BBC BLOGS - Chris Jackson's Blog

Archives for November 2011

Developing the 30 year dream of a Tyneside photographer

Chris Jackson | 19:50 UK time, Monday, 28 November 2011

Chris Mearns

Chris Mearns

I can hardly recall having told a story that is so full of both joy and sorrow. I had known Chris on and off since the late '80s and a few months ago he called me out of the blue with a conundrum.

Could we trace people 30 years on with only their childhood faces to go on as clues? I might have thought he was joking, but I could tell Chris was serious.

Gill with mum Jean back in 1981

Gill & mum Jean in 1981

It was his lifelong ambition to catch up with youngsters he'd captured on film on 1981 while he was working on a community project in Newcastle's west end.

However he didn't just want to snap them again with thirty years of experience now etched into their faces. He wanted to know what cards life had dealt them and how they were doing.

In tonight's show he confides that coming from a deprived part of the city there were bound to be some tough stories, but equally there would be some who went on to do great things.

As it turns out he was so right

As you'll see from my earlier blog there are some inspirational stories.

He was sanguine about the fact of the 100 or so people in the pictures not all would be with us today.

As a child psychologist with the NHS he knew only too well the lottery of life. The one thing none of us realised is that fate would snatch him away from us just as he was about to realise his life's ambition.

Having made contact with or been given names for around 70 of the 1981 gang a date had been set for a grand reunion and re-shoot of the self portraits at Newcastle's Centre for Life. With just a couple of weeks to go Chris suffered a heart attack while out pursuing another great love - cycling.

It shocked everyone, but his family, friends and the original participants were all determined to see the project through in tribute to him.

Gill and Jean today

Gill and Jean today

The joy of that makes the grief of losing him a bit more bearable.

The project itself continues. Professional photographer Chris Auld has taken up the reins in Chris's place.

There is more work to be done. Not all the youngsters have been identified.

You can see all the images on the Elswick Self Portrait website and if you recognise someone then they can get in touch with the project.

It's hoped more incredible stories can be collected and put into an exhibition in what has become a remarkable piece of social history.

Thirty years of life etched on their faces

Chris Jackson | 14:05 UK time, Sunday, 27 November 2011

Some of the Elswick kids captured in their own self portraits in 1981

Back in 1981 these were the innocent faces of some of the 100 youngsters who took their own self portraits in the West End of Newcastle.

Among them you will find highs and lows. One ran away to live on the streets of London, another now leads the way in tackling deprivation. The black and white pictures represent life's rich tapestry, captured before the pattern was set.

It was part of a project set up by local community worker Chris Mearns who was running summer playgroups in Elswick but who also had a passion for photography.

So much so that a decade later he wondered what had become of the kids who were growing up in a deprived part of Tyneside. However his attempt to find them didn't come off.

Chris Mearns in 1981

Chris Mearns in 1981

20 years on he again thought it would be great to catch up with the gang of '81.

A local newspaper showed some interest in appealing for the original participants to come forward, but managed to lose all his prints and the story never appeared.

Luckily he still had the negatives and 30 years on he approached me to see if I could help track down the Elswick kids.

Along with some of Chris' friends who developed a website and social media sites we all worked together and a short report went out on Look North and the whole thing took off.

Chris' aim was to reshoot the self portraits and capture not just the image but their stories.

Trish Barrett

Trish - Swimming Instructor

Of the 100 hundred or so people in the pictures we now have names and or contact details for around 70.

Their stories are amazing as you'll see on our next programme (BBC One, Monday 28 November 2011, 19:30hrs GMT)

Trish was a young swimming instructor who as a single mother decided to up sticks to make a better life for her family in the Channel Islands. With just backpacks and a lot of courage they set off in the hope it would work out.

Also in the motley crew a woman who became a drug addict after running away to London at just 13 years. With no educational qualifications Gill turned it all around and now has a university degree as an occupational therapist.

Margaret - School administrator

Margaret - still at school

In complete contrast Margaret couldn't have remained more settled in the West End.

She lives in the same house as when the picture was taken of her as a little girl. Even more surprsing is that she now works at the same primary school she went to back in 1981

Amanda used her childhood growing up in a deprived area to build a career in urban regeneration. For her life has come full circle.

Tonight's show has a very emotional twist to it that will certainly give extra impact to this project. After it's aired I will add more information to this blog.

How should we tackle the north's litter louts?

Chris Jackson | 15:29 UK time, Monday, 21 November 2011

So what's your answer to litter?

Well, I'm sure you'll not hesitate to let me know by adding your comments to the blog this week.

I certainly had a lump in my throat when the producer said: "Chris keep your eyes peeled for anyone dropping litter and then go after them".

Well you know me; I've been in some tight spots in the past with Inside Out, but normally when I challenge someone it's because we've scouted them out and know pretty much how they'll react.

This was going to be a complete unknown. As it happened it became a fascinating lesson in people watching.

There I was in the centre of Middlesbrough waiting for someone to casually drop whatever they were holding and just keep on walking.

Every likely looking candidate (anyone finishing a ciggie or taking the last bite of a hurriedly bought bag of chips or chocky bar) was under my piercing gaze.

But more often than not they went the extra few yards out of their way to find a bin. Well done the 'Boro!

However it was too good to last and down went the tab end, so I jumped right in.

Then there was the very deft manoeuvre from a young lad who placed a used pop can on a bench without breaking his stride. It was neatly placed, but still litter.

I needn't have worried, they both owned up immediately and without any real prompting went to collect their rubbish and dispose of it properly. That tells me they knew fine well they were littering and that it was wrong. No discussion needed.

However the problem is on a massive scale, as we proved when the council agreed to an Inside Out experiment.

It deliberately didn't clean a mile of Linthorpe Road of the weekend. They had to warn local businesses in advance, which was just as well because it turned into a tip.

When we did the big clean up we filled loads of bags. It just goes to show what would happen if councils didn't clean up after us. In hard times they say they could better spend the money on other things.

Chris Jackson on CCTV

Caught on camera on CCTV in Middlesbrough

In Middlesbrough of course they also have the infamous "talking CCTV".

When we were filming I deliberately dropped some litter and a detached voice suddenly boomed at me in the street. It picked me out of the crowd by describing what I was wearing.

Everybody stopped and turned and stared at me. A group of lads across the street burst out laughing at my public humiliation... their reaction was clearly on the side of the talking camera and not mine.

It's tough but sure gets your attention!

But how do you think we should tackle litter louts?

Add your comments now...

Keeping your eyes peeled gets your story on Inside Out

Chris Jackson | 17:55 UK time, Monday, 14 November 2011

Grade II* listed gates at Hartford Hall before their resoration

The gates before they were taken away

If you enjoy the lead story in tonight's programme (Monday, 14 November 2011 at 19:30hrs GMT BBC1) then don't thank me, thank John

It was a call he made several months ago that started me on a really interesting bit of detective work.

He used to pass the ornate entrance gates to Hartford on the bus. After admiring them each trip they suddenly vanished

When they didn't return he thought it was just the sort of thing that Inside Out could investigate. So I did.

Everyone's first thought was of course that metal thieves had targetted them. That is a rumour that I am happy to put to rest.

However as the programme makes clear, tracking them down doesn't mean they can just be put back, even though they are grade II* listed.

The mystery took me to a rather unimposing looking shed in North Yorkshire where they are now languishing because of a legal and financial wrangle that is stuck in deadlock.

In order to keep them safe I'm not revealing exactly where the gates are now. However they are in bits because it was midway through the restoration that it all went pear shaped.

Hartford Hall had fallen into rack and ruin, but a developer saw the opportunity to build new homes in the grounds of the large estate near Bedlington. That would release funds to restore the hall and the wonderful gates.

Unfortunately the scheme collapsed owing £10m and now it is in adminstration which means the authorities can't enforce heritage protection laws to have the gates put back.

The gates were made by the world leaders in ironwork, Coalbrookdale, and are Grade II* listed. It's the equivalent of Newcastle's Tyne bridge, Middlesbrough's transporter bridge or Carlisle and York railway stations vanishing overnight.

The gates in Hyde Park that were made by Coalbrookdale, Chris Jackson in the foreground

These gates in London's Hyde Park show the kind of craftsmanship that the Coalbrookdale company could achieve.

As it stands the gates are stuck in limbo. If the adminstrator can sell the Hartford Hall Estate, then the new owner will become liable for restoring and replacing the gates to their right place.

That along with outstanding planning requirements will cost a cool £1m

The Gates at the Vienne World Exhibition in Vienna in 1873

At the moment a new developer is interested but, like the previous owner, he wants to build more homes to help fund the scheme.

Those already living there want the gates back but don't want more houses so it will be up to Northumberland County Councillors to decide on the controversial planning application next month.

The future of the gates will be central to their deliberations

Without John and his regular bus trips thinking to give me a call, the gates might not have got such public attention. Who knows, John might single-handedly have helped to save a jewel of our heritage.

So now it's your turn

If there's a story you think we should cover just let me know.

Email me:

Also on the show this week, Charlie Charlton looked at the problems of sleep deprivation, and we uncovered some remarkable archive of the Stannington Children's Sanatorium which was started by Children North East in its earlier guise as the Poor Children's Holiday Association

The rise and fall of the Southern Cross care home empire

Chris Jackson | 05:10 UK time, Monday, 7 November 2011

Southern Cross logo

As a brand Southern Cross became toxic.

Its HQ was based in Darlington so perhaps it was inevitable that when it collapsed the North East might have felt somewhat disheartened that one of its own, which had exploded so spectacularly onto the stock market and burned so brightly, then imploded.

Was the failure ours? Could it be that our North East business acumen isn't honed enough to hack it in the City? Well, none of the above applies.

The clue is in the name. The Southern Cross is as famous in the southern hemisphere as the North Star is in ours. It is so prominent in the night sky the constellation forms part of the Australian and New Zealand national flags.

It was businessman John Moreton's love of Australasia that made "Southern Cross" the first choice when setting up a new business in the UK. Its move to a Darlington base was a quirk of the long journey to domination of the care home sector as it went through different owners, acquisitions and expansions to the eventual floatation on the stock exchange.

An anonymous elderly resident in a care home with a £ sign on the back of the chair

Leader Ed Miliband told the Labour conference Southern Cross: "May not have sold their own grandmothers for a fast buck. But they certainly sold yours".

In the end there was nothing peculiarly northern about Southern Cross. Some of the interviewees in our programme argue the company appeared to lose its sense of northern community spirit and ended up thinking of the people in its care as commodities.

No doubt that's a charge that those at the top of Southern Cross would dispute and indeed we would have been glad to talk to them. But it is a real shame that, for something of such public interest, not one of the former executives we approached from its 15 year history were willing to appear on camera to talk about the rise and fall of the company.

Some responded with statements and I have reproduced them in my previous blog.

Inside Out has been charting problems at Southern Cross since well before it became headline news. Our first investigation centred on sub-standard care at several homes in the North East. We had no idea that would lead to our biggest ever postbag from other worried relatives and staff members who were concerned that the problems were more widespread within the organisation as a whole.

Our second investigation centred on the financial state of the company and despite assurances that all was well it wasn't long before Southern Cross announced it was in fact unable to continue paying rent without the co-operation of its landlords.

Its business model was unsustainable, but having brought such financial rewards no-one had thought to question the company that had become the largest care home provider in Britain.

For a while the Southern Cross twinkled in the northern hemisphere and dazzled some in the city. But no-one remembered the very last verse of that famous nursery rhyme:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
How I wonder what you are.
How I wonder what you are.

If you would like to comment on this story then please email me

Statements from former Southern Cross executives

Chris Jackson | 05:00 UK time, Monday, 7 November 2011

Southern Cross logo

In response to our special documentary charting the rise and fall of Southern Cross none of the former top level executives we feature agreed to be interviewed.

Their responses are featured in our programme but for the record here are their fuller statements:

Philip Scott - Former Chief Executive.
Statement via spokesman:

Mr Scott is a trained nurse who maintains his professional registration. His leadership of Southern Cross plc always put patients first. At his departure group occupancy was over 90%, and company had achieved its operating budget target for 2007. This would not have been possible if residents and their families did not think the business had the right ethos.

The so-called sale & leaseback model was not initiated by Mr Scott and is common in UK business. Many businesses, whose core activity is not property, rent their premises. Southern Cross got into difficulties because Mr Scott's successors could not pay the rent. Being unable to pay rent is a symptom of business failure not the cause of it. The real problem was low occupancy and escalating central costs which combined outstripped the increases in rent by many millions. Since 2008 the loss of revenue due to lower occupancy was £54m and the increase in central operating costs was £7.5m. These figures are more than double the increase in rent in the same period. Dealing with the occupancy and central costs would have radically changed the company's position.

Fortunately, other companies have been willing to rent and run Southern Cross homes and the situation has not resulted in wholesale home closures. Southern Cross shareholders have been the ultimate losers, not the residents. The new structure, which is now working, could have been achieved without the publicity and rancour which upset families and damaged the reputation of the sector.

Mr Scott's shares were sold as a direct result of the then Labour Government's change to capital gains tax. Hundreds of directors in different business throughout the UK also sold shares at the same time. He re-bought shares at a later date and lost money when Southern Cross collapsed. He is also minority shareholder in companies that own five former Southern Cross homes. He effectively re-invested in Southern Cross by providing funds that allowed these homes to be built. He has no say in how those homes operate.

Graham Sizer- former Financial Director
Mr Sizer responded to our written questions point by point.

On Sale & Leaseback:
Sale and leaseback or direct leasing is a common form of property finance used by businesses and has been widely used in healthcare. Each time we entered into a lease, the rent was set at a sustainable level having regard to current occupancy, payroll costs, direct and indirect costs, with an allowance made for capital expenditure required at the home and a contribution towards the central office overhead.

The group accounts... (show) ...the measure rent cover which demonstrates this (sic).

However, like any other business, if revenue falls, in Southern Cross' case because of falling occupancy, then the business will come under pressure....

...With falling occupancy it wouldn't have mattered which financing model was used. If the company had used bank finance the interest and capital repayments would have been a proxy for rent. Also given the economic downturn post September 2008 the business would have faced severe refinancing risk on a bank borrowing model.

I would also point out that the leasing model was fully explained and disclosed to investors at IPO and was embraced by the investment community as a simple credible model for the business.

The falling occupancy was a product of care standards and reputation. You should look at the number of admissions embargoes that were in place over the past few years. I believe these were disclosed in annual reports and public announcements.

On Care standards and the inspectors' reports:
Service to residents was the primary concern of management. Without that there was no business. I believe that occupancy rates clearly show how the company was viewed by commissioners and regulators. Commissioners will not place residents where there is a concern about the quality of service.

You are correct that the company expanded during that period and it would therefore be prudent to see when these reports were dated. When we acquired groups of homes, we did sometimes acquire homes that did not meet the standards, however these were either invested in or sold on.

I don't deny there would have been care issues at some homes. There will always be issues in this type of business. It is how you try to pre-empt those issues through training, policy and procedure and how you react in the event that these were not followed. We used to work to the ethic "you are only as good as your worst employee". Continual training and improvement are therefore extremely important.

On too few managers:
Each home is required by regulation to have a Registered Manager. There will sometimes be periods when positions are vacant, however we used to employee around 25 to 30 project/ relief managers to cover homes when there were vacancies. I obviously can't say if this continued after I left in January 2008.

On Labour Leader Ed Miliband's comments:
I would merely point out that there have been many reviews of Long Term Care strategy and funding over the past decade, mostly whilst Mr Milliband's party were in government. On each occasion those recommendations were shelved as being too costly.

Care home operators generally provide a good quality service at an extremely efficient cost to the NHS and Local Authorities. However, most commentators would agree that the system is underfunded and we will see more and more operators failing.

It is interesting that the Labour government found the billions necessary to bail out the banks, but then line up to take a cheap shot at the private equity industry.

They should perhaps take a closer look at their own PFI hospital projects.

In the case of Southern Cross, private equity did make good returns, but this was due to the buoyant property market at the time. No funds were taken out of the business as has been widely reported. Private equity owners left the business in a sound financial position when it was floated on the stock market.

On the sale of his shares:
The timing of management's share sale was driven by government changes to capital gains tax rules. Most of the management team had been with the business since 2000 and had rolled their interests each time the business was sold or refinanced.

Having taken advice from our brokers it was agreed that December 2007 was the correct time to sell, having just announced our 2007 results to the market. The shares were placed by our brokers to a number of financial institutions.

I still own 300,000 shares today.

Since leaving I have invested a significant sum in a development company that has developed a number of new purpose built care home facilities. 3 of these were built specifically for Southern Cross and leased to them. I would not have done so had I foreseen any issues with the company.

...the Chairman's statement in the 2008 annual report.... is quite explicit about how the company weathered some issues in that year and how it was well set for the future following September 2008.

BLACKSTONE - former owners
Blackstone has not controlled Southern Cross since its flotation five years ago in July 2006. Blackstone did not "asset strip" the company. In fact, when Blackstone acquired Southern Cross, Ashbourne Care and Highfield Care, 95% of the group's homes already operated under leases that existed before our investment. Blackstone did not profit from "stripping" assets but invested in and built a company that was viewed by the market as an industry leader: a high quality operator with a solid future. At the time of its flotation, Southern Cross was conservatively capitalised and able to withstand future financial pressure. The company's demise occurred many years later under public-company ownership due to a combination of significant occupancy declines (from over 90% at the time of its flotation to less than 85% today) and lower fee rates as a result of an unprecedented decline in funding to the sector. It is simply inaccurate to claim that lack of property ownership was the cause of the company's failure.

During Blackstone's ownership, Southern Cross was acutely focused on quality of care issues: any issues were immediately identified and rectified as quickly as possible without regard to cost - the board of the company monitored these issues continually - and the Company's success and Blackstone's investment turned on the reputation and perception of the company as a sector leader. Under our ownership, management capability was invested in with the hiring of a new Chief Operating Officer under the Chief Executive and an increase in the number of area managers. At the time of the company's successful flotation in 2006, it was well regarded by its customers and its regulator, and there were no systemic quality of care issues.

William Colvin - Former Chairman and Chief Executive
No response received

John Murphy - former Group Operations Director
No comment

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