Devon’s democratic deficit: the case for a progressive alliance to ensure better representation for all – West Country Bylines

Martin Shaw 

The UK elections of 6 May 2021 revealed a fragmented political landscape. Although the results showed, as do most national polls, that the combined support for the opposition parties continues to exceed the Conservatives’, they showed no sign that Labour alone would be likely to oust Boris Johnson’s increasingly authoritarian and nationalist regime in the next General Election. Despite deep corruption and the worst pandemic record of any major Western country, the opposition remains relatively weak, and so divided that the Johnson-style Conservatives look likely to stay in power under the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system . This situation was also reflected in reflected in many councils, such as Devon, the largest in the South West. 

A big Conservative majority based on a minority of votes

Devon is often seen as overwhelmingly Conservative – and the party once more gained a huge majority (65 per cent) of seats. However this was on the basis of a minority (42 per cent) of the vote. The combined votes of Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens exceeded the Tories’ even without including Independents, many of whom are left-leaning. Yet under FPTP, all four groups lost seats to the Conservatives compared with what a proportional distribution would have given them, as the table shows.

Overall results of the 2021 Devon County Council elections

  (2017 resultsin brackets)distributionadvantage
Conservatives10869242.4 (44.4)39 (42)2613
Liberal Democrats4539517.7 (21.7)9 (7)11-2
Labour4064015.9 (15.2)7 (7)10-3
Green Party2850111.0 (5.4)2 (1)7-5
Independents2743610.8 (9.8)3 (3)6-3
Other parties31841.2 (1.5)0 (0)00

This outcome was not an outlier. In 2017, the Conservatives won 70 per cent of the seats for a slightly larger minority share. In 2013 and 2009, too, they won comfortable overall majorities for minority votes. Not since 2005, when the Lib Dems tied with them on 42 per cent and actually won a majority of seats, has there been a different outcome.

Support for PR

So the Devon opposition has faced this situation for a decade and a half. Have they made any efforts to counter it – or do they march, election after election, into inevitable defeats born of lack of unity? Theoretically, opposition councillors see the problem. On 29 April 2021, at the pre-election meeting of Devon County Council, I proposed a motion welcoming the Welsh parliament’s initiative to allow councils to choose a reformed electoral system such as the Single Transferable Vote, and asking the UK government to introduce the same option for Devon. All the Liberal Democrat, Labour, Green and Independent councillors – except the leader of the Labour group – supported this.

Seats which the opposition could have won

Yet a week later, these opposition parties stood against each other in the elections, with the sadly predictable results reported above. Since Labour dominates Exeter but is hardly a serious contender outside it (Plymouth being a unitary authority), and the Greens are slowly rising but still significantly weaker than Labour and the slowly declining Lib Dems, there was no way that any sector of the opposition could have broken out and won alone under FPTP.

The plurality of oppositions countywide was reflected in the individual seats, with many 3- or 4-way splits of anti-Conservative votes. Looking at the results seat-by-seat, there were 11 seats which opposition forces could have gained if one or more of the weaker opposition candidates had stood down:

  • Lib Dems could have won Chudleigh and Teign Valley, Braunton Rural,  and Tiverton East
  • Labour could have won Duryard and Pennsylvania.
  • Independent East Devon Alliance (EDA) could have won Axminster, Seaton and Colyton, and Sidmouth.
  • Other Independents could have won Northam, Okehampton Rural, Yelverton Rural and Tavistock.

On the figures, some of these ‘gains’ seem near-certainties, while others are more speculative. If the Conservatives had lost all these seats, they would have lost their majority. It is more probable that at least half of these seats could have been gained and the Conservative majority drastically reduced resulting in a big improvement in representation for Devon’s voters as a whole.

Seeds of a Progressive Alliance

Three of the opposition forces, the Lib Dems, Greens and EDA did develop some local understandings which materially assisted their performance:

  • Lib Dems gained South Brent and Teignmouth after the Greens did not stand.
  • Greens held Totnes after Lib Dems did not stand, and won a seat in the two-member Broadclyst division after they and the Lib Dems stood only one candidate each.
  • EDA came close to winning Axminster and Seaton & Colyton after the Greens did not stand, and Sidmouth after both the Greens and Lib Dems did not stand, while EDA not stand in seats where the two parties were contenders.

Local understandings also existed in other places: e.g. in Tiverton, the Lib Dems and Greens contested one seat each, both gaining second place, while in Exmouth, Independents and Lib Dems each contested only one seat in the two-member division, gaining the 3rd and 4th places out of a field of 7, behind two winning Tories.

The need for a comprehensive cross-party agreements in future elections

These understandings are a model for future cooperation, but they were too limited to affect the overall outcome. The Greens were the party most open to them, but the Lib Dems had inconsistent approaches, while Labour insisted on standing in every seat, sometimes with ‘paper’ candidates who won derisory percentages of the vote – but sufficient to cost other opposition candidates seats in close races. In post-election discussions, some Labour members have disowned this approach, imposed by their national party.

However, Labour and some Lib Dem members have also defended standing candidates as widely as possible, on the basis that withdrawing candidates denies the electorate the choice of their particular brands. Yet a wide choice doesn’t necessarily engage voters. In Exmouth, where five opposition candidates challenged the Tories for two seats but none had a credible claim to be the main challengers, turnout was a miserable 30 per cent. In nearby Sidmouth, clearly a close 2-horse race, 43 per cent came out.

Winning is a collaborative affair

In Devon, as nationwide, anti-Conservative voters are ever more outraged by Johnson’s regime, while some Conservative-inclined voters, including those alienated by the current government, will definitely vote for effective opposition or Independent candidates in local elections. It’s plausible to argue that both will be more enthused by potential winners. Many will happily vote for whichever of the opposition forces has a good local candidate who is likely to win.

Winning would surely be made more likely with county-wide collaboration between the parties, mirroring the cooperation in some of the district councils. After 12 years in which Devon has been dominated by a Conservative government which takes the South West for granted and a complacent Conservative County Council, the opposition could gain from a joined-up challenge to the Conservatives in the council chamber and the local media – while preparing the way for a synchronised electoral challenge, negotiated between the groupings, in future local elections.

If you are concerned about the democratic deficit in the UK, please join our free Q&A session “How do we fix our broken democracy”, 26 May, 20:00. Our panel: Klina Jordan, co-founder and chief executive of Make Votes Matter; Mary Southcott, from Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform.; Tom Brake, director of Unlock Democracy and Molly Scott Cato, former MEP (Green Party), economist and activist. See link at bottom of this page.

Breaking News: EDDC Chair changes hands at Annual Meeting

Owl understands that Cllr Cathy Gardner wanted to step down as Chair of EDDC and did not seek re-election.

Two nominations were proposed to take her place: Cllr Ian Thomas, Independent (formally Conserative ) and Cllr Andrew Moulding, Conservative. Cllr Thomas won. Votes were by a show of hands and Owl doesn’t have precise figures.

Two nominations were proposed for Vice Chair. Present incumbent Cllr Val Ranger, East Devon Democratic Alliance and Cllr Mike Howe, Conservative. Cllr Val Ranger was re-elected (by something like 31 votes to 23).

Two nominations were proposed for Leader. Present incumbent Cllr Paul Arnott, East Devon Democratic Alliance, and Cllr Colin Brown, Conservative. Cllr Paul Arnott was re-elected, but Owl doesn’t have precise figures.

The re-elected Leader confirmed Cllr Paul Hayward would continue as Deputy Leader.

From the meeting Agenda, there appears, unusually, to have been no contests for the other posts such as to outside bodies which are elected at this meeting. 

Good Law project, High Court: Day 4

[Tomorrow we have Dominic Cummings giving potentially explosive and damning testimony on the government’s handling of coronavirus to two select committees. Alternatively, he may simply “crash and burn”. Either way it’s something else to look forward to. – Owl] /

Today in the High Court, Government’s lawyers set out their defence to our legal challenge over PPE contracts handed to “VIP” companies. Government claims that companies in the VIP Lane did not materially benefit from their special treatment, and that it was simply a different route by which they could win contracts.

The evidence tells a different story.

Emails between officials reveal that companies with a political connection were given priority. A key member of the VIP Lane team wrote, ‘Speaking personally, I don’t want a middling VIP lead prioritised over a credible high priority lead any more than you do…However, if two leads are otherwise equal priority and one is VIP, some weighting to the VIP is helpful.’

In another exchange, an official set out how companies placed in the “VIP” Lane should be treated, explaining “Follow standard procedure, but take a little more time over correspondence, ‘hand-holding’ the supplier where necessary”. They followed up to say, ”Personally, I’ve found VIP cases require about three times the time of a standard case.”

What is perhaps most striking about Government’s defence of the “VIP” Lane is its apparent determination to keep quiet the details of the politically-connected beneficiaries – and which Ministers or senior officials referred them. When the National Audit Office, the official spending watchdog, investigated the award of PPE contracts, Government intervened to prevent it from revealing the names of companies in the “VIP” Lane.

If the Government really has nothing to hide, why doesn’t it just come clean? Thanks to information uncovered through this litigation, we will be publishing details of a slew of other “VIPs” very shortly. Watch this space.

Thank you, 

Jo Maugham

Director of Good Law Project

Good Law Project’s Jolyon Maugham: ‘They see us pushing back hard’

As the Good Law Project’s latest legal challenge to the government draws to a close this week, its founder, Jolyon Maugham, has revealed the extent to which the case has got under ministers’ skin.

Haroon Siddique 

The judicial review over contracts for personal protective equipment awarded without competition concludes on Tuesday, almost two months to the day since the barrister received a letter from the government’s lawyers. “I was asked by the government legal department to refer myself to my professional regulator, the Bar Standards Board,” the QC tells the Guardian. Maugham says he refused and invited the government to refer him itself, as he says many others he has irked have done.

“I don’t think they have, which from my perspective is rather a pity because I think they would have got short shrift from my regulator. It would be a little awkward for the government legal department to refer me to my regulator and then for my regulator to clear me. It would look very obviously like what it felt like at the time, namely an attempt to bring the power of the state to bear on the silencing of a very vocal critic.”

The lawyers’ letter was a response to documents leaked to Maugham, which were shared with the press. Having held himself out as someone delivering transparency and accountability, Maugham says: “Behaving consistently with what I set out to do actually is upholding the standards of a courageous, independent bar.”

The Good Law Project was involved in the high-profile Brexit cases concerning prorogation of parliament and the triggering of article 50. Last year it brought judicial reviews relating to the environment and to the exam results fiasco. But it was cases such as the current one brought with the campaign group EveryDoctor, relating to the opaque award of Covid contracts, sometimes to suppliers with questionable relevant experience and/or who were political associates, that thrust it into the spotlight. “That sleaze narrative around this government, I think we can properly claim a significant part of the credit for,” says Maugham.

In Good Law’s annual report, the former Brexit secretary David Davis praises its work in holding the government to account, while Maugham claims government lawyers have told him the organisation is “changing the conversation”, making ministers much more mindful of whether proposed actions are lawful. “It’s a bit like knowing that the bizzies are around if you fancy breaking into someone’s house,” he says, smilingly acknowledging the provocative analogy. “They are mindful of the possibility of consequence in ways that they were not previously.”

Maugham adds: “Privately, government lawyers tell us at the same time they’re sending us letters they are cheering for us to win. These aren’t people who are politically motivated, they just see the decline in the quality of governance in government and they see us pushing back hard.”

The Covid contracts controversy has clearly resonated with the public. This time last year, Maugham says, he was asking Good Law’s director of campaigns if the number of direct debit donors might reach 5,000 by the end of 2020, from fewer than 2,000 at the start of the year and against a target of 3,500. In fact it soared to 11,000, and now there are almost 20,000, he says.

With its headcount also growing – from one employee in January last year to an estimated 25 by the end of this year – Maugham is looking to the future and expanding beyond litigation.

He unexpectedly namechecks David Cameron – “the most unfashionable man in the country at the moment,” he says – as he outlines plans, not to follow the former prime minister into lobbying, but for a “big society”.

Stressing that he wants to work from the bottom up, rather than the top-down approach he says Cameron favoured, Maugham describes his ambition to foster legal structures, such as cooperatives and trade unions, to “help people improve the world around them, help them improve their communities”.

An example he gives is an alternative takeaway delivery service, which could be launched next year. “What we will probably do is trial in a particular community a structure that enables restaurants and drivers to set up a company that operates an app that serves that community and that doesn’t have these vampires in America sucking wealth out of that community,” he says.

If the government’s experience is anything to go by, the likes of Uber Eats and Deliveroo should probably be looking over their shoulders. Reflecting on this desire to empower others and his personal motivation, Maugham recalls his time in psychotherapy in his late 20s.

“I had a wonderful psychotherapist and I remember her saying to me: ‘But Jolyon, it’s such a waste for you to be unhappy, to live an unhappy life.’ That really resonated with me then and it really resonates with me now. That idea that we can find ways to respond to the world around us that will make us happy, we’re not passive participants in fate imposed on us by others, is really important … Without it our lives in a sense can feel wasted. I don’t want that for anyone.

“Although I am deeply cynical about what governments do, and what big money does … I’m profoundly optimistic about human nature. It perhaps feels ridiculously ambitious to think that the law might be able to do something about that, but it’s a hill I’m very happy to die on trying.”

Rural areas face threat of 400,000 new homes

Nearly 400,000 homes will be built on greenfield sites in the south of England over the next five years, according to a new analysis of planning policy.

Andrew Ellson, George Grylls Ryan Watts

Huge parts of the countryside could be paved over by councils to meet revised housebuilding targets, the data suggests.

Cornwall alone would have to build more than 11,000 homes on rural land and areas such as Buckinghamshire and Central Bedfordshire will each have to create at least 10,000 plots.

Less development will be needed in the north of England, with half as many new homes per head of population in “red wall” constituencies as in the rest of the country, The Times has found. This is because the government’s formula assumes that more homes are needed where prices are higher. The south also has fewer brownfield sites.

The figures have reignited concerns on the Tory back benches that planning reforms will alienate Conservative voters in the shires while undermining commitments made to the north.

“You can’t level up the north of the country by concreting over the southeast,” said Damian Green, Theresa May’s de facto deputy when she was prime minister.

Theresa Villiers, the former environment secretary, said: “Despite significant changes to the government’s housing algorithm, there is still far too much pressure to build in London and the south. Cramming more and more homes into the south will do nothing to deliver the government’s promises on levelling up the north.”

Tory backbenchers rebelled last year over a “mutant algorithm”, which they believed placed too much emphasis on development in southern areas.

An updated “Standard Method” for calculating housing need was published in December. The new analysis cross-referenced the revised targets against each area’s capacity to build homes on brownfield sites, which local authorities are required to publish. This gave a figure for the number of homes in each local authority that must be built on greenfield sites to meet the targets.

Greenfield land is defined as undeveloped land in a city or rural area that is used either for agriculture or landscape design or left to evolve naturally. Brownfield land is previously developed land that is not in use, such as an abandoned industrial area.

The analysis shows that greenfield sites will be needed to accommodate 193,724 homes in London, 107,000 homes in the southeast and 69,000 in the southwest over the next five years. It also suggests that there will be no need to build on greenfield areas in the northwest, northeast or Yorkshire because these areas will have to build fewer homes and have more brownfield sites.

Jonathan Jones, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which commissioned the research, said: “The planning bill flies in the face of levelling-up ambitions and will lead to a huge loss of greenfield, including green belt in the southeast and London, while leaving brownfield to rot in the north.

“Access to green space and nature near by has become more and more important for our health and wellbeing but the analysis shows the planning bill would force local authorities to release these spaces in the southeast and London.” Government sources insist that the targets are not binding and they believe that London will under-deliver homes and the north will over-deliver.

“The number spat out by formula is not a target but a starting point,” one source said. “Green belts are protected and will remain protected. It is for councils to decide. It is between them and their voters if they choose to take out a greenfield.”

The revised planning formula requires that more homes are built in areas where house prices are higher, because property costs are seen as a proxy for where people want to live.

A stark illustration of the effect of the new plans can be seen by comparing the demands put on Boris Johnson’s London constituency and Rishi Sunak’s North Yorkshire seat. The analysis suggests that the prime minister’s seat of Uxbridge & South Ruislip would need to accommodate 1,220 homes a year, ten times as many as the chancellor’s constituency of Richmond.

In seats won in 2019 by the Tories across the north and the Midlands, 260 homes will be built per 100,000 people compared with 550 per 100,000 across the rest of the country.

Paul Miner, the head of land use and planning at the CPRE, said: “If you have a pattern of significantly higher levels of housing development in the south than the north, you will see significantly more government investment in infrastructure in these areas to make that happen, such as building new railway lines. A big question is how this will impact the levelling-up agenda if this approach is allowed to continue.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “To compare housing delivery in different parts of the country based on Local Housing Need formula is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of these numbers. That’s not how they work and this analysis is misleading.”

Britain’s electric car charging network boosted by £300m funding

Britain’s energy regulator has approved a £300m investment spree to help triple the number of ultra-rapid electric car charge points across the country, as part of efforts to accelerate the UK’s shift to clean energy.

Kalyeena Makortoff 

Ofgem has given the green light for energy network companies to invest in more than 200 low-carbon projects across the country over the next two years, including the installation of 1,800 new ultra-rapid car charge points for motorway service stations and a further 1,750 charge points in towns and cities.

The investment will be undertaken by regional network companies to benefit urban areas including Glasgow, Kirkwall, Warrington, Llandudno, York and Truro. It will also cover rural areas, with some charging points aimed at commuters at train stations in north and mid-Wales.

The regulator hopes the extra investment to make car charging points more convenient will help to address motorist “range anxiety”, which is frequently mentioned as a key reason why drivers are wary about choosing an electric vehicle over a fossil fuel model.

The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 and phase out hybrid vehicles from 2035 as part of its plan to reduce road transport emissions. However, only 11% of new car registrations last year were for ultra-low emission cars.

The regulator’s chief executive, Jonathan Brearley, said drivers “need to be confident that they can charge their car quickly when they need to” if the UK hoped for a “rapid take up” of electric cars, which “will be vital if Britain is to hit its climate change targets”.

The transport minister Rachel Maclean said the investment would add to the 500,000 electric cars already on the UK’s roads “as drivers continue to make the switch to cleaner, greener vehicles”.

The spending initiative, which will add 65p to customer bills for the next two years, will also include new projects to upgrade Britain’s electricity grids so they can power more low-carbon heating and connect to new low carbon energy projects such as windfarms and solar arrays.

Brearley said the investments were a “down payment” on the £40bn of green investment that is expected over the next seven years to power the UK towards its ambition to cut carbon emissions to net zero in the next 30 years.

The CBI, the business lobby group, said on Monday the UK could unlock nearly £700bn in growth opportunities by 2030 by decarbonising the global economy and growing trade as it emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Alongside the regulator’s £300m spending programme, the government has revealed a £166m fund to support new green technologies. The cash injection will include £60m to help develop low-carbon hydrogen, £20m to help roll out projects to capture the carbon emissions from heavy industry, and a further £20m for fund research into “industrial decarbonisation” run by Heriot-Watt University.

The funding for the government’s green industrial revolution will also include £37.5m to help the UK become a leader in technology which can remove carbon emissions from the air. One so-called “direct air capture” project to win government support was put forward by the Sizewell C nuclear plant, which plans to use the reactor’s extra electricity to run the carbon capture equipment.

The energy minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan said the “major cash boost” would target the UK’s most polluting industries to encourage “the technologies we need to rein in our emissions and transition to a green economy” while reducing costs for businesses and boosting investment and jobs.

“Just six months ago, the prime minister set out a clear 10-point plan for creating and supporting up to 250,000 British jobs as we level up and build back greener from the pandemic. Today we’re boosting our armoury for the fight against climate change and backing innovators and businesses to create green jobs right across the United Kingdom,” she said.

‘Landmark’ Supreme Court win for councils paves way to claw back ‘millions’

Councils across England are likely to start legal battles to claw back ‘millions’ in unpaid taxes, thanks to a ‘landmark’ ruling by the Supreme Court.

Alice Richardson

Local authorities may have been bolstered to launch proceedings against businesses which have failed to pay the ‘fair amount’ of tax, after Wigan council and others took a handful of businesses to court.

The authorities wanted to challenge a ‘widespread’ tactic some companies use to avoid paying business rates – renting out their properties to companies they themselves have set up which are very quickly wound down, liquidated or dissolved.

By law, firms in liquidation or dissolution don’t have to pay business rates and companies are then seen to ‘deliberately drag out the liquidation process for as long as possible’ so they don’t have to pay taxes to the council.

In some cases, the money saved from unpaid business rates is even handed out by the company in pre-agreed shares.

It is this legal loophole the local authorities wanted to close and, in a ‘formidable victory’ for councils across the country, they won.

Supreme Court Judge Lord Briggs said: “The local authorities should be allowed to take it forward to trial. The whole purpose of the schemes was to avoid payment of the rate rather than to transfer the responsibility for its payment. Apart from rates avoidance, the schemes have no separate business purpose of any kind.

“[The] schemes necessarily involve the deliberate abuse of a statutory legal process. There is a triable issue that the original owners remain liable for the rates.

“The local authorities’ claim against the original owners must be allowed to go to trial.”

This paves the way for the councils concerned to argue their case fully in a High Court trial and for other local authorities to do the same.

Matthew Whyatt, of ASW Solicitors, instructed for the case on behalf of the councils.

He said: “The Supreme Court have given a bold and very clear judgement, and the manner in which these business rates schemes were carried out has caused the Supreme Court some concern that many are unlawful, abusive and might merit an investigation for criminality.

“The granting of a lease to a company which is a mere skeleton of incorporation does not succeed in avoiding the liability for business rates. The lessee is not to be treated as the ‘owner’ for business rates purposes.

“These schemes are extremely wide-spread, and the decision of the Supreme Court is a formidable victory for the local authorities.

“The councils are going to continue the fight and will be considering all options available to them. The councils believe that their position is strong and so will be continuing the claims robustly.”

Danny Seasman, also from ASW Solicitors, added: “I would not be surprised if the global cost to local authorities is in the hundreds of millions of pounds, and significant numbers of local authorities now pursue their claims following the success in the Supreme Court.

“During what have been difficult times for local authorities, it is clear that the schemes have deprived numerous local authorities of significant sums for front line services.”

For the other Greater Manchester councils, this result could prove incredibly influential and financially beneficial.

A number of local authorities in the city-region have now confirmed their teams are looking into the impact this could have on them, and whether they will look to pursue any cases through the courts themselves.

A spokesperson for Salford City council said: “Business rates help fund vital public service and we welcome this significant judgement. We are now examining its implications.”

A spokesperson for Stockport council said: “We welcome the judgement and will seek the appropriate advice on what action to take to recover the amounts of business rates which remain unpaid’.

A Tameside council spokesperson said: “We welcome any cases that make business rates fairer for all – requiring business to pay their fair share for services and infrastructure, which everyone benefits from and which cost significant money to provide and maintain. Otherwise the burden for paying for these services must be met by an ever decreasing few, which is neither fair nor sustainable.”

A spokesperson for Trafford council said: “Trafford council welcomes the Supreme Court judgement and will now be reviewing any cases that might be linked to the ruling outcome.”

How retirement villages are becoming part of high street life in the UK

The ideas to reboot Britain’s pandemic-stricken high streets are coming in. After a record number of shop closures last year during the worst recession in history, stores are being replaced with student flats, gyms and crazy golf courses. But in one corner of south London, there is a different approach: retirement homes.

Julia Kollewe 

A retirement village has been built between Balham and Clapham high streets in south London, one of a number of purpose-built apartment blocks for older people that are springing up in town and city centres across the UK after a year of devastation for shopping districts.

Local planners hope that by bringing more people into town centres, these residences will help to regenerate Britain’s high streets.

Dominic Curran, a property policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, said: “It is a very good idea to get more people living in town centres. We also need more housing for older people over 65, and it absolutely makes sense for them to be living in urban locations. Many will move with a lot of housing equity in their pockets, which will generate spend and footfall for local shops.”

The retirement home idea is running alongside plans to convert empty shopping sites. All over the UK, there are proposals to change derelict high street locations into something else. In Reading, a House of Fraser outlet is being converted into a food hall, bowling alley and crazy golf course, while on London’s Oxford Street a former BHS store has become a Swingers golf centre and food hall. In Edinburgh, the House of Fraser on Princes Street is being developed by the drinks firm Diageo into a tourist attraction promoting Johnnie Walker whisky.

However, Curran said high streets need more housing to survive alongside retail and leisure.

To help struggling high streets, the BRC is calling for reforms to business rates – the tax businesses pay on the properties they operate from – as part of a landmark government review under way. It also said support is needed to address £2.8bn of rent arrears built up by retailers unable to trade from physical premises during the coronavirus pandemic. Retailers make up 5% of the economy yet account for 25% of business rates. Firms have benefited from rates relief during the pandemic but this is set to end on 30 June.

Retirement villages have traditionally been gated communities in the countryside and on the edge of towns but developers have been snapping up retail and office sites that lie vacant in urban areas to build apartment blocks for the over-65s, many of whom want to be closer to bustling city centres for eating out, shopping and cultural pursuits. Several village builders reported that inquiries for retirement housing jumped during the Covid crisis, with more people feeling isolated and lonely.

“Too often retirement villages are built away from local amenities with poor public transport links,” says Liz Emerson, a co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation, a charity. “We welcome any developments that bring older generations back into the heart of communities.”

Dorothy Fowler, 79, was one of the first to buy an apartment in the Audley retirement village in Clapham that opened at the start of the pandemic in 2020. As soon as Covid restrictions were eased in April, she went out for a restaurant meal with a group of other residents.

“We’ve all become good friends, probably because of Covid,” she says. “We are right next to Clapham South tube and will be able to go to the West End.” Audley also offers to take residents in a van for regular shopping and cultural trips.

As cities are being reshaped, the Social Market Foundation, a thinktank, said retirement housing could play a key role in the town and city centres of the future, especially if there is reduced need for retail and office space.

A record 11,120 chain store outlets closed between January and June last year, while 5,119 opened. The 6,001 net store closures were double the level in the same period a year earlier, as many shops fail to reopen, and the switch to working from home risks permanently lower levels of city centre footfall.

Developers are spoiled for choice. Audley’s chief executive, Nick Sanderson, said the company was offered three shopping centre sites in only one week, as well as “every Debenhams department store” after the retailer’s liquidation.

“Bringing [older communities] back into the centre of things is good for town centres because they are bringing economic vitality when everyone else is working,” he said.

Retirement Villages Group, which is backed by Axa Investment Managers, the French asset management firm, plans to build 5,000 homes for older people across 40 urban sites over the next 10 years. It recently received planning consent for West Byfleet and Chester, which will include some rental homes. “Our strategy going forward is urban,” says Will Bax, the firm’s chief executive.

The pensions and insurance group Legal & General has the ambition to build 3,000 retirement homes in UK city centres in a £2bn project in coming years. Its Guild Living arm has plans for retirement residences on the sites of former Homebase stores in Walton-on-Thames and Bath, and on the site of a former hospital in Epsom, as well as its first London project in Uxbridge on the site of a retail warehouse.

However, not everyone is a fan of retirement residences in urban areas.

Legal & General’s projects for Walton-on-Thames, Bath and Epsom have been rejected by council planners; the company has lodged appeals. Eugene Marchese, a co-founder of Guild Living, has accused Elmbridge borough council of ageism but the council rejected this and insisted that family homes were also “much-needed” in Walton-on-Thames. In Bath, one critic described the company’s plans a “ghetto for the elderly”.

Nonetheless, retirement accommodation will remain part of the conversation over the future of the high street.

Order aims to tackle booze-fuelled bad behaviour on Exmouth beach

Residents are being asked for their views on a bid to crack down on booze-fuelled bad behaviour on Exmouth beach. 

District council chiefs have launched a consultation over plans to extend a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) which already covers part of the town centre.

Begging and use of public places as a toilet will also be targeted if the initiative is given the go-ahead.

The authority says it is considering the move due to an increase in alcohol-related antisocial antics.

It would restrict certain activities such as:

  • Possessing an intoxicating substance including alcohol;
  • Urination and defecation within a street or public place;
  • Aggressive requests for money;
  • Intimidation, harassment, alarm or distress.

East Devon District Council (EDDC) says the PSPO does not ‘ban’ alcohol at proposed locations.

But it added the measure is ‘a tool for police and authorised council staff to be able to deal with people who may be deemed as behaving in an antisocial way’.

Rules are have been in place in The Strand, Magnolia Centre, Station car park, Manor Gardens, and The Plantation areas since May 2020.

It is proposed the order is extended to the mean low tide mark on Exmouth beach, as well as some surrounding spaces.

Councillor Nick Hookway, EDDC portfolio holder for culture, tourism, leisure and sport, said: “The Public Space Protection Orders in Exmouth have proven to be successful for several years, but to reduce antisocial behaviour further, the recommendation is to include the beach itself.

“By extending these orders to include the beach, it will provide that extra reassurance for Exmouth residents and visitors that any antisocial behaviour can be dealt with speedily and effectively.

“I encourage you to take this opportunity to give your views in the consultation.”

The deadline for comments on the mooted PSPO extension is 5pm in June 20.

They can be emailed to or sent by post to: Environmental Health, East Devon District Council, Blackdown House, Border Road, Heathpark Industrial Estate, Honiton, EX14 1EJ.

Sex pest former council leader Brian Greenslade is jailed

A former Devon council leader with a ‘dark side’ has been jailed for sexually assaulting three women.

Paul Greaves

Brian Greenslade, 72, a long-time leader of Devon County Council, assaulted two of his victims while on council business.

He lunged at one of the women, trying to kiss her, and put his hands down her trousers while she tried to push him away. He groped and fondled the other women’s breasts.

Greenslade, who led the council for 16 years and was also chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Police Authority, denied any of the incidents ever happened and suggested one of the women had been ‘put up to it’ for political reasons.

But the jury agreed with the prosecution that he was ‘completely driven by ego and self importance’.

A judge sentencing him said he had abused his position of power and status when committing the offences.

Judge Timothy Rose said: “You’ve lived a long life in the service of your local community, particularly in the county of Devon.

“It seems to me throughout a large part of that period you had a dark side to you that you couldn’t control yourself in the presence of women.”

Greenslade, of Marwood, Barnstaple, was found guilty of two charges of indecent assault and one sexual assault dating back to the 1990s and mid 2000s.

He was jailed for 16 months.

The first incident happened when Greenslade was alone with the woman on council business. He suddenly lunged at her, grabbing both her arms and tried to kiss her. He then put his hand down the front of her trousers. She tried to resist and pull away but he was too strong for her.

The woman drove off in shock and disbelief at what had happened.

In a victim statement read to the court she said: “He was in a privileged position which he abused. I was completely embarrassed, ashamed and angry.

“I asked myself why he thought he could do that.

“This was a period when men had mistresses and men thought they could do as they liked.”

The second victim said she was assaulted by Greenslade during a function at the County Hall.

The leader of the council approached her and spoke to her before putting his arm around her and fondling her breast. She told him to move his hand or she would break his fingers.

She said she did not report the assault at the time because she thought she would get into trouble.

“It was a shocking experience and still shocks me now,” she said. It was only recently she had come to the conclusion that she had done nothing wrong and that Greenslade had acted in an outrageous way

The third incident happened in the 1990s when Greenslade was working as an accountant.

He stood behind a woman in an office and reached over to grab her breast. She could recall feeling sick and shaking while he just grinned. She said she had been terrified by the incident.

The process of coming back to court to relive the event in the witness box had given her a panic attack. She too had felt guilty for not reporting the incident sooner.

Miss Carolina Guiloff, in mitigation, said each of the incidents had been short lived and opportunistic. During his 36 years working for the council he had supported many women in their work and ‘clearly wasn’t a misogynist’.

He now suffered ill-health and shortly before his arrest in 2018 had suffered a minor heart attack. She said nothing could be gained by sending the pensioner to prison.

Judge Timothy Rose said one of the themes of the case was a powerful man who thought he could get away with sexual actions against women.

He added: “You were a powerful man, and you were the leader of the council and you were the one able to carry on with your life as if nothing had happened.”

He added: “You took advantage of situations you were in. One possible explanation is you came to believe nobody would complain about you and you would be able to get away with it.”

He said appeared Greenslade could not ‘control himself’ in the presence of women.

“You thought you could get away with it because nobody would go against you. You simply couldn’t control yourself. You took advantage of your character, your status and position and benefited from it over years until such time as your victims were able to come forward and I commend them for doing so. It took a great deal of bravery.”

The three women came forward with their allegations in 2018. It followed a public censure of Greenslade by the county council on the grounds of his harassment of members of staff.

After the sentencing a spokesman for Devon County Council said: “Our thoughts are with the survivors who suffered at the hands of Brian Greenslade.

“We are pleased that our actions in 2017 in response to complaints from members of council staff have helped to shine a light on the issue of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct in the workplace and particularly when involving those in positions of authority.

“This council has very firm and clear expectations with regards to the conduct of all its staff and elected members including how councillors interact with the council’s employees.

“We will always take allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour and harassment very seriously and act swiftly.

“When allegations of this nature came to light in 2017, we acted quickly to thoroughly investigate them as part of our procedures, and the strongest possible sanctions on the former councillor were imposed. Most importantly all those staff impacted have been supported and continue to be so.”

Ann Hampshire of the CPS said: “Brian Greenslade was a respected and well-known public figure for many years but there was another side to his character.

“His position of authority made him confident that his victims would not complain or, even if they had, that they would not have been believed.

“All three women have said that his position was a factor in their decision not to report him at the time of the offences. I would like to thank them for coming forward when they did and for supporting this prosecution”.

The Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Alison Hernandez has praised the victims for their tenacity.

Ms Hernandez said: “I would like to pay tribute to Brian Greenslade’s victims, who not only came forward to give evidence in the first place but who were then put through the ordeal of a trial that could have been avoided had he admitted his vile crimes in the first place.

“It is the victims’ tenacity and faith in the police and the criminal justice system that has persuaded a jury of his guilt and perhaps prevented yet more offences. I would urge all those affected by sexual offences to seek specialist help and advice from the wide range of services available, many of which are commissioned by my office.

“I hope this conviction sends a message to both victims and offenders that complaints will be taken seriously, investigations will be carried out and convictions can be secured.”

Free practical and emotional help and advice for crime victims, whether or not it has been reported to police, is available from the Devon and Cornwall Victim Care Unit on 01392 475900 or via Victim Support 24/7, on 0808 1689 111 or online at