Times Radio launches with Boris Johnson and Malawi mix-up

Those who asked Amazon’s smart speakers, Alexa, to tune in to the new Times Radio yesterday to listen to extensive interviews with Boris Johnson were treated to a Chichewa-language discussion of Malawi’s politics and some upbeat music instead. Much more uplifting – Owl

Jim Waterson www.theguardian.com

Times Radio launched with a large budget, high-profile presenters and an exclusive interview with Boris Johnson.

Unfortunately, the new national speech radio station from Rupert Murdoch’s News UK had not banked on its big unveiling being disrupted by an outlet with a similar name in Malawi.

Many of those trying to tune in to the station via Amazon’s smart speakers, Alexa, were baffled to be directed instead to Times Radio Malawi, a music and talk station based in the east African country.

Rather than hearing the Times Radio breakfast show hosts, Aasmah Mir and Stig Abell, hold in-depth discussions on the prime minister’s education policies, listeners were treated to a Chichewa-language discussion of Malawi’s politics and some upbeat music.

Smart speakers are a crucial way of reaching new radio audiences as a fifth of British homes have one, with them often replacing radios in kitchens. However, the issue highlights the lack of control local broadcasters have over interfaces designed by international tech companies that struggle to adapt to local needs.

Users of Google’s smart speakers also reported problems hearing Times Radio, with the voice assistant redirecting listeners to Chris Moyles on Radio X – after mistaking the word “Times” for the multiplication sign. Times Radio is also broadcast on DAB radio, online and via an app.

The new station, which is heavily staffed by former BBC presenters and producers, is being run without adverts as a promotion for the Times’s digital subscriptions, in the knowledge it will make a hefty loss for the first few years.

There are signs the government is supportive of the challenge to the BBC’s dominance of speech radio. Johnson granted the station his first live broadcast interview in months, having not appeared on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme since last October.

Ironically, the new British listeners to Times Radio Malawi – which describes itself as “the radio experience that engages all Malawians at different social economic levels” – will have tuned in at a crucial time in the African nation’s politics.

On Sunday, Lazarus Chakwera was sworn in as Malawi’s president following a bitter election, held after a previous election result was declared void by the country’s courts.

Government “slow” to share data with first local lockdown authority

Mayor for Leicester: “We don’t know if there is anything there at all,” he said. The DHSC shared more data on test results from the city with the council on Thursday, he said, but this did not include information on people’s ethnicity or place of work, which would help target interventions.

The process has been “incredibly frustrating”, he added. “Almost every day last week, we had to argue for them to keep on doing testing here.”

Leicester council chiefs ‘surprised’ by plan to put city in local lockdown

Caroline Wheeler, Deputy Political Editor | Kat Lay, Health Correspondent www.thetimes.co.uk 

Plans for Leicester to be the first area to go into local lockdown after a surge in coronavirus cases were a shock to the city’s council chiefs.

Sir Peter Soulsby, the mayor of Leicester, said his team had been “taken by surprise” by the idea, because that “certainly wasn’t the terms in which we’ve been talking”.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, confirmed the plan, as reported in The Sunday Times, on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this morning.

Government sources said that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has been examining the legislation required for the shutdown after it was revealed that there have been 658 coronavirus cases in the Leicester area in the fortnight to June 16.

A source close to Hancock said he is “quite worried” and is considering “all options” for how to respond to the spike in cases, including imposing a localised lockdown.

Sir Peter said that the Department of Health and Social Care had been slow to share the figures on which they were basing their decision, with hospital admissions and the number of fatalities going down “exactly in proportion to the decline elsewhere in the country”.

“We don’t know if there is anything there at all,” he said. The DHSC shared more data on test results from the city with the council on Thursday, he said, but this did not include information on people’s ethnicity or place of work, which would help target interventions.

The process has been “incredibly frustrating”, he added. “Almost every day last week, we had to argue for them to keep on doing testing here.

“They were talking about pulling out one of the [mobile] testing stations.

“We’ve been diverted by an enormous amount of time spent just persuading them to do what I would have thought was the obvious, which was to up the level of testing in the city, not withdraw it.”

Asked by Mr Marr whether the reports on lockdown plans for Leicester were accurate, Ms Patel said: “Well, that is correct.”

She added: “There will be support going into Leicester and in fact the health secretary was in touch with many of us over the weekend explaining some of the measures, the support on testing, resources that will go into the local authority as well.”

Yesterday Samworth Brothers, which runs one of the UK’s largest sandwich production operations, confirmed that a “handful” of staff at its Leicester factory had contracted the virus, and there have been reports of large gatherings outside takeaway restaurants.

There are also concerns that the virus has been spreading throughout the city’s large Asian community, who are more likely to live in multigenerational households.

It is understood that the government has the power to take action under the 1984 Public Health Act. However, it is unlikely that action will be taken before the middle of this week.

“So far local action has been taken to lock down individual hospitals and GP surgeries where there has been an outbreak but this situation is more serious than that, although no decision has yet been taken,” a government source said.

Separately, an expert in infectious diseases has said there were questions over how a localised lockdown would work. Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said: “Defining the specific area will be one of the largest problems. Local authority boundaries can run down the middle of the street with one side in one local authority and the opposite another.

“Urban sprawl has allowed towns and cities to expand resulting in these areas often joining other areas who identify differently and do not see themselves as part of the expanding town or city.

“Locking down at the regional level would be seen as unfair or worse as Leicester City has really very little to do with rural Lincolnshire. People do not identify with their regional boundaries and many would not actually know where they are.

“If Leicester is locked down, how much of the surrounding area do you include. A quick view at the satellite picture demonstrates this problem. Much of the surrounding area probably does not identify as part of Leicester City itself.”

Andrew Bridgen, the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, said: “Unfortunately the fact that the government is having to contemplate specific measures to control the spread of the virus in Leicester is now unavoidable in order to protect the rest of the country.”

A spokesman for the DHSC said: “We are supporting the council and local partners in Leicester to help prevent further transmission of the virus. We have deployed four mobile testing sites and made thousands of home testing kits available, to ensure anyone in the area who needs a test can get one.

“NHS Test and Trace will contact anyone testing positive to help them identify their recent contacts, and advise who may have been near to someone with the virus to stay at home to prevent the spread.

“We urge the people of Leicester to continue to practise social distancing, wash their hands regularly, get tested immediately if they have symptoms and follow the advice they receive if contacted by NHS Test and Trace. This advice is there to protect communities and save lives.”

Britain Spent So Much On Two Giant Aircraft Carriers, It Can’t Afford Planes Or Escorts

A US view of the consequences of MoD’s attempts to “punch above our weight”, drawing on a recent National Audit Office report. The decision to acquire these two Aircraft Carriers goes back decades and is a classic example of how taxpayers can get locked in to major projects that then become too big to cancel. HS2 and Hinkley Point C also spring to mind.  It’s only “our” money! – Owl

“But there’s a problem. Having blown billions of dollars building the ships, the U.K. government no longer can afford the aircraft, escorts and support ships that help the flattops deploy, protect them and give them striking power.”

  David Axe www.forbes.com 

The United Kingdom is spending nearly $8 billion building two new large, conventionally-fueled aircraft carriers and equipping them with F-35B Lightning II stealth jump jets.

HMS Queen Elizabeth is scheduled to deploy for the first time in 2021, ending a seven-year carrier gap that began in 2014 when the Royal Navy decommissioned the last of its three, Cold War-vintage light carriers.

The U.K. military by then had already sold off the carriers’ Harrier jump jets.

Queen Elizabeth and her sister Prince of Wales are impressive vessels. More than 930 feet long and displacing around 70,000 tons, they are bigger and more modern than every other flattop in the world except the U.S. Navy’s 11 nuclear-powered supercarriers.

The carriers in theory are the steely core of a revitalized and reorganized Royal Navy. “Carrier strike provides the ability to launch fixed-wing aircraft from a ship to undertake a rang-e of military tasks,” the U.K. National Audit Office explained in a June report. “It is central to the government’s plans for the country’s armed forces.”

But there’s a problem. Having blown billions of dollars building the ships, the U.K. government no longer can afford the aircraft, escorts and support ships that help the flattops deploy, protect them and give them striking power.

Nor can the government afford to modify Queen Elizabeth or Prince of Wales to support amphibious landings, one of the early justifications for cutting existing ships—such as the assault ship HMS Ocean—in order to free up money for the carriers.

The new British carrier force is hollow. And at least one analyst believes the Brits would have been better off without.

The shortfalls are myriad, according to the NAO. The carriers’ air wings at a minimum should include a dozen F-35Bs plus a dozen Merlin helicopters, some of which would carry the Lockheed Martin LMT -made Crowsnest early-warning radar in order to provide sensor coverage over the carrier group.

Guess what. “The new Crowsnest system is 18 months late, which will affect carrier strike’s capabilities in its first two years,” according to the NAO. “The [Ministry of Defense] did not oversee its contract with Lockheed Martin effectively and, despite earlier problems on the project, neither was aware of the sub-contractor’s lack of progress until it was too late to meet the target delivery date.”

“It subsequently concluded that the sub-contractor working on the project, Thales, failed to meet its contractual commitments to develop the equipment and had not provided sufficient information on the project’s progress. The [ministry] and its industry partners have since implemented a recovery plan and enhanced monitoring arrangements. However, further delays mean that it does not expect to have full airborne radar capability until May 2023.”

Meanwhile, the ministry also has been slow to buy F-35s. “From 2015, its intention has been to buy 138 Lightning II jets, which will sustain carrier strike operations to the 2060s. The [ministry] initially ordered 48 jets but has not yet committed to buying any more. In response to wider financial pressures, it will also receive seven of the 48 jets in 2025, a year later than planned.”

A single Queen Elizabeth-class flattop could carry as many as 24 F-35s. But a total force of 48 F-35s probably wouldn’t allow for a 24-plane air wing after taking into account training and maintenance needs. As a rule, usually no more than third of a particular fighter fleet can deploy at any given time.

Equally vexing, the Royal Navy has laid up all but one of its solid support ships, which sail along with front-line vessels in order to keep them stocked with food, parts and weapons. The defense ministry “has long been aware that this will restrict the operational freedom of carrier strike but has not yet developed a solution,” the NAO warned.

“In November 2019, the [ministry] stopped the competition to build three new support ships due to concerns about value for money. It believes this will delay the introduction of new ships by between 18 and 36 months, making it uncertain the first new ship will be operational before the existing support ship leaves service in 2028.”

The list of shortfalls continues. A British carrier group at a minimum should include one frigate for anti-submarine protection plus a destroyer for air-defense. But the Royal Navy operates just 13 aging Type 23 frigates and six Type 45 destroyers. The former are slated to leave the fleet starting in 2023. Their replacement, the new Type 26, won’t start joining the fleet until 2027.

The navy expects to buy just eight Type 26s. At least five new Type 31 frigates will replace the balance of the Type 23 force, but the Type 31s lack major anti-submarine systems. All that is to say that, from the mid-2020s on, the carriers could be vulnerable to submarines.

Don’t expect some sudden cash windfall to save the Royal Navy from its carrier problems. If anything, the budgetary problems could get worse. The defense ministry already is cutting back on its investment in Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.

The government had planned to spend $75 million modifying one of the new flattops with extra accommodations in order for the ship to double as an amphibious assault ship. But according to the NAO, the ministry in March 2020 quietly dropped the amphibious requirement.

The bitter irony for the navy is that it sacrificed the assault ship Ocean back in 2018 in order to free up money and manpower for the carriers and eventually claw back the lost amphibious capability by way of modifications to at least one of the newer ships.

Now it appears the fleet gave up Ocean for nothing.

So are the new flattops worth it? As costs rise and budgets shrink, the carriers gobble up a growing proportion of the Royal Navy’s resources while at the same time falling far short of their operational potential owing to cuts at the margins of their capabilities.

“Given that what the Royal Navy has become in return for its two carriers, and given how at present this investment has delivered a part-time carrier force with a small number of available fast jets, significant spares shortages, reduced escort fleet numbers and a lack of longer-term support ships or escort elements,” one commentator wrote, “then perhaps the answer to the question ‘was it all worth it’ is ‘no, it was not worth the pain for the gain’—at least not in the short term.”


Revealed: Developers PM backed when London mayor give almost £1m to Tories

Property developers connected to major construction projects approved by Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London have donated almost £1m to the Conservative party over the past year, the Guardian can reveal.

Analysis of public records shows a significant cash injection from property tycoons linked to developments, including blocks of luxury flats with no affordable housing, which were signed off by Johnson and his deputy, Sir Edward Lister, who oversaw planning.

Richard Desmond, the former owner of the Daily Express, is among the donors, along with the billionaire Reuben family and the Mayfair-based property firm Delancey owned by Eton-educated Jamie Ritblat.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing, but the fallout over a decision by the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, to approve Desmond’s controversial £1bn development in east London has attracted scrutiny of the relationship between wealthy property developers and senior Tories.

Details of the donations have emerged as both Johnson and Lister, now a senior Downing Street adviser who is reportedly in the running for a peerage, face questions about their ties to Desmond amid “cash for favours” allegations.

Downing Street has refused to disclose Johnson’s contact with Desmond since becoming prime minister after it emerged the tycoon had donated £12,000 to the Tories, two weeks after Jenrick approved his proposed development. Jenrick has since reversed his decision after conceding it was “unlawful by reason of apparent bias”. Desmond has said the donation was too small to be significant.

A spokesperson for the Conservatives insisted all donations were transparently declared and complied fully with the law. A Downing Street spokesman said all planning decisions by Johnson and Lister “were made with due process and a fair hearing in line with public law principles” and “any of suggestion of improper conduct is untrue”. “Party political matters are never a material consideration in planning,” he said.

City Hall originally approved Desmond’s proposed development on the Isle of Dogs in May 2016 after Johnson took control of the application, which Tower Hamlets council had rejected. Applications for the other developments connected to the latest crop of Tory donors were not formally taken over by the mayor, but proposals were referred to City Hall by local planning authorities for his approval.

In April 2016, for example, Lister signed off on the redevelopment of Millbank Tower in Westminster, backed by David and Simon Reuben. The brothers, who made much of their fortune trading metals before building a property empire, are the second richest family in the UK with an estimated £16bn fortune, according to the Sunday Times.

In November 2019, shortly before the general election, the Conservatives received £200,000 from a company co-owned by the brothers, European Land & Property, latest Electoral Commission data shows. The company was behind a separate development in Paddington, a 34-storey tower offering “the height of luxury living” that Lister progressed in 2011.

David Reuben’s son Jamie Reuben who is involved with the brothers’ business affairs, donated around £580,000 to the Tories between October 2019 and March 2020.

A spokesman for the Reuben family said the brothers did not discuss either application with Johnson or Lister. The family’s donations “were made long after planning decisions had been made and were completely unrelated to them”, he said.

The Electoral Commission data also shows Ritblat’s Delancey donated £100,000 to the Tories in December. Ritblat is the son of another high-profile property magnate, Sir John Ritblat.

Delancey held several meetings with Johnson’s City Hall over a range of developments. The firm and its partners, Qatari Diar, bought the former Olympic athletes’ village in Stratford in 2011 as part of a reported £500m deal that Johnson championed. Lister signed off on Delancey’s plans for the former Olympic media centre in 2014.

Internal emails obtained by the Guardian through a freedom of information request show Delancey met Lister a number of times to discuss their projects, including the Elephant and Castle shopping centre.

In September 2013, two days after a dinner with Delancey, Lister set up a meeting between officials and senior executives at the firm to provide it with reassurance about the tube station at the site, the emails show.

“I have agreed a meeting in two weeks’ time to try and push them to make the commitment!” Lister wrote. “This will be good news if we can pull it off.”

Three months later, Delancey and its investment partners completed a deal to acquire the shopping centre. The scheme, which has received significant opposition from local businesses and residents, was eventually signed off by the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, in 2018.

A lawyer for Delancey said there was “no connection whatsoever” between any decision taken by City Hall and the company’s recent donation. He said there was nothing improper about any of the company’s interactions with the Greater London Authority.

He insisted discussions with planners were in line with normal practice for any developer considering a major regeneration project. Irrespective of the political affiliations of the mayor “it is incumbent upon Delancey to deal with and have a working relationship with whoever is in office”, he said.

Asked whether Ritblat had spoken to Lister since he entered Downing Street, the lawyer said: “Jamie Ritblat has spoken to Sir Edward a number of times during lockdown. He was asked to provide Sir Edward with some practical insight into the issues facing the real estate market in light of government lockdown because of the current pandemic.”

Other developments Johnson gave the green light to include 22 Bishopsgate, a skyscraper in the City of London developed by a property business co-owned by Sir Stuart Lipton. Lipton donated £8,500 to the Tories in January. A spokesman for Lipton said the donation was “made entirely in a personal capacity and had nothing to do with his wider business interests”.

Separately, the data also shows a return to political giving by Nick Candy, one of the wealthy Candy brothers, who contributed £100,000 to Tory coffers in March 2020. The Candy brothers have worked together in London’s high-end property market for decades.

A spokeswoman for Nick Candy said, however, that contrary to reports in 2013 he was not involved in a proposed luxury development near the Tower of London that Johnson had signed off in May 2013. She said SQ Guernsey, the company which bought the site for £34m, was a subsidiary of CPC Group which is 100% owned by Christian Candy, and that “any suggestion that Nick Candy has anything to do with the Sugar Quay project, despite previous media reports, is false”.

She also said: “It is entirely false to state Nick Candy’s donation to the Conservative party in March 2020 was in any way connected to City Hall’s planning approval for Sugar Quay over seven years ago, or that it was connected to any other development project that was granted planning permission while Mr Johnson was mayor of London.”

Intended cuts of £400million to Devon’s healthcare budget

“Service improvements and service changes.” Just look at the list!

Owl thinks readers of East Devon Watch might be interested in this communication from Torrington which contrasts the action taken by East Devon County Councillors Martin Shaw and Claire Wright with theirs. Then calls for action.

At the meeting of the Devon County Council’s Health and Adult Care scrutiny committee that took place on 12th March, there was a proposal put forward by the CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) to cut £400million from Devon’s health budget over the next 4 years, up until 2024. This follows cuts of £557 million that have been made in the previous 5 years which saw amongst other things the loss of 71% of Devon’s community hospital beds, and many acute beds, maternity, A&E services and staff.

In a presentation on 12th March from the Sustainability and Transformation Plan’s chief executive, Philippa Slinger,**

It was stated that to make the £400 million funding cuts, there were plans for the following:

  • A reduction in agency staff
  • More efficiency relating to the number of surgical procedures
  • Reducing hospital lengths of stay
  • Fewer admissions
  • Reducing overnight stays after surgery
  • Capping referrals
  • Trying to source less expensive pharmaceuticals
  • Reducing the cost of procurement, such as replacement hips
  • Reducing the number of outpatient appointments by between 60 and 70 per cent
  • Doing less work in the independent sector
  • Reducing overseas recruitment
  • Improving staff retention
  • E-consultations in primary care (GP surgeries)

There are also plans to reduce the number of hospital beds further.

Apparently, these cuts are now euphemistically being called “service improvements and service changes.”!

At this meeting Cllr. Claire Wright Independent councillor from Ottery St. Mary put forward a proposal to suspend the requirement for Devon’s NHS to make hundreds of millions of savings, until after the end of the Covid-19 outbreak.*

The motion was defeated by the Conservative majority on this scrutiny committee, at a time when Britain was, and is, going through the worst pandemic since the Black Death.

These cuts have not been reversed and are still pending, with every possibility there will be efforts to extend the scale of these cuts, in a coming recession, resulting in even further healthcare deprivation for the population of Devon.


An SOHS (Barnstaple) zoom meeting was held on Wednesday 24th June with the cuts as the key discussion topic. A follow up meeting is being held on Wednesday 1st June with the sole topic ‘Action to stop the cuts’. In my own town of Torrington STITCH*** supporters across our town are angry and perplexed that our own county councillor on the scrutiny committee Cllr. Andrew Saywell did not support Cllr. Wrights proposal, and was therefore not effectively representing the people of Torrington’s future health interests on this issue. We are putting pressure on him to do everything possible to challenge and oppose any healthcare cuts, and that he will report progress on this issue and his representation and voting, to Torrington Council and in the local  monthly newssheet the ‘Torrington Crier’. He has recently written ( 24th June), “Rest assured I will rigorously oppose any cuts to local services by the CCG should they announce any.” Which is great, except he doesn’t regard  £400million reduction as cuts. The usual Tory duplicity , smoke and mirrors.

Can you spread the word of the cuts to your contacts, and hopefully we can all get together in future on an SOHS zoom meeting to develop a cross-Devon campaign of coordinated action.

Yours in the forthcoming struggle,

From: john wardman <johnwardman@hotmail.com>

(STITCH) Save The Irreplaceable Torrington Community Hospital


**You can view Ms Slinger’s presentation and watch the debate from this link. It’s agenda item 7. https://devoncc.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/455423

Property tycoons gave Tories £11m in past year

The Tories have received more than £11m from property developers since Boris Johnson became prime minister, an investigation has found.

Jon Stone Policy Correspondent www.independent.co.uk 
The revelation comes amid a donor scandal that threatens the career of the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick.

Concerns have been raised about the apparent increased influence property developers have over the Conservative government. Their contributions make up nearly a quarter of the £47.5m in donations received by the party from last July to March, up from 7.9 per cent of the total two years ago.

The latest analysis by the OpenDemocracy website found that the Conservatives’ top 10 property donors have given more than £5.7m to the party since Mr Johnson took the helm in July – up from around £1.5million for the equivalent top 10 in the final 12 months of Theresa May’s premiership, a three-fold increase. In total, around 120 individuals and companies from the sector have donated since July last year.

Mr Jenrick is facing calls to resign over his unlawful intervention in the planning of a luxury East London property development being submitted for approval by Tory donor Richard Desmond.

Electoral Commission figures show major Tory donors include luxury property developer Nick Candy and West Ham United owner David Sullivan, who donated £75,000 ahead of last year’s general election through a small property company he controls. There is no suggestion that any donors are involved in any wrongdoing.

The largest donors include Malcolm and Eddie Healey – dubbed “East Yorkshire’s richest men” – who have donated more than £1.2 million to the party between them since Mr Johnson took office. Others include property developer and longtime Tory donor Tony Gallagher, who has given the Conservatives almost three-quarters of a million pounds through his company Countywide Developments Ltd since the same date.

In January, Mr Jenrick gave the green light to Mr Desmond’s 1,500-home luxury development on the Isle of Dogs, near the Canary Wharf financial centre. The decision went against the advice of the planning inspector, and came a day before a change in regulations would have meant the developer had to pay around £45m in extra developers’ contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council. The borough is one of the country’s most deprived.

Labour accused the housing minister of taking the decision following a “glitzy fundraising dinner” with Mr Desmond in November 2019, during which the pair were reportedly sat next to each other and the minister was shown a promotional video for the development on his phone.

Text messages later showed Mr Desmond told Mr Jenrick: “we appreciate the speed as we don’t want to give Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing”. He also personally gave £12,000 to the Conservatives two weeks after the scheme was approved. Mr Jenrick says he acted in ”good faith” and “within the rules”.

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Boris Johnson has so far resisted calls to sack Mr Jenrick. Another Tory this week responded to the scandal by encouraging people to attend Conservative party fundraisers if they wanted similar access to ministers.

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “They will be sitting next to MPs and other people in their local authorities and can interact with different parts of the authority.”

The government this week, however, announced it was pausing planning reforms that would have put more powers to approve large developments in the hands of the housing secretary, currently Mr Jenrick.

But the Jenrick affair may not be an isolated incident. Former planning minister Bob Neill is under investigation by parliament’s standards watchdog for failing to mention that he was a paid consultant for a luxury hotel development that he lobbied for in his Kent constituency. Mr Neill denies any wrongdoing.

The £11m figure is a huge increase compared to older figures. An investigation by the Daily Telegraph in 2011 found that the Conservatives had raised £3.3m from similar sources in the three years to that date. In the two years following the 2015 election, property magnates donated £3.6m, 7.9 per cent of the total given.

For comparison, £8.4m million was raised by the party from hedge funds, bankers and other finance industry sources in that period, as reported by The Independent in 2017.

Steve Goodrich of Transparency International said: “The corrupting influence of big money from UK politics must be removed before it irreparably damages trust in our democracy.”

Sue Hawley of Spotlight on Corruption said: “It’s time for a serious review of conflicts of interest in UK planning.

“It is entirely wrong that those with money can gain access to politicians that puts their interests above the rest of us.”

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “All reportable donations are properly and transparently declared to the Electoral Commission, published by them, and comply fully with the law.”

Robert Jenrick overruled civil servants to push through Tory donor’s £1bn housing plan

A very long and detailed analysis of the Robert Jenrick affair by the Times. Will Jenrick now get power to decide on planning applications by creating a new system of development corporations? – Owl

Gabriel Pogrund, Emanuele Midolo and George Greenwood www.thetimes.co.uk 

Senior officials “begged” Robert Jenrick to block a £1bn property deal backed by the Tory donor Richard Desmond, it emerged last night. But the housing secretary overruled the objections from civil servants and lawyers to push it through.

A Whitehall whistleblower said Jenrick dismissed their advice over the luxury housing plan in London’s Docklands via text messages to a junior aide.

He also failed to inform his most senior planning officials that he had met and texted Desmond, the former Daily Express owner, when he overruled them.

According to the source, civil servants warned Jenrick that the development violated planning rules and was “70% to 80%” likely to be judicially reviewed.

But Jenrick told officials via text messages that there was “no point” in arguing with his decision to approve the Westferry luxury housing project in east London the day before a new tax kicked in that would have cost Desmond £30-£50m.

Using the WhatsApp messaging service, he instructed his private secretary to tell staff gathered in his departmental headquarters on the afternoon of January 13 , the day before his decision, that it was “final”.

Months earlier, Jenrick watched a promotional video of the Westferry scheme on Desmond’s iPhone at a Tory fundraiser at the Savoy Hotel and agreed to a site tour.

The unsuspecting official, who was at the heart of the decision, said they were shocked by Jenrick’s urgency as they warned him of the legal risks of the scheme and a likely judicial review.

The minister is also accused of adopting a generally “arrogant and gung ho” approach to planning law in making other decisions.

They left with the impression: “We had to get with the programme or go away.”

The source’s claim that Jenrick showed “total disregard” for the law in the run up to the decision will reignite calls for his resignation.

Those present on the fourth floor of 2 Marsham Street, a government building in Westminster, included Steve Quartermain, England’s most senior planner, planning officials and civil service lawyers. None was aware of Jenrick’s potential conflicts of interest.

Jenrick withdrew his approval in response to a legal challenge from Tower Hamlets council last month, accepting that it was “unlawful” due to “apparent bias”.

Steve Reed, the shadow housing secretary, said: “These explosive revelations show Mr Jenrick has new and very serious questions to answer.”

He added: “Labour last night called on the government halt its plans to move housebuilding powers from local councils to the housing secretary.”

The latest revelation comes amid fresh evidence of Boris Johnson’s own contact with Desmond, who also avoided paying £106m after the government waived affordable housing rules.

In an interview, the tycoon reveals that Johnson told him that he would change gambling rules to help his business after he lobbied him at a Downing Street event.

According to Desmond, Johnson “ran up to him” and said he would raise the maximum legal jackpot for his Health Lottery to £1m. He said: “He [Johnson] agreed it . . . He said, ‘Right, good news for you. We’re gonna do it.’”

Their conversation at a reception for business leaders took place on September 17, as the government considered whether to approve the Westferry plan. Desmond insisted that they did not discuss it at the event.

Last week, Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, said Johnson considered the Westferry case “closed”.

However, the detailed account of Jenrick’s conduct in the run-up to the decision will raise fresh questions of the minister. Jenrick has only stated that he “told” his private office of his meeting with Desmond.

Alex Thomas, a programme director at the Institute for Government, said it would have been appropriate for Jenrick to put his potential conflict in writing given that he decided not to recuse himself from the process.

He said such a document would have been a “note or an email to his principal private secretary” and that it would outline “what happened at the event, why he felt no substantial discussion had taken place, and that no further contact with the applicant would occur.”

Last night, a government spokesman said: “As made clear in the secretary of state’s letter to the [housing, communities and local government] select committee, this was a thorough decision-making process, approached with an open mind, with no question of bias. The secretary of state read the [planning] inspector’s report and representations from parties and took advice from officials throughout the process.”

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said:“A full account has been sent to the HCLG select committee by the secretary of state and the department has published relevant documents online. We have nothing further to add.”

A spokesman for 10 Downing Street said: “The government’s position on society lottery rules has been set out by DCMS and the Gambling Commission, following open public consultation by both.”

Minister in a hurry told officials: It’s my way or the highway

Jenrick was a man in a hurry. It was less than a week after MPs had returned to parliament following their Christmas recess when the 38-year-old housing secretary dispatched his private secretary to relay orders to some of his most senior civil servants.

On the afternoon of January 13 they huddled in a breakout area on the fourth floor of 2 Marsham Street, the glass building in Westminster that is home to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which Jenrick heads.

Jenrick’s aide quickly got to the point. The secretary of state wanted to issue a decision letter the next day approving the Westferry scheme on the Isle of Dogs.

According to a civil servant at the meeting, his aide was texting to Jenrick on WhatsApp as the meeting unfolded. The source, who has come forward to detail the minister’s “disregard for due process and accountability”, said that officials were left in no doubt that their views were not welcome.

The aide is claimed to have said: “We’re going ahead with this. It’s the secretary of state’s decision. It’s final.”

Those gathered around a table near the fourth-floor atrium included Steve Quartermain, England’s most senior planning official, communications advisers and government lawyers.

None knew Jenrick had a potential conflict of interest that would soon imperil his career: he had sat next to Desmond at a £900-a-head fundraising dinner just eight weeks earlier at the Savoy in London, where the tycoon had shown him a promotional video of the scheme. Desmond had later implored Jenrick to act quickly, so he would avoid a £30m-£50m Tower Hamlets council community infrastructure levy that would come into force in mid-January, joking in a text: “We don’t want to give the Marxists loads of doe [sic] for nothing!”

The civil service source is insistent that key officials on the case were not informed of Jenrick’s contacts with Desmond. They also allege that Quartermain and Richard Watson, head of the national planning casework unit, practically “begged” him to think again about the decision. Both are said to have been met with indifference.

At the meeting, Quartermain, a moustachioed Durham University graduate who has since left the civil service after several decades, raised his objections one last time. “Look,” he is said to have remarked. “The visual impact of it is terrible. There are policies around tall buildings in that particular area. It’s too big. It’s too tall. It’s too dense.” One of the lawyers weighed in, too, saying the scheme did not comply with affordable housing rules and warning there was a “70% to 80%” chance of a judicial review.

Others expressed concern that Jenrick wanted to blame the delays in Westferry on the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and Tower Hamlets, while touting his approval as a victory for the Conservative government’s housebuilding programme. His aide then delivered the coup de grâce. “Look, guys,” she said. “The secretary of state has made his mind up . . . Let’s get this letter sorted out.” The source recalled: “We all sort of went away.”

In the months building up to the decision, civil servants had argued that Jenrick should reject the Westferry scheme, saying it violated planning rules on several counts and would be dead on arrival if challenged in court.

Not only had he ignored them. He had asked them during purdah — the pre-election period when civil service activity is restricted — to prepare for a decision in the first days of a new government, owing to “sensitivity with timing”.

Why did Jenrick refuse to listen? Why was he in such a rush? And why did officials not know about his dinner with Desmond?

Last month the minister performed a U-turn and consented to his approval being quashed in court, acknowledging that his decision had been “unlawful” as a result of his own “apparent bias”.

But questions have not gone away. First, it emerged that Jenrick approved the plan 24 hours before the levy would have kicked in, saving Desmond millions. Then it transpired that Desmond had donated £12,000 to the Tory party shortly after the decision.

On Wednesday the release of heavily redacted documents shed fresh light on the circumstances of the “cash for favours” scandal.

They showed that Jenrick swiftly texted Desmond after the dinner and agreed to go on a site tour of Westferry and that he also knew about the levy. The documents provide no evidence that Jenrick declared a conflict of interest or detailed his conversations with the billionaire to departmental officials. In Jenrick’s favour, he did not go for the tour, texting Desmond: “I think it is best that we don’t meet until after the matter has been decided.”

For Johnson, this text was enough to conclude that the matter was closed and Jenrick’s seat at the cabinet table was safe. Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, announced that there would be no further investigation.

It is a decision that both reflects Boris Johnson’s authority, given his majority of 80, and his disdain for the vicissitudes of life in the Westminster bubble, having ridden out many scandals himself. It also shows the minister’s proximity to No 10 and his circle of friendships in the upper echelons of the Johnson government.

Jenrick, a father of three and a former director of the auction house Christie’s, was one of three young MPs to back Johnson early in the Tory leadership contest. The others were Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden. All were rewarded with plum cabinet posts. Jenrick also boasts of his friendship with Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancée.

Some MPs bristle at his obvious ambition and refer to him as “Robert Generic”. One MP said: “There’s a suspicion that he doesn’t actually believe in anything. He just wants to move up the ladder.” They added that unlike Sajid Javid, the former chancellor, there were “few” points of principle over which he would plausibly resign.

Few doubt Jenrick’s networking skills. He is one of the best-connected ministers in the cabinet, having served as parliamentary private secretary to the then home secretary Amber Rudd and to three leading Brexiteers — Michael Gove, Liz Truss and Esther McVey.

Such friendships may have helped when he faced calls to resign after travelling 150 miles to his manor in Herefordshire at the height of lockdown in April. Jenrick, who is married to Michal Berkner, a wealthy corporate lawyer nine years his senior, claimed that the grade I listed mansion was his family home, although neighbours quickly disputed the claim — as did his own website, which said he lived in London and at his constituency of Newark, Nottinghamshire.

Others believe that Johnson may be protecting Jenrick because of his own links to Westferry. As mayor of London, he gave an earlier, less ambitious version of the Westferry plan his approval in 2016. Sir Edward Lister, now the prime minister’s chief strategic adviser and then deputy mayor for planning, was the person behind the decision, and is said to retain a keen interested in planning.

The disclosure that Johnson and Desmond met on September 17 at Downing Street will do little to quell claims that Desmond enjoys preferential access to No 10, despite his later denial that he lobbied Johnson about the development on this occasion.

Few believe that Jenrick is as “unsackable” as Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s chief aide. One minister said that talk of a reshuffle had returned over the past week, with Jenrick, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, and Thérèse Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, the most likely to be demoted. Coffey is said to have challenged Johnson in a cabinet meeting over the rumour, telling him that civil servants went on a “go slow” every time there was speculation about her future. Another source claimed to have spotted a reshuffle whiteboard on a recent visit to No 10.

For the moment, though, the government has shown it will spend considerable political capital on protecting the housing secretary.

It was reported last week that the prime minister had excised an announcement on key planning reforms from a upcoming speech on rebuilding Britain after Covid-19, with the express aim of sparing Jenrick further scrutiny.

The move, if it goes ahead, would give Jenrick greater power to decide on planning applications by creating a new system of development corporations.

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has not yet called for Jenrick to be sacked and would instead prefer for the scandal to go on as long as possible, leading to more scrutiny, revelations and damaging headlines. In the meantime, Steve Reed, the shadow communities secretary, has referred Jenrick to the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

One of the core issues any inquiry will address is how much Jenrick told civil servants about his contact with Desmond.

The fact that no such documents were forthcoming last week is why a senior civil servant who was at the heart of the Westferry decision has come forward today to explain Jenrick’s approach to the development and the civil service generally. The whistleblower said: “Robert Jenrick has pretty much been the worst secretary of state that I’ve had the pleasure of working for.”

They claimed Jenrick had ignored or rejected advice on other occasions and expressed little appreciation of his quasi-judicial role as housing secretary — that is, someone who must make decisions based on planning law, rather than politics.

Any hint of bias can derail a project, which is why planning decisions are usually announced in sober and legalistic letters. But Jenrick is said to have overruled officials and demanded politically charged announcements on controversial plans, including a proposed Holocaust memorial in Westminster and an Indian museum in Camden, north London.

Civil servants are said to have expressed their displeasure to Tom Kennedy, his special adviser, only to be told that Jenrick had “made his decision”. He now faces another High Court battle and judicial review over his decision on the Holocaust memorial.

The whistleblower said Jenrick further infuriated civil servants during the general election campaign, when he insisted the department spend taxpayers’ money buying Facebook ads to promote the Towns Fund, a communities initiative.

The ads apparently violated purdah rules by pledging Tory investment in “red wall” seats. In a “standoffish” meeting about the Towns Fund attended by his special advisers, Jenrick is said to have told a senior civil servant that it was, in effect, “My way or the highway . . . We had to get with the programme or piss off. It was that simple.”

The source said: “The arrogance of the man was just astounding. He wouldn’t listen to anything the civil servants were saying to him. He really had a political ambition, which he was trying to use us to support.”

April 2016

Sir Edward Lister, Boris Johnson’s deputy mayor for planning, approves a plan from Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell to build 722 homes at Westferry Printworks in London’s Docklands. The proposed scheme includes 20% affordable homes.

July 2018

Northern & Shell submit a revised planning application which doubles the number of flats from 722 to 1,524. It includes an offer to make 35% of them affordable.

March 2019

The developer, arguing Tower Hamlets council was taking too long to decide, lodges an appeal and revises the amount of affordable housing down to 21%.

August 2019

Robert Jenrick “calls in” the scheme, taking control of it personally.

September 2019

Jenrick’s planning inspector publishes a 140-page report arguing for the scheme to be refused.

November 2019

Jenrick sits next to Desmond at a Tory fundraiser at the Carlton club, where Desmond raised the issue of the development. Four other people involved in the Westferry development were at the same table.

January 2020

Jenrick goes against his planning advisor’s advice and approves the Westferry scheme a day before the introduction of a local tax, which would have cost Desmond more than £40m.

March 2020

Tower Hamlets takes legal action against Jenrick.

May 2020

Jenrick accepts that his decision was unlawful and showed “apparent bias”. He agrees that the development should be redetermined by a different minister.


Government’s dithering risks unleashing a second Covid-19 wave in England 

“The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has promised the NHS will have everything it needs to tackle coronavirus, but what it really needs is an effective public health response to keep it at bay. By failing to face up to its failures, the government risks unleashing a second wave.”….

“One of the most baffling aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic is its obsession with setting up new structures from scratch rather than working with what they already have.”…

Richard Vize is a public policy commentator and analyst www.theguardian.com 

Local communities – not the NHS – are the frontline in the battle against Covid-19. Each hospital admission means the virus has already broken through.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has promised the NHS will have everything it needs to tackle coronavirus, but what it really needs is an effective public health response to keep it at bay. By failing to face up to its failures, the government risks unleashing a second wave.

The experiences of countries with an impressive record in controlling the pandemic, such as Germany, New Zealand and South Korea, show that even the best prepared systems can experience major flare-ups that are difficult to control. But still the UK government has not put in place the systems to identify local outbreaks quickly and come down on them hard.

joint statement in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) signed by healthcare leaders including the presidents of 11 royal colleges and the Faculty of Public Health articulates widespread concern that England simply isn’t ready. Areas of weakness it identifies include coordination of national, regional and local bodies – such as councils and Public Health England’s regional health protection teams, the bedrock of any communicable disease response.

Even after more than 50,000 deaths and a daily infection rate that still far exceeds countries such as Spain, Germany, France and Italy, the government is failing to ensure local public health teams have everything they need to keep their communities safe.

There have been improvements in recent weeks. Evidence to the housing, communities and local government select committee shows councils are finally being listened to and their concerns understood.

But, as the Guardian has revealed, the government’s failure to share full details of who has caught the disease with local public health teams risks wrecking their ability to contain an outbreak.

The entire edifice of the test and trace system – our bulwark against a second wave of the pandemic – begins to collapse without this vital local intelligence. If council teams don’t know where the infections are they can’t control them.

This highlights the chasm between government rhetoric and its ability to deliver. A week ago, Hancock promised the Commons that data-sharing rules would not be allowed to get in the way of saving lives. No 10 adviser Dominic Cummings, meanwhile, has routinely touted his own supposed brilliance with data, writing excitedly about cognitive technologies and superforecasting. But faced with the first real-world data challenge of his reign, he has failed.

Public health teams don’t need a superforecast or cutting edge AI. They just need to know where people with infections live and work and where they have been.

At the heart of the government’s data operation is the new Joint Biosecurity Centre. At the beginning of June, Hancock admitted that it did not yet exist, but it is already on its second leader. It will be responsible for getting information to councils, but there is confusion about how it will work with both local government and Public Health England.

One of the most baffling aspects of the government’s response to the pandemic is its obsession with setting up new structures from scratch rather than working with what they already have. It caused confusion and has wasted effort and, above all, precious time, in setting up testing centres, laboratories, supply chains and contact tracing, all divorced from existing local government and NHS operations and dependent on a maze of private sector contracts.

The Joint Biosecurity Centre looks set to continue this folly. It won’t be fully operational until at least the end of the summer, and it seems foolhardy to insert a new, untested body into the pandemic machinery at precisely the time when a potential increase in infections from the relaxation of restrictions and the return of schools will put the system under huge stress.

Meanwhile, councils are preparing their local outbreak management plans. Trading standards, environmental health, social care and many more people besides are collaborating with the public health teams to ensure their response to any flare-ups is quick and robust. But they need the data.

  • Richard Vize is a public policy commentator and analyst

Why did Ministers let Flybe go bust then save the giants?

A former owner of Flybe has criticised the Government for failing to bail out the regional airline in January – just months before issuing hundreds of millions of pounds to a rival that opposed the rescue deal.

Flybe investors said the airline could have played a key role in Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ strategy for the regions. They included Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic, Southend Airport’s owner Stobart Group, and the hedge fund Cyrus Capital.

The sentiment appeared to have been shared by then Business Minister Andrea Leadsom, who announced on Twitter that she was ‘delighted’ a rescue had been agreed to ensure ‘UK regions remain connected’.

Grounded: Warwick Brady says regional airlines and airports are vital to the Prime Minister’s plan to ‘level up’ Britain

But, speaking out for the first time since Flybe’s collapse in early March, Stobart’s chief executive Warwick Brady said the ‘politics of Branson got in the way’ of a deal, which subsequently failed to materialise.

Brady said it ‘does grate’ that Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways’ owner IAG, complained the proposed £100million commercial loan was ‘unfair’ a day after Leadsom’s announcement – and just a few months before IAG was granted a £300million Government loan. IAG was also granted £900million of Spanish aid for its Iberia and Vueling divisions.

Branson, who has repeatedly clashed with Walsh, has yet to agree a state loan for his beleaguered Virgin Atlantic, in which his Virgin Group has a 51 per cent stake. The rest is owned by Delta.

Brady spoke to The Mail on Sunday during an exclusive tour of Southend Airport, which is due to restart flights next month. Stobart has spent the past months installing new safety measures for the reopening. It is set to become Britain’s first airport where no passenger will have to remove liquids or laptops from their carry-on bags while going through security.

IAG filed a complaint with the EU in January over the planned rescue of Flybe, arguing it breached state aid rules, giving Flybe an unfair advantage. A string of carriers have since been bailed out.

Brady said: ‘The Government did agree to a £100million commercial loan. Then I think the politics of Branson got in the way. I think it changed the sentiment and then the politicians changed their minds.’

He added: ‘I think he’s been scuppered because people just don’t like bailing out a billionaire.’

Virgin Atlantic held a 30 per cent stake in Flybe, Stobart also held 30 per cent and Cyrus 40 per cent. The three shareholders had agreed to invest more money in Flybe if the Government bailout went ahead.

Brady called Flybe ‘a strategic asset for the country’ and the rescue deal ‘the right thing to do’.

‘Now there’s no one flying from Newquay,’ he said. ‘Southampton was decimated, Belfast is decimated. All those airports had 80 per cent of Flybe traffic.’ He said a delay in EU approval for the loan also caused problems.

‘If we had our time again we’d probably try to work out how to avoid an EU competition delay of six months and then accelerate the restructuring plan,’ he said. ‘There’s a core, good business.’ Brady also criticised the Government’s current quarantine demands on travellers coming to the UK for their holidays and on Britons when they return from trips overseas.

The Government is set to introduce so-called ‘air bridges’ tomorrow – bilateral agreements allowing travel to popular destinations such as France and Spain, without tourists having to go into quarantine.

But Stobart, which is raising up to £100million through new and existing investors, wants Ministers to let people travel freely to a wider range of countries – not just the most popular summer hotspots.

Glyn Jones, chief executive of Southend Airport, said the five most popular destinations being considered at the time accounted for just 51 per cent of Southend’s passenger traffic. He would like to see countries in central and eastern Europe, which have seen low rates of Covid-19 infections, included.

Brady added: ‘If you’re going to lock down and do the 14-day quarantine, they should have done that at the beginning. It’s like they woke up halfway through a bad dream.’

At an eerily quiet Southend Airport, vending machines selling personal protective equipment (PPE) and Perspex screens at check-in desks have been installed.

Passengers’ temperatures will be tested before security in case other countries decide this is necessary.

There is currently just one new ‘touch-free’ X-ray machine in place, but with reduced passenger numbers, no one should have to remove liquids or laptops from bags.

Some two million passengers used Southend last year, but Stobart is planning for five million, helped by a new arrivals terminal, security route and more space for shops.

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