Tagged: Roberta Blackman-Woods

Housing : Pressure to combat ‘student ghettos’ in Durham

A council is facing renewed calls to combat “student ghettos”, after the last local resident of a city centre street described her life as “hell on earth”.

Jackie Levitas, the only remaining non-student on Waddington Street, Durham, said Durham County Council had concentrated on the county’s villages to the neglect of the city – and must decide whether it really “cares” about Durham.

“It’s your duty. People have fled the city. You’ve got to encourage them to come back.

“You must think about how to improve Durham – every decision taken should be an improvement,” the 78-year-old poet said.

Her calls were echoed by Durham City MP Roberta Blackman-Woods, who called the situation “dreadful” and said it left her “almost beyond despair”.

Roger Cornwell, chairman of the City of Durham Trust conservation society, said: “Jackie’s is an extreme form of what’s been going on.

“Her street is treated as part of a student hall of residence. She’s treated as an interloper. The street is totally dead when you get to the (university) vacation.”

 Stuart Timmiss, the council’s head of planning and assets, said it acknowledged the scale of student numbers could create tensions and it recognised the importance of Durham University to Durham.

“Ensuring a balance in respect of these issues is very difficult,” he added.

“We recognise that in Waddington Street and the adjoining streets almost all of the properties are in student use, largely down to how the market has operated over a period of time.

“We have policies in place which mean future applications for student housing developments take all of the above aspects into account and do not have an adverse impact on local communities.”

While first year students at Durham University live in college, many second and third years – plus postgraduates – live in formerly private homes that have been converted into houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) for students.

 Recently, a string of large-scale schemes for purpose-built student accommodation have come forward. Planning permission has been granted for more than 2,000 more student beds and several hundred more are in the pipeline, even though the university expects to expand by only 359 students by 2019-20.

The council is under pressure to introduce an Article 4 direction, which would force developers to apply for planning permission to convert a house into an HMO, and produce a comprehensive student accommodation strategy, a previous attempt having been rejected by a planning inspector.

Professor Graham Towl, the university’s pro-vice-chancellor, said:

We are keen to work with the community to ensure there is a positive environment for all who live and work in Durham and Stockton-on-Tees and we welcome open dialogue.”

Source –  Durham Times, 15 May 2015

Durham Free School was ‘a haven for every crap teacher in the North-East’, MP tells Commons debate

Failed Durham Free School (DFS) was a “haven for every crap teacher in the North-East”, a Commons debate was told last night.

Ministers were told that staff who had left other nearby schools – after “competency procedures” – had been given new jobs at the controversial Durham City secondary.

The allegation came as city MP Roberta Blackman-Woods said most people fighting its closure – ordered by Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, last week – had “no direct knowledge of the school”.

Instead, they were relying on “very selective comments from the Ofsted report”, amid a national newspaper campaign claiming the watchdog is “waging war on Christian schools”.

In fact, Ms Blackman-Woods said, DFS had been “rated inadequate across all categories” – which was “highly unusual even for a free school”.

But, in reply, schools minister Nick Gibb defended the decision to open DFS, in September 2013, insisting it had passed “rigorous” tests set by the Department for Education (Dfe).

He told MPs:

“We were satisfied that the governing structure had the capability to deliver an outstanding education to its pupils.”

The debate was held eight days after the Education Secretary sprung a surprise by announcing DFS would be shut because “what Ofsted found is enough to shock any parent”.

Some parents and teachers have launched a “save our school” campaign – rejecting the criticisms – and have until next Tuesday to persuade Ms Morgan to change her mind.

But, in the Commons, North West Durham MP Pat Glass said:

“I was aware that there were very high levels of teachers working at Durham Free School that had already been through competency procedures with other local authorities.

“A head teacher in the region told me that the school had become a haven for every crap teacher in the North-East – that’s what he said to me.”

And Ms Blackman-Woods set out in detail the school’s key failings, which had made the closure decision “obvious”. They were that:

* “Students’ achievement is weak”.

* “Leaders, including governors, do not have high enough expectations of students or teachers”.

* “Governors place too much emphasis on religious credentials when they are recruiting key staff”

* “Teaching is inadequate over time”.

* “Teachers’ assessment of students’ work is inaccurate and marking is weak”.

* “The behaviour of some students leads to unsafe situations”.

The Durham City MP said the school had promised to be “caring”, but added: “It had moved from being caring to possibly scary for those young people.”

Of 43 letters she had received opposing the closure, only 18 had come from parents at the school.

Mr Gibb said DFS had received “£840,000-odd of revenue and capital funding” for its 92 pupils – plus a ‘pupil premium’ top-up for poorer youngsters.

Source –  Durham Times,  28 Jan 2015

‘Free school plans need better checks’ – MPs

A committee of MPs will today call for tougher rules before the setting up of ‘free schools’, to prevent a repeat of the Durham Free School fiasco.

The Department For Education (DFE) is urged to impose stronger checks before giving the go-ahead in areas with surplus places and a large number of outstanding, existing schools.

And it is told to publish the impact on neighbouring schools – not only when an application is made, but after a free school is opened.

The recommendations go to the heart of criticism of Durham Free School (DFS), which has been condemned as inadequate by watchdog Ofsted and will close within months.

Critics, led by Roberta Blackman-Woods, Durham City’s Labour MP, argue DFS should never have been opened, in September 2013, and is a scandalous waste of money.

It attracted only about 90 pupils – in a city with high-quality schools, with empty places – and was expected to take another eight years to reach its target size of 630.

And it angered local people by opening temporarily in the former home of Durham Gilesgate Sports College, in Gilesgate, which had been controversially closed amid budget cuts.

The saga will be raised in the Commons tonight, in a debate led by Ms Blackman-Woods, who will demand that ministers reveal the full financial details behind the DFS failure.

Ministers are also under pressure to come clean about the role of Michael Gove’s former adviser, Durham-born Dominic Cummings, and his mother, in establishing the school.

Before that debate, today’s report by the Conservative-led education committee also accuses the Government of “exaggerating the success” of academies and free schools.

 Pat Glass, the North West Durham Labour MP, who helped carry out the inquiry, said the report was intended to prevent a repeat of events in Durham City. She said:

“We are saying the DFE needs to look very carefully before it agrees to set up a free school in an area that already has sufficient good places and good schools.

“Durham Free School was a waste of public money – £4m was thrown away – and Michael Gove did absolutely nothing about it.”

 Nicky Morgan replaced Mr Gove as Education Secretary in last year’s reshuffle. Last week, she announced DFS would be shut because “what Ofsted found is enough to shock any parent”.

Free schools have the same freedoms as academies, but have been typically set up the charitable arms of private firms, or groups of parents, or teachers.

There are now 1,884 secondary academies (60 per cent of the total) and 2,299 primaries (13 per cent), after outstanding schools were encouraged to convert.

Source –  Durham Times,  27 Jan 2015

Thatcher v Miners : tories continue to rewrite history

THE trauma of the miners’ strike would have been avoided if Arthur Scargill had pursued “partnership” with the Government, a minister claimed today (Tuesday) – to howls of disbelief.

Matt Hancock, a business minister – answering an historic Commons debate – argued the real “betrayal” was the miners’ leader refusal to ballot NUM members before the strike.

And he told MPs: “It was a difficult process and it could have been done far better through partnership, rather than through an adversarial nature.”

The minister also argued that the pit closure programme which sparked the bitter 1984-85 dispute had paved the way for economic success in the decades since.

He said:

“The transition of an economy dominated by outdated heavy industry into a modern service-based economy was necessary and is the basis of the nation’s prosperity now – and that is not much disputed these days.”

> I’d say it’s very much disputed, just not by politicians with their heads up their arses.

The comments provoked angry Labour shouts during a three-hour debate into fresh evidence about the Thatcher Government’s conduct in the 1980s

Incredibly, Labour’s motion passed, after the Coalition failed to oppose it – despite it stating the 1980s Government “misled the public about the extent of its pit closure plans and sought to influence police tactics”.

 Labour launched a ‘Justice for the Coalfields’ campaign after the release of revelatory secret papers about the strike, under the 30-year rule, at the start of this year.

Ministers were revealed to be aware that Ian MacGregor, the National Coal Board (NCB) chief, was plotting to close 75 pits, at the cost of 65,000 jobs – not the 20 that ministers and the NCB claimed.

The papers showed that Margaret Thatcher considered deploying troops during the strike, by declaring a state of emergency.

And MI5 was used to put union officials suspected of smuggling suitcases full of money donated by the Soviet Union under surveillance.

The debate heard passionate stories about the impact of the strike – both on the people affected at the time and on the “devastated” communities left behind.

Kevan Jones (North Durham) said: “It was vindictive and communities like mine are still suffering today.”

Roberta Blackman-Woods (Durham City) said, of the Government: “They have no idea of the devastation in these communities – and they are doing it again by cutting the funds to local government.”

Pat Glass (North West Durham) said: “The scars of 1984-85 are still there and they won’t be healed until all this is publicly exposed.”

And Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) – a miner himself in the 1980s, when a police officer “spat in my face” – said Lady Thatcher and other ministers had “lied from that despatch box”.

But John Redwood, the head of Lady Thatcher’s policy unit at the time, said he advised her not to use the Army, adding: “She said ‘Of course it won’t be’ – and it wasn’t”.

Source –  Northern Echo,  28 Oct 2014

Land Registry sell off abandoned (for the moment)

The controversial sell-off of the Land Registry was abandoned yesterday (Monday, July 14), after ministers admitted it had run into overwhelming opposition.

The likely £1bn privatisation of the 150-year-old institution – which employs more than 400 civil servants in Durham City – was suspended indefinitely, MPs were told in a statement.

The decision followed strong criticism from solicitors and trades unions about putting a private firm in charge of all land and property data and the threat of higher charges for the public.

Yesterday, the Department for Business (BIS) admitted that 91 per cent of respondents to its consultation did not believe the shake-up would deliver services “more efficiently and effectively”.

In addition, 88 per cent of respondents “did not agree that the overall design provides the right checks and balances to protect the integrity of the register”.

In recent weeks, the Liberal Democrats had made clear they were getting cold feet – over a deal that the Conservatives hoped would raise substantial funds for the Treasury.

Business minister Michael Fallon told MPs: “Given the importance of the Land Registry to the effective operation of the UK property market, we have concluded that further consideration would be valuable.

 “Therefore, at this time, no decision has been taken to change Land Registry’s model.”

However, Durham City MP Roberta Blackman-Woods – while welcoming the move – urged ministers to come clean about their long-term intentions for the Land Registry.

Although officials briefed that the sale had been “abandoned”, BIS also said it still favoured privatisation and would continue to “develop the policy”.

Ms Blackman-Woods said: “I want them to scrap the whole idea, not just put it on hold this side of the general election.

“I will be writing to Vince Cable and Michael Fallon, asking them to accept the overwhelming evidence that this privatisation would create a conflict of interest and that people would not trust the data as much.”

Leading City firms had been approached for their advice on setting up a joint venture between the government and a private company, to take charge of the Land Registry.

BIS also considered turning it into a state-owned company that could be sold off, or letting a private company run the body as a so-called ‘GovCo’.

Yesterday, officials denied the U-turn was connected to fierce criticism of Dr Cable over the sell-off of Royal Mail – allegedly at a £1bn loss.

BIS also made clear that the Land Registry would press ahead with creating a single register, instead of separate lists maintained and delivered by 348 local authorities.

It said standardising fees and turnaround times would end the situation where fees vary between £3 and £96 across the country – and turnaround times between one and 42 days.

Source –  Durham Times,  15 July 2014

Keep Land Registry public campaign wins 100,000 backers

More than 100,000 people have backed a campaign to keep the Land Registry in public ownership.

The Government held a consultation on the future of the 150-year-old institution, which handles land and property data and employs more than 400 civil servants in Durham City, earlier this year, with critics warning privatisation, huge job cuts, loss of confidence and higher charges for the public could follow.

At the weekend, a national newspaper reported Business Secretary Vince Cable had vetoed any sell-off, said to be worth around £1.2bn, as ‘just too complicated’.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the Government would publish its response to the consultation shortly.

Now Durham City Labour MP Roberta Blackman-Woods has joined Labour’s shadow business minister Toby Perkins, leaders of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union and campaign group 38 Degrees in presenting a 100,000-name signature calling for the Registry to remain in the public sector to the Government.

Durham’s Land Registry office is said to be worth £10m a year to the local economy.

Dr Blackman-Woods said: “The Land Registry office in Durham provides many good jobs that we need locally and I don’t want this to be diminished in any way by potential privatisation.”

 Previously, business minister Michael Fallon said giving the Land Registry more flexibility would allow it to support economic growth in the wider economy.
Source –  Durham Times,  02 July 2014

North-East is England’s ‘poor relation’

The North East Party (NEP), which wants the region to have its own elected assembly with powers similar to the Scottish or Welsh governments, held its first public meeting in Durham City tonight (Monday, June 16).

Chair Hilton Dawson, a Northumberland-born former Labour MP, said: “My experience is policy is made in London without very much thought of the regions, and in particular the North-East.

“We are the least regarded and least favoured region in the whole of England.

“There’s no reason why the North-East should continue to be the poor relation in England and lose out to other parts of the UK.

“We can have world-class standards and services and we can create jobs and prosperity.”

Mr Dawson said £300 less in public money is spent per person in the North-East than London every year – adding up to £750m.

The NEP was first mooted in November, founded last month and hopes to field candidates in 12 North-East constituencies at next year’s General Election.

“We’ve had an amazing level of support. Every day we are seeing a trickle of support coming towards us,” Mr Dawson said.

 Ten years ago, more than three quarters of North-East voters rejected John Prescott’s offer of an elected regional assembly.

But Mr Dawson said he was convinced the outcome could be overturned, given a party devoted to campaigning for the cause.

The only way we will get real devolution and real power is by having a party to challenge Westminster parties at the ballot box and get these issues onto the agenda,” he said.

The NEP wants an assembly with wide-ranging powers, excluding only areas such as macroeconomic, defence, foreign and international development policy.

However, Labour says the North-East people decisively rejected the idea in the 2004 referendum and that democratic decision must be respected.

Durham City MP Roberta Blackman-Woods said: “Clearly there is a need for more devolution but we think the mechanisms should be local authorities or local authorities working together.”

Tonight’s launch included a discussion, funding appeal and hustings event. For further details, visit thenortheastparty.org.uk

Source –  Durham Times,  17 June 2014

North East economic development partnership is ‘barely functional’ claims MP

The economic development agency responsible for backing 40,000 businesses across the North East has been criticised for not having a chief executive three months after its previous leader announced he was leaving.

The lack of leadership at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) means it is “barely functional”, an MP has claimed.

City of Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods told the Commons that the failure of the LEP was undermining efforts to bring more jobs to the region, though it last night insisted it was working hard to create more and better jobs.

The agency has not begun considering candidates to replace Edward Twiddy, a former deputy director at the Treasury who became the LEP’s chief executive but announced in mid-April that he was quitting in order to join a new digital bank.

The LEP is currently overseen by Helen Golightly, the chief operating officer, and chairman Paul Woolston, a former senior partner at PwC North East.

Along with neighbouring LEP Tees Valley Unlimited, the North East LEP was set up by the Coalition government to replace the regional development agency.

Ministers said the new organisations would be more local and led by businesses, allowing them to help the local economy.

But Labour MPs such as Mrs Blackman-Woods opposed the abolition of the regional development agency, and warn that the new bodies lack resources.

Speaking in the House of Commons, she also criticised a flagship Government scheme called the Regional Growth Fund, which provides grants to businesses. Up to £109m in funding allocated to the North East has not yet been handed over to firms,

The last Labour Government had encouraged firms such as Hitatchi to invest in the region, she said, adding: “There is a real contrast between all that under Labour and having a local enterprise partnership in the area that is barely functional – it does not have a chief executive or even a deputy chief executive at the moment – and a regional growth fund that operates a scattergun approach.

“Most of the money allocated to the region is not drawn down in any case. According to a recent report by the National Audit Office, most of the funds remains unspent, while the cost of creating jobs has increased considerably, but Ministers are taking no action to tackle this set of concerns.”

LEP chair Paul Woolston said: “Creating more and better jobs for the North East remains our top priority. We have set some ambitious targets and are working hard to achieve these.”

He added: “Through our North East Investment Fund we have provided around £38m loan funding to projects across the North East with an additional £30m of funding anticipated in the next year.

“We were chosen to develop one of three skills pilots in the country which will implement a new skills funding model, and we are currently recruiting for innovation board members to help establish the North East as an exemplar in smart specialisation and open innovation.

“Whilst we are in the process of recruiting for a new chief executive, following the departure of Edward Twiddy last month, our chief operating officer Helen Golightly is providing strong leadership, working closely with board members and partners to drive forward our plans for economic growth.

“We recognise there is still a lot to do, but we are on the right track and I am confident that we will succeed.”

Source –  Newcastle Journal, 12 June 2013