‘Why we’re raising charges in some council car parks’

Paul Arnott www.exmouthjournal.co.uk 

I’d like to take you back this week, to 2010. 

How many of you remember what you were doing that year? 

To me, family photos reveal it as the year before I was unwell and had a full head of brown hair rather than today’s wisps of grey.

At a national level, some other hints may help. A new programme stormed the ITV schedules, Downton Abbey. A young couple, Prince William and Ms Kate Middleton, became engaged. 

And we had a new PM, David Cameron. 2010 – does that ring a few bells now?

At a more prosaic level, 2010 was the last time that East Devon District Council changed the charges to use its car parks. Twelve years ago.

Moreover, in the intervening time, a high rate of VAT has been applied to those charges, so now a good chunk of the takings does not even reach the council, but ends up in the Chancellor’s coffers.

This Conservative strategy, together with artificially suppressing council tax for a full half decade, pleased their national masters – look, they said, we can provide services in a low tax setting. 

The problem is that the laws of mathematics cannot be influenced by political hubris. And now the pigeons have come home to roost.

Therefore, over the last few years, EDDC has been reviewing our car park charges. We have found that compared to the rest of the south west they are very low and now another memorable year in history has made that completely unsustainable – 2020: the Year of Covid.

The effects of 2020 on what is a very well-run council have been many and devastating. 

Take just one example. The positive news has been the extraordinary rise in people coming to our great resorts to visit, both as staycationers, and for day trips. 

The bad news is, for example, that fish and chips these days are not wrapped in old newspaper, but in cardboard boxes the size of a large handbag.

The cost to us in frantically emptying our overflowing seafront bins has been huge and, as I have written before, our debt to our Streetscene workers, in a pandemic and short of labour post-Brexit, has also been huge. As have been the costs! 

So, in 2022, your council can no longer afford to pull the wool over our residents’ eyes. The car parks need to pay their way.

Therefore, for a small selection of prime seaside car parks, the hourly charge will rise to £2 per hour (subject to full council’s approval) but with a maximum tariff so a family can come down from Exeter for a day trip to Exmouth, Beer, Budleigh Salterton, Seaton or Sidmouth for a day out with safe parking for £8. 

The tourism economy will not suffer.

Crucially, and forgive me if I try to really stress this repeatedly, council tax payers (i.e. locals) can park all day and all night, for £120 per year. Getting on for 5,000 of you already take advantage of this, and we will promote the idea further. 

This really does need stressing, because while Facebook feeds will resound with ‘the b***dy council wants to rob us of £2 per hour’, the reality is that local people can park for £2.31 PER WEEK. 

A valued council colleague described this as ‘cheap as chips’, and having looked at all the charges across the south west, this is the case.

Other charges in prime or busy locations will go to £1.50 per hour, again with a maximum of £8 per day. And again, permits are available to keep the maximum cost at £120 per year, and we are busily introducing the software to enable people to buy for £10 per individual month. It’s already a popular and inexpensive (relative to other motoring costs) scheme.

We don’t expect thanks for all this, but this it is the long overdue and honest thing to do.

Half of PPE procured by UK using ‘VIP’ companies has not been used

More than half the £1.7bn paid by the government to politically connected “VIP” companies to supply PPE in the pandemic was spent on equipment that has not been used, according to new figures.

David Conn www.theguardian.com 

The total value of unused PPE was £2.8bn for 1.9bn items, according to newly released figures from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

The DHSC did not explain why the PPE was unused but it was not all defective. Last week the department revealed that PPE worth £750m was never deployed because it had passed its safe use-by date. Huge quantities were stockpiled after the government over-ordered in the pandemic.

The proportion of unused PPE is significantly higher for contracts processed through the a so-called VIP lane – 59% of the £1.7bn ordered from them – than for other firms awarded contracts through the standard procurement route. Of the £10.4bn committed to non-VIP companies for PPE, 17% or £1.8bn has not been used.

DHSC released the figures and the names of companies whose PPE has gone unused in response to a freedom of information request pursued by Spotlight on Corruption. In June last year, 1.9bn PPE items were described by a minister as having been put in the “‘do not supply’ [to the NHS] category” but it is possible that some has since been cleared for use.

The department’s list includes 552,100 unused items, costing £8.5m, supplied by Meller Designs. The firm, which was awarded a total of £164m in PPE contracts, was co-owned at the time by David Meller, who has donated nearly £60,000 to the Conservative party since 2009 including £3,250 to support Michael Gove’s party leadership bid in 2016, a campaign on which Meller worked as chair of finance.

In November the DHSC revealed that Gove’s office had referred Meller’s company as a potential PPE supplier, and it was then processed through the VIP “high priority lane” for companies referred by Tory MPs, ministers, peers or health officials. On Friday the company declined to comment.

Another firm on the unused PPE supplier list is PPE Medpro. It was awarded two contracts worth a total £203m after the Tory peer Michelle Mone initially referred the company in May 2020 to her fellow Tory peer Theodore Agnew, then a Cabinet Office minister responsible for procurement.

The DHSC’s newly released list says that 25.5m items ordered from PPE Medpro, worth £124.7m, have not been supplied to the NHS, which appears to include the 25m sterile surgical gowns ordered in June 2020 for £122m. PPE Medpro have insisted that they supplied the gowns to the technical specification required. The DHSC has said it is in dispute with the company that it is seeking to resolve via mediation.

SG Recruitment, referred by the Conservative peer Peter Gummer who is a director of its parent company Sumner Group Holdings, told the Guardian that its PPE, 2.4m items costing £26m, was on the list because it had been awaiting checks but had now been cleared for use in the NHS.

PPE costing £1bn in total stated not to have been passed to the NHS – 476m items such as face masks, gowns and other vital equipment – was supplied by 25 companies whose contracts were processed via the VIP lane, Spotlight on Corruption’s analysis of the DHSC’s list has revealed.

The high priority given to these companies, some newly formed or with no track record in medical products, meant they were given a more attentive personal service at the start of the procurement process, previous reporting has found.

The DHSC publication follows a statement in parliament by the then health minister, James Bethell, in September that as of 10 June last year, “1.9bn items of [PPE] stock were in the ‘do not supply’ category”.

Bethell was replying to a parliamentary question from crossbench peer David Alton, who has pressed in the Lords for details of the waste associated with PPE procurement.

The VIP process was ruled unlawful in the high court last month following a challenge by the Good Law Project; Mrs Justice O’Farrell ruled that the government had failed to give equal treatment to all companies offering to supply PPE.

Jackie Weaver calls for more ‘hyper-localism’ to revitalise local government

Jackie Weaver has given her support to government proposals in the levelling up white paper that could lead to an increase in the number of parish councils.

www.room151.co.uk 

Weaver, who gained overnight fame in February 2021 when her attempt to control an unruly online meeting of Handforth Parish Council went viral, told Room151 that, as larger local authorities contract, “there is only one thing that can fill the gap – and that is parish councils”.

She described parish and town councils as “hyper-localism”, adding: “It’s your parish council that really understands what is happening locally. I don’t think that happens at district or county level. It’s your parish council that will know what the interests are within that area.”

The levelling up white paper promises a review of neighbourhood governance in England that will examine the roles and functions of parish councils in England and discuss how to make them quicker and easier to establish.

Weaver, chief officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, will be discussing the issue of levelling up at Room151’s Local Authority Treasurers Investment Forum (LATIF) North conference taking place in Leeds on 22 March.

The footage from the Handforth meeting did not present a flattering picture of the lowest tier of local government, so why does Weaver think there should there be more parish councils?

“Most people will recognise that one of the reasons that went viral was because it is exceptional. If you saw something like that every month at your parish council meeting, would you even give it two seconds of your time? The criticism of most council sessions wouldn’t be that they are violent and aggressive, but they are dull.

“If you think that you have ineffective and dull council meetings, then do something about it. That is the beauty of your town or parish council. It is the intimacy and the immediacy of it. If you don’t like it, get in there and change it.”

A report last year from the centre-right thinktank Onward said that every neighbourhood should have a parish or town council. It estimated that currently 63% of England does not have this type of governance and called for automatic ballots of voters in these areas to test the views of local people.

Weaver said she had doubts about going this far. “I would prefer this to be community-led. The difficulty is if you create a parish council and there is really no appetite for it locally, then you are just creating another level of bureaucracy that probably isn’t going to be terribly effective.”

She said she wanted to use her unexpected fame to widen the general public’s knowledge and awareness of local government. The day before Weaver spoke to Room151, she had appeared on Good Morning Britain and the weekend before had come second in Celebrity Mastermind and taken part in two live comedy shows.

“I’m trying to find different ways of raising the subject because we have to reach a different audience. The things we have done before – newsletters, websites – are managing to hit the same targets as we have always hit. I want to break out of that and engage with different people.”

Met police did not initially investigate No 10 party claims because nobody admitted taking part, legal document shows

The Metropolitan police decided initially to not investigate allegations of lockdown-breaching parties in and around Downing Street in part because no one had admitted taking part and there was no social media footage, a legal document has shown.

And: “Downing Street… have already stated that Covid rules were followed”

Politics Live

In a response by legal campaign group the Good Law Project for a judicial review about the Met’s decision in early December to not launch an inquiry, the police force’s lawyers pointed to guidelines saying it did not investigate Covid breaches retrospectively, given their relatively minor nature and limited resources.

At the time the first decision was made, any details about the gatherings were “fairly vague”, the document said, detailing the reasons given by a senior officer, whose named has been redacted.

The officer, it said:

…. observed that the press reports did not identify who had been at the gatherings, no one had come forward to admit presence at any of the gatherings, and there was no evidence from social media showing these gatherings taking place, and from which those present could be identified.

It followed that if these events had taken place, the organisers could not be identified from the material available to the police at that time and nor could [the officer] draw any conclusions as to whether the gatherings breached the Covid regulations, and if so, whether those present at the gatherings had no reasonable excuse for their presence at the gatherings.

The force changed its mind last month, and is investigating the claims. But Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said the reasons were “profoundly troubling”.

He said:

It points to a Met that does not want to investigate potential criminality in government or is excessively deferential to those in power.

Revealed: why the Met chose not to investigate Partygate – Good Law Project

goodlawproject.org 

We are today publishing our Grounds for seeking a judicial review of the Metropolitan Police’s initial refusal to investigate the Downing Street lockdown parties, and the Met’s response. The Met had previously insisted that some of the contents of these documents be kept confidential, but we are now publishing them.

We can reveal that the Met had an unpublished policy of not “normally” investigating retrospective lockdown breaches. However, where “not investigating… would significantly undermine the legitimacy of the law” that would point towards investigating.

The Met’s decision not to investigate is difficult to understand. It is hard to avoid concluding that the Met decided it didn’t want to investigate, and then scrambled to reverse engineer a justification for this.

Their justification is itself remarkable. It includes reference to the fact that:

  • “Downing Street… have already stated that Covid rules were followed”
  • “anyone who was at the gathering would be entitled to refuse to answer questions because of the privilege against self-incrimination”
  • because the Cabinet Office was looking into possible breaches there was no need for the Met to investigate as well.

These are extraordinary points. They create a different set of laws for those in high office.

The Met would not accept your assurance that you hadn’t committed a crime. It would not refuse to ask you questions because of the privilege against self-incrimination. And it would certainly not decline to investigate you because you had appointed a subordinate to look into the matter instead. Yet these are all allowances gifted to the Government. 

Moreover, as the policy itself highlights, some reported breaches of the law potentially undermine the legitimacy of the law itself. It is difficult to imagine a clearer example of this than government officials, potentially including the Prime Minister, breaching the rules.

All of this is profoundly troubling. It points to a Met that does not want to investigate potential criminality in Government, or to a police force that is excessively deferential to those in power. It is a policy which dramatically undermines the rule of law.

Good Law Project is considering whether or not to continue with the judicial review. We wanted the Met to reconsider its decision not to investigate and, after we issued judicial review proceedings, the Met did just that. We believe it is in the public interest to have real transparency over the Met’s decision making, and the publication of those pleadings with this blog serves that end. 

We will make a final decision shortly.

Wales moves a step closer to bringing in a tourist tax on visitors

The fee would have to be paid by anyone staying in a hotel, self catered apartment or campsite overnight

Ruth Mosalski www.walesonline.co.uk

Plans for a tourism tax for people staying overnight in Wales have taken a step forward.

The Welsh Government has confirmed a consultation will be launched this autumn when details will be released.

The fee would have to be paid by those staying in a council area overnight and would be up to councils to set. The Welsh Government says a tourism tax would raise money for councils to manage services and infrastructure in tourist hotspots.

It is part of Welsh Government policy, agreed through their co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. Some details had already been detailed by First Minister Mark Drakeford.

Finance and local government minister Rebecca Evans said: “Visitor levies are a common feature in tourist destinations internationally. They are an opportunity for visitors to make an investment in local infrastructure and services, which in turn make tourism a success.

“Without such a levy, local communities face an undue burden to fund local services and provisions on which tourists rely. From keeping the beaches and pavements clean, through to maintaining local parks, toilets and footpaths – the critical infrastructure that supports tourism should be supported by all those that rely on it.

“The introduction and subsequent use of such a levy would enable destinations in Wales to be enjoyed for generations to come and encourage a more sustainable approach to tourism.

“The levy would be proportionate by design, and powers to raise the levy would be discretionary for local authorities. This would enable decisions to be taken locally, according to the needs of our communities. The levy will apply to those paying to stay overnight within a local authority area. Opportunities for wider contributions on the cost impact of other types of visitor activities on local infrastructure will be offered as part of the consultation on the levy.”

Plaid Cymru’s designated member Cefin Campbell MS said: “Giving local people the power to introduce a tourism levy will make a difference to communities across the country, many of which attract a significant number of tourists. It will give local people and their representatives more power and resources to invest and deliver in their areas.

“Councils will be able to ask tourists to contribute in a small way to the areas they are visiting and the local services they use.

“This measure will help support a sustainable rather than an extractive tourism sector, which will help bring the greatest benefit to communities and the local economy.

“Such levies – often known as tourism taxes – are commonplace in countries across Europe and beyond. This is about mutual respect between our communities and the visitors they welcome. It is a new policy which is the fruit of a Welsh co-operative spirit.”