by Claire Spencer
In the Full Council held on July 7th, 2015, Full Council considered a Scrutiny report on Homeless Health, which you can read here. As a cause close to many people’s hearts, we ran out of time for me to speak, but I thought I would share the speech I wrote here:
A few months ago, a group of councillors set up – as per Recommendation 8 of this report – a surgery for street sleepers and other homeless people at SIFA Fireside’s drop-in centre. We did this for many reasons, but I think it’s safe to say that understanding the health challenges that many homeless citizens face in our city has shown me a very different side of the society we live in.
I only like to speak when I can add something new, and here I would like to talk about the power of community. Community matters everywhere, it matters to people, and it matters to people who sleep on the streets. But the power of community cuts both ways. Let me give you an example from another area of health. The Framingham Heart Study commenced in 1948, and is arguably the US’ most ambitious attempt to truly understand the causes of heart disease. Centred on the small town of Framingham, Massachusetts, each resident was subject to a health assessment every four years, “every aspect of their health quantified and collected”. It is because of this study that – for example – we now understand the positive role of ‘good cholesterol’.
But it also taught us something else. In 2002, this goldmine of data was picked up by two social scientists – Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. They used that data to demonstrate conclusively – perhaps for the first time – that ‘behaviours’, good or bad, pass between people with social connections as though they were contagious viruses. Their simulation on obesity is fascinating – far from being randomly dispersed – people who gained or lost weight were part of the same social clusters. Furthermore, behaviours could even skip a social link. So – to play on the title of the article that introduced me to the study – your mother’s best friend could be making you fatter.
They showed that spending time with healthy, happy people makes you healthier and happier – and conversely, spending time with unhealthy, unhappy people will make you less healthy, less happy.
All this is to say that when services fail one, two, three street sleepers, we need to understand that that failure spreads, that more people’s health will get worse. But it also gives us a shining hope, that clusters of improvement will lead to more improvement. The closeness of the community of homeless citizens in our city will be at the heart of getting it right, and our challenge is – as highlighted by Recommendation 5 – to form a community of services that is equal to meeting that challenge. We already know something of the plans to strengthen our street sleepers partnership, and I hope that all Members will provide grease to their elbows.
To conclude, I would like to reflect that in previous years, partnership has been desirable, but in a time of a well-funded public sector, perhaps not seen as vital. We could not be in a more different position now. With less money to go round, in a time of cuts to Public Health, local government, where even the Homelessness Prevention Grant itself could yet be under threat, partnership between agencies and services is the only way to ensure the accessibility and availability of services that enable our most vulnerable citizens to live healthy lives.
To quote John Hardy, who Chairs the Street Sleepers Partnership: “look at that person sleeping on the street. How different would our service response be if we thought ‘that person is likely to be dead in five years’?”
Let’s make sure that that isn’t the reality, and support the conclusions of this excellent report today.
by Councillor Claire Spencer
The dust has settled, sleep has been had and this feels like the time to commit some thoughts to this blog. Thursday night was bittersweet, with rather more emphasis on the bitter. In the four wards that make up Birmingham Hall Green – Moseley & Kings Heath, Sparkbrook, Springfield and Hall Green – all of the councillors were re-elected (including our own Councillor Martin Straker-Welds), with larger majorities thanks to energetic campaigns and the general election turnout boost. Our MP, Roger Godsiff, was also returned with an increased majority. And in undoubtedly the best news of the night, Kings Heath’s own Jess Phillips was elected to Parliament as the new MP for Birmingham Yardley. Many of us from Birmingham Hall Green supported Jess’ campaign, and I can think of few people more suited to shake up Parliament and to improve the lot of her constituents, our neighbours.
But it would be wrong to feel triumph – because we have badly let down many areas of the country. I am not going to pretend that I fully appreciated how all the fault lines interrelated until after the event, and I am sure that there are elements that I am yet to understand. I certainly didn’t always see the picture as clearly as I do today. But I think we have a grace period, if not a pause button, in which we can lay out some of the things that we need to address, the bare bones of a future where people trust Labour with their lives again. We’ll soon be electing a new leader, and it is vital that we choose that leader through the prism of the challenges they will face: not by reliving a past where those challenges were completely different. These are the challenges as I see them:
A people divided
People are afraid of people who are different to them – fundamentally because they feel threatened, either because of a scarcity of resources – e.g. jobs, space – or simply because of otherness, unknown. Left to fester, these quite human traits can become ugly prejudices. It doesn’t have to be so. But the 2015 general election was conducted on fear. The Tories, taking inspiration from Netanyahu’s recent success in Israel, stoked up fear that Scottish people were seeking to benefit at the expense of English and Welsh people. The SNP became a catalyst and vessel for people’s fears that Scotland was getting an unusually raw deal from a distant Westminster (the raw deal was real, the distinction between Scotland and everywhere else, not so). UKIP stoked up fear that people who come to live here from elsewhere (or look as though they have, frankly it doesn’t seem to matter to them) are occupying a finite number of jobs and space (excerbated by a very real lack of decent jobs and housing). And perhaps most absurdly, a good percentage of people have been made to fear that the very fact that we have a social security system is a threat to them, because their money is going to a shadowy, undeserving figure elsewhere.
I have no interest in a politics that is directed at one of these made up subsections of people. We can’t participate in tearing apart people that have common cause: a person on a poverty wage in Gorbals has the same fight as the person on a poverty wage in Dagenham. An overworked teacher thinking of packing it in in Hove has the same battle as an overworked teacher in Lancaster. Division is a game we all lose. We created the NHS on the back of a horrible war that united people in a shared sense of what it is to be alive, to be human. We wanted to nurture and cherish that at all costs. We need to recapture that (obviously without a war), and the new Labour leader will need to be one of many leaders who can unite people around a shared message, a shared mission that shows the route to a society that people want to be a part of.
…speaking of aspiration…
We clearly haven’t nailed this – it’s a criticism that I hear a lot, and we need to take it seriously. In the same way that the Tory leadership talks about austerity without bothering to fill anyone in on what the endgame of that is (partly because it wouldn’t be popular and partly because they don’t have a plan beyond that), we talk about tackling inequality, protecting the NHS and standing up for the vulnerable without saying what is achieved by doing so, how it all hangs together. Perhaps it should be obvious, but I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t – so we need to connect the dots between our core mission and the good things that achieving it will lead to.
However, I don’t buy into a narrow definition of aspiration. A lonely child on the autistic spectrum who becomes part of a community through a local play scheme is as much about fulfilment of aspiration as a child from a deprived background becoming an investment banker. A carer who gets an evening off to have dinner with friends because of respite care is as much a life win as someone getting a promotion at work.
Public services and social security as investments in people, into their lives – not just the part of their life where they happen to be earning a wage. Councils funding parks means that a person can spend time with nature, can be healthy, can be cooler in summer, can breathe cleaner air, can play, can be part of a community. A higher minimum wage, a living wage means that people are more productive, more inclined to stretch themselves, have more time for friends and family, need less direct support from social security. And yes, policies that enable people to start, maintain and grow businesses should be part of that narrative.
The Labour leadership candidates will need to understand this – because people won’t turn away from the status quo unless there is something tangible to turn to, something so positive and real that the change doesn’t seem like a risk to what they have now. Labour councils in our great towns and cities will have a role to play here. Birmingham is a city of opportunities, and one of our priorities as a Council is enable citizens to take advantage of these opportunities. If we lead the way, we can show that a healthy investment portfolio is more than money in a bank account.
Insofar as city and regional leadership is concerned, we’re going to have to get on with it. George Osborne sees localism as about Mayors and LEPs, and we’re not going to be able to shift him from that view. He sees all money as identical – what does it matter if we can only spend it on a nice building but not the people who live near it? Money will be funneled into the LEP for high profile developments, and it’s up to us to create the society where – as described above – our citizens are able to take advantage of the opportunities that those developments create. Our services have been through desperate cuts, and there will be more. Social security isn’t providing security. Towns and cities will need to work with any partner – charity, private sector, community group, co-operative – who wants to be part of enabling people to get on, part of ensuring that disadvantage is not a millstone to be dragged for a lifetime. We will need to make our own caring societies, our own inclusive economies, our own sustainable environments. In Birmingham, the ‘Future Council’ programme is partly geared to getting BCC to be a better partner. It is absolutely essential to the wellbeing of our people that it becomes one, because this government – to be blunt – doesn’t care whether everyone succeeds as long as enough people succeed financially to cover up for it.
Labour’s new leader will need to understand that this is also a vital route for the English voices who feel silenced to have their influence. Regional identities are strong, and ensuring that corresponding institutions exist so that people feel that power and leadership resides in the places they feel close to and can shape is a huge step down the path to feeling that they have the purpose and autonomy of their Scottish neighbours, healing a wound that has been so cruelly inflicted upon us.
I’m sure that people could add to this list. This is just some of the stuff that I thought about during the walk home in the dawn light of beautiful Moseley & Kings Heath on May 8th, tears welling in my eyes. But tears, cried and uncried, aren’t going to help the people I care about. So let’s get on with it.
At Full Council in February 2015, Birmingham’s councillors debated a report on Household Recycling Centres (aka ‘the tip’). I sit on the Connectivity & Sustainability Overview & Scrutiny Committee that developed the report, and spoke to emphasise how these centres are key to Birmingham’s circular economy:
Thank you, Lord Mayor.
Today, I wanted to highlight the role of Household Recycling Centres in a green and smart society and economy, as explored in the report the Chair has presented today.
Household Recycling Centres are an important part of our waste infrastructure in Birmingham, and key to a functional circular economy. And during the course of this enquiry, members of the Committee were able to explore their potential in this regard. We met ‘The Re-Users’, based at the entrance to the Norris Way HRC in Sutton Coldfield. It is a social enterprise – run by Jericho – which encourages people who are bringing household items to the HRC to instead donate them for ‘upcycling’. Once repaired and refreshed, the finished items are then sold in the onsite shop, as well as at a separate location near to Jericho’s head office in Balsall Heath. People donate, people shop, and people get a really good deal. One person’s trash really is another’s treasure.
However, I think it also neatly demonstrates the potential for developing skills and creating work in a circular economy. Anyone who knows Jericho’s work already knows that this is key to their mission across the business – they also have a wood recycling project in Nechells that is also worth a visit. Both projects include working with people who experience significant personal or occupational barriers to employment, training or social inclusion and both help those people into work by building their skills and confidence in the workplace.
The co-location of The Re-Users with the HRC is key to ensuring that the donated items are dealt with higher up the waste hierarchy – it is convenient for citizens, so it works. They asserted in the evidence-gathering session that the enterprise would not have been as successful had it been located elsewhere, and we were inclined to agree. It is why Recommendation 5 is that their lease is extended so that they can invest into the building and continue their good work – and we are pleased to see that the Executive response references renewal of that lease, although we hope that a longer-term solution can be found.
To my mind, a co-located upcycling business is the very definition of green and smart. But I also wanted to draw attention to an element of the report that focuses on smart. In parts of Europe – where smaller communal refuse and recycling collection points are the norm – they have bins which can be accessed by passcode or smart card, enabling the municipality to restrict access to the residents. As a committee, we felt that it would be interesting to see whether this had an impact on the quality and quantity of the recyclate. Smart bins allow for incentivising recycling, as well as tackling poor use of the containers via targeted information and further action. So Recommendation 6 requests that we seriously consider the use of smart containers in any future waste contract.
This piece of work dovetails with ‘From Waste to Resource’, undertaken by the former TRACOS committee, as well as with the ongoing work around the city’s waste strategy. Post 2019, it is hoped that the city will have much more control over what happens to the items that are taken to the HRCs – and it is fundamentally important that these centres are convenient enough for citizens to rely on so that we can retain a steady stream of items to reuse and recycle that will feed our circular economy. I hope very much that this has been a useful piece of work for our city, and I hope that all of us present today will back this report and agree the recommendations.
You can also watch the speech here.
by Claire Spencer
At Full Council in January 2014, Birmingham councillors debated the ‘Are Ward Committees Fit For Purpose?‘ report. Ward Committees – for those who don’t know – are how the Council reaches out to citizens at ward level – it is a forum to discuss issues that affect neighbourhoods, as well as signing off neighbourhood forum grants and any Community Chest applications. The report sought to define a set of standards that Ward Committees should be held to, while still preserving the diversity of approach that is so necessary in a city with so many different localities and communities.
As someone on the Districts & Public Engagement Overview & Scrutiny committee – and someone who really wants to maximise the influence of people over the world around them – I was really keen to speak about this report, and thought citizens in Moseley & Kings Heath would be interested to read the transcript, which is below. You can also watch it online, here.
Thank you, Lord Mayor.
This report is one of the reasons I was so pleased to be part of the Districts and Public Engagement Committee – because it is a report that deals with nothing more or less than with the power and influence that citizens have over their city.
It’s funny that so many people are so timid when it comes to using those words Power. Influence. They’re so frequently associated with abuses of power and influence that people sometimes don’t think that they are anything to do with them, a positive tool to shape the world around them. And in a society like that, it is all too easy for power to be taken away from those same people – sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not. And in our city, getting our Ward Committees right, creating spaces where citizens lead the agenda, interrogate strategies and hold the Council to account is one way that we can ensure that power lies where it ought to.
I do say one way, and I hope the Chair, Councillor Zaffar, will forgive me for banging on about this particular point. Because even the most perfect Ward Committee would not be enough if it were all that we did to engage with our fellow citizens. I don’t think it was entirely clear in the Kerslake report that Ward Committees are one point in a nexus of engagement tools and fora. Regardless of party affiliation, we all knock on doors. We all attend meetings convened by people in our communities. Some of us even join in with conversations they overhear on buses, or follow hashtags associated with their neighbourhood on Twitter. No, this is simply one method of engagement that has constitutional status in this Council, and as such is one we must take responsibility for getting right, without making it so controlled that it loses all its relevance.
I’d particularly like to highlight the section on Citizen Entitlements, which I think are useful standards for us to hold Ward Committees to, without making them unnecessarily prescriptive or uniform. I’d particularly like to highlight b), c), f) and g) – Action Focused, Citizen Influence, Access to Information and Clear Communication. Action Focused, because there is nothing more frustrating than having the same conversation which highlights the same things that “must be done”. Citizen Influence, because we didn’t become councillors – the representatives of citizens on the Council – to stop citizens from setting the agenda. Access to Information, because holding the Council to account should not be a struggle. And Clear Communication – because if I have to choose between ‘affixing the seal’ and “these actions will be done within x weeks” or “we’ll organise that meeting with y this month, I’d take the latter pair every time.
Working towards the recommendations in this report will not ‘fix’ engagement, nor do I think it asks anything of councillors that we should not be willing to do – but I hope it brings us all clarity of purpose, and a reminder that we can always reach for higher standards when it comes to maximising the influence of the citizens of Birmingham.
by Councillor Claire Spencer
I seem to have a lot of conversations with people – in all areas of life – about how hard it is to balance ‘doing stuff’ with ‘telling people about doing stuff’. In Council life, actually doing the casework, working with residents and learning how best to make use of local resources, has to come first. But communicating what happens is really important – it empowers residents by showing what is possible, and gives them insight into how councillors spend their time.
So when it comes to getting more people to work with us, as well as holding the Council to account, good communication is vital. And we aren’t always that great at it. So I’m going to try to do a regular highlights blog (ideally weekly, but we’ll see) which gives you some insight into what we’ve been doing in the previous week.
I won’t generally write about casework unless there is a wider issue or learning point, but I have had a good mix this week: planning applications, housing repairs and general street scene issues.
Visting Billesley Lane Allotments, Moseley
During the election campaign, I met Rob from Billesley Lane Allotments when I knocked on his door: he told me about their ongoing lease negotiations with Moseley Golf Club, and what a haven it was. So when Jane – the Chair of Billesley Lane Allotments Association – invited me to come and see the allotments on Sunday morning (including a promise of tea and biscuits), I was delighted to have the chance to catch up. I was struck by how much it felt like a family – a tea round on the go, and a horn sounded when it was ready to call people from their plots. Plotholders had a really good relationship, willing to step in to keep the whole site rich with life, and to help one another on their plots when life got in the way.
Another plotholder, Grahame, had taken responsibility for creating a ‘Space for Nature’ policy for the allotments – encouraging the growth of wildflowers and plants, as well as cultivated bee-friendly varieties of flower. It also covers wildlife – there are two beehives on site, and a number of nesting boxes. If other allotments are interested, Billesley Lane are happy to share the document – just get in touch with me and I’ll forward it to you.
The allotment has worked really hard in recent years to nurture a positive relationship with Moseley Golf Club (and vice versa) so next week I will be meeting with their Chair to learn about what makes them such a high quality golfing facility (I have only played Wii Golf, with varying levels of success), and to find out what the Council can do to give them confidence about extending the allotment’s lease.
Westfield Road: residents voice their concerns
A few weeks ago, I went on patrol with Lisa and Carolle from Westfield Road Streetwatch – they had had a really good relationship with my predecessor Ernie Hendricks, and wanted to ensure that I was aware of their work and willing to listen. As we walked their route, we discussed a meeting that they and Councillor Martin Straker-Welds had been pulling together over the last few months: where neighbourhood police, the Council’s Safer Communities, Environmental Health and Private Rented Sector teams, property management companies and local landlords would sit with residents to discuss issues relating to antisocial behaviour and environmental degradation. This meeting took place on Tuesday, at Kings Heath Community Centre. Some residents – many of them part of Streetwatch – were very familiar with the issues. Others came out of curiosity, a couple of them concerned that they had received a letter in the first place. Chairing the meeting, Martin asked people what they hoped to get out of it – these were the most-mentioned:
- Commitment to action: residents were keen to leave with the understanding that defined actions would be taken by the Council, the Police and other relevant agencies to improve quality of life in Westfield Road for all residents;
- Information: some residents came out of curiosity and concern after receiving the letter from the neighbourhood police team.
- Listening to residents: residents wanted the Council, the Police and other agencies to listen to them, as they felt that this did not always happen.
- Neighbourliness and communication: residents wanted to be involved in activities to improve the quality of life on Westfield Road, and felt that a more neighbourly, communicative street would facilitate that.
Each of the representatives from the services and agencies present described their role and their powers, and throughout the meeting we collected the actions that each were committed to. Once the minutes are approved, I can summarise some of those, but much of them related to sharing contact information, commitment to sharing intelligence on issues around Westfield Road in order to take action where needed and supporting the residents in setting up a residents association should they choose to take that route.
Standing with the oppressed
A lot of people have emailed me this week to express a view over whether the Council House should fly the Palestinian flag over Council House. The Council responded fairly quickly to explain that they have quite strict protocols relating to what flags can be raised and when. But I understand why people don’t think that that is a good enough answer in itself – citizens want ways to demonstrate their feelings on the appalling loss of life and liberty, and want to know that their Council is listening and supports them.
When the West Midlands Friends of Israel wrote to me, I drafted a response to them – which summed up my position:
My position is quite clear on this: I support anyone who stands for life and liberty over fear and death (in word as well as deed), and find the Israel vs. Palestine framing of the conflict to be unhelpful in that regard.
I condemn the attrition of rights and lands from Palestinian people, both for its own sake as a violation of their human rights and the fact that it puts Israeli civilians in danger for as long as it prevails. Watching young Israelis in the army die in a conflict that has a clear, if difficult path to resolution seems to me to be deeply unjust.
Furthermore, I absolutely condemn the murder of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in this latest conflict – as I condemn indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel. Life is life and death is death – and hundreds of lives are being lost unjustly, and disproportionately from Palestinian people. I’m afraid I do not accept the human shields argument. Gaza is a very small place, and even Hamas terrorists live in houses. If someone was firing rockets from a street in Kings Heath – or simply lived there and fired rockets from elsewhere – I would not accept the destruction of scores of nearby residents to take out that person. I cannot in good conscience place less value on lives in Palestine and Israel.
I appreciate how sensitive this issue is – but ultimately, Palestine does not equal Hamas, and I support anyone who wants to stand up for civilians who are suffering and dying in a conflict that they did not create. I am not sure whether flying the Palestinian flag achieves that, as I suspect that the good intentions of showing solidarity would be interpreted rather differently, and reinforces the Israel vs. Palestine narrative which is not conducive to ending conflict. However, I would support flying the Council flag at half mast, as I think this better echoes our horror at the loss of life and commitment to life and liberty for all.
Since then, Councillor Mariam Khan organised a series of silent protests at Council House, and there have been further protests today. It can be hard to know what to do at local government level in the UK – particularly when the actions of the UN and US matter more than anything in ending this conflict. But supporting peaceful protest and nurturing a city where citizens are Brummies regardless of ethnicity or faith are both incredibly important nonetheless.
Eid Mela: a new challenge
I’m discovering that short notice is part and parcel of life at the Council – so it was lucky that when I found out that I had been put on the Eid Mela steering committee on Wednesday morning, I was free to attend the meeting in the early evening! I am pleased though – it feels good to be able to do something practical and positive for Muslim residents in the ward (and indeed, anyone else who fancies popping along). Councillor Zafar Iqbal is the new Chair, and I am really pleased to be on a committee with him – he’s a Councillor in South Yardley, and I have always admired him for his diligence and decency. At this stage, we are so close to the event that there is not a lot left for me to be able to influence: so my priorities is that Muslims across Birmingham can have a wonderful celebration in Cannon Hill Park, whilst ensuring that traffic, parking and the post-event cleanup are managed effectively.
So if you’re free on Sunday 17th August, come along! It should be great fun.
If you have any questions about what any of us are doing – or would like more details on something I have written – you can find our contact details here.