Property donors provide one-quarter of funds given to Tory party

The Conservative party has received almost £18m in donations from 154 donors with property interests since Boris Johnson became UK prime minister two years ago, according to Financial Times analysis.

“Build, build, build” – Owl

Kadhim Shubber, Jim Pickard and Max Harlow 

The donations made by individuals and companies in the property sector — which account for a quarter of total donations made to the Tory party since July 2019 — come as Johnson pushes ahead with a contentious liberalisation of England’s planning system which critics say could benefit housing developers.

An FT analysis of data published by the Electoral Commission, the UK watchdog for election and party finance, found that at least £17.9m has been given to the Conservative party from property sector donors since July 24, 2019 — when Johnson entered Downing Street. The analysis includes all company donors and those who have given over £100,000 but excludes hundreds of individuals who gave smaller amounts, meaning the true figure could be higher.

Annual property sector donations to the Conservative party under Johnson’s predecessors — Theresa May and David Cameron — ranged from 4 per cent to 12 per cent of the party’s income in the years 2010 to 2018, according to Transparency International UK. The majority of the party’s income comes from donations.

The new FT analysis of donations includes property developers, financiers and investors, as well as hotel tycoons and residential care home developers and operators.

The most generous property donor since Johnson took power in 2019 was Sir Tony Gallagher, the billionaire property developer, who has given £1.5m through his company Countywide Developments. Gallagher was knighted in 2020 for services to land development and property. Gallagher Developments did not respond to a request for comment.

Steve Morgan, former chair of Redrow, one of the UK’s biggest housebuilders, gave £1.25m through Bridgemere UK PLC, his development and investment group. The group is controlled by a Morgan family trust.

On its website Bridgemere says it owns the single biggest stake in Redrow but does not itself do any “direct residential development in the UK”.

Ashley Lewis, Bridgemere’s finance director, said: “The Bridgemere donation to the Conservative party has nothing whatsoever to do with any possible changes to the planning system or any government policy.” He added that any suggestion to the contrary would be false.

The third biggest donor was John Stuart Bloor — owner of Bloor Homes, one of the biggest private housebuilders in the UK — who has donated £1.1m through his JS Bloor Services and Bloor Holdings entities.

A £150,000 donation in March this year by Bloor Holdings was made just 48 hours after a government minister approved a controversial housing scheme for his company, the Sunday Times recently revealed.

Bloor said: “I have never met Boris Johnson, or spoken to him or his ministers, neither have I employed lobbyists. We donate money to the Conservative party and charities because we agree with their ethos of aspiration and hope for individuals and children and expect nothing in return for these donations.”

Many Tory MPs want Boris Johnson to reconsider planning reforms, which many of them see as being to blame for their by-election defeat by the Liberal Democrats in Chesham & Amersham in June © Charlie Bibby/FT

Johnson has said he wants to “transform the sclerotic planning system” by forcing all councils to rewrite their local development plans, changes he hopes will encourage the development of 300,000 new homes every year.

However, many Tory MPs want him to reconsider the reforms, which they blame for the dramatic by-election defeat by the Liberal Democrats in Chesham & Amersham in June. Tory MP Roger Gale has called the planning bill a “developer’s charter”. 

Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said: “It will come as a shock to nobody that the very same developers who have the most to gain out of these reforms are piling money into the Tory party.”

Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International, added that the government needed to show “no favours in policymaking” to those who make political donations. 

“It is clear that the current party of government increasingly relies on a relatively small number of wealthy backers often with substantial interests in the property market. This unhealthy dependence . . . increases the risk of policy becoming captured — putting the interests of donors ahead of the public.”

A Conservative party spokesman said: “Government policy is in no way influenced by donations the party receives. They are entirely separate.”

One senior Tory went further, suggesting that some of the government’s policies were unlikely to be welcomed by the property sector. “If you look at what the Tory party is doing at the moment the property industry are not exactly fans of them, stuff like not allowing you to turn out tenants if they’re not paying rent during the pandemic,” the senior Tory said.

Dominic Cummings pushed through award of £580k Covid deal to Vote Leave ally

Covid “gravy train” keeps growing – Owl

David Conn 

Dominic Cummings personally called a former colleague on the Vote Leave Brexit campaign and asked if his company would work for the government on its response to the Covid pandemic, leading to the award of a £580,000 Cabinet Office contract with no competitive process.

In an email on 20 March 2020, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser asked the most senior civil servant responsible for contracts to sign off the budget immediately, and that if “anybody in CABOFF [the Cabinet Office] whines”, to tell them Cummings had “ordered it” from the prime minister.

The company, Hanbury Strategy, was founded by Paul Stephenson shortly after the 2016 Brexit referendum, during which he worked alongside Cummings as the Vote Leave director of communications. Hanbury also worked for the Conservative party on the 2019 general election campaign, with Cummings and Ben Warner, a data specialist who worked for Vote Leave before becoming an adviser at No 10.

The contract with Hanbury, to conduct opinion polls on the public’s view of the government’s Covid response, is subject to a legal challenge by the Good Law Project (GLP), which argues that it shows “apparent bias”, particularly given the company’s close connection to Cummings and the Conservative party.

A witness statement by Cummings and other documents including internal Cabinet Office emails were made public at a court hearing last Friday. They show that concerns were expressed among civil servants that some work Hanbury did with public money, such as polling opinion on opposition politicians, including the Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, and Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, was carried out for the political advantage of the Conservative party.

On 26 May 2020, a Cabinet Office official emailed a colleague saying: “Hanbury measures attitudes towards political figures, which they shouldn’t do using government money, but they’ve been asked to and it’s a battle that I think is hard to fight.”

Cummings said in his witness statement that “my expert opinion” was that Hanbury would provide world-class polling work, and was the only firm who could do what was needed, start immediately and “we can trust to give their all and be honest”.

Cummings said that, on Sunday 15 March 2020, “I called many people to ask for help – epidemiologists, project managers etc. I also asked Paul Stephenson, a partner at Hanbury, if he would help with polling, data collection and modelling.”

Stephenson said they could start straight away. Cummings said in his statement: “Following my call to Paul Stephenson … I requested that Hanbury be engaged urgently to start conducting frequent large-scale polls immediately.”

On 20 March, Cummings emailed Alex Aiken, the head of government communications at the Cabinet Office, saying: “URGENT: Alex pls sign off immediately budget so Paul S can get out our large scale polls into field TODAY. Anybody in CABOFF whines tell them I ordered it from PM [OFFICIAL].”

Normal legal requirements for government contracts to be opened out to a full competitive tender were suspended due to the emergency of the pandemic, and the contract was directly awarded to Hanbury.

In a similar judicial review challenge to a direct contract – awarded to Public First, a research company with longstanding connections to Cummings – Mrs Justice O’Farrell ruled in GLP’s favour in June, saying that even in the pandemic the government should have conducted an exercise to consider other potential companies.

Aiken said in his witness statement that Cummings’ email was not “an instruction to me or my team to appoint Hanbury … this was purely an idea we were being asked to consider and I have pushed back on such requests before”. Aiken said he decided to hire Hanbury after it provided a good proposal for opinion polling, and its work was of high quality which had “left a legacy” for Cabinet Office opinion polling.

He said he would have preferred the questions about Starmer and Khan not to have been asked, but explained it was not to seek political advantage; they were testing an idea for joint press conferences with government ministers, and to “benchmark” the credibility of government spokespeople. It was “well-intentioned but ill-considered”, Aiken said. Cummings also said that polling was to see if the politicians “could help public health communication, it had no political purpose of any kind”.

A Hanbury spokesperson said the company agreed to do the work “at extremely short notice” although it involved reputational risk.

They said: “Our work contributed to what was a hugely successful public health communications campaign which undoubtedly prevented many deaths. For that reason, if we had to make the choice again we would still agree to step up and help in this time of crisis.”

The Cabinet Office has appealed against the judgment in the Public First case, and is also defending the GLP’s challenge to the Hanbury contract, arguing it was awarded lawfully.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “In response to an unprecedented global pandemic, the government acted with urgency to undertake vital research into public attitudes and behaviours. This research shaped crucial public health messages, helping us to protect the NHS and save lives.”

NHS Covid-19 app pings rise by over 70,000 to new record

One has to conclude that there must still be a high level of Covid in circulation. – Owl

The number of self-isolation alerts sent by the NHS Covid-19 app in England and Wales has risen to a new record of 689,313 in the week up to 21 July.

BBC News

The figures represent an increase of over 70,000 compared with the previous week.

But the rate of increase was lower than the previous week, rising by 11% compared to 17%.

If you are “pinged” by the app you are advised – but not legally obliged – to self-isolate for 10 days.

However the government has said it is crucial for people to do so.

Number of check ins to venues on the app is down

In recent weeks, there has been widespread criticism that the app has been sending out so many alerts that hundreds of thousands of people are self-isolating and missing work, causing widespread disruption.

It led to the government allowing some key workers – such as those working in food distribution – to be exempt from having to self-isolate if pinged. Instead they have to take daily tests.

There are currently 260 testing sites open for these workers, Downing Street said on Thursday – and they are working to set up another 800. After that, 1,200 more sites will be opened “over the coming days”.

From 16 August, all fully-vaccinated people will not need to self-isolate if pinged by the app, although they will be encouraged to book a Covid PCR test.

The impact on businesses has resulted in calls for the 16 August deadline to be brought forward.

Number of pings rising

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders is asking for urgent assistance to exempt staff pinged by the NHS Covid app saying pings are affecting production.

Many in the hospitality industry also complained of shortages as staff had to self-isolate. Some bar staff have told the BBC that they’ve lost a lot of money by missing shifts, while others say they have been told to delete the app by their manager.

The app alert is advisory only and not enforceable by law, unlike a phone call from the NHS Test and Trace team.

Latest data from Test and Trace shows that 14% of cases transferred to contact-tracers in the week to 21 July were not reached and so were unable to provide details of close contacts.

This is the highest proportion of people not reached since October last year.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van Tam said separate figures from Public Health England showed the vaccines have now prevented 22 million Covid cases and 60,000 deaths. He added it was “truly massive”.

Analysis box by Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent

If you were looking for evidence that the “pingdemic” is over you will struggle to find it in these statistics. The figure of nearly 690,000 contact tracing alerts – or pings – is a new record, up 11% on the previous week. They were triggered by nearly 148,000 positive test results entered in the app, up 25%.

Despite the anecdotal evidence of people switching off or getting rid of the app, there is no sign yet of mass deletions.

But there are a few straws in the wind suggesting things might be changing. The rate of increase in pings slowed, and the number of alerts triggered by each positive test result was down. That suggests that people who later became infected had fewer close contacts – either because they were socialising less or because those they encountered did not have the app.

In the week when restrictions in England were relaxed so that venues did not need to record visitors’ details, check-ins via the app were sharply lower.

As they find they don’t need it to check in, more people may decide the app is more trouble than it’s worth.

But the team which designed it believes the NHS Covid-19 app is changing behaviour in useful ways – even if someone ignores a ping’s instruction to self isolate they may become more cautious, and anyone who has a holiday planned may be nudged into staying at home for a few days beforehand rather than having their plans spoiled by an alert.

At first, it was criticised for being ineffective, in recent weeks it’s been accused of disrupting thousands of businesses, but its designers believe this experimental technology is finally proving that it can be a useful weapon in controlling the pandemic.

Breakdown of where the self isolation alerts come from

After a week of falling cases the number of people testing positive for coronavirus rose on Wednesday, when 27,734 new daily cases were reported.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “The truth is, when it comes to case numbers no one really knows where they are going to go next”.

Science Park creates 100 new jobs with huge new building

This must be in addition to the 150 jobs expected for the Ada Lovelace building started in February 2020 (100 jobs). Yet there is still room for the 300 space car park. – Owl

Chloe Parkman

Exeter Science Park’s new £5m ‘Grow-Out’ building is set to house up to 100 jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine sectors (STEMM), helping to drive the South West’s economic recovery post-Covid.

Funding for the £5m project, which is due to for completion in November, was secured in August 2020, from the Government’s ‘Getting Building Fund’ and allocated to Exeter Science Park by the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership (HotSW LEP) from their £35.4 million share of the national pot.

The 14,000 sq ft building has been designed to provide flexible office and laboratory space for up to 11 firms. It will be net-zero carbon for operational energy and BREEAM Excellent, a method used to assess its sustainability.

Construction work began at the Park just five months ago and the project has seen the fastest turnaround of any building scheme undertaken there.

Dr Sally Basker, CEO of Exeter Science Park, said: “Getting to this point has required outstanding collaboration.

“Everyone has played their part and the hard work of colleagues at Exeter Science Park, Morgan Sindall, NPS South West Limited and the Southern Construction Framework, has really made this happen.

“This quick turnaround has seen us save up to 33% of the time involved, compared to a conventional build programme.

“Exeter Science Park helps innovative STEMM companies to deliver extraordinary growth and these are exactly the kinds of businesses that will help accelerate economic recovery and drive the economy forward as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was one of the first Getting Building Fund projects to begin construction in the area and this was made possible thanks to collaboration between client, consultants, contractors and designers.

Within a few months of funding being secured, detailed designs were drawn up, a planning application submitted and contractor Morgan Sindall procured through the Southern Construction Framework and appointed in October 2020.

Nearly three quarters of the men and women involved during the construction phase are from the Greater Exeter area.

Brian Rice, Morgan Sindall Construction Area Director, said: “The Grow-Out Space will provide a place for innovation-led businesses to thrive. Its design and unerring focus on sustainability sets a new precedent for the standards fast-growing companies can expect.

“As with all of our schemes, we have looked to boost the regional economy by routing work through the local supply chain wherever possible.

“Our team and project partners have worked collaboratively and tirelessly to ensure this project is delivered quickly. The Southern Construction Framework has been a key enabler; working with Exeter Science Park to reduce lead times significantly.

“We’re excited to see this key asset for the region’s knowledge economy coming to life and to mark this topping out milestone on schedule.”

David Ralph, Chief Executive of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “It’s fantastic to see this innovative new facility preparing to open at Exeter Science Park.

“It will provide valuable innovation space for STEMM businesses, supporting them to grow and boosting employment for the city and region.

“We’re delighted to support it with funding from HotSW LEP’s Getting Building Fund. Exeter Science Park is a thriving business location and has an important role to play as we look to rebuild local economies and build back better with a cleaner and more inclusive economy.”

Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, Luke Hall MP, said : “I’m delighted that £5 million Government investment has helped the construction of the Exeter Science Park Grow-out Building.

“By creating up to 100 new jobs and helping to attract further investment, this project will support the long-term prosperity of Devon and bring many opportunities to the community.”

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The Grow-out Building 3 has been designed by architects LHC Design, working for NPS South West Property Consultants, and procured using the Southern Construction Framework.

Morgan Sindall Construction’s supply chain includes own design team includes Grainge Architects, SDS mechanical & engineering consultants, and structural engineer Clarke Bond.

Exeter Science Park Limited is the Park developer and has four shareholders: Devon County Council, the University of Exeter, East Devon District Council and Exeter City Council.

Small East Devon houses could harm athletes

East Devon District Council (EDDC) could be preventing rugby stars of the future from achieving their potential because new houses in the area are too small.

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter

A councillor leading a campaign to make East Devon homes larger, Councillor Peter Faithful, also fears for the future of basketball players.

The independent councillor for Ottery St Mary told a council meeting: “With younger residents getting taller by the year I feel it is our duty to build residential units large enough for the next generation to live in. 

“If we want to support our rugby players and our basketball players the least we can offer is rooms large enough for them to live in.”

So he’s proposed a motion so that will stop housebuilders cramming as many dwellings as possible on new developments, leading to homes too small for comfort.

Cllr Faithfull said that because of a lack of a policy, the council can’t reject residential planning applications based on size. And he argued that landlords take advantage by building more homes than there is space for, in the interests of profitability.

Cllr Faithful said: “Within my own ward I know of three applications which should have been rejected due to them being under the nationally recognised size.”

In 2015 the government published space standards but left it to councils to enforce them through policies in their local plans.

Despite attempts by some members of the council, no action has yet been taken in East Devon to put these standards in place.

With 41 votes in favour, the motion was recommended for approval to officers. This temporary decision-making framework was launched on Monday after the council decided to make its meetings virtual again because of fears over current covid risks. For the time being,  senior East Devon Council officers now have to rubber-stamp councillor’s recommendations.

Councillor Mike Allen (Conservative, Honiton St. Michael’s), who supported the motion, said lack of action had resulted in some houses being built to substandard sizes, something, he argues, “should never have happened.” 

Seconding the motion, Councillor Vicky Johns (Independent Progressive Group, Ottery St Mary)  said: “It’s a shame that developers do get away with doing this kind of thing and hopefully if we do put the policy place it will nip in the bud.”

But Councillor Faithfull’s worries for the future of British sport if East Devon District Council keeps allowing small homes may be mitigated now that the motion is agreed. The council will seek to implement the national space standards as part of its updated local plan (2021-2040) which is currently being drafted.

Beach-goers spotted lounging under crumbling cliffs

A number of beach-goers have been pictured sitting directly under East Devon’s crumbling cliffs, despite an enormous sign warning them of the potential dangers.

Chloe Parkman (see online article for photo)

The photograph was taken last week near Sandy Bay as many people across the county raced to the coast in order to take advantage of the heatwave.

Beaches across the county were packed full as temperatures hit highs of around 30C in some areas of Devon.

The image which shows the beach-goers located right next to a yellow sign which reads: “DANGER – beware of falling rocks” has sparked upset in local residents to the area.

Following the scene, eye-witness Raymond Loades, said: “[This happened] at Sandy Bay Wednesday (July, 21).]

“Having seen this every time we go there for the last five or six years I felt it was time to try and get something done as when I usually point out what the notice says, the majority of the replies are unprintable.”

Raymond says that he posted the image on a local community Facebook page, raising awareness regarding the unstable cliffs.

In response to the photograph, one person wrote: “If people can’t read a simple notice surely we should leave them to the consequences. Maybe a lucky day.”

Another said: “That buggy right near the danger sign is a shocker too!”

Over the course of the year there have been a number of cliff falls along along East Devon’s coastline, particularly in Sidmouth.

DevonLive has reported on numerous cliff falls in Sidmouth, with four taking place last month alone.

A spokesperson for East Devon District Council said: “Cliff falls are a natural and unpredictable occurrence along the East Devon coast, this is because the rock from which the cliffs are formed is soft and therefore prone to rock falls and landslides, which can happen at any time, although heavy rainfall can trigger incidences.

“East Devon’s cliffs are a key part of the scenery that attracts visitors to the area, however the cliffs pose a very real danger and caution must be exercised when visiting them.

“Rock falls and landslides are unpredictable events, occurring without warning, and can cause serious injury or death.

“Warning signs can be found in areas managed by us.

“The absence of a sign does not indicate there is no risk and you should always take care around the cliffs of East Devon as all are made of soft rock and pose a cliff fall danger.

“Heavy rainfall can trigger cliff falls – but cliff falls are a normal occurrence along the East Devon coastline.

“It is good practice when on the beach to stay well clear of the cliff base and to keep an eye out for fresh fall material or water running down the cliffs, which may indicate an area that is weakened and loose. If in doubt, don’t walk under or near the cliffs.

“The Coastguard advises that beach users stay at least the height of the cliff away. For example, if a cliff is 20 metres high, a distance of 20 metres should be kept.

“If a cliff fall does occur and you suspect that someone has been injured, call 999 immediately.

“Do not explore recent cliff falls as there is a risk of further falls. A comprehensive guide to staying safe around beaches and cliffs is available from the Coastguard.

“We complete annual cliff inspections at sites we believe pose a risk in our land ownership/area of responsibility.

“This includes sites at Beer, Budleigh Salterton, Seaton and Sidmouth, as well as an inland cliff site in Exmouth at Plantation Walk.

“These inspections include removing loose material and additional safety works such as installation of rock netting.

“If you notice a recent cliff fall or any issues with our stabilisation interventions at any of the above locations, please get in touch with our Customer Service Centre.

“While this work aims to reduce the risk of incidents, we cannot guarantee incidents will not occur at these locations.

“We therefore recommend that where possible, you enjoy the cliffs from a distance and do not climb or sit directly beneath them.”

[Owl received eyewitness reports of a cliff fall in Budleigh a week ago towards Sandy Bay]