Supporting local economic growth – National Audit Office (NAO) Report

Damning conclusion as Michael Gove publishes his “Levelling up” White Paper.

“We have not seen the evidence we would expect on the options that had been considered for achieving ministerial aims when government is spending such a large amount of money. This reduces our confidence that the interventions will have the best possible chance of delivering value for money.”

£18 billion spent to little effect. East Devon Watch has been following and criticising local efforts at “regeneration” and “productivity growth” from start of publication so Owl isn’t surprised.

Supporting local economic growth

This report considers lessons DLUHC [Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities] has learned from implementing local growth policies, and how it has applied them.

Background to the report

Between 2011 and 2020, government committed some £18 billion of domestic funding to policies designed to stimulate local economic growth in England. This includes £12 billion through the Local Growth Fund, and £3.2 billion through the Regional Growth Fund. A further £10.3 billion was directed to the UK through EU structural funding committed between 2014 and 2020. However, the UK remains less productive than its main competitors and it shows regional disparities in economic performance that are among the largest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (the Department), working with other government departments, is responsible for “raising productivity and empowering places so that everyone across the country can benefit from levelling up”. The Cities and Local Growth Unit is leading for government on a series of UK-wide place-based interventions for which spending was announced at the November 2020 Spending Review to support the regeneration of towns and communities. Government’s commitments through these interventions total £11.0 billion. Local authorities will bid for funding and deliver these initiatives at a local level. The Department is solely or jointly accountable to Parliament for all the funds examined in this report.

Scope of the report

This report considers the lessons the Department has learned from a long history of implementing local growth policies. It examines how it has applied these lessons to the one-year UK Community Renewal Fund and the following place-based interventions:

  • Levelling Up Fund;
  • UK Shared Prosperity Fund;
  • Towns Fund; and
  • Freeports

Report conclusions

The Department recognises that its spending decisions should be based on robust evidence about what works for stimulating local economies. However, it has not consistently undertaken formal evaluations of the impacts of its past interventions. As a result, although it has now committed both effort and money to evaluate new interventions from the start, its evidence base for effective interventions is limited. The Department therefore lacks evidence on whether the billions of pounds of public funding it has awarded to local bodies in the past for supporting local growth have had the impact intended. And it has wasted opportunities to learn which initiatives and interventions are most effective.

The Department decided to consolidate local growth funding, and the largest of its new interventions is the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund on which it has worked closely with HM Treasury. Given the limited evidence base, we would have expected even greater scrutiny and independent challenge in the development of the Fund. However, government considered it proportionate to consolidate the three standard stages for business case assessment into one. Also, we have not seen the evidence we would expect on the options that had been considered for achieving ministerial aims when government is spending such a large amount of money. This reduces our confidence that the interventions will have the best possible chance of delivering value for money. In view of this, it is even more important that the Department should follow through rapidly on its recent commitments to improve measurement and evaluation in local growth.

Water firms must pay to keep rivers free of sewage

Remember that both Simon Jupp and Neil Parish dutifully voted last October against the Lords amendment imposing legal duties on water companies to clean up their act. – Owl

Ben Webster 

Water companies will be required to increase investment to prevent raw sewage spilling into rivers and the sea under a new government strategy for the sector that places greater focus on the environment.

The strategic policy statement being laid in parliament today sets the priorities for Ofwat, the water regulator, and water companies and will affect spending for the period from 2025 to 2030.

It says that water companies will be expected to “significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows, so they operate infrequently, and only in cases of unusually heavy rainfall. We expect overflows that do the most harm or impact on the most sensitive and highest amenity sites to be prioritised.”

Water companies have collectively cut investment in wastewater and sewage networks by almost a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised, according to analysis of official data published in December.

They discharged raw sewage into rivers more than 400,000 times last year. They are permitted to spill sewage from storm overflows after heavy rainfall but many spills occur after dry weather and are illegal.

The strategic policy statement says: “The water industry’s environmental performance has stagnated and, in certain cases, deteriorated in recent years. Poor environmental performance is not acceptable and poorly performing companies need to rapidly improve.”

Water companies may seek to increase household water bills to fund the extra investment but an Ofwat source said it would press them to cover the cost by operating more efficiently.

The companies are collectively investing £3.1 billion in storm overflows in 2020-25.

Under the Environment Act, the government is required to publish a plan to reduce sewage discharges from England’s 15,000 storm overflows by September this year.

The policy statement also gives greater priority to addressing excessive abstraction of water from rivers, protecting chalk streams, and ensuring that water companies produce drainage plans that reduce the risk of homes being flooded.

The Angling Trust said the statement “could have been braver and bolder” and it was unclear how much improvement it would bring about in the state of rivers.

Ash Smith, of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, which has led the way in exposing illegal sewage spills, said: “This announcement is no more than window dressing to buy time for regulators and an industry that has been forced under the spotlight and is rapidly running out of excuses for profiting while allowing our vital infrastructure to fall into a black hole, reliant on illegal pollution to cope with under-investment over decades.”

Rebecca Pow, the environment minister, said: “We are the first government to set a clear expectation that Ofwat should prioritise action by water companies to protect the environment and deliver the improvements that we all want to see. I have been very clear of my expectations of water companies and where they do not step up we will take robust action.

“The priorities that we are setting out today build on the work that we have already undertaken to reduce harm from storm overflows, improve monitoring and reporting of pollution incidents making this more transparent, to tackle run-off from agriculture, and protect the health of our rivers and seas.”

An Ofwat spokesman said: “We will continue to allow significant investment in the environment, take action on companies that fall short on their performance and drive them to be more transparent on their delivery and impact on rivers.”

Nadine Dorries’ Car Crash Channel 4 News Interview Has Everyone Comparing Her To The Same TV Character

Footage of culture secretary Nadine Dorries struggling to defend Boris Johnson for making false claims about Keir Starmer has got everyone comparing the MP to a certain TV character.

Matt Bagwell 

The PM faced a huge backlash after he accused the Labour leader of failing to prosecute disgraced entertainer Jimmy Savile when he was head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Johnson made the false claims in the House of Commons on Monday following Labour’s criticism over the Sue Gray report into parties held in government during lockdown.

An extraordinary Channel 4 News interview with Dorries then went viral after presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked her why Johnson had spouted “fake news” and an “old meme repeated by conspiracy theorists” in his attack on Starmer.

Dorries repeatedly shook her head and rolled her eyes during the exchange, insisting: “I don’t know, I don’t know the details”, repeatedly saying “the prime minister tells the truth”.

For many viewers, it brought to mind Catherine Tate’s much-loved comedy character Lauren, a school girl whose catchphrase is “Am I bovvered?”

It didn’t take long for someone to get creative…

And here’s Catherine Tate as Lauren in action for anyone wanting to contrast and compare…

On Tuesday morning, a furious Keir Starmer slammed Boris Johnson for referencing Jimmy Saville and sinking parliament “into the gutter”.

The Labour leader branded the comment “a ridiculous slur peddled by right-wing trolls” in an interview with Sky News presenter Kay Burley.

A fact-check by the Reuters news agency in October last year concluded: “There is no evidence to suggest Sir Keir Starmer, then (director of public prosecutions) DPP of the CPS, was directly involved in the decision not to prosecute Jimmy Savile.”

It spells out how the claim gained traction online but that “the suggestion of a link between the handling of the cases and Starmer is baseless”.

The UK government’s 12 ‘levelling-up’ missions – key points

Details to be published today in a 400 page “White Paper”, but there is no new money. – Owl

Peter Walker 

Central to the levelling up white paper are what are termed 12 “national missions” to be achieved, all by 2030, many of them phrased in fairly general terms. This is what the missions set out:

  • To increase pay, employment and productivity in every part of the UK, with each containing “a globally competitive city” and a smaller gap between top performing and other areas.
  • Public transport connectivity across the UK to be “significantly closer to the standards of London” including integrated ticketing and simpler fares.
  • A “significant” increase in primary school children reaching expected standards in reading, writing and maths. For England – education policy is devolved – this will mean at least 90% meeting expected standards, with at least a one-third increase for this metric in the worst performing areas.
  • A “significant” rise in the numbers completing high-quality skills training across the UK. In England, the target is for 200,000 more doing this, including 80,000 in the lowest skilled areas.
  • A narrowing in healthy life expectancy between the UK areas where it is highest and lowest, with the overall average healthy life expectancy rising by five years by 2035.
  • An improvement in perceived wellbeing in all parts of the UK, with a narrowed gap between areas with the highest and lowest levels.
  • A rise across the whole UK of “pride in place”, defined as “people’s satisfaction with their town centre and engagement in local culture and community”, with a narrowing of gaps between areas with the highest and lowest levels.
  • An increase in the number of first-time home buyers in all UK areas. The “ambition” is for a 50% fall in the number of rented homes deemed non-decent, including the biggest improvements in worst-performing areas.
  • An overall fall in homicide, serious violence, and neighbourhood crime, focused on worst-affected areas.
  • A devolution deal for “every part of England that wants one”, with powers “at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified, long-term funding settlement”.

Two heathland car parks close for improvement work

Last November Owl queried the press description that these car parks were being described as “four council-owned car parks”. This description followed from the fact that EDDC itself was listed as the applicant for planning permission for this work.

Owl has subsequently learned that this was because funding for the improvements has been secured through the South East Devon Habitat Regulations Partnership. The formal members of the partnership are: Teignbridge, East Devon District and Exeter City Councils, with Natural England. But the term is also used as an umbrella term to include other organisations such as The Pebblebed Heaths, Clinton Devon Estates, Devon Wildlife and RSPB.

The car parks are part of the Pebblebed Heaths Trust but Owl understands that formal ownership still lies with Clinton Devon Estates.

How the costs fall for this work is unclear.

Two visitor car parks on Pebblebed Heaths are to be closed for up to six weeks for improvement work. 

Philippa Davies

Four Firs Car Park on Woodbury Common and Joney’s Cross Car Park at Hawkerland will be closed from Monday, February 7. 

The work will include new entrance signs and information boards, and better surfacing. 

Further works will take place on roadside parking at Stowford (Colaton Raleigh) and Frying Pans (Bicton Common).  

The car parks are managed by the Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, and funding for the improvements has been secured through South East Devon Habitat Regulations Partnership. The aim is to protect the rare wildlife on the heath while making access easier for visitors. 

Devon county councillor Martin Wrigley, who is also chair of the South East Devon Habitat Regulation Executive Committee, said: “The improvements to the existing car parks are much-needed due to increased use from people enjoying the Heaths.   

“The redesigned layout and improved surface means visitors will be able to drive and park more safely and the heaths will be better protected for the future.” 

Kim Strawbridge, Reserves Manager, Pebblebed Heaths Conservation Trust, said: “We would like to thank people for their patience while these car parks are closed and we would like to reassure people that all other parking areas across the heaths will remain open during this time.  

“We have been looking forward to getting this work underway so that people will be able to benefit from this first round of refurbishment work before the spring.   

“The Pebblebed Heaths are such an iconic part of the East Devon landscape, incredibly important for both wildlife and local people. Most people arrive by car so having entrance points to the nature reserve that are welcoming and do this unique place justice will make it clear to people that they have arrived somewhere special.”   

The car park improvements are part of a wider plan to manage visitor access to the Heaths and make sure the area’s wildlife and ancient monuments are safeguarded. The plans include measures to make the car parks more visible from the road, to discourage thefts from cars, fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour. 

PPE to go up in smoke – literally – as the bill for waste tops £10 billion

The Government has wasted more than £9.9 billion on PPE, which is more than it would cost to give every nurse in the NHS a 100 per cent bonus on their salary. 

The figure comes from the Department of Health’s Annual Report, which reveals it spent:

  • £673 million on PPE “not suitable for any use”
  • £2,581 million on PPE “not suitable for use in the NHS”
  • £4.7 billion paying inflated pandemic prices for PPE we didn’t need to buy
  • £750 million buying PPE which will pass its expiry date before we can use it.

It has also “written down” the value of £1.231 billion in PPE, which is still yet to be delivered.

The Department also reports that some of the PPE will need to be recycled and it’s now contracting “waste providers”. Some of it is too complex to be recycled and so will need to be burned.

Thanks to an FOI response, Good Law Project can also reveal that, between April 2020 and August 2021, the Government spent £677.6 million storing excess PPE. It continues to spend £500,000 a day on this.

Civil servants complained at the time that the need to service VIPs, the majority of which were introduced by Government Ministers, was interfering with good procurement. It is unlikely we will ever know the true cost of this taxpayer-funded feeding frenzy for the friends and associates of Ministers.

11 things missing from Sue Gray’s report

Sue Gray’s long-awaited report into lockdown-busting parties at Number 10 has finally arrived. And it isn’t exactly ‘War and Peace’.

Martin Williams

Gray’s report runs to just nine pages long – with fewer than 500 words of findings.

Concerns about its transparency had already been raised by privacy campaigners through openDemocracy. We revealed that Gray had, in previous roles, helped to block the release of information and shield Number 10 from scrutiny.

Gray says in the report that she was “told” by the Metropolitan Police that it would not be “appropriate” to make more than “minimal reference to the gatherings on the dates [the force is] investigating”.

The SNP’s Commons leader, Ian Blackford, today called the report “a fact-finding exercise with no facts”. Here are 11 key things that it doesn’t address.

The four events Gray *was* free to talk about

Twelve of the 16 gatherings that Gray looked at are also the subject of a police investigation. Gray was told not to reveal details about those events so as not to ‘prejudice’ the police investigation. But what about the other four?

There was a gathering in the garden of Number 10 in May 2020, where Boris Johnson was pictured drinking wine with colleagues. Then there was the Zoom quiz on 15 December, as well as two other gatherings, in late November and early December.

We may never know what Gray discovered about these events, because she writes: “I have decided not to publish factual accounts in relation to those four dates. I do not feel that I am able to do so without detriment to the overall balance of the findings.” No further explanation is offered.

What did Johnson do?

Although the report criticises “failures of leadership”, it makes very little mention of Johnson himself, and does not say whose leadership failed. We’re not told which events Johnson attended or knew about. Nor does Gray make a judgement about the prime minister’s personal failings. In fact, he is mentioned just eight times in the entire report.

How many people were at the parties?

It might be understandable to withhold incriminating evidence against named suspects until the police finish their investigation. But is there any legal reason why Sue Gray cannot at least tell us how many people attended each party?

Were the parties late, boozy, or paid for on government expenses?

Likewise, we’re not told anything about what happened at the parties – whether they were a few colleagues having ‘cheese and wine’ or giant alcoholic blowouts. Reports suggest that some events continued into the early hours, with attendees drinking and dancing. Sue Gray has nothing to say about this – yet it’s hard to see how disclosing this information could possibly prejudice the police investigation.

However, Gray, a former pub landlady, does hint at a general boozy culture in Downing Street, saying: “The excessive consumption of alcohol is not appropriate in a professional workplace at any time. Steps must be taken to ensure that every government department has a clear and robust policy in place covering the consumption of alcohol in the workplace.”

Who was actually there?

Allegations have been made that some of the parties were attended by people who didn’t work in Downing Street, such as senior journalists and friends of the prime minister. Gray might not be able to name them before the police have finished investigating, but can she at least confirm whether outsiders were present? No.

Was there any social distancing?

Even if the parties had been socially distanced, they would still have been illegal. That means that the question of social distancing is not really a police matter. However, knowing the facts about this could shed light for the public on the extent to which those at Number 10 felt that the rules in general did not apply to them. Yet the words ‘social distancing’ do not appear anywhere in Gray’s summary.

The role of the police

Police officers stationed at Downing Street have been strongly criticised for failing to stop the parties. But last week, it was claimed in The Telegraph that the officers had been “only too willing” to give “extremely damning” statements to Gray about the parties. Her report makes no mention of them.

So much as a single word from any the 70 interviews Gray conducted

As openDemocracy has reported, Gray has a reputation for blocking transparency. We now know that she interviewed more than 70 people about Downing Street parties – and yet her report does not contain a single quote or reference. Nor do we know who she interviewed, as not a single scrap of evidence has been published.

Were government guidelines breached?

Gray can’t comment on whether the law was broken. But there’s also the question of government guidelines, which are distinct from the law. This might include rules on social distancing, face masks or the way offices are set up to reduce the risk of COVID. It’s possible that some events were legal but against the government’s own guidelines. Gray says that: “Some of the events should not have been allowed to take place.” But she doesn’t tell us which ones, or what rules they broke. Likewise, she does not discuss ministerial rules – or whether she intends to refer the evidence to Boris Johnson’s ethics adviser, Lord Geidt, who could investigate this further.

What was cut?

Nobody was expecting this report to contain all the detailed evidence that the police are investigating, but it doesn’t even tell us what kinds of information she has redacted. Did she have a guestlist for each event? Does she have video or photo evidence? Who were the 70 people she interviewed? Whose WhatsApp messages were accessed? Was any information missing?

Whose decision was it to redact the report this extensively?

Before her report was published, Gray says the Metropolitan Police “told” her to make “minimal reference to the gatherings on the dates they are investigating”. We don’t know if she pushed back in the interests of transparency (when explaining the redactions, she does strike a tone of disappointment that she is not able to publish a fuller document), whether the police provided any further detail about what to withhold and why, or whether their requests for redactions were deemed proportionate by any third party. Nor do we know whether Gray was merely asked to withhold the information, or whether she was ordered to, by the police or otherwise.

What’s more, Gray’s report goes way further than this. Huge swathes of information are omitted entirely, including everything above. Did someone in government ask her to do this? Or was its Gray’s own decision to publish such a hollow report?