Executive Leader Cllr Kieran Quinn

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Councillor Kieran Quinn, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Archive for October 2017

Talking Sense About Pensions

Tuesday, 31 October 2017


As many of you may already know, as well as being Executive Leader of Tameside Council I am also the Chair of the Greater Manchester Pension Fund and the national Local Authority Pension Fund Forum. I don’t get the opportunity to talk about pensions much in this blog, but every so often something comes up that I feel needs to be commented on.

Like, for example, the report by the Financial Conduct Authority that came out last week. The “Financial Lives” survey, which asked 13,000 people about the state of their pensions, revealed the disturbing fact that 31% of people have no private or occupational pension provision and will have to rely entirely on the state in their retirement. The full state pension currently stands at £159.55 per week, but is only available to those with a complete record of National Insurance contributions.

In a lot of ways this isn’t new information. The question of how we can provide a comfortable and dignified retirement for all in the 21st century has been asked for over 20 years. Put broadly, there are two issues with the way we do modern pensions.

Firstly, while “auto-enrolment” (the requirement to automatically sign people up to a pension when they start a job unless they specifically opt out) has brought millions of people into pensions for the first time, there are still many self- or casually-employed individuals who fall through the cracks. With the growth of the “gig economy”, it unfortunately looks like this group is only going to expand over the next few years unless action is taken. Secondly, pensions are expensive and are only going to get more so as people start living longer. A good rule of thumb is that the percentage of your income you should put in to your pension is equal to half your age, but there are auto-enrolment pensions that require as little as a 2% contribution. The simple fact is that most people underestimate how much they need to put aside for their retirement.

All pension funds, public and private, are facing those issues. A particular problem for local government pensions, however, is the pernicious myths which have been spread around by people with an axe to grind. I’m sure you’ve heard some of them, “gold plated” public sector pensions and the like. In fact, most public sector pensioners leave their jobs with pensions worth less than £6,000 per year. Neither are public sector pension funds unsustainable. Compared to other pension schemes, the Local Government Pension Schemes remain relatively sustainable, and as a fund we’re always looking for innovations and investments that will help us meet our obligations to members in the medium- and long-term.

The people who complain about “gold plated” pensions are also usually the same people who say that public sector workers are “overpaid”, despite the Treasury’s own figures showing that public sector worker’s pay is now less than that of their private sector counterparts. If there’s a conversation to be had about pay and pensions, it needs to be conducted on the basis of hard facts and numbers, not myths and baseless public sector-bashing.

In the meantime, what can you do to make sure that your pension is there for you when you need it? The advice I can give you is simple, all pensions’ savings are good savings, and it’s never, ever too late to start. Many pension schemes also run their own helpline or advice service for those who want more in-depth help, and failing that there is the government-run Pensions Advisory Service (TPAS) as well.

Let’s treat the FCA report as a wake-up call. A wake- up call to the government to tackle the current shortcomings and myths in pension provision, and a wake-up call to ourselves to make sure we’ve doing everything we can to prepare for our own retirement.  


Posted by: Executive Leader


We Need To Talk About Inflation.

Friday, 27 October 2017


It’s not something we’ve had to talk about for a while, but after dropping consistently for four years, even going into negative figures at a couple of points, inflation is now back with a vengeance. The latest data from the Consumer Price Index puts inflation at 3%, the highest rate since 2012. The Bank of England has attributed the rise to the devaluation of Sterling (which has made imports made expensive) and an increase in the costs of petrol, food and other recreational goods.

Of course, those of a certain vintage will no doubt remind us that 3% inflation is miniscule compared to the 15-20%+ rates we saw at some points in the 1970s and 80s. They’re not wrong, but despite its relatively small size in historical terms we should be just as concerned, if not more so, about inflation in the 21st century. Without going too deep into the economics, the late 20th century inflation boom was largely driven by a combination of rising wages and credit availability, government policies that actively encouraged inflation and the world oil price shock. None of these apply today. Wage growth has been nominal at best, household debt has already reached crisis levels, austerity policies have been explicitly deflationary and oil prices are half of what they used to be a few years ago.

It’s a unique situation, and very few of the routes forward are appealing. While pensions will be protected by the “triple lock” (for the moment, anyway) the outlook is less rosy for just about everybody else. As I’ve said before, the 21st century British economy has somehow managed to combine historically high levels of employment with historically low levels of wage growth. Inflation without a corresponding growth in wages means only one thing, people start getting poorer. At a time where most families are not exactly flush with cash, the pound in their pocket being worth a little less may tip many into full blown crisis.

The consequences of unleashing the traditional weapon in the inflation-busting armoury, raising interest rates, could be even more unpleasant. Levels of consumer debt are now similar to what they were prior to the Great Financial Crisis, with £200 billion amassed in things like mortgages, car finance deals and other loans. An interest rate rise could be the difference between families continuing to make their payments and getting into real debt trouble, not to mention making things considerably worse for those already struggling.

So what is to be done? The next month will be crucial, with both a Budget and a Bank of England interest rate revaluation taking place in quick succession. I hope that the Bank of England buck the current rumours and back off from raising interest rates for the moment. While the choice between a continuing decline in real wages or a new debt crisis isn’t exactly palatable, the government has more tools to deal with the former than the latter. To that end, the beginning, middle and end of November’s Budget should be investment and wages.

Lifting the public sector pay cap, for example, will not only put more money into the pockets of millions of workers but will help to spur wage growth elsewhere. This also may be the last chance for the government to do what anybody who hasn’t been blinded by austerity mania has been screaming for them to do for years, borrow on rock-bottom interest rates to finance investment in housing and infrastructure. In that regard, the announcement by Sajid Javid that the government is looking at doing exactly that is a step in the right direction, although I’ll wait to see what it means it terms of hard numbers.

After seven years of the government barely muddling through, the hard decision time is here. Let’s hope for all our sakes that the right choices are made in the coming weeks.
 

Posted by: Executive Leader


Preparing for the Brave New World

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Stalybridge, 1812. Formerly a sleepy village of less than 150 farmers and wool spinners, by the 19th century industrialisation and mechanisation had transformed it into one of the beating hearts of the North West’s “Cottonopolis”. However, not everybody was happy with this stunning growth. From November 1811 to April 1812, a series of disturbances and riots blighted the town, culminating in the doors to the cottons mills being locked day and night and a regiment of Scottish troops under the Duke of Montrose drafted in to restore order.

The persons responsible for the military descending upon Stalybridge would go down in history as the Luddites. While popular history has reduced them to backwards-looking, machinery-smashing reactionaries, the reality was far more complex. The Luddites did not reject and destroy machinery for its own sake; they did so because the new technology put their livelihoods in danger by allowing cotton spinning, which had previously been undertaken by skilled artisans, to be done far more quickly and cheaply than anything they could compete with. A group of people that had hitherto enjoyed a comfortable life and a profitable trade had been made obsolete almost overnight by the forces of progress.

Fast forward three centuries later, and according to some we may be facing the same challenges again. A thought-provoking piece of research by Future Advocacy, reported in the Guardian last week, has shown that up to one in five jobs in the UK could be affected by automation within the next 20 years. The reason is simple. Machines have long been able to do simple tasks, but the growth of artificial intelligence over the past decade means that, for the first time, jobs that require brains as well as brawn will soon be able to be automated. To give just one example; it takes two skilled bricklayers at least a day to lay 1,000 bricks. An Australian company has recently developed a robot that can do the same work in an hour.

The jury is still out as to what this means in practice. Optimists say that technological progress throughout history has ended up creating more jobs and prosperity than it destroys, and that the artificial intelligence revolution will be no different. Pessimists argue that the new wave of automation is different, in scope and scale, than anything that has come before it. In the grimmest prediction an uncounted number of people will end up like their Luddite predecessors; people who formerly had valuable skills and jobs that are now not just permanently unemployed, but permanently unemployable.

However the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (as some have taken to calling it) pans out, it is pretty much universally agreed that it is starting to happen. Right now. The responsibility therefore lies upon government and societies to make sure there are as many winners, and as few losers, as possible when the dust settles. Local government has an important part to play in this by making sure that all our residents, especially young people, have the chance to educate and train themselves in the skills they will need for the future. It’s no coincidence that the Advanced Technologies Centre, built as part of the Vision Tameside project, contains the equipment needed to run courses in robotics, hydraulics and computing.   

If we want to see the good that the march of technology can do, all we have to do is go outside and look around. Tameside’s history shows that the benefits of embracing progress and innovation can be vast indeed. However, that same history also shows us that people can be left behind unless a serious effort is made to bring them along. We want the future to be bright for everyone. Let’s start putting the work in to make that a reality.
 

Posted by: Executive Leader


Bridging the Generation Gap

Friday, 20 October 2017


“Here we go”, you’re probably thinking, “Yet another blog about young people”. To that, my reply would be, “Tough”. I won’t make any apologies for bringing up one of the most important social, economic and, yes, moral issues we face a country every chance I get.

As you might expect, the London Evening Standard is not a paper that I read frequently, but they did have an article recently that caught my eye. Based on a survey from the Resolution Foundation, the article laid bare the anxiety and frustration felt by many young people in modern Britain. When presented with the question, almost a third of those born between 1981 and 2000 said that they would rather they had grown up a generation earlier.

Now, putting aside for a moment that the ex-Chancellor and now-editor of the London Evening Standard can probably be held more responsible than most for the despair those people are feeling, think for a moment about what those numbers mean. In some ways, the world we’re in now is a drastic improvement from what we got when I was growing up. Technology has advanced at an incredible rate, and social progress has meant that much of the sexism, racism and homophobia that were seen as a part of life are now (quite rightly) heavily frowned upon. What does it say about our modern society that young people are still willing to pack all that in for a chance to, effectively, turn into their parents?

Don’t get me wrong. The young are by no means the only people to have suffered from seven years of Conservative austerity, but along with the poor they are the people that have borne the brunt of it. Many of the things that people of my generation saw as the traditional “milestones” of entering adult life; the first “proper” job, the car, the house, the pension, are now out of reach of many young people through no fault of their own and no matter how hard they work.

What’s more, for seven years the government (spearheaded, I should add once more, by the editor of the paper that is now bemoaning the despair of the young) shamefully did everything it could to make the situation worse. It’s absolutely right that elderly people should have decent pensions, but if you’re spending billions to do that (for a demographic that overwhelmingly votes Conservative) that while slashing investment in young people (a demographic that overwhelmingly does not vote Conservative) “because there’s no money”, don’t be surprised if people start to question your sincerity. The current rumour coming out of the Treasury, which is that the Chancellor is considering tax breaks for the young paid for by withdrawing pension relief, is the same mistake made in reverse. Turning generational politics into a zero sum contest, where something can only be given to one group if it’s taken from another, is a very dangerous game indeed.

It’s especially aggravating because there are so many things that could be done to help people of all ages. It’s true that young people are more likely to be stuck in low-paid, zero hours or gig economy jobs, but guaranteeing good jobs and working rights for all benefits young and old alike. It’s true that young people are more likely to find it harder to get on the property ladder, but ensuring an adequate supply of decent housing benefits young and old alike. On the other hand, it’s true that older people are more concerned about how their pension is going to end up, but providing everybody with the means to enjoy a dignified and comfortable retirement benefits young and old alike. We rise and fall as a society together. We need a plan that will acknowledge that, instead of driving further wedges between us.
 

Posted by: Executive Leader


The Next Step in Leisure for Tameside

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


Since the beginning of 2016 one of our main goals for Tameside has been to radically overhaul the borough’s leisure infrastructure, both to give residents more and better opportunities to get active and to ensure that our facilities can pay their way in the age of austerity.

Our progress has been steady and unwavering. We brought state of the art facilities to Longdendale and Droylsden with the Total Adrenaline trampoline and soft play centre and the Sky High Adventure Centre respectively. Then we transformed the former Dukinfield swimming pool into the 24-hour iTrain health and gym facility. Both of these were great achievements, but now I’m delighted to say that consultation has begun on the jewel in the crown of our £20 million leisure investment; the Tameside Wellness Centre.

Built on the brownfield site that used to be the Oldham Batteries in Denton, the Wellness Centre will bring together a vast amount of leisure and recreation facilities. As well as a swimming pool (One of two which will be built in Tameside as part of the £20 million leisure investment, the other being in Hyde), the Centre will also include a 10-pin bowling alley, 60-station gym suite, exercise studios, soft play, a café and various spaces for social interaction and community groups. It’s every activity or option you could want under the roof of one world-class building. The location, situated alongside the A57 and just off the M67, is also ideally located for access to residents from across Tameside by bike, car, foot or public transport.

Work is scheduled begin by the end of the year. However, before that we want to know the opinions and views of the people that will be using the Centre. Over the next few weeks we will be consulting not only residents, but also schools and clubs that access the current Active Denton facility. We also recognise that the Wellness Centre will have an impact on residents and businesses in the area, so we will be carefully seeking their views as well.

There has already been one public exhibition of the plans for the Tameside Wellness Centre in Ashton Market Hall, with a second exhibition due to take place on Denton Festival Hall on Friday, 2-7pm. However, for those who can’t make the public viewings we’ve also made the plans, including a digital mock-up of what the finished building should look like, available on the council’s website and YouTube page. The website also contains a link to the online survey on the proposals, so you can have your say until it closes on 5th November.

What makes the Wellness Centre so unique, aside from the sheer scale of the plan, is the way our plans for encouraging residents to get active and improve Active Tameside’s financial position will be directly incorporated into the building itself. By encouraging a commercial offer through getting partners and suppliers involved with 10-pin bowling, café facilities and other amenities we will open additional revenue streams to maintain and improve the facilities that would not have been possible before. The Wellness Centre will also be set up in a way to give people more options than the stereotypical routine of “arrive, work out and leave”. It will be as much about encouraging people to meet up and interact socially as it will be about giving them a space to be healthy and active.

My sincere thanks to anybody who has already taken part in the Denton Wellness Centre consultation, and remember that you’ve got until November to have your say if you haven’t done so already. It’s a step change in the way we do leisure in Tameside, and I can’t wait until we start turning the plans into a reality.
 

Posted by: Executive Leader


The High Cost of Defence Cuts

Friday, 13 October 2017


How much does the following cost; 1,000 Royal Marines, 10 F-35 Fighter Jets, 2 Royal Navy Minehunter Ships and 12 Lynx AH9A Helicopters? The answer is about £2 billion, because those soldiers, planes and ships are what the government is planning to cut from the armed forces to cover a shortfall of that amount.

At the same time, BAE Systems, the UK’s largest manufacturing employer and employer of professional engineers, has announced over 1,950 job losses – roughly 6% of their total British workforce. The company’s aerospace division is expected to be disproportionately hit, particular the Warton and Samlesbury sites where the Typhoon fighter jet is currently made. Tameside will be affected by these cuts, as many of the current employees at Samlesbury used to work in BAE’s old facility in Chadderton and still live in the local area.

Two separate events, both of which explode one of the biggest fibs of this government; that they are the party of the armed forces. Despite what the government will tell you, defence has been as much a victim of austerity as any other part of the public sector. We’re scraping by on our NATO commitment to spend 2% of our total budget on defence, and that’s only because the government started to include spending items like war pensions (which, while important, do not contribute to the readiness of our armed forces) to fudge the numbers.  
As important as that is where the money that’s left is going, or not going. Many prominent figures inside and outside the armed forces have criticised the government’s commitment to big ticket items like Trident and two new aircraft carriers at the expense of less glamorous but vital day-to-day investment. Furthermore, at a time where our all of manufacturing industries need all the help they can get, more and more UK defence spending is leaving our shores. Unite the Union estimate that if things continue at their current rate, by 2020 25p out of every £1 of spending will find its way to the American factories of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing instead of being spent and invested here in Britain.

That’s worrying for three reasons. Firstly, it hollows out British defence capability and manufacturing expertise. Many of the advanced skills required take years, if not decades, of training and on the job experience to fully learn. When they’re gone, it takes at least a generation to get them back. We’re seeing an example of this play out right now in the energy industry, where a significant skills gap in nuclear engineering has opened up due to almost two decades of stagnation and lack of investment.  Secondly, it will have a significant impact on smaller companies and manufacturers further down the supply chain. Defence projects aren’t made in bulk, like cars or consumer goods. They typically involve highly specialised teams, often in smaller firms and working from order to order, producing sub-components for a larger product. They are particularly vulnerable to any kind of slowdown. Finally, it leaves us reliant on foreign powers and foreign companies for our defence needs, many of whom may be working towards their own agenda. Once again, that’s playing out right now with the Bombardier situation in Northern Ireland, where Boeing has put over 4,500 British jobs at risk by pressuring the US government to raise tariffs on UK-made products.

We need a new defence strategy. A strategy that makes sure that our brave armed forces personnel get the equipment and support that they need. A strategy that makes sure that the infrastructure and expertise necessary for Britain’s defence remain in Britain. If our current government can’t provide that, they should make way for one that can.  
 

Posted by: Executive Leader


Universal Credit Isn't Working

Wednesday, 11 October 2017


Universal Credit isn’t working. The list of people saying it now extends to council leaders across Greater Manchester, local MPs and the Mayor. I fully agree with them, and I’d argue even among this growing clamour of voices, Tameside’s carries a particular authority. We were one of the first areas of the country to pilot the scheme in 2013.
 
I know what you’re going to ask now, “If you think it’s such a disaster. Why did you do it?” Firstly, because it was clear that it was going to happen regardless of whether or not we took part. Better to have a rollout of a system informed by real experience and learning than a rollout of a system that hitherto existed only on paper. Secondly, because we honestly believed that, if it was delivered properly, Universal Credit had some real positive elements. At its best, it wouldn’t just support unemployed people into work, it would give people already in employment the helping hand they’d need to develop their skills and move into better jobs.
 
Unfortunately, what we’ve ended up with is light years away from that early optimism. On the one hand, the government kept shifting the goalposts (Largely, I suspect, at the behest of the Treasury), cutting payments to the bone and imposing ever more conditions on who could receive what. On the other hand, they consistently refused to listen to feedback and learning that councils like Tameside gave them about what was happening on the ground.
 
We have been warning that the impact on families, couples and individuals was beyond acceptable, as shockingly depicted by the story in yesterday’s Manchester Evening News about the nurse forced into debt by Universal Credit despite working 54-hours a week. We have been warning that the development of the system just wasn’t working. The response of the government was, and has been, to plough on regardless. Plough on, and deflect the blame for any failure onto local government, housing providers and even the claimants themselves.
 
If it wasn’t abundantly clear before, it is now. Universal Credit in its current form is broken on just about every level. It doesn’t work for local authorities, it doesn’t work for communities and it absolutely doesn’t work for claimants. It’s nonsensical and damaging to continue with the rollout of such a system. I still believe that Universal Credit as an idea can be saved, but only after a genuinely inclusive, meaningful, root-and-branch review. Every problem needs to be properly identified and understood, and every solution, no matter how expensive or unpalatable for the government, needs to be implemented in full.
 
Over the past seven years of austerity there is no part of our national safety net that has been cut as hard and as often as the benefits system. The time has come for a new model. A model based on fair principles. The principles of support for those in greatest need, dignity and respect for claimants, and genuine opportunity not just for those making the transition from benefits to work, but for those who want to take a step up in work as well. In one of the richest countries in the world no family, couple or individual should be at risk of further debt, rent arrears or homelessness through no fault of their own. They absolutely shouldn’t suffer that risk from a system that, on paper, is supposed to help them stand on their own two feet.   
 
The government needs to act now, and it needs to act without delay. I hope you will join me and the many others in making the voices of reason and compassion heard. Too much is at stake for too many people for us to stay silent. 
 

Posted by: Executive Leader


School Funding in Crisis

Friday, 06 October 2017

Imagine that one day your local school just closed. Permanently. No warning, no notification, no nothing. It simply ran out of money and had to shut up shop. Could you imagine the chaos that it would cause? Not just for the children whose education would be seriously disrupted, but for the parents who would have to pick up the pieces and the teachers who would find their employment in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, it’s become more than a hypothetical question. For as many as a third of state schools across the country it is now a very real possibility.

Regular readers of my blog will know that school funding is an issue that I’ve raised the alarm on in the past. In Tameside, we’re facing the prospect of a £11.5 million cut in our school funding by 2019. The government’s insistence on blowing hundreds of millions on ideological vanity projects like free schools hasn’t helped either, particularly since many of them, in Manchester and elsewhere, have a record of consistent and spectacular failure that would never have been tolerated in the state school sector.    

Now the chickens are coming home to roost. That’s the word from the government’s own figures anyway. Released after a Parliamentary Question on the matter, they show that more than 9,000 schools in England faced a budget deficit last year. Of those schools, 4,000 have reported deficits for two years in a row, while 1,600, 400 and 100 schools are dealing with sustained funding shortfalls of 3, 4 and 5 years respectively. So, while it’s true that in some cases a deficit could just be a one-off (perhaps as a result of capital spending or just having “a bad year”) it’s now very clear that for many schools it has become a disturbing and worsening trend.

It’s more than abstract figures on a balance sheet as well. Budget deficits have a very real impact on schools and their ability to educate our children. They mean increased class sizes. They mean reducing the number of subjects on offer. They mean cutting staff, non-teaching and teaching alike. They mean having to forgo basic maintenance on school buildings. We’re even seeing cases in Cheshire East and West Sussex where schools are seriously considering moving to a four and a half day week, or even a four day week, in a last-ditch attempt to cut costs.

The situation has gotten so desperate that even the government has finally acknowledged the mess. Unfortunately, they still seem to be deluding themselves about the scale of it. The £1.3 billion of additional funding they’ve promised isn’t new money; it’s taken from other parts of the education budget. They don’t seem to realise that moving money from one part of the system to another doesn’t work when there’s not enough money in the system in the first place. We need to start talking about real solutions and real money. Not billions, but tens of billions. That might sound like a lot, but it’s what is needed to plug the gaps from seven years of neglect and put our schools on a sustainable footing to handle future demand.

Education changes live. A good education can give young people the knowledge and confidence to succeed, regardless of where they started from. A bad education, on the other hand, can hold them back in ways that will be felt decades after they leave the classroom. The time for platitudes and sticking plasters is over. Anything less than bold and decisive action is not just failing our children, it is failing them during one of the most important periods of their lives. We can, and we must, do better.

Posted by: Executive Leader


Listen to young people

Tuesday, 03 October 2017

A group of people that are often overlooked by politicians but are perhaps one that we should make more effort to listen to were surveyed this month in a study for the British Council. That group of people is the young.

It’s simple electoral mathematics that rather cynically dictates the level of attention that our leaders give to the views of the young; that is, they simply don’t turn out to vote in the same numbers as the older generations. Though, even though June’s election may have signalled that this is changing, had the turnout of young people not jumped, the survey of 2000 18 to 30-year-olds by think tank Demos should act as a wake-up call.

The results of the survey revealed that young people in Britain are fearful for their prospects. Looking at what Britain is offering the young compared to what was offered to my generation may help to explain why.

Whilst a school leaver in the 70s could look forward to a decent, well paid, job for life with regular hours, a school leaver today cannot enjoy the same opportunity without having gone on to further or higher education. Even among those with additional qualifications we have university graduates on zero hour contracts delivering takeaways on push bikes.

The final salary pension schemes that ensured a comfortable retirement for millions are becoming a thing of the past; and increases in the state pension age mean that those entering the world of work today are unsure if they will ever leave it.

Home ownership is out of reach for millions as inflated house prices and the rent trap make it damn near impossible to save up enough of a deposit to get a mortgage.

This cannot go on forever. A hollowed out jobs market with millions under employed is not the basis of a strong economy. A housing market without first time buyers is not sustainable forever. And if the health and social care crisis is as bad as people say it is today, then it will be nothing compared to a few decades time after an explosion in pensioner poverty.

Those in Government, or seeking to form it, would do well to listen to the concerns of the young. With the record turnout of young people in the 2017 General Election it’s clear that they are not as politically disengaged as they are often painted. Just a couple of years ago much was said of “The promise of Britain” – that each generation would be better off than the one which preceded it. For today’s young people that promise has been broken. We urgently need a Government that will restore it.
 

Posted by: Executive Leader


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