Parliament break cancelled – except for Tory MPs who want to go away with family!

Will Swire be off to the Maldives … or Saudi … with Parish on the Somerset farm?

“The cancellation of MPs’ two-week break to deliver Brexit on time has been branded a PR stunt after Conservatives were told they could still go away if they had “family” commitments.

On Thursday commons leader Andrea Leadsom formally ditched the half-term recess so more “progress” can be made on preparing to leave the EU.

But following a backlash from MPs who had apparently already booked holidays, chief whip Julian Smith informed Tories they are not obliged to attend the commons if they have pre-existing engagements. …”

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-tory-mps-pr-stunt-commons-recess-parliament-eu-andrea-leadsom-julian-smith-a8757341.html

Meanwhile, cleaners have to stay:

“Tory MPs jet off on ski holidays while parliamentary cleaners continue to work”:

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/parliamentary-cleaners-forced-scrap-holidays-13935427

Strategic Planning pitfalls? Certainly for Axminster

A reporter … reports:

“At Tuesday’s Strategic Planning Meeting at Knowle (29 /01/2019), chaired by Paul Diviani, the masterplan for increasing Housing in Axminster by a whopping 30% , was voted through almost unanimously (there was one abstention), despite serious cross-Party criticism of the plan.

As the debate ended, the considerable number of Axminster residents in the public gallery were astonished to hear the Chair’s quip, to Cllr Jill Elson, “ I felt confident that you would come out with something that would stir things up”.

Cllr Elson (shown on right of the photo, beside Cllr Philip Skinner), had argued firmly that “the problem with plans is that they change” , citing her Ward as an example.

“Exmouth ended up with two huge estates with no play space or amenities whatsoever”, she said. Cllr Mike Howe (Con) shared her concerns, saying, (the masterplan) “doesn’t give us much credence or security that we will get the right houses”. But the Deputy Leader of the Council, Philip Skinner (Con ), expressed his view that “Give and take is needed in negotiations with a developer”.

Shortly afterwards, when Cllr Geoff Jung (East Devon Alliance, EDA) observed that the plan might not suit young families, it became apparent that Cllr Skinner was not aware that the proposal to include a primary school had been dropped.

Cllr Eleanor Rylance (Lib Dem) had noticed significant typing and other errors in the masterplan document. Cllr Rob Longhurst (Independent) observed there was no mention of the words ‘Neighbourhood Plan’ in the document.. although Cllr Moulding had told the meeting that he had designed one for Axminster… and suggested this Strategic Plan Committee would like to see “if the community wants and needs” the masterplan.

Cllr Susie Bond (Independent) asked for clarity about the legal implications for the Council if the costs for the relief road “went through the roof” (So far, EDDC has agreed to borrow £7m to ensure the road, estimated cost £16.7m, can be delivered.)

Ian Hall (Con) admitted “this masterplan doesn’t sit easily with the residents of Axminster”, which Alistair Ferguson’s speech in Public Question Time, confirms. The text is reproduced below, with Mr Ferguson’s permission):

In support of the objections, other District Councillors, Cathy Gardner and Marianne Rixson (both EDA), also attended the meeting, though not on the Strategic Planning Committee themselves.

Cllr Gardner pointed out that agreeing to a massive increase in the town’s housing numbers “would not be for the right reasons”, if it was done primarily to fund a relief road. The masterplan “was being done to the people of Axminster, not for them”, she said.

And Cllr Marianne Rixson added that “delivery of affordables does not have a good record” in East Devon.

Having listened to the comments aired, Cllr Geoff Pook (Ind) cautioned the committee not to be “persuaded by the opposition”. “There are just as many people in favour”, he opined.

Finally, the fear that the time-limited government funding for the relief road would be missed, therefore putting in jeopardy the 650 homes allocated in the Local Plan, swayed the committee members to approve the masterplan, albeit with caveats based on their misgivings.

Is this how the wrong sort of housing so often gets built in the wrong place?

In Axminster’s case, how much will the masterplan impact on the historic former deer park? As Cllr Mike Howe, Chair of the Development Management Committee (DMC) told yesterday’s meeting, there’s an urgent need to know….’

Local bus use plummets in Devon as routes cut

“”Local bus journeys in Devon are at a record low – with campaigners warning the national network is now in “crisis”.

The latest figures from the Department for Transport reveal that 24.2 million journeys were made on local bus services in Devon in 2017/18. That’s nearly two million fewer journeys than the year before, and the lowest number since at least 2009/10, when the figures were first published.

The Campaign for Better Transport say that the fall in the number of passengers taking the bus is due to ongoing cuts in funding for these services, resulting in fewer services and higher fares.

Nationally, average local bus fares across England have increased by 12 per cent since 2009, after inflation.

Darren Shirley, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said: “The statistics back up what our research has been showing for years – that buses are in crisis.

“Local bus services are vital, linking millions of us to jobs, education, shops and services, friends and family. They open up opportunities and help to fight loneliness. …

… The Local Government Association says nearly half of all bus routes in England currently receive partial or complete subsidies from councils.

With councils in England facing an overall funding gap that will reach £8 billion by 2025, the LGA said councils will struggle to maintain current subsidies for bus routes across the country unless this is
addressed in the Spending Review.

Martin Tett, the Local Government Association’s transport spokesman, said: “Councils know how important buses are for their residents and local economies and are desperate to protect them.

“It’s nearly impossible for councils to keep subsidising free travel while having to find billions of pounds worth of savings and protect other vital services like caring for the elderly and disabled, protecting children, filling potholes and collecting bins.

“Faced with significant funding pressures, many across the country are being forced into taking difficult decisions to scale back services and review subsidised routes.” …

… Andy McDonald MP, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, said: “These figures are alarming, and underline the devastating impact of Tory cuts on local bus services.

“Bus networks are in a spiral of decline, cutting people off from work and education and friends and family, particularly those in rural areas or from low income backgrounds.

“For many people, buses are the only form of public transport available. And the bulk of the people that use and rely on buses are often the poor, the young, the old and the vulnerable.

“At the same time, cutting and withdrawing services is worsening congestion, air pollution and our impact on climate change.”

“The government should give local authorities the powers to franchise and municipalise buses and boost bus funding, and allow them to take back regulatory powers so that they can set the fares, routes, and timetables that will put their communities first, ahead of the interests of private profit.”

https://www.devonlive.com/news/devon-news/crisis-local-bus-journeys-devon-2489912

“Bus Companies Earned Billions Amid Savage Cuts To Routes, Analysis Shows”

“Bus companies in England pocketed a total of £3.3bn in profits while they presided over swingeing cuts to vital routes, figures show.

Private firms together made hundreds of millions operating busses outside London each year since the coalition government came to power in 2010, official data has revealed.

Yet a report by the Transport Commissioner found almost 17,000 bus routes have disappeared over the past five years.

HuffPost UK reported last week how tightened council budgets have made bus services that were under-used, but previously considered essential, vulnerable to cuts.

Labour – which analysed the figures – said the stats highlighted how the bus industry “puts profit before millions of passengers”. …”

https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/bus-companies-earned-billions-amid-savage-cuts-to-routes_uk_5c51b9f5e4b0d9f

MP tells it as it is …

Owl has a sneaky feeling it may know who she is talking about …

“Labour MP Jess Phillips takes aim at politicians considering imposing a £30,000 pay threshold for EU workers to be considered skilled, saying: ‘I have met many people who earn way more than £30,000 and have literally no discernible skills, not even one.’

The MP for Birmingham Yardley says the post-Brexit immigration proposal was ‘insulting’ to the care workers, nurses and teachers who live in her electorate. ‘I have definitely met some very rich people who earn huge amounts of money who I wouldn’t let hold my pint if I had to go and vote while in the bar,’ she says.”

See the speech here:

https://www.theguardian.com/global/video/2019/jan/31/jess-phillips-on-skilled-workers-ive-met-high-earners-with-literally-no-discernible-skills

Auditors: what are they FOR?

EDDC’s auditors say they aren’t there to detect fraud:

“The former auditor of the collapsed cake chain Patisserie Valerie has argued that it is not the role of accountants to uncover fraud.

Grant Thornton is under investigation for its audits of the chain that collapsed into administration earlier this month following the discovery of a £40m black hole in its accounts. Patisserie Valerie’s former finance director has been arrested on suspicion of fraud.

David Dunckley, chief executive of Grant Thornton, which was replaced by RSM as the chain’s auditor in mid-January, told MPs on the business, energy and industrial strategy committee that there was an “expectation gap” that “needs to be fixed”.

“We’re not looking for fraud, we’re not looking at the future, we’re not giving a statement that the accounts are correct,” he said, adding that his firm audits 7,000 companies. “We are saying [the accounts are] reasonable, we are looking in the past and we are not set up to look for fraud.”

In a heated exchange with Rachel Reeves, the Labour MP and committee chair, Dunckley reiterated: “If people are colluding and there is a sophisticated fraud that may not be caught by normal audit procedures.”

He said in an ideal world it would be spotted. Reeves replied: “But in a shop that sells tea and cakes, you’d sort of think that might be spotted. It’s not a multinational complex organisation. …”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/30/ex-patisserie-valerie-auditor-says-not-his-role-to-uncover

and it seems, even when they DO detect major fraud, they don’t seem to feel obliged to do anything about it:

“Deloitte has been fined 2.2m ringgitt (£415,000) by Malaysian regulators for failures in its audit of a firm linked to the scandal-ridden state fund, 1MDB.

The Securities Commission Malaysia said Deloitte was reprimanded because it failed to report the irregularities detected in the Sukuk Murabahah Programme, an Islamic bond issued by Bandar Malaysia Sdn Bhd (BMSB).

Deloitte was the statutory auditor for BMSB and its holding company 1Malaysia Development Berhad Real Estate (a subsidiary of state fund 1MDB) for the financial years ending March 2015 and 2016 when the bonds were issued.

The securities regulator said Deloitte’s failure to immediately report irregularities may have a material effect on the ability of BMSB to fulfil its obligations in repaying sukuk holders any amount under the programme.

Imposing a fine of 2.2m ringgit , the regulator said it “finds the breaches committed by Deloitte serious in nature as it has failed to discharge its statutory obligations”.

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jan/30/deloitte-fined-by-malaysia-over-breach-linked-to-1mdb

Is this really how a manslaughter case should be reported?

Is it really necessary for a journalist to say that the CEO of Clinton Devon Estates “used a Land Rover to drive across country and through a river to reach the scene of the accident in which Kevin Dorman died”? Or that he has an OBE? Or to use the subjective headline that he was “choked with emotion”?

How is this relevant to the charge?

https://www.devonlive.com/director-choked-emotion-tells-manslaughter-2489109

Local authorities should be able to suspend councillors for up to six months says watchdog

Talk about reinventing the wheel! Before the system was changed local authorities were able to suspend councillors for the rest of the full council term, however long that might be or could ban them from office for years.

THIS government changed the rules now it wants to change them back – albeit
in a very, very lily-livered, watered-down way.

This lack if ability to censure councillors in any meaningful way is highlighted by the ongoing scandal of the disgraced ex-Mayor in Seaton, Councillor Peter Burrows. The rest of the council unanimously voted to urge his resignation from town and district posts but he has so far ignored all requests for him to go:

https://eastdevonwatch.org/2019/01/25/hat-gate-disgraced-seaton-ex-mayor-peter-burrows-scandal-update/

but it is unlikely the EDDC Monitoring Officer will conclude an investigation into his case before local elections on 2 May 2017, leaving voters in the dark as to any action to be taken.

“Local authorities should be given the power to suspend councillors without allowances for up to six months, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) has recommended.

In a report, Local Government Ethical Standards, the CSPL said: “The current sanctions available to local authorities are insufficient. Party discipline, whilst it has an important role to play in maintaining high standards, lacks the necessary independence and transparency to play the central role in a standards system.

“The current lack of robust sanctions damages public confidence in the standards system and leaves local authorities with no means of enforcing lower level sanctions, nor of addressing serious or repeated misconduct.”

The Committee said councillors, including parish councillors, who are suspended should be given the right to appeal to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, who should be given the power to investigate allegations of code breaches on appeal. The decision of the Ombudsman would then be binding.

The CSPL meanwhile described the Monitoring Officer as “the lynchpin” of the current standards arrangements, but accepted that the role was “challenging and broad”, with a number of practical tensions and the potential for conflicts of interest. Local authorities should put in place arrangements to manage any potential conflicts, it said.

However, the Committee concluded that the role was not unique in its tensions and could be made coherent and manageable with the support of other statutory officers.

It called for employment protections for statutory officers to be extended, and for statutory officers to be supported through training on local authority governance.

Other key findings and recommendations in the report include:

There is considerable variation in the length, quality and clarity of codes of conduct. This created confusion among members of the public, and among councillors who represent more than one tier of local government.

Many codes of conduct failed to address adequately important areas of behaviour such as social media use and bullying and harassment.

An updated model code of conduct should therefore be available to local authorities in order to enhance the consistency and quality of local authority codes.

The updated model code should be voluntary and able to be adapted by local authorities. The scope of the code of conduct should also be widened, with a rebuttable presumption that a councillor’s public behaviour, including comments made on publicly accessible social media, was in their official capacity.

The current arrangements for declaring and managing interests are “unclear, too narrow and do not meet the expectations of councillors or the public”.

The current requirements for registering interests should be updated to include categories of non-pecuniary interests. The current rules on declaring and managing interests should be repealed and replaced with an objective test, in line with the devolved standards bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The current criminal offences relating to disclosable pecuniary interests are “disproportionate in principle and ineffective in practice, and should be abolished”.

Local authorities should maintain a standards committee. This committee may advise on standards issues, decide on alleged breaches and sanctions, or a combination of these. Independent members of decision-making standards committees should be able to vote.

The safeguard provided by the Independent Person should be strengthened and clarified: a local authority should only be able to suspend a councillor where the Independent Person agrees both that there has been a breach and that suspension is a proportionate sanction. Independent Persons should have fixed terms and legal protections. The view of the Independent Person in relation to a decision on which they are consulted should be published in any formal decision notice.

Parish councils should be required to adopt the code of their principal authority (or the new model code), and a principal authority’s decision on sanctions for a parish councillor should be binding.

Monitoring officers should be provided with adequate training, corporate support and resources to undertake their role in providing support on standards issues to parish councils, including in undertaking investigations and recommending sanctions. Clerks should also hold an appropriate qualification to support them to uphold governance within their parish council.

At a time of rapid change in local government, decision-making in local councils was getting more complex, with increased commercial activity and partnership working. “This complexity risks putting governance under strain.

Local authorities setting up separate bodies risk a governance ‘illusion’, and should take steps to prevent and manage potential conflicts of interest, particularly if councillors sit on these bodies. They should also ensure that these bodies are transparent and accountable to the council and to the public.”

An ethical culture required leadership. Given the multi-faceted nature of local government, leadership was needed from a range of individuals and groups: an authority’s standards committee, the chief executive, political group leaders, and the chair of the council.

Political groups have an important role to play in maintaining an ethical culture. “They should be seen as a semi-formal institution sitting between direct advice from officers and formal processes by the council, rather than a parallel system to the local authority’s standards processes. Political groups should set clear expectations of behaviour by their members, and senior officers should maintain effective relationships with political groups, working with them informally to resolve standards issues where appropriate.”

An ethical culture starts with tone. “Whilst there will always be robust disagreement in a political arena, the tone of engagement should be civil and constructive.” Expected standards of behaviour should be embedded through effective induction and ongoing training.

Political groups should require their members to attend code of conduct training provided by a local authority, and this should also be written into national party model group rules. “Maintaining an ethical culture day-to-day relies on an impartial, objective monitoring officer who has the confidence of all councillors and who is professionally supported by the chief executive.”

An ethical culture will be an open culture. “Local authorities should welcome and foster opportunities for scrutiny, and see it as a way to improve decision making. They should not rely unduly on commercial confidentiality provisions, or circumvent open decision-making processes. Whilst local press can play an important role in scrutinising local government, openness must be facilitated by authorities’ own processes and practices.”

In a letter to the Prime Minister, contained in the introduction to the report, Lord Evans of Weardale, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said: “It is clear that the vast majority of councillors and officers want to maintain the highest standards of conduct in their own authority. We have, however, identified some specific areas of concern. A minority of councillors engage in bullying or harassment, or other highly disruptive behaviour, and a small number of parish councils give rise to a disproportionate number of complaints about poor behaviour.

“We have also identified a number of risks in the sector: the current rules around conflicts of interest, gifts, and hospitality are inadequate; and the increased complexity of local government decision-making is putting governance under strain.”

The CSPL chair added: “The challenge is to maintain a system which serves the best instincts of councillors, whilst addressing unacceptable behaviour by a minority, and guarding against potential corporate standards risks.
“It is clear from the evidence we have received that the benefits of devolved arrangements should be retained, but that more robust safeguards are needed to strengthen a locally determined system. We are also clear that all local authorities need to develop and maintain an organisational culture which is supportive of high ethical standards. A system which is solely punitive is not desirable or effective; but in an environment with limited external regulation, councils need the appropriate mechanisms in place to address problems when they arise.”

Lord Evans said the Committee’s recommendations would enable councillors to be held to account effectively and would enhance the fairness and transparency of the standards process.

A number of the CSPL’s recommendations involve legislative change which it believed the government should implement. The Committee has also identified ‘best practice’ for local authorities, “which represents a benchmark for ethical practice which we expect that any authority can and should implement”. …

Source: Local Government Lawyer

Are the wheels falling off the East Devon growth wagon?

This is necessarily a somewhat technical summary of why Owl thinks EDDC has got its recent past and future jobs and housing numbers terribly wrong, and attempts to pinpoint why this is. If the assumptions below are correct East Devon cannot hope to match new jobs to housing number increases and hence to aspirational growth figures.

It has huge implications for the district – not least Cranbrook and Axminster, where huge housing growth does not appear to correlate with very modest job growth.

CURRENT STATISTICAL TREND 258 JOBS/YEAR
EDDC’s 2015 aspiration 950 jobs/year
EDDC’s “Jobs-led policy on scenario” 549 jobs/year
Ash Futures (Experian) “Upper end” 309 jobs/year
Ash Futures “more likely” scenario 200-234 jobs/year

Evidence from the first set of job growth statistics published by EDDC since the adoption of the local Plan are running at less than half the number used to justify the housing development target. This is only one quarter of EDDC’s aspiration to create one job per new household or 950/year.

A “Jobs-led Policy On” aggressive growth strategy lies at the heart of EDDC’s Local Plan for 2013 to 2031.

Consultants were employed to create a number of scenarios forecasting growth in jobs. They ranged from 162-191 jobs/year for forecasts based on past trends to a top estimate for above average “jobs led” growth of 309 jobs/year. This top estimate would justify a housing target of 13,050 for the period.

One of these consultants, Ash Futures, gave cogent arguments as to why this figure, in their opinion, lay at the upper end of likely growth and proposed a more modest, more realistic, set of growth assumptions generating 200-234 jobs/year. This more likely scenario was never converted from a jobs forecast to a housing assessment but it would have been just a bit higher than the 10,512 figure based on past trends. All these forecasts took account of demographic changes, migration into the region and economic growth.

Ignoring this, EDDC decided to add a further 240 jobs/year to the upper end 309 figure in a new “policy on” scenario to provide a total forecast of 549 jobs/year. (Something to do with Cranbrook but the details of this and whether there is any double counting remains a mystery). This 549 job/year figure was ultimately used to justify the final 17,100 minimum housing target for the 18 year period of the Plan adopted in 2016.

The plan requires a minimum average build of 950 houses/year. EDDC’s aspiration is to combine this with the creation of one job for every house built. But this demonstrates a complete failure to understand demographics and household formation. The need for houses and the need for jobs is not a simple equation of one with the other.

Papers attached to EDDC’s Strategic Planning Committee for 29 January 2019 (see footnote) contain data for East Devon employment covering 2009 to 2016. The explanatory text says: “It is recognised that it is an aspiration of Members [surely not every Councillor?] to deliver one job for each new home across the district but since the adopted Local Plan does not set out to deliver this it is not considered appropriate to formally monitor the relationship between the delivery of homes and the delivery of jobs.”

Here’s why – the real evidence, from the data, is of jobs growing at an annual rate of only 258 jobs/year.

This figure confirms the more modest forecasts presented by Ash Futures and, inconveniently for EDDC, is less than half of that used to justify the “Jobs-led Policy On” housing targets. It is only a quarter of the one job per house aspiration of “Members”.

Where does the 258 job/year trend come from? It is the gradient of the best fit linear regression trend line to the data given the Strategic Planning Committee and shown in the graph below. The full data source is referenced in the footnote.

This is a relatively small sample; and the extent of the fluctuations in the recorded number of jobs from year to year can be seen in the graph. For the technically minded the correlation coefficient of the trend line is 0.6, which is quite a strong one.

All the job number quoted above are for “full time equivalent” jobs (FTE).

Owl has been fortunate to find from the same official source as used by EDDC a set of estimates of the total number of jobs in East Devon which extends the time series to 2017. The significance of this is that the total number of jobs in East Devon fell between 2016 and 2017 and so we can expect the same to happen with FTEs. As a result Owl feels even more confident that the trend line shown above, despite the sample size, reflects what is actually happening.

The Local Plan has been in preparation since 2002 and EDDC has been following a growth policy for many years. So, although 2013 marks the formal start of the Local Plan, there is no statistical evidence to consider 2013 a “turning point” for job growth, though it does look to be an outlier.

With EDDC’s plan to build houses running ahead of creating the jobs needed for a sustainable community, just who are we building all these houses for?

Isn’t it time to cool the building programme, not ramp it up as Owl fears is being planned in the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan?

One of the key architects to all this is Councillor Paul Diviani. When asked at a recent council meeting why East Devon is taking all this development replied: “Because we have got the land, and we are good at it”.

Footnote: The combined minutes, agenda and reports of the Strategic Planning Committee with the job data for 2009 to 2016 on page 116 can be found here:

Click to access 290119strategicplanningcombinedagenda_opt.pdf