Greenfield developments in areas of natural beauty have doubled

Parts of England protected for their beauty are being blighted by a doubling in the amount of greenfield land opened up to sprawling “executive home” developments, according to a report.

Ben Webster, Environment Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

Permission has been granted for development on an average of 294 acres of greenfield land per year within England’s 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) since 2017, up from an average of 128 acres a year in the previous five years, according to research commissioned by CPRE, the countryside charity.

The High Weald AONB, which covers parts of Sussex, Kent and Surrey, is facing the largest amount of development, with 932 houses approved since 2017. Another 771 homes have been approved in the Dorset area, 592 in the Chilterns and 684 in the Cotswolds. The research found that twice as much land as the national average was used per new home in developments in AONBs, with builders focusing on large “executive” properties.

Only 16 per cent of the homes met the government’s definition of affordable, which includes those sold or rented at lower than market value.

CPRE is calling for changes to planning rules to prioritise conserving AONBs over meeting housing targets. It also wants any developments in such areas to focus on providing affordable and social homes for local people.

Crispin Truman, the chief executive of the charity, said: “The fact that some of our most highly prized areas of countryside are being lost to build more executive homes says a great deal about our planning system.

“Continuing with this ‘build and be damned’ approach just serves to line the pockets of greedy developers whilst undermining climate action, stalling nature’s recovery and gobbling up our most precious green space that’s vital for our health and wellbeing, all the while doing next to nothing to tackle the affordable housing crisis.

“Rural communities are crying out for well-designed, quality and genuinely affordable homes in the right places. We know this kind of development is possible.

“To start building the right nature-friendly and low-carbon homes in the right places, we must see a swift change of tack from the government to put nature and countryside communities at the heart of any future planning bill. Continuing to give developers more power in the planning system will only make this bad situation worse.”

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, the Conservative MP for the Cotswolds, said: “It is vital that areas like the Cotswolds and other AONBs, which have all been given that designation because they are unique and special areas, are carefully conserved by planning departments and other statutory consultees.

“Otherwise, this generation will fail to pass on this very special national heritage for future generations.”

The government’s planning guidelines state that “great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty” in AONBs.

However, guidelines state that large developments can be permitted in these areas in “exceptional circumstances” and where it would be in the public interest. These terms are not clearly defined, creating loopholes for developers to use.

The development in the High Weald area includes 119 homes near Crowborough, East Sussex, approved last year against the advice of the official body that manages the AONB.

Fifth of UK Covid contracts ‘raised red flags for possible corruption’

One in five government Covid contracts awarded between February and November 2020 contained one or more red flags for possible corruption and require urgent further investigation, a respected campaign group has warned.

Original source: “Track and Trace”  Transparency International.

David Pegg www.theguardian.com

Transparency International UK said a “seriously flawed” arrangement, whereby companies bidding for contracts were prioritised if they were referred into a “VIP lane” by their political connections, had “damaged trust in the integrity of the pandemic response”.

The group said Boris Johnson’s government must urgently disclose the identities of companies awarded public money through the VIP lane, which was set up by the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care in the early days of the pandemic.

The government has so far refused to name the companies granted public money through the scheme, citing “commercial confidentiality”. It has previously claimed the purpose of the arrangement was to triage large numbers of offers to help from the private sector.

Transparency International UK said its analysis indicated “apparent systemic biases in the award of PPE contracts that favoured those with political connections to the party of government in Westminster”, contrary to denials by civil servants and Conservative ministers.

The group said it had identified 73 Covid-related contracts with multiple factors that would ordinarily be treated as red flags for possible corruption, such as the company being politically connected. Twenty-seven PPE or testing contracts worth £2.1bn were awarded to firms with connections to the Conservative party, it claimed.

The group said it had also identified £255m of contracts awarded to companies that had only been incorporated within the previous 60 days. The figure is surprising because the short lifespan of the companies suggests they cannot have had any track record of actual business.

Many of the contracts were awarded without competitive tender. The government has acknowledged suspending tender processes for Covid procurement, arguing that the urgency of the pandemic required it to move more quickly than a tender process would allow.

The report, Track and Trace, is compiled by researchers working for the UK chapter of the international organisation Transparency International. The group is respected in anti-corruption policy circles and publishes an annual corruption perceptions index that frequently informs national anti-bribery strategies.

Steve Goodrich, a senior research manager at the group, said there was disquiet at “patterns that you cannot explain away”, in particular the creation of the VIP lane.

“Fine, you have to triage [bids for PPE contracts],” he said. “Why on earth would you ask politicians to do that? Did they even ask any medical experts? Or was it just prioritised on the basis of who managed to ring the right person at the right time?”

The existence of the VIP lane was confirmed in a report last November by the National Audit Office. During a global rush for PPE that rapidly forced up prices, the government said it received large numbers of unsolicited and improbable bids for lucrative public contracts.

It said the high-priority lane allowed it to triage the large number of unsolicited offers of aid by prioritising those referred by government ministers, MPs, peers or health officials as credible companies that should be taken seriously, rather than chancers.

However the government’s repeated refusal to identify any beneficiaries of the scheme has prompted suspicion that it could have been used to disburse public funds to friends of the Conservative party. Companies referred into the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to be awarded a government contract.

Transparency International’s report makes 10 recommendations for urgent action by government, including immediate disclosure of the beneficiaries of the VIP lane contracts, a return to competitive procurement by default, and transferring responsibility for enforcing the ministerial code to an office independent of government and accountable to parliament.

A government spokesperson said: “During the pandemic our priority has always been to protect the public and save lives, and we have used existing rules to buy life saving equipment and supplies, such as PPE for the NHS frontline.

“All PPE procurement went through the same assurance process and due diligence is carried out on every contract – ministers have no role in awarding them.

“The priority list [VIP lane] was widely advertised across government as a way of more quickly triaging offers of support.”

Crooked party leader with ties to Bideford was a serial conman

A confidence trickster founded his own political party in Bideford and stood for election on a platform of ‘honesty and transparency’ while swindling companies out of thousands of pounds. 

www.northdevongazette.co.uk

Timothy Ahlbeck set up a string of companies and claimed to be a duke, lord or doctor while in reality he was an undischarged bankrupt and banned from running any business. 

He fleeced creditors by filing false returns which showed he had assets of £200,000 when he was penniless and trying to run a market stall in Newton Abbot. 

He registered The People’s Party UK ltd as the name of one of his companies and stood as an Independent in Torbay’s local elections in 2019. 

He was forced to pull out after local media exposed him as being a serial conman who has served a string of jail terms for fraud under his previous names of Timothy Skelding and Miles Prestland-Windsor. 

His election literature said: his campaign said: “Honesty and Transparency are of the utmost importance to me.” 

Ahlbeck set up 16 companies while disqualified from being a director. They claimed to be involved in telecoms, pet and horse care, perfume, gold bullion, courier or utility services. 

The People’s Party and several other firms were based in Mill Street, Bideford but he also used addresses in Torbay, London and Manchester. 

Ahlbeck, aged 37, now High Street, Wednesfield, Wolverhampton, admitted two counts of fraud and 16 of acting as a director while disqualified. 

He was jailed for two years, suspended for two years and ordered to do a thinking skills course and receive 30 days supervision by Judge Timothy Rose at Exeter Crown Court. 

He told him: “Over the 19 years of your adult life, you have been living in a form of escapist fantasy world, what some may call a Walter Mitty existence, in which you have repeatedly set up companies, more recently while disqualified. 

“There has been fraudulent paperwork and completely invented facts and figures and capital which has just come from the top of your head. 

Miss Bathsheba Cassel, prosecuting, said Ahlbeck was disqualified from being a director for 15 years in 2016 after one of his previous convictions but started running a string of companies from October 2017 onwards. 

He succeeded in getting credit from a variety of suppliers and the two frauds involved £20,315.94 from Staples for office equipment, laptop and phones, and a car leasing firm for £6,479. 

He supplied false bank account details and claimed to have £200,000 capital, £240,000 a year turnover and ten employees. 

Other businesses which supplied goods or services to his companies were left out of pocket to the tune of around £70,000. Many were small firms which were badly hit by the losses. 

Ahlbeck has six previous convictions for fraud and has served five prison terms since 2002. 

Miss Mary McCarthy, defending, said Ahlbeck’s offending is the result of a personality disorder and other psychological problems arising out of an abusive childhood. 

She said the full diagnosis and proper treatment have only been achieved since these set of offences finished in 2019. 

He is now living near Wolverhampton and receiving the help he needs to rebuild his life and stay out of trouble.

End NHS staff shortages now, Boris Johnson told

Whilst visiting Dartmouth 15 April, Boris Johnson said of the growing backlog of our over-burdened healthcare system:

 “We’re going to make sure that we give the NHS all the funding that it needs, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to beat the backlog.

“We’ve put about £92 billion already extra into the NHS this year and we’re going to do whatever it takes.

More empty words? – Owl

See also: health-provision-at-local-and-national-level-is-tory-achilles-heel-and-they-know-it/

Denis Campbell www.theguardian.com 

Doctors, nurses and NHS bosses have pleaded with Boris Johnson to spend billions of pounds to finally end the chronic lack of staff across the health service.

The strain of working in a perpetually understaffed service is so great that it risks creating an exodus of frontline personnel, they warn the prime minister in a letter published on Wednesday.

They have demanded that the government devise an urgent plan that will significantly increase the size of the workforce of the NHS in England by the time of the next general election in 2024.

Their intervention comes after the latest NHS staff survey found that growing numbers of them feel their work is making them sick and that almost two-thirds believe they cannot do their jobs properly because their organisation has too few people.

The letter has been signed by unions and other groups representing most of the NHS’s 1.4 million-strong workforce, including the Royal College of Nursing, British Medical Association and Unison. NHS Providers and the NHS Confederation, which both represent hospital trusts, have also endorsed it, as has the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, a professional body for the UK’s 240,000 doctors.

In the letter they draw attention to the fact that the NHS in England has almost 90,000 vacancies: “We are very aware of the strain and stress placed on NHS services and teams by the vacancies we see across services and roles. There is a very real risk that these vacancies are the greatest threat to the retention of our people.”

Johnson has lavished praise on NHS staff for their dedication and hard work in treating huge numbers of Covid patients during the pandemic, and acknowledged his personal debt to them after his spell in intensive care with the disease in April 2020. But his decision to offer NHS staff only a 1% pay rise this year has triggered an outcry, including from some Conservative MPs.

The NHS’s much-vaunted People Plan, drawn up by the Conservative peer Lady Harding in her role as chair of NHS Improvement, has not led to meaningful changes to increase staff numbers – with government reluctance to spend the money needed the reason, the signatories claim.

“It appears that no such plan can be developed because the government has not been able to commit to funding the implications … Billions in additional investment will be required by the end of this parliament to address these longstanding issues of supply and education,” the letter adds.

Demanding that staff shortages be banished once and for all, the authors tell the prime minister that staff are “exhausted” after a year fighting Covid and ask him to “give them hope – hope that there is a plan, matched by investment, which will address shortages of NHS staff in the medium and long term”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “This government is committed to supporting the NHS and its staff in the fight against Covid and beyond the pandemic through the NHS People Plan. There are over 6,600 more doctors and 10,900 more nurses working in our NHS, compared to last year, and we are on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by the end of this parliament.”

The spokesperson said an extra 1,500 places had been created in medical schools, and an undergraduate studying to become a nurse, midwife, physiotherapist or occupational therapist now received at least £5,000 a year to help with living costs.


Alison Hernadez campaigns with Tory council candidates and a posse of phantom Police

Alison Hernandez has been seen out and about campaigning with local Tory Council candidates. She must also have been accompanied by a posse of phantom Police because she sees them “everywhere” she goes. 

So the Tories are playing the “law and order ticket” hard, as they frequently do.

With all the stories of sleaze and “chumocracy” swirling around; and after Cumming’s Durham Dash and Robert Jenrick bolting to his Hereford mansion a year ago during lockdown, you couldn’t make it up. Gamekeepers and poachers come to mind. – Owl

From Martin Shaw’s blog (defending his County division of Seaton and Colyton):

Is this a spoof account? ‘Everywhere I go I see the police’, says Alison Hernandez as she finally turns up in Seaton: ‘Visibility has begun’.

Posted on April 21, 2021 seatonmatters.org 

I don’t normally reproduce Conservative propaganda, but their local candidates Marcus Hartnell and Ian Hall must be squirming with embarrassment today after the police commissioner, Alison Hernandez – last spotted in Seaton in September 2016 (!) – turned up for election photo-ops with them.

The hapless Hernandez tweeted about her visit, ‘Everywhere I go I see the police’, and even continued, ‘Visibility has begun …’ . Let’s hope that this doesn’t mean that police were bused from all over Devon for a party-political event. Since the wider Seaton area has been reduced to one Police Constable and one Police Community Support Officer, it would have been simply impossible for her to have seen police ‘everywhere’ on a normal day.

Hernandez’ claims will be greeted with derision, if not anger, by people in the Colyford and Seaton Down Hill areas, who have been trying to get police enforcement of speed limits for years now. The police have been all but invisible locally throughout Hernandez’ term – time for her to go.