Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Berkshire Employment Outlook

Official mid-year job figures have been published showing the strength of the local economy, as average unemployment rates continue to be among the lowest nationwide.

Slough and Reading lag behind on unemployment, reflecting the continuing existence of relative deprivation in these more heavily-urbanised areas. However joblessness fell across the six local authorities, each showing monthly reductions, with only Slough showing any deviation from the trend as JSA claimant numbers increased by 1.5% compared to 12 months ago.

As Louisa Peacock explains, the variability between unemployment and claimant counts masks changes to the way the labour market functions.

While more people are in work changes to the way figures are measured means the total claimant count also reflect shifts from other forms of welfare, such as incapacity benefit. With public sector cuts expected to bite in the next 12 months, she says, most analysts predict a 5% rise in national unemployment to around 2.6m.

In total there were 13,132 JSA claimants across Berkshire in June 2011. Among local recruitment websites jobsearch aggregator Adzuna was advertising 7,519 workplace vacancies in the county and totaljobs records 3,089 unfilled placements at the time of writing.

Reading East MP Rob Wilson expressed encouragement at the report,
"Reading is continuing its strong economic performance and continues to weather these tough times reasonably well. However, there is no room for complacency, so it is imperative that claimants continue to work together with local organisations such as the Jobcentre Plus, to help them back into work."
Yet an underlying threat still remains as the number of young people categorised as NEETs (not in employment, education or training) showed rises in the same period.

Cllr Daisy Benson highlights the positive legacy of increased emphasis on apprenticeships as a key method of improving life chances for young people, but warns that this may be undermined as Reading's new Labour administration have only promised to 'monitor progress' on this front.

Meanwhile, according to Ashley Curtis, the development of improved transport links such as Crossrail will only aid the local picture, giving a boost to the civil engineering sector with the creation of new rail and construction jobs in the area and reducing travel times to and between commercial centres.

This will be particularly significant in the future as Berkshire maintains one of the highest commuter populations in the country. The recently released 2011 Berkshire Economic Assessment complied by Berkshire Observatory shows Reading is also the only net importer of jobs among all neighbouring authorities, a product of the good communication links enjoyed by the would-be city.

Local Authority, JSA Claimants, Unemployment Rate, NEETs
Reading - 3,528 (3.3%), 299
Bracknell - 1,606 (2.1%), 155
Slough - 3,221 (3.7%), 167
West Berkshire - 1,781 (1.8%), n/r
Windsor and Maidenhead - 1,631 (n/r), n/r
Wokingham - 1,365 (1.3%), 155

National unemployment stands at 2.45m (7.7%) according to the ILO Survey, with 1.52m claiming Job Seeeker's Allowance.

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more on jobs

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

'Limited Life' of Social Care Services

West Berkshire Council has promised to intervene despite not being legally responsible for the care of residents in three homes put at risk by the collapse of the country's largest private care home operator Southern Cross.

However, after receiving many similar public assurances and only weeks after being given a four-month period of grace to find a solution managers have forced the Darlington-based company to close and it will be broken up.

Trading in shares ceased as a plan was proposed which would see shareholders 'wiped out'. Under this scheme 250 homes are to be transferred to current landlords holding care accreditation and the remaining 500 are expected to be sold to other operators.

Problems arose as the company's economic model became unsustainable when property rental increases of 30% combined with consistent inflation of 4-5% over several years and reduced public fees caused by recent cuts to council budgets. The company posted losses of £311m in the last financial year and proposed slashing its workforce by 3,000. Shares trading at £6 each in late 2007 were suspended at 6.25p earlier this week.

Of the 752 centres threatened, the homes in Hungerford, Tilehurst and Burghfield Common providing places for 67 people are among those designated as on 'limited life', while six other residential facitilies in the county face a 'worrying wait' over their fate, including one with 137 residents in Rodway Road, Tilehurst, and those  on London Road, Ascot and Murdoch Road, Wokingham.

English Community Care Association chief executive, Martin Green, explained that the collapse of Southern Cross indicated funding in the independent care sector "is very much an issue that other providers are facing because of the levels of resource that they have to deliver care on."

David Rogers from the Local Government Association concentrated on the immediate, commenting, "a solution has been found which will hopefully avoid major upheaval for the vulnerable people involved."

Meanwhile Tracey Morgan, chief executive of Berkshire East Age Concern, 'hit out' at 'cracks in the system' of social care to back calls made by the Dilnot Commission in its' report 'How Will We Pay For Elderly Care?' fornational standards to raise the threshold for funded care by from £23,250 to £100,000, which should provide wider access for additional numbers of people as an aging population is squeezed by the double-whammy of rising costs and low personal savings.

Records show 3,052 people in Slough benefitted from adult social care last year, more than 2% of inhabitants, including 263 in residential care and 202 in nursing homes. The Economist reports demand for adult care has risen 9% in four years nationwide, but councils are now facing 5-8% cuts in this area.

Writing in a post in which she gives her backing to the coalition government's response to the Dilnot Commission report, 'Vision for adult social care: capable communities and active citizens', Labour's Cllr Rachel Eden trumpets Reading's signing of a cross-party declaration, arguing that 'now is the time to reform Adult Social Care'.

She also highlights the growing pressure on services as an aging population increases demand, blaming a  'postcode lottery' and budget cuts which she says are the product of low economic growth.

Wokingham's Conservative MP John Redwood discusses the proposals, casting the spectre of new taxes such as Dilnot's preferred option of National Insurance contributions to be paid by retirees or the resurrection of Labour's notorious 'Death Tax'.

LibDems understandably offered only muted support for Labour's move to support a Parliamentary Early Day Motion and their calls to 'build consensus on meaningful reform'.

Cllr Daisy Benson gives an extensive explanation that even according to the council's own findings council policies fail to meet the needs of carers, and emphasising the needs of formal care over informal care ends up putting more of a burden on the 'hidden heroes' who look after loved ones in their own homes and are often in an even more vulnerable position - she estimates there are more than 11,000 informal carers living in Reading alone, almost 1-in-10 of the whole population!

Gareth Epps is more sanguine about the Dilnot report, pointing out that the price of blanket funding increases for the 'baby-boomer' generation is likely to off-set by 'unjust' reductions for younger generations, contravening guidelines to ensure equality across age-groups in dealing with the spending implications of policy changes.

As if to prove his point Slough Borough Council came under heavy criticism by Ofsted inspectors in a recent report into child protection services.

Auditors described 'inadequate quality of risk assessment, care planning, managerial oversight' and highlighted several challenges in case work, such as cases where reviews to reflect changes in family situation were not undertaken, and difficulties in enforcing care agreements caused by insufficient and inaccurate communication with families.

They found a lack of contingency planning had resulted in 'systemic failure', although praise was reserved for consideration of equality and diversity issues and integration with other agencies.

The responsiveness of consultation with service recipients can also be seen in the open manner Slough Link publishes the results of surveys, although questions could be raised about any conclusions drawn given the size and relevance of a sample group from which only 76 responses included the most from pupils of Slough Grammar School.

The array of council-funded websites and directories for young people's services in Slough is remarkable, reflecting the borough's bold 2006 plan for young people and the active organisation of elections for a regular CYP Cabinet since then.

However Slough's officially-endorsed statement that their commitment made in the light of 'high-profile cases of child abuse, neglect and death' to make 'staying safe' their most important priority, and the promise in their statement of intent to provide 'safe access' to children and young people's services, will now be placed firmly under the spotlight as a new risk assessment of all current cases will be undertaken "to ensure the serious shortcomings in quality assurance arrangements are addressed by strengthening management oversight."

Since the authority was assessed 'good' in all departmental areas by a Joint Area Review in 2006 and began to implement measures to raise standards to 'outstanding' this updated report indicates major complacency has crept in and raises major concerns similar to those seen only recently in Wokingham and Reading.


Oranjepan says:
Whether from economic, financial or demographic pressure, or the bungling of management and the public ability to access services, social care in Berkshire is a precious resource which hits right at the heart of personal quality-of-life measures which could affect us all at some stage. Anything which destabilises support invariably has a disproportionate effect creating insecurity and chaos for those least able to cope - causing severe trouble for those who fall through the gaps when appropriate intervention is missed, not forgetting the wider social impact and problems of clear-up.

Calls for politicians and officers to 'get a grip' are all well and good, but events also show just how easy it is for them to lose their grip.

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More on Social Care Services

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Maidenhead Banker now a 'Witch Doctor'

After a ceremony in which he endured significant hardships a 32-year-old from Maidenhead, Thomas Heathfield, has graduated as a Sangoma, reports Thabisile Khoza.

The process to become a traditional tribal healer culminated at Mangweni village near Komatipoort, in South Africa's Mpumalanga province, where he was given the new name, Gogo Mndawe. He kept himself isolated from all family and friends in the initiation period until he was able to prove himself in a series of tests which included a three-day mission to find an animal’s bladder and other body parts secreted in the nearby landscape, then performing the ritualised drinking and vomiting of goat's blood as onlookers ululated in an open-air twasa ceremony.

Lungile Tsetse, Gogo Mndawe and Gogo Dingani (l-r)
Three months were spent living rough in the bush, wearing traditional robes and hunting for animal parts. During training he would sleep for 4 hours, waking up every day at 2.30am to perform a ritual dance called kuhlehla, creating a spiritual trance. He also learnt about the uses for different herbs and divination through bone throwing.

Mr Heathfield only quit his job as a freelance consultant offering advice to banks on risk and information security in February this year, when he made the unusual decision to convert as part of what he described as a 'spiritual awakening' guided by his friend, Lungile Tsetse, who was a regular visitor to Berkshire.

Initially he had difficulties with the local SiSwati language, explaining, "It made me dig deeper and deeper to summon the will power to do things I never thought I'd be capable of."

"Some people might see this as a weird decision... Now I’m living in the real world more." He added, "there was a period of learning to renounce control, to think less and do more. Before, I was paid to ask questions but here, questions aren't important. It's about doing things without asking."

"This is a completely different cultural practice, but we are happy that our son managed to combine it with ours," commented his mother, Ally, who also attended the graduation.

Rachel Dalton suggests if you're desperate to escape the furiously competitive world of corporations and finance, it couldn't provide a greater contrast.

Yet as Jim West provocatively argues, to go from 'eating babies' to drinking goat's blood "isn't as big a stretch as you might imagine." The lutheran reformist obviously isn't fanatical about voodoo economics!

However, it was more of a personal quest to find himself a wife after a decade of being 'unlucky in love', according to Adrian Shaw.

Mr Heathfield described his plans to stay on for a couple of weeks with his trainer Gogo Dingani and her husband at their home in Mangawe, Zimbabwe (where over 500 Sangomas of different ethnic backgrounds have been accredited by the Traditional Healers Association), before moving to a thatched house in Cape Town where he will get married and set up a clinic to start his active vocation as social worker and psychological counsellor among traditional community.

Elsewhere Stephanie Hegarty investigates the charlatan healers and other 'shady characters' who promote Sangoma by preying on vulnerable individuals seeking greater belonging in hyper-mediated westernised culture - people who exist in both modern and traditional societies.

Over at Shaman Tube they notice the growing trend of Europeans undertaking the practice of Sangoma as it becomes 'big business' following legalisation after the Apartheid period.

Meanwhile Mike de Kock celebrates the 'feeling of oneness' befitting multi-cultural visions of 'a proper rainbow nation' as he encourages gamblers on Africa's richest horse race to make their predictions using any method they might be familiar with - though noticably not form or pedigree.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Images of Dereliction

Local digital artist @darrennisbett has opened a new exhibition in Eton to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.

Boutique photo gallery Rhubarb & Custard is showing a series of his striking pictures captured with innovative techinques which offer a chance 'to discover a whole new light'. Infrared lenses, opaque filters and monochrome processing were all used by the artist to develop an analogue feel 'characterised by bright halo's and deep grain noise'.

The overall effect creates "other-worldly landscapes where foliage glows, colours are muted and skies look black, set against abandoned and neglected places" which deliberately transform into a 'dreamlike' image when seen by the human eye.

Darren said, "I wanted to capture the sense of forlornness, silence and the overpowering grey of the concrete and asphalt and the contrast with the plants and trees... as pools of toxic moss reclaim the landscape from crumbling monoliths."

Places that are off the beaten track and are associated with darker moments in history (Chernobyl exists to this day behind armed checkpoints) hold a deep fascination for him because the decay and abandonment build a 'surreal' atmosphere, as he explained, "I was interested in the objects and interiors of the buildings, and the lives of the people who were left behind."

Nothing on TV
During his second journey into the exclusion zone his project took on a new poignancy as it coincided with the earthquake in Japan which crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and provided a 'thought-provoking' reminder of Berkshire's own nuclear legacy, made all the more relevant by forthcoming decisions on the renewal on UK nuclear power generators.

One moment stands out in his memory - when he was offered the bizarre but highly appropriate piece of advice at the abandoned Pripyat railway station: "Dont lick the radioactive trains!"

The subject matter of the project had a profound impact on the artist's work which "has seen him rebel, in a very personal and constructive way, against the modern photography trends of sharpness and composition" promoted by more mainstream and commercial photography.

"It's humbling," he said, "I hope that showing my pictures and contributing to the charity in some way will help the people who are still affected by what happened."

All proceeds from the sale of printworks will go to Chernobyl Children's Project, a charity which works with children affected by health issues resulting from the disaster.

'Chernobyl's Zone of Alienation' by Darren Nisbett is open 11am - 4.30pm, Monday-Saturday until July 31st at Rhubarb & Custard Gallery, 4 High Street, Eton, Berkshire (details). Entry is free.

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Update: Matilda Battersby in The Independent describes the photographs as 'breathtaking'.

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More on Nuclear issues

Saturday, 9 July 2011

'Travelling in different directions'

Conservatives in Berkshire are standing accused of offensive and potentially racist attitudes towards Berkshire's travelling community after two separate incidents this week.

Newbury Town Council took the unprecedented step of issuing three personal apologies before a meeting of the Highways & Planning Committee when it was revealed an appendix to a report on planning for traveller sites had included statements contradicting race relations law.

The offending paragraphs claimed:
"We do not believe that travellers should be treated as a separate ethnic group or that policy towards them should be governed by such considerations. Because of the undesirable effects of the travelling way of life on receipt of social services, especially education, we do not consider that travelling in the sense used in this paper can be sustained in the long run," 
and,
"It [travelling] is gradually disappearing and that trend should not be discouraged. We obviously agree on the measures to prevent abuse of the planning system by travellers."
Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera of the West Berkshire Ethnic Minorities Forum took issue with these claims, highlighting the fact that Roma, Romany Gypsies and Irish travellers are all recognized as ethnic minorities and are protected by the law.

He explained, "The intolerance shown towards these communities is still very obvious, and is even enshrined within some of the policies and procedures of our public authorities."

Committee member Anthony Pick (who admitted writing the report), committee vice-chair Adrian Edwards (who admitted responsibility for its' submission) and Council chief executive Graham Hunt (who accepted overall responsibility) offered 'unreserved' and 'full and unqualified' apologies. The specific paragraphs have been removed from the council website and 'equality training' will be introduced.

This wasn't sufficient for Labour party spokesperson Richard Garvie, however, who condemned the words of his opponents as "worthy of the BNP."

But this only inflamed the situation as the debate transferred to the boards of the NewburyToday forum and accusations of 'uninformed prejudice' and 'ignorant do-gooders' were quickly stirred up by either side.

Meanwhile Wokingham Borough Council will hear an appeal made by Henry Giles against a second refusal to turn a field into a permanent gypsy site for one family.

Cllr Annette Drake described the concern villagers in Hurst had expressed to her over their fears for the site in Islandstone Lane.

She said, "This is something people are very concerned about. It is something that is being talked about a lot in the village," and urged anyone who is interested in the outcome of the appeal to write to the planning inspectorate to express their opinion, adding that she will be lodging her objections.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The 106 Riddle

An outside review into the lack of accountability surrounding Reading's management of so-called 'planning gain' funds have confirmed that at least £325,000 was 'mis-allocated' over a period of 4 years.

Investigators from neighbouring Wokingham Borough Council discovered no senior manager had overall responsibility for Section 106 monies, and that "insufficient council-wide co-ordination, strategic control and direction" meant accounting for significant sums were defined as 'non-material'.

The review was instigated by Reading's then Conservative-LibDem coalition as allegations of a political slush fund operated by Labour circulated, and put on record by Reading West MP Alok Sharma, who described to the House of Commons
"allegations that Reading Borough Council, when last under Labour control, diverted section 106 monies to plug gaps in the general budget and fund unrelated projects."

Cllr Isobel Ballsdon followed up, noting "wildly varying standards of recording these financial contributions and that a number had been misused."

However Labour's Leader of RBC, Cllr Jo Lovelock, earlier rejected such a conclusion stating, "There is no evidence that the previous Labour administration did anything which was outside due process on Section 106s."

Cllr Warren Swaine agrees that nobody has suggested embezzlement, fraud or corruption for personal gain, but he points out there are deeper concerns about consistent patterns of spending which was not in accordance with legally binding agreements and that this could go much further than s.106 planning contributions.

Yet the story continues to be wrapped in controversy as the suggested complaints about a lack of transparency won't be helped by Labour's promise to release only 'an edited, shortened and diluted version' of the report, backed up with disciplinary threats against opposition councillors who might circulate any further 'leaks' - and this has lead to accusations that the report is being suppressed ahead of an attempted 'whitewash'.

Meanwhile Caroline Bywater raises the national significance of the ruling as she advises councils across the country to take note of the recommendations to ensure sufficient precedural safeguards are put in place to avoid further undermining of public confidence in local government.

You can download RBC's committee report (pp11-16) here.

Auditors drew particular attention to the example of funding for the Prospect Park Multi-Use Games Area, as the 2007/8 accounts clearly showed the allocation had been 'wrongly undertaken'. In all 8 recommendations have been made (7 high priority, 1 medium priority).


Oranjepan says:
Cllr Lovelock's attempts to suggest she innocently 'lost' £325,000 (for starters) and doesn't know where it went stretches credulity to it's limit and puts both the credibility and competence of her and her party in serious doubt. If she is to be believed the public will welcome her repayment of this sum to ensure there is absolutely no question of duplicity or deception.

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Update: David Millward reports on the council meeting last Thursday at which the matters were discussed.

Leader of the LibDem group on RBC, Cllr Daisy Benson, commented that she was "horrified" by the findings of the "damning report".

Meanwhile Cllr Lovelock defended her conduct, flatly denying any deliberate misuse of public money or inappropriate spending, adding that although the procedures were 'insufficiently robust' they have already been put right and no further inquiries are required.

Subsequently RBC Chief Executive Michael Coughlin 'bowed to public pressure' with a promise to publish the Wokingham report in full and said that a full spreadsheet of all Section 106 money recieved and spent since 2007/8 would be made available to the public.

However Cllr Ballsdon continues her attack by explaining how Labour is undermining local democracy and rendering effective scrutiny of financial procedures impossible with a disregard for Decision Book reports and by 'trivialising' efforts to make systems more 'transparent' and 'robust'.

According to her the limited scope of the previous audit raises further questions about the scale of malpractise.
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