Profligate, cost-cutting council …

No (not yet) EDDC but Hounslow:

“Hounslow Council has spent more than £25million of taxpayers’ money employing external consultants to advise it over the past three-and-a-half years.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by the BBC Local Democracy Reporting Service shows the council spent £25,018,721 on consultant fees between the start of 2015 and the most up to date available in 2018.

The biggest area of spend was in consultancy on business matters which was £12,103,360 over the period, equating to more than £3million each year.

The second highest area of spend was £7,777,769 on property consultancy.

To put the figure in context, the council’s total spend for the 2018/2019 financial year will be £139million, whereas in 2014/2015 financial year it was £182.7m. …”

https://www.getwestlondon.co.uk/news/west-london-news/hounslow-council-spends-25million-consultants-14911545

“Harsh winter deepens pothole crisis for struggling councils”

“Councils are losing the battle against potholes, it is claimed today as the number of cars damaged by crumbling roads has reached a three-year high.

Figures from the RAC show that 4,091 call-outs were made over three months for damage commonly attributed to poor road surfaces including damaged shock absorbers, broken suspension and distorted wheels. The statistics, recorded between April and June, were the highest for the three-month period since 2015.

The RAC warned that local roads had been left in a terrible condition by freezing weather at the start of the year when the “Beast from the East” struck. Critics claimed that roads were already in a poor state because of years of underfunding and a backlog of repairs. The Asphalt Industry Alliance claimed in April that £9.3 billion was needed to bring all roads up to scratch.

The government is investing about £1 billion a year in local roads and said recently that another £100 million was being spent to repair routes affected by the severe winter weather.

The RAC has called for 2p a litre to be invested from fuel duty into local roads, in addition to existing budgets, saying that over a ten-year period it would give councils the money needed to “eliminate the backlog in repairs and preventative maintenance”.

David Bizley, the RAC’s chief engineer, said: “Councils have been working hard to fix potholes and general road surface degradation but despite further emergency funding from central government their budgets are even more stretched than in previous years.

“Our figures demonstrate they are not winning the battle and as a result the safety of too many drivers, cyclists and motorcyclists is being put at risk.”

He added: “Central government must now consider how we can develop a long-term plan to improve the condition of our local roads. We urge the Department for Transport to work with the Treasury to ring-fence a proportion of fuel duty receipts over a sustained period to fund this.”

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said that councils were being given more than £6 billion over six years for local roads. “This funding includes a record £296 million through the pothole action fund: enough to fix around six million potholes,” she said.”

Source: Times, pay wall

Shocking survey: Two-thirds of public finance officers have been pressurised to behave unethically

CIPFA, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, is the professional body for people in public finance. Its 14,000 members work throughout the public services, in national audit agencies, in major accountancy firms, and in other bodies where public money needs to be effectively and efficiently managed.

This is their report on pressure on public finance officials being pressurised to behave unethically.

“Almost two thirds of finance professionals say they have come under pressure to act in an unethical way at some point in their careers, according to early findings from CIPFA’s ethics survey revealed today.

Of the 63% that said they had faced this kind of issue in the workplace, nearly half (47%) said it had happened once or twice, 29% between two and five times and 23% more than five times.

Pressure was exerted by line managers in 42% of cases, by chief executives or chief finance officers in 30% of cases, and board, cabinet or council in 15% of cases.

This was often done in the form of threats to bypass individuals for promotion and disciplinary action.

Respondents working in auditing firms were told that if they did not comply with a client’s wishes their bill might not be paid or they could lose out on future work.

Only 7% of respondents said they had carried out the unethical request and 29% said they had partially carried out the request. Almost two third (64%) said they had refused to act unethically or gave no answer.

Unethical experiences highlighted included excessive optimism in budgets and business cases, ‘getting around’ financial regulations, unreasonably downplaying risks and accounting for revenue as capital.

Among the comments submitted by respondents were that “ethics [is] seen as theoretical and discarded when convenient for senior management” and “commercialisation of local government is distorting the view of what ethical activity should be”.

The findings were based on 157 responses to the ethics survey as of 30 June. Eighty seven per cent of respondents were qualified accountants, while 73% were CIPFA qualified.

Four in ten respondents worked in local government, 20% in the NHS and the remainder from a variety of sectors including charities and audit firms.

Results were revealed by Rick Tazzini, a member of CIPFA’s ethics working group, at the CIPFA annual conference today. Tazzini said some of the issues were the “kind of things that got Carillion into trouble”.

The survey also revealed relatively low awareness of the code of ethics. Just 76% said they were aware of the code and less than half of these had read it recently.

Tazzini said he was expecting awareness of the code to have been higher.

“It’s a really important document for all of us as professionals,” he said.

Opening the session, Margaret Pratt said: “Every CIPFA colleague should be challenged to take their ethical temperature from time to time.”

She added that members needed to be equipped with “moral courage and resilience”.

Pressure on finance professionals was now greater than it ever has been, she said.

CIPFA’s ethics survey remains live and can be completed here. PF will be reporting on the full findings later in the year.”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2018/07/majority-finance-professionals-pressured-acting-unethically-says-survey

Local government in crisis – chilling figures

“Hundreds of councillors and council leaders gathered in Birmingham last week to discuss the big issues facing local government. But while the sun was shining bright there was a destiny dark cloud over head.

We’ve become used to hearing of the dramatic and disproportionate cuts affecting local government. We’ve seen in every community — though some much more than others — the real impact as basic services have been reduced, facilities lost and a fire sale on land and property.

Income from the disposal of assets jumped from £1.2 billion in 2008/09 to £3.2 billion by 2016/17. In fact, almost as much was raised in the final quarter of that year than the whole of 2008.

Local government has also seen a staggering 811,000 jobs lost while at the same time central government has seen an increased workforce.

Whatever has gone might fill local government leaders with sadness, but what is coming down the line is enough to fill them, and all of us with any understanding of public services, with fear.

The Local Government Association issued a stark warning in its usually measured way, underpinned by facts and critical analysis. They highlight a breath-taking jump in the current funding gap of £2.6 billion to £7.8 billion by 2025.

This doesn’t include any rebuilding of frontline services lost as a result of the £16 billion cut in funding; that would be an eye-watering £23.8 billion — much more than the £20 billion announced to “save the NHS”.

Demand on children’s services has been hit hard with 500 child protection investigations every day. Although local government have much less to spend, overall children’s service spending has increased from £5.9 billion in 2008/09 to a forecast £15.4 billion by 2025, already running at £11.6 billion.

Adult social care spend, despite an estimated 1.5 million older people not receiving the care they would have previously been entitled to, has jumped from £14 billion a decade ago to a forecast £22.2 billion by 2025.

In the last six months alone over 8,000 people have been affected by carehome providers collapsing or withdrawing from contracts because of the squeeze.

That’s before the 77,000 families stuck in temporary accommodation including 120,000 children.

This paints a picture of a system ready to fall over. Not just individual councils failing to balance the books, but a whole system failure where a legal challenge to entitlement or new pressure such as the recent increase in National Minimum Wage and National Insurance will be the final straw.

At that point questions will be asked as to who was to blame? That is clear. Local government has done everything asked of it and more. It has taken on a disproportionate burden of cuts through austerity and every year it has highlighted the crisis coming down the line.

It has been central government with a string of toothless secretaries of state and a treasury indifferent to the human disaster developing where blame is due.

They ignore what could be a final warning at their peril.

Jim McMahon is shadow local government minister”

Source: The Red Box (podcast)

So many problems, so little attention being paid to them

Underfunding to blame for child protection ”crisis”, says report
The Local Government Association has a newsletter of articles from the press that might interest councillors amd council officers. This is today’s. Owl couldn’t reduce the list so here are ALL the topics. SO, SO worrying – all of them.

Underfunding to blame for child protection ”crisis”, says report

Pressure on councils’ safeguarding services in some areas is so severe that often the only way to guarantee safety for children is to take them into care, MPs have said. The report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children, said children and young people in serious need got varying levels of help, or no help at all, depending on where they lived, with budgets influencing interventions. Cllr Roy Perry, Vice Chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “This report is yet further evidence that children’s services are being pushed to the brink.”
Guardian p16, Times p16

Government needs to learn from academy failures that damaged children’s education, MPs say

The Government needs to learn the lessons from high-profile academy failures that have been damaging to children’s education and costly to the taxpayer, MPs have said. The Department for Education did not pay enough attention to scrutiny checks in a rush to convert large numbers of schools into academies, according to a Public Accounts Committee report, which also expressed concern about the levels of support available to struggling schools. Recent LGA analysis revealed that councils are better at turning around failing schools than academy chains. Cllr Roy Perry, Vice Chairman of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “It is only by working with councils and giving them the necessary powers, rather than shutting them out, that we can meet the challenges currently facing the education system.”
Independent Online, Telegraph p2

The end of the road for vital bus services?

An article on bus services highlights the case of a cancer patient’s struggle to get to hospital for treatment and the challenge of councils battling over-stretched budgets to maintain bus routes. A recent LGA report warned that nearly half of all bus routes in England are fully or partially subsidised by councils and were therefore under threat due to austerity measures. Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s Transport spokesman, previously said: “Councils know how important buses are for their residents and local economies and are desperate to protect them.”
Guardian p34

Opinion: Matt Hancock’s new role as Health and Social Care Secretary

An editorial in the Times argues that new Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock’s priorities should include “an urgent need to resolve the question of how to fund and organise social care in Britain” and addressing “an enormous amount still to be done in the areas of preventative medicine and lifestyle improvements”.
Times p27

Bosses who revive high street properties are punished with soaring business rate hikes

Thousands of business owners and entrepreneurs are being hit with higher business rates once they renovate dilapidated or rundown stores. Business rates are calculated on the rental value of a property so renovating a run-down site inevitably comes with a rates increase. The Daily Mail is running a campaign ‘save our high streets’ and is calling for a reform of business rates, cuts to parking charges and a fair tax for big internet shopping businesses.
Mail p19

Poor air quality linked to spikes in GP visits

Air pollution leads to spikes in health problems and drives up hospital admissions and visits to the GP, according to a study. The Dundee University report proves an “absolutely clear” link between poor air quality and health problems and researchers said it should serve as a warning to politicians about the serious effects of toxic air pollution on public health.
Guardian p8

New test woe for under 11s

Official figures show that a third of primary school children aren’t achieving higher standards in reading, writing and maths tests, however performance in the SATs exams have improved, with two-thirds reaching the more rigorous requirements, up from just over a half a year ago. Some teachers believe the key stage two tests put too much pressure on young children and does not accurately reflect performance.
Sun p2, Telegraph p2, Guardian Online, i p13, Mail p29

Energy drinks consumption

Public Health Minister, Steve Brine, has warned that children in the UK consume a worryingly high level of energy drinks and is way above the European average. According to Government figures, nearly 70 per cent of ten to 17 year olds consume energy drinks. The Government plans to consult on a ban on children buying the drinks as part of its childhood obesity plan.
Sun p18, Times p4, Telegraph p10, ITV Online, i p21, Express p21

Emerging sex disease MG ‘could become next superbug’

Health experts are warning that a little known sexually transmitted infection could become the next superbug unless people become more vigilant. The British Association of Sexual Health and HIV is launching new advice about MG, which has no symptoms but can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave some women infertile.
BBC Online, Times p4

C of E to create 100 new churches as number of Anglicans hits new low

The Church of England will create more than 100 new churches to “revive the Christian faith in coastal areas, market towns and outer urban housing estates” in the face of a record low number of people identifying as Anglicans. Up to 50 new churches will be established in the diocese of Leicester and 16 in the diocese of Manchester.
Guardian p9, Telegraph p8″

“The national calamity we don’t hear about – the death of local democracy”

‘We cannot survive as we are beyond this next financial year. There is no money. I am not crying wolf. I never cry wolf.” So says the Conservative leader of Torbay council, in Devon: a local authority that delivers the full range of services but can no longer function at even the most basic level.

After years of bone-crunching austerity, by 2020 it will be faced with another £12m of cuts – so the most obvious option is to downgrade itself to a district council, hand over its most essential work to the bigger Devon county council, and hope for the best. Whether this will improve anything is an interesting question: since 2010, in real terms, Devon’s funding from government has been cut by 76%.

Northamptonshire’s council has already effectively gone bankrupt. Somerset, Norfolk and Lancashire are reportedly faced with comparable problems. And in our big cities, similar stories have been unfolding for years, as the great cuts machine set in motion by George Osborne in 2010 continues to grind away, while both costs and demand for basic services increase.

Bristol faces a £108m funding gap by 2023, and is cutting services accordingly. Having already hacked well over £200m from its budgets, Leeds is in the midst of making £38m of savings in a single year. In Newcastle, by 2020, insiders reckon that over half the city council’s spending will in effect have been slashed within a decade. Many authorities are putting up council tax, but that doesn’t come close to easing the economies they have to make. And the results are obvious: less comprehensive child protection, less dependable care for older people, fewer children’s centres, more rubbish in the streets – and yet more dire damage to a social fabric that has been pulled apart for nearly a decade.

Why is this national calamity so under-reported?

Some of the answer is about the continuing tragedy of Brexit. Political journalists who work themselves into a lather about this or that item of Westminster gossip hear the dread phrase “local government” and glaze over. It is some token of Whitehall neglect that confusion still surrounds the Tory plan to abolish the core grant given from central government to local authorities and make them completely dependent on business rates and council tax. All told, senior politicians routinely treat non-Westminster people as a mere annoyance: last week, for instance, it was revealed that though the government has commissioned an updated official assessment of the likely effects of Brexit on Greater Manchester, it will not let the people who run that part of the country see it.

There have been times when the UK’s deep tendency to centralise has been momentarily held back, as evidenced by the devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, and Osborne’s encouragement of the rebirth of city regions and the arrival of elected “metro mayors”. But even in those cases – let alone when it comes to the counties, boroughs and districts where devolution remains off-limits – Whitehall’s habit of clinging to power and the effects of austerity have got in the way. Moreover, as evidenced by the calamities that have befallen health and education, particularly in England, politics has tended to revolve around grand schemes authored by politicians who have Bonapartist ideas of controlling everything from the centre – which, in the midst of a society growing more complex and unpredictable by the day, are usually bound to fail.

Yet here is a remarkable thing. For all their travails, some people in charge of councils are among the most inventive, energetic politicians I have ever met. Figures such as Manchester’s Richard Leese, Newcastle’s Nick Forbes, Leeds’s Judith Blake and Plymouth’s recently re-elected Tudor Evans – all Labour people – are located where their policies play out, deeply familiar with local nuances and complexities, and able to move fast. (Weirdly, they are now under attack from their own side: the people at the top of Labour have plans to end the system whereby council leaders are elected by other councillors, and impose one in which their selection would be in the hands of the party’s newly expanded membership – a brazenly factional move that may well be illegal, misunderstands how councils are deeply collective bodies, and threatens constant tension and disruption, just when the people concerned are in the midst of their most difficult era in living memory.)

Meanwhile, at the other end of the local government hierarchy, an experiment in participatory, non-party “flatpack democracy” in my adopted hometown of Frome, Somerset, highlights the revived belief in the power of truly local government, as does the related rebirth of town and parish councils in other parts of the country.

How would such examples of energy and creativity become the norm? Everything ought to start with an acknowledgment that the system is now an incomprehensible mess. It amounts to a random archipelago of town, parish, district, county, city and borough councils, new city regions, police forces and elected commissioners often based on completely different geographies, local enterprise partnerships and an array of other bodies – not to mention an increasingly centralised education system, and a health service now so complicated that very few people understand it. All this feeds into the sense of popular bafflement that defines a country that is simultaneously the UK’s most populous component but also its most powerless: this, it seems to me, is the essence of the modern English condition.

Any political project with radical intentions ought to consider the contrastingly clear, comparatively simple models in most of western Europe: the Spanish structure of municipalities, provinces and regional “autonomous communities” isn’t a bad place to begin. Learning from such examples should lead on to genuine financial independence for councils, based on a decent share of income tax and the ability to raise funds for big projects through bond issues, and a drastic redrawing of the responsibilities of national and local government – not least in the area of basic public services.

Council cuts are putting the vulnerable at risk, Tory peer says
If the NHS is to survive, it is going to have to decisively shift from treatment towards prevention, something that can only be organised at the social grassroots. It is high time we broke up the dysfunctional Department for Work and Pensions, and handed the administration of most benefits and the jobcentre system to local actors who know what actually works. Education urgently needs to be re-localised. If our troubled high streets are to find a new role, it will be people living next to them who will have to be given the power to find it. To even begin to solve the national housing crisis, we will also have to allow local, city and regional politicians to take the initiative. So, we should pay them properly, and allow them the parental leave, holidays, pensions and sick pay that most of them currently do without.

Across the board, we need to leave behind the lingering fantasy that our fate is wholly in the hands of national politicians who can somehow blow the dust off the failed institutional machinery of the 20th century and save us. That world is gone, and its passing ought to be marked with a collective recognition that at the point when councils ought to be in the midst of revival and reinvention, they are actually being killed. God knows, Britain is now well used to the politics of self-harm, but how amazingly stupid is that?”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/10/death-local-democracy-cuts-closures-westminster

Government has “shaky grasp” of local government finance

“The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has only a “shaky grasp” of the issues facing local authority finances, the Public Accounts Committee has claimed.

A report published by the committee today noted a significant reduction in councils’ spending power had been imposed at the same time as increases in demand pressure.

Local authority spending power, comprising government funding and council tax, has fallen by 28.6% since 2010-11, while key services have come under increased pressure, the PAC said.

In the same timeframe there has been a 14.3% growth in the estimated population aged 65 and over in need of social care, while authorities have endured a 10.9% increase in the number of children being looked after.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “It is no secret that councils are under the cosh.

“The mystery is how central government expects their finances to improve when it has such an apparently shaky grasp of the issues.”

The committee criticised MHCLG’s lack of an agreed measure of sustainability for local government finance or a clear definition of ‘unsustainable’.

The PAC suggested that MHCLG is holding out for a favourable spending review, but noted that the review is now under greater pressure given the announcement of long-term NHS funding.

The committee report also pointed to the first year of the 2015 spending review (2016-17) in which councils with social care responsibilities overspent their service budget by over £1bn and used £858m in reserves.

Hillier said: “Central government’s view is, in effect, that it expects everything to work out in the end. We beg to differ.” …”

https://www.publicfinance.co.uk/news/2018/07/pac-highlights-whitehalls-shaky-grasp-council-finances