30 Oct 2016

End in sight for derelict buildings by Birkenhead library?

For quite some time I have been pressing for action on the  long-standing eye sore buildings by Birkenhead Library on Borough Road. I met again with council officers recently for an update. As a result I can report:
  • Compulsory purchase orders to secure ownership of the last few buildings are now complete.
  • Legal measures to facilitate demolition of the buildings should be in place by February/March.
  • Demolition will take around 10 weeks and will commence as soon as the disconnection of utilities is complete.
  • Planning permission to landscape the area has been granted and this will take around four weeks post demolition.
This is very positive news and I am hopeful that this area will finally have been transformed by mid-2017. I will continue to press officers to ensure this remains a top priority.

29 Oct 2016

Plans for Europa Pools scrapped

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p049xyx1News that plans to redevelop the site around Europa Pools have been scrapped raise many serious questions about the future for the pools themselves and wider Birkenhead.

I discussed these issues with Tony Snell on Radio Merseyside yesterday. You can listen in via this link or click on the BBC logo.  My piece is 41 minutes in.

20 Oct 2016

Council report confirms sharp decline in Birkenhead's retail sector

A council commissioned report into the state of the retail sector in Wirral has confirmed what many of us already know; our shops in Birkenhead are struggling badly. And, the report clearly highlights the main reason why. Out of town developments have sucked business out of Birkenhead and badly damaged the town centre.

You can read the report here. The report to cabinet is here.

Key findings from the report include:
  • Compared with 2012, the market share of Birkenhead town centre has slumped from 28% to less than 17%.
  • The Croft Retail Park in Bromborough has overtaken Birkenhead as the main shopping destination in Wirral.
  • More and more retail expenditure is “leaking out” of Wirral as larger numbers of shoppers travel to Liverpool, Cheshire Oaks and Chester.
  • Retail rents in Birkenhead have fallen since 2008 and this decline is forecast to continue.
This report makes grim reading for Birkenhead. Moreover, the inevitable result of promoting out of town shopping is that our existing town centres suffer. Nowhere has suffered more than Birkenhead.

Astonishingly, we continue to make the same mistakes. Just a few months ago I wrote about the dire implications for New Ferry town centre when Labour and Tory councillors combined to vote through a new Aldi at Port Causeway.

We hear a lot about Labour's ambitious plans for Wirral Waters. For those plans to succeed we need a vibrant, thriving Birkenhead town centre. That was the clear message from Peel Holdings in a briefing to councillors earlier this week. It's high time Labour stopped talking about investing in Birkenhead and started acting. Otherwise we can look forward to more reports like this one in years to come.

18 Oct 2016

Wirral councils monthly newspaper

Following last night's special council meeting Labour will be going ahead with a monthly council newspaper. This is despite strong arguments against. Below are the points I raised in opposition or you can watch John Brace's video from 28:35.

It's a very big step from a survey indicating residents would like to feel well informed to a monthly newspaper paid for by those same residents.

In the supporting information for this proposal it says this newspaper “is a direct response to survey findings.”

In fact it's an indirect response. The council has not directly asked residents if they would favour a monthly council newspaper.

Perhaps this is because they know what the answer would be.

But, for the record, I have already asked that question.

Out of almost 200 responses, 66% says its a bad idea. Only 15% think it's a good idea.

Moreover, where is the evidence this newspaper will actually be read be the people we want to reach?

The proliferation of “no junk mail” stickers on letter boxes is a strong indication that people already receive far more unsolicited mail than they would like.

On page 31 of today's council agenda we are told about “the great Wirral door knock” and what a huge success this was in in referring residents to appropriate services.

Surely the lesson here is that better intelligence about our residents combined with direct outreach is far better than mountains of newsprint that few will read.

Finally, it is self evident that this publication will harm local newspapers. The first business pledge in the 2020 vision is to create and safeguard jobs. This publication clearly threatens existing jobs in the print media.

In conclusion, this publication will:

  • antagonise those residents who don't want it
  • divert resources from more important and effective outreach work
  • not be read by many of the people we are trying to reach
  • impact negatively on existing local newspapers

17 Oct 2016

My response to OFSTED's report on childrens' services in Wirral

OFSTED recently published this highly critical report on children's services in Wirral. This is being debated at a special council meeting this afternoon.

Essentially the report catalogues huge cultural failings within the council. My response, which is copied below, addresses this along with my lack of confidence that the response to date will address those failings.

Alternatively you can watch my contribution to the debate (or at least until the Mayor cut me off!) courtesy of John Brace. I'm 13:10 minutes in.

Response to OFSTED report on children's services in Wirral

National reports on the issue of child protection provide some valuable context to assess this OFSTED report.

We know that referrals to children's social care are rising – up 15% over the past decade. This is hardly surprising given the increasing strain on low-income families.

We know all about the withdrawal of government support and the pressure on local authority finances.

And just last week, the National Audit Office told us that the quality of help for children in need provided by councils has been “unsatisfactory and inconsistent, suggesting systemic rather than local failure”.

In other words, government meddling has made matters worse for vulnerable children.

Ruth Allen, chief executive of the Association of Social Workers said: “More early intervention to robustly address concerns rather than waiting for Ofsted failure is a clear message. There is a pressing need for a strategy that enables improvement across all authorities.”

So government must take its share of the blame for failing to support local authorities.

But that does not change or excuse the fact that service provision in Wirral is inadequate.

This OFSTED report reveals a systemic top to bottom failure. There is inadequate case recording on the front line, a failure of middle management to oversee and implement best practice, a failure of senior management to deal with these systemic failures and a clear lack of oversight at the executive and political level.

In short there is a massive cultural failure in how this council operates in terms of one of its basic responsibilities.

And we know from recent history that those cultural failings extend beyond child protection.

Massive culture shift required

What we need is an open, transparent culture where its ok to say “we have a problem”

Its clear from this report that this is not something people within Wirral Council feel able to do. That, to me, represents a huge cultural failing.

And these failings start from the top. The political approach sets the tone for the whole council. That approach is to act generally like everything is fine or as OFSTED puts it there is “a culture of over optimism”.

I had a look back over the cabinet member reports from recent council meetings and what they had to say in respect of our service provision for vulnerable children. In March we were told about an awards ceremony for children in care. In July, there was a paragraph about a play to warn people about the dangers of Extremism. In the light of what we now know, these reports are a clear manifestation of “a culture of over optimism.”

I repeat, it must be ok for people working in this authority to say “we have a problem”.

We all know there are grave problems in our society. We know there are huge and growing demands on council services and less funds to deliver them. People will understand if the council reaches out. We all want to do our best for at risk children.

On page 6 of the report we are told that that there have been six serious incident notifications and two serious case reviews. Why have none of these cases, with appropriate confidentiality, not found their way into the public realm? Why does our first response to a crisis always seem to be reputation management? Surely one of the most important ways of informing the public that help is available is to highlight serious cases when they do occur and project positively how we are responding.

Response must address cultural failings

The response to this report must address the obvious and deep seated cultural failings within Wirral Council.

I wish I had confidence that they will but we have been here before and scathing public reports have changed very little it seems. I don't see any attempt in what has been proposed to seriously addresses our cultural failings.

A glaring example is the unwillingness to change scrutiny arrangements . Our scrutiny arrangements are feeble.

A confident, outward looking council embraces scrutiny. It ensures that opposition councillors chair committees and that every member has the space to properly question officers. It encourages councillors to challenge officers and not simply assume that they are doing a great job. . It should not be the position of any councillor to instinctively defend officers.

Furthermore, and in the light of the obvious failure of the last Improvement Board to address cultural issues, what guarantees can be offered that this new Improvement Board will do any better? Will it again just focus on processes and procedures.

And what measures are being put in place to guarantee that new external scrutiny arrangements will be truly independent? Some might want an uncritical friend as Chair of the local safeguarding board. But that is not what vulnerable children need. They need someone who will speak truth to power even if what they have to say is unpalatable.

Nobody want more reports like this one from OFSTED. But if we don't address our cultural failings we will simply rerun these issues further down the line.