Proposal to scrap 213 councils ‘could save £3bn’

We have been here before when Sarah Randall – Johnson spent a fortune of our money fighting it. Exeter too small to stand alone; Devon too large and unwieldy. John Hart obviously still remembers this “Blue on Blue engagement” – Owl 

Abolishing 213 smaller councils in England and replacing them with 25 new local authorities could save almost £3bn over five years, a report says.

The report for the County Councils Network says one body in each area would reduce complexity and give communities a single unified voice.

However, others argue bigger councils are unwieldy and undemocratic.

The government is expected to publish its own proposals on overhauling local government in the autumn.

Plans could include scrapping district and county councils in England in favour of fewer, larger authorities which control all services in their area.

County councils, including Surrey, North Yorkshire and Leicestershire, have developed or are already developing plans to replace county and district councils in their area with a single body.

In most of England, local government operates under a two-tier system, with both a county council and a district council providing services.

County councils’ responsibilities include education, social services and waste disposal.

Each county is subdivided into areas represented by district councils. These councils are responsible for rubbish collection, housing and planning.

Some parts of the country – usually cities or larger towns – are governed by unitary authorities which provide all local government services.

The report carried out by PriceWaterhouseCoopers argues that merging district and county councils in a mid-sized county area into single organisation could save £126m over five years and £2.94bn nationally.

However it also warns that creating two unitary authorities in one county would reduce the savings by two thirds.

Cllr David Williams, chairman of the County Councils Network, who commissioned the report, said there was a “compelling” financial case for creating more unitary authorities.

Speaking to the BBC, he said that in his county of Hertfordshire there are 11 local authorities. “That means there are 11 chief executives, 526 councillors, 10 planning teams – so there is an awful lot of complexity, and there is a lot of cost.”

The network also noted “speculation” that the government could set a population limit of 600,000 people for each unitary authority and argued that “splitting historic counties” would produce “a worse deal for local taxpayers”.

It also suggested that establishing more than one unitary authority in a county would mean splitting up children’s social services and adult social care departments, risking instability.

Some council leaders strongly oppose plans to abolish smaller councils.

Sharon Taylor, Labour leader of Stevenage Council, told the BBC her local county Hertfordshire, with its population of around 1.3 million, is “just too big” to be represented by one single council.

“That is centralising local services which seems entirely wrong,” she said, adding that Britain has the “least representation at local level of anywhere in Europe already”.

“That real democratic voice that people have at local level is really important to them,” she said.

Analysis by Alex Forsyth Political Correspondent:

Local government reform is no easy task.

While the leaders of larger county councils are advocating a shift to unitary authorities, several smaller district council leaders are opposed to the idea.

This includes Conservative council leaders, which could prove to be a political headache for government.

Despite that, ministers have signalled that they’re likely to advocate fewer, larger authorities – and possibly more elected mayors – when they publish a paper on devolving power in the autumn.

Giving councils more clout to make decisions on behalf of their local areas is, the government says, part of its attempt to ‘level up the country’.

But beyond any argument about reforming structures sits the question of finance. Councils in England have long argued budgets are so stretched that some services may become unsustainable.

The government has made more money available during the Covid pandemic and says it’s given councils more spending power.

But for social care services in particular the pressure is acute, and how to reform – and fund – that struggling sector still seems far from settled.


Hancock’s dilemma: if a decline in demand for care homes leads to closures, the NHS will feel the strain.

There is a graph circulating in the care home industry that should send chills down the spine of the health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock. It predicts, under a worst-case scenario, a plunge in the demand for care homes by the end of 2021 that would leave 180,000 beds empty.

Robert Booth, Analysis

The forecast by consultants Knight Frank is not good news based on a healthier aged population, but rather is based on fresh waves of coronavirus killing thousands more people in the community and in care homes, creating a flight from the sector.

It is pessimistic, but for care home bosses reeling from the first wave of the pandemic – which killed more than 17,000 of their customers – it does not seem impossible.

Short-term, it could have a serious impact on an NHS left to look after the infirm. Longer-term, it could seriously erode the UK’s capacity to look after its most vulnerable.

Occupancy levels in care homes have already fallen substantially. Unlike the NHS, which can afford to have wards standing half-empty, the care industry is likely to respond with closures.

The UK is largely reliant on privately owned care homes to look after its most frail and vulnerable people. Many are owned by private equity companies. The largest provider, HC-One, is ultimately owned by a Cayman Islands entity. Four Seasons Health Care, which fell into administration before the pandemic, is owned by a US private equity firm.

Occupancy matters. One network with normal occupancy of 92% fell to 70%. Another said its normal occupancy of almost 90% dropped to 79%. Custom has slowly started coming back as lockdown restrictions are lifted and Covid deaths in care homes dwindle, but not in big numbers.

Some councils sent fewer than half the number of people into care homes in the first week of June than they did in 2019, while private admissions were down across the board at just 35% of 2019 levels, according to the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the regulator for England.

In a recent report monitoring the health of the market, it concluded bluntly: “Covid-19 is having a significant impact on the financial viability of adult social care services.” A quarter of directors of adult social care now have concerns about the financial sustainability of most of their residential and nursing providers.

This financial vulnerability is partly what lies behind the CQC’s refusal to expose care homes to greater public scrutiny of their death tolls during this year’s crisis. It fears a “significant impact upon providers who are already facing serious financial pressures … reducing the overall availability and choice of care services”.

In other words, care homes that suffered the highest death tolls could go to the wall as consumers react. Not only might that be unfair if the homes did everything they were told by government guidance and still lost residents, but it could put public health at risk.

Without enough care homes, a greater strain would fall on the NHS in any future rise in infection and the capacity for emptying hospital wards to make way for Covid cases would be reduced. This is the immediate danger faced by Hancock.

The government has already put £1.6bn into council services including care homes through the pandemic and may need to do more in the months to come. There is cross-party consensus on the need for a long-promised reform of social care.

Since March 2017, the government has promised a green paper on shaking up the system at least seven times, but it never came. When he became prime minister in July 2019, Boris Johnson said he would “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”. With an ageing population and a virus in circulation which is 70 times more likely to kill voters aged 80-plus than the under-40s, he might wish his party had started sooner.


Jenrick’s permitted development expansion faces legal challenge

Campaign group issues ’pre-action’ letter warning of judicial review over controversial planning deregulation

By Joey Gardiner27 August 2020 

A campaign group has written to the government threatening legal action unless it suspends its introduction of new permitted development (PD) rights, which are due to come in to force next Monday.

Rights: Community: Action (RCA) asked law firm Leigh Day to write a “pre-action” letter to the government, informing it of its intention to launch a judicial review of the new planning rules.

The new permitted development rights, which were announced in July as part of the government’s radical shake-up of the planning system, give building owners the right in principle to extend houses upwards, and to demolish and rebuild commercial premises as housing without planning permission.

The group is also looking to take action over the shake-up of the use-classes order, which the government has said is necessary to help save high streets.

In the pre-action letter, Leigh Day said the potential claim would be made on the basis that the government had failed to take account of consultation responses to the policy, or its own expert advice. This included the independent review of permitted development rights that it commissioned from Dr Ben Clifford at UCL.

Clifford’s report, finally published on the same day as the new statutory instruments, found that only a small fraction homes created under permitted development rights met national space standards, and were in general of worse quality “in relation to a number of factors widely linked to the health, wellbeing and quality of life” of occupants.

Consultation responses to the proposed PD rights extension were largely negative, with the government’s summary admitting that less than a third of respondents were in favour of the proposed demolition and rebuilding PD right.

The letter also pointed out that the conclusion of the government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission was that existing permitted development rights had “inadvertently permissioned future slums”.

In addition, the letter said the fact that the government had not undertaken an environmental assessment of the statutory instruments granting the new rights or assessed the impact on protected groups under equalities rules provided grounds for legal challenge.

It also pointed out that the new regulations were laid before parliament on July 21, the day before the summer recess, and will come into force the day before it reconvenes. This means parliament has had no opportunity to debate “the most radical reforms to our planning system since the Second World War” before they come into effect, with potentially enormous consequences for the environment.

RCA has also instructed Paul Brown QC and Alex Shattock of Landmark Chambers to act for it on the matter.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said the changes were designed to deliver much-needed new homes and revitalise town centres across England by cutting out unnecessary bureaucracy.

Since the introduction of a series of change-of-use PD rights in 2013, including the right to convert offices into homes, official data shows that more than 60,000 homes have been created as permitted developments.

Permitted development rights have been blamed for the creation of tiny and poor-quality homes, including flats without windows, such as those proposed in this former industrial unit in Watford

However the existing rights, which allow developers to bypass usual planning processes, have been blamed by campaigners for the creation of a huge number of tiny and poor-quality homes, including flats without windows, such as those proposed in a former industrial unit in Watford (pictured.

The RIBA described the decision to introduce more PD rights as “disgraceful”, and joined forces with the Royal Town Planning Institute, the RICS and the Chartered Institute of Building to issue a strongly worded open letter to Jenrick criticising the move.

A spokesperson for the housing ministry, which does not tend to comment on ongoing legal cases, said: “The government has received the letter and will respond in due course.”

Coronavirus: NHS data shows 15m on ‘hidden waiting list’

The NHS has a “hidden waiting list” of 15.3 million patients who need follow-up appointments for health problems, according to the first analysis of its kind.

Kat Lay, Health Correspondent

The official waiting list, which stands at 3.9 million, shows how many patients are yet to have their first hospital appointment after a GP referral.

However, the total number who are on hospital books in England and need appointments is not collated centrally. A new calculation, based on freedom of information requests to NHS trusts and seen by The Times, puts the figure at 15.3 million.

Although the official waiting list, after initial referral by a GP, has remained at a fairly stable level throughout the pandemic, this has been mainly driven by fewer patients joining it. Long waits have increased, however, with the number of patients waiting more than a year standing at 50,536 in June, compared with 1,643 in January, before the pandemic hit.

The new data, which has been calculated by the healthcare technology company Medefer, backs up reports of patients struggling to get vital appointments and further demonstrates the health toll that the coronavirus is taking.

The Times reported last Saturday that more than a hundred MPs had written to Boris Johnson urging him to tackle a backlog in NHS cancer care that threatens to lead to thousands of deaths over the next decade.

Bahman Nedjat-Shokouhi, the chief executive of Medefer, said: “The official waiting list is the tip of the iceberg.

“However, almost four times the number of patients need appointments, as the official figures capture only the new referrals and not the patients who require ongoing care. We need a plan to deal with both groups to avoid patients coming to harm.”

Dr Nedjat-Shokouhi, who is also an NHS consultant, said there was a risk that, as waiting time targets applied only to initial referrals from GPs, patients needing follow-up appointments might become less of a priority. He described them as “the most easy group to delay care for”.

There is no suggestion that all 15.3 million patients are overdue an appointment. However, thousands of people have had NHS care postponed or cancelled this year as the health service focused on the pandemic.

The 15.3 million figure was calculated by asking NHS trusts how many patients who needed a follow-up appointment, but were not captured in the official waiting lists known as the “referral to treatment” pathway, were on their waiting lists. One trust in seven replied, and analysts extrapolated the national figure by weighting those trusts’ figures according to the proportion of national GP referrals they received.

In recent guidance, NHS England suggested that hospitals could move to a model called “patient-initiated follow-up”, where instead of being given a specific date to return, people with certain conditions could book a new appointment when they felt that they needed it.

One NHS consultant told The Times that he was concerned this could mean that patients with serious symptoms, but who did not want to bother the NHS, could slip through the net.

Responding to the new analysis, Miriam Deakin, the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said: “It’s certainly a concern that many treatments had to be delayed at the height of the pandemic, and trust leaders are keenly aware of how disruptive and distressing this has been for patients. We also know that some patients chose, for a variety of reasons, not to come forward to seek treatment or advice during lockdown in particular, and referrals to trusts have dropped for a number of conditions.

“Trusts and frontline staff are working flat out to restore and extend routine services, and we’re seeing encouraging signs that many are making good progress. It’s really important people seek help when they need it.”

Exemplifying the change in volume of treatment during the pandemic, a study being published today in the journal Open Heart shows that the number of NHS patients presenting to cardiology services at one hospital in Scotland more than halved during the lockdown, and the number of heart attacks diagnosed fell by 40 per cent.

An NHS spokesman said: “This flawed and self-serving analysis from an organisation trying to advertise its own services says nothing about whether or not the appointments it refers to are actually ‘overdue’.

“Now that hospitals have managed the first wave of coronavirus, treating more than 108,000 people for Covid-19, local health services are continuing to expand their services for routine care, alongside substantially enhanced capacity being contracted from the independent sector.


Data on Covid care home deaths kept secret ‘to protect commercial interests’

Covid-19 death tolls at individual care homes are being kept secret by regulators in part to protect providers’ commercial interests before a possible second coronavirus surge, the Guardian can reveal.

Robert Booth 

England’s Care Quality Commission (CQC) and the Care Inspectorate in Scotland are refusing to make public which homes or providers recorded the most fatalities amid fears it could undermine the UK’s care system, which relies on private operators.

In response to freedom of information requests, the regulators said they were worried that the supply of beds and standards of care could be threatened if customers left badly affected operators.

The CQC and Care Inspectorate share home-by-home data with their respective governments – but both refused to make it public.

Residents’ families attacked the policy, with one bereaved daughter describing it as “ridiculous” and another relative saying deaths data could indicate a home’s preparedness for future outbreaks.

“Commercial interest when people’s lives are at stake shouldn’t even be a factor,” said Shirin Koohyar, who lost her father in April after he tested positive for Covid at a west London care home. “The patient is the important one here, not the corporation.”

June Findlater, whose 98-year-old father died from coronavirus at a care home near Glasgow, said: “I would be terrified of any relative going into a care home without that information, because it does speak volumes … There were care homes with no deaths and that’s not a coincidence. Regulators should absolutely be able to provide this information.”

There is growing evidence linking the way care homes operate with infection rates. Research last month showed coronavirus outbreaks were up to 20 times more likely in large care homes, while a study reported on Thursday by the Guardian, points to an association with occupancy and staff-to-resident ratios.

While data on Covid deaths at individual hospital trusts is published, information about fatalities at specific care homes has so far emerged only sporadically.

The highest confirmed death toll was 26 at Melbury Court, a Durham home operated by HC-One, the UK’s largest private provider, which recorded more than 1,000 deaths in total. Seventeen people died at Bupa’s Sunnyview House care home in Leeds.

Some of the largest providers have supplied aggregate figures for confirmed and suspected Covid fatalities. Four Seasons Health Care recorded 567 Covid deaths, and Care UK, which operates 123 homes, recorded 642 deaths. Bupa reported 266 confirmed cases, declining to reveal suspected deaths.

“It is surely only right that [residents and families] should receive information about the Covid status of the home to help inform their decision about where they live,” said Helen Wildbore, the director of the Residents & Relatives Association. She said it was distressing for residents and families to only hear about deaths in homes through other sources.

The regulators’ stance emerged after freedom of information requests were made by the Guardian. The CQC said release of home-by-home mortality figures would “likely prejudice the commercial interests of care providers” and “risks creating confusion as to the prevalence, spread or impact of the virus”.

UK care homes recorded 17,721 coronavirus deaths during the spring pandemic. With further outbreaks feared this winter and beyond, a worst-case scenario drawn up by the industry analyst Knight Frank forecasts a slump in demand that could leave providers with 180,000 empty beds by the end of 2021.

The 10 largest for-profit providers make up nearly a quarter of the supply of care home places. Along with smaller chains and private providers of one or two homes, they have seen occupancy rates fall and staff and equipment costs soar, leading to fears in government for the stability of the sector going into winter.

“Without understanding the size and occupancy of the home, the underlying health conditions of its residents and circumstances like local outbreaks, the data would not help judge providers’ response to the pandemic,” the CQC said.

It said the data could be used “in ways which could drive behaviour which is detrimental to the wellbeing of vulnerable people and to wider public health”, citing the possibility that families might remove loved ones from homes where there had been deaths, to others that they mistakenly perceived to be safer.

However, it said it was continually reviewing its position and has told operators it may disclose provider-level deaths data if they do not proactively “share appropriate information with families regarding outbreaks and deaths”.

Scotland’s Care Inspectorate said transparency would “substantially prejudice services commercially” and without information such as residents’ underlying health conditions it could cause confusion about the safety of homes and jeopardise the provision of beds.

Asked about the CQC’s concern over prejudicing providers’ commercial interests, Ivan Pointon, whose father died from Covid in a Bupa care home, said: “Perhaps they [homes] should if they haven’t done very well. Nobody has been held accountable for this and it is the business structure that has caused the problems – the policies and procedures.”

Debbie Ivanova, the deputy chief inspector for adult social care at the CQC, said: “We regularly share our data with the Department of Health and Social Care, other national and local partners, and researchers … This includes data on notifications of deaths by providers in individual care homes that is used to monitor, plan and respond to the pandemic.

“On its own, the number of deaths at a care home does not provide an assessment of quality or safety. Where we have concerns we will inspect and make our findings public. Where people are at risk we will take immediate action to protect them.”


These U-turns show Johnson is not informed by science but scared witless by it 

“An old maxim holds that leaders be judged not by their brilliance but by the quality of those around them. Their “court” is their first line of defence against the daily bombardment of advice and pressure. Under Johnson that court is composed of a tiny group of cronies, inexperienced and clearly bereft of the talents of those he has dismissed. He is Henry VIII awaiting his Hilary Mantel.”

Simon Jenkins 

Boris Johnson has found a new role for Britain’s most endangered transport mode, the bus. He throws civil servants under it. After decapitating the Foreign Office and Cabinet Office, he has rid himself of Public Health England and those he regards as to blame for recent exam U-turns, Sally Collier of Ofqual and Jonathan Slater of the Department for Education. They have gone to save the skin of that Nureyev of U-turns, Gavin Williamson.

Mind-changing has become the leitmotif of Johnson’s government. Derision would greet him if he used Margaret Thatcher’s boast to a Tory conference: “The Johnson’s not for turning.” The Guardian has kept a tally of 11 U-turns, from lockdowns and quarantines to school exam results, key-worker visas and Huawei’s role in 5G.

There is nothing wrong in U-turns. As Keynes reputedly said: “When events change I change my mind.” In the case of coronavirus, Johnson’s apologists can plead that everything has been unexpected and events constantly in flux. Governments initially floundered across Europe. In such circumstances, a U-turn may be a disaster averted.

But almost a dozen U-turns looks like carelessness. Johnson’s constant reversion to “the science” has now left the political roadway piled with wreckage. When he is not pursued by viruses he is tormented by the Furies of the age, algorithms. Once he – or perhaps his amanuensis Dominic Cummings – adored them. Now they rank with civil servants in his demonology. His most spectacular U-turn, into total lockdown on 23 March, was ascribed to an Imperial College algorithm worthy of the KGB’s finest hackers. It told him that if he refused to U-turn, 500,000 Britons “might die”. Johnson is now said to be furious.

At this point the boundary between being informed by science and being scared witless becomes academic. The issue is whether science is “on top or on tap”. Do its often spurious certainties diminish political responsibility? In his explanation of his U-turn over school face masks, Williamson contrived both to blame the science and insist it was his decision. To the BBC on Wednesday, the education secretary cited the World Health Organization, “evidence” and “advice”. In reality his decision was led by a policy change in Scotland.

In the case of the A-levels fiasco, Johnson this week blamed another algorithm, this time a “mutant” one. Ministers were warned what would happen if they let a machine warp A-levels’ crooked timber of mankind. They ignored the warning and ordered the machine to avoid grade inflation. It obeyed.

A similarly “mutant” algorithm has apparently seized Johnson’s now obsessively centralised housing policy, threatening to build over miles of Tory countryside in the south-east. Lobbyists for the construction industry told the algorithm to follow the market, and again it obeyed.

These algorithms are no more “mutant” than civil servants. They are programmed to inform the powers that be on the fiendish job of running a modern country. They cannot be accused of conspiring to undermine the government of the day. At present they must struggle to infer the objectives of a leaderless government that constantly changes its mind. The only “mutation” just now is in the prime minister’s head.

The art of government is that of handling advice. Followers of the satirical television series, Yes, Minister, thought it showed how civil servants always got their way. It did not. It showed bureaucratic efficiency and elected politicians in perpetual tension, with the outcome a compromise, an equilibrium. But the result was ministers nowadays feeling they must surround themselves with inexperienced “special advisers”.

A loyal civil service is vital to good government, be it radical or conservative. I suspect a future coronavirus inquiry will conclude that senior officials found themselves squeezed out of a shouting match between government scientists and panicking politicians. NHS medics at first dictated policy, demanding ministers tell the public to “protect your NHS” – which ended up being at the expense of care homes and cancer patients. At risk of losing their jobs, civil servants stop telling truth to power. Policy wobbles and the steering wheels spin.

There is no alternative in democratic government to ministerial responsibility, to an iron chain linking the electorate to parliament and cabinet. A growing body of Tory backbenchers are reportedly worried at the lack of leadership implied by Johnson’s U-turns. The gossip is that a still sickly prime minister is showing little interest in decision-making and largely out of the loop. Trump-like, he craves nightly appearances on television where we see him dressed in worker’s garb, waffling to “the people” in some distant province.

An old maxim holds that leaders be judged not by their brilliance but by the quality of those around them. Their “court” is their first line of defence against the daily bombardment of advice and pressure. Under Johnson that court is composed of a tiny group of cronies, inexperienced and clearly bereft of the talents of those he has dismissed. He is Henry VIII awaiting his Hilary Mantel.

This matters because the decision about to face Britain is far more serious in the long-term than any virus. It is over how to agree frictionless dealings with our immediate trading neighbours in Europe. I am reliably told there is not a single person within the penumbra of Downing Street remotely up to the job of such negotiation.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist


Boris Johnson’s refusal to plan ahead is no way to run a country

The prime minister’s habit of ignoring strategic challenges and leaving everything to the last minute is no way to run a country.


Boris Johnson’s government is too often caught unawares by events that were not only predictable but scheduled. The start of a new school term has been a feature of autumns for a lot longer than Gavin Williamson has been education secretary, yet arrangements for keeping classrooms safe from Covid-19 are still uncertain. Ministers cannot answer a question as simple as whether masks should be worn. As with the mess over exam results, guidance issued one day is contradicted the next.

The pattern is set by the prime minister. He deals in grand ambitions, not plans for their realisation. When things go wrong he shifts the blame, as he did on Wednesday when he suggested a “mutant algorithm”, and not ministerial incompetence, was at fault over the grading fiasco. The top civil servant at the education department is being ousted; the secretary of state responsible is not.

The problem is most extreme in relation to Brexit. Every stage of the UK’s uncoupling from the EU has been mapped out by treaty, including the expiry of transitional arrangements at the end of this year. By then, a free trade deal is supposed to have been negotiated and ratified. That is getting harder with each passing week. The impediment is British reluctance to recognise what is realistically available, or understand the imbalances of power in negotiations between a lone country and a continental trading bloc.

In June, the prime minister said he could see no reason why broad agreement might not be reached in July. But there was a reason, and he was it. Mr Johnson has not paid close attention, made choices or given his negotiators bandwidth for compromise.

The UK still demands pristine sovereignty, with no obligation to align its standards with EU markets, plus a right to subsidise domestic industries to a degree not permitted under Brussels rules. The EU will not grant privileged market access on those terms, because doing so would undermine its own industries. Eurosceptic hardliners say they would prefer no deal to any obligation to match continental standards.

Whether that is a bluff or not is a question that interests EU leaders less and less. They have other things to do. At the instigation of Germany, Brexit has been dropped from the agenda of a top-level European meeting next week on the grounds that there is nothing new to discuss. Mr Johnson knows what the options are – they range from close integration to something more distant, with tariffs and quotas – and he must choose.

But he doesn’t. Instead, the government still treats Brexit in the most superficial manner, as if the performance of readiness counts as the real thing. A report that Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister, might take on a senior trade advisory role is a case in point. Setting aside Mr Abbott’s notoriously rebarbative character, the appointment would be consistent with the myth, common among Brexit supporters, that trade deals are conjured into being by swaggering personalities.

The reality is that good outcomes in a trade deal are achieved by the application of time, attention to detail, experienced negotiators and a rational appraisal of the other side’s interests. The UK government is deficient on all those metrics.

As with the challenge of reopening schools, or grading exams never sat, the job does not get any easier with neglect. Leaving everything to the last minute, testing the fixity of deadlines, is a method that might have worked for Mr Johnson when he was a newspaper columnist, but it is no way to run a government. He operates one day at a time, stumbling from one problem to the next, with no sense of a strategic horizon. Such a man cannot safely settle the UK’s long-term relations with its neighbours. Nor, for that matter, should he be trusted with many other tasks required of a prime minister.


Mid Devon to continue to prepare joint strategic plan following death of GESP

Mid Devon District Council has been asked to continue to prepare a revised joint strategic statutory plan following the death of the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan.

Daniel Clark

The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan was due to provide the overall strategy and level of housing and employment land required across Exeter, East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge in the period to 2040.

But last Thursday, East Devon District Council voted to withdraw from the process, throwing the overall strategy into tatters.

Mid Devon councillors, when they met on Wednesday night, had also been recommended to withdraw from the process, but following East Devon’s decision, the cabinet recommendation had been superseded by events.

Wednesday’s meeting saw calls to send the matter back to cabinet to bring forward a new recommendation rejected, as was an amendment to explore with neighbouring planning authorities, options for cooperation in meeting joint planning objectives with a decision based on how to proceed made by full council within six months.

Councillors eventually backed an amendment put forward by the leader of council that Mid Devon should commit to prepare a revised joint strategic statutory plan and that should officers subsequently advise that it does not prove to be the most appropriate option in planning terms, then to consider a review of other options for further strategic and cross-boundary planning matters, and that officers should bring forward the preparation of the next Local Plan Review.

Putting forward his amendment, Cllr Bob Deed, the council leader, said: “It is very clear, GESP is dead. We will need to get on with discussions with the other councils formerly in GESP, and there is no justification for any delay past tonight.

Councillor Bob Deed, Leader of the Council, Party: Independent, Ward: Cadbury

“I was in favour of working together in GESP, but East Devon’s withdrawal means the site options document cannot go out to consultation due to the East Devon content of it. The GESP cannot now continue in the way envisaged due to the amended geographical area and the consideration has now moved on from whether to stay in GESP to a broader issue of how we want to go ahead with strategic planning and if we want to work with neighbouring councils.

“GESP was born out of opportunities to work and address cross-boundary spatial planning issues in a more meaningful way and reflective of the geographical travel to work area. Informal working together is no substitute for joint working with the neighbouring councils and continuing to plan jointly sends a clear message of commitment and engagement.”

“I will enter the discussions in good faith to see what can be done for the benefit of the people in Mid Devon along with a collaborative approach with the authorities to which we are bound.”

Cllr Bob Evans, the leader of the Conservative group, added: “GESP doesn’t exist anymore as in the papers as another authority chose to pull out. We need to go away and talk to our neighbours and come up with a plan as to how we take control of what happening in the area. This amendment gives us more of an opportunity. Is it GESP 2? I don’t know, but East Devon doesn’t want a GESP 2 and we don’t want a GESP 2, so that is not what we will get.”

But Cllr Luke Taylor, who had recommended that the council pull out of GESP, said that Cllr Deed’s proposal, which will still conduct a further call for sites process, ‘looked to create a new GESP’. He added: “It cannot be ruled out that if we remain in this ‘GESP’, that we might have to take more than our required number of housing. The criteria for the new GESP will continue with the original policies so the sites will remain and it could decimate the rural communities. I did originally support GESP but I won’t make that mistake again.”

Cllr Graeme Barnell added: “Members need to lead the process of renegotiating GESP, and we haven’t learnt if we allow officers to go ahead and form a reheated version. There were some major problems with GESP and we don’t want a reheated version of the same thing.”

Cllr Jo Norton added that the main message she was getting from her residents is they don’t see GESP as an opportunity but something opposed on them that they don’t have any say over, while Cllr Elizabeth Wainwright said that while there was some good stuff in GESP, the world has changed and it is just not suitable anymore.

She added: “COVID-19, climate change, and Brexit, are all threats to the opportunities this was supposed to give us. It feels wise to stop and say what the world we are now in, and what is the best plan to serve us? GESP is not fit for purpose anymore.”

Following councillors voting by 26 votes to 13 against sending the matter back to cabinet to make a recommendation, they then voted by 22 votes to 15 with one abstentions against Cllr Barnell’s amendment to explore with neighbouring planning authorities options for cooperation in meeting joint planning objectives, before voting by 25 votes to 10, with two abstentions, for Cllr Deed’s amendment.

Mid Devon will now commit to prepare a revised joint strategic statutory plan, but should this prove not to be the most appropriate option in planning terms, consider a review of other options for further strategic and cross-boundary planning matters with willing participatory authorities in the Housing Market Area.

Officers will review and incorporate relevant elements of the GESP Draft Policies and Site Options consultation document and other supporting documentation and evidence that remain valid and jointly prepare necessary technical studies and evidence for the new strategic plan, including conducting a further call for sites process, align monitoring and share resources where there are planning and cost benefits for doing so.

The Council’s commitment to the delivery of high quality development at Culm Garden Village as part of the Garden Communities Programme has been reaffirmed, and officers will be tasked to bring forward the preparation of the next Local Plan Review.