Liverpool library proposals short sighted and ill thought out

books

 

What is a library for these days? Well to be honest with you I am not sure. I am even less certain what it should be used for in 10 years time given the tremendous advance in e-media and publications.

Until about 10 years ago it was all so easy. A library existed to give out books to ensure that everyone had access to the written word which they needed for information, pleasure and study. Of course that was not all a good library did. It had sessions to encourage infants and older children to read; it lent out audio books and music; and it provided computers for study or recreational use to all that needed them. The old harsh place of “SShhh” and disapproving looks has long been banished in a city where our libraries gave us Beacon Status when controlled by the Liberal Democrats.
2 years ago when we raised the question of e-books in the Council Chamber we were mocked by Labour. 12 months ago they followed our lead and made 1,000,000 titles available through an e-library system. But there the thinking has stopped. The library closure report which was approved today has made no attempt to look at the current role of a library let alone think ahead to what it might be as the e-revolution rapidly moves forward. Although I don’t know the answer to the question, “What is a library for?” I at least know that it is a question that must be raised.

This is not a side issue. The ability to read for many is a key part of their pleasure. Being able to read leads to life enhancement; a desire to study and to learn and a familiarity with ideas and concepts way outside our own. For many of us it is fun as well. Even the best films such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy cannot begin to replicate your own imagination when you read those books.

But the converse is very clearly true. If you cannot read your employment and life skills are limited. Very few jobs do not now require at least minimal skills. No reading really means no future; no reading leads to a lack of confidence. No reading and you have no mental outlet for your imagination.

I look for my model for a new library system to the valuable work being done by the Reader Organisation in Calderstones Park. The name is a giveaway – it encourages people to read. It does it for anyone who wants to advance their reading skills. It does it especially, however, for those who for whatever reason do not have those skills. Perhaps they are ill; perhaps they missed their chances at school; perhaps….. well there all sorts for reasons why people have not got the reading knack and the reading bug. The Reader Organisation then works to set reading into the context of the needs and opportunities of individuals, groups and communities and it does it from a building but goes into the community and institutions to help the process along.

It then uses the reading to move people even further forward. Group work, oral work, drama, oral history, amateur theatricals and all sorts of things. It encourages confidence in reading. It provides a community within which people learn because they want to learn and find they can learn. That community is supportive and reactive to individual needs within the context of a friendly learning environment.

So what should Liverpool do next?

Firstly it should throw away the report it agreed today.

Secondly it needs to engage with the people of Liverpool on their long-term ambitions for how they can interact with the written word and receive help for achieving those ambitions.

Thirdly it needs to look at every place and body which it funds or otherwise exist to support two types of activity

• Basic skills particularly in the field of labour market intervention
• Arts culture and community

Fourthly it should look at Libraries and other reading based mechanisms provided by other bodies such as the Reader Organisation, schools, colleges and universities.
It should then set out a long-term strategy for the city which brings the answers to these questions together into one coherent whole.

You see we actually spend a lot of money on reading in the city but do not have a system which joins these disparate activities into a coherent whole. We know the City Council has to save money – we are all aware of the problems that it faces. But the answer to their problems is not savage cuts but logical creation of new partnerships to enhance the vital work being done throughout the City to help and encourage people to read for education; work and pleasure.

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You don’t have to wait for Christmas!!

Ghulam

Pictured above is Ghulam Qadir who has a recycling business in Pakistan

I have to admit that I am not an easy person to buy things for at Christmas and birthdays. I am lucky that I can afford to buy things that I need and have very few things that I want to buy on top of that except for stamps (I am a stamp collector).

So I always present a challenge. However my ever resourceful younger daughter Rachel, currently the Lady Mayoress of Liverpool, knows my foibles and my interests and is a dab hand at whizzing around on her computer looking for things.

In the past she has bought me things like goats from Oxfam which I have appreciated but it felt a bit sterile. I like being involved with things. This year she found a perfect present when she gave me a voucher for Lendwithcare. In this she combined two of my interests.

Professionally I used to be a regeneration adviser helping people set up programmes to help small business in some of the most deprived parts of England and in places like Turkey.

Politically I represent the UK on a number of international local government bodies and have had the opportunity to visit villages and towns in Africa to see at first hand the hand to mouth existence that so many of the people of Africa and similar areas face.

From the start I was delighted with the gift and within a couple of days invested most of it. I have since put two more small amounts in and intend to give small amounts on a regular basis.

I like thinking about which countries and people to invest in. I don’t put money into retail businesses but prefer to put them into things like recycling, food production and farming. I like the feedback that I get from Lendwithcare and to see the relatively small amounts dribbling in monthly. This means that I know that Lendwithcare is investing well although I do expect that sometimes it will not work out and the investment will disappear.

I have currently made two investments in Pakistan and one each in Benin and Cambodia. Two of the investments are with men and two with women.

To me this is what Christmas is all about. I don’t need another tie and although I will always eventually eat another bar of chocolate doing some small things for people in far greater need than I have ever experienced gives me a small glow of satisfaction. So thanks Rachel for leading me to Lendwithcare. You know what Santa can bring me next year don’t you!?

But you don’t have to wait for Christmas. If you go onto their website you can sign up and start lending straight away http://www.careinternational.org. Alternatively ring them on 0207 091 6014. Lend some money, do some good and have a pleasurable learning time as well. You could even become a Lendwithcare angel – probably the only chance that I will ever get of acquiring a pair of wings! If you come from Greater Liverpool you can also join a group and see what other members (there are currently four of us) are doing and investing in. I don’t want to urge you on too much but Manchester has a bigger group than Liverpool – a situation I would really like to see rectified!!

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Families need family holidays!

 

sunset_sea_beach

I listened with horror to today’s reports that more than 60,000 parents have been fined for taking their children out of school without permission.

I am a great believer in schools and a great believer that children should attend school on a regular basis with the full support and commitment of their parents. I am however also in favour of family holidays and know the strength and vitality that a strong family can give to all children’s endeavours in school and out. Sometimes these two ambitions conflict.

For the past few years I have been free of having to holiday in school holiday periods. Erica no longer teaches and our children have long flown the nest. Originally I was horrified at the number of families with children who were going out somewhere warm in September long after schools were back in. However when talking to people and finding out why they were there I changed my mind. There appear to be three reasons why people take their children out of school:
1. They are in seasonal work. This, at least, is partly recognised by the current law but only partly. The fact is that it is not only agricultural workers whose work is seasonal. Many people in the wider tourism and entertainments industry also have to work to ensure that others have a holiday.
2. Their employers just will not or in many cases cannot let them have the time off during school holidays. If an employer has a large number of employees with children they just cannot let them all off at once or even over a restricted 6 week period.
3. That they cannot afford to have a holiday in times of peak travel. It’s either June or September or nothing.

Now of course if you are a well-paid law maker on, say, £70,000 per year plus perks the difficulties mean little to you. You can afford to pay peak rates and keep your children in school. You may not have two people working in different companies on different shift systems where child care never mind holidays are difficult to balance. But the reality for millions of other people is much harsher.

I believe that having a good family life is a key indicator of the future success of a child. When you look back on your childhood I’ll bet that many of your happiest memories are of your holidays. I well remember crawling with fishing nets around rock pools in the South West and damp but happy days feeding unwanted sandwiches to militant seagulls. Spending time together is such an important part of life. Being part of a loving family provides the stability from which you can go out to face life in school and in the wider world. Holidays are not the be all and end all of this and many families for a variety of reasons do not take family holidays.

I believe that we need to do two things:

The first is to amend the law to give back to head teachers who should know the children and their families the discretion to act appropriately. Please, please crack down on oafish parents who do not care about their responsibilities. Use the courts or other means to ensure attendance. However where there is clear evidence of otherwise good attendance and a strong family commitment to the ethos of school and learning then having, say, one week off should be allowable.

Secondly do something about the debate that has simmered on for at least the last 40 years about school terms. We are basically stuck with a system which maximised holidays in the summer to allow the maximum involvement from teenagers and even younger children in agrarian activity – particularly getting the harvest in. Now only about 2% of the population are engaged in seasonal food production but our holidays haven’t changed. Why don’t we have 4 terms a year? This would not only help deal with the problems of payment but also reduce the educational drag which teachers know many children experience over the 6 week long (longer in the private sector) summer breaks.

Family life now is incredibly complex yet our institutions still act as if kids live in a two parent middle class family with Daddy earning the cash and smoking his pipe, Mummy doing the washing and Janet and John playing with dolls and train sets. Those days are gone and we need to reflect that in the way we provide education and the holidays which children and their families need in order to benefit from the education.

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In Praise of….Council staff

LpoolTH

Last night for the eighth year in a row I had to take to the airwaves to defend council staff against the amateur and incompetent attacks of the Taxpayers Alliance.

Every year they do a survey about how many staff get paid at the higher salary levels. Their statistics are usually partial and incomplete but most importantly of all they sensationalise salary levels by not putting them in the context of the real world that councils have to live in.

They fail to look at – never mind answer – three key questions:

• What are the levels of responsibility of both finance and management problems that staff within the sector face compared to those within the private sector; and
• If we pay so well how is it that all local government has great difficulty in recruiting senior staff particularly for Adult and Children’s Service posts? and
• If our pay and conditions are so good why is it a rarity for people from the private sector to apply for public sector jobs?

Because are the questions that any councillor will have to decide when looking at how much we should pay.
Let’s look at our recruiting difficulties. In some areas such as IT, legal, marketing and HR we compete directly with the private sector. The private sector pays more than we do for those jobs. This is true not only at the top level but throughout those sectors within councils. This might be seen to imply that the best go for the money and councils are left with the dross. That would be an entirely untrue assumption. Many people stay and work within councils who could earn more money elsewhere because of their public sector ethos. They choose to stay because they want to serve the community. We should not however take undue advantage from such people. It is true that there is built in to many salary levels a reduction in salary that makes such an assumption but that probably is no more than 10-15% of salary levels. After that we would be exploiting the goodwill of our staff.

Let’s then look at the levels of responsibility required vis-a-vis the private sector. In crude terms Liverpool City Council has a gross budget of £1billion per year and assets of say 0.5 billion. It has 330,00 shareholders (or voters!) and provides services to 470,000 residents, 20,000 businesses and an average of more than 75,000 who work in the city but live outside and up to 200,000 visitors to the city on a day featuring the Giants or the International Festival of music.

If this was a private sector operation it would be in the FTSE 100 so just in scale it is a massive operation. But look at the complexity of what our staff have to do. In a private company the MD has to keep happy a Board of about a dozen Directors and a largely compliant set of shareholders. It simply has to make a profit by selling its good and services which translate to a bottom line of distributable earnings. MDs usually are unknown outside the company and public scrutiny is limited to profit updates and half year and full year reports.

Council staff report to a ‘Board of Directors’ of 90 councillors. The council’s shareholders (voters) get regular chances to affect that Board of Directors. Scrutiny takes place on almost a daily basis through the media and the bottom line of its delivery mechanisms often relate to things that it can only influence and not control. Yes of course councils must get the bins emptied on time and keep the streets clean and make sure the schools function. Yes they should be judged on the efficiency and competence of those delivery mechanisms BUT they do so much more than deliver their own services. They also:

Create opportunities for the private sector to make money by land assembly, city-wide promotion action (such as the Giants, the River Festival and the International Festival of Business). Week after week the council does things to ensure that our hotels, bars and shops are packed with none of that revenue appearing in our profit and loss accounts or bottom line.

Influence other organisation’s spending. We create the Strategic Needs Assessment for the Health Service and monitor the performance of a sector much bigger than our own. We own no council, houses but are still the strategic housing authority ensuring that the public and private sectors combine to deliver the homes that the city needs in the long-term.

Have responsibility for the long-term development of the area in which public and private sector can flourish. In some ways this is the most important job of all. To see the renaissance of Liverpool which has started in 2000 and continues to this day and compare that to the stagnation of much of the 80s and 90s leaves you in no doubt of the vital nature of this work.

And finally let’s look at the complexity of some of its services. Providing education in highly stressful communities; making life changing decisions with and for some of the most disadvantages members of our society; providing or nor providing services that can affect the long-term health of our population. See what happens in the cases like Baby Peter when the public sector (not just the council) gets it wrong and rejoice in the fact that in the vast majority of cases it does get it right.

The long-term denigration of public sector workers has a corrosive effect. That fact that they are encouraged by low-life politicians like the former comedy duo Pickles and Shapps (known popularly as Laurel and Hardy) are a disgrace. We see this every day. Not only is it difficult to recruit at our senior levels we have difficulty in recruiting Head teachers and staff in our most difficult areas and our social services departments have great difficulty in recruiting at any level leaving us in the hands of more expensive short-term agency staff.

I have no problem with a debate about maximum pay levels. I don’t believe anyone needs a massive package of pay. I struggle to see why anyone needs salaries of £150k and above. But until we start to apply similar rules in the private sector then why should we not over discriminate against public sector staff. Of course it is true that if senior and other staff got paid less in the public sector we could distribute that money or saving to other things. But that is equally true of other services and goods that we buy in the private sector.

The fact is simple that if we don’t succeed in making our services more efficient than we will waste more money and have worse outputs and outcomes. If we don’t recruit the right people we will not manage our services efficiently. If we don’t have a package which pays well enough but not overpays then we will not recruit the right people. QED.

Throughout this blog I have referred to the local government sector but I have no doubt that much of what I have said would apply equally to other parts of the public sector. I have no doubt that within the public sector there are people employed who are idle, venal or incompetent. They should be got rid of as soon as possible and indeed they are got rid of. But the vast majority of public sector workers I know are committed, competent and compassionate. They deserve our support not our derision.

I suspect that the shadowy TPA will come up with the same half-witted dross next year. Perhaps one day they will reveal their sources of income, perhaps they will say who their members are and whether they are different from the supporters that they claim but do not name.

But I won’t hold my breath until they produce a factual, balanced report that will help those who have to make difficult decisions in difficult times.

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Lest we forget

Today is a day of vigils for me and I suspect many other people. In the evening I will attend a vigil in Woolton and then at 10p.m. will join constituents at a vigil in St Barnabas Church, Penny Lane. Yesterday I attended a vigil at St George’s Plateau called at the request of people concerned at the deaths in Palestine.

Erica as Lord Mayor will be at the vigil at the Anglican Cathedral to commemorate, as will the other vigils, the start of World War One. That war was billed as the ‘war to end all wars’ but left almost a million British dead and more than 6 million dead in total as armies and navies from all over the world united to defeat tyranny.
We now know that it was not by any means the last war unimaginable though the suffering of that war was. We also know that the way that war was ended inexorably led to the Second World War and again millions of dead through war or through the holocaust.

Today’s events have not been called to blame anyone for what is happening in Palestine or for that matter Syria, Libya, Sudan or any of the other world hot spots where fighting continues. The nearly 300 innocents of all agencies and many countries who died in MH17 over the Eastern Ukraine were not warmongers or even in any way ‘the enemy. Like so many others caught up in suffering they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are attending to show compassion for those who have died or those who are still suffering. Irrespective of whose fault the conflicts are they are surely not the fault of women and children.

As a parent and grandparent myself I can only imagine the despair of a parent or grandparent anywhere in the World and of any faith when they bury the body of a baby or child.

I have recently seen the discharge papers of my Grandfather who was a merchant seaman and transferred to the Royal Navy for the War. He was in and out of both branches of the service for more than 30 years. His discharge from one RN ship was signed by its Captain, Earl Beattie who went on to become First Sea Lord and was awarded the Freedom of the City by Liverpool City Council in the 20’s. Grandad went home and eventually spent his last 20 years of working life as a postman. He married the nurse who had helped him recover from his injuries sustained at sea. That in time led to me!!

We all know that fighting is not sustainable and not a way to bring peace. Sometime the fighting must stop and the talking must begin. We know from our experience just 100 miles from here in Northern Ireland that peace making is complex and time consuming but does eventually happen. The experience was the same in South Africa where peace came after 100 years of white oppression of blacks. It was the same in Rwanda where more than 1,000,000 people were slaughtered in just 100 days – more than 5% of the population but where people largely now live in peace.

In all those places the peace process was led by big men Like Mandela and De Klerk who overcame their own prejudices and more importantly the prejudices of their own communities before they could take on the prejudices of their opponents. In Northern Ireland people who had hated each other for generations came to the table to work together in a joint government based on proportionality but where there was a recognition of give and take.

But there are not always big men about. Today the last of the diplomats and EU citizens have left Libya three years after the conflict officially ended. It is now a Country which has descended into a series of fiefdoms largely dominated by ward lords. There is a similar story in Iraq where we appear to have won the war but lost the peace. A new extremist Caliphate is destroying Christian Churches and the mosques of other branches of the Islamic faith.

One can only wonder what the world would be like if there were more women leaders. So much of what we see is a testosterone fuelled grab for territory and power. Women leaders just do not act in such a fashion. We must also be concerned, as we were in Northern Ireland, when politics and religion get hopelessly intertwined and where the causes of one are used as the justification of the other.

We are lucky to live in an open and tolerant city in an open and tolerant country. I am sure that I speak on behalf of all Liverpool citizens when I say three things:

Firstly, the fighting must stop.
Secondly, the discussions must start; and lastly and for us most importantly.
Lastly, That Liverpool and its citizens will do their best through whatever mechanisms possible as soon as possible to help this much troubled area move to a prosperous and secure normality.
As the song goes, “All we are saying is give peace a chance”.

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The banks are crap – so do something about it!

Banking

Once again we have news that some bankers have been playing the system to suit their own advantage. Incredibly it appears that traders from at least one bank were gaming the system that had actually been set up by the last Government to save banks! We have had further thoughts today from the Bank of England about clawing back bonuses for up to 7 years if the long-term effects of their actions were not merited.

So 7 years after our economy was almost brought to its knees we seem to be having the same old headlines which show that the sharks are still as greedy and self-indulgent as ever. The myth is still being peddled that if ‘We” do not pay enough “They” will take their skills elsewhere. After more than 7 years there is no proof that this ever has or ever will happen. The only move from some of the bigger sharks like Bob Diamond and Fred the Shred is out of the business although I understand that Diamond is working in developing countries these days.

So “They” haven’t changed and seem high unlikely to do so. Greed appears to be in the banker’s DNA. So if that is the case what are “We” going to do about it?
Primarily we can seek out ethical financial institutions and try and put our money with them. Erica and I are not rich and never will be but we have put some small amounts aside for our old age with:

• Triodos an international bank with ethical loan and investment policies.
• The Furness Building Society – the only Mutual Building Society from the North West of England with a branch in Liverpool (in Castle Street just opposite the Town Hall)
• Lodge Lane Credit Union where I have been a member for some time and Erica has recently joined and we have opened accounts for our 2 grandchildren.

When we get their annual reports or newsletters we get some satisfaction from knowing that not only are we well looked after but also that our money is circulating ethically to local people communities and businesses. This is particularly true of the Credit Union which we know does a tremendous amount of good throughout its South Liverpool Common Bond.
So dare I ask what you are doing in a similar vein?

Well a lot of you haven’t joined a Credit Union. Nationally the Credit Unions have about 1 million members so that is about 1.3% of the population. It is a tiny proportion of the population compared to the Irish Republic and much of Scandinavia. Perhaps there is an image problem here? Many of the middle class chatterati assume that Credit Unions are for poor people. Well it is true that people on low incomes have the greatest difficulty in getting affordable loans but the credit unions can and do take money from people at all income levels. Lodge Lane CU does not give interest on deposits but does pay an annual dividend which is consistently better than the rate the banks give in interest on immediate access cash accounts. We are currently talking to them about a big marketing campaign in our Ward which we will help with in a number ways.

Come to think of it you probably haven’t joined a building society either of which there are about 50 still in existence most of which still operate with a true mutual ethos as well as a mutual structure.

Have you thought of moving your account at all? None of my three alternative financial institutions have current account facilities so I took the advice of moveyourmoney and challenged my bank charges and threatened to move. In fact I did not move but I have saved £18 per month that I was being charged for services that I didn’t use and didn’t need.
If you are a councillor have you looked at the possibility of moving some of your cash holdings to the Public Sector Deposit Fund and some of your treasury and pension holdings to the Local Authority Property Fund? Both of these accounts are run by CCLA which is effectively a mutual for Churches, Charities and Local Authorities. It gives better than average industry returns because its costs are relatively low and you know that its investments are ethical. (I declare an interest as an unpaid director of the part of CCLA which oversees these funds).

Have you looked at getting money from and putting money into community led activities which avoid the bankers altogether. I have been reading up recently about crowdsourcing and similar activities which have been successfully used by organisations like the Flyover Festival to attract revenue and capital from people using IT based methodologies. I am not an expert in this area but have been mugging up on it recently to try and get my head around it. It does appear however that by leaving out the middleman in a controlled environment lenders van get more interest and borrowers pay less interest – Simples!

I hope that this does not come over as a harangue but more as a plea. If we all did just some of the actions discussed above then we would not be relying on the Government to legislate or top bankers to find morality. WE would together have changed the financial system for the better and the more of us that do this the bigger the change.

To make things easy for you I provide links to the website of the places that I use so you can start taking action at the click of a button!
Make a difference today by doing something and not whingeing about something!

CCLA http://www.ccla.co.uk
Move your Money http://www.moveyourmoney.org.uk
Furness Building Society http://www.furnessbs.co.uk
Lodge lane Credit Union http://www.lodgelanecu.org.uk
Triodos Bank http://www.triodos.co.uk

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Joe Anderson – A comment too far

We all make mistakes and I include myself in that statement. I always find that the best thing to do when you have made a mistake is to admit it – apologise – and move on. Not doing so damages relationships and damages the ability to work with others. That is no good for anyone. So here’s my mistake.

On the Saturday before the election I was out with colleagues in and around our HQ in Greenbank Ward. We were approached by 5/6 local residents with whom we had no political affiliation who told us not only that the streets had been swept for the first time in living memory on a Saturday but also that they had been told that it was because there was an election on.

As you might guess that made me angry. Although I did not issue a press release or blog about it I did mention it to a journalist when he rang me about other matters. I made clear that if this was indeed the case it would be a major breach of priority and abuse of power.

Subsequently I found out that although the Mayor had been involved in discussions with the contractors concerned but they were over a wider concern that a city-wide contract which was approximately one year old was not being properly delivered properly and that the streets were not in the condition that they should be.

It is, of course absolutely right and proper that the Mayor should make his viewpoint known on such issues and try to ensure that contracts are properly delivered. Indeed the Mayor is still working on this matter and has issued a Youtube video to that effect recently. The contractor had indeed decided to act but they decided which areas to choose for remedial action and when it should be done and not the Mayor or any officer of the Council.

Having been told by officers that this was the case I should have contacted the journalists (another one subsequently contacted me) to say what I had been told and that my enquiries had shown that the actions of the Mayor were fit and proper and the decision to work in Greenbank had not been his. I can make the excuse that I was tired and that it was election week and that excuse would be true but is not good enough. I should have corrected the impression that I made.

So I apologise unreservedly to the Mayor for leaving extant the impression that he had abused his powers. I accept that he has acted in good faith throughout in trying to get value for money for the City. I hope that this apology will be accepted in the spirit in which it was offered so that we can continue to work together, where possible and appropriate, for the good of the city.

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