Austerity: Death by a thousand (local) cuts

“Brexit is one of the great issues – and news stories – of our time. But austerity, now nearly a decade old, has been just as transformative – in a slow, attritional way that is all too easy to overlook.

The reality is a picture of a thousand small decisions taken in grey council meeting rooms, a thousand deductions from spreadsheets, and countless lives quietly made a little worse. Sexy news copy and television report material it is not.

And while it would be wrong to say the bigger picture hasn’t received a lot of coverage over the past eight years, the real-life impact is rarely “news”. These small stories seldom pass muster in newsrooms where reporters pitching ideas are asked by their editors daily: “But is it new?”

Meanwhile at a local level, councils faced with impossible budgetary decisions are having to make hard choices. So how do we mark the slow, incremental, and sometimes devastating disappearance of local services? How do we serve our readers by making sure our coverage reflects what they see where they live?

This is why HuffPost UK is devoting a week of coverage on the impact of local cuts – properly local cuts. In this series, What It’s Like To Lose, we have stepped away from considerations about what is traditionally “newsworthy”, ignoring the usual measures of scale, to look at some of the holes left in communities over the past few years, and to write about things that people tell us are important to them.

The fact is that the closure of a single leisure centre, or a library, is a local issue. If the council stops cutting the grass in your park, or doesn’t mend the swings that have been broken for a month, you don’t expect to see it on the News at Ten. And these cuts are often enacted by people working hard to make the least-worst decision. Do we consider a mother-and-baby swimming class or a judo club as essential a service as keeping streetlights on, or collecting rubbish?

When Birmingham Council recently decided to no longer employ lollipop ladies, they did so in order to prioritise other services. In narrow terms, the logic might have seemed inescapable. But with that, a familiar feature of the landscape of British childhoods is gone in one city. Where will it be gone next?

So to pay closer attention, and to understand the ways in which austerity is linked to wider political issues, we’ve spoken to an old lady whose bus into town on a Sunday has been discontinued, and a teenager who won’t travel further afield to a sexual health clinic area after the one nearby was closed. We’ve spoken to people who have to travel miles to their local job centre, or who are missing their leisure centre and can’t find an affordable alternative.

And while this can only be a snapshot of the nationwide reality, we’ve found that the stories that matter to one person can tell us something about what it’s like to lose that ought to matter to all of us, in a society that is quietly changing.”

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/austerity-what-its-like-to-lose_uk_5c3c8e54e4b01c93e00bbd26

Here is the first of those stories:
https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/what-its-like-to-lose-your-leisure-centre_uk_5c1d1b41e4b08aaf7a885786

Outsourcers should be allowed to fail – says outsourcing boss

“Politicians and regulators responding to Carillion’s collapse should resist the temptation to turn outsourcing companies into “safe spaces” that cannot fail, the boss of a rival has urged.

Carillion, which built roads and hospitals and provided cleaning and catering to the public sector, went under one year ago this week, leading to calls for tighter rules for outsourced services and greater scrutiny of those providing them.

But Rupert Soames, who led Serco through its own financial crunch four years ago, told The Sunday Telegraph: “You will get companies that are ­well-run and ones that are badly run – and the bad ones should go bust. …”

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/01/20/outsourcers-must-allowed-fail-says-soames-anniversary-carillion/

Sidford Business Park – disproportionate industrial development?

Recently posted comment:

“At the full EDDC Council meeting at the end of October 2018, independent Councillors Ben Ingham and Roger Giles, supported by 11 other councillors, tabled a motion to discuss the over provision of housing needs in our Local Plan and called for an independent assessment. In answer to a question as to why East Devon is taking a disproportionate share of development [58% more than Exeter, 53% more than Teignbridge and nearly three times that of Mid Devon according to independent analysis conducted by CPRE] Councillor Paul Diviani said:

“Because we have the land and we are good at it”!

[Perhaps he should be reminded that two thirds of East Devon lies in an AONB, or perhaps he doesn’t care].

This is not the argument that was put to Inspector Thickett at the public examination of the EDDC local plan in 2015 by Ed Freeman. Then, the argument for pitching the EDDC target at a minimum of 950 houses/year [about 30% more than could be supported by the evidence] was that we had jobs coming down the line. Specifically he mentioned 1,000 full time equivalent jobs a year.

Thankfully, we are effectively at full employment. Office for National Statistic population projections shows the South West population as a whole growing over the local plan period at around 0.8% per annum, including expected migration. However, we have an ageing population and the annual increase of those classified as of working age is only going to be 0.16% (16 to 64 for all genders). To satisfy this annual demand to find new jobs in East Devon [population 142,300] would only require around a couple of hundred a year, nowhere near the 1,000 that are being planned for.

The creation of jobs is generally a good thing but pursuing jobs as a primary objective is, I suggest, not what we need in Devon. What we need are better quality jobs to lift earnings and I am pleased to see that that is what ratepayers’ investment of £1.1M in the Exeter Science Park is aimed at achieving. But it only creates a one-off 158 jobs against the 1,000 a year needed to justify the development plan.

Can anyone provide an evidence based explanation of where these housing and job targets come from? Anyone believe that this is what they were voting for when they elected their councillors? And who are the “we’s” in Councillor Paul Diviani’s explanation?”

‘Let them eat spuds!’ Ex-UKIP candidate says food banks are fuelling the obesity crisis

Owl says: Of course she is right: the poor should be using their Range Rovers to get to farm shops for their sacks of potatoes … and should be using their outdoor barbecues to roast them, seeing as they don’t have enough money to use their ovens – and bags of charcoal can also be put in the Range Rover’s capacious boot! Really, these so-called poor people need a good talking to and must pull up their (darned) socks!

And no, they shouldn’t be bothering our hard-pressed doctors with their vitamin-deficiencies when little Arabella needs to have her ballet sprain massaged!

“The former UKIP parliamentary candidate for Great Yarmouth claims that food banks are contributing to obesity and that the poor “cannot be bothered” to cook.

Writing online for The Conservative Woman, Catherine Blaiklock argues that no-one in Britain should be starving because potatoes are cheap at her farm shop and living on nothing but boiled potatoes would be healthier than being handed a box of products in tins and packets.

Addressing claims that millions of people struggle to put food on the table she compares the plight of Britain’s poorest families with the Sherpas in the Himalayas who eat “practically nothing but boiled potatoes with a bit of salt and chilli on the side.”

“You get bored with both the eating and peeling long before you could possibly get obese,” she adds.

The column carries the headline Hungry? Let them eat spuds! echoing the words supposedly spoken by Marie Antoinette when she learned the peasants had no bread.

It goes on to argue that it is not the cost of food that is the problem but the people who consume it.

Catherine Blaiklock stood for the far-right Eurosceptic party in Yarmouth in 2017.

Described at the time as running a guest house in Lingwood, near Acle, she took a photograph of her black husband to a hustings in an apparent bid to prove the party is not racist.”

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/health/former-ukip-candidate-catherine-blaiklock-says-foodbanks-fuel-obesity-1-5853723

Electoral Commission – unfit due to modern loopholes

“Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP who was cleared while a senior Conservative official was convicted over election expenses, has some very critical things to say about the Electoral Commission.

Writing for PoliticsHome after his acquittal, the Conservative MP said:

“It is their responsibility to interpret the law into understandable guidance for candidates and agents and have extra-statutory authority to produce guidance and rules to assist the electoral process. During the trial, the prosecution spent days considering the status of personalised and party generic Correx boards. Conservative Party guidance recommends a 4x potential use. If such plastic posters survive defacement or vandalism that characterises many election campaigns, they could last for many years. The Prosecution and Electoral Commission disputed that view, long held by the party. The Electoral Commission publishes not one word of guidance as to how to account for such boards, how to deal with criminal damage and replacements, relying on the vacuous phrase ‘honest assessment’. To face potential criminal conviction with life-changing consequences on the back of scant guidance cannot be right.”

That is but one of a range of details over which the Electoral Commission’s guidance is indeed unhelpful. Sometimes the Electoral Commission has played with being weirdly prescriptive. (I still remember the discussion I had with them about depreciation rules for party rosettes.) Often however it has also – as the above example illustrates – super-cautiously vague.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that lack of detailed knowledge in the Electoral Commission, an absence of knowledge bizarrely illustrated by its mistakes over pencils:

https://www.markpack.org.uk/143476/indelible-pencils/

A much bigger problem, however, is one that MPs such as Craig Mackinlay share with the Electoral Commission. Even if no-one breaks the law, the rules limiting constituency expenditure have collapsed because so much can now be done that is charged against the much more generous national limit.

What used to be a tight limit on constituency expenditure set by the law is now in effect a massively generous limit set by the size of your bank account. See the full details here:

https://www.markpack.org.uk/130283/internet-speeds-up-the-killing-off-of-expense-controls-in-marginal-seats/

Neither MPs nor regulators have done anything so far other than sit on the sidelines, often apparently oblivious and always unresponsive to this collapse.”

https://www.markpack.org.uk/157315/craig-mackinlay-electoral-commission/

Flybe biggest shareholder threatens legal challenge to Virgin/Stobart takeover

Owl says: East Devon really does seem to be a very complicated place to do business!

“Flybe’s biggest shareholder has launched a stunning attack on its directors, accusing them of breaching their duties to investors and threatening a legal challenge to the cut-price takeover of one of Britain’s best-known airlines.

Sky News has learnt that Hosking Partners, a prominent London-based asset manager which holds a stake of close to 19% in Flybe, has instructed lawyers to explore its options in relation to the company’s proposed sale to a consortium‎ led by Virgin Atlantic Airways.

These options could include attempting to obtain an injunction prohibiting the deal from being completed, Hosking Partners is understood to have warned Flybe’s bosses this week.

The initial 1p-a-share deal, announced eight days ago, came at a huge discount to the airline’s prevailing share price and underscored its industry’s profound financial challenges.

In a letter to the directors of Flybe, details of which have been relayed to Sky News, Hosking Partners is understood to have expressed concern that they had allowed a false market in the company’s shares to develop by failing to update the City on its financial position in a timely fashion.

‎The fund manager, a long-standing shareholder in Flybe, is understood to have copied its ‎letter to City watchdogs including the Takeover Panel, which polices mergers and ‎acquisitions activity, and the Financial Conduct Authority.

Hosking Partners is said to have raised doubts as to whether the £2.2m offer reflected the intrinsic value of Flybe, and alleged that the handling of its proposed sale had blocked a rival offer from emerging at a higher price.

Flybe’s fate took a further twist this week when it said that its sale to Connect Airways – a consortium comprising Virgin Atlantic, Stobart Group and Cyrus Capital Partners,‎ an investment fund with links to the other two parties – would be restructured.

‎Instead of simply comprising a conventional offer for the shares, Flybe’s trading assets would be sold next month to Connect Airways for £2.8m, leaving the holding company as‎ a shell for which ‎the consortium would continue to pay a nominal sum.

Flybe said this change had been necessitated by its urgent need for liquidity – a claim challenged by Hosking Partners because of the company’s cash balance and ability to raise funds from the sale of assets such as its take-off and landing slots at London Gatwick Airport.

In a statement to the market on Tuesday, Flybe said it had had no alternative but to agree to the revisions because unspecified conditions attached to a bridging loan had not been met.

Hosking and other shareholders are said to be furious about the restructuring of the takeover because Flybe’s recent switch from a premium to a standard listing on the London market meant investor approval was now only required for the holding company bid, not the sale of the airline’s assets.

The fund manager is understood to have told Flybe directors that other parties remained interested in acquiring the airline but would now be unable to make an offer.

At the 1p-a-share offer price, Hosking Partners’ stake is worth roughly £400,000.

If it escalates, the row could pose significant reputational risks to the board of Flybe, which is chaired by Simon Laffin, a City grandee who has served as a director of companies including Mitchells & Butlers, Northern Rock and Safeway.

Investors’ anger has been exacerbated by the fact that early last year, Stobart made a takeover approach to Flybe understood to have been valued at roughly 40p-a-share.

This was rejected by Flybe’s board.

In a further development, Sky News revealed last week that Stobart’s estranged former chief executive, Andrew Tinkler, had himself swooped to snap up a stake of more than 10%‎ in Flybe.

Until as recently as this month, it appeared that Virgin Atlantic and Stobart were ‎likely to table competing offers for the regional airline, before it emerged that they had teamed up as part of the same consortium.

Hosking is understood to have raised concerns in its letter about the process through which they were permitted to form an alliance, although one source close to Flybe said that it had not breached any undertakings by doing so.

The investor is also said to have highlighted the rise in Stobart Group’s share price following confirmation of the 1p-a-share bid as evidence of “value transfer” from Flybe to one of its acquirers, according to a City source.

Under their plans, Stobart Air will be folded‎ into Connect, with all of Flybe’s services re-branded under the Virgin Atlantic name.

The chief executive and chief financial officer of Flybe will transfer to the bidding consortium, according to documents published by the company.

Hosking Partners’ letter is said to enquire about any incentive payments due to either of the duo as a result of the consortium’s takeover.

In a statement, a Flybe spokesman said: “The board of Flybe was faced with a very tough decision based on Flybe’s current difficult liquidity position and the expectation that this pressure will continue.

“Obtaining the revised facility, as announced on 15 January, from the consortium provides the security that the business needs to continue to trade, which preserves the interests of its stakeholders, customers, employees, partners and pension members.

“Flybe will be responding directly to letters received from shareholders.”

Flybe launched a formal sale process last autumn, blaming a toxic cocktail of currency volatility, rising fuel costs and Brexit-related uncertainty.

Although it is small in financial terms, it remains one of the UK’s best-known airline brands, carrying thousands of passengers between largely second-tier British airports as well as European destinations.

A source close to the company pointed out that it had warned in the results accompanying the launch of its sale process that if its credit card partners “were to choose to seek significantly higher cash collateral and the group cannot access sufficient additional liquidity, this would give rise to a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the group’s ability to continue as a going concern”.

The Takeover Panel declined to comment, although a source close to it said it was confident its supervision of the bid had been handled in accordance with its policy of acting in investors’ interests.

For Virgin Atlantic, still part-owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, control of Flybe’s regional network will provide a valuable feed into its long-haul flights to international destinations.

Its return to the domestic UK aviation market will come four years after it announced the closure of Little Red, its previous attempt to make money from a notoriously difficult sector.

Rising oil prices and the weakening of sterling have put airlines under intense pressure, with a deepening industry price war accentuating the financial squeeze.

A Hosking Partners spokesman declined to comment on the contents of its letter, but said this weekend that investors were “entitled to transparency over precisely what has gone on to drastically reduce Flybe’s value”.

“The auction undertaken under the formal sale process has clearly not yielded a favourable outcome for all stakeholders, and it seems that the outcome has locked out any other bidder who may be able to provide a better solution for all of Flybe’s stakeholder‎s.”

https://news.sky.com/story/top-flybe-shareholder-threatens-legal-challenge-over-2m-bid-11611470

Why do we “need” Sidford Business Park when we have the Science Park Enterprise Zone down the road?

Enterprise Zones give favourable start-up arrangements such as business rate relief to businesses that take space in them – Sidford is not in an Enterprise Zone.

“East Devon District Council’s Cabinet last night agreed to invest £1.1m in the development of a new Open Innovation Building at Exeter Science Park, in the Exeter and East Devon Enterprise Zone.

The investment will bring forward 20,000 square feet of space under one roof for growing small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) sectors.

Funding has been raised against future business rates income from the growing list of businesses seeking to establish offices and laboratories alongside leading regional science and tech companies already based at Exeter Science Park.

Councillor Ian Thomas, Leader of East Devon District Council said: “The Exeter and East Devon Enterprise Zone is a significant and strategically important development site for the area, with the potential to create over 10,000 jobs.

“This investment will bring forward the opportunity for up to 158 high value jobs in the Open Innovation Building for local people as well as boosting the local economy.

“The £1.1m grant is 15% of the total cost of the building, providing an additional 20,000 square feet of employment space at the Science Park. It means the Open Innovation Building can be ready for occupation in the second half of 2020.”

The Enterprise Zone investment will help fund the building, including the fitting-out.

Dr Sally Basker, Chief Executive of Exeter Science Park Limited said: “Exeter Science Park is growing rapidly and is on-track to become a community of around 700 people by 2021.

“The Science Park helps innovative STEMM companies to deliver extraordinary growth and this Enterprise Zone grant will help us meet accommodation needs of STEMM businesses – both those already located at the Science Park and new firms wishing to take the next step in their growth journey and create a sustainable business.”

Steve Hindley CBE DL, Chair of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “Exeter and East Devon Enterprise Zone is part of the Heart of the South West’s multi-site enterprise zones offering economic opportunities in the area’s key sectors. These enterprise zones, with other sites at Oceansgate in Plymouth and at Gravity in Somerset, enable the local areas to retain a greater share of business rates to re-invest and attract new jobs and growth.”

Councillor Rufus Gilbert, Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Economy and Skills, said: “This is another welcome investment in the Exeter and East Devon Enterprise Zone. The site is key to economic growth in Devon and the Open Innovation Building will add to the portfolio of excellent facilities being developed within the Zone. New infrastructure will attract new businesses and help create high value job opportunities in the area.”

The Exeter and East Devon Enterprise Zone is in its second year of operation, with businesses benefiting from Government-funded business rate relief.

In April 2018 the Council agreed in principle to borrow up to £8m, with detailed approval for £3.4m of expenditure. Projects include the launch in September 2018 of an enhanced ConnEXions bus service with free wifi, a park and change site near Exeter Science Park which will be delivered this year, and design work for an upgrade to Long Lane adjacent to Exeter Airport.”

https://heartofswlep.co.uk/news/east-devon-district-council-agrees-1-1m-enterprise-zone-investment-exeter-science-park/