Jeremy Hunt personally intervened to ensure Virgin hospital contract in his constituency

“Jeremy Hunt, the new health secretary, personally intervened to encourage the controversial takeover of NHS hospitals in his constituency by a private company, Virgin Care, raising fresh concerns last night over his appointment.

Hunt, who replaced Andrew Lansley in last week’s cabinet reshuffle, was so concerned by a delay to the £650m deal earlier this year that he asked for assurances from NHS Surrey officials that it would be swiftly signed.

Virgin Care, which is part-owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, subsequently agreed on a five-year contract in March to run seven hospitals along with dentistry services, sexual health clinics, breast cancer screening and other community services. The takeover took place despite concerns being raised in the local NHS risk register about the impact on patient care following the transfer of management from the NHS to one of the country’s largest private healthcare firms, until recently known as Assura Medical.

The director of nursing highlighted the danger of “significant issues” emerging during the first year of Virgin Care control, which NHS Surrey has tried to ameliorate through contractual controls. There was also prolonged wrangling between NHS Surrey and Virgin Care over the terms of the deal, including staff’s terms of employment. However, during the lengthy delay before the deal was agreed, Hunt intervened to ask for assurances from the head of the primary care trust “that the delay is to ensure the best possible outcome for patients and staff”. Writing on his website about the issue, he added: “I hope that Assura and NHS Surrey are able to complete the transfer of services soon, but I am glad they are crossing every T and dotting every I.”

The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, said last night that the revelation would add to concerns about Hunt’s appointment and his affinity to big business so soon after the furore over the minister’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp while he was culture secretary during the attempted takeover of BSkyB. …”

More houses? Maybe not: “UK construction output falls at fastest rate in six years in January”

Construction output suffered its biggest monthly drop in six years, figures for January show, confirming that the sector’s recession drags on into this year.

The Office for National Statistics reported that UK builders’ work volumes fell by 3.4 per cent in the month, the largest month-on-month decline since June 2012.

There were deep drops private commercial construction work on the previous month as well as in private housing, which will concern ministers who are trying to drive up constriction rates.

On a year-on-year basis total construction output fell by 0.5 per cent, worsening from the 0.2 per cent rate of contraction in December.


“The sector was feeling as flat as a pancake in February with falls in new orders for the second month in a row, and with just a marginal rise in overall activity, as ongoing political and economic uncertainty shouldered the blame,” said Duncan Brock of the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply.

Civil engineering activity contracted at its sharpest pace for five months, according to the latest survey.

Housebuilding was also weak again, putting it on track for its weakest three-month performance since the third quarter of 2016. …”

Independents gaining more and more council seats countrywide

Labour and Conservatives lising to Independents – even in their heartlands and, in one case, on a single issue problem. Take elections held yesterday:

Wollaton West (Nottingham): Labour GAIN from Conservative.
* Farnworth (Bolton): Farnworth & Kearsley First GAIN from Labour.
* Oakham South East (Rutland): Independent GAIN from Conservative.
Rochester West (Medway): Labour GAIN from Conservative.
Northchurch (Dacorum): Liberal Democrat GAIN from Conservative
Droylsden East (Tameside): Labour HOLD
* Petersfield Bell Hill (East Hampshire): Independent GAIN from Conservative
Little Parndon & Hare Street (Harlow): Labour HOLD

* = Independent victories

Will East Devon MP Neil Parish will benefit from Exmoor Brexit initiative?

Well, he should, considering he is a former Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee and for his entire career in the European Parliament he was a member of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development (from January 2007 to July 2009 he was Chairman of the Committee AND he was appointed Conservative spokesman on agriculture and he was also the delegation’s deputy chief whip) …. and he farms from his family home on Exmoor.

Just a pity the test area isn’t in his Tiverton and Honiton constituency.

BUT what is it about East Devon that BOTH of our MPs choose not to have a home here (Swire’s second home is in Mid-Devon).

Still, on the bright side, at least his main interest isn’t the Middle East and, in particular, the Maldives!

“Exmoor’s farmers have received the backing of Cabinet minister Michael Gove MP.

Backed by the Exmoor Hill Farming Network, conservationists and local public bodies – Exmoor’s Ambition – aims to sustain and enhance Exmoor’s farmed landscapes and communities following the UK’s exit from the EU. …”

Street trading in East Devon – when bureaucrats go wild!

Translation: we made what was supposed to be a simpler system MUCH more complicated and now we are frantically paddling under the water while trying to make it simpler again but, being bureaucrats, we are finding this difficult”. Good luck with that.

“… since the introduction of the new system last October, the council says that it has received commented that it can be confusing and inflexible.

… Now though the council has announced they will be reviewing the street trading policy with a view to removing the street trading application fee charge entirely, giving clearer guidance on the activities that do and don’t require consent, a less detailed application form with less supporting information required and a more streamlined procedure for processing the application. …

… Cllr Steve Hall, the chairman of the licensing and enforcement committee, said: “Having listened to our customers, the council has identified the need to make refinements to ensure that it delivers in the way which was intended.”

Warning light for our LEP council partner’s finances (Somerset)

Owl wonders how our Local Enterprise Partnership will function with (at least) one partner council “showing financial stress” – and the lead partner which provides most of the administrative services to the LEP … and have some of those “fallen useable reserves” (fallen 60% in five years) “fallen” to the LEP – possibly even towards Hinckley C support?

As we do not get to see LEP accounts, we will never know.

“Three Conservative-run counties have been added to the list of those showing signs of financial stress because of funding cuts.

Somerset, Norfolk and Lancashire county councils are exhibiting some of the warning signs demonstrated by Northamptonshire county council before it declared itself effectively bankrupt last month, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The three join the Tory-run Surrey county council, which is facing a £100 million shortfall, as the counties in the deepest financial crises. The National Audit Office has found that one in ten councils could run out of money in the next three years. County councils have been hit hard by cuts to local government funding since 2010 and social care costs are rising.

Somerset, Norfolk and Lancashire’s usable reserves — effectively rainy day funds — have all fallen substantially in recent years, the bureau’s research found. Somerset’s usable reserves have fallen by 60 per cent in the past five years, Norfolk’s have halved and Lancashire’s have fallen by 48 per cent.

All three show further signs of financial difficulty. In Somerset the council overspent on children’s and adult’s social services in each of the past three years and its budget this year projects a £14.6 million overspend on children’s services, the largest in the country. Last month it announced plans to close two-thirds of its children’s centres.

In Norfolk the council has spent more than it budgeted for in each of the past three years, the bureau found, although the council disputed the claim it had been overspending and insisted its budgeting was “robust and prudent”.

Lancashire has overspent on children’s and adult social services in each of the past three years, and its funding gap is £97 million in the coming financial year.

A spokesman for Somerset said that the findings “overstate the position and don’t take account of our considerable contingency funds or the plans we have in place to make savings”. A Norfolk spokesman said the research was “scaremongering” and that the council had recently “set a balanced budget for 2018-19”. Angie Ridgwell, Lancashire’s chief executive, said: “There may be sufficient funds within the transitional reserve to support the identified budget gap in 2018-19 and 2019-20. However, further savings will need to be made.”

Source: The Times (paywall)

[Somerset county council has announced plans to close two thirds of its children’s centres in a bid to save cash]

Conservative Middle East Council (and Swire) come in for some stick

Owl has no understanding of Middle East politics whatsoever, flying only over East Devon, but well-known journalist Peter Oborne (see below for credentials) does have such an understanding and has quite a lot to say about Hugo Swire, the Conservative Middle East Council and its donors in this fascinating article:

Wiki: “Oborne is an associate editor of The Spectator and former chief political commentator of The Daily Telegraph, from which he resigned in early 2015. He is author of

The Rise of Political Lying and
The Triumph of the Political Class, and,
with Frances Weaver, the pamphlet Guilty Men.

He writes a political column for the Daily Mail and Middle East Eye. He sat as a Commissioner for the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life. He won the Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2012 and again in 2016.

Oborne is known for his acerbic commentary on the hypocrisy and apparent mendacity of contemporary politicians. …