Category Archives: Local government

A good day to bury bad news: little relief for cash-strapped local government

As the media was focussing on Tuesday’s Brexit vote in the Commons, this morning only subscribers to the New Statesman read about the written statement by the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, James Brokenshire.

In what the writer, Anoosh Chakelian (right), said is becoming a bleak pattern, the government chose Theresa May’s second attempt to pass her Brexit deal on which to publish its statement on local  government finance.

A reassuringly generous set of dispensations?

The statement by James Brokenshire (left) opens with eight substantial paragraphs detailing increased funding in a wide range of sectors, summarised in the New Statesman:

“As first announced in the Budget, the government is releasing extra chunks of funding for social care and potholes, as well as more money for high streets. The government calculates that its settlement adds up to a rise in core spending power for councils from £45.1bn in 2018-19 to £46.4bn in 2019-20: a 2.8% cash increase. (It has also reiterated the £56.5m across 2018-19 and 2019-20 to help councils prepare for Brexit, which we can’t really count as extra funding as it’s to fill a Brexit-shaped hole.)”

Councils are to be awarded £56.5 million across 2018-19 and 2019-20 to help prepare for EU Exit. It lists “a broad package of measures and confirms that Core Spending Power is forecast to increase from £45.1 billion in 2018-19 to £46.4 billion in 2019-20”.

This information is meaningless to the general public. Are they going only to the 117 largest councils listed here, or should district councils and London boroughs be included? And will they be distributed according to need, population, or other criteria?

Anoosh Chakelian’s verdict: Far from generous. She points out that after eight years of austerity, cash-strapped councils will still face a funding gap of more than £3bn this yearaccording to the Local Government Association.

She adds that the pressure to set legal budgets, with an average 49% drop in real terms spending power since 2010 and rising social care demands, means that councils need substantially more than a 2.8% rise.

Decisions on business rates retention and a fair funding formula for local government have been postponed, despite the planned consultations having taken place and their findings published.

Noting that the long promised green paper on adult social care has not appeared and the funding announced is ’a short-term one-off’, she quotes the head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, who said last March: “Current funding for local authorities is characterised by one-off and short-term fixes, many of which come with centrally driven conditions.”

Though James Brokenshire asserts that this settlement answers calls for additional funding in 2019-20, and paves the way for a more self-sufficient and reinvigorated system of local government, Anoosh Chakelian concludes: “This means councils will continue to operate in a financial void, unable to fund public services properly, while waiting for something to change in the promised Spending Review later this year”.

 

 

 

 

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FT: City of London’s clean air plan is a model for others

The FT’s editorial board highlights actions being taken by the local authority to turn parts of the City of London’s ‘Square Mile’ into a zero-emissions zone by 2022. Details here.

As the FT’s Simon Kuper recently reported, air pollution is said to contribute to more than 9,000 premature deaths in London each year and its harmful nitrogen dioxide levels are nearly as bad as those in Beijing and New Delhi – and much worse than in other developed cities such as New York or Madrid.

Nitrogen dioxide, which inflames lungs and is linked to shorter life expectancy, has become a major problem. The capital missed binding EU limits on air quality that came into force in 2010, largely due to diesel vehicles — which, it later emerged, emitted higher levels of pollutants in the real world than in tests. Congestion, which has pushed average traffic speed down to 8mph, compounds the problem. Add in the City of London’s narrow streets and tall buildings, and two of the capital’s five hotspots for excessive nitrogen levels lie within it.

The mayor of London is making headway

The impact of the City’s plans will be even greater if they bolster commitments by Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, to prioritise fighting air pollution throughout the capital and force the government to take action across the country.

  • From this year, all new single-decker buses will be zero emission.
  • New taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Next year, an ultra-low emission zone will come into force in central London, expanding outwards in 2021.

The borough of Westminster has proposed turning Oxford Street, the UK’s busiest shopping location, into a zero-emissions zone by 2022 and a parliamentary committee has called for a UK-wide ban on new petrol and diesel cars to be brought forward eight years, to 2032.   

The FT reports ‘lessons elsewhere’. Singapore has had an automated electronic road pricing scheme since 1988 and is moving to a satellite-based scheme in 2020 and advocates a move to cycling rates such as those In Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

Take a carrot-and-stick approach? The FT editorial board thinks that governments should both help and oblige people to change their behaviour

It cites Germany’s carrot-and-stick approach. A court ruling this week banned older diesel cars from driving in certain parts of Berlin – after the government had offered car owners generous bonuses for trading in older diesel cars.

The FT believes that The British government has not provided enough fiscal incentives to businesses and individuals who bought diesel vehicles in the mistaken belief that they were greener.

The Centre for London think-tank has proposed offering cash or mobility credits — which can be used to pay for public or shared transport — for scrapping diesel cars, as well as smarter distance-based car charges, and higher vehicle excise duties on the most polluting cars. The FT’s truism:

“Despite efforts to address it in London and other big cities, air pollution will remain dangerously high unless more people change behaviour. The City of London’s bold moves are worthwhile — but need to be happening not in a bubble, but right across the world’s major cities”.

 

 

 

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Britain, as yet neither mature nor a democracy, appears to need its monarch and its mayors

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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.

The well-paid BCC chief executive (right) was seeking to downgrade 106 Grade 3 jobs to a Grade 2, which meant that workers would lose £3,500-5,000 from their already low salaries of around £20,000.

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.

 

 

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FT: a strange blend of truth and spleen unwittingly affirms Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘superannuated socialist’ stance

The FT’s Philip Stephens, Tony Blair’s biographer, pertinently remarks:Today’s elites should ask themselves just when it became acceptable for politicians to walk straight from public office into the boardroom; for central bank chiefs to sell themselves to US investment banks; and for business leaders to pay themselves whatever they pleased”. He continues:

“Now as after 1945, the boundaries between public and private have to change. At its simplest, establishing trust is about behaviour. . . The lesson Europe’s postwar political leaders drew from the societal collapses of the 1930s was that a sustainable equilibrium between democracy and capitalism had been shattered by market excesses.

“Citizens were unwilling to accept a model for the market that handed all the benefits to elites and imposed the costs on the poor. In the US, then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded with the New Deal. Europe waited until the continent had been reduced to rubble in 1945 before building what the British called the welfare state and continental governments called the European social model. Economic prosperity and political stability were the rewards.

“The present generation of politicians should learn from the experience. Defending a status quo that is manifestly unfair in its distribution of wealth and opportunity serves only to put weapons in the hands of populists . . .

“One way to start redrawing the boundaries would be to take on the big corporate monopolies that have eschewed wealth creation for rent-seeking; to oblige digital behemoths such as Google and Apple to pay more than token amounts of tax; to ensure immigration does not drive down wages; and to put in place worthwhile training alongside flexible markets”.

The difference: Corbyn would act for altruistic reasons, but thepresent generation of politicians’ concede only to retain privilege

Stephens (right) ends by saying that what we need is a social market economy – combining the central elements of a free market (private property, free foreign trade, exchange of goods and free formation of prices) and universal health care, old-age pension and unemployment insurance as part of an extensive social security system

And most of this is precisely what Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s Labour party leader, wholeheartedly supports. Though dismissed by Stephens as a ‘superannuated socialist’, he would uphold and enhance the system presently faced with public disgust at the ‘fat-cat’ political-corporate revolving door with its rewards for failure. This disgust is combined with anger at the austerity regime imposed by those currently in power, which prevents local authorities from continuing basic public services and deprives some of the least fortunate of food and decent housing.

 

 

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Austerity 3: cuts on school transport for disabled children

The 5 live Investigates radio programme gave the Department for Education evidence from a survey of 2,500 parents gathered by the charity Contact, formerly Contact a Family.

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”.

Adrian Goldberg, the 5Live presenter, reports that one or both of their parents have had to cut down their hours, or give up work completely, in order to get the children to school.

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.

 

 

 

 

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Did the young Michael Fallon, Jeremy Hunt and Theresa Brasier play SimCity?

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.

saltaireShe reminds us that the Victorians campaigned to save their countryside, backed by artists, poets, architects, writers, businessmen like George Cadbury and Titus Salt (Saltaire, left).

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.

 

 

 

A reader-recommended video: “Who’s spending Britain’s billions?

 

tighten-belt-cropAs 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

99-3Peretti 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?

 

 

 

Fracking (etc): is Britain a democracy or a dictatorship?

 

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.

fracking ryedale test prompts fears

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.

fracking uk2 us gas prices graph

“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.

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The only hope for these threatened areas appears to be a check to the paramount political-corporate desire for profit.