Labour’s devastating summer of appalling council by-election results

Sir Keir Starmer: Labour’s bad record in council by-elections

Council by election results are not always a guide to a party’s performance in a general election because local issues can determine how people vote. But they are a guide to how the most politically active think since the people who vote are likely to be those most interested their local community. They are also a guide to how each political party can get their vote out and are real results – not an opinion poll.

Whatever way you put it this summer- with a couple of exceptions- has been a disaster for Sir Keir’s Starmer’s new model Labour Party. As well as the high profile Parliamentary loss of Hartlepool to the Tories, only just holding on to Batley and Spen and the collapse of the Labour vote to the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham it is the local council by-election results that have been particularly bad.

Since this is against the background of a pretty incompetent Tory government facing allegations of corruption and mucking up people’s summer holiday arrangements by constantly changing the rules and causing confusion about what, if any, rules to follow to keep safe from Covid 19, it is no mean achievement for Labour to lose more electoral support.

The by-election results also show that underneath the serenity of a successful and well organised NHS vaccination programme the political scene is pretty volatile. Council seats that should have naturally stayed under the same party’s control are falling to other parties with enormous changes in vote share. The trouble is that in England and Scotland Labour is not the beneficiary. The exception is Wales. In the one Welsh by-election in the Rhondda, Labour did do well with the Tory share falling significantly.

The pattern that is emerging for Labour- from both the Midlands and the North- is that the Tories are consolidating the gains they made in 2019 and wooing the working class vote in once safe Labour areas. If this continues Labour under Starmer might lose more Parliamentary seats in a snap election in 2023 than Corbyn lost in 2019 and the Conservative Home dream list of scores of fresh Tory gains in Yorkshire , the North East, and the East and West Midlands become reality. In Yorkshire alone this means 11 seats could go.

Tories consolidating 2019 election gains

Examples of consolidation include Tory by-election wins from Labour in Grimsby, Bassetlaw and Sandwell and North East Lincolnshire. In Sandwell the Tory share of the vote was up 20 pc, the Labour share down 13.7 per cent. In Bassetlaw, the East Retford South seat saw the Labour share down 47 per cent and the Tory share up 25 per cent with the intervention of an Independent.

Even more concerning for Labour should be by-election results in Leicester, Harlow and Basildon. In Leicester Tories gained their first seat on the council with an 18 per cent rise in vote share while Labour slumped nearly 16 per cent. With the full council up for election next year, the Tories are hoping for large scale gains and possibly one of the city’s Parliamentary seats soon.

In Harlow and Basildon Tories took council seats in Labour areas like Pitsea in Basildon and Mark Hall in Harlow. The Labour vote share was down 16 pc in Basildon and Tories up nearly 15pc. In Basildon the Tory share was up 24 per cent enough to take the seat from Labour who kept a 41 per cent vote share. These new towns used to have Labour councils and Labour MPs like Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. In Hemel there are now no Labour councillors.

Greens having remarkable results

The Tories are on the defensive in rural England and the South and West of England. But the main beneficiaries are the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The Greens had a remarkable result in Somerset going from nowhere to 64.9 per cent vote share when the Liberal Democrats did not contest the seat. They held on to a seat in Staines just outside London, and gained seats in Aldeburgh in Suffolk and Mid Sussex from the Tories. In Aldeburgh they just pipped the Tories with a 26 per cent rise in vote share and in Balcombe, Mid Sussex they won a little more convincingly with a 13 per cent rise.

Lib Dems winning “safe” Tory council seats

The Liberal Democrats also did well winning seats from the Tories in Knaresborough, King’s Lynn, all with big swings in their vote share ( 28pc in King’s Lynn and 20 per cent in Knaresborough). In some seats the Labour vote switched to the Lib Dems, in other cases it remained steady but the Lib Dems leapfrogged Labour. The Lib Dems also took a seat from the Tories in Cobham in Dominic Raab’s Esher constituency with a 18.4 per cent rise in vote share. Labour did benefit on East Devon council when the voters switched to Labour when the Lib Dems did not stand winning a seat at Honiton.

In Scotland Labour lost a council seat to the SNP on West Lothian council, Vote share was down by nine per cent.

What does this all mean? Difficult to gauge from a clutch of by-election results, but it does suggest the electorate is particularly volatile and not necessarily enamoured with the Tories in rural areas. But it shows Labour has a long way to go.

The worst scenario would be if the Labour Party continued to haemorrhage votes to the Tories in the provincial cities and to the Greens and Liberal Democrats elsewhere. In the end the internal disputes could lead to the Socialist members permanently switching to the Greens and the moderate members switching to the Liberal Democrats. It would mean the end of Labour as a mainstream party. It hasn’t come to that yet, but could be unless Labour comes forward with a much more aggressive and thought provoking agenda.

Damning inquiry report reveals 40 years of horrendous child sexual abuse and racism by Lambeth Council in London

Lambeth Town Hall

The independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse today published its worst ever findings of the scale of child sexual abuse in the United Kingdom. It looks like large numbers of paedophiles got away with the mass sexual abuse of children.

An investigation into Lambeth Council’s children in care revealed that over 700 children had alleged they had been sexually abused and treated as worthless by council staff. And this is certainly an underestimate. The scandal continued from the 1960s right through to the late 1990s.

The report which only looked at five of the council’s closed homes makes incredibly grim reading. The report said:

Cruelty and sexual abuse ” hard to comprehend”

“It is hard to comprehend the cruelty and sexual abuse inflicted on children in the care of Lambeth Council over many years, by staff, by foster carers and their families, and by volunteers in residential settings. With one or two exceptions, a succession of elected members and senior professionals ought to have been held accountable for allowing this to happen, either by their active commission or complicit omission. Lambeth Council was only able to identify one senior Council employee, over the course of 40 years, who was disciplined for their part in this catalogue of sexual abuse.”

It goes on: “By June 2020, Lambeth Council was aware of 705 former residents of three children’s homes in this investigation (Shirley Oaks, South Vale and Angell Road) who have made complaints of sexual abuse. The biggest of these homes – Shirley Oaks – was the subject of allegations against 177 members of staff or individuals connected with the home, involving at least 529 former residents. It was closed in 1983.

“Frontline staff employed to care for these most vulnerable children frequently failed to take action when they knew about sexual abuse. In so many cases they showed little warmth or compassion towards the child victims, who were left to cope with the trauma of their abuse on their own. 

Hostile and abusive treatment of black children

…”There were many black children in Lambeth Council’s care. In Shirley Oaks in 1980, 57 percent of children in its care were black. During 1990 and 1991, 85 percent of children who lived at South Vale were black. Racism was evident in their hostile and abusive treatment by some staff.

” Shirley Oaks and South Vale were brutal places where violence and sexual assault were allowed to flourish. Angell Road systematically exposed children (including those under the age of five years) to sexual abuse. 

“Nor did foster care routinely provide a safe alternative for children in care. For many years, foster carers were not adequately vetted by the Council and were not the subject of criminal record checks.”

Some of the cases described are horrendous.

Children screaming at night while they were raped

“LA-A307 was taken to Shirley Oaks at the age of nine. He described hearing other children screaming at night and he himself routinely experienced violence and sexual assault, including being photographed whilst being raped.

LA-A147 was in the care of Lambeth Council in the 1990s and 2000s, from the age of three. Over ten years, she was placed in nine children’s homes and with four sets of foster carers. She described being raped by a foster carer’s teenage son at the age of nine, and was also frequently sexually abused by older men she met whilst in care. By the age of 13, she had developed a drug addiction and was “selling herself” to fund it.

LA-A2 was found dead in a bathroom at Shirley Oaks in 1977. Lambeth Council did not inform the coroner that he had alleged being sexually abused by Donald Hosegood, his ‘house father’. In the course of Hosegood’s employment at Shirley Oaks, six out of eight children looked after by him and his wife alleged sexual abuse by him.

LA-A7 described sexual abuse by three male members of staff, including two from South Vale. Two of them separately photographed him at their private homes when he was either naked or wearing only his underwear. One of them, Leslie Paul, was convicted of indecent assaults against LA-A7.”

Only six perpetrators prosecuted

Extraordinarily just SIX people have been successfully prosecuted by the police, meaning that hundreds of people must have got away with the vile sexual abuse of children.

All this took place against a background of fraud, corruption, racism, nepotism by both staff and some councillors. Those who tried to stop it were intimidated and threatened. The report shows even two chief executives, Herman Ouseley and Henry Gilby were the subject of intimidation.

Lord Ouseley – staff bugged his home and office when he was chief executive and his family was threatened

“Lord Ouseley described how both his office and home were ‘bugged’ at the instigation of one of his own staff. He also received threats to his family. Mr Gilby’s office was the subject of a serious arson attack. His home and office were broken into and computer records were stolen during a time when he was attempting to deal with corrupt practices. Dame Heather Rabbatts was Chief Executive from 1995 to 2000. She described how she inherited a Council with a culture of “fear and sexism and racism”. No witness identified which individuals or groups were the driving force behind this vicious and regressive culture, but there was little doubt that a succession of leading elected members were mainly responsible, aided and abetted in some instances by self-serving senior officials.”

The inquiry has decided to ask the Met Police to investigate whether there are grounds for a criminal investigation into Lambeth Council’s actions when providing information to the coroner about the circumstances surrounding LA-A2’s death.

Richard Scorer, specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon, who is representing the sister of a teenage boy who killed himself in a care home after making allegations of abuse against staff member Donald Hosegood, told Mail On Line: ‘It is clear from today’s report that Lambeth Council deliberately withheld information from the coroner in order to give the impression that our client’s brother was happy in care.”

All in all this report shows why it was necessary to have a full scale inquiry into child sexual abuse – which despite naysayers trying to deny the extent of the problem – was obviously rampant in some parts of the country. The council has apologised .The real tragedy is that so many people have got away with it leaving their victims with broken lives.

Local elections: Will the citizens of Salisbury revolt this week? Is it a new trend?

Ex Tory minister and MP for Salisbury Robert Key is one of the people supporting the Independent revolt. This is one of five podcasts he did criticising the system.

City’s former loyalist Tory MP and minister backs the revolt

UPDATED: The newly formed Independents did win their first seat on the council with Annie Riddle winning a seat in Harnham. But the other candidates failed to win a seat. However the composition of the council has change radically. It was 15 Conservatives, five Labour, one Liberal Democrat, one Independent. It is now no longer a Tory majority council. The new council is now 11 Conservative, 6 Labour, 6 Liberal Democrat and one Independent.

The City of Salisbury is not a natural place to start a revolution. Indeed in the seventeenth century it staged a Royalist revolt against Cromwell and kidnapped its High Sherriff. The last Bishop of Salisbury to be murdered by an unruly mob was William Ayscough in 1450. And apart from the horrendous Novichok murder and attempted poisonings by Russian spies it is not a place normally associated with sudden dramas.

So it is all the more surprising that this city of 45,000 people which has returned Conservative MPs without fail since 1924 should suddenly be facing a challenge to its Tory status quo in this week’s local elections.

And even more extraordinary that a man who is advocating change is former Tory minister and a long standing former Tory MP for Salisbury, Robert Key. One of the most loyal Tories for over 50 years he now says ” in his old age he is becoming a revolutionary.”

The reason for this sudden grass roots rebellion is local government reform. Whereas much is said about devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, at the local level power is being taken away from England’s towns and small cities like Salisbury, by the creation of mammoth unitary authorities like Wiltshire and Dorset. And more are to come soon in further local government reform. So Wiltshire is governed by officials in Trowbridge, Dorset by Dorchester etc.

It also does seem extraordinary that a city with a cathedral should have no more power than a small rural village parish council in remote Lincolnshire.

Salisbury Cathedral

Judging from public reaction many people agree. A brand new Facebook page called Save our Salisbury (SOS) has attracted 2600 members and an energetic former journalist and sub editor, Annie Riddle, is among eight Independent candidates standing for the City council. There is also an independent, an ex detective inspector, Mike Rees, challenging the Tory police commissioner for Wiltshire

The current 23 member council has 16 Tories, 5 Labour and one Liberal Democrat. By putting one independent in each of the eight wards – the candidates are telling people to give one of their three votes ( in most cases) to an Independent and not a political party.

What’s the point?

Annie Riddle says in her own blog; “all the main parties have had trouble putting up a full complement of candidates for the local elections in May – largely, I think, because people are disillusioned and ask: “What’s the point?”
Now I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and try to do something to help our community by standing as an independent candidate for the city council in Harnham.”

And it seems to be admitted by the Tories themselves with people like John Brady, former chair of Salisbury Conservative Association saying:

“It is the officers who make the decisions (recommendations). They know that councillors are transient and as with Harnham, where councillors persuaded them to take a proposed development off the Strategic Plan, officers reinstated it as soon as they could when dealing with a different councillor (cabinet member). “All the ‘consultation’ that has to be done is a complete waste of time as I know that this is merely a way of allowing locals to let off steam.”

The situation in Salisbury is not unique. Pressed by issues like houses left empty and an unpopular road closure scheme and people having no say are among the local flash points. A number of small towns in other parts of England are doing the same.

Revolts in other towns

Frome in Somerset in 2015 replaced all its Conservative councillors with Independents for Frome and re-elected them again in 2019. Alderley Edge First in Cheshire did the same – re-electing them on a 42 per cent poll ( high for a parish council) in 2019. Uttlesford near Stansted Airport in Essex, is an Independent majority council – the impetus being concern over the expansion of Stansted Airport.

And some have taken seats from Labour controlled councils such as Ashfield in Nottinghamshire and the mayor of Middlesbrough where an Independent took over from a Labour mayor.

In the last large scale local elections in England in 2019 – across the country Independents gained 250 seats – while the Conservative and Labour parties fell back.

National interest in this year’s elections will be on how Labour and Tories do – whether it is Tory gains in ” Red Wall” seats in the North and Midlands – or whether Labour can make gains elsewhere. The Liberal Democrats and Greens performances will be analysed in areas where they made progress last time.

But beneath all this lies a generally unreported interesting trend in towns and cities – local people standing on local issues – often revolting against the major parties and Big Brother councils in places miles away from where people live. Who said democracy was dead?

Last of the Summer Lyme

Indefatigable campaigner: Stan Williams,. deputy mayor Lyme Regis council

A quirky tale of campaigning pensioners exposing dodgy council dealings in a quaint old English seaside resort

This is a story of two extraordinary 85 year old campaigning pensioners. For 40 years have fought their local council over a dodgy land deal in a quaint Dorset seaside town and so far literally hit a brick wall.

It is happening in the unlikely place of Lyme Regis. The family holiday town, home to numerous bed and breakfasts, and with its iconic Cobb on the marina immortalised by the famous English novelist ,John Fowles in The French Lieutenants Woman ( later as a film with Meryl Streep) is not seen as a hotbed of intrigue.

But behind the public image of Olde English teashops lies a dark story that involves questionable dealings, dubious planning applications. illegal blocking of a public eight of way, secret deals over cream teas, fake entries put into Land Registry records, information hidden by local worthies, and threats to people who tried to find out what was going on.

The characters would not be out of place in a novel or could appear in a West Country version of Last of the Summer Wine. One, Stan Williams, is deputy mayor of Lyme Regis, now 85, and one of the longest serving councillors. The other, Nigel Marsh ,also 85, is probably regarded by officialdom as a local busy body questioning local decisions. Yet the two have combined to try and solve a land deal that has been festering for 40 years and still the town council won’t come clean.

The Cliff House mudslide that made 14 people homeless

The catalyst for the scandal took place almost 60 years ago. According to a paper by Richard Bull on the history of Lyme’s sea defences in the Lyme Regis museum the local council gave permission to property developer Edward Keen to build 20 bungalows and flats on unstable land prone to mudslides above Marine Parade. He excavated 50,000 tonnes of soil.

The book says: ” On..12th February 1962, only a few days after the excavation was completed, movement was noticed, with cracking and heaving in some nearby houses. Movements continued through the evening and by 9 pm the whole slope failed. Cliff House, which was standing empty, moved 3.2m nearer the sea and was back-tilted and ruined. Sunnydene Guest House caved in, and three other houses were left at crazy angles. Other houses were extensively damaged and 14 people made homeless. Above Cliff House a large back-scar appeared at the top of the slip plane or shear, cutting Stile Lane.”

Even after this the town clerk, Harry Williams was reported in the Daily Sketch as saying, … that the development project will eventually completely stabilise … the site…and, as far as the Borough Council knew, work could continue to excavate soil from the site.” This bloody mindedness was to be repeated by successor town clerks.

1964 compulsory purchase order

The developer aborted the plan and council put in a compulsory purchase order for the land in 1964 and have created a pleasant public gardens on the site of the now demolished Cliff House.

What was saved was the gardeners cottage called Cliff Cottage which was jacked up and restored. As the Lyme Regis book says: “Cliff Cottage, which still stands …was miraculously jacked up
back to true from a drunken angle, leaning into the landslip scar, using dozens of
hydraulic car jacks and quickly concreted in after use.”

The Cadbury conveyance

The Cadbury chocolate dynasty connection

The property had been owned by Celia Jeannette Cadbury who married into the famous Cadbury chocolate dynasty. Her husband George ran an electrical engineering business in West Bromwich. She lived in Kidderminster which suggests the property was a holiday home.

She sold the property to Kathleen Dorothy Tompkins in 1955. A splendid deed of conveyence exists in Dorchester Archives with a map of the land.

In 1980 the rebuilt property changes ownership to Marilyn Bolton, then a formidable local councillor. There is no record of the price paid in the Land Registry entry and the property transaction appears to have taken place without a plan of the land. The solicitors were a respected local firm Kitson and Trotman who are also the council’s solicitors.

It is then that a series of events happened. First an old garage next to the cottage was replaced with a tearoom and then an extended high class restaurant was built with a terrace overlooking the new public gardens. The restaurant is now managed by celebrity chef, Mark Hix – see my previous blog here.

My own investigations of what happened next revealed that this new development was carried out illegally with the council’s connivance who then tried to cover it up what had happened until it couldn’t any more – including a false declaration to the Land Registry and the illegal removal of a right of way.

Merry Bolton, now an ex councillor in her 70s, told me of a meeting with a former town clerk, Mr Robin Munday.

cream tea deal

Over a cream tea with him in 1985 she said: ” We looked at the land next to the cottage and agreed that the boundary should be a line of trees. At the time the land was a mess after the upheaval so it wasn’t clear where it was.”

His successor Mike Lewis duly registered the boundary with the land registry allowing her to encroach on the council land covered by the compulsory purchase order. He was later challenged by both Nigel Marsh and councillor Stan Williams and promised to change it but never did.

It was her two planning applications in 2006 to turn the tea room into an extended restaurant that caused the biggest stir. The tea room already obstructed a public footpath called Stiles Lane which is illegal but the new planning application encroached on to the council land. At the same time she never applied to either divert or extinguish the public right of way.

Plans for restuarant showing the encroachment on council land and the old right of way

Dorset council have confirmed to me that is the case. The told me:

“We can confirm that Footpath W2/12 from Pound Street to Marine Parade in Lyme Regis is obstructed by a number of buildings and landscaping works carried out over many years to re-profile the area following landslips and the creation of Langmoor Gardens.

“The Highway Authority has powers to enforce an obstruction of the public’s right of free passage over a public highway, but there is an alternative route, which is safer and more commodious for the public. Therefore, this is a considered to be a low priority for already stretched public funds.

“When planning permission was granted to extend the building that is currently obstructing the footpath, this did not give permission to obstruct the footpath. The applicant was advised to apply to divert the footpath by legal order and that this order must be confirmed before work commenced. We do not believe that West Dorset District Council received such an application.”

Gorgeous view of Lyme from restuarant

In 2009 after the restaurant had been extended the row led to the appointment by the council of a distinguished boundary demarcation expert David Powell. His report, which I have seen, came down firmly that the former councillor had encroached on council land. He suggested calling in the lawyers to sort it out.

But neither the council nor Ms Bolton agreed. She wrote to Mike Lewis on 2 November 2009 ” We are anxious as the Town Council to avoid expensive and pointless litigation, which will make both the experts and the lawyers rich, but leave the parties to the dispute the poorer”.

What followed was a rewriting of the council’s entry to the land registry to create a retrospective lease on the council land to the restaurant. But absolutely nothing was done to change the title deed of Cliff Cottage which included the council land.

John Wright town clerk

In 2017 the current town clerk John Wright put in an application to do this on Marilyn Bolton’s cottage but he never proceeded.

Instead he has followed his predecessors and tried to hush matters up. This included a letter to Nigel Marsh banning him from speaking to any Lyme Regis councillor or official. I am told this is not the first time he has done this which must be legally unenforceable.

Lyme Regis’s quirky town hall

Since then he has declined to reply to my questions after telling me had no intention of doing anything about the footpath which he sees as a Dorset Council matter. The council’s lawyers have pleaded ” client confidentiality ” to any queries though they have refuted one allegation that they were working hand in hand with the ex-councillor and the council at the same time – which would lead to a complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

As for the two indefatigable pensioners. Stan Williams says: ” As a kid I used to walk up that footpath to go to school every day. I don’t wish to see the restaurant run by Mark Hix demolished as a result but I do think the council and Marilyn Bolton should come clean about what happened particularly as she has benefitted financially from the deal.”

Nigel Marsh also does not want the celebrity chef caught up in this shenanigans but is determined to get a solution and not be stopped by a brick wall.

Saved by a judge: Historic Victorian station with a military history and a setting for “Dad’s Army”

Historic Brandon Station dating from 1845, built by a notable Victorian architect and now listed following the judgement.

Judicial review saves 175 year old station from ” unlawful” demolition by privatised rail company for a car park

When Save Britain’s Heritage appeared before Mrs Justice Lang to argue the case for saving Brandon Station it was almost a lost cause. But the judge who is pretty independent and also recently granted a judicial review to women born in the 1950s so they could seek compensation for the rise on their pension age was not be put off.

Breckland Council in Norfolk had already given the owners Greater Anglian railways the go ahead to demolish the booking hall that had been empty and boarded up for 16 years so they could create a 100 space car park for commuters to Norwich, Cambridge and Ely. The scheme would have cost £1m and was accepted by the Railway Heritage Trust.

The station on the Norfolk /Suffolk border is becoming busier as more rail services are introduced. The town itself is a mixture of historic flint buildings and sprawling estates and has strong military connections because of the nearby Lakenheath and Mildenhall air bases.

unlawful development certificate

But when the judge started examining the case she found the development certificate issued by the council was unlawful because the scheme appeared to encroach on land not owned by the private rail company because of irregularities in the boundaries of the site.

She was not impressed by the council granting permission while the building was being considered for listing. It has since been listed.

The railway station building is constructed of local knapped flint, gault brick and slate to a design by Victorian architect John Thomas in 1845. Mr Thomas had Parliamentary connections as he who was appointed the superintendent of stone-carving at the Palace of Westminster by Sir Charles Barry. when Parliament was rebuilt. He was also commissioned by Prince Albert for stone carving work at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

Royal visit to Brandon: Pic Credit D Norton via Save Britain’s Heritage

Local people have archive coverage of a Royal visit by King George VI and the Queen Mum to Brandon station in the second world war. There is a website by Darren Norton about both world wars here.

There were also many foreign troops stationed there. Here is a picture of Polish troops in 1946.

Units of the Polish 2nd Corps arriving at Brandon Station in 1946. Photo: Victor Lukaniuk,locaL councillor

Also the station and the town of Brandon were used for an episode of the iconic BBC series Dad’s Army. See here.

Marcus Binney, executive president of SAVE Britain’s Heritage said: “This shows that determination, persistence and resourcefulness can bring back historic buildings on death row. We have already commissioned plans by the architect Doug Reid, obtained initial costs from builders, and will now be working with the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust on raising finance.”

The most recent press release from them is here.

The aim is to restore the buildings as local business units with a cafe to encourage new start ups in the area.

Covid-19: How the year of the bus became the year of bust

Pic Credit: Wes Hicks – Unsplash

2020 was supposed to be the Year of the Bus. A newly elected Tory government promised £220m to improve services which had been in decline since 2010 when another newly elected Tory led government created the cuts.

The initiative ticked every election promise box. It was going to reverse service cuts – mainly in the shires as part of levelling up. It was going to produce a brilliant new demonstration package of co-ordinated bus and train services in Cornwall – one of the poorest areas of England. It was going to be green -promising the first total electric powered bus service in an English city. It was going to be faster with more dedicated bus lanes and expressways and it was going to be easily accessible by introducing a national data system for services and fares available on the internet.

Then came Covid 19. And as a new National Audit Office report revealed on Friday the bus plan crashed off the road.

unglamourous buses

Buses have never been a glamourous subject. As the NAO report shows they are mainly used by the poor, over 70s, the 17-21 age group before they get their own wheels and single women seeking a safe way home.

It also suffered huge service cuts and big fare rises for many of its passengers outside London. A useful map in the NAO report shows how passenger traffic has declined by an average of 10 per cent between 2010 and 2019 – falling highest in places like Tyne and Wear, Lancashire, Teesside, East Sussex and Lincolnshire but rising in Bristol and Brighton and Hove.

Pic credit: Suzy Hazelwood Pexels

Some 3000 routes have disappeared with bus mileage down from 243 million to 112 million and the average local authority support for services dropping 38 per cent with 42 authorities slashing expenditure by over 50 per cent. Some of the worst examples are West Yorkshire, Surrey and Northamptonshire. Average fares went up 18 per cent between 2010 and 2019.

free bus pass

The biggest cost to local authorities has been the free bus pass – now estimated at £650m a year – a national service – but funded by the local authority where you live. Funding from central government to bus operators has dropped from 31 per cent to 24 per cent between 2010 and 2019.

One of the problems is that since the de-regulation of services the government has had little control – so it can make a lot of noise about improving services – but it can’t force private operators to do it. The plan for a national data system for bus timetables and fares – depends on whether individual operators want to spend the money.

When Covid 19 hit the government was faced with a dilemma – only key workers were encouraged to use public transport – slashing revenue. The government did provide extra cash in tranches to bus companies to keep them going. But it also raided its shiny new support budget to improve services.

The plan for a co-ordinated Cornwall transport service from Plymouth to Penzance was dumped.

So was the money put aside to restore cut services. And it looks like – despite interest from 50 different towns and cities – to be the first to run an all electric bus service – is being delayed by Whitehall inertia.

And other promises to improve express bus services = especially in the West Midlands – have been undermined by the operators themselves.

First Worcester cut service

One check I did on Google First Worcester company had created a furore by halving the number of express buses between Worcester and Birmingham north of Bromsgrove – forcing people to use more expensive services elsewhere. Yet this is an area given priority in the government’s new bus plan and it happened before the Covid 19 crisis hit.

There are some bright spots. Bristol has improved passenger use by 36 per cent. Nottingham has increased bus use and invested in clean bio gas buses and new trams by imposing a work car parking levy. And London, which was not examined in this report, has seen bus use up 89 per cent.

The lesson is clear to all. Grandiose plans to ” level up ” the poorest parts of the country are going to be very expensive if they are to work. And if they don’t deliver there will be a political price to pay for falsely raising people’s hopes. You have been warned.

Assetco: The negligent privatisation audit that has cost Grant Thornton over £20m in damages

Top accountancy firm loses appeal over failing to spot forged documents in huge London fire brigade privatisation scandal

A London fire engine -once owned by Assetco

The big four accountancy firms make a fat living from auditing the large number of private companies taking over public services.

But a Court of Appeal ruling last month suggests that if they don’t do the job properly they could now face huge damages claims from directors of companies who were duped by their negligent auditing.

The Assetco saga has been extensively covered on this blog. It involved the sale and leasing of the entire fire engine fleet of London and Lincolnshire to a gang of spivs and fraudsters – who were last known to still be evading justice nearly a decade after swindling investors and conning the London Fire Brigade. The Fire Brigades Union also took up the issue on behalf of its members.

ban after causing fraud

A separate investigation by the Financial Reporting Council found Assetco’s chief executive John Shannon ” causing or facilitating fraud. He was banned as practising as a chartered accountant  for 16 years – a new British record – fined £250,000 and ordered to pay £300,000 in costs.

Raymond “Frank” Flynn (former Chief Financial Officer) for  banned from practising for 14 years and Matthew Boyle (former Financial Controller) for 12 years. Additionally, £150,000 and £100,000 respectively have been imposed and they share paying  part of the £400,000 costs bill.

Grant Thornton, and the accountant who audited the company Robert Napper,  has led to a £3.7m fine for  both of them for professional misconduct. ( Napper was fined £120,000) Neither Grant Thornton nor Mr Napper made any financial gain out of the scandal. The accountant took early retirement and now lives in a bucolic Oxfordshire village developing his hobby as a wine buff.. See here.

Now the Abu Dhabi directors of Assetco who took over in 2011- straight after the London and Lincoln operations collapsed have successfully sued Grant Thornton for £22m and their case has been upheld by the Court of Appeal.

The first trial lasted 20 days, involving extensive evidence from factual and expert witnesses and consideration of a large volume of documents and of 877 pages of written submissions as well as oral submissions.

Grant Thornton appealed but lost the case. The court was told that if Grant Thornton had audited the accounts properly they would have found evidence of forged documents which inflated the value of the firm.

Fraudster John Shannon when he was boss of Assetco

The court were told Mr Shannon and Mr Flynn told GT that the “unitary payments” due under the London Contract had increased by nearly £47,000 per month (£564,000pa) from April 2009 and produced documents to establish it. The statements were dishonestly made, and the documents were forged. It was only on the basis of these alleged payments that the London Contract appeared to be profitable.

Grant Thornton argued unsuccessfully that they couldn’t be responsible for all the losses. The judges found in the company’s favour.

The Financial Reporting Council did pass its findings to the Serious Fraud Office but so far it appears nothing further has happened. Mr Shannon has thought to have moved to Thailand while Mr Flynn remains in Northern Ireland.

The most important development is this judgement could form a major piece of caselaw if any other major accountancy firm does not do its auditing job properly. It is a big shot across the bows of the big four accountancy firms to be more diligent.

Exclusive on Byline Times: Disappearing London voters as foreign buyers and new build AirBnBs flood neighbourhoods

110-112 Vauxhall Bridge Road; One of the AirBnBs block of apartments springing up in Westminster Pic credit: booking.com
The Surprise: This was the old pub that is now a new rebuilt AirBnb The original planning application was for it to be replaced by residential housing.

I have done a special investigation for Byline Times showing the extraordinary contrast between the decline of the electorate in Westminster and Kensington and the huge property and tourist boom bringing in non voting oligarchs, foreign buyers and purpose built blocks of AirBnBs.

This may have contributed to Labour winning Battersea and Kensington from the Conservatives at the last election. This time it is not so clear as Labour and the Lib Dems are vying for votes.

See my full story here.

On Byline Times: The failed Tory manifesto pledge that dashed the hopes of 200,000 first time buyers

Promised starter home? Pic credit; Money Which?

As the manifesto season gears up – a very timely report today from the National Audit Office. It reveals David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto pledge to build 200,000 homes for first time buyers has resulted in not a single starter home being built. The full facts of this failed pledge are on Byline Times here.

Johnson slammed for wasting £137 billion of taxpayers’ cash while denying 50s women a penny in pensions compensation

Carole Irwin in Spain: Rightly angry at waste of taxpayers money when nothing is paid out to 50s women

Today I have decided to highlight one of my angry blog supporters who lives in Spain and is a victim of the pension scandal that has seen 3.8 million 50s women waiting up to six years to get their pension.

So outraged at the Prime Minister refusing to consider any compensation for the women that she has written to complain to Boris Johnson and highlight how much money he and his ministers have wasted after researching the bills.

As she puts it: ” Had we run our household budgets as you have run yours, we would have lost or homes and been made bankrupt yet you are able to get away with it. You will get extremely good Pensions unlike the true workers of the country who get the smallest Pension in Europe. I actually don’t know how you can sleep at night!

Carole Irwin lives in the mountains behind Malaga. She tells me :

” I am 60 years old and during my working life paid NI payments whilst working as a nurse for several years, and as a civilian in the Police Service.  I then brought up my children, so received child benefit credits for those years.

I moved to Spain to retire with my family 14 years ago. 6 years ago l was diagnosed with an incurable and life changing illness. This costs me between 80€ and 90€ in medications per month alone.

This is why I became a member of  #WePaidInYouPayOut which has been supporting  Back to 60. 

….I am one of the many who has received no letter informing me of this change. When I started working it was on the understanding although only an assumed agreement that I would receive my pension at 60.This change of retirement age along with my illness has affected our plans for our future life in Spain. “

This is her full letter to Mr Johnson:

” I am writing to you as l have many concerns about the enormous amounts of money being wasted by Government’s various departments.
In order to be concise l am writing it in bullet points so as not to waste your time.

Firstly Chris Grayling ( who possibly has wasted the most money) who has served in several roles during his time in government and unbelievably still is employed as
Secretary of State for Transport of the United Kingdom
(2016 to 2019). Had he been employed in the private sector would have been dismissed as his record shows how incapable he actually is!
*Chris Grayling alone has so far wasted almost 3 billion pounds of public money…

*At least £500 million to sort out the mess he made when attempting to privatise the probation service (source: National Audit Office)

*£33 million when sued by Eurotunnel over Seaborne Freight fiasco (source: The Guardian)

*£38 million – cost to the economy in the north of England due to the rail chaos in July 2018 (source The London Economic)

*£50,000 on the failed ‘lorry jam’ Brexit exercise in Kent (source: The Guardian)

*£70,000 on failed attempt to ban books from prisons (source: The Independent)

*£2 billion cost to taxpayers on the collapse of Virgin Trains east coast franchise (source The London Economic)

*£15 million a year in additional costs to the Carillion contract to run facilities management in prisons (source The London Economic)

*£5 million on ‘wasted rail fares’ for HS2 staff (source: Huffington Post)

*£50 million on cancelled No Deal ferry contracts (source: The Guardian)

*£32 million of charges that were unlawfully collected – which the government were ordered to pay back (source The London Economic)

*£23 million contract to develop a new generation of GPS tracking tags for dangerous offenders written off because the project proved “too challenging” (source The London Economic)

*£60 million over the £130 million original budget on the electronic tagging programme – described by the PAC as a “catastrophic waste of public money” (source The London Economic)

More government waste is shown by the Tax payers alliance.

Although excellent work has been undertaken by the Cabinet Office’s Efficiency and Reform Group in terms of finding savings, taxpayers’ cash has still been wasted in a number of ways, with significant sums ripe for being saved in many areas, including:

*£53 billion – Additional cost of funding pay and pensions for public sector workers over and above the private sector average, based on analysis of figures from the Office for National Statistics and the Pension Policy Institute
*£25 billion – Amount wasted through inefficient public sector procurement and poor use of outsourcing, based on an authoritative report from the Institute of Directors
*£20.3 billion – Cost to the economy of public sector fraud, according to the National Fraud Authority
*£5 billion – Amount paid in benefits to those with an income in excess of £100,000
*£4 billion – Losses to the taxpayer from RBS and the sale of Northern Rock£2.9 billion – Amount spent needlessly by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and Department for Culture, Media & Sport, which should both be scrapped
*£1.2 billion – Annual subsidy to foreign farmers through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy
The planning of the London garden bridge cost £58 million without so much as a pot plant being placed!
These figures are also almost certainly an underestimate. A rigorous assessment of the public sector efficiency commissioned by the European Central Bank found that if the UK’s bloated public sector were as efficient as that in the economies of countries like the US, Australia, and Japan, no less than £137 billion could have been saved in the last year! Those is a Huge amount of money!

In addition to the big ticket items, we have identified hundreds of examples of smaller sums being wasted. It is, however, all still taxpayers’ money and there is no excuse for waste, regardless of the amount involved. Among the culprits identified are:

Arts Council: Gave a £95,000 grant to artists in Brighton for “Skip”, a rubbish dumpster outlined with yellow lights!

Crawley Council: Spent £5,070 on 12,200 hot drinks from vending machines for council employees, when the equivalent number of tea bags would have cost just £200!

Department for International Development: Spent £21.2 million on a road maintenance project in Bangladesh, later pulled due to “fiduciary irregularities” after it emerged that less than 10% had actually been spent on roads!

Durham Council: Funded a £12,000 clothing allowance to allow councillors to wear “Geordie Armani”!

Hull Council: Spent £40,000 on a concert in honour of the councillor who is Lord Mayor this year!

Ministry of Defence: Paid £22 for light bulbs that are normally 65p!

Prison Service: Paid £720,000 to professional actors for role playing that is aimed at helping inmates become employed.

Scottish Government: Signed a £1.4 million 4-year contract for taxis for civil servants in Edinburgh – despite staff being told to use buses.

Stoke-on-Trent Council: Spent £330,000 to pay for redundancy packages and subsequently rehiring 25 members of staff.

All this money wasted by your government was paid for by the hard working tax payers and I’m sure if l did more research l could find many more examples.
One being to your own embarrassment the purchasing of water cannons. I wonder what they were worth at the local scrap dealer?

There are a great many extremely angry women not yet receiving their hard earned Pensions which was paid for by themselves throughout their lives by paying national insurance.
I’m sure they would not have chosen to waste so much money in the way you did, as had that money still been available you could have decided we earned and deserved our pensions.
Had we run our household budgets as you have run yours, we would have lost or homes and been made bankrupt yet to are able to get away with it. You will get extremely good Pensions unlike the true workers of the country who get the smallest Pension in Europe. I actually don’t know how you can sleep at night!
Due to the appalling waste as listed above, please do it get too comfortable in your role as Prime Minister as l have a strong feeling come the next general election you will have many people choosing not to vote for your incompetent and cruel party.”

On Byline next month I am planning to try and see how much money the PM has also wasted on the No Deal Brexit which increasingly looks unlikely to happen on October 31. This can be added to the figures she has researched.

But I thought it was worth publishing this gigantic list because it highlights the anger people feel about this issue and the waste of taxpayers money by politicians. No doubt the reply will be stuck in a queue in the PM’s correspondence unit. But wider publication will not allow him so easily to get away with it. Nor should he.