Now row erupts in EDDC over Council Tax rise and potential future borrowing. 


East Devon District Council has approved a £5 rise in council tax for next year as political slanging matches broke over possible future borrowing proposals to upgrade council homes to tackle the climate emergency.

Daniel Clark

Following previous debates by the council’s overview, scrutiny, housing review board and cabinet committees, the proposed 2020/21 budget was almost unanimously supported at Wednesday night’s full council meeting.

The budget proposals will result in a Council Tax Band D amount of £146.78, an increase of £5 a year (3.53%), on last year

Putting forward the budget, Cllr Ian Thomas, portfolio holder for finance, said that it was a balanced budget, while Cllr Ben Ingham, leader of the council, described it as robust, and Cllr Andrew Moulding, leader of the Conservative Group, said he wasn’t suggesting his group vote against the budget because of the implications of not having one.

All councillors other than Cllr Mike Allen voted for the budget, with Cllr Allen stating that the capital investment strategy of the council was not sound.

His comments followed the council having budgeted for £10,000 to be spent on each of its 4,200 council homes, but latest estimates suggesting that between £25,000 and £40,000, if not more, may be needed to ensure all council homes are of the required standard to make them carbon neutral.

Rather than having to spend £42m upgrading the council housing stock to reduce carbon emissions, and £20 million to replace the houses the council has to sell under right-to-buy, it could cost the council between £81 million to £141 million by 2041 as debt they would have to borrow.

He also had put forward a motion which said that the council had no confidence in the future financial plans and that no approval of the 2021/22 budget expenditures shall occur until the Council is presented with an updated budget and forward plan for 2021-2026, but this was defeat by 35 votes to 15.

Cllr Allen added: “The latest estimate per house of upgrades necessary, presented to Cabinet and Overview, is £25,000, while independent estimates from Government suggest that £40,000 may be needed to raise standards to the required levels. So if we add this in to the budget for our 4,200 properties, we will need to spend a further £15,000 to £30,000 per property, so we will have an additional debt of between £63 million and £126 million to factor in.

“This administration is looking at just one year at a time, but for capital spending, you have to look at three years as a minimum. They are not doing the job properly. It is time for them to stop taking short-term measures and that we do not have the confidence of the cabinet in terms of their financial decisions.”

Cllr Moulding added: “These escalating costs could decimate the financial position. We have no confidence in the finances of the council and the future programme is in very serious jeopardy.”

Cllr Phil Twiss added that the motion may have been ‘making a protest’ but was putting the administration on notice that ‘if you haven’t got your house in order next year, we will say we told you so’.

But he added: “The cash potentially spent on adapting the homes in admirable and the proper thing to do, but what about those who don’t live in EDDC housing stock? It is a kneejerk reaction and trendy to jump on the bandwagon. I’m a glad it is trendy and we should carry on with it, but we need a larger conversation and to look at a much bigger picture than throwing cash at our housing estates.”

Cllr Philip Skinner added: “We are trying to ensure the council is robust in its finances which key to the success of the council, and some of the revelations will put the council in a pretty bad place. I am not prepared to stand by and watch this authority borrow millions of pounds for something that they cannot afford to do, climate change or not. We could spend £50,000 on a house and then have to sell under right to buy, so what would we have gained then?

But Cllr Paul Arnott, leader of the East Devon Alliance group, said that as the Conservatives voted for the 2020/21 budget, the issue must be with the 2021/22 budget but there is time for the council to address it. He added: “This has been hijacked by the Conservatives to make a point at the expense of the Independent cabinet and don’t think they deserve it.”

Cllr Eleanor Rylance said that there may be notions of truth in the motion but that it had been ruined by the ‘crass political point scoring in it’, while Cllr Olly Davey said that as the council has declared a climate emergency, it requires action. He said: “We need to do something and we have control over our housing stock. If we decide to improve insulation in the buildings then it is to be commended and if it requires borrowing to do so, then so be it.”

And Cllr Thomas said that he didn’t think the Conservatives understood the HRB papers as the finances produced were ‘a series of models and scenarios as to what sort of sums we would be talking about’.

He said: “The finances were handed over in an excellent state and they are still there and we should be congratulated for looking at putting these sums in as direct steps to take action.

“These figures were possibilities. They are not in the budget or the forward plan. It shows the scale of funds we need and if we chose to invest £105m in our housing stock, we don’t need to find that in the first year.

“We know exactly what we are doing and how we will manage the budget.  What makes anyone think we won’t do anything other than produce a balanced budget in 12 months’ time? What is the point of the motion as it doesn’t say anything?”

Cllr Ingham added: “Cllr Allen said he had no confidence in the cabinet and the budget we have just approved. This is fascinating because I believe they don’t understand the budget. This is an idea, not part of a fixed budget, and recognises what we may have to spend.”

Summing up his motion, Cllr Allen said that some councillors had missed the point. He said: “No one is against the climate adaptation strategy but we need to take a look at the whole investment strategy. The financial plans are not thought through beyond the upcoming year.”

But his motion that the council had no confidence in the future financial plans and that no approval of 2021/22 budget expenditures should occur until the full implications to the Housing Revenue Account and General Fund account can be shown to be funded was lost by 35 votes to 15, with the Conservatives voting in favour of it and everyone else against.


Shortage of hospital beds makes coronavirus MORE deadly – NHS is among worst in EU


With the deadly new coronavirus spreading faster than SARS, it’s little surprise that people are questioning how deadly it could become.

Experts warn its lethality will depend on how patients are cared for and treated – and in particular, the availability of critical care beds.

A shortage of hospital beds makes coronavirus more deadly, experts warn.

Gemma Mullin, Digital Health Reporter

Scientists writing in The Lancet suggested the variability in the death rate in China came down to differences in local healthcare capacity.

They said: “The rapid escalation in the number of infections around the epicentre of the outbreak… resulted in an insufficiency of health-care resources… negatively affecting patient outcomes.”

To put it simply, Wuhan – where the outbreak started – ran out of doctors and beds, according to Paul Nuki, the Telegraph’s global health security editor.

The NHS has some of the fewest critical care beds in Europe – about seven per 100,000 people.

If a sudden spike in case numbers and a rush on critical care beds can be avoided, we will avoid the higher death rates recorded in Wuhan

Paul Nukiglobal health security editor

That’s compared with Germany, which has 29 beds per 100,000 people.

The only European countries worse off than the UK are Portugal, Sweden, Greece, Finland, Slovenia, The Netherlands and Ireland.

“This is just one of the reasons why the government’s strategy of ‘contain, delay, research and mitigate’ is so important,” writes Nuki.

“If a sudden spike in case numbers and a rush on critical care beds can be avoided, we will avoid the higher death rates recorded in Wuhan.”

Impossible to predict

While there have only been 19 cases of the coronavirus, called Covid-19, in the UK it’s impossible to know if and when the virus will turn into a major outbreak here.

So far the new virus appears to be less deadly than its cousins SARS and MERS but the spread has been much quicker.

The death rate is two to four per cent in Wuhan and 0.7 per cent in the rest of China and beyond.

Dr Dominic Pimenta, an NHS medical registrar, told the Huffington Post that even a “modest rise in demand” for intensive care will “completely overwhelm” the health service.

He said: “We already have one of the lowest numbers of intensive care beds in the developed world at around 4,000 adult beds in England, and some of the fewest doctors and nurses.

“Many of these departments are run at 80 per cent capacity routinely and regularly utilise ‘bank’ nurses and doctors to fill long-term staff gaps.

“We can’t fly them in, we can’t train them ‘quick’, we can’t magic them up. There is no cavalry coming. The cavalry has been propping us up for years already.”

Worrying stats

Dr Pimenta said that some estimates suggest up to 60 per cent of the UK could be infected with Covid-19.

That’s the equivalent of 42 million people with 2.1 million needing intensive care.

More optimistic studies predict one per cent, or 700,000, could be infected and 35,000 needing intensive care.

Dr Pimenta warned that is still nine times as many beds as we have available now.

We aren’t ready for coronavirus and we never would have been

Dr Dominic Pimenta

He added that the only way the NHS could be “ready” is if we “went back in time” and rebuilt our infrastructure.

“We aren’t ready for coronavirus and we never would have been,” he warned.

Helen Buckingham, director of strategy and operations at the Nuffield Trust think thank, told the BBC the 2009 swine flu pandemic showed the NHS was good at dealing with new illnesses.

However, she said it would far more difficult now because the health service has “very little in the tank” when it comes to staff numbers and hospital beds.

She said: “If there was a short, sharp surge in pressure that would be much more difficult to manage.

“It’s not easy to stand up a critical care bed at short notice. It’s partly staffing but it’s also about the equipment.”

The Department of Health says “surge plans” coronavirus patients will be sent to five specialist centres in Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle and London which has two units.

Other NHS hospitals will only take patients if those units are full, the government said.


Taylor Wimpey looks to build margins rather than more homes


So, the truth finally revealed?  ‘Sell fewer homes to improve margins’. Owl bets they are not the only developers thinking this, just the first to actually say it.

Louisa Clarence-Smith 

One of Britain’s biggest housebuilders has said that it will sell fewer homes this year as it focuses on improving margins.

Taylor Wimpey sold 16,042 homes last year, the most since it was formed in 2007 from the merger of Taylor Woodrow and George Wimpey.

It said that volumes this year were “expected to be slightly lower” and that it would be “targeting a slightly lower sales rate as we focus on capturing value”, despite reporting “improved” customer confidence since the general election.

Taylor Wimpey has the largest land bank of any listed housebuilder, with about 140,000 plots, of which 76,000 have some form of planning consent and about 36,800 have implementable consent and are being developed.

Pete Redfern, chief executive, said that the business had set out to accelerate delivery on sites “by as much as can reasonably be managed, both by the market in terms of building and building to quality”.

He said that the company could not deliver more homes as it needed to “build in a high-quality way . . . to get the resources and have the sites open and be able to deliver those homes properly and build the infrastructure”.

Taylor Wimpey’s profit margin fell to 19.6 per cent in 2019 from 21.6 per cent a year earlier as average prices remained flat — at about £305,000 — while build cost inflation rose from 3.5 per cent to about 4.5 per cent. Mr Redfern, 49, said that the inflation comprised a mixture of higher material costs and higher spending on labour, including introducing managers to oversee quality at each division and giving staff more time and resources to get things right.

The company expect its operating margin for the first half of 2020 to be affected by pressures from last year, including long-term investment in quality and business improvement, before improving in the second half.

This week Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, said that builders that wanted to access the government’s Help to Buy loan scheme from April 2021 would have to sign up to a new homes ombudsman to ensure that buyers can seek redress for shoddy building work. About 34 per cent of Taylor Wimpey sales involved Help to Buy last year. The company’s shares fell 6½p, or 3 per cent, to 212½p, last night.


Much good in draft Environment Bill but I think it can be more ambitious still


Neil Parish MP’s thoughts on the environment bill.

Neil Parish

“Yesterday I spoke in the second reading of the Environment Bill. This is the first Environment Bill since 1995 and a great opportunity to shape the future of our landscapes, biodiversity and human health. 

Broadly, this Environment Bill sets out the Government’s 25 Year Environmental Plan, announced when Michael Gove was Secretary of State. Its ambitions are commendable and urgently needed.

For instance, I welcome the introduction of the new framework for Local Nature Recovery Strategies, which will direct investment into green infrastructure projects across the country. Projects such as this can help areas rich in natural capital, like ours.

I also welcome clarity on the waste and resource strategy – including the setting up of deposit return schemes, charging for plastic bags and commercial waste. The government has grasped the nettle on these issues.

But outside the EU, we will also need a domestic enforcement agency to ensure targets are met. The Bill rightly introduces a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will hold public bodies to account for breaking environmental law.

With this in mind, it’s vital the  right  long-term targets, structures and incentives are set in law. On the environment, successive governments need to work towards common objectives because businesses, who will make the real difference, need to plan effectively. Whether it is plastic packaging, nitrogen dioxide from cars or gas boilers in homes – we need clear and achievable targets in place with a route to get there.

My hope is this Bill becomes a landmark ‘25 Year Environment Act’ – implementing the principles of the 25 Year Environment Plan for decades to come.

Let’s not forget, only last year we became the first country to make a legally binding commitment to ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions by 2050. As a result, businesses are already making changes. The same clear targets are needed in this Environment Bill.

For example, the Environment Bill should include commitments to adopting 2005 World Health Organization guideline limits for tiny particulate matter, which are harmful to human health. This key recommendation was made in the 2018 Joint Select Committee report, “Improving Air Quality”, which I chaired. The Government has already carried out a feasibility study which shows this target can be met, so let’s get on and put it in law.

I also believe the new OEP should have a wider remit and stronger teeth. It must be sufficiently independent of government, with a multi-annual budget, like the Environment Agency or Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). If we are to build on our Conservative record for strong action on the environment, the setting up of the OEP will be crucial.

Over the coming weeks, I will be putting forward my amendments to strengthen the Environment Bill. The Government has done well to include so much good in the draft Bill – but I think it can be more ambitious still.”


Budleigh car park to be resurfaced with 48,000 plastic bottles 


Innovation in Budleigh? Whatever next – Owl.

A Budleigh Salterton car park is being resurfaced by East Devon District Council this week using an innovative new material.

Callum Lawton

Instead of conventional asphalt, an alternative type of surface incorporating non-recyclable plastic waste, in place of a portion of bituminous binder material, will be used.

This product, which is produced by MacRebur, has several advantages.

From an environmental perspective, incorporation of ground-up non-recyclable plastics into the surfacing removes the need to incinerate these materials or send them to landfill by giving them further use.

The addition of these plastics to the bitmac reduces the amount of bitumen (a material obtained from crude oil and used to bind aggregate in road surfacing) required. When the surfacing reaches the end of its life, the surface can be excavated and recycled into a new surface.

The addition of plastic is also beneficial to the surfaces’ properties, making it more flexible and durable, and extending its life.

Independent laboratory testing has proved that MacRebur does not leech microplastics into the environment, and does not produce additional hazardous fumes in comparison to regular surfacing. The manufacturing process also ensures that no plastic granules, sometimes known as ‘nurdles’ enter the environment during construction.

Plastic granules produced at MacRebur’s factory are sealed in bags for transportation to the local asphalt manufacturer, who then add the granules to the bitumen in controlled factory conditions, where it is heated and blended into the mixture.

As a result, the granules are already melted by the time that they reach site, and there is no loose plastic present on site. This resurfacing project will recycle 600kg of waste plastic – the equivalent weight of 48,000 plastic bottles – which would otherwise be disposed of, will reduce fossil fuel extraction for the surfacing by 6 per cent, and save 580kg of carbon emissions which is the equivalent of either:

Councillor Geoff Pook, East Devon’s portfolio holder for asset management, said: “Construction activities contribute over 10 per cent of the UK’s carbon emission and so this is a key area to cut down on.

“We will continue to research, trial and use more sustainable materials wherever possible.”


Persimmon chief executive to stand down from company

The boss of homebuilder Persimmons – which has worked on sites across Devon and Cornwall – has confirmed he will be leaving the role after just a year in charge.

George Thorpe

The Financial Times reports that chief executive David Jenkinson has told the company that he will step down in “due course” but will stay in the position while the board searches for his replacement.

Jenkinson took the job in February last year and has been at the firm for 23 years.

“I will remain fully committed to both the chief executive role and to our programme of change until my last day in the job,” Mr Jenkinson said.

Following the announcement, shares in Persimmon dropped by 4% in early trading.

In recent years, the homebuilder has been at a number of issues with an independent review, which was launched after complaints about the company’s work and pay, saying Persimmon needed a “fundamental change in culture”.

The report also highlighted problems including insufficient fire protection at its properties, which affected some of its homes built in Truro which had safety barriers missing.

Yesterday (February 26), it was reported that Torbay Council had ordered the company to stop work on a controversial building site after claims that an ancient Devon bank, trees and parts of their gardens had been removed.

A spokesman for Persimmon Homes said they were working with the council to review the situation at Kings Ash Hill, where it has planning permission to build 68 properties.

On top of this, a number of complaints have been made by residents in Devon about the overall quality of their homes built by the firm.

Meanwhile, Plymouth Trading Standards launched an investigation in October over claims Persimmon Homes were “mis-selling” homes on estates in Plymstock and Ivybridge.

The company strongly refuted these claims.

See also:

Persimmon shareholders have dodged a bullet

Nils Pratley 

David Jenkinson will depart housebuilder Persimmon with shares in the company worth roughly £45m, his prize from the same absurd incentive scheme that bestowed £75m on his predecessor as chief executive, Jeff Fairburn.

Perhaps Jenkinson, only a year after replacing Fairburn, wants to spend more time with his winnings. Or perhaps he’s just recognised what was blindingly obvious to outsiders: Persimmon’s claims to cultural reform, and its pledge to improve the quality of its houses, lacked credibility while a veteran of the old regime was at the helm.

Any doubt on the latter point evaporated with the damning independent report that the board, to its credit, published last December: in short, Persimmon had been building too many shoddy homes that had fire risks; box-tickers ruled the roost; and the company saw itself as “land assembler and house-seller rather than a housebuilder”.

Customers now come first, says chairman Roger Devlin, and, if you look closely at Thursday’s full-year numbers, there is circumstantial evidence to support the boast. An extra £213m was invested in “work in progress”, the cost of actually finishing the job, rather the handing homes to buyers when they’re full of snags.

Harder evidence of true reform, and commitment to reputational improvement, can only judged over time. It is why Devlin would do well to appoint a non-insider to replace Jenkinson. Better still, go for somebody from outside the housebuilding industry, an insular sector that enjoys nothing more than marking its own homework.

In the meantime, Persimmon’s shareholders should count themselves lucky. In a normally functioning market, there would be a heavy price to pay for pursuing a strategy that short-changed customers but made executives as rich as Croesus. Instead, Persimmon is still achieving pre-tax profits of £1bn and still has a return on capital employed of 37%. Help to buy has a lot to answer for.