Hinterland - 5 July 2021

In Hinterland this week – local authorities in financial trouble, planning challenges, John Lewis and an interesting diversification agenda, mental health problems for rural mums exacerbated by Covid, archaeological challenges and an interesting new job in Wales.

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Slough goes bankrupt after discovery of £100m ‘black hole’ in budget

This story is about Slough but Copeland, Peterborough and Redcar and Cleveland, which feature in the story, all have significant rural components. It explains how the pressure is bearing down on many local authorities. It tells us:

Slough is the third English council to become effectively insolvent in the past three years, following Northamptonshire and Croydon, and its predicament reflects a much wider precariousness in local government. The National Audit Office warned in March at least 25 authorities were on the brink of bankruptcy.

Eight councils, including Slough, were told earlier this week they faced an independent government-commissioned review into their finances as ministers decided whether to bail them out financially. The others are Bexley, Copeland, Eastbourne, Luton, Peterborough, Redcar & Cleveland, and Wirral.

Although Slough said its finances had been hit hard by the impact of Covid – leading to a collapse in council tax and business rates income – a report by its chief financial officer, Steven Mair, made clear the problems were deep-rooted and linked to accounting errors, lax financial controls and poor decisions.

“Slough’s financial problems have not arisen in the past few months. The approach to financial decision-making, leadership and management, processes, quality assurance and review etc that has been adopted by the council over a number of years was not robust and consequently highly detrimental to the council,” Mair’s report said.

Many of the problems recently uncovered related to previous years, the report said, and had they been know about at the time it is likely that the council would have been unable to meet its legal duties to set a legally balanced budget – raising the prospect it could have been technically insolvent as early as 2019.


‘It’s tearing us all apart’: housing plans in Sussex turn nimby against nimby

When rural places overheat in terms of housing pressures this is how it begins to feel….

Horsham district council will reveal this week where it intends to locate new settlements to meet government housing targets, with rival developers parading nine plans to build estates of up to 7,000 homes each on fields edged by areas of outstanding natural beauty and the South Downs national park.

The plans face an array of nimby opposition groups whose interests conflict, increasing community tensions and political discontent. The Conservative council is also “hopelessly divided”, said one developer, and a council source said ever-increasing housing targets sent from Whitehall were causing exasperation. The strategy will go to a full council vote at the end of the month.

“What is tearing us all apart is that when we win, others lose,” said Dave Tidey, a leading member of one of the opposition groups. “It doesn’t work. The government is standing back and letting the local authorities fall apart.”

Residents fear the destruction of habitats for turtle doves and purple emperor butterflies, as well as traffic chaos, with enough houses planned to accommodate a town the size of Dover.


John Lewis plans to build 10,000 rental homes on its land

Fascinating piece of lateral busines thinking…..

John Lewis is considering plans to build 10,000 homes over the next decade as the high street store group looks to revive its flagging fortunes by becoming a landlord.

The employee-owned group, which comprises the upmarket John Lewis department stores and the Waitrose supermarkets, is understood to have identified enough excess space on the land it owns to build at least 7,000 homes.

The properties, which will range from studio flats to four-bedroom houses, will be built on sites owned by the chain, above Waitrose supermarkets or on land next to the company’s distribution centres.

Tenants of a John Lewis-owned home will have the option of renting the property fully furnished with the department store’s products or using their own. Some of its housing developments are expected to come with a concierge service, and many are expected to include a Waitrose convenience store as part of the development.


Pregnant women in England denied mental health help because of Covid

Health and well-being is a big agenda in rural England. This side effect of covid will have affected many rural mothers. It tells us:

Thousands of pregnant women in England were denied vital help for their mental health because of the pandemic, analysis from leading psychiatrists shows.

In 2020-21, 47,000 were expected to access perinatal mental health services to help with conditions such as anxiety and depression during or after giving birth, but only 31,261 managed to get help in the most recent data for the 2020 calendar year only, according to analysis from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Up to one in five women have perinatal mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and other conditions occurring during pregnancy or in the first year after the birth of a child


Archaeologists dig in over planning reforms row

This is a very important feature of the agenda around rural development and I hope the issue is given the priority it deserves. This story tells us:

Historical discoveries could be at risk if government does not put archaeology at the heart of its new planning reforms, experts have warned.

Archaeologists, academics and professional bodies have launched a campaign to ensure their work with developers remains a legal requirement.

It has the backing of TV academics Prof Alice Roberts and Dan Snow, along with a number of MPs and peers.

The government said it was "determined to protect archaeological treasures".

Boris Johnson first announced his proposals for reform of the planning system in England last year, with the aim of stopping local opponents blocking development in designated "growth" zones.

The Planning Bill was then confirmed in the Queen's Speech in May - with the promise of a vote in Parliament in the coming year.

But there has already been disquiet on the Conservative benches over concerns it could side-line locals and lead to a "free for all" for development.

Now archaeologists are concerned that the current rigorous assessments required by developers - laid out in law in 1990 by the then-Conservative government - are missing and they want guarantees the bill will include them, else heritage in the country could be lost.


And Finally

Wales appoints UK’s first wildlife and rural crime coordinator

As in many ways Welsh rural policy is ahead of England in the appointment of this role. This story tells us:

The Welsh government on Thursday unveiled its wildlife and rural crime coordinator, the first role of its kind in the UK.

Rob Taylor’s job will involve working with the four police forces in Wales, the UK government, other emergency services and wildlife and farming representatives to tackle countryside crime from fly-tipping to heating oil theft.

But the most headline-grabbing investigation he is involved in is the attack on the nest of a pair of ospreys at the Llyn Brenig reservoir in north Wales in May. Just hours after the female osprey laid an egg, an attacker arrived under the cover of darkness and chopped the nesting platform down with a chainsaw. The egg was lost and the ospreys are still at the site without a nest to protect or chicks to nurture.


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


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