Coastal towns call for their own minster to aid recovery

A coalition of struggling seaside towns and cross-party MPs has urged Boris Johnson to appoint a minister dedicated to coastal communities to kick-start their economic revival.

By Tom Rees 29 August 2020 

The letter asked the Prime Minister to create a post ahead of an expected autumn Cabinet reshuffle as coastal areas are pushed to “breaking point” by the pandemic. Mr Johnson was warned coastal areas were in a “dire situation” and were “falling through the gaps”.

The letter was signed by the LGA Coastal Special Interest Group, National Coastal Tourism Academy and Coastal Communities Alliance, with their calls being backed by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Coastal Communities. The LGA group represents 57 local authorities along the coastline.

They argued that a dedicated coastal communities minister needed a remit that “cuts across departments” and would signal the Government’s commitment to levelling up the economy.

Many coastal communities have suffered a huge decline over the past 50 years as international travel boomed and a number of important industries, such as shipbuilding, vanished. Struggling seaside towns have become some of the most deprived areas in the UK.

“We feel having a minister for coastal communities would be a really significant first step,” said Emily Cunningham, lead officer for the LGA Coastal Special Interest Group. “We can’t turn our back on them. It can’t wait, we need action now.”

However, the “staycation” boom has boosted some seaside towns this summer. Blackpool and Bournemouth have seen the strongest recovery in footfall after the Covid-19 hit, while the latter and Southend have seen the biggest bounce back in spending, Centre for Cities found.

“That’s primarily about visitors going to those places because they are not going abroad,” said Andrew Carter of Centre for Cities. “Bournemouth and Blackpool are [also] benefiting from more of the residents in those two towns staying there.”

Simon Clarke, Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, said: “When the Prime Minister announced the New Deal, he made it clear that the Government is determined to change the country for the better, uniting and levelling up our regions – including coastal communities such as those in my own constituency.

“Last month I was pleased to announce £10 million in new funding for small businesses in tourist destinations – bringing jobs, investment, and financial support to the communities that need it most. Since 2012 the Government has awarded over £229 million to projects delivering sustainable growth and jobs in coastal areas.”


Topical question: When is an Indie not an Indie?

Four Stoke-on-Trent city councillors defect to the Tories

Phil Corrigan 

Four councillors have defected from their groups to join the Conservatives on Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Lesley Adams, Shaun Bennett and cabinet member Janine Bridges have left the City Independents – the Tories’ coalition partners – while Ally Simcock has crossed the floor from the opposition Labour group.

The defections mean the Conservatives are now the single largest group on the council, with 19 elected members.

Labour have 14 councillors and the City Independents have eight, with two non-aligned members and one vacant seat. The Tories are still short of an overall majority on the 44-seat authority.

These are the latest gains for the local Conservatives, which up until 2015 had just two elected members on the council. The party has also gained all three parliamentary seats in Stoke-on-Trent since 2017.

Ms Simcock was only elected as a Labour councillor for Sandford Hill in May 2019, but she said a ‘divided Labour Party’ was one of the reasons for her defection to the Tories.

She said: “I want to be part of the team that is getting things done.

“What I’ve seen in the local Conservatives is a group of people who are determined to deliver a better future for our community.”

This is the second time that Ms Bridges has left the City Independent group, following her first departure in 2010.

The long-serving councillor for Great Chell & Packmoor and cabinet member for education and economy had also previously served as a Labour councillor and cabinet member, but rejoined the City Independents in 2015.

She said: “Over the past few months it has become increasingly clear that only one party is delivering for our city and that if we want to achieve the change we need for our community, I have to be part of the team who are delivering.”

Lesley Adams and Shaun Bennett were both elected as City Independents in last year’s local elections.

Mr Bennett, councillor for Hollybush & Longton West, said: “Locally, Conservatives have secured £35 million to resurface our roads and pavements, they’ve secured over £18 million worth of investment into our heritage buildings, and through the Ceramics Valley Enterprise Zone they’ve worked with the government to secure over 2000 new jobs – I want to help them continue to deliver for Stoke-on-Trent.”

Ms Adams, of Burslem Park ward said: “Having seen the dedication of local Conservatives, and the attention our area is receiving since we’ve had three Conservative MPs elected in our area last year I’m delighted to be joining the Conservatives to continue to see the change that we all want to see for our city.”

Council leader Abi Brown welcomed the councillors to the Conservative group.

She said: “I’m excited that these four talented councillors recognise the work we’ve been doing across the city and are now going to be part of that positive change.

“Lesley, Shaun, Janine and Ally will each bring new expertise and I’m delighted to welcome them into the Conservative Group.”

The city council has been run by a Conservative and City Independent coalition since 2015, with the Tories becoming the larger of the two groups following last year’s elections.

Mrs Brown believes the coalition can continue, despite the defection of three City Independents to her group.

She added: “We have been working in coalition with the City Independent group since 2015, and I hope that we continue that relationship moving forward. I would like us to work together for the good of the city.

“Ultimately it is up to individual councillors to decide which political group they want to work with.”

Acting Labour group leader Paul Shotton said he was ‘disappointed’ by Ms Simcock’s decision to join the Tories.

He said: “It is disappointing that someone who was elected as a Labour councillor by the voters of Sandford Hill just over a year ago can now join a totally opposing political party.

“Ally Simcock claimed to be a staunch socialist who opposed the imposition of food banks and austerity, and yet now she has joined the party responsible for those things.

“The increase in support for the Conservatives was mainly driven by Brexit and the previous party leader. Now we have a new leader in Keir Starmer and our support is rising nationally.”

The defection of the three City Independents follows the departure of former deputy group leader Randy Conteh earlier this year. He now sits as a non-aligned councillor.

City Independent group leader Ann James said: “It is disappointing that these three councillors have joined the Conservatives after being elected as City Independents. This is the second time that Janine Bridges has left the group. She was a City Indepdendent, then Community Voice, then Labour, then she came back to us, and now she’s left again.”


Housing News – Private Eye Robert Jenrick’s plan ignores the disabled

Housing News – Private Eye

SCANDALOUSLY, housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s new 84-page planning white paper entirely ignores the housing needs of disabled people. Even though the shortage of homes for wheelchair users and those with reduced mobility has long been recognised, the document makes no mention of disabled people or accessible housing.

Due to the obstacles they face in securing homes they can manage, disabled and elderly people have lost their independence, having been forced into unsuitable care homes or becoming hospital “bed-blockers” (Eyes passim). Two years ago, a damning report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted how many disabled people suffered serious deterioration in mental wellbeing because of unsuitable accommodation.

Even though the government insists existing rules provide for some accessible housing, housebuilders have long engaged in trade-off battles with local authorities not to provide it. Now, thanks to Jenrick’s desire to help developers “bounce back” from the economic impact of coronavirus, at many sites it looks as if they won’t even have to consider investing a tiny proportion of their profits in accessible — or even affordable — housing.

Yet again, the government’s Disability Unit has remained silent on the matter (see last Eye). Baroness Brinton, the disabled Liberal Democrat peer and the party’s social-care spokesperson in the Lords, said ignoring the needs of disabled people and their families was “utterly shameful”. She called on disabled people to protest in the consultation on the white paper, which asks for “views on the potential impact of the proposals raised in this consultation on people with protected characteristics” under the Equality Act.


Housebuilders hold the key to homes crisis

“The galling truth is that the big, powerful developers which hoover up most new planning permissions have long staged a deliberate go-slow, making higher profits overall by producing fewer homes so prices keep rising. Unless ministers acknowledge and tackle this massive market failure, our chronic housing shortage will remain – with all the social and political fallout that entails.”

[And this is from the “Torygraph”! – Owl]

Liam Halligan 29 August 2020 

‘We need more new housing,” as Boris Johnson has argued, “to correct this generational injustice that young people often can’t buy a home, as their parents did”. Yet the Government’s “radical planning system shake-up”, unveiled earlier this month, is inadequate and misses the point.

Britain has built around three million too few homes over the last three decades. That’s why property prices have spiralled, with today’s young adults spending a higher share of their income on rent, and less likely to be owner-occupiers, than at any time since the Thirties.

Across much of the country, even professional youngsters are often “priced-out” – with the average home costing eight times average annual earnings, compared to four times during the Nineties.

The share of 25-34-year-old owner-occupiers has since plunged from 67pc to 38pc, with well over half a generation denied property ownership at this crucial family-forming age. And lower down the income scale, an endemic shortage of social housing has driven a rise in overcrowding and homelessness.

Britain’s often tortuous “case-by-case” planning system certainly needs reform. That means more “zoning”, with clear and predictable residential building rules – which, to some extent, is what this new white paper proposes.

The fundamental problem isn’t, though, as the Government suggests, “a lack of land with planning permissions” – for around 80pc of residential planning applications made are already being approved. The real issue is the ever-lengthening delays between permissions being granted and houses actually being built.

The galling truth is that the big, powerful developers which hoover up most new planning permissions have long staged a deliberate go-slow, making higher profits overall by producing fewer homes so prices keep rising. Unless ministers acknowledge and tackle this massive market failure, our chronic housing shortage will remain – with all the social and political fallout that entails.

Between 2010 and 2015, an earlier planning shake-up saw the number of permissions granted each year increase by 75pc. But the number of homes completed annually was just 33pc up. Similarly, between 2015 and 2017, as permissions granted per annum increased 36pc, homes built rose just 15pc. The growing delay in build-out rates is significant and undeniable.

Evidence I submitted to a recent Parliamentary inquiry demonstrated that between 2010 and 2017, of 1,943,125 new permissions granted in England, some 932,335 – almost half – remained unbuilt. Over a seven-year period, then, during which the UK’s housing shortage became chronic and unaffordability spiralled, our housebuilders applied for and were granted clearance to construct almost one million new homes they chose not to build.

Back in 2008, countless small and medium-sized firms which convert permissions into marketable homes relatively quickly, to aid cash flow – built over two-thirds of all new homes. Many were then wiped out by the financial crisis and lots more have since been stymied by an inability to raise finance to access building land.

That’s why the housebuilding industry is now far more concentrated, with the top ten developers accounting for around 70pc of new supply. These over-dominant players use their well-resourced legal departments to obtain planning permissions, some of which provide a legitimate “building pipeline”, but many of which they won’t use. Such permissions still bolster their balance sheet, boosting share prices and related executive bonuses. And once “captured”, they aren’t available for smaller firms.

So the big boys control the rate at which homes come to market in certain localities, boosting profit margins way higher than they should be, while keeping smaller rivals at bay. And that’s why our housing market is “broken” – because the industry is largely controlled by a few large players deliberately restricting supply.

A 2016 House of Lords investigation concluded the UK housebuilding industry “has all the characteristics of an oligopoly”. A full Competition and Markets Authority inquiry into an industry imposing “contrived scarcity” on homebuyers, limiting the number of new homes to artificially boost profits, is long overdue.

But even bolder measures are needed. In my book Home Truths, I propose that if a home isn’t completed, ready for sale, within two years of permission granted, developers should pay full council tax on unfinished properties, rising to double then triple council tax in subsequent years.

Planning permission should be a contract to build, between developers and the community, not an option to build if developers feel like it. Altering financial incentives would address the worst excesses of deliberately slow build-out.

We need to free-up parts of the greenbelt – much of which is urban scrub. Far from being “concreted over”, it has doubled in size since the Seventies – and now covers 13pc of England’s land mass while housing, including gardens, accounts for little more than 1pc. This white paper flunks that challenge too, preserving all greenbelt land.

We must recognise, also, that “zonal” planning in some areas won’t much help smaller builders, or tackle unaffordability, when land prices, driven by speculation, remain sky high. When agricultural land is granted planning permission, its value can jump an astonishing 200-fold or more.

But the right to land ownership should not include the right to capture almost the entire value uplift when planning permission is granted – given that the uplift reflects state spending on local infrastructure and the efforts of local businesses to create amenities.

Uplift should be split 50-50 between landowners and local authorities. That would rein-in speculative pressure by making it less attractive to sit on land as prices rise, bringing more acreage to market. Plus, it would raise serious cash to provide schools, hospitals and other local public services, revolutionising the fraught local politics of planning.

“Solving our housing problem … requires confrontation with vested interests,” observed the late Roger Scruton last year, in one of his final interviews. “And an awful lot of those vested interests are, it has to be said, connected to the Conservative Party”.

Has Johnson got the intellectual grit and political determination to inject some genuine competition into our moribund housebuilding industry? Will he fight for capitalism or protect “crony capitalism” instead?

Read more: Dominic Cummings’ planning overhaul will provoke Tory shires into outright rebellion


‘My dad died from coronavirus in a care home. Now I’m taking legal action against the government that made it a death trap’

 The Independent Lifestyle Features

‘My dad died from coronavirus in a care home. Now I’m taking legal action against the government that made it a death trap’

Cathy Gardner’s 88-year-old father was supposed to be safe. But he died from “probable Covid-19” after a fellow care home resident was discharged from hospital. Now she tells Sophie Gallagher she wants answers 

Between March and June, coronavirus became the leading cause of death in male care home residents in England and Wales, and the second leading cause of death in female residents. Since March, there have been at least 30,000 excess deaths in care homes due to the coronavirus, impacting thousands of families up and down the country.

“Our care homes were effectively thrown to the wolves,” concluded Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which published a damning report on 29 July. It ruled that government policy to clear NHS hospital beds, which meant patients were discharged to care homes until mid-April without ever having a Covid-test, had been an “appalling error”.

Not only were visitors allowed to visit care homes till 2 April (after lockdown), but it wasn’t until 15 April that the Department of Health began Covid-testing all residents before re-admitting them from hospital to care homes. Prior to that, there had been no requirement to do so. This led to care homes feeling pressured to take residents back with no knowledge of whether they were now carrying the virus. Approximately 25,000 people were discharged with no test.

Cathy Gardner’s father was in one of those homes.

On Thursday 2 April, a week after lockdown began, Dr Cathy Gardner drove the 161 miles from her home in Sidmouth, Devon, to see her father in an Oxfordshire care home just before he died. Because of Covid-19, Gardner was not allowed inside and instead was taken to the back of the building to watch her sleeping dad, Michael Gibson, through a ground-floor window. He didn’t know she was there in the dark. He died the next day.

The GP who treated the 88-year-old told Gardner that her father was killed by coronavirus, which was likely brought into the home by another resident discharged from hospital. So despite Gibson never leaving the home himself, he became a sitting duck. But without a test to prove he had the virus (there were no widely available tests in care homes till 16 April, 13 days after his death), the death certificate could only record “probable Covid”.

Gardner, who has a PhD in virology, was angry; she hadn’t seen her father – who had advanced dementia – since February and she had believed he would be kept safe in a care home setting (on 16 May, health secretary Matt Hancock said a “protective ring” had been thrown around care homes since the start). To make matters worse she also felt guilty for travelling to see him during lockdown in his last hours of life when (it would later emerge) Dominic Cummings had been in Durham.

Michael Gibson was born in 1931. A child during the Second World War he went on to a career as a superintendent registrar of birth marriages and deaths. “He was a very meticulous person, because doing that kind of job is all about accurate records,” Gardner tells The Independent. “During his working life he registered thousands of events”. His own marriage lasted 65 years. He raised his family in Northamptonshire and took an interest in aviation history, even writing a book on planes. Later he developed dementia and was moved to Cherwood House in late 2019.

Although his dementia was advanced, Gardner says “he still recognised me, I could see the love in his eyes, that love between a father and daughter”. “[His death] was heartbreaking, it’s not how I imagined his last days. I could not hold his hand and give him a smile near the end. I knew that losing my father would be tough, losing him in these circumstances is truly devastating.

“It hadn’t even occurred to me that my father would be at risk of Covid-19, he was meant to be safe there.” Of course Gibson was not the only one to die in a home. But, unlike the thousands of other families, Gardner has taken action against the government in a bid to get answers.

In was in late January when the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) held its first meeting about the Covid-19 threat to the UK, the day before the Wuhan lockdown. It was decided by members, including Patrick Vallance and Chris Witty, that NHS facilities need only “consider” how they “might respond to potential cases” if the virus were to arrive on UK shores.

At a meeting just 18 days later, the group concluded there was now a “realistic probability” that there was “already sustained transmission in the UK” or that there would be soon (analysis by the University of Nottingham released on 25 August now suggests the first positive Covid test was on 21 February). Despite this by the end of February, Public Health England still said it was “very unlikely” that anyone receiving care in a care home, would become infected. The first death of a care home resident in England from Covid-19 came days later on 6 March.

Even after residents started contracting, and dying from, Covid-19, visitors were still permitted in care homes. For anyone feeling unwell or recently returned from abroad, it was up to individual discretion.

On 13 March the government said no one who believed they had the virus should be visiting a home, but continued to let friends and family visit, actively encouraging homes to consider the “positive impact” of seeing these people. Boris Johnson did allude to not making “unnecessary visits” on 16 March, but when Reuters questioned number 10, it was told he was referring to the 13 March advice, not stricter rules.

By this point Gardner’s father, Michael Gibson, was already unwell. The GP told her the suspected Covid-19 diagnosis over the phone. “I was shocked and hadn’t even occurred to me he would be at risk, he was in a home and should have been safe,” Gardner explains. Over the next three weeks he deteriorated and died on 3 April.

Ironically on the final day before Gibson’s death, 2 April, the Department of Health finally revised its visitor policy, saying: “Family and friends should be advised not to visit care homes, except next of kin in exceptional situations such as end of life.” But as the nationwide lockdown was already in place, many were not travelling anyway.

Gardner has now begun legal action against the government. Her case hinges on the accusation that the government treatment of care homes was unlawful because it exposed residents to serious harm. Legally the state is required to protect citizens and Gardner’s lawyers say government policy breached this legal duty to residents and workers in the advice and guidance it gave, particularly that it allowed patients back into homes without testing.

She is incensed by the hospital discharge policy which she says made care homes a “death trap”. “Because of my virology background I have an understanding of spread, and I know you cannot bring someone with an infection like that into a care home,” says Gardner. “If hospitals cannot control spread, a care home is never going to be able to. It seemed there was not one iota of thought about that.” (On 13 March PHE still said “no PPE is required above and beyond normal good hygiene practices” if neither the care worker or resident was showing symptoms).

“At the same time they were telling the rest of us to lockdown, they were discharging these people into care homes. That struck me as insane, negligent, irresponsible. How on earth can that be right?” says Gardner. “It was so essential to protect the NHS and clear beds that they didn’t care about what happened”.

On 2 June Gardner’s team served a pre-action letter to Matt Hancock, NHS England and Public Health England, demanding they admit the policies were unlawful and requesting Hancock’s “protective ring” claim be retracted. But after an “inadequate response”, and no acceptance of wrongdoing, Gardner filed for a judicial review at the High Court. A judicial review is when a judge reviews the lawfulness of a decision made by a public body. It is not about whether the decision was right or wrong but whether the right procedures were followed.

The DHSC told The Independent that it was unable to comment on potential or ongoing legal action (but it is worth noting the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report, said: “The department says that it took rational decisions based on the information it had at the time, but acknowledges that it would not necessarily do the same thing again.”)

I remain outraged that [its] dithering, incompetence and outright failure to lead has caused the premature death of my father and thousands of other vulnerable care home residents…

On 14 August Gardner published a statement detailing the government response to her case, which again denied wrongdoing. It’s defence relies on four main points: that it is wrong in principle to consider the full scope of its failings in respect of care homes, that Gardner is not allowed to challenge policies because they were introduced after her father’s death, that she has not brought the claim soon enough (just over three months since his death), and that much of her claim is “academic” because the policies being critiqued have now been withdrawn.

“Amazingly, the government’s focus has been to try to knock out my claim on procedural grounds rather than to provide a full and transparent explanation for its handling of the crisis,” says Gardner. “I remain outraged that [its] dithering, incompetence and outright failure to lead has caused the premature death of my father and thousands of other vulnerable care home residents. I will continue to fight for justice for him, and for them, for as a long as I can.”

It is not known, and likely never will be, how many discharged hospital patients were carrying Covid and were responsible for care home outbreaks (between 9 March and 17 May, around 5,900 homes in England reported an outbreak). Gardner still wants answers: “I am doing this on the behalf of other people who cannot. Somebody has to hold the government to account.”

On 6 May Mr Johnson conceded there is an “epidemic going on in care homes, which I bitterly regret” but he tried to push the blame onto care homes, saying: “We discovered too many didn’t really follow the procedures.” A statement he later clarified but did not apologise for. Instead he doubled down, claiming asymptomatic transmission was not known about early on. This has also been refuted by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which found: “It was already becoming clear in late March, and certainly from the beginning of April, that the Covid-19 infection had an asymptomatic phase, when people could be infectious.”

Despite the acceptance of much fault by the committee, senior government leaders remain steadfast. On 22 July, for the first time in months, Matt Hancock, permitted care homes in England to reopen their doors, telling visitors to exercise caution and not “undo all the hard work” done during the pandemic. It might be the end of lockdown, but for Gardner and thousands of families supporting her case, the real battle is only just beginning.

[Dr Cathy Gardner is crowd funding her case]

Voice of the People: Care homes on brink of collapse – Government must step in

Voice of the People

The care home system on which thousands of our ­elderly loved ones depend is on the brink of collapse.

A decade of cuts, the Covid crisis and now a massive £80million rise in insurance premiums because of the pandemic have brought the sector to its knees.

The network of homes across the country is the cornerstone of how we look after our elderly, frail and vulnerable – of how we give them the dignity that they deserve in their later, sometimes difficult, years.

It is broken. A first priority for the Government must be to indemnify care homes against being sued and restore insurers’ confidence to bring down premiums.

Boris Johnson and his ministers know only too well the plight of this vital part of the national fabric.

But in spite of explicit promises to “fix” the system, they have produced nothing – no plans, no alternative.

The Prime Minister is once again failing the nation.

Three years ago the ­­Government – of which he was part – pledged to bring forward a Green Paper with plans for funding an already creaking system. We are still waiting.

In his very first words as Prime Minister, Johnson promised on the steps of Downing Street to “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”.

He said he would “take personal responsibility for the change I want to see”. We are still waiting.

The virus exposed a service unfit for purpose. The only way forward is a national care service integrated into the NHS.

It will cost. But you cannot put a price on the dignity of life.