Monthly Archives: May 2020

While Democracy Is In Lockdown

Because of lockdown we couldn’t vote earlier in May to change the elected membership of the Borough council. What a pity, because there are major issues in West Lancashire.  On occasions we have witnessed party walkouts from the democratic process, while recently some members simply ignored their duty to attend meetings but take the allowances.  Perhaps the following pictures explain what the public might expect?

 

Extended Construction Working Hours, Open To Abuse?

To help construction sites make up for the reduced time and resources in the wake of the shutdown, the government is permitting extended working hours on some projects. Will these measures help clear the backlog of work and increase productivity? Or do they represent a fresh health and safety obstacle?

A balancing act. The power to grant extensions to hours sits at the discretion of local authorities. This means that successful applications are far from a given; contractors must argue their case.

“I think local authorities will be trying to balance sets of competing interests,” says Peter Geraghty, chair of the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport (ADEPT). ADEPT represents many of the local authorities across the UK tasked with negotiating extended hours with contractors. The issue really is around supporting activity that will impact upon people that are living at home and the local environment.”

Geraghty says that good neighbour policies may need to be put in place to allow work to extend later into the evening in a built-up area, and local authorities should take a common-sense approach to community disturbance. He says: “Each council has the flexibility to decide to take action where it’s expedient. I think it will depend on the council and project and local environment. If you’re working on a site that’s isolated, you’ll have a lot more flexibility.”

Extending health and safety practices. Working later in the day carries a greater risk of accidents on site. There is poorer visibility in the evenings and a temptation to allow lengthy shifts. Arcadis managing director of buildings Edel Christie says that, to mitigate these risks, health and safety procedures such as safety briefings must be more thorough and frequent, while also taking social distancing into account.

She says “Staggering working hours will help in terms of taking small groups in for briefings. Clients need to understand the expectations that have been put on contractors and allow them the time and space to carry out these extra health and safety measures from a productivity point of view.”

Abusing the system. But every change in regulation offers an opportunity for some to abuse the system. When it comes to working hours, particularly on a delayed project, forced overtime to speed up productivity is a danger. Christie says construction should work together as an industry and share responsibility across the supply chain to make sure this does not happen.

“When people push schedules, that’s when we have issues from a health and safety perspective. We shouldn’t be diminishing our responsibilities and there are no excuses,” says the Arcadis director. “We all have personal professional responsibility; it shouldn’t be about a regulator like the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) telling us what to do and checking on us. We should already as an industry be saying, ‘we know what good practice looks like’ and be operating to that standard as a minimum.”

Cash incentive. Boosting onsite hours and site productivity could potentially help generate much-needed cashflow for the supply chain.

ADEPT’s Geraghty appreciates the importance of these gains: “It’s important to keep generating cashflow in the medium term, as we might not see the financial impact until six or eight months down the line when issues will really bite.”

Open all hours. Will extended opening hours help clear the backlog of work and increase productivity in the industry? Not to mention the effects on people whose peace and quiet will be abused?

West Lancashire Records High Deaths Statistics

Figures published by the Office of National Statistics have compared the number of expected deaths in Lancashire (based on a five year average) to the number in April 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Britain.

They unsurprisingly show that all areas of Lancashire saw a higher than average numbers of deaths compared to the five year average, with West Lancashire and Chorley topping the list

The sad news is that deaths in West Lancashire were twice as high as normal at the height of the coronavirus outbreak (April 2020) when a total of 203 deaths were registered here.

That number is 109.3 per cent higher than the five year average for the month of 97 registered deaths. That means West Lancashire had the highest number of excess deaths (ie. those above levels usually expected) locally last month.

30th May update. Although there were 13 new coronavirus deaths confirmed at hospital trusts in Lancashire in today’s NHS figures, no new deaths were recorded today at Southport and Ormskirk Hospital NHS Trust.

 

Revealed, Transparency Delayed, Official!

From scientific advice and procurement contracts to Freedom of Information requests, our government has drastically reduced transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a real threat to our democracy. Scottish public authorities can now take 100 days to answer FoIs! English public authorities may take 60 days!

Greg Clark is not known as a thorn in his government’s side. The Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells has held numerous cabinet roles in his fifteen years in the Commons.

But Clark was particularly critical of one aspect of the British government’s COVID-19 response in particular: transparency. Or rather the lack of it. There have, he told Boris Johnson “been a number of concerns over the transparency of the scientific advice given and its relationship to government decisions”.

Clark recommended that Johnson “increase transparency” of the government’s coronavirus response. But the prospect of some sunlight in the corridors of power looks slight. Indeed, time and again, Westminster and Holyrood have gone out of their way to stymie attempts to hold government to account in recent months.

Governments across the UK have repeatedly tried to evade transparency, from curtailing Freedom of Information legislation to refusing to publish details of multi-million pound COVID contracts given out without normal tendering processes. Governments have yet to release details of the location of care home deaths or scientific papers.

The public have a right to know how the government reached conclusions on its pandemic response, and how and where their money is being spent in the efforts to procure personal protective equipment and increase testing capacity. Without this information, citizens are losing a fundamental right to transparency. That’s a threat to good government and democracy.

OpenDemocracy is working hard to hold the government to account. “We have been forced to threaten legal action to force it to publish details of its ‘unprecedented’ transfer of NHS data to tech giants. But our task is made even harder when our journalists are banned from asking questions at daily COVID-19 briefings.

Some public authorities have taken the opportunity to suspend rights to information all together. The London Borough of Redbridge said it “will be suspending work on all Freedom of Information requests during this time”. Greater Manchester Police has done likewise, even vaingloriously thanking “the support of the media in keeping the backlog of requests to a minimum by ceasing new requests during this time.” The Police Service Northern Ireland asked people to withdraw FOI requests.

Public authorities appear to have government support for this Freedom of Information rollback. In mid-March, Robert Jenrick, secretary for housing, communities and local government, tweeted that “tasks like [Freedom of Information] requests will be cut or deferred” (which is slightly different to the government press release he linked to, which says “Councils will be able to use their discretion on deadlines for Freedom of Information requests”).

In Scotland, it’s even more worrying. In April, the Scottish National Party-led parliament in Edinburgh passed a bill that allowed Scottish public authorities to take as much as five times the standard 20 days to respond to Freedom of Information requests. Earlier this week, the Scottish government was forced to withdraw all the emergency Freedom of Information relaxations following opposition from parliamentarians.

Of course, these are tumultuous times, and it is understandable that government and public authorities may take longer than usual in responding to requests for information – that is reasonable. What is not reasonable, however, is when authorities essentially remove the public’s right to information.

As for the Information Commissioner’s Office, it is taking an “empathetic and pragmatic approach” to regulating access to information. But it still calls for public authorities to recognise transparency and seek as far as possible to continue to comply with their obligations.

The coronavirus may have an impact on how the Information Commissioner’s Office deals with complaints about accessing information from public authorities, creating more of a backlog. In normal circumstances, the commission can often take up to six months to process a complaint, which can be frustrating enough, especially if the complaint relates to information that is of high public interest.

And we will have to brace ourselves for further frustration as the months roll by, while “the Commissioner has therefore taken the decision to amend her casework approaches to reduce the burden on public authorities in these unprecedented times”, according to one piece of communication openDemocracy received from the information commission. And we may experience further delays when taking complaints before a judge.

In the midst of a pandemic, delays in processing public records requests and even incomplete responses are to be expected – but at a time of national crisis, being able to scrutinise those in power is even more important.

Crucial decisions are being taken every day. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent, often with very limited oversight. To wait a couple of months for a response to a request that is very much in the public interest fundamentally undermines the right to know.

Job Creation Pays Exceptional Salary For Exceptional Head of Housing & Regulatory Services

We are seeking to appoint an exceptional individual to join our senior management team and make a real difference now and into the future.


Exceptional Salary: £61,026 to £62,087 per annum

“This is a newly created role; to drive a culture of commercial development, improvement, performance management, innovation and customer service excellence across Housing and Regulatory Services and through its partners. The person we appoint will have a thorough understanding of the Local Government operating environment and a commitment to the principles of public service to ensure West Lancashire is the best it can be.

“The role will be ideal for a strong leader; someone who can inspire, encourage, engage and communicate effectively at all levels; someone who understands the importance and need for affordable housing and who shares our values and ambitions. Our new Head of Housing and Regulatory Services needs to be driven by excellent performance and results and seek ways to improve and build on our recent successes of being the only Council shortlisted for the Inside Housing Development Awards 2019; Best development of up to 50 homes category. They will lead and champion the Council’s Housing and Regulatory Services, working closely with other Heads of Service to provide joined-up, cohesive Council services!

“We are looking for someone who has proven success in maximising outcomes and the efficiency of services, ensuring that they are fit for purpose, cost effective and provide value for money; who has a proven track record of working at a senior level and is confident in their ability to work both strategically and operationally”. Apply before midnight on Sunday 14 June 2020.

Inspiring News

No coronavirus deaths were recorded at Southport and Ormskirk NHS Trust Hospital today. The Southport and Ormskirk Hospital NHS Trust total losses remain at 138.

Sadly one more coronavirus death has been recorded at Lancashire hospitals, according to today’s NHS figures, bringing the Lancashire hospitals death toll to 860.

Revealed: Serco Under Fire Over Fresh £90m COVID-19 Contract

The firm that ruined the Beacon Park Golf Course and can’t even water the greens,

that is in charge of England’s ‘track and trace’ now responsible for supporting vulnerable people during the pandemic, is Serco. MPs and campaigners say the decision is ‘outrageous’. Revealed by openDemocracy

“Outsourcing giant Serco have been awarded a multimillion-pound contract by the Department for Work and Pensions to provide emergency contact centre services for vulnerable people who are self-isolating during the coronavirus outbreak, an investigation by openDemocracy can reveal.

“Serco has been promised an initial fee of £45.8 million but this could rise to as much as £90 million. The government published details of the contract only on 30 April – more than a month after it had awarded the contract and after work had already begun.

“The global contracting firm plays a central role in the UK’s pandemic response despite coming under heavy criticism for its work so far. The contact tracing system – which Serco is leading – launched this week but is not expected to be fully operational until the end of the June. Last week, Labour called for an investigation after it emerged that Serco had accidentally shared the email addresses of hundreds of contract tracers.

“Responding to openDemocracy’s investigation, opposition MPs have demanded that the government explain why Serco has been given another major contract – and this time one that makes the company responsible for giving crucial support to the most vulnerable citizens. Serco itself has declined to comment.

“Serco landed the DWP contract for an “emergency capacity contact centre” through an existing framework agreement with the department. It is unclear whether other companies were allowed to bid for the works.

“openDemocracy asked the government to clarify the procurement process and the scope of works that Serco is carrying out – but the DWP declined to answer our questions. Instead, the department has insisted we raise a freedom of information request, a lengthy process with no guarantee of an answer.

“The government has been criticised for handing out COVID-19 contracts worth more than £1 billion to private-sector firms without tenders. British manufacturers accused another company, Deloitte, of being “useless” after the consultancy was charged with procuring personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Serco, which sponsored an event at last year’s Conservative Party conference, has also faced heavy criticism for its role in the UK’s pandemic response. Serco is overseeing the crucial track-and-trace system that has been launched today. But people it has recruited to work as contract tracers have already complained about a lack of training and guidance.

“Earlier this month, Serco was condemned after it accidentally shared the contact details of 300 contact tracers. The error has led to calls for an urgent investigation into the “alarming” incident. At the beginning of May, the Daily Mirror exposed a company subcontracting for Serco on the National Shielding Helpline that was pressurising workers to abandon social distancing rules. The subcontractor had asked workers to sign waivers clearing it of blame if they became sick.

Cat Hobbs, director of campaign group We Own It

said “Serco is the last company we want supporting vulnerable people in this crisis. It has a long track record of putting profit first and damaging people’s lives. It’s outrageous that this company has been given even more responsibility. Relying on unaccountable outsourcing companies is a bad habit the government needs to drop. Investing in the NHS and direct public service provision is the only way we’ll get out of this crisis safely”.

 Serco declined openDemocracy’s requests for comment. As they would?

Major Issues Facing The Borough Council

Our readers know of some major issues facing the Borough Council, some of which are long term and some are recently self inflicted, which we classify under Ashurst/Aughton & Downholland wards, no representation by some elected members. Simple enough to describe, elected members don’t attend meetings, the Borough Council turns itself inside out to make sure a tit for tat loss of Labour/Tory members doesn’t occur.

Others issues are more important. We regularly tell readers about the Serco Leisure deal that a former borough councillor thought stank to high heaven and many more suspect that the Beacon Park Golf Course landfill case is so rotten yet it won’t be considered as corrupt even though the royalty and VAT deal is closed to public audit. Commercial in confidence, remember? But is not watering greens acceptable? 

And then there is Burscough, synonymous with floods, raw sewage, From WLBC to the Burscough Flooding Group “Thank you for your email below to the WLBC Council Leader and Chief Operating Officer. The points you raise in your email will be considered and a response provided to you in due course”.


Open Letter to WLBC Chief Operating Officer

“Dear Chief Operating Officer

“Thank you for the email.

“Firstly as mentioned in my previous e-mail. No member of Burscough Flooding Group has suggested any individual within WLBC has taken bribes or gained financially as a result of their actions. If we had evidence of that we would have informed the Police without delay.

“However, we are aware that there is something seriously wrong within WLBC and, like a lot residents, we know that we aren’t getting the service we expect. We believe that there is an almost complete lack of consideration of residents, Burscough Town Council and BFG views and evidence within the planning consultations. It could be institutional bias, but whatever the cause, it is having a negative effect on the planning process, and development is the main cause in the increasing flooding and drainage issues which Burscough suffers from.

“I have raised specific planning issues a great many times with the previous Chief Planner and later the Council Leader. The Council Leader has fobbed me off and it is for that reason that I began to write to you, the Chief Operating Officer; and also because you and the Internal Audit Manager, have particular duties with regard to anti-fraud and corruption policies which ensure that the “Authority’s culture is one of openness and the core values of fairness, honesty and trust……”

“Therefore before you send another email in response, please can you answer some questions: Will you undertake an investigation in line with your anti-fraud and corruption policies? And if not why not? Will you appoint an independent investigator, which is necessary as the problem might be institutional bias? What is the scope of your investigation, because you could consider all of the BFG emails and evidence to WLBC dealing with planning issues around YTF, Booths, the 6 homes next to Lordsgate Lane, Victoria Park and the A59 nursing home (BFG can provide you with copies if needed)?

“Before you oversee any investigation, it is important that whoever undertakes it is fully aware that much of the evidence provided by residents, councillors, BFG and BTC is archived by WLBC after planning applications are passed and those archives will have to be retrieved first.

“I look forward to your response”.

We all do!