East Devon bursting at the seams – official!

Owl says: all these extra residents accessing fewer and fewer services. Let’s hope most of them are young and going to Cranbrook, Exmouth and Sidmouth – because there will be no maternity services or community hospitals in Axminster, Seaton, Honiton or Ottery St Mary.

“People moving to East Devon increased the population by almost 2,500 people – more than almost anywhere else in England and Wales.

An estimated 8,316 people moved to East Devon from elsewhere in the UK between July 2015 and June 2016.

This compared to 5,848 who went the other way during this time, new figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

This meant that an extra 2,468 people moved to East Devon than left – the second highest figure anywhere out of almost 350 counties and districts around England and Wales.

As of June 2016 there were 139,908 people in East Devon, meaning that 1.8 per cent of the population was made up of people who had just moved to the county from elsewhere within Britain.

This was the highest share out of anywhere in England and Wales.

The most popular destination for people to move to East Devon from was Exeter.

… A total of 700 people were estimated to have moved from East Devon to Exeter after subtracting those that went the other way, more than anywhere else.

On the other hand, Taunton Deane was the number one destination away from the area.

A net total of 54 people moved to Taunton Deane from East Devon in 2015/16.”


Another Tory dirty trick during the general election campaign?

“The Conservative party allegedly operated a secret call centre during the election campaign that may have broken data protection and election laws, according to an investigation by Channel 4 News.

An undercover investigation by the programme has found that the party used a market research firm to make thousands of cold calls to voters in marginal seats in the weeks before the election.

Call centre employees working on behalf of the party used a script that appeared to canvass for support rather conduct market research. On the day of the election, call centre employees contacted voters to promote individual candidates, which may be a breach of electoral law, the investigation claimed.

At the start of the election campaign, the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, wrote to all the major political parties reminding them of the law around telephone calls and data protection. She said that calling voters to promote a political party was “direct marketing” and was regulated by law.

The government also announced during the campaign that it wanted to tighten up the laws on nuisance calls and a bill on the issue was included in the Queen’s speech.

The Channel 4 News investigation, which ran over several weeks, found that a team employed by the Conservatives rang voters from a call centre in Neath, south Wales.

Operating from a script, the staff carried out calls for “market research” and “polling”. Identifying likely Tory voters in marginal seats could be important for the get-out-the-vote operation on election day, and also enable a political party to better direct its canvassing operation.

On election day, undecided voters were told that “the election result in your marginal constituency is going to be very close between Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party”.

They were then asked:

“So does knowing that you live in a marginal constituency that will determine who is prime minister for the Brexit negotiations, does that make you a lot more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate or a little more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate, or are you still unsure, or does it not make a difference?”

At an earlier stage of the campaign, the call centre staff said they were calling from a company called Axe Research, which does not appear to exist. Under the Data Protection Act, callers must disclose who they are and how the data will be used.

Asked what Axe Research was, one supervisor told Channel 4 News: “It’s just the name we do these surveys under, basically. I did a Google search, nothing comes up. But as far as anyone’s concerned, yeah, we’re a legit independent market research company.”

A week before the election, the same call centre staff started saying they were calling on behalf of Theresa May’s Conservatives.

The Conservative party said the call centre was conducting market research on its behalf, and was not canvassing for votes. The call centre confirmed it was employed by the party, but denied canvassing on its behalf.

A Conservative spokesman said: “Political parties of all colours pay for market research and direct marketing calls. All the scripts supplied by the party for these calls are compliant with data protection and information law.”

Evidence obtained by Channel 4 News suggests that on the day of the election, staff called voters in 10 marginal seats, including Bridgend, Gower, Clwyd South and Wrexham.

According to the Representation of the People Act, it is illegal to employ someone “for payment or promise of payment as a canvasser for the purpose of promoting or procuring a candidate’s election”. …”


“Heads warning of ‘cash starved’ schools”

“Heads are writing to parents warning them of deepening funding problems for schools.

Head teachers in England are keeping up the pressure on school funding, sending a letter warning about “cash-starved” schools to almost two million families.

As the government prepares to set out its plans in the Queen’s Speech, school leaders across 17 councils are calling for urgent action over a funding gap.

Claims over school funding shortages became an election battleground and a doorstep issue with voters.

The Conservative manifesto promised an extra £1bn per year from savings.
But there have been doubts cast on the biggest slice of this extra funding – with uncertainty over whether the government will go ahead with scrapping free meals for all infants.

With no majority in the House of Commons it would be more difficult to get through legislation to scrap the free meals for infants, introduced three years ago.

The plan to remove the meals came under fire from chef and healthy-school-food campaigner, Jamie Oliver.

Cutting staff

The funding warning letter will be sent by head teachers to parents in more than 4,000 schools, saying that many schools are going to have to cut staff and subject choices.

There were warnings before the election of schools having to reduce hours or even go down to a four-day week for some pupils.

School governors backed the concerns over funding, with the first ever “strike” by governors in West Sussex.
The letter will go to parents in the following councils: Brighton, East Sussex, Northamptonshire, Surrey, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Oxfordshire, Thurrock, Cornwall, Hertfordshire, Peterborough, Wokingham, Devon, Norfolk, Suffolk, West Sussex and Dorset.

Parents will be told about analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies which said that the Conservatives’ plans for school spending would mean a “real-terms cut of 2.8% in per-pupil funding between 2016 and 2022″.
The head teachers sending this letter are part of a regionally based campaign over school funding shortages.

Teachers’ unions are also demanding greater investment in schools. …”


A tale of two seaside towns


BIG seafront development plans, unpopular with locals, lots of income for land-holding EDDC and big income potential, quick tender and choice of partner:


SMALL seafront development plans, popular with locals, almost no EDDC land- holding or big income potential, no tender, no progress:

Gung-ho Exmouth, inertia on Seaton

If anything illustrates EDDC as business-led rather than resident-led this is it.

Local government property investment – the auditors’ roles

“Are these the magic money trees? The office blocks, shopping centres and petrol stations currently filling up the local government property portfolio with their promise of a harvest abundant enough to keep the fruit bowl full for years to come? Quite possibly, with a good soil for rooting, plenty of sunshine and lots of green-fingered attention. But also quite possibly not. Which is why you can expect a visit from your auditors, once they have remembered where they put their wellies.

It is a common scenario for auditors to have no knowledge of a substantial and risky project until it is too late for them to have any influence over it. Commercial sensitivities often lead to projects being run on a “need to know” basis, with external auditors joining internal auditors, scrutiny committees and sometimes even the section 151 officer on the other side of a firmly locked door.

The auditor may only find out about a project when the ink is drying on the contract, when there doesn’t seem much more to do than offer a sheet of blotting paper.

However, there is still a lot that the auditor can do that would be of benefit, even if there is nothing to be critical about.

For instance, the Spelthorne Borough Council £360m purchase of the BP campus with new borrowings of £377m against a budget requirement of around £13m is such a huge transaction that its mere existence surely justifies a public interest report from the auditors to reassure the local population that their new role as BP’s landlords will not weigh heavy upon them. There is no reason why public interest reports have to be reserved for bad news.

Unfortunately, auditors are not particularly keen on bringing good news. The best you will get is “negative assurance”: a declaration that, based on the investigations carried out, there is nothing that provokes the need for criticism. But this would still be a valuable contribution and is arguably what is required by the reporting duties in Schedule 7 of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

The least that we can expect is that auditors will eventually say enough to manage their reputation risk – limiting the possibility that someone at some point in the future could ask “where were the auditors?”. A couple of paragraphs in the audit letter affirming that it is an authority’s responsibility to make its own investment decisions and summarising the less reliable judgements by which those decisions have been taken.

So what will the auditors be particularly interested in?

Legal Powers

Since the introduction of the general power of competence, people seem more relaxed about identifying the legal powers supporting a decision. However, it is still important to know what powers are being exercised, particularly in understanding the implications of the limitations on those powers for a particular proposal.

For instance, the general power comes with restrictions on charging other than to recover costs and requires commercial activity to be run via a company. And the investment powers in the Local Government Act 2003 only extend to purposes relevant to an authority’s functions or the prudent management of its financial affairs. Advice confirming legality will be expected.

It is sometimes forgotten, by those without a legal background, that even if a power can be identified, then that power has to be exercised reasonably under the Wednesbury rules. Auditors will look for legal advice being properly grounded.

If an authority is borrowing to fund its purchases, there may also be questions about the propriety of borrowing to invest. Not so long ago this is something that would have rung alarm bells across the audit community. Judging by their appearance before the Public Accounts Committee in 2016, though, it does not seem a matter that DCLG and the Treasury are overly concerned by.

Finally, how are these projects integrated into the Prudential Framework? Arguments can be put that asset prices will rise to more than cover the cost of acquiring property and making good its depreciation, such that Minimum Revenue Provision (MRP) is not needed. But this is risking a potentially major funding problem if the value/cost relationship shifts adversely in the future. How can an authority demonstrate its legal duty to act prudently?

Value for Money

Auditors will be concerned to examine all the significant judgements, estimates and projections involved in a decision to invest. They will also review accounting treatments to ensure they align costs and benefits appropriately and look critically at funding and financing arrangements.

Exit strategies will also be relevant, particularly noting that if rental income falls sale of a property will only generate a capital receipt rather than revenue income that might fill the gap in the budget.

Any reporting in this area will be restricted to the adequacy of the arrangements put in place by the authority to achieve value for money and will not provide any comfort that it has actually been achieved.

Decision Making

Auditors will check that the authority has complied with its democratic framework and schemes of delegation, particularly if the proposal has proceeded on a “need to know” basis.

So, if you are in the process of bulking up your property portfolio, prepare for the muddy tread of your auditors as they come to gaze sceptically upon your magic money tree.

Stephen Sheen is the managing director of Ichabod’s Industries, a consultancy providing technical accounting support to local government.


Demonisation of the poor – Trump shows how to do it bigly

“Donald Trump has said he doesn’t want “a poor person” to hold economic roles in his administration as he used an Iowa rally to defend his decision to appoint the wealthy to his cabinet.

The US president told a crowd on Wednesday night: “Somebody said why did you appoint a rich person to be in charge of the economy? No it’s true. And Wilbur’s [commerce secretary Wilbur Ross] a very rich person in charge of commerce. I said: ‘Because that’s the kind of thinking we want.’”

Congressional Black Caucus refuses to meet with Donald Trump
The president explained that Ross and his economic adviser Gary Cohn “had to give up a lot to take these jobs” and that Cohn in particular, a former president of Goldman Sachs, “went from massive pay days to peanuts”.

Trump added: “And I love all people, rich or poor, but in those particular positions I just don’t want a poor person. Does that make sense?”