Category Archives: Local government

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.
 

 

How many nuclear installations will be vulnerable to floods and rising seas?

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.

nuclear 2 drigg repository

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?

drigg llw 3

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…”

nuclear marianne kirkbyOn 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: democratic.services@cumbriacc.gov.uk

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.

defra 2 14-15 report coverA 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.

flooded business in yorkFlooded businesses in York

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.” 

Corbyn is offering truly democratic politics which take the public seriously

Several readers have commented on public consultations organised by local and national government. The narrow subject parameters and the lack of real information lead some to describe these as a charade.

Many allege that they are ‘managed’ – indeed ‘a sham’. The writer attended DfiD meetings years ago which – by preselecting discussion group leaders and issuing prepared minutes – got the desired result.

A search reveals such allegations: for example over Vauxhall bus station, NHS agency worker price caps, Nuneaton urgent care review, North East Lincolnshire Council future waste management, the M4 relief road and the Ministry of Defence Strategic Defenceand Security Review.

Anna Minton, the 1851 Royal Commission Fellow in the Built Environment, wrote in the FT about consultations dismissed as “a sham” by local communities:

“Consultation is a statutory requirement for councils and developers to which huge resources are devoted, with the rhetoric of community participation at the centre of every development brief. But time and again residents claim that consultations are carried out in name only, with “roadshows” and “exhibitions” by lobbying companies replacing public meetings. ‘You turn up, they tell you what they want to do, you go and they call that consultation’ “. She describes allegations of underhand tactics and dirty tricks subverting democratic processes:

  • there have been planning meetings elsewhere packed with actors,
  • fake letter-writing campaigns from non-existent supporters of controversial schemes
  • and “astro-turfing”: setting up by lobbying companies of apparently grassroots groups in favour of development.
  • The writer recently found out by chance that residents closest to a proposed development were just not informed of the consultation – only a few people from further afield attended.

Lesley Docksey writes of another tactic, “Make the questions so hard to understand that only those elements of business that support the government position will be able to answer them”. She gives a case history:

With just three days to go before the closing date, the Guardian alerted me to a DECC consultation on Feed in Tariffs (FITs) for solar energy. The government wants to reduce subsidies for solar energy by a massive 87%. Let people pay for it themselves while taxpayers’ money goes into nuclear and fracking seems to be their position.

Question 5 asked this:

“Do you agree or disagree that the updated assumptions produced by Parsons Brinckerhoff are reflective of the current costs of deployment for UK projects in your sector? If you disagree, please set out how they differ and provide documented evidence, such as invoices and/or contractual agreements to support this evidence. Please also mark this evidence as commercially sensitive where appropriate.”

My comment:

This and the following questions are aimed solely at industry. Has it escaped your notice that this “econsultation” is taking place on Citizen Space and should therefore take account of the voices of the citizens as well as business? Or are the technical questions there to frighten us off? For 15 of the following questions I answered “Comment as Question 5.”

Then I came to Question 30:

Do you agree or disagree that we should introduce a cap on the amount of overseas generated renewable electricity that can be exempt from the costs of the scheme? Do you agree that the cap for 2016/17 should be calculated based on the number of GoOs recognised in 2013/14, increased by 10% twice to match the cap under the CFD Supplier Obligation?

To “Comment as Question 5” I added “This is sheer gobbledygook for the average person in “Citizen Space”.

Well, could you understand any of it? Or do you, as I did, get the feeling they really don’t want our answers? That would interfere with what they have already decided to do.

The answers MPs and MEPs come up with are even worse. Consider this from Ashley Fox, Conservative MEP for the West Country:

“The regulation regarding all derivative products, including commodities is being driven globally by the G20 objectives to reduce risk through increased transparency and use of central clearing. The EU is implementing these measures via the European Markets Infrastructure Regulation. The future trading of these financial instruments on electronic platforms as opposed to bilateral contracts will be addressed in the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II and any abusive behaviour by market participants is covered under the Markets Abuse Directive Review. It is important that position limits are used as part of a wider tool box available to market supervisors in order to ensure the proper functioning of the market…” and so on.

Did you understand that? Did the MEPs understand it?

Conservative MEP Julie Girling produced exactly the same reply. The paragraphs were in a different order, and she admitted it had actually been drafted by Kay Swinburn, Conservative MEP for Wales. They needed a standard reply because so very many people had emailed their MEPs about this. Shouldn’t that have told them something?

What we are witnessing is the abject failure of democracy at local level

Anna Minton sets the context: “Building on Conservative thinking about localism and “open source planning”, the coalition agreement pledged to instigate “a fundamental shift of power from Westminster to people”, in order to promote “democratic engagement”. Instead what we are witnessing is the abject failure of democracy at local level”.

Corbyn mode

Lesley Docksey continues, “In contrast, because Corbyn and his team think the public should be consulted, and because I have a rural post code, I was asked to take part in a consultation about rural life. The questions were all about how I perceived the issues and problems in rural areas. In other words, tell us how it is, we will listen and then, with your help, work out the policies needed.

“It is this that Joe Public picks up on. He (or she) may or may not join the Labour Party but… despite the sneering and backstabbing, and the plans to oust Corbyn, the kind of politics he is offering takes the public seriously. Our opinions, the people’s opinions, aims and desires matter. And it really is about time the Parliamentary Labour Party recognised that.

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All Labour MPs, councillors and party activists who have ‘learned little from the excitement, energy and debate generated by the recent national leadership campaign’ please note

press 2header

Steve Beauchampé observes, in the Birmingham Press:

“Regrettably it would appear that West Midlands Labour has learned little from the excitement, energy and debate generated by the recent national leadership campaign when eventual winner Jeremy Corbyn spoke to packed and overflowing halls nationwide, including in Birmingham, and party membership soared to its highest level for decades.

“Were the West Midlands Labour Party asleep all last summer?”

He describes the decision by West Midlands Labour Party officials to bar those candidates standing to succeed Sir Albert Bore as leader of the Labour group on Birmingham City Council from taking part in public hustings as portraying ‘what remains of democratically accountable politics in Birmingham’ in a very poor light.

This, though at least four of the five candidates – Councillors John Clancy, Barry Henley, Penny Holbrook, Mike Leddy and Ian Ward – appear to have been willing to participate in such a debate. One event had already been announced and a second was apparently being planned.

Steve continues: “It is a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the body politic, which in Birmingham has been largely moribund for a long time, thus creating a situation whereby the current government feels able to circumvent the will of the city’s electorate and barely a word of protest is heard”.

How different from the current Labour leader’s aspiration:

corbyn conduct policy

Beauchampé touches on “a decade and a half of unwarranted and unwanted restructuring and interference by central government, including the imposition of the Leader and Cabinet system of governance, the wholesale privatisation and outsourcing of public services and the ongoing, ideologically driven, seismic cuts in central government funding (which) have eroded and emaciated local government, and with it key parts of its democratic structures and accountability. Adding substantially to this meddlesome litany is Chancellor George Osborne’s imposition in all but name of metro mayors upon regions whose electorate roundly and democratically rejected the mayoral model just three years earlier”.

Read more about the city’s situation by following the Press link.

Steve Beauchampé ends:  “One local political website has suggested that Labour’s hustings decision signals the death of democracy in the city. Well no, but it is a missed opportunity to reinvigorate the body politic, which in Birmingham has been largely moribund for a long time, thus creating a situation whereby the current government feels able to circumvent the will of the city’s electorate and barely a word of protest is heard”.

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The Birmingham Labour Party has now announced that there will after all be a public hustings although the date and venue are yet to be confirmed.