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The Friday Blog: The Highwayman Stands & Delivers!

Given we have not been together for a couple of weeks now, I should start by wishing you an especially warm good Friday morrow dear reader. 

I do hope those of you who, like me, took the opportunity to take an extended Easter break found fulfilment and not just travel grief amid what was billed as the biggest get away since we were allowed out again after the pandemic. 

I am never convinced by that. It seems to me that the latest thing is always billed as the biggest whatever it is since the last one. That said, the M6, an experience I happily have to endure very infrequently these days, really does keep on giving. What looked like it should be a fairly straightforward journey of 140 miles or so took close to four hours to complete on each occasion. There were some consolations. On the way up we bailed out and circumnavigated Manchester, finishing the trip driving along deserted Pennie roads in glorious sunshine. And if you were to find yourself in East Lancashire and in need of sustenance, I can now point you to a very conveniently located McDonald’s restaurant, complete with dog exercising space on the Accrington bypass.

On the way back we paid homage to the second ever motorway service station in the UK at Forton. It is the one with the space age looking tower which once housed the very latest word in haute cuisine. To get equivalent fayre on the roadside today, you would probably need to be in France. I wonder what those behind the opening of Forton in 1965, complete with fine wine list and tablecloths would make of the current offer. Mind you, a Gregg’s bacon roll for the Doctor and a flat white from Costa for the daughter really hit the spot. 

We were up there visiting what was once very familiar territory for me, the beautiful Vale of Lune. The Lune is an absolutely magnificent River, even if, in my experience, one that people from outside the North West seldom seem to have heard of. The valley sits betwixt the Lakes and Dales, predominantly in Lancashire but drifting readily into Cumbria and North Yorkshire. It is a place that is probably best and most accurately described as unspoilt. It is somewhere for peace and quiet, walking, reading, and old school pub lunches rather than anything more flashy. Rather selflessly, I thought, we even ensured that daughter had the full British family Bank Holiday experience by sitting out the sunshine over the weekend and waiting for persistent rain to arrive on Monday before attempting the Easter Bunny hunt laid on by the excellent Highwayman pub. Hitherto, such adventures invariably involved National Trust properties or swish town centre bistros. This one was, well, unspoilt, and featured stiles, over which the dog had to be lifted, not something that will be possible for much longer, rickety wooden or slippery stone bridges across becks, livestock, and fields full of improbable amounts of indiscriminate excrement. The dog was particularly partial to the lupine variety. And we got wet, very wet. Still, solace was available, after a rub down and change of clothes, back at the Highwayman, which I can highly recommend. Unlike many pubs in remote locations, it is open all day every day and offered up a decent enough menu. The staff were fantastic and after they realised they had a pub loving family captive across the road for four nights, we were treated like the most loyal of locals. It is one of the Brunning & Price chain, which was new to me, but they are well worth looking up and there is probably one not too far from you. Ours, and we did not know it, is the Physician in Edgbaston. 

Speaking of Edgbaston, you cannot take your eyes of University Hospitals Birmingham, even if you wanted to what with all the media coverage. In an attempt to address poor culture and respond to a plethora of damning reports, interim CEO Jonathan Brotherton has come up with a cunning plan. Brotherton has told councillors that four individual CEOs will be appointed to each of the Trust’s sites, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Heartlands Hospital, Solihull Hospital, and Good Hope Hospital.

The process will take place over the next two to three months, and has been given the go ahead by NHS England. Brotherton, formerly the Trust’s deputy CEO and Chief Operating Officer, said: “The organisation has been operating in a very centralised manner. The new arrangements will include hospital-based Chief Executives that can interface with other local health and social care leaders in the interest of reforming and developing services for patients at a local level. Those hospital Chief Executives will be part of a broader Trust group executive team so there will be corporate responsibility and shared responsibility for ensuring we don’t have a postcode lottery going on for the populations of Birmingham, Solihull, and surrounding areas that we serve.”

The site-based leadership model is not new and has been deployed at other large acute Trusts, including the Northern Care Alliance FT and Manchester University FT, and makes sense in many ways. This, however, feels different. Maybe it is semantics, but how can a single statutory organisation have four Chief Executives. The answer is it cannot. Granted the merger of UHB and Heartlands was not without controversy and damaged many of those involved. Like all large cities there is considerable disparity between areas, although in this case the greatest variation existed in the once independent Heart of England Trust. East Central Birmingham has a very different look and feel to Sutton Coldfield. Individual hospitals have their own identity and heritage, but this feels like a retrograde step, especially in a world when we are looking to integrate services and drive collaboration between providers. Interestingly in the neighbouring Black Country system, David Nicholson serves as Chair of all its acute hospitals. Maybe Brotherton thinks UHB is just too big and too difficult to manage from Edgbaston, and this is an admission that the merger was a mistake. Maybe he thinks that he could not recruit four unit Managing Directors reporting to a group CEO or maybe he is not thinking at all. The risk, of course, is that it will create an unholy mess at a time when the system really needs to start behaving like it actually is one.

Just when things were going a little more smoothly and the polls were looking a little less brutal, Rishi is suddenly not so shiny again. The problem with having so many convoluted business interests and a wife who has even more, is that it is very difficult to remember them all. That seems to be the basis for the PM’s defence against the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner’s investigation into suggestions that he failed to properly declare his wife’s interest in childcare firm Koru Kids. Whilst Commissioner Daniel Greenberg has not confirmed the nature of the complaint against Sunak, it is thought to relate to his recent appearance before the Commons liaison committee. Labour’s Catherine McKinnell, before questioning him about proposals to boost childcare in the budget, asked if he had any interest to declare. Sunak replied: “No. All my disclosures are declared in the normal way.” Oh dear. In fact, his wife does have a financial interest in Koru Kids, which was among six agencies featured on a government website, and which is certain to benefit from new payments of £600 to register childminders introduced in last month’s budget. The Commissioner will now investigate whether Sunak was in breach of the code requiring MPs to “always be open and frank in declaring any relevant interest.” No. 10 suggested that Sunak had not been asked a specific question about Koru Kids, and could not be expected to be across every firm his wife invested in, given her wide range of financial interests. He told the committee he had made all the correct declarations because he had lodged his wife’s financial affairs with the Cabinet Office. And the fact that the register of interests has not been published in over a year is a result of the high turnover of ministers in recent months, and the fact there was no independent adviser until recently. The Commissioner will need to examine whether the PM should have made a declaration to Parliament and the committee as well as the Cabinet Office. Expect to hear a lot more about this in the build up to local elections. You know, same old Tory sleaze and all that.

So, another week consigned to history then. The really good news is that since we last enjoyed each other’s company the county cricket season has started. Not going down well at home however, as the car has an Apple play wotsit which means when we get in to do the Coop run of have an outing, commentary from somewhere or another from the BBC Sport website kicks in. The Doctor, it appears, really has no interest in the difference in performance of the Duke and Kookaburra balls. Honestly. I mean, can you believe it? Men are from Mars I suppose. This weekend, when I will be, spiritually at least, in Taunton with Lancs really needing a win, I will have to hide in the kitchen again pretending to clean things.