Published on March 22nd, 2018 | by John OMeara0
SLAVERY, GRASS VERGES, THE FUTURE OF OUR SCHOOLS: HANDSWORTH WOOD WARD MEETING 20TH MARCH HAMSTEAD PAVILION
The final meeting of the Handsworth Wood Ward Forum, before the ward boundary changes in May, wrestled with how to deal on the one hand with everyday issues which affect everyone’s mood, and on the other with big questions which affect the future of our children. In the background was the unresolved matter of how things will be organised in the new ward, and whether the undoubted skills and motivation of local people can/should play a bigger part than they have up to now.
With the help of a presentation on Modern Day Slavery from John Hunter (Modern Day Slavery Co-ordinator, Birmingham City Council – click on ‘MDSPresentation’ to see OHP’s) the meeting looked at how to improve our ability to detect situations of exploitation and abuse locally. If the people cleaning your car at a carwash don’t have suitable protective clothing (are they unprotected against constant soaking of feet, body, hands, effects of chemicals etc?), then there is a good chance that they are being exploited. If large numbers of people come out of an HMO early each morning and get into a van or minibus, returning each evening, there is a good chance they are being exploited. If there are signs people are being moved around to different locations to beg or sell (Big Issue even?), there is a good chance they are being exploited.
Other locations where exploitation is found include nail bars, cleaning services, cannabis farms and restaurants. Discussion focused a lot on why exploitation couldn’t be prevented at the point businesses were applying for operating licenses, or why conditions of licenses such as health and safety requirements weren’t grounds for closure. The picture was of great complexity in gathering evidence (e.g. through HMRC or DWP investigations), and in the operation of the frauds (e.g. legal wage levels paid to workers only to find that the ‘agency’ providing the workers is itself hiving off most of it). There is a ‘dynamism’ in the sector driven by demand for low cost services, and the co-ordinating role of ‘organised crime’ – groups and operations closed down one day may be back in business the next or may just have moved.
There are local and national teams dedicated to ending slavery, and if you see something you think is suspicious you can call the Modern Slavery Helpline on 0800 0121 700 or the police on 101 (999 if it’s urgent). If you have more detail and, for example, know someone who may be a victim then in addition to the above numbers you have the option of calling The Salvation Army Referral Helpline on 0300 303 8151.
Grass verges: the weight of opinion was in favour of retaining grass verges, and finding ways to overcome current misuse of them such as the parking outside schools. As one resident said ‘we want to retain some of the beauty that Handsworth Wood had.’ Main suggestions made:
- Query with the school whether they are a member of the ‘Mode Shift Stars’ scheme. This allows them to apply for £1,000 to pay for small imaginative initiatives to address the problem – voluntary ‘speedwatch’ schemes have been used, even ‘Childrens Courts’ (possibly mirroring the efforts of young people in the USA to shame adults into action on gun sales). Enforcement action is also part of the package. One parent is going to raise this with Cherry Orchard School.
- Follow up with the Council Engineer Alan Woodcock whether some of the £7,000 allocated for verge protection and restoration can be used outside particular schools. One resident asked if Grestone School can be next in line for this, and Neil de Costa said he would make enquiries about it.
- Look at whether the kind of ‘concrete matting’ used outside Cherry Orchard School can be used elsewhere. It was suggested, though, that this particular product may not be the best (may not be very popular where it has been used), and that there are alternatives which are less unsightly.
- Have higher kerbs.
New Wards/local governance: you can see the new ward boundary by clicking on ‘WardMap’. Both Neil de Costa and Councillor Hamilton were upbeat about the potential for the new wards (69 now instead of 40, so more localised with a tighter councillor focus) to improve the way that issues were identified and followed through. They talked of improved official recording of discussions, and of ‘ward action trackers’ to ensure that no issue got lost. They said that the Ward Meeting would have a higher profile, that key agencies would be involved, decisions would be made, the Ward Plan would be an essential and important tool. Where issues crossed ward boundaries alliances would be formed to strengthen the local voice around them.
The Council are not taking final decisions about ward governance arrangements until after the local elections on 3rd May. There may be scope for local variation, and local resident Richard Hatcher made strong representations about the need to make better use of residents’ expertise in identifying and following through on local issues, but taking a more strategic approach so that the ‘big issues’ such as education, health and employment are considered and planned for alongside things like rubbish and parking. Pleas were also made to consider the relationship between Hamstead Industrial Estate and local employment opportunities, and between local and city/West Mids-wide developments to encourage cycling and walking; how do we develop our sense of the relationship between different levels of policy making, and our influence in it?
Councillor Hamilton urged that existing groups should used to the maximum, rather than thinking everything needed to be created from scratch, and cited Handsworth Wood Residents Association and Handsworth Association of Schools as examples.
School budgets: Richard Hatcher presented startling figures showing that between 2015 and 2020 the budget allocation per child across local primary and secondary schools will have shrunk by an average of £300 per year. St. James’ Primary School now has to shut at lunchtime on Fridays because they can’t afford to staff afternoon lessons. A quarter of all schools in the UK are running at a serious deficit. The first staff to lose their jobs as a result are Teaching Assistants – the very staff who focus on the children with the highest learning needs. You can find out about the latest developments, and action planned to fight for more resources, by clicking on http://schoolcuts.org.uk/#!/
Untaxed/uninsured vehicles: it is felt that the level of such vehicles in the local area is reaching epidemic proportions. Sgt. Hayley Thompson said that the local police team were able to remove untaxed vehicles once 2 months had elapsed from their due date. She assured the meeting that in spite of their own staffing cuts, and the time taken from other things in waiting for recovery vehicles etc, the team were routinely detecting and removing untaxed vehicles, and would continue to do so. Uninsured vehicles are more difficult to deal with because you have to actually catch the person while driving, but regular operations are mounted (like Operation Barlia this week) when insurances are systematically checked and drivers stopped.
Residents expressed the view that there is a strong link between untaxed/uninsured vehicles and levels of crime. Sgt. Thompson said that the evidence didn’t support this.
Police report: apart from the vehicle issues, Sgt. Thompson reported a drop in burglaries and particularly in the area being covered by Neighbourhood Watch and Streetwatch (the whole meeting gave a collective ‘thankyou’ to the ‘watch’ volunteers); there have been 17 burglaries so far in March, but only 3 in the ‘watch’ area. She didn’t have figures with her for vehicle crime. She highlighted again Operation Barlia on Wednesday and Thursday of this week – flooding the area with maximum police numbers drawn from many areas because of the evidence that this approach has both immediate and lasting impacts on crime levels.
Lea Hall development: this proposal to build over 100 houses on the allotment site will come within the Handsworth Wood ward under the new boundaries. After local objections the original planning application was turned down, but it has now been resubmitted with only minor adjustments – so objections now need to be resubmitted.
Paulette Hamilton: Paulette now stops being a councillor for Handsworth Wood in order to concentrate on the new Hollyhead ward. There was thanks and applause for her many years of service to the area; she in turn thanked the people of Handsworth Wood for what had been a richly rewarding time, and wished them well for the future: ‘onwards and upwards’ she said.