Following a busy year in which he was re-elected MP for Worcester with an increased majority Robin Walker has set out ten of the key reasons why the city had a lot to celebrate at the end of 2015 and much to look forward to in 2016.
With the economy picking up, wages rising, a busy and vibrant high street and unemployment at an all-time record low, Worcester is in good shape for the New Year.
There are plenty of challenges remaining and Robin is determined to keep on speaking up for Worcester in 2016 but progress has been made on many of his key ambitions for the city:
1) Unemployment has never been lower and has fallen across every major category in the last year
The overall claimant count in Worcester has dropped below 900 for the first time in recorded history and, including the 47 people on Universal credit, the number of people out of work and claiming benefits at 910 is the lowest recorded on monthly records going back to 2006 and quarterly ones going all the way back to 1992.
Across Worcestershire the number of people claiming JSA has fallen below 4,000 for the first time ever and the falls in each category of unemployment in Worcester are as follows:
|Category of claimants||Current No.||1 year fall||Fall since 2010 election||Fall since peak (date)||Lowest since|
|Overall JSA claimants||873||-29%||-66%||-68% (Jan 2010)||Ever|
|Youth (16-25)||185||-41%||-74%||-76% (Aug 2009)||Ever|
|Male||589||-27%||-69%||-71% (Jan 2010)||Ever|
|Female||274||-34%||-59%||-67% (Feb 2012)||Feb 2005|
|Long Term (>1 yr)||220||-25%||-45%||-62% (Aug 2012)||Sep 2009|
|Over 50||225||-12%||-51%||-53% (Aug 2009)||Oct 2015|
With more businesses moving into Worcester in 2016 there are many reasons to expect the trend should continue and Robin is hopeful of seeing new records in the course of the year.
2) Apprenticeships are growing in quality and quantity
Robin recently welcomed the fact that apprenticeship numbers are on the up in Worcester but with the Government targeting 3 million by 2020 there is a big opportunity to take this further and Robin has set the target of raising the 10,000 apprenticeships achieved in a single year during 2014 across Worcestershire to 15,000 by 2020.
940 apprenticeships were started in the last year in Worcester an increase on the previous year and double the number started in the last year of Labour’s Government. Since April 2010, 4760 apprenticeships have been started in Worcester compared to 1830 in the previous five years.
Having previously stressed the importance of driving up the quality of apprenticeships at the same time as expanding the quantity, the Worcester MP was delighted at a 23% increase on last year in Advanced Level apprenticeships, as well as a rise in degree level apprenticeships.
New employers are embracing apprenticeships all the time and apprenticeships are a key priority for the Worcestershire LEP. Robin has recently welcomed the advertisement of new apprenticeships by Worcester business Yamazaki Mazak.
3) Wages are rising and thousands will benefit from the national living wage
ONS figures for Worcester show that wages have risen by more in the last year than in any time in the last five years and that wages are already at a record high.
The 2015 figure for gross weekly pay in Worcester was £524.1 up £23 or 4% on the previous year and up by £41 since 2010. The rate of increase in the last year Worcester was more than double that of national or regional averages. Average hourly pay for full time workers excluding overtime has also risen to a record high of £12.91.
Lower paid workers in Worcester have already benefited from the increase in the income tax threshold which has taken thousands out of tax altogether and this year saw an above inflation increase to the minimum wage.
In April 2016 they will see a further significant increase by 50p to £7.20 and the planned increases over the next few years mean that by 2020 a living wage of £9 per hour will mean that the minimum wage will have increased by more than a third since 2010.
Local recruitment companies report strong demand and consequentially rising pay and the lower than ever level of unemployment is likely to see this trend continue.
4) Record numbers of affordable homes are being built in Worcester
Robin recently spoke in Parliament to welcome the improved record of delivery for housebuilding in Worcester with 460 new homes built in Worcester last year of which 260 were rated affordable.
The 300% increase in affordable home delivery since the Conservatives regained control of the city council from Labour in 2014 looks to be sustained for another year as city council estimates suggest at least another 200 new affordable homes can be delivered in the current financial year.
Nationally the retention of the New Homes Bonus and the creation of a special fund for brownfield building should mean that the pace of delivery on affordable homes continues and locally the adoption of the South Worcestershire Development plan should both provide clear guidelines for the delivery of new homes and help to protect sites such as Middle Battenhall Farm and the green belt.
The Government has already announced extra plans to support housebuilding in the first weeks of 2016 and its new starter homes for first time buyers should start to become available in Worcester during 2016
5) Fuel prices have reached £1 in some local petrol stations and are the lowest they have been for years
After years of campaigning to keep fuel duty down and get better local prices Robin was delighted to see another freeze on duty in the Autumn Statement. Falling oil prices, competition between retailers and the decision of the Government to end the fuel duty escalator have meant that for the first time in years Worcester motorists have been able to buy fuel for £1 per litre.
The availability of the special deals from certain retailers also challenges the longstanding gap between the cost of fuel in Worcester and lower prices in places such as Birmingham and Cheltenham and Robin has welcomed this, although he has written to Asda once again to urge them to open a garage in Worcester to increase the local competition.
This will have a knock on effect on the cost of living and food prices in particular as everything that gets sold in the shops has to be delivered to them and low fuel prices are one of the key reasons why inflation remains close to zero.
The combination of low inflation and rising wages mean that people should feel better off and Asda estimated at the end of 2015 that household budgets after tax and essential spending are stronger by £17 per week or 9.6% as a result: http://www.your.asda.com/press-centre/income-tracker-november-2015
6) More children than ever are in good or outstanding schools in our County and fairer funding is a step closer
The latest Ofsted summary for Worcestershire shows that 19% of schools in the County are rated Outstanding and 68% are Good, meaning that 87% of schools in the County are good or outstanding.
Although in 2014 the combined figure was even higher at 89%, the proportion of outstanding schools are higher than ever this year. In total the last two years have been the best on record for school inspections in the County.
Worcestershire has fewer underperforming schools than any of the neighbouring Counties or even than Birmingham despite the huge funding gap between the County and that city.
Robin, who is PPS to the Secretary of State for Education, has continued his campaign for fairer funding and recently arranged for a petition from local teachers to be handed in in Parliament, supporting the f40 campaign which he used to help run.
Earlier in 2015 he secured, first in the Conservative manifesto and then in the budget the £390 million for lower funded areas that his campaigns won in the last Parliament, which is worth £6.7 million to schools in Worcestershire, for each of the next two years.
He was delighted that the Chancellor confirmed plans in the Autumn Statement for a new national funding formula and is looking forward to working with the Education Secretary to deliver it.
7) Care at our hospital is good or outstanding and more funding is coming to the local NHS to meet the challenges it faces
Despite the challenging CQC report which rated the management of the Worcestershire Acute Trust as Inadequate and put the trust itself into special measures, the staff and their care for patients were rated good or outstanding in every department. Robin has spoken to hundreds of constituents who have expressed their gratitude for exceptional treatment at the hospital and has nothing but praise for the dedication of staff there.
Figures published earlier this year show that there are more clinical staff and nurses at the hospital than ever before but Robin is determined to work with Ministers, the Trust Development Authority and the management to secure both more investment in permanent staff and a significant upgrade to the Emergency Department at the Worcestershire Royal Hospital. In his first question of the new Parliament he pressed Ministers to ensure that permanent appointments were made as soon as possible to strengthen the management team and welcomed an offer from Ministers to meet local MPs in order to resolve outstanding issues for the trust.
2015 saw the new radiotherapy unit and the excellent new midwife led birth centre looking after their first patients and the completion of the new Worcestershire Breast unit, which will be opened in 2016. In his last visit to the hospital just before Christmas, Robin got a sneak preview of the spectacular new facility.
Robin has already helped to secure capital funding for a multi-million interim expansion of the A&E and discharge suite, which will be delivered this year and will be keeping up the pressure for more investment as the Government steps up to deliver the £10 billion investment that the NHS has asked for by 2020.
8) Despite the huge challenge of traffic, Worcester’s roads are being improved and there is more investment on the way
There can be no doubt that traffic was a big problem for Worcester in 2015 and long delays at the Cathedral roundabout, on the Carrington Bridge or on the Ombersley Road have become something of a trial for many constituents.
However the completion of the roadworks on the Cathedral plaza has been a huge relief, improving the look of the city centre and easing traffic flows and the first new section of dual carriageway on the Southern Link has been successfully delivered.
Work is underway on further phases of the Southern Link dualling and Robin has joined forces with the LEP, the County, the district councils and other local MPs to push for funding for the final phase – the announcement of a new “major local projects fund” in the Autumn Statement provides a hopeful source for this and Robin has already written to Ministers to back Worcester’s bid.
2016 will see the raising of New Road to provide the city with extra flood resilience, more road repairs to fix potholes around the city and work beginning on the two motorway junctions that serve Worcester to create more capacity. In one of his first questions of the 2016 Parliament Robin made the case for extending funding for the dualling of the Carrington Bridge to improve flood resilience.
9) Rail journeys are gradually improving and Worcestershire Parkway is just around the corner
Robin has long campaigned for better rail services for Worcester and although progress has not been as fast as he would like, he has recently welcomed moves by Great Western Railways to finally deliver a 2 hour journey time between London Paddington and Worcester. Following some minor improvements to the timetable in 2015, the company has put a 2 hour service into its timetables for 2018 and now talks of making this a regular target as part of its long term vision.
They plan to increase the number of services between Worcester and the capital first to a more regular hourly service and then to a twice hourly service where one train would run fast and the other stopping. Robin has long advocated this approach to make sure Worcester can attract more investment and support more travel between the city and the capital.
He has also regularly lobbied London Midland to improve the frequency and capacity of their services between Worcester and Birmingham and has welcomed indications from that company that they will provide more Sunday services and look for opportunities to introduce more new rolling stock. He has asked the two rail companies to look into how they can provide better connectivity between their services and better links for Worcester to national rail services from Birmingham.
Work continues on the delivery a new Parkway Station in Worcestershire and Robin is determined to ensure that this benefits the many constituents who cannot currently use trains due to the lack of parking spaces at Worcester’s existing stations.
10) 2016 promises to be a year of investment in the city and in Worcester’s commercial, cultural, sporting and leisure assets with a concerted bid to back Heritage city status
Following a year in which Worcester’s Gheluvelt Park was named in the top 3 parks across the country and yet another successful Worcester Festival brought more people to the city than ever during the Summer and following a busy Victorian Christmas Fayre, Worcester’s High Street is looking stronger than ever. Robin recently toured small businesses and shops for Small Business Saturday and discussed how the city can maintain its low vacancy rate and bustling city centre.
Other highlights of 2015 included the decision of the City Council to go ahead with a proper 8 lane swimming pool in Perdiswell, something that will be delivered in the coming year, the approval of planning permission for Worcester’s first Waitrose, which will be opening on London Road later this year, the excavations of the Cathedral roundabout as part of the regeneration work there and the announcement that Worcester would go for Heritage City status.
Looking ahead with the Worcester Warriors back in the Premiership, the Worcester Wolves making waves in the basketball world, the County Cricket side in the top flight of cricket and Moeen Ali starring for England, 2016 looks like an exciting year for sport in Worcester. Robin would live to see Worcester City FC return to the city and welcomes plans for the University to develop its specialism in disability sports.
With exciting investments planned for a new cultural quarter around the Worcester Porcelain Museum and plans for a major exhibition to commemorate the 800th anniversary of King John’s burial at Worcester Cathedral, 2016 promises to be a dazzling year for Worcester’s arts and culture.
Commenting on the start of a New Year and his priorities for Worcester, Robin said:
“2015 was an exciting year for the city. There is much to be proud of in the progress that Worcester has made in the last year but I am more excited about what lies ahead. There is so much to be getting on with and there is so much great work going on in Worcester. I am delighted to be at the start of another year as MP for such a wonderful place.”
“Although we begin the year with some challenges such as the high water levels and a cricket ground that looks more like a lake than a field, I am confident that Worcester will rise above the floods and get on with being thoroughly open for business. The prosperity that the city is currently enjoying supports more investment in our city, developments in transport, housing, in health in education and in culture which are good the city and good for the people of Worcester. I will do everything I can to support that and I believe there are many reasons to be optimistic about 2016.”