Lately I’ve found myself having to defend our area from unfair attacks – largely from people who have never visited it themselves and who sadly believe a rather stereotyped version of what Knowsley is.
Those of us who live here, work here and raise our families here know the real Knowsley. So we know that the picture that is often painted is far from the full story. And, if you reflect on things, the truth is that there are so many reasons to be cheerful living in our borough.
Of course, I’ve spent a good deal of my time lately thinking and talking about how the continuous Government cuts in funding are really biting in our local communities and they will continue to do so. I’ve had the difficult task of writing to all residents to explain to them the severity of the funding cuts we face, the need for the first Council Tax increase in five years, and what it might mean for them and their families.
Whilst these are extremely challenging times for Knowsley, we are still managing to make some very positive progress, and we are taking steps which will protect and enhance our borough in both the short and the long term.
Last week, we agreed at Cabinet to give financial backing to the proposals to create a Shakespearean theatre and education centre in Prescot. The Shakespeare North Trust’s plans will be considered for planning approval in April. We’re proposing to allocate £6m of the funding we set aside last year for town centre improvements into this project – because, if it gets planning permission, we know it has the potential to create hundreds of jobs, provide a huge stimulus to the local economy, and put Prescot on the international map as a place to visit and study. In the budget this week, George Osborne followed our lead and pledged another £5m from the Government to make this happen. And my colleagues on the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority have also recently expressed their strong support for the project. A reason to be very cheerful indeed!
It’s also been a big step forward for the borough to finalise and agree our Local Plan. This is a really important document which has been six years in the making – it sets out the kind of development we want and need in the borough to create jobs and suitable homes for local families. Now that it is agreed, development will start to take shape. This is really good news for local families, as it means a better choice of quality housing for them and for their children, better infrastructure and business investment into the area, and the chance to create high quality local jobs for our young people. Not only will this help families already living in Knowsley but it’ll also make the area more attractive to those considering moving here in the future.
There are exciting developments afoot in Kirkby – with St Modwen working up their plans for the town centre following the acquisition of the site late last year. I’m told to expect news from them very shortly which should please residents. The Council is also working on plans to improve Huyton Town Centre, so watch this space for updates!
We are making good progress in children’s social care, which was one of my top priorities when I became Leader. During the last two years, we have been working hard to deliver our improvement plan, and a quarterly update on our progress is sent to the Minister of State for Children and Families. These updates have been well received and there is agreement that we are making strong progress and that significant improvements have been made.
In addition, we have been subject to other external assessments and reviews across children’s services including Children’s Social Care, Knowsley Safeguarding Children’s Board and our Youth Offending Service. The feedback from all has been extremely positive, which is testament to the hard work we have all put in over the last two years.
Progress is being made in education too. We’ve recently agreed to invest £1 million to establish an Education Commission. The aim of the Commission is to explore and agree initiatives aimed at raising teaching standards, pupil attainment, school governance and leadership. This is being supported with a further investment of £2.8 million in a ‘Ways to Work’ programme which will help 4,000 unemployed local residents to find work over the next three years.
Devolution of powers from Government is also a big step forward, not only for Knowsley but for the whole Liverpool City Region. Residents may not have yet started to feel the benefits of this yet, but, with decisions about how best to invest in our region being taken locally, they will soon start to see how this change in governance is helping build confidence from investors, creating jobs in key growth sectors and improving the infrastructure of the region.
And, whilst we have had to make unprecedented cuts to our spending as I mentioned earlier, I’m really comforted by the fact that we’ve been brave enough to think differently about how we deliver services such as leisure centres, rangers, libraries and children’s centres, rather than simply closing these valued services down. We are a co-operative council and we have demonstrated our co-operative principles by taking a positive approach to finding alternative delivery models, involving community groups in the running of services, and encouraging volunteers to get involved – which in turn is giving them great experience and training opportunities that will serve them well in the future.
Of course, we can’t pretend that things are perfect and there is absolutely no room for complacency – but, considering the reality of our situation as one of the hardest hit boroughs in the country when it comes to funding cuts, I am proud of the positive progress we have been able to make – and excited about what we still hope to achieve.