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Why does the Northfield area have the worst record on low pay in the country?

Earlier this year it was revealed that the Northfield constituency has the worst record in the country for low pay.

Over 50% of people in this area are paid less than the living wage of £7.85 an hour – reaching up to 63.1% for women. As I said at the time, it is an absolute scandal that over half of local working people are not being paid enough to provide properly for themselves and their families. There is no doubt that the Conservative-led Government’s attempt to build an economy based on low pay and insecurity has hit areas like Northfield hard. However, the fact that our community has been hit so particularly hard is also about long term changes and challenges facing communities on the outskirts of Britain’s big cities.

TACKLING POVERTY IN OUTER CITY AREAS

Outer City poverty was the first issue I ever raised in the House of Commons. It has been a consistent theme of my work ever since. Areas like ours were deeply affected by the recessions of the 1980’s, which so fundamentally undermined the manufacturing industries on which they depended. When regeneration programmes were designed and implemented with varying degrees of success, though, governments and councils of all colours all too often focused their efforts on inner city areas.

Given the uniformly high levels of deprivation in many inner cities this may have been understandable. In the meantime though the growing problems of outer city areas were masked by the fact that significant pockets of high deprivation, poor health, long term unemployment and a growing skills gap sat just right down the road from areas of relative affluence. When the statistics that policy makers relied on for their decisions were then compiled, the averaging effect of this disguised what was going on. The real needs of outer city areas were missed time and time again.

My record in the Commons, and in lobbying Birmingham Council, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s shows how often I and others raised these issues. We had some successes. The way the statistics were compiled started to change so that pockets of deprivation started to be recognised more often. Slowly too, regeneration programmes began to recognise – at least in theory- some of the multiple issues faced by outer city areas.  Even when they did though, opportunities were squandered.

WASTED OPPORTUNITIES

One local example was the allocation by the last Labour Government of £50m to regenerate Kings Norton’s 3 Estates of Hawkesley, Pool Farm and Primrose under the New Deal for Communities programme. That presented a golden opportunity to engage local people in the transformation of their community, using housing renewal as a driver for other investment in employment, skills and education. The money was there but the opportunity was wasted as Birmingham City Council (under Conservative control between 2004 and 2012) dithered, delayed, and starved the Three Estates of the resources that they were due. Things have moved on a bit in the past three years. But so much more could have been achieved.

So why did it all go so wrong? At the centre of the vision of the New Deal vision was the ambition for local people to be fully involved in planning the transformation of their neighbourhoods – not simply as people to be “consulted”, but as active partners. In the case of Kings Norton’s Three Estates, a Community Development Trust (CDT) was supposed to be in the driving seat. One of the big failures there was that Birmingham City Council were never prepared to put that vision into practice, excluding the emerging CDT from real influence and extinguishing it as soon as it has the chance in the late 2000s. The regeneration of the Three Estates ended up being a top-down offshoot of the Council’s Housing department – and not a very successful one at that.

The unwillingness of the City Council to engage with the needs of outer city areas, and to empower local communities to transform their areas, was evident elsewhere in the mid to late 2000s too. The collapse of MG Rover in Longbridge was a body blow to South West Birmingham. The collapse was the result of specific long term circumstances affecting the company which there is no space to go into here, but it also highlighted longer-term issues facing outer city areas. Tragic though the collapse was, once again there was the chance to respond with a bottom-up approach that could have brought a different kind of change. Once again the then Labour Government got behind this. The Regional Development Agency backed the creation of a town centre partnership, and again a government-funded study concluded that the creation of a community development trust could play a key role in the transformation of the Longbridge area for the future. Once again, the City Council offered words of support, but in practice acted as break on what could have been achieved.

Remember all this happened when the economy was growing, not contracting. It’s no surprise then, that when recession struck following the global crash of 2008/09, and the 2010-15 Conservative government responded with drastic cuts, “recovery” in the Northfield area has meant low pay and insecurity.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

So looking to the future, how can we turn things around? First, the actions which Government take on the economy matter. There are now 1.8 million people on zero hours contracts in the UK. There has been a 20% increase in the past year alone. There are not the skilled, long time and secure jobs that pay the higher wages people here need. That is another reason why people here suffer on low pay – and it is why it is so important that a Labour Government will ban exploitative zero hours contracts if we are elected on the 7th May.

Second, we need to address the legacy of the past – not least in the failure of our education system to properly address the needs of outer city areas like ours. I have been raising this for years and in the last year I have been working with schools, the Council and Ofsted to turn things around. Again, a different approach by government is urgently needed.

Third, despite the legacy and the massive ongoing issues which they Northfield areas face, we need to celebrate where progress is being made. The regeneration of Longbridge, while falling short of what some of us have argued for, is still a massive opportunity to bring jobs and investment to our area. It’s not simply a case of having Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury’s there, important though they are. We are the European R& D centre for China’s biggest car company. The Innovation Centre is home to dynamic digital and other firms. Under new management, Bournville College are exploring exciting new avenues to boost skills amongst local people. And from Northfield to Kings Norton, there are still examples of community based initiatives that could play an important role in turning things around.

And fourth, we need to bring all this together in crafting a unified agenda for the future, rooted in our area, not simply handed down from above. It is why I launched the Climb Project for South West Birmingham, to bring businesses, community groups, schools and colleges together to boost opportunities and aspiration.

Across the city as a whole, the recent Kerslake Review calls for big changes in the way our City is governed – whichever Party is in control of the City Council. Whatever comes out of that, it is the job of all of us working in areas like Northfield to demand that, this time, the needs of outer city areas are central to city strategies going forward – not the afterthought they have too often been in the past.