Friday, 18 January 2013

Warning not to give money to fraudsters as ‘assassin’ email circulates Lancashire

Police and Trading Standards are warning people not to be tricked into handing over cash to internet fraudsters following the circulation of a dramatic but bogus email.

The electronic message, sent to resident’s private inboxes, claims to be from a sympathetic assassin who thinks that the recipient of the email has wrongly had a contract taken out against them. The fraudster offers to forgo his job in return for a large amount of money; he will then provide proof of who has taken out the ‘hit’ in return for even more cash.

Throughout the email the recipient is warned not to contact police or tell friends or family about the content of the message.

DC Mark Aldridge, of Lancashire Constabulary’s Economic Crime Unit, said: “Anybody receiving this kind of email could feel intimidated and genuinely concerned that their safety is at risk. In actual fact this email is simply a spin-off from other emails designed to scam the public out of their money.

“The police take these matters extremely seriously, however, the poor English used is indicative of the fact that this scam originates from overseas. This makes investigation extremely difficult due to the various jurisdictional issues. We are looking into the matter but if anybody receives such emails our advice is to simply block the sender and delete the email.”

Head of Lancashire County Council Trading Standards, Paul Noone, said:  "These criminals are constantly coming up with new ideas to try and catch people out, but anyone who receives this scam should ignore it and not be taken in by its threatening nature.

"Scamnesty, the annual Lancashire Police and Trading Standards campaign, will run throughout next month to raise awareness of this type of fraud.

"The intelligence we receive through Scamnesty is very valuable in helping us to understand the scams that are out there and advise people to avoid them.

"The sad reality is that while scams are a massive problem, with some people being conned out of very large sums, only one in 20 victims report them. This makes it very difficult to target prevention and take action against those responsible."

Estimates put the cost of fraud to Lancashire residents alone at £64m annually.

Advice to follow if you receive an unsolicited email from an unknown source asking for personal details or cash:
  • Know who you are dealing with – be suspicious if contacted out of the blue by someone you haven’t heard of. Don’t be fooled by official looking letters, websites etc.
  • Be sceptical – if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Take your time – don’t be pressured into making snap decisions. Discuss it with family or friends or contact the Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline on 08454 040506.
  • Protect your financial information – never give personal information, including your bank details to someone you don’t know or trust.
  • If in doubt, delete the email.
If you think you've been a victim of a scam – don’t feel embarrassed or suffer in silence. Report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or visit www.actionfraud.police.uk

Lancaster’s support scheme will protect all council tax benefit claimants, say Greens

On Wednesday night Lancaster City Council voted 33-13 to preserve council tax benefit levels for all claimants in the face of a cut in government funding for the benefit. The government’s cut to the grant for council tax benefit would have resulted in the poorest-paid and unemployed couples in Lancaster district having to find £232 each year (£4.45 per week) in council tax from April. Single people would have been £174 a year (£3.34 per week) worse off.

Green councillor Tim Hamilton-Cox, who was responsible for much of the research behind the motion, said: "Green councillors have been insistent that extra revenue from extending the council tax levied on empty homes and second homes, added to a transitional grant from central government, could cover more than 87 per cent of the lost grant and that we should use these funds to protect people already struggling with increasing food and energy bills. The residents who will be affected by the loss of council tax benefit are those on low incomes who are also likely to face further cuts to their income as a direct result of the government’s wider welfare reform programme.

"But not only were the cuts to council tax benefit unfair, they threaten to be an administrative nightmare to implement," he added. "Even senior members of the Conservative party have pointed to the difficulty and expense of trying to collect relatively small sums - but still significant for the people charged - from relatively large numbers of already poor households who have been protected from paying council tax until now.

“I am delighted that the City Council supported maintaining a fully-funded council tax support scheme - not only because it was the right thing to do to help poorer people but was affordable too – and administratively the sensible option.

"With a further funding cut from government of £1.6m to come in 2014-15 there’s no guarantee that we can hold the line then. But at least we have the time to see what chaos is inflicted in other parts of the country by cuts in council tax benefit and to learn from it. As some senior Conservatives have said, the requirement to make every household pay some council tax, regardless of income, is a poll tax mark 2, and it didn’t work first time round.”

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Storey Garden may re-open to the public

A new group that hopes to re-open one of Lancaster's hidden gems, the Storey Garden, is holding a meeting next Tuesday to consider ideas for its renovation.

Lancaster City Council is now running the Storey building and also the garden, which is currently closed to the public, but the new "Friends of the Storey Garden" would very much like to see it open again.

There is quite a lot of work that needs doing to bring the garden back into use, some of which can be done by volunteers, but there will also be a need for an official group to raise money through funding bids, which could be done in partnership with the City and/or County Councils.

A number of individuals have been working in the gardens for a number of years, but without a formal structure and constitution.

One part of the gardens contains the remains of an art work by Mark Dion (though now in a state of disrepair) which was completed in the late 1990s.

If you want to help with the gardens in any way, get come to the meeting or contact Councillor Jon Barry or Annie Watson (on 01524 844113, or email anniewatson30AThotmail.com or jbarryATlancaster.gov.uk) and they will put you on a contact list.

The “Friends of” group will, of course, be non-political and, ultimately, it is intended that it will function as a strong, independent organisation. For similar groups in Lancaster's Castle Ward, have a look at www.fairfieldassociation.org or www.aldclifferdtriangle.org.uk


• Friends of the Storey Garden will meet on Tuesday 22nd January, 6-7.00pm in the Storey Lecture Theatre

Fines for fouling and littering come into force

Irresponsible dog owners and litter louts are to be given fines by Lancaster’s city centre neighbourhood police team in order to clean up local communities.

Police officers and PCSOs on patrol can now hand out £80 fines to those who do not clean up their dog’s faeces; allow their animal to go on land from where they are banned or who fail to keep their pet on a lead in designated areas and public highways or when instructed to do so by an officer.

Fines will also be given out to those who drop litter in the city.

The move comes following ongoing complaints about dog fouling and littering in local communities.

The £80 penalty notice can be reduced to £50 if paid within seven days.

PCSO Michelle Mackay, Lancaster neighbourhood police team, said: “Residents are continually raising these issues with us – no one wants their neighbourhood to be messy, dirty or even a health risk.

“We want people to take pride in their local communities and we would ask people to pick up after their pets, keep them under control and put any litter into a bin. However, if people do not do this then they can expect to be fined. We should all make every effort to keep our communities clean.”

Work begins to restore Lancaster's iconic Ashton Memorial

Photo: Ant Mercer
Specialist restoration work to one of Lancaster’s iconic landmarks has begun.
 
The steps leading to the Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park have been closed for over a year due to the condition of the foundations and support structures below ground, which has made the steps unsafe for use by members of the public.
Work to restore the steps commenced in December.
 
A crane arrived on site this week to begin the task of carefully removing the fragile curved granite steps to make way for repairs to the areas of damaged stone, foundations and supporting structures.  A new supporting structure to the lower staircase will be constructed in reinforced concrete and steel, the repaired granite steps replaced and the masonry joints re-pointed.

The failure of the supporting structure to the granite steps is partly due to the original construction specification typical of the time. This comprised of rolled steel joists and coke breeze concrete. This type of concrete does not provide full corrosion protection of the steel.

Water ingress through the masonry joints in the steps has allowed rain water ingress into the supporting structure, damaging the concrete and causing corrosion of the steel beams.

Coun Ron Sands, Cabinet member with responsibility for tourism and culture, said:  "Williamson Park remains one of Lancashire's most popular attractions.  This Grade I listed building is now more than 100 years old and like any building of its age needs careful maintenance.

 “Such restoration work which by its very nature requires specialist contractors and skills is vital to ensuring that this magnificent building continues to serve our local communities and attracts visitors to the district for another 100 years."

Since December, the contractors have been working on this confined site during week days to keep any disruption to a minimum.

Lancaster City Council is funding the £183,000 reconstruction of the park steps by local construction company, Colin Briscoe Construction Limited, and specialist stone masons, Askins and Little.

The project is on time and weather dependant should be completed by the end of March/early April 2013.
 

Motorists urged to take care in snow

Lancashire Constabulary is urging motorists to take care in adverse driving conditions as snow is forecast across the county.

The Met Office has issued an amber warning for the North West tomorrow (Friday 18th January), which warns drivers to be prepared.

Sergeant Pat Worden from the Force’s Road Policing Unit said: “It is vitally important that motorists are prepared for the severe weather that has been forecast. It will cause disruption during both the morning rush hour and the evening rush hour.

“Anyone intending to travel should make sure their vehicle is in good working order especially in terms of tyres, lights, and overall repair and that it has enough petrol to get them where they are going – and home again.  All window glass should be clear from frost and snow before setting off.

“It is probably a good idea to have a number of essential supplies on-board such as a fully charged mobile phone, de-icer, a torch, a map, and even a small spade in case of snowdrifts. Warm clothing and suitable footwear is also a must. If the worst happens and drivers are stranded for any length of time it is imperative to try and keep warm. Motorists on longer journeys should consider taking food and a flask containing hot drinks with them.

“All drivers are urged to listen to weather forecasts and travel advice on local television and radio stations before setting off.

“Allow extra time for the journey and try to stick to more major roads which have been gritted. The breakdown services are likely to be inundated with calls for assistance, so you may have to wait much longer than usual.

“In addition, pedestrians need to make sure they wear visible clothing and take care when crossing the roads.”

Major service cuts ahead at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary?

(Updated 19/1/13): Green Party councillor Jon Barry has learned from a hospital source that plans are well advanced to drastically reduce the services at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary after a review in services.

It is understood that many of the current services will be transferred to Kendal.

Plans under consideration, which will be put out to public consultation, are believed to include:

  • A&E: This will be a GP-run minor injuries clinic. Serious cases will be expected to go to Kendal or Preston.
  • There will be no intensive care at Lancaster.
  • There will be a midwife-led maternity unit. However, if problems arise during births, mothers will be transported to Kendal or Preston.
  • There will be 'cold' surgery only - hips and knees.

Plans are at an advanced stage and it is intended to make the changes within three years, the result of budget cuts imposed by the government.

The NHS Blood and Transplant is also discussing proposals to close the blood stock-holding unit based at the RLI and to consolidate it into an existing site in Manchester.

Coun Jon Barry said: "If these plans are true, local residents will effectively be left with a glorified clinic. It seems clear to me that local people will die or suffer more serious injuries because there won't be suitable facilities nearby to treat them."

“I am very clear that RLI must offer a full range of medical facilities including A&E, intensive care and maternity services and urge everyone to defend our hospital.”

"It is fundamental to a decent health service that there is a proper local hospital. The coalition government said that the NHS was safe from cuts. This clearly isn't the case."

"There won't simply be a deterioration in health care. In addition, it will be more difficult for people to visit patients and there will be a net loss of jobs from our district."


A spokesman for the University Hospitals Morecambe Bay Trust, which runs the RLI, Westmorland General Hospital in Kendal and Furness General Hospital in Barrow, told the Lancaster Guardian that a service review had been launched, but would not confirm or deny if certain services could be axed.

• Update: A Facebook page has been set up to gather support for the RLI: https://www.facebook.com/LancasterSaveOurHospitals

Police hunt "Postman Pat" burglars

Morecambe police are appealing for information after over £10,000 worth of items were stolen during a burglary in Morecambe last week - including a Postman Pat figure stuffed with coins.

The burglary is believed to have taken place sometime between 4.30pm and 8.00pm on Wednesday 9th January 2013 at an address on West End Road, Morecambe.

It is believed that the offenders drove up to the house and parked on the empty driveway at the side, before forcing entry through the garage. They then used a garden hose to force entry through the patio doors and gain access to the main house.

“This was a high value burglary whereby distinctive and expensive jewellery was stolen and we believe there is a possibility that the house was deliberately targeted," says Detective Sergeant Kathryn Riley.

“Also of note was the theft of a two foot tall plastic Postman Pat figure containing a large amount of coins. This was very heavy and there is evidence of drag marks at the rear of the premises.

"I’m hoping that someone might have seen this figure.

“I’d urge anybody that has any information about this burglary, that saw anything acting suspiciously in the area around the time of the offence or in the days leading up to it to come forward.

“Understandably the victims are very distressed as a lot of the property stolen was jewellery which has a lot of sentimental value, including wedding rings.”

• Anyone with any information should call Lancashire Police on 101. People with information can also contact the independent charity Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or on-line at Crimestoppers-uk.org. No personal details are taken, information is not traced or recorded and you will not go to court.

City Council votes to keep council tax support at existing levels

The City Council has voted not to change its existing levels of council tax support for the year commencing 1st April, despite reduced grant from the government.

The decision was made at an Extraordinary Meeting of the Council last night, which backed a motion proposed by Councillor Abbott Bryning, Cabinet member for Finance and Seconded by Council Leader Eileen Blamire, after an often emotional debate.

A combination of Labour and Green support ensured that the motion was carried by 33 votes for to 13 votes against.

The proposers maintained that the adopted scheme gave the council time during the course of the next financial year to learn from the experiences of other councils who will be reducing council tax support levels.

Councillor Bryning accused the government of transferring responsibility for council tax support from Whitehall to Town Halls, in a move that has been widely described as a “Poll Tax Mark II”.

Speaking in the debate, Labour Councillor Ian Pattison said “The decision of the government to force these changes on local authorities comes as other benefits are being reduced for working families and vulnerable people. It is vital that the least well off are protected and that we make sure the system is fair. A tax cut for millionaires at a time when hard working families are being hit with social security cuts only shows how out of touch this Tory-led government is”.

The decision comes as other councils across the country also decided to absorb the costs of reduced government grants, after an announcement by the Department for Communities and Local Government that an additional £100 million of funding would be made available to councils to develop schemes that meet certain criteria of "best practice".

An amendment to the local government finance bill, which sets out that the reforms to council tax benefit will be subject to review after three years, has also played a part in councils delaying reducing support.

As we previously reported, although more than 200 local authorities had already drafted individual council tax support schemes, many are now amending their plans in order to qualify for the grant, are reopening consultations or extending their consultation periods. Additionally, notes Sabrina Bushe at NPI, it is plausible that councils will opt to "wait and see", absorb the cut and reappraise next year, going through the process all over again.

Despite the council tax benefit reform being heralded as an important step towards localism, the promise of autonomy that it offered seems unlikely to be realised. Furthermore, it is deeply worrying that with a mere seven weeks remaining for councils to decide on the new schemes the future of council tax benefit in England remains highly uncertain.

The findings featured precede a larger research project by the New Policy Institute, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which will detail the new schemes adopted by all councils across England and the effects of reform on the estimated 3.7 million council tax benefit claimants.

• The NPI and False Economy findings are publicly available online at counciltaxsupport.org.

• The Council reports on Localised Tax Support are here and here (PDF format) is available on the council’s website at www.lancaster.gov.uk. The meeting agenda is here.

New festival to celebrate comic art launched in Lake District



A new event in the Lake District which aims to match the vibrancy of France's annual, world-acclaimed Angouleme Comics Festival has been launched to celebrate the very best comic art from across the world, from cartoon strips to superhero comics and manga to non-fiction graphic novels.

The Lakes International Comic Art Festival will run from 18-20th October 2013 in Kendal, Cumbria - and Lancaster-based comic creators are already lining up to support it.

The founder patrons of the new festival include Bryan and Mary Talbot, who won the biography category in the Costa Book Awards earlier this month. They are joined by another internationally renowned comic artist Sean Phillips.

The launch of the new festival comes at a time when there is a growing buzz about comic art. Graphic novels have been taken increasingly seriously over the last 20 years.

Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, written by Mary Talbot and illustrated by husband Bryan, was the first graphic novel to win the biography category in the Costa Awards. The Chair of the 2013 Man Booker Prize has also encouraged entries by authors of graphic novels.

Mary and Bryan Talbot - patrons of new Comic Art Festival in Kendal

Bryan Talbot’s work also includes Batman, Judge Dredd, Alice in Sunderland and his Grandville series of detective thrillers. He also wrote and drew A Tale of One Bad Rat, which is partially set in the Lake District, a haunting tale homaging the work of Beatrix Potter.

“The UK is one of the only countries in Europe that doesn't have an international comic festival, celebrating the whole range of this versatile and exciting medium," he says. "This is the golden age of graphic novels, with more, and better, comic art being produced today than ever before.

"The Lakes International Comic Art festival is therefore a concept whose time has come.

“The medium of comics, or sequential art, is as valid an art form as any other and is capable of dealing with any subject and any genre in its own unique way, a way that is direct and accessible," he continues. "The best graphic novels are comparable to the best in prose, film or drama.”

The festival will include events where people will be able hear from some of the biggest names in comic art, panel discussions, films, exhibitions and workshops. Authors and artists will also be signing copies of their work and there will be a marketplace to buy comics and comic art.

Sean Phillips, who lives in Cumbria, has also worked as an artist on comics such as Batman and Hellblazer, and more recently on crime genre comics Criminal and Fatale.

“It's great to be involved with any festival that is interested in promoting the vast range of comics out there," he says.

“Comics is a medium, not a genre. It's not just superheroes and the Beano, and this festival is a good chance to see that there are comics for everyone, no matter what their interests are. Comics can be used to tell any type of story in any genre, and that should be celebrated.”

The festival is the brainchild of Julie Tait and her 14-year-old comic fan son Finn, who live in Kendal.

"The Lakes International Comic Art Festival will celebrate this exciting and vibrant art form, which is gaining a growing number of fans of all ages," says Julie. "For me, the fusion of great art and great writing is dynamite. It makes it a very exciting, inspiring and challenging art form to be promoting, celebrating and encouraging."

The event's founders have looked to the comic art festivals held on the continent for inspiration, including Europe’s largest celebration of the art form at Angouleme in France, which takes place later this month.

"In countries like France there's a real appreciation of comics as an art form and our aim is to create something of the atmosphere at comic art festivals like the one in Angouleme," Julie enthuses. "There will be plenty for the real enthusiasts but we also hope it will help to introduce a new audience to comic art."

Julie also runs the team behind the Lakes Alive outdoor arts festival. Speaking about her latest venture she says: "There's a real enthusiasm in the Lake District and across Cumbria for new, contemporary cultural events. We believe this new festival will provide something that is inspiring, exciting and creative for local people to enjoy, as well as bringing in audiences from outside the area."

The new festival will take place at a number of venues across Kendal, including the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal College and the Town Hall and will be created and presented by Lakes Arts Festivals Ltd, a not-for-profit company.

• More details about the new event will be available at www.comicartfestival.com shortly.  It is also possible to keep up to date with plans for the festival by following @comicartfest on Twitter or by liking the Lakes International Comic Art Festival Facebook page.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Cumbrian Police still searching for missing woman





Police officers looking for missing Catalina Covaci and her baby son Ricardo from Penrith, who disappeared before Christmas, have launched an appeal to trace a commuter who was seen on CCTV talking to the missing mum at a Manchester train station.

Officers have released the CCTV today in the hope that the lady contacts them as she is now the last known person to speak to Catalina on the day she went missing and may have very important information that could help officers locate her.

The lady is described as wearing a black jacket, a black hat and carrying several black bags and was seen talking to Catalina at Manchester Piccadilly train station. They spoke at around 1.40pm on the afternoon of 19th December 2012.

Detective Inspector Furzana Nazir is coordinating the search for Catalina.

“We have been conducting extensive searches and enquiries to trace 15-year-old Catalina and her six month year old son, Ricardo, who have almost been missing for a month," she said. “CCTV investigation has revealed that Catalina spoke to a woman when she arrived in Manchester Piccadilly train station on the afternoon she went missing.

"It is incredibly important that we trace this witness to find out what Catalina said, whether she asked for help or whether she indicated where she may be going.

“We are into the fourth week of her disappearance and concerns are mounting. Her family in Penrith are distressed and we need to ensure that we locate them both – quickly.

“Please, if you were travelling through Manchester Piccadilly on Wednesday 19 December 2012, take a look at this image and see if it was you. Were you travelling home for Christmas? Did you see or speak to a young mum pushing a black pushchair through the station around lunchtime? If you did, please get in touch.

“Anyone at all who thinks they have information about Catalina and Ricardo’s movements or current whereabouts – please come forward and contact us. Even the smallest detail may help so we would encourage anyone who has seen a young girl matching her description to contact Cumbria police on 101. If you want to give information but remain anonymous you can also call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.”

Catalina, who is originally from Romania but has resided in Cumbria for the last year and a half, went missing before Christmas. On Wednesday 19th December she left her Penrith home after telling her guardians she was taking her routine walk into Penrith town centre with her son. However, Catalina was seen with her son at Penrith Train Station on the morning of Wednesday 19th December 2012 and police have established that they travelled on a train from Penrith to Manchester Piccadilly which arrived at around 2.40pm. She hasn’t been seen since.

Catalina is described as having very long straight hair which is often worn in a bun. She is of a medium-heavy build and has a dark complexion.

Last week, police officers turned to international colleagues to help them widen their search as enquiries extended into France. Interpol are assisting Cumbria Constabulary by beginning international enquiries.

Catalina has strong links with various Romanian and travelling communities police officers are using #helpfindcatalina on Twitter in a bid to reach a wider audience and in the hope that the online community will spread the word and come forward with information.

• Cumbria Constabulary’s website: www.cumbria.police.uk or their social networking accounts www.twitter.com/cumbriapolice or www.facebook.com/cumbriapolice

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Hopes Council tax discount change will mean fewer empty properties

Council Tax discounts for some empty homes in the Lancaster district will be changing from April this year.

The decision was made by Full Council in December in light of new flexibilities introduced by the Government to give local authorities the discretion to set their own discounts in certain circumstances.

By removing the discounts, the council hopes to provide a stronger incentive to get empty homes back into use.

The changes in full are:

• Replacement of the current exemption of up to twelve months for properties undergoing or in need of major repairs or structural alteration (Class A), with a discount of 50% for up to 12 months.

• Replacement of the current six month exemption followed by a 50% discount for empty homes (Class C), with an exemption for two months followed by a discount of 50% for up to a further four months only (after which, a full charge would apply).

• Removal of the 10% discount on second homes.

• Introduction of a premium of an additional 50% of council tax due on properties that have been empty for two or more years. The charging policy for this premium will be subject to further guidance, to be issued by the Government in due course.

Councillor Abbott Bryning, Cabinet member with responsibility for finance, said: “The council is facing some very tough decisions in this very harsh financial climate, which is impacting on everyone, not just in this district but across the country.

“By changing certain Council Tax discounts for empty properties, we can not only increase Council Tax income to help lessen future reductions needed in key services, but we can also help to get homes that might otherwise have fallen into disrepair or become the target of crime back into use.”

Storey Gallery: Putting it out on the Street.

Storey Gallery space

Lancaster's Arts' scene suffered a blow this week with the announcement that the Storey Gallery organisation has given up its exhibition space within the Storey Creative Industries Centre. The Gallery organisation has been based within the Storey Institute, now known as The Storey, for the past 21 years.

Sadly, due to the impacts of a succession of funding cuts, and the indirect effects of the financial difficulties of the building's recent landlord, the Storey Creative Industries Centre Ltd. which resulted in its liquidation (see previous news),  the arts organisation have decided to officially cease their programme in the gallery space.

However, artists are nothing if not creative and the Storey Gallery Organisation has been looking at fresh approaches to enhancing the artistic experience of the local community.

Storey Gallery Director John Angus said:
'This has been a difficult decision, and it is a matter of considerable regret that these splendid spaces within the Institute will no longer be programmed by Storey Gallery.

'However, we are now exploring ways to provide a different type of visual art programme for the Lancaster and Morecambe area. We plan to deliver a variety of projects outside the gallery, which explore and describe aspects of the district, drawing attention to its unique characteristics, while also making connections to global issues.

'Storey Gallery has successfully delivered several such projects previously, particularly during the period while the Storey building was being refurbished, and the gallery space was not available. For example, our collaboration with City Council planners in which an artist boarded up the old fountain in Market Square, Lancaster, resulted in the planners’ most successful public consultation ever, and led to the funding for the recent redevelopment of the Square.

'The Storey Gallery organisation aims to stimulate critical thought and reflection. In all our activities, we will be experimenting with what art can be and do.'

'For further information please contact John Angus, tel: 01524 844133/509008, info@storeygallery.org.uk.'

Borough Comedy: Hayley Ellis and Bafta Star Tudor Owen this Sunday

Hayley Ellis


Lancaster's Comedy Club this Sunday night at the Borough features Manchester's Hayley Ellis (http://www.hayleyelliscomedy.com/) who is compering this week's Lancaster show. Hayley has gone from strength to strength since she began performing in 2009. Her natural warmth and girl-next-door charm make her impossible to dislike, something which has become evident in her success and she has just been signed by top comedy agency Avalon who also represent Frank Skinner and Jenny Eclair.
Tudor Owen

"Ellis surely has a future in comedy."  Chortle    
"Hayley Ellis is fast becoming Manchester’s Funniest female"  Steve Wright, Radio 2
BAFTA winning Welsh comic Tudur Owen headlines the show, quirky character act Danny Pensive opens with hotly tipped newcomer Kevin Shevlin in the middle.

The venue is The Borough, 5 Dalton Square, Lancaster,  LA1 1PP (close by the Town Hall). The fun starts at 8pm prompt!  Admission is £9 on the night or £7 in advance if you buy before 4pm on the day and tickets are available from the venue. For fun loving foodies meal deals are available for only £12! Limited places ring now on 01524 64170.

New scheme to replace Council Tax Benefit to be considered

City Councillors will consider a new scheme to replace Council Tax Benefit at a specially convened meeting of Full Council on Wednesday, as it faces more cuts to its overall funding from government.

Under Government plans, Council Tax Benefit is due to be abolished in April 2013 and local councils have been told to develop new Localised Council Tax Support schemes.

The Government has said that it will reduce the amount of funding it gives to councils to fund their schemes by around 10 per cent, just at a time when many councils are reprting more people are claiming the benefit, including working people as the squeeze on wages continue and more people face unemployment. 

For Lancaster City Council, the funding reduction is approximately 10.5% or £1.1million.

Nationally, The Guardian reports low-income households face a "postcode lottery" of council tax bills for the first time since the system was introduced, which will involve some low-income people paying nothing and others facing a potential bill of thousands of pounds a year. The BBC reports that, for example, North Tyneside Council estimates it is £1.8m short of having enough money to fully fund existing council tax benefit claims. It is therefore considering asking all working age council tax payers to contribute at least 20% of their tax bill.

The Government has insisted, however, that the changes must not affect pensioners, and so in order to offset the reductions in Government funding, it would mean that people of working age would have the amount of financial support they receive cut as a result and this would be by about 23% on average.

If council tax support is not reduced by this amount, then other essential services would need to be reduced, including those provided by the County Council, Fire and Police.

During the autumn of last year, Lancaster City Council asked local people for their views on three proposed options for its localised scheme.

Councillors are now being asked to decide how the new scheme should look and will consider the results of the consultation in making their decision.

Councillor Abbott Bryning, portfolio holder with responsibility for such benefits, said: “If it had an option the city council would not want to make any changes to the way it currently pays out Council Tax Benefit, but given that our funding from Government is being cut and the existing national scheme is being abolished, we must consider alternatives.

“Members of Council will consider the information that has come out of the public consultation in making this very important decision, and they will also consider the other very large cuts in funding that the Council is facing and what impact the options have for other services.  It is a very difficult choice.”

Apart from the major requirement – that pensioners receive the same amount as they do now – councils were told they would have near full autonomy to create the new schemes when Council Tax Benefit is abolished.

But recent research by the New Policy Institute and False Economy, detailing what councils have been proposing since August 2012, calls into question how much autonomy councils actually have.

A sample of the proposed local schemes indicated that of 200 councils, only 20% intended to replicate the former system and make savings elsewhere in their budgets. The vast majority intended to make the savings by reducing the amount of claimants and/or cutting the amount of support they receive.

By far the most common measure considered was to introduce a minimum payment of typically between 15-20% of council tax liability (proposed by 70% of sample councils). Other popular measures included removing the second adult rebate (50%) and lowering the maximum savings limit (35%).

However, within a remarkably short space of time much of these findings are now obsolete.

The amendment to the local government finance bill, which sets out that the reforms to council tax benefit will be subject to review after three years, has played no small part in this development as has the announcement by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) that an additional £100m of funding would be made available to councils to develop schemes that meet certain criteria of "best practice".

Although more than 200 local authorities had already drafted individual schemes, many are now amending their plans in order to qualify for the grant, are reopening consultations or extending their consultation periods. Additionally, notes Sabrina Bushe at NPI, it is plausible that councils will opt to "wait and see", absorb the cut and reappraise next year, going through the process all over again.

Despite the council tax benefit reform being heralded as an important step towards localism, the promise of autonomy that it offered seems unlikely to be realised. Furthermore, it is deeply worrying that with a mere 7 weeks remaining for councils to decide on the new schemes the future of council tax benefit in England remains highly uncertain.

The findings featured precede a larger research project by the New Policy Institute, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which will detail the new schemes adopted by all councils across England and the effects of reform on the estimated 3.7 million council tax benefit claimants.

• The NPI and False Economy findings are publicly available online at counciltaxsupport.org.

• The Council reports on Localised Tax Support are here and here (PDF format) is available on the council’s website at www.lancaster.gov.uk. The meeting agenda is here.

City Council consults on Taxis

Lancaster City Council is asking the public, taxi trade and other interested parties if rules limiting the number of hackney carriages operating within the district should be lifted.

Currently the number of licences issued to hackney taxis - which can pick passengers up without being pre-booked - in the Lancaster district is limited to 109.

This is regularly reviewed to ensure there are sufficient hackney taxis to meet demand, but local authorities elsewhere in the country are currently increasingly removing similar restrictions. Latest available figures show that 92 councils regulate the number of taxi licences, which constitutes around 26.7 per cent of licensing authorities in England and Wales.

A new report from the Law Commission is also recommending that such restrictions should be abolished.

Any relaxation in the rules would be particularly beneficial to wheelchair users. Currently just 15 of the 109 Hackney Carriages in the district are wheelchair accessible and any new licences issued would make this a requirement.

Coun Tony Johnson, chairman of the council’s Licensing Regulatory Committee, said: “The way the Hackney carriage trade is currently regulated in terms of numbers has both benefits and disadvantages.

“The purpose of this consultation is to identify whether the policy should continue in the future or be discontinued.

“The views of the public and the taxi trade will be key in helping us to make a decision that is of most benefit to both the trade and the travelling public.”

• To take part in the consultation email licensing@lancaster.gov.uk, visit www.lancaster.gov.uk/hackney-consultation or write to: Hackney Carriage Consultation, Licensing, Town Hall, Lancaster, LA1 1PJ. The deadline for making representations is 31st March 2013

Ethel Austin Morecambe closes as chain collapses

Ethel Austins Morecambe closed on Friday, with staff given just half an hour to clear their personal belongings before the shop was closed for good - the final nail in the coffin for the troubled clothing chain whose Lancaster store closed last year.

Owner Ricli Limited called in administrators and its stores, numbering around 30 nationally, were closed. The Liverpool Echo reports around 200 people are expected to lose their jobs.

Salford-based entrepreneur Mike Basso, who "rescued" the chain from administration last year, said he had been unable to keep the business afloat, claiming the company had been forced to act to protect creditors and that his involvement with the business had been “very painful”.

A security firm closed the stores leaving remaining staff little time to gather belongings before the doors were closed for a final time.

Ethel Austin had been in administration five times in four years, with each wind up and resuting in further store closures. Despite Ricli's intervention last year, stock levels at remaining stores continued to fluctuate and some stores had not had deliveries for months.

When Ricli's purchase of the remaining stores, including Morecambe, was announced last year,  trade union Usdaw has expressed “some concern” over the fact that Mr Basso was “closely involved with the business [as an investor] under previous recent owners”.

The rescue by Mr Basso also represented a U-turn after he told the Echo, a month before concluding his buy-out, that his involvement in the company would be “no more” after losing significant sums of money to previous owners.

After buying the firm, he told the Echo: “In the right hands, Ethel Austin is a very good brand" and was publicly critical of Ethel Austin’s former management, arguing before he rescued the business that it could “prosper” if it were “run properly”.

The business was founded by Ethel Austin and her husband George in a Liverpool council house in 1934. Before the series of administrations which began in 2008, the company had 300 stores employing almost 3,000 staff.

Ethel Austin was being run by award-winning business woman Sue Townsend's Ashloch Ltd when it failed last year and the Lancaster store subsequently closed. Ashloch acquired the assets of the chain’s previous owner, Life & Style, which the Liverpool Echo notes was run by Mr Basso’s friend, Elaine McPherson, when that company collapsed in the summer of 2010.

This article on Soult's Retail View details the problems facing Ethel Austin after Michael Basso's purchase of the company last year

Monday, 14 January 2013

Crook O' Lune bridge to be fully restored

Work will begin in the spring to repair the East pedestrian bridge at the Crook O'Lune which links Caton with the River Lune Millennium Park.

The listed bridge near Lancaster will be closed until late summer while it is fully restored.

It was originally closed for safety reasons in March 2011 after an inspection unearthed problems with the structure, particularly with the timber beams underneath. The bridge has since been reopened with a temporary deck supported by scaffolding above the old timber deck.

A decision was taken today (Monday 14th January) by Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver to invest in a full restoration which will see the timber decking replaced, ironwork repainted, and the masonry! re-pointed.

He said: "The Crook O'Lune is a beautiful and historic part of Lancashire and the East Bridge is an important part of the recreational site which attracts around 250,000 visitors a year.

"It's therefore vital that we continue to protect this listed structure and carry out the repairs needed to make sure it lasts for future generations.

"Even in these difficult financial times it is vital to preserve our heritage and I am delighted that we are able to invest what we estimate may cost up to £1.5m to fully restore this bridge."

The bridge near the Crook O'Lune picnic site and Millennium Park carries the River Lune Cycleway which is a popular route for cyclists, walkers and horse riders. The nearby toilets and cafe facilities will be open as normal while work takes place.

A diversion will redirect people over the Caton Lune Bridge on Low Road, where a temporary walkway will allow them to cross - alongside the traffic.

Footpaths underneath the bridge were diverted at the end of last year as a safety precaution after a further inspection of the old wooden beams showed they had continued to deteriorate.

As a listed structure, planning permission is needed to carry out the work and an application has been submitted to Lancaster City Council. Lancashire County Council is also consulting with the Environment Agency and Natural England to ensure any impact upon the environment is minimised.

The county council will announce exactly when the closure will begin once the work has been scheduled.

Police still hunting Morecambe mugger

Police are appealing for information after a woman was the victim of an attempted robbery in Morecambe last month.

At around 6.30pm on the 18th December, the 48-year-old woman was walking along Back Marine Road on her way home from work when she was approached by a man who tried to grab her bag from her shoulder

When se fell down, the man then ran from the scene empty handed. He has been described as white, around five feet ten inches tall and of slim build with dark hair. He was wearing dark, ‘scruffy’ clothing.

PC James Martin said; “Fortunately, the lady was not seriously injured but was understandably left shaken by what happened and so I would urge anyone who has any information that they think might help to come forward.”

• Anybody with any information can contact police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or on-line at Crimestoppers-uk.org. No personal details are taken, information is not traced or recorded and you will not go to court.