Category Archives: Local government
The rational case against metro mayors ably set out by Richard Hatcher, George Morran and Steve Beauchampé, has been shattered for the writer by the media-feeding chaotic, emotion-led, vicious, counterproductive squabbling in the Labour & Conservative ranks.
Still, evidently, a tribal people, we appear to need the ‘high-profile leadership’ extolled by Andrew Carter, chief executive of the Centre for Cities , largest funders Gatsby Charitable Foundation (Lord Sainsbury) and Catapult network, established by Innovate UK, a government agency. (see report cover right)
As yet, the announcements made by the West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street, respected even by most opponents of the post, with a business record seen as a guarantee of efficiency, are provoking little dissension.
Dan Jarvis, who is expected to win the Sheffield election becoming Britain’s seventh metro mayor, intends to continue to sit in the House of Commons to work for a better devolution deal and speak for the whole county. (map, regions in 2017)
His desire to stay in parliament while serving as a mayor is thought, by the author of FT View, to reflect a recognition that the real authority and power of these positions is limited:
- The six mayors have no say on how taxes are raised and spent.
- Outside Greater Manchester, the mayors have little control over health policy.
- Major spending decisions on transport policy are still taken by central government.
Days after taking office in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham’s announcement of a new fund to tackle the region’s homelessness problem was backed by ‘a chunk’ of his own mayoral salary.
Andrew Carter points out that England’s mayors are highly constrained in their control over local tax revenue and how it is spent, compared with their counterparts in other countries.
FT View describes this extra layer of government as yet merely creating cheerleaders, adding:
“Voices alone will not be enough to shift economic and political power to the regions. England’s mayors need more control. If the government is serious about devolution, the mayors need the powers to match that ambition”.
Could well-endowed, unsuborned metro mayors out-perform successive corporate-bound national governments?
Birmingham Council adopts the government’s austerity agenda: asking the low paid to accept even lower wages
In July, Birmingham City Council reneged on an ACAS-mediated, cabinet-approved agreement between the Unite union and Birmingham’s talented Council Leader, John Clancy, which was to end the seven-week refuse collection dispute.
And when BCC reneged on the Unite/Clancy deal, they also issued redundancy notices to the Grade 3 workers. These were later banned in the High Court when Mr Justice Fraser spoke at length about the “extraordinary” and “astonishing” state of affairs at Birmingham City Council with “chaos” between senior personnel. Read more about his reflections here.
Council leader Ian Ward (left) told a BBC reporter: “The cost of the (three month) dispute, yes that’s cost in excess of £6m”.
This ‘new’ version of the original deal (details here), described by union insiders as a ‘total climbdown’, was agreed at a special meeting of the BCC cabinet on Friday.
ITV reports that yesterday Birmingham bin workers voted to accept the council deal.
So a seven week dispute was allowed to go on for three months, regardless of health and safety implications, losing £6m of ratepayers’ money – and the wrong head rolled.
From ‘Our Birmingham‘, under another title.
The Education Secretary Justine Greening has now ordered a major review of council policies about school transport provision for disabled children. In particular she has received concerns that some parents were receiving misleading advice.
Councils are being forced to make hard choices in the face of ‘sustained financial challenges’. As the Economist reports since 2010 the budget deficit has been reduced from 10% to 4% of GDP; by 2020 it is forecast to be almost eliminated: “To achieve this, the government has slashed spending. Hardest hit has been the Department for Communities and Local Government, which provides councils with most of their funding”.
One example is that of Christine Anderson who had to leave her job to make a 60-mile round trip to school with her 15-year-old son Christopher, who has physical and learning disabilities including spina bifida and hydrocephalus.
Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, says “it is clear that some councils may soon be unable to meet their statutory duties of caring for the most vulnerable”.
261 complaints about school transport decisions were made to England’s local government ombudsman in 2015-16. The figure is a marked increase, says the ombudsman, Michael King. Only Disability United – outperforming all other media articles – gave a link to his report, All on Board, Navigating School Transport Issues, which recommends that councils should:
- consult parents and schools on changes to individual pupils’ transport arrangements
- provide clear and accessible information on eligibility for free transport
- consider individual pupils’ transport needs “carefully and judiciously”
- consider wider health and safety issues as well as mobility for special needs pupils
There have been campaigns about cuts to transport for children with disabilities over the years in many areas
Demo organised by Eleanor Lisney, a Coventry campaigner and member of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC)
The Coventry Telegraph, reporting on these cuts, pointed out that local authorities are required to provide travel assistance for all children who cannot reasonably be expected to walk to school because of their mobility problems or because of associated health and safety issues related to their special educational needs or disability.
Having seen the beneficial effect of this computer game on a six-year old, a teacher advocates placing it on the national curriculum.
In every different edition of SimCity, the player is given the task of founding and developing a city from a patch of green land, defining what buildings are constructed via development zones – residential zones for Sims to live in; commercial zones for Sims to shop and have offices within; industrial zones to provide work through factories, laboratories and farms – as well as ensuring their citizens are kept happy through establishing various services and amenities, all while keeping a stable budget.
People report problems and the mayor addresses them – his objective: to keep as many people happy as possible.
SimCity 3000: (the environment and localisation now come into the equation); by allowing certain structures to be built within the city, the player could receive a substantial amount of funds from them. The four business deal structures are the maximum security prison, casino, toxic waste conversion plant, and the Gigamall (a large shopping center). Business deal structures however have serious negative effects on a city. The toxic waste dump lowers both the land value and residential desirability in the area surrounding it and produces massive pollution. The prison dramatically decreases land value. The casino increases citywide crime and the Gigamall weakens demand for local commerce.
Too late now – but if the young Michael Fallon, Jeremy Hunt and Theresa Brasier had been educated by the SimCity ’game’ (now used in urban planning offices!), Michael might well have grown up less willing to play real-life war-games, Jeremy could be ensuring good care for all the sick and frail and Theresa might be putting into practice her rhetorical concern for the less fortunate in our society.
Housing minister: executive homes built in the countryside are profitable but don’t keep villages alive
Alice Thomson reports that more than 1,300 villages have disappeared in the first decade of this century, according to figures recently released by the Office for National Statistics: “Their greens, meadows, churches, war memorials and pubs have been subsumed into towns and cities, their identities eroded”. This land was used predominantly for more concrete jungle of warehouses, car parks, offices and supermarkets.
By the 1920s twentytwo organisations were lobbying parliament over our landscape and together they formed what is now the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which championed green belts. Alice calls for us to devote as much of our imagination to preserving our villages and countryside as did those Victorian artists, poets, architects, writers and businessmen, commenting: “If organisations such as the CPRE hadn’t been set up and we had followed the relaxed planning laws of the US, London could now look like Los Angeles and would reach Brighton”.
Urban councils receive 40% more funding than those in rural areas, but seaside, market and country towns need to be rejuvenated, with more bus routes, better broadband and more sensitive, innovative building projects.
Under the National Planning Policy Framework, councils must have a “local plan” limiting housing developments to land specifically allocated for it. But 40% of councils haven’t completed their plans, mostly because of legal objections from developers and, despite the increasing population, fewer houses were built in the last decade than in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. Ms Thomson and many others agree that urban housebuilding should predominantly once more be on brownfield sites. High streets and out-of-town shopping centres can be turned back into housing as we increasingly buy goods online.
One commentator added: “Villages need affordable rented housing, once called council housing, to give people a stable home life where children can go to the local school and use local services. Executive homes built in the countryside are very profitable but don’t enhance a stable community. Let’s build in villages and keep them alive. It used to be like that until council houses were sold off”.
Alice continues: After Brexit there is a chance to redefine our relationship with the countryside.
As the International Tax Review confirms rumours of plans to cut Britain’s corporation tax rate (‘a race to the bottom’), Jacques Peretti opened this video by reminding us that for some years the 99% have been required to tighten their belts.
In this film he focussed on what is happening behind closed doors in Britain; he found that local councils across the UK are signing contracts with management consultancy firms who can take a percentage of any savings they find. Luminaries such as McKinsey, Serco, G4S and Capita were named.
There are 36 articles with Capita in the title on our database and many more references in other texts.
The earliest: from 1999 there had been serious computer failures in public sector in programmes designed by several providers, including Capita. In 2004, schools were forced to close because of delays to a database to vet teachers, run by Capita. In 2005, Capita’s software was said to be responsible for the failure of a government scheme for allocating school places. In 2006: Computer Business Review reported that Capita’s chairman had resigned after the discovery of secret loans to the Labour Party from whom the company had received a number of very lucrative contracts.
The latest: in August this year a Solihull reader alerted us to a Pulse magazine report on serious shortfalls in Capita’s primary care support services. Medical practices are facing delays as patient records and supplies are missing and payments made late. Alex Matthews-King, who wrote the article, reported on the situation, using data published in April 2016 – two years after the private company Capita won the £330m contract to provide primary care support services, with a budget cut of 40%. A search will find many analyses of Capita’s performance for local authorities, Birmingham in particular.
Taking self-regulation to a new low
Last year the outspoken Audit Commission – the ‘watchdog’ scrutinising council spending was disbanded. David Cameron said that a critical mass of citizen watchdogs would become a new force for accountability. He hoped a ‘whole army of effective armchair auditors looking over the books’ would act as a check on ‘waste’, but this army has not appeared, as the BBC pointed out.
Commercial confidentiality hides information about the use of taxpayers’ money
Peretti reveals that hundreds of the millions of taxpayers’ pounds spent on these contracts are covered by confidential deals and very little detail is known about them. Many readers will not be surprised to hear allegations about consultants who – the blurb says – ’leech off local councils and bleed them dry’. For years they have watched the outsourcing of public services which don’t produce the promised savings and heard councillors justifying the use of these expensive and sometimes inefficient assistants.
Peretti’s final question? Does the public deserve to know how those charged with managing Britain’s billions are spending them?
The FT reports that a majority of North Yorkshire county councillors, elected to serve the people, followed the advice of unelected officers to vote against the wishes of those who put them in post; only 36 of the more than 4,800 responses to the council’s consultation were in favour of fracking.
The government promised to go “all out” for shale. Energy secretary, Amber Rudd, announced ‘she was determined to push forward with shale and even allow extraction under national parks’ and Chancellor George Osborne has promised that local areas will receive £100,000 per well and 1% of future royalties. He also said that he would also set up a sovereign wealth fund for the north of England to invest the proceeds.
However public opposition has prevented any fracking since 2011 when it caused two minor earthquakes near Blackpool. Brian Baptie, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey, said that the analysis showed that the epicentre was within 500m of the well site and the timing of these earthquakes and that of the fluid injection [during fracking] indicated that there might be some connection between the two.
Nicky Mason, a local resident, said Third Energy had failed to disclose a gas leak at a nearby well until forced to by a freedom of information request.
The decision relates to a test, not full-scale mining activity
After changing its name four times (readers will wonder why), Third Energy will frack for shale gas at an existing well outside the village of Kirby Misperton – near the North York Moors National Park – to test if the rock below is suitable for large-scale exploitation and this will involve:
- use of a 37-metre high rig for eight weeks
- erection of a noise barrier of shipping containers
- transporting of gas by pipeline
- flowback water taken away by trucks.
As Ineos and Cuadrilla are given encouragement to reapply it is feared that further permission will eventually be given to produce on a large scale, which could lead to several hundred wells across the hills of North Yorkshire.
The FT quotes experts who foresee that the UK’s shale industry is threatened by simple economics: the tumbling price of gas.
“There could not be a worse time to be embarking on challenging gas projects,” said Howard Rogers, director of gas research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. An oil and gas analyst at Jefferies, said: “There is a global glut of gas and we continue to see gas supply everywhere. That is why prices have come down so much. It means there is a big economic challenge for shale producers in the UK.” He pointed out that US prices have come down so much it could soon be cheaper to import gas from there rather than buy domestically produced supplies.
The only hope for these threatened areas appears to be a check to the paramount political-corporate desire for profit.
Lesley Docksey sends news that Marianne Birkby has written to Cumbria County Council asking them not to approve the plan to extend the life and capacity of the Drigg nuclear waste site (below) on the West Coast of Cumbria.
Three years ago DEFRA reported on the nuclear sites which are at risk of flooding and coastal erosion – see Rob Edwards in the Guardian.
Are politicians acting on this information?
Last year, the Guardian reported that an internal Environment Agency document suggests that it was a mistake to position the Drigg radioactive waste site close to the Cumbrian coast because of the risk of flooding. Ian Parker, the Environment Agency’s group manager in Cumbria said, after detailed technical examinations: ‘It’s highly probable the coast will erode and the waste (at Drigg) will be disrupted.’
Are contents confined to low level waste?
The University of Reading has pointed out in its radiological risk assessment that compacted waste is currently placed in steel ISO-freight containers, with void space filled with highly fluid cement based grout. Radionuclides with highest activities in the inventory – include 3H, 241Pu, 137Cs, 234U and 90Sr, 238U and 232Th.
Have defective radioactive waste containers been replaced?
In 2013 the Low Level Repository Ltd’s management wrote: “in containers at the tops of stacks, the external capping grout has undergone extensive physical degradation and settlement; the lids are not full of grout, and the grout is generally heavily cracked. The state of the capping grout in underlying layers is better; most containers only show sparse cracking and typical settlement in the lid is approximately 15 mm. Standing water, sometimes contaminated with low levels of radioactivity, is present in approximately half of the containers at the tops of stacks. In containers at the tops of stacks, organic matter (principally leaf mould) has accumulated beneath many open grout ports, with vegetation growing from some grout ports. Corrosion, sometimes fully penetrating, is present in some container lids at the tops of stacks…”
On this site, earlier this month, there was a report by Marianne Birkby who lives in the area and is spokesperson for Radiation Free Lakeland, a voluntary organisation of local activists giving their own time and expertise freely. She highlighted the fact that the BBC helicopter relaying images of the devastation avoided showing areas in which nuclear installations are located: Sellafield, Drigg, Lillyhall and the proposed new nuclear plant on the river Ehen floodplain, Moorside.
There is a petition: LOCK THE GATE ON DRIGG and Marianne says that a letter to Cumbria County Council would also be fantastic.
“We need to tell our elected representatives at local and national level that there is no “away” for radioactive wastes. In a finite world there is no infinite *dilution* of radioactive wastes”.
She invites readers to write to the Leader of Cumbria County Council, Stuart Young: Stewart.Young@cumbria.gov.uk – and if you have time to the Cabinet members via Democratic Services: firstname.lastname@example.org
How many realise that the government’s much-vaunted & welcomed 2013 flood insurance agreement has not yet been implemented?
Britain is still building nearly 10,000 new homes a year on floodplains despite growing warnings over episodes of extreme flooding. The FT reports that one new home in every 14 that was built in 2013-14 — the most recent year for which data is available — was constructed on land that has a significant chance of flooding, either from a river or the sea, according to an FT analysis of official figures.
A report by the Environment Select Committee has warned, on page 27, that “the large number of properties at significant and in some cases increasing risk of flooding means that prioritising spending on flood defences is essential if the UK is to minimise potentially huge costs of future flood events”. It called on the environment department to set out its detailed budget for maintaining flood defences within the next three months.
In 2013, reports following government negotiations with the Association of British Insurers, announced the capping of flood insurance premiums.
Smaller businesses were to be excluded from the programme, which guarantees affordable insurance to domestic properties, except for rentals; landlords are not eligible, so tenants in flooded properties face the prospect of being removed. Yesterday the Financial Times reported the FSB’s estimate that about 75,000 smaller businesses at risk of flooding had found it difficult to find flood insurance and 50,000 had been refused cover nationally.
Accountants – KPMG [Press Reader], PwC [BBC] – have warned that thousands of businesses will face financial ruin because they will have to bear a fifth of the estimated £5bn national cost of flood damage, with inadequate or non-existent insurance cover.
John Allan, the FSB’s National Chairman, said: “Ministers should look again at the availability of affordable and comprehensive flood insurance for small businesses, potentially through a dedicated Flood Re style agreement. The financial cost to small businesses following the 2012 flooding was £200 million.
“We can’t hope to create a buoyant economy . . . if vulnerable small businesses can’t sufficiently protect themselves from increasingly unpredictable and severe weather that in the worst cases can close a business.”