My annual community consultation the Big Conversation has been running for six years now. Since I launched it in 2012 thousands of local people have got involved and I’ve held hundreds of events across Sheffield Central, in community centres, schools, colleges, churches, mosques, cafes, pubs and elsewhere.
Each year the Big Conversation has given me a clear sense of people’s priorities and I’ve tried to reflect them in my work in Parliament. I’ve taken action on the issues raised with me and won real concessions from the Government. For example, after hearing about the scourge of payday lenders in our community I campaigned with MPs from all parties for proper regulation and the Financial Conduct Authority introduced new rules, seeing complaints halve; and after local people told me about higher benefits for terminally ill people taking eight weeks to arrive I raised it with the Government and secured a change in the law to end the delays.
This year’s Big Conversation, running from 9th September to 7th October, involved 1057 people across 40 events and I received 868 responses to my Big Conversation survey, which was available online and delivered to every household in the constituency. I held open public meetings in Walkley, Skye Edge, Broomhill, Nether Edge and the City Centre; themed open meetings seeking views on Brexit, health and social care, mental health, safer communities, the environment, democracy, and renting; café & pub drop-ins at Park Library Café, Manor Park Café, Amici & Bici Café, Real Junk Food Café, Gerry’s Bakery, Primoz Café Restaurant and the Gardeners’ Rest; meetings for specific groups - including women, young people, small businesses, the third sector, local schools, students at both our universities; and door-knocking in Broomhall, Highfield, Langsett, Sharrow and Wybourn.
A huge range of issues were raised across events and in survey responses, but there are common themes and particular topics that cropped up repeatedly, which are summarised below.
The Big Conversation – taking action
The Big Conversation is about me listening and then taking action on the concerns that people raise. To give a flavour of how I’ll be taking issues forward, I thought it might be helpful to share how I responded to the points raised last year.
Concerns around the NHS, especially on funding cuts and mental health provision, were prominent last year and so, among other things, in November I pressed Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt to address the £571 million funding shortfall for health and social care services in South Yorkshire; in January I warned the Government that Theresa May’s warm words about tackling the mental health crisis mean little without greater investment in services; and in February I urged Health Ministers to take action to improve access to GP surgeries, highlighting local people’s concerns around long waiting times. I have also taken issues up in regular meetings with Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Trust and the Clinical Commissioning Group.
On poverty and inequality I challenged Government changes to Personal Independence Payment which would have taken money away from disabled people and took Sheffield Citizens Advice to meet Ministers. I backed Labour’s call for the Government to pause and fix Universal Credit before more people are driven into debt and continued to challenge non-payment of the National Minimum wage, particularly in the care sector. I continued to support the S2 Foodbank and raised more than £4,500 for all local foodbanks in my Christmas Appeal 2016, after many people voiced fears about rising food poverty.
On education I spoke out in the House of Commons against school cuts and the impact it’s having in Sheffield – as well as joining campaigners in Parliament lobbying the Government; made the case against the Government’s plans for new grammar schools; called for the overhaul of the broken higher education student loan system; clarified with the Government that sex and relationships education would apply to all secondary schools; and continued to meet with teachers, parents, academics, other university staff and students about education issues.
The impact of Government cuts on councils, particularly youth provision and adult social care, were raised in meetings. As a result, I’ve called out Sheffield’s social care raw deal, in which we’ve had an unequal allocation of funding, and championed the rights of young carers by following up on the issues they raised with me and proudly becoming a Patron of Sheffield Young Carers. Rising antisocial behaviour in certain areas was a concern, so I met with police leaders and challenged Government cuts to police budgets.
Brexit was also a key issue in meetings, with many people agreeing about the importance of the EU and EU workers to our economy. As a Shadow Minister on Brexit I’ve been calling for a close relationship with a strong EU post-Brexit and a deal that prioritises jobs, guarantees workplace and environmental rights, and secures the rights of EU nationals living and working in the UK. These are Labour’s priorities on Brexit and have guided our approach to debates, parliamentary questions and Bills. You can read more about our work on Brexit on my website.
Other issues I’ve taken up after they were raised with me last year include urging the Government to invest more in Northern transport, reiterating my opposition to the scrapping of bursaries for nurses, midwives and other health professionals, pushing the Government to release the potential of councils to respond to the housing crisis, campaigning for the introduction of votes at 16, and calling for action on air pollution.
As you’ll see, many of these issues were raised again this year and I’ll be continuing to press them with the Government.
Want to check how I’ve done? You can read the report I wrote for last year’s Big Conversation and compare it to what I’ve been up to over the last year (see news items on my website and They Work for You).
Big Conversation 2017: Familiar concerns, but growing fears over Brexit and social fabric
Politics is about choices, as Nye Bevan once said. So I wanted to understand people’s priorities. As in previous years I asked about top concerns, but this year I added a question about the least important issues, which people found harder to answer (with half the response rate). Nevertheless the survey provided some clear priorities with other issues coming up more clearly in the meetings and events.
NHS is still the number one concern
It’s no shock that local people have again rated the NHS as the most important issue for them in filling out my survey, and highlighted concerns over pressures, funding cuts and mental health care provision in particular in meetings. Due to its significance in last year’s Big Conversation I held an open meeting this year on health and social care, at which concerns included overstretched and demoralised staff, fragmentation of NHS services, lack of integration between physical and mental health, lack of services for mental health, the need for support for young carers, and how we fund social care in the long-term.
How we support those with mental health conditions has been one of the most frequently raised issues and so I held a Big Conversation meeting about it this year, in partnership with Sheffield Mind. People continued to feel that there needs to be more funding of mental health services and greater parity of esteem with physical health funding. At the meeting, I heard that some individuals required a lot of referrals to a number of different services until they receive the treatment they need, which sometimes led to people falling through the net; there could be challenges in getting GPs to make a referral; and there are difficulties for people with Asperger’s Syndrome, such as a lack of local authority funding for support, poor public understanding of the condition and a lack of social workers in the region who are trained specialists. There was also discussion around how changes to Universal Credit were creating stress and exacerbating mental health conditions and that some people avoided claiming benefits they were entitled to due to stigma. I also heard about the need for more job opportunities for disabled people.
I was also pleased to hold an event with the community health centre Ship Shape on health and well-being, although topics raised were far broader - including difficulties in getting a disability bus pass, problems with certain bus routes and concerns about the pollution caused by cars idling.
I will continue to press the Government to invest more in the NHS and mental health services in particular, and I will highlight other concerns with the local health trusts, the council and the CCG. Issues to do with carers and care workers have long been a priority for me and they will continue to be. As a sector social care faces a difficult future, because there isn’t enough funding. I want a national debate in which we recognise that social care must be a priority in our social and economic priorities – from paying care workers properly to ensuring that young carers are receive more support from the Government.
Sheffield at a tipping point? Cuts and the social fabric
When door-knocking and in meetings, especially on crime and anti-social behaviour and with community leaders, I got a real sense that cuts were leaving Sheffield communities on the edge of a crisis. Local people told me about growing homelessness and street begging in the city centre, youngsters on motorbikes terrorising certain neighbourhoods, drug debris in some church yards and playgrounds, and addicts openly injecting in parks.
Street begging and homelessness
There was a deep concern over growing homelessness and the increase in street begging, particularly in the city centre. In our conversations we discussed the reasons, and the best ways to deal with the issue.
There’s a real need to help those who find themselves homeless, so I’ve launched an appeal for two great local charities who provide crucial support. The growth of street begging is more complex, sometimes sustaining people in alcohol or drug habits and some organised by gangs. Last year I launched Help us Help (www.helpushelp.uk), created by the council, the police and charities, which promotes the most effective ways of helping rough sleepers.
Antisocial behaviour and crime
The issue of youngsters on, often illegal or stolen, motorbikes terrorising certain neighbourhoods isn’t new, but it was raised as a growing problem – and I was pleased to provide the police with an opportunity to talk about their new initiatives to tackle it. There were also worries about graffiti and other forms of antisocial behaviour. All of this is aggravated by cuts to the police - since 2011 the number of front-line police in South Yorkshire have been cut by 18%, police civilian staff down 24%, and Police and Crime Support Officers down 27% - and cuts to local services impacting on provision for young people.
I’ll push these issue in Parliament and have already called on the Government to invest in, rather than cut, our statuary and voluntary services in my response to the Budget.
Poverty and inequality prominent in survey responses
Poverty and inequality was, like last year, a key issue for people in survey responses. In explaining their answers people outlined a wide range of concerns, including the impact of cuts to services in deprived areas, the need to tackle period poverty, fears the vulnerable are being targeted by betting shops, and the importance of reducing inequality in the UK and across the world.
This was echoed in meetings where issues raised included the affordability of housing, personal debt, cuts to benefits, zero hour contracts, pressures facing local services and homelessness.
Tackling poverty and inequality has long been a priority and it will continue to be so. Currently there is too much low pay and a lack of support for people not in work.
Brexit was the third top concern in the survey and this year I again held an event focused on the issue. People expressed a variety of views. Concerns were raised from both sides of the issue, with most concerned about the impact of our departure and many asking questions about Labour’s approach. There were particular concerns about the impact on international student recruitment and research funding in higher education, the importance of EU workers in the NHS and care sector, the value of membership of the customs union and impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.
As a Shadow Minister, Brexit has obviously dominated my work in Parliament and it will continue to do so - fighting for a deal and future relationship that safeguards the economy, workers’ rights and environmental protections.
How do we pay for the NHS and Social Care?
Last year, people made clear to me that they wanted greater investment in health and social care, so this year I asked about how people felt it should be funded.
Clearly there is a strong preference for tax rises on larger companies and wealthier individuals, echoing Labour’s 2017 manifesto. The popularity of raising higher rate income tax conflicts with the recent Budget, which continued to cut taxes for higher earners by lifting the salary threshold at which the higher 40% band starts.
Although not prioritised in the survey, housing was a main concern raised in seven of the forty events and meetings. Unsurprisingly, in these open meetings, the lack of affordable housing (both to buy and rent) was the top issue. I was also pleased to hold a special event on renting with the local group ACORN Sheffield. Topics included bad landlords, difficulties in accessing emergency accommodation for those who have faced domestic violence, shared accommodation, not getting deposits back, problems with letting agents, high rents and the mental health of tenants. I’ll keep working with local people on how we can make renting and buying homes easier.
Sheffield Council’s tree replacement was raised in four of the meetings – three times by those opposed to the council’s programme, and in one meeting by those frustrated that protestors had prevented work going ahead on their street. As I have said to those who have raised it with me in emails and in person, while it is a matter for the Council, I have taken up the concerns expressed to me – on robustly reviewing tree replacement decisions, greater transparency and consideration of Independent Tree Panel recommendations, opposition to the use of trade union legislation against protestors, and on concerns over specific trees and roads.
Young people and education
I’m particularly concerned to hear the views of young people and so held six meetings in schools, colleges and both universities, and one with Sheffield Futures, but issues affecting young people weren’t just raised in there. Topics covered all the issues raised elsewhere, but specific ones included the pressures of exams, preferences of coursework over exams, worries over student debt, mental health of young people and pressures on young carers.
Students’ concerns about the move away from exams to coursework in school is an issue I have already raised with the Government. On the other issues, I’ll keep campaigning for an overhaul of the current student loan system, for better mental health services for young people, and for a new deal for young carers.
The third sector
I was pleased to hold a specific meeting for voluntary and community groups, in which we covered topics such as funding cuts, shortage of volunteers, difficulties in volunteer retention, impact of cuts to the NHS increasing demands on charities, and on procurement.
Every year I hold an event with local businesses organised in partnership with the Federation of Small Businesses and I was pleased to do so again this year. The issues raised included improving transport links and capacity in the North, the South Yorkshire devolution deal, Brexit, data protection regulation, business costs, and tackling tax avoidance.
Climate change and the Environment
The environment was selected by a quarter of respondents in choosing which three issues were most important to them in my survey. I was pleased to hold a Big Conversation event in partnership with Sheffield Climate Alliance – at which we discussed topics including fracking, food and climate, energy, air pollution, environmentally friendly transport, and the council’s tree replacement programme.
Sheffield for Democracy hosted a Big Conversation event on the question of ‘Is our democracy failing us?’ at which we discussed issues including referendum as a democratic tool, devolution, an elected House of Lords, electoral reform, Universal Basic Income and media ownership. Devolution and votes at 16 were also raised in other meetings.
Politics faces real challenges. Concern and division over Brexit, soaring pressures on our under-funded public services, and squeezed living standards. We need to keep faith in democratic politics and in a small way the Big Conversation aims to do that. People raise concerns and can see that they’re being followed up on in Parliament.
Of course some of the issues I hear about are familiar, cropping up at Big Conversations in recent years – for all the change I can make as an opposition MP, and I can, there are limitations when not in Government.
Whilst some of these problems will only be properly resolved by a change in Government, I still think that I can make a difference by championing local people’s issues and concerns in Parliament. Sometimes the differences are tangible, but pushing on issues also keeps them in the public eye and can create a groundswell of support that eventually brings about positive change.
So to summarise, although I’ll be taking account of all the issues raised in shaping my work over the year I’ll be prioritising:
- Greater investment in the NHS and social care, particularly mental health
- Local authority and police funding, and action to sustain the social fabric
- A Brexit deal that prioritises jobs, the economy, rights and protections, and a close relationship with a strong EU
Thank you to everyone who has taken part in the Big Conversation. I’ll be providing regular updates on how I’m following up on the issues and publishing a report in six months to let you know how I’ve been following up on the concerns highlighted with me.
Paul Blomfield, Member of Parliament for Sheffield Central