Investing in North Shields and Wallsend.

On Thursday evening I was at the bimonthly meeting of the full council to debate a range of important issues.

You can see the video here and get the documents here.

As I always try to do, I took the opportunity to argue for greater resources being sought to support the economic prosperity of our riverside communities. On this occasion I was supporting a motion proposed by Deputy Mayor Carl Johnson. We are both frustrated that despite the Government’s rhetoric of “Levelling Up” the towns of North Shields and Wallsend are not getting anything like the support they need. We absolutely need to see the new Government playing fair by allocating Levelling Up funds to North Tyneside. Here’s my speech in full:

“As prominent and historic riverside towns, North Shields and Wallsend have witnessed the tides of fortune coming in and going out many, many times. The great ingenuity and rich resources of our borough have made a huge contribution to Britain’s prosperity over many generations.

The people of North Tyneside rightly take pride in that heritage, and they want to continue to make their important contribution to the nation’s economic growth. In order to do that they need to be starting on equal terms to the rest of the country, rather than continually working from a position of disadvantage.

The structural imbalances that have taken root in Britain’s economy are well-documented. So-much so that the now-deposed ex-prime minister Boris Johnson, felt his party needed to finally confront the issue. Being so fond of a catch phrase he coined one to describe a proposed remedy: Levelling Up.

Sadly, perhaps predictably, his rhetoric didn’t match reality. Time and again we sought to access Levelling-Up funding, for local schemes that would have made a real difference to the lives of our residents. On what basis were our bids refused? According to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report in May this year “The principles for awarding funding were only finalised by Ministers after they knew who, from the 170 shortlisted bidders, would win and who would not as a result of those principles.” Let that sink in.

Receiving bids from local authorities including North Tyneside, taking a look at them, and then devising a scoring system that will determine the winners and losers.

It’s breath-taking isn’t it!

In light of this, and given that we have a new Prime Minister, who we can only hope oversees a more transparent and even-handed regime of ministerial decision-making, we need to make it plain to Westminster that investing in the people and prosperity of our riverside towns is a priority that should be taken seriously.

I hope all members in the chamber will support this motion.”

The motion itself is presented below:

The south-east of England, the most affluent region in Britain outside London, last year received almost twice as much money as the north-east from the government’s levelling up fund aimed at boosting deprived areas.
Various Conservative levelling up funds have refused to back North Tyneside including the levelling up fund and towns fund, which instead of being available to North Tyneside was made available to often more affluent and often Conservative voting areas.
Child poverty continues to rise in the North East and 11 in 30 children in a school class are now facing child poverty.
We call on the Mayor to:
• Write to the Prime Minister urging action on child poverty in the North East and to set out an action plan on how the Conservative government will tackle child poverty.
• Urge the Prime Minister to fund both of our £20 million levelling up bids for North Shields and Wallsend.

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Tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

We’ve all been stunned this week by the sudden passing of our beloved Queen, Elizabeth II. Each of us will remember her in our own unique way.

I was in a council meeting on Thursday evening. There was, as you might imagine, a strange atmosphere. We had begun the meeting in the knowledge that hundreds of miles away, at Balmoral, a very different type of meeting was happening. I was just beginning to speak on an agenda point when one of my fellow councillors interrupted with the breaking news. The Queen had passed away. There was an audible intake of breath around the room. The chair immediately proposed that out of respect we should cut the meeting short and to reconvene at a later date. We all, of course, agreed.

These circumstances have caused me to reflect on one of the particularly unusual characteristics that set Her Majesty apart from others, especially from the kind of people I tend to rub shoulders with in the political world: she never gave opinions.

Opinions are everywhere now. We are overwhelmed by them. Almost everyone has an opinion about almost everything. The age of social media has only served to amplify this tendency. People shout over each other to make their point heard. In the political sphere opinions have become weaponised. Holding and professing a certain point of view on a particular issue has become central to defining who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong.

The Queen quietly stood above all this.

One of the interesting features of the news reports that have filled our TV screens for the past 48 hours is the perspectives offered by past Prime Ministers. Each of them would spend an hour a week in private audience with her. None will ever share the content of those conversations. Reading between the lines of what they do tell us about those meetings we get the strong impression that one of the Queen’s great qualities was her skill as a listener. She took the time to hear and to understand.

If there is one thing that I could preserve from Her Majesty’s legacy it would be this: that we would learn to follow her example of listening more and offering opinion less.

Just imagine the agro we might avoid, the unity we could create, and the unlikely friendships that could be formed, if we committed to following her example.

Rest in peace Ma’am.

New-look Northumberland Square opens

It’s great to see the completion of the council’s regeneration of Northumberland Square in North Shields town centre.

The new-look square re-opened just in time for the August bank holiday weekend, with the first event being held on Monday. Hundreds of local people enjoyed a range of musical acts and stalls as part of the Diversity festival.

The restoration of the square is of course just one piece in the jigsaw of a wider effort to regenerate North Shields town centre. As both a local councillor and a local resident I’m really pleased to see millions of pounds of investment going into the town. We are witnessing a level of determined regeneration that not been seen for over 20 years. The challenges of town centre decline are not unique to us, nor to just the North. It is good to see then that whilst other places are still dithering about what to do we are making things happen.

I’ve had my ear to the ground over the last few days listening to the local chatter about the new-look square. In general most people seem to be impressed by the quality of the work. The materials used are tasteful and have been selected to stand the test of time. The new layout, whilst creating more hard paving for events, has managed to retain a decent proportion of green space. A few trees have been lost, but they have been replaced with new planting on the previously barren Howard Street. Biodiversity has been improved with new hedges and a wider range of plant and flower species to attract insects and birds.

The only criticism I have really come across seems to be around questions of why? ‘Surely North Shields has higher priorities than Northumberland Square…’ would be a typical line. This isn’t an unreasonable question. Everybody knows that Bedford Street is a state and that the Beacon Centre is half empty. I’ve been in lots of meetings about both, and have contributed a variety of options that could help make things better. The bottom line however is ‘what are investors willing to fund’. Here’s some further info on that point…

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister he promised to “Level Up”. Remember that? What actually happened was that the Treasury were tasked to change the way that they calculated the benefit of investment into local communities. This meant that lots of Conservative-voting areas got investment whilst Labour-voting areas didn’t. It has proven a very divisive approach. Amongst the various initiatives launched were “High Streets Heritage Action Zones”. Click here for a map of where the funding went. North Shields was able to get a slice of the funding for parts of the town classed as “historic”. This meant that Northumberland Square and Howard Street could be funded but Bedford Street didn’t meet the “historic” criteria. Ultimately I think it was a good decision to take the money to regenerate the part of the town that did qualify, rather than turn down the opportunity completely.

Overall, the benefit of this regeneration to the town can only be positive. It restores a bit of pride and will also grow confidence amongst entrepreneurs that North Shields is a good place to locate a business. Despite the very challenging economic circumstances we are in I’m hopeful that we will see quite a lot of positive new developments springing up in the area around the square now that it has been completed. I’ll be doing all I can in my role as a councillor to encourage that.

Pictures in gallery below courtesy of: @dwailes @Old_LowLight and myself.

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Weed Treatment Overdue?

Keeping our area looking its best involves the council’s environment team undertaking quarterly spraying of weeds. I need your help to tell me if your area has been done yet.

This week I’ve been following up on local concerns that some streets are seeing excessive weed growth that has become quite unsightly. I was provided information showing that the last spraying took place on 23-25th May. I also found out that a new round of spraying was supposed to begin on Monday (15th August).

Out and about around this ward over the last few days I haven’t been able to see any evidence that the spraying has actually taken place – but it’s hard to tell. This is where I need your help as residents. Have you seen the team spraying on your street? The council’s vehicles and equipment are quite noticeable so if you were at home you may well have seen them passing.

  • Please write to me on my council email: matt.wilson@northtyneside.gov.uk
  • Or text me on my council mobile: 07583 087739

If you have a problem with unsightly weeds growing on your street that have not been sprayed please let me know.

Finally, you may choose, as some residents do, to pull up any weeds growing near your home if they are bothering you.

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£3.7m for home energy efficiency improvements

The biggest crisis that our borough currently faces is the rapidly rising cost of energy. It is affecting all of us and pushing thousands of local families into fuel poverty.

Inaction by the zombie Government in Westminster really isn’t helping. However, your local Labour councillors are extremely concerned and lots of different local measures are being put in place to ensure that when the council finds an opportunity help, it does so quickly.

One such new opportunity is the release of a £3.7 million fund to help households in North Tyneside to become more energy efficient. You probably know that all homes have an energy performance rating from A (best) to G (worst). A lot of our local housing stock is old and leaky. Historically this wasn’t seen as a problem as fuel was relatively cheap. However, the massive increase in gas prices means that the difference in cost to heat a poorly-insulated home vs a well-insulated home is getting bigger and bigger. Recent research reveals that come 2023 F/G rated homes will be spending up to £2000 a year more on energy costs that the equivalent C rated homes. (see graph below from Dr. Simon Evans at Carbon Brief).

The grant funding, which comes from a national fund known as the Green Home Grants scheme. The council have successfully accessed this funding working with energy provider E-On. Note – you don’t have to be an E-On customer to benefit. There are however a number of eligibility boxes that you have to tick in order to access the money though. This is to ensure that the funding goes to the households in greatest financial difficulty and the homes that are most in need of retrofitting measures.

I would definitely recommend checking your eligibility as it could save you thousands of pounds. Use this link to check now via the E-On website or phone the Green Homes Grant team at E.ON on 0333 202 4820.

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Cleaning up North Tyneside’s politics

This week I attended the full council meeting, which turned out to be a bit of a marathon session running over two and a half hours. Some important debate was held, the highlights of which I’ve summarised below.

Click here for all the paperwork

Click here for the video recording

The meeting started with six questions from the public. These have to be submitted and approved in advance. One was about SEND provision in our schools, which is something that as a council we allocate proportionately more financial resource to than other councils. Another was about clearing fallen trees in Rising Sun Country Park. There were three environmental questions, all similar, that I think came from people linked to the local Green Party. The final question asked about the availability of youth services in the borough, noting the impact of funding cuts by central government in Westminster.

The main course of the meeting revolved around debating five ‘motions’. These are submitted by elected members of the political parties in order to focus the attention of the council towards matters that they believe to be topical and of importance. The first raised the issue of NHS hospital staff paying for parking; the second called for a ban on LGBT conversion therapy; the third was about cleaning up local political campaigning; the fourth was a ‘thank you motion’ for a councillor who has just stepped down after 30 years; and the fifth was another cynical attempt by the Tories to continue their attacks on new investment into local cycling infrastructure. Number 3 is the motion I’d like to say a bit more about.

The timing of this debate was important as we’ve just had the Camperdown by-election in the north west of the borough. The by-election hit the headlines when my opposite number here in Preston ward, Conservative councillor Liam Bones, was suspended by his own party for engaging in “gutter politics”. Since arriving on the local political scene a couple of years ago Cllr Bones has been spearheading the Conservative party’s campaigning in the borough. The shift in Conservative communication tactics over that period has been noted with increasing levels of concern across the political spectrum. The debate on Thursday night represented a collective “enough is enough” moment that can only be good for local people, in terms of ensuring that election material they receive is clear, fair and properly traceable. You can watch/listen to the debate via this link, it begins 55 mins into the recording.

My colleagues in the Labour Party proposed a set of pledges for all parties to get behind. These are:

  • To always make it clear on election literature which party it is from
  • To not abbreviate the name of your political party on an imprint
  • To not impersonate local media to use as a party-political platform
  • To always ensure postal vote sign-ups are sent direct to the council
  • To make clear on any social media account which political party is behind it
  • To treat other candidates with respect
  • To not impersonate another political party on literature
  • To uphold the highest standards of integrity which the public expect from us

Local residents will recognise that each of these points has specific relevance here as our area has been targeted by this kind of negative and deceptive campaigning. I’m pleased to say that when it came to the vote at the end of the debate the motion was accepted unanimously – yes the Tories agreed to it – even Cllr Bones. The task now is to be vigilant in ensuring that the pledges above are actually held to. Please keep your eyes peeled and let’s make sure this is a genuine watershed moment for cleaner, kinder politics in North Tyneside.

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Is impatience a virtue?

This morning I went into Gateshead to listen to Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer give a speech about his vision for Britain.

There was a lot of great content in the speech and the headlines are already being run on the news, so I won’t dwell on them. It was actually a small point of detail that struck me. Let me explain why this particular detail stood out…

Regular readers of my blog will know that I usually write it on a Sunday morning. Yesterday I didn’t. One reason was that it was my birthday and I had a lot going on. The other reason was that I had some thoughts buzzing around my head that I hadn’t worked out how to express. You see, I wanted to write about the idea of “patience”, and my struggle with it!

Work on Sandringham Gardens to improve drainage

Being a councillor has required me to have a lot of patience. It’s not just that many of the meetings I have to attend are quite dull, there are always ways to liven up a boring meeting. It’s more the waiting for things to get done. For example one of the first substantial pieces of case work I took on was for the residents of Sandringham Gardens. They had been suffering from poor drainage on their street for years and years. I told them that I would do absolutely everything I could to get it sorted for them. I never expected it to be so difficult. There has been so much work needed behind the scenes to find workable and cost-effective solutions, and to secure the commitments to spend the necessary budget. But after 3 years waiting the work is finally happening!

Today Keir Starmer said:

I’m impatient to get things done. I can see what is wrong with Britain and I want to fix it.

Sir Keir Starmer, speaking in Gateshead, 11th July 2022

I’m sure you can see why this struck a cord with me. In that respect we’re cut from the same cloth. We are people temperamentally unsuited to just letting things drift without any action. We want to get on with the job. We want to do whatever we can to improve people’s lives. Yes, Keir has a bigger job than mine, and he wants to be Prime Minister. But as Labour politicians we share this conviction: it is actually impatience rather than patience, that is a virtue.

I’m sure you’ll agree that right now there’s lots about daily life in our country that needs to be fixed sooner rather than later. Please do drop me a line to let me know what your local priorities are and I’ll do all I can to spur some action.

PS: to all those groups of residents I’m currently working with on issues that have been ongoing for a long time without a solution yet – hang in there – I’m on it – we’ll get there!

Ward Walkabout with Council + Capita

In this edition of Wilson’s Weekly I’ll be updating you on my recent ward walkabout with senior managers from North Tyneside Council and their contracted partners, Capita.

When it comes to helping others to understand what’s going on in our community I think the best way to is simply to show them. That’s why periodic ward walkabouts matter. In an hour and a half we can tick off loads of issues that can be quite tricky to explain over email or phone calls.

The Preston ward of North Shields is divided into 4 parts, each with a quite distinct character, resulting in different issues popping up in different places. On our latest walkabout we focused on the south western quadrant. This is an older part of the ward, with mostly terraced streets. It includes a conservation area, a few rare public green spaces, and lots of trees.

We began by inspecting the work that has been taking place on the mid section of Cleveland Road, where tree growth had made sections of the footpath quite dangerous. The uneven surfaces also prevented drainage, leaving large ponds forming in wet weather. Residents have told me that they are very happy that the work is happening, and that the overall quality of the job is good. Sadly it hasn’t been possible to match the original aggregate flagstone as it went out of production decades ago. The team have done their best to mitigate this by creating a patterned effect. There are some concerns about how long the job is taking. I asked Capita to look into this as there are literally miles more footpaths that need replacing in the years ahead and so a more efficient working method needs to be found.

Replacing uneven paving on Cleveland Road

On Brightman Road / The Chase we looked at the ‘Green Triangle’ area which is a well-loved public amenity. A combination of heavy storms and an outbreak of honey fungus (Armillaria) resulted in the loss of several lovely trees. Replacing the trees is going to be tricky until the honey fungus is fully dealt with. We discussed ensuring regular maintenance in the interim, and spoke with residents about providing a bench. I’ll be following up on this as there are some residents nervous about a bench becoming a focus for anti social behaviour.

At the end of Brightman Road where it connects to Albion Road, by St Cuthbert’s Church, we looked at the old graveyard that is mainly now used by dog walkers. This area isn’t well maintained at the moment, being quite overgrown with nettles etc. We also know that it has been a location of anti social behaviour. A local group is interested in ‘adopting’ the area and my colleague Councillor Davis is following up on that. I must stress that the area is public and will remain so, but it is encouraging to hear of a local initiative to improve the spot as it has a lot of potential.

Walking around from Albion Road to Preston Road we stopped at Jubillee Corner to discussed its maintenance schedule, including mowing and planting. It is a lovely little sun trap in nice weather and the flower displays there at different times of year bring lots of colour. I wanted to ensure that the manager from the council’s grounds team knew how much local people enjoy this spot and like to see it well-kept.

A range of other issues were picked up before we concluded including sections of Alma Place where weeds have not been properly dealt with and flagstones have become uneven. Several trees with low-level growth that interferes with passers-by were also noted. I was pleased to hear that the grounds team can deal with these rather than the specialist arborist team as I know they are still run ragged catching up with tree damage after the storms earlier in the year. We also noted some of the local litter hotspots. These locations are being passed to the street cleansing team for blitzing over the summer.

If you have any street-level issues that you’d like me to raise on your behalf you can drop me a line on my council email which is: matt.wilson@northtyneside.gov.uk

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Your Questions on the local Economy

As a local councillor I have to juggle quite a lot of different responsibilities. One of the most important of them is chairing a group called the “Economic Prosperity Sub-Committee”. Yes it’s a bit of a mouthful.

The group is one of seven sub-committees that meet frequently to undertake a duty called ‘scrutiny’. It means we look closely at the impact of the policies of the Mayor and her cabinet, how well they are being implemented and whether any improvement is needed. It’s one of the ways in which we ensure that when we say to local residents “we’ve got your back” we really mean it. Our job is to ensure the best interests of the citizens of North Tyneside are being looked after.

As the name suggests, my sub-committee is concerned with looking at economic development in North Tyneside. This can mean anything from big picture issues such as the regeneration of town centres, to very personal issues, such as whether council tax rebates are being redistributed in a timely fashion to struggling residents. Most frequently we talk about the local jobs market, and what progress is being made to deliver on the Mayor’s plan for a thriving North Tyneside. With a major cost of living crisis gripping the whole country it is really, really important that her plan works.

One of my tasks as chairperson is to agree what we call our ‘work programme’ – the list of topics that we will cover in our meetings. Together with my vice-chair, Cllr Walker, we run through different priorities, discussing them with senior members of council staff until we settle on list that we’re happy with.

Today I want to ask for your input on the issues we should be looking at. You may not think a lot about “The Economy” but you probably do think a fair bit about work, whether you’re in the right job, how you access training to improve your prospects, how you get to and from work etc. Or you might think about shopping, what kind of shops are available, how easy or difficult it is to get what your family needs. All these are things we can be looking into on your behalf.

What are your questions on the local economy?

I’d really like to hear from you. When you think of the local economy what stands out to you as being most important? What is working well? And what needs fixing? You can drop me a line at CllrWilson@icloud.com or leave a comment on my Facebook Page.

Improving the Parking Strategy

On Monday of this week I attended the council’s “Overview and Scrutiny” committee. For those unfamiliar with the internal workings of the council this is a cross-party group of 15 elected councillors. Our task is to look closely at the implementation and impact of the practical things the council is doing and the policy decisions that the cabinet (the Mayor’s top team) are making. We can applaud and encourage good practice, and also challenge in areas where we feel improvement is needed.

The most lively part of the meeting was the agenda item to do with the council’s new borough-wide Parking Strategy. This is no surprise, any councillor anywhere in the country will probably tell you that parking is a hot potato issue for residents. It certainly is here in North Shields where many local streets and much of our town centre date back to a time when far fewer cars were on the roads. Managing that demand is an enormous challenge, which is why it’s so important to get the Parking Strategy right.

At this point I should probably throw in a couple of extra points of context: The Parking Strategy isn’t the only way the council manages parking demand. For example, the decision to invest in a new Transport Hub in North Shields town centre is intended to make it easier for people to get in and out using buses and the metro. And the new investment in ‘Active Travel’ infrastructure will make it safer and more straightforward to walk or cycle between local destinations.

All of us who serve as your local councillors attended consultations on the new strategy earlier in the year. At these events, and in associated surveys, I passed on comments that local residents had made to me. In that sense Monday’s meeting was an important opportunity to check in on whether or not we had been listened to. I was pleased to see that a large number of our points had made it into the draft.

So, what’s changing in the updated Parking strategy? Here are some changes that caught my eye:

  • Important changes to the criteria for disabled bays, allowing officers more discretion in cases where applicants have chosen not to claim certain state benefits (which were previously used as evidence of disability)
  • Tie-ins with related strategies, such as Carbon Net Zero and the Zero Emission Vehicles strategy.
  • An update to the range and type of parking permits available
  • Changes to the criteria around resident parking schemes, making the level of residents support for the scheme the number 1 criteria.
  • Increased use of digital technologies to make it easier to interact with the council on parking matters, especially around requests for new parking schemes.
  • More frequent assessments of parking restriction requests, leading to quicker decisions about whether or not new schemes will be implemented.

The councillors present, myself included, recognised that there are a number of issues that remain unresolved. We raised about a dozen between us, including 3 or 4 from myself. I was concerned that:

  • No number has been put on the frequency of parking assessment decisions. It is currently once a year. In future will it be twice? Three times? Four? We await an answer.
  • The strategy is a bit fuzzy on ‘commercial demand’ with respect to residential parking restrictions. There may be advantages to having a bit of short stay daytime flexibility in restricted residential streets. We need some more detail on when and how this can be used to better manage visitor demand.
  • I disputed the statement in the strategy says there is enough parking provision in the town centre. This led to an interesting debate about the cost of parking, especially at the Beacon Centre. As most of us know, every day it sits mostly empty because it is quite expensive. I discovered that these empty spaces are counted as “surplus parking” leading to the defacto conclusion that the town has enough parking provision. I suggested this assumption needed reconsidering.

All in all, I think we need to see the new Parking Strategy as introducing a range of modest improvements. I emphasise the word “improvement” because it’s a better fit than solutions. To actually solve the parking issues we have locally my guess is we’d need to see at least a 25% reduction in the number of cars on the road. It’s interesting to think what would need to change in our travel habits to make that sort of revolution possible.

Finally, as a citizen it is your right to view the documents associated with scrutiny meetings. You can access the documents from this meeting by clicking here.

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