Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Thanks, but no thanks

Sunderland Echo
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
by Ross Robertson

New city parking chief changes his mind about job offer

Red-faced roads chiefs have appointed a solicitor to work solely on overhauling traffic laws as part of a bid to mend the reputation of the city's disgraced car-parking system.
But the man appointed to oversee the new parking enforcement regime for Sunderland Council's highways department has decided he doesn't want the job.

Civic chiefs have been working to restore motorists' faith in parking since a damming TV documentary revealed racism and corruption among parking attendants in Sunderland last year.

Five attendants were sacked and National Car Parks, the private company operating Sunderland's parking enforcment, lost its on-street contract after the BBC's Inside Out programme was broadcast last October.

The council then suffered further humiliation when it was found that Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) governing parking in parts of Frederick Street were incorrect.

Council bosses have responded to the catalogue of blunders by drawing up a 24-point action plan to completely overhaul decriminalised parking enforcement in Sunderland and wipe out any remaining errors in the system.

As part of the shake-up, an additional solicitor has been appointed to work on parking regulations to help avoid legal pitfalls.Councillors met this week to discuss the progress being made on the changes with Bob Edwards, acting head of transport and engineering – the department which oversees parking in the city.

Mr Edwards said all but five of the 24 action-plan points had now been completed, and those outstanding were well on their way to being fulfilled.The action-plan includes new computer systems, improved ways of recording and tracking parking regulations and more checks to ensure the parking scheme and those who run it are acting correctly and legally.

Labour councillor Joe Lawson, the cabinet member responsible for transport, praised the work of Mr Edwards and said the changes could be ready to sign off by independent consultants as early as next month.

Speaking after the meeting, Conservative councillor Peter Wood said: "It seems to me that the council is slowly getting to grips with the problems, that it's getting the TROs right and the signs and lines in the right places.

But it was also revealed at the meeting that Mr Edwards was standing down from his interim post and there was nobody to replace him – because the man set to take over the job permanently has backed out.

Speaking after the meeting, Councillor Lawson confirmed that no one had been appointed as head of transport and engineering, though a man had got through to the interview stage but turned the job down after being offered it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Back on the pitch

Been a hectic and a strange few weeks ... and apologies for the lack of posts.
Just back from a holiday after being incapacitated for ten days with 'man-flu.'

What began as a sore throat and no sympathy turned out to be quite a drama. Fever and temperature actually forced me to the drop-in centre ... and three and a half hours later was diagnosed with a 'virus.' This is a generic term used by the medical profession and means 'we don't know what's wrong.'

Matters got worse over the next few days and the GP confirmed ... 'its a virus.' Things were not improving ... then what came next was worthy of a Hammer House of Horrors Dracula special. My throat started to bleed profusely.
I was sent to casualty ... with comments such as 'looks like someone is at last trying to shut you up' it lightened the situation.

It took 12 hours to stop the bleeding which, according to the specialist, appeared to be from a ruptured blood vessel in my throat.

Released on parole after three days a stone and a half lighter I can recommend this weight loss programme to anyone!

So, the upates will begin again but meanwhile get ready to check out the website soon to be launched

We are going to up the ante and pass on all we know with a commercial operation designed to 'level the playing field' for the motorist.

The registration number on the target vehicle will ensure that it gets noticed ... all will be revealed soon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

House sellers could prefer fine to HIP

Sunday Telegraph
By Roya Nikkha, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 1:16am BST 16/04/2007

The troubled home information pack scheme has been criticised as "another stealth tax" amid claims that home sellers will simply reject the expensive procedure in favour of a £200 fixed-penalty fine.
From June 1, homeowners in England and Wales will be legally obliged to supply buyers with the packs, known as HIPs, which will include a certificate that rates a property's energy efficiency. Packs will also contain details of the lease, local searches and a list of items included in the sale.
It is estimated that HIPs could cost between £400 and £650 to produce. But a shortage of qualified "housing inspectors" has prompted fears that suppliers of the packs will exploit the situation and charge fees of up to £1,000.
Home sellers who market their houses without the pack face a possible fixed-penalty fine from trading standards officers of £200. Failure to produce a pack, however, will not be a criminal offence.
Nick Salmon, the commercial director of Harrison Murray estate agents and founder of the campaign group Splinta - Seller's Pack Law Is Not The Answer - said that many homeowners would "do the maths" and risk the fine.
"There is a great deal of anger among homeowners who do not see the point of these packs and consider them yet another stealth tax," he said. "Sellers have nothing but contempt for the new law and many will go ahead without HIPs, especially as a potential fine is less than the cost of the pack."
Mr Salmon also said that the majority of homeowners were "completely in the dark" about HIPs and described the Government's publicity campaign for the packs as "pathetic".
Paul Marsh, the deputy vice-president of the Law Society, and a member of its HIPs task-force, attacked the scheme as a "crackpot idea". "With packs costing in excess of £400, sellers may as well send a £200 cheque to trading standards officers saying they don't propose to have it," he said. "I am sure most trading standards officers have better things to do than knock on people's doors to see if they have a home information pack."
Mr Marsh also claimed that consumers would be forced to waste more than £200 million on packs compiled for the 500,000 properties on the market that fail to sell each year.
Michael Gove, the shadow housing minister, attacked the Government for "entirely misconceiving and mishandling" the introduction of HIPs. "As every week goes by, a new flaw emerges with the scheme which is certain to damage the stability and health of the housing market," he said.
"The only people now behind HIPs are the Government out of their vanity to meet the deadline and the pack providers for their vested interest."
The packs are widely opposed by members of the property industry, including the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Council of Mortgage Lenders and the National Association of Estate Agents. Last week, it emerged that only 1,000 people have trained as inspectors, out of the Government's target of 7,400.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Seeda: Let's axe this cash guzzling quango

The Argus

The spending of Seeda, the South East England Development Agency, on fripperies and unnecessary expenses is a scandal.
How could any organisation splash out £115,000 on an awards ceremony in Brighton, especially one promoting green business?
What is the justification for a publicly funded body spending enormous sums on junkets such as a lunch at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, for ten guests and four Seeda personnel costing £1,600?
Surely it is not right for chairman James Brathwaite to claim £93,000 in secretarial expenses when he is only part-time and his predecessor did not claim a penny.
There is worse to come. Mr Brathwaite is paid the staggering sum of £76,000 a year for his part-time post when this sort of position is often rewarded with a nominal fee.
Chief executive Pam Alexander's package last year was £182,000, more than many council chief executives.
The high-spending duo have been jetting around the world staying at luxury hotels. They have been flying business class when this has not been necessary.
But the worst example of profligacy is their use of taxis which cost £55,000 last year. Mr Brathwaite claimed a staggering £230 a day for cabs.
I would find it quite hard to spend that amount of time in taxis, let alone if I was trying to run a development agency.
This spending shows contempt for taxpayers in the South East which is deeply worrying. I also find it disturbing that he was allowed to get away with it.
Has no one within Seeda queried this extraordinary spending? Has the Department of Trade, nominally responsible for Seeda, held an inquiry? I very much doubt it.
Then there is the even more serious issue of companies connected with Mr Brathwaite being funded by a Seeda subsidiary with large amounts of money. Even though there is no evidence of wrongdoing, the chairman of Seeda should not have a conflict of business interests.
At this stage I should emphasise I have nothing personal against James Brathwaite. I met him when he was running the multimedia company Epic, finding him both able and personable.
I am also not against reasonable spending on hospitality by public bodies such as councils.
They sometimes need to entertain people ranging from foreign leaders to business partners.
It's right that some of them should be offered more than a drink from the water filter in the chief executive's office. But there is the world of difference between that and luxurious lunches costing lots of money.
There is something terribly wrong with the Seeda set-up which it has taken The Argus to expose.
The trouble is that Seeda is not really accountable to anyone.
It is not like a council with bloodhound-like councillors probing into forgotten corners of questionable spending.
It is not democratically elected like Parliament where the diligent Mr Baker is forever making awkward inquiries.
Seeda is not a small organisation.
It employs more than 300 people and has a budget of over £200 million.
Taxpayers are entitled to know whether they are getting value for money. The evidence uncovered by The Argus suggests they are not.
It is true that Seeda has funded some good development, such as the excellent Ropetackle scheme in Shoreham, helping to bring life to an area which had been derelict for decades.
Seeda may aid redevelopment of the Brighton Centre, where assistance is needed, and has rightly recognised that Hastings needs help.
But is Seeda needed at all? Before it there was the single regeneration budget which was run by the Government until ten years ago.
This was a much more direct and effective way of investing cash in rundown areas than the bloated bureaucracy of Seeda.
The Government already has its own Office for the South East, making Seeda extraneous and even irrelevant.
It would be far more effective if local government was reorganised to make all councils single-tier, like Brighton and Hove City Council, and big enough to run their own affairs.
Brighton and Hove is able to make its own bids for development funding without the need for Seeda to interfere.
Local and national government needs to be as simple and effective as possible. There is no justification for more than one tier of councils.
There is also no need whatsoever for any form of regional government in the South East, as it is not a region in anything but name.
Nothing in common exists between Brighton and Milton Keynes or between Oxford and Hastings.
It is not even certain where the South East begins and ends on its north-west fringe.
Few people in Sussex have any connection with Guildford, in Surrey, which is where Seeda happens to be based.
Then there is the South East England Regional Assembly. It is much smaller and more sparsely run than Seeda, but is a waste of time and money.
Few people in Sussex know or care what it does. Yet it takes £4 million a year in public money and has more than 30 staff. It has the staggering total of 112 members. No organisation can work efficiently with that many people.
In its oddly defensive website, the assembly claims not to be a talking shop or to be connected with Seeda even though it shares the same office building.
It also says that it is not a quango, although this is only playing with words since it is publicly funded and not democratically elected.
At one time the Government had the mistaken notion that England was keen on regional government. A poll in the North East proved this was not so.
If it was rejected in the North East, where there is some regional identity, there can be no case for it in the South East where there is almost none.
No doubt Seeda will hope this scandal will die down after a few days and that things will carry on as before. This should not be allowed to happen.
James Brathwaite needs to consider whether he should remain as chairman, bearing in mind his connections to businesses receiving regional funding and his lavish spending.
Seeda's board needs to examine how well it is working when it has accepted and allowed such profligacy.
The Government must look at all regional organisations in England, especially those in the South East, and work out whether they are really worthwhile.
I was against the formation of Seeda right from the start. Events have proved me right.
Unelected and unaccountable, it is a grotesque waste of cash and should be scrapped.

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