Tagged: Northumberland County Council

Northumberland Anti-fracking lobby on alert

A Hexham man is leading a campaign to prevent Tynedale‘s rich mineral deposits from being exploited by high-tech mining interests.

Rather than digging for coal and lead though, the modern day miners want to use the controversial techniques of fracking and underground coal gasification to win natural gas from shale and coal deposits.

Fracking is the process of hydraulic fracturing of rock by injecting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals so that energy sources such as gas, petroleum and brine can be extracted.

And while there are currently no sites designated for such activities on the books of Northumberland County Council, campaigners want to be prepared should any applications come along.

Dr Jonathan Boniface, from Fellside, has become one of the leading lights in the newly-formed Keep Northumberland Frack Free group, which is to hold its first public meeting to discuss the threat of fracking and UCG in Hexham Community Centre on 27 June at 2pm.

Tynedale has been known over the centuries for its rich deposits of valuable minerals, from the lead, silver and zinc of the Allen Valleys, to the vast coalfields which underlie much of the district, from Haltwhistle and Halton Lea Gate to Prudhoe and Mickley.

Only a decade ago, Australian company Roc Oil found “gas saturated tight sands” in a £1m drilling exercise at Errington Red House, close to the Roman Wall near Bingfield.

Full story : http://northstar.boards.net/thread/141/northumberland-anti-fracking-lobby-alert

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Morpeth guerilla gardeners stage protest at historic Northumberland properties

Guerilla gardeners who risked prosecution in order to tidy up eyesore sites have staged a protest.

A group of people who live at Morpeth last year trespassed onto the grounds of Northumberland County Council’s derelict 19th century Willows and Beechfield properties to carry out an impromptu clean up.

They have now staged a protest at the sites to call for the cherished buildings not to be bulldozed as part of new development planned, and for more consultation with local people.

The buildings, which are on the same site on Gas House Lane, date from before 1860. They were bought by the county council in 1930 with Willows subsequently used as a centre for the unemployed.

During the Second World War, Beechfield housed a first aid centre and air raid precautions headquarters while Willows was used by the Red Cross.

After the war the buildings were used by the employment committee and school grounds department, and in 1952 became the County Library headquarters.

Willows is a former care home.

However, both sites are said to have stood derelict for more than 10 years, with their grounds becoming overgrown.

Residents led by David E. Clark, of Morpeth Town Council, and friend Garry Featherstone, a building surveyor and Master Builder with a special interest in historic buildings, decided to take matters into their own hands in September last year.

They sought legal advice on the laws of trespass and gained access to the grounds to carry out a clean up.

Since then, the county council has unveiled plans for a riverside development at the sites, as part of a blueprint for the town and Northumberland as a whole.

The gardeners arranged a protest on Tuesday afternoon through Facebook group Morpeth Matters. Thirty people turned out at just 24 hours notice.

Coun Clark said protestors were motivated by desire to retain the cherished buildings in some form and a lack of involvement of local people in what is to happen at the sites.

He said:

“Thirty people turned up just to demonstrate their anger and frustration at the fact the county council have not even consulted with the general public, they just seem to take these decisions without any kind of consultation and they are here just to knock down our heritage.

“Morpeth has lost lots of old buildings. Once they are erased, they are gone forever. These buildings should be retained in some shape or form.”

The protestors have been backed by county councillor for Morpeth David Bawn.

He said:

“I am sure I am not the only person in Morpeth with some disquiet about the masterplan released by Northumberland County Council regarding the re-siting of various facilities in Morpeth, which to my mind goes against the spirit of the emerging Neighbourhood Plan.

“With specific reference to the attractive Victorian Willows building, I agree that this area of the riverside and corner of the town desperately needs to be redeveloped, but we must do all we can to protect our town’s historic built environment.

“It is self evident that any redevelopment must incorporate the existing historic buildings rather than demolish them.”

A county council spokesman said:

“The council believes that the existing library site and adjoining buildings at The Willows and Beechfield could form a site to be used for a landmark riverside development for the benefit of the town.

“These proposals are obviously at an early stage and are subject to a number of factors.

“We will be working with the town council and the neighbourhood plan group as we develop future proposals.”

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 14 May 2015

Probably coincidence, but…

It’s probably coincidence, but on the Hexham Courant newpaper’s website the headline

Conservative Guy Opperman has been returned as Hexham MP

is followed by several other bullet-point local headlines including:

– Man found hanged at Hexham bandstand

– Hexham restaurant to close after cutbacks

– Otterburn bus firm loses council deals

…which could well be a portent for the next five years of austerity – more deaths, closures and cutbacks.

> The story about the restaurant in particular is indicative of the future – it exited to give employment to people with mental health problems –

Tynedale people with mental health problems are being robbed of an employment lifeline after Northumberland County Council pulled the plug on funding.

The Tans vegetarian and seafood restaurant in Hexham’s St Mary’s Chare will close within weeks following the withdrawal of financial support for its operator, the Opus Employment Project.

The service, provided by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (NTW) but funded by the council, has operated in Hexham for over 20 years,
Its role is to act as rehabilitation service for people with mental health problems, helping them embed into society through work, training and voluntary work as part of their recovery process.
The project employs seven members of staff, and there are currently four volunteers. There are currently a number of clients working at the restaurant.
The news of the impending closure of the project and the restaurant has rocked members of the community, particularly clients who have used it as a way of working their way back into society.
Philippa Long has worked at the restaurant for the past four years and said it has transformed her life, as it allows her to interact closely with members of the public.
She said: “Usually, we start in the kitchen and make things to be sold, and that gives you a sense of pride in your own work.
“Then you get to the point where you serve thanks to all the support you are given, and it makes such a big difference to your confidence and outlook on life.
“It has been life changing and quite a lot of people have gone from the restaurant to get other jobs from there.
“Closing this will be devastating to all the clients, and there’s a lot of people with less ability than us that are going to be struck a lot harder.”
In addition to clients, the news has been hard to swallow for customers and volunteers of the restaurant.
Having visited the Tans as a customer for the past 16 years, Janet Brown was so moved by the service that she started volunteering when she retired.
She was upset that the county was to cut the funding, saying that it was a much needed project for people living with mental health problems across Tynedale.
She said: “What strikes me about the project is that we see the clients come in and stand nervously at the back but, within weeks, they are serving and talking to people because of the great atmosphere here and the training they receive.
“You can see their confidence building week on week, and it is a unique service which is one of a kind in the country.
“It’s a model for how to deal with mental health issues within the community, and Tans is a flagship enterprise and NTW should be aiming to keep it open at all costs.”
A spokesman for the county council said funding was being withdrawn after discussions between NTW and the council, had concluded the Tans restaurant and Opus Employment Project had “poor linkages” to mainstream education and employment opportunities.
It also found that the service offered little in terms of promoting personalised outcomes and independence.
The spokesman said: “ They also serve a diminishing number of people, now supporting only about a quarter of the number of service users they were designed for.
“We are now embarking on individual reviews with the current service users and their families, discussing with them both existing alternative services in West Northumberland which could support them to become more independent and new services currently under development.
“For some people, the option of individually designed support arrangements using personal budgets may be the best option, and we will be offering advice about how this could work.
“No date has been agreed for closing these schemes, and no date will be set until the right alternatives have been found for all current service users and arrangements have been made for the staff working in the schemes.
“We recognise that the Tans restaurant has been a popular part of Hexham life for a long time, and if those involved wish to explore keeping it open on a different basis, the council would be able to talk to them about sources of advice.
“But the most important priority for the council and NTW is opening up new opportunities for people whose lives have been disrupted by mental illness.”

Source – Hexham Courant, 08 May 2015

 

 

 

 

Northumberland home staff could take industrial action over pay cut

> Another example of what happens when NHS services are privatised…

Staff in homes for people with learning and physical disabilities in Northumberland could take strike action over what they describe as a “savage cut” to their terms and conditions.

The majority of 36 workers in five homes run by Lifeways are being balloted amid claims their pay is to be slashed by £2.30 an hour to £7.65 – below the National Living Wage.

They also say the company is cutting paid sickness leave to five days per year, reducing its contribution to workers’ pensions from 14% to 4% and removing death in service benefits.

The workers are based at three homes in Bedlington and two in Choppington and are represented by the union Unison.

It claims staff who transferred to Lifeways from the NHS are seeing their maternity provision replaced by the statutory minimum and that holiday entitlement has been reduced by seven days.

Unison spokesman Trevor Johnston said:

“They are faced with losing between a third and half of their income and a savage cut to their other terms and conditions of employment.

“The staff are very concerned about their financial security. They are very committed to caring for the residents and appreciate that disruption is unsettling for them. However, they feel that they are faced with no alternative.

“Unison has offered to undertake meaningful negotiations with the employer, especially as Lifeways made a profit last year of £14m.

“Other not-for-profit organisations faced with similar cuts have offered their staff buy out arrangements while continuing to pay the Living Wage.”

The company has blamed a 30% cut in the money it is given to run the homes by Northumberland County Council.

A Lifeways spokesperson said:

“We recognise the impact that any changes to terms and conditions will have on our staff and we are holding talks with Unison in order to avoid industrial action.

“Our service users remain our number one priority and we will maintain a high level of care at all times.

“However, like all other providers of adult social care, we are having to reduce our costs as a result of local authority budget cuts.

“Despite a 30% reduction in fees, we are required to deliver the same level of service as currently.

“The fee decrease is being absorbed in part through a reduction in our operating costs, mostly through the proposed changes in employment terms and conditions, but also in part by Lifeways directly.”

The services now run by Lifeways were operated by the Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust as residential care homes until 2012.

A Northumberland County Council spokesperson:

“The trust made a decision a number of years ago that they no longer felt it appropriate for them to continue providing this kind of social care service, and consulted their staff in relation to this.

“The county council, which was the funder of the services, therefore advertised in 2012 for a new provider to take over the services and work towards supporting the service users in a less institutional way, changing the services from residential homes to a ‘supported living’ scheme, in which service users would become tenants with enhanced rights and greater independence.

“The contract offered in the original tender is the contract that was agreed would operate from April 1.”

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 09 Mar 2015

All fracking applications for Northumberland must be refused believes Green Party

Fracking must be roundly rejected in any part of Northumberland, a Green Party politician vying to be an MP has said.

Rachael Roberts, who will contest the Berwick upon Tweed constituency, has launched a petition demanding that Northumberland County Council commits to refusing all applications for fracking.

She said

“All proposals for fossil fuel extraction in Northumberland, whether by fracking for gas, drilling for oil, or open cast mining for coal, are fundamentally keeping us tied to 19th Century technology – the county council has already recognised that Northumberland has potential to become a world leader in renewable energy, and it is in this clean technology of the future that our investment must be made, not in the polluting technology of the past.”

In 2014, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) invited bids from companies wishing to explore for onshore oil and gas across much of Northumberland.

The areas permitting exploratory drilling under Amble and Rothbury, and between those two towns. The results have not been announced.

Ms Roberts is calling on the council to make a refusal of any fracking activity its policy.

She said:

“Fracking contaminates ground water supplies, where it risks introducing toxic chemicals, carcinogenic hydrocarbons and radioactive matter into the natural food chain.

“The biodiversity that is already stressed from pollution, pesticides and climate change will be under threat: this is a risk that no responsible council should ever consider taking.”

A Northumberland County Council spokesman said:

“The exploratory, appraisal or production phase of hydrocarbon extraction can only take place in areas where the Department of Energy and Climate Change have issued a license.

“The Government is considering a further round of these licences and parts of Northumberland do fall within the areas being considered.

“In addition, planning permission would also be required.

“The emerging Core Strategy includes a number of draft policies that any future planning applications for fracking would be considered against.

“The draft policies set out a range of environment criteria for assessing proposals, including a requirement to demonstrate that any benefits outweigh the adverse impacts on local communities and the environment.”

Ms Roberts’ petition can be found at:

http://committees.northumberland.gov.uk/elps/entity/EI7JtcDdayjvA8jLlIBGfuA?searchreq=50

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 02 Mar 2015

Northumberland County Council members accused of ‘undesirable’ behaviour

County councillors in Northumberland have been accused of “undesirable” behaviour by their peers and of not putting the best interests of residents first.

Some members of Labour-run Northumberland County Council also admit to having “no interest” in the authority and are “distracted by negativity,” a report by officers and members of other local authorities has found.

The report claims the behaviour of some members is “not providing a sufficiently grown up atmosphere” in which to operate and calls on them to behave in a more “statesman-like” fashion.

> Bloody hell ! Anyone who has ever heard what goes on at Westminster will be now wondering just how bad things must be here !

On the back of the findings, the council’s senior officer said it referred to a number of “misleading claims” which damaged the authority’s reputation such as that its planned new headquarters will cost £40m and that a £20,000 car bought for use by its chairman is a Limousine.

An opposition councillor at the authority accused leaders of issuing outrageous and demonstrably untrue statements and intemperate blog posts.

They hit back saying their critic appeared “hell bent” on proving the report’s findings right.

 

 The conduct of members comes under fire in a Local Government Associationpeer challenge’ of the authority, in which it is visited and assessed by the council by senior officers and councillors from other local authorities around the country.

They concluded:

“There are concerns that not all elected members from all political groups appear to put the best interests of Northumberland residents first, either in their interactions with other elected members, or how they engage with the council more broadly.

“Put bluntly, there are some undesirable member behaviours which are detrimental to the council operating effectively, having a negative effect on its external reputation and internal functioning.

“Increasing tensions and increased media opportunities are to a degree somewhat inevitable as politicians become focused on the 2015 general election, but councillors need to remember that they are the external face of Northumberland County Council and campaigns in the media can be detrimental to everyone and the council’s reputation.

“There are also some concerns about how members interact with officers and with each other.”

The report adds:

Political negativity from some elected members is not providing a sufficiently grown up atmosphere conducive to trust and neither is it in the best interests of local residents.

“Some members openly declare that they have no interest in ‘the council’ although they are members of the council…

“The behaviours of some members need to improve, and a disproportionate amount of time seems to be spent in attacking the council, resulting in officers then having to deal with the fall-out, rather than developing or influencing policies for the greater good. “Opportunities to build relationships and build trust need to be explored, so that members and officers can focus on the big issues ahead, rather than being distracted by negativity, which is draining for everyone.”

The peer challenge recommends the authority “work harder to help all elected members to understand their roles in representing the council and being more statesman-like, irrespective of seniority or political persuasion.”

Responding to the findings, council lead executive director Steve Mason said:

“The comments made refer to misleading claims which damage the reputation and standing of the county council.

“For example current claims that the proposed new civic headquarters in Ashington will cost £40million (current estimates around £20million), publicity over a £20,000 car claimed to be a limousine which will save the council money and the level of debate, and on occasion the personal nature of such debate, surrounding the post 16 transport review.

“And while it is only natural there will sometimes be differences of opinion between members, this area of improvement highlighted by the team is already in our proposed action plan and the existing code of conduct and Nolan principles will be an early discussion topic for the next group leaders’ meeting.”

Conservative David Bawn said:

“Sometimes senior members of the administration need to be careful to be seen to act in a statesmanlike manner, this isn’t helped by some of the outrageous and demonstrably untrue statements that have emanated from the leader’s office to the local press on periodic occasions and some of the intemperate posts made on behalf on his blog.”

Leader Grant Davey hit back:

“It seems local Conservatives are hell bent on proving the findings of this independent report led by the leader of Conservative controlled Wiltshire County Council right.

“Their response to a report which highlighted how well the council was progressing and how staff were rising to the challenges of a very challenging cuts agenda was to attack the leader of the council and council staff.

“It’s neither constructive nor is it what residents expect from their elected members and I do hope they sit down and study the report properly and reflect on their ill advised comments especially the comments about ‘damaging political behaviour.’”

Source –  Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 26 Jan 2015

Duke of Northumberland’s business venture Northumberland Estates accused of seeking to make ‘a quick buck’

The Duke of Northumberland’s business venture has been accused of “riding roughshod over the planning system and local communities to make a quick buck.

Northumberland Estates is also “inundating the county with planning applications which are out of proportion to existing communities,” according to Julie Pörksen, the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Berwick.

The estates has defended itself claiming there is an identified need for 23,000 new homes in the county and that its schemes amount to only a fraction of that number.

It has also hit back at Ms Pörksen labelling her comments “inaccurate and inflammatory” and adding “a cynic might think there was a general election in May.”

Ms Pörksen spoke having attended a public meeting at Warkworth, called by residents who are concerned at the number of houses being proposed for their village – many by the estates.

In recent times we reported on similar scenarios involving the venture at Alnwick, Rothbury and Shilbottle.

The would-be MP has now criticised the estates for submitting excessive applications at a time when Northumberland County Council is still preparing the core strategy of its local plan, with that to ultimately provide guidance on development in communities.

She said: “In the absence of a core strategy for the county, Northumberland has become a free for all for developers.

“Northumberland Estates own a huge amount of land in and around many of our villages and towns and as a result hold a great deal of power over the future of communities such as Alnwick, Rothbury, Shilbottle and Warkworth.

“It is very disappointing that Northumberland Estates are not using their power responsibly and have chosen to inundate the county with planning applications which are out of proportion to existing communities.

“Sustainable development of housing stocks is needed in Northumberland as in some villages young people have nowhere to live, however the estates are not meeting this need but riding roughshod over the planning system and local communities to make a quick buck before the rules change.

“Greater consideration should be given to the impact of proposed developments so any development creates a positive impact on communities, schools, jobs and tourism, parking and traffic issues and the environment.

“I hope the estates will rethink their approach to Northumberland and that the county council will give fair consideration to the views of everyone who has made their views known in the planning process.”

Colin Barnes, director of planning and development at the estates, hit back:

“The council’s recently published local plan sets out a requirement for over 23,000 new homes in Northumberland in order to address problems of population decline, affordability, an ageing population and a lack of investment.

“Our applications meet only a small fraction of the housing which is needed.

“As a major local business and investor in the county we would happily explain the how planning system operates, which is both transparent and democratic, as the comments made are both inaccurate and inflammatory.

“A cynic might think there was a general election in May.”

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 22 Jan 2015

How the North East’s former coalfields are coping more than 25 years on

During the heyday of coal-mining, Ashington in Northumberland was considered the “world’s largest coal-mining village.”

The town had a working pit and was part of a corner of the county where the industry thrived with sites also at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Blyth and Ellington.

However, by the end of the 1980s, things had changed.

By 1967 Newbiggin Colliery had closed and – with Margaret Thatcher in power – in 1986 Bates Colliery at Blyth was shut down with Ashington following suit two years later.

Men were left out of work with 64,000 jobs lost across Britain as Thatcher’s government went to war wth the miners.

Today, the former Ashington mine is the home of a business park with a large pond at its centre.

It looks pleasant enough.

But has the restoration of the site seen the revitalisation of the town, and Northumberland’s former coalfields as a whole?

The local MP – who is a former president of the National Union of Mineworkers,  a charity set up to regenerate Britain’s former coalfields in which 5.5 million people live, and academics commissioned by that charity, certainly don’t think so.

30 years on from the 1984/85 miners’ strike which followed the announcement that pits were to close, The Coalfields Regeneration Trust commissioned Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research to takes stock of social and economic conditions in former coalfields.

The report for the charity, set up to “champion coalfield communities, generate resources to respond to their needs and deliver programmes that make a positive and lasting difference,” revealed deprivation, ill health and poor employment, with just 50 jobs for every 100 people of working age, 11.7% of people reporting long-term health problems and 14% of adults claiming out-of-work benefits.

Labour MP for Wansbeck,  Ian Lavery, whose constituency covers Ashington and Newbiggin, says it is a familiar picture locally.

He said:

“The stark thing from the report is that it shows that despite the attention in these former coalfields towns and villages up and down the country, there is still huge problems in terms of the high unemployment, the high youth employment, the low wage economy.

“Sadly the North has got the highest level of unemployment. We have got associated problems.

“Lack of business opportunities, and there is wide scale child poverty in the towns and villages which is something we should not be looking at in this day and age.

“Some of my wards in my constituency child poverty is 40 per cent.”

Mr Lavery, who has lived and worked in a mining community all his life, has called on the powers-that-be to address what he has deemed a lack of investment in the former coalfields over the years.

There is a whole number of problems arising from that report, that local authorities and the government need to take a look into that report and make sure more investment is made.

“I believe the North East has been left behind. We have not had the resources aimed at other industries.

“I would call on the government to scrutinise what has happened in the North East. Where it has went wrong and make a pledge to put it right.

“We are a cash rich nation, to have children in poverty is a political choice. Money is being spent on different projects.

“My simple project would be to eradicate child poverty.

“We can not have kids can not go to school because they have not got enough food in their bellies.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for that level of poverty in areas in any region.

“What needs to be done is there needs to be more investment in the coalfield communities, there needs to be more job opportunities, more business investments, better skills and knowledge and more job creation.

“If we get that with decent terms and conditions, the rest will follow in line.

“The government need to look at how best to assist the North East region, to eradicate the problems which are clearly identified in this report.”

He felt Northumberland County Council is doing its best to help, given its limited financial clout.

“I think the county council the last couple of years, they are doing their damnedest.

“They have tried to put a lot of things in place.

“They are absolutely cash strapped because of the cuts to local government. They have not got the finance they once had.

“A lot of the service Wansbeck (District Council) provided are not being provided any more.”

Since 2011, the trust has created and safeguarded 911 jobs and secured full or part-time employment for a further 2,921 people living within the coalfields communities throughout England.

Since it was established 15 years ago, programmes delivered by the trust have benefited hundreds of thousands of people in the British coalfields, including helping more than 21,000 people into work and over 187,000 to gain qualifications and new skills.

Chairman of the charity Peter McNestry said:

“We welcome Ian’s support and absolutely agree that additional finances are required if we are to make a difference in these areas.

“We have come a long way in the last 15 years but the recession had a disproportionate effect on the people living and working in the coalfields meaning they continue to need our support, guidance and funding.”

He added:

“The coalfields simply want the opportunity to get back on their feet. An entire industry ceased to exist, which employed directly and indirectly most of the people living within these areas. We cannot just turn our backs and walk away. “These towns and villages could thrive and make a positive contribution to the country if we give them the chance.”

The government said its investment in the trust is proof of its support for former coalfields, with over £200m given to the body over the last 15 years, and money ploughed into the areas from other sources.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “Long term economic planning has helped to secure a better future and deliver much needed growth.

“We have given over £220 million to support to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust since 1999.

“They have been moving to a self-financing model and the trust now has a strong portfolio of investment and an opportunity to concentrate on the areas where they really add value.

“Regeneration is essential to building a strong and balanced economy, which is why we have given extensive support to many of these areas with the £1.4billion Regional Growth Fund, Local Enterprise Partnerships and City Deals.”

The county council said it is working to improve the former coalfield areas, drawing in investment from elsewhere in addition to spending money of its own.

The authority said its top priority, along with the hoped for dualling of the A1 North of Morpeth, is to secure around £65m to re-open the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne rail line to passenger services.

Furthermore, the council is leading the project for a new £30m South East Northumberland Link Road.

In addition, Arch, the authority’s county development company, is leading creation of a ten year investment plan for Ashington.

This could see a potential £74m ploughed into the town and bring 1,000 high-quality jobs.

Arch is also leading the delivery of a new £20m leisure and community facility at Ashington while the council is proposing to move its headquarters from Morpeth to the town.

The authority furthermore cited its support for the opening of a new £120m Akzo Nobel factory at Ashington.

It also highlighted the new £8m Blyth Workspace building being led by Arch, the first part of the town’s Enterprise Zone.

The council has furthermore secured £600,000 for preparatory work on the former power station site at East Sleekburn which could host 500 new jobs.

The authority also highlighted the £1m being invested at Lynemouth by the Big Lottery Fund and its setting up of a poverty issues task and finish group.

Coun Dave Ledger, deputy leader of the county council, said: “The council is putting former coalfield communities at the heart of our future plans for growth as part of creating a balanced economy across the county.

“I believe there is real cause for optimism in the former coalfields and increasingly we can look to a future that is not defined by but always remembers and celebrates the legacy of our industrial heritage.”

Source –  Newcastle Journal,  17 Nov 2014

North East Police and councils have been granted more than 22,000 warrants allowing them to intercept communications, including tapping phones

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.

He said:

“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

South Tyneside Council accused of ‘discrimation’ against unemployed over council tax charges

South Tyneside Council has been accused of ‘discriminating’ against the unemployed over its council tax charges.

The authority is one of the few councils in England to demand those receiving job seekers’ allowance (JSA) still pay 30% of their annual council tax bill.

All other North East councils request lower contributions, including Northumberland County Council which charges nothing to single unemployed people in receipt of JSA.

South Tyneside says it has been one of the hardest hit authorities nationally by reductions in Government funding, and although it has frozen council tax since 2010 it has been unable to keep bills low for all groups.

But Peter Watt lives in a one bedroom flat in Priory Road, Jarrow, and has been out of work for almost four months.

The 38-year-old’s annual band A bill of £967.53 is reduced by a 25% reduction for living alone and again by 70% for being unemployed, but still stands at £217.69, which he says is too high.

He said: “South Tyneside Council is about the only council I am aware of in the country that charges 30% to the unemployed – a group that cannot afford it. Neighbouring councils don’t do it so how can this one?

“They tell me they are trying to protect three groups of people – the disabled, OAPs and households with children under the age of five – and I have nothing against that but it does seem like they are discriminating against people without jobs.

“My JSA is £71.60 per week and it is there to help people seek jobs – not to bail out South Tyneside Council. I did have a job briefly but it was on a zero hours contract so I wasn’t entitled to working tax credit.

“I was being paid £200 a week and the council took £130 for the council tax and a furniture package I got with the house. I was left with £70 for bus fare, food and all my bills so I had to quit to survive.”

Mr Watt continues to search for security jobs, and has even applied to South Tyneside Council for a position.

He added: “I plan to appeal against the fees at a valuation tribunal.“I am so short on cash that when I am cold I use my sleeping bag rather than the heating, I do my cooking in the microwave or deep fat fryer because it uses less power, I don’t wash up with hot water until all my dishes are dirty, and I haven’t turned my electric fire on for two years.”

A South Tyneside Council spokesman said: “Council tax contributes to the funding the Council needs to provide vital public services.

“In 2013, South Tyneside Council introduced a Local Council Tax Support scheme to replace the Council Tax Benefit scheme which was abolished as part of the Government’s Welfare Reforms.

“The changes resulted in the Council losing more than £1.7m in Government support, a shortfall the Council had to meet while still protecting the Borough’s most vulnerable residents.

“Band A residents who are not in the protected groups, but are unemployed and live alone, currently receive up to a maximum 70% discount on their Council Tax and are required to pay £4.18 per week.

“We are, of course, concerned when residents find it difficult to pay and would urge anyone in this situation to contact us as soon as possible so that we can explore flexible repayment arrangements that take their circumstances into consideration.”

Source –  Newcastle Evening Chronicle,  06 Oct 2014