Hinterland - 18 February 2019

In Hinterland this week - This week, rising council tax, Alexa to the rescue, foster carers under pressure, flybmi, water bottle deposits and the declining skill of the sundial reader…. Read on...

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Council tax to rise across England as austerity hits hard

Not surprising but nonetheless depressing!

Almost all councils in England plan to increase council tax from April and three-quarters intend to raise it above 2.75%, research reveals.

The maximum rise allowed without a local referendum is 2.99%. Similar proportions plan to raise charges and fees.

Despite council tax bills soaring, many residents face further cuts in services. Most councils warned that they would be reducing a range of services, from adult social care to libraries and recycling.

The annual survey by the Local Government Information Unit thinktank found that cuts were increasingly visible and that after eight years of austerity – which has cost English councils 40% of their central funding – half of councils felt cuts were now “negatively affecting relationships with citizens”.

Cuts to services such as pothole repair, waste collection, school crossing patrols and libraries proved especially unpopular, the research found. Last week Somerset and Northamptonshire county councils reversed winter gritting cuts after a public outcry when untreated roads caused several car accidents during the recent cold snap.

One in 20 councils said they were concerned that funding cuts were now so deep that they would struggle to deliver the legal minimum level of services. Almost one in 10 anticipate legal challenges from the public against proposed cuts in service provision.


'I feel in control of my life': Alexa's new role in public service

This is very powerful because it shows how a bit of “savvy” linked to off the shelf digital can make a real difference. The story tells us:

Every few hours, Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant, helps Scott Walker stay well. Walker’s cerebral palsy means he has poor coordination and movement, but since last spring Alexa has reminded him to take his medication, as well as automating other tasks around his home.

Previously, Walker, who works at Next, used light from his television to get into bed, but can now turn the room lights on and off with his voice. “I haven’t fallen since I’ve had this machine,” he says. “It’s feeling you are in control of your life. My father doesn’t have to worry I am taking my pills at the right time.”

An estimated five million UK households have a device that runs either Alexa or Google’s equivalent, according to the research firm Enders Analysis.

While most people use chatbots – software that recognises spoken or written natural language and responds in kind – to play music or get answers to questions, there’s increasing interest in people using them to take greater control of their lives. “It could stop a partner becoming a carer,” Walker points out.

'We're going to the pub': finding a way out of loneliness, one app at a time

Walker’s speaker, provided as part of a pilot run by Hampshire county council for 50 recipients of adult social care, does not replace regular visits from care workers to help with physical movement, but means he can do more for himself.

Many social care visits are brief calls to check on whether, for instance, someone has taken their pills. If chatbots can replace some of these shorter visits, it could mean care workers being able to spend longer on more useful visits.

Graham Allen, Hampshire’s director of adult health and care, says almost three quarters of those in the pilot felt the device helped improve their lives and almost as many felt it had improved their independence, with numbers fairly consistent across different ages. “It’s not a cure-all,” he says. “It needs to be used along with other measures.” But he can see potential for many care service users living at home, and the county’s children’s social services department has just started issuing similar devices.


Employment rights for foster carers are essential to give children stability

I’m 100% behind the sentiment here but in our broken system of Local Government finance who is going to meet the additional costs? I hope central Government will find some extra resource. The story, written by a foster carer tells us:

The Fostering Network’s bleak State of the Nation report therefore came as no surprise, bar one comment: “a crisis is looming”. To those of us working as foster care workers, it is all too clear that this crisis is already here.

We established the foster care workers branch of Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) two-and-a-half years ago to provide a voice for foster carers, something we have never had before. One of our aims has been to provide foster carers with individual representation, which has put me in touch with carers across the country.

The story is the same everywhere. We are an exhausted, undervalued and disposable workforce. The system is simply not working. Not for us, and not for the children in our care. That’s why we launched our all-party parliamentary group on foster care work in Westminster. We recently presented the foster care workers bill, which we hope will bring a series of proposals into law. Now is the time for real solutions to this real crisis.

The solutions have come from our members. The message of the Fostering Network report was loud and clear: the majority of foster care workers are unhappy with their employment status. We are denied all employment rights because we are not legally recognised as workers.

Employment rights are badly needed by foster care workers, to support our children and ourselves. Without whistleblowing protection, we cannot challenge actions that we know are not in the interests of the children without fearing for ourselves. Without a minimum wage, many of us live on the edge of poverty, paying for extracurricular activities for children out of our savings. Without sick pay, carers often continue through serious illness.


Flybmi: Passengers stranded in Europe as firm advertised flights in final hours before administration

This is very sad. The main talking point here is the negative impact on small regional airports and UK wide regional connections arising from the loss of these sort of services. This is, I believe, a genuinely significant issue for rural economies. The story tells us:

A spokesperson for Flybmi said: “It is with a heavy heart that we have made this unavoidable announcement today. 

"The airline has faced several difficulties, including recent spikes in fuel and carbon costs.These issues have undermined efforts to move the airline into profit. 

"Current trading and future prospects have also been seriously affected by the uncertainty created by the Brexit process, which has led to our inability to secure valuable flying contracts in Europe.

“Additionally, our situation mirrors wider difficulties in the regional airline industry which have been well documented.”

Brian Strutton, General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association, said: “The collapse of FlyBMI is devastating news for all employees. 

"Regrettably BALPA had no warning or any information from the company at all. 

"Our immediate steps will be to support FlyBMI pilots and explore with the Directors and administrators whether their jobs can be saved.”


Stores accused of 'watering down' bottle deposit scheme

It seems to me that so many good ideas founder once we allow the private sector to get involved. Surely social enterprise is the way forward with schemes like this. This story tells us:

Large retailers have been accused of trying to water down a proposed scheme to improve rates of bottle recycling.

Environmentalists say large and small drinks containers alike should carry a catch-all deposit of more than 15p.

But retailers say small "on-the-go" bottles cause most litter, so large bottles should not be subject to a deposit as they are mostly recycled at home.

Ministers are still considering whether to exempt bigger plastic containers from the plans. 

How do bottle recycling schemes work?

The UK proposal, part of the Resources and Waste Strategy, is likely to copy one of the schemes adopted in other countries.

In Norway for instance, the shopper pays a deposit on every bottle - the equivalent of 10p to 25p depending on size.

The consumer drinks the product, then posts the empty bottle into a machine which produces a coupon to return the deposit.

This has led to recycling rates of 97% - whereas in the UK just over half of plastic bottles are recycled.


And Finally

Sundials are at risk of dying out because young people aren't interested, Cambridge expert suggests

Absolutely shocking revelation here – what happens when all the technology is turned off if we cant tell the time by the sun anymore!??

Dr Frank King estimated sundial experts were now down to their last 100 around the globe. 

He said few young people were rigorously tackling the maths required to design the timepieces - with British schools "scraping the surface" when it came to algebra, trigonometry and geometry.   

The sundial enthusiast, 76, a former computer science lecturer at Cambridge, is one of the leading experts in the field and designed iconic British timepieces including the 22-metre Noon Mark on the London Stock Exchange, which measures 22-metres long, and the Golden Jubilee sundial outside the House of Lords.  


About the author:
Hinterland is written for the Rural Services Network by Ivan Annibal, of rural economic practitioners Rose Regeneration.


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