Hinterland - Friday, 2 March, 2018

This week, we have an especially wintry Hinterland.
We start with a story about energy efficient homes (or the lack of them), depressing news about the cumulative impact of government cuts making local government the “sick man” of the public sector, social workers, GPs, public account committees and a drive for less plastic.

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England sees funding fall for energy-efficient homes

After a scary drive in the show, home from the station last night this article seems very apposite at the moment…..

As the cold bites, a report says public investment in warm homes in England has been cut by 58% since 2012.

It says Scotland now spends four times as much per citizen as England on energy efficiency.

The report from the energy think tank e3g urges government to make warm homes a national infrastructure priority.

The government did not challenge the figures, but it said that spending on homes was now better targeted at poor households.

According to e3g’s report, England has the second worst record on cold weather-related deaths out of 30 European countries.

The last five years saw an average of 32,000 excess winter deaths in the UK, with 9,700 each year estimated to be linked to living in cold homes.

The drop in investment happened when David Cameron’s government ended all taxpayer-funded energy efficiency programmes in England.

Council tax hikes will not stop cuts to local services, authorities warn

This article unveils the impact of a lethal combination of unrelated but cumulative actions, dating back at least to 2010, when Central Government seemed to ratchet up its view that Local Government would some how rub along irrespective of what was turned off in relation to funding. In many areas the Whitehall machine is now increasingly bloated as it gears up for the long slog of Brexit, leaving an increasing vacuum around local service provision, which reflects the fact that the centre still accretes more and more to itself. The article tells us:

Unprecedented increases in council tax starting in April will not offset cuts to services including children’s centres and libraries, local authorities have warned.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said councils in England would raise an estimated £1.1bn through higher council taxes in 2017-18, but this would not cover the £1.4bn lost through cuts to central government funding plus the higher wage bill of £1bn.

Nearly half of English councils with responsibility for providing social care for adults and children will increase council tax by the maximum 5.99% allowed – 2.99% for general council tax plus a further levy of up to 3% to pay for the care of older and disabled adults – but this will not prevent further cuts to services, according to the LGA.

Councils will continue to reduce or close services such as children’s centres, libraries, leisure centres, parks, museums and road repairs to plug growing gaps in adult and children’s social care and homelessness services, it says.

The widespread emergence of what some councillors have dubbed “pay more, get less” budget settlements comes as town halls struggle to balance the books after years of cuts in core government funding.

Northamptonshire county council effectively declared itself bankrupt earlier this month after admitting that rising costs and shrinking income made it unable to set a legal budget.

The council must set out revised plans for cuts at a meeting this week after an auditors report warned that its existing proposed budget plans were “not credibly achievable”.

Northamptonshire’s predicament highlights how councils are increasingly reliant on one-off measures such as dipping into reserves, or selling buildings and land, to meet the spiralling cost of social care. Those pressures are being compounded in some cases by the failure to deliver savings with existing cuts.

The LGA said 147 of the 152 English authorities that provide social care services would levy a 3% council tax precept from April to raise extra cash for the care of older and disabled adults. Although this will raise an extra £548m, it will be wiped out by the cost of meeting the national minimum wage.

These councils face additional costs estimated to be at least £400m over the next 12 months as result of a legal judgement that requires care employers to pay the minimum wage to carers working sleep-in shifts, backdated for six years.

Out of the 152 “social care” authorities, 108 also plan to increase general council tax by between 2.95% and the maximum 2.99% allowed. This will raise an estimated £548m. Five councils have said they will freeze council tax for 2018-19.

Public satisfaction with GP services drops to lowest level ever recorded

It would be very interesting if there was a rural/urban split for this survey….

Public satisfaction with GP services in Great Britain has dropped significantly in the last year, to the lowest level on record.

The National Centre for Social Research’s British Social Attitudes survey saw a seven percentage point decline in the proportion of people who are satisfied with GP services.

The survey, of over 3,000 adults in England Scotland and Wales, found that only 65% were satisfied with GP services in 2017, compared with 72% in 2016.

This is the ‘lowest level of satisfaction with GP services since the survey began in 1983 and the first time that general practice has not been the highest rated service’, the report said.

The percentage of people who were dissatisfied with GP services reached an all-time high, jumping by six percentage points to 23%.

The research, carried out by the Nuffield Trust and The King’s Fund think tanks, also revealed a six percentage point drop in public satisfaction with the NHS as a whole.

The four main causes of dissatisfaction were staff shortages, long waiting times, lack of funding and government reforms.

The top four causes of satisfaction were quality of care, attitudes and behaviour of NHS staff, the range of services and treatments on offer and that the NHS is free at the point of delivery.

Study recommends the formation of local public accounts committees

I think this is a really interesting idea and should such bodies be formed they would need to look at rural proofing as one of their scrutiny tools….

Councils should form local public accounts committees according to the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE).

The call comes following the publication of the report ‘Bringing order to chaos. How does local government hold to account agencies delivering public services?’ based on research carried out for APSE by the local governance research unit at De Montford University.

The report argues: “For great swathes of the public sector there is no direct line of public accountability to communities and no direct electoral legitimacy for the polices developed, decisions made or resources employed.”

However, it adds that although an “absence of a democratic link or source of legitimacy” adds to the chaos of governing networks,” the Grenfell tragedy showed that local government must not escape rigorous public accountability, even where it may not directly run, provide or oversee a service.

It also recommends that councils provide adequate support for all councillors in their role in holding external agencies to account, and that securing public accountability must be developed as a role for all councillors.

The research also calls for “robust accountability processes” for all arm’s length bodies created by councils, with mechanisms in place where councillors are able to challenge, question and influence the actions of arm’s length bodies.

A local “governance framework” policy document should be produced by councils, identifying all organisations that the council interacts with and creating a shared vision of the development of public services across its area.

In addition, a “governance forum” should be created, where all the organisations that a council interacts with can meet to ensure a coordinated approach to public service delivery and long term planning for its service development, as well as contributing to the governance framework.

Social worker salaries: are permanent staff now better off than agency?

If you look at the maps which accompany this article it seems that many of the areas with the lowest wages are rural. It tells us:

Amid ongoing controversy over a tax crackdown on independent contractors working in the public sector, the earnings gap between agency social workers and permanent staff is tightening, a Community Care investigation reveals.

For years, the hourly rates and potential for high take-home pay available to locums employed via recruitment agencies has been a significant attraction to social workers looking for an alternative to full-time local authority employment, and the appeal hasn’t vanished.

Responses from 107 councils to a Community Care freedom of information (FOI) request shows that in a handful of English local authority areas experienced qualified social workers can still command more than £35 per hour. That equates to a nominal annual pre-tax pay of at least £62,100.

By contrast, the highest basic top-line salary provided to us for a similar staffer was just over £45,000, in London’s Westminster. Across most of the country, such a social worker could expect to earn much less, between £33,000 and £37,000, before tax.

But such comparisons do not tell the whole story. The investigation, which aimed to ‘price up’ different social work grades and uncover how much temporary and permanent workers cost councils, also shows the extent to which regional caps have driven down agency rates in many areas.

Combine this picture with HMRC’s tax changes last April to off-payroll working rules – so called IR35 legislation – and it’s easy to see why there’s talk of agency workers, who mostly receive no sick or holiday pay, moving back into permanent employment.

This first of a two-part report based on our FOI research, looks at what permanent and temporary social workers can earn in different regions – and what, in the post-IR35 landscape, they might take home.

Netherlands opens world’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle as UK urged to follow example

David Attenborough will be pleased….

A “world first” plastic-free supermarket aisle is being unveiled in Amsterdam, prompting calls from campaigners for retailers to roll them out in the UK.

More than 700 products will be available without plastic packaging in the aisle which is being set up in a new metro-sized pilot store of supermarket chain Ekoplaza in the Dutch city, including meat, rice, sauces, dairy, chocolate, cereals, fruit and vegetables.

Environmental campaign group A Plastic Planet, which came up with the idea, said the introduction of the world’s first plastic-free aisle was a “landmark moment” for the global fight against plastic pollution.


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