Ministers have accused North East councils of sitting on unused land and property which they could sell to protect services.
But local authorities facing massive spending cuts of more than £240 million ridiculed the claims – and pointed out that there are strict rules preventing them from selling the land to fund services.
And the comments provoked an angry reaction from Labour, who accused the Government of imposing higher cuts on urban councils in the North East than wealthy parts of the country.
Ministers launched the attack on councils which are reducing services and raising council tax, claiming that they had nobody to blame but themselves.
The Association of North East Councils has warned that crucial services such as care for vulnerable children are in danger of collapse as massive cuts in council funding wipe almost quarter of a billion pounds off budgets across the North East this year.
It says the true impact of Government spending cuts has been hidden because authorities have succeeded in “raiding” other services and diverting funds where they are needed most – but they have reached a point where this just won’t be possible any more.
But Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles issued a statement claiming councils have large sources of untapped revenue including money held in reserve, assets such as property or land, and council tax arrears which have gone uncollected.
And his department published a league table highlighting the worst offenders, with County Durham named as one of the authorities with high levels of surplus assets. The authority is sitting on assets worth £62 million, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
The department also named Gateshead as an authority with high levels of surplus assets, worth £49 million.
Government figures also showed that Northumberland council had reserves of £96.4 million while Newcastle-upon-Tyne had reserves of £78.9 million.
Mr Pickles said:
“Reserves have rocketed up in the past few years and councils could be making better use of assets to keep taxes down and protect frontline services, while at the same time doing more to stop the billions they are losing to fraud and collecting more Council Tax arrears.”
But the claims were dismissed by Councillor Alan Napier, Deputy Leader of Durham County Council, who said:
“We do have surplus assets of £62 million which includes both land and buildings, including former school sites.
“Most of these sites are either being sold, up for sale or in the process of being put up for sale. When sold, our hands are tied as to what we can spend the money on as the receipts are ring-fenced and can only be spent on new capital items such as buildings, vehicles or infrastructure.
“I would have expected Mr Pickles to know that receipts from surplus assets cannot be used to reduce council tax or protect front line services ”
Gateshead Council’s strategic director of corporate services and governance, Mike Barker, said
“£41m illion of assets which have been classed as ‘surplus to requirements’ actually relate to land which has already been contractually committed towards building much needed, good quality, affordable housing across the borough.
“The development of this land is already underway on sites at Deckham, Bensham and Saltwell, and Birtley. Over the next 15 years, the joint venture partnership between ourselves, Galliford Try and Home Group will build thousands of new homes on 19 different sites across Gateshead; bringing jobs, investment, and regeneration to many areas.”
The devastating impact of Government cuts on council services was confirmed in a report by the National Audit Office late last year, which warned that authorities were reaching a point where they couldn’t cope.
“While local authorities have maintained financial resilience overall, some – particularly among metropolitan districts – are now showing persistent signs of financial stress, such as unplanned in-year reductions in service spend.
“Looking to the future, there is increased uncertainty about how local authorities can manage further possible falls in income.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 11 Feb 2015
Police have used controversial anti-terror powers to fight crime across the North.
Thousands of ‘RIPA’ undercover warrants – which grant the power to trawl through telephone records – were used by Durham, Northumbria, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Cleveland police.
The warrants, issued under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), entitle public bodies to intercept communications in a bid to expose crime and have been used by North East councils and other public bodies as well as the police.
Figures released by the government show 22,154 RIPA warrants were issued to police forces in the North in 2013 – with Durham police leading the way with 6,218 warrants.
Northumbria Police was granted 6,211, North Yorkshire police made 4058 successful applications, Cleveland received 2957 and the Cumbria force was granted 2,710.
RIPA was introduced as a weapon against terrorism and economic crime but its use has been criticised – with some likening it to the encroachment of a police state.
It requires only that the request be approved by a police officer of Superintendent rank or above, giving forces the right to sign off their own warrants without having to go before a judge.
Civil rights group Liberty hit out after the figures were revealed, with legal director James Welch saying RiIPA was “massively overused”.
Councils routinely use RIPA warrants for issues involving rogue traders and underage sale of alcohol and tobacco as well as taxi cab regulation and checking out businesses employing minors.
Police forces use them for more in-depth issues including the investigation of drug and paedophile rings, human trafficking and other forms of serious crimes.
Ripa was used by Cleveland police to snare a drugs gang which was jailed in May for 177 years, collectively.
Detectives were able to seize drugs worth £824,686 and £127,966 cash.
Codenamed Operation Cobweb, it was Cleveland police’s biggest ever drugs bust.
RIPA warrants issued up to March 2013 allowed officers to snare the 22-strong gang, with Middlesbrough’s top judge Simon Bourne-Arton QC praising police for their use of RIPA legislation.
York City Council and Redcar and Cleveland Council led the way for local authorities in the North, using the powers with 80 and 69 warrants granted respectively.
Redcar and Cleveland is host to the anti-fraud organisation Scambusters which the council said contributes to its high numbers.
Newcastle City Council was absent from the list while Northumberland County Council had just three warrants issued.
In August last year in Northumberland, warrants were used to track down through social media accounts an illegal 16-year-old tattoo artist. She was banned and her equipment was seized.
Warrants were also used to bust a phone scam that conned 400 residents across the UK after a Redcar pensioner was tricked into buying unnecessary anti-virus software.
Operation Hognose was launched when the pensioner told council officials he had fallen victim to what is known globally as the ‘Microsoft scam.’
Scammer Mohammed Khalid Jamil, of Luton, Bedfordshire, was handed a suspended jail sentence and £5,000 fine during a March 29 hearing at York Crown Court, after Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council’s trading standards passed the case to the National Trading Standards e-Crime Centre.
The conman was ordered to pay £13,929 costs as well as £5,665 in compensation to 41 victims.
The council said it had not used RIPA warrants to tap phones.
The police forces said they used the powers “only when deemed necessary and in order to detect crime and keep people safe.”
James Welch, Legal Director of Liberty, hit criticised the figures and said the legislation is over used by forces across the UK.
“The police and other public bodies massively overuse their power to get information from our phone and internet service providers – over half a million times last year.
This overuse is hardly surprising when there’s no requirement for prior authorisation from a judge. You can work out a lot about a person from knowing who they phone or which internet sites they visit. People don’t realise how badly their privacy is compromised by this power.”
Home Secretary Theresa May has ordered a review into claims Ripa is being misused.
Police forces on RIPA powers
All of the police forces we contacted said they used RIPA powers only when necessary.
A spokeswoman for Northumbria police said they would be ‘unlikely’ to discuss their use of the measures.
“Our ultimate aim is the safety of the public and this is one of many ways we can gather information to help deal with those people causing most harm in our communities.
“It’s important for the public to have confidence that such methods are appropriate and proportionate.
“The public can be reassured applications for RIPA authority are made only when deemed necessary and in order to detect crime and keep people safe,” she said.
“RIPA authority is not entered into lightly and rigorous processes are in place leading to it being granted.
“They have to be absolutely satisfied that it is necessary to prevent and detect crime and that its level of intrusion is proportionate with the nature of the enquiry being carried out.
“Northumbria Police is inspected each year by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office to ensure correct procedures and processes are being followed.
“The number of authorisations made is comparable with our neighbouring forces and is part of a package of tools available to officers.”
Temporary Superintendent Rob O’Connor, of Cumbria police, said:
“Cumbria Constabulary where necessary for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime, or preventing disorder, will use the power given to them by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to obtain and disclose communications data and conduct surveillance. Police use of RIPA is subject to guidance and strict codes of practice.
“RIPA is a very useful investigative tool in order to prevent crime and disorder. The intelligence and evidence obtained enables us to make the correct decisions in terms of public safety and the prosecution of criminals. It has been used on many occasions to great effect to bring offenders to justice.
“Cumbria Constabulary’s use of RIPA is subject of oversight and regular inspections by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office and the Office of Surveillance Commissioner.”
Chief Superintendent Rob Coulson, of Durham Police, said:
“The powers RIPA provides are massively important to policing in our force area. RIPA is only used when absolutely necessary, how and when we use it is strictly governed.
“RIPA enables us to investigate serious crime and has played a key role in apprehending organised criminals and other serious offenders who have been making life miserable for the residents of County Durham and Darlington. There are many examples of this in the last year alone.
“Whilst Durham is generally a safe place to live we have to accept that these criminals exist and the powers provided through RIPA is a vital tool in the fight against them. We will continue to use the powers RIPA provides to follow, monitor, disrupt and capture offenders such as drug dealers, prolific thieves and sexual predators on a regular basis.
“In doing this can I reassure you that as a force we scrutinise our use of these powers and as with all Forces we are annually inspected by the Office of the Surveillance Commissioners, an independent body.”
A spokeswoman for Cleveland police said the force used RIPA powers to monitor serious organised crime and said the use of RIPA in Operation Cobweb was acknowledged by a judge as an excellent example of usage.
North Yorkshire Police did not comment.
Source – Sunday Sun, 02 Nov 2014
The number of households that North East councils prevented from becoming homeless has rocketed in parts of the region.
In South Tyneside the local authority stepped in on 3,208 occasions in the last 12 months, a 123% rise on the 1,437 figure for the previous year.
This works out at a rate of 47.07 per 1,000 households in the borough, almost five times the national average of 10.11.
Meanwhile, in the same period, Gateshead saw a 65% increase from 2,094 to 3,453, an average of 38.28 per 1,000 households.
Newcastle City Council numbers rose 23% from 3,673 to 4,529, which works at 37.89 per 1,000 households.
There was also a small rise in Northumberland and Durham, but falls in North Tyneside and Sunderland.
Figures released by the Department for Communities and Local Government show preventions and relief in England rose nationally on average 12% from 202,900 to 227,800 between 2012/13 and 2013/14.
Prevention includes things like resolving problems with housing benefit, advice on debt or rent and mortgage arrears, or mediating with families to stop family members being kicked out.
Relief is when a council has been unable to prevent homelessness but helps someone to secure accommodation, even though the local authority is under no statutory obligation to do so.
Coun Allan West, Lead Member for Housing and Transport on South Tyneside Council, said the figure revealed how a policy initiative it took last year was working.
He said: “In 2013, South Tyneside Council’s Place Committee undertook a Commission scrutinising how homelessness in the Borough was tackled and how well the Council was equipped to deal with future demand.
“This led to the development of our new homelessness strategy which made homeless prevention one of our key priorities.
“This is reflected in our updated allocations policy, which gives priority to people at risk of becoming homeless before their case becomes critical.
“We have introduced a Homelessness Forum with representation from key partners including landlords, Public Health and the third sector.
“The forum ensures a collaborative partnership approach to tackling homelessness, sharing good practice and maximising opportunities for early intervention and prevention for homeless households.
“The review established a post of ‘Homelessness Prevention Lead’ within the Council to continue to develop housing and support options for people at risk of homelessness.”
My life on the streets of Tyneside – by homeless man ‘Carl’
Graduate ‘Carl’ has been homeless, on and off, for 16 years now.
He came to the region from Berkshire to study politics and economics at Newcastle University.
By the time he graduated aged 23 with a 2:1, he was in a secure unit at St Nicholas’ Hospital where he was being treated for Bipolar Disorder.
“They let me out for the day for my graduation ceremony and that night when the other students were out having a drink celebrating I was back in the unit pumped up with drugs,” he said.
He describes himself as a ‘hand tapper’, someone who walks the streets asking for money, making anywhere between £25 and £100 a day.
“The beggars are the ones who put signs around their necks and wait for people to come to them,” he said.
Carl said at the moment he sleeps rough in a city centre car park. “It’s best to sleep somewhere with CCTV as it gives you a feeling of security that someone might see if you’re in trouble and help.”
Over the years he has ‘sofa surfed’ with friends, and stayed in hostels, but nowhere permanent for long.
The money he makes he spends on food, tobacco and drink.
“I don’t drink that much,” he says.
He was a heroin user for six to eight years but has been ‘clean’ since June.
Carl is currently taking heroin-substitute buprenorphine, its trade name is Subutex.
“It’s better than methadone, like Peaches Geldof was taking. You can take other drugs as well as Methadone but not with Subutex.
“You’re supposed to crush it and place it under your tongue. I crush it and snort it like snuff.”
However he added: “I’ll probably have a relapse soon.”
His condition means he’s hyperactive.
“I walk the streets all day. Sometimes I don’t sleep.
“It’s OK at the moment with the hot weather. When its cold you keep moving or you die of hypothermia.
“People in the North east are friendlier than down south so I don’t get much grief.”
He says he stays in touch with family down south. His father is the Governor at a primary school, his three sisters and brothers hold down full time jobs.
“Some of us are just different. I’ve had a few jobs but I’m just not reliable.
“Also, my specialism is international politics and economics. I can’t see many employers in that field offering me a job.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 25 July 2014