If an Englishman’s home is his castle, then some council’s are building up enough empty homes for an empire.
Information released today by charity Empty Homes has exposed some remarkable situations, with councils spending millions keeping houses empty while thousands sit on housing waiting lists. And it’s madness.
Councils argue the properties are set to be demolished, and yet there are rarely plans to replace them as the schemes proposed in the boom years have long since been cancelled.
As a result, they spend millions securing them - which often includes the absurd process of ’squatter proofing’ (taxpayer-funded vandalising essentially) which sees toilets and baths smashed, floors and walls ripped out and windows smashed.
The councils then pay to secure and monitor the properties - in theory, until demolition, in reality, for much longer. Once they’ve been ’secured’ they are then shifted from empty housing figures and don’t count to statistics.
The effect is a town the size of Kendal in Cumbria - 12,000 homes - has been airbrushed from the statistics.
They are the tip of a housing iceberg that sees more than 735,000 houses sitting empty nationally – despite 4m people languishing on housing waiting lists.
The worst offenders are Southwark council in London, which currently spends more than £500,000 every year to monitor empty properties – in addition to more than £2m to date, while Liverpool council has spent in excess of £3.4m on just two estates.
Furthermore, Greenwich Council was identified as spending £2.4m securing and monitoring 1327 homes that have sat empty for nearly a decade, while Hackney Council who are spending £150,000 a year on monitoring 260 empty homes.
Hull – home to John Prescott, who as Deputy Prime Minister launched many of the now-stalled regeneration schemes – has 2,569 properties awaiting demolition.
It’s just crazy to have so many homes sat empty for so long. Not only is it a resource question, it’s a moral one as so many people are left on waiting lists or even homeless.
The New Homes bonus applies equally to new properties and empty ones brought back into use. Let’s see how many authorities continue to bleat about spending cuts when they could actually generate revenue and help people into housing.
You can hear the CEO of charity Empty Homes talking about the issue on Monday’s You and Yours.
Posted: May 23rd, 2011
Categories: Campaign Issues
, Spending Cuts
Tags: empty homes
Comments: No Comments
Today, much of London has been gridlocked by the TUC march.
It’s never a bad thing that people want to engage in our democracy by demonstrating (even where the motivation of many lies in self-interest) but this afternoon’s attack on Fortnum and Mason is quite revealing.
The ’secret target’ mooted during the day was unveiled as F&M’s flagship store on Piccadilly, and it was subsequently occupied by UK Uncut.
Why there? I’m an avid reader of Private Eye and they’ve never been mentioned in the tax avoidance debate. So, what about their owners? Fortunately this isn’t a great corporate conspiracy. It’s all on Wikipedia. Fortnum is owned by Wittington Investments Limited, which in turn is is 79.2% owned by the Garfield Weston Foundation, and 20.8% owned by members of the Weston family.
And what of the Garfield Weston Foundation? Well, it’s actually one of the UK’s largest grant-making trusts.
From it’s 2009 annual report:
“This year, the Trustees have supported 1518 appeals out of a total of 3513 applications, which is a slight increase over last year. While the annual income has remained at a similar level to last year (around £38.5 million) the total cash donations of £37.6 million are lower than last year £41.1 million. This, however, is a reflection of the need for the Trustees’ to be prudent in order to bring their reserves up to a more conservative level following the substantial commitment to Oxford University of £25 million last year towards the development of the Bodleian Library. The figure of £37.6 million includes the second tranche of
£10 million of this grant and the Trustees are committed to pay the final £5 million next year. The Trustees have also been mindful of the possibility of requests for urgent funding being made by charities which have had their funding from other sources cut due to the difficult economic conditions and wished to maintain some temporary reserves to cover such eventuality.”
Additionally, F&M’s managing director, Beverly Aspinall, joined from that other great corporate evil, (sarcasm, by the way) the John Lewis Partnership, where she’d been for 24 years.
So, the demonstrators chose to attack a company with a female MD that has just funded one of Britain’s top libraries, that donated £37.6m to good causes in 2009 alone, and is building up reserves to help charities hit by the spending cuts.
Many have suggested the motives of many in the current protests is nothing to do with politics and everything to do with prejudice. Today, we saw conclusive proof.
UPDATE: UK Uncut have issued a press release, on the occupation. It’s quite remarkable. Here’s the link to the action:
F&M is owned by Whittington Investments. Whittington also owns a 54% share of Associated British Foods. They allege ABF have dodged over £40 million in tax.
So - hang on - Fortnum and Mason hasn’t actually done anything wrong? Nor has its parent company. ABF has. And the only link is that the two companies have mutual shareholders. But they’re occupying F&M. Indeed, the headline reads “UK Uncut occupy tax dodgers Fortnum and Mason.” - then goes on to describe how they are not.
One ABF owned business is Primark. So, why not occupy Primark? Thankfully, the release includes a quote from Sally Mason, a Uk Uncut supporter from Manchester who is currently occupying Fortnum & Mason. Her quote is quite illuminating, for it includes the line: “Fortnum & Mason is a symbol of wealth and greed. It is where the Royal Family and the super-rich do their weekly shop.”
Yes, they do make expensive things. Including a ‘Royal blend’ tea. Then again, prices of that start at £1.50 - hardly super rich territory.
David Cameron caused a stir in Whitehall with his ‘enemies of enterprise’ line, with GOD (Gus o’Donnell) reportedly intervening on behalf of the mandarin class.
The thing is - I think Cameron was right. And I’d go further - it’s not just enterprise, I’d suggest the coalition needs to take on the enemies of innovation. And that absolutely includes swathes of whitehall mandarins and managers.
Yesterday the public administration select committee heard from a variety of industry figures about how the way government procures and uses technology could be improved.
The comittee heard some very clear messages - existing large suppliers had become oligarghs, innovation was designed out by lead contractors once the bid was won and it seemed outsourcing providers were incapable of failing badly enough to warrant legal action or heaven forbid not being given any more work.
Bluntly, Government was a gullible and badly informed customer who failed to take any meaningful action when things did go wrong.
Sadly, it seems the IT industry body Intellect has surrendered its role as a representative body of the whole industry, in favour of defending and apologising for the large system integrators who bare a large degree of responsibility for the mess Govt IT is in, however also happen to be a very lucrative revenue stream for Intellect.
But why is innovation such a difficult task for Government? As I have argued in the past, in my view there are simply too many vested interests involved who stand to loose badly if a radical approach was taken.
In the back office, unions and civil servants cling to the status quo to protect their empire - headcount is still king for many. The pain of redundancy (and in some cases up-front cost) means staff are shifted sideways or left in defunct roles, meaning savings are not realised despite investment in technology or process improvment.
In the front office, continued state monopolies mean all the levers of social progress remain in the hands of civil servants and managers, while also allowing politically-motivated action that may not serve the public well in the long run. Equally, this blocks innovation from the private sector, voluntary and charitable organisations which could add huge value to public services.
And indeed, many suppliers - particularly those on long-term maintenance and support contracts - see any change, innovation or performance review as a significant risk to their revenue streams, and act accordingly.
So how can these interests be overcome? The public sector is particularly risk adverse, and this in itself is no bad thing. But equally, it also seems there is little willingness to find ways of experimenting and testing new ideas.
Where systems and processes have been outsourced, the state is increasingly - and sometimes entirely - dependent on the outsourcing provider for insight and expertise. Put another way, when things go wrong or policy changes, the suppliers have the state over a very pricey barrel. Government needs the skills to hold suppliers to account and procure what it really needs, not what it thinks it needs.
The key question remains where are incentives to innovate, and to drive suppliers to design-in innovation? For who in the public sector is it in their best interest to find ways of transforming the way services are delivered? And not just at a pan-government level, these people need to be embedded in departments, dealing with the day-to-day processes that have remained in place for decades.
Furthermore, the political class needs to be far more vocal in holding Whitehall to account, not only when things go wrong but also when new ideas are watered down or parked.
For the Coalition, the prize is a leaner, more efficient public sector that can indeed deliver more for less. The public are not concerned with process, it is outcomes that matter. If the outcome can be improved upon - and in the longer term taxes reduced as the defecit is dealt with - that will be rewarded with many years in Government.
So, Mr Cameron, the challenge is clear - overcome the enemies of enterprise, defeat the enemies of innovation and deliver the transformation in economic activity and public services that Britain so badly needs.
This weekend at Conservative Spring Forum I heard several mentions of Nottingham Council,who have refused to publish their spending over £500. Web-enabled transparency is something politicians on all sides (myself included) have highlighted as a way of overcoming the lingering suspicion of politicians following the expenses scandal, as well as engaging the public in the challenges of dealing with the deficit.
One example of the power of the internet and transparency being combined was the Treasury’s ‘Spending Challenge’ webite before the spending review, engaging the public in the budget making process and generating more than 100,000 ideas.
Following this lead, Kirklees council set up it’s “Your Voice” website to crowd source ideas prior to the budget being passed by council. A very welcome step. Sadly it seems, the reality of the councils’ approach to web communication and transparency doesn’t seem to have reached all areas of the organisation.
On Wednesday 23rd February, the Labour-run Kirklees Council voted to approve the council’s new budget.You can read the council’s own press release, or local press coverage.
Sadly, you still can’t read the budget itself though. Head to the council website budget page and you’ll find 2010’s figures. I emailed the council on March 1st and, six days later, was told that the budget was not available online - but it was available in soft copy at six libraries across the district. Furthermore, the official told me “I have been informed that at this moment these particular budget documents are not going to be available on the intranet.”
The cost of putting these paper copies in libraries far exceeds the cost of putting PDFs online - not least given the effort put in to the pre-budget digital engagement. Seeking the public’s input is laudable before the budget is set, but a cynic might suggest that to deny the public the detail of council spending decisions is a far more concerted way to undermine ongoing civic and democratic engagement.
in this day an age, it is ridiculous for such crucial documents of public record and interest not to be available online almost immediately.
It looks very much like Kirklees Council want to have their cake and eat it - criticising the Government’s reduced funding without wanting to tell anyone how much money it spends on publicity, hospitality and back office costs. In other words, exactly the things it should be cutting before a penny is taken away for the front line. Sadly the political point-scoring by Labour councillors clearly comes before protecting front-line services and their commitment to transparency.
Perhaps it is time for the Freedom of Information Act to be extended to include a legal mandate on publication online?
The problem is, who is making that case in local papers, on the streets and in community meetings?
Already it’s clear that many labour local authorities are hitting frontline services harder than others. They blame cuts in central government funding, while offering up meagre savings as evidence of some effort towards cutting costs. Sadly it barely touches the surface - Wakefield met council, for example, announced it was cutting 1,000 but the leader continues to enjoy a chauffeur driven Audi sportscar.
There is of course a massive vested interest here - central administration is both the power base of unions, and the power base of civil servants (both in local government and Whitehall) and overcoming this will require more than the odd speech lamenting the deficit.
The problem is - who is driving the innovation?who is challenging the political posturing and supposed ‘inevitability’ of reduced services.
With constituency boundaries being redrawn, parliamentary candidates - often the de facto opposition in some areas of the country - won’t be in place until very close to the next election.
Equally, its sadly true to say some local council groups are not always the most resourceful opposition, and end up opposing everything and making no positive case for change.
The 38 degrees group can claim some credit for mobilising the public on the forest sell off issue - but here’s my concern: where’s the citizen democracy group pressuring MPs and councillors when they announce a frontline cut without first tackling waste or the back office? Who is making the case for reduced allowances, fewer councillors or scrapping glossy taxpayer-funded magazines and newspapers.
I hope central government acts on this and is far more aggressive in taking this fight to local councils cutting the frontline.
One area the government could make a huge difference is in shared services - not driving local authorities to work together, but offering a central ‘app store’ style model of back office tools. In this day and age payroll, absence management, time management, invoice receiving and payment - all can be done quicker and cheaper online.
DCLG could employ a team of specialists, working with ministerial support from one local authority to the next, scrutinising activity and offering cost saving measures.
Localism needs the public to be engaged in decision making - the real challenge is that the biggest decisions on local service delivery are too often being made without an alternative being offered.
The outcome of the next election will quite possibly depend on whether the public believe that alternative existed.
Posted: February 16th, 2011
Categories: Campaign Issues
, Labour party
, Spending Cuts
Comments: 1 Comment
There’s been a great deal of noise in past week about ‘what’ the big society is - and apparently this week will see a flurry of announcements on ‘big society’ projects.
Aside the fact that it’ll take more than a few days of press releases and speeches to cement a massive new concept in the public conciousness, there is a broader question at issue - namely, why is the definition an issue?
One problem in Westminster is often the role of policy ‘wonks’ in delivering policy. Nearly a year on from when the concept was first flagged at a high level within the Conservative party and became part of the manifesto language, large swaithes of the population don’t have any idea what it is, think it’s about volunteering or see it as a trojan horse for cuts.
The vacum in definition that has existed since the concept was flagged has allowed skepticicms and uncertaintly to take hold. As was often said of Gordon Brown, a re-launch can’t change what hasn’t been launched in the first place.
So, rather than worry about a definition, I think its time to cut our loss, stop trying to shape government by the big society and try and shape the big society itself by action, not words.
Put another way - crack on with what matters to people.
Why? Well probably because the general public, unlike Westminster politicos, couldn’t care less if there’s an agreed definition or shiny report - they care about the quality and availability of the services they access, and what it costs them.
To coin a phrase, if you build it, the definition will come - to each individual according, to their experience.
If two years down the line the public have seen and like the change it leads to, then take the big society flag and plant it at the heart of a new Britain.
But if worrying about a definition consumes westminster, the public will begin to wonder if politicians on all sides are fiddiling while Rome burns.
The Localism Bill will radically change the involvement local communities have in decision making - a landmark reform that will do much to reinvigorate local democracy.
However, as has already been seen with salvos from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester councils, front line services are being axed with Central Government being blamed by local councillors and activists. As has been shown time and time again though, cutting front-line services is the easy option too many in local Government turn to, rather than taking a long, hard look at their own organisational structure and questioning how services are delivered.
For example, Wakefield council is scrapping more than 1,000 jobs, but as far as I can tell the chauffer driven car the leader of the council enjoys, and the council’s own newspaper, are not for the chop just yet.
So how do we deal with this situation? I propose something very much in the spirit of the Localism Bill - abolish the cap on council tax rises.
At present, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has the power to cap council tax increases. This year, the cap is 3.5%.
Tax has been off the political agenda since Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 and the (entirely symbolic) pledge not to raise income tax. But in times of deficit - where crudely the choice is between increasing the money coming in (tax rises) or to decrease the amount going out (spending cuts) - or a combination of the two - why not make tax part of the debate again?
I’d go even further - legislating that every ballot paper in the local elections must detail the increase in council tax proposed by the leading party, allowing the electorate to decide for themselves.
If, as many on the left tell us, the general public are outraged by ’savage’ spending cuts, why not give them the choice to pay for the services they wish to keep, but that can presently not be afforded?
In a situation like the Forgemasters loan, rather than running to central government for help, elected leaders could make the case for increasing local taxation to provide funding.
Many on the left are quick to point out about the reductions in frontline services, and how apparently this will reduce Britain to some kind of stone-age country, but they avoid with fervour any debate about how to pay for their community cohesion officers or regional spacial strategies. They aliken councils cutting council tax to evil privateers, overlooking the fact the public seem to quite like having their tax bill cut - and are far from up in arms about service provision.
The arguments around spending cuts are only one side of the coin - let’s make the debate full and open, and bring tax into it with equal weight. Those who want to expand Government can argue to do so, and the public decided on polling day whether or not they want to foot the bill.