“Thousands of miles of UK roads in poor condition”

“Some 10% of the road network maintained by local authorities in Great Britain is in poor condition, or has been flagged for further inspection.
About 37,000 kilometres (22,990 miles) across England, Wales and Scotland fell below top standard in surveys carried out on behalf of the Department for Transport.

The RAC said the road network had suffered from years of underinvestment
The government said it was investing £6bn in improving local roads.
The analysis by the BBC shared data unit comes as a separate investigation by the Asphalt Industry Alliance found more than 39,300 kilometres (24,400 miles) of road had been identified as needing essential maintenance in the next year.

Simon Williams, a spokesman for the RAC, said: “Before the cold snap the condition of many local roads was on a knife edge with many councils struggling to fix our roads properly.

“But now, as a result of the ‘Beast from the East’ some local roads will have deteriorated even further, possibly to the point that they represent a serious risk to the safety of users.” …


A new council HQ? Oh, oh – this looks VERY familiar!

Owl has been doing some digging about how Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) tanked and has come up with some worrying information which resonates somewhat worryingly with our own area …

Remember that NCC built a new HQ and almost immediately had to attempt to buy its way out of debt by selling it and renting it back to themselves.

The new NCC HQ (One Angel Square) was originally going to cost £34 million, then £40 million, then £43 million, then £52 million, then £53 million. It was eventually delivered ‘under budget’!

But as costs rose, the size of the building was reduced by 20%. So effectively the cost doubled!

NCC built their new HQ to replace 12 existing buildings. Those 12 buildings were claimed to be costing £53,000 a week to run. It was later claimed that the new building would save £52,000 a week in running costs. Work that one out!

As soon as the new building opened, staff complained about the lack of space and the 20 minutes every morning sorting out their ‘hot desks’.


Some FAQs from the early consultations:

Q4: Isn’t this just building up debt for the county when it can ill afford it?

A4: This is a spend to save scheme. The county council will continue to take
opportunities like these to invest in new infrastructure which will ultimately reduce the debt. By doing nothing the debt position will get worse than undertaking the new build.

Q5: How can the council afford to build a huge new office block on the one
hand but on the other hand plead poverty and cut services or turn off street
lights? Couldn’t this money have been better used to protect services?

A5: It is by taking this step that will help us protect services. By maintaining the status quo and spending increasing amounts of money to maintain and operate old buildings that are no longer fit for purpose the council would be forced to redirect costs from front line services. By taking these proactive decisions now and saving building operating costs in the future it will allow those savings to either reduce debt or be spent on front line services.

Q6: Surely there’s a less expensive solution. Why don’t you convert one of
your buildings – like JDH – so it can take more people? That would be a far
cheaper solution.

A6: The other options have all been professionally evaluated. By looking at all the costs and benefits of the different options a new build at the Angel Street came out as the best option.”

(page 149)

Which all looks just a bit too familiar…

Privatisation: Network Rail assets likely to be sold off to billionaire equity funds

“Private equity firms, including Guy Hands’ Terra Firma, have emerged as contenders to take over Network Rail’s commercial property business, fuelling further dismay over the forced sale of assets to fund the budget shortfall.

The US investment giant Blackstone is understood to be another bidder for the rail property arm, which includes about 5,500 premises across England and Wales and is estimated to be worth £1.2bn.

According to Sky News, about 20 parties are expected to table preliminary bids on Friday, including Telereal Trillium, owned by the billionaire Pears family, and also funds linked to the Wall Street bank Goldman Sachs.

Much of the property is in urban areas under railway arches, and often let to small businesses such as bars, garages and hairdressers. The portfolio generated a large proportion of Network Rail’s total rental income of £293m in 2017. Network Rail has said existing tenants will retain their leases under the new landlords.

The involvement of Guernsey-based Terra Firma was revealed a month after a scathing report from the National Audit Office found the government had lost up to £4.2bn in a previous sell-off to part of Hands’ private equity group. The Ministry of Defence sold 57,400 army homes for military families for £1.66bn in 1997 to Annington Homes, and then rented them, which the public accounts committee chair, Meg Hillier, described as “a rotten deal for taxpayers”.

Terra Firma has also attracted attention for its management of the crisis-hit Four Seasons Health Care, whose care homes look after 17,000 elderly people in the UK and which is seeking a rescuer.

The sale of Network Rail assets, including some depots but no stations, was agreed as a condition of George Osborne (who was then the chancellor) releasing more funds in 2015 to continue promised infrastructure work. Network Rail hoped to raise £1.8bn towards a £2.5bn shortfall. A host of rail upgrades in a five-year plan from 2014-19 were cancelled after the budget for electrifying the Great Western mainline alone overran by approximately £2bn. …”

Unions and campaigners condemned the sale. Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union, said: “This is the same old bunch of chancers, speculators and asset strippers queuing up to make another killing at the expense of our public services. These property assets make a decent income for Network Rail and once they are gone they are gone, smashing another gaping hole in the rail infrastructure budget.” …

… Cat Hobbs, of the campaign group We Own It, said: “Railway land belongs to all of us – we don’t want it parcelled up and sold to the highest bidder. This is an asset which generates millions every year, money which should be returned to the public purse not disappear into private profits.”


“Britain’s bus coverage hits 28-year low”

“Britain’s bus network has shrunk to levels last seen in the late 1980s, BBC analysis has revealed.

Rising car use and cuts to public funding are being blamed for a loss of 134 million miles of coverage over the past decade alone.

Some cut-off communities have taken to starting their own services, with Wales and north-west England hardest hit.

The government has encouraged councils and bus companies to work together to halt the decline.

One lobbying group fears the scale of the miles lost are a sign buses are on course to be cut to the same extent railways were in the 1960s.” …


Privatised profit, public loss – a masterclass

Virgin – running vast parts of our NHS; Stagecoach – a virtual monopoly on bus services in East Devon and Greater Exeter.

“For the third time in a decade, an East coast rail franchise operator has shown little of the financial prudence once associated with the great cities linked by its trains from London to Yorkshire and Scotland. Following the failures of GNER in 2007 and National Express in 2009, Virgin Trains East Coast has run out of steam, with the government declaring a financial covenant breached and the contract set to fail in months.

The latest incumbent has, like its predecessors, bid too much to run a lucrative line whose potential revenues have fallen short, at a time when economic uncertainty has gnawed away at ticket sales.

But exactly why Stagecoach, the 90% lead partner to Virgin’s 10% stake in the current franchise, promised £3.3bn to run the line, and how that contract is now resolved, remain key questions – amplified by East Coast’s unique place in the blazing political row over how the UK rail network is run.

In 2013, when bidding started, East Coast was nationalised, run by Directly Operated Railways (DOR), a government-owned firm returning around £200m a year in premium payments to the Treasury.

The previous year, the parallel line north, the West Coast intercity service from London to Glasgow run by Virgin with Stagecoach since privatisation, had been the subject of a bidding competition gone bad. The award of the franchise to First Group was overturned on legal challenge after Virgin argued that its rivals had won with a colossal but unsustainable bid.

Pointing at the lessons of the past, failed East Coast franchises, the Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson railed: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. When will the Department for Transport learn?”

Not soon enough. A government-commissioned inquest concluded that franchising remained the best model. A queue of rail contracts were almost up, not least the Virgin-run West Coast. But the reletting of East Coast to the private sector was prioritised ahead of a 2015 election that was expected to see a hung parliament, potentially keeping the line in public hands.

The dust had hardly settled when the DfT invited bids with a vision that would lead to Branson and Stagecoach promising undeliverable riches of their own.

Investment was coming to the East Coast line, including track and power upgrades, critically bringing a new fleet of InterCity Express IEP trains, with more than half of a £5.7bn government order earmarked for the line. What was promised, pledged or inferred – and how relevant it is to the collapse of VTEC’s contract – is contested.

Stagecoach claim upgrades were promised and not delivered that materially impacted its franchise; a review by Peter Hendy axed or deferred engineering works around the country after the infrastructure body Network Rail blew its budget on the electrification of the Great Western mainline.

However, Network Rail is clear it has already done the work necessary to bring in new trains and a timetable that would have turbocharged passenger numbers – and Stagecoach’s premium payments – after 2019. Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, has also said that no cancelled upgrades have affected the franchise to date.

What was wrong, it appears, was Branson’s conviction that a new livery and “people hungrily trying to make a real difference” could propel passenger numbers upwards from when Virgin took over. Instead, fares went up and the outlook went down.

They got their forecasts wrong, Stagecoach’s chief executive, Martin Griffiths, admitted this week. But, he added, the DfT “decided we offered a high quality and realistic bid … indeed, I was personally told at the time that it was the highest quality bid they had ever seen”.

In March 2016, a year after taking over, Branson and Stagecoach’s chair, Brian Souter, rode into King’s Cross on one of the first government-bought IEP trains, now in Virgin livery and rechristened Azumas by the private operators, a name with echoes of the Japanese rising sun. “Like a new day dawning on the railway,” said Souter.

But City analysts were flagging concerns. And by the time Grayling came to the Commons in November 2017 to announce a “rail strategy” that slipped in news that VTEC’s contract would be replaced in 2020 by an East Coast Partnership, investors had already factored in heavy losses.

Stagecoach’s share price bounced back on Grayling’s plan, widely described as a £2bn bailout – the value of the remaining payments to the government due from VTEC’s owners had the contract continued from 2020 until 2023. Condemnation was largely led by Lord Adonis, the former Labour transport secretary who nationalised the line when National Express failed to meet payments in 2009.

It is not clear why Grayling then waited until this week to announce the franchise’s imminent collapse – stoking fury by simultaneously confirming a direct award to extend Virgin’s West Coast deal, a contract now held, without competition, from 2012 to 2020.

Officially, Stagecoach had “breached a financial covenant”, although the company has not acknowledged this, and the financials have not altered significantly. The mooted East Coast Partnership was met with some bemusement – one well-placed rail industry figure said there was “no chance of it being up and running, and absolutely the last place you’d do something like that”. A Stagecoach statement spoke of “a hardening of the DfT’s negotiating position, coinciding with increased media and political scrutiny”.

Adonis himself sees it differently – that once the ink was dry on the West Coast extension, the rules had changed and Grayling had lost his bargaining chips. He said: “I’ve sat around a table from Brian Souter. He knows when he’s got his man. Stagecoach are playing Grayling.”

DfT officials are now assessing the relative cost of returning the East Coast franchise to public sector control or allowing VTEC to continue on a “not-for-profit” basis – which would nonetheless relieve them of paying hundreds of millions due to be paid to the government in the original deal. Other train companies will be watching intently as they too grapple with franchises whose ambitious promised payments to the government rely on passenger growth that has not materialised, or even gone into reverse.

Had Stagecoach continued to deliver its payments, which in the second and third year were roughly 30% higher than East Coast under its previous operator DOR, and improved the service, it would have been compelling vindication for those who urged its restoration to the private sector. Instead, Virgin joins the ranks of those who bet high on East Coast and saw it all go south.


That by pass for Axminster wasn’t always flavour of the month!

How times change! Following on from the effusive self-congratulations of EDDC for securing £10 million towards an Axminster by-pass, here is a news item from 2012, published in the now defunct “Sidmouth Independent News” from a time when an Axminster by-pass was thought by EDDC to be a very, very bad idea:

“Trinity House department store in Axminster has had scaffolding ripped off it by a passing lorry. Story here:


It was sheer luck that no-one was hurt in the accident in this busy main street through the town.

We welcomed people from Axminster to the Stroll to the Knowle on 3 November 2012. When consulted about the Local Plan the majority of those responding preferred to have major development to the east of the town (where there is a potential site) because it could fund a much-wanted and much-needed bypass of the town centre.

EDDC preferred to allow development by EDBF member Axminster Carpets on a site to the north of the town, despite objections to flood risk and traffic management problems. Then Planning supremo Kate Little said that the northern site was preferable as the eastern site was unlikely to result in a bypass, as any road through a new development would not probably be qualified to be called a by-pass.

A judicial review is taking place about this decision – taken whilst the new Local Plan was in its first consultation period and not included in the old Local Plan – early next month. The High Court has taken the rare step of issuing a “protective costs order” in this case where, if local people do lose the case, they will only have to pay a small part of the company’s legal costs.”


Axminster North-South relief road gets £10 million from government plus grant for “Greater Exeter” alternative green spaces

Good news for Axminster? The much-needed relief road that East Devon District Council Tories initially refused to put in the Local Plan (when Bovis was building in the town) is getting a government grant of £10 million. £10 million doesn’t go far on roads these days, so will it be enough? Good news for Crown Estates and Persimmon who are said to own a large parcel of land to the east of Axminster (at least they did in 2015]:


On a more worrying note, “Greater Exeter” (which includes East Devon) also gets £3.7 million for “Greater Exeter Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space” which means allowing developers to build on current green spaces if others can be created elsewhere.

The only problem being, the areas to be concreted over seem to get build on rapidly before the “alternative green spaces” are found or designated!