We must stop a St Michael's Gate repeat

As I write this week's column I'm just a few hours away from the final full council meeting of the year.

Saturday, 17th December 2016, 4:00 pm
John Holdich at the Town Hall EMN-151130-162627009

One of the items up for discussion is a petition relating to St Michael’s Gate in Parnwell which asks councillors to debate and reconsider the decision to use the properties for our homeless families.

The council has now entered into a contract with Stef and Phillips so it’s too late to reconsider. However, I stand by the decision for reasons I have explained previously.

The alternative, if we’d said no, is that the homes would have been offered to another local authority who would then use them to house their own families in housing need. These are people we would then have a duty to support at a time when services such as education and social care are already stretched. The existing households that live in St Michael’s Gate would still have to find somewhere else to live. In addition, we’d have had to make cuts to our services next year to the tune of £2million, which would have affected every resident in the city.

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Instead local families in need are now moving into St Michael’s Gate; some that had been in hostel accommodation for more than a year.

Unfortunately we cannot change what is happening at St Michael’s Gate, nor could we have at any stage of this process, and that is regretful for those residents who are affected. Our officers continue to provide support to anyone that needs it to find a new home as quickly as possible.

What’s important now is that we take action to stop a repeat of a situation like this, for the sake of our city, our residents and other councils who may one day find themselves in a similar impossible situation.

This is why I have written to the chair of the Local Government Association (LGA), Lord Porter, raising the situation that we face and asking him to investigate the situation nationally and encourage all local authorities to join together to ensure this type of practice cannot happen again. At last night’s council meeting I shared this letter with fellow councillors and presented a motion which asked them to support my request for assistance from the LGA.

The fact remains that the business model used by companies like Stef & Philips is entirely legal, but it certainly leaves a sour taste in your mouth ethically.

By standing shoulder to shoulder with colleagues nationally we can begin to take steps to ensure that this is one of the last times a situation like this occurs. Our MP, Stewart Jackson, is also raising this matter through Parliament and has spoken to the secretary of state.

It’s quite right that there continues to be heightened interest in the situation at St Michael’s Gate from this newspaper and many other media. The press has a crucial role to play in holding us to account and it will be a sad day when this check and balance does not exist.

However the suggestion that we may be withholding information is unfair. We have answered every question which has been asked of us about St Michael’s Gate and we have responded to every freedom of information request received. And we will continue, as we are currently, to do so.

Last week I announced I would be launching a review to see if there was anything more this council can do to support our teachers and schools in their endeavours to raise attainment.

This is because we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation where Ofsted rates 9 in every 10 city schools as good or outstanding and yet our attainment figures do not reflect this. I set out the many challenges this city faces and the plans we have in place to help schools; even though our role in education has been significantly diminished by government.

I was pleased to receive some really positive feedback from a number of headteachers. All have offered to assist as part of the review and others have shared with their own staff, confident they will respond with enthusiasm, energy and hard work.

I also received a response from Dr Tim Coulson, the regional schools commissioner, who is responsible for making decisions about academies and free schools in Peterborough. Dr Coulson welcomed the review and said he would be pleased to offer whatever support we would find helpful.

My favourite response was from a primary school head who said that it was a joy to work in the city with some of the ‘most clever, funny and resilient children I have come across’.

Like I said last week we now all need to get behind our schools, teachers and pupils and support them to succeed.