England & Wales

All Things England – there’s gas in them there hills

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Photo by Sandro Cenni on Unsplash

Much of the news this week highlights the challenges that local authorities are facing in managing environmental issues: addressing climate change and pollution; managing local economic and financial crises, and; coping with the cost of living crisis for residents. It is all about the environment – social, economic and personal.

Environment & transport  – in and around London and the neighbouring authorities, i.e. ULEZ

Last week we saw the news that some outer London boroughs and some county councils are threatening the Greater London Authority with legal action to address the problems that they are seeing for their residents, in extending the ultra low emissions zone (ULEZ).

Apparently the government is considering blocking the expansion of London’s ULEZ, with officials and legal advisers understood to be considering whether the Mayor of London has put forward proposals that are “inconsistent” with national policy and “detrimental” to areas outside Greater London. This would require the government to issue a never-before-used veto under the Greater London Authority (GLA) Act of 1999, if it were to block the London Mayor’s decision to extend ULEZ.

Do we need more devolved government to address these problems? Can London government and the surrounding councils deal with the issue better than national government? I suspect so, if powers were devolved to those authorities in regions around London. Devolution of powers to the regions will relieve national government of issues that it really shouldn’t be dealing with.

Transport, environment & planning

After last week’s news that the supply of  electric vehicle charging points are not keeping up with the increase in the sales of electric vehicles, the government has announced that a total of 2,400 new electric vehicle charge points will be installed in locations such as Cumbria, Norfolk, Oxfordshire and West Sussex as part of a £56m investment in public and industry funding. It means 16 more local authority areas will receive money as part of the Local Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (LEVI) pilot scheme. The three original pilot schemes – in Durham, the London Borough of Barnet and North Yorkshire – will also be expanded.

The Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, is reportedly planning to alter planning rules to allow private firms to install electric vehicle (EV) charging points on behalf of local authorities without a planning application.  But this should not be a means of circumnavigating planning powers. Local authorities are keen to install EV charging points and solar panels but councils need to maintain local control of their environment.

Energy & environment

Cornwall Council’s planning committee has approved Geothermal Engineering Limited’s (GEL) plans for a new geothermal power plant at Lower Crahan Farm in Wendrom, near Helston, that is expected to produce enough energy to power around 9,000 homes. GEL says the scale of the power plant building, which will resemble a barn, has been reduced in response to local feedback. Council planning officers have backed the project, saying it would help Cornwall hit its climate targets while creating jobs.

Meanwhile, government figures show that almost a quarter (24%) of energy vouchers, designed to help the most vulnerable households with their gas and electricity bills, are still not being redeemed. The data did show an increase in uptake of the vouchers, with those on prepayment meters used 1.7m vouchers in January, up 130,000 from December. However, Citizens Advice said: “Suppliers must make it as easy as possible for people to get the help they’re entitled to. This includes reissuing vouchers that haven’t been received and ensuring anyone without online access still receives help in a way that’s convenient for them.”

In other news, analysis by the Labour Party has revealed that nearly 13,000 “warm banks” are operating across the UK, launched by councils and local authority-funded partners amid the cost of living crisis. Previous estimates put the number of warm banks at around 3,000 or 4,000, but the fresh collection of data shows at least 12,834 have opened across the country.

Oh No! Really?!

A gas discovery worth an estimated £123m in the Surrey Hills has been hailed by exploration firm UK Oil & Gas (UKOG). The company has been exploring the site at Dunsfold after the government overturned local opposition last year. UKOG said the location’s recoverable resources could help the UK’s future energy security. The government approved an application to drill in June 2022 even after being refused twice by Surrey County Council. UKOG hopes production can begin in 2026. Waverley BC said it objected in the “strongest possible terms” and that it is challenging the government’s decision to allow the planning application at the site.

Let’s extend our support to Surrey County Council and Waverley Borough Council to fight these plans. Where is Greta Thunberg when you need her?!

Housing and planning

Buckinghamshire Council has approved plans for an £800m expansion of Pinewood Studios near Iver Heath – with Pinewood Group saying the expansion will create the “biggest studio complex in the world”, supporting 8,000 new jobs and boosting the UK economy by £640m a year. The expansion will include 21 new stages, a training hub and a publicly-accessible nature reserve. Hopefully, those jobs will go to local people and might mean more English actors on our TV screens?!

Meanwhile, a Citizens Advice survey has indicated that more than half of private renters in England  – 2.7m households – are living in excessively cold, damp or mouldy homes. A poll of 2,000 private renters also found that the problem is especially bad in the least energy efficient homes, with respondents 73% more likely to be living with damp if they are in a property with an Energy Performance Certificate rating of D-G rather than A-C. Tenants are 89% more likely to experience excessive cold in a D-G rated property than one rated A-C. Citizens Advice is calling on the government to bring regulation of the private rental sector in line with social housing by following the lead set by ‘Awaab’s Law’. See the latest LGIU briefing on social housing standards here.

An i investigation into permitted development rights (PDR) – which allows offices to be converted into flats without planning permission – has found that homeless families have been trapped for as long as six years in such buildings after being housed in them as “temporary accommodation” by local authorities struggling to find long-term solutions. The probe included visits to some low quality converted office blocks that provide poor ventilation, overcrowded conditions and a lack of green spaces. Analysis of government data by the Town and Country Planning Association found that 93,273 homes in England alone have been converted from offices in the past 10 years. However, the charity believes this figure is an underestimate, and says many are not fit for human habitation.

See the latest LGIU briefing on housing and planning here.

Children and young people

A study conducted by Citizens UK has found that 20% of school children, some as young as 11, have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at school, while sexually abusive language has become “normalised” in British classrooms. The survey of 6,000 school pupils across the country, carried out after warnings from Ofsted and reports of abuse shared on the Everyone’s Invited website, found 21% had received nude pictures or other inappropriate images on their mobile phones while at school, 19% had directly witnessed sexual harassment taking place on school grounds, and 12% had themselves been a victim of sexual harassment.  Only around a third of pupils reported the harassment they witnessed or experienced, with most saying they felt doing so would not make any difference and that perpetrators would not be punished.

A report from the NSPCC shows that police have recorded a 66% increase in child abuse image offences in the UK over the past five years, with more than 30,000 reported in the most recent year. The charity warned that the increase was in part due to the “pervasive” issue of young people being groomed into sharing images of their own abuse, with tech companies failing to stop their sites being used by offenders to “organise, commit and share child sexual abuse”. However, it also noted that improved police recording, greater awareness of abuse and survivors feeling more confident in coming forward can also contribute to higher numbers of recorded offences.

A recent LGIU briefing on vulnerable young people who are missing out on education and care can be read here.

City of Wolverhampton Council has said that almost 900 beds have had to be given to local children as families struggle to afford them in the cost-of-living crisis.

See the latest LGIU briefing on the government’s planned improvement’s for children’s social care here.

Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants

As we approach the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 70 peers and MPs, including former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, have written to housing and homelessness minister, Felicity Buchan, to call for more government action to ensure that refugees from Ukraine can “access a safe and secure home” and do not “have to face homelessness”.

The letter comes as new official figures reveal that 4,295 Ukrainian households have sought help from local authorities due to the risk of homelessness, while research by the Work Rights Centre has found that twice as many of those entering the UK under the Ukraine Family Scheme were at imminent risk of eviction than those who entered under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme.

Writing for the Times, Dame Sara Thornton, the former anti-slavery commissioner, and Dame Vera Baird, the former victims’ commissioner, claim that Home Secretary, Suella Braverman’s policy of “lodging migrant teenage children alone in hotels” is a “gift to traffickers” and the government’s approach to those who go missing from hotels has hints of “casual racism”. They warn that migrant children are at risk of being coerced into sex and into criminal gangs.

Asylum seekers will be given the right to live in the UK without having face-to-face interviews to check their claims under plans designed to help meet Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to clear a backlog of more than 90,000 outstanding “older” claims by the end of this year. More than 12,000 migrants from five countries with the highest asylum success rates will have their applications processed on paper, with officials expecting that 95% of them will be given leave to remain for at least five years. Claimants will be told to reply in English within 20 working days or risk refusal, which has raised concerns from immigration lawyers.

The latest LGIU briefing on refugees and asylum seekers can be read here.

Crime

The Home Office is to announce that violence against women and girls is to be categorised as a national threat, requiring police forces to treat such incidents as seriously as terrorism, organised crime and child abuse, while more domestic abusers will be recorded on the violent and sex offender register, and will be jointly managed by the police, prison and probation services. The Prime Minister has announced that an extra £8.4m will be invested into specialist victim support programmes over the next two years.

Meanwhile, new figures released by the Department for Transport have revealed that just four local authorities – Lambeth, Birmingham, Hammersmith & Fulham and Bromley – are responsible for more than half of all legal actions for the misuse of disabled parking badges. Nationally, councils took legal action against 698 people in 2020/21, with 119 of those cases in Lambeth alone, while 110 out of 140 local authorities launched no prosecutions that year. AA president Edmund King said that while ultimately “the blame lies with the fraudulent drivers who are abusing the system”, the figures raise concerns that “the majority of local authorities are not taking enforcement seriously”.

Risk assessment and management

The government is to send a test “national warning message” to every mobile phone in the country later this month or in early March, with a publicity campaign planned to ensure people do not panic when they receive it. While future alerts through the system will likely be limited to specific areas facing extreme weather or other dangers, the test will be national to ensure the system is capable of reaching everyone in the country.

The latest LGIU Global Local briefing sets out the concept of all local authorities being in a state of ‘permacrisis’ – read it here.

Finance

Woking BC has signalled it is close to effective bankruptcy with a section 114 notice after amassing debts worth almost £2bn to fund a series of property investments. Liverpool City Council has more than £200m in outstanding debt that it does not expect to recover and most of the debt will have to be written off.

Councils in England are being given further funds to help vulnerable households from the start of April. The Household Support Fund will give each local authority in England a share of an £842m extension, to try to help those struggling the most with rising prices.

Social care

Charities have warned that victims of modern slavery are being failed because the government programme designed to help them is at “breaking point”. There was a 38% increase in the number of potential victims of modern slavery being referred for help to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) between autumn 2021 and the same period in 2022. But charities say the 3,317 figure is short of the true number of people who need help as the organisations which are allowed to refer them to the NRM are swamped with requests. It is now taking over 520 days, on average, for suspected victims to get a decision – up from around 450 days on average in 2019.

Hull City Council has secured a total of more than £5m in funding for drug addiction treatment and recovery services over the next two years, with £1.7m coming in 2023/24 and £3.3m in 2024/25. Health minister Neil O’Brien said the funding, part of the government’s Drug Strategy, will help cut crime as well as get more people into treatment. “Addictions drive about half of all theft, burglary and robbery”, he said, “so boosting treatment for addicts will help cut crime.”

Well, hopefully, the Health minister will deliver more funding to other authorities to deal with the need for drug addiction and treatment services.

Other news

This blog was published on 24 February – the first anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. So what else happened on 24 February in past years? Here is what Google tells me happened on 24 Feb, in reverse chronological order:

  • 2014 A 4.4 billion-year-old Crystal is discovered to be the oldest known fragment from the earth’s crust
  • 1991 US-led forces begin Operation Desert Sabre, the ground invasion of southern Iraq and Iraqi-occupied Kuwait
  • 1989 US performs nuclear test at Nevada Test Site
  • 1983 USSR performs underground nuclear test
  • 1981 Prince Charles announces his engagement to Lady Diana Spencer
  • 1974 Pakistan officially recognizes Bangladesh
  • 1969 Mariner 6 launched for Mars flyby to study planet’s atmosphere
  • 1966 US performs nuclear test at Nevada Test Site
  • 1920 Peace treaty gives Estonia independence
  • 1387 King Charles III of Naples and Hungary is assassinated at Buda (oops, I better stop there!)

February 24th has obviously been a prominent date throughout time but, hopefully, it will have been and gone by the time you read this, without any further nuclear tests, nor any assassinations.

 

 

 



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