified for when they are living with a progressive condition’.

North Staffs Green Party Campaigns Coordinator Adam Colclough said, ‘this is another example of the government cutting support for vulnerable people for no good reason, the impact of PIP stress on the physical and mental health of claimants even if they are successful can be hugely damaging’.

The MS society are calling on the government to reform what they describe as a ‘broken’ system.

Adam Colclough said, ‘as a party we are fully behind the MS Society in this campaign and will be supporting them locally in any way we can’.

The campaign is set to last for six weeks.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Discussion paper highlights more roads are not the answer to city’s traffic problems.

Building more roads is not the answer to solving Stoke-on-Trent’s traffic problems says North Staffs Green Party Coordinator Jan Zablocki in a newly published discussion paper.

The paper highlights the local and global impact of traffic congestion and the air pollution it causes, citing World Health Organisation figures showing that globally air pollution causes 467,000 premature deaths every year. In the UK, the Institute for Public Policy Research described the air quality in London as ‘both lethal and illegal’, and linking it to 9000 premature deaths.

The report also highlights the rapid growth in the number of cars on Britain’s roads, up by 680,00 from 31.1 million in 2012 to 37.5 million today. This has caused congestion on A roads across the country with average speeds falling to less than 20mph, in Stoke-on-Trent they are as low as 18.5mph.

Locally traffic congestion has led to air quality levels in the city being in excess of UK and EU safe limits with particular hotspots in Meir, Basford, Weston Coyney and Bentilee. Author Jan Zablocki draws parallels between the health implications of traffic pollution and the levels of illness faced by generations living before the 1956 Clean Air Act.

In the second part of the paper he demonstrates how a fully integrated transport system, linking rails, bus and tram networks through a ‘hub’ on Festival Park along with improved facilities for walking and cycling could drive improvements in public health and strengthen the local economy.

Campaigns Coordinator for North Staffs Green Party Adam Colclough described the discussion paper as ‘an impressive analysis of the problems we have now that leads on to highly credible suggestions as to how we can turn things around’.

He added that ‘in the two parliamentary elections we fought this year sorting out the city’s transport system was a major issue. Only the Green Party has shown the imagination to suggest an alternative to building more roads, we have also, as this paper demonstrates, advanced a clear and workable alternative.’
At the 2017 general election the Green Party campaigned on a manifesto proposing to take the railways back into public ownership, improve regional rail networks and to improve the overall quality and accessibility of public transport. The Greens also pledged to invest in low traffic neighbourhoods, improving facilities for walking and cycling and to tackle air pollution.

Jan Zablocki will be taking part in a broadcast on Staffslive Radio presented by Adam Gratton on Wednesday 20th September at 11.30am during which he will be discussing his paper and the Green Party’s transport policy.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Cash ‘leaking’ from the NHS through cost of PFI

A report from the Centre for Health and Public Interest (CHPI) published today highlights the huge cost of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes to the NHS.

PFI is a government backed scheme under which private companies provide money to build new hospitals paid back with interest by the NHS.

The report examined 107 PFI contracts in England and found that the companies involved have generated £831million over the past six years. This money, CHPI say would have been better spent on patient services.

In their report, they call for a cap on PFI costs and for the government to buy out contracts where private companies are making too much profit at the expense of taxpayers.

Speaking to the BBC CHPI chair Colin Leys said the report showed for the first time ‘the huge amount of taxpayer’s money leaking out of the NHS’ through PFI costs.

He added that given the ‘extreme austerity’ faced by NHS services the government needs to act urgently.

Commenting on the CHPI report British Medical Association council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said NHS providers and commissioners were ‘being pushed to breaking point’ by the cost of PFI.

He described the scheme as an ‘extortionate drain on the public purse’, and said that private companies were ‘gaining at the expense of tax-payers and patients’, something he said was ‘scandalous’.

Dr Nagpaul backed the call by CHPI for the government to either renegotiate or buy out PFI contracts.

Speaking to the BBC a spokeswoman for the Department of Health said that the NHS was recognised by the independent Commonwealth Fund as being ‘the most efficient healthcare system in the world’, and that PFI costs accounted for just 3% of its annual budget.

Despite the attempts to persuade patients and voters alike differently on the part of the Department of Health this report will have struck a chord with anyone who has used an NHS hospital over the twenty years since PFI was launched.

The buildings may have been transformed from institutional monoliths into the sort of slick architecture that wins prizes, this though, has come at a price.

Private finance has muscled its way into the once sacred turf of the NHS, either in the shape of PFI or retail outlets turning the foyers of hospitals into another place to shop or sip coffee.

There is a real risk this may pave the way for privatization by the back door, if Costa can sell you a coffee while you wait to have your ingrown toenail fixed, why can’t Virgin provide the chiropodist who sorts it out?

That is a question the founders of the NHS would have been shocked to hear asked, because they know that behind it lurks the much more troubling one of how do the people who can’t afford a skinny latte, let alone the cost of falling ill, pay for their healthcare in a system where the hospitals all look like hotels.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Breaking Point: Inequality is damaging our mental health.

Mental illness is something many people will experience over the course of their life in one form or another. It is something we are more comfortable talking about now than we were in the past, even so a worrying level of stigma still surrounds the issue.

This is deeply problematic because, as one leading charity has noted recently, the decline in our national mental wellbeing is a potential public health crisis. One that has its most damaging impact on the most vulnerable members of society and can be linked to the ‘austerity’ policies of the past decade.

The shocking reality is that behind the glitz and gleaming glass towers, the regenerated mill towns and the new tech based industries, if you are poor, unemployed or in a low paid job; then your physical and mental health will be worse and you are at risk of dying sooner.

In their ‘Surviving or Thriving’ report published earlier this year the Mental Health Foundation painted a bleak picture of the mental health of the UK in 2017. Out of the people they spoke to as part of their research 65% said they had experienced some type of mental health problem, amongst the respondents who were unemployed or in low paid work that rose to 85%.

The most common problems reported were depression, anxiety and panic attacks, all of which can be linked to the stresses associated with life in the ‘precariat’, as the new class of insecure workers have come to be known.

The report concludes that the mental health of the UK is deteriorating, with the young and members of the lowest socio-economic group suffering most. This is reflected in the number of people accessing mental health services, NHS Digital record this as 1,227,312 for the year to March, with 7843 people requiring treatment on acute wards and 5637 on general wards, 21.2% of the people who accessed mental health services over this period were aged under 19.

Is there a case for attributing this decline in our national mental wellbeing to inequality as the Mental Health Foundation claims? Another charity, The Equality Trust has highlighted some indicators that the gap between the rich and the poor in the UK has grown alarmingly over the past decade.

These include concerns expressed by UNICEF about levels of child poverty, the Social Mobility Commission saying that twenty years of government policy initiatives have failed to ‘level the playing field’ for individuals and communities living in poverty; and research published by Oxford University suggesting the number of people using food banks is set to rise.

Over the past ten years the poorest tenth of the population has seen a huge fall in its collective income to just 1.3% of that for the nation, the richest tenth claims 31% (source: The Poverty Site). This has resulted in a situation where, as Christians Against Poverty put it the poorest and most vulnerable people are forced to walk a ‘financial tightrope’.

Faced with such a situation on a daily basis is it any wonder that it has a detrimental impact on people’s physical and mental health?

Health inequalities, both physical and mental, can be linked, among other factors, to the amount of control an individual’s socio-economic position gives them over their daily lives. Unemployment, poor housing, lack of security for those in low paid work can all aggravate health problems. The poor die younger and when people in that group have been diagnosed with a psychiatric illness, they die even younger still.

Mental health problems amongst people who are out of work can be linked to loss of status and a sense of purpose, along with grinding money worries and the relentless struggle to qualify and retain even the limited support on offer from the DWP. Even when people find a job working, if the job in question is low paid, insecure and repetitive can cause stress levels that are unhealthy.

City life is more stressful than rural living, particularly in disadvantaged communities where there is more vandalism, higher crime rates and more opportunities to make unhealthy lifestyle choices. People living in disadvantaged communities also tend to have weaker social support networks and members often lack the social and cultural capital necessary to seek help effectively.

For people living in such circumstances and experiencing mental health problems along with all the above problems there is the added difficulty of stigma making them into a separate minority existing on the edge of an already marginalized community.
The government defines tackling inequality as:

‘Addressing the causes and consequences of stigma, discrimination, social inequality and exclusion on service users, carers and mental health services’
(cited in Pilgrim, 2008: pp105)

The evidence shown so far demonstrates that despite claims to the contrary the current government, and many of its predecessors, has failed to do so in any meaningful way. There is, sadly, little chance that any government will so long as we as a country remain wedded to the economic and social policies of the past forty years.

There is a need for fresh and radical thinking of a sort the three mainstream political parties simply cannot provide. In this respect, as in so many others, the Green Party has a real alternative to offer.

In their manifesto at this year’s general election they said they would bring mental healthcare in line with physical health, making parity of esteem a reality not just an empty promise. They also pledged to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness and to tackle the inequality that causes it by reforming the benefits system.

In their wider policy offer they called for the introduction of a four- day working week to help reduce workplace stress and make our economy more productive. They also said they would take steps to look into introducing a universal basic income to close forever the poverty trap and set people free to be more creative.

Theirs is a vison of a fairer Britain that really does work for all its people. A country where wealth and opportunity are shared for the good of all.

As a volunteer and trustee at two mental health charities I fully endorse the Green Party’s plans to tackle inequality and the health problems it creates.

Over the past century Britain has made huge strides in overcoming many of its public health problems, at the same time we have consigned once entrenched prejudices to the cultural dustbin. I believe that with the sort of fresh thinking provide by the Green Party we can do the same for mental illness and the stigma that still too often surrounds it.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Council to spend £335,000 on cleaning up Hanley.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council is to spend £335,000 on tackling anti-social behaviour in Hanley.

Under a proposed public spaces protection order begging and street drinking would be criminalized and the police would have new powers to move on rough sleepers.

Money from the pot will also be spent on funding three new PCSOs to patrol the town centre and £10,000 will be spent on using vinyl window stickers to smarten up empty shops.

The plan will see the creation of a new post for a city centre strategic coordinator with a salary of £50,000 to oversee the project.

Spending on pastoral support for street drinkers, rough sleepers and other people coping with chaotic lived will be set at £35,000.

Jonathan Bellamy chair of the City Centre Partnership welcomed the plan saying it would ‘see a return as people will feel safer and will therefore spend more time in the town centre.’

The council will also set up a City Centre Business Improvement District (BID) to raise money from local businesses ring fenced to be spent in the town centre.

Is this money well spent? Hanley certainly has its problems. Like all town centres it is a magnet for the troubled and the lost.

At a time when Stoke-on-Trent as a newly shortlisted runner to be the 2021 City of Culture needs to show its best face to the world. Look beyond the headline figure and something more problematic can be seen.

Make no mistake £335,000 is a serious chunk of cash, a large slice of which, £961,00 a week to be exact, will be paid to the new strategic coordinator.

Only £631,00 a week will be spent on pastoral care for people who, for the most part, have ended up on the streets through bad luck rather than personal failings. The money will be split between multiple charities and projects, reducing the figure even further.

This seems like a strange, but sadly not unfamiliar, set of priorities. Once again hiring a highly paid manager to oversee services has been put ahead of funding said services properly. Past experience has taught everyone outside the ivory tower inhabited by senior council officers that this doesn't work.

Setting up a BID may prove problematic too if the experience of people in nearby Newcastle is anything to go by. Some businesses there have complained of being strong armed into joining.

There is also the small matter of communities being made up of more than businesses, but under BID only business owners, many of whom might live out of the area, will have a say on how the money raised is spent. That is far from democratic and could cause a serious clash of interests.

There is also the perennial problem of how to spread the benefits out to the other five towns.

Hanley is on the up after years of decline, walk down Piccadilly and it almost seems cosmopolitan, slickly metropolitan certainly. That is a good thing, every city needs a centre, but you can't solve social problems just by moving them on to somewhere else.