Open Democracy features Dr Cathy Gardner’s judicial review

Did we abandon our most vulnerable old people to COVID-19?

It is fortuitous that this review of the Governments mis-handling of care homes at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis coincides with the publication of the damning Public Accounts Committee report (already posted by Owl).

“Unexpectedly, perhaps, a wholehearted public commitment to fundamental reform of the care system in Britain has come from the chief executive of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens. He told the BBC that COVID-19 had shone a “very harsh spotlight” on the resilience of the care system. The pandemic should be used to give momentum to a total overhaul of social care, he said.”…..

…Such an outcome would be cherished by Cathy Gardner and Fay Harris. As their lawyer, Paul Conrathe, put it: “This casts a light on dark corners. It will expose the lack of priority and planning given to the care sector and the need for a more proactive strategic approach in future to protect the most vulnerable.”

Cathy Gardner’s legal action is being crowd-funded. Let’s hope her courage in taking this action may be influencing opinion.

The high death toll from COVID-19 in care homes has unleashed a “tidal wave of grief” from all over Britain, according to the human rights lawyer who is leading a landmark challenge against the Government.

The legal action claims the state violated the fundamental right to life of thousands of the most vulnerable old people in our society. It accuses the Health Secretary, NHS England and Public Health England of failing to protect residents and staff in care homes.

COVID-19 has already claimed the lives of 20,000 care home residents in England and Wales – one in 20 of the old people who live in nursing homes. Some researchers believe this official figure is an under-estimate.

Now health campaigners and leading charities are demanding a fundamental reform of social care and tougher laws to combat age discrimination.

In Brussels, meanwhile, trade union leaders and MEPs have backed calls for a Europe-wide investigation into the “silent tragedy” of care home deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘What were they doing to protect care homes?’

At the heart of the legal challenge to the British Government is the case of Dr Cathy Gardner, whose father Michael Gibson died from “probable COVID” in his Oxfordshire care home on the 3rd of April. Shortly before his death, a patient who had tested positive for COVID-19 was discharged from hospital into the same care home.

Dr Gardner – who has a PhD in virology – told openDemocracy: “The rush to clear NHS beds threw the care homes under a bus because nowhere in the guidance about discharging from hospitals does it give any consideration to care homes. What were they doing to protect care homes? Nothing! When you go through the evidence you are left with the thought that this is deliberate.”

Her lawyers are seeking a judicial review of the way in which COVID-19 was handled in care homes. openDemocracy has been given access to the 95-page application for judicial review. In the next few weeks, a judge will rule on whether the case should go ahead.

Dr Gardner has decided to press on with her legal challenge after what she called a “shameful” initial response from the Health Secretary, NHS England and Public Health England. “The defendants have failed to engage with my concerns, failed to disclose relevant documents and have sought to hide behind procedural objections. This is a shameful reply when thousands of very vulnerable people have lost their lives, leaving me and many others bereaved.”

A public appeal on Crowd Justice, the crowd funding platform specialising in legal issues, has raised over £85,000 in support of Dr Gardner’s campaign.

The lawyer leading the case, Paul Conrathe, said the state had violated the most fundamental human rights of elderly and disabled people in care homes.

He told me: “The thing that is deeply disturbing is if you stand in the shoes of the old person. You are dependent on your carers. You’re locked in your home. More than anyone else in the country, you are powerless. The state that is there to protect you then unleashes the floodgates into your place of safety and you have no ability to do anything about it. That is profoundly disturbing and it has brought an outpouring of grief from all over the country. It’s hard to believe this could happen.”

Joining Dr Gardner in her legal challenge is Ms Fay Harris, whose father Donald Percival died on 1st May after COVID-positive patients were discharged from the NHS into his care home.

‘It could have been done more humanely’

Professor Sir Brian Jarman – one of Britain’s foremost experts in evaluating death rates in health care – has been researching one crucial week in the story of how care homes coped with coronavirus.

On Tuesday 17th March, NHS England sent out a letter urging all hospitals to “free up the maximum possible inpatient and critical care capacity”. The letter said NHS trusts must “urgently discharge all hospital in-patients who are medically fit to leave”.

But at the time, nurses and doctors had no guidance or rules on whether they should test patients for COVID-19 before they left hospital.

Professor Jarman uncovered data showing that in the same week ending Friday 20th March, cases of acute respiratory illness in care homes in England were already rising very steeply just as hospital staff were sending untested patients back into homes.

He told me: “They took the decision to discharge patients possibly with COVID to care homes that didn’t have PPE. They must have known that care home residents and staff were unprepared. The data published by Public Health England showed they were already aware of the outbreak of severe respiratory disease in care homes. They knew! They monitored it. And they still went ahead knowing what was happening.”

Professor Jarman said the much-publicised Nightingale Hospitals could have been partly adapted as isolation units for COVID-positive old people in that crucial month from 17th March to 16th April. Instead, they remained almost empty. Many doctors and nurses on standby to staff them were never called in.

“It could have been done another way, a much more humane way, if you wanted to save the elderly.”

NHS England has since released figures showing that just over 25,000 patients were moved from hospitals into care homes between 17th March and 16th April, a period when testing was still not widely available. It was also a time when the care sector gave a series of warnings saying homes were poorly prepared for the pandemic and still desperately short of protective equipment for staff.

‘Focus upon the NHS’

Dr Cathy Gardner and Professor Brian Jarman are far from alone in their concerns about how care homes are surviving the coronavirus pandemic.

A few days after Dr Gardner’s father died, homes in the Torquay area of Devon refused to take hospital patients who had tested positive for COVID-19. “That would be tantamount to importing death into care homes,” said Graham Greenaway, owner of the Warberries Nursing home. “Asking us to take COVID-positive patients is asking us basically to make out a suicide note for people in care.”

Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, told MPs that ministers had abandoned care homes in their scramble to save the NHS. Many homes did not have the right set-up to isolate patients coming from hospital, he said. “We also had the disruption to our supply chains for PPE [personal protective equipment]. And we saw people being discharged from hospital when we didn’t have the testing regime up and running.”

Professor Green was speaking to MPs at the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee on 19th May. The next day, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland admitted the Government had prioritised the NHS over social care early in the COVID outbreak. He told Sky News: “We needed to make a choice about testing. We decided to focus upon the NHS.” Pressed on whether it had been government policy to focus on the NHS “first and foremost” over care homes, he said: “That’s right and I think that was absolutely essential.”

Mr Buckland said there had been “huge issues” in adult social care and added: “We’ve seen a huge tragedy in our care homes, which is a great regret.”

Govt ‘constantly learning about virus’

In response to Dr Cathy Gardner’s legal action, the Department of Health and Social Care said it had taken “extensive measures to protect the people who live and work in care homes in response to the risks posed by COVID-19”.

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock repeatedly told MPs that he had “made social care a priority from the start”. Care homes had done “amazing work” during the crisis, he said. The government had been “constantly learning about this virus from the start and improving procedures all the way through”.

Mr Hancock said ministers had done everything they could to protect care homes and had thrown a “protective ring” around them. Nearly two-thirds of care homes had not seen coronavirus outbreaks.

‘A human, social and ethical tragedy’

The COVID crisis in care homes is not confined to Britain. Throughout Europe and the USA, between 40 and 60 percent of all COVID-19 victims are residents of nursing homes.

Sweden’s minister for health and social affairs, Lena Hallengren, said: “We failed to protect our elderly. That’s a failure for society as a whole. We have to learn from this. We’re not done with this pandemic yet.”

According to Professor Geffrey Pleyers, a sociologist at the University of Louvain, Belgium had decided that the lives of old people in care homes counted for much less than those of “active” people. “It is a human, social and ethical tragedy that asks us countless questions.” He added: “With the residents of nursing homes, we have also forgotten the people who care for and feed them. They often worked without any protection and today many are infected with the coronavirus.”

More than 100 MEPs from across the political spectrum have described the treatment of care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic as a silent tragedy. “These are places where residents and workers have often been exposed to great risks without appropriate safeguards.”

In Italy, people talk instead about a “silent massacre”, a phrase derived from reporting on human rights abuses in South America. A picture is worth a thousand words – local media in Lombardy ran photographs of a chapel in an old people’s home filled with coffins instead of pews.

When soldiers were called in to help disinfect nursing homes in Spain, they found some residents left dead in their beds, the staff having fled in fear of the virus.

Even in Germany, the Red Cross says care homes across the country are suffering from a lack of protective clothing and disinfectant, which is contributing to the spread of the virus. Prosecutors in the northern city of Wolfsburg are investigating a care home on charges of death through negligence.

At the same time, only 0.4 per cent of care home residents in Germany have died of COVID-19. In England and Wales, the figure is 5.3 per cent, according to research from the London School of Economics. In other words, care home residents are 13 times more likely to die in England than in Germany.

Across Europe, said the Irish Times, the toll of coronavirus was worsened by structural weaknesses in elderly care, which had become a “fragmented and peripheral sector” overlooked in the initial scramble to save hospitals. “From Italy to Sweden, working conditions made it hard to stop the spread of the disease.”

As the American news network CNN put it: “The world sacrificed its elderly in the race to protect hospitals. The result was a catastrophe in care homes.”

‘Don’t waste this crisis’

Slowly but emphatically, the clamour for fundamental reform of elderly care is growing across the western world.

The UK has 12 million people aged 65 and over, according to the last census. In England and Wales, nearly 300,000 of them live in care homes.

Dr Joan Costa-Font, a health policy specialist at the London School of Economics, believes the COVID-19 crisis reveals how little we value old age. “The under-funded system of long-term care services has turned nursing homes into ‘death homes’. And when faced with the need of critical health care, they have been given a lower priority. Yet, given that older individuals are an increasing share of our society, and that other pandemics are to come, we are left with the question: should countries revisit their priorities?”

For Bethany Brown, researcher in older people’s rights at Human Rights Watch in New York, the answer is an emphatic: Yes. She told openDemocracy the COVID pandemic had laid bare an everyday ageism that often goes unrecognised. “It’s in the air in off-hand comments such as: Culling the elderly can be good for the bottom line of the economy!” However, she believes this is a defining moment for policy makers around the world to make a change. “There’s a real opportunity to be grasped and I’m encouraged by networks and organisations throughout Europe and the developing world who say, ‘Hang on! Older people have the same rights. They shouldn’t be cast aside.’ I hope we don’t waste this crisis.”

Anna Dixon, CEO of Britain’s Centre for Better Ageing, agreed: “COVID has provided a catalyst for positive radical change that perhaps was not thought possible before and has perhaps shone a spotlight on the terrible state of our social care system. We hope that will galvanise change.”

“If any good is to come from this, we must use this as a moment to resolve once and for all how to properly resource and reform the way social care works in this country.”

Sir Simon added: “I would hope by the time we are sitting down this time next year on the 73rd birthday of the NHS that we have actually, as a country, been able to decisively answer the question of how are going to fund and provide high-quality social care for my parents’ generation.”

Such an outcome would be cherished by Cathy Gardner and Fay Harris. As their lawyer, Paul Conrathe, put it: “This casts a light on dark corners. It will expose the lack of priority and planning given to the care sector and the need for a more proactive strategic approach in future to protect the most vulnerable.”

GSWS – Great South West Silence – are all the lines down?

From a Correspondent:

What on earth is going on with the Great South West?   Has it collapsed once again?  The website has once more become semi-derelict, with the twitter feed abandoned, no contact telephone number and nothing on the ‘News’ section for two months during the biggest economic crisis for 300 years.  Steve Hindley, Chair of GSW, is no doubt busy with his many other responsibilities, including leadership of the Midas Group construction company, but he has been notably absent from the media commentary circuit.

Yet again, the South West is without a voice as Britain’s other regions fight very publicly for recognition and support.    Whilst the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine dominate the airwaves, the Government must be grateful for GSWS, the Great South West Silence.

Many people believe that the South West will be hit especially hard by covid-19, given our dependence upon tourism and hospitality, the sector of the economy which is expected to be hit hardest by the pandemic.   Yet the region’s leadership seems to be in complete denial.   Maybe things will pick up when Great South West installs a telephone.

Coronavirus: Care homes were ‘thrown to the wolves’ during COVID-19 outbreak, say MPs

Slow, inconsistent, sometimes reckless and even negligent.

That’s the damning assessment of the government’s approach to social care during the COVID-19 crisis, published today by the House of Commons’ own spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

[Read the full report here]

Frazer Maude news.sky.com 

Their report says the pandemic has exposed the tragic impact of years of inattention, funding cuts and delayed reforms.

All of which, it says, have left the social care sector as a poor relation to the NHS.

Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: “The deaths of people in care homes devastated many, many families.

“They and we don’t have time for promises and slogans, or exercises in blame. We weren’t prepared for the first wave.

“Putting all else aside, government must use the narrow window we have now to plan for a second coronavirus wave. Lives depend upon getting our response right.”

The report says the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) decision to discharge 25,000 hospital patients into care homes without ensuring they’d been tested for the virus was an example of the government’s “slow, inconsistent and at times negligent” approach to social care.

The committee also described the move as being an “appalling error”.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told Sky News: “I don’t accept that characterisation. First of all, this idea that we were mass discharging people from hospitals into care homes is not the case – actually there were fewer people discharged from hospitals into care homes between February and April.”

He added: “I accept that we need to look back and we need to learn lessons, of course with hindsight there are things we could have done differently.

“What I don’t accept is the kind of characterisation that is made in that report – because for example, we discharged fewer people than the year before, because we put the testing in place subsequently, because the NHS providers have made clear that they would not have discharged people systematically on that basis.

“I think a more nuanced judgement is required.”

The committee has made a number of recommendations which it wants the DHSC, NHS England and NHS Improvements to respond to, including:

  • A review into which care homes received discharged patients and how many subsequently had outbreaks
  • The identification of national leads for all critical elements of the pandemic response
  • Details of what will be done to ensure the needs of social care are given as much weight as those of the NHS

It is also asking for more information about the cost and function of private hospital contracts and the Nightingale hospitals. There are concerns, it says, that there has been “a lack of transparency about costs and value for money”.

The report also identifies a further lack of transparency around the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE), citing a tendency for the government to “over promise and under deliver”.

Meg Hillier said: “The failure to provide adequate PPE or testing to the millions of staff and volunteers who risked their lives to help us through the first peak of the crisis is a sad, low moment in our national response.

“Our care homes were effectively thrown to the wolves, and the virus has ravaged some of them.”

The Local Government Association represents over 300 councils across England.

Councillor Paulette Hamilton, vice chair of its community wellbeing board, said: “Social care has been on the frontline throughout this crisis but this report’s conclusions show that those who use, work and volunteer in these vital services were not given as much priority as the NHS from the outset.

“We cannot and must not allow any of these mistakes to be repeated again, if the country is to experience a second wave of coronavirus. Social care deserves parity of esteem with the NHS.”

A DHSC spokesperson said: “Throughout this unprecedented global pandemic we have been working closely with the sector and public health experts to put in place guidance and support for adult social care.

“Alongside an extra £1.3 billion to support the hospital discharge process, we have provided 172 million items of PPE to the social care sector since the start of the pandemic and are testing all residents and staff, including repeat testing for staff and residents in care homes for over-65 or those with dementia.

“We know there is a need for a long-term solution for social care and we will bring forward a plan that puts social care on a sustainable footing to ensure the reforms will last long into the future.”

The PAC said nobody would expect the government to get everything right in its initial response, but that it “urgently needs to reflect, acknowledge its mistakes and learn from them”.

Help-to-buy scheme may be extended beyond 2020 deadline

Delays in UK house building caused by the pandemic have forced the government to consider drafting plans to extend its help-to-buy scheme for new home purchases beyond the end-of-year deadline.

Larry Elliott www.theguardian.com 

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is considering whether to back a proposal supported by the housing minister, Robert Jenrick, and housebuilders, that would keep the scheme in place for an extra three months to clear the backlog caused by the lockdown of construction sites in the spring.

While the Treasury says no final decision has yet been taken, the chancellor is under pressure from large construction companies to help the sector emerge from recession and ensure that 18,000 buyers do not lose their chance to buy subsidised homes due to the delays linked to Covid-19.

Help to buy, a scheme that began in 2013, allows people to buy a home with a deposit of as little as 5% of the purchase price, with the government providing an equity loan of up to 40% in London and 20% in the rest of the country.

The housing ministry said that in the seven years between the launch of the scheme in the spring of 2013 and March 2020 the initiative had enabled 272,000 households to buy a new-build home.

“The government continues to work closely with all parts of the housing industry to understand the challenges and opportunities they face,” a housing ministry spokesman said.

The help-to-buy scheme aimed to help people to buy homes at a time when mortgage lenders were reluctant to offer loans without hefty deposits.

From the outset, however, it has been criticised for driving up house prices, subsidising people who would have bought a home anyway, and boosting the profits of the major housebuilders.

National Audit Office report in 2019 said 63% of people buying a home under the scheme could have done so without help from the state, and official figures showed households with incomes of more than £80,000 a year were more likely to take advantage of the initiative than those with incomes below £30,000.

Help-to-buy transactions underpinnned about half of Persimmon’s sales in 2018 when the housebuilder racked up profits of more than £1bn. Vince Cable, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, accused the company of “pinching their profits from the public purse”.

The government responded to the criticism by announcing plans for a less generous replacement scheme that would be available only to first-time buyers.

The House Builders Federation said that of the 18,000 people likely to be affected by the December deadline about 40% would be ineligible for the new scheme.

David O’Leary, policy director at HBF, said: “Coronavirus forced the home-building industry to shut down, and while builders are now back on site, working within strict safe operating guidelines, completions have inevitably been delayed.

“It is an obvious response to extend the deadline to allow for these delays, but as a result of inflexibility of the rules thousands of home buyers look likely to miss out on the opportunity to use help to buy and so be able to purchase a new home.

“With mortgages for first-time buyers now few and far between, help to buy is more important than ever. Reducing the availability of help to buy will have a knock-on effect, undermining attempts to increase the delivery of new homes at a time when the economic benefits that the industry brings are desperately needed.”

Keir Starmer demands more help for tourist towns after unemployment surge

Sir Keir Starmer has called for more help for Britain’s tourist towns to recover from coronavirus after new analysis showed sharp rises in unemployment in areas dependent on the sector for jobs.

And Simon Jupp and Neil Parish? – Owl

Andrew Woodcock Political Editor www.independent.co.uk 

Labour’s analysis of official statistics showed that areas with a fifth or more workers in tourism-related jobs saw unemployment soar by 174 per cent since February, compared with just under 110 per cent for the UK as a whole.

Ahead of a visit to Falmouth in Cornwall to meet local businesses, Starmer warned that tourist towns risk “falling through the cracks” as chancellor Rishi Sunak begins to wind down his furlough scheme from Saturday.

The Labour leader called for an extension of the job retention scheme — which provides up to £2,500 a month in furlough pay for staff who would otherwise be laid off — for the sectors worst hit by Covid-19, including tourism and hospitality.

And he urged ministers to ensure that support measures such as work coaches are made available to help people back into work in badly affected areas.

With tourism directly supporting 1.6 million jobs and contributing almost £60bn to the economy in 2017, according to official figures, Sir Keir said the UK must respond to a “growing unemployment crisis” in areas like Falmouth, where 24 per cent of workers are in tourism related jobs and the claimant count has risen by 140 per cent.

“We are lucky to have many world-class tourist destinations across the UK,” said Sir Keir. “But the jobs crisis facing tourist towns is stark.

“There are fantastic domestic options for British holidaymakers, but the crucial summer season has been cut short. With many businesses still unable to reopen fully, the government’s one-size-fits-all approach to jobs risks these towns falling through the cracks.

“We need a targeted extension of the furlough scheme for the hardest-hit sectors and proper support in place to help those who are unemployed back into work.

“People are worried about their job prospects. The Labour Party is focused on fighting for every job and every part of the country.”

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Labour has been critical of Mr Sunak’s decision, announced in June, that the job retention scheme will be withdrawn at the same rate from all sectors of the economy, with employees required to pay national insurance and pension contributions for furloughed staff from 1 August and the 80 per cent state support for wages reduced to 70 per cent in September and 60 per cent in October before the scheme ends on 1 November.

There have been warnings that the “one-size-fits-all” scale-back could trigger a wave of redundancies over the summer and autumn, as businesses are required to pay an increasing proportion of staff wages while unable to fully reopen.

Labour is calling for a more flexible rollback, with furlough support maintained longer in sectors which need it most.

And Starmer also called for a £1.7bn hospitality and high streets fightback fund to help pubs, bars, hotels and other businesses unable to return to full trade because of social distancing guidelines.

District council set to ‘re-engage’ over the future of Queen’s Drive development

Major changes to the future of Exmouth seafront could be on the cards – with the existing proposals thrown into doubt.

 

East Devon District Council (EDDC) has confirmed that it will ‘re-engage with a new consensus’ for how best to proceed with the Queen’s Drive site.

It follows the formation of a new administration and the coronavirus pandemic having occurred – with the impact of the latter unknown – since the original decision over the seafront was taken back in February.

The current plans to redevelop Exmouth seafront include a waterfront restaurant, an 80-bedroom hotel, as well as an area for play and leisure uses, and back in February, the cabinet agreed to launch a marketing exercise.

But the decision was called in and the council’s scrutiny committee in March agreed that a panel agreeing the selection criteria for marketing it to developers was not properly balanced.

Scrutiny sent its recommendation over the membership of the panel to full council to debate, before sending their recommendation back to the cabinet for a final decision.

But with the Democratic Alliance having taken control it has been confirmed that time will be taken to reflect on and review the proposals and ambitions for the Queen’s Drive site.

At EDDC’s cabinet meeting Cllr Andrew Moulding, leader of the Conservative group, questioned what the status of the Queen’s Drive proposals were.

He asked: “I am anxious that progress is made, so how can we bring things forward so the panel can start their work?”

Cllr Paul Arnott, leader of the council, said things have changed since March.

Mark Williams, the council’s chief executive, said that events had subsequently overtaken the scenario that the council was in back in March.

An East Devon District Council spokesman, when asked to clarify the latest on the proposals, said: “Combined with the economic impact of Covid-19 and our departure from the EU the opportunity will be taken this autumn to reflect upon the proposals and ambitions for the Queen’s Drive area and re-engage with a new consensus for how might be the best way of progressing matters.”

 

Planning Pre-App Advice – a way to “streamline” a bureaucratic process or a “stitch-up”?

Owl has received this review of planning “Pre-Application Advice” from a Correspondent experienced in reviewing planning applications.

Owl thinks it presents a compelling case for the new EDDC regime to look at the lack of transparency and community involvement in the current practices it inherited. The new regime might also care to review its scale of charges compared to those of other authorities such as Cornwall Council.

Correspondent:

I recently watched a Civic Voice* webinar given by Gavin Parker and associates of Reading University, on Pre-application Advice. You may never have heard of pre-application advice and if you have it may still be a mystery to you, as it is to me, and I am sure, to many people.

So what is “pre-app” advice? 

Developers can pay for Planning Officers advice on potential developments before submitting their planning application. Logically, it does seem a good idea that developers have planning guidance before they embark on expensive planning applications. Government encourages it and it is now mainstream practice in most Local Planning Authorities (LPAs). It is seen as a way to speed up the planning process.

A developer approaches a LPA’s planning department with a view to develop a site. Planning officers can advise if this is likely to be a feasible option or not. If it is feasible they can advise on the relevant policies which will have to be followed to gain approval. The advice is given on an “informal” basis that will not prejudice the determination of any future planning application. The majority of LPAs and developers do not involve the community at this early stage.

Any submitted planning application should then cover all the necessary policies, paving the way for the application to be approved. If the application should be refused by a planning committee, or under delegated authority, then there is a strong possibility that this would be overturned on Appeal. So, when the application emerges it appears a “done deal”,because of course, there are likely to be no material planning objections that the community can use at this late stage. This leaves much discontent and frustration. 

There is no oversight to this practice. There are diverse approaches within LPAs and many imbalances. LPAs can charge what they wish. Across the country pre-app fees now make up 10-15% of planning department income (£47m in total in the country last year). Some LPAs make a profit and some just recover the cost of the service. 

Where is the money used? Again there are many answers. It may go back into the planning budget or may be transferred to other services e.g. social care.

Is this work being carried out at the expense of other planning matters? No-one knows but we see in East Devon that “enforcement” appears to be very low down planning priorities.

Should there be community engagement?

There are many aspects of this process that have always worried me, but, given we have a Localism Act, where is the community input?

Do you remember in 2010 the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition declaring:

“There are, however, some significant flaws in the planning system that this Government inherited. Planning did not give members of the public enough influence over decisions that make a big difference to their lives. Too often, power was exercised by people who were not directly affected by the decisions they were taking. This meant, understandably, that people often resented what they saw as decisions and plans being foisted on them

To further strengthen the role of local communities in planning, the Act [Localism] introduces a new requirement for developers to consult local communities before submitting planning applications for certain developments. This gives local people a chance to comment when there is still genuine scope to make changes to proposals”.

It is a legal requirement under the Localism Act for the local community to be consulted at the pre-app. stage for the siting of wind turbines and shale gas drilling but not at this stage for the siting of 500 plus homes (as in GESP)! 

Some councils in urban areas do involve neighbourhood planning groups and neighbourhood forums at the pre-app. stage but this is not a universal practice.

Our next door neighbour, Cornwall Council, has a published guide to aid developers involve local communities “Planning & Sustainable Development Service Pre-application Community Engagement”

It is understandable that developers need a safe place initially to approach LPAs and they can argue “commercial confidentiality” at almost any stage. But communities need transparency and, if you believe in localism, a voice. Some LPAs and developers are trying to solve this problem.

However, if this does not happen it just looks like a “stitch-up”.

There are very few submitted planning applications on the EDDC web-site which include any pre-application advice.

Publication of pre-app correspondence, redacted if necessary, should be a legal requirement as it would increase transparency and hopefully, trust.

 So how does EDDC practice fit into this?

For a start EDDC has no community involvement at the pre-app. stage. Would it not be a good idea to follow Cornwall’s example? After all there are 17 “made” neighbourhood plans in the district with many more to follow. These communities have adopted local planning policies and need a voice.

EDDC charges to developers appear cheap compared to other authorities. Costs for a meeting/request for large scale major schemes including residential development of more than 200 houses- £900: for medium major developments £750.

Cornwall charges for large major schemes – £4980 or Desktop only £2500; for less than 300 but more than 10 homes- £3270 or Desktop only £1700.

Another LPA charges £3,000 per hour for very large, £2,000 for major developments which makes EDDC’s charges seem very reasonable. One wonders if this covers the cost and if not, why not? Surely developers are not being subsidised by the council?

In addition EDDC also offers a Members Advisory Panel, a group of senior officers and Councillors and other interested parties for major applications where developers or their agents can give a presentation.

EDDC Case Study – The Blackhill Quarry application – 17/3022 MOUT

This is one of few applications to have the pre-app advice recorded. It gives an interesting view of how the system works. 

The 2017 application to construct additional buildings to Blackhill Quarry within the Pebblebed Heaths European designated site includes pre-app. advice on the web-site.

The landowners Clinton Devon Estates asked for pre-planning advice in Oct 2017 to build one unit for Blackhill Engineering and five additional buildings for “other businesses” in the decommissioned quarry.

They were advised:

“it is considered that an application for the proposal to which the pre-application enquiry relates would not comply with the provisions Strategy 7 and Policy E5 of the EDLP. However, should appropriate justification be submitted to support expansion of the existing business and additional building for their use may be able to be supported as a departure from policy given the economic benefits of retaining an existing employer. The five speculative industrial buildings would not receive officer support.”

In Dec 2017, just 2 months later, a justification was submitted with the outline planning application that all the buildings were required for Blackhill Engineering. Full details on East Devon Watch 

Conclusion

To conclude, public trust must be at the forefront of Planning. 

The country needs more housing of the right sort in the right place and we must all work together to deliver this. Community involvement in the early stages of the planning process increases public trust, obstacles are removed and the process is accelerated. 

* Civic Voice is the national charity for the civic movement in England. We make places more attractive, enjoyable and distinctive. We promote civic pride.