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Archives for February 2011

Blast furnace sale puts the steel back into Redcar

Richard Moss | 09:02 UK time, Sunday, 27 February 2011



Many thought Redcar had made its last steel a year ago, but the blast furnace will now fire up again.

Just over twelve months ago, Redcar thought it was saying goodbye to its steel industry.

The blast furnace was shut down, and workers began to be laid off.

The anger in the town and in the wider area of Teesside was palpable.

It ended the political career of the town's Labour MP Vera Baird, and probably contributed to the party losing in nearby Stockton South too.

In fact, if you look at Labour's support in Teesside at the General Election, it fell markedly in almost every seat.

Twelve months on, and the emotions in Redcar are the reverse of that dark day last February.

The sale of the works to Thai company SSI is fantastic news for the community.

The firm will not just be keeping the existing 700 staff on, it will also be looking to recruit 800 new staff. Steel will be made in Redcar once more.

It is a shot in the arm for an area that must have wondered whether it had a future.

Ian Swales

Ian Swales benefited from anger in Redcar after the steelworks closed.

So will the town's Liberal Democrat MP Ian Swales be able to bask in the blast furnace glow? He has certainly played his part.

Possibly, but Labour will be keen to point out that some of the groundwork for this week's deal was laid before last May.

And the Middlesbrough South MP Tom Blenkinsop has also been active since then.

But to give both MPs their due, they have not been wrangling about who to thank for the revival of Redcar's steel industry.

Instead they have agreed on who really deserves the credit for the reopening - the community who fought to keep it open.

And SSI's President Win Viriyaprapaikit said as much as he sealed the deal.

He said he was inspired to buy the works when he saw 5,000 people marching through Redcar to try and save the plant.

He added: "It is the Teesside people who have made this happen. Without them we would not be here so I would like to say thank you."

Of course sentiment can only take you so far and SSI have also made a hard-headed business decision, something which also reflects well on the local workforce.

But inevitably, politics will rear its head at some point.

When the deal was nearly done a week ago, there was talk that Nick Clegg might appear in Redcar on the crucial day.

That didn't happen, but I expect the Coalition to use it in the future as evidence of the support they have offered the region.

Of course, one person who can only look on from afar is Vera Baird.

I am sure she will share in Redcar's joy, but in the knowledge that she is one casualty of last year that won't be getting her job back.

Council Chief Executives ignore Pickles' pay cut advice

Richard Moss | 09:55 UK time, Friday, 25 February 2011


Cumbrian teaching assistants protest

Cumbrian teaching assistants protest about cuts to their salaries, but only one council Chief Executive in the region has taken a pay cut.

Eric Pickles is not short of advice for councils.

But one of his pearls of wisdom appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

At last year's Conservative conference the Communities and Local Government Secretary had a suggestion for council Chief Executives.

He said any paid more than £150,000 should take a 5% pay cut; any paid £200,000 could make it 10%.

But the Politics Show has discovered that only one Chief Executive across the region has actually listened to that advice and cut his salary.

And not only that - five Chief Executives have actually seen their take-home pay rise despite a supposed freeze on council salaries.

We gained all this information from a series of Freedom of Information requests put into our local authorities.

Steve Stewart

Northumberland County Council Chief Executive Steve Stewart took a 5% cut in pay.

So we discovered that only Steve Stewart, the Chief Executive in Northumberland, had taken a cut. He lost 5% of his £188,000-a-year salary.

Of the others, 16 took a pay freeze.

But five Chief Executives will be taking home more money.

They have benefited from increments based on their performance or length of service.

One or two have already attracted negative publicity.

Newcastle's already had to defend Chief Exec Barry Rowland's £5,000 rise. It increases his salary by 3% to £165,000.

And there has been an ongoing row about a £10,000 back-dated rise for Hartlepool's Paul Walker (a rise of 6.8%).

After more than a week of criticism, he has agreed to take a month's unpaid leave to save the council £13,000.

But the others were news to us.

Kersten England in York saw her take-home pay rise by £1,875 or 1.4%, although the council say she waived an increase of twice that size.

Neil Schneider in Stockton also got a rise - £2,094 or 1.3%.

Ian Parker

Middlesbrough Chief Executive Ian Parker saw his take-home pay rise by more than 5%.

In Middlesbrough, Chief Executive Ian Parker saw his pay package rise by 5.4% or £7,344.

In addition, it seems 12 council Chief Executives across the region are paid more than the Prime Minister's annual salary of £145,000.

Three - Gateshead's Roger Kelly, Sunderland's Dave Smith and Durham's George Garlick - were paid more than £200,000 in salary, pension contributions and allowances.

This of course is a sensitive issue at a time of austerity and unprecedented cuts.

I was at a protest in Carlisle this week where teaching assistants were protesting about cuts of around £3,000 to their already-modest take-home pay.

There were hundreds on the march, and many were angry that the decision on their pay had been taken by council officers paid many more times higher than they are.

And the trade unions have also said that Chief Executive pay should be capped and regulated in the same way as the salaries of other council employees.

But Kenny Bell at Unison also says executive pay is not the most crucial issue facing our councils.

Instead, he accuses Eric Pickles of using it as a distraction from the real problem - the funding cuts imposed by the Government.

You could also argue that Chief Executives are more likely to earn their pay packets in tough times than in an age of plenty.

Eden District Council will pay £31,000 more for its new Interim Chief Executive this year, but he will be charged with merging their management team with another authority.

That could save £400,000-a-year.

And even Mr Pickles admits pay cuts of up to 10% won't solve council's funding problems. But he believes taking a cut would have been an important act of leadership at a difficult time.

For now though, our councils and their Chief Executives don't seem to agree.

We will be debating the issue in the Politics Show at 12pm, BBC1, Sunday 27 February.

Who'll win the blame game over council cuts?

Richard Moss | 14:36 UK time, Wednesday, 23 February 2011


Protest against North Tyneside council cuts

Unions protest about cuts to North Tyneside Council's budget, but who's to blame?

It's that time of the year when councils finalise their budgets.

So many political reporters are taking part in a kind of council cuts tour.

North Tyneside has been settling on its savings and Northumberland is deciding how to cut £50m from its budget.

Middlesbrough Council has also been discussing how to save millions, and protests about cuts have been taking place in Darlington and County Durham.

Most councils agree that they are facing unprecedented reductions in the grants from government.

And Labour and Lib Dem councillors have been keen to blame Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, and thereby the Government, for the situation they find themselves in.

But Mr Pickles has told councils they do not need to panic.

He says there are plenty of back office functions and waste they can cut to ensure frontline services are protected.

Of course, we know many councils do not agree with that assessment.

Durham County Council - which has to save £125m (or around 30% of its budget) over the next four years - is considering moving to fortnightly bin collections.

It's also reviewing the future of some leisure centres and libraries, and taking money out of job creation projects.

You could not describe any of that as back office cuts.

And the county council's leader Simon Henig insists he has no choice given the lack of money, and the front-loading of the reductions in the government grant.

Eric Pickles

Don't Panic! Eric Pickles says councils should cut waste not services.

But the Government still isn't accepting that either. Ministers say a lot of the high profile cuts and bellyaching are coming from Labour councils who are more intent on political pointscoring than tackling waste.

Except of course there are Conservative councillors doing their share of bellyaching too.

Cumbria County Council leader Eddie Martin has warned of a financial tsunami facing his authority.

And it appears the Tory leader of North Yorkshire agrees.

Sky News used a Freedom of Information request to get hold of a letter John Weighell sent to Eric Pickles last December after he announced the cuts to council grants.

He wrote: "The implications for North Yorkshire are potentially devastating and I believe that the settlement is unfair in the way that it treats the council, with serious consequences for frontline services."

Slightly inconvenient.

But this argument is not going to go away. The future for many Conservative council candidates may depend upon it when we come to the local elections in May.

For example, I know the Tories have made Darlington one of their top targets this time. They hope to win seats from Labour - maybe even control.

It's a council which is facing £19.5m in cuts over the next four years (or around 20% of its budget), and the Labour group has said cuts to the frontline are inevitable. They blame the Government.

So the task for the Conservatives will be to attack Labour for cutting the wrong way - targeting things which matter to people rather than eliminating waste.

This is an argument that will run and run, and in May all the parties will be asking us to punish those who they say are to blame for the cuts. But it'll be up to us to make up our minds about who we believe.

The north-north divide - inequality grows within the region

Richard Moss | 16:19 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011


Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall cuts through the north, but new research suggests there are also economic divides.

Tony Blair once said that the North-South divide was a myth.

He said the important divide was actually between rich and poor within the northern regions.

While many people will take issue with the first part of that (most measures show the North-South divide grew during New Labour's time in power), a new report shows clear evidence that he was on the money about wealth divides within areas.

The report by the IPPR North thinktank suggests there is real inequality within the North.

But its Richer Yet Poorer report also has less welcome news for Mr Blair.

It suggests those inequalities widened significantly during his premiership.

The report does acknowledge that the North fot got richer between 1997 and 2008. But it also suggests that communities became increasingly polarised.

According to the IPPR, the highest-earning 20% in the North increased their income at twice the rate of the lowest-earning 20%.

And the research also found that people surviving on benefits became increasingly segregated from higher-earners in the North, becoming concentrated more and more in certain neighbourhoods.

Middlesbrough's Transporter Bridge

Teesside has some of the biggest inequalities between rich and poor in the North.

The study also burrows down further to discover which parts of the North show the greatest evidence of inequality.

And while generally Tyne and Wear was amongst the least unequal communities, the Tees Valley was found to have one of the biggest divides between rich and poor.

It was the most segregated in the three Northern regions (North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber), and scored highly in another measure of the polarisation between rich and poor.

So should we worry about this? Is this the inevitable consequence of economic growth?

Perhaps, but the report also found that there was likely to be less community cohesion in the parts of the North that were most unequal.

And it suggested the number of public sector workers with decent salaries might have helped the North avoid becoming even more divided. Those jobs, of course, will be disappearing in large numbers over the next few years.

And so, the IPPR argues, there are dangers ahead if inequality is allowed to grow.

Divided communities are more likely to be disaffected, if we believe this research.

So it suggests that the new Local Enterprise Partnerships should not just be looking to go for any form of economic growth.

Instead, they should pursue "good growth" that could help narrow rather than widen the gap between rich and poor. The wellbeing of a community should become just as valid a measure as pure economic growth.

They should also ask firms to sign up to a voluntary pay ratio to ensure that the pay of top executives does not get wildly out of kilter with the pay of those on the shop floor.

Some will doubt whether such structures are realistic at a time when communiies are likely to grab at any jobs on offer, regardless of the niceties.

But the IPPR fears short-termism could have long term consequences.

And so, although the report find that the North was less polarised than the South East, the IPPR fears that might not be the case for too much longer.

One in 10 unemployed as North East tops jobless table

Richard Moss | 12:48 UK time, Friday, 18 February 2011


Job Centre

Unemployment in the North East is now the highest in the UK.

It was the kind of leap up the league table the North East didn't want.

A rise in unemployment in the region has once again given it the highest rate of joblessness in the UK.

For a while the region had shed that dubious title, but this week the North East leapfrogged the West Midlands to reclaim it.

More than one in 10 people in the North East (10.2%) were unemployed by the end of 2010.

That's 129,000 people - up 13,000 on the previous quarter.

And youth unemployment is also continuing to surge - up to 25,800 in January. That is one in five 18-24-year-olds.

In South Tyneside, Middlesbrough and Darlington that figure rises to around one in three.

There are real fears then of a "lost generation" - a group of young people who spend so long atrophying on the dole queue that they become unemployable.

So what's to be done?

We know the Government is placing its faith in the private sector to rebalance the economy and create the jobs the North East needs.

And nobody disagrees that it will be the private and not public sector that offers the best hope.

But this week in the Commons there was a dispute about how to achieve that.

The North East's former regional minister Nick Brown called a debate in parliament on the region's economic development.

He and other Labour MPs focused their fire on the decision to abolish the development agency One North East, and dismantle regional structures.

Nick Brown says the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS) being set up in their place are too small and too under-resourced to provide an adequate replacement.

He claims North East businesses are now struggling to understand who to deal with in Government.

Nick Brown

Newcastle East MP Nick Brown says the Government has made a mistake by abolishing One North East.

He told the House: "Engagement with the private sector in the region by Government is now very weak. This is part of a national problem. Even very large private sector businesses are finding it difficult to know where and how to speak to Government."

And the Newcastle East MP also warned of the danger of a brain drain of economic development professionals.

He said the new LEPs were not taking on ex-One North East staff, and that many of the 320 employees and their expertise could be lost to the region at a time when it needed them most.

The Government though begs to differ. Business Minister Ed Davey said the state of the public finances meant the Government could no longer afford to fund regional development agencies and offices.

But he said a combination of the LEPs, the regional growth fund, and tax incentives would provide the means for the private sector to flourish in the North East.

The Conservative MP for Stockton South, James Wharton, also backed the Tees Valley LEP as the best way of boosting the local economy.

He also said that a survey of local newspaper reports showed that 20,800 new private sector jobs have been created in the region since August.

And the Politics Show is giving Mr Wharton another chance to talk about the best ways of tackling unemployment.

We are bringing him face-to-face with three young unemployed people - a jobless graduate and two people who have scarcely worked since leaving school.

Can he offer them any hope? What do they want to say to him?

Find out in the Politics Show at 12pm on 20 Februrary.

Northumbria force to shed 1,100 police jobs in budget cuts

Richard Moss | 17:30 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Police officers on the beat.

All our forces face budget cuts but say they will protect front-line policing.

The full scale of the cuts affecting our police forces is gradually being revealed.

Northumbria Police have now said they expect to shed hundreds of jobs over the next two years.

They plan to lose 318 officers and 825 civilian jobs by March 2013.

That is around 9% of its officers, and a startling 40% of its civilian workforce - all part of a savings package of £57m.

But despite that, the Temporary Chief Constable Sue Sim believes she can actually improve the service on offer to the public.

She says they can redesign the force to avoid any cuts to front-line policing, and continue to reduce crime.

And she also insists that the force will be just as capable of launching a big operation like the Raoul Moat manhunt even with fewer officers and resources.

She insists that isn't spin or just a brave face, but a genuine opinion based on the reviews she has been doing of the force.

But can that really be right? If cuts on this scale can be done without affecting the service to the public, might it suggest our forces have not been running anywhere near as efficiently as they can?

Temporary Chief Constable Sue Sim

Northumbria's Temporary Chief Constable Sue Sim insists her force can improve its service despite the cuts.

And yet no Chief Constable is admitting to that.

And North East Labour MPs certainly don't buy that argument.

The Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell - a former Home Office minister - says he cannot see how the front-line can be maintained with such big cuts.

He understands the force has to do what it can to mitigate them, but he fears losing so many support staff also risks bogging officers down with administrative work.

Other forces too are having to slim down substantially.

Cumbria Constabulary is losing 100 officers, and 235 civilian staff to save £7.5m this year.

Cleveland Police are also due to lose 230 officers in order to save £17m over the next two years.

Durham and North Yorkshire will also lose officers and civilian staff.

All the forces say the front-line will be protected as much as possible.

And they want to reassure the public that they will still be looking to cut crime.

The Home Office is also confident that the cuts can be delivered successfully with via co-operation between forces and other efficiencies.

But you can bet the Opposition will be watching closely to see if our forces really can do more with less.

MPs want rural fuel duty discount for English countryside

Richard Moss | 09:57 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011


Man fills car at petrol station

The soaring price of fuel is causing problems for individuals and businesses in rural areas.

It's amazing to think that the fuel protests which brought Britain to a halt in 2000 took place when petrol prices reached the dizzy height of 80p per litre.

Despite the fact that prices now frequently top £1.30 a litre, there has been no real repeat of those protests.

But that does not mean there isn't growing concern and unhappiness about the cost of fuel.

That is particularly true in rural areas, where a lack of competition combined with a greater reliance on the car is causing pain.

Cumbria, Northumberland, North Yorkshire and County Durham are among communities facing those twin problems.

And so the MP for Thirsk and Malton has gone into battle to ask for special help for constituents like hers who live and work in the countryside.

Anne McIntosh says businesses and farmers are struggling to survive in North Yorkshire because of the rising fuel costs.

She told parliament: "Across North Yorkshire, farming is often the main business - it certainly is in my constituency - and the impact of rising fuel prices has been catastrophic.

"It has pushed up the cost of producing livestock and the cost of taking livestock to market."

The Conservative MP also argues fuel is a necessity for businesses and individuals in North Yorkshire, and not a luxury that can be easily cut back.

So what does she want?

She certainly wants to see the Government abandon April's planned 1p rise in fuel duty.

The MP also wants to see the Coalition look seriously at a fuel stabiliser to vary the rate of duty to take into account the price at the pumps.

Anne McIntosh believes people in North Yorkshire should get a discount on their fuel.

But Anne McIntosh also wants to see people in rural communities offered a discount on duty to help bring prices down.

She is not the only supporter of that idea. There were plenty of other rural MPs in Northern Ireland, Cornwall and Wales who backed her idea during a Commons debate she asked for on the issue.

And in Cumbria, the Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron has also backed the idea. Hardly surprising, since he drafted a discount proposal in the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto.

And it's not as impossible as it sounds.

The Government is looking at pilot projects to offer a discount of up to 5p per litre on the Scottish Islands and in the Scilly Isles to tackle exactly the same problem.

So far though there are no plans to test out the same idea in rural England. Anne McIntosh says she wants that changed to include places like North Yorkshire and Cornwall.

There is a problem though. The fuel discount will need EU approval.

The Government says it is having informal discussions with Brussels officials to ensure it can go ahead, but it will need the agreement of all 27 European states for it to happen.

Therefore, it is not imminent, even though similar discounts already exist on some Portugese and Greek islands.

And of course the more areas any discount covers, the bigger the loss of revenue to the Chancellor.

MPs in urban areas might also baulk at people in the countryside gaining an advantage. Labour representatives might also wonder about Coalition support for the recent rise in VAT, which pushed fuel prices up even further.

But the warning from Anne McIntosh and other rural representatives is that without action, businesses will close and individuals will suffer as fuel prices continue to rise.

Will NHS reforms help or hinder the health of the North?

Richard Moss | 16:36 UK time, Friday, 11 February 2011


People exercising in a gym

The NHS has paid for gyms like this to improve public health, but will that still happen under the Government's reforms?

The North East has always been an area dogged by health problems.

Life expectancy is shorter than average, rates of heart disease and cancer have historically been high.

The legacy of heavy industry has often been industrial diseases.

But there has been some progress in recent years, with smoking and heart attacks on the decline.

It has been the region's Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) which have overseen those improvements, yet the Government wants to scrap them.

They don't think there has been enough progress on public health.

And so they intend to hand responsibility for improving our health over to local authorities.

They will get a ring-fenced budget to spend on public health, and the current officers in charge of the policy in the PCTs will be employed by councils.

Local authorities will also be able to get a premium of extra money if they can show they have made significant inroads into an area's public health problems.

And despite the progress in the North East, there is still work to do.

The region has the highest rates of obesity in the country.

Women in particular still die a lot earlier than their counterparts in the rest of England. They also have the highest cancer mortality rate in the country.

Andrew Lansley hopes to "nudge" not bludgeon people into better health.

And the Government thinks councils will be better placed to tackle those problems - more rooted in their communities with a greater understanding of their needs.

But public health professionals in the region fear the proposed changes could disrupt a lot of the good work done so far.

They fear the reorganisation will divert vital resources and energy from tackling the region's health problems - basically the eye could come off the ball.

And although the Government says it will ringfence funding, there is a fear that councils will nor prioritise public health in the current climate.

In addition, the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, has talked about a different approach to public health.

He wants to "nudge" people towards the right choices instead of bludgeoning them with health messages.

The Secretary of State also wants to work with the private sector to persuade them to lower the fat and salt contents of food.

He believes that will achieve more than the expensive advertising campaigns the Government has paid for in the past.

But that might also signal a gradual decline in funding too.

It's something we will be debating on the Politics Show this Sunday 13 February at 12pm on BBC1.

Row over Northumberland Council's £500,000 'consultant' costs

Richard Moss | 17:33 UK time, Thursday, 10 February 2011


Gritting truck

Council taxpayers want to see their roads gritted, but will they be happy to see money spent on consultants?

As you may remember, I did recently suggest that a study of our councils' spending records might be a perfect cure for insomnia.

But it seems one Northumberland councillor has managed to stay awake long enough to comb through the details.

Steven Bridgett has Eric Pickles to thank, as it was the Communities Secretary who asked all councils to publish every item of expenditure over £500.

Northumberland has recently released its first set of figures from December last year.

Cllr Bridgett, who's an Independent Lib Dem, has been running through them with a fine tooth comb and a pocket calculator.

There are some interesting facts - £13,000 spent on leased cars, £16,000 on mobile phone bills.

Sounds a lot, but then they are the kind of items you would expect a council of Northumberland's size to spend money on.

He was more concerned though by the figure he found under the heading of Professional, Consultancy and Other Agencies.

That amounted to £1.5m in just one month.

From that you can remove £1m the council spent on managing its housing stock and on the Connexions careers service, as they are effectively services.

But Cllr Bridgett says that still leaves around £500,000 of what he calls "sickening waste".

Cllr Steven Bridgett

Cllr Steven Bridgett says spending money on consultants is sickeningly wasteful.

He believes it is criminal for the council to spend money on highly-paid consultants at a time when it is considering making hundreds of its staff redundant.

And you can see his point. Northumberland County Council has to save £60m in the next financial year.

So spending thousands in just one month on outside consultants in management, the environment, transport and even fraud might seem profligate.

But is it that simple?

The council says no. It says that £500,000 actually covers a whole range of services it has to buy in - and not just consultants.

The figure also includes court fees, advice on complex childcare cases and payments to subcontractors - money that it's hard to avoid spending.

It also says consultants can offer value for money. It says one firm - which was paid £64,000 in December - has come up with a plan to save the authority £1.9m a year.

Cllr Bridgett asks though why the council had to go outside for that expertise instead of finding it within its own staff.

So who's right?

To be honest I'm not sure I'm qualified to say.

The row almost raises as many questions as it answers.

Consultants can often be brought in by councils for short periods because although they might seem expensive, unlike staff, you don't have to pay their pension and national insurance contributions.

It is also unlikely that a council will have an expert on all subject areas within their staff.

But we are now living through tough times for our local authorities.

And it is right that every penny spent should be scrutinised.

Council taxpayers losing their libraries or community centres are entitled to ask whether spending money on consultants is wise.

Councils then will have to justify every bit of expenditure.

Especially as councillors and taxpayers can now see for themselves just how much is spent on what.

And all of this is of course going to be increasingly sensitive.

We have seen 90 senior Lib Dem councillors protest about the cuts in a letter to The Times.

They included several from this region, including the Newcastle City Council leader David Faulkner and the Lib Dem group leaders in Cumbria, Hartlepool, Durham, South Tyneside, Gateshead and Richmondshire.

They say the cuts imposed by the Government are too deep and too fast.

But of course there will now be increased scrutiny of council spending to see whether the kind of front line cuts they are worried about are inevitable.

Councils sign up to Eric Pickles' big tax freeze

Richard Moss | 17:07 UK time, Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Eric Pickles

Eric Pickles is offering local authorities incentives to freeze their council tax

You don't need me to tell you that our local authorities are concerned about a shortage of money over the next few years..

Scarcely a day goes past without another council announcing an eye-watering amount of cuts.

So you might expect they would be keen to raise council tax to net some badly-needed extra money.

But actually a growing army of our local authorities are saying they will be freezing their council tax this year.

In Cumbria, most people will see their bill hold steady from April.

That is because five of the districts - Allerdale, Carlisle, Copeland, Eden and South Lakeland - and the county council have indicated they will freeze the tax.

It is possible that the bill will still rise if the county's police authority puts up its demand, but that is unlikely to add much to the bill even if it happens as it is the smallest part of it.

Other councils are following suit.

Durham County Council and North Tyneside are freezing, and Harrogate and Scarborough are also amongst the 130 local authorities who have committed to stand still.

So why do that when you are short of money?

Firstly, there is a government incentive.

The Coalition is keen on freezing council tax so is offering any council that holds steady the equivalent of a 2.5% rise in their budget.

That means any local authority thinking of a rise of 2.5% or less might as well freeze and take the money from the Government rather than the local taxpayer.

In any case, any council will struggle to raise much more than that as the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has said he will cap any council proposing a tax rise of more than 3.5%.

So councils might as well agree to a freeze, and at least get some credit from the local council taxpayer for not putting up the bill even if services are being cut.

And councillors may be particularly keen if they are amongst the large number who are up for re-election this May.

It is almost a complete reverse of the early years of the Labour government, when the range of council sevices expanded alongside some big council tax increases.

We will have to wait and see the impact of the cuts to gauge if people feel the freeze offers them value for money.

Ed Miliband plays the generation game on North East visit

Richard Moss | 09:00 UK time, Sunday, 6 February 2011


Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband answers questions in Gateshead but there is no mention of Labour in the backdrop.

It certainly wasn't surprising to see Ed Miliband visiting the North East this week.

He hasn't been here since winning the Labour leadership, and it is of course a heartland for the party.

But it wasn't just any visit.

He brought the rest of the Shadow Cabinet with him, and used the opportunity to open what he hopes will be a useful line of attack against the Government.

He is warning that for the first time for many a year, the next generation could be worse off than the last.

Ed Miliband doesn't blame the Government entirely for that, but he says its policy of cutting harder and faster than he would is making it worse.

So, the next generation could find it harder to get to university, to find a job, and to buy a house.

Instead of the American Dream, he talks of a "British Promise" to future generations, and he says it is in danger of being broken.

It is a message designed to harvest the support of a generation of young people who seem to have rediscovered the politics of protest.

But it might also tap into the concerns of their parents and grandparents, worried that their offspring have a less than glowing future ahead.

The Labour leader also hopes to appear forward-looking and optimistic, and accuse the Government of spreading gloom.

There was though nothing much in the way of policy to back it up.

And of course the Coalition is having none of it.

They say Labour has a brass neck to talk about social mobility when it declined during its 13 years in power.

And they say the party's legacy for young people was actually a national debt of around £22,000 per person.

Rather curiously after Ed Miliband's speech, it was the Conservative MP for West Suffolk, Matthew Hancock, who fired the first salvo to me.

He sent me a news release which pointed out that Labour had left the North East with the highest proportion of NEETS (young people not in education, employment or training) in the country.

And he outlined a range of policies - the pupil premium, the Regional Growth Fund, and National Insurance incentives - that he says will help the region.

The Coalition says its focus is on economic growth, which it sees as the best way of offering opportunities to the next generation.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls

Are two Eds better than one? The Shadow Cabinet played their part in Ed Miliband's new strategy.

So the battle lines are being drawn.

But why did the Labour leader choose the North East to set out his stall?

It is safe ground, with plenty of supporters to call on.

And there are electoral reasons to come here. It would be a big feather in Mr Miliband's cap if Labour wins Newcastle City Council back from the Lib Dems in May's local elections.

He can also point to the impact of cuts in the region, and the potential danger to people's aspirations.

But ultimately he must know that the next general election won't be won in this part of the world.

Yes, he would be glad to regain Redcar or Stockton South.

But it is the south where Labour needs to gain massive amounts of grounds. Only winning there will get him into Downing Street.

And the branding at his question and answer session in Gateshead was interesting. No Labour logo behind him.

Instead it just said New Politics, Fresh Ideas, with the catchline - "Helping Families Get On".

And if you wanted to watch the speech online, you were directed to that site, which is run by the Labour party, but makes almost no mention of it.

It is clearly some kind of strategy.

And although Ed Miliband chose to address the people of the North East in person, he will be hoping those kind of messages resonate well beyond the party's heartland to areas which didn't vote Labour in 2010.

Forest sell-off plans stir up unrest in the countryside

Richard Moss | 11:33 UK time, Friday, 4 February 2011


Protest against forest sell-off

Government plans to sell off forests have led to protests among local communities and their MPs.

The Coalition government has already experienced some pretty strident opposition to their plans on tuition fees, the NHS and cuts.

But could their biggest battle yet prove to be over England's forests?

They certainly seem to have stirred something up in communities by proposing the sale of many of our publicly-owned woodlands.

And it is not just Opposition MPs and supporters who are unhappy. Some of the protesting politicians are ones you would see as natural Coalition supporters.

Take the Conservative MP for Hexham Guy Opperman.

A new arrival in the Commons last year, he has proved a loyal backbencher and a Coalition fan.

But rather than vote with the Government, he abstained in this week's debate about its plans to sell off forests.

And he spoke passionately about his concerns - warning that the plans could threaten the "enchanting" Kielder Forest which forms such a large part of his Northumberland constituency.

He fears a sale to the private sector could jeopardise a carefully-constructed 25-year development plan which would put money into the local economy and create vital jobs.

Mr Opperman's constituency mail bag is already bulging with letters of concern, and you could read more about his worries on his blog.

And perhaps his concern isn't surprising. His constituency includes the largest expanse of forest in England - almost 50,000ha in total. That's three times as much as any other MP.

And there are plenty of other politicians in the North East and Cumbria who might also be worried because of the large stretches of woodland in their patches - indeed 11 of the 50 most-forested constituencies in England are in the region.

Woodland in the Lake District

Some Cumbrian MPs are concerned about the impact of any sell-off on the Lake District's forests.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron has 4,870ha, including the much-loved Grizedale Forest. He voted against the plans this week.

Sir Alan Beith's Berwick constituency includes 8,673 hectares. He abstained.

Thirsk and Malton Conservative Anne McIntosh also abstained. She has around 10,000ha in her area.

And some of the leading Labour opponents of the plans have sizeable sections of woodland in their constituencies.

Bishop Auckland's Helen Goodman has 2,801ha of forest in her seat. She says a huge number of her constituents have raised the issue.

Cumbrian MPs Tony Cunningham (Workington) and Jamie Reed (Copeland) also have large bits of Lake District woodland in their areas, and duly voted against any sell-off.

Others though appear less concerned.

Penrith and the Border's Rory Stewart (woodland hectareage 11,624) voted in favour, as did Scarborough and Whitby's Robert Goodwill (6,284ha), Richmond's William Hague (1.398ha) and York Outer's Julian Sturdy (1,345ha). All are Conservatives.

There have already been public protests in forests large - Grizedale in Cumbria - and small - Chopwell Woods in Gateshead - and we are only just beginning this process.

The Government insist opponents of the plans have been scaremongering.

They say they are merely consulting at this stage to find more efficient and better ways of managing forests.

But they insist public access will be protected and any sell-off won't become a loggers' charter.

They say the most important woodlands would remain under the ownership of the Forestry Commission if bidders couldn't convince them they would be protected.

And they hope as many community groups as private firms could take up the opportunity of owning their local forests.

The opponents aren't convinced though.

Figures uncovered by the BBC's Newsnight suggest only a fraction of the forests would be likely be sold off to local people, leaving private firms to snap up the rest.

Opponents fear that could threaten the ecology and acessibility of woodlands.

Whatever the rights and wrongs though, the Government's plans do seem to be worrying their own MPs and some of their own natural supporters in the countryside.

Remutualise or sell-off - what future for Northern Rock?

Richard Moss | 16:40 UK time, Thursday, 3 February 2011


Queues outside a Northern Rock branch

Panic amongst its customers forced the Government to nationalise Northern Rock in 2008.

It's been in state ownership since 2008, but now the first tentative steps are being taken to get some of Northern Rock off the Government's hands.

In the last fortnight investment banks have been bidding to become advisors on how to transfer the North East bank back to the private sector.

These banks won't be the eventual owners, but they will be assessing what future the Northern Rock should have.

Or at least half of it.

The bank was split last year into so-called "good" and "bad" banks.

The "bad bank" has much of the Rock's remaining mortgage business. Northern Rock Asset Management, as it's now called, will remain in government hands, paying back some of the billions the taxpayer invested to bail the bank out.

But the remainder - Northern Rock plc - will return to the private sector.

The question though is in what form?

The Business Secretary Vince Cable has expressed a preference for selling Northern Rock off to another bank - probably one trying to enter the high street market rather than an existing big player like Barclays or Lloyds.

But he is coming under increasing pressure to consider remutualisation instead.

Campaigners in the North East say the Northern Rock should return to its roots and become the regional building society it was before 1997.

And there are growing numbers of MPs who agree.

An Early Day Motion supporting remutualisation has gained support from Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs.

They believe it could become a force for good, by bolstering the mutual sector.

Instead of being beholden to its shareholders, it would have to offer competitive deals to its owners - the customers.

Northern Rock clock

Is it time to turn the clock back and reshape Northern Rock as a building society?

And there are other potential benefits for the North East.

The trade union Unite argues the jobs of the 2,600 Northern Rock plc staff would be a lot more secure if it became a building society rather than just the wing of another bank.

They fear a new owner might asset strip its customers and branches, close the HQ and end its North East links.

After all the Northern Rock brand remains tarnished everywhere else except the North East.

They also believe the region would benefit from having a financial institution with its roots here - owned by its customers.

In their view, It would understand the North East and tailor its services to its needs.

And it might also keep the Northern Rock Foundation going.

The Foundation has provided many millions to good causes and important projects over the years.

The Rock's troubles though are drying up that flow of money. While the bank used to pay 5% of it profits in to the fund, in the future it will only get 1%.

And many charities fear the Foundation would disappear altogether if the Northern Rock was sold to a bank with no connection to the North East.

At a time when public sector funding is also in short supply, that could add to the financial problems facing charities and voluntary organisations.

There is a problem though.

Remutualisation would gain the taxpayer nothing.

Only a sell-off is likely to see an influx of funds to the Government.

For that reason, The Adam Smith Institute, a right-leaning thinktank, has told the Politics Show that a sell-off is the only option the Government should pursue.

Officially though the future of Northern Rock now lies in the hands of UK Financial Investments - a company formed to manage the taxpayer's bank holdings.

It has encouraged campaigners by saying that remutualisation remains an option.

But as UKFI's only shareholder is the Treasury, politics are bound to play a part in the final decision.

And so it may be the Chancellor who ultimately decides whether to prioritise the interests of the North East or the general taxpayer.

Scramble for seats likely as Lords do deal on voting changes

Richard Moss | 14:14 UK time, Tuesday, 1 February 2011


House of Lords

A deal in the House of Lords could pave the way for electoral changes.

So it seems their board games and sleeping bags can be packed away.

A deal was struck yesterday to end the all-night sittings which the Lords have endured for days on end.

The stalemate was over the Government's plans to change the country's voting system and cut the size of the House of Commons.

The Bill at issue should now pass through the committee stage in the Lords this week.

It follows a string of all-night sittings which has seen our peers holed up overnight at Westminster (the board games were apparently provided for their entertainment).

The Bill will still have to come back to the Commons, but the deal should clear the way for a referendum on 5 May on whether to introduce the Alternative Vote into the General Election.

It will also move forward the plan to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

But that does raise the prospect of an interesting few years for our MPs.

If the Commons is cut down to size, then around four seats are likely to disappear in the North East and Cumbria.

There will also be a big redrawing of boundaries to make the constituencies contain roughly the same number of voters.

It is likely to be an unsettling time then for our MPs.

Most know they will probably survive - but they will have to be reselected for seats that could look very different.

Ballot box

A reduction in the number of MPs mean some will have to compete against their colleagues to secure a seat at the next election.

There will though be some worrying about whether they will make the cut.

Retirements might help, but there won't be an avalanche of them because so many of our MPs are relative newcomers.

And of course there is the potential for these boundary changes to make what is now a safe seat into something far more marginal.

In Northumberland, where four seats could well become three, and in Cumbria, where six could become five, there may well be some interesting battles.

Imagine a seat which encompasses parts of Berwick and Hexham. Who would be favourite there, Lib Dems or Conservatives?

And the changes might prove to have unintentionally positive consequences for us the voters.

Of course, all MPs should already be working hard to ensure they are re-selected as even in the currrent system there are no guarantees.

But in reality to be deselected, you have to have done something pretty appalling.

So it might just focus minds further if you know that you might actually be competing with your colleagues in a game of constituency musical chairs.

Any MP wanting to stay on will want to look as active and dynamic as possible to impress their local parties and constituents.

Even politicians in safe seats might not feel as secure, knowing that it could be one of those to disappear.

And this will continue for some time.

The new boundaries won't be finalised until 2013, and only then will the race for selection begin.

So even though an election may well be more than four years away, our MPs might just be keener than usual to be at our service.

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