Brexit halts…everything!

I cannot think of another time in my life when a single issue has so debilitated policy-making, prevented essential decision-taking and comprehensively sucked the oxygen from public and private discourse as Brexit has occasioned.
Nationally, regionally and locally, large and small businesses have been deferring investment decisions for months now as the uncertainty continues. They are also finding that European customers of their products are now holding off from committing to future purchases or they are securing alternative suppliers in mainland Europe to ensure continuity. All of this is going to have a significant impact for economic regeneration and for businesses and jobs for years to come.
The delays and inability to act are shown even more starkly in the public sector. The draft long-term plan for the NHS has now just surfaced many months late but that is the exception to the rule, as domestic policy development and legislation on the big issues across the spectrum has effectively disappeared. Even within the NHS plan funding for Public Health is simply pushed back to the spending review, while further cuts are announced for 2019/20.
Public consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill was finished last May. There’s no sign of Green or White Papers, let alone legislation. The long-promised devolution framework proposals – yes, the proposals former HCLG Secretary of State Sajid Javid was talking about fifteen months ago – are nowhere to be seen.
Having ditched the earlier agreed reforms on funding adult social care, a green paper on the issue was confirmed as urgent in the March 2017 budget. Originally promised for Autumn 2017, that was then pushed November, which came and went as publication was pushed back to early 2018, then Summer, and then Autumn. In October 2018, the Chancellor said it would be ‘published shortly’. In December, we were told that “it would be published at the first opportunity in 2019”. That has already come and gone.
During this period, many well-regarded and serious bodies – including from the House of Commons all-party Joint HCLG and HSC Committees – have published their own comprehensive proposals.
Meanwhile, there have been a series of late and inadequate supplementary financial allocations to health and local authorities and tens of thousands of people have totally lost or suffered significant cuts in their social care support, and home and residential care providers are in financial turmoil.
As the structural issues about adult social care have become acute, another emergency has ridden up fast on the rails – children’s services. Since 2010, the number of Section 47 investigations – relating to the most serious concerns about child safety – have more than doubled. There are now more than 75,000 children in local authority care, a doubling in the last decade, nearly three-quarters with foster parents.
Meanwhile, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently confirmed, funding for children’s services has fallen from c£850m then to c£700m this year with nearly every council significantly over-expending. In the budget, the Chancellor announced an extra £84m funding for children’s services in 20 councils over the next 5 years. That’s a gnat’s bite in comparison to the £3bn shortfall estimated by 2025.
It is against this background that the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has launched a new inquiry into the funding and provision of local authorities’ children’s services.
There is silence around the future of local government finance. What is going to be happening to National Non-Domestic Rates – especially in the context of the precarious state of the High Street and the central importance of business rate retention – and the New Homes Bonus and Council Tax? And then of course, there are all those ‘fair-funding’ promises – which with no additional funding may simply transfer more of the pain to poorer, urban, northern areas. “Late Spring” says the Minister about proposals for the redistribution of local government finance. “Which year?” we call.
When the Chancellor brought forward his budget statement last October, I said that there could then be absolutely no excuse for a late or delayed local government finance settlement announcement, as had happened in previous years. I thought that the proposed date of 11 December was later than justified.
To have that statement date cancelled to facilitate a Brexit vote was unacceptable. To not have the statement re-instated when the Brexit vote was cancelled simply showed the extent to which Brexit is driving, or generally stopping every agenda.
One of my fundamental concerns with the PM’s deal is that it will simply lock the government machine into more Brexit exclusivity until the end of 2020, or whenever the backstop finally comes to an end. The many major issues affecting public services being ignored now cannot be put on the Brexit backburner indefinitely.

A licence to break a promise?

Free TV licences for over 75s were introduced in 2000, when Gordon Brown was Chancellor.
The rationale was that the TV plays an important tool in the battle against loneliness and social isolation. Four in 10 older people say the television is their main source of company. Many are unable to enjoy other social activities. Christmas is a particularly bad time for loneliness; analysis by Age UK found that almost a million pensioners wouldn’t have seen or heard from anyone over the festive period.
The cost of the free licences is expected to reach £745m by 2021/22 and will continue to rise because of the increasing numbers of older people. This is equivalent to about a fifth of the BBC’s budget – the equivalent to what is spent today on all of BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, the BBC News Channel, CBBC and CBeebies. 
As part of the negotiations in 2014/15 over the TV Licence Fee, the BBC Governors foolishly agreed that the BBC would take responsibility for the cost of pensioners’ free licences, despite not having the resources to fund them in the longer-term. Basically, the Conservative government had threatened a lower Licence Fee – and therefore less money for the BBC – if they didn’t agree. This meant that, starting from this year, the BBC has taken responsibility for funding free TV licence fees of those over 75 and it also has the power to scrap or reduce the number or scope of free licences.
Along with my Labour colleagues, I opposed this move at the time, and throughout the passage of the legislation – Digital Economy Act – through Parliament. When Conservative Ministers were challenged about this, they denied that Free TV Licences for over 75s were under threat.
Under further challenge during the 2017 general election campaign, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto promised to “maintain all other pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this Parliament”, that is until 2022.
But now, the BBC has started a consultation on whether to scrap free licences completely, or to raise the age threshold or to means test access to a free licence from 2020. Under each of the changes proposed by the BBC in their consultation, millions of pensioners will lose their free licences.
Nationally, if the free licence is linked to pension credit, i.e. means tested, over 3 million people would lose their free licence. If the eligibility age was raised to 80 over 1.8 million older people would lose their free licences.
In my constituency, about 6500 pensioners – nearly 4000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 67% of them – more than 4300 – would lose eligibility if it were dependent on pension credit. Nearly 40% – more than 2500 – would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
In South Yorkshire, about 100,000 pensioners – some 75000 of them over 80 years old – currently get a Free TV Licence. About 78,000 would lose out if eligibility was dependent on pension credit. And more than 40,000 households would lose out if eligibility was raised to 80.
The prospect of elderly people losing their free TV Licence makes a mockery of Mrs May’s claim that austerity is over. If she has any integrity, she would step in now and keep to the promise she made.

Conservative ideology is costing us all

The Conservatives’ ideological commitment to “public sector bad; private sector good” is costing us all. It is what drives their privatisation and outsourcing instincts.
When it is combined with ‘light touch’ regulation and contract management – with inadequate resources being committed to tender assessment and contract monitoring – we end up with poor value-for-money, service specifications not being delivered, incompetent directors being paid millions before they walk away from the disasters they have left behind, and shareholders extracting millions in dividends whilst the public picks up the cost of their failure to pay appropriate pension contributions.
There is still a long, long way to go to get to the bottom of the Carillion collapse. Amongst others, the Insolvency Service and the Official Receiver are still investigating. The £5.2bn-turnover company collapsed owing banks about £1.3bn. It had just £29m of cash and a £600m pension deficit. About 3,000 people were made redundant, although 14,000 jobs were saved after contracts were shifted to other providers.
When stories circulated that Carillion’s sub-contractors on government tendered projects were not being paid on time, more questions arose. It was then revealed that Carillion was not including 30 day payment clauses in its public sector contracts with subcontractors, which is required by the Public Contract Regulations. If the Government did not detect this behaviour by one of its biggest strategic suppliers, what confidence can any of us have in its overall approach to public procurement?
Over the last year, the share value of another big government contractor, Interserve, has fallen by 90%. It’s in financial crisis, desperately trying to restructure its £650m debts. It has more than £1bn of live public sector contracts with police forces, universities, hospitals, transport executives, local authorities and central government departments.
The Government recently said that they “do not believe that any strategic supplier is in a similar situation to Carillion…” and, throughout the last few months, has continued to award new contracts worth millions, despite the company’s solvency being in serious question.
What cannot be questioned is that its Purple Futures subsidiary has simply failed to perform in its delivery of probation services in five privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), where it is meant to be managing a total of around 40,000 “low and medium” risk offenders for our public protection.
You might think that awarding new public sector contracts to a company in financial crisis and with a track record in failing to deliver what is specified is unacceptable. I agree.
So, what do you think of the latest revelation about this government’s procurement?
As the government thrashes around desperately trying to arrange emergency measures in case we crash out of the EU without a deal, it has arranged a £13.8m contract to run additional ferries across the Channel between Ramsgate and Ostend with a new company called Seaborne Freight, despite it never having run a ferry service nor managed shipping arrangements before.
Is it any surprise that local Conservative Councillor Paul Messenger asked “It has no ships and no trading history, so how can due diligence be done? Why choose a company that never moved a single truck in its entire history…?”
Good questions!

No room at the Inn.

At this time of year, millions of people, in churches, schools and homes, will be celebrating the birth of Jesus, in a stable because there was no room at the inn.
Last week, the Britannia Hotel in Hull cancelled and returned the £1092 payment – funded by donations – that had been made by the Raise the Roof Homeless Project to accommodate 28 homeless people over Christmas. No reason was given for the decision until, under pressure from media enquiries, Britannia Hotels said it had cancelled the booking after receiving reports that the group has caused “a serious problem” while staying at the Ibis hotel last year. However, no evidence to support the assertion was produced, and Ibis Hotels also denied that this had been the case.
The good news was that, on hearing this sad story, Doubletree by Hilton Hull stepped in and offered to accommodate the group for two nights, with breakfast and Xmas dinner included, on a complimentary basis. I say ‘Well done, Doubletree. You’ve managed to wrap up the Christmas story and the Parable of the Good Samaritan in one deed.’
I leave you to your own thoughts about Britannia Hotels’ conduct. However, it would be wrong to omit the fact that, having suffered considerable adverse publicity, Britannia subsequently reversed its decision …but by then it was too late.
Could this reputational damage be justified? I simply note that, last month, in a survey by Which? TravelBritannia Hotels was voted the worst UK hotel chain for the sixth consecutive year, with nearly a quarter of guests making official complaints about poor customer service, rooms and food.
Obviously, Raise the Roof had not done their research before making the booking with Britannia. Fortuitously, 28 people now appear to be looking forward to a much better experience than might reasonably have been expected!
Twenty years ago, the incoming Labour government inherited yet another Conservative homelessness crisis.  So, in 1999, Tony Blair launched Coming in from the Cold, a radical plan to tackle homelessness. As well as accommodation, the scheme included money for night squads, hostels and mental health teams. Within two years, homelessness was cut by two-thirds and rough-sleeping by three-quarters.
Rough sleeping remained below 500 people until 2010 when, first, the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and, then, subsequent Conservative governments effectively abandoned those becoming homeless. Homelessness and rough-sleeping have dramatically increased throughout the country. The government’s own figures reveal that rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010. Since October last year, an estimated 484 people have died homeless. Last winter one in four severe weather services had to turn rough sleepers away.
As my colleague John Healey (Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, in Rotherham and Barnsley) said this week:
It beggars belief that, in twenty-first century Britain, there are parts of the country in which there is little or no shelter for those sleeping on the streets during extreme cold weather, and that the Government doesn’t even know which areas have this provision.
Don’t ever tell me that voting doesn’t make a difference. For tens of thousands of people, the election outcomes over the last twenty years have determined whether they slept in a dry, warm bed or on the cold, wet streets.
John Healey also announced Labour plans to give every rough sleeper a roof over their head – funded by the previously announced levy on second homes used as holiday homes – and to tackle the root causes of rising homelessness, with an end to the freeze on benefits, new rights for renters and a million low-cost homes.
However, as well as the big policies which are designed to dramatically cut homelessness and rough sleeping, we are all regularly faced with particular decisions about how we respond to individuals who are sleeping or begging on the street. It doesn’t matter whether we are in the High Street, or in our district shopping centre, or going to our local supermarket, we are likely to be confronted by someone sat on the pavement asking for our change. What to do?
In that context, I’m pleased to support the initiative HelpUsHelp – a coalition of residents’ groups, various charities and projects concerned with homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and domestic violence and Sheffield City Council – which is encouraging people to get involved helping people who beg and sleep rough in the city, but also offering advice on how we can best help.
HelpUsHelp advises:
  • Give time or donations to charities that provide support – research shows that giving money directly to people who beg can do more harm than good
  • Have a chat with someone and encourage them to access support services
  • Give food or drink rather than money
  • Buy a Big Issue. Vendors buy the Big Issue North and then sell it on to their customers. Vendors are working, not begging, and need public support
Although this is a Sheffield initiative, I’m sure the principles will be widely supported by agencies throughout South Yorkshire and neighbouring areas.
You can find out more at

The best start…your say

Are you a parent or an expectant parent? What is your experience of using public services such as GPs, midwives, health visitors, antenatal care and children’s centres?
The period of a child’s life from in the womb through birth to the early years are vital to her or his physical, mental and emotional health and development. Problems that occur in this period can not only affect a person’s childhood, but the rest of their life: their physical and mental health, their ability to learn, communicate and manage their emotions.
Therefore, it may be surprising, even counter-intuitive, that the bulk of public spending during a child’s life comes in their teenage years. There is a strong case for investing public money much earlier. There is certainly a renewed interest in earlier intervention. This is not just to do with maximising potential, but also to address anti-social behaviours and to divert children from crime.
This renewed interest is occurring at the same time that the government has been making huge cuts in the resources for supporting the youngest children (for example, more than 1000 SureStart Centres have closed since 2010 and more will close in the next 12 months) and in diverting young teenagers (for example, resources for crime prevention schemes and youth services designed to keep children out of crime have been cut by more than half since 2010).
All parents need support during pregnancy and their children’s early years from their families and friends, but also from local public services (e.g. midwives, GPs, children centres and health visitors). These services can help to identify problems in a child’s development and provide support for parents and families to help make sure children are given the best start in life. 
Although parents have the primary role, we all have an interest in trying to ensure that children are kept safe and secure and reach their full potential. In turn, when we are in our dotage, we hope that some of them will be helping to keep us safe and secure.
Now, the all-party House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, which is responsible for holding the government to account on its policies and performance, is seeking parents’ views on the challenges of, and about the support they received, during the first years of their child’s life, from conception to the age of 2.
In an earlier report, the Committee concluded:
“In an ideal world, all children should be wanted, nurtured, loved, protected and valued by emotionally available and sensitively responsive parents. Such an environment allows the child to develop in the most optimal way, with emotional wellbeing, capacity to form and maintain relationships, healthy brain and language development leading onto cognitive development, school readiness and lifelong learning.”
According to that report, providing positive childhood experiences during their early years could reduce the following later in life:
  • hard drug use by 59%
  • incarceration by 53% 
  • violence by 51% 
  • unplanned teen pregnancies by 38%
To achieve that would be a tremendous bonus to thousands of young adults as well as a major contribution to our ambitions of having a healthier society in social and economic terms.
Earlier this month, the Committee heard expert evidence from senior doctors, nurses, policy analysts, professional bodies and charities.  Now it wants parents’ views.
The Committee is interested in hearing from parents from all walks of life, but because they are usually under-represented in consultations, the Committee especially wants to encourage contributions from those who:
  • Live in poorly connected or rural areas
  • Are first-time parents
  • Are single parents
  • Do not have English as a first language
Your contribution will be anonymous. Have your say at
Do it this week!

The Right to Privacy and the Digital Revolution

Are you interested in the collection and analysis of ‘big data’? Are you concerned about the impact the collection of data could have on protecting human rights?
Are you affronted and seriously worried about the amount of data that the government (or ‘the state’) has about you? Or, are you more like me, much more concerned by the amount of data that your bank and supermarket have about you, your habits, and your life?
Are you horrified by the experience of reading your online newspaper or magazine, only to find yourself being targeted with adverts relating to other internet searches you have recently completed?
Do you believe like me that, if we are serious about controlling migration and about ensuring that only those entitled to get access to our public services and benefits, it is inevitable that the UK (like nearly every other country) will end up with each of us having some form of ID entitlement card? In fact, most of us have one already; it’s called a passport.
More recently, we have all started to gain an inkling about the extent to which private companies (and especially the big technology companies) are collecting, aggregating, analysing and selling data about us. This has not just been to other advertisers but, as recent investigations – some criminal, some by investigative journalists, some by democratic institutions – have revealed, our data has been sold to political agents, wealthy ideological obsessives and, almost certainly, to foreign governments who don’t have our best interests at heart.
Since the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica scandal broke last year, the role of the big tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple in protecting the right to privacy is increasingly coming under scrutiny, with greater pressure for regulation. The increasingly rapid development of Artificial Intelligence presents some of the most challenging ethical and social questions – in both the public and private sector.
Now, the all-party Joint Committee on Human Rights – it has members from both the House of Commons and the House of Lords – has embarked on an inquiry into whether new safeguards to regulate the collection, use, tracking, retention and disclosure of personal data by private companies are needed in the new digital environment to protect human rights.
The key human right at risk is the right to private and family life (Article 8 ECHR), but freedom of expression (Article 10 ECHR), freedom of association (Article 11), and non-discrimination (Article 14 ECHR) are also at risk.
The Committee is seeking written evidence on the threats posed to human rights by the collection, use and storage of personal data by private companies and examples of where they have been breached. In particular, it is interested in the following questions:
  • Are some uses of data by private companies so intrusive that states would be failing in their duty to protect human rights if they did not intervene?
    – If so, what uses are too intrusive, and what rights are potentially at issue?
  • Are consumers and individuals aware of how their data is being used, and do they have sufficient real choice to consent to this?
  • What regulation is necessary and proportionate to protect individual rights without interfering unduly with freedom to use and develop new technology?
  • If action is needed, how much can be done at national level, and how much needs international cooperation?
  • To what extent do international human rights standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, have a role to play in preventing private companies from breaching individuals’ rights to privacy?
Written submissions should be no more than 3,000 words, and the deadline for submissions is Thursday 31 January 2019.
There is an online submission form at:

Learning for the future

I have been a long-time supporter of devolution, which is why I’ve supported the development of the Sheffield City Region (SCR), because the current economy and the future economic challenges for South Yorkshire are quite different from those facing North Yorkshire or the East Yorkshire coast, let alone Yorkshire or England as a whole.
In 2015, the Government began to devolve powers to mayoral combined authorities. While there were and still are differing views about the requirements to have a mayor there was general agreement that devolution should be based on city regions as coherent areas of local economic activity. The powers to be devolved were related to improving the economic performance of those areas such as skills, transport and new business development, which is quite distinct from devolution to Scotland and Wales and to the Regional Assembly proposals of a decade ago.
A recent research report clearly demonstrated that adjacent smaller towns acting in cooperation with bigger successful cities are economically and socially much healthier than towns which sought to go it alone. That is why a devolved city region model is so important to Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham. It is also crucially important to the travel-to-work areas In North Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire. I am sure that is why, when the SCR is up and running, there will be a renewed interest in engagement from those areas.
The challenges for SCR are not just about economic regeneration but also about diversifying the economy, securing additional jobs which match the potential highly qualified workforce who come from our universities and want to stay in the area. But, with too few jobs to match the talents of our cities, we need to focus on nurturing and supporting 21st century businesses. And we need more training opportunities to improve the skills and pay levels of the population in general.
We have some excellent examples of what can be achieved when councils, education institutions at the forefront of technological change, skills providers, and businesses and entrepreneurs do get their act together. The development of the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, with its 600-place apprentice training facility, the opening of plants by Rolls Royce, Boeing and McLaren and the proposal for an innovation corridor stretching from the Olympic Legacy Park to the Doncaster-Sheffield Airport are some of the many positives already happening.
All of that has been achieved despite the government’s failing further education and skills’ development policies.

  • The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee recently concluded that “The government’s target of 3 million apprenticeships has prioritised quantity over quality and should be scrapped.”
  • The Chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, says that the sustainability and quality of further education and skills provision have been hit by the cuts to their funding.
  • Further and adult education have suffered severe budget cuts of more than £3 billion in real terms since 2010, that’s over one quarter of funding. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies states that further education has been ‘the biggest loser’ in education spending over the last 25 years.
  • The cuts have had a huge impact on the number of adult learners. In the last ten years, the number of enrolments has declined from 5.1 million to 1.9 million, a drop of 62%.
  • And, now, in the last year, after the apprenticeship levy was introduced, we have seen apprenticeship starts fall by 157,000, a decline of 34%.

The sooner the Sheffield City Region is up and running properly and taking over responsibility for local further education and skills’ development the better it will be for all of South Yorkshire.
In other research published this week, over-65s are much more likely to think that apprenticeships offer the best opportunity for progression, compared to the young people that many of these roles are aimed at. Younger people, in comparison, thought higher education offered a better opportunity.
That means that we all – employers, teachers, parents and grand-parents – have a huge task in persuading our teenagers that a modern, high-quality apprenticeship is worth chasing and securing. Their futures and our economic future depend on it.

Not bothered, don’t care, we’ll blame you anyway

Not bothered, don’t care, we’ll blame you anyway…” was the message that the government sent to councils, of all political controls and none, when it cancelled the Local Government Finance Settlement announcement last week and deferred it to a date yet to be announced.
Only a few weeks ago, I wrote that, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had brought forward his statement on the Budget and Spending Review for 2019/20, there was absolutely no excuse for the government to repeat its trick of delaying the announcement, until the last day that parliament sits before the Christmas recess, to avoid scrutiny and challenge.
There was no excuse for this delay which showed the Government has lost touch with the reality facing councils. The delay just adds further uncertainty and chaos for councillors who are desperately struggling to maintain important, effective services to their local communities.
The debate is no longer party political. Conservative council leaders across the country are shouting about the impact of the government’s cuts on their services. Just how out of touch is Mrs May when she announced ‘the end of austerity’?
You deserve to have the facts, as confirmed by the National Audit Office (NAO), the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and many more reputable commentators:

  • Since 2010, the government has cut grant to councils by 60%. To think about it another way, just consider the impact on your household if, for every £1 you earned in 2010, your employer was now just paying you 40p.
  • By 2020, local authorities will have faced cuts to core funding of nearly £16 billion since 2010, compared to 2000/10. The Conservative-led Local Government Association (LGA) says a further £1.3bn will be cut in 2019/20 under current plans. This amounts to 36% of their budgets. Research by the LGA has found that local government will face an almost £8 billion funding gap by 2025.
  • There has been no fairness about the distribution of the cuts. The poorest local authorities (which tend to be northern and urban) have had their spending cut by £228 per person since 2010, but the richest councils (mainly southern and rural) have had their spending cut by only £44. I leave you to draw your own conclusion about the reason for this but, let’s just say that, there is an absence of political impartiality. Next year, 168 councils will receive no more core central government funding at all.
  • What this government gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. Having made great play of its decision to devolve public health services to councils – good news – the government immediately announced that it was cutting the funding for public health by around £531 million (over 14%). It then proceeded to blame councils which had been forced to cut services previously funded by that budget. Talk about blaming the victim!
  • Income support – like for Council Tax – is meant to be part of a national policy to get a minimum income to the lowest earners. But, between 2013 and 2020, the government is cutting nearly half of the original funding – a £1.7 billion cut – meaning that nearly 600,000 low income households no longer receive any council tax support at all and millions more low-earning households have had that benefit cut.
  • Despite an increase in the elderly population and an increasingly care-and-support needing elderly population, there have been big cuts in government financial support for adult social care. There are 500,000 fewer elderly people receiving support now than in 2010, and charges have rocketed. Councils are spending £6 billion less in adult social care, despite making big cuts to other council services to help fund care. Councils are receiving almost 5,000 requests for social care every day. Over the last six months, more than 8,000 people have been affected by care homes or home care providers either pulling out of contracts or closing completely.
  • This government’s shambolic housing policy – as well as cutting home ownership by making it unaffordable to young buyers and forcing big rent increases and lack of security on private tenants – has left local councils currently housing more than 79,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation. More than 120,000 children will spend this Christmas in over-crowded and poor-quality temporary accommodation and hostels, often many miles away from adults’ jobs, children’s schools and family support.
  • Last year, we saw the biggest annual increase in children in care since 2010 and councils are now starting 500 child protection investigations every day. The cuts and increased demand for urgent intervention has resulted in councils spending less on early intervention and cuts in grants to the voluntary sector. Children’s services face a £3 billion funding gap by 2025.
  • In 2017/2018, councils spent more than £816 million over budget on children’s services and adult social care. They did this by making big cuts in other important services. That’s why there have been big cuts in, especially rural, bus services leading to fewer routes, fewer passengers and increased car congestion. Hundreds of libraries have been closed, the number of youth clubs has halved as has the budget for services designed to prevent teenagers falling in to crime, the numbers of potholes have dramatically increased (Sheffield being an exception) and park maintenance has taken a big hit.

Mrs May and her government are not only responsible for the Brexit shambles, they are also responsible for the big cuts in the local services which we all rely on. It’s little wonder that people think the country is going downhill under her leadership.

It’s a knotty problem

As the national and parliamentary debate about Brexit continues, I often take wry amusement from the contributions of some arch-Brexiteers about the way in which we need to return to “our British way of life”.
I heard one such contributor on the radio recently speak with proud anticipation of his ‘traditional British Christmas dinner’, apparently with little understanding of the origin of the varieties of food which appear on that plate.
Of course, turkeys were originally imported from China, potatoes were brought by the Spanish from South America, sprouts were first grown in Ancient Rome and then in Germany and Belgium long before they reached the UK, sage and onion came from Mediterranean countries, carrots variously from what is now called Afghanistan and Turkey, and the raisins and sultanas for our Christmas puddings were from the grapes cultivated in Greece, Turkey and what we used to call Asia Minor, sweetened by sugar from cane grown in the Caribbean and flavoured with spices from the East Indies. So far as I am concerned, our diet and food has been vastly improved by these imports.
Similarly, there are thousands of plants which enhance British gardens and parks which had their origins thousands of miles away. The wonderful British institution, Kew Garden, is now the repository of tens of thousands of seeds from plants and trees from throughout the world.
However, there are a few plant imports which we could do without. In particular, there are three non-native species which have caused serious damage to our environment, the economy and occasionally to our health.
Giant Hogweed and Himalayan Balsam caused havoc with the environment, especially around rivers and streams. They crowded out other plants, changed the habitat and nature of water-courses, and deleteriously impacted on local ecologies, especially the diversity of small mammals, fish and insects.
But it is Japanese Knotweed which has most often been the focus of attention in urban areas, as it thrives in places where the native flora is already impoverished. The rhizomes (roots) have an ability to travel a long way underground before the two metre stems and large triangular leaves surface.
So big a problem did it become that its control was specifically addressed in the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. Under Sec 14 of that Act, it is an offence to plant or cause Japanese Knotweed to grow in the wild. A magistrates’ court can impose a maximum fine of £5000 or a maximum prison sentence of six months, or both. A Crown Court can impose an unlimited fine or a maximum prison sentence of two years, or both.
Although not a statutory nuisance, allowing Japanese Knotweed to spread onto neighbouring land could be considered to be a private nuisance. This means that if you had Japanese Knotweed on your land and you allowed it to spread to neighbouring land, the owners of that land could take civil action against you.  That is why you will find that if you are selling land or trying to insure your home, you will be asked to make a declaration about Knotweed.
Under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act, Japanese Knotweed is ‘controlled waste’ and must be safely disposed of at an appropriately licensed landfill site. Contaminated soils must be buried to a depth of at least 5 metres. All waste producers to ensure that a written description of the waste and any specific harmful properties is provided to the site operator.  Other regulations also apply.
So, there are strict legal requirements applying if you have Japanese Knotweed on your land, and it can be very costly both to ignore it and to deal with it.
However, some people have questioned whether the physical and environmental damage caused by Japanese Knotweed is as great as previously claimed and whether its existence is over-regulated.
That is why the all-party Science and Technology Committee has decided to hold a short inquiry, specifically to explore the science behind the effects of Japanese Knotweed on the built environment.
The Committee has invited expert submissions on the following issues by Monday 31 December:
  • What scientific evidence exists on the effects of Japanese Knotweed on the built environment;
  • How the presence of Japanese Knotweed in the UK affects mortgage lending decisions and property valuations;
  • Whether mortgage lending decisions relating to the presence of Japanese Knotweed are currently based on sound scientific evidence of its effects on the built environment; and
  • What guidance for the sector currently exists, the impact of existing legislation, and how else evidence-based responses to the presence of Japanese Knotweed can be encouraged.
You can submit written evidence at
But the Committee is also interested to hear from people about their experiences of dealing with Japanese Knotweed, whether as a homeowner, tenant, prospective purchaser or developer. You can tell the Committee about your personal experiences by completing a dedicated webform at
It’s certainly a knotty problem. You can help decide how it is dealt with in the future.

Take a deep breath – no yet!

Most people under the age of 50 will have no memory of the choking smogs from which Sheffield – and most other cities – suffered in to the 1960s.
Concerns about Sheffield’s air quality go back over 400 years. It was a combination of industrial pollution, from the city’s heavy industrial production, and domestic pollution from open coal fires, which heated most homes. It was well described in George Orwell’s 1936 visit to the city: “Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World…”
Dramatic improvements were made between 1959 and 1972 when smokeless zones were established across the city, when residents could get grants to replace their coal fires with gas. Mrs Thatcher’s industrial strategy made its own impact in the 1980s as Sheffield’s steel, engineering and coal mining was devastated. It has effectively taken another 40 years to get to the position where parts of the Lower Don Valley can be redeveloped, including for housing.
However, concerns about air quality in parts of Sheffield – especially the city centre and near to the MI – continue. This is mainly due to nearly invisible pollutants from domestic and commercial vehicles, especially particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5); of most concern are nitrogen dioxide and fine dust particulates.
Poor air quality contributes to the early deaths of up to 40,000 people each year. Diseases attributable to air pollution in the UK result in over £20 billion in economic costs each year.
 In 2014, nine English towns and cities, including Sheffield, were named by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for breaching safety guidelines for air pollution. The latest WHO report states that at least 37 UK towns and cities are in breach of the WHO air quality standards for PM2.5, whilst a minimum of 10 UK town and cities breach their standards for PM10s. This is significantly higher than the five cities required to deliver Clean Air zones by the end of 2019.
Locally, there are automatic air monitoring stations measuring a variety of pollutants in areas of most concern and 160 locations across the city where just nitrogen dioxide levels are monitored.
Today’s challenge is to make as big a breakthrough on traffic pollution as the city’s leaders made on smog 50 years ago. If all buses and taxis in the city were low emission – and a good start has been made with the introduction of new buses – that would cut nitrogen dioxide (NO2) gas by about 20 per cent, two-thirds of the way towards the required 30 per cent reduction.
Many MPs and the Local Government Association, as well as health campaigners, have been pressing the government to act. But the Coalition and Conservative government ministers have been unwilling to get to grips with the challenges. The government has had to be dragged through the courts every step of the way.
In February this year, the government was defeated in court for the third time in three years.  What’s more, the judge was highly critical, saying that this was the third unsuccessful attempt by the government to produce a plan to bring down air pollution to legal levels as quickly as possible. He said ‘The history of this litigation shows that good faith, hard work and sincere promises are not enough… and it seems the court must keep the pressure on to ensure compliance is actually achieved.’ Effectively, in a decision which the judge described as ‘wholly exceptional’, the court said it was going to oversee the government’s plans.
The government’s air quality strategy, unveiled in May, was hugely disappointing. Again, it simply fails to rise to the challenge.
For many years, I have been specifically pressing the government about the need to take action in respect of pollution from the M1, over which the city council has no power but whose concerns led to one school having to be relocated to protect children’s health. Ministerial response has been to duck and dive.
However, at the very least now, ministers seem to understand that they will have to act in a number of ways to cut the M1 pollution.
Last week, my colleague, Paul Blomfield (MP, Sheffield Central) and I again pressed the case with the Minister in the House of Commons. The response? After encouraging Sheffield City Council to ‘considering introducing a charging clean air zone (in the city centre) – which will undoubtedly be controversial, on the M1 issue, the Minister said:

My Department (DEFRA) and the Department for Transport have a joint air quality unit, and I am in regular contact with Highways England about its progress on improving air quality on the strategic road network. I welcome the work that it is considering to change speed limits and to install the barriers to which the hon. Gentleman referred.”

So, don’t take a deep breath … yet.