The Big Conversation Report 2020
My annual Big Conversation usually includes open meetings, conversations in cafes and pubs, and lots of discussions on doorsteps. That wasn’t to be this year, but I am pleased that many constituents were still able to participate and share their thoughts with me as we moved events online. Now, more than ever, it was important for me to make sure constituents helped set my agenda for the Parliamentary year.
I met online with students in schools and universities, with different community groups and with faith leaders. I was also pleased by the responses to my survey which was delivered to homes across the constituency by a great team of volunteers. I am really grateful to everyone who got involved and look forward to the point next year where we might be able to catch up in person.
This report provides a summary of the issues that were raised and sets out the priorities people had. The restrictions created by Covid-19 meant I wasn’t able to reach as many constituents as I would have normally, and so if there is something you feel isn’t covered by the report, please get in touch by emailing me at email@example.com.
Like last year, Brexit remained a top concern. The Big Conversation took place as we were coming up to Boris Johnson’s October deadline for his ‘oven-ready’ deal, but at the time of writing this report we are still unsure as to whether the UK will be leaving the EU with or without an agreement. This anxiety was amplified due to the current situation we find ourselves in, and so one of the questions I asked in the survey focussed on a recovery plan as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.
This highlighted three clear priorities – the NHS, jobs, and a green economy. The report looks at each area in more detail below, but a clear message from many meetings was that the crisis challenges us to reflect on the lessons and build back in a way that is better for people’s lives and the environment, as well as protecting our valuable NHS.
There were many more specific issues raised too, some of which I have been following up on already and will be taking up others in the weeks ahead. I will provide an update in six months, when I’ll produce another report outlining the action I have taken on each issue in Parliament.
Big Conversation in numbers
Higher public spending is now a priority for government. I asked for the three most important areas for increased funding with the following results:
- 61% – green economy
- 55% – NHS
- 53% – social care
- 31% – education and skills
- 26% – housing
- 25% – local government
- 11% – transport
- 10% – arts and culture
- 8% – policing
- 7% – international development
A green recovery
One meeting I held was with the Sheffield Climate Alliance, although points about the climate crisis were not limited to this meeting. Attendees asked about the current status of the Environment Bill and whether the climate crisis seems to be a priority for this Conservative Government. There was a strong focus on building back better. Many in attendance shared the worry that the climate crisis was often drowned out by other less important issues, or that the urgency of the situation wasn’t taken seriously enough. On a local level we discussed cycling, and its growing popularity in recent months, as well as the need for more dedicated cycle lanes in Sheffield to encourage the use of bikes.
The NHS and Social Care
The effects of cuts to the NHS had been evident long before the Covid-19 crisis, but there was concern that the pandemic had exacerbated the strains on the NHS. Late Government action and mixed messaging on Covid-19 was seen to have put the health service under unprecedented pressure, much of which could have been avoided. This was echoed by concern on the lack of funding for social care, and the way in which care homes have been treated through the crisis.
Points raised about the NHS and social care included pressures on mental health and reduction of addiction services, as well as the need for increases in pay for health and care workers. Constituents also highlighted the threat Brexit poses to the NHS, including through changes to citizenship rules.
Education and skills
I met with students in secondary schools, colleges and both universities to get their views on the problems most impacting them during the pandemic – and education was raised in other meetings too. As last year, people highlighted funding problems and the toll it had provision, particularly for special needs, and mental health services.
I was told about the strain on teachers and staff who this year have had to move teaching online with little extra government support. Specific issues included how to make up for lost time due to coronavirus school closures this year, as well as exams and qualifications next year in light of the A level results debacle last summer. In my meetings with university students, we discussed blended learning and the difficult return to university at the start of the year amongst many other challenges created by the pandemic.
As always, there were many important issues raised aside from education, including Black Lives Matter protests and fears about a no-deal Brexit.
Housing concerns highlighted inequalities and unaffordable housing, as well as the relationship between landlords and tenants was something that came up in several meetings. Last year just one person raised concerns about flammable cladding, but pressure has continued to build since then with many blocks in Sheffield affected. These concerns came up in the Big Conversation, and since I have met with leaseholders caught up in the cladding scandal – and taken up the issues they face.
As previously mentioned, cycling was a popular subject in many meetings, and there was a lot of crossover between transport and climate conversations. I discussed the case for and against HS2, and the potential decrease in reliance upon cars with more people successfully working from home during the pandemic. Another topic was the issue of transport funding per head in comparison to other cities, and the electrification needed for the Midland Mainline. Along with demands for better rail spending, there were some calls for better road links between Manchester and Sheffield.
Britain’s departure from the European Union remains one of the most common issues raised, with concerns ranging from replacing EU funding to workers’ rights as well as the need for co-operation in the context of our recovery from Covid-19. We discussed the threat of no-deal and the way in which negotiations have been conducted by the Government.
Included Labour’s handling of antisemitism, support for refugees, unemployment and rough sleeping.