Tackling Inequalities? Some may say not Peterborough.

Tonight I went to the full council meeting about the proposed developments at the Peterborough United Football Club. Big money being spent on making the club more up to date, building a skills centre for young people and putting in seats in case the club ever get into the Premiership. Lovely jubbly. Sparkly ‘new’ club, an asset to Peterborough. Peterborough taxpayers love sparkly new things it seems. Yay!

Now don’t get me wrong. I love sparkly things. And I’m not fussed about a budget that’s not destined for playcentres or buses being spent on improving an alternative community asset. I understand about budgets, I understand that the big pot of money wouldn’t have been spent on playcentres or bus services. But can I tell you what has disappointed me, in fact it’s upset me to be honest but then maybe it’s because being poor, and having a disabled child makes you take things to heart just that little bit more than usual.

Throughout the meeting, the footy club was repeatedly regarded by Councillors from all ‘sides’ as a “Community Asset”. That they are not ‘just’ a business but how they do so much for the community and for the kids of Peterborough. Well flippedy doo dah, give them a medal. Don’t acknowledge that they should be giving back to the community as part of their corporate social responsibility, or that they most likely apply/get funding to support them with this community work. Just put them on a pedestal to support why this financial resource must be approved. It’s a community asset so of course we must improve their facilities, we don’t want to lose them out of town. We need them.

Indeed we do. But let me tell you what gets my goat. We need organisations such as The Inspirations Studio, a great drop in resource for kids, providing a space for young people to meet and come together to improve their skills, their social abilities and encourage them to become positive role models for their peers and valuable citizens that can guide and make change in their communities and the City as a whole. We need organisations such as CCORRN Community Repaint, who provide low cost paint to all residents and businesses in the City, making it possible even in this time of austerity for anyone to make their homes just a little bit nicer to live in. We need people such as Family Voice Peterborough, a hardworking group of volunteers, all parents of children with special needs, and let’s be honest, have enough on their plates as it is.

Inspirations Studio and CCORRN are currently temporarily housed in a disused shop, the old Hawkins Bazaar just along from the Town Hall and the ‘contract’ is up *I think* about Oct/Nov time. No doubt they’ll be moved along like a traveller encampment to yet another temporary location, with another temporary contract. But the Youth and the poor are not temporary, like a season in the Premiership could be. What about their facilities? Their future? Their security?

Family Voice Peterborough are absolute Heroes in my eyes. Not only do they have busy lives contending with making sure their own children are getting the education, health and social care their children are entitled to (and many times they have to fight for services and help believe me) but they also fund-raise, run training courses for other parents and put events on for children with additional needs. If these people spend a Saturday afternoon kicking a football around a pitch, they are probably doing it in fancy dress to raise money for their cause.

These are “Community Assets” we should be supporting, funding and keeping in Peterborough in my opinion.

Moving on…

Well, goodness me. Because the club and council were not coming to an arrangement they could both agree on, POSH have been with-holding the rent since June 2012? I don’t recall anything in the news about them being taken to court and evicted. But don’t pay the bedroom tax or the council tax supplement and it’s a day out at the Magistrate’s Court for me and the majority of people living in poverty!

Now please don’t get me wrong, in the background Cllr Cereste and many others in the council are doing a great deal to improve the lives of people in poverty. I know because I am trying to help them. There will be some fantastic initiatives to help people out of poverty and into employment and/or training so please don’t knock him on only what you see online or in the media. Instead, ask questions.. educate yourselves.. make your views known.. your ideas heard and get involved. We need transparency and clarity. We need to be given more information.. about where money for projects is coming from and where it goes to.. about why projects cannot be funded.. we should hear from every Councillor why they vote how they do. We should be able to openly question decisions and we should have a forum where we can respectfully, on both sides debate, acknowledge and appreciate what we do as a community. Knowledge is power.. for everyone.

It’s not that we don’t want a football ground Councillors, just a level playing field.

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Letter to Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband.

21/06/2013

 

Dear Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband,

Forgive the joint letter but I am writing about an issue that all three political parties have had a hand in creating and so therefore I am writing to you all in the hope that you will agree that we need a solution, not by one party to win a ‘welfare war’ and score points but as people who want a better future for others, regardless of whether it will get them a vote or not. Which one of you has just put this letter in the ‘get the PA to churn out the standard cut n paste waffle letter that doesn’t even indicate it’s even been read’ pile? If you haven’t then well done and keep reading!

I’m going to cc this letter to Mr Pickles, Sec of State for Communities & Local Government and Ms Margaret Hodge, Chair of Public Accounts Committee because the issues I’d like to discuss cross into their ‘territory’ also and I would like them to be aware too.

My letter is about poverty. Now I know you didn’t create poverty, don’t panic I’m not accusing you of that, but you have all assisted in making it worse and not doing enough to make it better. I’m not expecting a mass cure of all poverty either UK or Worldwide, because I feel that unfortunately that will never be, but something needs to change and it needs to change now. I can hear it now…

EM: “It wasn’t us, the Conservatives have cut all the budgets and brought in the bedroom tax and council tax shortfalls!”

DC: “Yes but we are working hard to make things better after the Labour Government got us in this mess, it’s their fault!”

NC: “We’ve never been in power, so it can’t be us!”

(I watch BBC Parliament, can you tell?)

Let me tell you how you should be responding…

EM: “Yes, I hold my hands up, we brought in ATOS, we gave them a multi-million pound contract on the 5th May 2005 and people were and still ARE being incorrectly assessed, the system has never been fit for purpose and they are doing more damaged than good now. I’m sorry that people have suffered over a badly thought out initiative”

DC: “I’m sorry, we chose the wrong priorities to work on when we came into Government, instead of allowing an inadequate service to keep wrongly assessing people ‘fit for work’ and taking away their benefits and then spending thousands in appeal tribunals, we should have focussed our efforts into working harder to identify those people and businesses who were avoiding paying their taxes and made the system fairer by changing the rules so that if businesses want to continue to trade in the UK and taking money from UK citizens, which include unwaged, disabled and low-income working families, they would have to re-invest back into this great country by paying fair and appropriate taxes. Instead of continuing to fund a poorly run and inadequate assessment system, we should have invested more in the NHS and G P’s and use their skills and knowledge of their patients, whom they know better than an untrained assessor (or at best trained in a completely different discipline!). Instead of paying businesses big money to take on volunteers, who aren’t really volunteers because they are working under the threat of a benefit sanction, that money should have been put into the community to educate and train residents to enable them to compete in the job market. We have thrown money at the rich and inadequate and the consequences of this is that the poor and incapable have been put at more or a disadvantage than they already were. We failed them and we need to put it right.”

NC: “We need to accept some responsibility here too. I could try to say that we were ‘bullied’ or ‘pushed’ into agreeing with the Conservatives policies and directives, but we chose not to object or negotiate terms to make it fairer. I apologise.”

So, now we have established that none of your parties are completely innocent, let’s see just what a mess you’ve made. We have a great mass of welfare reforms trickling their way in, ‘bedroom tax’ council tax benefit shortfall, more sanctions for job seekers, and money being stopped for sick and disabled claimants whilst they await an appeal with a tribunal. People are struggling to pay their shortfalls in their rents, they are falling behind with their council tax payments. Parents are not eating so they can ensure their children have food, they’ve switched their heating off to keep the bills down. They are depressed and feeling like failures when it isn’t them who are failing. It is you. Also in a worryingly rising trend, people affected are taking their own lives.

Let me tell you about Peterborough. Peterborough is a great City, but it has a lot of people living in poverty. We are run by a Conservative-Led Council led by a strong-willed, confident leader. He has his supporters but he does have an increasing number of residents opposed to some of his initiatives and decisions and they query whether such an astute businessman with such a wide reaching involvement in many business areas and a long list of ‘registered interests’ is impartial enough to be overseeing such important issues regarding the health, wealth and development of Peterborough and it’s residents. I’d be interested in Mr Pickles and Ms Hodges valued opinion on this as this I think is where things such as this crosses into your realms. The Council have over the last few years have made some dreadful mistakes in order to ‘cut-back’ on the local budgets. Let me offer you some examples..

  • Closing elderly residential homes – three now stand empty, either boarded up or gates locked and paid for security guards employed to do random spot checks day and night. (Oh by the way someone left the light on when the last resident moved out of one earlier this year – I hope they use economy saving bulbs!)

  • Closed Children’s Play centres – Due to budget cuts the play service was ‘scaled down’ in 2010 and following further budget cuts this year it was decided that this service was now no longer viable to run. In comes the great idea of ‘Asset Transfer’ which the Head of Neighbourhood and his team is trying hard to establish and support through the transition phase (if indeed they all go through) although in a scrutiny committee meeting, which I sat in the public area and watched, the Head of Neighbourhood’s Manager clearly said that there was ‘only a small pot of money’ and that it will soon run out. Best get those hoarding boards out ready then. There are residents in communities that are now trying to get trained and financed etc. to enable them to take on a building and a service with minimal support from the council. The phrase ‘too little, too late’ springs to mind.

  • We’ve got a fountain! Well it’s a ruddy great patch of pavement with holes in it and water comes out of it. Only it doesn’t work and hasn’t for a while. But Peterborough council want to fix them at a cost of £96,000 and then spend another £30,000+ per annum for it’s upkeep. We’ve only had these fountains since June 2010 and they haven’t been on for a year – since the hosepipe ban (which didn’t affect the fountain use anyway as the water recycles itself!). Is this cost warranted when essential services are being cut and lost?

  • Solar panel farms – I thought wow amazing I didn’t know you could grow solar panels? Well apparently you can’t. They get made and installed there, at a great cost to the taxpayer and at a great loss to the tenant farmers who are losing the land and some of their means of income. It will, apparently make/save a shed-load of money says our council leader. I can only assume he is right, as he must be knowledgeable seeing as he has a company involved in green energy. A spokesperson from PCC claimed it wasn’t a conflict of interest as he wasn’t on the planning committee, which is a relief, although some residents of the borough wonder if being Leader of the Council isn’t influence enough. Mr Pickles – this is probably of interest to you as I know our MP, Mr Jackson has discussed this issue with you recently.

  • Secret emails discovered by a Freedom of Information request between Chief Exec of Peterborough City Council and their counterpart at the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea discussing the possible relocation of their social housing tenants to Peterborough. Whilst during the building of the new homes for these people would maybe create a few jobs for Peterborough residents, the bulk of the house builders are more likely to be brought in from out of town and after the build, when these families have moved in, there will be added pressure on the Job Centre as these families will be unemployed people trying to compete with established locals for work that is already scarce. (Currently at almost 6,500 unemployed in Peterborough at present with only 1,500 available vacancies, mostly p/t, temp or zero hours contracted).

Well now I’ve had a little moan and given you an insight as to how the residents of Peterborough, (and I suspect every other town, city or village in the country) have been affected I’d like to tell you about me and what I am doing.

I’m a 42year old Mum of three boys, I live with my partner who was made redundant suddenly and unexpectedly at Christmas and has made no end of attempts to find employment without success. Job Centre Plus sign him on and send him home, he asks for courses and is refused yet is put on a team building day where he and a few others are given a stack of A4 paper and a roll of sellotape and are told to compete against the other team to build the highest tower of paper. Thanks for that but first aid, health and safety or a security CCTV course that he needed for his career would have been more useful. I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. This classes me as mentally ill. I don’t have a problem with it but potential employers do, maybe they think it’s catching. Maybe they need therapy. Either way they are missing out. I will admit I struggle some days and it didn’t help that Atos saw me fit for work last year and stopped my money. Funnily enough it wasn’t the money that bothered me, it was the fact that I felt thrown away and even accused of lying. No support, no letter apart from one acknowledging that I could go no further than my child’s school and the local shop (both situated on a cycle path behind my house) yet declaring me fit for work and no offer of support via the job centre until I wrote to you Mr Cameron and cc’d a copy to my MP. Only then did they remember I existed. I was lucky, my partner worked and we adjusted, our family stayed as a unit and I threw myself into my family and my online friends and I didn’t get so low as to feel the need to take my own life. Others are not so fortunate.

Which leads us to March/April time. From speaking to people online I heard stories of fear, panic, confusion and sadness. The welfare reforms were coming in and people were struggling to adjust. Myself and friends were (and still are) writing to you, telling you what’s happening outside of the Westminster ‘bubble’ but it didn’t change things. Change was coming, people were starting to go hungry, they couldn’t pay their bills, lives were starting to spiral. So I stopped writing. Your PA’s were probably intercepting them anyway. And I, with a few friends who are just as worried about the situation started a Facebook page called Peterborough Against Poverty. We have followers both on there and on Twitter. People messaged us and shared stories and concerns. It wasn’t enough, I needed to do more. So I researched about how people were affected in Peterborough, I read housing strategies, homelessness policies, welfare reform reports. I arranged a meeting with the Social Inclusion Manager and asked her how I/we could help. I told her I knew there were great services out there who could offer help and advice but I also knew there would be people slipping through the gaps, people that don’t want to go to ‘official’ outlets of help due to disability, fear and pride. I wanted to provide a service to be able to reach out to these people and others in the community. So I’ve contacted community groups such as those taking over the play centres and I am going to help them find funding to improve their buildings and put on more groups to bring in more of the community that need the contact. From garden makeover funding for a mums n tots group to a kids club dinner club for feeding kids a hot meal that they may not get at home. I will help them find the appropriate funder and help with their forms, providing a covering report to ensure the needs of the area and the communities are conveyed appropriately to ensure the funder is aware what a difference they can make. I speak to City Councillors and residents associations.

I’ve got links with local colleges, charities and trainers who are happy to work with me to provide low cost and/or free learning opportunities for both young people and adults. I have found a charity who may help with funding for getting young people that are not in education, such as home-educated children or traveller children back into education.

I’ve got opportunities to recruit volunteers or apply for funding to employ unemployed people to become ‘Community Mentors’ and train them to pass their skills on to others. The learning and skill development will be user-led, no targets except those set by the people themselves. Our service will change and adapt to met the needs of the communities in and around Peterborough.

I go to council meetings and watch from the public gallery, I attend meetings with other charities. I am looking it’d registering as a charity to improve access to funding. I am going to every training course I can get on and I am doing this for nothing. The panic attacks are worth it if I can help people. This is where I need your help.

I can fund-raise like the best of them, I can apply for funding for projects, including ones where it involves employing the services of people to make the project work. I can drag my bountiful butt around a fun run (also known as a slow crawl) for miles to raise money for expenses such as running costs which will be kept minimal. I cannot justify however asking people to donate to my upkeep. They shouldn’t have to, they didn’t make these people poorer than they already were. You did, all of you. And you have a responsibility to make an attempt to put it right.

So I am asking YOU for funding. Agree to pay my ‘wages’ for three years, I’m sure you have a fund or two that would cover this initiative. By doing that you will be taking one family off benefits. I will declare myself as self employed and pay my own tax and national insurance. I will fund-raise my furry little butt off to cover the running costs and grants/funding will be raised to enable projects around Peterborough to be set up to enable the people to help themselves. Think how many people could come off benefits and improve their lives with the right intervention. If it’s astoundingly successful, I’ll spread the project to other areas or help other groups to set up similar projects. I’ll continue to attend the relevant council meetings and use what I learn to scrutinise and challenge initiatives and ideas if necessary, regardless of which party leads the council. I’ll even negotiate with them to video the meetings to promote transparency as per Mr Pickle’s Guidelines (thank you for bringing that in by the way).

If it doesn’t work out give me two months ‘notice’ and we’ll part company, can’t say fairer than that can I? I’m not asking for a massive wage, just enough to live on so I can continue to help people. Three political parties, three years wages – how easy have I made it for you? When you consider the following people’s salaries mine would be just a drop in the ocean:

  • Stewart Jackson MP for Peterborough £64,000+

  • Gillian Beasley Chief Exec of PCC £160,000+

  • Marco Cereste Leader of Council £29,459

Well, I’ve waffled enough. I think I’ve created a picture of how I can help and what I can do. I don’t support any political party and I am happy to work with anyone as long as their intention is good. I say things as I see them and I pride myself on my honesty. I don’t put a spin on things because real-life doesn’t need spin, it needs action. Help me act please.

I would appreciate a reply from you all, even if it’s a no.

Yours Sincerely,

Miss Sarah D Tomkins

Peterborough Against Poverty

Email: sarah.tomkins@peterboroughagainstpoverty.org.uk

http://www.peterboroughagainstpoverty.org.uk

http://www.facebook.com/peterboroughagainstpoverty

http://www.twitter.com/pboroagainstpov

cc Mr Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government.

Ms Margaret Hodge, Chair of Public Accounts Committee.