Sidford hustings: strong performance from Councillor Rixson (Independent EDA)

Best candidate for County Council? It’s your choice. Voting’s on 4th May!

The Devon County Council hustings at Sidford on Wednesday evening (19 April),brought together five of the six candidates vying for the Sidmouth division, which now covers the whole of the Sid Valley.

They are Jeannie Alderdice (Green), Ray Davison (Labour), Stuart Hughes (Conservative), Marianne Rixson (Independent East Devon Alliance) and Richard Wright (UKIP). Only Lewis Ragbourn (Lib Dem) was unable to attend the event, which was Chaired by Cathy Debenham of the Sidford-Sidbury Residents’ Group.

A common thread for most candidates was “transparency, accountability and listening to residents”; concerns about cuts to NHS, social care, and education; and inappropriate development. Despite passionate speeches from Jeannie Allerdice (“EU environmental rules should apply post-Brexit”); Ray Davison (“Conservative austerity policy is past its sell-by date”);and Richard Wright (“countryside not concrete”), just two serious candidates emerged based on their respective records as serving councillors: Marianne Rixson, and Stuart Hughes.

Cllr Rixson has a solid reputation for thoroughness and efficiency, much appreciated by local people in the successful fight against the planned Sidford business park. Long-serving Cllr Hughes offered promises such as “the long-awaited Sidmouth traffic management plan”, and “funding for Alma Bridge” this year.

On the basis of this hustings, Caroline Lucas’ suggestion this week of an informal coalition of e.g. Greens, Labour and Lib Dems, against the Conservative Party machine, sounds a sensible idea.

A second hustings, arranged by the Vision Group for Sidmouth, is scheduled for 28th April , 7pm, in the cellar bar at Kennaway House. For details, see Voting for this DCC election is 4th May, 7am-10pm.

Britain “drifting to elective dictatorship”

A pessimistic but hard-to-argue-with view of “democracy” as it stands. Note this is NOT about the Conservative Party, it embraces every government – New Labour, Coalition, Conservative – since 1997.

“Since 1997, simple parliamentary majorities have been used to radically alter the constitutional make-up of the UK. Devolution and the creation of the Supreme Court have transformed the country’s institutions. Nat le Roux argues that this is evidence of a growing imbalance of power. The executive can change the institutions of state at will – often for politically-motivated, short-term gain. The extent of the democratic mandate has been exaggerated, as the Coalition government shows.

There is a very widespread view in Britain that our political culture is dysfunctional. According to the survey carried out for the Hansard Society’s 2013 Audit of Political Engagement, two out of three citizens believe that the present system of governing Britain is in need of significant improvement. When asked how this might best be achieved, a large majority of respondents favoured action to increase the transparency of politics and the popular accountability of elected representatives.

It is easy to see why many people believe that a disjunction between citizens and elected politicians is the primary problem in an increasingly dysfunctional, and disrespected, political system. However this is at best a partial diagnosis. In reality, British politics are considerably more transparent than a generation ago: proceedings in parliament are televised, it is much easier to access many types of government information, and the public and private activities of the political elite are subject to relentless media scrutiny. From the perspective of the ordinary citizen, Westminster culture may appear introverted and opaque, but this is an inadequate explanation for the current malaise felt towards British politics and government.

Less evident to outsiders, but equally debilitating, is the growing and dangerous imbalance of power between the institutions of the state itself. Lord Hailsham coined the term elective dictatorship in 1976, and it is a more accurate description of the political landscape today than was the case forty years ago.

Two developments have taken us further down that road. The first is the increasing unwillingness of the executive to respect the independent authority of the judiciary, the civil service, local government and parliament itself. The second is the willingness of governments, especially after 1997, to introduce fundamental constitutional changes, many of them effectively irreversible. Perversely, it is the over-representation of democratic legitimacy as the dominant contemporary political virtue which arguably bears a large measure of responsibility for our current predicament. …

The reality of the democratic mandate

It is often argued by the proponents of executive supremacy that a government effectively enjoys a direct democratic mandate because most voters in general elections believe they are voting for a party manifesto and a prime minister at the same time as selecting a constituency MP. Political history suggests that this argument is a very weak one. Two of the last four prime ministers were installed by their parties between general elections, and this has always been an entirely normal route to No 10. Voters in 2010 did not choose to have a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government (under the current electoral system there is no mechanism which would have allowed them to express such a preference). Many of the policies of that government were foreshadowed in the election manifesto of only one of the coalition partners, and some policies were in neither. The coalition’s policy platform was the coalition agreement, negotiated by the party leaders after the 2010 election and never endorsed by the electorate.

If democratic legitimacy implies substantial popular endorsement, then the democratic mandate of recent British governments rests on weak foundations. In the 2005 general election, Labour secured an absolute majority of parliamentary seats but only 35.2 per cent of the national vote. The turnout was 61.4 per cent of registered electors. Thus the Labour government which was in power between 2005 and 2010 enjoyed the active endorsement of less than one in four potential electors. …

The sovereignty of Parliament

The reality of party politics, in Britain as in other mature democracies, is that a government’s ability to sustain a majority is not based on an ability to convince legislators by reasoned argument of the merits of particular proposals.

Although backbench revolts are more frequent than a generation ago, nearly all divisions are along party lines. Bills are introduced and passed into law irrespective of their objective merit because, tout court, the government commands a majority in the House. Most MPs, most of the time, support their own party leadership for a combination of principled and self-interested reasons.

Despite the Wright reforms of 2010, it is government rather than the Commons itself which largely determines the Parliamentary timetable and enjoys a near-monopolistic control of legislative processes. At best, party loyalty severely muffles effective legislative constraint on executive action, except in those rare cases where a backbench rebellion is large enough to overturn the government’s majority. None of this is especially surprising or – arguably – objectionable in itself: that is how parliamentary democracies work. However, given the realities of parliamentary behaviour, government claims to an untrammelled and generalised authority may ring rather hollow.

Drifting towards instability?

A pessimist could easily believe that we are drifting towards institutional instability. Governments have become increasingly willing to alter very long-standing constitutional settlements for reasons which often appear short-term and politically self- interested. It seems likely that, even if the Scots vote No, the independence referendum will accelerate the breakup of the United Kingdom. A serious clash between government and the senior judges over the extent of the courts’ powers of judicial review seems increasingly likely. The constitutional position of the civil service is being challenged by the current government in a way which would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Government ministers are increasingly bold in asserting their democratic mandate – or rather an over-representation of it – to trump all opposition. All of this is taking place against a background of the general breakdown of public confidence in the political elite. Not so long ago, Britain was widely admired across much of the world as a model of strong constitutional democracy. It is hard to believe that is the case today.”

“Revolution in council lending could tackle irresponsible borrowing”

“Most coverage of local government finances falls into two categories of story. The first concerns the egregious rewards paid to “town hall fat cats” for often mediocre performance. The other concerns “savage cuts” being made to this or that service due to a reduction in central government grants.
There is truth in both of these. What has not gone reported so much is that a genuine revolution in local government finance is under way.

The traditional model of financing, in which grants are doled out by central government, is gradually being replaced by a system in which councils, collectively, are self-funding and individual councils bear more risk as a result of their own spending and revenue-raising decisions.

Some of these reforms have already attracted attention, chiefly the changes to business rates, over which individual councils will have greater, but still limited, autonomy in future.

Another big change coming has attracted surprisingly little attention. The UK Municipal Bonds Agency (UKMBA) was launched in 2014 with the aim of helping councils to finance their spending. The agency, a public limited company owned by 57 local authorities and the Local Government Association, aims to issue bonds with maturities of between ten and twenty years. Because it is backed by a number of councils who have pooled their borrowing requirements, the theory is that it should be able to create “benchmark” size issues for which there should be greater demand from institutional investors. And because more than one party is responsible for repayment of the bond and servicing the interest payable on it, a “joint and several guarantee” in the jargon, in theory the bonds should be less risky to investors. That should also, in theory, lower borrowing costs for councils.

The idea is common elsewhere. Kommune Kredit has been operating in Denmark for more than a century, while BNG in the Netherlands has been going since 1914. Kommunalbanken has been funding local authorities in Norway for 90 years; other such funding agencies exist in Canada, New Zealand and Switzerland, among others.

One of the key aims of UKMBA is to allow local authorities to borrow more cheaply than the existing lender of choice, the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB), a 224-year-old body that currently accounts for about three quarters of local authority borrowing. Traditionally, the board has charged 20 basis points above the prevailing gilt rate but in October 2010, in an attempt to discourage borrowing by local authorities, the coalition government raised this to a 100 basis points premium.

The board now, in most cases, lends to local authorities at 80 basis points over the gilt rate. It was when the cost of borrowing from the board was increased that leading figures in the local government world began to talk about an alternative finance provider.

Aidan Brady, the former Deutsche Bank chief operating officer who is chief executive of the UKMBA, is on record as saying: “Clearly, we have to beat the Public Works Loan Board [in terms of offering a cheaper rate], that’s as simple as it gets.”

The irony is that just as the new agency is about to offer some proper competition to the board disquiet is growing about the extent to which local authorities have been borrowing from the latter.

The Sunday Times reported last weekend that a number of local authorities had gone on a “£1.3 billion binge” of buying commercial property with the aim of using rental incomes from those assets to supplement spending or reduce the extent of budget cuts they would otherwise be making. The danger is that these authorities have exposed themselves and future generations of council tax payers to swings in the commercial property market. Traditional property market buyers have been astonished at the prices paid for assets such as some sub-prime shopping centres, grumbling that local authorities are distorting the market.

This has been made possible over recent years because by linking the PWLB loan rate to the gilt rate and allowing the latter to be depressed by the Bank of England’s asset purchase scheme the government has created a “carry trade” opportunity for local authorities in which they can borrow at about 2 per cent and invest the proceeds in an asset yielding between 6 per cent and 8 per cent.

None of this has made the job of the fledgling UKMBA any easier. The agency was reported as long ago as June last year to have signed up nine local authorities to participate in the first debt issue, which was expected by the end of 2016, with a panel of eight banks, including three to act as “lead runners”, in place to run it. But no issues have yet taken place. Market sources suggest that this is because the agency is still waiting on one more council to sign off on its participation.

This ramp-up in local authority activity could be because the PWLB, which is currently an arm of the Debt Management Office — the Treasury agency that issues gilts and manages the national debt, is about to be absorbed into the Treasury, which may lead to more control being exerted on its future lending. That was certainly suggested in a government statement last year noting that transferring the PWLB back into the Treasury would “secure greater accountability to ministers and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of central government lending to local authorities”.

In other words, local authorities are borrowing now, while they can. The sooner they are subjected to either greater Treasury scrutiny on the one hand or the superior credit checks being promised by the UKMBA on the other, the better.

The Times Comment (paywall)

Cranbrook Town Council: ex- councillors give reasons for leaving

Having their hands tied on many matters
Inability to influence matters affecting Cranbrook residents
Frustration that information was not shared with all councillors
Not open, transparent or inclusive

The page detailing the current council’s response to these allegations is in the current e-edition of the Cranbrook Herald on page 4 here:



Devon Police and Crime Commissioner election expenses case will be referred for prosecution

“The investigation into Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Alison Hernandez and election spending will be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has confirmed it intends to pass the file to the CPS after an investigation by West Mercia Police.

The CPS will consider whether any charges should be brought along with the cases of other MPs connected to spending on an election “battle bus” said to have exceeded the limit.

Andrew White, chief executive for the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon & Cornwall, said the commissioner would not step down even if charges follow.

“This referral does not prevent the commissioner from holding the position of PCC,” he added. “If a charge is brought this remains the case – it would not prevent her from remaining in office.” To ensure absolute independence, in circumstances such as these, there is a clear legal process to be followed,” he said.

West Mercia police carried out the investigation into Ms Hernandez in her position as election agent to Torbay MP Kevin Foster in 2015, rather than Devon and Cornwall, to avoid any suggestion of bias.

The force is also considering whether to refer a second, linked investigation into spending locally to the CPS. A decision on this is expected soon and could see the commissioner face two charges in court.

“Although the case is being referred to the CPS, at this time, no decision has been made about whether charges will be laid against Ms Hernandez,” Mr White added. “There is no presumption that their consideration will lead to a charge and even if the CPS decide to charge it may be many months before any case comes to court.”

Mr White also clarified how the development affects Ms Hernandez’ position as PCC. “I am certain that some will see this as a significant stage in the investigation but in British justice an individual is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. “There is no charge, no trial and no verdict, and neither is there any impediment to the commissioner carrying out her duties as an elected representative of the people of Devon and Cornwall.”


MPs and conflict of interest: there’s no conflict if it is in their interests!

Hugo Swire says in his most recent blog that we should not worry about his mate George Osborne’s £650,000 job with a gigantic hedge fund (Blackrock). He says:

“… At Blackrock, his main job will be to advise on economic matters and to represent the company in a social capacity. As for abandoning his constituents, I shouldn’t think the hours he puts in will be any less than those of when he was Chancellor which, I might add, was also a second job and quite a considerable one at that! …”

However, the Guardian newspaper has a different take on the matter:

” …the potential for conflicts of interest are enormous. Here is just one obvious example: BlackRock owns about 10% of AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical firm at the centre of a political storm when US rival Pfizer launched an unsuccessful £69bn bid in 2014. If, for example, BlackRock had wished the takeover to go ahead, who better to have on board to assess the potential political reaction – and advise on ways around it – than the former chancellor?

Add in the fact that the same man is now editor of the Evening Standard – the City’s evening newspaper – and his influence is magnified further. When deals that can generate profits measured in hundreds of millions are on the table, Osborne’s £650k is a mere trifle. …

BlackRock … by numbers

BlackRock has a stake in every FTSE 100 company, worth a total of £145bn.
That means it owns nearly 8% of the UK’s leading share index. Its investment in the FTSE 100 accounts for around 3.5% of its total assets of £4trn. Its biggest stake by value is its £9bn investment in HSBC, its smallest a £9.3m shareholding in medical group Convatec.

Other shareholdings worth more than £5bn are AstraZeneca, British American Tobacco, GlaxoSmithKline, and the two classes of Royal Dutch Shell shares.

In percentage terms, its top holdings are Next (nearly 14%), BHP Billiton (13.29%), information group Relx (12.88%), Land Securities (12.46%), building materials group CRH (12.46%), cruise company Carnival (12.19%), gold miner Randgold Resource (nearly 12%), easyJet (11.83%), technology group Johnson Matthey (11.83%), and Severn Trent (11.55%).

It is the biggest shareholder in more than half of the FTSE 100’s companies: Ashtead, Aviva, AstraZeneca, British American Tobacco, British Land, BHP Billiton, BP, Burberry, Centrica, Compass, Croda, CRH, Diageo, Direct Line, Experian, GKN, GlaxoSmithKline, Hammerson, HSBC, 3i, Imperial Brands, Intertek, Johnson Matthey, Kingfisher, Land Securities, Legal & General, Lloyds Banking Group, London Stock Exchange, Marks & Spencer, Mondi, National Grid, Next, Persimmon, Royal Dutch Shell A and B shares, Relx, Royal Mail, Randgold Resources, Sage, Shire, St James’s Place, Standard Life, Smiths Group, Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust, Smith & Nephew, Severn Trent, Tesco, Unilever, Vodafone, Worldpay, and WPP.
(Source: Thomson Reuters)

Its joint venture infrastructure investments include a business park at Heathrow, windfarms bought from Centrica, solar farms in Derbyshire and Essex and a £75m loan to Trafford Housing Trust.”

Public ‘not excited by devolution’ says firm of consultants

Owl says: They missed the main point: we have sussed out that finance and decisions are being moved from elected, accountable local authorities to groups of unelected and unaccountable, greedy (and sometimes shady) business people. But then again this is a report from a consultancy firm – which probably is getting, or hopes for, los of business from Local Enterprise Partnerships!

“The public is becoming increasingly disengaged with devolution despite its political priority for the government, research from consultancy firm GK Strategy has found.

A state-of-the-nation report on devolution in England found that whilst the agenda continues to be a political priority for the government, the prospect of further powers and accountability being shifted to a local level has failed to capture the public’s attention.

Yesterday’s report states “devolution has so far failed to win over the hearts and minds of people” because of a consistent reluctance by Whitehall to relinquish control over public spending.

Researchers explain that where local authorities do have greater control, they are working with smaller budgets and having to do more with less.

The perception that devolution is “merely passing the buck” of spending cuts to local authorities may be another reason why the concept has failed to capture public interest. …

… According to the researchers, there are two likely reasons for the level of disengagement with the concept of devolution, both of which are closely associated with the specific roles of elected mayors.

Firstly, the two largest English cities outside of London – Manchester and Birmingham – both voted against having an elected mayor less than five years ago in a referendum in each city.

Secondly, the public lacks a clear understanding over the role of the mayor in relation to the devolution process and the elected councils.

Chief executive of GK Strategy, Emily Wallace, said: “Our research clearly shows that whilst devolution in England has been a project of successive UK governments and been broadly supported by all major parties, it has failed to capture people’s interest in the way other issues have.

“A number of factors lie behind this, but a common view is that devolution in England has been delegation of blame at a time of public spending consolidation, rather than delegation of power and responsibility.”