The success of Owls – they can never be knocked off course!

Owls find flying in gusts a breeze

Tom Whipple Science Editor The Times 20 Oct

When an owl swoops across a field on silent wings, it does not worry about being knocked off course by a gust of wind. Yet ask a drone operator to negotiate such conditions and their craft would struggle to stay in the air.

Now, thanks to a barn owl called Lily, scientists have uncovered one of the secrets of how birds cope so well with turbulence. They have, the researchers found, “preflexes” in their wings that provide suspension and respond mechanically to gusts, meaning that they can adjust their flight even before their brain has received a signal that anything is wrong.

Shane Windsor, from the University of Bristol, carried out the research because, as someone who works with drones, he was jealous of birds. “When you use unmanned aerial vehicles, you realise how challenging it is when it is gusty,” he said. “But birds make it look easy.”

By getting Lily, a trained bird of prey, to fly through artificial gusts, Dr Windsor’s team found. the answer. To the naked eye, as she passed through the gust it appeared as “just a flutter” but in slow motion, “the wings moved massively”. He wrote in the journal Proceed ings of the Royal Society B, “I thought, ‘I know what that is — it’s suspension.’ “

Just as a car responds to a bumpy road without any need for sensors, so the wings were doing the same, hinging and twisting to keep the body on course.

This is what Dr Windsor meant by a “preflex”. “A preflex is a mechanical response built in. The bird’s wings respond to the gust so quickly that it can’t be due to a response in the brain.”

They also seemed to be tuned to respond in such a way that the body would barely notice. “A tennis racket has a sweet spot where you don’t feel a judder. That’s the same with wings —they take the force but don’t transmit.”

These preflexes bought the bird time, so that its brain could respond with more sophisticated actions, flexing the wings to reduce lift.

Dr Windsor hopes to translate the idea for use in unmanned aircraft but said it was unlikely it would end turbulence in larger craft. “This wouldn’t scale up to a Boeing 747,” he said. You don’t want those wings rotating.”

‘Bleak’ future for leisure centres unless extra cash received

Leisure centres and swimming pools across East Devon may be forced to close as LED and East Devon District Council may be unable to afford to keep them open.

Daniel Clark

The picture and position facing the council has been described as ‘bleak’ by the leader of the council and chief executive in a letter they have sent to the region’s three MPs in calling for extra financial support.

And it warns that there is a real fear that they will be unable to afford to keep open the swimming pools and leisure centres with LED asking for a £1.3m bailout from the council as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

While in-house leisure services, such as in Mid Devon and Teignbridge, will see budget income replaced by 75p in the £1 – minus the first five per cent – by the Government, as LED is a charitable leisure trust, there is no support available either to the Council or LED.

LED have asked for funds in the region ranging between £616,000 and £1.276m, and it was expected that a decision as to whether to provide it was set to be made at next Wednesday’s cabinet meeting, but the Local Democracy Reporting Service understands that the item is no longer set to be on the agenda with concerns over the content of the draft report that had been prepared.

In the letter, written jointly by Cllr Paul Arnott and the council’s chief executive Mark Williams, to East Devon’s three MPs Simon Jupp, Neil Parish and Mel Stride, it says: “Put simply the position facing LED is now acute. As we go into Winter there is a real fear that we will be unable to afford to keep open our swimming pools and leisure centres.

“Faced as we are with an un-level playing field, the Council’s ability to plug the gap for LED is limited and we are finding it increasingly hard to explain to our residents why east Devon is being left out of the support programme that the Government has set up for other parts of the South West.

“The issue is now becoming urgent and we really need your help. Please let us know how you can assist in what would be a real good news story in showing that the Government understands the position we face and is willing to extend the same hand of support that Exeter and Mid Devon have received.”

A previous letter, written in August, had added: “The lifeline where leisure facilities operated by Local Authorities are going to be able to claim 75 per cent of lost income does not apply to authorities like East Devon which operate a model whereby its Leisure Services are operated through a charitable leisure trust. In our case this Trust (LED) is estimating a loss of £1.3m in the current year as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

“For this model of operation there is no Government support available either to the Council or LED. If the Council wishes to see leisure services continue it will have to consider funding this loss, which will mean that we will have to make corresponding cuts to a wide range of frontline services that the public rely on.

“Why should a charity or the Council be penalised because the Government has chosen to only support one type of leisure service provider? We are sure you will agree that this position is not equitable and we would ask that you use your influence to ensure that either we or LED are placed in the same position as other Councils.”

The three MPs have written a joint letter to the Cabinet Office and HM Treasury, although as of earlier this week, had not yet received a response.

While leisure centres in Sidmouth, Ottery St Mary, Axminster, Colyton, Exmouth and Honiton have reopened, Broadclyst and Cranbrook leisure centres remain closed.

Covid: Latest Greater Manchester talks end with no agreement

“There is a blizzard of numbers flying around about Greater Manchester, and the North West more widely, as national and local politicians argue about whether to introduce local restrictions.

But a curious element that seems to have been missed is that the rise in cases may have already stalled.” [See the analysis of the Health issues below – Owl] 

In a joint statement, Mr Burnham and the Labour leader of Manchester City Council Sir Richard Leese said: “We had been encouraged by earlier discussions at an official level where the idea of a hardship fund, to top up furlough payments and support the self-employed, had been tabled by the government.

“It was both surprising and disappointing when this idea was taken off the table by the secretary of state.”

But a spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said that while it was “disappointing” no agreement had been reached, Mr Burnham was “incorrect in claiming that officials made this proposal today”.

A key sticking point of the dispute is that Mr Burnham wants the government to reintroduce the 80% furlough scheme used during the UK’s first lockdown, instead of the new Job Support Scheme which covers 67% of the wages of people affected by tier three closures.

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Analysis box by Laura Kuenssberg, political editor

This evening, the two sides can’t even agree on what they actually discussed earlier.

Believe the local leaders and this morning there seemed to be hope in the air. Officials from central government had mooted the possibility of a hardship fund to help support low-paid workers who stand to lose out if businesses close their doors under tighter restrictions.

The message local leaders took from their meeting was that, while the Treasury is adamant they are not going to extend their national furlough scheme that has supported millions of wages any further – nor increase the level of cash available from its replacement, the Job Support Scheme – Westminster might sign off extra money that could be spent that way, if local politicians saw fit.

There was no concrete agreement on the numbers, but sources in Greater Manchester suggest the cost of supporting those who need the extra help comes in at around £15m a month.

After that call, the consensus among North West leaders was moving in the direction of signing on the dotted line, with another call planned with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick for the afternoon.

But rather than ushering in a new spirit of co-operation, that meeting went south.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said that in Greater Manchester the number of new cases in people over the age of 60 had tripled in the most recent 15 days of full data – from 89 cases per 100,000 on 27 September to 282 per 100,000 on 12 October.

He said government projections suggested coronavirus patients would take up the entire current intensive care capacity in Greater Manchester by 8 November, not including capacity in Nightingale hospitals.

Graph showing Covid-19 cases in Manchester

However, Prof Jane Eddleston, the region’s medical lead for the coronavirus response, said Greater Manchester’s intensive care capacity was not at risk of being overwhelmed.

Prof Eddleston said the situation was “serious” but despite the “stark” figures on hospital admissions and cases, extra capacity would be available.

In their joint statement, Mr Burnham and Sir Richard said Greater Manchester’s intensive care unit occupancy rate was “not abnormal for this time of year” and it was “essential… public fears are not raised unnecessarily”.

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Analysis box by Nick Triggle, health correspondent

There is a blizzard of numbers flying around about Greater Manchester, and the North West more widely, as national and local politicians argue about whether to introduce local restrictions.

But a curious element that seems to have been missed is that the rise in cases may have already stalled.

The last few days show no rise in the average number of new infections across the North West, while Manchester itself may actually be seeing cases fall after peaking at more than 500 a day on average at the end of September.

This will take some time to filter through into hospital cases as the people who are ill enough to be admitted to hospital have been infected a few weeks before.

But already there are signs the rises in hospital admissions are slowing.

That’s not to say hospitals and intensive care in particular is not busy. The pressures are akin to what the NHS would normally see in the peak of winter and, of course, it’s only October.

But talk of units becoming overwhelmed when they have not even really dipped into their “surge capacity”, transforming other parts of the hospital into temporary intensive care wards, seems somewhat premature.

What happens in the coming weeks though will be crucial.

Local Politics and Strange Bedfellows – who IS Ben Ingham?

Old Owl comments on yesterday’s post about Ben Ingham’s ambition to become a Conservative County Councillor:

“I read with interest New Owl’s observations on Ben Ingham, who has run the gamut of political parties he has joined, left and sometimes led.

To recap: he has been a Conservative, an “Independent”, an Independent with the East Devon Alliance (and short-term Leader of that group), an Independent again (and short-term Leader of that group too) and now he has gone back full-circle to his first (East Devon) home – the Conservatives. For all I know he could have started off his political life as a Communist or Labour and he still has enough years left in him to join Greens, Lib Dems (assuming somewhat optimistically that they would have him) or UKIP, or Reclaim or any of the crackpot parties that pop up on both sides of the political divide from time to time.

It begs the question: what does Ingham ACTUALLY believe in politically?  And could we really believe him if he attempted to answer that question?

It seemed at one point he had a Damascene conversion – from blinkered thinking to open thinking but that has now been completely scotched.

One thing we can be absolutely sure of – he seeks political power and preferably wants to be a top dog and paid for it.  I see no evidence (though I am willing to be corrected) that he works within the community in any unpaid capacity (other than using political stepping stones) or that he gives more to his community than he takes.

Perhaps Mr Ingham might offer us all (not just his new Tory bedfellows) his thoughts on this political bed-hopping BEFORE standing again for elected office?

I guess, as New Owl points out,  he has not been interrogated substantially by his new political mates to any degree – as simply paying subs these days almost guarantees you will get a crack at a paid job, so old and ailing are many East Devon Conservative Party members (according to Sasha Swire).

Right-leaning voters of East Devon – is this really someone you think will represent your interests?  Or any interests?”

Anger as Environment Agency executive takes job at Southern Water

Critics say move an example of ‘cosy relationship’ between industry and regulator

Sandra Laville 

One of the most senior executives at the Environment Agency is leaving to join a water company that is under criminal investigation by the watchdog.

The departure of Dr Toby Willison, the director of operations for the EA, to take up a role at Southern Water has angered campaigners seeking to reduce pollution in rivers and coastal waters. Willison has previously been the acting chief executive of the environmental watchdog.

The EA has been investigating Southern Water over serious failures in the operation of its sewage treatment sites. Last year Ofwat fined Southern Water and ordered it to pay reparations to customers in a £126m penalty package. Ofwat found the company had deliberately misreported data about the performance of its wastewater treatment works, which led to unauthorised premature spills of untreated waste.

Documents submitted to the regulator revealed that employees at the company would routinely drive tanker-loads of sewage from one waste treatment plant to another to dodge water-quality inspections by EAofficials as part of deliberate manipulation of data to avoid millions of pounds in fines.

In March, Southern pleaded guilty at Maidstone crown court to 51 charges brought by the EA of dumping poisonous, noxious substances including raw sewage, after a criminal inquiry that ran alongside the Ofwat investigations. Sentencing in the criminal case is due in February.

An EA spokesperson said the criminal investigation into Southern was ongoing. This month the EA chastised water companies including Southern over the worst levels of environmental pollution in five years.

The agency said Willison was leaving at the end of November to take up the Southern role. A spokesperson for the EA and Willison said “clear rules around conflict of interest” were put into place as soon as he decided to take up the new job. They would not go into detail about the measures taken, but said: “During [Willison’s] notice period he has stepped out of all relevant water company discussions and decision-making. He remains bound by and understands his ongoing duty of confidentiality once he takes up his new job.”

Stuart Singleton-White, the head of campaigns at the Angling Trust, said the agency had too often been too slow to act and to hold water companies to account. “By jumping ship from the EA to Southern Water, Dr Willison is shining a light on the cosy relationship between these companies and those who are supposed to be regulating them on behalf of consumers and our rivers,” he said. “I can only hope he has more impact inside the company and demands his new employer does more to clean up its act and protect our precious rivers and chalk streams.”

A spokesperson for Southern Water said it hired Willison after an opportunity arose to recruit a high-calibre candidate. The company said Willison was taking the role of natural capital and environment director. It said his job signalled a strengthening of focus on environment and sustainable capital programmes while continuing to build effective working partnerships with key stakeholders, regulators and government.

Willison also holds a role as a board member of British Water, which he took up last May. British Water is a trade body that lobbies and campaigns on behalf of the water industry.

Ashley Smith, who campaigns to stop sewage releases by water companies, said: “The more we have looked into the regulation of the water industry, the more appalled we have become. The industry is definitely in charge, with the regulators providing little more than false public assurance, misleading comments and token prosecutions.”

Durham Council mounts bid to get Dominic Cummings to pay backdated council tax

A council boss has vowed to “find a way” to make Dominic Cummings pay a backdated council tax bill of around £30,000.  

Jeremy Armstrong 

Cllr Simon Henig, leader of Durham County Council, is also calling for a review of the Valuation Office Agency’s decision to not impose charges retrospectively.  

Labour Cllr Henig was responding to mounting public anger at Boris Johnson ’s chief aide.

He said: “It seems that anyone working for the Prime Minister is exempt from the rules that apply to the rest of us.  

“I have asked that all options to appeal this decision be considered.”   

A joint Mirror and Guardian investigation revealed Mr Cummings ignored lockdown guidance to leave London and stay on the farm with his wife and son when they started experiencing coronavirus symptoms at the end of March.

They also famously made an ill-advised trip to Barnard Castle, around 30 miles away, on his wife’s Mary Wakefield’s birthday on April 12. 

Mr Cummings claimed that he was checking to see if his eyesight was good enough to drive. 

It is believed that he and his family had a council tax bill of around £30,000 written off.

Two properties, including Mr Cummings’ ‘lockdown cottage’ at the family farm near Durham, were built in breach of planning regulations.  

They are now liable for council tax, the Valuation Office Agency (VOA) ruled last week.

But they decided the charges at North Lodge Farm – estimated at around £3,000 a year – would not be backdated to 2002 when the conversion was carried out. 

Cllr Henig said he was acting out of a sense of ‘fairness’ at the VOA decision.

He has requested that chief officers look into all possible options for an appeal of the national decision and believes the ruling should be justified in Parliament. 

Cllr Henig added: “As a party that is committed to fairness, as soon as we were aware of a potential breach in regulations at North Lodge, council officers were instructed to investigate the matter. The council alerted the Valuation Office Agency, which provided the required changes in respect to property. 

“While there have been historical breaches of planning and building control regulation, which date back to the time of the former Durham City Council, the current council was unable to take enforcement action due to the amount of time that had elapsed.

“People will want to know how, once again, the Government’s senior adviser is avoiding facing any consequences for breaching a set of regulations to which everyone else is expected to adhere. 

“It is imperative the Valuation Office Agency be made accountable for this decision in Parliament so that public confidence in the council tax system be maintained.”

The VOA, which is part of HM Revenue and Customs, does not comment on individual cases, but said: “We treat all council taxpayers equally and in accordance with the law. Changes to show multiple self-contained units would not be backdated.

“If the property has remained in your ownership during the period when any changes were made there would not typically be backdated liabilities.”

Mr Cummings’ family and Downing Street have both declined to comment on the backdated bill.