Ministers object to houses that No 10 wants to push through

Boris Johnson is on a collision course with the Tory party faithful. 

Ministers including Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson helped to scupper plans for hundreds of homes in their constituencies despite a government drive to increase housebuilding.

George Grylls

In summer the government announced radical reforms to the planning system and Boris Johnson appeared to blame a culture of nimbyism for low rates of construction, describing “newt-counting delays” as “a massive drag on the prosperity of this country”. An algorithm will determine where 300,000 homes a year are built.

However within weeks of the white paper on planning being released, ministers were objecting to developments in their own constituencies.

In August Ms Patel, the home secretary, said that the “right decision” had been made after a scheme for 255 homes in her Essex seat of Witham was rejected. She had lobbied against the plans and told her local paper that the village of Tiptree had already experienced “substantial housing growth”.

Later that month, Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, wrote to Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, asking him to intervene in a plan to build 83 homes on a cricket field in Preston. A decision on the application is yet to be made.

Last year Mr Wallace tried to prevent planning permission for 127 homes in Goosnargh, in Lancashire.

The government white paper argues that the planning system benefits people who are “older, better off and white”. Downing Street wants to streamline public consultations so that locals cannot raise so many objections to applications. But Christopher Pincher, the housing minister who is leading the reforms, expressed concern about plans for 800 homes in his Midlands constituency this year.

He wrote to his district council in January, saying that without community support and investment in infrastructure, it would be “unsustainable and inappropriate” to build more houses in Fazeley in his Tamworth constituency. In 2018 he objected — in vain — to a scheme to build on fields at Arkall Farm with 1,000 homes.

One Conservative MP said: “Ministers are in a bind. They — understandably — have collective leadership and so can’t speak out against individual policies, yet I suspect many are becoming concerned that the housing algorithm and related plans will prove, divisive, unpopular and damaging.”

The formula that allocates where homes will be built will concentrate development on London as well as swathes of the countryside. Meanwhile cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool will all see their housebuilding shrink.

One rural constituency that will escape much of the construction boom is South Staffordshire, the seat of Gavin Williamson, the education secretary. In November last year he celebrated the withdrawal of an application for 50 homes with a further outline for up to 200 homes on fields in his constituency. He said that the homes were “neither wanted nor needed” by the villages of Great Wyrley and Cheslyn Hay.

Last week it emerged that Michael Gove had attended an online residents’ meeting that was objecting to the construction of 44 homes in his constituency of Surrey Heath. According to The Sunday Times, Mr Gove wrote to Mr Jenrick, saying that the proposal would “alter the village character of Bagshot for the worse”.

One senior Tory backbencher told The Times that ministers were using rights to object that they wanted to remove from millions of people. “Their own actions show the government needs to go back to the drawing board on planning reform,” they said.

A government spokesman said: “Members of parliament who are ministers rightly represent and champion their constituents’ views. It will always be the case that issues like the environment and the effect on local amenity should be taken into account alongside the need for more homes.

“Our proposals to overhaul the planning system include placing more effective community engagement at the beginning of the process, so that local people have more say over development in their area, not less.”

Boris Johnson is on a collision course with the Tory party faithful. His manifesto commitment to build 300,000 homes a year has demanded a radical shake-up to the planning system (George Grylls writes).

While some of the more modest reforms have won his party’s support, there remains widespread fury about two proposals: the reduction in residents’ ability to object to planning applications and, most of all, a nationally set algorithm that determines where homes will be built.

The algorithm was introduced at the height of the A-level debacle. Backbenchers were initially slow to realise the consequences but they are up to speed now. Diggers and cement lorries will descend on London and the Tory shires. Northern cities with their predominantly Labour MPs are spared.

Excluding the capital, Conservative seats will have to accommodate an additional 54,000 homes each year, while Labour constituencies beyond the capital will be asked to build 3,000 fewer.

Ministers reason that they need to build houses where people want to live.

By increasing the supply in desirable areas, prices will fall and the dream of home ownership will be extended to a younger generation currently locked out of the market.

There is significant opposition, though. A Whatsapp group entitled “Housing Algorithm Concerns” has about 80 members. Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt are among those who have already spoken out against the reforms.

Some blame the algorithm on Dominic Cummings and Jack Airey, his housing policy chief. MPs mutter that neither are card-carrying members of the party.

No 10 cannot afford to leave the impression that there is one rule for ministers and another rule for MPs. If Mr Johnson is to succeed, he will need to manage his party carefully. Goodwill is in increasingly short supply after a summer of U-turns and with a winter of Covid restrictions on the horizon.

Eat Out to Help Out increased coronavirus infection rates, study finds

The government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme drove up Covid-19 infections while offering only short-lived economic benefits, a study suggests.

Rhys Blakely, Science Correspondent 

The research concludes that the £500 million scheme, championed by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, led to a significant rise in new cases in August and early September, contributing to the pandemic’s second wave.

The scheme “may have indirect economic and public health costs that vastly outstrip its short-term economic benefits”, a paper from the economics department of Warwick University says.

The Eat Out to Help Out initiative was designed to boost the economy after the national lockdown. It allowed pubs and restaurants to offer heavily discounted meals on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays in August.

The research found that areas with higher take-up of the scheme saw an increase in new virus infection clusters within a week of it starting. There was a deceleration in new infections within a fortnight of it ending.

Between 8 per cent and 17 per cent of new infection clusters that emerged in August and early September could be attributed to Eat Out to Help Out, Dr Thiemo Fetzer, of the University of Warwick, the paper’s lead author, calculated.

As the scheme ended, visits to restaurants declined, indicating, Dr Fetzer said, that its positive economic impact was short-lived. “Eat Out to Help Out may in the end have been a false economy: one that subsidised the spread of the pandemic into autumn and contributed to the start of the second wave,” he said.

He added: “Epidemiologists have long shown that restaurants are high-risk places for infections to take place. Here’s a scheme that encouraged a lot of people to visit restaurants in very concentrated periods of time. Some restaurants were seeing 100 per cent more business compared to usual on these days.”

Epidemiologists and economists had cautioned against the initiative in the summer, he said. “They warned that it would subsidise infections . . . Obviously, there will be deaths linked to the scheme as well — this was perfectly predictable.”

He added: “Alternative policy measures, such as extending the furlough scheme, increasing statutory sick pay and supporting low-income households through expanding free school meals may well prove to be far more cost-effective than demand-stimulating measures that encourage economic activities which actively cause Covid-19 to spread.”

To demonstrate a causal connection between Eat Out to Help Out and increased infections Dr Fetzer looked at data on rainfall and people’s movements.

He found that higher rainfall around lunch and dinner time during the scheme’s period of operation led to both a drop in visits to restaurants and subsequently lower new infection rates, compared to areas that had good weather.

Rainfall during lunch and dinner hours did not drastically affect time spent in other locations. Dr Fetzer said: “This strongly suggests that the link between Eat Out to Help Out and new Covid-19 infections is causal: when people were not dining out as part of the scheme there were fewer new cases of the virus.”

A Treasury spokesman told Sky News: “We do not recognise these figures . . . Many other European counterparts have experienced an uptick in cases — irrespective of whether similar measures for the hospitality industry have been introduced.”

The total value of meals for which the discount was claimed was about £1 billion. Boris Johnson admitted earlier this month that Eat Out to Help Out may have contributed to a rise in Covid cases. “In so far as that scheme may have helped to spread the virus then obviously we need to counteract that with the discipline and the measures that we’re proposing,” he told the BBC.

Coronavirus: Army sent to start ‘moonshot’ tests

Soldiers will be deployed to carry out a mass coronavirus testing programme in six northern towns as part of Boris Johnson’s “moonshot” to avoid a second national lockdown.

[Could the political pressure be on to reach headline targets by arbitrary deadlines? And where have all the consultants gone? – Owl]

Steven Swinford, Deputy Politcal Editor 

The saliva-based tests will be offered to people whether they have Covid-19 symptoms or not. They will receive the results in half an hour.

Mr Johnson is understood to want to hit the target of a million coronavirus tests a day by the end of the year. Ministers are believed to be on target to meet a promise to reach capacity of 500,000 tests a day by tomorrow, but that could be doubled within two months.

The government’s determination to move forward with its mass-testing plan could mean more than five million people a week in England being sent a 30-minute saliva test. The kits are designed to detect active infection, where people have virus particles in their system.

One of the first pilots will be in Redcar, where 36,000 people will be offered tests. Jacob Young, the local Conservative MP, said on Facebook that the army “wouldn’t be knocking on people’s doors”.

He said: “This is a voluntary scheme that will better identify who has Covid-19 in our community, help them to self-isolate, and therefore reduce the spread. Mass testing is the quickest way we will see restrictions reduced and so I think it is a good thing for Redcar.”

Several versions of the test appear to have passed government standards, although experts warned yesterday that they were likely to fall short of the sensitivity of the standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that have formed the backbone of the test-and-trace system.

“The biggest issue is the sensitivity,” Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School, said. “For people in the acute phase of infection, who are symptomatic, they seem to be adequate. But there’s a big question mark over whether these tests would actually detect asymptomatic infection. And we all believe that that’s a major source of the spread.”

Testing data suggests that the saliva tests can identify up to 96 per cent of positive results.

Dossier alleges Cummings may have perverted course of justice in account of lockdown trip

Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have been handed a 225-page dossier urging them to investigate Dominic Cummings for allegedly perverting the course of justice, in relation to a statement about his journeys to the north-east of England at the height of the pandemic.

Matthew Weaver 

The former regional chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal said Cummings’ claims during a press conference in Downing Street’s rose garden on 25 May affected the course of justice as they were made as Durham police’s investigation into his behaviour was already under way.

Afzal’s lawyers gave extensive details of the allegation in the dossier sent on Friday to Durham police, the Metropolitan police and Max Hill, the director of public prosecutions, and his staff at the CPS.

They claimed the legal test for such a prosecution had been met. The dossier also accuses Cummings and his wife, Mary Wakefield, of multiple alleged offences under the coronavirus regulations for leaving their primary home in London and their second home in Durham without, it says, a reasonable excuse.

The most serious allegation in the documents is the claim that Cummings perverted the course of justice in his account of his journey to Barnard Castle on 12 April and his denial of a claim that he made a second lockdown trip to Durham. If such a charge were proven, Cummings could face a prison sentence.

In a statement, Afzal’s lawyers said: “The alleged offence of perverting the course of justice arises from Mr Cummings’ statement in the rose garden … Mr Cummings made public assertions about his conduct at Barnard Castle on 12 April and his actions on the weekend of 17-19 April that appear to be wholly inconsistent with accounts of his conduct at that time obtained from eyewitnesses.”

 Dominic Cummings says he drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight – video

Cummings admitted in his statement that he had travelled to Durham and Barnard Castle, as revealed by the Guardian and the Daily Mirror. He said he had acted legally and travelled to Durham to self-isolate after his wife became sick with suspected Covid, and a day before he also fell ill.

He claimed he had phone data to prove he was not in Durham on 19 April as one Guardian source had claimed. When three other people made similar claims, Downing Street said it considered the matter closed and refused to release the evidence that Cummings said proved he was in London.

Two of the people, Dave and Clare Edwards, gave statements to Durham police officers on 25 May as the prime minister’s chief aide was giving his press conference, claiming that they saw a man whom they believed to be Cummings on 19 April in Durham’s Houghall woods.

The submissions from Afzal’s lawyers said Cummings’ account appeared to have influenced a three-day investigation by Durham police into his lockdown journeys.

The force made no finding on his decision to leave London because its investigation was confined to County Durham. It concluded that the journey to Barnard Castle on Wakefield’s birthday amounted to a “minor” breach of the rules “because there was no apparent breach of social distancing”, and it found there was “insufficient evidence” that he made a second trip.

Afzal’s lawyers said new statements from witnesses called these conclusions into question.

At least three people have reported seeing Cummings in Barnard Castle, including Robin Lees, a retired chemistry teacher, who alerted the Guardian and the police to seeing Cummings and his family getting into a car on a road on the southern side of the Tees on 12 April.

Cummings said he stayed by the Tees for 10 to 15 minutes and strayed no more than 15 metres from his car. But Rosalind Evans, a retired council worker, told the Guardian and the police that she saw someone she believed to be Cummings in the town centre on 12 April.

A third person, Alan Gowland, told the Sunday Times and later the Guardian that he saw someone he believed to be Cummings on a path by a weir on the other side of the Tees from Lees’ sighting.

Afzal’s dossier includes eight annexes of new statements from witnesses in Barnard Castle and Durham. The Met and the CPS have previously refused Afzal’s request to investigate the allegations against Cummings.

Afzal, whose brother Umar died from coronavirus when he was self-isolating at home on 8 April when Cummings was in Durham, said he wanted to get to the truth.

“The picture painted by the witnesses that have come forward appears clear and coherent and is inconsistent in important parts with the version given by Mr Cummings,” he said. “I believe the CPS’s public interest test is also met, given the impact that this has had on general compliance with Covid regulations.”

A No 10 spokesperson said: “The prime minister has said he believes Mr Cummings behaved reasonably and he considers the matter closed. Durham Constabulary have made clear they are not taking any further action against Mr Cummings and that by locating himself at his father’s premises he did not breach the regulations.”

Cummings and Wakefield have been approached for comment.

Labour demands probe into leaked documents showing lucrative Covid contracts ‘were awarded to VIPs’

Ministers accused ‘putting the profit of their friends and donors above NHS workers who urgently needed PPE’ – from apple news

Labour is demanding an investigation into leaked documents appearing to show that lucrative Covid-19 contracts were awarded to “VIPs”, bypassing normal processes.

Ministers are already under fire for a succession of deals quietly struck with firms run by Conservative friends for personal protective equipment (PPE) at the height of the pandemic.

Now the Good Law Project – which has launched a court case – has unearthed the documents allegedly exposing special procurement channels, including for “Cabinet Office contacts”.

It says they show the department was “feeding its contacts into the procurement process” and that value for money was only raised “if prices were more than 25 per cent above the average”.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, accused ministers of “putting the profit of their friends and donors above NHS workers who urgently needed PPE at the height of the crisis”.


Lucrative coronavirus contracts handed to Tory ‘friends’ – Labour

“The deeper you delve into this Tory government’s Covid outsourcing, the more disturbing it gets,” she said.

“Not only were some of these ‘VIPs’ paid over the odds – in one case for unusable PPE – they were awarded these contracts at the height of the crisis when our NHS workers needed urgent, high quality PPE.”

The Good Law Project alleges that companies were able to “make enormous margins” of up to 45 per cent “on contracts sometimes worth hundreds of millions of pounds”.

It is highlighting contracts to three companies, all with connections to Conservative figures, worth more than £500m in total.

Ms Reeves added: “Labour has previously called for an investigation from the National Audit Office into this government’s strange procurement decisions. It is vital this new evidence is included.”

The NAO is already looking into deals worth more than £830m which were awarded to at least 12 different companies, earlier in the year.


Controversy surrounds a £32m contract handed to a pest control company called PestFix to source surgical gowns, although it had listed net assets of only £18,000.

Public First was given £840,000 to assess the effectiveness of the government’s coronavirus advice, although it was also listed as being to prepare for completing Brexit.

The company is co-owned by James Frayne, who was employed by Michael Gove when he was education secretary, alongside Dominic Cummings – now the prime minister’s chief aide.

Critics protested that the work was not advertised, there was no competition and that no official notice of the award was published. 

A government spokesperson said: “We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect our health and social care staff throughout the pandemic, with more than 4.4 billion items delivered so far and 32 billion items ordered to provide a continuous supply to the frontline over the coming months.

“Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously.”

Council called on to provide free school meals over Christmas

Devon County Council will be asked to ensure all eligible children receive free school meal vouchers for the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

Daniel Clark 

The council this week said it will continue to work with district councils to ensure hardship support is available to vulnerable children and families across the county this winter and pledged extra funding to ensure no child goes hungry.

But Liberal Democrats group leader Cllr Alan Connett had said the announcement was ‘smoke and mirrors’ but certainly no food for hungry children and that the Conservatives running the council were playing politics with hungry children this half-term and for the holidays to come.

Now Labour group leader Cllr Rob Hannaford has put forward a motion to December’s full council meeting that would see the council resolve to use some of the allocated hardship funding to ensure that all eligible children in the Devon County Council area of responsibility receive free school meal vouchers for the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

Cllr Hannaford said: “I hope that this motion will clarify that we need leadership on this key issue from the county council directly. We will obviously work closely with our district colleagues and others, but at the end of day we are the education authority.

“The government has totally misread the mood of the country on this problem, and it has now become a symbolic issue that has starkly highlighted again the widespread poverty and hardship that continues to blight our nation through the plight of hungry children.”

The motion will be debated at the December 3 full council meeting, as will a petition started by East Devon councillor Joe Whibley, if 6,000 signatures are reached by November 24.

Cllr Whibley said: “The Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford MBE’s campaign to extend free school meal vouchers to children in need throughout the school holidays was unsuccessful in parliament yet several local councils have decided to take on that cost and responsibility, as have local businesses and charities. This petition seeks to urge Devon County Council to do the same thing, and look to cover its costs by lobbying central government to cover the subsequent onward costs.

“No child deserves to go hungry, and we must ensure we do all we can to help local children get fed regularly, term time or not.”

The Government had earlier this week referred to the £63 million that was allocated to local councils and suggested this was for free school meals.

But Cllr John Hart, leader of Devon County Council said: “This money was distributed in June and was intended to ensure that no one – children or adults – who was badly affected by the pandemic should go hungry. That money has already been spent in Devon in supporting the most vulnerable.

“I am now writing to the Government to outline that due to our financial position we are limited in our ability to provide this support beyond the spring. We therefore urgently call on the Government to properly fund support for all vulnerable people in Devon affected by the financial impacts of the pandemic.

“I want to pay tribute to the local communities, shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants across Devon that are doing their bit in their locality to provide food for children over this half-term.

“We have already allocated £1.7 million this year through a shared hardship fund to ensure that the most needy children and families in Devon do not go hungry.

“I have also instructed that the county council holds a further £100,000 in reserve for additional hardship funding this winter.”

Government won’t cut 300,000 housing target – Robert Jenrick

The government “will listen” to views on where new homes should be built but won’t cut its target to build 300,000 homes a year, Robert Jenrick has said.

[Well, we’ll certainly need a target this high if everyone “levels-up” to the standards of “three homes” Jenrick]

Engage – go through the motions – tick

Listen – your views are important to us – tick

Consultation – process complete – tick

Followed by ignoring everything the public says – business as usual!

BBC News 

The housing secretary said he wanted to encourage more building in the Midlands and the North rather than London.

Several Tory MPs have expressed concern that the government’s plan could mean more homes in rural areas and undermine the government’s “levelling-up” agenda.

Mr Jenrick also set out plans to tackle homelessness over the winter.

Asked about the government’s housing plans for England, Mr Jenrick said he wanted homes to be built in every part of the country, including in those areas where it is expensive to live.

He said local councils would be given a rough estimate of how many homes needed to be built in their community.

Local councils should then come forward with potential sites for new buildings – taking into account constraints such as areas protected by the green belt, he said.

“Obviously we will listen to views express in the consultation or whether there are different ways to achieve that, ” he said.

“But are we going to move away from our objective to build more homes? Absolutely not.

“We should be a government that is setting out to build more homes because we’ve got to help next generation onto the housing ladder and the most vulnerable people in society to get homes.

A consultation on the government’s plans – including a new formula for assessing housing need – is due to close at 23:45 BST on Thursday.

The proposals have been attacked by some of the government’s own MPs including former Prime Minister Theresa May.

She described the plans as “ill-conceived” and “mechanistic”.

And Isle of Wight MP Bob Seely said the algorithm would “hollow out our cities, urbanise our suburbs and suburbanise the countryside”.

The plans have also been criticised by the director of the National Trust. Speaking to the Times, Hilary McGrady said she had “significant concerns” and said it “must not lead to concrete deserts devoid of green space, lacking corridors for nature and sustainable travel”.

2px presentational grey line
Analysis box by Alex Forsyth, political correspondent

There is both nervousness and anger among the Tory MPs who oppose these planning reforms.

Nervousness that the government could press on with its new system for determining the number of new homes needed in each area as soon as next month, and anger at the prospect of their concerns being ignored.

The housing secretary was non-committal, saying only that the government would listen to views.

The policy here is crucial; the housing crisis is acute and new homes are needed in the right place at the right price. But the politics matters too.

The government has already burned political capital on its backbenches with the way it’s handled some aspects of the coronavirus crisis.

Pressing on with the proposed new system for local housing targets – as well as the wider planning reforms – will result in another backbench backlash.

Beyond that, there are local elections next year , and nervous Tories in the party’s heartlands fear any public anger at these plans will be felt at the ballot box.

Apology issued after emails accused CEO of being ‘arrogant, lazy, and pompous

Now the focus falls on the part played by “two fingers” Ben Ingham, a man, in Owl’s opinion, of questionable judgement.

[Also with “previous form”].

Daniel Clark and

An East Devon councillor has apologised to the council’s chief executive after a standards investigation concluded that language used in his emails breached the code of conduct.

Cllr Paul Millar was found to have on six occasions used language of a personal and derogatory nature which showed a failure to treat the Chief Executive with courtesy and respect.

The emails were sent back in January and February this year and followed comments that the chief executive Mark Williams had made in public at council meetings.

In the emails, Cllr Millar had said that Mr Williams ‘had a very long pattern of behaviour of briefing against councillors to the press and I believe it’s getting to a point where it has become no longer tolerable’, as well as saying ‘he is cold, arrogant, lazy, pompous, and highly disrespectful in remarks he makes in public about elected, backbench Members’.

Cllr Paul Millar
Cllr Paul Millar

Another added: “Your comments were ‘Councillor blaming’, you did it publicly and they reflect poorly on the Council – there’s no public ‘officer blaming here’ – only rightful disgust that you seek to brand us as having a parochial mindset when this is far from the truth.”

The text of Cllr Millar’s emails were published as part of the decision notice, but not the full chain of the emails whereby any additional context to them were given.

The standards committee found that Cllr Millar’s had breached the Code of Conduct in that he failed to treat others with courtesy and respect but complaints made by Cllr Ben Ingham that his actions were a pattern of bullying behaviour were dismissed, and that while Cllr Millar brought his office into disrepute, they did not bring the council into disrepute.

The hearing, which was held in private, heard that Cllr Millar, who at the time was an unaffiliated Independent, stated that he had been frustrated by the political situation and felt powerless to influence the Council’s actions.

Mark Williams, East Devon District Council's chief executive
Mark Williams, East Devon District Council’s chief executive

He explained the difficulty he had experienced while an independent councillor and that he felt unsupported and said felt the actions of the Chief Executive were unwarranted and that this had caused him to react as he did.

Having been found to have breached the code of conduct, Cllr Millar, who is now Democracy & Transparency Portfolio Holder, said he had apologised to Mr Williams.

He added: “I have submitted an apology to the CEO for any hurt caused by comments which I could have worded in a different way.

“I came into local government to act fully in the public interest at all times and stand up for all of the residents living in East Devon, particularly those who been dealt a bad hand in life and are unfairly suffering as a result of the pandemic. For as long as I am a Councillor, I will continue to do this.

“I still have questions about the investigation but I’m really keen now to move on and fully concentrate on helping people in my Ward and continue my progress in working with my amazing colleagues in the new administration in making the Council more open and transparent.”

The complaint made against the conduct of Cllr Millar was made by Cllr Ingham, who earlier in 2020 had been found to have breached the code of conduct by not treating Cllr Millar courtesy and respect.

A standards investigation into the then leader of the council’s conduct found that Cllr Ingham had shared confidential details around health matters to other councillors, as well as making a ‘two fingered gesture’ at Cllr Millar during a scrutiny committee meeting.

The complaint against Cllr Ingham was upheld by the council’s monitoring officer and he was required to give a written apology to Cllr Millar.

Cllr Ben Ingham
Cllr Ben Ingham (Image: Daniel Clark)

A Code of Conduct complaints update report which went to the Standards Committee earlier this month publicly revealed the details of the breach, and while Cllr Ingham was not named as the councillor, the Local Democracy Reporting Service has seen information to confirm he was the councillor.

The report also heard that an allegation that an unnamed councillor who booed a speech made at a meeting was resolved with agreement to informal mediation.

When asked if they wished to comment further on the findings or if Mr Williams wished to say anything, an East Devon District Council spokesman said: “We consider it would not be appropriate for any comment to be given.”

Former mayor of Exmouth denies sexual assault of two boys

A former mayor has appeared at Exeter Crown Court charged with the sexual assault of two boys.

BBC News

John Humphreys, 58, of Hartley Road, Exmouth, denied three counts of a serious sexual assault and two of indecent assault on a boy aged 12 to 13 between 1990 and 1991.

He also denied five counts of indecent assault of a second boy, aged 14 to 15, between 2000 and 2002.

Mr Humphreys was the mayor of Exmouth between 2012 and 2014.

He also served as an East Devon councillor for 12 years until 2019.

He has been released on bail and is due to appear for trial on 9 August.

Winslade Manor: application amended yet again, these to be discussed at Parish Council Monday 2 Nov

Owl has heard  from the Chairman of Save Clyst St Mary that the applicant has submitted further amendments to the controversial Winslade Manor development. These are to be discussed by the Bishop’s Court Parish Council next Monday 2 November.

The Chairman writes:

Despite all the amendments that the applicant has submitted it has many areas that don’t appear to follow the National Planning Policy Framework Guidance. The Burrington Estates Chairman was one of the four significant people that wrote the guidance and advised the Government on its contents. It’s a real pity that the company he works for doesn’t follow the guidance that he wrote!

The latest amendments have removed the commercial units that were planned for zone B and replaced the area with car parking in a high risk flood zone. We wonder where everyone will park when the area floods!

Zone D (the area backing on to the bottom of Clyst Valley Road) has been split into two buildings enlarged in length and partillary reduced in height. The number of apartments still remains the same at 40. Should this be approved the houses at the bottom of Clyst Valley Road will become significantly overlooked and there remains the possibility that applicants can use Government legislation to increase the height by a further two storeys with permitted development.

The Parish Council has arranged to discuss the latest amendments on Monday 2nd of November at 7.30. Should you want to listen or to/// speak you will need to register with the Parish Clerk (The details are on the Parish Council website) 

The amendments for Planning Application 20/1001/MOUT can be viewed on EDDC’s Planning website here.

Tiers for Fears – most data looks dire – but how worried should we be?

This week there has been a dramatic change in the number of deaths caused by coronavirus in England – with dire predictions for the winter ahead.

So what’s going on?

Nicola Davis

Last week, a report from Public Health England suggested new cases might be flattening off, but they now seem to be soaring: Why?

The latest figures from PHE showed that in week 42, ending 18 October, there were 101,887 cases, compared with 91,501 cases reported the week before. This amounts to an 11% increase, compared to a 30% increase in the previous week, and a 76% increase in the week before that.

These figures have been revised upwards since last week due to delays in turnaround time, but they appear to show the rise in new Covid-19 cases is slowing.

But there are important factors to consider: while national capacity for testing has increased over time, local capacity varies, which could influence the trend in some results.

In addition, the PHE data largely reflects people who have been tested for Covid because they had symptoms: surveys from the Office for National Statistics and the React-1 study by researchers at Imperial College London involve taking samples from randomly selected members of the public, meaning they are not affected by fluctuations in testing capacity, and pick up asymptomatic cases.

Both of these studies focus on cases in the community – so do not include hospital data – but vary in participant numbers and timing of data collection.

Models by the MRC Biostatistics Unit in Cambridge, meanwhile, use a number of existing datasets to model infections including those in hospitals and care homes.

All of these studies contain levels of uncertainty, but they suggest new cases are rising in most, if not all, parts of the country.

That message is backed up by data on Covid hospital admissions and deaths, which follow a similar, albeit delayed, trajectory compared with infections.

Is there any evidence that the tiered system has slowed the rate of infections?

According to Prof Steven Riley, a co-author of the React-1 study, there is evidence of a slowing in the uptick in new infections in the north-west while the epidemic may no longer be growing in the north-east – although prevalence remains high.

That may suggest tier 3 restrictions are having some impact – but infections are rising in most parts of the country.

Some reports have suggested the death rate will flatten out and not reach the peaks of the first wave, although more may die overall. What is the science behind that?

Experts say it is perfectly possible that this may happen, with the second wave more prolonged than the first.

One reason is that unlike the first wave, when there was a national lockdown, the tiered system means infections may continue to grow in regions below tier 3. They could end up escalating through the tiers, until they reach the highest level.

At that point, restrictions may be tight enough to reduce R, but once restrictions are relaxed, infections could climb once more. The upshot is that the tier system could act rather like a thermostat, with incidence (and therefore deaths), ending up roughly steady.

Has the R gone up significantly?

Possibly. The MRC data suggests R is almost certainly above 1 in all parts of England, with the possible exception of London, although there has been a decrease in R over the past few weeks in most regions – but this is based on data that is, overall, less up to date than that of the React-1 study. The latter puts the R for England at 1.27-1.88, up from 1.05-1.27 two weeks ago.

Riley said the React study found a small dip in R a few weeks ago, suggesting the difference may be down to time lags in data used by the MRC. “We only need small changes in the average behaviour to go from 1.1 to 1.6,” he said, adding that just an extra one or two risky contacts per person might make the difference.

Importantly, R remains above 1 for most, if not all, of the country. That means new infections are growing.

What’s the most reliable picture? How worried should we be?

The ONS and React-1 surveys are the most reliable for a snapshot of the situation, while the daily PHE data is most up to date but prone to biases in sampling. To get a true picture of the situation, it is worth considering all the data, from the different infection studies to numbers for hospital admissions and deaths. But the outlook is very concerning.

“From our data there is a very real threat to the hospital system across the UK over the next two months,” said Riley.

Additional reporting by Niamh McIntyre.

Covid outbreak at Lympstone marine camp

Commando training continues though

Radio Exe News

The Ministry of Defence says the Royal Marines’ Commando Training Centre at Lympstone has been affected by an outbreak of covid-19. Although they haven’t confirmed numbers, separate government figures show a cluster of 26 people confirmed with the virus in the Lympstone and Clyst St Mary area.

A Royal Navy spokesperson says: “We can confirm that a number of personnel at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) have tested positive for covid-19. Personnel who have been in contact with those testing positive are self-isolating in line with Public Health England guidance.

“There is no impact on other trainees at CTCRM. The safety and welfare of our people remains paramount.”

Devon 20-somethings are covid magnets

The figures, concerning positive cases reported in the week to 27 October, reveal that in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Torbay and Plymouth, the 20-29 age group has the highest number of cases.

Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter

Devon 20-somethings are covid magnets

They account for most cases

New statistics have been released showing the breakdown of positive covid-19 cases by age group and local authority area.

The figures, concerning positive cases reported in the week to 27 October, reveal that in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Torbay and Plymouth, the 20-29 age group has the highest number of cases.

Torbay has a higher number of new cases being reported in the 70-79 age group than the 10-19 age group, the only area in Devon to do so, and the Bay has the highest rate of cases for the 80-89 and 90+ age groups.

Torbay has the highest percentage of cases in the 60+ age range (17 per cent) and the lowest in the 10-19 age range (just six per cent), with 16 per cent of cases in the 20-29, 40-49 and 50-59 age ranges and 23 per cent in the 30-39 range.

In the Devon County Council area, 14.5 per cent of the cases confirmed are from the 60+ age group, with another 14 per cent in the 50-59 age group, with the 20-29 (28 per cent) and 10-19 (19 per cent) with the highest amount.

In Plymouth, just 13 per cent of cases are in the 60+ age group, with 32 per cent of cases in the 20-29 age range, and 13 per cent in the 10-19 age group.

Croydon council on verge of bankruptcy after risky investments

Ministers have sent in a taskforce to oversee Croydon council after an audit report revealed the Labour-run authority is on the verge of bankruptcy following a string of risky property investments and a failure to keep control of social care budgets.

Patrick Butler 

Auditors heavily criticised the south London council for ignoring more than three years of internal warnings over its finances, accusing it of “collective corporate blindness” and fostering a governance culture in which poor spending decisions were not robustly challenged or scrutinised by councillors.

The council has a £60m black hole in its budget, and only £10m of financial reserves, auditors revealed, in a report that carried strong echoes of similarly deep-rooted corporate failings at Tory-run Northamptonshire county council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt in 2018.

The auditors, Grant Thornton, said Covid-19 had “ruthlessly exposed” the council’s fragile underlying financial position. “Whilst the … pandemic has created significant financial pressures for local government, the depth of the issues facing Croydon existed prior to the pandemic.”

The report’s other findings include:

  • Croydon borrowed £545m during the past three years to invest in housing and commercial property. This included a £200m loan to its own housing development arm Brick By Brick, which has yet to return a dividend. The council has capital borrowings of nearly £2bn.
  • It invested £30m in the local Croydon Park Hotel in 2018-19. This went into administration in June. It also spent £46m on a shopping centre. The council’s strategy of “invest[ing] its way out of financial challenge” was “inherently flawed”, as councillors did not properly understand the retail and leisure markets, auditors said.
  • It allowed a £39m overspend on adult and children’s social care to spin out of control after 2017 when an Ofsted inspection branded its children’s services “inadequate”, and subsequently used accounting tricks to mask its failure to control costs in these departments.

The audit report revealed that Croydon’s top finance official drafted a formal section 114 letter to council bosses in September signalling the council was effectively bankrupt but this was not published following discussions with the former leader, and other senior managers.

There has been a clearout of Croydon’s top management in recent weeks with the former council leader Tony Newman, the deputy leader Alison Butler and the former chief executive Jo Negrini all leaving their posts. The new leader, Hamida Ali, has promised “decisive action” to bring the council’s finances under control.

On Thursday the local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, confirmed that Croydon had approached the government for special financial help, and announced that a rapid review of the council’s governance, culture and risk management would be carried out.

He said: “The public interest report published this week is damning about the dysfunctional governance within Croydon council, who have been entirely irresponsible with their spending and investments. There are serious questions [for] local leaders to answer, and we are stepping in to get the situation under control.”

Although it stops short of a full Northamptonshire-style statutory intervention in the day-to-day running of Croydon’s affairs for now, the review will closely examine the council’s financial plans and commercial investment strategies to see if more formal involvement is required in the future.

Ali said: “While a decade of austerity and the Covid-19 crisis have had a major impact on our finances they do not excuse the issues this report has laid bare. The council fully accepts the findings and recommendations of this report and the council’s new leadership will take swift and decisive action to stabilise the council’s finances and governance.”

Croydon’s parlous financial state, while pre-dating the pandemic, has highlighted the increasingly fragile state of council finances across the UK. Manchester city council warned on Thursday it faced “unpalatable cuts” to services if the government did not step in with extra funds to tackle an anticipated £105m budget shortfall in 2021-22.

Manchester’s leader, Sir Richard Leese, said: “At the start of this crisis the clear message from government to local authorities was ‘spend what you need to’ but since then they have changed their tune. We need them to honour that original commitment. Failure to do so would mean that we will be forced into totally unpalatable cuts.”

Concrete desert warning from National Trust over new planning rules

Boris Johnson’s planning reforms risk creating “concrete deserts” that are “devoid of green space”, the director of the National Trust has warned.

George Grylls, Melissa York

Hilary McGrady said that she had “significant concerns” about the scale and pace of the plans, calling them “too dismissive of what currently works”.

In August, No 10 announced the biggest shake-up in planning laws in 70 years with Mr Johnson determined to construct 300,000 homes a year as part of his “Build, Build, Build” agenda.

Rural land in the green belt and in Areas of Outstanding National Beauty will fall into protected zones — where applications will probably face rejection. In areas marked for renewal, most proposals will be approved. Permission will automatically be granted for development in growth areas.

The basis for the present system is the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, has said the planning process is broken and Mr Johnson has said that “newt-counting delays” prevent greater housebuilding.

Ms McGrady, who represents 5.6 million National Trust members, said that reforms would not work without “genuine public scrutiny”. “What should we make of the proposed growth, recovery and protected areas? Certainly they must not lead to concrete deserts devoid of green space, lacking corridors for nature and sustainable travel.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “These claims are entirely wrong, and ignore the fact that our reforms to the outdated planning system protect green spaces and will create beautiful and well-designed communities, with green spaces and tree-lined streets as the norm. Local communities will be able to choose land for ‘protection’, helping them pass on valued green spaces for future generations.”

Under existing rules, the public can object to developments at two points in the planning process: when the council draws up a local plan and when a specific building applies for permission.

The government argues that the second part of the process is too often dominated by “a small minority of voices” and wants to minimise consultation at this phase.

Ms McGrady questioned the government’s plan to enshrine beauty in new design codes after Mr Jenrick said that he would legally enforce tree-planting in new developments and demand that future buildings take architectural inspiration from “Bath, Belgravia and Bournville”.

She said: “More tree-lined streets and a ‘fast track for beauty’ sound good, but how will this happen?’ We must not take a skin-deep approach when nature is in meltdown and we are in the teeth of the climate crisis.”

Tory backbenchers including the former cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling have reservations about the reforms. About 80 Tory MPs are in a Whatsapp group that is co-ordinating opposition to the changes.

One MP said: “The government is not listening. Dominic Cummings holds parliament in contempt and he’s just bulldozing these plans through.”

A source of contention is an algorithm that calculates where the 300,000 houses will be built each year. The formula will concentrate building in London and rural areas, but scale back projects in northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

In the Commons this month, Theresa May said the algorithmic approach was “mechanistic and ill-conceived”. Ministers would not reform the system by removing local democracy and cutting the number of affordable homes that are built, she said.

Tory minister who voted against free school meals made £65 expense claim – for book about childhood poverty

A Conservative minister who voted against free school meals had earlier made a £65 expense claim – for a handbook about childhood poverty. 

Robin Walker, minister for Northern Ireland, bought the Child Poverty Action Group reference manual last June and then charged it to the public purse.

But last week he was among hundreds of Tories who voted down a parliamentary motion aimed specifically at alleviating such deprivation by extending free school meals over the half-term and Christmas holidays.

The vote – demanded by the Labour party after a petition by footballer Marcus Rashford – was defeated by 322 to 261 in the Commons.

The decision was widely criticised, with businesses and charities across the country coming forward to offer free half-term food to struggling families.

But Mr Walker, who was himself educated at the private St Paul’s School in London, said his decision – to deny poor children a hot meal every day – had been “misrepresented”.

“I think the vote on Wednesday was how we help not whether we help,” he told the Worcester News. “We are definitely going to make sure that there is support for the most vulnerable people and the debate was about whether the best to do that was through free school meals or through the welfare system.

“The motion I voted for was providing extra support through the welfare system.” 

Speaking about the £65 book – which could have paid for almost 30 free school meals – he said: “It was actually something that a previous caseworker ordered because she wanted to get some training on how to make referrals for cases where we thought people were at risk.

“We ordered that as a training resource and handbook.

“It’s to help the team make sure they know the right organisations to go to. We haven’t ordered it again this year because we already have one and we don’t feel need to subscribe to it annually.”

Mr Walker has previously served in the Scotland Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

And for Sasha-holics there is still more

“I don’t say it, but I think f**k the lot of them. Loyalty is always a one-way-street.” These are the words of Sasha Swire in her recent tell-all book: Diary of an MP’s Wife, Inside and Outside Power .

Lifting the lid on the Camerons in Devon

Gillian Molesworth

For those wishing to look as f******t as Sasha here’s where to go [fragrant]:

Hugo, You Can Stop Campaigning – Guido Fawkes

What a hoot! – Owl

[look at the online article to get the full experience]

Hugo Swire’s wife caused quite a stir with her cracking diary detailing the behind-the-scenes joys of the Cameron chumocracy.  A bemused co-conspirator, Tony Colvin, got in touch to query these advertisements running on Guido. For Hugo…

They invite you to find out what Hugo Swire MP is doing for East Devon. Not very much Guido suspects, given he stood down as an MP in 2019. Which meant he fortunately didn’t have to face irritated and embarrassed Tory colleagues. The local Tory MP is now Simon Jupp.

These are Google adverts bought programmatically. Presumably a year after the campaign ended somebody is still automatically paying for them on their card – hopefully not the taxpayer. As much as Guido appreciates the revenue, perhaps somebody, somewhere, ought to cancel the order?

Nearly half of councils in Great Britain use algorithms to help make claims decisions

Today is the last day of public consultation on the “mutant” algorithm and other measures proposed in “Planning for the Future”.

Automated decision-making “black box” programmes are increasingly being used – probably by those who don’t have a good understanding on how they work. In fact may not be transparent even to experts for commercial reasons – Owl 

Niamh McIntyre 

Nearly half of councils in England, Wales and Scotland have used or are using computer algorithms to help make decisions about benefit claims, who gets social housing and other issues, despite concerns about their reliability.

A Guardian freedom of information investigation has established that 100 out of 229 councils have used or are using automated decision-making programmes, many without consulting at all with the public on their use.

This is despite one council admitting that results from one algorithm showed it was only 26% accurate in some instances. The company behind it said it was because people often entered information wrongly.

Another council dropped an artificial intelligence tool to process new benefit claims, saying they were not satisfied with its reliability.

A range of private companies are selling machine-learning packages to local authorities that are under pressure to save money. The systems are being deployed to provide automated guidance on benefit claims, help decide who gets social housing, and allocate school places among a range of other uses.

Concerns have been raised about the arbitrary nature of these programmes, which inform important decisions about people’s lives, and their scope for making mistakes.

Martha Dark, the director of the digital rights group Foxglove, said: “It is very worrying to see so many councils putting in place algorithmic systems without any public consultation. These systems are clearly being used to make huge decisions about people’s lives.”

The use of artificial intelligence, or automated decision-making, has come into sharp focus after an algorithm used by the exam regulator, Ofqual, downgraded almost 40% of the A-level grades assessed by teachers. It culminated in a government U-turn and the system being scrapped.

One of the most used algorithms among councils is that for risk-based verification, a process in which claims for housing and council tax are automatically processed to determine the likelihood of fraud. Those that are considered higher risk are slowed down and people are asked to provide more evidence.

The programme is still being used by South Ayrshire council. When asked about the accuracy of this programme, the council said it had used the company Northgate Public Services, and the programme was found to be 26% accurate at finding low-risk claims, 36% accurate for medium-risk claims and had a 40% accuracy rate for high-risk ones. The service cost £41,500.

A spokesperson for South Ayrshire council said: “All applications are manually processed by staff – we do not use robotics to verify any application or evidence submitted. The type of risk associated determines the type or level of evidence required to verify the claim and so improves efficiency in claims processing.”

Northgate Public Services said the accuracy rates quoted were not related to the effectiveness but rather claimants often inputting incorrect data.

Wigan council uses an algorithm to allocate social housing. It says answers are submitted and a points-based system then decides which category to place people into. The council uses Northgate housing software to sort candidates into groups. The company stressed it was not involved in banding and assessment criteria, which is instead put in place by councils.

Wigan said applicants and council tenants are placed in either group A, B or C when they are able to demonstrate that they meet the appropriate criteria in either their permanent or temporary home. Group A includes young people leaving local authority care, those in severe hardship and those leaving the UK armed forces. Group B includes those living in poor housing conditions. Group C includes those living outside the borough with no local connection, among other criteria.

Nicolas Kayser-Bril, from Algorithm Watch, a non-profit group looking at algorithmic decision-making processes, said that while the council should be commended for its transparency, “there seems to be ample room for arbitrariness”.

“There will never be a way to objectively define who should be first in line for affordable housing. Transparent algorithms can help, but so can professional caseworkers who take the time to discuss with the applicants. Revealingly, none of the criteria in the list concerns the wishes of the applicants. Instead, they attempt to define the ‘good pauper’, much like in previous centuries.”

Joanne Willmott, Wigan council’s assistant director for provider management and market development, said: “Applications are assessed and prioritised based on answers submitted by customers around their own individual circumstances on our online housing application portal and then assessed in line with the allocation policy. A final check of the application is manually carried out.”

Flintshire council, which says it used the company Civica at a cost of £961.40 a year to process new claims for the period 2014 to 2018, said the service was terminated, as the council was not satisfied with its reliability.

A spokesperson for Civica said: “While the authority did not continue with this approach which was based on a third-party algorithm, the company continues to provide the core revenues and benefits software for Flintshire county council which is a longstanding customer.”

A Local Government Association spokesperson said: “Councils have been trying to improve how they use data in recent years, and predictive analytics is just one example of this. Good use of data can be hugely beneficial in helping councils make services more targeted and effective … But it is important to note that data is only ever used to inform decisions and not to make decisions for councils.”

Teddies and paper plates protest over free school meals snub removed from outside HQ of East Devon MP

Anyone seen Eyore?- Owl

A mum has asked the MP for East Devon why teddies and paper plates used in a peaceful protest over free school meals were removed from outside his Exmouth HQ.

East Devon Reporter 

The items were placed in front of Simon Jupp’s Mamhead View constituency office to challenge the Tory Government’s decision to block plans to extend support for food-deprived children over the holidays.

Conservative Mr Jupp voted against the bid – which has been championed by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford – in the House of Commons last week.

Exmouth mum-of-two Rosie Johnson said she and her family were so ‘disheartened’ by the move that they and friends decided on the peaceful protest.

She told East Devon News: “We try to teach our children about compassion and empathy.

“We should be able to look to our elected representatives as examples of this, but instead find ourselves turning to professional footballers.

“We were so disheartened by the vote against extending free school meals that we decided to join our friends in making a peaceful protest outside Simon Jupp’s office.

“We wrote messages, none of them abusive or threatening, on paper plates and left them with teddies.

“They were removed without any explanation even though they were not causing an obstruction and had not damaged any property.

“It was always our intention to remove them at the end of the day but we weren’t given that opportunity.

“This issue is too important to be dismissed.

The peaceful protest of teddies and paper plates outside East Devon MP Simon Jupp's constituency office in Exmouth. Picture: Rosie Johnson

The peaceful protest of teddies and paper plates outside East Devon MP Simon Jupp’s constituency office in Exmouth. Pictures: Rosie Johnson

But the items were removed 'without explanation'.

But the items were removed ‘without any explanation’.

“Children should not be going to bed hungry in one of the richest countries in the world and we should be ashamed to be relying on charities, businesses and celebrities to bridge the gap.

“We are looking for other ways to publicly protest this decision.”

Rosie, whose children are aged 11 and six, added:  “We don’t qualify for free school meals, but having previously been a primary school teacher for 15 years I’ve seen the effects of hunger on young children up close and just how essential free school meals and fresh fruit daily were to the health, wellbeing and educational achievement of the children in my care.”

She asked Mr Jupp on Twitter: “A peaceful, non-disruptive protest against the free school meals decision has been removed from outside the constituency office. What do you want me to tell my daughter?”

A spokesperson for Mr Jupp told East Devon News today: “Items left outside the constituency office in Exmouth can be claimed by contacting the office.”

Asked why it was deemed necessary to remove the teddies and paper plates from outside the premises, the East Devon MP’s office did not respond.

The Government had previously extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays and, after Mr Rashford’s campaigning, did the same for the summer.

But it has refused to do so again.

A bid tabled by Labour to give each disadvantaged child a £15 a week food voucher was defeated by a majority of 61 with 322 votes to 261.

Mr Jupp claimed the vote was ‘more about Labour party lines than actually helping anyone’.

“Tackling child poverty is a challenge and I am determined to ensure families in East Devon get the support they need,” he said.

“I believe the best way to do that is through the welfare system, rather than through schools.

“No child should go hungry, and a great deal of work and investment is going into helping families keep food on the table.”

Mr Jupp said the Government had extended free school meals support during lockdown and families received more than £380million in supermarket vouchers.

He also pointed to Whitehall bolstering the ‘welfare safety net’ with an extra £9.3billion this financial year.

Mr Jupp added: “It is important to remember that free school meals are not a general welfare measure.

“They are aimed at providing healthy meals for children in school to ensure disadvantaged students can learn to the best of their ability.

“Fundamentally, it shouldn’t be up to schools to provide meals for children indefinitely during the holidays and it’s right that we use the tools in place to help parents put food on the table.

“Struggling families need more individual support than the sticking plaster debated and I’d urge any family in this position in East Devon to contact me if they do.

“I promise to help them access available support packages and won’t hesitate to highlight any issues with the Department for Work and Pensions.”