‘Slums of the future’ warnings ignored – adviser

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick ignored warnings about “slums of the future” in an official report on planning reforms, its co-author says.

By Matt Precey BBC Look East www.bbc.co.uk

Dr Ben Clifford raised concerns over the “health, wellbeing and quality of life” of people living in tiny flats converted from vacant offices.

But he said he was not asked to discuss his report’s findings with ministers.

The government instead pushed ahead with further de-regulation of England’s planning system.

Officials say allowing developers to bypass traditional planning permission to convert offices into flats has created more than 60,000 badly-needed new homes in the past four years.

Mr Jenrick has now extended the policy, known as Permitted Development, to allow some buildings to be extended upwards, or demolished, without planning permission.

Vacant town centre premises can also be converted into homes, cafes and restaurants, under the new rules.

‘Social life’

And on Thursday, Mr Jenrick is expected to set out further reforms, to give developers in England “automatic” permission to build homes and hospitals on land earmarked for “renewal”.

Permitted Development rights were introduced in 2013, removing local authority control over office-to-flat conversions, unless there are demonstrable concerns about issues such as flooding or contamination.

But Dr Clifford, associate professor of planning at University College London, found many of the homes created under the new rules do not meet national guidelines for minimum living space.

Some of the homes were just 16 square metres – and a number of them had no windows.

Dr Clifford told the BBC “we’re going to get further proliferation of these small units of 16, even 20 metre squared, which just aren’t adaptable, aren’t suitable to enjoy a high quality of personal and social life”.

He said the phrase “slums of the future” cropped up repeatedly when interviewing councillors as part of his research.

It was also the title of a report by a Labour London assembly member cited in Dr Clifford’s report.

‘No follow-up’

The UCL research was commissioned by Mr Jenrick’s predecessor as Communities Secretary, James Brokenshire, amid concerns from Theresa May’s government about the size of new homes.

Dr Clifford and his colleagues visited more than 600 buildings across the country which had been converted under Permitted Development rights.

They found almost 70% were one bedroom flats or studios.

Just over 73% of homes which had gone through the full planning system met the current non-binding space standard of 37 square metres, compared with 22% created through Permitted Development rights, the report said.

According to Dr Clifford, “there was no follow-up so we didn’t have engagement with the ministry as to any further discussion as to the content of the report, our findings”.

He added: “We need to establish what are acceptable minimums and set them out very clearly, and that should apply to all new development that are coming forward…it’s a race to the bottom if we continue like this”.

Dr Clifford’s 320-page report was delivered to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government in January.

‘Little attention’

But it was not published until 21 July – the same day that Mr Jenrick published new regulations expanding the use of Permitted Development rights.

It was also the same day that the much-delayed report into alleged Russian interference into UK democracy was published.

There was no press release announcing the publication of the Clifford report.

Dr Clifford said it gave the impression that the ministry was “trying to slip something out with as little notice and as little attention drawn to it as possible”.

The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government rejected suggestions the report had been buried, saying it had been widely covered in the media.

The department said Permitted Development schemes still had to conform to building regulations, covering issues such as sanitation, fire safety, sound proofing and standards of workmanship.

‘Highest possible standards’

But it said it recognised the concerns raised in the report about the poor quality of some schemes and it expected developers to “take note” of where their schemes face local criticism.

A spokesperson said: “Permitted development rights make an important contribution to building the homes our country needs and are crucial to helping our economy recover from the pandemic by supporting our high streets to adapt and encouraging the regeneration of disused buildings.

“This independent research shows on average there was little difference in the appearance, energy performance or access to services between schemes delivered through permitted development and those that were granted full planning permission.

“All developers should meet the highest possible design standards and the changes we are making will continue to improve the quality of these homes, including new requirements for natural light and checks to ensure changes are in keeping with the character of their local area.”

Home Office to scrap ‘racist algorithm’ for UK visa applicants

A rare example of an ongoing judicial review changing government policy.

The Home Office is to scrap a controversial decision-making algorithm that migrants’ rights campaigners claim created a “hostile environment” for people applying for UK visas.

Henry McDonald www.theguardian.com

The “streaming algorithm”, which campaigners have described as racist, has been used since 2015 to process visa applications to the UK. It will be abandoned from Friday, according to a letter from Home Office solicitors seen by the Guardian.

The decision to scrap it comes ahead of a judicial review from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), which was to challenge the Home Office’s artificial intelligence system that filters UK visa applications.

Campaigners claim the Home Office decision to drop the algorithm ahead of the court case represents the UK’s first successful challenge to an AI decision-making system.

Chai Patel, JCWI’s legal policy director, said: “The Home Office’s own independent review of the Windrush scandal found it was oblivious to the racist assumptions and systems it operates.

“This streaming tool took decades of institutionally racist practices, such as targeting particular nationalities for immigration raids, and turned them into software. The immigration system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to monitor such bias and to root it out.”

In their submission to the high court, JWCI and the technology justice campaign group Foxglove said the algorithm created three channels for applicants, including a so-called “fast lane” that would lead to “speedy boarding for white people” from the most favoured countries in the system.

In the Home Office letter, its solicitors confirm that the home secretary, Priti Patel, “has decided that she will discontinue the use of the streaming tool to assess visa applications, pending a substitute review of its operation”.

Referring to the redesign of a new streaming visa system, the letter continues: “In the course of that redesign, our client intends carefully to consider and assess the points you have raised in your claim including, issues around unconscious bias and the use of nationality generally in the streaming tool.”

However, the Home Office solicitors add: “For clarity, the fact of the redesign does not mean that the secretary of state for the home department accepts the allegations in your claim form.”

Cori Crider, the founder and director of Foxglove, said: “What we need is democracy, not government by secret algorithm. Before any further systems get rolled out, let’s ask the public whether automation is appropriate at all, and make the systems transparent so biases can be spotted and dug out at the roots.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.

“We do not accept the allegations Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants made in their judicial review claim and whilst litigation is still ongoing it would not be appropriate for the department to comment any further.”

Tories make donors and friends directors of civil service boards

Ministers are inserting a slew of Conservative allies into senior Whitehall roles as they continue their assault on the civil service establishment.

George Grylls, Oliver Wright www.thetimes.co.uk 
Analysis by The Times has found that over half of new appointments to departmental boards this year have gone to close political colleagues of cabinet ministers rather than figures from the world of business. Of the 13 appointments that have taken place this year, eight have gone to Tory party insiders.

Departmental boards were introduced in 2010 to bring in “independent” non-executive directors who could “fundamentally transform the way government operates, scrutinising decisions and sharpening accountability”.

According to the government’s own documents, non-executive board members are recruited through “fair and transparent competition”, and are supposed to come “primarily from the commercial private sector, with experience of managing complex organisations”.

However, recently ministers have appointed a number of former special advisers to the positions, which carry an average salary of £15,000 per year.

Last week Boris Johnson appointed Lord Nash as the government’s lead non-executive director, meaning that four out of the five appointees to the Cabinet Office’s board this year are former colleagues of Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister.

Lord Nash, who donated £3,250 to Mr Gove’s failed leadership campaign in 2016 and has given more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party, will join Henry de Zoete, Gisela Stuart and Baroness Finn on the board.

Mr De Zoete was an adviser to Mr Gove at the Department for Education (DfE) and worked with him and Mrs Stuart on the Vote Leave campaign. Lady Finn is a Tory peer who previously served as a special adviser in the Cabinet Office. She attended Oxford University at the same time as Mr Gove.

This pattern of recruiting former political advisers is not unique to the Cabinet Office. In April, Theresa May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy was made a non-executive director at the DfE. Last month the Department for Work and Pensions appointed Eleanor Shawcross, a former adviser to George Osborne, and Rachel Wolf, the co-author of last year’s Conservative manifesto, to its departmental board.

Non-executive directors are appointed by secretaries of state. As foreign secretary, Mr Johnson made Sir Edward Lister, now his chief of staff, a Foreign Office non-executive director.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “The government’s own rules state that these roles must be filled through ‘fair and open competition’. At a time when public trust in government is more important than ever, this government should be wary of creating the impression that such appointments are made with anything other than ability to do the job in mind.”

Alex Thomas, programme director at the Institute for Government, said that the competition for non-executive roles was “opaque” and that few people believed that appointments were “solely the product of a bureaucratic sifting exercise”.

In a statement the Cabinet Office said: “Government guidance states that the appointment of lead non-executive board members will be on the approval of the prime minister, following the principle of selection-based on merit.

“Lord Nash has extensive experience in business and in government, for example as a non-executive director at the Department for Education, and so is well placed to help the government deliver its agenda.”

There’s so much wrong with GESP. EDDC must “take back control”.

This week the local press (Midweek Herald, Exmouth Journal etc.), for the first time are publishing an article on EDDC’s Strategic Planning Committee’s recommendation to withdraw from the GESP process. It is entitled “What would EDDC pulling out of GESP mean for the future of the blueprint plan?” by Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter. 

This has prompted Owl to write this article discussing what is wrong with GESP.

The ink was hardly dry on the final draft of GESP when our whole world was transformed by Covid-19 but this juggernaut continued as if nothing had happened.

“A great deal of democratic energy is channelled by the planning system. If that system is undermined, the energy will not disappear. It will simply be redirected, either through the ballot box or through local flare-ups that blow back on the government. ……”[See EDW]

To paraphrase EDDC Leader Cllr Paul Arnott, the GESP is the result of a devil’s pact between a Labour controlled Exeter City council, which had lost control of its five year land supply, and three neighbouring Conservative controlled districts eager for growth. It goes far beyond their legal duty to cooperate.

We can now see that, over the years, Conservatives had taken voter compliance for granted as they pressed on with their growth agenda. They have now lost control of all three of these districts. 

As one commentator has reminded us, the antecedents of GESP can be traced back more than ten years and lie deep within EDDC. 

Karime Hassan was appointed Chief Executive and Growth Director of Exeter City Council in 2013, despite arguments that the two roles should be separate. He joined Exeter City Council as the Director of Economy and Development in February 2011, following eight years as Corporate Director at East Devon District Council. During his time at East Devon he set up the Exeter and East Devon Growth Point, managed the strategic development proposals for the growth area and established regeneration programmes for Exmouth and Seaton.

Another link is provided by Cllr Paul Diviani who came to prominence as  EDDC Chairman Development Management Committee 2009 to 2011, as Karime was setting up the Exeter and East Devon Growth point. In 2011 Karime Hassan moved to Exeter and Paul Diviani became Leader of EDDC. Paul Diviani had an extraordinarily influential career: as a board member of the Heart of the South West (HotSW) LEP;  a member of Exeter and East Devon Growth point board; a member of Exeter and East Devon sub-regional spatial strategy steering group and, until being rejected by the voters, had played a key role in GESP.

Both characters were also prominent in the formation of the discredited East Devon Business Forum. [See “Scaring the living daylights out of people”  – the Local Lobby and the failure of Democracy – with a whole chapter devoted to the East Devon Business Forum: Chapter III. ‘The Local Mafia’ Conflicts of interest in East Devon.]

The GESP has been conducted through a flawed process in which a handful of councillors from each authority have got together with planning officers to plan for growth, essentially in secret, paying little or no attention to transparency or public engagement. Indeed one councillor claims to have been told that it was necessary for officials to play a dominant role because councillors regularly came and went providing no continuity. (Cllr Eleanor Rylance likened her experience of being invited to participate in a GESP “panel” meeting last year as being given crayons at school and asked to colour in the pictures).

The starting point for the strategy, like that of the Heart of the South West LEP, is an assumption of the essential need for exceptional growth for the next 20 years. One public speaker pointed out that this assumption is neither clearly spelled out nor justified. Where did this agenda come from?

One might expect a strategy to consider optimistic, pessimistic and most likely scenarios but this isn’t the case in GESP. By taking exceptional growth as its starting point, GESP is pursuing a pre-ordained mission, but not one that the population or even the main body of councillors, certainly in East Devon, has accepted or in management jargon “owns”. Therein lies a fundamental problem for its authors as it is finally unveiled. Despite protestations to the contrary (e.g. Cllr Philip Skinner’s letter to the Exmouth Journal- see later) it is generally seen as a “fait accompli” and any “consultation” at this stage merely a “ticking the boxes” exercise.

The overall impression you get, if you look at the copious documentation, is that of being drowned in minutiae. Not only can’t you see the wood for the trees but it’s hard to see the trees through the leaves. Not surprising then to find Councillors discovering contradictory policies buried in the mess. As Cllr Eleanor Rylance said: “This has self-contradictory policies clearly written by different people and it is unreasonable to put this before anyone.”

This is a devastating criticism because it demonstrates that even the GESP authors have lost their way.

On these grounds alone Owl would judge the consultation documents “unfit for purpose”.

Also pointed out during the EDDC debate is the fact that the most recent piece of evidence is three years old and some supporting papers are 10 years old. Since the documents were prepared, our whole world has been transformed by Covid-19 and little of this evidence is likely to remain relevant in the “new normal”. 

A more specific criticism made by a number of Councillors of GESP is that it lacks sufficient “green” ambition. In June 2019 the Government committed to a target that will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. GESP is supposed to take us out to 2040 so climate change has to be addressed very seriously in it.

It all adds to the conclusion that GESP and its ponderous process has been well and truly overtaken by events.

Cllr. Philip Skinner (until recently a leading figure driving GESP), in his letter to the Exmouth Journal, says disarmingly that the document is not a “fait accompli” but simply the basis of discussion and debate which goes out to consultation to the private sector, the general public, and any other interested parties to have their say. (Well he would say that wouldn’t he). Experience from the first consultation exercise is not encouraging that any real notice would be taken of comments.

Similar arguments were put forward at the Strategic Planning Committee by Cllrs Helen Parr and Ben Ingham. 

Owl shares the view expressed by many councillors that such complex and flawed documentation cannot be the basis for any sensible consultation. Furthermore, as pointed out by a Conservative councillor, the paper doesn’t present a set of options to choose from. Which is why “fait accompli” seems an appropriate description.

The press article makes the point that regardless of whether councils are part of the GESP or not, the required number of homes that need to be built remains the same. (Cllr Skinner make the same point). 

But this refers to the government mandated targets (set using calculations and assumptions challenged by CPRE). It also ignores the fact that GESP only deals with sites for 500+ houses. It does not consider the overall picture in the context of neighbourhood plans etc.

The fear with GESP is that the housing figures given are “minimum” numbers and, therefore, just the starting point. The nightmare scenario is the one where all the sites put forward by landowners in GESP become “development zones” within the new planning system and opened up to uncontrolled development. The reason that EDDC housing figures are so large is that Conservative controlled EDDC, at the time it was constructing its Local Plan, chose to base their housing target, not on demographic need, but on a “jobs-led policy on” scenario (another extreme growth scenario). This scenario assumes that 950 jobs/year will be created in East Devon. “Are the wheels falling off the East Devon growth wagon?” carries a review of how this assumption has failed from its inception (and that is before the havoc Covid-19 might wreck on jobs).

EDDC has contributed substantial effort to GESP at the expense of preparing for the next revision of the Local Plan. As was pointed out at the Strategic Planning Committee this could leave EDDC without a plan and vulnerable to uncontrolled development .

To quote from a recent correspondent:

“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. “

Transparency, community involvement, trust – none of these has played a part in GESP. EDDC must “take back control”. 

 

‘More than three-quarters’ of UK hospitality firms could go bust within a year 

More than three-quarters of UK hospitality businesses are at risk of insolvency within 12 months, the leading British trade body announced today, as social distancing measures and local lockdowns continue to weigh on the sector.

Poppy Wood www.cityam.com 

A new survey by UK Hospitality showed that one in five hospitality businesses are at significant risk of insolvency within a year, while more than half believe they face a slight risk of going bust in the next 12 months.

Fewer than one-quarter of hospitality businesses surveyed by UK Hospitality, which represents more than 65,000 British venues, said they face no risk of insolvency within the next year.

The trade body warned that without further government support, businesses across the country will face financial ruin and plunge hundreds of thousands of jobs into uncertainty.

UK Hospitality urged the government to extend measures such as the business rates holiday and VAT cut announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak last month.

The trade body also called on Sunak to extend the furlough scheme beyond its October deadline for those businesses unable to open, and to offer further financial support on rent.

“Otherwise, we are going to see businesses fail and jobs lost just as the economy begins to reopen,” said UK Hospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls.

“The future of this sector, which provides jobs in every region of the country and is central to our social lives, has never looked shakier.”

Nicholls added that the government’s emergency support package has been “crucial” in helping businesses survive the pandemic.

However, she warned that without further support “we are going to see more and more venues going out of business and people continue to lose jobs.”

It comes as the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), today said that over a third of pubs in the UK are still unable to break even one month after reopening.

A survey of more than 20,000 pubs represented by the BBPA found that 25 per cent of brewing and pub sector businesses said they were not confident their business was sustainable beyond the end of March 2021.

The trade body echoed UK Hospitality’s calls for further government support, urging the chancellor to slash beer duty by a quarter and cut VAT on beer served in pubs.

It also called on the government to “fundamentally reform business rates to enable the beer and pub sector to fully recover and help grow the economy once more. “.

“We fully support the Eat Out To Help Out scheme and the temporary VAT cut to food and accommodation in pubs and hope they will help boost pub sales,” said BBPA chief executive Emma McClarkin.

“However, to ensure the full recovery of our sector… we need the government to increase its support.

“£1 in every £3 spent in a pub goes to the taxman and now is the time to reinvest that money in our brewers and pubs. That means cutting beer duty by 25 per cent, as well as making the VAT cut permanent and extending it to beer in pubs to bring the cost of a pint down and unlock investment.”

Boris Johnson cries ‘nimbyism’, but his planning changes will be disastrous

“While much planning has become slow-moving, this is largely because a decade of austerity has slashed staffing levels by 30%. Even so, nine out of 10 planning applications are approved. The point of planning is not always to say yes. In the event, Cameron’s reforms have proved so generous that plans for a million homes have been granted and “banked”, languishing unbuilt. To blame planning for this is utterly bogus.”

Simon Jenkins www.theguardian.com 

The most extraordinary upheaval in modern British government is to be introduced this week by Boris Johnson. He is, in effect, to end planning permission. Local councils and those they represent are to be stripped of control over new buildings, to be replaced by central government “zoning” commissions. At the weekend, the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, promised a “change in a generation”. It is more than that. It ends half a century of regulation of England’s landscape and urban development.

The proposed reform will release building rights anywhere outside existing national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Though it promises “protection” to other countryside, there is no conceivable way a new commission can review and “register” every acre for protection. This will unleash the sprawl seen across many countries in the rest of Europe, with owners able to build over their land at will – erecting houses, sheds, advertisements, car parks. It will unleash frantic land speculation in the south-east, and further accelerate the “race to the south”. We can forget Johnson’s “levelling up” pledge.

Details of the reform are to be slipped out under cover of the pandemic and with parliament not sitting. Seventeen environmental organisations have already jointly dubbed it a “race to the bottom”. A planning-profession spokesman on the BBC’s Farming Today on Tuesday morning sounded concussed. Under the now-doomed 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, Britain has been remarkably successful – compared with most countries – in guarding its rural land from haphazard development. This is clearly intended to end.

It is ludicrous to dismiss local participation in planning, as Johnson does, as “nimbyism”. The outskirts of any built-up southern area shows the impotence of that tendency. Under new rules the “zoning” commissioners will merely have to designate land as developable, whereupon owners can legally do what they like. There are various ideas to tax their profits to aid infrastructure and subsidise homes “for locals”, but such schemes have been tried, off and on, for half a century. The Attlee government tried them. They never work as intended. This is a market that takes no prisoners. There is no “free market” in the loveliness of town and country.

Jenrick’s declared ambition in all this is to end an “outdated and cumbersome system” whereby “half as many 16-34 year olds own their own houses as those aged 35-64”. But there have always been more older than younger homeowners. Besides, anyone seriously concerned with housing supply just now should worry about renting and its regulation, not buying. How much influence have lobbyists for the private housebuilding industry – ardent greenfield developers and ancestral foes of planners – had over the new reforms?

As one of the largest collective group of Tory donors, this lobby played a key role in David Cameron’s much less radical planning shake-up in 2012. That ordered local planning committees to adopt a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. It unleashed “executive estates” across southern England, mostly on greenfield sites unrelated to existing towns or villages. Devoid of community infrastructure, they relied on private vehicles for every need and were in no sense “sustainable”.

The now-incentivised development of the south-east is distorted national planning. Latest figures show that England north of the Wash is poorer per head than former East Germany and even the most depressed American states. Meanwhile, building-industry pressure continues to ensure that no VAT is levied on new buildings, but remains at 20% on all building renewal. It is a simple tax on sustainability. Extinction Rebellion should be up in arms.

While much planning has become slow-moving, this is largely because a decade of austerity has slashed staffing levels by 30%. Even so, nine out of 10 planning applications are approved. The point of planning is not always to say yes. In the event, Cameron’s reforms have proved so generous that plans for a million homes have been granted and “banked”, languishing unbuilt. To blame planning for this is utterly bogus.

There is a case for looking afresh at how much of rural England should be guarded from bad development, and how to promote urban renewal. More housing density in towns, such as extra storeys, may make sense in some places. So does easing change of use, especially for hospitality and leisure businesses. The green belt would not need to be sacrosanct were other parts of the countryside offered equal protection, but there is no likelihood of that. None of this requires decontrol.

The issue is who should have power over scarce land. Whitehall already has inordinate scope to intervene in local decisions on appeal. Jenrick recently overruled local planners in Docklands to help a billionaire developer at the flick of his pen, a decision that was later quashed. The antagonism of Johnson and his colleagues towards anything local, seen disastrously under coronavirus, is clearly visceral. But his reform is of a new order. It cancels the democratic right of people to exercise some control over their immediate surroundings, over the character and appearance of their neighbourhood. This is not mere nimbyism – any more than Johnson’s friends are mere profiteers. But it is a civil right that deserves better than to be smothered by commissars.

In a lecture this summer, Johnson’s colleague Michael Gove championed the idea of “allowing communities to take back more control of policies that matter to them”. If he meant what he said, he should prepare to resign.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist.

Russians hacked Liam Fox’s personal email to get US-UK trade dossier

You couldn’t make this up……

But the other story is how successful the Conservatives were at the time in making: “we must find the source of the leak” the story, thereby diverting attention from the substance of the leak.

A personal email account belonging to Liam Fox, the former trade minister, was repeatedly hacked into by Russians who stole classified documents relating to US-UK trade talks, the Guardian understands.

The security breaches last year, which are subject to an ongoing police investigation, pose serious questions for the Conservative MP who is currently the UK’s nominee to become director general of the World Trade Organization.

Whitehall sources indicated the documents were hacked from a personal account rather than a parliamentary or ministerial one, prompting Labour to ask why Fox was using unsecured personal emails for government business.

A spokesman for the former minister declined to comment and later stressed the Cabinet Office had not publicly confirmed which account was hacked. Downing Street and the Cabinet Office said it was inappropriate to comment further given that criminal inquiries were continuing.

The stolen documents – a 451-page dossier of emails – ultimately ended up in the hands of Jeremy Corbyn during last winter’s election campaign after Russian actors tried to disseminate the material online.

They had been posted on the social media platform Reddit and brought to the attention of the then Labour leader’s team. Corbyn said the documents revealed the NHS “was on the table” in trade talks with the US.

Details of Russia’s targeting of Fox’s emails were first revealed on Monday by Reuters, which said his account was accessed several times between 12 July and 21 October last year. It was unclear if the documents were obtained when the staunch leave supporter was still trade secretary; he was dropped by Boris Johnson on 24 July.

The attack is understood to have deployed a “spear-phishing” technique frequently used by Russian actors, in which superficially plausible emails are sent inviting the recipient to click on an attached file. The file contains malicious code designed to give access to or take control of the target’s computer.

Chris Bryant, a Labour MP and former Foreign Office minister, said he was not surprised that the Kremlin might want to hack the trade secretary’s email, given Russia’s long history of targeting western politicians.

“What shocks me is using insecure personal email accounts for sensitive, classified government business. This a very serious breach of national security and should be a criminal offence,” Bryant added.

Using personal emails for UK government business is not illegal but ministers are reminded that government information “must be handled in accordance with the requirements of the law, including the Official Secrets Act”, in guidance published by the government in 2013.

That came two years after Michael Gove, then education secretary, and his aide Dominic Cummings were discovered to have used personal emails for government business. The information commissioner ruled subsequently that such emails were nevertheless covered by freedom of information laws.

It had previously been thought that the US-UK trade documents were hacked via a special adviser’s personal email. Last December, Cummings – by now the prime minister’s chief adviser – warned all political aides to be vigilant as it had emerged “foreign powers” were targeting British politicians.

Accurately attributing the origin of hacker attacks is notoriously difficult and often requires extensive investigation. But there are also political reasons to be cautious about publicly blaming the Kremlin for the attack.

Any accusation that an MP and former minister was targeted by Russia would prompt an escalation in tensions between London and Moscow, already heightened after British ministers made a string of accusations about Russian hacking.

Last month Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, accused Russian actors of trying to disseminate the trade documents online but did not divulge how they were thought to have been obtained.

All the government would say was that the classified material appeared to have been stolen. Raab said the dossier had been illicitly acquired before the 2019 general election and that there was an ongoing criminal investigation.

He also accused Russian hackers from the group known as Cozy Bear of targeting UK, US and Canadian research organisations involved in developing a coronavirus vaccine.

Raab said it was “completely unacceptable” for Russian intelligence services to target research on the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been previously been alleged that Cozy Bear is controlled by the Russian FSB spy agency or its SVR foreign intelligence agency, although the Kremlin denied it was behind the alleged attacks.

Days later, a long-delayed MPs’ report concluded the British government and intelligence agencies failed to conduct any proper assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum, with ministers in effect turning a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption.

In July the UK nominated Fox for the post of director general of the WTO, which falls vacant at the end of this month. Fox is one of eight candidates for the position, which is chosen by the 164 member countries in a process expected to last into the autumn.

Fox, 58, has been an MP since 1992 and twice stood for the Conservative party leadership. He was made trade secretary under Theresa May in 2016. The MP for North Somerset had been forced to resign as defence secretary in 2011 after it emerged that a lobbyist friend, Adam Werritty, was acting as an adviser to him despite not being employed by the government.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “There is an ongoing criminal investigation into how the documents were acquired, and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this point. But as you would expect, the government has very robust systems in place to protect the IT systems of officials and staff.”

In 2017 up to 90 email accounts belonging to peers and MPs – 1% of parliament’s 9,000 email addresses – were hacked in an orchestrated cyber-attack. Later that year it was reported that passwords belonging to 1,000 British MPs and 1,000 Foreign Office staff had been traded by Russian hackers, with the majority of passwords said to have been compromised in a 2012 hacking raid on the business social network LinkedIn, in which millions of users’ details were stolen.

RIBA calls for “urgent reconsideration” of proposals to deregulate planning

Tom Ravenscroft www.dezeen.com 
The UK government’s plans to deregulate the planning permission system in England will lead to poor quality housing warns the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Under new regulations announced by UK housing secretary Robert Jenrick homes, hospitals, schools, shops and offices on land designated for growth will “automatically” be granted planning permission.

“Deregulation is not the way to bring about new homes”

However, the move to deregulate the planning system was not welcomed by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

“The government has missed a huge opportunity to make changes to the planning system for the better, and we call for urgent reconsideration,” said RIBA president Alan Jones.

“Deregulation is not the way to bring about new homes.”

Described by Jenrick in the Sunday Telegraph as a “once in a generation reform”, under the new regulations land in the UK would be classified as “for growth, for renewal or for protection”.

In growth areas planning permission would be granted “automatically”, while “permission in principle” will be given in renewal areas.

“We are introducing a simpler, faster, people-focused system to deliver the homes and places we need,” said Jenrick.

“England’s housing market has failed to meet public demand”

RIBA believes that the proposed new planning system will lead to less high-quality housing being built in England.

“For too long, England’s housing market has failed to meet public demand while generating enormous returns for shareholders and executives of the large housebuilders,” added Jones.

“We urgently need a broad mix of affordable, age-friendly and sustainable housing – but it looks as though this so-called ‘planning revolution’ will deliver the opposite.”

Architects were also concerned that the changes to planning regulations would not lead to more affordable homes.

“This is just absolute boll*cks. Planning regulations are absolutely not the reason for the housing crisis,” architect Charles Holland wrote on Twitter.

“Deregulation of planning will not result in more affordable houses,” he continued. “Nor is it intended to. It is just a way to allow volume housebuilders to build more shite and make more money.”

Jenrick’s announcement followed plan announced by the government to extend permitted development rights, which RIBA warned would lead to tiny “sub-standard homes”.

“Only two weeks ago the government saw fit to extend Permitted Development regulations, contrary to its own experts and research, which have made clear the damaging consequences,” added Jones.

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