“Blundering council worker mows a wildlife meadow at [EDDC HQ] centre of Sir David Attenborough’s Big Butterfly Count”

Owl says: Just one question: many senior officers occupy rooms facing the wildflower meadow. Did not one of them stop and wonder what the man was doing?

Red-faced council bosses have apologised after a blundering worker mowed flat a wildflower meadow being monitored for David Attenborough’s Big Butterfly Count.

East Devon District Council said sorry after an employee on a sit-on mower turned the valued site into a desert at The Knowle in Sidmouth.

The worker was tasked with cutting a pathway from the car parks for people to walk down to the town. Instead he cut the whole nine acres. …”


“Jacob Rees-Mogg firm advising top Canada marijuana market investor”

“Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment firm is advising one of the highest-profile investors in Canada’s marijuana market.

Somerset Capital Management, co-founded by the prominent Brexiter MP, is an adviser to an emerging markets fund established by Purpose Investments.

Purpose Investments has emerged this year as one of the most prominent investors in the Canadian cannabis market. The drug will become legal for recreational use there in October, but it has been legal for medical use since 2001.

Rees-Mogg, chair of the pro-Brexit European Research Group, has refused to back either the decriminalisation or legalisation of cannabis in the UK.

The development comes days after it emerged that Somerset set up a second fund in Ireland after it warned earlier this year about the financial dangers of the sort of hard Brexit favoured by the Conservative MP.

Documents show that Somerset Capital Management is an adviser to the Purpose Emerging Markets Dividend Fund, which invests in sectors including financials, IT and mutual funds in countries such as South Korea, Russia, China and Turkey. The fund does not include investments in the marijuana market.

With legalisation in Canada due in the autumn, funds across North America are looking to cash in.

In January, it was reported that Purpose’s subsidiary Redwood Asset Management had set up Canada’s first actively managed marijuana-themed exchange-traded fund. According to the Purpose website, the Purpose Marijuana Opportunities Fund is close to fully invested.

Rees-Mogg, the MP for North East Somerset, said in an interview last year that he would not be in favour of the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis. “With the [cannabis] laws as they currently are, you provide a certain amount of protection for people.

“If you have a system of protection which is saving people you are right to keep the ban in place. The onus of proof is on those who wish to change the law and I don’t think they have managed to establish that the extra risk is worth taking,” he said.

A spokesman for Somerset Capital Management confirmed that it advises an account on behalf of Redwood.

Rees-Mogg has been contacted for comment. …”


Local Government Association debates tax rise to fund social care

“One of the many downsides of Brexit is that for the last two years or more it has sucked all the energy out of the Westminster policy making process, with the result that other problems are being ignored. It is a major opportunity cost. There are plenty of examples, but adult social care is probably the most glaring. Experts agree the situation is in crisis. The Conservatives floated some audacious plans in their manifesto, but they proved electorally toxic and since then they have gone silent on the topic, putting off announcements until the much-delayed green paper due later this year. Labour’s own plans are sketchy and, understandably, they are reluctant to propose reforms that will involve higher when the government won’t take the initiative itself.

So all credit to the cross-party Local Government Association that is today floating plans in a green paper (pdf) to raise taxes to put care funding on a sustainable footing. With councils in England receiving almost 5,000 new requests a day for adult social care, the LGA says this is essential.

Since 2010 councils have had to bridge a £6bn funding shortfall just to keep the adult social care system going. In addition the LGA estimates that adult social care services face a £3.5bn funding gap by 2025, just to maintain existing standards of care, while latest figures show that councils in England receive 1.8m new requests for adult social care a year – the equivalent of nearly 5,000 a day.

Decades of failures to find a sustainable solution to how to pay for adult social care for the long-term, and the Government’s recent decision to delay its long-awaited green paper on the issue until the autumn, has prompted council leaders to take action.

Short-term cash injections have not prevented care providers reluctantly closing their operations or returning contracts to councils and less choice and availability to a rising number of people with care needs. This is increasing the strain on an already-overstretched workforce and unpaid carers, and leading to more people not having their care needs met.

Increased spend on adult social care – which now accounts for nearly 40 per cent of total council budgets – is threatening the future of other vital council services, such as parks, leisure centres and libraries, which help to keep people well and from needing care and support and hospital treatment.

The LGA is publishing its green paper to start a public debate on how adult social care could be properly funded. There’s a summary here:


Source: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/live/2018/jul/31/council-leaders-float-plans-to-raise-income-tax-or-other-taxes-to-fund-adult-social-care-politics-live

Flybe has post-Brexit worries

“Flybe, whose headquarters is in Exeter, is warning that no agreement is in place for services to mainland Europe after Brexit.

With only eight months until Britain leaves the EU, airlines have no legal, commercial or political deals in place.

Flybe said it was already selling fares for next summer, with fingers crossed that common sense would prevail. But it warned there was no certainty.

Chief commercial officer Roy Kinnear said: “Customers are used to buying their flights in advance.”


“Next CEO Lord Simon Wolfson says business rates accelerating ‘process of failure’ on the high street”

Lord Wolfson does not mention a transaction tax on online purchases – not surprising as Next has a big online presence too.

“The chief executive of Next has called on the government to reform business rates, which he says are accelerating the rate at which high street shops close.

Lord Wolfson, a Conservative Party peer, says the tax on commercial property has not been updated to reflect the increasing popularity of online shopping and needs changing.

“The one thing that I think the government must do is make rates more responsive to today’s reality,” Simon Wolfson told ITV News.

“Let the thriving towns and cities, we should be paying high rates, but the ones that are dying, actually that process of failure is being accelerated by rates that are stuck at levels that don’t reflect today’s reality”. …”

“Firms CAN bury nuclear waste in vaults under national parks, say MPs as search for underground site continues”

“Nuclear waste could be stored in vaults deep under national parks after it emerged yesterday that MPs backed the proposal.

However, the controversial plan is certain to be fiercely opposed by green campaigners.

After the Government began looking for a site to locate an underground radioactive waste vault, the Commons business committee backed its approach – but decided against calling for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) to be excluded. …

Energy minister Richard Harrington told the committee: ‘I am not saying we should have them on national parks, but it would be very wrong to exclude them at the moment in this big policy statement.’ …

The committee said the plan was ‘fit for purpose’, adding: ‘We decided against an exclusionary criterion for national parks and AONBs.

‘Although we agree that major developments should not be allowed in designated areas except under exceptional circumstances, we believe existing planning legislation and the national policy statement contain sufficient safeguards against intrusive developments and environmental damage in national parks and AONBs.

‘We support the Government’s view that it is conceivable for a GDI to be designed in a way that would be acceptable to communities, preserve the socio-economic benefits that national parks and AONBs bring them and avoid any intrusive surface facility in conservation areas.’

But Kate Blagojevic, from Greenpeace UK, said: ‘The Government have decided to bet the house on new nuclear reactors without any clear idea of how high the spiralling costs will be… or where to put the unknown quantity of waste they will generate.

‘Now we learn that the main protection for national parks is that local people won’t agree to anything bad, even though the local people won’t know what they’re agreeing to.’ “


” ‘Culture of impunity’ among MPs over hospitality from corrupt regimes “

“More than £330,000 was spent on flights and accommodation for MPs to visit Azerbaijan between 2007 and 2017, and 12 MPs were paid more than £90,000 to appear on Russian state TV, according to a report by Transparency International UK.

The report focused on parliamentarians who had accepted hospitality from corrupt and repressive governments while providing political access and lobbying.

It said many of the MPs and peers had been given all-expenses-paid trips to such countries paid for by the host government.

The publication of the report follows the suspension of the DUP MP Ian Paisley last week after he admitted he had failed to declare £50,000 of family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

The parliamentary commissioner for standards found that Paisley had breached the rules on paid advocacy by writing to David Cameron in 2014 to lobby against a UN resolution on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, after receiving holidays from the country’s government.

Transparency International UK’s report also found that two MPs had provided advisory services to the king of Bahrain over the period the government enforced a brutal crackdown of Arab spring protesters in 2001.

The authors of the report say that not only have some MPs actively supported corrupt and repressive governments, but that there is also a “culture of impunity” regarding such practices.

“The activities of the Azerbaijan lobby in parliament has become so infamous that it is seemingly tolerated as almost an eccentricity,” the report said.

Steve Goodrich, Transparency International UK’s senior researcher officer and one of the authors of the report, said: “This is not the first time that the inappropriate behaviour of foreign regimes in lobbying UK parliamentarians has been exposed. But our report shows that this has become a systemic pattern of behaviour, with many MPs and peers completely ignorant or knowingly dismissive of these problems.

“This type of engagement between parliamentarians and corrupt and repressive regimes can no longer be kicked into the long grass because it’s politically convenient. It is a detriment to the UK’s standing as a beacon of democracy and the rule of law.”

Following the publication of its report, Transparency International UK is calling for an inquiry into the conduct of MPs and peers in legitimising corrupt and repressive governments.

The group recommends that MPs and peers should also be banned from taking trips paid for by foreign states and their lobbyists over £500 in value. Instead, the group suggests that a list of organisations should be agreed in parliament for whom paid trips over this amount are acceptable.

Transparency International UK also recommends that MPs should be prohibited from providing paid or voluntary services to foreign governments and state institutions, and that the register of members’ financial interests should be published as structured open data.

Duncan Hames, director of policy at Transparency International UK, said it was “time to end the discredited practice of our parliamentarians enjoying generous foreign hospitality”.

He said: “International visits can certainly aid informed parliamentary debate, but when these trips are offered by foreign governments they undermine the independence of those MPs accepting them.

“Our politicians are elected to work on our behalf, not the interests of foreign states who increasingly have subversive desires. Global scandals have exposed the activity of foreign states meddling in the affairs of others and we need to shore up our defences against this sort of activity.” …


“Consultation on new offence of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and campaigners”

What happened to the “rough and tumble” of electioneering?

Owl fears we are going the way of the USA where no criticism of the ruling party (sorry, person) is tolerated. And where some politicians only seem to have thin skins when their rivals challenge them …..


Governance and transparency – How does our Local Enterprise Partnership measure up?

A long read, but if you worry about the unaccountability of our Local Enterprise Partnership (and you should) it is a “must read” – note the requirement for LEPs to be scrutinised by council scrutiny committees:

For good or ill the Government has chosen Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to play a key part in assisting in the delivery of government policies to support local economic growth.

There are 38 LEPs in England. Through the Local Growth Fund, the government has committed £12 billion to local areas between 2015 and 2021; £9.1 billion of this is through Growth Deals with LEPs. The government also sees LEPs as key to its new industrial strategy. But performance has varied as acknowledged in the government’s publication of July 2018 “Strengthened Local Enterprise Partnerships”.

Amongst other things this paper announced that all the recommendations of last year’s Mary Ney review (see below), and this year’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report on Governance and Departmental oversight of the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough (GCGP) LEP, would be accepted.

Now is the moment to review these three publications which, taken together, amount to a scathing criticism of the way LEP governance arrangements, and government oversight of them, have, to date, been working.



In 2016 the PAC reported on the governance of LEPs and made clear recommendations for improvement which were accepted by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. [Footnote: East Devon Alliance submitted evidence to this inquiry].

Despite this, things are going seriously wrong and, in the words of the PAC: “the Department needs to get its act together and assure taxpayers that it is monitoring how LEPs spend taxpayers’ money and how it evaluates results.

In the case of CGGP (Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership) the LEP could not respond satisfactorily to allegations of conflicts of interest, levelled by an MP. The governance arrangements were not up to standard. There were no comprehensive conflicts of interest policies nor an up to date register of interests for board members. In addition, the LEP was not acting transparently.

In March 2017, the Department applied the nuclear option and withheld the release of money to the LEP. Then, in December 2017, the LEP went into voluntary liquidation, following the Chair’s resignation the previous month.

Key findings by the PAC were that GCGP LEP did not comply with expected standards in public life, particularly in terms of accountability and transparency. Also that the Department’s oversight system failed to identify that GCGP LEP as one which should have raised concerns. Furthermore, that the Department has a long way to go before it can be sure that all LEPs have implemented Mary Ney’s review properly.



Which leads us to: the “Review of Local Enterprise Partnership Governance and Transparency”, Led by Mary Ney, Non-Executive Director, DCLG Board, October 2017. This is an internal departmental review but nevertheless surprisingly thorough.

The review makes 17 recommendations (all now formally accepted) covering the following topics: Culture & Accountability; Structure & Decision-Making; Conflicts of Interest; Complaints; Section 151 [financial accounting] Officer Oversight; Transparency; Government Oversight & Enforcement. Just a few of these 17 recommendations of particular importance are highlighted out below.

Many LEPs have codes of conduct reflecting the requirements of company board directors and do not sufficiently embrace the dimension of public sector accountability. This is inadequate as it does not reflect the dual dimension (i.e. public and private) of the role of board members.

The code of conduct, which all board members and staff sign up to, should explicitly require the Nolan Principles of public life to be adopted as the basis for this code. E.g. the notion of integrity whereby holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

Key features of decision-making to ensure good governance and probity should include:

• a clear strategic vision and priorities set by the Board which has been subject to wide consultation against which all decisions must be judged;
• open advertising of funding opportunities;
• a sub-committee or panel with the task of assessing bids/decisions
• independent due diligence and assessment of the business case and value for money;
• specific arrangements for decisions to be signed off by a panel comprising board members from the local authority, in some cases including a power of veto;
• Section 151 officer line of sight on all decisions and ability to provide financial advice;
• use of scrutiny arrangements to monitor decision-making and the achievements of the LEP.

Conflict of Interest declarations must include employment, directorships, significant shareholdings, land and property, related party transactions, membership of organisations, gifts and hospitality, sponsorships. Interests of household members to also be considered.

LEPs to include in their local statements how scenarios of potential conflicts of interest of local councillors, private sector and other board members will be managed whilst ensuring input from their areas of expertise in developing strategies and decision-making, without impacting on good governance.

LEPs will need to publish a whistleblowing policy.

As part of transparency, in addition to the obvious things such as agendas and minutes, LEPs should maintain on their websites a published rolling schedule of the projects funded giving a brief description, names of key recipients of funds/ contractors and amounts by year.


Click to access Strengthened_Local_Enterprise_Partnerships.pdf

In accepting these recommendations the government in its “strengthened LEP” paper does add a few points of clarification which are worth noting.

Readers may recall our LEP, Heart of the South West (HotSW), proposing in its 2015 prospectus “towards a devolution deal” to deliver, amongst other things, a world-class integrated health and care system within our communities. A prospectus produced without any public consultation. Well, the government has taken on board a further PAC criticism that it has not been clear about the current role, function, and purpose of LEPs.

The government now says it will set all Local Enterprise Partnerships a single mission to deliver Local Industrial Strategies to promote productivity.

Each Local Enterprise Partnership’s overall performance will be held to account through measures agreed in their delivery plans. The Government will work with Local Enterprise Partnerships to ensure that they have these plans in place by April 2019.

In addition, Government will commission an annual economic outlook to measure and publish economic performance across all Local Enterprise Partnerships and benchmark performance of individual Local Enterprise Partnerships. In the light of HotSW aim of a 4% annual growth rate and record-breaking productivity growth, starting this year, this might prove to be an interesting exercise.

Other points on topics such as increasing diversity of board members are covered in the previous Watch blog:



The House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee inquiry into Effectiveness of local authority overview and scrutiny committees was also investigating LEPs and made this recommendation in December 2017 [East Devon Alliance submitted evidence to this inquiry as well]:

“The Government to make clear how LEPs are to have democratic, and publicly visible, oversight. We recommend that upper tier councils, and combined authorities where appropriate, should be able to monitor the performance and effectiveness of LEPs through their scrutiny committees. In line with other public bodies, scrutiny committees should be able to require LEPs to provide information and attend committee meetings as required.”

Click to access 369.pdf

Food or houses?

If, as it seems is essential after Brexit, we have to grow more of our own food to make us more self-sufficient, how do we do it if more and more high-grade agricultural land is being gobbled up for housing, while developers ignore brownfield sites?

In World War 2 everyone was encouraged to “grow your own”. But how do you do that with a tiny patio or no patio at all and no extra allotments?

For many years we have relied on food imports to cover shortages. Do we really want bleach-washed American chicken on the dinner tables of our tiny new homes built on agricultural land?

Oops, sorry, no space for a dining table – on our knees in front of the TV in our tiny new homes!

Voter registration for 2019 local elections begins

Owl says: keep an eye out for house-to-house canvassers for those who do not register. They have been few and far between in recent years, leading to around 6,000 eligible voters having been “missed”, leading to embarrassing questions (and answers) to EDDC’s Electoral Registration Officer (EDDC CEO Mark Williams, paid extra for this job) in Parliament:


“As part of East Devon’s annual voter registration canvass, households will soon be receiving a form asking residents to check whether the information that appears on the electoral register for those living at their address is correct.

The aim of the form is to ensure that the electoral register is up to date and to identify any residents who are not registered so that they can be encouraged to do so.

Local district, town and parish council elections are scheduled to take place in May 2019.”


People are urged to take the opportunity to make sure that when the elections take place, they will easily be able to take part.

Any residents who have any questions can contact the electoral services team at electoralservices@eastdevon.gov.uk or on 01395 571529

Russians give May’s Tories £800,000

“Theresa May could be forced to come clean on the source of Tory cash linked to Russia.

A report on meddling in UK politics by Vladimir Putin’s regime urges the Electoral Commission to devise “more stringent requirements for major donors to demonstrate the source of donations”.

The intervention by MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee comes after a Mirror probe revealed the Prime Minister accepted a £50,000 donation from the wife of a former Russian minister – on the day she blamed Moscow for the Skripal poisoning.

In total, Mrs May has let more than £800,000 from Russia-linked sources into Tory coffers while PM.

Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Trickett said she should hand it all back, adding: “Serious questions must be answered about why she thinks it is appropriate to accept this money after warning about Russian interference in the UK.”

And Lib Dem spokeswoman Christine Jardine said her “refusal” to explain donations “threatens the integrity of our democracy”.

A Tory spokesman said all donations are properly declared and comply with the law.”


“Taxpayer foots £2.7million bill to subsidise MPs’ bars and restaurants after costs rise by £200,000”

The headline says it all.

“… One of the most controversial elements of the catering at the House is that alcohol prices are kept artificially low.

In April this year the cost of a pint of beer at the Commons bars was nudged up by just 1.5 per cent to £3.35 – well below the 2.7 per cent CPI inflation rate at the time.

… Dishes on offer in the Members’ Dining Room include ‘pan fried salmon with buttered samphire, macerated fennel, radish and rösti potato’ – which will set you back £6.90.

One of the starters recently was ‘smoked halibut with watercress, horseradish crème fraiche, pink grapefruit and dehydrated pickled shallots’, on offer for £4.25.

… A dessert of ‘poached pear with Baileys ice cream and hazelnut’ is £2.55.

MPs can get a three course lunch for just £10.30, or a three course dinner for £15.30.

A bottle of champagne costs £35, and Prosecco £21.

A 187ml bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot is just £2.25, and a cappuccino 80p.

… Dr Sarah Wollaston, Totnes MP and now health select committee chair, warned in 2011 that some of her colleagues were drinking ‘really quite heavily’.

‘Who would go to see a surgeon who had just drunk a bottle of wine at lunchtime? But we fully accept that MPs are perfectly capable of performing as MPs despite some of them drinking really quite heavily,’ she said. …”


US donors courted by Tory ultra-right wing think-tank

“A rightwing thinktank has been offering potential US donors access to government ministers and civil servants as it raises cash for research to support the free-trade deals demanded by hardline Brexiters, according to an investigation.

The director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) was secretly recorded telling an undercover reporter that funders could get to know ministers on first-name terms and that his organisation was in “the Brexit influencing game”.

Mark Littlewood claimed the IEA could make introductions to ministers and said the thinktank’s trade expert knew Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox well.

The IEA chief was also recorded suggesting potential US donors could fund and shape “substantial content” of research commissioned by the thinktank.

This could hugely benefit US farmers by lifting the ban on the sale in the UK of beef from cattle treated with growth hormones and chlorine-washed chicken.

Speaking about what kind of Westminster access the IEA could provide donors with, Littlewood told the investigator: “I have absolutely no problem with people who have business interests, us facilitating those.”

The investigation, undertaken in May and June, also revealed the thinktank had already provided access to a minister for a US organisation.

The disclosures are likely to raise fresh questions about the independence and status of the IEA, which is established as an educational charity. Charity Commission rules state that “an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political”. …”


Many councils which bought commercial properties are in big trouble

“The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. At a debate over the role of councils in the commercial property market, held by retail landlord Ellandi in central London last month, one notable panellist was conspicuous by her absence.

Karen Whelan, chief executive of Surrey Heath council, had been due to argue against the motion that local authorities were “absolute beginners” in the property investment game, but her attention had been diverted by a more pressing issue. That morning, the struggling department store chain House of Fraser had announced its intention to shut 31 shops through a controversial insolvency procedure known as a company voluntary arrangement (CVA).

The Camberley store was among those earmarked for closure. Surrey Heath had paid £17.6m for the property only 18 months earlier, following its £86m purchase of Camberley’s main shopping centre, The Mall (since renamed The Square). House of Fraser’s imminent departure left Surrey Heath staring at a loss of rental income and a destruction of the property’s investment value.

Whelan and the council’s leader, Moira Gibson, issued a joint statement saying they had bought the House of Fraser store “as part of the wider regeneration of the town and not as an investment”. They said they were “disappointed” by news of the CVA but added: “Because Surrey Heath is in control of the freehold of this site, like other sites we have bought, it enables us to continue our regeneration proposals.”

Critics of councils’ increasing forays into commercial activities found the response laughable. Just over a year ago, The Sunday Times raised questions over the boom in commercial property deals being struck by local authorities. Empowered by the 2011 Localism Act and funded by cheap loans from an obscure subsidiary of the Treasury, local authorities ploughed £3.8bn into industrial parks, offices and shops between 2013 and last year, according to consultancy Carter Jonas and landlords’ group Revo.

To say that town halls have a questionable record in commercial ventures is something of an understatement. Hammersmith & Fulham in west London came close to cataclysm in the early 1990s when it amassed £6.2bn of risky derivatives bets (it was saved only when the House of Lords ruled them void).

Concerns about councils’ dealmaking go beyond property. In recent years, their pension funds have started to take a much more active approach to investing in infrastructure, allocating more of their spending to assets ranging from ports to power networks — seen as an ideal match for their long-term liabilities. Yet with that new approach has come greater risk.”

In November, a City fund poured tens of millions of pounds of councils’ pension money into projects run by the outsourcer Carillion — weeks before it went bust. Pensions Infrastructure Platform (PIP), which invests on behalf of councils from Strathclyde to the West Midlands, paid £400m for 10 private finance initiative contracts from Standard Life Aberdeen. Among those assets was a 50% stake in the unfinished Royal Liverpool Hospital. PIP was left nursing heavy losses when Carillion’s collapse in January halted the hospital’s construction. Work has yet to resume.

Councils are under huge financial pressure as they prepare for the withdrawal of central government grants by 2019-20. Last year, the Local Government Association warned they faced a £5.8bn funding gap by 2020 — even if they cut costs by closing all children’s centres, leisure centres, libraries and museums, and turning off every street light. By borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at 2% and using the money to invest in properties yielding 5% or more, local authorities generate a profit that can be redeployed on front-line services.

Some private sector operators have accused them of behaving like primitive hedge funds exploiting an arbitrage, predicting dire consequences when the property market cracks and the Treasury is left on the hook for deals funded 100% with debt.

Surrey Heath’s experience with House of Fraser could be seen as one of several canaries in the coal mine. A wave of administrations and CVAs by retail tenants such as Select and Poundworld has punched holes in shopping centres’ rental incomes. Even the most sophisticated operators — British Land, Hammerson and Intu — have admitted to feeling the effects of retail insolvencies in recent weeks. Councils, who lack expertise and the scale to move tenants around their portfolios, could find the changing environment far harder to deal with.

Lord Oakeshott, chairman of the property fund manager Olim, said local authorities such as Surrey Heath were “completely failing to face reality”. He said: “The professionals see them coming a mile off and, sadly for council ratepayers and taxpayers generally who are lending them the money, most councils haven’t a clue. They are often the only buyers of their local struggling shopping centres and in a collapsing market they’ve been paying well above last year’s prices. You couldn’t make it up.”

While local authorities such as Portsmouth have ventured beyond their boundaries and struck deals purely to generate income, most have bought assets in their immediate area with a view to running or redeveloping them.

Gibson said she still felt that Surrey Heath’s purchase of its House of Fraser store had been “the right thing to do” because otherwise the council would have been a “hostage to fortune” in terms of deciding the future of the empty site. She said the council had filled holes left by insolvent tenants at The Square by moving in the local museum and creating a table tennis room.

“A year on, we have a lot more retail experience than we started with, and to be fair, I don’t think we can do worse than some of the people in retail at the moment,” she said. “We’re used to dealing with difficult budgets.”

There are instances where council intervention appears to have worked. Gerry Clarkson, leader of Ashford council in Kent, said he grew so tired of receiving complaints about the local shopping centre after taking over in 2013 that he instructed his staff to buy it. Clarkson, a former chief executive of the London Fire Brigade, said the council then revived Park Mall by offering six-month rent-free periods to independent retailers. Ashford is also working on a separate £75m development to build a Picturehouse cinema and a Travelodge.

“We were well aware of the government’s attitude to cutting funding for local authorities, and rather than cry into our beer, we started a strategy of becoming like a business,” he said. “In time, we will redevelop Park Mall and put flats above it, but for now, it’s thriving.”

Agencies such as Cushman & Wakefield and Knight Frank have earned significant sums for advising councils on deals. Charlie Barke, head of retail capital markets at Knight Frank, defended the prices some were paying for properties.

“These guys don’t have the luxury of waiting for what might be the bottom of the market,” he said. “Councils need to take action now, while there’s still some footfall and life in these town centres.”

Barke said the super-low interest rates offered by the PWLB mitigated some of the risks of tenants leaving, as the average shopping centre’s rent income typically covered the interest cost by two or three times. He said councils could mitigate risk further by paying down their loans over time, setting aside excess cash in a “sinking fund” and using professional advisers to manage the assets day-to-day.

Among local authority pension funds, the appetite for infrastructure assets is only growing as they seek to slash the fees they pay to external fund managers.

Last summer, a group including the £14.3bn West Midlands Pension Fund bought the Isle of Wight ferry company Red Funnel for a rumoured £320m — well above the expected price of £250m.

Councillor Ian Brookfield, chairman of the West Midlands Pension Fund committee, insisted it took a prudent approach. “It’s not just a bunch of guys sitting in a smoke-filled room any more,” he said. “We have some of the best advice you can purchase. We’ve done our proper due diligence and looked at the risk factors. It gives us a good, stable return.”

Brookfield added: “Red Funnel was our first direct investment and we are actively looking for more.”

Pension funds chase returns

While councils have been gambling on properties to address funding pressures and the need to regenerate town centres, their pension funds have been ploughing cash into infrastructure assets in a desperate hunt for yield.

For years, overseas counterparts, such as Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System and Australia’s IFM Investors, snapped up water firms, power networks, ports and airports. They were keen to buy assets that matched their liabilities and delivered healthy returns.

Quantitative easing and the dive in gilt yields have forced council schemes to look beyond bonds for returns. Restricted on the amount of risky assets they can hold, they have turned to infrastructure, However, cheap debt and huge pots of money chasing a finite supply of assets have pushed values to eye-watering levels.

Westminster has played a part in the spending spree. Keen to keep a lid on debt, the former chancellor George Osborne ordered the 89 local government pension funds in England and Wales to pool their assets — now £263bn — and plough the money into British infrastructure.

Source: Sunday Times (pay wall)

Very important case law on consultation

This has great relevance to NHS consultations, the wording of consultation comments, the treatment of those comments and the duties and respinsibility of the DCC Health and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee to scrutinise evidence presented.

It is going to be much easier to challenge flawed consultations.

Those involved in these matters MUST read the full document (see source at end of post. Only a couple of the relevant sections are published here but should be read with the whole document.

“… “Commentary on
R (ex parte Kohler) v The Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime
[2018] EWHC 1881

This Briefing Note considers the judgment handed down by Lord Justice Lindblom and Mr Justice Lewis on 20th July 2018. It details the circumstances of the case, its wider context and, in particular discusses practical issues which will be of concern to consultation practitioners.


In common with other police forces, the Metropolitan Police has needed to make huge savings in its budget. Unsurprisingly it has led to a review of what premises they occupy and whether they still need over-the-counter services at their police stations.

In July 2017, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) published a Public Access and Engagement Strategy, a dual-purpose document simultaneously consulting the public about the future direction of public engagement on policing and seeking views on proposals to close or ‘swap’ 37 police counters.

The consultation was heavily criticised, and at the Institute, we published a detailed critique under the provocative title Is this the worst consultation of 2017?


Some of the complaints were heeded and a revised set of questions emerged three weeks after its original launch.

The legal challenge

Professor Paul Kohler lives in Wimbledon and in 2014, was subjected to a serious assault. He believes his life was possibly saved only thanks to the prompt response by police from Wimbledon Police Station.

The MOPAC proposal included a provision for that facility to be transferred elsewhere in the London Borough of Merton – to Mitcham, so that the site at Wimbledon could be sold and generate capital receipts. These in turn, according to the consultation document, would help the Met Police fund technology improvements needed to support the case for changing public access and reduce the traditional reliance on police counters. …

The Kohler case spells an end to the practice of sending decision-makers a summary report (or an unreadable tome) with a message ‘Don’t worry, there’s nothing here to stop you from going ahead!’. If a failure to consider a specific argument can spell illegality following a consultation, someone somewhere has to decide what might constitute such an argument. Who can be trusted to decide?

The Consultation Institute View [on the case]

• The Kohler case is a game-changer, placing the Gunning Four Principle of ‘conscientious consideration ‘ at centre stage. There have been few comparable cases, as flawed consultations have, in the past failed the pre-determination or the sufficient information tests. It remains to be seen if the judgment opens the door to more claims that decision-makers never properly studied consultee submissions. It could happen!

• One consequence is that campaigners and other smart stakeholders will structure their comments to ensure that they cannot easily be summarised, and may specifically seek assurances that their submissions will have been read by decision-makers.

• To respond to such pressures and to safeguard themselves, consultors will need to look again at their data analysis practices, possibly strengthening the independent element both in analysis and in reporting to decision-makers. They will also need to be better at political risk assessments. Independent Quality Assurance becomes even more attractive for controversial consultations.

• The case for Public consultation hearings is further strengthened, as decision-makers will be able to prove that they heard and understood particular arguments. …”

Full document here:

Click to access briefingnote21-mopac.pdf

50, 60, 70? Get a job, or else …..

“… Falling numbers of immigrants – who tend to be younger – since the EU referendum means the UK population is ageing faster than expected, which poses profound challenges for the country. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that NHS spending will need to almost double from 8% of GDP in the early 2020s to 13.8% by the mid-2060s because of the demographic shift. Without policy changes, public debt relative to the size of the economy could rise to 283% by 2067 from around 80% today.

Debate about age and the economy has recently focused on the plight of millennials. However, older workers face rampant workplace discrimination, according to MPs on the women and equalities select committee, even though treating older people differently at work is illegal under the Equality Act 2010.

Ben Broadbent, deputy governor of the Bank of England, recently drew angry comments when he said the UK economy was in a “menopausal” phase – past its productive peak. Although he soon apologised, observers pointed out that women over 50 are the fastest-growing group of workers in the UK and are far from past their economic peak.

Changes to the state pension age for women, which is gradually rising to meet the male threshold of 65, are part of the reason for the increase. Meanwhile, there are now more than 10 million over-50s in work – double the 1990s number and accounting for almost a third of the overall UK workforce.

French says younger people might worry about large numbers of older workers making it harder for them to find a job, or about seeing their career progression blocked. But she argues that companies could always create more jobs: “They can put someone in my job with me – that’s never going to be a problem.”

Economists call this idea the lump of labour fallacy, arguing that there is not a fixed amount of work in the world, and that the more jobs are added to an economy, the bigger it can become. The same argument is applied to immigration, where economists agree migrant labour stands to boost host economies rather than steal domestic workers’ jobs.

There are, however, fears that growing numbers of older workers could hold back the growth of productivity and wages, as the older we get the slower we become and the more outdated our skills might be. According to the Oxford Economics thinktank, ageing societies with a bigger share of over-60s workers see lower wage growth. It found eurozone wage growth depressed by as much as 0.3% annually.

More funding for training in later life can help. Ben Franklin, economist at the International Longevity Centre, says: “It may well be that in 10 years’ time the peak age for productivity is 60 rather than 50. Age may be a drag on per capita growth at the moment, but it doesn’t have to be if you can translate health gains into productivity gains.”

The International Monetary Fund fears that if baby boomers continue retiring at 60-65, Britain and other advanced economies could be overwhelmed by pensioners. It reckons ageing societies have the potential to slow economic growth by as much as 3% by the middle of the century, while also increasing the strain on the welfare state.

Franklin says keeping people in the workforce is the most efficient thing to do. “We need older workers, even if they’re less productive. You may be less productive as a 70-year-old, but if you’re not in the workforce, your output is lost altogether.”


“Manchester launches consultation on planning system reform”

“Manchester City Council has set out measures it says will “improve the transparency” of the planning process, including adding public viability assessments for new housing projects.

The council has started a consultation on the changes, which it says would signal “a new approach for developer contributions”.

Among the key changes will be the inclusion of affordable housing statements and viability assessments for all new housing projects; typically, viability statements are not typically made available on the city’s planning portal.

The council said public affordable housing statements would “provide an overview of the affordability ambition of a new development”. Currently, the council stipulates that 20% of new homes should be designated as affordable.

Under the consultation, it is proposed that affordable housing statements are made public for schemes of 15 or more homes. Where no affordable housing is proposed, a full, un-redacted copy of the viability assessment will need to be submitted.

Meanwhile, the inclusion of viability assessments would allow the public to scrutinise developer requirements for Section 106 contributions.

These will be required when a project does not “include the necessary policy provision or financial contributions”, justified on viability grounds.

Viability assessments will need to be provided “in its entirety,” according to the consultation guidelines. This includes the purchase process, purchase costs, estimated construction costs, professional fees, land acquisition price, and estimated profit and developer target returns.

The consultation is now open and is set to run until 14 September, and the documents can be accessed here.

Cllr Angeliki Stogia, Manchester City Council’s executive member for environment, planning and transport, said: “We want the people of Manchester to have faith in the planning process so they know the decisions being made have been fully scrutinised and where possible, Section 106 is being negotiated working with developers on larger developments.

“This consultation signals a new approach for developer contributions so that everyone who has an interest in the planning process is clear whether affordable housing contributions will underpin new development in the city.

“The move towards publication of viability assessments and affordable housing statements mark the first step in making the process more open and transparent bolstering our clear commitment to affordable housing through the planning process.”


Bad news for Sidford – delivery vans blamed for rise of 2.5 million vehicles on roads in last 5 years

One for DCC Councillor Stuart Hughes – in charge of roads and transport.

“If you wonder why you seem to be stuck in a never-ending traffic jam these days, there was an answer last night.

The number of vehicles on our roads has leapt by an astonishing two and a half million in the last five years.

With the UK population hitting 66 million last year and as more of us turn to online shopping, a surge in the number of delivery vans has been blamed for increased gridlock in many town centres.

Last year there were 2,460,900 more vehicles on England’s road when compared with five years ago in 2013 – an increase of 7.7 per cent.

Over the same period, road space increased by just 0.6 per cent, according to the latest figures by the Local Government Association.

This means there are significantly more vehicles per mile of road leading to increased congestion, air pollution and more wear and tear on our roads.

Chancellor Philip Hammond has identified traffic as one of the factors holding back productivity, with people spending too much time travelling and not enough time working. …”


Exeter Masonic Lodge prints Conservative Party literature

“Did you know that the newsletters and fliers posted through your letter box by Exeter Conservatives are printed inside Exeter’s mysterious Masonic Lodge?

It’s just one of the unusual and illuminating facts about the establishment tucked away on the historic Gandy Street. …

In the past year, the building has also become home to Exeter Conservative Party’s printing office.

Despite its reputation over its exclusion of women, female Tory party members now regularly enter the building – easily missed by the eye – to print off fliers, newsletters and other paperwork. …

Devon has around 50 halls and around 137 lodges or clubs.

A £2m fund, set up by former Exeter grand master William Alexander Kneel, donates around £40,000 a year in Devon.”