Speech: Councillor Claire Spencer, on Homeless Health

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.

A road to 2020

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


“Scottish people want your stuff! By the way, here’s a free chicken”

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.


…and cities?

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.

Post-election social with The Mighty Crawdaddys – May 8th

We don’t know what sort of mood we’ll be in on May 8th, but either way, let’s face it together!

Download (PDF, Unknown)

Community conference: Our Health & Social Care – the future

Speech: Household Recycling Centres


HRC report coverAt 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.

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