“England has more than 200,000 empty homes. How to revive them?”

“Ask most people about England’s epidemic of empty homes and they are likely to think of lavish vacant mansions in London owned by absent foreign billionaires.

In fact, the majority of empty properties are in post-industrial areas, where poverty rates are high and house prices languish well below their pre-crash levels. Such a place is Stockton-on-Tees, near Middlesbrough, where Martyn Jones lives.

Two years ago Jones, 23, was homeless and relying on friends to let him sleep on their couches while he struggled to find work. Today, he is painting a wall in a gutted home on a quiet street, part of a group tasked with refurbishing some of the area’s many vacant, derelict homes.

Last week, Theresa May pledged an extra £2bn for housing associations to fund large-scale developments. But with new house building not providing enough affordable homes for more than 1 million people on waiting lists in England, social enterprises and councils are trying to bring empty homes, which number well over 200,000 and are worth almost £50bn, back into occupancy.

Over 11,000 homes have stood empty for at least 10 years, data shows

One of them is Community Campus 87, which buys such properties in Stockton-on-Tees, refurbishes them and offers them to previously homeless tenants at rents below the going rate for social housing. In the process, it provides jobs and skills training for people such as Jones.

Having left school at 16, Jones struggled with substance use and anxiety, unable to hold down a job. When his mother kicked him out, he worried he was out of options. “I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Campus,” he says. “They gave me a home, helped me along the way and now I’ve started going to college.”

Amid a dramatic national collapse in apprenticeships, about 15% of Community Campus’ staff are apprentices, according to its director and founder, Simon Virth. The group, which has refurbished about 250 homes so far, also offers help with job interviews, jobcentre appointments and finding free educational programmes at local colleges.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/25/england-has-more-than-200000-empty-homes-how-to-revive-them?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

“Lack of government lawyers [due to Brexit work] delaying preparations for council merger”

“A lack of government lawyers as a result of Brexit is to blame for delays in producing the necessary orders for a merger of two local authorities in the South West of England, it has been claimed.

The County Gazette has reported that three orders from central government are needed to transfer all the necessary legal powers to the authority that will take over from Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset District Council.

An apppendix to a paper presented at a meeting of Taunton Deane’s scrutiny committee last week said: “Still waiting on MHCLG [the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government] finalising – Brexit impacting on MHCLG’s ability to access lawyers in a timely fashion.

“As long as final version is very similar to draft sould not cause too great an issue. The uncertainty is the concern however.”

The appendix said a general order had been due to be published on 24 July this year.

The merger of Taunton Deane and West Somerset was backed in March by the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid.”

Source: Local Government Lawyer

Resuscitating high streets – or are they too far gone already?

Owl is noticing more and more empty shops – even in places that seemed to be weathering the High Street decline so far (eg Sidmouth).

Isn’t it time our council did an audit of our high streets (empty shops, open shops, temporary pop-up shops, local-owned independent, chain stores, charity shops) to get a proper idea of just how bad this problem is in each town and what the mix says about the health of each town centre? And time to come up with a strategy for their future?

“… Charges to withdraw money from cash machines would be scrapped under a Labour government to “save Britain’s high streets”.

Attempts to stop their “slow agonising death” were announced by shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey with a range of measures – including stopping Post Office closures.

Sky News can reveal Labour would draw up a register of landlords of empty shops in every local authority.

And the party would deliver free public wi-fi in town centres, for those having a coffee or working in community spaces.

The plans are due to be announced on Tuesday by Ms Bailey at Labour’s autumn conference in Liverpool.

She is aiming to boost support for the party in British towns, as leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested a general election could be called imminently.

Brexit secretary Dominic Raab insisted on Sunday that “it’s not going to happen”.

Research by Which? published in June found that the free-to-use ATM network was “under threat”.

The idea to ban them was championed by Labour MP Ged Killen, who welcomed the party’s announcement.

“No one should ever have to pay to access their own money,” he told Sky News.

“If any government is serious about economic development in our towns and high streets they need to protect the financial infrastructure people and business rely on.”

The other plans would see post offices owned by the government stopped from further franchising and closing.

Under-25s will also get free bus travel in local authorities where local bus services are either franchised or publicly owned.

Labour has also promised to “work with” councils to extend wi-fi roll-outs by commercial developers in public spaces.

And it will force shop landlords to make their identity and contact details public, creating an empty shop register to “make it easier to bring empty units into use”.

A new annual business rates re-evaluation will also be introduced. …”

https://news.sky.com/story/labour-would-scrap-atm-charges-in-bid-to-save-high-streets-11507872

Hospital re-nationalised after PFI shambles

“The government is expected to bail out Liverpool’s new £335 million NHS hospital and take it back into public ownership, nine months after the failure of Carillion left the project in crisis.

Carillion, the public sector contracting and construction group, collapsed in the new year with £2.6 billion of pension liabilities and £2 billion of debts.

Matthew Hancock, the health secretary, is understood to have told officials to end the impasse surrounding the hospital, which had been due to open last year. He is ready to say within days that the Royal Liverpool Hospital private finance initiative deal is being cancelled and that the project is returning to full public ownership, according to Sky News.

The trust that runs the hospital is due to hold a board meeting today and a statement from ministers may be timed to coincide with it. Private sector contracts relating to the project are set to expire before the end of the month.”

Source Times (pay wall)

Think things are bad now for councils? It is going to get MUCH worse

England’s county councils are to outline another wave of cuts, with almost £1bn needed in reductions to balance the books next February.

Startling analysis by the County Councils Network (CCN) warned that local authorities will set out £685m in savings and cuts next February; alongside an additional £233m of ‘unplanned’ frontline service cuts, unless the government provides these councils with new funding next year.

One of the root causes behind the major savings drives include significant overspends in areas such as children’s services: the CCN noted that county authorities have overspent £264m on the sector in the face of “unprecedented demand” for the services.

County authorities around the country are facing similar dire straits when it comes to financial difficulties: last week Somerset County Council approved major cuts worth £13m to services, and last month said they will need to cut more than 100 jobs to make the necessary savings to meet their budget.

The CCN noted that under soaring demand for care services, more resources will need to be diverted to compensate; extra charges could therefore be introduced, as well as increasing reductions to non-social care expenditure such as roads, libraries, economic growth services, and bus routes.

Leader of Leicestershire County Council and finance spokesman for the CCN Nick Rushton said: “County councils across the country have no choice but find a further £1bn of savings next year. Choices will be limited and reductions to front line services inevitable: with valued services such as pothole and highway repairs, children’s centres, libraries and increased charges for residents all on the agenda.

“There is not enough money today to run vital services. Next year there is even less from the drop in government funding, expiry of the social care grant and the ending of the social care precept for some councils. We will have to once again ask our residents to pay, but we are at the point where council tax rises alone are not going to protect services.

Cllr Rushton added unless the government intervenes and provides new funding, councils will have “no choice” but to outline the cuts in budgets next February. With councils using at least £185m of reserves this year, their ability to draw down the same levels next year to offset cuts is limited.

Chairman of the Local Government Association Lord Porter, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and the CCN will be giving their thoughts on the local government funding crisis in PSE’s upcoming magazine: hitting desks 8 October.”

Source: County Councils Network

Should utilities be renationalised? Probably, if this is anything to go by!

Owners of Britain’s largest water companies use offshore tax havens as they load up the firms with £24bn of debt:

“The owners of Britain’s largest water companies used offshore tax havens as they loaded up the firms with £24bn of debt.

Thames Water, Anglian, Southern and Yorkshire Water – which jointly supply almost 30m people – are billions of pounds in the red and paid no corporation tax last year.

Critics claim their debts were racked up by owners to drive down tax bills and extract huge profits.

The Paradise Papers have shone a light on the use of offshore tax havens by the rich and famous – but they are also popular with utility firms.

Thames, Anglian, Southern and Yorkshire all used offshore firms to borrow money. In total from all forms of financing, Thames now owes £10.5bn, Anglian owes £6.8bn, Southern owes £3.5bn, and Yorkshire owes £3.7bn.

Utilities financing expert Martin Blaiklock said: ‘How much of that cheap money has just been going straight into the pockets of the owners as opposed to benefiting the customers?’

The four firms set up subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands more than a decade ago to get around rules in the UK preventing them from raising cash on the bond markets. Although those rules have since been scrapped, many continued to use the offshore firms.

Often interest payments made through havens do not incur tax as they would in the UK.

Analysis of accounts by the Mail suggests money has been lent between different parts of the companies, generating interest payments that reduce taxable profits.

Southern Water Services Ltd paid £133.6m in interest during 2016-17 to Cayman subsidiary Southern Water Services (Finance).

Southern Water Services Ltd ended the year with an £84.9m tax credit.

Thames Water Utilities Ltd paid £356.8m on interest on inter-company loans and ended up with a tax credit of £70.3m. The firm has paid no corporation tax since 2006.

Anglian Water Services Ltd paid £286.5m in interest to subsidiaries while earning £192m in interest from other parts of the company. It ended the year with a tax credit of £37.9m. Anglian Water group has issued bonds via a UK company with a Cayman holding company it says is dormant.

Yorkshire Water Services Ltd paid £198m interest on inter-company loans and ended up with a £101.5m tax credit.

Thames’s former owner Macquarie and fellow shareholders paid themselves £2.6bn in dividends between 2006 and last year, while the firm faces huge fines for leaks. Water firms stress they are allowed to delay corporation tax to encourage investment. Anglian said it had invested £1bn in the region and paid £210m in taxes.

Ofwat, the water regulator, is unhappy about the offshore structures, warning the sector faces a huge crisis of public trust.

It also wants companies to bring debt down, and is expected to introduce tougher rules on the amount they can charge customers.

Aileen Armstrong, senior director for finance and governance at Ofwat said: ‘It’s clear that many people don’t like the idea of public monopoly utility companies relying on complex financial arrangements.’ Yorkshire Water says it plans to close its subsidiary. Thames and Anglian have also indicated they might do so.

A Thames Water spokesman said both Thames and its Cayman financing company were resident in the UK for tax purposes.

He said: ‘There is no tax benefit associated with the companies being registered in the Cayman Islands and the companies operate and are managed wholly from our UK office.’

An Anglian Water spokesman said its Cayman firm is dormant and serves no purpose.

He added: ‘As Anglian Water has always been registered in the UK for tax, it therefore does not, and never has, benefited from any tax advantage from this.’

A Southern Water spokesman said the firm is resident in the UK for tax purposes and that ‘there is no tax benefit’ to its Cayman Islands structure.

Yorkshire Water said it was taking steps to remove unnecessary offshore structures and pays all tax in full.

Finance director Liz Barber added: ‘Our policy is not to enter into transactions that have a main purpose of gaining a tax advantage and not to make interpretations of tax law that are opposed to the original published intention of the law.’ “

https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/markets/article-5078471/Britain-s-water-firms-flush-profits-tax-havens.html