This is our truth, tell us yours
Content note; refers to domestic violence services, but not directly to domestic violence
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Nick Forbes of Newcastle City Council is the very model of a post Blairite right of centre, Progress inclined Labour leader. Prominent in the Local Government Association, relentlessly self promoting, he is the high priest of the fabulous potential of Northern cities as engines of economic growth, a policy that looks less benign when you realise it amounts to taking resources away from small towns and the shires to throw them at places like Newcastle.
However,there’s more, and rather more unpleasantness, about the Newcastle way of doing things than just the institutional greed and self importance of Nick Forbes. Take what Newcastle are doing to domestic violence services in the city, for instance.
I am of a generation of working class men who felt, often in a shallow way, our complicity in domestic violence. We were helped, unintentionally, by a brilliant generation of feminist women who built domestic violence services from the ground up, as refuges and helplines.We accepted our exclusion from much of that work as part of the price we paid for our complicity, and as an alibi.We could donate, or support from the sidelines, but the women who built and needed women’s refuges were entitled, we felt, to not want us around, and that suited us as a way of enabling us not to look reality in the face, while appeasing our consciences with donations and support for the appropriate resolutions in the Labour Party meetings or around the council chamber.
Newcastle was no different to many other cities. It had a women’s refuge built from the ground up by women for women.Nick Forbes had other ideas though,and the result is that Newcastle’s refuge is to close. The perspective of Newcastle Women’s Aid can be found here.
So what happened? As the Women’s Aid press release says, there was a tendering process, and NWA didn’t win the tender. The winners were a combination of Thirteen Care and Support, a relatively new entrant to the field, and our old friends Changing Lives.
Let’s deal with what this integrated project looks like, first. Newcastle are building a complex of sixteen two and three bedroomed flats to act as the accommodation part of the project. Even though they have their own housing organisation, Your Homes Newcastle, they’re contracting service provision out to Thirteen. That’s privatization, by any measure. According to Newcastle’s press releases they’re putting £1.6m capital into the project, which seems like a lot to spend on 16 flats when you can buy new builds in the north east for £80-100K. However, there are probably ulterior motives for giving the service to Thirteen to run, rather than supporting it through Your Homes Newcastle. You can avoid the terms and conditions of your existing workforce for instance, and awkward details like pensions. That wouldn’t explain why you’d prefer Thirteen to, say Newcastle Women’s Aid of course, except for the obvious point about NWA probably having scruples.
The tender, incidentally, was designed in such a way as to exclude the use of the existing refuge – no matter what the quality of NWA’s existing services, they had to bid to operate from Newcastle’s new build flats.
Enter stage left the powerhouse of modern service provision that is Changing Lives. Fresh from their campaigns to drive beggars off Newcastle’s streets, Changing Lives are the other part of the new integrated service. Being a partner of Newcastle City Council is good business for Changing Lives. In April 2016 Newcastle City Council paid them £943, 507.
Yes, nearly one million pounds in grants.
So who runs Changing Lives?
Step forward the Chair of their board. Baroness Armstrong, Hilary to her friends when she was Tony Blair’s friend and ally. Supporting her is Steve Guyon, a former homelessness expert with the DCLG. What a happy coincidence that they should both be part of the same charity with their complementary expertise in networking amongst the north east’s great and good, and homelessness.
There’s a need to pause for a moment here. Sometimes, when we think of charities, we think of people like, well, Newcastle Women’s Aid, activists who built a charity from the ground up because the work needed to be done. They’re not all like that though.
Show me a charity with a former government minister and a former civil servant at its head though, and I start wondering if something else isn’t afoot.
Who else is on board? A leading local lawyer, from a firm who frequently advise local authorities. A health and safety expert. The former boss of Nexus, well known in local Labour circles. Oh and look, Brian Manning, CEO of Esh Group, a local building company often to be found sniffing round when local authority services are being privatized. This is not the kind of committee you might find running a women’s refuge, this is a collection of the local elite gathered together to bring a whole new design of service provision into being,complete with backdoor privatizations..
And then, on the board of Changing Lives, in case you think we’re exaggerating, there’s Jeremy Middleton. Failed conservative parliamentary candidate, serial entrepeneur and Tory placeman on all manner of North East related bodies, Jeremy is the last person you would trust with either public services or welfare.There he is though, at the heart of a charity that has a problematic approach to social issues like begging (it believes in a variety of tough love), an arch privatizer who believes in an elitist, top down approach to service provision.
Newcastle Women’s Aid weren’t pushed out by a bid; they were beaten by an ideology. Changing Lives is an ideological attempt to move public services away from the arena of lcoal authorities, to make them less accountable,and in a subtle way, more political.
What has happened to Newcastle Women’s Aid is a disgrace, but it’s also a warning of what can happen if we don’t distinguish between genuine charities and those organizations being used as Trojan horses to reshape our society to a liberal, free market agenda. And as that million pound grant to Changing Lives shows, it’s being done with our money.