“Local government is a failed state” and devolution is ” unresearched and unconsulted”

“George Osborne knows it, Theresa May knows it, the Hillsborough families know it. We all know it. Britain’s national government may be a democracy, but its local government is a failed state.

There were plenty of moments in the Hillsborough saga when local accountability could have lanced the boil. Local pressure could have forced the Sheffield police chief to resign after the Taylor report, not to wait until his successor resigned. A district attorney could have prosecuted the police for gross negligence. An elected mayor of Sheffield could have sacked the police chief or, if need be, been voted out of office.

Such customary processes of democracy do not obtain in Britain. Instead, we must wait for a shambolic quarter-century of bumbling and costly inquiries, inquests, lobbying and lawyers. Still they leave a lingering sense of justice unfulfilled. No one has been properly blamed and punished.

Some ministers, we thought, had got the point. In 2012 Theresa May introduced locally elected police and crime commissioners. Their impact has been derisory. Voter turnouts have been between 10 and 20%. The police commissioners have dispersed electorates and minimal powers.

The concept works only in London, where the mayor is also commissioner and can bring the political weight of his mandate to bear.

Osborne seized on Manchester as the base for his northern powerhouse, and showered it with powers and money, provided it accepted his newfound fascination with elected mayors. In Manchester, at least, this made sense. Soon other cities were clamouring and were told to reorganise themselves into city regions and accept elected mayors. Osborne was forced to offer everyone more power, until England is on the brink of reordering itself into mini-regions, run by a third tier of local government under mayors, however inappropriate the political geography.

Osborne told Bristol to merge with Bath and Suffolk with Norfolk.

In doing so, the chancellor was reviving the various attempts at sub-regional government that have started and failed since 1974. Britain hates provinces. It knows and prefers cities and counties. Regions may reflect Whitehall’s bureaucratic convenience, but they are poor substitutes for local identity. The former local government secretary, Eric Pickles, understood this. He wisely said he “kept a pearl-handled revolver in my drawer to use on the first person who suggests local government reorganisation”.

Despite his good intentions, Osborne’s bid to restore local accountability to English government has hit trouble. It is unresearched and unconsulted, advancing in fits and starts.

Above all, he lacks a consistent concept of distributing power. His new planning regime obliterates local opinion. He intends, so far, to seize local councils’ most prized institutions, their schools, declaring local councillors unfit to run them. He is dumping NHS services on to local care authorities, with no extra money.

The result has been a fierce reaction from within the Tory party, from an alliance of county leaders, such as Kent’s Paul Carter and Norfolk’s Cliff Jordan, with disgruntled Tory backbenchers and peers. They see a prime minister and a chancellor in thrall to green-belt speculators and academy chains, careless of the countryside and of local people.

Now these county leaders are told they are to be overruled by “strategic” mayors for whom few will bother to vote. The Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham compared the mayors to central government gauleiters. This alliance is now strong enough to veto Osborne’s reforms; it is torturing his budget aftermath and is rendering Cameron a minority prime minister in all but name.

Whenever asked, Britons say one thing loud and clear: they want more local accountability, not less. Their faith in modern government diminishes the closer it gets to the centre. An Ipsos Mori poll three years ago put trust in local government at 79% and in central government at 11%.

When offered more local devolution in the past, the public has tended to say no, thank you – as with John Prescott’s elected regional authorities in 2004. Locally elected mayors have won scant support in referendums, for instance in Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, which remain firmly under party control. But people are keen on mayors where city government is seen as failing in the past, and where there is a strong sense of civic identity. Bristol’s George Ferguson, Middlesbrough’s Ray Mallon and Leicester’s Peter Soulsby stand out in this respect.

Next week London voters go to the polls to choose a successor to Boris Johnson. London’s two elected mayors have been an undeniable success. Johnson and Ken Livingstone may have fumbled reform of the capital’s police and transport unions. Johnson has left a metropolis forever scarred with planning disasters. But everyone knows whom to blame. London’s rash of luxury high-rises will forever be Johnson’s follies. No one wants the capital to go back under the control of a junior environment minister, as under Thatcher and Major.

Local government makes most sense when rooted in locality, in coherent communities used to running their own affairs. The cities and county boroughs inherited from the 19th century were such bodies. They attracted good local people to serve their councils, as happens today in Germany, France and the US. Local turnouts in the first two are between 60 and 80%. In Britain it is nearer 35%, a sure sign of democratic failure. Osborne’s random scatter of mayoralties is unlikely to stir the juices of accountability.

Proper democrats want someone local to hear and act on their complaints. They do not want to be perpetual supplicants at the gates of Whitehall, as the Hillsborough families have been. They want someone to blame, someone to sack, someone they know. Only in England is that someone denied them.”


Viruses affect German nuclear power plant

If this can happen in Germany, imagine what could happen in French-designed system!

“A computer system at a German nuclear power plant which controls the movement of radioactive fuel rods has been infested by two viruses.
Officials discovered the unauthorised software at the Gundremmingen plant around 75 miles northwest of Munich.

The plant,run by German utility company RWE,claims the security of the facility was not jeopardised because the infected computer systems were not connected to the internet.

The computers were infected by ‘W32.Ramnit’ and ‘Conficker’ viruses.
Malware was also found on 18 removable data drives, mainly USB sticks, in office computers maintained separately from the plant’s operating systems. RWE said it had increased cyber-security measures as a result.

W32.Ramnit is designed to steal files from infected computers and targets Microsoft Windows software, according to the security firm Symantec. First discovered in 2010, it is distributed through data sticks, among other methods, and is intended to give an attacker remote control over a system when it is connected to the Internet.

Conficker has infected millions of Windows computers worldwide since it first came to light in 2008. It is able to spread through networks and by copying itself onto removable data drives, Symantec said.

RWE has informed Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI), which is working with IT specialists at the group to look into the incident.
The BSI was not immediately available for comment.

Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer for Finland-based F-Secure, said that infections of critical infrastructure were surprisingly common, but that they were generally not dangerous unless the plant had been targeted specifically.

The most common viruses spread without much awareness of where they are, he said.

As an example, Hypponen said he had recently spoken to a European aircraft maker that said it cleans the cockpits of its planes every week of malware designed for Android phones. The malware spread to the planes only because factory employees were charging their phones with the USB port in the cockpit.

Because the plane runs a different operating system, nothing would befall it. But it would pass the virus on to other devices that plugged into the charger.

In 2013, a computer virus attacked a turbine control system at a U.S. power company after a technician inserted an infected USB computer drive into the network, keeping a plant off-line for three weeks.

After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster five years ago, concern in Germany over the safety of nuclear power triggered a decision by the government to speed up the shutdown of nuclear plants. Tuesday was the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.”


Austerity – not at East Devon District Council!

The employee statistics for EDDC make very interesting reading. It can be hard to work out what is going on, as structural changes such as the creation of Strata, or the transfer of traffic wardens to DCC, can distort the numbers.

However, between May 2015 and March 2016, the number of staff measured by full-time equivalent has increased by 23. And the number of new starters exceeds staff leavers by a whopping 34.

The cost of 23 full-time staff, when all the extras are taken into account could be of the order of £1 million per annum. Has this been budgeted for?

And, of course, the new HQ at Honiton is going to have to be substantially bigger, and therefore more expensive, to accommodate all those extra people.

Since relocation was first proposed, and the HQ space needs assessed, the number of full-time equivalent staff appears to have risen by about 50.

Tax avoidance isn’t the only problem …

“The Guardian has calculated that Green and his family collected £586m [from BHS] in dividends, rental payments and interest on loans during their 15-year ownership of BHS. Over the same period, the group’s pension fund went from a surplus to a deficit of £571m.”


So, basically, Green robbed the pension fund, avoided tax, got a knighthood from Labour and was appointed “Waste Czar” by the Coalition!

Interestingly, Journalist Will Straw spotted this anomaly in August 2010 when he wrote an article entitled “Philip Green is an odd choice for efficiency tsar” in which he wrote:

Philip Green is clearly a savvy businessman, but his avoidance of tax raises questions about his suitability:

Earlier this week, David Cameron wrote in the Sun: “Cutting benefit fraud is a no-brainer. That’s why benefit fraud is the first and the deepest cut we will make.” Launching his one-sided crusade there was no mention of the tax gap, which dwarfs welfare and tax credit fraud by a factor of more than 10 to one. Cameron has now added insult to injury by appointing Sir Philip Green – a tax avoider – as his efficiency tsar.

David Cameron’s focus this week on tackling “welfare cheats” has underlined his priorities. The coalition is committed to an ideological programme of spending cuts worth £83bn by the end of this parliament – 60% more than planned by the Labour government. But, as the Guardian reported, there is just £1.5bn in benefit and tax credit fraud – the rest is due to system failure. Compare this with the £17bn on tax avoidance, evasion and non-payment identified in HMRC’s Protecting Tax Revenues report and you get a sense of whether we’re really “all in this together”.

Tax avoidance is not a crime, but it is certainly a poor qualification for taking on a new role as head of an “external efficiency review”. In 2006, using figures calculated by campaigning accountant Richard Murphy, the BBC’s Money Programme reported that Philip Green and his family had saved themselves nearly £300m the previous year living partly in Monaco, where residents do not have to pay income tax. …”

Devolution: Conservatives reject idea of mayors for rural parts of England

Scared they might get an Independent or worse (for them)? Scared a Mayor coming from Somerset might neglect Devon or vice-versa? Or a Mayor who doesn’t like Hinkley C? Or just plain scared of all these things happening over which they have no control whatsoever?

And this “bottom up” devolution – where exactly IS its bottom?

Plans for new elected mayors announced in the Budget by the government should be abandoned, Conservatives have said.

Local councillors and some MPs say mayors for three rural parts of England will add an expensive and unwanted extra tier of government. Councils could reject the idea and opt out of new authorities in Lincolnshire, the west of England and East Anglia, North Somerset MP Liam Fox said.

The government says it wants to help the local economy and devolve power.
Some Conservative councillors in the rural areas intend to try to block the policy, which will not be imposed on unwilling areas.

In his Budget in March, Chancellor George Osborne announced plans for elected mayors in the three areas.

Local authorities will vote on whether or not to accept detailed proposals by the end of June.

MPs dilemma

North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham, said people would feel no affinity to a new authority and elections for a new mayor would attract a “pathetic” turnout.

He told the Today programme on Radio 4: “Now I don’t want a regional leader coming along and saying ‘look Henry you’ve been a bad boy, I gather you don’t want this incinerator, you don’t want these houses, well actually the region do want it and I’d like you to have it’.

“That is going to put MPs in a very difficult position and change their constitutional position.” While he supported the idea of devolution, he said plans for a new mayor should be put on hold.

‘Unstoppable momentum’

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said it was making “huge progress” in making local areas more powerful by devolving power from Whitehall.

A source close to the chancellor said: “The devolution revolution taking place across the country has unstoppable momentum behind it.” Six new authorities, which will have elected mayors, have been established in mainly urban areas, with another expected this summer.

Conservative sceptics argue the plans will not work in rural areas. Passing extra powers to large authorities with accountable, high-profile mayors is one of the Mr Osborne’s central aims.

‘Bottom-up process’

Privately, some Conservatives have compared it to the government’s attempt to turn all English schools into academies, accusing it of forcing the plan on reluctant councils. One said councils had been “bribed and bullied” in a bid to make them accept the idea.

But a DCLG spokesman said: “The government is making huge progress towards rebalancing the economy and empowering local areas through the devolution of powers and resources away from Whitehall to local people.

“Ministers have been repeatedly clear that devolution is a genuinely bottom-up process – all proposals are agreed by local leaders, and the government will not impose an arrangement on any area.”

Chris Skidmore, the Conservative MP for Kingswood near Bristol, said he supported the idea, and a new West of England mayor would create a “powerhouse in the south”.

Directly-elected mayors would be put in place, he said, even if some authorities chose not to take part. He said: “If one council decides they don’t want to do a deal, the other three will go ahead with the same pot of money given to those three councils.”

Huge cost

Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson, who has secured a House of Commons debate on the topic, said politicians would not give the government a “blank cheque” to sign up for more local government with a weak mayor.

He said: “It’s not something when you’re talking of spending hundreds of millions of pounds over the next 30 years that any responsible elected politician accountable to their electorate can sign up to.”

North East Somerset Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is also opposed.

The leader of the Conservative group on Norfolk County Council, Cliff Jordan said he thought the council would reject the policy.

The Labour leader of the Council George Nobbs supports the idea of devolution but also opposes the policy in its current form.

Cambridgeshire County Council, which has a Conservative leader, has already voted to oppose the plan as it stands.

The Local Government Association wants local areas to be able to accept new powers and extra funding offered by the Treasury without having elected mayors.

A spokesman said: “People should be free to choose the appropriate model of robust governance for their community.”


EDF recalled to Parliamentary Committee to explain further delay to Hinkley C

26 April 2016

“The Energy and Climate Change Committee has called senior representatives from EDF back to Parliament to explain the further delay in making an investment decision on a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C.

Inquiry: UK new nuclear: status update
Energy and Climate Change Committee
Angus MacNeil MP Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee:

“When EDF appeared before us in March, company bosses were insisting that a decision would be made in May. At that hearing we said that we would call them back in if that timetable slipped again and that’s what we are doing now.

If Hinkley does not go ahead it could have huge implications for our future energy security and efforts to cut climate-changing emissions. We will therefore be watching progress on this closely. If we have to see EDF back here in September as well, we will.”

Dates and times for the hearing will be confirmed in due course, but it is expected to take place in late May.

On 23 March, the committee took evidence from EDF regarding the status of the plans to build two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point C. EDF Energy Chief Executive, Vincent De Rivaz, told the committee that the final investment decision would be taken “very soon” and confirmed that the French Minister of Economy had suggested it would be “early May”.”

“Blow for Pope as audit into Vatican finances forced to halt”

“… The first external audit of Vatican finances by an internationally respected accountancy firm has been halted.

In what will be seen as a blow to Pope Francis’ reforms, a letter on 12 April was sent to Holy See departments informing them the work of PricewaterhouseCoopers has been “suspended immediately”.

The letter, reported by Crux, was written by Archbishop Giovanni Angelo Becciu, one of the top officials at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. It explains that any permission to hand financial data to PwC has now been revoked.

Australian Cardinal George Pell, Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, had commissioned PwC to review the Vatican accounts, work which had previously been done by an Italian firm. The audit by PwC was the first of its kind and was going to provide a complete picture of Holy See finances, including a valuation of all its assets.

But in his letter Archbishop Becciu said that Cardinal Pell’s instruction for Vatican bodies to co-operate with the firm had been overruled by “superior provision”. A spokesman for Pell said he was “surprised” by the suspension of the audit and expects it to resume shortly.

It leaves open the question as to whether this came from the Pope, his advisory body of cardinals or the 15-body council for the economy, led by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, which oversees the work of Cardinal Pell’s department.

Crux reported that the point of contention by those opposed to the PwC audit was not transparency but a concern over the nature of the contract with the firm.

There has, however, been sustained resistance to the Pope’s reforms of Vatican finances which blew up when documents were leaked showing mismanagement of money. Those who leaked them, and the journalists who reported the material, are now being prosecuted in what is known as the “Vatileaks 2″ trial.

Cardinal Pell has also become something of a lightning rod for opposition with accusations of dirty tricks being made when the cardinal’s expenses were leaked.

Some of the strongest opposition to Pell’s work has come from within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State, traditionally the most powerful body in the Vatican, and APSA (Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See), which manages Vatican assets. Both are believed to have resisted attempts to come under the oversight of Pell’s department.

The position of the cardinal, who reaches retirement age of 75 in June, is under pressure – things were made worse for him following four days of uncomfortable cross-examination by an Australian inquiry into clerical sexual abuse.

Pope Francis met with Pell this morning.”


Maybe they need the South West Audit Partnership …

Guardian editorial slams devolution secrecy and lack of democracy

You can’t devolve powers to local people if they don’t know anything about it. The Tories need to come clean on what powers are on offer and how they will pay for them”

“Is the government’s “devolution revolution” stalling? The National Audit Office’s new report on English cities’ devolution deals, published last week, suggests it could be. The report makes clear what council leaders have been telling the government for months: many councils don’t know what powers are on offer to them, when they may get them, or how they will pay for them.

All these concerns should have been addressed much earlier in the process. Last year, the Tories blocked Labour amendments to the cities and local government devolution bill that would have made devolution work much better.

We called on the government to let areas choose whether they wanted a mayor or not, to publish a full list of services available for devolution, and to devolve resources alongside powers, so local areas aren’t just left to take the blame for government-imposed cuts. We also called for more devolution, beyond town halls to communities, giving people more control over the services they use.

Despite demands for more transparency, government ministers have become ever more secretive. In the past month alone, the communities secretary Greg Clark has refused two parliamentary questions and a Freedom of Information request to publish a list of which councils he’s talking to about devolution.

Transparency matters because you can’t devolve powers to communities if they don’t know anything about it. Involving communities will lead to better devolution deals because local people understand their own communities better than Whitehall does.

Polling by Ipsos Mori demonstrates a close link between awareness of devolution and positive attitudes towards it. Being open about devolution builds support, while doing deals in secret breeds opposition. That’s why the most successful transformations in public services are coming from local, not central, government. Plymouth council, for example, has set up more than 30 energy co-ops working with their community; Rochdale has recently mutualised its housing stock to give tenants a real stake in ownership, and Oldham council has improved care for older people and better conditions for care staff in its ethical care company.

Rochdale joins staff and tenants together as biggest mutual in housing
As leader of Lambeth council until 2012 I learned that giving communities a bigger voice leads to better public services. A tenant management board gave residents the power to lead the transformation of Blenheim Gardens housing estate in Brixton, improving repairs and rent collection, and cutting crime. A community-led youth trust is creating new opportunities for young people and tackling gang crime in some of the south London borough’s most disadvantaged communities.

This is real devolution – people getting the chance to influence decisions that affect them, and making the professionals who run those services listen more carefully to the people they serve.

The NAO raises concerns that devolution has been so tightly controlled by the chancellor, George Osborne, excluding even other government ministers, that it could go into reverse if there is a change of chancellor. How ironic that an agenda based on letting go is being so tightly gripped by a single over-controlling individual. And there is no consistency to the government’s approach. At the same time as the devolution bill was going through parliament last year, the government was pushing through a housing bill that centralised more than 30 powers in Whitehall.

Labour has argued for more ambitious devolution that shapes a new relationship between citizens and the state and redefines the relationship between local and national government.

We believe in devolution by default. That means a new approach that assumes powers will be devolved unless there is a compelling reason not to. We want to see resources devolved alongside powers, with fiscal devolution that ensures funding follows need. And we want devolution to mean something more than a transfer of power from one set of politicians to another – communities need a new right to request control.

Last week’s NAO report backs Labour’s charge that the government’s approach is too limited, too centralised and too controlling. This is a moment to be bold, to let go and let communities shape the devolved future they want for themselves.


Two more u-turns on the Housing Bill to add to the 17 previously reported

Ministers agreed to review planning laws relating to basement developments amid fears councils cannot control the growth of “subterranean development”

The Government will look again at private landlords being able to reclaim properties when the become vacant after concern that it was open to being used as a “back-door” way to evict tenants.