Ottery Community Hospital – a campaigner speaks on council in-fighting

Text of address to Ottery Town Council by Philip Algar, a long-term campaigner for the Ottery hospital, including its in-patient beds:

“OSMTC 29th NOVEMBER 2018

As an interested member of the public, I have attended almost all the town council meetings over the last few years. During that time, I have seen the councillors confront many issues, some trivial and some serious. However, I have not seen a collective, note the word “collective”, and timely public effort by the council as a whole to support those of us who have been campaigning to save the Ottery hospital. I can think of nothing that is more important to the local people than having access to a well-located modern greatly-valued hospital and this, surely, justifies your collective support. Why has such support been missing?

Whenever the subject of the hospital’s future has been included on the town council agenda, the main speaker, often the only speaker, has been one councillor, who, quite correctly, has said that she does not speak for the council but for a group of which she is a leading member.

As recently as last August, I asked the council to adopt an official and supportive role but nothing happened and, as far as I know, my suggestion that the hospital should become a community asset, which was rejected by EDDC, was not challenged by this council, even although such status has, I am told, been granted to other hospitals. I had suggested in advance that it might be wise to devise a response in anticipation of a negative decision.
All this is why I shall no longer be attending your meetings which will be good news for many of you. Furthermore, the well-intentioned and hard-working unofficial groups have failed to make much progress with the official bodies and, apparently, admit this. That said, it would be helpful if they were more communicative with the public.

Given this lamentable situation, it was hardly surprising that three councillors, backed by a county councillor, suggested setting up a semi-official working group to solve the crisis. Three councillors voted in favour and six, according to the draft minutes of the meeting, abstained.
I was astonished to learn that, allegedly, some councillors construed this as a defeat for the trio. That is breathtaking and worthy of Private Eye. If this is true, it also exposes a level of ignorance that calls into question the competence of those involved. If it is not true, I withdraw this comment immediately.

Now, despite an objective explanation from Dr. Margaret Hall, explaining that, effectively, NHS groups, apparently, will only discuss matters with official groups or those under the aegis of the council, you still chose to organise this meeting, at an unusual time when so many residents are at work. I note the comments that this meeting was planned as councillors were attending a finance meeting. The claim by the abstainers, that they did not have sufficient information, has already been undermined by Dr. Hall’s contribution so why have another meeting?

This, presumably, is an effort to overturn the initial decision on the creation of a working group. The agenda also raises the possibility of supporting a decision that has already been agreed after a vote of three to nil, and which has now been explained by Dr. Hall. I find the possibility that organising a meeting to consider reversing the democratically-taken decision to be a truly ludicrous waste of time and totally unnecessary.
Those who were penalised by the decision to remove inpatient beds and now face the prospect that the hospital may not even become a hub, deserve much more from their councillors.”

End: 29.11.18

“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

Never trust a Tory with numbers!

“Mayor James Palmer admitted he underestimated the cost of running the new combined authority, and says original predictions it would cost £850,000 a year were never going to be realistic.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority was founded in 2017 in a bid to simplify local government. It is involved in many major housing and infrastructure schemes, including the proposed Cambridge metro, and the Wisbech rail link.

However, having initially been hailed as an “efficient” and low-cost authority, some are beginning to worry about rising costs and the “spiralling” cost of paying for staff.

Initially, it had been claimed the authority could be run on £850,000 a year.

Now there are fears costs are “spiralling out of control” after it emerged the authority is set to spend £5.6million on staff salaries alone this year. Total operational costs of the combined authority are set to come to £7.6million.

In leaflets distributed when Conservative James Palmer was running to be mayor of the combined authority, Mr Palmer said: “Under my leadership, the new combined authority will have very few staff, less than 20, and will be very efficient, costing around £850,000 a year to run. Most authorities cost tens of millions. As mayor, I will make sure the cost is kept low.”

Today (November 26) Lucy Nethsingha, chairwoman of the combined authority’s overview and scrutiny committee, noted that costs at the authority were “considerable higher” than had been originally expected. She asked Mr Palmer what he had to say about the increased costs.

Mr Palmer now says he “can only apologise” for the increased costs of running the authority, saying he “underestimated” its running costs.

Mr Palmer said: “I can only apologise. I underestimated the cost of running such an important authority. I think, realistically, we were never going to be able to function on £850,000 a year.”

Mr Palmer said he was concerned about costs at the authority which is why he has commissioned a review of its structure. He also pointed out that the combined authority had taken on staff and spending from the local enterprise partnership (LEP), a group which supported business and sustainable investment and growth, which was scrapped in December 2017.

Mr Palmer also noted that senior staff at the combined authority were not earning more than similarly senior staff in other tiers of local government. He said, however, that after the review is completed, he anticipates the authority will be spending less on staffing. He said he expects running costs to be reduced as the authority relies less on consultants.

“It is a difficult one, “said Mr Palmer. “It’s something the general public rightly gets concerned about. It is their money. But we are working to deliver extraordinary infrastructure and doing things that were previously not achievable.”

https://www.elystandard.co.uk/news/james-palmer-and-cost-of-combined-authority-1-5795358

“Tory-run Northamptonshire county council bailed out by government”

Owl says: just as well it is a Tory council that’s allowed to break the rules!

“Permission granted to spend £60m cash received from sale of HQ.

The government has in effect bailed out Tory-run Northamptonshire county council after giving it unprecedented permission to spend up to £60m of cash received from the sale of its HQ on funding day-to-day services.

The highly unusual move – accounting rules normally prevent councils using capital receipts in this way – means the crisis-hit authority is likely to escape falling into insolvency for the third time in less than a year.

Ministers gave the go-ahead for the bailout after commissioners sent in to run the council issued a stark warning that without a cash injection, Northamptonshire would be unable to meet its legal duties to run core services such as social care.

Opposition councillors called it a political move to save ministers from having to directly bail out the council. Labour group leader Mick Scrimshaw said: “It is clearly politics. The Conservative government did not want the political embarrassment and for that reason they have been allowed to use these capital receipts.”

Northamptonshire declared itself effectively bankrupt in February after it realised it could not balance its books. It declared insolvency again in July after a review revealed it had understated the extent of its financial problems. It must make good a £70m deficit by the end of March to avoid insolvency for a third time.

Although the council has already set in train a draconian cuts programme for the current financial year to try and overturn the £70m budget shortfall, the commissioners said this alone would not be enough to prevent insolvency.

In a report to the communities secretary, James Brokenshire, the commissioners Brian Roberts and Tony McArdle said the “extraordinary” scale of cuts to services needed in one year to fill the funding gap would breach councils’ legal obligations.

The report said: “Considered against the concomitant need to maintain the integrity of critical public service delivery, it is a challenge that is beyond being met in a single year. We are compelled to the view that the finding of an alternative mechanism for addressing this legacy will be unavoidable.”

The report notes that the council has been dysfunctional and that morale is poor among “long suffering” staff. It also criticises its “lack of credible leadership and direction over many years”, though it notes there have been some improvements in culture and management over the past few months.

The council’s leader, Matt Golby, said: “I am delighted the commissioners have been successful in their request for a capital dispensation. This will enable us to use our own resources to tackle the £35m deficit from 2017-18 and replenish our reserves to put us on a sustainable financial position.” The council is hoping to save a further a £35m this year from its cuts programme.

Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, said the move was effectively a bail out for Northamptonshire. Although it went against accepted accountancy rules and practice, it could be justified on the grounds that the council was being abolished.

Northamptonshire is to be replaced by two unitary authorities under plans approved by ministers earlier this year after the inspectors’ report concluded that the council’s management and financial problems were so deep-rooted it could not be easily turned around.

Enabling the council to convert some of the £60m it received from the fire sale of its new state-of-the-art HQ earlier this year – just months after it moved in – will allow it to clear an underlying £35m revenue deficit, and removes the need for ministers to pump money into the council directly.

Ironically, a highly critical inspectors’ report in March was scathing of the council’s preparedness to compromise generally accepted accounting principles to present the councils’ finances in a better light. Earlier this month a task force was sent into oversee its failing child protection services.

Brokenshire said: “Clearly, the situation in Northamptonshire is very serious. I am grateful to the commissioners for uncovering the council’s true financial position and the robust steps they have taken to improve its financial management and governance.”

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/29/tory-run-northamptonshire-county-council-bailed-out-by-government

“‘Councils and crooks must feel relaxed’: why the loss of local papers matters” [and why blogs have to fill the gap]

Owl says: the article DOESN’T mention those local newspapers (they know who they are) which simply print council press releases, only supportive articles and “good news only” items from councils that keep them afloat by giving them a monopoly on printing their official notices and job vacancy adverts….. becoming quasi-council newsletters.

“This month, with the announcement that Johnston Press, the third-biggest group in the local news industry, had gone into administration, this building in Hendon, along with hundreds of other empty newspaper offices across the country, became a monument to the fragile and shrinking world of regional reporting. More than 300 titles and 6,000 journalists have been lost in a decade, creating what many see as a democratic deficit, never mind a future dearth of trained reporters.

The Times, part of the Newsquest group, still exists, but these days there is just one edition and much of the action happens online. Its webpage invites readers to send in their own news and photos, and the phone number for the news team is harder to find than the GRU’s in Moscow. When I do get through to a reporter, he is silent when I ask where he is. “Do you still have a base you can use in the borough of Barnet?” I persist, at which point he tells me to email his editor.

Newsquest, like Johnston Press, is at the centre of big changes in local journalism, not all of them bad, and it is more than anyone’s job is worth to speak off the cuff to the press. But as Barry Brennan, former group editor of the Hendon Times and my old boss, confirms, all coverage of the boroughs of Barnet and Hertsmere is now run from Watford.

“Councillors and crooks must surely feel relaxed,” Brennan says, “now that so few weeklies have sufficient space or journalists to cover councils and courts. It may sound trite, but we really are missing out on big chunks of knowledge, and that’s bad for a community.”

More cheeringly, Times reporters do still get to some Barnet Council meetings, although not many, according to Labour councillor Claire Farrier: “We don’t see them much any more; maybe when there is a big planning story. They do their best, but they often repeat the press releases we put out fairly closely – which we quite like, of course.” …

Perhaps when the Cairncross report comes out next year it will propose something radical: something akin to a series of tax incentives launched in Canada last week. Over a decade, more than 250 Canadian news outlets have closed and since 2012 newspaper revenues are down by up to 40%. Now the federal government has stepped in, offering C$600m (£350m) in new tax credits to the media industry for the next five years.

Whatever Cairncross recommends, her committee must bear in mind that it will always be hard to show exactly how local reporting aids democracy. Because you can never find out exactly what people have got away with when no one was looking.”

https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/nov/25/why-local-papers-loss-matters-councils-crooks-feel-relaxed

EDDC gagging orders: council in a hole and digging deeper!

Owl says: does anyone think this press release makes things BETTER for the council! They do them so the other party won’t take them to tribunals!

“Following an article published by an East Devon media outlet this week about settlement agreements between the district council and its employees, the council wants to bring a greater degree of clarity to the headline-grabbing story.

“The article ignores the actual reasons why the council has used settlement agreements from time to time and that these are common practice in both the public and private sector where employers wish to bring employment to an end.

“The council has used settlement agreements to terminate the contracts of 10 individuals since 2014 for a mixture of contractual, performance and sickness issues.

“The reason that any employer enters into these agreements is particularly in circumstances where it wishes to bring employment to an end quickly and pragmatically to avoid unnecessary costs and to protect itself from tribunal costs. The figures quoted include statutory and contractual payments such as holiday and notice periods.

“Such agreements are commonly used throughout the UK and the primary reason is that the individual is required to agree not to take their employer to court. The agreements also contain a confidentiality clause.

“To validly settle statutory employment claims, a settlement agreement must satisfy several conditions that must be met including that the individual must have received legal advice from a relevant independent adviser on the terms and effect of the proposed agreement; and its effect on their ability to pursue any rights before an employment tribunal. Only certain statutory claims can be settled by a settlement agreement such as unfair dismissal or discrimination.”

http://www.exmouthjournal.co.uk/news/council-explains-205-000-gagging-orders-205-000-1-5790143

“Universal credit: Urgent report calls on ministers to push back any votes over ‘major areas of concern’ “

“Major areas of concern remain with , a group of MPs warn today in an urgent report calling on ministers to push back any vote on the flagship welfare reform.

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee claims that getting “managed migration” – the process of transferring claimants from existing benefits to universal credit – wrong when it starts in mid-2019 could “plunge claimants into poverty and even leave them destitute”.

Despite money being allocated for universal credit at the Budget, the committee warns that “major areas of concern” about the welfare reform remain.

It adds that MPs in the Commons have not had a chance to scrutinise and report on the revised regulations brought forward by the government in November, and claims the indicative timetable suggests “there will be no opportunity for expert scrutiny”.

While a specific date has not yet been allocated for the vote by the government, the committee recommends that no vote take place until the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has been able to report on the regulations.

The report states: “These regulations have a profound effect on the lives of millions of people, including some of the most vulnerable in society. It is impossible to overstate the importance of getting them right.” …

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/universal-credit-vote-report-warns-major-areas-concern-government-ministers-a8645526.html