Democracy delayed? Voters and officials need clarity now on England’s May elections

More about running elections in a pandemic, especially the use of postal voting from the Electoral Reform Society 

Toby James, University of East Anglia and Alistair Clark, Newcastle University

Which activities are essential during a pandemic? Across England, school buildings have been closed, as have many shops, businesses and sports facilities. So what about elections? Should they go ahead? It’s an important question since local elections are scheduled to take place in the UK in May.

Among them are the English elections that were originally meant to take place in May 2020 but were postponed because of the pandemic. That means that as well as votes in Scotland and Wales, a bumper set of contests is now scheduled in England for May 2021. There will be votes for English councils, police and crime commissioners, the London mayor, the London Assembly, regional mayors and local mayors.

There has been some speculation that these too might be postponed. When asked, the prime minister has said that we have to “keep it under review”. But keeping things under review isn’t enough. If the English votes are to go ahead, important steps need to be set in motion immediately.

Running an election during a pandemic means making significant changes to the normal routine. Citizens may not want to risk their health and decide not to vote if their safety can’t be assured, so measures need to be taken to ensure their safety.

But many of the English local elections have been postponed once already. At some point, it becomes a question of whether postponing poses a threat to democratic freedoms. Some officials have had an extra year in office as a result of the first delay. These elections matter because they hold politicians to account and allow citizens to shape how public services are run. They will also provide the first litmus test for how the current UK government is performing since the 2019 general election.

2020 elections

Many elections worldwide were postponed in 2020 so England was not alone. Our research with International IDEA shows that between February and December, 75 countries and territories postponed elections for at least a short time. Most were rescheduled very quickly, however.

Italy held a referendum and elections, due in late March, at the height of the first wave, in September. Countries that did not hold or reschedule a postponed election were very troubled political systems such as Somalia. For context, Somalia has not conducted a direct popular vote since 1969.

The UK was unusual in postponing for a whole year. It has already delayed as long as Hong Kong, a postponement that even the Trump administration described as undermining “the democratic processes and freedoms”.

How to host a pandemic election

There have been more than 100 national and local elections that did happen around the world in 2020 and we have found many success stories.

A key takeaway was the importance of enabling postal voting. This facilitates higher turnout and reduces risks to staff and the public. Bavaria showed how elections in which everyone votes by post can be organised with very short notice.

However, it would be difficult to organise all-postal elections for May in England, as administrators have warned. There are rigorous anti-fraud mechanisms in place which would require the electorate to provide their signatures and date of births before being given a postal vote. Only one in five have done so so far.

Only if these mechanisms were relaxed could all-postal elections be feasible for May, which means this isn’t really a serious option. It would, however, be possible with a short delay if everyone could be encouraged to apply for a postal vote since there are no limitations on who can apply.

Urgent measures

There are other best practices that the UK government has been slow to adopt. It needs to act urgently to have them in place.

For a start, voting should be spread over several days. This makes it easier for voters to socially distance in polling stations while giving everyone time to take part. Even local elections, where turnout is low, have peaks and queues during busier moments. Early voting can also encourage higher turnout. There is time for such legislation to be drawn up and introduced. This would improve elections anyway, if the government acts now and is clear about the intentions of such legal changes.

The people running these elections also need more funding so that they can make voting safe. In Australia, polling stations were provided with hand sanitiser and extra staff were laid on so that extra cleaning could be done. In South Korea, temperature checks were taken before citizens entered polling stations. This all took money. The provision of PPE in South Korea was estimated to add $16 million to the cost of running an election in March 2020. Hand sanitiser and other health measures added $32-37 million to the budget for Sri Lankan elections.

Unfortunately, the UK government has not promised additional funds to make the 2021 elections safe. Chloe Smith, the minister for constitution and devolution, apparently envisages no additional funding being made available to local authorities to conduct the 2021 elections. Writing to electoral officials in September, she said only that local authorities had been given £3.7 billion of un-ringfenced funding to deal with coronavirus in general, and that it continued to be local authorities’ responsibility to fund local elections. This is unacceptable. More is needed.

Decision making needs to be open and transparent. We’ve seen examples of authorities holding public hearings about elections during the pandemic. But decisions are being made unrecorded behind closed doors amongst government officials. Groups representing voters with special needs need to be heard in particular so that everyone is included.

COVID-19 is presenting a very changeable situation and the new strain in the UK may cause plans to change. But if the May elections are to go ahead in England, urgent and decisive action is needed immediately.

Toby James, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of East Anglia and Alistair Clark, Reader in Politics, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Thrown under the bus’: Devon businesses give honest opinion on latest lockdown

DevonLive spoke to local businesses about how they’re feeling faced with a lockdown that looks set to last until at least mid-February.

Geographic spread: Axminster, Cullompton, Ottery St Mary, Rockbeare, Barnstaple, Torquay, Crediton, and Salcombe

Charlotte Vowles

On January 5, the country was forced back into lockdown for the third time in an effort to combat the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

With many businesses already facing tighter restrictions upon how they operate, the lockdown measures meant that some businesses including gyms, beauty salons and zoos were forced to close their doors once again.

Non-essential retail outlets such as clothing and homeware stores can operate only if they’re offering click-and-collect services and the already hard-hit hospitality industry must close its venues unless they’re offering takeaway, click-and-collect or drive-through.

DevonLive spoke to local businesses about how they’re feeling faced with a lockdown that looks set to last until at least mid-February.

High Grange Devon

“The whole industry has been thrown under the bus”

Luke and Sara Vandore-Mackay moved with their three children from West London to East Devon in September 2019 to set up their dream lifestyle business – High Grange Devon.

They planned to have a cookery school with feast nights and private events and butchery, foraging and curing masterclasses along with everything from yoga to dry flower arranging.

But the pandemic put a stop to their planned activity. Luke said: “Sadly, because of Corona, lockdowns and social distancing we haven’t been able to get going. We are at heart all about communal dining, sharing platters, making new friends and conviviality. Almost by definition, you can’t do a socially distanced feast so we decided to wait until we could.

“We haven’t earned a penny from the business since March, but luckily we have been able to fall back on freelance and consultancy work to pay the mortgage.

“I suppose that we are ‘lucky’ in that the virus hit before we had really got started – we would have been in much more trouble next year if, for example, had we taken loads of deposits and given up all of our freelance work.”

Luke, who has been in the hospitality industry for 20 years, added: “My heart breaks for all those restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars who have been sacrificed at the expense of other areas of society – the whole industry has been thrown under the bus with limited financial support and more unforgivably terrible communication at every stage.

“Last year, we felt confident that we’d be able to hold our first event in the spring. That now looks unlikely, and if we manage to open by the summer, we’d be grateful.

“We do feel confident that once the threat of the virus has gone, we will be in a fantastic position to capitalise – people will be holidaying in the UK, and we are in a gorgeous corner of East Devon, not far from the Jurassic Coast. I also sense that outdoor feasting and socialising will be hugely popular going forward, and we are all about fire pits, sunsets and warm hospitality.

“We also hope to build some log cabins in our woods in the next few months so people can stay and enjoy the whole High Grange experience – being woken up by Neville the Rooster.

“I dread to think how many pubs, for example, won’t reopen after the latest lockdown. Without small independent hospitality businesses, the world is a bleak place indeed. The Government needs to make it a priority to support each and every one. We’ll miss them when they’re gone.”

Bear Town, Cullompton

“Well, it’s been an interesting 12 months!”

Bear Town is an interactive children’s play centre which has had more than its fair share of upheaval during the pandemic.

When Ben Jordan came up with the idea for the children’s role-play attraction, the world was a very different place. He had already created the Bear Trail, the outdoor muddy adventure trail just outside Exeter and wanted to create something which would appeal to families with younger children and, importantly, would be open all year round.

He employed local builders and craftsmen, and Bear Town was created. It opened to the public on October 23 in time for half-term to positive reviews and feedback. Only to close 10 days later with the introduction of the November lockdown.

Ben said: “Well, it’s been an interesting 12 months! Full of ups and downs. If you were to create an environment not to open an indoor children’s attraction, 2020 would be it.

“However, strangely, the existing business ‘The Bear Trail’ actually had a fantastic summer as it was outdoors, socially distanced, and most of all, fun. That enabled us to ensure the finish of the Bear Town build was to the highest standard.

“We have struggled, as every business has, to manage the careful balance between ensuring we have good custom coming and being a safe environment. We have had to move many bookings for all three lockdowns, but our loyal customers have been very understanding and supportive.

“The staff have been amazing dealing with it all, and we are so lucky to have an incredible team. It sounds cheesy, and that it may be, but they are literally the most wonderful and inspiring people.

“We can’t wait for some stability so we can make it unstable with our crazy ideas club plans!”

Chunk of Devon, Ottery St Mary

“Covid has been a kind and cruel mistress to different people”

Multi-award-winning pie and pasty makers Chunk of Devon is just one of Devon’s businesses that have had to adapt during the Coronavirus restrictions.

Simon Bryon-Edmond, head of Chunk of Devon, commented that some businesses have struggled while others have thrived.

He said: “Covid has been a kind and cruel mistress to different people. Some businesses have had a feast, others a famine.

“Chunk of Devon has survived, despite the challenge of significant hurdles that came our way [such as] losing stadiums as an outlet for our pies and pasties.

“Our factory and office team have put in a monumental effort, working around the clock to keep the business going during lockdown.

“We consider ourselves lucky that we have had to change tack to jump on opportunities and have maintained a full team. We have survived and thrived as a result.”

Rockbeare Manor

“The distress and emotional lows that engaged couples have faced during this time is very real”

Rockbeare Manor is a grade I listed wedding and events venue just outside Exeter.

The venue, which is operated by PM Hospitality is a popular location for weddings and other special events, but the lockdown and the subsequent cancellation of events have presented a huge challenge for the team.

Even when the country opened up a little during the summer, the number of guests that could attend a gathering was hugely restricted.

Aimée Carveth, of PM Hospitality, said: “This has been a very difficult year for the hospitality industry, and the constant changes in restrictions and guidelines at very little notice has made it almost impossible to plan anything.

“Marriage is an incredibly important life event which takes months of planning, and it has been heartbreaking to see brides and grooms, left with no choice other than to postpone their wedding to a later date. The distress and emotional lows that engaged couples have faced during this time is very real, which is why we have done everything in our power to support them to make sure that they get the chance to celebrate their marriage – albeit at a later date.”

Aimée said that although they could host small weddings and events, they wanted to do something else to protect jobs and ‘keep the spirit of the house alive.’ So, they developed their Dine Stay and Unwind concept, and the doors of the beautiful Regency house were opened to the public for the first time in 260 years.

She added: “Whilst we have been able to host small weddings, we wanted to offer something which would ensure we could keep our wonderful venue busy by entertaining guests – which is what beautiful properties like ours were originally built for. It also gave us the best chance to retain our fantastic team, which was very important to us.”

Despite the challenges, there is much optimism for the future of Rockbeare Manor. They are still taking appointments for virtual tours for newly-engaged couples and booking weddings for the next two years ahead.

Aimée said: “We are now really looking forward to the spring when restrictions ease, and we can get back to doing what we love – hosting momentous occasions!

“We are positive that when these long-awaited celebrations take place, the experience of friends and family coming together will be enjoyed and appreciated more than ever before.”

Aleafia Fitness and Wellbeing Centre, Barnstaple

“If we don’t get support I don’t see how we’ll have a future”

Lauren Lepley-Caldon finally opened her business in August last year after having to postpone opening due to the first national lockdown.

The business would usually offer a range of services from massage therapy to wellness packages – and even has an onsite cafe facility.

But, as it is classed as a gym/leisure centre, they have also been forced to close temporarily under lockdown.

However, Lauren is trying to focus on moving the business forward: “Lockdown is giving us time to sit back and strategise. I couldn’t see how we wouldn’t go into a lockdown”, she said.

“I understand the need for it – I just wish we were given some pro-active decisions rather than knee-jerk reactions. My heart goes out to all the businesses – it’s so so tough.”

“We weren’t entitled to any grants during the first lockdown as we hadn’t started paying business rates.”

The business offers classes such as yoga and meditation – all of which have now had to move online.

Lauren said: “If we don’t get support, I don’t see how we’ll have a future.”

The Elephant Torquay

“We’re trying to make the best out of a bad situation.”

Run by chef-proprietor, Simon Hulstone and his wife Katy, The Elephant was the first restaurant in Torquay to be awarded a Michelin star which it has maintained for 15 years.

From them, Covid and another lockdown have bought both positives changes and challenges.

“Obviously, it’s very frustrating to keep stopping and starting”, said Simon.

“We’ve gained a lot of positives, we’ve opened ourselves up to new customers.

“Our customers are sensible – they understand the rules, and we’ve followed them from day one.”

Simon said the business had received support from the community, and they have been playing their part in community support too by helping to provide food to a housebound customer.

Simon said, “I think the hardest thing for us is to sit at home and do nothing. We’re trying to make the best out of a bad situation.”

The staff are currently taking a short break but will be resuming a click and collect takeaway service again from food from the middle of January.

Crediton Community Bookshop

“The impact of lockdown was dramatic”

Crediton Community Bookshop is a not-for-profit, community-owned, independent bookshop with invests its profits into social impact activities.

The lockdown restrictions mean that shop has had to close to customers, but its team have continued to meet the needs of the community and to replicate as much of its activities virtually to continue to engage with the community.

Bookshop manager Dee Lalljee, said: “This has been an incredibly tough time for so many businesses. Our high street is normally a busy, bustling place full of thriving, independent shops, and the impact of lockdown was dramatic.

“It was really important to us to ensure we could keep connected with our community -our bookshop is more than just a place for people to buy books, although, of course, it is that as well. But it is a place of connection and with our outreach work, a place from which we can support our community.”

In the March lockdown, the bookshop set up a distribution hub for traders to deliver to key workers, vulnerable and shielding people in the town. During December it gave customers the opportunity to buy a book for Crediton Foodbank and joined the Exeter Festive Appeal, donating books for food parcels which were delivered to hundreds of disadvantaged families across the city.

The bookshop also began offering people virtual tours via Facebook, walking them through the shop and helping them to choose their books. Staff also gave telephone consultations and delivered books by bike to local customers.

Dee said: “We are so grateful to our customers who have continued to support us throughout this time.”

The team is currently developing a further programme to reach people who are isolated due to the pandemic.

Salcombe Brewery

The brewery said that they would like to see better support for breweries from the Government and are urging people to contact their local MPs to lobby for support to save local breweries.

In the meantime, they’ve been forced to adapt.

Mark Higgs, general manager said: “We adapted our business in the first lockdown in March to ensure that we were still able to get our much-loved beer to consumers even when pubs are closed.

“We have always had an online shop providing nationwide delivery of our bottled beers, but during the lockdown, we are also providing free local deliveries of both our bottles and bag in boxes.

“We set up ‘Fill Up Fridays’ in the first lockdown, allowing customers to fill up their own containers at the brewery shop for just £1.25 a pint. When the pubs shut in November and also during this lockdown, we moved to offering Fill Ups every day of the week.”

“If you live locally, try our doorstep delivery or visit our on-site shop 1-4 pm weekdays to pick up some beer or cider. If you bring your own container, you can fill it up for just £1.25 a pint.

“For those further afield, our online shop provides nationwide deliveries of our beers, including some great gift sets perfect to send to friends and relatives in need of a pint of Salcombe cheer.”

Exmouth care home overcomes large and tragic outbreak

The devastating reality of how quickly coronavirus can spread has been witnessed first hand by a Devon care home which has tragically recorded around 41 Covid-19 cases and six deaths.

Anita Merritt

Knappe Cross Care Centre in Brixington Lane, Exmouth, had its its first case confirmed on December 5, after one of its residents was tested positive during a hospital admission.

By December 11, the outbreak had risen to 26 positive cases among residents and staff. At its peak, around 20 residents and 21 staff had coronavirus.

Care home registered manager Mircea Ciobanu has confirmed that although there have not been any hospital admissions, there have been up to six deaths at the care home which are believed to be related to the outbreak.

Knappe Cross Care Centre

Knappe Cross Care Centre

However, vast efforts to halt its spread seem to have now been successful because the last confirmed case, a member of staff, was reported on December 28.

Mr Ciobanu said: “We have been through a process of support with the infection control team at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and Devon County Council.

“We have had meetings every week and the outbreak has gradually stopped. It is very good news that we have not had a positive test since December 28, and we’re hoping we’re out of it now.

“It’s had a very, very deep impact on everyone, and there has been a lot to learn from it. I think we managed the outbreak fairly well considering the circumstances. At no point were we under staffed.

“It has impacted on staff in every way, but it didn’t cause any fatalities. I managed to stay negative. The ones that had vulnerable people in their families chose to self-isolate at home.

“It was a very difficult time, and frightening at the same time. Winter is never easy for elderly people and health care providers. It is a period when they are more susceptible to disease, but this particular outbreak was very stressful.”

The care home is hoping to be provided with vaccinations for its residents and staff from its local surgery within the next two to three weeks.

Mr Ciobanu said: “Hopefully we are past the worst, but you can never know for sure. Staff and residents are continuing to be regularly tested.

“I would like to thanks the whole team, including all the agencies who have been involved in the process.

“I would also like to offer my deepest condolences to the families of residents who have lost their loved ones.”

May elections to go ahead in UK despite coronavirus concerns

Elections due in May are expected to go ahead despite coronavirus, officials have said, amid warnings they are likely to be among the most logistically fraught and complicated the UK has witnessed.

[That’s the Devon County Council elections for us]

Peter Walker

Boris Johnson told MPs this week that while the plan was still for local and mayoral elections, some of which were postponed from last year, to happen on 6 May in England, this remained “under review”.

Officials stress that while the pandemic means all government plans are theoretically subject to change, the strong expectation is the polls will go ahead.

In England, as well as a double set of council elections, there will be ballots for the London mayor and assembly, for a series of other mayors, and for police and crime commissioners (PCCs).

Scotland and Wales are holding elections on the same day for their parliaments, and for PCCs in Wales. Each UK nation organises its own elections.

While Scotland’s government has left open the prospect of the Holyrood elections being staged over two to three days, to allow distancing and cleaning at polling stations, England is committed to its usual timetable.

Election officials are warning that while turnout at English local elections tends to be low, the practicalities could mount up, not least because of the sheer number of contests taking place, with some voters receiving up to seven polling cards.

With the government rejecting the idea of all-postal voting, polling staff will be protected by plastic screens. Voters will socially distance and be encouraged to bring their own pens. They will show polling cards rather than handing them over.

There are nonetheless worries about attracting enough volunteer election staff, many of whom tend to be older, and about finding venues, with schools and community halls potentially wary about hundreds of people tramping through their building.

With people able to apply for postal votes up to 11 working days before the election, there is also uncertainty of how many of these need to be produced – and thus how many people will turn out in person.

Peter Stanyon, the chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, which represents election officials, said the situation was hugely complex.

He said: “I’m confident in my colleagues to do all they can to deliver a safe and secure election. If you’d asked me this a month ago, I’d have been more bullish. We are concerned, as key decisions and planning are happening now, without really knowing what the situation will be like in May.”

All the preparations will cost money. While the Cabinet Office says councils can provide for this out of Covid funding already granted, the Local Government Association says government “will need to meet any additional costs of holding these elections in these extraordinary circumstances”.

It also remains to be seen whether distancing rules might hamper campaigning, much depending on the speed of Covid vaccinations. If significant restrictions remain in place there is a worry it could favour incumbent candidates, as regular election practices such as handing out leaflets and knocking on doors would be impossible.

In Wales – where the elections will be the first to include 16- and 17-year-old voters – people are being encouraged to vote by post, and plans are in place to delay the poll if needed.

In Scotland, there have been isolated calls for the election to be postponed but Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National party is at 58% in opinion polls, has said she can see “no reason at this stage” why they would not go ahead.

Neil Findlay, a Labour MSP who is quitting Holyrood at the election, said there were strong public health reasons to postpone the vote. “Can you think of any other place during this crisis where we’d be encouraging thousands of people to go into the same small spaces? That’s effectively what we’d be doing,” he said.

Government set to miss housebuilding target by almost a decade

Remember that CPRE have, for a long time, challenged the statistical basis underpinning the 300,000 target.  – Owl 

The government is set to miss its housebuilding target by almost a decade after failing to invest in social housing, a new analysis has warned.

Boris Johnson has promised to increase housebuilding to 300,000 a year by the mid-2020s in a bid to tackle Britain’s housing shortage.

But at the rate of increase achieved before the coronavirus lockdown, the government will not reach its target until 2032 – eight years later than planned.

And housing experts have warned that a slowdown caused by the pandemic is likely to push numbers even further off course.

“The government wasn’t on track to meet its own targets even before the pandemic hit,” said Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity Shelter.

“Now with a potential slump in construction as a result of Covid, the chances of getting the homes we need built are looking even slimmer.

“With over a million households on the social housing waiting list, and many more facing economic turmoil and homelessness this year, we desperately need to get building. We can’t go back to business as usual with missed targets and pitiful numbers of social homes.”

In the 2019-2020 financial year before the coronavirus lockdown, the government managed to oversee the construction of 6,190 more homes than the year before.

But at that rate of increase, from the baseline of 220,600 homes built in 2019-20, the government will take eight years to meet the target.

This does not take into account further delays likely to be caused by the pandemic, which has seen high-profile construction projects facing delays and playing catch-up.

Assessing the government’s progress to the target last summer, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said prospects for meeting the goal were not promising.

The influential committee of MPs said the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government did not have the mechanisms in place to achieve the target of 300,000 new homes.

Shelter’s Ms Neate told The Independent that the only way to meet the target was for the government to invest in social housing so that the houses built would be genuinely affordable for people to live in.

The government has developed a “plan-led system” where local authorities draw up development plans, but has faced resistance from Tory backbenchers and councils, who are often resistant to new homes being built in their leafy areas.

Labour housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire, who commissioned the analysis, said: “This is yet more evidence of the Conservatives making promises they can’t deliver.

“The government’s irresponsible mismanagement of the Covid crisis will mean that housebuilding slows even further next year.

“Building more genuinely affordable, good quality houses will be key to our Covid recovery, but the government seems more keen on pursuing vanity projects than delivering on their promises.”

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “This analysis is crude and highly speculative, and ignores the government’s strong record on delivering houses across the country. We’ve delivered over 1.8 million new homes since 2010 – including 508,000 affordable homes – and over 243,000 additional homes last year, the most in over 30 years.  

“We are supporting local areas to enable the delivery of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s and announced a £20 billion investment in housing as part of the spending review.”