Thursday, 18 March 2010

Bug Investigations Get Underway At Heysham

Children in the Morecambe Bay area will become bug investigators this Saturday (20th March) when they take part in the North Lancashire Wildlife Watch group’s latest event at Heysham Nature Reserve. Wildlife Watch is the junior section of the Wildlife Trusts and Watch groups are aimed at children between the ages of 8 and 13 years.

The children’s activities will be held at the Heysham Nature Reserve, close to the harbour and ferry port on Moneyclose Lane, towards the Ocean Edge Morecambe Bay Leisure Park.

The meeting will be at the reserve on Saturday 20th March from 10.00am to 12 noon. Adult volunteers who would like to help with the group will also be welcomed at this meeting, where details about the application process and forms will be available.

Through their involvement in Wildlife Watch, children will hopefully gain an insight into the many aspects of wildlife and their environment. They will be able to participate in fun activities such as pond dipping, minibeast hunts and making bird and insect feeders in order to gain experience in a number of skills and to increase their confidence in working with other people. They will also be encouraged to act responsibly and to show a greater respect, knowledge and awareness of the area about them and into the wider world.

• Further details can be obtained by contacting either Emma Garston or Nicola Estill who are reserve officers based at Heysham and who will be two of the group’s registered leaders.

• Additional information about this group and other Wildlife Watch activities can be found on the Trust’s website

Greens launch bid for Lancaster and Fleetwood seat

(Updated 28/3/10): Green Party general election candidate Gina Dowding will launch her campaign to win the Lancaster and Fleetwood Constituency next week with a screening of her new campaign video.

Gina will introduce the first public showing of her campaign film at the Borough in Dalton Square on Monday 22nd March from 11.00 am, highlighting how the Greens hope this seat will make history and see Gina Dowding elected as Green Party MP for the new Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency.

Alongside Gina will be Chris Coates, Green Party candidate for Morecambe and Lunesdale, who says he is giving voters in a Labour stronghold, which has been held for many years by Geraldine Smith, a real alternative to the status quo.

Also in attendance will be a selection of the 14 Green Party City and County councillors, as well as representatives from Fleetwood Green Party and Alan Schofield, candidate for Wyreside in 2009. After the film showing, Gina, Chris and councillors will be taking questions about the campaign and how the citizens of Lancaster and Fleetwood can make political history.

The Greens feel the Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency has the potential to present a real surprise at the forthcoming general election. Because Conservative Ben Wallace is moving on, not only is there no standing MP, but they say it is difficult to predict a winner in a seat spanning three separate council districts and made up of a politically diverse electorate.

"There are a great many disillusioned voters who are both fed up of mainstream politics and who want a real alternative to the increasingly narrow policies of the three main parties," says a Green spokesperson. "Only the Green Party has the radical agenda for change, and the ability to shake up our grey and entrenched political system.

gina_dowding_greenparty.jpgPreviously a local councillor, Gina courted controversy after she leaked private information about plans to tax exempt Heysham nuclear power station. She was subsequently suspended but came back to win her council seat with a massively increased majority. Well known locally and with huge grassroots support, the Greens feel she has the potential to make political history at the upcoming general election, and, potentially, join other Green Party candidates Adrian Ramsay and Green Party Leader Caroline Lucas in Parliament.

"I'm so impressed with the support I've had from so many local people," says Gina of her campaign so far "There's a real buzz out there and I believe people will see our potential to win the seat."

Previous election results suggest Lancaster and Fleetwood could conceivably lead the way and elect the first Green MP to Westminster. The Greens claim figures taken from the total number of votes cast in the 2007 local elections for Lancaster City Council in the wards relevant to the Lancaster and Fleetwood Constituency show that the Green Party received 37% of the vote in the constituency wards, ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives on 26% (the Lib Dems receiving just 11%). Throughout the constituency, the Greens hold the highest number of local council seats and two county council seats.

At the constituency wide county elections last year, the Green Party gained 22%, again ahead of the Labour Party.

However, this may be wishful thinking on the part of the Party. Information we've received since first posting this story indicates that if you add up the actual votes cast in 2007, for all the parties, in all 17 wards that now make up the Lancaster and Fleetwood constituency, then divide by the overall total, the voting preferences indicate stronger support for both Conservatives (38%) and Labour (28%), with the Greens gaining 19% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats trailed with 12% and UKIP 3% - giving a very different perspective.

• Gina Dowding's web site:; she is also on Facebook and Twitter
• Chris Coates web site:
Lancaster and District Green Party

Cash in transit robber jailed for 12 years

Arstall.JPGJohn Arstall, a man who threatened security guards with a machete during a cash in transit van robbery in Lancaster has been jailed for 12 years.

Around £93,000 was stolen in the raid on the van in Scale Hall Lane, Lancaster, on January 29 2008.

Arstall, of Eccles, Manchester, and another offender threatened the guards with machetes before making off with the cash.

The 29-year-old was arrested after his DNA was found in a woolly hat that was pulled from his head by one of the guards.

He was found guilty of robbery following a trial at Preston Crown Court and was sentenced the following day (Tues) to 12 years.

Detective Inspector Glen Oldham, Lancaster CID, said: “This was a terrifying incident for the two guards, who were faced with men armed with machetes.

“Our officers have worked closely with those at Greater Manchester Police to identify and arrest Arstall.

“I welcome Arstall’s sentence and hope it sends a very clear message to anyone considering carrying out such a crime – we will do everything we can to catch you and ensure that you are dealt with robustly by the courts.”

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

TB cases still rising in North West

World TB Day

The Health Protection Agency North West, in partnership with NHS North West, is urging people to be aware of the symptoms of TB as new provisional data published this week shows that TB figures remain high in the region.

The figures, released by the HPA ahead of World TB Day on 24th March, show that cases of TB nationally have increased by 5.5 per cent, from 8,679 reported in 2008 to 9,153 in 2009.

In the North West, the figures show an 11 per cent increase over the last four years with 841 cases in 2009.

Dr Marko Petrovic, regional TB lead at the HPA North West, said: “The recent increase in cases here in the North West shows that we must remain vigilant in our fight against TB. This is an entirely preventable and curable infection, but it can be fatal if prompt diagnosis and treatment are not given.

“People need to be aware of the main symptoms of TB, which include a fever and night sweats; a persistent cough; weight loss; and blood in your sputum (phlegm or spit). If you experience two or three of these symptoms for a period of more than three weeks, you should go to your GP.”

Both health professionals and the general public should be aware of the following key, simple facts about TB:

• TB is curable. It is usually treated with a six-month course of antibiotics, which must be completed in order to discourage recurrence of disease or drug resistance.

• Other symptoms include: lack of appetite, fatigue and a general sense of feeling unwell. TB may also affect glands - causing a swollen neck - or bones and joints, leading to aches and pains. TB meningitis often gives a person severe headaches and, although rare, may result in death.

• It is unusual to catch TB simply by sitting next to an infected person on the train. The infection normally requires prolonged and close contact in order to spread from person to person.

• Under half of the cases in the UK have the infectious form of the disease. Most cases present little or no risk to others.

• TB affects children and adults differently. It is very uncommon to catch TB from a child with the disease.

• TB treatment is free for the patient.

NHS North West, the HPA and national TB charity TB Alert are joining forces in the region to raise awareness of TB and inform people how they can help reduce the spread of infection. TB Alert works with voluntary sector organisations to increase awareness of TB among affected communities. The charity will bring new ideas from across the UK to the North West where they will be tested out with local partner organisations.

“Although TB affects a relatively small number of people, the consistent increase in the number of cases means our efforts to control the disease must be strengthened," explains Dr Ruth Hussey, Regional Director of Public Health, NHS Northwest. "Both health professionals and the general public alike must remain vigilant if we are to eradicate the disease.”

In May 2010 the HPA will launch the national strain typing service, which aims to improve understanding of how TB is spread in the community and help to identify at-risk groups. This will help to inform how public health resources are allocated and, in turn, prevent outbreaks and improve diagnosis and treatment of cases."

Lancaster Market: Who are ASCO and who backs it?

Lancaster MarketJust before the full Lancaster City Council meeting that discussed the future of Lancaster Market, Asco Stores Ltd finally confirmed via the Morecambe Visitor what had long been rumoured: that it had been approached by the Council to take over the building, whose costs are rapidly becoming prohibitive.

ASCO was, apparently the suggestion of real estate brokers and consultants Cushman and Wakefield, who reported earlier this month that over 10% of shops on the UK’s high streets are now vacant or available to lease according to their latest Retail Availability survey.

(At the Council Cabinet on 16th February, part of the proposal made by Conservative Councillor Thomas and seconded by Liberal Democrat Council leader Stuart Langhorn included the "appointment of Cushman and Wakefield to undertake the design/project management work on the Market Hall building.”)


The exact terms of the deal between ASCO, owned by property developer Ted Ward, and the City Council are considered commercially sensitive, but at a meeting of Traders and other parties last night (Tuesday) it would appear the idea of the "single trader" option is very attractive for the Council. Once it began paying rent, traders report the Council will apparently expect to net at least £500,000 a year in income - about the same as the costs of the building.

It should be noted, however, that as yet, Council officers have yet to present any evidence of potential cashflow for the single retailer option. Although the proposal passed at Cabinet regarding the Market required any subsequent report to Full Council to include a cashflow forecast it did not, from which we infer that the original report presented to Cabinet on 16 February did not include a cashflow forecast, either.

JRMace.jpgThis is important, because, as Councillor Roger Mace tells us, "movements of cash are not susceptible to distortion by the application of accounting rules and conventions.

"The cashflow statement thus makes it easier to visualise and assess the risk inherent in any commercial proposal - in this case the potential consequences for the council in the event that an incoming single trader taking a sublease of the Market should default, or terminate a new lease earlier than had been anticipated.

"It was in consequence of such analysis that the final paragraph in the Conservative amendment to the Budget resolution at Council on 3 March was ... that Council 'resolves that no offer be made to an incoming single trader unless such offer includes safeguards to protect council tax payers against the possibility of default or early termination of any new lease'."

The concerns are obvious: it's believed ASCO has been offered the building on generous terms in the Council's effort to rid itself of the building, so that projected income may not necessarily begin to benefit local taxpayers for at least the first year, if, for example, ASCO had been offered a rent free sweetener to take on the building.

(We would like to point out that this is pure conjecture, but the Council has used similar 'sweeteners' like this to attract and encourage business before, such as its successful attempt to persuade the Apollo Cinema to upgrade its venue in Morecambe in 2006, as noted by former council leader Ian Barker).


While the terms of the proposed deal remain secret, in a press statement issued before full Council voted not to close the Market, Lancaster City Council, assured the public: “Proposals of the sort involving Lancaster Market are put before Cabinet only after they have been rigorously scrutinised using professional means by the council’s officers, including the taking of external expert advice where necessary.

“These officers have years of experience in dealing with such matters and rumour and innuendo
from the internet do not form the basis for providing sound alternative advice.

“To enable them to make their decision Cabinet members were presented with details of the company involved and a full analysis of the benefits and risks, both financially and legally, to the city council of letting the building to this single retailer."

Lancaster City Council is right to take professional advice on such matters and of course, the Internet is sometimes both a boon and a curse in terms as an information source. We understand that council officers did indeed provide some indications of the risks involved in any potential deal with ASCO and its chief shareholder Ted Ward at the Cabinet meeting on 16th February, when the proposal to investigate the handover of the Market building to a single retailer was first mooted and back by all Cabinet members present except the Greens and Coun Evelyn Archer, who abstained on the vote.

However, we are surprized Council officers did not present result of a search on ASCO Stores Limited at Companies House (where all publicly available documents on the company can be purchased for about £10). We also imagined they must have run a credit check using, perhaps, UK Data, which indicates that although the company has taken advantage of exemptions under the Companies Act such that the accounts have not been audited or examined, its credit rating is poor, and perhaps oddly for a relatively new company, it has two County Court Judgements against it, totaling £6860.

Despite the huge potential costs to local taxpayers involved, Councillor John Barry, who voted against the proposal at Cabinet, tells us that such easily-sourced credit information was not presented to Cabinet.

Coun Blamire also tells us that she had seen some, but not all of the information we have researched.

"Even if it had been, I don't think it would have helped much as it is difficult to quantify a number auch as that," Jon argues. "What was available was [ASCO's] overdraft limit, which basically told you the same thing -- that they had no margin for error and could easily go bust.

"My view is that it was totally obvious that this was a very risky company from the information available," he adds.

"We were told by officers that it was a risk. Even the literature from the company looked second rate and somewhat tacky.

"Councillors who voted for ASCO are now falling over themselves to say they didn't know enough information. I think this is untrue. They had enough to know that it was a dodgy company and they were told by officers that it was a risk and it was up to them to make a decision."


Strangely, cabinet members seemed unconcerned by the involvement in the ASCO project of Ted Ward, reported in January as being a "business consultant" for the company and one of its founding directors, and, although he has since stepped down, remains the company's only shareholder.

(NB This paragraph updated 5/4/10 - originally, Jon told us council staff had made the Cabinet aware of Ted Ward's past): Jon Barry tells virtual-lancaster council officers did not make councillors aware of Ted Ward's history. For the benefit of taxpayers, we have conducted our own research, and present it below.

While virtual-lancaster is delighted that all parties are now meeting to discuss the future of the Market, with a decision set to be made on 31st March, we remain concerned at how a decision was reached to proceed with discussing a deal with ASCO.

"The responsible officers have to be held to account," says one angry local taxpayer in a letter to virtual-lancaster, also sent to other local press. "At Overview and Scrutiny committee last week, Coun Gilbert said that a number of councillors shared my concern. I believe that it is time for councillors to move from concern to action.

"The quality of governance – delivered by councillors as well as officers - matters even more in times of financial austerity. As really important services like community pools and public toilets are lined up for the axe, what the ASCO fiasco reveals is truly alarming.

"Do we really have the capability in place to match the seriousness of the times?"

We have made all Cabinet members aware of the our findings below and have received comments from some of them. We will update this story as and when others respond.


January 2007

The Lancashire Telegraph reports the new owners of Darwen Football Club property developers Ellie Batiste and Ted Ward (originally, the Managing Director of ASCO Stores Ltd and, reportedly, still backing the venture) want Darwen residents to be involved in the make-over as much as possible. The couple pledge to invest £3 million in the company, drawing on funds from their property business (Evermar Property Developments Ltd.), based in Manchester, but say they are also looking for sponsors and other investors.

Darrener.jpgOctober 2007

Salford property developer Ted Ward, who lives in Worsley, launches The Darrener, which is based at Darwen Football Club.

March 2008

Regional journalism site reports How Do The Darrener is reported to be in expansionary mood as it plans to increase pagination, recruit more staff and launch a website. The weekly paper costs 65p and editor Peter Holland claims the title is now selling almost 3,000 copies a week with readership above 7,000. His ambition he said is to see paid-for sales at 7,000 within 12 months. Despite this, one freelancer publicly details non-payment of bills on the How-Do web site.

April 2008

The Lancashire Telegraph notes plans by Ted Ward to open a new football stadium for Darwen FC at a cost of some £22 million.

June 2008

The Lancashire Telegraph reports Darwen FC is facing a winding-up order over alleged unpaid advertising debts. Bosses at the club are given a deadline of Thursday 19th June to respond to the order from solicitors acting on behalf of The Bee radio station to pay debts believed to be some £8000.

July 2008

18th July: The Lancashire Telegraph reports Ted Ward is banned from the ground after its former owner won a court injunction against him. Ted Ward is told he risks prison if he does not comply with the order banning him and his companies from The Anchor Ground.

The injunction also bans his businesses - including The Darrener - from operating from the club. It folds after only nine months, leaving staff unpaid and legal action to recover monies.

Darwen Online reports the hearing took place at Birmingham's Civil Justice Centre in which previous owner, Kevin Henry, claimed he had received just £20,000 of the £95,000 agreed for the sale of Darwen FC over 18 months ago.

Mohammed Zaman, who was acting on behalf of Mr Henry told the court how a separate company had been setup called Darwen Football and Rugby Club to have a very similar name to the original company "Darwen Football and Social Club" which was set-up in 1973.

It's claimed in court that this was done to pass the new company off as the old one and allow Mr Ward to divert funds into the new company. The Lancashire Telegraph reports that the court was shown evidence that no money had been banked into the account of Darwen Football and Social Club between December 2006 and January 2008.

Representing himself in court, Mr Ward said "It’s a terrible statement to say we were diverting funds." and showed a copy of his personal bank statement, telling them "“I am a man of substance."

22nd July: The Lancashire Telegraph reports Kevin Henry, the new man at the helm of Darwen Football Club has shelved plans for a multi-million pound stadium redevelopment. Henry wins a court injunction banning former boss Ted Ward from the Anchor Ground.

In its report, it notes Mr Ward had unveiled plans for a £22million, 5,000-capacity stadium, with shops and a hotel, on land at Robin Bank - but it later emerged that the artist’s impression of the planned stadium was in fact the University of Tulsa American football stadium from Oklahoma. Labour's shadow regeneration member Andy Kay was unimpressed by the image, which was also used on election leaflets by the 'For Darwen' party. "I would hesitate to say they were lying, but they are certainly being economical with their images," he said."There's no chance something like that would fit on Robin Bank."

August 2008

Staff at The Darrener newspaper say they are taking action against its owner, because they claim they have not been paid for almost three months.

February 2009

Darwen FC earns a short reprieve from a winding up order because of unpaid debts (Lancashire Telegraph)

March 2009

How-Do reports that staff that worked for The Darrener newspaper, including ex-BBC journalist Peter Holland, win claims of more than £19,000 after defeating owner Ted Ward at an employment tribunal in Manchester. At the tribunal Judge Peter Russell awarded Holland £6,837.54, chief reporter Miranda Taylor £4,750, graphic designer Martyn Halliwell £3,266, layout assistant Lisa Geogarty £2,484.50 and reporter Simone Yates £2,100.

April 2009

3rd April 2009: Date of Incorporation of Asco Stores Ltd. The new company is backed by "private investors" with further financial support from NatWest Bank (Source: Crains).

27th April: ACSO's Risk Score – 32 Moderate Risk (UK Company Data Report)

May 2009

After 134 years, Darwen Football and Social Club Ltd is wound up in the High Court over a £13,000 bill for beer and £9,000 owed to tool hire company ING for turf equipment, related to the tenure of previous boss Ted Ward. AFC Darwen, a new Darwen football club is formed, but the reformed club had to start at Step 7 (Level 11) of the football pyramid and apply for admission to the West Lancashire League, which was granted and they entered straight in at the Premier Division. (Sources include the Blackburn Citizen)

Fans of Darwen FC discovered that Ward bought Darwen Football & Social Club Ltd, which then incurred the debts to a brewery, leasing companies, etc. Ordinarily, the club's takings would be banked into the account of Darwen Football & Social Club Ltd. However, upon taking over, Mr Ward formed a new company called Darwen Football & Rugby Club Ltd. Were takings were banked into that company's bank account, thereby leaving the original company in a mess? Fans don't know, but the big question is: what happened to the funds, if any, banked in the new company's account? (Sourced from the Lancashire Telegraph forum: search for "Ian the Beancounter")

December 2009

5th December: ASCO Stores Ltd opening of first store, taking over Darwen's old Woolworths. (The opening was, it seems, originally scheduled for August). The leader of Warrington Borough Council, Coun Ian Marks did the honour of cutting the ribbon, teling press "The council has been working very closely with you on a scheme to get people who were previously unemployed into work. I think 18 people have joined you through this scheme which is wonderful." (This is Cheshire)

Web site Crains reports the store will employ 65 people and the company hopes to open another 11 across the North West by next summer, hoping to take advantage of low town centre retail rents to open 30 supermarkets employing 3,000 staff within three years. Elsewhere, it's reported ASCO plans to open stores in St. Helens and Runcorn before Christmas. (Neither has opened so far).

12th December: ASCO Company Secretary Alistair Hollows Resigns (Company House records)
17th December: ASCO Stores Ltd staff are laid off before Christmas, half the workforce less than two weeks after opening. Disgruntled staff claim baliffs have visited the store over unpaid bills.

Dave Laney, operations manager at Asco, tells the reporters: “When I open other stores in the vicinity the first people I’m going to call on is the people we have trained up.

“I’m more disappointed than anybody that we found ourselves in this situation where we have over-employed and we have had to make some hard decisions.” (Source: This is Cheshire)

January 2010

10th January: County Court Judgement against ASCO: £3759 (UK Company Data Report)
13th January: The Lancashire Telegraph reports again that Ted Ward is reported to be behind the launch of Asco Stores Ltd (and is described as being a "business consultant" to the company in other newspaper reports: Companies House information - cost £1 - shows that Mr. Ward is the only shareholder, having subscribed £1 for the controlling interest. Companies House also has publicly available information about the various companies of which Mr. Ward has been a director).

The company says it hopes to open another 11 stores across the North West by next summer. Locations in St. Helens and Runcorn are among those identified.

15th January: Media reports of ASCO Stores Ltd staff unpaid and post dated cheques. (This is Cheshire: "Post-dated pay cheque cost me my home")

17th January: County Court Judgement against ASCO:£3101 (UK Company Data Report)
20th January: ASCO Stores Ltd Managing Director Ted Ward steps down. Dave Laney, who was initially operation manager, takes over and insists that there was no mystery over Ward's departure and that it was business as usual. (Company House records, the Darwen Reporter).

Laney has some 30 years retail experience working for retailers including WH Smith and Mothercare, says the new venture is backed by private investors with further financial support from NatWest Bank.

20th January: New Company Secretary Sandra Cave appointed (Company House records)

February 2010

12th February: Company Secretary Terminated (Company House records)

16th February: Lancaster City Cabinet agrees to present a proposal to Full Council on 3rd March proposing the closure of Lancaster Market and its takeover by a single retailer. (Green councilors Bart and Fletcher vote against the proposal and Evelyn Archer abstains).

While the name of the retailer is at that point confidential, one council officer names it during a meeting with Market traders and ASCO later confirm they have been approached, providing the Morecambe Visitor with a visual of the revamped exterior in ASCO branding.

The full discussion of ASCO and the future of Lancaster Market at Cabinet is not in the public domain, but Councillor Jon Barry has confirmed, as noted above, that while they made the risks of any deal clear, City Council officers did not include information on the credit rating of ASCO when documentation on the market and the proposed "deal" with Asco was presented. A Creditsafe report (Cost: £8.99+VAT for the report) available at the time officers compiled their report indicates ASCO had a credit rating of 3, going down to 1 at the time of full council on 3rd march. Anything below 30 is deemed 'high risk' and 0 represents bankruptcy.

The report also notes that ASCO was already at the time of the cabinet report collecting county court judgements against it, starting with one for as little as £84.

24th February: New Company Secretary, Sarah Dorothea Richards, appointed (Company House records)

25th February: ACSO's Risk Score – 1 High Risk (UK Company Data Report)

25th February: ASCO makes Ethical/Company Policy statement to save the British High Street intending "to rescue and refurbish empty properties". Just one minor thing - Lancaster Market is not empty... (Asco -

March 2010

3rd March: Full Council votes against the Cabinet proposal to close Lancaster Market and agrees to negotiate with traders. Cabinet member Coun Abbott Bryning, who missed the cabinet vote, called the proposal with ASCO “a bum, one-sided deal”. Coun Blamire, who voted for it at Cabinet says she later realised that “it was utterly ridiculous”. Coun. Thomas, whose portfolio included property issues, resigns over the matter.

This week: Cabinet meets with traders and other bodies to discuss the Market's future (see earlier news story), also invloving the strategic director of Blackburn with Darwen Council (which itself is undergoing changes regarding its market), and Quarterbridge (specialists in the development of retail markts that undertakes ‘best value’ reviews and planning for market authorities, and offers a full marketing and strategic development service to all market businesses.).

31st March: the Council will meet again to discuss the future of Lancaster Market...

Lancaster Market Matter March: Video (Facebook, membership required)

Save Lancaster Market Facebook Group

Future of Lancaster Market discussed

After the decision at Council earlier this month, members of Lancaster City Council’s Cabinet have met with local market traders, representatives of the National Federation of Market Traders, and other experts as part of Cabinet’s discussion on the future of Lancaster Market.

This special working group, open to all members of Cabinet, has met three times over the last week and spent more than 12 hours listening to information and advice and asking questions, as well as discussing a number of issues and options for reducing the market’s current deficit of more than £400,000 a year.

The views of the Cabinet working group, which will meet again on Thursday (18th March) and Tuesday 23rd March, will enable Cabinet to make formal proposals to Council on the future of the market.

In addition to hearing from the existing market traders, on two occasions, and the National Federation of Market Traders, the working group has gathered evidence from the National Association of British Market Authorities, Cushman and Wakefield (the agents hired by the council following an earlier Cabinet decision to find a retailer for the market), the strategic director of Blackburn with Darwen Council (which itself is undergoing changes regarding its market), and Quarterbridge (specialists in the development of retail markts).

On Thursday it will discuss the options with the Chamber of Commerce.

In a joint statement, Lancaster City Council’s Cabinet said: “The city council and local taxpayers are losing more than £400,000 a year in running Lancaster Market which is not sustainable. We need to find a way forward for the future of the market.

“We appreciate the public interest in the future of the market and these sessions have been helpful in helping us gather evidence that will be key to helping Cabinet to prepare its proposals. Our thanks to everyone who has participated.”

Cabinet will formally meet on 23rd March at 3.30pm (not 2pm as previously indicated) at Lancaster Town Hall to prepare its proposals to Council. Options include, amongst others, consideration of a business plan from the market traders, the alternative of a single storey market, alternative market sites and the option of a single trader.

A report will then be prepared for consideration by Full Council at a special meeting on March 31 which will be held at 6pm at Lancaster Town Hall.

New ideas needed for Lancaster Market, say Greens

lewes_pound_1.jpgGreen Party councillor John Whitelegg is calling on the Council to look at fresh ideas to improve Lancaster Market - including the introduction of a local currency scheme that could benefit all the area's small businesses.

"We need to be considering innovative ideas," he says, including handing over control and responsibility for running the market to the traders themselves,an idea also mooted by the Conservatives.

"We should also be promoting the market in every council publication and in all tourism literature, establishing a loyalty system to encourage regular use of the market, supporting a "friends of the market" organisation and inviting the 13,000 people who signed the petition and the 5,000 who signed up to the Facebook initiative to join.

"In the longer term we could set up a Lewes style local currency system for use in the market."

The Lewes Pound -- essentially a voucher or token that can be tradedlocally as a complementary currency and used alongsidepounds Sterling -- was introduced in the East Sussex town some time ago and is described as a creative yet practical way for local people to make money work for community.
Money spent locally circulates within, and benefits the local economy. Money spent in national chains doesn't. Supporters argue the Lewes Pound encourages demand for local goods and services, which in turn builds resilience to the rising costs of energy, transport and food.

Gina Dowding, a former Green Party cabinet member on Lancaster City Council and now the prospective parliamentary candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood is backing John's campaign.

"The market is the heart of Lancaster," she enthuses. "We need to support local businesses and provide opportunities for local people to set up in business. The future of Lancaster depends on as many small businesses as possible giving it a go and employing local people in activities that put money back into the local economy.

"The market is central to our job creation and regeneration ambitions, and I urge all councillors when they meet on 31st March to support initiatives that will see the market retained whilst, at the same time, reducing the Council's deficit".

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Salt Ayre Sports Centre closed for works over Easter

Lancaster City Council is taking advantage of the Easter bank holiday weekend to programme elements of its annual maintenance schedule at Salt Ayre Sports Centre.

Salt Ayre is a facility that operates the best part of 50 plus weeks per year, and as such it is always a challenge to find the best time to schedule planned maintenance works.

Rather than programme a week or fortnight closure for maintenance and repairs, the council's planned maintenance aims to minimise disruption to its customers by linking maintenance work to closures around public holidays, which traditionally represent quiet periods.

As a result, the opportunity has been taken to schedule this work for April 3 and 4, the weekend between the two Easter bank holidays. The centre will therefore be closed from April 2 to April 5 inclusive.

The closure will allow for the overhaul the centre's emergency lighting system, which must be done with the centre vacated.

Separately, "specialist diving" contractors will carry out a full inspection of and carry out adjustments to the swimming pool's movable floor.

In carrying out these type of works over such periods, the council aims to ensure that standards and quality are maintained at Salt Ayre Sports Centre, but at minimum disruption to the centre's half a million plus, annual visitors.

Liberal Democrats: Closing the Market not our idea


Above: Coun Stuart Langhorn accepts a petition protesting against Lancaster Market's closure earlier this month

Local Liberal Democrat leader Stuart Langhorn has hit back at suggestions that his party is to blame for plans to close Lancaster Market.

"Closing the market is not a Liberal Democrat idea," Langhorn, who is also leader of Lancaster City Council, told virtual-lancaster, responding to various news reports on the issue over the past few weeks.

Langhorn is aware that many people might perhaps only take into account that Conservative Cabinet member Malcolm Thomas and he proposed and seconded what became a controversial Cabinet suggestion to push for a single retailer solution to the Market building's ongoing financial problems in February. But he argues this motion, discussed at Full Council recently, has to be "contextualised" in relation to previous two years of work that Cabinet had been doing to try and find a solution to the near £500,000 costs of the Market.

"A decision such as the single trader option does not suddenly appear out of nowhere and has been worked upon by officers over the whole of that time," says Coun Langhorn. "As I have said, there are rules about business that is brought to the Cabinet. If a decision is made then the six month rule comes into play – meaning that a policy revisited in that time frame (another example would be the Allotments Task Group report).

"When the report came to Cabinet in February there had been no indication (apart from Coun Barry) that anyone else on the Cabinet were unhappy with the proposals most of them had previously agreed to," he says.

"My view is that both Coun Thomas and myself worked within the restrictions imposed by the previous Cabinet and the report produced outlined a range of options. The majority of Cabinet supported the single trader option.

"It is quite right that the Cabinet consider the new information proposed by the market traders – and we are doing this," he adds.

Langhorn also reiterates earlier comments made to local residents who expressed concern at the plans to close the Market, but who were also worried by the ongoing costs of the building to taxpayers. He makes it clear he wants to find a "sustainable venue" for the Market

"It's a shame that some other politicians would rather mislead the public on this in order to gain in the short term. The issue has been on the agenda since December 2008 and no councillor has come up with an alternative way of reducing the deficit.

"The reality is if we do not sort out the market position we would have to look elsewhere for the money – parks, play areas, plays schemes, theatres and so on. That’s why we have to get this thing sorted – and in a way that supports independent traders.

The Liberal Democrat leader, who is also prospective parliamentary candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood at the next election says he hopes common ground can be found between all parties and a solution worked out for all concerned.

"Working together is the route I wanted to take – and now can," he says. "If you look back you will find the Liberal Democrats have previously supported the single floor market option."

Moorside School takes stand against intruders

Moorside Primary School, Lancaster
Parents from Lancaster's Moorside Primary School have formed a campaign group to mobilise support for plans to protect school grounds from dog dirt and unwanted intrusions.

The Moorside School Grounds Parents' Group was formed this month by concerned parents who want to lobby county and city councillors, as well as council and government planning officials, to resist attempts to allow unregulated access to the school's grounds.

Over the next few months the group plan to organise letter writing campaigns, meetings with councillors and also to promote their cause to the community around the school in Newlands, Hala and Bowerham.

"We want to get across that the plans proposed by the school governors to secure land behind the main school building with modest fences are reasonable, proportionate and prudent measures to protect children using the grounds", said parents' group's spokesperson Lucy MacCulloch.

"In October 2008, the Governors of Moorside Primary School received clear legal advice from the Senior Solicitor and Legal Adviser to Schools to secure its grounds," said Lucy.

"The grounds in question form roughly five of the twenty acres between the school and Barton Road. The school wishes to ensure the safety of the children, prevent dogs roaming on the land, and prevent unidentified members of the public walking through outdoor lessons. We are a group of parents, formed as a result of recent applications by Moorside Fields Community Association, firstly for a Public Footpath across the grounds, and secondly for a Town Green, which would remove the area from the school's control."

The school is legally entitled to fence off all five acres: however, on hearing the concerns of the community, has offered a compromise. It would relinquish one acre for permissive use by the community, and re-route the fence so that permissive access could be granted around the boundary, rather than cut right through the grounds of the school.

"If a Town Green Application is successful, the children at the school will no longer have uninhibited access to well-managed outdoor sports and educational facilities" said Lucy. "For any expedition to the fields in question, each child would require signed parental consent. For a school with over 400 pupils, sending them out to play on the grass because the weather's nice would be pretty complicated.

"In our minds, the school's compromise offer is more than reasonable," she argues. "With secure grounds, we can relax in the knowledge that our children - and generations to come - will have the freedom to run, play and learn outdoors within this area of natural beauty. A rich resource indeed. Let's hope we don't lose it."

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Local heroin dealer jailed for 30 months

Tina_Ghorst.JPGTina Ghorst, a drug dealer who sold heroin to undercover police officers has been jailed for 30 months.

Ghorst appeared at Preston Crown Court charged with seven counts of supplying class A drugs and one count of being concerned in the supply of class A drugs following a lengthy investigation by officers from Lancashire Police.

Ghorst, of Ambleside Road, Lancaster, was arrested as part of Operation Nimrod, which saw a co-ordinated series of raids take place across the city, Morecambe and the surrounding areas over the final two months of 2009.

The 37-year-old was targeted in the raids after selling drugs to undercover officers in the Edward Street area of the city and appeared at Preston Crown Court last Thursday, where she was jailed for 30 months.

“This prison sentence sends a clear message that the police and communities of Lancaster and Morecambe refuse to tolerate those that choose to break the law by selling drugs on the streets," Detective Inspector Neil Drummond, Lancaster Police commented. “People can be confident that the police will take positive action in relation to all information about drug dealing within our community.”

• Anyone with concerns about drugs or drug dealing should contact police on 01524 63333.

Could Lancaster Market be run by its traders?

Councillor Roger MaceRoger Mace, leader of Lancaster City Council's Conservative group, has joined others voicing concern that the end of March deadline for negotiating the future of Lancaster Market may hamper, not help, find a solution to the problems the expensive building is causing the local authority. He has also suggested the Market could be run by the Traders themselves, not the Council.

"Most councillors recognise the current level of deficit from operating the Market (6% of the District's Council Tax) is unsustainable and not good value for Council Tax payers," he told virtual-lancaster, "but I think the 'negotiation' period will prove impossibly short for a viable solution to be worked up and documented in detail in the form of a business plan."

As we reported last week, market traders claim that although several organisations are supposed to be attending discussions on the Market's future - agreed at Full Council on 3rd March - one national group was not invited until the day of the first meetng, effectively ensuring they would not be able to attend.

Despite their active interest in trying to find a solution to the Market's problems, Roger reveals that the Conservative Group on the City Council has not been invited to send a representative to the working group discussing the Market in preparation for the 31st March Council meeting. "It is not by our choice that we are not attending," he notes.

Concerned by the short discussion period, Councillor Mace is now recommending that the Traders Association should ask the City Council for an extension of the negotiation period to give themselves the time they need.

"By operating as a coordinated group instead of as individual traders, they should be capable of resolving the issues of the Landlord and Tenant Act which are forcing the end of negotiation to be on 31 March 2010 - as set out in the Council decision on 3rd March," he suggests.

In the meantime, he asked the Chief Executive and the Corporate Director of Regeneration at the City Council for answers to several questions about the Lease of the Market and has given us permission to publish the reply from Graham Cox, Head of Property Services, here on virtual-lancaster. "There was no indication with Graham's replies to suggest they are confidential," he tells us.

While these may seem a bit dry to some, and, Roger suggests "some of the answers may well raise more questions than the ones they answer", the responses from shed new light on the complicated issues facing everyone trying to find a way forwards.

Lancaster MarketAssuming they were given advice and followed the advice received, has there been any review of the competency of the advice given to those councillors who approved the Council entering into the 1995 Market Lease? When was that review carried out, and what was the result of that review?

Graham Cox: There has been no review of the circumstances in 1995. The arrangements entered into at that time were a perfectly reasonable way to proceed for the council. Taking a lease of premises was a common process at the time and remains so now.

Is the City Council able to ask for a review of the rent and service charge the Council is required to pay to the Landlord to ensure that it is in all respects fair and reasonable? Has this been done? When was the last occasion on which it was done? Did the Council go to arbitration in respect of the outcome of the (delayed) 2005 rent review? If not, why not? What is happening about the rent review due in 2010?

Graham Cox: The rent review pattern in the lease is every five years, with the next review due on 24th June, 2010. It is not normal practice for the rent review dates to change from those set down in the lease. The review was undertaken by professional staff using evidence that was clearly available in Lancaster - indeed immediately next door to the market hall.

It was totally inappropriate to take the matter to arbitration at that time - indeed to do so would have resulted in the council paying out substantial costs both to the landlord and the arbitrator.

The previous review was undertaken in 2000 and at that time it was clear that there was no evidence to show any increase in rental value although the landlord was suggesting a substantial increase. At that time it was appropriate to go to arbitration.

In terms of service charge, the annual account from the landlord is challenged where appropriate. The current year's figures are the subject of review.

Is the Council able to assign the lease of the market to a new tenant? If so, in what circumstance would it be reasonable for the Council's Landlord to withhold consent for such an assignment of the lease? Is it possible for the Council to assign a lease of one floor of the market building separately from another floor?

The Council can assign or underlet the lease of the market being the whole building with the landlord’s consent. The landlord would only be able to withhold consent where it is reasonable to refuse and would have to give written notice to the tenant of the decision within a reasonable period of time (the court’s current view is within 4 to 6 weeks dependent on the individual scenario) and would have to provide reasons should consent be refused under the Landlord and Tenant Act 1988.

There could not be an assignment of part of the whole building as this is not allowed in the lease although the previous landlord was keen to see this happen. A negotiation on this will be required.

If the council finds a tenant for the whole building, and assigns the lease to that tenant, is it likely that the Council's Landlord would be able to insist on the Council being guarantor for the rent? In other words, is it effectively impossible for the Council to remove the financial risk it bears in respect of the rent due under the lease ? How (if at all) would it be possible to change the risk borne by the Council by treating one floor of the market separately from the rest of the market?

Graham Cox: If the Landlord wanted a guarantor for the rent this would usually be a guarantor not connected to the council ie the outgoing tenant but a guarantor connected to the assignee ie the incoming tenant

Therefore, if the council
(a) assigns with consent the whole of the building – liability and responsibility regarding the building can be stopped in accordance with the Landlord and Tenant (Covenants) Act 1995
(b) underlets with consent the whole of the building – this means the 1996 lease still remains and liability and responsibility regarding the building will still be retained by the council if the incoming tenant has financial difficulties or gives up the lease.

As to the query regarding treating one floor of the market separately please see answer above where assignment/underletting of part of the market building is not possible under the lease.

What is the advantage to the City Council of administering the Market? Why does the Council not immediately offer the administration of the whole market building to a single company set up by the Tenants Association?

There is no advantage to the council in administering the market. The proposal put forward by traders to operate their own market was referred to in the options report 18 months ago but it was a view of only one trader at the time with no support from other traders. The proposal would only work if supported by all, or a majority of traders.

Commenting on the answers, Roger tells virtual-lancaster his personal preference is that the possibility of the Traders taking over the running of the building should be further investigated and if feasible, given serious consideration as a way forward.

"In my view, it offers the least disruptive way to reduce the current deficit," he suggests. "It allows the Market Traders themselves to improve the market - and it is probably less of a risk to all concerned than some of the other plans under discussion."

Other suggestions under discussion include relocating the Market entirely and, as widely reported, the takeover of the ground floor by one single retailer, identified as newcomer supermarket ASCO in the Morecambe Visitor and elsewhere and confirmed by ASCO themselves - despite this being "confidential" information.