The Big Conversation Report 2019
I held my annual community consultation, the Big Conversation, during September and October. A couple of street surgeries were rained off, but we held 37 events which involved 968 people, with 1,051 responding to my survey, over three weeks. There were open meetings, themed meetings, café and pub drop-ins and street surgeries.
As well as publicly-advertised events I met with students in secondary schools and Sheffield College, faith leaders and community groups. I’m really grateful to everyone who got involved – and to all the volunteers who helped organise events and delivered leaflets to more than 40,000 homes across the constituency.
I hold the Big Conversation at the start of every Parliamentary year, so that the views and concerns raised can shape my work for the months ahead, and I’ve already spoken in Parliament about some of the issues raised (see more here). In six months, I’ll produce a report outlining how I’ve followed up on all the issues.
Unsurprisingly, Brexit was a top concern. Many points were made at meetings and 49% of survey respondents selected it as one of their ‘top 3’ issues. Climate change received far more attention than previously, selected by 49% of respondents as a ‘top 3’ issue (up from 28% last year) and there was wide-ranging discussion at meetings on how to reduce carbon emissions, particularly on renewable energy and transport, as well as the Youth Strike and Extinction Rebellion protests.
Across a range of other issues there was an underlying theme – that nine years of cuts have sapped the capacity of our public services, and much of the voluntary sector, to meet people’s needs and particularly those who rely on them most. This included, as in previous years, concerns on NHS services and particularly on mental health provision, school funding and special educational needs, adult social care, housing support and social security. On an issue like knife crime we talked about the collapse of youth services and falling police numbers, but also the challenges facing schools in dealing with challenging students. It was evident again that austerity has corroded the quality of life for too many people, and particularly the most vulnerable.
There was also a frustration with our current politics, often but not always linked to Brexit. People shared concerns about what they saw as a hostile political atmosphere, wanting to heal divisions and for people to disagree respectfully. Constitutional issues and questions around democracy were raised, and young people raised points about the sense of disconnection and how to better engage young people in politics.
Alongside these general concerns, on which I will focus in the year ahead, there were lots of specific issues raised on which I have written more below.
The Big Conversation in numbers
37 events involved 968 people, who made 406 points made at meetings, over 51 hours. 1051 completed surveys in writing or online.
Events and survey responses. People could take part in the Big Conversation by attending an event in person or by responding to the survey, and some did both. Below is a breakdown of the answers to the survey question on respondents’ ‘three most important issues’, and questions about Brexit. There were also individual , which have been taken into account in the wider report (and I’ve replied individually to people where appropriate).
Turning what I heard into this report. Every point made events was noted down and, for this report, has been listed into categories which are broadly similar to the survey, but with some significant differences (e.g. democracy). It’s more difficult to measure the priorities of those at meetings by the numbers of topics raised, and there were meetings on particular themes – like Climate Change and Housing – but I have listed a summary of the topics raised below.
Specific issues raised in meetings and other events
With over 400 points made in meetings and over 200 comments on the surveys, I can’t include everything here, but my team have tried to capture the main points below. If you feel that a point made at a meeting or event has not been properly recorded, do drop me an email.
Brexit and related political issues
Brexit came up in almost every meeting, as well as being selected by 49% of respondents to the survey as a ‘top 3’ issue. As you can see from the graphs, there was significant support for a second referendum – and for voting to remain. However, whereas last year’s Big Conversation was mostly focused around Brexit itself, this year the conversation extended further into how Brexit has affected our politics more broadly.
On Brexit, points made included: arguments that a referendum is necessary to break the deadlock; arguments that a further referendum would be better informed than the 2016 one; that the first referendum should be respected; discussions around different parties’ Brexit positions, including lots of points on Labour’s; that Brexit would cause a loss of NHS staff; questioning how European and international students will be affected; that a ‘no deal’ Brexit is being misrepresented as a ‘clean break’, due to the need for a further negotiation of the future relationship; worries over the anger a second referendum could cause; and views about the ‘liberal elite ignoring the people’ and Brexit ‘traitors’.
Broader points included: what can be done to reconcile divisions and bring the country back together; the need to learn how to disagree respectfully; worries about how Brexiteers have overridden democracy; the need to learn to work across parties; whether referenda should be used in future; how Brexit affects regional economic funding; how the next election would look, including questions about how Labour would fare.
Climate Change and environmental issues
The themed Climate Change meeting, organised with Sheffield Climate Alliance, was very well attended, and points about climate change were raised at other meetings too, as well as being the joint-top issue on the survey with 49% of respondents selecting it as one of their top three issues. There was a clear sense that significant action is needed to address the climate emergency, and that current government plans fall far short. There were also questions about what Labour would do to address the issue.
Specific points raised included: the need for collective action and systemic change; greater subsidies for renewable energy while reducing fossil fuel subsidies; ending fracking; the case for less motorised travel, and localised air pollution caused by cars; how to address emissions from flying; discussions around land use and food sustainability; the role of corporations and the profit motive. The need for improvement in public transport was well recognised, though with a mixed view around whether HS2 proposals were right, and there was agreement that trains in general needed investment.
Poverty, Inequality and Social Security
In the survey, 36% of people selected poverty & inequality as their top issue and added various comments on the need to address poverty and its links to other issues, including crime and homelessness, rising use of food banks, cuts in benefits and particularly their impact on people with disabilities. Issues were raised about the applications and appeals process, and the effect that the use of sanctions by the Department of Work and Pensions has; and the unfairness of the bedroom tax was raised. A couple of points were raised about pensions, including that they aren’t high enough and about the change in age for women without adequate notification.
Citizens Advice advisers raised: how Universal Credit reforms have removed some support for young disabled people in education; the need for an Enforcement Agency which protects insecure workers’ employment rights, with particular concern around wage theft; and bureaucratic difficulties for individuals in mental health wards and ID-checks which are delaying support for those individuals. They also expressed concern about the limited remit for advising people on aspects on pension schemes.
Health and social care
As with previous years, there were significant concerns raised about the NHS and social care; 36% rated it as a top issue in the survey and it was second only to Brexit in meetings. The effect of cuts were evident, with talk of staffing problems, long waiting times for GP services and many treatments, and a feeling that it was a deep crisis. There was a similar view on the funding crisis in social care creating difficulties for many, including the availability of respite care. Concerns over the poor payment and training of care workers, and funding of care homes, were also voiced. The effects of cuts to other services too was raised, which have a knock-on effect of adding pressure on the health services.
Specific points included: the need for better mental health support, including the huge waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, difficulties in the transition to adult mental health services, and general issues on services following the recent reorganisation; the need to improve early intervention; an issue with a specific GP practice; a lack of research into ME; adults with complex needs not being adequately supported; that health workers shouldn’t have an immigration enforcement role; social prescription being positive; difficulties with treatments for chronic illnesses.
Jobs and the Economy
25% of people highlighted jobs and the economy as a top issue; points raised at meetings included young people’s concern about their minimum wage being lower and how some jobs, such as in the care and service sectors, are seen as lower status points. There was discussion on increasing tax – including on wealth, land and inheritance – to fund better public services and welfare support.
At the meeting organised with the Federation of Small Businesses and MakeUK, concerns included: various points about Brexit, including significant concerns about barriers to trade that could result; regional business strategy; discussion about support for small businesses from the Local Enterprise Partnership; the work of the Department for Trade and International Trade Forum; cooperative enterprise; transport inequality compared to London and the South-East; devolution; and regional economic funding which would have been received from the EU.
Much of the discussion around education was about the funding shortage, both for schools and Sheffield College – with the effects it was having, including a lack of support for pupils with special needs, schools unable to provide adequate mental health support, and the stress on teachers.
A few points were made opposing academies and urging the move back towards local authority involvement, as well as discussions around private schools with a range of views. There were also points made about the education system not being creative enough and being too focused on exams, as well as the role for political education, critical thinking and life lessons in schools.
Transport issues raised included concerns around buses, air pollution, trains, cycling and parking. Many people registered concerns about bus services, primarily the high cost of fares and routes such as the number 31 route which have been cut. It was clear that toxic air pollution from motor vehicles was a concern felt by many, and that there should be better cycling infrastructure and bike lanes. Around trains, there was a point made about how expensive trains to the continent are as compared to air travel, the difficulty of taking bikes on trains, and a discussion about the pros and cons of HS2 at the climate change themed meeting. Linked with this was a broader point about the inequality in investment in transport infrastructure compared to London and the South-East. Points were also made about cars parked on pavements, and the cost of parking permits.
There were many concerns about failures in the housing market, focussing on the lack of affordable housing. The need for more social housing was raised at a number of events, with frustrations about the effect of ‘right to buy’ on council housing stock and the impact of private letting on estates. Some people complained of poor experiences in council housing. At the meeting on housing, there were questions about how Labour would address these issues. More specific points included the imbalance of power in the landlord-tenant relationship and Section 21 evictions, as well as discussions around the different types of housing that are available and concerns about the number of new student housing blocks and number of Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs). One person raised the lack of suitable accommodation for downsizing. A concern about flammable cladding was raised in relation to the work undertaken on Hanover House.
Crime & policing
Significant concerns were raised about knife crime, particularly by young people, who felt vulnerable. They felt that more should be done to address it and to build confidence in the police. In discussion they felt that ‘stop and search’ made the situation worse, and argued that the reasons behind crime need to be addressed, such as youth clubs and support services. Sexual harassment and race hate crime, which has been increasing, were also significant concerns. The shortage of police officers was raised, as well as poor experiences with reporting crimes. It was felt that community relations with the police had deteriorated, but were improving after the re-adoption of community policing. Other issues raised included: safety in the city centre; antisocial car driving; pavement parking; and legalising marijuana.
Homelessness, rough sleeping and street begging
Homelessness was often raised, but mainly in the context of rough sleeping and street begging. There was concern for those who were sleeping rough, and about the separate but linked problem of street begging. It was recognised that the cuts to local authority budgets and the lack of mental health provision had impacted the support that can be provided – but there was a strong feeling that more should be done both for the individuals themselves, but also to address the impact on the city centre.
Included issues relating to the Council on trees, Chapel Walk scaffolding, street lighting; Labour’s handling of anti-semitism; sport and extra-curricular activities in disadvantaged areas; over-development of the city centre; the current lack of political representation in Hallam constituency; litter in the city centre; concerns for more to be done to protect animals from abuse; the role of MPs; parking permit charge increases; the impact of social media; children in care; and the contribution of faith and religious groups to society.
Appendix 1: List of Events
Public Events: Crookesmoor Street Surgery; West Bar Street Surgery; Madina Masjid Open Day; Crowded House Open Meeting; Manor Park Drop-in; Manor Park Street Surgery; Housing Open Meeting; Amici & Bici café Drop-in; Open Meeting on Climate change; Open Meeting for Women; Open Meeting on Brexit; Open Meeting for Small Business; Brincliffe Street Surgery; Open Meeting on Broken Politics; Nether Edge Street Surgery; Broomhill Open Meeting; Walkley Open Meeting; Carers Open Meeting; Open Meeting in the City Centre; Safer Neighbourhoods Open Meeting; Pop-in Police Station; ZEST drop-in; Mental Health meeting with Mind; Nether Edge Open Meeting; Park Library Café drop-in; Gardener’s Rest drop-in; Wybourn Street Surgery. Other events: Sheffield College students; Park Academy students; faith leaders; University Technical College students; Door 43 Open Evening; Chinese Community Centre; Citizens Advice; King Edward VII students.