Time to work together for the best interests of constituents

Eileen Wragg writes in the Exmouth Journal  and recalls being told many years ago: “It’s going to take a long time to turn this ship around”         

Although the administration of EDDC changed last May, to the Democratic Alliance of East Devon Alliance, Liberal Democrat’s, Greens and some Independents, the only time that the council has had a physical meeting was on May 25 this year when the AGM was held at Westpoint, due to the social distancing, as required under the Covid rules.

It was with pleasure and pride that I nominated Cllr Paul Arnott to be the leader for the coming year, which was seconded by a Green, Cllr Oily Davey. I am delighted that the nomination succeeded by 29 votes to 21, with eight abstentions.

This past year has been a uniquely challenging one due to the pandemic, and all members and officers have had to adapt to new systems and ways of working.

The council has also had to continue with projects which had been started by previous administrations, notably Queen’s Drive Exmouth, Cranbrook and those associated with climate change, such as introducing electric vehicles to our fleet, and charging points in our car parks.

Bold decisions have also been made, such as the withdrawal from the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP), and consent to the Lower Otter Restoration Project, which has received national accolades. Under Cllr Arnott’s leadership, huge strides forward have been made. With his readiness to listen and engage, relationships with officers and members have improved. His natural abilities and good humour have helped steer our council through some choppy waters, with his hands firmly at the helm.

Many years ago, someone said to me ‘It’s going to take a long time to turn this ship around’. Well that is finally happening, we are now a forward thinking council, and have already agreed to engage a climate change officer, and a mental health officer. Both are important appointments, the latter having been brought into sharp focus, due to significant mental health issues caused by Covid.

I trust that members of the council will be able to put aside any political differences and work together for our constituents and in the best interests of all and our outstanding environment. We can now look forward to the next 12 months knowing that we are being led by a caring council leader who does just that, and who leads by example.

Second homes are a gross injustice, yet the UK government encourages them

How big would our housing crisis be if it were not for second homes? It’s a question almost no one in public life wants to ask, let alone answer. But it becomes more urgent every day.

George Monbiot www.theguardian.com 

By a second home, I don’t mean one continuously rented to another household. I mean a property used either as a personal holiday home or as a place to stay while working away from your main home: in other words, a luxury that deprives other people of a necessity.

Before the pandemic, government figures show, 772,000 households in England had second homes. Of these, 495,000 were in the UK. The actual number of second homes is higher, as some households have more than one; my rough estimate is a little over 550,000. Since then Covid, Brexit and the growing realisation that you can monetise your extravagance by putting your second home on Airbnb when you’re not using it have triggered a gold rush.

Far from seeking to restrain this frenzy, the government has lavished subsidies and tax breaks on second-home owners. If you rent yours out as a “furnished holiday let” for part of the year (it should be “available” for 140 days but needs to be let for only 70), you no longer have to pay council tax, but can register instead as a business ratepayer. Then you apply for 100% small business rates relief, cancelling the entire bill. So while every other kind of housing is taxed, second homes, if you play it right, are tax-free.

Under the restart grant scheme, hospitality and leisure businesses registered for business rates are entitled to a gift of up to £18,000. This comes on top of the closed business lockdown payment, of up to £9,000, the small business grant fund, of £10,000, and the retail, hospitality and leisure grant: a further £10,000. The stamp duty holiday also applies to buying a second home, saving up to £15,000. Every sinew of the state is strained to reward and cosset those who deprive other people of a home.

All this has further fuelled a massive spending spree. On the coast, and in scenic areas inland, local people report that buying a home has become impossible. Rural prices over the past year have risen by an astonishing 14%: twice the rate of homes in cities.

The result is community death. A survey in Devon this month found villages in which between two-thirds and 95% of properties are second homes. In one village in Pembrokeshire, there are three remaining residents. In Cornwall last month, there were more than 10,000 properties listed on Airbnb for holidaymakers, but just 62 offered on Rightmove for rent to permanent residents. In the Newquay area alone, more than 500 people are reckoned to be homeless. While tourists surf, residents sofa-surf.

Homelessness and housing demand caused in one place can manifest in another. If people can’t find a home where they want to live, they have no choice but to move, and they might end up on the housing list in a less attractive borough. Displaced demand can ripple through the entire housing sector, as people bump each other along the chain.

The environmental implications are also massive. If you own two homes, another home has to be built to accommodate the household you’ve displaced. In other words, you’ve doubled your housing footprint. Prosperous people in the shires, rightly objecting to Boris Johnson’s proposal to rip down the planning laws, might ask themselves whether they have helped cause the problem he falsely claims to be solving.

So how much of the housing crisis is caused by second homes? Well, it depends which crisis you mean. Let’s start with its most extreme manifestation: homelessness. On one estimate, there are 288,000 households in England that are homeless or in imminent danger of becoming so. So on this measure, we discover something truly obscene: there are roughly twice as many second homes as homeless households.

Of course, this is by no means the whole story. There are 1.6 million households on the social housing waiting list. The level of unmet need could rise even further, now that the Covid eviction ban has been lifted.

But just as homelessness is the extreme and visible symptom of a much bigger problem, so are second homes. Though we need to build far more social homes, the underlying reason for high house prices is not the lack of supply. The number of dwellings in the UK has been growing faster than the number of households, and there are now more bedrooms per person than ever before. The problem is the grossly unequal distribution of space. Houses are unaffordable because of the purchasing power of landlords and speculators, and their use as investments. Government figures show that even if 300,000 new homes are built every year for 20 years, house prices will be only 6% lower in real terms than they would otherwise have been.

What we need, in all cases, is effective politics. We might decide, as a nation, that holiday lets are important enough to make other people homeless, or to trigger demand for new housing elsewhere. We do, after all, need holidays, and coastal and scenic communities want income from tourists. But good policy doesn’t happen by itself. As we proposed in the Land for the Many report, local authorities should be able to decide how many of the homes in a village or town should be permanent residences, and how many should be holiday lets. Any second home, existing or envisaged, would need planning permission for change of use.

In Wales, local authorities are able to charge double the rate of council tax for second homes. But, though this power is contained in Westminster legislation, it doesn’t apply to the rest of the UK. Even so, it’s of limited use, now that second homeowners have discovered that they can register as businesses, pay nothing at all, and be rewarded for it. We need a progressive property tax, based on value and payable by owners, not tenants. And second homes should be taxed at a much higher rate.

So why isn’t this urgent issue on the political agenda? Well, partly because almost everyone prominent in public life – including many MPs, editors and senior journalists – seems to own a second home. This is how we end up with a cruel, divided nation, in which wealth causes poverty and greed displaces need. It’s not enough to revolt against Johnson’s attack on the planning laws. We also need to fight a gross injustice.

Shareholders of firm backed by Matt Hancock have donated to the Tories

Matt Hancock has promoted a healthcare startup whose shareholders have made donations to the health secretary and the Conservative party, the Guardian can reveal.

Felicity Lawrence www.theguardian.com 

The revelations about investors in Babylon Healthcare, a startup that offers smartphone-based NHS GP consultations and symptom-checker services, raise questions about possible conflicts of interest for Hancock.

Babylon, a company founded in 2013 by the British-Iranian former banker Ali Parsa, is in the process of a listing in the US, which is expected to value the company at $4.2bn (£3bn).

Hancock has repeatedly endorsed Babylon’s products publicly, and said he wants everyone in England to have access to them.

An investigation by the Guardian, the BBC’s File on 4 and SourceMaterial has established that shareholders in the company have included companies owned by two donors to the Conservatives, as well as an adviser on artificial intelligence appointed by Hancock.

While it has operations in several countries, much of Babylon’s success has been rooted in the UK, where it runs the GP at Hand app, offering rapid consultations for NHS patients who register with it as their GP. Its NHS service was launched in London in 2017 and has since been expanded to Birmingham, with around 100,000 patients now enrolled.

However, GP at Hand has attracted controversy. Some GPs have complained that it attracts younger, healthier patients who are cheapest to treat, leaving other GP practices with more complex cases.

Dominic Cummings acted as a consultant to Babylon on communications and personnel in 2018. Since departing Downing Street, Cummings – who did not respond to a request for comment – is understood to have been back working with Parsa.

The numerous links between Babylon and Tory figures and donors raise questions about possible conflicts of interest for Hancock, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of the company’s technology.

Shortly after becoming health secretary in July 2018, he told the House of Commons that he was a user of GP at Hand and that it was his personal GP. A few weeks later Hancock told the Daily Telegraph that “GP at Hand is revolutionary … I want to see it available to all, not based on their postcode.”

That same month, September 2018, Hancock went to an event to mark an investment round of $100m at Babylon’s London offices. A couple of months later Hancock gave an interview to the Evening Standard for a supplement sponsored by Babylon, in which he endorsed GP at Hand again.

One of Babylon’s significant financial backers is the Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris, who also has stakes in Adidas and Aston Villa football club. A company he controls, OCI UK, donated £200,000 to the Tory party between 2017 and 2018. His shareholding in Babylon is held by another company he controls called NNS Holding. Sawiris did not respond to requests for comment.

Another Tory-linked backer of Babylon is the financier Ian Osborne, an informal adviser to David Cameron at the time of the 2010 election. Osborne was a shareholder in Babylon via his firm Longsutton until 2019, but has since exited his investment in the startup.

Osborne made a donation of £10,000 to Hancock’s Tory leadership campaign in 2019 via a subsidiary company, Connaught International. The Connaught donation is acknowledged in the health secretary’s declaration of financial interests.

Osborne said he had not donated to the Tory party, had no active dealings with Babylon and had never encouraged Hancock to endorse Babylon, adding that to suggest the political donation to him was linked to Babylon would be misconceived.

A third Babylon shareholder until 2019 with connections to Hancock is Demis Hassabis, a co-founder of the London-based artificial intelligence firm DeepMind, which was acquired by Google in 2014. Hassabis was made a government adviser on AI by Hancock while he was secretary of state at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2018.

Hassabis has also exited his investment in Babylon. A spokesperson said he was an early angel investor in the company but had no active role in it and had never had any discussions with the NHS, Hancock or any part of UK government about Babylon. There was no link between his passive investment in Babylon and his role as adviser on AI, she added.

Sir Alistair Graham, the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life from 2004 to 2007, said an investigation should be launched by the relevant authorities to establish if, following donations, Hancock’s public endorsements of Babylon and its services constituted a conflict of interest and a breach of the ministerial code.

Graham said Hancock should have explained the Tory links to Babylon Healthcare when promoting the firm.

A source close to Hancock said the health secretary supported digital innovation, so it was not surprising that he talked about telemedicine services for the NHS. He rejected any suggestion he had acted improperly. Hancock does not know Sawiris, the source added.

Lawyers for Babylon said the company had never made political donations and that any political donations made by a few of its many shareholders were not linked to the firm’s success. They added that Babylon had no control or knowledge of donations to political parties or MPs made by shareholders.

They said Babylon had not benefited from special treatment, saying its innovative and highly valued service was the reason for its success. This service had understandably led to praise and interest from politicians across the political spectrum, the lawyers added, insisting there was no basis to attribute Babylon’s achievements to political donations by third parties.

Covid wrecks new ambitions for Devon town

Premier Inn has pulled out of plans for them to occupy a hotel in the centre of Teignmouth, it can be revealed.

Daniel Clark www.devonlive.com

The three storey 68-bed hotel and Beefeater restaurant, which was approved under delegated powers by Teignbridge District Council last year, was due to be built on the derelict Brunswick Street site.

Once completed, the Premier Inn was due to be the only branded hotel in Teignmouth offering affordable and high-quality accommodation for visitors to the coastal resort and boosting the local economy.

However, at Tuesday morning’s Teignbridge overview and scrutiny committee, leader of the council, Cllr Alan Connett, confirmed that ‘rumours’ over the future of the site were true and the hotel chain had withdrawn from the project.

CGI Artist impression of what the Premier Inn for Teignmouth would have looked like

CGI Artist impression of what the Premier Inn for Teignmouth would have looked like

He said: “There have been some setbacks and Premier Inn have notified the council they are withdrawing from the project. They have said they do want a presence in Teignmouth but not at this time,” adding that the coronavirus pandemic had meant that they had re-evaluated their investments in the short term.

Cllr Connett added that he had asked officers to re-evaluate the plans for the site.

Teignbridge District Council had agreed to construct the new hotel to Premier Inn’s latest specification, with the final building being leased to Whitbread, Premier Inn’s parent company, for a minimum of 25 years, but those plans are now in question following the hotel chain’s decision to withdraw.

It is unknown as to whether the council will still go-ahead with the construction of the hotel and look find a partner to lease it out to, or if the project will be paused until an alternative operator can be found.

After the meeting, a spokesman for the council added: “We are disappointed by the Premier Inn’s decision to withdraw and we are exploring alternatives for the site which will help to regenerate the town.”

A spokesperson for Premier Inn said: “Before the pandemic we were confident we could operate a 68-bedroom Premier Inn hotel and Beefeater restaurant on Brunswick Street in Teignmouth profitably.

“As a responsible publicly owned business, we reviewed the expected trading levels of all our pipeline developments to ensure these new hotels and restaurants are financially viable for us following the coronavirus pandemic.

“Regrettably, the proposed hotel and restaurant at Teignmouth town centre is no longer financially viable for Whitbread. We have therefore reluctantly withdrawn from the scheme.

“This difficult decision does not impact our commitment to any other of our trading or pipeline developments in Devon or elsewhere.”

The hotel, for which construction has yet to begin, was due to be built on the existing Brunswick Street car park site and the former Swanson workshop, as part of the wider regeneration of the area of the town.

A new health and wellbeing centre, which would include relocation of the town GP practices, will also be among the plans for Brunswick Street, as would be the refurbishment of the Teignmouth Arts and Community Group’s home in Northumberland Place.

Cutbacks stopping vital work on river pollution and floods in England

Vital work on river pollution and flood defences is being stopped or cut back because the Environment Agency has been underfunded for years, freedom of information documents reveal.

Sandra Laville www.theguardian.com 

A shortfall in funding of tens of millions of pounds is having real world consequences for our rivers, according to a letter from Emma Howard Boyd, the chair of the EA, to George Eustice, the environment secretary. The letter was obtained by River Action, a campaigning body, under FOI laws.

The funding is also affecting the agency’s ability to protect thousands of homes from increased flooding as a result of climate change, the letter goes on to say.

Howard Boyd’s agency and the government are under growing pressure over the state of English rivers. The latest data shows every river in England is polluted, failing to meet minimum standards of water quality tests. No river has achieved good chemical status, suggesting pollution from sewage discharge, chemicals and agriculture are having a huge impact.

But government funding for the EA’s work on areas including river quality for 2021-22 has remained at just over £40m, which represents a continuing reduction in financial support for the agency, said Howard Boyd. Since 2010, funding for the EA’s work has been cut by nearly two-thirds, from £120m to the latest settlement of £43m plus £5m for new activity.

In her letter to Eustice, dated 12 April 2021, Howard Boyd wrote: “This money has to fund all of our environmental work: our monitoring of air and water quality, enforcement of the regulations that protect the environment, prosecutions, closing down illegal waste sites and tackling waste criminals … responding to environmental incidents.

“Over the last few years the drop in grant has forced us to reduce or stop work it used to fund, with real-world impacts (eg on our ability to protect water quality) for which we and the government are now facing mounting criticism.”

Howard Boyd said the agency was now forced not to respond to environmental incidents such as pollution, only attending to the most serious ones.

Serious shortfalls in the money provided by the government to protect communities from the increased risk of flooding were also challenged by Howard Boyd.

The grant for building and maintaining flood defences in the face of increased risk as a result of the climate crisis was tens of millions of pounds short of what was required and, she said, would put communities at risk.

“We had extensive exchanges with you and your officials on this funding,” wrote Howard Boyd. “We advised that to deliver the government’s commitments in FY 2021-22 the EA needed an additional £50m resource grant on top of what we had in FY 2020-21.”

The £50m extra would pay the £17m required for the new six-year flood defence scheme promised by the government and a large programme of maintaining existing flood defences, many of which are reaching the end of their life, which required £33m investment. “We advised that without this uplift we would not be able to maintain all our defences in the desired condition, putting communities at risk,” she wrote.

But Howard Boyd said Eustice had rejected their request. “You decided that we would receive an effective increase of £12m for both programmes.”

The shortfall would leave the EA struggling to maintain the country’s flood defences, she said.

EA data obtained by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace UK, in January revealed the dire state of flood defences in England.

Howard Boyd called for Eustice to give the agency more money in the next spending review for flooding and environmental work, including on river quality.

She said: “That would make it possible for us to deliver the government’s ambition to make us the first generation to leave the environment in a better place than when we found it.”

Charles Watson, the founder and chair of River Action, which is calling for a doubling of budgets for environmental protection, said: “With the Environment Agency’s funding slashed by 75% in real terms over the past decade, it no surprise that polluters are able to act with impunity and that river health is declining drastically in front of our eyes.

“It is time for government to heed these warnings: none of its nature recovery plans can be a success if it does not provide the funding and capacity needed to underpin them with effective monitoring and enforcement.”

A government spokesperson said: “The government recognises the importance of protecting the nation’s natural environment and we are investing accordingly. Defra and its agencies received a £1bn increase in overall funding at the spending review so we can do more to tackle climate change and protect our environment for future generations.”

Bosses build case to solve puzzle of UK’s new homes target

New development pressure group forms, but doesn’t comment. – Owl

Mark Kleinman news.sky.com

Some of Britain’s most influential company bosses are forming an industry group aimed at solving one of the country’s most protracted infrastructure puzzles: how to achieve a target of building 300,000 homes each year while sharply reducing carbon emissions.

Sky News understands that Nigel Wilson, the Legal & General chief executive, and David Thomas, CEO of Barratt Developments, will be among the members of a body called the Building Back Britain Commission, which will be launched later this week.

The new group will be chaired by Terrie Alafat, the chair of Riverside Homes and a former director at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), according to insiders.

It will present ideas to the government in the form of a report later this year that will address ministers’ long-held target of delivering 300,000 new homes annually by the middle of the decade, while demonstrating the value of the housebuilding sector to the wider economy.

The Commission will also publish a report ahead of November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow focused on ensuring that emissions from the UK’s residential building stock are rapidly reduced.

WPI Strategy, a consultancy which earlier this year oversaw a series of recommendations from the Covid Recovery Commission – another group of senior private sector figures – is understood to have set up the Building Back Britain group.

Its other members will comprise representatives from Mace, Thakeham Group and the National House Building Council.

One insider said the Commission’s reports would be written by Chris Walker, a former government economist who has previously worked in the Treasury and MHCLG.

An advisory group whose members will include the Green Finance Institute and Home Builders Federation will support its work, they added.

None of those contacted by Sky News would comment on Tuesday.