London cut off from Devon & Cornwall

High-speed rail services cancelled after cracks found in trains

By Alex Therrien

New intercity train

The fleet of Hitachi 800 trains entered service in 2017

Some railway services across the UK have been cancelled after hairline cracks were found in high-speed trains.

The issue was found in the Hitachi 800 series trains, which are used by Great Western Railway, London North Eastern Railways and Hull Trains.

The operators warned there would be cancellations and disruption while the cracks were investigated.

Passengers have been advised to check before travelling and to consider postponing journeys.

All high-speed GWR services between London, Bristol, Cardiff and Penzance have been cancelled and customers are advised not to attempt to travel today.

LNER is currently advising passengers not to travel.

It means limited to no service on the East Coast – between Edinburgh, Newcastle, York and London.

A spokesman for Hull Trains said the problem was being investigated by Hitachi, and once trains had been checked it was hoped they could be released back into service “as soon as possible”.

“This could affect a significant number of our services and passengers should check before they travel,” the spokesman added.

The fleet of Hitachi 800 trains entered service in 2017 and was designed to be electric, but engines were also fitted with diesel power because of delays with railway electrification.

The trains were made at the Hitachi factory in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham.

As Owl feared “Dick Barton” proved a winning strategy.

For the moment the electorate appears to be content to credit the Tories with successfully delivering a vaccination programme and the promise of economic recovery. Despite the mess over Brexit fishing rights. How long will this last?

Today’s Western Morning News summarises the results in the Peninsular as follows:   

…Labour losing control of Plymouth City Council, and Cornwall switching to the Tories in time for the G7 summit; plus, Devon County Council remains under Tory control, albeit with a slightly reduced majority…

Note: two divisions in East Devon – Exmouth and Broadclyst – where two councillors are elected in each, won’t begin counting until this morning, so a final result and composition of Devon County Council  won’t be known until later today.

However, the East Devon Alliance (EDA) suffered a bitter blow as Martin Shaw failed to retain Seaton & Colyton by a wafer thin margin.

EDA candidates also failed to take Axminster and Sidmouth, but again only by small margins:

Axminster: Paul Hayward (EDA) lost to Ian Hall (Con) by 1,439 to 1,672

Seaton & Colyton: Martin Shaw (EDA) lost to Marcus Hartnell (Con) 2,176 to 2,321

Sidmouth: Louise Mac Allister (EDA) lost to Stuart Hughes (Con) 2,431 to 2,601

(Other candidates received few votes – full results here

The positive message to take from this is that, where EDA fields a candidate it is in a very strong position to win.

Jess Bailey (Ind) held Otter Valley, the division vacated by Claire Wright by 3,224 votes to 1,281 for Charlie Hobson (Con)..

Exeter City 

Bucking the trend Labour have retained control of Exeter City Council – and with an increased majority. 


The election for Cornwall Council is different this year after boundary changes by the Government cut the number of councillors from 123 to 87. Owl’s skimming over the results show some divisions being decided with candidates winning having only received 700/800 votes. Something wrong with democracy here.

(Owl has yet to digest the overall turnout figures, but some of the divisions are becoming so large as to make it very difficult for those not backed by a national party to contest. This even more apparent in the farcical Police Crime Commissioner elections. A correspondent asked Owl why all PCC candidates came from national parties!).

‘Dorset Local Plan is flawed unless councils work together’

The Dorset Local Plan consultation 2021 is now finished but here is the link to the consultation documents see also this article on the proposal for 30,500 new homes. Including CPRE comments.

New planning rules to be outlined next week. – Owl 

‘Dorset Local Plan is flawed unless councils work together’

Neil Matthews

I am writing to you as I am becoming increasingly concerned by the size and scale of the proposals contained in the Dorset Local Plan.

It seems that the Plan contains many tired old ideas about solving the housing problems by building on green field sites – often away from existing settlements. DOR 13 is the most extreme of this type of oldfashioned “new-town” planning.

At this time, coming as it is at the end of a pandemic and at a time of great change to how traditional buildings are being used in town centres, surely this is the time to seize the moment to develop a Local Plan that is both innovative and successful.

One that Dorset can be proud of.

At first glance it may seem not relevant to a rural environment such as Dorset: the county not having any cities.

But, of course, that is not the whole story. If we look at the Bournemouth/Christchurch/ Poole conurbation we have a settlement bigger than Southampton, Portsmouth or Exeter.

So, the conurbation is equivalent in size to a major city.

Therefore, the reported move from office and retail space to homes is very relevant. Even in small towns, such as Dorchester and Wimborne, council offices and other buildings are rapidly becoming empty and retail spaces are changing to domestic use. So, immediately we can see that the old approaches to town planning need to change.

New homes do not have to equate with building new houses and destroying the green lungs that towns like Dorchester depend upon.

Secondly, you have put on record that you are preparing to build houses that are not only allocated to the Dorset Council area but also those allocated to BPC Council. Why?

My understanding is that it is the responsibility of the Planning Authority drawing up a Local Plan to think and work strategically.

That means thinking outside the narrow confines of a single authority, but to look at working collaboratively with neighbouring authorities.

In our case that is East Devon, South Somerset, Wiltshire and BPC. Clearly it would be nonsense to plan for development in Sherborne without considering Yeovil (analogous with the dormitory/commuting relationship of Dorchester & Weymouth). Equally weird would be to plan developments in Bridport without considering Crewkerne, Chard and Axminster.

Now when considering Dorset’s eastern reaches, the relationship with BPC cannot be ignored and, given the pressures that you already perceive, means that the councils must inevitably work together. But, of course, Dorset is not the only player here – and not the only one that BPC can call on to help it meet its own target (why can’t it?).

Hampshire shares a border with both Dorset and BPC. Therefore, strategically the three councils should and must work together.

So, to sum up. Without considering the rapidly evolving working environment, The Local Plan is flawed.

Without considering the strategic options of collaborating with our neighbouring councils, the Local Plan is deeply flawed.

Without considering either of these issues, the Local Plan is fatally flawed.

Neil Matthews

Athelstan Road, Dorchester

Sidmouth Folk Festival celebrations announced for summer 2021

Organisers of The Sidmouth Folk Festival aim to put on a week of music, dance and family entertainment this summer.

Becca Gliddon

Billed as A Celebration of Sidmouth Folk Festival, the event from July 30 until August 6, will be an ‘authentic taste’ of the traditional event.

The Sidmouth Folk Festival plans to return in full in 2022, the organisers said.

John Braithwaite, festival director, said: “We are looking forward to this special celebration, as we thank everyone who helped the festival survive last year’s cancellation and to secure its future.

“All this year’s festival activities will be run in line with existing Covid-19 guidance.

“All relevant precautions and health and safety measures will be taken to ensure people’s comfort, and to maximise their enjoyment.”

He added: “Heartfelt thanks again to all who supported the Crowdfunding campaign.

“Some rewards will be redeemable this year, some will need to be deferred to 2022 and that option remains for all pledges.

“Please do join us in our beautiful seaside home in the first week of August to celebrate the ongoing future of The Sidmouth Folk Festival.

“And we look forward to returning in 2022 in grand style.”

The line-up for this year’s celebration event includes live headline performances by festival patrons Show of Hands, the Eliza Carthy Trio and Scottish folk band Talisk. Tickets go on sale later this month.

These outdoor concerts, at Blackmore Gardens, take into account the current preference for open air events, following results from audience surveys conducted by the festival team.

The gardens will also be the venue for a host of free daytime family entertainment, including dance music, street theatre, special events, plus stalls selling food and drink.

Festival activity and entertainment is planned for The Ham lawn.

And there will be live-streamed events and workshops, with details to be announced later this month.

The organsiers said: “Following on from the rip-roaring success of last year’s online festival, there will also be a major web-based presence again in 2021, including live streaming from the town and plenty of workshops, with more details to be announced in late May.”

For more information about the event, see here.

More on: Chris Packham video leads furious protest over river estuary work

Vegetation and tree clearance work at a project that will return a Devon estuary and floodplain to a more natural condition has been postponed after campaigners were left furious over the impact it would have on nesting birds.

Daniel Clark 

Wildlife TV presenter Chris Packham led the campaign after highlighting the issue in a video on Twitter that has been viewed over 35,000 times.

The project, that was set to begin on Tuesday, would have seen the removal of vegetation on the River Otter estuary, which would be essential for the success of the project and the restoration of an intertidal landscape which will become home to many new species.

But following the protests, the Environment Agency has said the start of work has been reviewed, and landowners Clinton Devon Estates have confirmed the work will be postponed.

The EU-funded Lower Otter Restoration Project (LORP) will reconnect the River Otter to its historic floodplain and return the lower Otter Valley to a more natural condition; creating more than 50 hecatres of intertidal mudflats, saltmarsh and other valuable estuarine habitats.

The creation of new habitats and restoration of the site will be achieved by breaching the embankment. This will allow a much greater extent of the original floodplain to flood at high tide and drain at low tide producing important intertidal habitat, mudflats and saltmarsh for wading birds. There will also be areas of reedbed and grazing marsh.

Once established, the new site will become a wildlife reserve of international importance within five years, fulfilling the aspirations of all partners involved.

Chris Packham

Chris Packham (Image: BBC)

In a statement, Clinton Devon Estates said: “Following consultation with our partners and other environmental organisations over risks to nesting birds, the start of vegetation clearance work in preparation for the Lower Otter Restoration Project has been postponed.

“Any works in the future will be undertaken on the basis that they will not have a risk of impacting breeding birds.

“The purpose of this vital project has always been to work with nature to achieve a more sustainable way of managing the Otter Estuary and its immediate surroundings, and we are committed to ensuring this continues to be a priority.”

An Environment Agency spokesman added that the delay had been agreed so ‘that timings reflect the balance of ecological risks’.

They added: “Vegetation and tree clearance is one of the first elements in advance of starting earthworks and construction work on the project. The period in which vegetation clearance could be carried out has been dictated by ecological factors, the period in which dormice can be sensitively displaced under licence, and external funding factors. We sought to manage risks associated with nesting birds through the development of clearance procedures directed and controlled by ecologists.

“However, following consultation with our partners and other environmental organisations over risks to nesting birds, the start of vegetation clearance work has been postponed. Any works which are undertaken in the future will be on the basis that they will not impact breeding birds. The purpose of this vital project has always been to work with nature to achieve a more sustainable way of managing the Otter Estuary and its immediate surroundings, and we are committed to ensuring this continues to be a priority.”

In his video post on Twitter, Packham said: “Workers were to turn up and destroy an area of scrub which is home to schedule one species. It is the breeding season as they are likely to have nests and eggs and young and we know that they are protected and you can’t destroy them.

“The EA say they have to do the work now because they cannot do it after June because of dormice on site. The bigger picture is that when the work is completed, it will generate a very rare and valuable piece of coastal habitat so the outcome could be good, but you cannot just start destroying bird’s nests when they are protected, so what sort of signal is this sending out to developer’s elsewhere.

“Come on EA, wake up. You have to do your duty on our behalf and you are meant to look after our environment and the species that live there as next time it may not be a project with a good ecological outcome. Please think again.”

In a statement outlining the project of the LORP website, it had been said that the vegetation and tree clearance was due to start on May 4 and construction phasing and project funding deadlines dictate the timing, which is further constrained by the period allowed under the necessary dormouse licence.

Ecologists were due to accompany each clearance team and where nesting birds or signs of bats are found these places will be protected, and the birds left to rear their chicks, with buffer zones around nests.

All work was due to have been informed by wildlife surveys with ecological impacts assessed by independent ecologists and being completed in accordance with the Environmental Statement, which was an important part of planning, as the work was being undertaken with the full knowledge and support of Natural England.

The statement added: “Although we know the timing of vegetation clearance for May is not ideal for birds this is constrained by the presence of dormice (a European protected species) and the need to carry out the works in the short period allowed by the licence required (as well as construction phasing and project funding deadlines).

“Before vegetation is cleared, experienced ecologists will carefully search for nesting birds and sites used by bats. Where these are found they will be left undisturbed, with a buffer zone to ensure protection. Qualified ecologists have already carried out pre-clearance surveys and will continue to do so before and during works.

“The scheme will create over 55 hectares of rare inter-tidal habitat including mudflat and saltmarsh. However, it will result in the removal of 0.7 ha of broadleaf semi-natural woodland, 34 mature trees and 2.5km of hedgerow. Where woodland, hedgerow and tree habitats are removed these will be replaced in the lower Otter Valley outside of the project area resulting in a habitat gain of just over two hectares of broadleaf woodland and 1.5km of hedgerow. All vegetation clearance methods will follow best recognised practice to ensure that disturbance to wildlife is minimised with all necessary protected species licences in place.”

But the project has now been delayed, with no date yet confirmed for when the vegetation clearance will begin.

When complete, the flood plains project is expected to create 55 hectares (136 acres) of wildlife habitat on the river, estuary and floodplain.

Ministers urged to reveal details of £2bn Covid deals with private health firms

The government has been urged to publish details of up to £2bn in Covid-19 contracts awarded to private healthcare companies, including some that have helped fund the Conservative party.

Rob Davies 

Contracts to provide extra capacity during the pandemic have been handed to 17 firms since March 2020.

The NHS has said enlisting independent hospitals helped add 6,500 beds, freeing space to treat Covid-19 patients and allowing elective procedures to continue.

But the Good Law Project, which has repeatedly raised concerns about cronyism and opacity in public procurement, said a lack of transparency about the terms of the contracts was concerning.

The government has not published full details about the contracts, while data on how much the NHS has spent on them is also yet to be released.

The first of two groups of contracts, running from March to December 2020, had 26 firms initially enlisted to provide extra capacity, to a value of £1.6bn.

The government said it did not pay for beds and staff that were not needed, adding that in the end only 17 firms provided services, at cost price.

Accounts for Practice Plus Group, which won £76.3m of work under the contract, raise questions about this assertion. They state that it worked on a “cost plus” basis, using a “cost plus pricing formula”.

The company declined to comment, and referred queries to its trade association, the Independent Healthcare Provider Network.

Accounts for Ramsay Health Care, which won work worth up to £271.1m from March to December 2020, say it worked at cost price plus an extra 8.6% in infrastructure costs. The company said it did not profit from the contract and had made losses during the pandemic.

A second set of contracts for January to March 2021, as peaking case numbers placed huge strain on the NHS, was worth up to £474m. Unlike the first set of contracts, these included minimum payments for making capacity available, as well as for services that were actually used.

Jo Maugham, the director of the Good Law Project, said: “Billions of pounds of public money has been handed to private healthcare firms with hardly any transparency – many of which happen to have links to the Conservative party.

“No one would fault government for doing what was necessary to increase capacity to ensure people could still get the care they needed at the height of the pandemic, so what it is that government has got to lose from publishing these contract details?”

While there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the companies, Maugham stressed the importance of transparency, particularly given that many of them, or their directors, had either donated money to the Conservatives in the past or worked in the government.

One Healthcare, recipient of work worth up to £17.7m, is owned by the asset manager Octopus Investments, which gave the Tories £12,500 in 2018.

Ramsay Health Care, which operates 34 UK hospitals and treatment centres, won contracts worth up to £380m. Its general counsel previously worked for the Department of Health and Social Care between 2008 and 2013.

Ramsay said he was not involved in negotiating the contracts but did work on their coordination and legal drafting.

Practice Plus Group is owned by the private equity group Bridgepoint, whose advisory board includes the Conservative life peer Stuart Rose and Alan Milburn, the former Labour health secretary.

An NHS spokesperson said: “When NHS hospitals were first under significant pressure from high Covid-19 infection rates, the NHS worked with independent sector hospital providers to secure access to additional hospital capacity, staff and equipment and these providers have delivered almost 3m treatments and services since the start of the pandemic.”

The NHS is understood to be preparing to publish data on how much has been spent on the contracts.

The Independent Healthcare Provider Network said its members provided services at cost and were audited to ensure taxpayers’ value for money.

A spokesperson said: “Over the last year, independent providers helped to keep vital services such as cancer care going throughout the pandemic, delivering over 3.2m procedures for NHS patients under these unprecedented arrangements, including over 160,000 cancer and cardiology treatments.”

The Treasury last year blocked the health secretary, Matt Hancock’s plan to spend £5bn with private hospitals to clear the NHS backlog, on the grounds that it did not offer value for money.

The government has since drawn up a third group of contracts, under a framework agreement, which could lead to suppliers from a list of 90 approved private companies awarded £10bn of work over four years.

This may not be for Sidmouth, but would Exmouth be up for it?

Something to distract from elections – Owl

Monster zip wire plan to rejuvenate Ilfracombe’s fortunes

Ambitious plans for a zip line could bring thousands of visitors to Ilfracombe.

Lewis Clarke

Ilfracombe Town Council has agreed to apply for a zip line that would cross from Hillsborough down to the harbour.

The idea was put forward by Councillor Dan Turton at a meeting on Monday, April 12, and given backing by councillors to proceed at their meeting on Tuesday, May 4.

Cllr Turton said: “We’re looking to put a report forward so we can put something down on paper and get a planning application in. It’s to find if it’s for certain or a pipe dream rather than keep talking about it.

“I would favour putting it on the top of Hillsborough down to the pier. I know Hillsborough is an AONB which could be a sticky point, but I have never been told it would be a 100 per cent no and that it can’t be done. I have only been told it would be difficult.

“I have spoken to AONB, who told me it would go down to community consultation; it wasn’t a no.”

He said that the council would apply the more ambitious scheme but that as a plan B, they would also look at the possibility of a zip line from Capstone Hill.

He added: “It ticks every single box that we’ve been talking about for the last six years.

“It brings money to the town, it gives us an attraction, and it markets the town.

“Ilfracombe is going to be rammed this year and next, so we need to take an opportunity and give people visiting here an attraction tying in with the water sports centre and putting ourselves on the map as a destination where you can do this type of thing.”

He said any surplus income generated could be put back into the community.

He added: “The concept that any money raised on this put back in the community to fund things like toilets is a unique selling point, and we could have hundreds of toilets all dotted around Ilfracombe thanks to this attraction.

“I have had lots of businesses contact me telling me they want to do this and franchise it out. It proves it is a serious business proposition, but I would prefer if the council or One Ilfracombe ran it so we could keep any surplus from the attraction.

“If we are going to do it, do it properly and do it big and go for the biggest venue.

“There’s a derelict shelter on Hillsborough which is covered in beer bottles, graffiti and cannabis, and one of the things was to do something to that shelter.”

Councillor Paul Crabb fully supported the proposal.

He said: “I think it’s a marvellous idea,” he said.

“We have discussed it, and it’s been around the block a couple of times. I think it has come to a point where it needs testing.

“I know that when it comes to Historic England if you suggest as much as dropping a fag packet up at Hillsborough, they’ll go nuts. To suggest putting a wire on it, I think they will go double nuts.”

Despite a feeling it may not get approved, Cllr Crabb said they would gain nothing by not acting.

“To put a planning application in as a parish council would cost a few hundred quid,” he said. “It’s not a lot.

“If the first one gets turned down, you get a chance to put in an amended plan.

“For the sake of that money, where we can be in a position where we get a definite no and the reasons, at least Dan will be happy he’s tried.

“Most importantly, if you look at plan B, which is more than possible but less desirable, it may not be our land, but we can submit an application.

“I’ve been talking to the council surveyor about this, who are quite happy to look at proposals that come forward for areas at the back of the swimming baths and the top of Capstone.

“It would be huge turnover on this thing wherever you put it, so there is a deal to be done.”

However, Councillor Netti Pearson said: “Hillsborough is a scheduled ancient monument. You cannot build on it. It’s not the AONB that is the issue; it’s a scheduled ancient monument.

“The other hindrance would be that we have a working harbour.

“With Hillsborough and the harbour, it’s never going to happen in a million years.”

Councillor Rod Donovan added: “There’s no way you’d get it off Hillsborough. It’s an ancient monument, and you imagine if it’s really popular, the number of people who would be trampling over the ancient monument to get to the starting point.

“It’s a non-starter. It’s an absolute waste of time putting an application in for Hillsborough. Let’s put an application in for Capstone down to the back of the Landmark.”

Speaking again at the meeting on May 4, Cllr Turton added: “This proposal would be for Hillsborough as we are never going to find out if that’s possible unless we put a planning application in.

“Plan B would be Capstone, but we need to find out if Hillsborough is possible as it’s a lot more impressive, bigger, and I think it marketing it, it would go global.

“Ilfracombe has been called on a Which? report the worst seaside town in the country for attractions and visits to the seaside, so this would undoubtedly give them a kick in the teeth, and we certainly wouldn’t be bottom of the list then.

“I think we would be viral all around the world if we were to back it.”