Barrie Grunewald: Digital project is good for the town

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We’ve found ourselves firmly in the media spotlight over the last few days as telecoms giant O2 sets out to highlight the north-south divide when it comes to digitally skilled jobs.

The company has chosen St Helens as a pilot venue for its ambitious Digital Communities programme – which aims to inspire people and businesses outside London and the South East to make the most of the digital opportunities that are out there.

Over the next three months we hope to see how connectivity can help our communities - by harnessing young digital talent, boosting entrepreneurship, enabling public sector organisations to drive efficiencies and better engage local people.

O2 will be helping analogue businesses go digital, match local companies with the digital talent on their doorstep and help the council to offer more digital services – hopefully creating a blueprint for other communities up and down the country.

At the heart of the project is a new Digital Hub - in the Hardshaw Centre - where budding entrepreneurs, mobile workers or people who would usually work outside St Helens can work flexibly using free connectivity and purpose-built workspaces on Mondays and Fridays. The hub will be open until Mid-December.

It’s a tremendously exciting project that will hopefully whet the appetite for greater involvement with technology among young people, older people, businesses, agencies and other institutions. There are plenty of opportunities and I would urge everyone to embrace them

Next week (October 23) we’ll be opening a new, purpose built, specialised education facility to help young people with complex and/or medical needs.

Based in the Beacon building, it will support St Helens Council’s Launchpad Tuition Services, which already provides a safe haven for vulnerable pupils - unable to access mainstream education - from its Napier Street Inclusion Centre.

It will help students achieve necessary life skills and access specialist provision that offers a formal education - as well as providing access to counselling and mentoring opportunities.

The staff at Tuition Services have a wealth of experience when it comes to supporting these young people to overcome their various issues - and accessing the essential life skills that will help them to integrate into society after they leave school.

Still on the subject of young people, I was pleased to see the results of the latest Trading Standards North West survey into their attitudes toward alcohol and tobacco.

The percentage of 14-17 year olds claiming to smoke in St Helens had fallen from 18 per cent in 2013 to eight per cent in 2015.

That’s lower than for the North West overall (ten per cent), and among the lowest of all the local authorities in the region.

The survey also finds that increasing percentages of 14-17 year olds in St Helens are drinking alcohol less often or not at all - with the percentage of those surveyed claiming that they never drink alcohol more than doubling to 50 per cent in 2015.

It’s very encouraging. Obviously alcohol and tobacco are harmful to young people’s health and drinking too much can also lead to them being victims of crime or result in consequences that can haunt them into adult life.

A combination of rigorous enforcement action by Trading Standards against retailers who sell age-restricted products to children, and promotion by St Helens Council of the negative impacts tobacco and alcohol can have on health as a whole, are proving really effective.