New Cops for North Shields

Last week I had a catch up meeting with the Northumbria Police Inspector for North Shields. She had some good news… 3 new cops for North Shields!

Our Police have my utmost respect for all the difficult work they do – seen and unseen. I’m sure most residents feel the same. You will also be quite aware of the pressure that our local Police have been under after 13 years of the Conservatives slashing their numbers. Trying to maintain the level of service that local people expect has been tough. Yet, against this backdrop the Northumbria force has been able to keep in focus the importance of Neighbourhood Policing, which means having groups of selected officers being focused on specific communities, long-term.

We’ve had a Neighbourhood Policing unit in North Shields for a while now and I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know some of its officers who are absolutely dedicated to keeping our streets safe. It has been a small team though, and spread quite thin. So, I was absolutely thrilled to hear that we have been assigned 3 new neighbourhood cops! Honestly, it’s a really big deal and it’s going to make a big difference to reducing crime and antisocial behaviour in the town.

Credit where it’s due, since her election in 2019, our Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness has been bravely and persistently battling with the government to bring more resources to our region. Thank you Kim for what you’ve been doing behind the scenes to make this possible.

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Levelling Down

This week I attended Full Council, the formal meeting where council business is conducted and political priorities are debated. As always, I was pleased to speak up for the people of the area on a number of issues.

The most feisty part of the evening was the debate around the issue of ‘Levelling Up’. Just in case you haven’t heard, we had been hoping to receive government funding for a £20 million package of really important regeneration projects in North Shields and Wallsend. Earlier on Thursday, just hours before the meeting, we had learned that our proposal had been rejected, and the money given instead to a range of questionable projects elsewhere. As I said on the night:

“The number one criteria appears to be shiny projects that present photo opportunities for government ministers”.

Here’s the main takeaway that I think all residents of North Tyneside really need to know: the Conservative government has deliberately excluded us from its so-called Levelling Up agenda. We are now fighting with one hand tied behind our back. Right back at the beginning of the Levelling Up story decisions were made in Westminster that put the whole of the UK into priority areas, using a 3 tier system. Realistically, you have to be in Tier 1 to receive any meaningful funding.

It is staggering that whilst every one of our neighbours was placed into tier 1 we were put into tier 2. It’s even more staggering when you consider that the arithmetic the Treasury claims to use combines the following priorities:

  • Need for Economic recovery and growth
  • Need for improved transport connectivity
  • Need for regeneration

How can North Tyneside not be a tier 1 area based on those factors? It beggars belief. And yet video footage exists of Rishi Sunak bragging to his Tory friends about how he is undoing Labour’s earlier work that prioritised funding to deprived areas. All this means that no matter how important and ambitious our plans are the ‘scoring’ of our proposals will be ‘capped’. Therefore, less convincing ideas from Tier 1 areas will always leapfrog us for funding. We are seeing this happening again and again.

The council meeting got a bit feisty because the Conservative councillors freely conceded that this set up is totally unfair. They also claimed to be upset about it on behalf of residents. And yet when it came to really stepping up by challenging their Westminster-based leaders about it, they sat on their hands and abstained from the vote. I trust that the canny folk of Shields will remember that at the next election.

Read more about the Levelling Up debacle on BBC News:

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Education focus: Early Years + Home Schooling

This week I had my first 2023 meeting at the Children, Education and Skills sub-committee. The two main agenda items were Early Years and Home Schooling, both fascinating topics. Here’s a summary…

Early Years Ambition.

It’s been proven time and again that, pound for pound, investment in a child’s early years tends to outperform other later-stage interventions, in terms of outcomes. I won’t hide that I’m a massive fan of early support models, for children and also their parents. The peculiar thing is that the government has proven unwilling to provide proper investment in early years. However, I’m pleased to say that this isn’t stopping us doing some great early years work here in North Tyneside. Our Mayor’s “Ambition for Education” is:

“Making North Tyneside an even greater place for children and young people to thrive; where all can access a high-class education with a culture of inclusion and achievement.”

Key to this is an idea sometimes referred to as ‘school readiness’. It’s about narrowing the gap that all too frequently exists between children from disadvantaged vs non-disadvantaged families by the time they arrive at Reception class at primary school. Amongst a wide variety of things going on in the borough to address this gap I noted a few as especially interesting and encouraging:

  • The key driver for change is to improve early language acquisition. A speech and language communication pathway has been developed and launched. It takes an innovative and multiagency approach. North Tyneside was part of an LGA peer review for early speech and language (completed in December 2022). It identified our work as strong and innovative practice. NTC is now working with the North of Tyne Combined Authority to extend the model into Newcastle and Northumberland because it is so effective.
  • The early years language work is also linked to reading attainment. In this area a new ‘Launchpad for Literacy’ initiative is targeting not only schools but also childcare settings plus nursery year and pre-school classes. There are 20 schools plus 16 other settings involved, with a focus on high quality teaching to improve language acquisition and early reading.

Of course none of this is possible without developing the education workforce. That’s why there has been a strong focus on improving the skills of adults who work in Early years, particularly developing their skills around support for SEND. To date 37 SENDCOs have completed a level 3 qualification and a further 13 have signed up for 2022/23.

Home Education

Often unhelpfully referred to as ‘Home Schooling’, because a home can never really be a school, this is an interesting and fast-changing area of education. Due to the pace of change, and the potential implications a sub group have been looking at Home Ed in detail. They brought back their report to us for comment and questions.

Here in North Tyneside, when the sub-committee last reported on home education (Feb 2017), there were 41 children in the borough who were known to be home educated. This is a tiny fraction of over 35,000 children of school age in the borough. Still, less than 5 years later, at the end of the academic year 2021/22, the number had almost quadrupled to 155. We found there are of reasons for this, some straightforward, some complex, some positive, some negative. For example,

Reasons for Home Educating Parents / percentage of total
Health/Emotional Wellbeing43 / 28%
Lifestyle choice33 / 21%

When I asked what is meant by “Lifestyle Choice” the reply was that it can also include religious or ideological reasons for not wanting children in mainstream school. There were a number of quite obviously negative reasons for home schooling too, such as dissatisfaction with the school, bullying and friendship issues, or did not get school preference.

The sub-committee, and the lead officers from the council recognised that this is a sensitive area touching on a parents right to choose vs a child’s right to learn. Legally speaking, education is compulsory but going to school is not. Therefore the task of the council’s team is to engage with all parents providing Home Ed, to meet the children receiving this education, and to ensure a good standard of learning is being experienced. We were pleased to hear that our Elective Home Education officer, Sarah Irving, has recently won an award for her excellent work with local families – well done Sarah 🙂

On the positive side, one potential driver of the change is the advent of online learning. It means that children learning at home can access much higher quality resources than were previously available. However, there is a digital divide and not all kids can access these resources.

Finally, and this is where the rubber hits the road so to speak, it is also apparent that in a minority of cases parents have issues, anxieties or misgivings about school that are unfounded. When this is combined with a parent’s lack of capability or capacity to deliver education at home children’s development can suffer. In these cases the council does have the legal right to serve School Attendance Orders.

Click here for the full public documentation relating to this meeting.

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How to contact me in 2023

As a local councillor dealing directly with resident issues and enquiries is at the heart of what I do…

Most people tend to contact me using my official council email address which is matt.wilson@northtyneside.gov.uk. However, some matters are a bit too complicated to convey by email, and some people don’t have access to email, so here are the other options…

  • Residents are welcome to attend my monthly in-person advice surgery. These happen at 6pm on the second Wednesday of every month in the vestry at St Cuthbert’s RC Church on Albion Road. The next one will be on 11th January. If the surgery time isn’t convenient for you face-to-face meetings can be arranged at other times as required.
  • You can also call me on my case work phone which is 07583 087739. As I may be at work during the day it is best to call in the evening, or ideally, drop me a text message or WhatsApp stating your name and asking me to ring you back.
  • Finally, some people nowadays like to have a video call to talk things through. This can easily be arranged. Just drop me a message by text or email to fix up a convenient time to talk.

Please don’t be shy to get in touch, I’m here to help 😃

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New Year, New Deal

I’d like to start by wishing a very Happy New Year to all my readers and residents. I hope you’ve had a great Christmas and that you have things to look forward to in 2023.

One of the biggest things I’ll be doing during 2023, I hope, is to be voting through the massive new £4 billion North East devolution deal that was announced just a few days ago. The new deal dwarfs the one agreed back in 2018 to create the North of Tyne Combined Authority. An enlarged area of devolved powers will be created, extending south and west. This means that North Tyneside, Northumbria and Newcastle will be joined by Durham, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland. As a result over 2 million residents are affected.

Here are some of the key benefits of the deal that stand out to me:

  • It will bring closer collaboration between key towns and cities around the Tyne and Wear area. This is really important for strategic economic development. Working together towards agreed objectives will make our whole area more economically dynamic and prosperous.
  • It means that more of the important policy decisions can be made here in the North East, by people who really understand what makes the region tick, rather than by civil servants down in London.
  • The timescale is long-term, 30 years, which offers security and the ability to plan. The scope is also very broad, way beyond the creation of the £1.4 billion North East Investment Fund to support business growth.
  • In particular, I think the £60 million a year for Adult education and skills will be a real gamechanger. From my limited position as a local councillor without a cabinet portfolio I’ll be doing everything I can to ensure every penny of this is spent strategically. For me this is where the opportunity really lies for many local people. For all those who didn’t leave school with much by the way of qualifications this can offer a second chance. And for all those who feel stuck in a job that doesn’t seem like it has much by way of prospects it will give the chance to reskill, upskill and progress to something better.
  • The huge investment in regional transport networks also really stands out, with nearly a billion of funding under consideration. All modes of transport are considered within the mix, there really is something for everyone, whether you are a driver, public transport user or cyclist. New powers to bring the regional Bus network back into public ownership are quite eye-catching.
  • Other things covered by the deal include transitioning to clean energy, new housing, digital connectivity, arts, culture and sport.

All in all, much to look forward to. It will take the whole of 2023 to jump through all of the various hoops to getting the deal agreed but I trust we’ll get there one step at a time. Elections for the post of North East Regional Mayor are expected to happen in mid 2024.

The text of the proposed deal is now in the public domain so those of you we an appetite for these things (48 pages long) can take a look for yourself by clicking here.

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Merry Christmas one and all

Before I sign off for the next week I’d like to take a minute to wish all the canny folk of Shields a very very Merry Christmas.

And a special thanks to those of you who won’t be getting much of a break because of the important work you do keeping things ticking over for the rest of us. To all of you working in the local shops, bars and restaurants, Merry Christmas, and I really hope people are kind to you and tip you well! To those of you doing in amazing job in our local care homes, ensuring that our elderly and vulnerable enter into the spirit of the season, Merry Christmas. To those of you out there keeping the buses and metros moving, Merry Christmas. To the blue light services, dealing so well with all the stressful scenarios that Christmas can generate, ensuring that we’re all safe, Merry Christmas.

And to all those I’m sure I must have missed from the list above, whoever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope that somewhere in the midst of it all, you’ll get to share in the joy of Christmas too.

See you in 2023!

Icy Weather Issues

As the cold ‘snap’ has dragged on into something longer the challenges for local people and for the council have increased.

North Shields has been stuck in freezing conditions for over a week now, recognised by the triggering of cold weather payments to those eligible. We all face the challenge of keeping our homes warm, with worries about the cost more present in our minds than ever before.

My respect goes out to those with outdoor jobs. They have been facing the conditions bravely. I was impressed by the council’s bin team continuing their rounds, pretty much on time, in very cold and difficult conditions.

One of the issues that people have grumbled to me about this week is the issue of slippery streets and the need to be gritting pavements. Several mentioned people having fallen and I heard (unconfirmed) reports of some ending up in A&E as a result. I raised these issues shared with me with the council department responsible for managing the council’s cold weather response. I would summarise what I found out as follows:

  • Because council resources are so stretched due to budget cuts it is very difficult for teams to react when things happens that are outside the usual run of the mill. There is no spare capacity, everybody is already at full tilt.
  • The priority is gritting main roads so that motorists can get around. There are a lot of resources for this, gritting trucks, salt dumps, even snow ploughs. Pedestrians barely get a look in. I have found very little evidence so far of any planning to target icy pavements that present a risk to people who have to get around on foot – which often means older residents.
  • Grit bins are few and far between. They can also present problems for the 95% of the year when they aren’t needed. People frequently use them as litter bins and they often get vandalised.

As a local councillor I feel like people deserve better than simply being left to their own devices in weather like this. However, with such limited resources it’s hard to know what to do. My gut feeling is that some kind of plan involving a joint effort between council and communities could make a difference. Perhaps grit could be dropped on street corners for local people to spread around in trouble spots? Locations could quickly be shared via social media.

Ultimately, the weather is by nature unpredictable. But I think there’s more to be done in cold weather than just put our woolly hats on. We need to put out thinking caps on too.

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Christmas Markets Success

It was great to see so Northumberland Square and Howard Street full of hustle, bustle and merriment yesterday.

The Christmas Markets are back in North Shields town centre this weekend and yesterday I went along with my wife to buy some Christmas gifts for family members. It was lovely to see the newly regenerated heritage area full of happy crowds. There were choirs singing on the stage, food stalls around the square and gift stalls all the way down Howard Street. Despite a nip in the area there was a fantastic festive atmosphere.

I bumped into lots of residents from around the ward and everyone was commenting about how much better the new layout was, compared to the cramped and muddy markets hosted in the square before the regeneration took place. The next street layout makes room for more stall holders and more visitors, and also enables other venues such as the local churches and the Saville Exchange to open their doors to visitors.

I even spotted several people I know from Whitley Bay… yes, people from Whitley Bay coming to shop in North Shields!

For me this weekend is really important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s just great to see the canny folk of Shields enjoying their town centre and taking pride in it. But secondly, we need to be showing the potential of the town to a wider audience. The markets bring in visitors from further afield, and showcase the economic opportunity the town presents. This is what makes business owners think seriously about investing in the town, seeing it as a location for their next shop, restaurant or office location.

I’m looking forward to North Shields hosting the markets again next year, even bigger and even better.

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Nobody Left Behind

On Tuesday night, just ahead of England’s big game with Wales, I chaired November’s meeting of the Economic Prosperity committee. The main agenda point was “Creating An Inclusive Economy”.

I’d like to take a few minutes to explain what that phrase “Inclusive Economy” is all about, and why I’m determined to ensure that here in North Tyneside it translates into meaningful change for local people.

The two words “inclusive” and “economy” are fundamental, but let’s take them in reverse order. First, the economy. I got involved in politics because more than 20 years of working in the charity sector had convinced me that much of the work charities do is only necessary because the economic system we all live within is biased in all sorts of ways. This means that money is often unfairly distributed around certain communities and certain groups of people. Some get more than they deserve, many get less than they need. Second, inclusive. This is about deliberately asking the question “who is getting left out here, and why?” There is a particularly sharp edge to this question when we consider, for example, why the North East consistently gets less government investment than the South East. We can also apply the same logic to ask why there is a large gap in average income between different parts of our borough.

See some fascinating new data on household incomes here

New interactive tool from the Office of National Statistics

The way a sub-committee works is that we receive evidence from key people in the council about the things they are doing to make progress in a particularly important policy area. At last week’s meeting I’d called in 4 people: the cabinet member responsible, Cllr Hannah Johnson, along with the council’s lead on Inclusive Economy, the Head of Regeneration, and the lead officer on Employability/Skills. I have to say that we are fortunate here in North Tyneside to have such genuinely committed people who work together well and are determined to make a difference.

Following Cllr Johnson’s presentation, which can be viewed here, there were a lot of questions from committee members. As the questions were wide ranging it’s hard for me to summarise but I would pull out the following headlines:

  • Our partnership working with the North of Tyne Combined Authority is absolutely critical. Devolution can sometimes sound like a very remote idea but this is where the rubber really hits the road. Whilst many of the jobs we want local people to access are based here in the borough some will be found in firms based in neighbouring Newcastle or Northumberland. We have to work together closely to make the whole area more economically dynamic. NTCA has millions of pounds to spend on economic development and so it’s very good that we have a seat around the table when decisions are being made about spending that cash.
  • Our partnership with local employers. We know that like other parts of the country many sectors and industries face huge skills gaps, or in plain English “You can’t get the staff”. This is a direct result of 12 years of failure in skills policy by the Conservative government, combined with a ‘hard’ rather than ‘soft’ Brexit which cut us off from European co-operation rather than maintaining beneficial links with the continent. To deal with these skills shortages a great example was given of work the council has been doing down on the Tyne with offshore industrial firm Smulders. Years ago our area was awash with welders but they are few and far between now. The council’s skills team has been helping to recruit local people to learn welding as a trade and numbers of them now have full time jobs at the yard.
  • Outreach into areas where more support is needed. Another great example given was the recent opening of the innovative new “Working Well” hub at the Beacon Centre in North Shields. The philosophy here is the opposite of what many describe old Job Centres as being – inhuman and all about sanctions. The Working Well hub is a one-stop-shop to make it easier for people to access employment and skills support – from the latest information on the jobs market to building confidence. As well as expert employment advice there is support on hand to deal with barriers to employment including debt advice, housing advice, and help around physical and mental health.

All in all I was impressed to hear about the multiple and layered ways in which the council is pro-actively working to ensure that when it comes to economic growth in North Tyneside, nobody is left behind. Yes, the conditions out there are tough, but the early results are encouraging and the willingness to innovate bodes well for future success.

Papers from the committee meeting can be found here.

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Councillors’ Pay Frozen

Last night North Tyneside’s full council sat for the second time this month. Amidst a very busy agenda was one item sure to catch the attention of residents…

Item 7 was the report of the independent renumeration panel, the group that looks into how much elected councillors should receive as their annual “allowance”. This allowance is a recognition of the time incurred undertaking the duties of being a councillor, which is quite substantial. The payment is a bit like a salary, being disbursed monthly via the council’s payroll. It is taxable income, but councillors are not employees, so there’s no pension nor the other benefits that come with being an employee.

For some years now the councillor’s allowance has been index linked to the
annual pay award for the public sector. This year, given rampant inflation, the panel had recommended quite a substantial rise in the allowance, equivalent to over 7%. It was good of the panel to recognise that councillors are not immune from rises in the cost of living.

Ultimately however, myself and fellow councillors felt that we could not in good conscience accept the recommendation of the panel. Instead we thanked the chair of the panel for producing the report, but voted to reject it, choosing to freeze our allowances at their current level.

These are difficult times economically and we often hear politicians saying that means “difficult decisions” have to be made. Well this decision wasn’t actually difficult at all, it instinctively felt like the right thing to do. I’m really pleased that colleagues chose to show solidarity with residents who are struggling by not accepting a pay rise this year.

Official documents from the meeting found here

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