“The public service gamble: Councils borrowing billions to play the property market”

New report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

“In the last two years, the number of councils investing in property has doubled. In the past financial year alone, councils spent a total of £1.8 billion on investment properties, a six-fold increase from 2013-14.

Of biggest concern is the scale of debts accrued by four of the smallest local authorities in England – including Spelthorne Borough Council in Surrey, which says it is “heavily reliant on investment income” to fund the services it provides.

Spelthorne has so far borrowed £1 billion despite having a net annual budget of just £22 million – this equates to 46 times its spending power. Three other councils, Woking, Runnymede and Eastleigh, have borrowed more than ten times their budget.

The Bureau has obtained details of the property investments made by more than 100 local authorities. Today we have published the details in full, providing unprecedented insight into how councils are becoming property speculators – with additional details on the millions paid to property and finance consultants.

Properties bought by councils include a BP business park in Sunbury purchased by Spelthorne for £392 million; a Tesco Extra bought for £38.8 million by East Hampshire District Council; branches of Waitrose and Travelodge acquired by Runnymede District Council for £21.7 million and a B&Q store that is now owned by Dover District Council. Other acquisitions range from farmland and gyms to a Royal Mail depot and a solar farm.

Councils say they have been forced to find new ways to generate income given the steep cuts in central government funding, which the National Audit Office calculates has fallen by half in real terms since 2010.

But experts warn that commercial property investments are volatile, and the fact that councils are financing them through borrowing makes them even riskier. If anything goes wrong, the consequences for taxpayers could be severe.

“This is a risk that local authorities have never been exposed to before”
“If you look at the most extreme examples, there are public services used by vulnerable people which are dependent on how well rental income in the property market is doing,” said Don Peebles, Head of Policy for the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), which oversees council finance and publishes the guidelines local authorities are supposed to follow.

“This is a risk that local authorities have never been exposed to before and you have to ask whether they are equipped to handle that risk.”

Warnings unheeded

The spending spree has been made possible by councils’ easy access to low interest loans from the Public Works Loans Board (PWLB), a national government body. There are no limits to how much councils can borrow and they do not have to prove they can afford it – the PWLB leaves this up to councillors to decide. … “

https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2018-12-04/councils-borrow-billions-to-buy-real-estate

“Bus firms pay fat cats £1.5 BILLION – while prices go up 55% and routes are axed”

“Bus firms have paid shareholders £1.5billion in dividends in the past 10 years, while fares have soared and services have been axed.

Fares have gone up 55% on average since 2008, far outstripping pay growth. Some passengers have even been hit by increases of 100% and bus use is at a 12-year low.

Arriva, FirstGroup, Go-Ahead, National Express and Stagecoach carry 70% of all bus passengers and have paid an average £149million a year in dividends in the past 10 years.

The most recent company records show they paid out dividends amounting to £48,077,200 from profits in the South East, £23,521,200 in the North East, £18,460,700 in the North West, £13,767,700 in the Midlands and £27,309,700 in London.

Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald said: “Our bus networks are being bled dry by greedy private operators. Labour will bring buses under public control and ownership in order to reverse bus cuts rather than fill the pockets of shareholders.

“It is an outrage that bus companies enjoy colossal profits as thousands of routes are cut or withdrawn. The bus network has shrunk to its smallest size in decades and passenger numbers are plummeting.

“A combination of privatisation and Tory cuts is killing local bus services.

“Labour would enhance and expand bus services, including providing free travel to under-25s.”

The research by campaign group Better Buses for Greater Manchester also found bus journeys had fallen by 40% in urban areas since the deregulation of services by the Tories 32 years ago.

In London, where deregulation did not apply, passenger journeys on the franchised network have doubled and bus companies’ profits are around 4%, compared to 8% in cities where services are deregulated.

The Better Buses for Greater Manchester findings are revealed as a campaign is launched today urging Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham to re-regulate services, bringing buses under public control.

Pascale Robinson, of Better Buses for Greater Manchester, said: “The deregulation we have now means bus companies just run the routes they want to at a whim. They can charge what they like.

“This means the big five bus companies are cherry-picking the profitable routes, making a killing, and it is us in Greater Manchester who suffer infrequent, unreliable and expensive buses.”

Greater Manchester is one of the first cities to consider re-regulating its bus network, which would give the mayor the choice to put the public in control instead of the big firms.

Ms Robinson said: “By this method bus firms are given controlled contracts to run the services we need, services which are reliable and affordable.

“We call on Mr Burnham to be bold and give us the bus network we deserve. We can’t keep letting these companies run a Wild West, charging through the roof for a patchy service.

“For every pound of dividend given to shareholders in London, 82 journeys were taken. Elsewhere across the country, where buses are mostly deregulated except for a few small pockets, it was just under 20.”

In Greater Manchester, passengers have complained that changes to the 372 Hazel Grove-Stockport service means taking two different buses to do the same journey, which used to pass by the hospital.

They now need a £4.50 “day rider” ticket, adding £1 to each journey.

This summer the Mirror revealed how mum-of-nine Gemma Headley, 36, of Driffield, East Yorks, had to walk seven miles to get her daughters to infant school because of bus cuts. Department for Transport figures show the number of bus routes at a 28-year low.

The bus network has shrunk by 8% in the last decade. Since 2010, the Tories have almost halved funding for bus services in England and 3,347 routes have been axed or reduced.

Experts say investing in bus travel would bring benefits as people return to towns and cities to spend their money.

An analysis for Greener Journeys by auditors KPMG LLP shows that targeted investment to improve bus services would typically generate £3.32 of net economic benefit for each £1 spent.

Steve Chambers, of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: ”Across the country we are seeing the alarming impact this is having on communities, especially in rural areas, as people are being left isolated and unable to get to work, get to the shops, visit friends or access vital public services.

“The loss of bus services also has an adverse effect on congestion and air pollution as more people turn to cars, jamming up already congested roads.”

Mirror reader and retired lorry driver Michael Palmer, 74, tells how a half-hourly service from his home in the North Fitzwarren, Somerset, to Taunton, is now every two hours, finishing too early for workers returning home.

He said: “We are living in the 21st century, this is England, we should have the best public transport service in the world. Where did it all go wrong?”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We provide around £250million every year to support bus services and a further £1billion to support older and disabled people using the free bus pass scheme.”

The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which represents bus and coach operators, said the dividends paid were outweighed by investment, with Stagecoach investing £1billion on around 7, 000 new buses in 10 years.

How bus prices have risen over a decade…

All prices are for day tickets except London.

Birmingham
2008 – £3.30
2018 – £6.70
A 103% increase

Newcastle
2008 – £3.50
2018 – £5.20
A 49% increase

Manchester
2008 – £3.30
2018 – £5.60
A 70% increase

Leicester
2008 – £2.60
2018 – £5.20
A 100% increase

Derby
2008 – £3.20
2018 – £4.20
A 31% increase

Cornwall
(All day)
2008 – £8.20
2018 – £12
A 46% increase

Bath
2008 – £2.20
2018 – £4.50
A 105% increase

Liverpool
2008 – £3
2018 – £4.80
A 60% increase

Nottingham
2008 – £3.00
2018 – £4
A 33% increase

London
(No day tripper anymore)
Single journey 2008 – 90p
Single journey 2018 – £1.50
A 66% increase

Why ‘On the Buses’ loses comedic fun to big fares
By Paul Routledge

Maggie Thatcher may not, as legend says, have sneered that “any man over 26 who finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”. As an inveterate user of public transport, I’m happy to be seen as a failure.

The bus is a traditional part of the British way of life. It’s a place for gossip, getting to the shops, the hospital and to see friends, a moving theatre of society.

No wonder On The Buses was so popular. The soap played to our affection for the bus. “Sit at the back for a longer ride!”

But it’s getting harder and harder. Thatcher’s deregulation and privatisation of the industry was a failure for would-be travellers of any age.

It brought fewer routes and higher fares – with profits and subsidies creamed off for investors, many of them foreign.

I hear grumbles galore from fellow passengers about late and cancelled services. But it’s not the crews’ fault that the system isn’t working.

The sell-off brought redundancies. The clippie went out with cost-saving one-man operation. Drivers face exhausting schedules.

The Tories cut local government funding, so councils slashed subsidies to the companies, who take it out on the passenger.

We’ve waited too long at the bus stop for an end to this rip-off.”

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/bus-firms-pay-fat-cats-13540251

“How the actual magic money tree works”

“Shock data shows that most MPs do not know how money is created. Responding to a survey commissioned by Positive Money just before the June election, 85% were unaware that new money was created every time a commercial bank extended a loan, while 70% thought that only the government had the power to create new money.

The results are only a shock if you didn’t see the last poll of MPs on exactly this topic, in 2014, revealing broadly the same level of ignorance. Indeed, the real shock is that MPs still, without embarrassment, answer surveys.

Yet almost all our hot-button political issues, from social security to housing, relate back to the meaning and creation of money; so if the people making those choices don’t have a clue, that isn’t without consequence.

How is money created?

Some is created by the state, but usually in a financial emergency. For instance, the crash gave rise to quantitative easing – money pumped directly into the economy by the government. The vast majority of money (97%) comes into being when a commercial bank extends a loan. Meanwhile, 27% of bank lending goes to other financial corporations; 50% to mortgages (mainly on existing residential property); 8% to high-cost credit (including overdrafts and credit cards); and just 15% to non-financial corporates, that is, the productive economy.

What’s wrong with that?

On the corporate financial side, bank-lending inflates asset prices, which concentrates wealth in the hands of the wealthy. On the mortgage side, house prices rise to meet the amount the lender is prepared to lend, rather than being moored to wages. The lender benefits enormously from larger mortgages and longer periods of indebtedness; the homeowner benefits slightly from a bigger asset, but obviously spends longer in debt servitude; the renter loses out completely.

Is there a magic money tree?

All money comes from a magic tree, in the sense that money is spirited from thin air. There is no gold standard. Banks do not work to a money-multiplier model, where they extend loans as a multiple of the deposits they already hold. Money is created on faith alone, whether that is faith in ever-increasing housing prices or any other given investment. This does not mean that creation is risk-free: any government could create too much and spawn hyper-inflation.

Any commercial bank could create too much and generate over-indebtedness in the private economy, which is what has happened. But it does mean that money has no innate value, it is simply a marker of trust between a lender and a borrower. So it is the ultimate democratic resource. The argument marshalled against social investment such as education, welfare and public services, that it is unaffordable because there is no magic money tree, is nonsensical. It all comes from the tree; the real question is, who is in charge of the tree?

What could we do instead?

We could do QE for the people, overt monetary financing in which a government creates money for social benefit, such as green infrastructure or education. Or helicopter money, a central bank distributing it to everyone, either in a one-off citizen’s dividend or a regular citizen’s basic income. The nature of centrally created money should itself be opened up for debate, whose starting point is: if we agree that commercially created money is skewing the economy, can we then agree that it should be created by a public authority, even if we don’t yet know what that authority would look like.”

https://www.theguardian.com/global/shortcuts/2017/oct/29/how-the-actual-magic-money-tree-works

“CIPFA warns councils over serious commercial activity concerns”

“CIPFA is to work on fresh guidance over concerns councils in England are putting public funds at “unnecessary or unquantified risk” when borrowing to invest in commercial property.

In a statement released today, the insitute suggested local authorities were investing in commercial properties disproportionately to their resources.

This would be against the requirements of the CIPFA’s Prudential Code and Treasury Management code, the joint statement from CIPFA chief executive Rob Whiteman and chair of CIPFA’s treasury and capital management panel Richard Paver, said.

Whiteman and Paver said that “in some cases these investments have been financed by borrowing” and CIPFA shared concerns there had been an “acceleration of the practice of borrowing to invest in commercial property”.

They warned councils the “prime policy objective of a local authority’s treasury management investment activities is the security of funds, and that a local authority should avoid exposing public funds to unnecessary or unquantified risks”.

CIPFA’s code and the government’s Statutory Guidance on Local Government Investments were “very clear that local authorities must not borrow more than or in advance of their needs purely in order to profit from the investment of the extra sums borrowed”.

The institute will “issue more guidance and will make it clear that these investment approaches are not consistent with the requirements of fiscal sustainability, prudence and affordability,” the statement said.

Government figures released last week showed an increase in local authorities’ commercial activities.

English councils’ acquisition of land and buildings rose by £1.2bn (43.1%) to £4bn in 2017-18 from £2.8bn in 2016-17, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government data revealed.

Total borrowing by councils in England had risen from £4.4bn in 2013-14 to £10bn in 2017-18.

The guidance is expected to be published before the end of the year.

Until it is released, CIPFA advised local authorities to refer to the government guidance, which cautions local authorities against:

– Becoming dependent on commercial income;

– Taking out too much debt relative to net service expenditure; and

– Taking on debt to finance commercial investments.

The MHCLG figures out last week showed the largest investors in commercial property were Spelthorne Borough Council at £270m and Warrington Borough Council with £220m. Eastleigh Borough Council also spent £194m.

In 2016, Spelthorne took out 50 separate Public Works Loan Board loans to fund the purchase of a £360m business park in Sunbury-on-Thames.

PF understands that MHCLG and the Treasury have expressed concern about the scale of commercial property investment.

MHCLG has been contacted for comment.”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2018/10/cipfa-warns-councils-over-serious-commercial-activity-concerns

Another developers’ charter announced by government

“The government has announced plans to consult on further reforms to the planning system, including giving local authorities more flexibility to dispose of surplus land that could instead accommodate new homes.

Other measures will include

introducing a new permitted development right to allow property owners to extend certain buildings upwards, “while maintaining the character of residential and conservation areas and safeguarding people’s privacy”.

clearer guidance to give more certainty for communities when land is needed to make a new town a reality.

The government has set a target for the delivery of more than 300,000 homes a year by the mid 2020s.

The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire, has also confirmed that the government will ban the use of combustible materials on external walls of high-rise residential buildings. The ban will also apply to hospitals, care homes and student accommodation over 18 metres.

This ban will be delivered through changes to building regulations guidance and will limit materials available to products achieving a European classification of Class A1 or A2.

Other measures announced by the government include the creation of a New Homes Ombudsman to support homebuyers facing problems with their newly built home, and £165m in funding to unlock up to 5,100 homes in Birmingham in support of the 2022 Commonwealth Games.”

http://localgovernmentlawyer.co.uk/

Community attempt to save Sidmouth Drill Hall

“Gillian Mitchell has set up a not-for-profit community interest company (CIC) called Sidmouth Sunrise as part of a bid to transform the space into a community hub.

The mum-of-two says she wanted to take on the project to tackle a gap in facilities in the town.

Gillian told the Herald: “The strength of community feeling within Sidmouth is what makes our town and local area a vibrant place to live in.

“The worrying thing is that we have no significant population of young single people, which implies that the youngsters are moving away when they leave education.

“We want to do something to increase the attractiveness of Sidmouth to this age group and encourage a more balanced population and create a sustainable vibrant community.

“We are serious about what we are doing. We really want to make sure that we have it right; we have to make sure this is feasible.”

Sidmouth Sunrise has also gained backing from Real Ideas Organisation (RIO) of Plymouth, which will serve as a consultant and funding partner.

Gillian says RIO has ‘vast experience’ in breathing new life into redundant buildings to bring them to community use and will be able to provide support and advice to manage their own projects.

Sunrise Sidmouth has carried out a structural survey and is consulting architects about final designs, before holding public meetings.

Gillian, who is chairman of the organisation, says she is looking to work collaboratively to put in the strongest bid to Exeter-based agent JLL.

She said: “We’re not aware of any other community bids that are being put together and if there is, my group would like to work together rather than have multiple community bids.

“We are really up to talking to anybody and get behind one bid.

“We’re not going to please everybody, and it is quite a small space. I do not want to be in competition with my own community.

“If we are successful with our bid, all funds and profits will be reinvested into securing the future of the Drill Hall and future similar projects.”

EDDC has given community groups six months to develop their ideas. The commercial property sector will have three months to prepare their proposals, with all bids to be submitted to JLL by February 4.”

http://www.sidmouthherald.co.uk/news/first-community-bid-comes-forward-to-transform-sidmouth-s-drill-hall-into-community-hub-1-5693614

“Tories trigger ‘secret NHS firesale’ as land selloffs ‘soar 31% in a year'”

“The amount of NHS land being sold off is up almost a third, up from 1,300 hectares last year to more than 1,700 according to research by Labour.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said patients would be “alarmed” at the “huge rise” in the amount of health service land under consideration for sale.

Labour’s health chief said hospitals were being forced into a “fire sale” of assets because of the Government’s mismanagement of NHS finances.

Analysis by the party showed 1,750 hectares were listed – an increase of 31% in the last year.

And over two years the amount of land for sale has risen by a staggering 320%, meaning there is now more than four times as much NHS land for sale compared to 2015/16. …”

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/tories-trigger-secret-nhs-firesale-13221825