Monday, June 02, 2014

Reflections as a councillor and community champion

2006: Being sworn in as a Liverpool City Councillor
On May 22nd 2014 my two terms as a Councillor came to an end.

This was the date when my successor, Labour's Sue Heron, was elected in Kensington and Fairfield with 68% of the vote.

The eight years I served have been full of highs and lows; great achievements alongside disappointments and heartaches; huge learning curves and tremendous experiences.

My election came as a surprise to most people who had not expected to see a Labour victory in a ward where the three sitting Liberal Democrats had served sixty years between them. It was not a surprise to me or our small Labour team though because we had spent six months knocking on doors and listening to residents about their concerns; I found out precisely which issues people were concerned about in the local area and then I campaigned to make a difference for them. It is fair to say that when I arrived in Liverpool there was not really a history of knocking on doors outside of election times and not much of one during elections really either but it is something I believe strongly in and I was determined to pull together a small team of people who were prepared to give it a go. I remember visiting a house on Laburnum Road where the woman said she had waited over twenty years for Labour to call. At a house on Minto Close a couple said it was the first time they could recall anyone calling. "In this election?" I asked, "No. Ever", they said, adding they had lived there 25 years.

It made all the difference and helped me to win the seat with a tiny majority. All year round campaigning ever since has ensured that Labour went on to win and hold the other two councillor positions and it is now one of the wards with the highest percentage of voter contact in the city. 

The issues that most people were concerned about back in 2006 were

1. The lack of a fee free cash machine. People who have easy access to banks and free cash machines in their more affluent neighbourhoods cannot imagine how difficult it is to have to pay upwards of £1.85 for the privilege of drawing out your own money, especially if you only want £10. It is a massive tax on the poor. It was to take me 5 years to achieve in the ward and even when I was chairing my final Finance and Resources Select Committee in April this year the council was still working on plans to secure fee free machines for parts of West Derby constituency.

Free cashpoint machine arrives February 2011

2. There wasn't enough for young people to do and there was a worrying rise in anti-social behaviour. I quickly became involved with Central Youth Club and discovered they were only able to find funds to open on limited days each week. Over the next eight years, working with Wendy and then Liam we were able to make sizeable donations from our locally devolved budget to keep the youth club open 7 days a week and also provide outreach workers who could go out on to the streets where young people gathered and talk to them about what they wanted to do with their leisure time. We also funded choirs, parties at Halloween, made donations to Edge Hill Youth Club in the next ward and set up and helped fund the Youth Forum which brought together everyone providing activities for young people in Kensington and Fairfield so they could plan their programmes without clashing with each other.

Presenting certificates at an awards night at Central Youth Club

3. There were lots of calls for more and better shops back in 2006. The south side of Kensington was mostly boarded up and derelict, the old skating rink was a cleared site surrounded by hoardings, and the choice available was essentially hot food takeaways, betting shops and off licences. I can't personally claim credit for the demolition, the tidying up of shop fronts or the building of new shops along Prescot Road but certainly it was facilitated by the Labour Government through New Deal for Communities and HMRI. I was very proud that at one of my final council meetings of 2014 I was at last able to speak in favour of a policy to restrict the further opening of any more takeways and off licences. It is easy to forget how bad things were before but here are a few of the "before" photographs.

Boarded up shops and pub fronting Pythian Park  2006
Rear of shops and pub on Kensington awaiting demolition 2007


And these are some of the new shops on Prescot Road now.

Kensington Neighbourhood Centre

Eight years is a long time and there were a rich wealth of experiences that I could share, but most of them feature here on this blog so you don't need to look too far.

Something that really made a difference was being able to secure victory for Wendy Simon and Liam Robinson in 2007 and 2008 so that we had a full Labour team taking the ward forward, sharing ideas, expertise, tasks and responsibilities. We have worked brilliantly well together and I owe them a great deal - as do the people of Liverpool.

I was fortunate to have been elected in a variety of council positions; chairing our Neighbourhood Committee, shadow Executive Member, Assistant Executive Member, Chair of Newsham Park Forum, Chair of Finance and Resources Select Committee and city lead for Equality and Diversity. I also took scrutiny forward outside of the Council, by working with the Guild of Students where I shared an award from CfPS, at Venture Housing Association as its Vice Chair and as an active member of St Hilda's CE Girls High School. In all of those positions I learned much about how to deliver for the people of the city.

It wasn't all easy going though. I think I would describe my time in Local Government as a story of two halves. Before 2010 resources were plentiful but we had a Liberal Democrat led council and although I managed to get into a good position chairing the Neighbourhood Committee and also had a big chunk of locally devolved budget to spend on environmental improvements and other good projects, many of the changes I wanted to see for residents were stubborn in arriving. I could not persuade the leader of the council to fine dog foulers or fly tippers, selective licensing of private landlords was turned down time and again for our area and Fairfield Community Centre was regularly under threat of closure.

After 2010 with a Labour majority on Liverpool Council again, we had the power to effect change but very quickly lacked the resources with which to make a difference. It was a very dark day when the Area Based Grant was abolished with a stroke of the pen; it had funded Family Intervention Projects, Community Cohesion work, free fruit for kids at school, Domestic Violence Projects, community skips galore, advice centres and youth projects and much more; suddenly it was all gone. Our local budget had to start stretching to meet things we had never had to fund before. Then once the austerity cuts to the revenue budget started to come along things went from bad to worse and we lost a lot of good quality local projects in the area.

However, we made the best with what we had and with a huge amount of goodwill on all sides.

I think my proudest legacy surely must be the level of partnership working we have achieved.

There is the Kensington and Fairfield Problem Solving Group which brings together all the partners, agencies and organisations providing a service in the ward along with residents and church groups. Working together we have tackled some very serious issues facing local people, steadfastly tackling obstacles, pooling together slender resources and ruthlessly targeting crime and anti-social behaviour, environmental blight, youth unemployment, the establishment of a food bank, Respect weeks, supporting community cohesion with European Neighbour's Day and establishing "Love my Street" initiatives in particularly run down roads. And of course there is the Newsham Park Forum which I wrote about after my final meeting, the Youth Forum and all the Tenants and Residents Groups we have supported over the years.

It has been a wonderful experience, enriching, empowering, deeply satisfying and very fulfilling. I have seen some big projects through to fruition - like the restoration of the wonderful Victorian Jewish Cemetery on Deane Road but also I have helped individuals with their own cases. There is nothing better than achieving a result for someone who has been struggling alone for a long time and have come to see their councillor in final desperation.

If the opportunity to stand for Parliament in my home town had not arisen last year, I would have been standing for council again last week, keen to take on another four year term and carry on tackling priorities and issues, for the ward and for the city. However, the chance to go to Parliament hopefully as part of a Labour government voting to abolish the bedroom tax, to increase the minimum wage substantially and to introduce a jobs guarantee for young people is something I feel I need to do. My focus now is on winning back Stockton South for Labour but I go knowing that if I am successful, I will be voting to bring about change for Liverpool too.

I want to thank everyone who I have worked with over those eight years, those who were there at the beginning but have since moved on to other jobs (or sadly died), those who were there at the end having newly arrived and those who stayed the course with me. I have been given friendship, love and support in abundance.

The ward of Kensington and Fairfield is a wonderful part of a wonderful city with fantastic residents; it might not be affluent and people might be struggling but they are rich in spirit. Serving them has been an honour.

Some of the fab residents and comrades who came to wish me goodbye a few weeks ago at my leaving party