Learndirect – another Tory scandal

Training company Learndirect should face an investigation after it was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee says.

The firm is estimated to have received more than £600m of public funding since 2011, but Meg Hillier said the government must demonstrate there were consequences for failure.

Ofsted has told the BBC no training provider should be beyond scrutiny.
Learndirect said it had made strong progress in improving its provision.
Ofsted’s report, which the company tried to prevent being made public, rated Learndirect inadequate overall, with failings in apprenticeships and lesser problems in adult learning.

No termination of contract notice has been issued, which would normally follow a similar rating.

Officials have told the BBC that because there is a need to “protect learners and maintain other key public services run by Learndirect Ltd”, the contract will run its course until next summer with intensive monitoring.
But those officials will face questions about their handling of the contract when they next appear before the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

‘Real slap’

Labour MP Ms Hillier MP said: “It’s a very big contract and we’re concerned the way Learndirect is treated is a sign the government considers it is too big to fail, which raises wider issues about how we contract these things out.”

She said she had asked the National Audit Office to consider looking into the contract. “If something is failing, the government needs to take action,” Ms Hillier continued. “It needs to show there are consequences, and it’s a real slap in the face to providers out there doing a good job, who are rated good or excellent by Ofsted, who then see a failing provider seemingly getting away with it.”

Learndirect Ltd has dozens of subcontractors, and takes a share of the contract value in return for passing the work on. But this case raise may wider questions about the scrutiny of major public contracts.

The head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, spoke exclusively to the BBC and FE Week in a joint interview about the lessons that need to be learned.
“We have to make sure that we say what we have to say about quality, no matter what,” she said. “We have to do that as early on as possible in the life of providers so we don’t end up with more Learndirects where there are 20,000 apprentices not getting what they should be getting.” She refused to be drawn on her view of the response by the Department for Education (DfE) following the Ofsted report, saying: “It is not for us to decide what happens to Learndirect.”

But she added: “I hope that the lessons from Learndirect will really focus people’s minds on what can be done up front, especially with very large providers. “In any system there are always going to be some problems, some providers with difficulty, and making sure the system can cope with the failure of any provider is an essential part of a functioning market.”
There is a risk for Ofsted that if robust action isn’t seen to be taken following a critical report, its own authority is undermined.

‘Act swiftly’

In a BBC interview, Skills Minister Anne Milton said Learndirect Ltd was not seen by the government as too big to fail. “It is most certainly not untouchable, we have the learners’ interests at heart. “We will continue to act swiftly with Learndirect and any other provider that fails to do as their contract specifies.” She also gave an undertaking to recoup any public money for training not delivered – the first time the government has said this publicly. “We will claw back from Learndirect any bit of their contract they have failed to fulfil.” That could only happen after an audit of the contract, if it was found that some training had not been delivered.

This criticism of Learndirect comes at a time when a significant expansion of apprenticeships is about to unfold.

The prospect of the new employer-funded apprenticeship levy has led to around 2,000 potential providers joining a new government register.
Ms Spielman said: “There are very clear risks. One is about people who shouldn’t be providing training at all, making sure they don’t get onto the register, or recognising that at the earliest possible moment before lives are disrupted.

“One is about making sure that people who have the potential to do it well stay in control of their business model and don’t lose sight of apprentices through layers of subcontracts that aren’t managed well.”
The new system will be very different, because employers will commission as well as fund the training.

Learndirect said it was making improvements to its adult training. “We remain committed to working with current employers and apprentices to ensure they receive the training and skills they need to succeed,” it said.

“Our focus is on delivering the highest levels of service and outcomes, and we will continue working closely with the DfE and ESFA [Education and Skills Funding Agency] to ensure its requirements around quality measures are met.”
A separate company Learndirect Apprenticeships Limited has been set up for business under the new apprenticeship levy.

A spokesman for that company said Ofsted had recognised it had prepared well for the new system and that corporate apprenticeship customers were happy with the standard of learning.”


Air pollution – citizen fights back

“An environmental campaigner is to bring a legal challenge over a city council’s adoption of its Local Plan, claiming that it is in breach of procedural requirements with regard to compliance with air pollution law.
The Canterbury District Local Plan proposes 16,000 new houses, mostly near Canterbury, on farmland outside the city boundary, with new slip roads, relief roads and further infrastructure.

The claimant, Emily Shirley, argues that this will result in additional car journeys of up to 112,000 daily, adding significantly to Canterbury’s roads.

Represented by law firm Leigh Day, she claims that the impact on air pollution was not properly considered by Canterbury City Council when adopting the plan and that the local authority failed to assess the cumulative effects of the proposed developments on the Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) as required by the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004.

Shirley is crowd funding the case through the CrowdJustice website. She said: “Air pollution is the invisible killer. Everyone knows how congested Canterbury’s roads are but few are aware of the dangers of air pollution. For many years, individuals, amenity groups and parish councils have tried to get air pollution reduction measures implemented in Canterbury without success. Challenging the Adopted Canterbury Local Plan in the High Court will hopefully lead to a Plan that will reduce the unlawful air pollution levels as soon as possible.”

Rowan Smith, solicitor at Leigh Day, said: “With the dangers of air pollution so much of a zeitgeist issue, it is unfathomable that the City Council is prepared to risk making things worse in its area. You only have to look at the UK’s recent commitment to ban the sale of all diesel and petrol vehicles from 2040 to realise how out of step these plans are with current low carbon trends in policy-making. The legal errors we say it has made in formulating its plans only further demonstrate how imperative it is that the City Council goes back to the drawing board.”

Canterbury City Council has been approached for comment.

Judgment is meanwhile awaited in an earlier legal challenge on air pollution grounds in Canterbury this year. This challenge, also involving Shirley – Shirley & Rundell vs Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – was heard in the High Court in July 2017. This case concerned the failure of the Secretary of State to call in a large planning application of 4,000 houses on air pollution grounds.”


A test for our LEP: offshore wind power now vastly less expensive than Hinkley C

The Local Enterprise Partnership for Devon and Somerset (Heart of the South West LEP) is investing heavily in Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset.

This is not surprising, as many of its members are making money, now and in the future, in providing services and infrastructure for the massively expensive French/Chinese project. Making THEIR money with OUR money – whether the white elephant gets built or not.

Now we hear that the infrastructure costs of offshore wind power have plummeted – making it much more cost-effective than nuclear power, particularly Hinkley C nuclear power:


Now, solar energy is operating at zero subsidy and onshore costs for wind power are also falling – and energy storage batteries are also becoming nearer to cost-neutral for homeowners.

So, what is/was our LEP’s Plan B for this eventuality?

Er ….. they don’t need one or want one, because THEIR profits aren’t based on what’s best for us, or what costs least but what’s best for them.

Extra 400,000 specialist homes needed for older people

Owl says: won’t happen. Most of them would need to be affordable or social housing and, if older people want to live near services, it has to be in towns and cities. In towns, apartments are geared to youuger people, in cities, places where older people might choose to live is now hundreds and hundreds of student housing blocks (Exeter is a good example).

Rural specialist homes are mostly bungalows, which are in such short supply they sell at a premium.

“The number of specialist homes for older people will need to increase by 400,000 in less than 20 years, a Local Government Association study has suggested.

The umbrella-body has called for a ‘residential revolution’ to provide adequate housing for the country’s growing elderly population as figures show one in five of the people in England will be over 65 in a decade.

As well as increasing the number of specialists homes for older people by 75% by 2035, the LGA also calls for sufficient funding to adapt existing housing.

This is because, the study has concluded, at least 80% of the homes we will inhabit by 2050 will have already been built.

Martin Tett, the LGA’s housing spokesman, said: “Our ageing population means that older people are an increasingly crucial part of our housing market.

“They now live in a third of all homes, and this is set to increase. Delivering quality housing that meets the needs of these older people is essential.”

On Friday council leaders pointed out that only 0.6% of over 65s live in specialised accommodation, with a form of care support such as 24/7 on-site staff.

In contrast countries like the USA or Australia have 10 times more of their over 65s living in arrangements of that kind, the LGA pointed out.

Tett said councils were using innovate ways of providing housing for older people, from building purpose built ‘right-size” homes for their needs to placing housing at the heart of efforts to integrate care.

“However, councils cannot tackle this issue alone. Support from government, which incentivises housebuilding and provides councils with the funding and resources they need, is crucial to our efforts to support positive ageing,” he said.

The LGA has also demanded more planning powers so councils can ensure developers build quality homes and infrastructure that are well designed to support positive ageing.

The government said it is committed to making sure there are more suitable housing to meet the needs of older people.

A spokesman from the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Through the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017, we’re strengthening planning rules so that councils have clear plans for addressing the housing requirements of older people, and our building regulations now include a standard for homes to improve accessibility in homes.”


“Health services top rural concern” but there are many other concerns too

“Rural residents are more concerned about declining healthcare services than any other issue, reveal the preliminary results of a wide-ranging survey.
Health topped the list of the topics of most concern to rural residents – ahead of public transport, rural housing and rural crime.

The survey of 1901 people was conducted on behalf of Rural England Community Interest Company by researchers from the Countryside and Community Research Institute, based at the University of Gloucestershire, and in partnership with the Rural Services Network.

The survey – believed to be the largest of its kind for many years – highlighted a range of issues with health services of most concern to respondents.

Full findings are due to be published later this autumn.

However, the preliminary ‘headline’ – summary results are being published at this year’s annual Rural Services Network Rural Conference – held at the University of Gloucestershire’s Cheltenham campus on Wednesday, 6 September.
RSN chair Cecilia Motley said: “The theme of this year’s conference is ‘The Infrastructure of Success – New Routes to Economic Growth’.

“What we mean by ‘Infrastructure’ is all those things essential to economic and community well-being.

“So we include health services and care, reliable, affordable fast speed broadband and mobile connectivity; affordable homes to meet the needs of local people; reasonable public transport; accessible training and development opportunities; good quality schools and the accessibility and affordability of all of the essential services provided by local government.
“These preliminary results are very timely to aid discussions at the conference.

“Confirmation that health – together I suspect with social care – is the main preoccupation for rural communities will surprise many people who might think other issues are more pressing, as past surveys (by others) have shown.”

“This early evidence of concern about healthcare provision comes at a time when many countryside communities face the withdrawal of vital GP services, NHS Service re-configurations and general recruitment difficulties. NHS providers are already expressing grave concerns about what they are describing as the worse winter in recent history.

“Although rural residents have other concerns – such as lack of affordable housing, poor public transport, often non-existent mobile and broadband connectivity and fears over the future of rural schools – health provision, social care and accessibility has risen sharply up the rural agenda.”

The aim of the survey was to canvass rural opinion with a view to creating, for the first time it is believed, a statistically valid representative panel of people to highlight the need for the adequate provision of rural public services and other policy issues affecting rural areas.

Largely rural shire areas score badly on some Public Health Outcomes Framework (PHOF) indicators, according to a recent report by the Rural England Community Interest Company.

This includes the provision of health checks, mental health services, access to health screening and late HIV diagnosis.

In terms of rural public transport, the survey findings come as little surprise with significant reductions in public transport services across rural areas as a result of government cuts in financial support for local government services.

And when it comes to rural housing, campaigners have long warned that high prices mean people are often unable to afford to buy their own home in the communities where they were born.

Meanwhile, a National Rural Crime Network report in 2015 warned that crime in the countryside was costing as much as £800m annually – putting further pressure on already stretched police forces.

Councillor Motley said: “There is a lot of concern among rural communities about the impact of public service cuts on services generally.

“Rural areas have always had thinner services than in other areas and funding cuts are hitting those services very hard – rural people, businesses and communities are still having a very difficult time.”


Funding opportunities for coastal communities

Unfortunately, in terms of regeneration £40m doesn’t go very far.

“£40m for new coastal funding round

Ministers have confirmed that £40m will be available through the next round of a fund to support coastal communities. The government has already provided £170m for 278 projects around the country since the Coastal Communities Fund was launched in 2012. Coastal communities minister Jake Berry said: “This year is already looking like another record year for staycations and our latest round of funding will help attract even more visitors to the great British coast so that our coastal communities can thrive.”


“Charity shops: bringing in the cash, but bringing down the high street?”

The article praises the work that charities and their volunteers do, but also addresses the perception that they influence feelings of the decline of towns as they proliferate in High Streets:

Most members of the public associate charity shops with high street decline, and 50% think a “healthy” high street should contain fewer charity shops.

These stark findings come from a report by thinktank Demos, updating its 2013 report on charity shops, both commissioned by the Charity Retail Association. Four years on, Demos says charity shops continue to be a lifeline for struggling town centres.

“Charity shops continue to perform a vital function in filling otherwise vacant properties in ailing high streets, with two-thirds of managers saying that their shop fills a space that would otherwise be left empty,” says the report.

But it notes that public opinion about the presence of charity shops on the high street is mixed, with the sector still facing an image problem in being associated with the decline of local high streets. Those surveyed overwhelmingly support charity shops receiving business rate relief, but more than half associate charity shops with high street decline. …


“Britain flouting duty to protect citizens from toxic air pollution – UN”

“… “Air pollution continues to plague the UK,” he said. “I am alarmed that despite repeated judicial instruction, the UK government continues to flout its duty to ensure adequate air quality and protect the rights to life and health of its citizens. It has violated its obligations.” …