When I became mayor fifteen years ago, we said we would transform Newham into a place where residents wanted to live, work and stay. We wanted jobs for our residents, good education for our children, and a diverse community that had good cohesion. We knew in part we would achieve these things by making Newham a major business location, and, working together with local businesses, communities and partners, we have achieved that. Firms from across the world – of all sizes – are coming to our borough because they know we can cater for their needs, now and into the future.
This did not happen on its own. But we were determined to ensure that the benefits of this growth and regeneration did not pass local people by and that prosperity is shared by all.
We saw regeneration programmes in boroughs work for those moving into areas, whilst pushing local people out. Business growth, and redevelopment of previously poor areas is great, but local residents must feel the benefits themselves.
Our approach is working: Newham has gone from the second to the 25th most deprived local authority in England – one of the largest falls in deprivation in the country. Through Workplace, our innovative jobs brokerage scheme, we have filled over 35,000 jobs with Newham residents, making sure local people benefit from the new opportunities coming to the borough. The result has been an impact on local employment levels not seen in generations.
In 2008-9 we had the lowest employment rate of any other borough at 56.2 per cent. Current employment figures are now at around 75 per cent. Workplace was our single best response to this governments continued attack on the benefits system with cuts and caps.
A recent report by the Education Policy Institute found that there is now no attainment gap between Newham’s disadvantaged and the national average for non-disadvantaged five year olds; and our school results continue to improve.
This shows the drive of our young people but also the incredible success of our policies such as Free School Meals which have ensured children do not go hungry at school. All Newham primary school children receive free school meals – the first local authority in the country to do so. This universal policy has given our children a nutritious lunch which has meant they can concentrate on their school work and it saves working families on average £500 a year.
We started a reading guarantee, offering children struggling to read one-to-one tuition. As a result Newham’s national position in phonics has risen from 27th to third.
We also started an ‘EveryChild’ programme which offers our children and young people free music lessons, free trips to the theatre, free chess clubs and a free sports programme to try out 20 different sports. In 2016/17 Every Child a Musician, the largest free music programme in the country, delivered 380,000 free music lessons to children in Years 3, 4, 5 and 6, and a free musical instrument.
However, there is still much further to go. The uncertainty created by Brexit makes our work to address the skills gap more important than ever, ensuring that our residents have the skills that business need so that they can compete in a global employment market.
We also wanted to ensure that development does not mean that our residents are priced out of living in Newham, and we have worked hard to ensure that Newham remains a place where people can afford to live, work and stay.
That is why we established Local Space – an innovative and dynamic social housing association which has housed 1,500 homeless families. Our new pioneering affordable housing company, which is buying and building genuinely affordable homes to offer at submarket rents where people can pay based on what they can afford. We also have Red Door Ventures, part-owned by the council with a target from me to deliver 15,000 homes as a first step.
We have found innovative ways to tackle the national housing crisis in Newham, but the government need to stop sitting on their hands and allow local councils to borrow to invest in housing. It is extraordinary that nationally we are spending less on building social housing than we did in the 1990s and Tory inaction is only making the housing crisis worse.
There is no doubt that Newham has come along way in the last fifteen years and our experience shows what proactive and interventionist local authorities can achieve.
Sir Robin Wales is the mayor of the London borough of Newham.
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