Skanska RM Chosen For Essex BSF Programme

ESSEX COUNTY COUNCIL has chosen Skanska RM, a Swedish company that can trace its roots back to 1887, as its preferred bidder for the Essex BSF programme.

The Essex Building Schools For The Future (BSF) programme is one of the largest in the country, with the first phase alone worth in the region of £150 million.

Work on the first schools in the programme (The Cornelius Vermuyden School and Arts College on Canvey Island, Castle View School on Canvey Island, Pioneer School in Basildon and Columbus School and College in Chelmsford) is due to be completed by January 2012.

Not only will the school buildings themselves be transformed, BSF will also bring considerable investment in Information and Communication Technology (ICT), creating 24-hour learning environments for pupils.

Councillor Stephen Castle, Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Education, said: “We are delighted to be working with Skanska RM on this exciting project. BSF will bring substantial investment to Essex, enabling us to build world class facilities that will transform education and the way it is delivered.”

Councillor Derrick Louis, Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Central Services, commented: “Skanska RM has successfully demonstrated they can meet the very high standards we have set for our preferred bidder. Under the partnership we will create state of the art facilities that will inspire generations of learners to come.”

Steve Cooper, Development Director, Education, for Skanska RM, said: “Everyone at Skanska RM is delighted with this announcement, now the hard work begins and we look forward to a long-term partnership with Essex County Council to deliver the schools for the future.”

Canvey/Kent Crossing Moves Step Further

(BBC) – PLANS TO BUILD a new River Thames crossing between Kent and Essex have moved a step closer.

Kent County Council said it planned a feasibility study with Essex County Council to build a bridge or tunnel.

The crossing could be sited between Gravesend and either Tilbury or Canvey Island.

The council said the crossing, which could cost £1 billion, could be built by a private company and paid for by a toll system.

Kent County Council leader Paul Carter said a new crossing could raise about £30m a year.

He believes the crossing should be an integral part of the council’s infrastructure planning for the next 30 years.

The results of the feasibility study are expected to be known in the next few weeks.

The two counties are already linked by two road tunnels and the Queen Elizabeth II bridge between Dartford and Thurrock, which carry the M25 across the Thames.

Lord Hanningfield File To Go To CPS

(Telegraph) – THE DAILY TELEGRAPH UNDERSTANDS that detectives will imminently pass files on Labour MPs Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine, and peers Baroness Uddin, Lord Hanningfield and Lord Clarke of Hampstead to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Keir Starmer, the country’s top prosecutor, is expected to make a decision on whether to prosecute the politicians as early as January, before a General Election.

The Director of Public Prosecutions will decide whether the MPs and peers face court on counts of fraud, which carries a maximum sentence on conviction of 10 years, or false accounting, for which the maximum penalty is up to seven years.

Police and criminal lawyers are confident that charges will be brought.

A team of detectives have been assessing and investigating cases for the past five months since The Daily Telegraph’s Expenses Files investigation disclosed widespread abuse of parliamentary allowances.

They are now on the verge of finalising their files to send to prosecutors.

A Westminster source said: ‘We have heard that things are about to come to a head.’ A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said that they had not yet received files; but it is understood that they are expected imminently.

Police are liaising with Sir Thomas Legg, who is carrying out a full audit of MPs expenses, and are believed to have taken witness statements from senior civil servants and members of the Fees Office who processed the suspected claims. Witnesses, including constituency workers and banking officials, have also been interviewed by police as detectives build up a file of evidence.

A small team of officers who specialise in financial investigations have carried out a low profile inquiry, with no arrests. It is believed that MPs and peers have co-operated with requests from them for evidence from their emails and bank statements.

The most serious suspected frauds are considered to be those of Mr Morley and Mr Chaytor who both claimed thousands of pounds for ‘phantom’ mortgages that they had already paid off.

Mr Morley, the former agriculture minister, claimed £16,800 for a mortgage that did not exist and also admitted wrongly claiming £20,000 for mortgage capital repayments in contravention of rules.

Mr Chaytor admitted making an ‘unforgiveable error’ in ‘accounting procedures’ when claiming almost £13,000 in interest for a mortgage that he had paid off. Police will also be interested in why the Bury North MP also claimed almost £5,000 under his office allowances to pay his daughter, Sarah Chaytor, under an assumed name of ‘Sarah Rastrick.’

Mr Devine, a Scottish Labour MP, submitted invoices for electrical work worth £2,157 from a company with an allegedly fake address and an invalid VAT number.

Detectives from the Metropolitan police have made several trips to Mr Devine’s constituency of Livingstone to interview witnesses.

Lord Hanningfield, the Conservative peer who is also the leader of Essex County Council, claimed £100,000 over seven years for staying in London despite living just 46 miles from the capital. He has been investigated over whether he was returning to his home in Essex while claiming ‘overnight allowances’’ for staying in London.

He has a full-time chauffeur provided by the local authority at taxpayers’ expense and his claims from both parliament and the council are being studied.

Lord Clarke, a former Labour Party chairman, admitted his ‘terrible error’ in a newspaper interview after claiming up to £18,000 a year for overnight subsistence when he often stayed with friends in the capital or returned to his home in St Albans, Herts.

Baroness Uddin allegedly claimed £100,000 in parliamentary allowances by registering as her main home a property in Maidstone, Kent, that was apparently barely occupied.

MPs Shahid Malik and Tony McNulty will face no further action, and police have ruled out criminal investigations into the practices of ‘flipping’ or avoiding capital gains tax. However HM Revenue and Customs has launched the inquiries into 27 MPs.

MPs could avoid tax on their expense claims on the basis that they were ‘wholly, necessarily and exclusively’’ incurred in relation to the performance of their parliamentary duties.

MPs found to have claimed for non-essential items now face a tax bill of up to 40% on their value. They may also have to pay interest and fines on the back-dated tax bills.

In May, HMRC wrote to all MPs asking if they wished to come forward and make voluntary payments. The authorities said last night they had opened formal inquiries into 27 MPs.

It is thought that they are also scrutinising MPs who avoided capital gains tax when selling second homes; those who claimed for personal tax advice; and travel claims for journeys between their homes and office if they did not live in their constituencies or London, where they are working.

Mr Devine and Mr Chaytor denied last night that they had been formally questioned by police. Lord Clarke refused to comment.

Mr Morley said: ‘I have always made it clear that I am not guilty of any offence and that I am very happy to co-operate with the police, and the parliamentary authorities and procedures. I have been advised not to comment on press reports particularly when they are based more on speculation than fact.’

Baroness Uddin and Lord Hanningfield were unavailable for comment.

A Met police spokesman refused to comment on the ongoing investigations.

… (BBC, 05/02/2010) – Charged expenses peer Lord Hanningfield quits council

… (05/02/2010) – Lord Hanningfield faces six charges under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 for false accounting, which carries a maximum sentence of 7 years in jail. The charges allege that between March 2006 and May 2009, he dishonestly submitted claims for expenses to which he knew he was not entitled. The allegations focus on numerous claims for overnight expenses for staying in London when records show he was driven home and did not stay in the capital.

… (06/02/2010)  – Chauffer Records At Heart Of Lord Hanningfield Charges

ECC Chief’s Salary Criticised

(BBC) – ESSEX COUNTY COUNCIL has been criticised for its decision to pay its chief executive a ‘base salary’ of £230,000 a year.

Campaign group the Taxpayers’ Alliance said the council had ‘no justification’ for paying such a high salary to Joanna Killian.

The council said Ms Killian, also chief executive of Brentwood Borough Council, delivered savings of nearly £100m in the past two years.

It said the salary was fair given the complexity of Ms Killian’s role.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance said Ms Killian was one of the highest paid local government bosses in Britain.

‘There’s no justification for such high salaries in local government,’ said a spokesman.

In April, the alliance said its research showed that more than 1,000 council bosses earned more than £100,000 a year and at least 16 earned more than Mr Brown, who earned a £194,000 salary.

A spokesman said: ‘Essex County Council pays a fair price given the responsibilities, complexity and challenges of this role.’

He argued that the council needed ‘quality people’ and added: ‘As chief executive of two local authorities Joanna Killian in the last two years has delivered savings worth a total of £98.5m.’

ECC Sets £300 Million Savings Target

(BBC) – ESSEX COUNTY COUNCIL has set a target of cutting budget expenditure by £300 million by 2012.

This is a third of the council’s income. Tory leader Lord Hanningfield has pledged no service cuts and no above-inflation council tax rises.

The council is streamlining operations by cutting duplication and eliminating unnecessary processes, he said.

But the Liberal Democrats are concerned over effects on jobs and want more information on the impact of the cuts.

Lord Hanningfield said: ‘Raising our savings target to £300m shows our commitment to delivering value for money for Essex residents.

‘This figure is a very tangible commitment to our residents that will mean no council tax increases above inflation for four years, no cuts in front-line services, despite the worst operating environment for 60 years, and extra investment in those services crucial to assisting Essex through this present recession.’

Sarah Candy, cabinet member for finance and change management, said: ‘We are only halfway through the financial year, and we have already delivered £40m towards this target.

‘We are beating our targets and upping our game further, which is why we have set this new target that will direct £300m from the back office into front-line services by 2012.’

David Kendall, Lib Dem economics spokesman on the council, said: ‘A number of services are to be privatised under the transformation changes and we are concerned about the jobs of staff who have done an excellent job over the years.

‘We do not have all the information needed to make a judgement on the changes, although we were promised this so that a detailed analysis could be made.

‘We set an amendment that the decision should be deferred until the December meeting when more information from the review that is going on would be available.

‘However, this was outvoted by the Conservative group.’

Essex County Council has 75 members with the Conservatives holding 60 seats and the Lib Dems 12, Labour one and Independents two.

Lord Hanningfield Facing Further Probe By Council Sleaze Watchdog

(Telegraph) – LORD HANNINGFIELD, a Tory transport spokesman and leader of Essex County Council, is at the centre of a ‘conflict of interest’ probe by Standards for England.

If he is found guilty of any wrongdoing, Lord Hanningfield, who has led the local authority — one of the biggest in the country — for the past decade, could be banned from local politics for several years.

The investigation by Standards for England, which monitors wrongdoing in local government, centres on controversial plans by Lord Hanningfield’s council to turn local comprehensive schools into privately-run academies.

Inspectors will examine Lord Hanningfield’s role in the transfer of several Essex comprehensives worth ‘several millions of pounds’ into a private school academies trust, called the Academies Enterprise Trust, of which he is a director.

They are examining whether Lord Hanningfield failed to declare the directorship at the time of the transfer. Questions will also be asked whether he stands to benefit financially from the arrangement.

The inspectors will examine whether he broke the code of conduct which governs all local councillors. The penalty for any breach is a ban of up to five years from serving as a councillor.

The Standards Board only investigates 10 per cent of all complaints —normally the most serious or sensitive — against councillors.

Glenys Stacey, the board’s chief executive, told The Daily Telegraph: ‘We have accepted it [the complaint] for investigation. There has been an allegation of the breach of the code of conduct.’

The complaint was lodged by local Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell earlier this year. Mr Russell said the alleged failure to declare his interest was ‘a most serious and blatant case of failure to comply with the high standards which should be followed by all councillors.’

Separately, it has also emerged that Lord Hanningfield declared his involvement with the trust on a separate register for peers’ interests held by the House of Lords in January this year, five months after two of the academies had opened.

Mr Russell, a councillor for 31 years in Colchester, told The Daily Telegraph he was ‘astonished’ that the peer should have been involved in the transfer of the schools ‘without him seemingly seeing any conflict.’

The schools, which have so far been transferred into the academies trust, are Greensward School in Hockley, and Bramston and Rickstones Secondary Schools in Witham (which are now known as Maltings and New Rickstones respectively).

From September, two more secondary schools in Clacton are being merged into a single school, the Clacton Coastal Academy.

Lord Hanningfield confirmed that he was being investigated; but said that he had cleared his involvement in the trust with ‘the principal legal officer at Essex County Council… [who] was entirely satisfied that the due processes were followed and adhered to.

‘I can confirm that I have no financial interest in the trust nor do I receive any fee,’ he said.

‘My only interest is to improve the educational opportunities of children in Essex including the promotion of academies as an option… which I will look forward to discussing with the Standards Board.’

A spokesman for the council said that Lord Hanningfield had now registered his involvement with the trust in writing with the council, and stressed that Lord Hanningfield did not stand to gain personally from his involvement with the trust.

Lord Hanningfield is one of three peers and two MPs being investigated by the police in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal.

The Daily Telegraph disclosed earlier this month that detectives want to know why Lord Hanningfield claimed £100,000 over seven years for staying in London despite living just 46 miles from the capital. He insisted he could justify all of his expenses claims.

A spokesman for Essex County Council said: ‘In January of this year, when this matter was first raised, the county council was satisfied that Lord Hanningfield did not need to declare his position as Patron of the Academies Trust.

‘This matter has now been referred to the Standards Board and, obviously, the county council will heed any advice that is given or relevant to it. For the avoidance of any doubt, Lord Hanningfield subsequently registered this interest in January 2009.

‘Furthermore, this matter is an issue of public record; Lord Hanningfield verbally declares his role wherever appropriate and a press notice was issued when he took on the role.’

ECC Launches Webcast Service

A NEW WEBCASTING SERVICE will show decisions being made which affect 1.3 million Essex County Council residents — with the first broadcast showing the appointment of the new Cabinet.

The service will go live from 10am on Tuesday 16th June, broadcasting coverage of Council meetings and decisions.

New positions will be announced on Tuesday 16th June, at the first Full Council meeting since the public elected the County Council last Thursday. This meeting will see a new Council Cabinet appointed to take decisions over Essex County Council’s £2.1 billion budget on areas including roads, schools, social care, and the environment. The leadership of committees and other key positions within the Council will also be confirmed including the Chairman, Vice-Chairman and Leader.

Leader of Essex County Council, Lord Hanningfield, said: ‘We are constantly looking at new and innovative ways of connecting and engaging with our residents.

‘We want our webcasting service to become a new tool in local democracy helping residents to lean about the decisions which are being taken on their behalf.

‘Each meeting and debate will be indexed, providing an electronic programme guide, and an advanced search facility will help the viewer to get straight to the information they need.

‘We’d encourage people to give us feedback on the new service and we hope that this brings an even greater understanding of local government and the challenges and opportunities we face to our residents.’