The Costa wars: Battles for individuality from Southwold to Totnes

Apocalyptic stories in the papers today. “Anger spilled onto the streets of Southwold after a national coffee chain was allowed to open in the town centre,” according to the East Anglian Daily Times.

“The locals of Totnes have gone to war,” says the Guardian.

Can the Costa riots be far away? In both towns there are loud campaigns against plans to open branches of Costa Coffee.

One of the pleasures of Southwold is that it is not filled with the same shopfronts as everywhere else. It is a long time since I have been to Totnes, Devon, but I recall another town centre worth exploring.

At the same time I do use Costa branches, although it is relegated if there is a branch of Caffé Nero around. Why choose one of these over-priced national chains before a locally-owned cafe when I am an unfamiliar town?

I guess I have had too many experiences of finding the the only other option is stale filter coffee. Or, if there is an espresso machine, asking for a cappuccino and getting something like a latte with froth. So I go for the familiar brand.

Sometimes there are local places that beat the national chains. In Woodbridge my choice is Browsers Bookshop ahead of the Cafe Nero, a few doors away, or the Costa a bit further on.

Given the the way the planning laws and free market work, probably the only thing that will keep the chains away is the prospect that they won’t make sufficient profit.

The rapid growth in the coffee shop market is underlined by Costa which contributed nearly a third of the Whitbread group’s £1,788 million sales in the 2011-12 financial year. They opened 332 new shops, more than half of them in the UK in the year.

This year  they plan to open 350 new stores. Clearly there is a growing demand which can be met profitably despite the group having to refinance £441 million of debt in the last financial year.

Italian visitors to England are shocked at the price of a cup of coffee in England. Surely the way to keep the coffee chains out of high streets of towns like Southwold and Totnes is to have places that offer a similar experience at a lower price.

The way to keep out the chains of shops and restaurants must be to offer customers something better for their money.






Pensions U-turn paved way for Suffolk NHS privatisation

Community healthcare employees in Suffolk will keep their NHS pensions when the service is transferred to a private sector company. Talks leading to this U-turn delayed yesterday’s announcement by three months.

About 1,000 staff will be transferred later this year to Serco which is now the preferred bidder for the £140m three-year contract.

As late as last December Suffolk Community Healthcare staff were being told the requirement was for the new employer to provide them with pensions, approved by the Government Actuary Department, which were “broadly comparable” to their NHS pensions.

At that time it was said the settling the pension arrangements was taking longer than expected with the result that an announcement was delayed from the original December date (source: staff newsletter).

The U-turn is revealed in updated FAQs posted on the NHS Midlands and East project website yesterday. They say:

Serco is planning for staff to remain on the NHS pension scheme and is applying for an NHS pension number to allow this to happen…

We are currently in discussion with NHS Pensions Authority and the Department of Health on pensions provision for new staff moving forward. We will discuss our approach with staff representatives during the transition period.

Alternative “broadly comparable” pensions have been the expected standard for private sector contracts. This extract is from a What happens to my Pension? document on the social partnership forum:

…staff who join a non-NHS employer will normally lose access to the NHS Pension Scheme. However, if the move is compulsory, then the new employer will be required to provide broadly equivalent pension benefits as part of the ‘Fair Deal for Pensions’ policy Where the move is voluntary staff should be offered the opportunity to join the new employers pension scheme.

Whether this change in the proposed SCH contract was a result of employee pressure or the inability of private sector bidders to meet the “broadly comparable” test is unclear. I hope comments below will help clarify this and also indicate the significance of the decision for other private sector contracts.

Press releases announcing the Serco’s preferred bidder status are on the NHS website and at Serco.

Details of the deal for Serco to take over later this year and reactions are at the Financial Times, Ipswich Spy and the East Anglian Daily Times.

Winsor’s police report ‘outrageously snobbish’

My concerns that the professionalisation of journalism has led to the media loosing understanding of large parts of the community it should serve, must now extend to the police.

Tom Winsor, the former rail regulator who has turned his attention to policing, uses the term “blue collar” in a way which is symptomatic of attitudes to manufacturing, the decline of which we are all regretting now.

His report is an epitome of middle classes converting skilled work into “professions” with qualifications which ensure their own children get the jobs.

This is what he says in in the final report of his review of police pay and conditions:

For too long, policing has been unfairly regarded by many as an occupation of an intellectually largely undemanding nature, with more in common with blue-collar work for skilled manual workers who clock in and out. The roots of policing are firmly in such an environment, and for many decades that is what it was. Policing today is entirely different, and yet so much of its ethos is of the past. The attitudes of some police officers today remain fastened in that mindset. It holds them back, and it reinforces or corroborates the lower social and professional standing with which too many people wrongly associate policing and police officers. If policing is to become the profession which it deservedly should, police officers must come to think of themselves not as the blue-coated workers of the past, but the practitioners of a profession which requires skills and attitudes which are distinctly above those of factory workers. Policing should be a career and a vocation which is attractive to the brightest and the best in our society, as well as the people of considerable quality who are already part of it.

It is the most outrageously snobbish thing I have read in a long time. It is elitist, reeking of prejudice against making things. If it was not so clearly prejudiced, it would be deeply insulting to many fine people working in the police now.
Of course, the police need very well educated people to deal with very sophisticated and intelligent criminals but they also have to be in touch with the communities it polices by consent.
The increasingly national police force does need reform but not change which will make it more remote from the unemployed of Newcastle and the girl on the 37 bus through Clapham.


Perhaps we need to look at the idea of having national or provincial police forces for serious matters and local forces for day-to-day matters. That is the way they do it in many countries and it has the benefit of ensuring there are policemen who know their communities very well.
All the national newspapers have reports of Widsor’s report. The Guardian’s is here.

Beware Richard Desmond bearing health lottery tickets

If you read the Daily Express or the Daily Star you should have heard about the Health Lottery. You might also have seen the promotions for the first lottery draw show on Channel 5 which is to be presented by Melinda Messenger.

I only became aware of it when a Health Lottery stand appeared beside the check-out queue in my Co-op supermarket in Debenham.

These three media operations promoting it are a part of Richard Desmond’s media empire. He is also behind the Health Lottery through his company Northern and Shell.

As a BBC report says: “The company has not disclosed how much profit it eventually envisages to make from the Health Lottery.”

According to the BBC the Heath Lottery will make donations to good causes of 20.34p for each £1 lottery entry. The comparable figure for the National Lottery is 28p.

The scheme is administered by the People’s Health Trust which runs the lotteries for 51 local local promoters who will decide on the distribution of funds.

These promoters are all registered at the same address in Clerkenwell, London, and go by meaningless names such as HealthIntent, HealthSuccess, HealthStrength and HealthCommit for Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire respectively.

Established heath charities across the country are concerned about the impact of the Health Lottery.

I have emailed the East of England Co-op asking why it is supporting this project. I will post again when I have a reply.

In the meantime, I fear William King, Ipswich’s pioneer of the co-operative movement is already turning in his grave.

Update, Oct 11: East of England Co-op tell me that they do not control what goes into their shops and my request for the reasons for installation of these terminals has been forwarded to Manchester, co-op headquarters.


Social media and protest in Egypt and England

Until last night it was, if not unthinkable, unsayable to draw parallels between what is happening in Egypt, with events in England. During a Tonight programme focusing on Egypt, but considering the history of revolution, Jeremy Paxman said it was perhaps “inappropriate” to bring in the protests against cuts in this country.

Yet they did, in a report by Paul Mason. A common factor, he suggested, was young people with a university education and facing unemployment. They were reacting to a broken pledge that if they became well educated they would be better off than their parents. (It seems seems this segment, or something like it, was originally planned for last Friday. Look at Paul Mason’s blog for more on this.)

The British link has to be seen in context of the whole programme discussing Egypt and the record of revolutions. It included historians Simon Sebag-Montefiore and Simon Schama. You can watch it on the BBC iPlayer for some time.

While the pattern of revolution may not change much, one thing is different now. That is the horizontal nature of protest, loose coalitions of people without obvious leaders.

These two factors: youth alienated over education and jobs, and horizontal organisation through social media has been clearly seen in the tuition fees protests in England.

The library protests, while polite and peaceful, show unmistakable signs of horizontal organisation through social media with the use of email, twitter (#savelibraries), Facebook and blogs.  No obvious leaders have emerged either nationally or locally here in Suffolk, but there is cohesion and common purpose.

British governments have long been terrified of losing control of the streets. They have adopted gradual change to avoid revolution, probably since the Civl War, three-and-a-half centuries ago.

There was no domino-effect here from the French Revolution, Chartism in the 19th century did not turn into a revolution, nor did the General Strike in 1926. Margaret Thatcher fell after poll tax riots 20 years ago. John Major then replaced poll tax with council tax.

In the 19th century Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police with control of the streets of the capital as one of the principal reasons. He also adopted gradualism when he switched from opposition to Catholic emancipation to getting it through parliament when he realised the old policy was untenable.

No one is seriously predicting a revolution in England except for some Marxist and Trotskyist survivors from another age. Yet, I feel sure that in Downing Street developments are being watched carefully and a Plan B is being prepared whether or not they will admit it. Gradualism (that means concessions) may yet rule if protests become loud enough.

A tale of two successful libraries – one may be closed

Public libraries are under unprecedented threats as cash strapped councils take the soft option to close libraries. This Saturday (Feb 5) is Save Our Libraries Day when everyone can demonstrate their support.

But I want to look at just two 21st century East Anglian libraries — one huge and the other tiny — that show how investment really works.

The first is the Millennium Library in Norwich. Norfolk County Council is not planning to close libraries. The second, is the tiny library in Debenham, in neighbouring Suffolk where the council has put 29 out of 44 libraries on the endangered list.

Everyone who visits Norwich knows its main library, housed in The Forum, a modern building to mark the new century. You can borrow the latest CDs, DVDs and console cameos and use one of more than 100 computers with internet access. And yes, it does lend books.

In fact, it lends more books than any other public library in England. In 2008-09 it made 1,124,233 loans. The next most successful was also in the East, Chelmsford with 740,927 loans. Some of the loans were of AV material but the vast majority were books. (These figures and others in this post are from LISU, a research unit at Loughborough University.)

Debenham — population 2,000 — library is newer than Norwich’s and is housed in an old bank building which was converted in 2003 to serve the village and surrounding parishes. In its first year it had 9,414 visits. In 2007-08 this rose to 14,455 and in 2008-09 to  25,138. That is in the 16 hours it is open each week.

Loans have risen too, up 36% in 2008-09 and have continued going up since then. More people have been using the library to get information with 366 enquiries in 2009-10. There are a range of activities for children and adults and support to a wide-range of community organisations. (This information is from a report to the parish council in October.)

Here we have two libraries that show well considered libraries with enthusiastic staff are a really good investment. I don’t know of any British research, but work by the University of Pennsylvania showed that Philadelphia’s Free Libraries produced $30m of economic value in 2010 (see my recent post).

While Debenham and Norwich libraries are loaning more books, the national trend is far from as bad some of the anti-library brigade are suggesting.

The number of public libraries in the UK dropped slightly between 2003-04 and 2008-09 from 4,622 to 4,517.

The number of loans overall fell from 340m to 310m but within this there was a rise from 86m to 95m for loans to children — up 10.5%. The number of library members has increased.

Those figures simply do not support the idea that public demand or use of libraries is falling substantially, in an age of home broadband and Amazon. The examples of Norwich and Debenham suggest that there is an increased demand to be tapped by innovative and enthusiastic library services.

So please send a message to the politicians by taking part in Save Our Libraries Day on Saturday. It need only take a few minutes. Go into your local library to borrow a book or ask a question, go on-line to order a book. If you don’t have that time, send an email or letter to your local councillor or MP. Even a tweet with the hashtag #savelibraries will help.

More about Save Our Libraries Day at the Voices for the library website

Suffolk changes “an experiment”

Trying to understand what is happening at Suffolk County Council is not easy. It is confused by two things happening at once — a deep political/philosophic reshaping of the role of the council and very heavy cuts in spending.

John Tizard, director of the Centre for Public Service Partnerships, raised many of the issues in an article for Public Finance magazine and website. He concluded:

Local government has a specific responsibility to local people, communities and businesses – and must ensure that they honour these responsibilities. Given the financial, economic, social and demographic pressures no one can doubt that there needs to be some radical changes, but has Suffolk found the right solution for Suffolk?

To reach a judgement, we (and the citizens of Suffolk) need the answers to the questions posed earlier and, most importantly, we need to know what local people think. Without public authorisation and consent it might prove the wrong decision to rush into implementation of what could be irreversible actions with dramatic consequences.

This appeared at the beginning of October but I believe it is still worth reading in full. Tizard is an extremely well-informed commentator, having worked for Capita and the CBI before heading the Centre for Public Service Partnerships. He was also joint leader of Bedfordshire County Council for eight years.

He may well take a different view now and have answers to some of the questions he poses.

In his article he posed ten strategic questions which required reasoned, evidence-based answers. I don’t think Suffolk people have those answers yet.

He wrote:

There is little doubt that the Suffolk experiment is precisely that – an experiment, because no other UK local authority has embarked on such a programme, albeit that others have adopted elements of it on a much smaller scale.  To that end, the council would, if intent on such an approach, be well advised to consider piloting some of its proposals in the first instance.

If Tizard would like to update his comments I will be very happy to publish whatever he sends me. In the meantime I urge people to read his original article.

Councillor says Tories “riding roughshod over democracy”

Caroline Page, the Lib Dem Suffolk County Councillor for Woodbridge, today accuses the Tories of “riding roughshod over democracy”. The issue is consultation over the future of care homes which she rightly describes as “a sham”.

She describes a meeting last week at which borough and district councils were invited to to “Have Your Say on the Future of Suffolk County Council’s (SCC) residential care homes”. It opened with the portfolio holder for Adult and Community Services saying:

We have made a decision at cabinet level that we will no longer pay for care homes. So if you have come here wanting us to continue running care homes, you’re wasting your time. The decision has already been made.

Read Page’s post. It provides a good example of the lack of democracy at the heart of the county council’s cost-cutting new strategic direction.

A document described as “The New Strategic Direction Explained” uses a meaningless diagram of overlapping circles in an attempt to suggest democracy is at the heart of there scheme.

Under the heading “Democracy” it says:

In the future, the council will continue to make important decisions and as such democracy must remain at the heart of the council. The council’s emphasis on local solutions for local areas places an added importance on the role of all elected members as community leaders. Councillors will be encouraged and supported to work closely with their community to facilitate solutions to local problems and mobilise community involvement.

The diagram does say a lot: Divestment and something called Community Capacity have equal space with Democracy. And the policy for care homes is all to do with Divestment, not Democracy.

I am certainly do not support a policy which has at its heart reducing the pay of care workers. Andrea Hill, Chief Executive of SCC, this week gave as example of the ways in which this policy would be cheaper — while council care homes paid care staff overtime, private ones did not.

Hill herself of course refuses to take a pay cut.

Suffolk Council needs tougher questions

Today I have some sympathy for the politburo and apparatchiks of Suffolk Country Council which is planning to turn county hall into a giant buying department. It wants to buy in all the services it provides.

The East Anglian Daily Times has today fearlessly posed the questions it believes the citizens of Suffolk want answering.

Here is question 4:

Leadership capacity.

Does Suffolk County Council have the general leadership knowledge, experience and capacity for the scale and pace of changes proposed – and their implications, including unanticipated events?

Is there leadership knowledge, experience and capacity in Suffolk County Council to work through all the detail of the changes in a partnership way with council staff, service users, voluntary organisations and potential service providers?

How will the council build support for what is proposed?

Of course, they will hold up their hands and say “No. We don’t have the expertise to do this. We are going to have to employ consultants at the cost of zillions to do it for us.”

All the questions are just as woolly and can only lead to “political” answers.

For example, on the subject of children at risk and families in need it asks if the council has “anticipated the impacts” and what does it think these will be.

I think I can hazard a guess at the reply: “We have considered the impacts which will be a better service provided by private and charity sector providers as a lower cost of council tax payers.” Something along those lines but probably dressed up with more jargon.

The one thing the questions show is that the editor of the EADT, Terry Hunt, who wrote them, is no John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman. We probably don’t want their aggressive style but we do need clear questions which make political waffle obvious.

There are questions that need asking. They should be incisive. I imagine Suffolk CC is looking closely at the London borough of Barnet (Easy Council) whose “no frills” policy is costing more than it is saving, according to the Guardian.

As for Suffolk, I want the local daily paper to ask much tougher questions which suggest they have really thought about what the voters want to know. It is the job of newspapers to hold councils to account, not to toss them easy balls.

The trouble is that in trying to be impartial the EADT is looking like a plant at a press conference tossing in the easy questions provided by the spin machine.

Child benefit cuts threaten us all

Why do I feel so strongly that the child benefit cuts announced by George Osborne are wrong? One of my first reactions was that it might help reduce the numbers of four-by-fours parked outside the primary school. It is a feeling not far removed from that of Deborah Orr in the Guardian today who writes:

It is difficult to tax the rich, we’re often told, so it seems rather silly also to continue giving the rich unneeded benefits to spend on what are to many families quite unattainable luxuries. The idea is that child benefit makes the wealthy feel that the welfare state is on their side too. The reality is that too many of these buggers need reminding of how much they gain already.

Yet, I feel the principle of universal benefits needs to be preserved. They don’t have to be taken (eg sending children to private schools instead of using the state sector or having private health insurance) or can be passed on to charity (winter fuel allowance). But they are there for all as a bedrock for a stable society. Cutting child benefits or the wealthy makes the next assault on universal benefits easier.
The fact that the proposal is ill thought out is beside this point but it is very worrying that this comes from a Government whose Prime Minister is hammering on about fairness.

As Richard Murphy in his Tax Research UK blog points out it is a “massive boost to the tax avoidance industry”. Before explaining several ways of avoiding the cut he writes:

For a family caught by the change the parent of two children  with income of just over the limit faces an effective 100% tax rate on all income in a rage from about £44,000 to £47,000. That is a gift to the tax abusers.

You would expect a blog called Left Foot Forward to be against the restrictions on child benefit, but I was taken with a quote from Richard Titmuss, the pioneering social researcher, who said, “Services for the poor will always be poor services.”

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