More insights into the Tory calls for DBS checks on all councillors, and the law

Yesterday, Radio Exe carried a much longer report into the Tory calls for DBS checks. Owl highlights three extracts of particular significance.

[Owl would also add that MPs do not routinely have to have a DBS check. Like councillors, they are debarred by a prison sentence, though in their case of more than one year.]

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk 

…Whatever the governing EDDC coalition decides, the Tory’s own policy [that their councillors, and presumably candidates, should undergo a basic DBS check] won’t be formally ratified by their group until their next AGM in May next year. But they say all Conservatives on the council will eventually undergo enhanced DBS checks regardless…

….“The law already requires people elected as councillors to sign a declaration regarding criminal convictions or conditional cautions. The DBS check is an added layer of protection that those elected are giving electors the complete picture and that the signed declaration is accurate.”

Under the law, people cannnot become a councillor if they have been given a prison sentence of three months or more in the last five years. The five-year rule applies even if the conviction is ‘spent’ (meaning it doesn’t have to be revealed) under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974……

….Employment lawyer Terry Falcao, a partner at south west legal firm Stephens Scown, says councils that “enforce DBS checks may be acting unlawfully. The point of DBS checks in most cases is to protect children and vulnerable people, and requirements for such checks would usually be because the individual would have unsupervised access to such people. 

“If a councillor did not routinely have such access it is difficult to see how such an obligation can be justified other than to restrict the pool of whom might consider a political career or involvement in politics or alternatively for some political spin.”…

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 23 August

Hilary Mantel contrasts Dominic Cummings with Thomas Cromwell

[And also has views on Boris Johnson’s suitability for public life].

Aamna Mohdin www.theguardian.com

Dame Hilary Mantel has said Dominic Cummings “created a picture of himself as an outsider” that was intrinsic to his rise, while Thomas Cromwell had been able to truly “conquer the hierarchy”.

The novelist, 69, who has published a trilogy of books about Cromwell, concluding with The Mirror and the Light in 2020, compared the two political figures during an appearance on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show.

In reference to Cummings’ rise to become the prime minister’s top adviser, Mantel said: “Dominic Cummings created a picture of himself as an outsider, which was intrinsic to his self-created function.

“But what Cromwell did was he conquered the hierarchy. He understood where real power lay as opposed to status and he worked his own way through the system, in a way that shouldn’t have been possible in that very hierarchical world.”

Mantel was the first woman to win the Booker prize twice: first in 2009 for Wolf Hall, the first book in the trilogy, and then for the sequel Bring Up the Bodies in 2012.

The actor Ben Miles, who plays Cromwell in the stage versions of Mantel’s books, told the programme: “There is an element of a man from outside, from perhaps a lower-status background and origin, scaling the heights, as it were, and becoming indispensable.”

Mantel added that Cromwell would not have gone on holiday during an “international crisis”, in an apparent shot at the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who was in Crete as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.

“Cromwell was a politician,” she said. “He was the kind of man who was quite rare in any era, perhaps in any walk of life, because he was someone who was very much a big-picture man, but he knew how to take care of all the details as well.

“He privileged competence and turning information into knowledge.”

She added: “He wouldn’t have gone on holiday during an international crisis. Can you imagine Cardinal Wolsey going on holiday?”

Earlier this week, Mantel said she felt “ashamed” by the UK government’s treatment of migrants and asylum seekers and was intending to become an Irish citizen to “become a European again”.

She told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica: “We see the ugly face of contemporary Britain in the people on the beaches abusing exhausted refugees even as they scramble to the shore. It makes one ashamed.

“And ashamed, of course, to be living in the nation that elected this government, and allows itself to be led by it.”

She said that she was hoping to soon leave England and relocate. “Our projected move has been held back by Covid, but much as I love where I live now – in the West Country, by the sea – I feel the need to be packing my bags, and to become a European again.”

When asked about the prime minister, Boris Johnson, she said: “I have met him a number of times, in different settings. I agree he is a complex personality, but this much is simple: he should not be in public life. And I am sure he knows it.”

Dear Boris Johnson, we need positive action not warm words

The “Great South West” not happy with the: “Magic Sauce” the “Catchup Ketchup”?

Owl always thought that the business-led Local Enterprise Partnership (see footnote in article), Heart of the South West (HotSW) had the plan to double the economy in 20 years from the 2018 baseline – what’s not working? 

Do we have any regional leaders with real economic, as opposed to business, experience and with the democratic support to make such a plea credible? 

Would Boris Johnson listen and what store should we put on any “promises” he might make? – Owl

Dear Boris Johnson, we need positive action not warm words

Hannah Finch www.devonlive.com 

The Prime Minister has been asked to make good on years of promises to Back the Great South West.

Economic leaders say they are beyond frustration after five years of ‘warm words’ but no action on the region’s plans to become a beacon for the green economy.

In an open letter to the PM, Bill Martin, publisher of the Western Morning News, who has spearheaded the #BackTheGreatSouthWest campaign, said that the region requires positive action after fulfilling its side of the bargain to come up with a clear business case that has brought together politicians, business leaders and academics.

But he warns that the ‘unity will not hold’ without some progress.

Mr Martin writes in the letter: “The Great South West is a large and powerful economic entity that with the right support can become the cutting edge of your levelling up and net zero agenda.

“We have done all that was asked. I am writing today to ask for your support again in giving the Great South West the recognition and support that its unity and ambition require. We are a region that welcomes warm words, but desires positive action.”

The letter comes five years after the #BackTheGreatSouthWest campaign was launched with the region’s biggest private sector employer Pennon Plc.

Since then, the Great South West Partnership has set out how it has the potential to become the ‘UK’s Natural Powerhouse’ in its Securing the Future prospectus that was taken to 10 Downing Street in 2019.

The deal asked the Government for £2million over three years to progress its ambitions but nothing has yet come of it.

Steve Hindley, chairman of the Great South West Partnership, said: “For the first time, the Great South West has set out a challenging low-carbon vision for our region building on our strengths and key opportunities and we have an active All Party Parliamentary Group set up to support the Great South West. We have consistently had warm words from No 10 and other ministers and we want to get on and achieve the same status as the other ‘Powerhouse’ regions and move forward with our blue and green agenda. As Chair of the Great South West steering group, I am beyond frustration with the delay in obtaining formal recognition and associated funding.”

The delegation from the South West visited Downing Street in 2019 to deliver the prospectus and set out how it planned to deliver an era of transformational change with the backing of the Government’s levelling up pledge.

Mr Martin said he acknowledges that much has been set aside because of the global pandemic but he argues that negotiations on the the ambitions of the Great South West have been minimal and had got confused in Whitehall with those of the Western Gateway, a strategic partnership aimed at promoting and maximising economic growth from Bristol to Swansea.

The Great South West plans to become the UK’s first region to reach net zero and the only exporter of green energy and UK’s greenest economy by building on its wealth of natural and research assets at sea and on land, praised by the PM in the lead up to June’s G7 Summit in Cornwall.

It seeks support for an enhanced import and export hub, recognition of a South West Tourism Zone and agreement to create a rural productivity deal.

Sir Gary Streeter MP, chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Great South West said he shared Mr Martin’s frustration.

He said: “I see no reason why the government cannot move smartly to recognise our region and enable us to deliver on substantial growth and prosperity. I will keep pressing the government on this.”

Mark Duddridge, Chairman of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, said the Great South West’s ambition to spearhead the green industrial revolution is all the more relevant as the UK prepares to host the COP26 climate change summit.

He said: “We are making significant advances in Cornwall with new technologies like floating offshore wind, geothermal energy and clean metal mining, with world class deposits of lithium which is vital for electric vehicle battery production. And we are working towards our traditional industries like tourism and agriculture being more sustainable. But if we are going to stimulate investment to transform our communities, we need much more visibility on how the Government plans to deliver its levelling up agenda. The Prime Minister talks of a consistent and catalytic role for Government in driving a wealth-creating economy, and that’s what we are asking for today.”

David Ralph, Chief Executive of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership, which covers Somerset and Devon, said: “Declared support from Government for this work would enable it to progress further and faster and help deliver a joined-up response to the challenge of climate change.”

Extraodinary Virtual Council Meeting Tuesday 7 Sept 6.00 pm

Extraordinary Meeting of the Council of the District of East Devon on Tuesday, 7th September, 2021 at 6.00 pm

To consider withdrawing the title of Honorary Alderman awarded to a former East Devon District Councillor, John Humphreys, following his recent trial and conviction at Exeter Crown Court.

This is a virtual meeting.

It is being recorded by EDDC for subsequent publication on the Council’s website and will be streamed live to the Council’s Youtube Channel at 

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCmNHQruge3LVI4hcgRnbwBw

Public speakers are now required to register to speak – for more information please use the following link: 

https://eastdevon.gov.uk/council-and-democracy/have-your-say-at-meetings/all-other-public-meetings/#article-content

More details can be found here.

Housing crisis: the low-cost developer thinking big with small spaces

‘Housing should be boring’: low-cost developer explains his success

Jasper Jolly www.theguardian.com 

Marc Vlessing, a property developer, says he would be happy to be put out of a job. In an attempt to attract first-time buyers who might otherwise be unable to afford their own homes, his business, Pocket Living, builds smaller-than-average flats with lower-than-average price tags.

It is a business model whose success is based on the fact that so many have been priced out of city living by the housing crisis. Perhaps it would be a good thing if Pocket’s niche did not exist?

“That would be to me a great success,” says Vlessing, sitting at the kitchen table at one of his developments in Lambeth, south London. “I think housing should be boring.”

Pocket’s one-bedroom flats are classed as “affordable”, 20% cheaper than the average local market rate. The clue to the trade-off is in the name: the flats are about a fifth smaller than national standards, but try to make up for their modest size with clever design.

His business shows no signs of slowing down. It has developed nearly 1,000 of its small homes across London and is now considering Cambridge for its first project outside the capital.

“I think the housing challenge is here to stay for many years to come,” Vlessing says. “It is going to get more political.”

The housing sector has experienced an extraordinary period in which prices have continued to surge despite predictions that Covid’s impact on the economy would deflate the market. Instead, historically low interest rates, supply that has been constrained for years, pent-up demand from the early lockdowns and a rush for more space have meant that property prices rose by 11% in the year to August, according to Nationwide building society.

A 20% price discount on small-scale developments is difficult to achieve for private developers who want to make a profit. Pocket’s formula tackles the challenge in two main ways, one of which is the space cut. It aims for 37 sq metres (400 sq ft), compared with the UK median floorspace for flats of 43 sq m (“just under the size of four car parking spaces”, as the Office for National Statistics evocatively adds). Indeed car parking, and extra bathrooms, are among the extras Pocket eschews.

Vlessing is candid about the compromise: “If you make something bigger at 500 sq ft, my people can’t buy that.”

His people are the capital’s relatively low-earning first-time buyers – the average annual income of a Pocket buyer is £39,000 – and cash buyers. Flats in outer boroughs such as Barking start at less than £200,000, while closer to the centre the prices can be £280,000 or more. Crucially, the buyers are contractually bound to pass on the 20% discount to the local market rate in perpetuity, reducing the scope for flipping.

The model has proved durable: the 1,000-flat milestone will be reached around November. Pocket is also starting to expand into two- and three-bedroom flats, albeit at full market rates.

The company aims for a profit margin of 15% on developments, lower than the 20% to 30% enjoyed by the bigger housebuilders. In 2020, Pocket Living made revenues of £56m, nearly £20m lower than in 2019, and a pre-tax loss of £870,000 in 2019 swelled to a £6.3m loss, according to its latest accounts. Vlessing says it was an investment period, and profits will come from 2022.

However, the company has also had to contend with rising costs. Vlessing says the “combination of the pandemic and Brexit had been particularly pernicious” because skilled eastern European labourers have been locked out. Prices of copper and brick have also risen.

Pocket’s flats try to disguise their small footprints using design tweaks to encourage a sense of space: the doors are 2.5cm wider than usual, the ceilings are higher, floor-to-ceiling windows let in a lot of light and there is very little dead “circulation space” such as corridors.

The architecture may not be to everyone’s taste. The Lambeth development’s entrance balconies are clad with perforated metal panels that give some protection from the elements and the noise of passing trains. Yet the mix of brick and metal works well in the context of a busy railway track on one side and the orderly 1930s China Walk council housing estate on the other.

One resident in Lambeth, who has lived there for more than five years, says her flat is “lovely” and the build quality is good, though she thinks the service charges could be cheaper.

“I haven’t moved!” she says, by way of approval. But she admits that the flats are “dinky”, adding: “My next-door neighbour has a baby and a husband, which would be hard.”

Vlessing, who grew up in the Netherlands, argues that one-bedroom flats fill an important need. High housing costs make it difficult for key workers to live in city centres. Nonetheless, Pocket has run up against opposition in some areas.

Labour’s Haringey council in north London sold a site to the company in 2016, but the project failed to win planning permission under new leadership from the left of the party.

Vlessing, who was an investment banker before running a West End theatre group, is sanguine about such setbacks. There is little danger of demand for Pocket’s homes falling any time soon. The government’s approach has been to “endlessly stick bits of policy onto a broken system”, he says – in part because of the lack of a clear plan from previous administrations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vlessing wants affordable homes to be exempt from the community infrastructure levy, a tax on developments that local authorities can charge. He also thinks there should be a presumption of development for small sites across the country to ease the reliance on projects from big developers.

Vlessing says the housing crisis merits Cobra-meeting levels of urgency from the government to prevent the house price speculation that became a defining feature of recent decades.

“It turns us into these little mini-capitalists,” he says. “I don’t think housing should be an investment in that way. It’s become a casino economy because we’re undersupplying housing by a factor of two.”