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County Durham – council cutbacks threaten bowls clubs

Bowls players fear long-established North-East clubs could be forced to close under council funding cutbacks.

Durham County Council has written to club bosses saying it is unable to sustain its current financial support for the 30 public facilities across the county – and asking local enthusiasts to take over running their own facilities “as an alternative to closure”.

But club bosses say the £5,000 they say they have been offered as a one-off payment to cover start-up costs such as buying machinery is nowhere near enough and their ageing members are unable to do the manual work needed to maintain their greens and pavilions.

Bowls is vital to keeping pensioners active and socially engaged, they argue, with the 30 clubs having hundreds of elderly members between them.

One club leader, who asked not to be named, said: “It’s terrible. We pay our rates and some of that goes to leisure.

“To ask someone in their 70s to cut greens two or three times a week, the health and safety would never have it.

“Everybody’s upset and thinking their club could fold. For the smaller clubs, there’s no way they’re going to stay open.”

The cash-strapped council is facing Government funding cuts of more than £200m and Simon Henig, its Labour leader, has repeatedly said every service must be reviewed.

In the letter to bowls clubs, Nigel Dodds, the council’s strategic manager for culture and sport, says it is unable to sustain financial support for what is a non-statutory, or optional, service and aims to save £146,605 from spending on greens and pavilions.

The council manages around half of the bowls facilities across the county and, since the letter went out, two summits have already been held to discuss their future.

Consultation will continue until September, although clubs considering taking over running their facilities have been asked to express an interest by today (Monday, June 30).

The council hopes to reach “in principle” decisions by the end of August and have new arrangements in place by next spring.

Terry Collins, the council’s corporate director for neighbourhood services, said consultation was ongoing and no decisions had yet been made.

The authority would provide business advice and planning, Mr Collins added, and consider making start-up grants.

Early feedback has been encouraging with many clubs receptive to the proposals as they have an understanding of the difficult financial decisions the council is having to make and also have a desire to see the clubs continue to operate.

“The solutions may include local partners or clubs working together,” he said.

Previously, the council has handed over the running of leisure centres, community centres and a golf club to volunteers.

Source – Durham Times,  30 June 2014

Hundreds turn out for the 150th Northumberland Miners’ Picnic

Hundreds of people turned out to enjoy the Northumberland Miners’ Picnic on its 150th anniversary.

It took place at Woodhorn Museum, Ashington, and the crowds enjoyed a packed programme of entertainment to mark the special celebration, including Glenn Tilbrook from chart topping band, Squeeze.

Also in the line up were local folk legend Johnny Handle, as well as traditional music and dance, street theatre and entertainers, the Ashington Colliery and Bedlington Youth brass bands, Werca’s Folk, and the Monkseaton Morrismen.

The day started with a memorial service and wreath laying.

Woodhorn’s own comedian-in-residence Seymour Mace added a touch of humour to the day as he, his fellow comedians John Whale and Andy Fury, and staff from the museum who have been working with the project, put their own entertaining twist on a guided visit to the museum.

Extracts from the Pitmen Painters were read out as Woodhorn is the home of the Ashington Group’s main collection of paintings and has a close bond to the story.

Original cast members, Chris Connel and Phillippa Wilson, recreated scenes from Lee Hall’s award-winning play.

The first Picnic was staged at Blyth Links in 1864 and over the years it has moved around the county – from Blyth to Morpeth, Bedlington to Ashington, Newbiggin, Tynemouth and even Newcastle’s Town Moor.

Keith Merrin, Director of Woodhorn, said: “150 years on and this event is still about bringing the whole North East community together, to strengthen bonds and have fun. It’s not just about Ashington, but about the whole region as so many have a link to coal.

“The Picnic is the perfect opportunity to come together to remember and celebrate an industry and the people that helped shape the North East and create the proud communities that exists today.”

This year’s special Picnic has been made possible thanks to Northumberland County Council, Ashington Town Council and the NUM working with Woodhorn to develop a fitting tribute to the event’s history.

Source –  Newcastle Evening Chronicle,  15 June 2014

Councils to be sanctioned if schemes to improve the behaviour of ‘troubled families’ flop ?

Councils  should be punished if their schemes to improve the behaviour of ‘troubled families‘ flop, MPs say..

Their report calls for “sanctions” against councils that fail to change the lives of people with social problems ranging from poverty to low skills and bad housing.

It follows criticism that fewer than 100 people across the region have found work through the scheme, launched after the 2011 summer riots.

Latest figures show councils in the North-East and North Yorkshire have started work with more than 5,000 families identified as “troubled” – up to three-quarters of the total.

But only 1,697 successes have been chalked up, including in County Durham (312), Darlington (37), Middlesbrough (126), Stockton-on-Tees (173) and North Yorkshire (238).

And the figures also show that only 93 people in those 1,697 families – just 5.5 per cent – have found permanent work.

Not a single person has found a job in Darlington or Hartlepool and very small numbers in Middlesbrough (6), Sunderland (3) and County Durham (14).

Now the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) has warned the scheme, announced by David Cameron himself, is on course to “miss its targets”.

 Across England, success has been chalked up in the lives of 22,000 families, leaving a further 98,000 to be “turned around” by May 2015.

And a parallel project, run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), has put only four per cent of the expected number of people into jobs.

Margaret Hodge, the PAC’s Labour chairwoman, condemned the “baffling decision” to run two separate programmes, leading to “confusion and unnecessary duplication”.

And she said: “There have been big variations in performance, which put achieving the programmes’ objectives at risk.

“The departments must ensure that performance in each local authority, and by each contractor, is scrutinised, giving appropriate support where appropriate – but also imposing sanctions where necessary.”

The PAC report did not identify any worst offenders and its call for councils to face sanctions – for a Government scheme – is likely to be controversial.

Families are classed as ‘troubled’ if members are judged to have at least five characteristics from a seven-strong list.

They are:

  • no work, poor quality housing, no qualifications, mental health problems, long-standing disability, low income and in ability to afford food or clothing.

Councils are paid up to £4,000 for each family they help. At the start, 80 per cent – or £3,200 – was paid upfront, reducing to 40 per cent in 2014-15.

Ministers have insisted the scheme is “on track” to meet the prime minister’s pledge to transform the lives of 120,000 problem families by 2015.

> Ministers have insisted the scheme is “on track” to meet the prime minister’s pledge to transform the lives of 120,000 problem families by 2015 – to be fair, this government is transforming the lives of millions of people.

Only problem is, we were kind of hoping it’d be a transformation for the better, not the worse.

Source – Northern Echo,  04 April 2014

Legal aid cuts will hit justice, claims Sunderland solicitor

Legal aid cuts will stop people in Wearside from getting justice, claims a Sunderland solicitor.

Michael Robinson has hit out at a Government shake-up to cut the £2billion budget of what it calls “one of the world’s most expensive legal systems”, by slashing fees paid to barristers and lawyers.

Critics say the plans, due to be phased in from next month, will drive many out of the profession and leave defendants without expert lawyers to argue their cases.

Earlier this month, solicitors boycotted Sunderland Magistrates’ Court in protest.

Mr Robinson said: “People who don’t qualify for legal aid will have to either plead guilty to save money, or fund their own defence.

“If acquitted, those who fund their own defence will not be fully remunerated. Why should anyone have to pay to establish their innocence?

Legal aid spend, if it is too high, is so because of legislation, sentencing policy, policing policy and strategy. The Government blames lawyers, suggesting legal aid funds fat-cat lifestyles, masking its true intent. They don’t want people to challenge the State. It wants people to take a pragmatic, financial view and plead guilty.”

Source – Sunderland Echo, 22 March 2014

Britain’s Five Richest Families Worth More Than Poorest 20%

This article  was written by Larry Elliott, economics editor, for The Guardian on Monday 17th March

The scale of Britain’s growing inequality is revealed today by a report from a leading charity showing that the country’s five richest families now own more wealth than the poorest 20% of the population.

Oxfam urged the chancellor George Osborne to use Wednesday’s budget to make a fresh assault on tax avoidance and introduce a living wage in a report highlighting how a handful of the super-rich, headed by the Duke of Westminster, have more money and financial assets than 12.6 million Britons put together.

The development charity, which has opened UK programmes to tackle poverty, said the government should explore the possibility of a wealth tax after revealing how income gains and the benefits of rising asset prices had disproportionately helped those at the top.

Although Labour is seeking to make living standards central to the political debate in the run-up to next year’s general election, Osborne is determined not to abandon the deficit-reduction strategy that has been in place since 2010. But he is likely to announce a fresh crackdown on tax avoidance and measures aimed at overseas owners of high-value London property in order to pay for modest tax cuts for working families.

The early stages of the UK’s most severe post-war recession saw a fall in inequality as the least well-off were shielded by tax credits and benefits. But the trend has been reversed in recent years as a result of falling real wages, the rising cost of food and fuel, and by the exclusion of most poor families from home and share ownership.

In a report, a Tale of Two Britains, Oxfam said the poorest 20% in the UK had wealth totalling £28.1bn – an average of £2,230 each. The latest rich list from Forbes magazine showed that the five top UK entries – the family of the Duke of Westminster, David and Simon Reuben, the Hinduja brothers, the Cadogan family, and Sports Direct retail boss Mike Ashley – between them had property, savings and other assets worth £28.2bn.

The most affluent family in Britain, headed by Major General Gerald Grosvenor, owns 77 hectares (190 acres) of prime real estate in Belgravia, London, and has been a beneficiary of the foreign money flooding in to the capital’s soaring property market in recent years. Oxfam said Grosvenor and his family had more wealth (£7.9bn) than the poorest 10% of the UK population (£7.8bn).

Oxfam’s director of campaigns and policy, Ben Phillips, said: “Britain is becoming a deeply divided nation, with a wealthy elite who are seeing their incomes spiral up, while millions of families are struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s deeply worrying that these extreme levels of wealth inequality exist in Britain today, where just a handful of people have more money than millions struggling to survive on the breadline.”

The UK study follows an Oxfam report earlier this year which found that the wealth of 85 global billionaires is equivalent to that of half the world’s population – or 3.5 billion people. The pope and Barack Obama have made tackling inequality a top priority for 2014, while the International Monetary Fund has warned that the growing divide between the haves and have-nots is leading to slower global growth.

Oxfam said the wealth gap in the UK was becoming more entrenched as a result of the ability of the better off to capture the lion’s share of the proceeds of growth. Since the mid-1990s, the incomes of the top 0.1% have grown by £461 a week or £24,000 a year. By contrast, the bottom 90% have seen a real terms increase of only £2.82 a week or £147 a year.

The charity said the trends in income had been made even more adverse by increases in the cost of living over the past decade. “Since 2003 the majority of the British public (95%) have seen a 12% real terms drop in their disposable income after housing costs, while the richest 5% of the population have seen their disposable income increase.”

Osborne will this week announce details of the government’s new cap on the welfare budget and has indicated that he wants up to £12bn a year cut from the benefits bill in order to limit the impact of future rounds of austerity on Whitehall departments.

Oxfam said that for the first time more working households were in poverty than non-working ones, and predicted that the number of children living below the poverty line could increase by 800,000 by 2020. It said cuts to social security and public services were meshing with falling real incomes and a rising cost of living to create a “deeply damaging situation” in which millions were struggling to get by.

The charity said that starting with this week’s budget, the government should balance its books by raising revenues from those that could afford it – “by clamping down on companies and individuals who avoid paying their fair share of tax and starting to explore greater taxation of extreme wealth”.

The IMF recently released research showing that the ever-greater concentration of wealth and income hindered growth and said redistribution would not just reduce inequality but would be economically beneficial.

“On average, across countries and over time, the things that governments have typically done to redistribute do not seem to have led to bad growth outcomes, unless they were extreme”, the IMF said in a research paper. “And the resulting narrowing of inequality helped support faster and more durable growth, apart from ethical, political or broader social considerations.”

Phillips said: “Increasing inequality is a sign of economic failure rather than success. It’s far from inevitable – a result of political choices that can be reversed. It’s time for our leaders to stand up and be counted on this issue.”

Landed gentry to self-made millionaires

Duke of Westminster (Wealth: £7.9bn)

Gerald Grosvenor and his family owe the bulk of their wealth to owning 77 hectares (190 acres) of Mayfair and Belgravia, adjacent to Buckingham Palace and prime London real estate.

As the value of land rockets in the capital so too does the personal wealth of Grosvenor, formally the sixth Duke of Westminster and one of seven god parents to the new royal baby, Prince George.

The family also own 39,000 hectares in Scotland and 13,000 hectares in Spain, while their privately owned Grosvenor Estate property group has $20bn (£12bn) worth of assets under managemenSpaint including the Liverpool One shopping mall, according to leading US business magazine Forbes.

Reuben brothers (£6.9bn)

Simon and David Reuben made their early money out of metals. Born in India but brought up in London, they started in local scrap metal but branched out into trading tin and aluminium.

Their biggest break was to move into Russia just after the break-up of the Soviet Union, buying up half the country’s aluminium production facilities and befriending Oleg Deripaska, the oligarch associate of Nat Rothschild and Peter Mandelson.

The Reuben brothers are still involved in mining and metals but control a widely diversified business empire that includes property, 850 British pubs, and luxury yacht-maker Kristal Waters. They are also donors to the Conservative party.

Hinduja brothers (£6bn)

Srichand and Gopichand Hinduja co-chair the Hinduja Group, a multinational conglomerate with a presence in 37 countries and businesses ranging from trucks and lubricants to banking and healthcare.

They began their careers working in their father’s textile and trading businesses in Mumbai and Tehran, Iran but soon branched out by buying truck maker, Ashok Leyland from British Leyland and Gulf Oil from Chevron in the 1980s, while establishing banks in Switzerland and India in the 1990s.

The family’s London home is a mansion on Carlton House Terrace, overlooking St James Park and just along fromclose to Buckingham Palace, which is potentially worth £300m. They have links with the Labour party.

Cadogan family (£4bn)

The wealth of the Cadogans family is built on 90 acres36 hectares of property and land in Chelsea and Knightsbridge, west London.

Eton-educated Charles is the eighth Earl of Cadogan and ran the family business, Cadogan Estates, until 2012 when he handed it over to his son Edward, Viscount Chelsea.

Charles, who is a first cousin to the Aga Khan, started in the Coldstream Guards before going into the City.

He was briefly chairman of Chelsea Football Club in the early 1980s and his family motto is: “He who envies is the lesser man.”

Mike Ashley (£3.3bn)

Ashley owns Newcastle United football club and became a billionaire through his Sports Direct discount clothing chain which he started after leaving school.

He was the sole owner of the fast growing business, which snapped up brands such as Dunlop, Slazenger, Karrimor and Lonsdale, until it floated on the stock market in 2007. He now owns 62%.

Ashley is a regular visitor to London’s swankiest casinos but is famously publicity-averse

Source – Welfare News Service,  17 March 2014

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Britain’s Richest MP slams welfare state but makes £625k a year in housing benefit

A Tory MP worth £110million is raking in £625,000 a year from his hard-up tenants’ housing benefit – despite blasting the “something for nothing” welfare state.

Richard Benyon – Britain’s richest MP – runs his vast property empire from a mansion on his sprawling country pile.

But last night he was accused of cashing in off the back of the very handouts his party pledged to slash – as it emerged a string of other Tories were doing the same.

Just last month the MP, 53, said: “The average household spends £3,000 per year on the welfare state. This figure had been rising inexorably and unaffordably.”

Mr Benyon has also attacked the Labour Party over payments and said: “Labour want benefits to go up more than the earnings of people in work. It isn’t fair and we will not let them bring back their something for nothing culture.”

He is a director of the Englefield Estate Trust Corporation Limited, which owns most of the land and property linked to his family.

It got £625,964 in housing benefit from West Berkshire council last year, more than any other private landlord in the area.

Eileen Short, of Defend Council Housing, fumed: “How dare Richard Benyon lecture us about ‘something for nothing’ when he is living off the poorest and milking taxpayers all the way to the bank?

“It’s not tenants who gain from housing benefit, but some of the richest people in Britain. They get richer at our expense – and blame us while they’re at it.”

Mr Benyon is likely to pull in thousands of pounds more from properties in other areas, too, as his firm owns 20,000 acres of land from Hampshire to Scotland and 300 houses in Hackney, East London.

His office refused to comment on the figures or confirm whether Englefield got more housing benefit from other councils. Buy-to-let landlords and property tycoons like him will bank a total of £9.2billion in housing benefit this year.

It costs more than £23 a week, or 29% more in housing benefit, for a council to house a tenant with a private landlord than with a housing association or social not-for-profit landlord, according to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Mrs Short added: “It’s time we stopped greedy private landlords living off housing benefit. Instead of subsidising them, we ought to cut rents not benefits, and invest in housing that’s really affordable. Let’s get these people off our backs.”

Our investigation, with the GMB union, comes after it was revealed yesterday that UKIP’s housing spokesman Andrew Charalambous was making a fortune off migrant tenants on welfare – despite leader Nigel Farage calling for a ban on foreigners claiming the cash.

The millionaire pocketed £745,351 in housing benefit from occupants, who he admitted included immigrants.

Our probe also uncovered a number of other Tories and donors who also bagged cash through housing benefit tenants last year –

Baron Iliffe’s firm got £195,072 from West Berkshire council. His estate is worth an estimated £245million. He and his wife have donated £50,000 to the Tories.

Peer Lord Cavendish benefitted from £106,938 in housing welfare last year from Barrow council in Cumbria through his shareholding in Holker Estates.

The Earl of Cadogan, who has given £23,000 to the Tories, has received £116,400 in benefits from Kensington and Chelsea.

And MP Richard Drax’s 7,000-acre Morden Estate got £13,830 from Purbeck council, South Dorset, last year. A Morden spokesman said: “We don’t comment on these things.”

On top of Mr Benyon’s haul from tenants, his family farms have also received more than £2million in EU subsidies since 2000.

Once a year the multi-millionaire – whose great great grandad was PM Lord Salisbury – hands out food to poor families as part of a 16th century tradition. He recently came under fire for scrapping plans to dredge the Somerset Levels. He was also criticised for claiming poor families wasted too much food.

Our investigation is based on Freedom of Information Act requests made by the GMB union, which has many members who rely on social housing. There are 1.8 million households on the waiting list for council homes. Despite ­Government pledges to tackle the welfare bill, the annual cost hit £24billion this year.

The DWP said: “Housing benefit provides a meaningful safety net for people, whether they live in social housing or in private rental properties, and it’s sensible that both of these options are available to people.”

Source – Daily Mirror,  24 Feb 2014

Tweet Wars: How humourless Jobcentre Plus was humiliated by bolshie bloggers

Westminster Confidential

People queuing outside Jobcentre Plus. Pic courtesy: The Guardian People queuing outside Jobcentre Plus. Pic courtesy: The Guardian

For the last year an extraordinary war has been going on between the Department of Work and Pensions and some of Britain’s tweeters and bloggers.

The battle has been over the centuries old right to free speech, to send up self-seeking bureaucrats and insult and satirize government ministers and the heads of private companies profiting from public services. This example is very modern, the battleground is Twitter rather than over some pamphlet.

The row began over a year ago when the Department of Work and Pensions used Twitter’s complaint procedure to lodge a trademark complaint against @UKJCP, a satirical account attacking Jobcentre Plus.

The application came from one Jon Woodcock, calling himself brand and information manager – his actual title is senior public information publishing manager – objecting to the site using the Jobcentre Plus trademark.

What was extraordinary was his…

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