“Mr Slinky”

Many “watchers” are ahead of Owl this morning in refreshing their memories of Sasha Swire’s innuendo riddled description of Michael Gove’s “manhood”. 

The Gove/Vine split is reported in the Telegraph under the intriguing headline:

Michael Gove and Sarah Vine split raises Covid distancing questions

The article reports:

Michael Gove on Friday night became the second senior Cabinet minister in a week to split with his wife as Downing Street refused to say whether any social distancing rules had been broken.


NHS fears over “staycation boom”

Fears are growing for the ability of health services in the Westcountry to cope with a predicted influx of hundreds of thousands of tourists this summer.

From today’s Western Morning News

With coronavirus restrictions putting many foreign trips off-limits, around 23 million Britons are planning UK staycations this year.

Cornwall comes top and Devon in third place on a list of destinations chosen by staycationers as the best place for a break at home.

But the predicted influx has prompted renewed efforts by NHS Kernow, which provides health services in Cornwall, to issue a series of warnings to people all over Britain not to put the Duchy’s health system under strain when they come away.

Using national advertising, including promotions on the popular music-sharing website and app Spotify, health bosses hope to target younger visitors and make sure they know how to access healthcare without swamping already over-stretched services.

Pressure is building at Truro’s Royal Cornwall Hospital, where on more than one occasion this week more than 20 ambulances have had to queue outside the hospital’s emergency department.

Truro MP Cherilyn Mackrory said the hospital and its A & E department was not at crisis point, despite it being at ‘Opel-4’, or black alert – the highest level of pressure. She said the government was providing huge support to Cornwall.

Newquay and St Austell MP and a junior health minister Steve Double said getting on top of the post-pandemic crisis was “a national challenge and one we are experiencing in Cornwall as well.”

Slough goes bankrupt after discovery of £100m ‘black hole’ in budget

A third English local authority has declared itself effectively bankrupt after the discovery of a “catastrophic” £100m black hole in its budget – the result of what it admitted had been years of poor financial management and mishandling of commercial investments.

Patrick Butler www.theguardian.com

Labour-run Slough borough council in Berkshire issued a section 114 notice on Friday, after admitting it could not meet its legal obligations to meet planned running costs. Without drastic remedial action it warned its financial deficit could rise to £150m by 2024.

As a consequence, the council is to impose “rigorous spend control measures” that are likely to mean significant job losses, cuts to services, and the sale of buildings and land, to ensure it can “live within its means” in the long term.

Slough is the third English council to become effectively insolvent in the past three years, following Northamptonshire and Croydon, and its predicament reflects a much wider precariousness in local government. The National Audit Office warned in March at least 25 authorities were on the brink of bankruptcy.

Eight councils, including Slough, were told earlier this week they faced an independent government-commissioned review into their finances as ministers decided whether to bail them out financially. The others are Bexley, Copeland, Eastbourne, Luton, Peterborough, Redcar & Cleveland, and Wirral.

Although Slough said its finances had been hit hard by the impact of Covid – leading to a collapse in council tax and business rates income – a report by its chief financial officer, Steven Mair, made clear the problems were deep-rooted and linked to accounting errors, lax financial controls and poor decisions.

“Slough’s financial problems have not arisen in the past few months. The approach to financial decision-making, leadership and management, processes, quality assurance and review etc that has been adopted by the council over a number of years was not robust and consequently highly detrimental to the council,” Mair’s report said.

Many of the problems recently uncovered related to previous years, the report said, and had they been know about at the time it is likely that the council would have been unable to meet its legal duties to set a legally balanced budget – raising the prospect it could have been technically insolvent as early as 2019.

These shortcomings included weak management and oversight of a number of companies partly or wholly owned by the council, exposing it to “significant financial risk”. The council has borrowed £580m since 2016, and the cost of servicing these loans added to the pressures on its budget.

An audit revealed in May that the council’s reserves – thought to be £7.5m – were only £500,000 after it emerged they had been drained to correct an accounting error made two years previously that had overestimated the council’s income from a commercial joint-venture, Slough Urban Renewal.

The local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, said: “Slough council’s financial position and clear mismanagement is deeply concerning and completely unacceptable – local people deserve better than this from their local council leaders.

The leader of the council, James Swindlehurst, said: “The process of repairing council finances continues and our commitment to the provision of essential services remains unchanged: bins will still be collected, potholes still filled, care still provided to our most vulnerable.”

However, the opposition Conservative group leader, Wayne Strutton, said Slough’s plight was “a consequence of years of financial negligence and over-ambition by the Labour administration. It is time that those responsible for this financial catastrophe are held accountable.”

Slough had approached the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in December for approval to spend £15m of capital loans on funding day to day costs. However, the section 114 report said the emergence since March of a growing number of financial issues meant this sum was not enough.

Last week, the Tory-run Peterborough council was told by its auditors than even with £24m of government bailout loans agreed in February it would need more government financial support or be forced to undertake a “significant unplanned reduction in services” to remain financially viable.

“Whilst we have found that the authority has responded appropriately to its deteriorating financial position, we have serious concerns about the authority’s current and future financial resilience and ability to remain viable following the Covid-19 outbreak,” a report by auditors Ernst and Young said.

Levelling-up the Tory way

Funding for deprived schools in England has shifted to wealthy areas, study finds

Sally Weale www.theguardian.com 

Government promises to level-up funding in education have resulted in money being shifted away from schools in the most disadvantaged areas and invested in pupils in more prosperous areas of England, according to the official parliamentary spending watchdog.

A report by the National Audit Office (NAO) found average per-pupil funding in the most deprived fifth of schools fell in real terms by 1.2% between 2017-18 and 2020-21, while it increased by 2.9% in the least deprived fifth.

It follows the implementation of the government’s new national funding formula in 2018-19 which introduced a minimum level of per pupil funding across England, triggering increased payments to schools in wealthier areas of the country with traditionally lower funding levels and leaving schools in cities with high levels of deprivation worse off.

The report was published on Friday amid mounting evidence elsewhere of the disproportionate impact of Covid on already disadvantaged pupils. Official new government data revealed that disadvantaged pupils who were eligible for free school meals (FSM) had higher rates of Covid-related absence from school during the autumn term than their wealthier peers. It also found that children from most ethnic minority backgrounds missed more school than their white classmates.

Data obtained by the National Education Union and shared exclusively with the Guardian meanwhile found that autumn attendance was at its lowest in schools with the highest rates of FSM eligibility – 79% in secondary schools with the highest rates of FSM, compared with 86% in those with lowest FSM rates.

At the same time, a new survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research of attainment among six and seven-year-olds in England found the disadvantage gap between rich and poor widened post-Covid.

Overall pupils in year two were three months behind in their reading and two months behind in their mathematics, compared with pre-Covid levels, but the disadvantage gap increased from six months’ progress to around seven months for reading and eight months for maths.

The NAO report also challenged the government narrative of a huge injection of extra cash into schools in England. It found that although total funding for schools increased by 7.1% in real terms between 2014-15 and 2020-21, the growth in pupil numbers meant real-terms funding per pupil rose by 0.4%.

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, questioned whether the government’s new funding model was matching resources to need. “There has been a shift in the balance of funding from more deprived to less deprived local areas. Although more deprived areas and schools continue to receive more per-pupil funding than those that are less deprived, the difference in funding has narrowed.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, backed the introduction of the national funding formula but said the government had failed to put sufficient money into the system to support its aims.

“The result is that slicing it in a different way has created a new inequity with many schools in deprived areas losing out. These schools support children and young people who face the greatest degree of challenge in their lives and they desperately need this funding. The government has failed them.”

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “The Conservatives have abandoned children on free school meals and are letting their learning fall further behind their peers. Their woeful catch-up plans – which even their own expert adviser described as ‘feeble’ – are utterly insufficient to help children recover the education and socialising they’ve missed.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said areas with high proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds continued to receive the highest levels of funding under the new funding formula.

“We are providing the biggest uplift to school funding in a decade – £14bn in total over the three years to 2022-23 – investing in early years education and targeting our ambitious recovery funding, worth £3bn to date, to support disadvantaged pupils aged two to 19 with their attainment.”

Devon Communities Together flood resilience event

Louise leads move to help communities prepare for floods

(Remember last year John Hart, said with regard to flooding, “You are on your own”! – Owl)

Tim Dixon www.exmouthjournal.co.uk 

A free event to help communities across Devon prepare for incidents such as severe weather and flooding is being held by independent charity Devon Communities Together next week.

The virtual event, which is being chaired by Budleigh Salterton’s Dr Louise MacAllister, will include guest speakers, workshops, case studies and the opportunity to ask questions of the experts. 

It’s being held on Friday, July 9, from 9.45am to 5pm, via Zoom (see here for programme and booking).

Aimed at those interested or involved in emergency and recovery planning in their community, the event will include a keynote session on climate change impact and local actions to increase our resilience from Luci Isaacson from Climate Vision and Crystal Moore from the Environment Agency.

Further sessions include a workshop on updating community emergency plans for those communities with a plan existing, a local case study and information on accessing funding to support community resilience, a catchment wide approach to flood risk, warm weather and wild fires, and property level flood resilience.

All sessions will include plenty of time to ask questions and will be chaired by Dr Louise MacAllister, the Devon Community Resilience Forum project manager at Devon Communities Together. 

She said: “Community emergency plans strengthen the resilience of Devon’s communities and enhance our local ability to respond, building on local knowledge and resources with specialist knowledge gained at our forum events.

“I am really excited that once again we have an array of expert speakers and workshops to help our communities explore risks, mitigation, and action locally.”

The Devon Community Resilience Forum (DCRF), is a partnership between The Environment Agency, Devon County Council, Devon and Somerset Fire and Rescue, Devon and Cornwall Police, The Devon Association of Local Councils, and Devon Communities Together who deliver the work of the partnership. The DCRF has delivered two such forum events per year since 2015, and this is now the third virtual forum event due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr MacAllister has lived in Devon for 20 years. She holds a first class BA in human geography (Exeter), MRes (masters in research methods) in critical human geography (Exeter), and a PhD in human geography (Exeter). For her PhD research she worked with families, schools, and health promotors to critically examine the effects of anti-obesity messaging.