Privatisation the Virgin way

Virgin has many privatised contracts with the NHS. Is there any reason to believe his companies will treat the NHS any differently to the way they treat what used to be our railways?

“Sir Richard Branson will have taken at least £306m in dividends from Virgin Trains by the time the firm’s 22-year tenure as a rail operator comes to an end within the next 12 months.

Branson said on Wednesday the Virgin name could disappear from trains by November, after its joint venture partner, Stagecoach, was blocked from three franchises by the Department for Transport over its refusal to pay more into rail staff pensions.

Analysis by the Guardian indicates that Virgin Rail Group Holdings, the joint venture company, will have collected at least £600m since its launch in 1997, a figure that drew criticism from Labour. …

The final total is likely to be higher once this year’s dividend is declared when the company’s next set of annual accounts is published in October next year.

Branson’s Virgin Group owns 51% of the venture, giving him a £306m share of the overall dividend pot.

The remaining £294m was allocated to the Stagecoach transport group, whose largest shareholder is the Scottish businessman and Scottish National party donor Brian Souter, together with his sister, Ann Gloag.

The highest dividend in a single year was paid in 2009, when Virgin Trains paid out nearly £95m. The figure has hovered around £50m over the past three years.

Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, said: “This money could and should have been used to invest in services and hold fares down, not siphoned off by shareholders.

“The railway should be run as a public service in public ownership. Instead, absurdly, its run in the financial interest of foreign state-owned companies and billionaires such as Richard Branson. If Virgin disappears from the railway as Branson warns, it won’t be missed by taxpayers or passengers. …””

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/apr/11/richard-branson-earned-300m-virgin-rail-franchises?

Stagecoach rail franchise in pensions row

Owl says: Stagecoach has a near monopoly on bus routes in the Exeter commuter and rural hinterland – hoping the bus franchise is healthier.

But just another privatisation cash grab.

“Stagecoach says it is “extremely concerned” after the Department for Transport (DfT) barred it from three UK rail franchise bids.

The DfT says the bids for the East Midlands, South Eastern and West Coast franchises were “non-compliant” because they did not meet pensions rules.
Martin Griffiths, chief executive of Scotland-based Stagecoach, has called for an “urgent meeting” with the DfT.

Stagecoach had “repeatedly ignored established rules”, the DfT said.
Mr Griffiths said in a statement: “We are extremely concerned at both the DfT’s decision and its timing. The department has had full knowledge of these bids for a lengthy period and we are seeking an urgent meeting to discuss our significant concerns.”

Bidders for the franchises have been asked to bear full long-term funding risk on relevant sections of the Railways Pension Scheme, Stagecoach said. The Pensions Regulator has estimated the UK rail industry needs an additional £5-6bn to plug the pensions shortfall, and the company said it was being asked to take on risks it “cannot control and manage”. …”

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-47877858

Could it (should it) be time to have a congestion charge for commuters to Exeter?

And what about “funnel roads” such as that running through Sidbury and Sidford – should they have exclusions from plans for more and more polluting vehicles passing inches away from residential properties – where children and vulnerable older people live?

“Dozens of councils could face legal action over delays in tackling toxic gas from diesel vehicles.

Only London and Birmingham have imposed or promised charges on the most polluting cars while other cities allow drivers to emit harmful nitrogen dioxide (NO2) without any fee.

Many local authorities, including those covering Manchester, Bristol, Southampton, Newcastle, Bath and Derby, have missed legal deadlines set by the government to submit plans to clean up their air.

ClientEarth, the campaign group that won three legal cases against the government over illegal levels of air pollution, has written to 38 councils in England and Wales warning them of the legal risk of failing to act.

Katie Nield, a ClientEarth lawyer, said: “We are extremely concerned given the urgency of the situation at the glacial progress of action from local authorities. It is now almost a decade since legal limits came into place and they are still being broken in large parts of the country. Every week that goes by without action is another week where people are breathing in harmful air pollution which damages their health. This is particularly true of vulnerable groups like children.”

Tackling air pollution was ultimately the government’s responsibility but local authorities “should not be using government inaction as an excuse not to do all they can to protect people from breathing dirty air”, Ms Nield added.

Air pollution contributes to far more deaths than previously thought, according to a study last week which said it had shortened the lives of 64,000 people in the UK in 2015.

Clean air zones, in which polluting vehicles are charged a daily entry fee, are the fastest way of reducing NO2 to within legal limits, according to a Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) report in 2017.

Cars are the biggest source of NO2 in cities but London and Birmingham are the only cities committed to charging pre-2016 diesel and pre-2006 petrol models. Manchester, Bristol and Bath had been considering car charges but dropped the idea after being accused of penalising drivers on low incomes.

The High Court ordered the government in 2016 and again last year to take stronger action on air pollution, prompting ministers to order councils to produce plans to comply with the legal limit in the “shortest possible time”.

The councils have spent the past year discussing how to tackle pollution but most have repeatedly delayed taking action and missed deadlines for delivering final plans for Defra approval.

Jenny Bates, of Friends of the Earth, accused councils of “running scared of the motoring lobby” by refusing to start charging polluting cars.

Bath and North East Somerset council is planning a clean air zone in Bath, charging buses, lorries, vans and taxis “by the end of 2020” but cars will be exempt. It said many residents had objected to a £9 daily charge.

A spokesman for ten local authorities in Manchester, which has more than 150 roads with illegal levels of NO2, said it also planned to exempt cars from charges phased in by 2023. He said computer modelling had shown its plans would reduce NO2 to within the legal limit by 2024. Derby city council said it would submit plans for tackling air pollution to Defra next Tuesday.

Bristol city council said its mayor, Marvin Rees, recently had a “conversation with the minister” about tackling air pollution. Thérèse Coffey, an environment minister, wrote to Mr Rees in January saying she was “absolutely astonished at your delay in improving air quality for the people of Bristol as quickly as possible”.

Newcastle city council expected its air quality plan would be implemented “in late 2019 and into 2020”. Other councils sent the legal warnings by ClientEarth include Cardiff, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Leicester and Liverpool.”

Source: Times (pay wall)

Cranbrook suffering from Exeter traffic congestion

“… Exeter has been named as the slowest city in the country in a report published by Sport England in January. In its active lifestyle pilot for Exeter and Cranbrook it states:

“Exeter and Cranbrook is an area of rapid population growth with 22,000 new homes and 12,000 new jobs forecast by 2026. Despite this growth there are some big strategic challenges, namely traffic congestion, with Exeter being the slowest moving city in the country averaging just 4.6mph during rush hour.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/exeter-roadworks-helps-countrys-slowest-2635854

Shock news: ‘Government Agency ‘U-turn’ puts Axminster relief road at risk…’

EDDC press release:

“The £17m relief road and 850 homes, in the Masterplan for the east of Axminster, have been put at risk by a late change in Homes England funding.

East Devon District Council has reacted with dismay to news that government agency Homes England has changed how it is assessing the council’s £10 million bid for Axminster relief road.

The council bid for a non-repayable grant in 2017. This bid was accepted in February 2018, to be used to help fund the delivery of the crucial new relief road and associated homes, employment land and community facilities.

The council has now been told by Homes England that a new condition of the funding is that the money must be repaid by the development.

Council leader Cllr Ian Thomas is enormously concerned that the decision potentially puts the Axminster Masterplan in jeopardy.

He said: “We are dismayed by this fundamental change of mind. It throws the whole Axminster scheme up in the air and means that the effort we and our partners have put into this critical scheme over the last 12 months may have been completely wasted.

“Since I was first elected leader, I have been absolutely consistent that we don’t simply build homes, we build sustainable communities. The Axminster Masterplan is an excellent example of such a community. It would bring enormous social and economic benefit to Axminster, by delivering high quality affordable housing and employment land, together with other essential community facilities. After this decision from Homes England, it feels like we are back to square one. It’s bitterly disappointing.

“We understand that our scheme is one of a number across the country where similar funding decision changes are being made, as Homes England assesses the viability of schemes on a fundamentally different basis, to that applied in our original agreement with them.

“Our council is now considering its options. This includes taking legal advice to investigate whether we may have strong grounds to challenge Homes England’s decision.

The masterplan for 850 homes with employment land, open spaces and community facilities was endorsed by the council’s strategic planning committee in January. The plan was based on the money from Homes England not being repaid and even then, the development could only be made viable by expanding the site area and increasing the number of homes proposed to around 850. The amount of affordable housing required from the additional 200 homes was also reduced from 50% to 25%.

Following a decision by Homes England last week, it would appear that the development will have to repay the £10 million of government “grant” and the masterplan is no longer viable in its current form.

The council must also consider revisiting the masterplan to understand the consequences of the decision for the amount of affordable housing, employment land and community facilities to make the development viable again.

Throughout the masterplan process, the council has always been clear that the urban extension of Axminster is not just about delivering housing and the relief road but is about helping the town grow as a community in a sustainable way supported by the services and facilities that it needs.

The council is frustrated that Homes England’s change in approach puts this all at significant risk and could make the development undeliverable. It will be seeking an urgent meeting with Homes England to discuss this case and other implications for investment in the district.”