Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for November, 2017|Monthly archive page

THE SCOURGE OF “UNIVERSAL CREDIT”

In A.Graham, R.Richardson on November 7, 2017 at 6:51 am

Explained by RUTH RICHARDSON

Universal Credit was introduced in 2012 as part of the Welfare Reform Act (sic). Its aims were to simplify the system whereby clients claimed a number of benefits with a multiplicity of forms to fill in. It also aimed to encourage people into work and to make sure that work paid. And, it was claimed, the system would reduce fraud and be cheaper to administer.

The transition to Universal Credit from so-called “legacy benefits” such as Jobseekers’ Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit and Housing Benefit has been gradual. But it is the Government’s aim that the roll out should be completed by 2022.  A report from the Trussel Trust [1] lists a number of points of difference from the previous system.

These include:

  1. A six-week delay for first-time claimants.
  2. Payments made in arrears with housing benefits paid directly to claimants rather than landlords.
  3. New forms of conditionality for claimants both in and out of work.
  4. Digitisation of how payments are managed (ie, on-line communication regarding benefits).
  5. Some reductions in the amounts received.

The Trussel Trust report detailed the problems clients face in coping with these changes.  The six week delay in the first payment hits particularly hard and food banks report that this alone has led to a 65 per cent increase in referrals.

Digitisation seemed fraught with difficulties with misinformation, claims being lost and documents misplaced.  To speak to an advisor directly, claimants have to hold on for an average of 40 minutes (at no small cost).  In fact the administration in general seems to be in disarray.

Since Universal Credit has been introduced, Food Banks have seen increasing problems with mental health, debt, work issues and housing. The report emphasises that where possible clients are sign-posted to local support services such as Citizens Advice – though these services are often stretched with a waiting list for appointments.

CALL FOR RE-THINK:

This report was published in April this year.  More recently, a newsletter from the Trust asks for the Universal Credit roll-out to be halted.  The Trust asks the Government to re-think the six-week waiting time for a first payment and to tackle the poor administration that can lead to ever longer waits.  More support for claimants could be provided through programmes like Universal Support [2]

Meanwhile the Trust calls for a  pause “particularly until appropriate emergency financial support is available and accessible to all people left with no income and no food in the cupboard.”

It is feared that as winter approaches problems will only get worse for the most vulnerable in our society.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] The Trussel Trust is the largest provider of Food Banks in the UK. Like many charities (such as Amnesty International) it bends over backwards to appear non-political.

[2] Universal Support is a partnership between the DWP and local authorities to give advice on the transition to Universal Credit.


FOCUS: What happened to public transport in the Forest?

a Clarion report by A. Graham

There was a time when we were well served by bus and rail services both in and out of the Forest of Dean – but sadly those days have long since gone.

The network of bus services is now dominated by Stagecoach, whilst all that’s left of the public rail service are the trains that serve Lydney station.  The network that once ran up into the Forest (and indeed across the Severn) has long since gone (true, we have the Dean Forest Railway, but that is basically a tourist-style “heritage” line).

ON THE BUSES:

The bus network in the Dean, and indeed beyond, was swallowed up through a ruthless takeover of other local companies in Gloucestershire by the Stagecoach group. It followed a series of acquisitions by the company throughout the country.  When Stagecoach finally set its sights on our neck of the woods in the early 1990s, it took over four companies in one fell swoop – Cheltenham & District, City of Gloucester, Stroud Valleys – and Red & White Services with its network of routes in the Forest and into South Wales.

The “Red & White” company had its head offices in Bulwark, near Chepstow, though its roots were in Lydney, having been founded by the John Watts’ group of companies between the wars. In 1950 Red & White was brought under public control along with other major bus undertakings throughout the UK. Routes were co-ordinated in order to provide an integrated network of services throughout the country, and fare levels were controlled.

In the Forest, there were two major bus service “hubs” – one in Lydney and the other in Cinderford. In Lydney (as an example) there was a sizeable bus depot and a cafe. The main service operated from Gloucester through Lydney and on to Cardiff – whilst there was also a service up to Hereford. From Cinderford there were connections with the Western Welsh company’s buses.

“DE-REGULATION”:

All this came to an end with legislation passed by the Thatcher Government in October 1986. This de-regulated the way that buses were operated, and effectively ended public control. Before then there had been a legal obligation on bus operators to provide adequate services, whilst any changes in routes or fares was subjected to scrutiny.

CHAOS – FOLLOWED BY CO-ORDINATION:

The immediate result of the legislation was chaos, when any old Tom, Dick or Harry who felt that he/she could run a bus service could buy up an old bus or two and put it on the road. In many parts of the country, timetables ceased to have any meaning. But then came a phase of co-ordination, with the big companies putting the privateers out of business. Within a short while Stagecoach and the “First Bus” groups established a virtual monopoly in their respective areas.

It should, though, be noted that for a while some well-established local operators (such as Soudley Valley Coaches, Cottrells, Willetts and – of courses – Bevans, continued to provide an adequate network of local services in the Forest – but over time they were put out of service or taken over. Now only Willetts and Bevan’s survive.

OFF THE RAILS:

What of the rail network that once served the Forest? Much of it survived the notorious “Beeching Report” (although there was a degree of shrinkage), but the old Forest and Wye network suffered a mortal blow with the destruction of the old Severn rail bridge in 1960. After a decade of inaction it was finally decided to demolish it in 1970.

When John Major came to power he decided to de-nationalise British Rail and carve up the remnants of the network into an overlapping patchwork of franchises. At the present time, our last remaining railway line is served by two passenger rail companies – Arriva and CrossCountry. Both are now owned by Deutsche Bahn (the German state railway) – although their franchises are up for renewal. So, as they say, watch this space!

Advertisements

Obituary: BART VENNER: “THE QUIET MAN”

In Obiturary, Uncategorized on November 7, 2017 at 6:41 am

The Crematorum, near Cinderford, was packed to capacity for the funeral of Bart Venner at the beginning of August. Indeed many of those who came to pay their respects to Bart were unable to get into the building.

Many of us knew Bart through the Labour Party, which he always served faithfully and well.  But there was more to Bart than this. Although not a Forester by birth, his dedication to the Dean gave him the right to regard himself as one.

He came here back in the ‘fifties to take up a training course at the old Parkend Forestry School. And he worked for the Forestry Commission all his working life.

A QUICK REPLANT:

One story told about his forestry work was of a visit to the Dean by the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. They planted young oak trees in the plantation beyond Speech House. When they departed, the trees were promptly dug up and taken away as souvenirs. Forestry Commission workers, including Bart, were called out hastily to plant replacements… no names, no pack drill, of course.

Norway spruce were also planted, and, despite a bout of appalling weather in the early 1960s, they also survived as a testament to Bart and his fellow Forestry workers.

Another story from his young Forestry days dated back to the last war, when soldiers used trees for firing practice, peppering the trunks with lead. When the trees were felled for timber, merchants were advised to use metal detectors to check for “lead poisoning” before applying a chain saw to the felled tree trunks.   .

A LABOUR STALWART:

Bart’s allegiance to the Labour Party was engrained in him, like the lettering in a stick of rock.  He held a number of offices within the  Party, including as councillor on the District Council   It’s worth noting, as well, that he was always a  good friend to the Clarion, taking a quiet interest in our paper, and even contributing to its columns.

PEDALLING AWAY:

Bart’s other interest was reflected in his membership of the Forest’s cycling club, and his fellow members were well represented at his funeral. Bart had asked that mourners should attend the event dressed in “something colourful”, and his fellow cyclists came along dressed suitably in their lycra cycling gear.

Those who knew Bart always had a sense of affectionate respect for him. Tributes included the fact that he “was a thoroughly nice chap” and “a true gentleman.” He will be particularly missed by his family.


MEDIA WATCH: STOP PRESS: THE “CITIZEN” BECOMES A WEEKLY

by a Clarion correspondent

So our long-established local evening paper, the Citizen, is ceasing to publish on a daily basis and now will be coming to us on a weekly basis instead.

This should come as no surprise to its readers. It’s happened before in towns and cities across the country as our local press has been cut back, to meet falling sales, and (more important to publishers) cuts in advertising revenue. A number of cities have suffered as their local daily papers have become weekly papers. In many places even local weekly papers have been axed, in a cull of the local press across the UK.

CHANGE IN OWNERSHIP:

For many decades the Citizen and its sister paper, the Cheltenham-based Echo, were owned by the Daily Mail group, which also controlled other local papers throughout the country. The Citizen tended to reflect the business-orientated views and coverage of the Mail group in its pages. But then, a few years back, the Mail decided to sell off all of its interests in the local press – and the Citizen and Echo both passed into the hands of the Mirror group.

A change in the tone of the papers was soon apparent. But, it seems, economies still had to be made. The first, took place when publication of the Citizen was moved out of Gloucester altogether – to the Echo offices in Cheltenham.

Shared facilities didn’t stretch as far as combining the two titles into one paper, however. Perhaps the new owners decided that was a step too far! But it was a far cry from the days when our Citizen managed to produce local editions for the diverse areas in its catchment area – such as the city of Gloucester, the Stroud Valleys – and, of course, the Forest of Dean.

“HEART THROB OF THE COMMUNITY”:

Once upon a time local newspapers represented the heart throb of the local communities where they were published. They were bought eagerly when they appeared on the streets or in the newsagents. Some older folk may remember when daily papers (local and national) would include a “Stop Press” column to be filled with any “breaking news”, as we call it today, just as the paper was about to be roll on to the presses. Others would run to two or more editions.

Those days have, of course, long since gone. And newspapers have had to move with the times. They are no longer just in competition with each other but also with other, more immediate, sources of news such as television or on line, on the ‘web.

But our local press still, or should, perform a function. It keeps members of local communities in touch with each other. It can ferret out the minutiae of local life or provide a platform for local issues and debate.

In the Dean, we still have the Forester, not to mention the “freebie”, the Review (both, incidentally, now owned by the Tindle group), both of which appear weekly and are published in the Forest. And both still maintain a reasonable coverage of local affairs.

WHAT ABOUT THE CITIZEN?

So, what of the Citizen? In September, the paper announced its decision to go weekly. In explanation of the move, it declared: “We still have a loyal print audience but the majority of the people who read the Citizen and the Echo do so just once a week.

“Daily readership is coming more and more from our website Gloucestershire Life and our digital audience – not just on the site but across social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter – is showing amazing year-on-year growth. And our digital advertising revenues are growing at the same rate.

“In making this change, we’re acknowledging and reacting to how our readers behave.”

Thus says the Citizen spokesperson. She doesn’t explain, though, why the Citizen plus Echo couldn’t use these rising profits from its online activities to cross-fertilise a daily print edition of its papers. Neither does it give any figures on possible loss of jobs involved in the switch from a six-day a week publication to a weekly.

Of course more and more newspapers are adding “on line” editions to their print versions. The Daily Mail on line edition is particularly successful. But it should not be at the expense of print editions.

When Caxton developed the printing press in the Middle Ages he revolutionised communication. It allowed the emergence of newspapers from the 17th Century onwards. Not immediately, maybe, but over time they became the major source of communicating news, opinion, debate, and so much more.

It would be a pity if yet more printed newspapers are superseded by the more ephemeral on line alternative when it comes to communication.

 

EDUCATION MATTERS & HEALTH WATCH

In O. Adams, R.Richardson, Uncategorized on November 7, 2017 at 6:26 am

COMING TOGETHER:

Earlier this year we heralded the amalgamation of two large teachers’ unions – the NUT and the ATL. Now it has happened, and the result is a union half a million strong – the fourth biggest affiliate to the TUC. Its title is the National Education Union (NEU).

The NEU will have its work cut out. De-regulation and marketisation has seen local authorities undermined and support services cut.  A prescribed narrowed down curriculum is dominated by assessment and testing and teachers’ workloads are unacceptable.    The new union, says the Morning Star, “promotes an opportunity for an organised fight-back against the dominant ideas that have done so much damage in education.”

SATS SCRAPPED FOR 7 YEAR-OLDS:

Infants’ teachers throughout England have no doubt seized with delight on the news that SATS (Standard Assessment Tests) for seven-year-olds are to be scrapped – but not until 2023.  If it has at last been recognised that these tests are, as teachers have long argued, harmful, why wait six years to abolish them? A new “baseline” check will be introduced in the reception class, presumably to help assess progress made – yet it’s something else to fit in to the busy infants’ teacher’s day.

CUTS IN FUNDING:

School funding was one of the key issues in June’s General Election. Here in the Forest leaflets were distributed outlining what the proposed cuts would mean to individual schools. Many Conservative MPs pointed to the cuts as being a decisive factor behind the Tories losing their majority, and several in the worst affected areas lost their seats after sustained anti-cuts campaigns. Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, under significant pressure from her own MPs, was forced finally to find an extra £1.3 billion to ensure that no school was left worse off after the reforms. But heads complain that inflationary cost pressures have not been addressed, and that schools are still losing out in real terms.

TROUBLE UP NORTH:

We have long been concerned at the lack of accountability of academies. Now the Wakefield City Academies Trust has admitted that it is unable to improve its schools quickly enough, and is asking the Department of Education to seek new sponsors for its 21 schools.

Only two years ago this trust was earmarked by the Government as one of the best-performing sponsors in the North. It was handed a share of a £5 million pot to take on more schools.  Since then, however, it has come to light that the trust paid £440,000 to companies owned by the CEO, Mike Ramsay and his daughter.

A report some months ago in the Independent said that the trust had been put in an “extremely vulnerable position as a result of inadequate governance, leadership and overall financial management.”

SCHOOLING IN FINLAND:

Robin Head, an educationalist writing in the Morning Star, produced an interesting article on education in Finland. It is a country, says Head, whose standards are universally admired and which does very well in the international “Pisa” league tables.

In Finland young children up to the age of seven learn mainly through play, develop at their own pace and are not crammed with inappropriate rules of grammar or mathematical theory.

When more formal teaching is introduced classes are of mixed ability and are kept below 24 pupils in size. Pupils have free transport to their nearest school and free school meals. There are no league tables and no national inspection system – the teaching profession is trusted to regulate itself.

Such a regime, says Robin Head, improves life chances and opportunities for all.

He goes on, “Theresa May and Justine Greenwood would do well to heed the lesson of the Finnish experience.”

Print

mstar_logo


HEALTH WATCH: OPPOSITION TO FOREST HOSPITAL PLANS

When the authorities produced their new plans for hospital provision in the Forest of Dean they might have thought that it was all a matter of working out the details.

It was about replacing the Dean’s two existing hospitals with one single facility (referred to as “the hub” in technical jargon).  It was, they thought, just a matter of deciding where this new “hub” would be sited – and perhaps a bit of tweaking of the facilities to be offered.

Although the concept had been on the cards for some time, it only became public in mid-September – and immediately controversy came bubbling to the surface.

It wasn’t simply a parochial reaction to the (still) rather sketchy plans – though there was a certain amount of that in where, out of the three Forest towns, would the new facilities be based. It was more concern about what this new “hub” would offer.

SOME ANSWERS?

The Forest Review gave us some information. First it would be paid for by the NHS. No threat of private capital, then.  The new hospital would contain a “minimum” of 24 beds. This compares with the combined number of 47 in the Dilke and Lydney at present. Readers can, of course, do their own maths.

Meanwhile, we’re told, that the new “hub” would contain a “wider range of services” possibly including an endoscopy suite. What it wouldn’t have, though is a maternity unit, or a full operating theatre.  For such facilities patients are expected to take themselves out of the Forest to such places as Gloucester or even further afield.

The new hospital is planned to open by 2021 – though given the consultation needed plus the decision making involved before work actually begins, such a planned opening date must be speculative to say the least.

NEED FOR CAMPAIGN:

There is, of course, concern about these plans, with some critics feeling the need for a campaign of opposition on the scale of the “SOS” campaign in a previous decade, when a (“New Labour”) government put forward plans to close both the Forest’s hospitals.. That campaign was successful.

According to one critical Facebook page, “this consultation is asking us to sign up to plans without scrutiny of them.  All we know is there will be half the number of beds there currently is.”

A PERSONAL VIEWPOINT:

Meanwhile, Owen Adams writes:

“… do you worry about the lack of any detail except the new hospital will be ‘state of the art’ , have better X-ray facilities and endoscopy  if we’re really lucky (but no maternity ward and half the number of beds – and no guaranteed minor injuries unit either… )

“Are you concerned that our attachment to the two hospitals is patronisingly classed by professionals as “emotional” or “affectionate” – never mind that the Dilke was built by mostly local subscription, is public land in the heart of the Forest (private developers must already be dreaming of the pounds) and has a covenant for the site to be always used for a facility to treat the poor and the sick?”

“Are you convinced this project has nothing to do with asset-stripping; the Naylor Report (now Government policy) to help make £220m of NHS cuts (otherwise known as ‘savings’) or to help private contractors rake in one billion pounds in contracts?

“Maybe it’s just me but I feel we’re being ripped off … and a great many of our elected and unelected representatives have fallen for the con (and that goes for people of all political persuasions). Anyone with a vanity development project they want fulfilled?”

Print

MODERN TIMES: the Dinosaur column

In Dinosaur, Uncategorized on November 7, 2017 at 6:06 am

dinosaurThe Rees-Mogg view on Foodbanks

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the old Etonian MP for North East Somerset, recently voiced his views on Food Banks,

His opinion wasn’t exactly the kind of outright denunciation that we’ve heard from other Tory leaders in the past. Indeedy, he found that the growing use of Food was “rather uplifting”.  After all, he mused, they showed what a “good, compassionate society we are”.

After all, said Rees-Mogg in a radio interview, “I don’t think the state can do everything that it tries.”

Well, it might if it tried. But a Tory-run state doesn’t even try.  It may be quite ruthless in making cuts, but it doesn’t even try to make provision for the growing number of people stuck on or below the poverty level. Under the Tory Government poverty has increased steadily.

But Rees-Mogg denies that. He declares that the increase in the use of food banks has come about because more people in need now know that they’re there. Before Labour “had refused to tell them”.

Eh?  What kind of blinkered world does Rees-Mogg live in?  No wonder he’s the favourite amongst Tory Party members to be the next Party leader.

What me? Party leader?

Another MP who may be touted (or not) as next Tory Party leader is our own Mark Harper.  When asked by the Citizen whether he might throw his hat into the ring, he denied any such thought.

It seems that his name was included in a list of possible contenders published in the Sun newspaper.  But Harper declared in the Citizen that he was focusing on supporting the Prime Minister in “delivering a successful Brexit and making improvements here at home” (sic).

That’s a good boy, Mark. I wouldn’t get ideas above your station if I were you.

Ours not to reason why:

I’m indebted to Terry Haines, Co-op Party member and one-time mayor of Gloucester, for this letter which appeared in a recent issue of The Forester.

“Meeting a respected community leader, who had canvassed with me for a “Remain” vote, I asked: “Voted yet?”

“Yes, OUT, the council didn’t collect my bin last week”.

Another pensioner colleague voted “Out”, annoyed her surgery had re-arranged an appointment.

Earlier I was vehemently told by a “Leave” voter, proudly polishing his new BMW in a street where 40 per cent of the cars were German: “listen mate, the Germans will always want our cars.”

I canvassed many old and poor people epitomised by the “Alf Garnett “diatribe: “I’ve lived under 19 different prime ministers and been poor under every single one.”

This solid “Leave” vote was surprised to find we were in the EU the next week. They were suffering from the 15 per cent rise in retail prices and the losses in the emigrant services they need from their NHS and caring services. Many thought we would be back to the Empire and its imported riches.

Should our country be subjected to such fickleness?”

Indeed, Terry. Indeed.

Cost of Yorkley Court:

It was revealed last month that the cost of evicting those who occupied Yorkley Court amounted to a staggering £150,000.  So now we know where the money went in this whole shoddy business.  The biggest amount was the cost of the overblown police presence at the site, with legal costs also adding to the total sum.

And what was gained by this eviction?  As I see it, nothing at all. But in my opinion. We lost a praise-worthy initiative from a group of eco-farmers (following in the footsteps of the 17th Century “diggers”)

Dinosaur

 

CLARION COMMENT: IT’S BREXIT AGAIN – BUT PERHAPS NOT AS WE’VE KNOWN IT

In Editorial, Uncategorized on November 7, 2017 at 5:58 am

Suddenly Theresa May has changed tack in her negotiations with the EU over our departure from the European Union. Gone is the image of a tough Prime Minister, intent on steam-rolling through a “hard Brexit” (and the harder the better). Suddenly we’ve got the conciliatory May, willing to go that extra term in order to iron out our differences with EU leaders.

In so doing she rather flummoxed such hardliners as Boris Johnson (though he had to swallow his bile and give his backing to the PM). But if such newspapers as the Mail and Express were anything to go by, Boris was soon once more stepping out of line. As for Nigel Farage’s reaction – well, let’s not go down that road!

SO WHY THE CHANGE IN APPROACH?

So why did May execute this sudden volte face in her approach to the EU negotiators? Was it because it eventually dawned on her that being tough was getting her absolutely nowhere? That attempts to fix up alternative trade deals were falling apart? And that the only way to ensure markets for the UK was to extend our connections with the European Union as long as possible?

It’s difficult to say exactly what was going on in her mind – but her new approach of slowing down the whole process involved in Brexit certainly seems to have led to dissent in the ranks of the Tory Party. The Express (24th September) headlined Boris’s claim that he masterminded the Brexit campaign.

“FAKE NEWS”?

Of course the Mail, and (particularly) the Express are noted for producing what’s become known as “fake news”. Maybe we need to take their claims about Boris leading the revolt with a pinch of salt – but having said that, there’s no doubt that there’s dissent in the Tory ranks.

But getting back to the facts, Theresa May chose to propose her change in the Brexit programme at a meeting in Florence. She was there with Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson and David Davis ostensibly to present a united front on her new proposals. In Florence there was no public dissent from the UK (Tory) delegation. What Boris’s private thoughts were at this point were kept to himself.

But there will, no doubt, be dissent amongst the Brexit-leaning members of the Tory Party. There could even possibly be a revival in the fortunes of UKIP (though we’re placing no bets). Suffice to say, May has placed her party at yet another cross-roads. Which direction her membership will choose to go (let alone the electorate as a whole) remains to be seen.

BACKWARDS WITH THE LIB DEMS:

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have been meeting in conference under their new leader, Vince Cable (back once more in the Commons). They chose another road completely – one that would involve another referendum, to bring the UK back into the European Union. Whether such a move is even possible is questionable. And whether it would achieve the desired effect is not certain. The Lib Dems’ approach seems to be that voters should be told that they made the wrong choice, and they’re being given a second chance to change their minds.

Sadly, Mr. Cable, that’s not quite how it works. Particularly when the Party only has twelve MPs at its disposal!


LABOUR IN CONFERENCE: LABOUR UNITES BEHIND CORBYN (But still has differences over BREXIT)

The Labour Party chose Brighton (again) for its annual conference in September. This time it really seemed like a Party preparing for power.

When the next General Election will be remains to be seen. That depends largely on who’s leading the Tories when the time comes (It might well not be Theresa May). What’s clear is that the Labour Party is united behind Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – even though there seem to be still significant differences over Brexit.

Even before the referendum there were those in the Party who backed Brexit (though the official party line was to remain part of the EU). Now opinion has become even more fragmented within Labour. There were those who demonstrated outside conference carrying both Labour banners and EU flags. As for Jeremy, he seems to have taken a more idiosyncratic line.

It’s not over the free movement of labour once we actually leave the European Union (there seems to be general agreement over this). It’s over how far we can accept a transitional period of association with the EU (or agreeing to the “market” elements of association with it) if its rules oppose the re-nationalisation of key elements of our infrastructure (such as the railways, for example). Or indulging in public investment projects. This may be a valid point.

Basically, if we follow the Jeremy Corbyn vision then we leave the EU, but accept the right of its citizens to travel to or to live or work in England – but also work for the right to plan and shape our own economy, including the public ownership of key elements within that economy.

Differences were still apparent at Labour’s conference, but it’s likely that such a line will gain general agreement. For one who has spent long and formative years within the EU (and its predecessor, the European Economic Union), it has changed our perceptions. To a certain extent we’ve all become Europeans now. The right to travel or to live and work throughout Europe has become ingrained and (to some extent) is practised even by the most hardened Eurosceptics.

It would be regrettable if that was to change. Maybe Labour’s conference has done something to ensure that it doesn’t. After all we still have links with like-minded European political parties plus the trade union movement.

Of course Labour’s conference debated other, equally important topics. At the end of the day, the “i” newspaper commented that Labour was now looking like “a Government in waiting”.

We’ll see…