The Times: “Builders shun brownfield sites” [what a surprise!]

Are we surprised? Oh, come on – of course not. And interesting that a council, for example, might spend, say, £10 million on a new HQ, but not have the “resources” to identify all suitable brownfield sites for housing in their district!

Parts of the countryside are being needlessly sacrificed to build homes because thousands of small plots of previously developed land are being overlooked by councils, a study has found.

Sites with room for almost 200,000 homes are missing from official registers of brownfield, according to research by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). These include former builders’ yards, disused warehouses and blocks of garages no longer used for parking.

The government says that it has a “brownfield first” policy when identifying land for more homes. To help to achieve this it has ordered all councils in England to publish registers by the end of this month of brownfield land suitable for development.

The CPRE examined 43 of the registers already published and found that only 4 per cent of the brownfield land they identified was on small sites that could accommodate up to ten homes.

In the budget last month the government announced that it wanted councils to identify enough small sites to provide 20 per cent of the new homes needed.

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, also said that the government would “ensure that our brownfield and scarce urban land is used as efficiently as possible”.

The CPRE found that if councils met the 20 per cent target on small brownfield sites, an additional 189,000 homes could be built in England.

It asked a sample of local authorities how they identified land for their brownfield registers and found that they “routinely disregarded small brownfield sites”.

Councils overlooked the sites even though they usually had infrastructure in place, such as rail and road links and schools and hospitals, which were less likely to be available for greenfield sites.

The reasons given by councils for not listing small brownfield sites included that they lacked the resources to identify them and that housebuilders did not favour them because of the perception that the planning system was too burdensome for small plots.

The CPRE said that the failure to identify small brownfield sites was resulting in councils allocating land for development in the green belt, the protected land around 14 cities.

It has called on the government to amend official guidance to ensure that councils identified all the available brownfield sites in their areas.

Rebecca Pullinger, CPRE’s planning campaigner, said: “Up and down the country tens of thousands of small brownfield sites are not included in brownfield land registers and their housing development potential missed.

“The current system of collecting this data must be improved if we are to unlock the potential of brownfield and stop developers finding an excuse to build on greenfield areas.”

In October Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, said on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One: “I don’t believe that we need to focus on the green belt, there is lots of brownfield land, and brownfield first has been a policy of ours for a while.”

Source: The Times (pay wall)

“Human rights commission to launch its own Grenfell fire inquiry”

Britain’s human rights watchdog is to launch an inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire that will examine whether the government and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea failed in their duties to protect life and provide safe housing.

The dramatic intervention by the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has the potential to draw damning conclusions about the role of the state, could foreshadow the official inquiry, ordered by Theresa May and chaired by retired judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick, which has been criticised for excluding social housing policy from its remit. The commission’s recommendations are due to be published in April, considerably earlier than the official inquiry’s full findings.

The commission’s chair, David Isaac, said the EHRC, whose application to become a core participant in the official inquiry was rejected, had decided to launch its own inquiry amid concerns that key questions – including the extent to which the state has “a duty to protect its citizens”– were being neglected. While acknowledging that the move might be seen as “controversial” in some quarters, he defended the commission’s decision to become involved.

Six months on, Grenfell Tower fire survivors are left demanding answers
“We are the UK’s national human rights body and we have a statutory duty to promote equality and human rights,” Isaac said in an interview with the Observer. “We think the human rights dimension to Grenfell Tower is absolutely fundamental and is currently overlooked. Grenfell for most people in this country, particularly in the way the government has reacted, is a pretty defining moment in terms of how inequality is perceived.”

He recalled his reaction to the tragic events of 14 June. “Like everybody else, it was shock, horror, distress. I think it was a national moment that defined how certain parts of society experience the state’s public provision of housing and also how the state responds. We need to learn from what’s happened with Grenfell, look at it in the context of our human rights obligations, and think about how we can improve. There are loads of lessons to be learned.”

Last week it emerged that four out of every five families who were made homeless in the fire are still looking for new housing, with almost half of them likely to spend Christmas in emergency accommodation.

The EHRC inquiry, which will involve a panel of legal experts, will pay particular attention to the UK’s obligations to the tower’s residents under the Human Rights Act and international law. At a time when some want the act scrapped, the inquiry’s actions could be viewed as provocative.

“Human rights are for everybody,” Isaac said. “This is political and I know there is a view among some politicians, but also among society more generally, that human rights only protect extremists and terrorists but that isn’t the case at all. I always talk about Hillsborough as a really good example of where the Human Rights Act and the human rights lens has been used effectively to ensure justice prevailed.”

In a statement to be published on its website tomorrow, explaining its decision to launch what it refers to as its “project”, the EHRC will say: “The Grenfell Tower fire caused catastrophic loss of life for which the state may have been responsible. More than 70 people died in homes managed by the state. They should have been safe and they were not. The people who died and others affected by the fire come from diverse backgrounds. They include children, elderly people, disabled people and migrants. …

… The commission’s decision to examine the Grenfell Tower fire reflects a more muscular approach to addressing human rights and equality issues. Recently it has brought a number of high-profile legal actions and launched several major inquiries, such as that into the gender pay gap.

Isaac said: “We are a more confident organisation and this is a good example of us being that – holding the government to account by doing what only we can do. It might be perceived to be controversial but I believe that’s our role.””

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/dec/09/human-rights-commission-to-launch-own-grenfell-fire-inquiry

The spirit of Christmas …

For many families, coming together to decorate the Christmas tree is the official start of the festive season, but for a growing number of very wealthy people it is just another task to be outsourced to professional help for as much £80,000.

Calling in a Knightsbridge florist to hang a wreath on your front door and install and decorate a fir tree costs a minimum of £1,500. But the battle among London’s elite to produce the most spectacular Christmas displays has intensified, with professional events companies being called in to create winter wonderland house and garden displays that can come with ice rinks, live reindeer and even actors playing Santa or sugar plum fairies.

“Hiring florists for Christmas has been happening for years,” said Becky Handley, director of the event production company Theme Traders. “But in the last few years people have started calling in event planners to come up with themes and make a real production with professional lighting and cherrypickers to decorate the roof.”

Handley, whose company has had more than 50 people working on Christmas installations since mid-November, said the demands of ultra-rich clients were becoming more extensive every year and coming up with ideas for next year’s displays would start in January at Christmasworld, an international decorating trade fair in Frankfurt.

“People want the whole of the front of houses lit up, and bear in mind these houses are pretty big,” she said. “Those with young children want real snow on 1 December, and we can make it happen.

“People also want immersive experiences. They will ask us to provide carol singers, Santa, sugar plum fairies and real reindeers,” she said. “People have gone a bit bonkers about Christmas.”

She said the cost of a “production Christmas” started at a few thousand pounds but could easily stretch into the tens of thousands. “It’s how long is a piece of string really,” she said. “Last year we did one that cost £80,000 – it really depends on what people want.”

Client confidentially clauses prevent Handley from saying too much about the £80,000 decorations, but she said the job involved dressing the whole house, installing an ice rink in the driveway, and going back several times to change the design “depending on [the client’s] social calendar” ….”

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/dec/08/rich-londoners-christmas-decorators-winter-wonderland-live-reindeer

“Labour demands Commons vote on ‘secret’ plan for NHS”

This is the most dangerous thing to happen to our NHS since the Health and Social Care Act 2012 paved the way for wholesale privatisation. Once this goes through (on the nod as it will with this government) our NHS ceases to exist.

Currently, money in the true NHS stays in it and recirculates. With ACOs first big salaries for ACO staff are creamed off, then boardroom and shareholder dividends of the companies concerned and then the NHS gets cut and rationed – with only high-profit interventions (usually things such as elective surgery which can be costed to the penny) made available.

“Party says ministers are trying to push through changes that could lead to greater privatisation and rationing of care

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

Labour is demanding that MPs be allowed to debate and vote on “secret” plans for the NHS that they claim could lead to greater rationing of care and privatisation of health services.

The party says ministers are trying to push through the creation of “accountable care organisations” (ACOs) without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, has written to Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the House of Commons, urging her not to let “the biggest change to our NHS in a decade” go ahead without MPs’ involvement.

NHS England’s chief executive, Simon Stevens, and the government see ACOs as central to far-reaching modernisation plans that they hope will improve patient care, reduce pressure on hospitals and help the NHS stick to its budget.

ACOs involve NHS hospital, mental health, ambulance and community services trusts working much more closely with local councils, using new organisational structures, to improve the health of the population of a wide area. The first ACOs are due to become operational in April in eight areas of England and cover almost 7 million people.

Labour has seized on the fact that the Department of Health plans to amend 10 separate sets of parliamentary regulations that relate to the NHS in order to pave the way legally for the eight ACOs.

In his letter, Ashworth demands that Leadsom grant a debate on the plans before the amended regulations acquire legal force in February.

“Accountable care organisations are potentially the biggest change which will be made to our NHS for a decade. Yet the government have been reluctant to put details of the new arrangements into the public domain. It’s essential that the decision around whether to introduce ACOs into the NHS is taken in public, with a full debate and vote in parliament,” he writes.

A number of “big, unanswered questons” about ACOs remain, despite their imminent arrival in the NHS, he adds. They include how the new organisations will be accountable to the public, what the role of private sector health firms will be and how they will affect NHS staff.

Ashworth also says “the unacceptable secrecy in which these ACOs have been conceived and are being pushed forward is totally contrary to the NHS’s duty to be open, transparent and accountable in its decision-making. The manner in which the government are approaching ACOs, as with sustainability and transformation plans before them, fails that test.”

Stevens’s determination to introduce ACOs has aroused suspicion because they are based on how healthcare is organised in the United States. They came in there in the wake of Obamacare as an attempt to integrate providers of different sorts of healthcare in order to keep patients healthier and avoid them spending time in hospital unnecessarily.

A Commons early day motion (EDM) on ACOs also being tabled by Labour on Thursday, signed by its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and other frontbenchers, notes that “concerns have been raised that ACOs will encourage and facilitate further private sector involvement in the NHS”.

In his letter Ashworth adds: “There is widespread suspicion that the government are forcing these new changes through in order to fit NHS services to the shrinking budgets imposed from Whitehall.” The EDM also notes “concerns that ACOs could be used as a vehicle for greater rationing”.

The King’s Fund, an influential health thinktank, denied that ACOs would open up NHS services to privatisation. “This is not about privatisation; it is about integration,” said Prof Chris Ham, its chief executive.

“There is a groundswell of support among local health and care leaders for the principle of looking beyond individual services and focusing instead on whatever will have the biggest impact in enabling people to live long, healthy and fulfilling lives,” added Ham.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association, backed Labour’s call for greater transparency but said care services should be integrated.

However, he added: “ACOs will not in themselves address the desperate underfunding of the NHS and may divert more money into processes of reorganisation. Current procurement and competition regulations create the potential for ACOs to be opened up to global private providers within a fixed-term contract and with significant implications for patient services and staff.”

The Department of Health refused to say if MPs would be able to debate ACOs. “It is right that local NHS leaders and clinicians have the autonomy to decide the best solutions to improve care for the patients they know best – but significant local changes must always be subject to public consultation and due legal process.

“It is important to note that ACOs have nothing to do with funding – the NHS will always remain free at the point of use,” a spokesman said.”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/07/labour-demands-commons-vote-secret-plan-nhs

“Forty percent of homes sold under Right to Buy now in the hands of private landlords, new analysis reveals”

Scotland and Wales stopped these sales – it can be done, no excuses.

“Tens of thousands of council homes sold under the Right to Buy scheme, designed to help low-income families get on the housing ladder, are now being let out by private landlords, new research has revealed.

Just over 40 per cent of properties purchased under the controversial scheme are now being rented out privately – a rise of 7 per cent in the last two years alone.

As a result, properties sold off quickly become significantly more expensive than they were previously. The average private rent in England is £210 per week – more than double the £88 average social rent.

If the current trend continues, more than half of all Right to Buy homes will be rented privately by 2026, according to the research by Inside Housing magazine.

The analysis – based on figures from 111 councils, around two thirds of the total – shows that 180,260 leasehold properties were sold by local authorities since 1980. Of those almost 72,500 are now registered with an “away address”, suggesting they are being rented out privately.

The mass sell-off comes despite council house waiting lists currently standing at more than 10 years in some parts of the country, and a 97 per cent fall in new social homes being built since 2010.

Amid fears over the on-going impact of Right to Buy, the Scottish Government scrapped the policy in Scotland last year and on Tuesday the Welsh government voted to follow suit.

Critics say Right to Buy has led to a staggering loss of social homes because those sold off under the policy are not being replaced. According to Local Government Association analysis, just one new home is built for every five sold.

There are now just 2 million council homes left in Britain – down from 6.5 million when Right to Buy was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1980, although a number of factors are behind the fall.

Despite growing concern about the impact of the policy, last year the Conservatives controversially extended Right to Buy to properties owned by housing associations – meaning thousands more low-rent homes are likely to be sold off. …”

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/right-to-buy-homes-sold-private-landlords-latest-figures-rent-a8098126.html

Cranbrook: bad news for E.on? Regulator to investigate district heating networks

Residents of Cranbrook are stuck with E.on for 80 years unless things change as reported by Owl here in February 2017:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2017/02/05/cranbrooks-district-heating-system-under-fire-no-switching-allowed-and-developers-get-a-cut-for-80-year-contract/

and here in 2016:
https://eastdevonwatch.org/2016/07/28/cranbrook-what-can-happen-when-you-are-tied-to-one-district-heating-energy-supplier/

“The UK’s competition regulator has announced that it is launching a comprehensive study into domestic heat networks to make sure that households are getting a good deal.

Competition and Markets Authority on Thursday said that heat networks – systems that heat multiple homes from one central source – currently supply about half a million UK homes through about 17,000 networks.

Between now and 2030, the number of customers using heat networks is expected to grow significantly to around 20 per cent of all households. But the sector is not currently subject to the same regulation as other forms of energy supply such as mains gas and electricity.

The CMA said that, as a result of that, it’s concerned that many customers, a large proportion of whom live in social housing, may be unable to easily switch suppliers or are locked into very long contracts – some for up to 25 years.

There’s a risk, the regulator said, that they may be paying too much or receiving a poor quality of service.

It said that its study into the networks would examine whether customers are aware of the costs of heat networks both before and after moving into a property and whether heat networks are natural monopolies. It would also look at the prices, service quality and reliability of heat networks.

“Heat networks can play an important role in cutting carbon and keeping down energy bills for customers. However, we have concerns that this sector may not be working as well as it could be for the half a million homes heated by these systems now and the millions that may be connected in the future,” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA.

“That is why we’re taking a closer look at this market to ensure that heat network customers get a good deal on their energy now and in the future.”

The CMA study will be completed within the next 12 months. It said that it would source evidence from a wide range of stakeholders, including heat network builders and operators, other government departments, local authorities, sector regulators and consumer groups.

An interim report updating on the CMA’s progress will be published in six months.

Heating networks can be better for the environment because they deliver lower carbon emissions, which can also result in cost benefits for households.

Because of this, heat networks have become an important part of the Government’s strategy to reduce carbon and cut heating bills.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/uk-domestic-heat-networks-review-competition-markets-authority-review-regulator-a8096396.html