Breaking news “A smoking ruin”- Quote of the day, if not quote of the year!

The prime minister’s former aide, Dominic Cummings, has criticised the Department of Health as “a smoking ruin in terms of procurement and PPE” at the start of the pandemic.

Note this was an aside, the “Disrupter in Chief” was actually giving evidence to MPs on the Science and Technology Committee about the creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency know as Aria.

[Takes one to know one – Owl]

Underlying weaknesses of the local audit system

Last four paragraphs from National Audit Office report summary: “Timeliness of local auditor reporting on local government in England, 2020”, under the heading “Underlying weaknesses of the local audit system”:

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems which already existed within the local audit landscape. Our previous reports and consultation with the sector identified several long-standing problems within local audit. There is insufficient staff with the relevant qualifications, skills and experience in both local finance teams and firms serving the local audit sector, and a net loss of qualified staff from both. The requirements of International Financial Reporting Standards, along with the increased expectations from the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) following the high-profile corporate failures such as Carillion, have combined to produce a significant increase in audit work, such as on asset and pensions valuations, which local authorities found less useful. The relative lack of attractiveness of the audit of local public bodies, compared with alternative audit opportunities available to staff, has contributed to a high staff turnover level. Competing workload pressures, both within the finance function and elsewhere in local authorities, diverted staff resources from completing working papers and preparing accounts within the time available for submission to the external auditors which made the preparation of accounts increasingly challenging (paragraphs 2.15 to 2.22). 

The Committee of Public Accounts has continued to express concern about the system of local audit. The Department recognised these concerns and in July 2019 commissioned the Redmond Review to review the local audit landscape. The committee recommended that the review should ensure that concerns over current fee levels and the contribution of external audit to governance are examined fully and rigorously. The committee also recommended that the review should assess if external audit was providing an effective service and meeting the needs of local authorities (paragraph 1.13).

The Redmond Review reported in September 2020 and recommended major changes in the organisation and regulation of local audit in England. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government stated, on publication of the Redmond Review, that he would consider the findings and recommendations carefully and remained committed to strengthening the local audit system, so that it worked more effectively for taxpayers and councils. The Department’s response accepted some of the recommendations of the review and recognised the findings regarding the fragility of the local audit market, agreeing that urgent action is required. The Department set out actions to support market stability, to alleviate some of the immediate funding and timing pressures facing audit firms and local authorities, but decided to consider further the central recommendation to establish a new independent regulator for local audit (paragraphs 1.14 to 1.17). 

Concerns over the quality of local audit have been raised by the FRC in its report on local audits in October 2020. The FRC inspected 15 financial statement audits in 2019-20 across seven local audit firms. It described the overall results as concerning, with only 40% of audits judged good or requiring no more than limited improvement, down from 64% in 2018-19. The FRC said that urgent action was required from some of the firms, to take appropriate action to respond to the findings and ensure improvements were made in audit quality, given the deterioration in quality in the year (paragraphs 2.25 to 2.29).


Given the increasing financial challenge and service pressures on local authorities since 2010, local councils need strong arrangements to manage finances and secure value for money. External auditors have a key role in providing independent assurance on whether these arrangements are strong enough and recommending any action. The late delivery of 2019-20 audit opinions is concerning, given the important part that external audit plays in assurance over taxpayers’ money both centrally and locally.

Plans to change London mayor election to First Past the Post system

A retrograde step, especially if viewed in the context of “devolution” to regions – Owl

Sean Morrison 

The London mayoral election and other local elections are to be changed to the First Past the Post system under plans being considered by the Government.

Priti Patel said the voting system for combined authority mayors, the mayor of London election and police and crime commissioners will all be changed.

Announcing the move, the Home Secretary said that First Past the Post “provides for strong and clear local accountability”.

The voting system awards seats to whoever has the highest vote count and does not take preferences into account.

The planned changes will need to be confirmed through Government legislation and will not be in place before the upcoming local elections on May 6.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson included in his 2019 election manifesto a pledge to further roll out the voting system, which is used for General Elections, at a local level.

The mayoral election in the capital is currently decided through a preference vote.

Two candidates go through to the second round if no one gets more than 50 per cent of the primary vote. A winner is then chosen by taking preferences into account from voters who chose eliminated candidates as their first preference.

In a ministerial written statement on Tuesday, Ms Patel said “transferable voting systems were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum”. Therefore, she said, local elections should be changed to reflect that.

Tony Travers, local government expert at the London School of Economics, said the change would “wipe out” many smaller parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens if it applied to the London Assembly.

The London Assembly is a 25-member body that holds the city’s mayor to account. It is made up of members directly elected through First Past the Post, and others who are elected through proportional London-wide voting.

“It’s hard to imagine them having the mayor and not the whole assembly as First Past the Post and if that happens it would disadvantage the Greens, Ukip and the Lib Dems,” he told City AM.

“It works very very well for the biggest and the second biggest party in the country.”

The London Mayor was created in 2000 following a referendum 1998. The type of voting system to elect the mayor was not on the referendum paper.

London Labour said the move amounted to “breathtaking arrogance” from the Government. A spokesperson said: “The people of London voted overwhelmingly in a referendum in 1998 for the creation of the Mayor of London in which voters would be able to state a first and second preference candidate.

“It’s a fairer system that promotes a wide choice for voters and it has served Londoners well for over twenty years and there’s no groundswell for a change.

“For the Tory Government to impose a change to the electoral system without first asking the views of Londoners in a follow-up referendum demonstrates their breathtaking arrogance and their utter disdain for devolution.”

The Standard has approached City Hall and the Home Office for comment on the move.

Public support for Covid inquiry more than twice as high as opposition – poll

Public support for a statutory public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is running more than twice as high as opposition to the idea, exclusive polling for the Guardian has revealed.

Robert Booth 

As a growing number of doctors, nurses, scientists and the bereaved call on the prime minister to trigger a formal independent investigation, 47% of people said they supported a public inquiry which has legal powers to compel people to give evidence under oath. Only 18% said they were opposed. 35% said they neither supported or opposed it or didn’t know, according to polling carried out by ICM last weekend.

The top priority among those wanting an inquiry was an investigation into the government’s preparedness for a pandemic which has left the UK with the highest mortality rate of any of the world’s largest economies. The death toll among people who tested positive reached 125,690 on Tuesday.

Those polled believe an inquiry’s next highest priorities should be examining how the UK controlled the movement of people through its borders and the timing and strategy of lockdowns, which epidemiologists have already concluded cost lives.

The focus on lockdowns comes amid reports that the prime minister Boris Johnson now regrets not locking down earlier in March 2020 and that he believes the advice he was receiving about infection spread was based on out of date projections.

Protection of care home residents, around 40,000 of whom died with Covid; the provision and procurement of PPE, which has been mired in allegations of cronyism; and the effectiveness of NHS test and trace, which parliament’s public accounts committee last week said had failed to avert further lockdowns despite a £37bn two-year budget, were the next priorities.

The highest levels of support for a statutory inquiry are in the north of England, Northern Ireland, Wales and the south-west, the poll revealed.

It follows calls by scientists, doctors, nurses, the bereaved and minority ethnic leaders for Boris Johnson to finally announce an independent inquiry with powers to compel witnesses to attend and to order the disclosure of documents. Downing Street said this week “now is not the right time to devote huge amounts of official time to an inquiry”.

A government spokesperson said: “There will be an appropriate time in the future to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of this global pandemic.”

Senior figures in the UK’s Covid response including Prof John Edmunds and Prof Andrew Hayward, who sit on the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), have spoken in support of an inquiry, while the former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake said it would be “criminal not to learn lessons”.

Amid increasing pressure on the prime minister to set up a statutory inquiry, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing also called for an inquiry, while Lord Woolley, the former chair of the advisory group to the government’s race disparity unit, said a public examination into the impact of Covid, which has disproportionately hit BAME communities, is a chance to rethink the nation’s social infrastructure.

Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, which represents more than 2,800 families who lost loved ones during the pandemic, welcomed the poll as vindication of its calls since last summer for a full public inquiry.

“It’s as plain as day we need a proper public inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic,” said Jo Goodman, co-founder of the group, who lost her father, Stuart, to Covid. “Just one in five people think otherwise and as more and more information comes to light ever more people are realising how crucial this is for the whole country. This is a generation-defining crisis and if the government doesn’t learn from its mistakes then how will it save lives in the future.”

But in a sign that a decision on launching an inquiry – which is in the hands of the prime minister – could become highly political, the poll of more than 2,000 adults showed that Labour and Liberal Democrat voters at the 2019 general election were almost twice as likely to want an inquiry as Conservative supporters. The prime minister is likely to consider the impact of any conclusions from a public inquiry which could take several years may co-incide on the next general election expected no later than May 2024. Opponents of a public inquiry fear it could take years and an adversarial process that places as much emphasis on accountability as learning may hinder rather than help attempts to correct mistakes, in the short term at least.

Devon and Cornwall PCC election 2021: Who will be standing?

Voters will head to the polls to elect a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Devon and Cornwall on 6 May.

BBC News 

PCCs work to ensure police forces in England and Wales are running effectively.

Their responsibilities include setting out force budgets, holding chief constables to account and providing a link between communities and police.

PCCs are usually elected every four years, but elections were postponed in May 2020 due to coronavirus.

These are the candidates who have said they intend to stand for Devon and Cornwall PCC this year (listed alphabetically):

Brian Blake, Liberal Democrat

Brian Blake

image copyrightSGHaywood Photography

Brian Blake served with Devon and Cornwall Police for more than 30 years before moving on to work at the Ministry of Defence for 13 years.

Gareth Derrick, Labour

Gareth Derrick

image copyrightGareth Derrick

Gareth Derrick served in the Royal Navy for 36 years and was elected as a city councillor for Plymouth in 2018. He sits on the Police and Crime Panel.

Alison Hernandez, Conservative

Alison Hernandez is the conservative party candidate for PCC

image copyrightConservative party

Alison Hernandez is the incumbent PCC and was first elected in 2016. She runs her own management consultancy business.

This list will be updated if and when more candidates declare they will stand.

Honiton Forward on democracy and high calibre of candidates for Town Council

Honiton Forward has been delighted by the response from members of the community who wish to stand for election as Honiton Independents for the Community (HICS).

[Owl notes that existing Town Councillors are trying to “hang on”, we have seen this sort of thing before haven’t we?] 

Honiton Forward 

A high calibre collection of candidates, of all ages and backgrounds, have put themselves forward and it is already clear that the Council would be safe in their hands.

Once their nominations are confirmed, it will be announced who they are and they will tell you why they want to be Town Councillors.

Meanwhile, remaining Town Councillors are trying to reduce the number of seats available for public election and instead co-opt a new member in themselves at the next full meeting in April.

The clear message to the Council for the past year has been that the community wants an election for all seats on the Council.

No one who believes in democracy could possibly apply for a co-opted seat when it is possible to stand for election and no fair-minded council would seek to fill a seat this way.

Levelling Up Fund: Prioritisation of places methodology note

This “explains” how economic indices have been used to prioritise the distribution of the “Levelling Up” fund. Whether these funds replace what has been stripped out from Local Authorities over the years is another question – Owl

Maybe we should just call it another “mutant algorithm”? 


This note sets out the methodology used to develop an index of priority places for the Levelling Up Fund. The methodology was developed to help the Fund deliver its core objective of improving local communities by investing in local infrastructure that has a visible impact on people. The Fund will achieve this by focusing on:

  • Town centre and high street regeneration, including remediation and repurposing of vacant and brownfield sites;
  • Improving local transport connectivity and infrastructure, including upgrades to local bus, road and cycle infrastructure; and
  • Maintaining and regenerating cultural, heritage and civic assets.

The index places local authorities into categories 1,2 or 3, depending on their identified level of need, with category 1 representing places deemed in most need of investment through this Fund. We will use the categories for two main purposes:

  • Across Great Britain, each place’s category will form one part of the process for assessing bids, as part of the ‘characteristics of place’ criteria, alongside the other 3 criteria – deliverability, value for money and strategic fit. While preference will be given to bids from higher priority areas, the bandings do not represent eligibility criteria, nor the amount or number of bids a place can submit. Bids from places in all categories will still be considered for funding on their merits of deliverability, value for money and strategic fit, and could still be successful if they are of high enough quality.
  • In England, category 1 places will be eligible to receive targeted capacity funding, to support them in preparing high-quality bids (all places in Scotland and Wales are eligible for capacity funding, independent of their place in the index).

General principles

The index was developed in accordance with the following core principles:

1. That any metrics used should be chosen in support of targeting places in need of the following, in line with the objectives of the fund:

  • economic recovery and growth (indicator 1)
  • improved transport connectivity (indicator 2)
  • regeneration (indicator 3)

2. That any data used should be publicly available, so that the calculations behind the index rankings are fully transparent.

3. That any comparison of need between places in different nations should be made using a consistent set of GB-wide metrics only.

4. That, in line with the Fund’s delivery geographies, the index should cover the following institutions (referred to as ‘eligible LAs’ throughout this document):

  • District councils, metropolitan and London boroughs and unitary authorities in England; and
  • Unitary authorities in Scotland and Wales.

The key challenge of developing a methodology in accordance with the above priorities was a lack of availability of GB-wide data to measure both regeneration and transport connectivity.

To address this, an approach was taken to ensure that additional England, Scotland and Wales-specific data could be incorporated into the index without jeopardising principle 3 above – the need to be consistent when comparing places across borders.

This approach comprised two steps:

Step 1: a GB-wide index was developed at eligible LA level, using only data available GB-wide, and used to determine the number of places that would be in categories 1, 2 and 3 across England, Scotland, and Wales.

Step 2: distinct indices for England, Scotland and Wales were developed at eligible LA level with both GB-wide and nation-specific data and used to determine the specific list of places that would be in categories 1, 2 and 3 within each nation.

Choice of metrics

The metrics used at each step of the process were as follows:

Step 1: This step uses GB-wide data only, measuring ‘need for economic recovery and growth’ – indicator 1 identified above, incorporating standard metrics measuring places’:

  • Productivity, measured using gross value added (GVA) per hour;
  • 16+ Unemployment rate; and
  • Skills, measured using the proportion of the working-age population without a national vocational qualification (NVQ).

These metrics were chosen to best align with the fund’s focus on bringing investment to areas of low productivity and those lacking in labour market opportunities and economic resilience (as measured by unemployment rate and skills), as set out in the prospectus.

Step 2: This step uses the following data, by nation, to measure ‘need for improved transport connectivity’ (in England only) and ‘need for regeneration’ in addition to ‘need for economic recovery and growth’, the last of which is measured in the same way as in step 1. These metrics were chosen based on availability – for example, there was no publicly-available data on journey times for Scotland and Wales, or an equivalent alternative, so transport connectivity was not assessed in the Welsh and Scottish national indices:

  • Need for improved transport connectivity (indicator 2, data only available within England):
    • England: Average journey times to employment centres by car, public transport and bike.
  • Need for regeneration (indicator 3):
    • England: commercial and dwelling vacancy rates.
    • Scotland: dwelling vacancy rates (commercial vacancy rate date not available at time of calculation).
    • Wales: commercial and dwelling vacancy rates.

The average journey time metric was chosen (where available) to best align with the Fund’s focus on bringing transport upgrades to places with poor connectivity and identifying parts of England where local transport networks may be limiting local economies.

The commercial and dwelling vacancy rate metrics were chosen a proxy for places’ need for regeneration, given the Fund’s particular focus on repurposing and regenerating vacant and brownfield sites on high streets and within town centres.

The selection of metrics as set out above was subject to ministerial approval at the design stage based on alignment with the policy goals of the fund. Ministers did not see a list of specific places before agreeing the list of metrics. At no point did Ministers make changes to the index, weightings or metrics recommended by officials.

Banding process

The 368 eligible LAs in Great Britain were divided into roughly equal bands, with 123 places in category 1, 123 in category 2 and 122 in category 3 respectively.

Step 1: To determine the number of category 1, 2 and 3 ‘slots’ to assign to each nation, a GB-wide index was created to rank places against criterion A (need for economic recovery and growth) only, which contains only GB-wide data weighted as follows:

Table 1: GB-wide index seeking to capture places’ need for economic recovery and growth (criterion A) at the eligible LA level

Target metricIndicatorData source (year)Weight
ProductivityNatural log of GVA per hour worked(1)ONS (2018); For any LA that had changed boundaries since 2018, a data point was constructed using population sizes and the previous LA statistics(33.3%)
UnemploymentEstimates of unemployment rate in the 16+ populationONS model-based estimates of unemployment rates (October 2019 – September 2020) in the first instance; Where data was not available for an LA, ONS raw estimates of unemployment rates over aggregated geographies (October 2019 – September 2020) were used(33.3%)
SkillsProportion of the 16-64 population without NVQ qualificationsONS (January 2019 – December 2019) in the first instance; Where data was not available for an LA, ONS estimates over aggregated geographies(2) (January 2019 – December 2019) were usedd(33.3%)
1 ‘Natural logs are used to compare places according to the relative difference in their productivity levels rather than according to the absolute difference in their productivity levels.
2 ‘ONS aggregated data based on counties, unitary authorities, and groups of districts in England, groups of unitary authorities in Wales, and groups of council areas in Scotland.

Rationale for choice of indicators and weightings:

As set out above, the GB index seeks to measure places’ need on a consistent and comparable basis. Due to data availability, the GB-comparison could only be performed on the basis of indicator 1 – on measures of productivity, unemployment and skills – because this is where common GB-wide datasets were available. Within this indicator, each metric was applied with equal weight.

Had full and consistent datasets been available for indicators 1, 2 and 3 across Great Britain, a comprehensive GB-wide ranking would have been performed. This approach was prevented by data limitations, as already addressed.

Construction of GB-wide index

For each indicator, values were indexed to allow for consistent comparison of values across indicators in different units. The smallest value in the dataset was set to 0 and the largest value set to 100. All other values were allocated a score between 0 and 100 based on their relative distance from the minimum and maximum dataset values.

The composite index score was then calculated for each eligible LA by taking an average of the index scores, weighed according to the weights displayed in Table 1.

For the metrics outlined in Table 1, this resulted in the following assignment of category 1, 2 and 3 places between England, Scotland and Wales:

Table 2: Number of category 1, 2 and 3 slots assigned to England, Scotland and Wales respectively following step 1

CategoryNumber of LAs in EnglandNumber of LAs in ScotlandNumber of LAs in WalesTotal

Step 2: Having determined the number of category 1, 2 and 3 slots to assign to each nation using only GB-wide data, places were then sorted into these slots within each nation using additional England, Scotland and Wales-only metrics (in addition to the GB-wide metrics used in step 1) to account for the varying availability of data between nations relating to criteria B and C. The following data and weightings for England, Scotland and Wales were used:

Table 3: England national index

Target metricIndicatorData source (data for)Indicator weight (Target metric weight)
Indicator 1: Need for economic recovery and growth50%
ProductivityNatural log of GVA per hour workedONS (2018); For any LA that had changed boundaries since 2018, a data point was constructed using population sizes and the previous LA statistics(33.3%)
UnemploymentEstimates of unemployment rate in the 16+ populationONS model-based estimates of unemployment rates (October 2019 – September 2020) in the first instance; Where data was not available for an LA, ONS raw estimates of unemployment rates over aggregated geographies(2) (October 2019 – September 2020) were used(33.3%)
SkillsProportion of the 16-64 population without NVQ qualificationsONS (January 2019 – December 2019) in the first instance; Where data was not available for an LA, ONS estimates over aggregated geographies(2) (January 2019 – December 2019) were used(33.3%)
Indicator 2: Need for improved transport connectivity25%
Journey time to employment by carAverage journey time to the nearest employment centre of at least 5,000 jobs when traveling by carDfT (2017); For any LA that had changed boundaries since the 2017 data publication, weighted journey time stats were created based on population and previous LA statistics(75.2%)
Journey time to employment by public transportAverage journey time to the nearest employment centre of at least 5,000 jobs when traveling by public transportDfT (2017); For any LA that had changed boundaries since the 2017 publication, weighted journey time stats were created based on population and previous LA statistics(21.2%)
Journey time to employment by cycleAverage journey time to the nearest employment centre of at least 5,000 jobs when traveling by cycleDfT (2017); For any LA that had changed boundaries since the 2017 publication, weighted journey time stats were created based on population and previous LA statistics(3.5%)
Indicator 3: Need for regeneration25%
Commercial vacancy rateProportion of retail, industrial, office and leisure units that are vacantPublicly available commercial location data from Whythawk and (July 2020); Where LAs did not share their vacancy rate data, the average vacancy rate of the LAs in the same ONS aggregated area(2) that did share their commercial vacancy rate was used as a proxy. Where no LA in the ONS aggregated area shared their vacancy rate, the average vacancy rate of the LAs over larger aggregated geographies(3) were used as a proxy. For any LAs where boundaries had changed since 2020, a data point was constructed using population sizes and the previous LA statistics(75%)
Dwellings vacancy rateProportion of dwellings chargeable for council tax that are classed as long-term empty (empty for more than 6 months)(4)MHCLG (2020)(25%)
2 ‘ONS aggregated data based on counties, unitary authorities, and groups of districts in England, groups of unitary authorities in Wales, and groups of council areas in Scotland.
3 ‘ONS aggregated data based on counties in England (most grouped), groups of districts in Greater London, groups of unitary authorities in Wales and groups of council areas in Scotland.
4 ‘Dwellings vacancy rate in England are calculated as the ratio of the number of vacant units less those that are only empty due to flooding (Line 16 less lines 16.a and 16.b in the Council Tax Base 2020) to the total adjusted number of chargeable dwellings (Council Tax Base 2020 line 7).

Rationale for choice of indicators and weightings:

Had it been possible, national indices would have been developed in the same way for all nations. However, due to data availability limitations this was not possible.

The relative weights of places’ need for economic recovery and growth (indicator 1), places’ need for improved transport connectivity (indicator 2) and places’ need for regeneration (indicator 3) were weighted according to a ratio of 2:1:1. This weighting was chosen to best align with the overall objectives of the Fund – ‘to support economic recovery…prioritising places in need and areas of low productivity’ as per the prospectus, as well as to make the most of UK-wide data where available.

Indicator 1 was developed in the same way as for the GB-wide index, with equal weightings for each metric.

Indicator 2 captures a place’s need for improved transport connectivity. This was measured using DfT data on journey times to employment centres via different transport modes – car, public transport and bicycle. This measures a place’s access to jobs, identifying where the local transport network may be limiting the local economy. The DfT journey time stats were weighted according to transport modal split at nation level – in other words, weighted according to the proportion of total journeys made by each type of transport across each nation as a whole.

For indicator 3, commercial and dwellings vacancy rates were used as a proxy for places’ need for regeneration, given the Fund’s focus on repurposing and regeneration of vacant and brownfield sites on high streets and within town centres. A higher weighting was given to commercial vacancy rates in the indicator for regeneration because the objectives of the fund focus in particular on improving commercial spaces. The ratio of the commercial vacancy rate indicator weight to the dwelling vacancy rate indicator weight was set at 3:1.