Monday, 18 January 2010

Reading - Tale of Two 'Cities'

You may have seen a report published today which was widely trailed in the national and local media over the past 24 hours (produced by the thinktank Centre for Cities) in which Reading was listed as somewhere with 'the right ingredients to succeed after the recession has passed'.

I was not in the least surprised to see Reading listed as one of '5 big hitters'.

This is not the first time this thinktank has singled out Reading for praise.

Reading has a dynamic local economy and a resilient workforce.

Reading has many of the ingredients needed to be very successful: it has a mobile and highly-skilled workforce, good transport links and excellent universities in easy reach.

It's not difficult to understand why many blue-chip companies have set up business here.

We should be proud of Reading's progress to be one of the fastest-growing economies in the UK.

However, what concerns me is the evidence I see all around me which shows that not everyone who lives in Reading is able to share in and benefit from this success.

Inequality - linked to both health and wealth is a major issue in Reading and where you are born in Reading still has a big impact on how well you are likely to do in life and how healthy you and your family are likely to be.

This situation is not unique to Reading - but it's important to stress that Reading is not immune to problems faced elsewhere linked to recession.

And the gap between those who are well-off and worst-off is getting wider - as the recent Comprehensive Area Assessment of Reading (published before Christmas) confirmed.

This isn't just about statistics.

This is about whole families and neighbourhoods being blighted by poverty -including poor housing and bad health - just metres away from other communities with access to good housing and good schools.

In a town which generates as much wealth and success as Reading this is not acceptable, in my view. This is a damning indictment of years of Labour rule in Reading.

A Labour-run Council and a Labour government has not resulted in a fairer Reading.

I have campaigned extensively in recent years to highlight the disparity that exists between different neighbourhoods in Reading - and to get the Labour-run Council to take long overdue action.

My campaigning has resulted in more support for deprived neighbourhoods in Reading through the Thriving Neighbourhoods scheme and the creation of a 'Decent Neighbourhoods Fund' - to improve the quality of life for residents living on estates in Reading.

I have championed the needs of young people - because I think they have been let down badly by the Labour government and the Labour administration of Reading Borough Council.

I have highlighted the fact that what Labour has done nationally has been too little too late.

In Reading, the number of youngsters between 16-19 who are currently without a job, skills or training (NEETs) is regularly higher than any other towns in our region.

It has been this way for years because of Labour's complacent attitude.

Labour politicians have failed to get the best out of our schools and teachers - leaving some children ill-equipped for the modern workforce.

Recently the figure has come down to around 6% but it had been stuck at around 8% for the past few years - higher than anywhere else in the South East.

The Council has been forced to chase government targets around reducing headline 'NEET' figures rather than doing what is needed locally to support local people.

But 16-19 year olds are not the only group facing difficulties.

Let's also not forget too those 20-somethings graduating from Reading University or other local universities and wanting to live and work in the Reading area.

Many of these youngsters live in my ward in Redlands.

They are graduating with the highest debts of any graduates ever - chasing a dwindling number of vacancies.

The last set of Job Seekers Allowance figures I saw for Reading showed that the majority of JSA claimants are aged between 20 and 24.

Last Summer I reported that the number of young people who were unemployed was set to reach one million - a figure not seen for decades.

The graduates I speak to feel badly let down by this Labour government and its promises of a pot of gold at the end of the educational rainbow.

We cannot risk the creation of another "lost generation" of young people.

Being out of work is not only bad for the pocket, bad for the economy - it's bad for the health and well-being of our young people.

I have actively campaigned for action both locally and nationally for action to help support our young people in Reading.

This is because I am not prepared to accept the status quo and neither should local people.

If people want things to change they need to vote for change. Not more of the same from Labour.

Nick Clegg outlined the Lib Dem plan for a 'life boat' for Britain's young people including plans for more paid internships, fully-funded adult apprenticeships and a '90 day promise' (whereby young people would be offered work, training education or an internship after 3 months out of work).

Nothing I've heard from the Tories nationally or locally suggest that they would do anything differently to help make Reading a fairer, more equal place.

Last October I raised concerns about the plight of young people and got the Labour-run Council in Reading to hold a special summit on how we might better support young people.

This event was a real eye-opener for me: the young people who attended told heart-breaking stories about months of hopeless job-hunting, forced to spend their time handing out CVs in the Town centre.

There is no reference to any of these problems in the Centre for Cities report published today.

We must not turn a blind eye to real poverty on our own doorstep.

Months into the recession the economic indicators may be getting better but talking to young people and their families I know many hundreds of young people still face incredibly tough times trying to get onto the first rung of the career ladder and out of poverty.

They are our future and our future prosperity as a community and an economy depends on their prosperity.

With this in mind I wrote to RBC's Chief Executive and the Leader of the Council, Cllr Jo Lovelock today asking them if a follow-up meeting could be held focussing specifically on supporting young people through the recession.

We need to be absolutely sure that the Council, Connexions and local businesses are working together as effectively as they can to ensure no young person is left behind.

We also need to demonstrate to young people that we are 100% behind them.

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