Revealed: a third of England’s vital flood defences are in private hands

A third of England’s most important flood defences are in private hands, an investigation has found, with more than 1,000 found to be in a poor state and some at risk of “complete performance failure”.

Helen Pidd www.theguardian.com 

Private owners cannot be forced to make upgrades to the defences, which can involve bills of hundreds of thousands of pounds. The government admits it can only “encourage” third-party owners to do maintainance, though the Environment Agency can carry out emergency repairs if there is a risk to people, property or environment, and try to bill the freeholders afterwards.

Data obtained under freedom of information laws by Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace UK, and shared with the Guardian, show that privately owned assets classed as “high consequence” are twice as likely to be in a poor condition as those maintained by the Environment Agency, with 8% or 1,109 of private defences rated as sub-par.

The defences range from flood walls or embankments to weirs and piers, though many are outfall pipes or culverts – enclosed watercourses that run underneath roads, railways or other property.

Some are owned by major landowners such as the crown estate or Network Rail. Others run under private houses and businesses, often unnoticed until something goes wrong. In 2014 a father and son in Waterlooville, Hampshire, were faced with a £150,000 bill to repair a culvert that went underneath their properties.

High-consequence flood defences are the most important because they “contribute to managing flood risk in a location where the consequence on people and property of an asset failing is high”, according to the Environment Agency.

Defences are inspected and then rated from condition 1 to 5, with 1 meaning “very good”. Four is “poor”, with “defects that would significantly reduce the performance of the asset”, and 5 is “very poor” – “severe defects resulting in complete performance failure”.

There is no public record of who owns or maintains private flood defences in England, and local authorities are often unaware. To build a partial picture of private ownership, Unearthed took Environment Agency data and overlaid it with data from the Land Registry and other sources.

Kirklees council in West Yorkshire, which dealt with bad flooding during Storm Ciara in 2020, said it did not know who owned the 23 privately owned defences in its area that were rated as poor or very poor. The local authority in Carlisle, which has seen repeated flooding in recent years, said the same about the 30 poorly rated private defences in the city.

Even when local authorities do know the owners, they cannot compel them to carry out repairs. “All we can do is ask nicely,” said James Mead, a flood and water manager at Sheffield city council, who said he contacted private owners by looking on Google Maps and cross-referencing with Environment Agency data.

Some 29 defences rated poor or very poor across England are on land owned by the crown estate, the Queen’s property manager. A spokesperson said the estate did not own the defences nor have responsibility for their upkeep, but did not respond when asked was responsible.

“Where flood defences have been installed by third parties on crown estate land we will always work with the relevant authorities to offer any assistance we can to ensure they are able to access and maintain as required,” the spokesperson said.

Last year the National Audit Office said the Environment Agency’s plan to beef up England’s flood defences was being undermined by a lack of coordination between the various bodies tasked with maintaining them.

With increased flooding one of the greatest risks facing the UK as a result of the climate crisis, this year the government announced £5.2bn to build 2,000 new flood and coastal risk management schemes. Private defence owners will not be eligible to receive any of this money.

The Environment Agency estimates that 5.2m homes and businesses in England are at risk of flooding and that about 700 properties are vulnerable to coastal erosion over the next 20 years.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We routinely inspect both Environment Agency and third-party flood assets. Repairs are prioritised where there is threat to lives and livelihoods. We work closely with third party asset owners to encourage them to undertake repairs.

“Since 2015, more than 300,000 homes have been better protected from flooding on time and on budget. We’ve also made extensive preparations for the winter months, with thousands of frontline staff ready to respond to a flooding incident should it occur.”

Olivia Blake, the shadow flooding minister, said the government must do more to make sure private defences are up to scratch. “As our winters get wetter, the climate emergency will put flood defences under greater strain,” she said. “The government must act to ensure there are clear responsibilities and adequate measures in place so that any flood defences which are privately owned and critically important to the protection of the public are properly inspected and maintained.”

Tory councillor pocketed £86k of taxpayer cash to send one email a week for nearly five years

A Tory councillor received more than £86,000 of taxpayer cash to send just one email a week for nearly five years.

By Redrow Homes www.thelondoneconomic.com 

Councillor Margaret George has not carried out a single surgery in four-and-a-half years of sitting on North Ayrshire Council and has been absent from community-focused meetings expected from elected members.

The financial advisor, who represents Irvine South, has not formally logged a single piece of casework since she was elected in 2017, the Irvine Times reported.

According to records from North Ayrshire Council’s customer relationship management system, Cllr George has logged zero cases between May 1, 2017 and August 16, 2021 in the time she has been an elected member.

She defended her work ethic and claimed she “met people in the street” and made phone calls which would not be formally logged.

In comparison, Tory colleague Todd Ferguson has logged 289 cases with the software designed to track interactions between councillor and the local authority service provision.

A case is logged when councillors contact the council to request to access a service, however, non-service interactions are not taken into consideration.

However, Cllr George has sent just 427 emails between May 1, 2017, and September 6, 2021 – averaging one email a week for four and a half years.

According to a Freedom of Information request submitted to North Ayrshire Council, the Conservative and Unionist members sent 26,786 emails in this time, with the top performer sending 9,886 emails, 30 emails a week, in a similar time period.

In addition to a £18,604 annual salary, councillors receive a salary and access to expenses as remuneration for their role in public office.

Over the last five years, councillors’ salaries have increased from £14,654.61 to £18,604.

In total, it is understood Cllr George has been paid around £86,000 in salary and claimed £213.15 in expenses during her time with the council.

Fellow Irvine South elected members from SNP and Labour have blasted the apparent lack of work by Cllr George and urged her to re-consider her position.

SNP councillor Christina Larsen, said: “I am not in the habit of criticising councillors, even if they are from another party, however, I have had constituents remark on Cllr George’s absence since she was elected in 2017.

“These remarks have not only been in regards to her lack of holding any constituency surgeries, but also her lack of engagement in constituency casework and her absence at the Irvine Locality Partnership.

Breathtaking laziness

“I don’t think she has properly represented her constituents and I think she should think about her position and whether or not she should stand for office in the elections next year.”

Labour councillor Robert Foster added: “To serve the people of North Ayrshire as a councillor is a real privilege, to spend almost five years in that role and not help a single constituent is breathtaking laziness.

“The contempt that the Tories have for working people is clear for all to see, I would have asked for Margaret George to resign but a by-election would only cost the taxpayer even more money.

“For Margaret George to sit in the house and pocket a wage every month for doing absolutely nothing is disgraceful.

“I hope the people of Irvine send a clear message to the Tories at the council election next May and kick them out.”

The Conservative group for North Ayrshire released a statement on behalf of Cllr George.

Cllr George said: “A lot of the case work that we do it’s not necessarily logged on the council’s Laggan system as, for example, in my case I do a lot of that by phone and by direct email to heads of service so it’s not always logged.

“So one cannot imply from zero case work from the council that there has been no case work.

“In terms of emails, I would’ve expected a councillor to have used the email system more frequently but also as in my case it is possible that many of the contacts were done either through community councils, or by telephone, or by meeting people in the street.”

In response, David Rocks, chairman for the Conservatives in North Ayrshire, added: “We are currently going through the selection process for candidates for next year.

“We are looking to assess and vet the best team to go forward to the elections.”

Tory Council’s ‘culture of complacency’ in managing ‘reinvigoration’ project.

Grandiose reinvigoration/regeneration Tory project goes wrong. Does this ring any bells in East Devon, in Seaton or Exmouth say? – Owl

Marble Arch Mound: call to review ‘culture of complacency’ at council

Patrick Butler www.theguardian.com 

Councillors have called for an independent review of a “culture of complacency” at a flagship Tory-run council that ran up a £3m overspend on a much-derided new visitor attraction in London’s West End labelled “Teletubby hill”.

An internal Westminster council report, discussed at a council scrutiny meeting on Wednesday evening, admitted the Marble Arch Mound had been badly mismanaged by officials – with unacceptable errors of judgment caused by the desire to rush it through at speed.

There were “devastating” failures in the management of the project, the report concluded, including corner-cutting and cover-ups by officials desperate to keep massive overspends and design problems hidden from councillors, and a lack of overall “grip and oversight”.

Labour’s opposition group said the report did not go far enough in scrutinising the role of senior elected council leaders, who it said missed several opportunities to challenge and track the progress of the controversial scheme, which it said showed a culture of complacency in the council and a lack of political leadership.

“It’s evidence of a Conservative administration on Westminster council that has been in power for far too long. They have become arrogant, out of touch and incompetent and it’s time for a change,” said the Labour group leader, Adam Hug.

The mound – a 25-metre high artificial hill built on the corner of Oxford Street and Hyde Park with views across the city – became a laughing stock soon after opening in July. The Daily Telegraph referred to it as a “rather silly hillock” while the New York Times called it “a pile of scaffolding”.

Within weeks, a project intended to help reinvigorate the area’s battered retail and hospitality economy had also become a political disaster: the then deputy leader, Melvyn Caplan, resigned after it emerged the original £3m cost had spiralled to £6m, and it came under fire from residents and political opponents.

Hug said oral evidence heard at the scrutiny meeting showed Westminster’s political leaders had failed in their responsibility to ask key questions and challenge “optimistic assumptions” about the scheme over a period of several months, despite insisting on big cost reductions early on.

The council said the review found no evidence the problems associated with the mound “have occurred or are occurring” elsewhere in the council.

Westminster managed projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year, it said, and had an “excellent record of delivering to a high standard and within the agreed budget”.

The leader of the council, Rachael Robathan, and Caplan – who remains a councillor – were formally requested to give evidence to the meeting, but neither attended and questions were fielded by council officers. The council has previously rejected calls for an independent investigation.

Hug said: “We continue to believe the council should undertake an independent review of the failings of the council’s political culture and leadership as evidenced by the mistakes made with the £6m Marble Arch Mound.”

The mound was originally intended to recoup £2m of its costs through the sale of visitor tickets priced between £4 and £8, but access was made free in August. The attraction remains open until 9 January next year.

PEOPLE BEFORE PROFITS 

From a correspondent concerned about the Burrington Estates’ development proposals for Winslade Park:

When deciding on the best ways of using land and buildings in our communities, undoubtedly, development planners hold significant power in their hands. However, in recent years, local people feel they have become the losers – whilst property speculators have reaped huge profits from many, valued neighbourhoods. 

Are those who actually live in our communities being restricted in their say over its future shape? Locally-led, quality design is vital for new developments to avoid the loss of distinctive characteristics and the destruction of environments from over-development. Should Local and Neighbourhood Plans be ignored and dismissed in favour of developers’ offers of unproven, economic benefits? 

Those within East Devon District Council (EDDC) who recommend and make decisions on development planning must realise the huge impact their resolutions have on other people’s lives. Large-scale development planning results in significant, major transformations to East Devon neighbourhoods; it does not merely involve viewing architectural drawings, plans and imagery via a virtual zoom meeting in disconnected home kitchens, lounges or offices and then by alphabetical roll call voting in favour, against or abstaining – the reality is that these all-important decisions will influence and transform entire communities and the future lives of the numerous residents who have made their homes in them. 

This was reflected recently by the following emotive sentiments (published on the EDDC planning portal), which were made by residents whose existing homes will adjoin Burrington Estates’ proposed development of 39 houses and 40 four-storey flats on two sites at Winslade Park in Clyst St Mary.  

Objections – Zone A – 39 homes 

‘Our family have had the privilege of living in Winslade Park Avenue since 1977. Four generations of our family have been lucky enough to live in this wonderful village and actively participate and engage with all aspects of life within it. . . . We are very disappointed by the proposals in which the bungalows that were proposed are now much higher and comprising of one and a half storeys. These properties are not in keeping with the bungalows and houses of Winslade Park Avenue that border them. They have large chimneys and the properties overlook and encroach on the neighbouring properties that will lead to a loss of privacy. I am also concerned that the public consultation was arranged in a way that the residents could not fully participate in. If the proposals go through in their current format the reality is we will be looking to sell our property and move from a village we love and a community we have always been part of.’ 

It is still difficult for this local community to accept the loss of this valued, green field that was specifically protected against development in the East Devon Local and the Bishops Clyst Neighbourhood Plans. 

The fear is that the Applicants will prioritise and move forward immediately with the housing elements but the promised local jobs, social and environmental benefits for the community of Clyst St Mary will be pushed into the background……Although 39 homes in Zone A are considered low-density; when they are considered with the 40 four-storey flats in Zone D and proposals for around 2,000 jobs, then the entire proposals are viewed as an overdevelopment in this village location.’ 

‘My property backs onto the location of the proposed application . . . The impact on my amenity and loss of privacy to the main living areas of my property (Main bedroom, Lounge, kitchen, patio area and garden) is unacceptable.  

 Objections – Zone D – 40 four-storey flats 

‘The new development proposes 40 apartments of 4 storeys in height which will dominate our 2 storey house with a loss to our privacy and will change the character of our quiet estate. ….. When the deciduous trees shed their leaves the development will be seen in its entirety and occupants will be able to look over our gardens and homes in Clyst Valley Road. We are concerned about levels of air pollution from traffic and the effects this will have on ourselves and our children’s healththe development will add another 80 or so vehicles in this locality. 

We oppose the proposed development which is out of proportion to existing properties and the character of the historical village of Clyst St Mary and the Winslade Park estate’.  

‘The density of housing on this confined spot seems very high; 80 -100 people packed into this relatively small area, with their cars and associated traffic, is bound to have a detrimental effect in terms of pollution and noise on the houses closest to them. Clyst St Mary is a small village. .. . We are not a town. The designs of the blocks are unattractive and appear to be full of windows, which will make existing residents feel uncomfortably exposed to a loss of privacy.  

 I was particularly alarmed by the comment that the removal/lopping of some trees “may not significantly affect the amenity value of the site”. It would most certainly affect the amenity value of my existing site if this screen is diminished, and given the prominence currently given to preserving trees, this should be a red flag.’ 

‘We must build back better in future and not create ‘eyesores’ that will scar and stigmatise small communities. The Zone D apartment blocks have no architectural integrity….displaying overwhelmingly mediocre, low-quality, volume homebuilding. 

Zone D car parking proposals fail to consider the harm to the lives and amenities that existing local residents in Clyst Valley Road enjoy in their homes and gardens and is unneighbourly and inappropriate.’ 

These are selected contributions from genuine householders in this community who trust that their elected representatives will be attentive to their voices and not just pay lip service to residents’ aims and objectives; they request support and representation on key issues that significantly affect their lives and valued homes and ultimately they expect protection of their physical and mental wellbeing.  

For instance, to date there appears no proposals or provision for safe pedestrian access at the bottom of Winslade Park Avenue? Therefore, potentially 2,000 Winslade Park new business employees, families from 79 new homes (including children) and all existing residents will be required to walk on a heavily-trafficked narrow road, around blind bends with no pavements or adequate lighting to access the village amenities of the school, shop, post office, village hall, garage and pub or alternatively walk to the facilities at Winslade Manor. 

The two Reserved Matters housing applications are silent on this subject, ignoring the lack of crucial, highway upgrades that are imperative in this area; to date no comments or plans have been published by Devon Highways, when most would consider this to be a pivotal decision – a focal point affecting public safety? Do decision-makers intend getting substantial contributions from developers to widen the road to allow for pedestrian pavements – or will their decision be to completely block all vehicular access for existing Winslade Park householders merely to allow the 79 new-builds to progress in a village with no local housing need? 

Surely, this is of paramount importance to alleviate future serious injuries or fatalities that will, undoubtedly, occur in this area without the implementation of significant, enhanced highway safety measures? Are priorities getting skewed in favour of economic gains rather than the safety of real people?  Could decision-makers potentially recommend and approve sizeable commercial and housing developments, without significant highway safety improvements in this area that could risk life and limb? 

Consequently, when making planning decisions on large-scale developments that will have huge repercussions for so many people, the community urges planners to appreciate and acknowledge the viewpoints and perspectives of those who have made their homes in this East Devon village by opting to support people before profits

Morning Simon: Here is today’s news

Raw sewage released into the sea around Devon (With spotlight on Budleigh Salterton )

When you toed the line and voted down the Lord’s amendment you were condoning regulation that most of us know is ineffective. You have described subsequent criticisms as: “ludicrous and misleading accusations”. Are you sure that the u-turn proposals now being considered by the government will actually work?

A little thought for you to ponder Simon: why are South West Water renewing the main overflow discharge in association with  the Otter Regeneration Project?

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com

Heavy rain has led to raw sewage being discharged into the sea near a Devon river where £15million is being spent to restore the natural environment.

An online map published by Surfers Against Sewage reports a storm overflow incident at Budleigh Salterton, near the mouth of the River Otter.

It says there are three discharge pipes in the area, part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site.

One sewer overflow discharges directly onto the beach, another is 400m east and another discharges 1.3km away into the sea.

The estuary and cliffs form a nationally important site for biodiversity and the area is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

The discharge of raw sewage into rivers and seas hit the headlines after the government rejected a plan from the House of Lords to end storm overflows.

The government voted down an amendment to the Environment Bill, then did a U-turn after an outcry and announced it will tighten the law to put a legal duty on water firms to reduce the harm from storm overflows.

Water companies are allowed to discharge a mixture of rainwater and sewage in extreme weather to stop the mostly Victorian sewerage system backing up.

There 400,000 sewage discharges last year, with 42,000 by South West Water, which operates in Devon and Cornwall. Concerns have been raised by the poor quality of river water, but the company says bathing waters have improved.

Environment groups including Surfers Against Sewage are campaigning for an end to the discharges, which they say risk the health of water users.

But government supporters say it is already taking action and the investment needed of at least £150billion would increase bills.

The Surfers Against Sewage map also showed storm overflows of raw sewage in the last 48 hours in south Devon at Exmouth, Dawlish, Holcombe, Teignmouth, Meadfoot and Abbey Sands at Torquay, Preston and Goodrington at Paignton, and in North Devon at Combe Martin, Wollacombe, Croyde and Westward Ho!

South West Water says it is “absolutely committed to improving river quality and protecting bathing waters in our region.” It said so far this year there has been a 60 per cent reduction in pollution incidents and 97 per cent of bathing waters are rated good or excellent, compared to 28.6 per cent in 1991.

The River Otter estuary is at the eastern end of the beach, and a £15million EU-backed project started in the summer to restore a floodplain on land previously reclaimed from the sea.

Downpours have caused flooding alongside the river and construction vehicles being used in the project were caught by the rising waters last week, which closed South Farm Road and halted work.

A statement from the Lower Otter Restoration Project said: “As soon as the floodwater started to subside our contractors moved the equipment and vehicles.

“Most machines could be restarted and driven out of the floodwaters when water levels allowed. South Farm Road is now open and has been swept clear for residents and access to South Farm businesses as usual.

“Environment Agency pollution staff closely monitored the site clear up to ensure that the river has not been adversely affected following the flooding. We are pleased to confirm that no material pollutant release was identified.

“We are working with our contractor to learn from the event and understand why the construction plant was not moved ahead of the flooding. We are already making improvements to ensure this does not happen again at LORP or any of our other sites.”

New £14m Sidmouth Beach Management Scheme takes major step forward 

Following a meeting of the Sidmouth Beach Management Advisory Group, on Monday 25 October, Owl became aware of “mixed messages” in reports of what was decided.

An amended EDDC press release seems to be a reasonable record of the outcome of the meeting which Owl understands now corresponds with Vision Group for Sidmouth’s recollection.

AMENDED release: New £14m Sidmouth Beach Management Scheme takes major step forward – East Devon

eastdevon.gov.uk

The general outline for the new outline: Dark blue line – Splash wall to be raised along the majority of the Esplanade by approximately 10cm. Light blue line – this section will still have to be raised to about one metre. Yellow line – This is where the beach with be replenished with new beach material. Red circle – General locations of where the additional offshore island(s) can go. Green line – Where the rock groyne will be located.

A new and improved multi-million Sidmouth Beach Management Scheme (BMS) could eliminate the need for a controversial raised splash wall on the seafront.

And, it would help to future proof the town against increased storminess due to climate change for decades to come.

The news comes following a meeting of the Sidmouth Beach Management Advisory Group, on Monday 25 October, which approved a new outline scheme costing up to £14million – providing the vital sea defences and coast protection the town needs, thereby better protecting the Esplanade and the town’s crumbling cliffs above East Beach.

An increase in DEFRA funding has allowed the group to spend the past six months to consider options previously dismissed because of a lack of funding.

The new funding has meant the group could look at new options that eliminate the need for a one-metre high splash wall to replace the current dwarf wall along the Esplanade, which some feared would be an eyesore and divide the town from the sea.

In the last six months, consultants Royal Haskoning DVH has looked at various options to see what is now feasible with the new funding.

This has included adding a further rock island or islands similar to the two already near the seafront, which were part of a short-list of options considered by residents in public consultations in 2016.

The current islands have provided good protection from westerly storms and have also created a large pebble beach at Clifton, which protects the west of the town. As a bonus a sandy beach has also appeared.

Having learnt from how well they work, the new outline scheme includes one, or possibly two extra rock islands, to the east of the current rock groynes – this would reduce the wave action during storms and help to protect the beaches. There will be further work to look at this in the detailed design stage.

On East Beach, the best option for the moment, is to build a large rock groyne and to recharge the beach – which is the process of repleshing it with pebbles to recreate a beach which has been lost.

Previous schemes:

Prior to EDDC taking on this challenging project, residents had asked for a rock revetment scheme to protect East Cliff. However, following Natural England’s concerns about the effects of a revetment on the World Heritage Site these earlier schemes were abandoned.

Next steps:

Once the outline scheme has been approved by EDDC’s Cabinet an ‘outline business case’ will be prepared and endorsed by the advisory group. It will then be submitted to the Environment Agency for the approval for the funds to be released. The detailed design stage can then begin and will include more studies and modelling – as part of this phase EDDC intend to hold public exhibitions to gain feedback on the designs. It is expected that some changes will be made to the current outline proposal at that stage. If the changes are substantial, the scheme may have to go through a ‘technical review’ before the finalised designs are put forward for planning permission. At this stage, further consultations with the public and official bodies will be carried out.

EDDC Councillor Geoff Jung, chair of the Sidmouth Beach Management Advisory Group, said:

I am really pleased that the advisory group today supported the recommendation to move onto the next stage for this important and critical project. This scheme has been very challenging for many years and agreeing to move on to the next stage is brilliant news.

We are more aware now, than ever before, of the  effects of climate change on the sea and weather and how it could have serious detrimental consequences on Sidmouth, but this scheme is designed to help future-proof Sidmouth and its community by protecting properties and residents of Sidmouth, to retain its character and unique charm for the next 100 years.

I would like to personally thank the officers, consultants, and advisory group members for their diligence and hours of work to finally move on to the next stage.

COVID: increased restrictions in the UK look inevitable as winter arrives

COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths have been rising in the UK, pressurising a health service that’s already working hard to treat the backlog of non-COVID patients that have accumulated since March 2020.

Peter Sivey theconversation.com 

While some modellers suggest that cases have peaked and are now set to fall, the overall number of new infections isn’t the only trend to pay attention to. More cases in older age groups and rising hospitalisations are causes for concern, with both possibly driven by two other worrying trends: waning immunity and the vaccine booster programme rolling out too slowly.

The government is taking notice, holding a COVID press conference in response to the recent rise in cases, but is yet to change course. Its strategy for controlling COVID currently still depends mainly on vaccination.

It is resisting calls for the stricter “plan B” control measures, outlined in its COVID winter plan, to be implemented now. These measures include, in certain situations, introducing vaccine certificates and reintroducing mandatory face coverings, together with suggesting that people work from home.

But looking closely at the current data, the plan B measures – or even other, more effective steps – seem inevitable in the coming weeks and months.

Vulnerable people are getting COVID

In the second half of October, reported new cases of COVID surpassed 50,000 a day for the first time since July. However, the current situation is substantially more concerning than in July. Back then, cases were only high in the young. Now cases have risen substantially in the older half of the population.

The case rate among the over-60s is the highest it’s been since late January. We know this is especially important, because despite making up less than a quarter of the population, the over-60s make up more than half of all COVID hospital admissions. Rising cases in this age group disproportionately leads to people getting severely ill with COVID and hospitals coming under pressure.

COVID cases in England in people aged over 60, October 2020-October 2021. Author provided

The number of COVID patients in hospital in England reached 6,801 on October 25, the highest figure since mid-March. It’s worth noting that a year ago in October 2020, the government called a national lockdown when hospital occupancy reached approximately 10,000. At the current trajectory, it seems likely we’ll reach this milestone sooner or later this winter. If we’re to avoid it, we don’t just need cases to come down, but cases in the older age groups to fall in particular.

Patients in hospital with COVID in England, October 2020-October 2021. Author provided

Boosters, passports – and more?

Due to vaccination, we won’t see hospital occupancy shoot up as rapidly as it did in October 2020. So even if we do reach 10,000 COVID patients in hospital, a lockdown is unlikely. Admissions increasing more slowly means there’s far less risk of the NHS suddenly becoming overwhelmed, which is what in the past necessitated drastic lockdown measures being introduced. However, it is likely we will see strain on the NHS rise to a level that justifies more action.

Pressures on the NHS are already very serious, especially in emergency care, where A&E waiting times are the worst since records began. Around 25% of people attending A&E aren’t seen within the target time of four hours, and people are routinely waiting 45 minutes for an emergency ambulance. This pressure is not primarily due to COVID, but the return of normal levels of attendance at A&E, together with increased severity of patients, staffing issues and infection control measures making life harder in A&E departments.

The government therefore is right to be pursuing a policy of booster vaccinations for over-50s. Older groups in the population are highly vaccinated – over 90% of 60- to 69-year-olds are double vaccinated and over 95% of over-70s – but the fact that we’re seeing increased cases and hospitalisations in this older cohort suggests vaccine-based immunity is waning. Emerging research also suggests this is the case (though its findings still need to be formally reviewed by other scientists).

Prompt deployment of these extra vaccines should reduce cases and hospitalisations substantially. Data released by Pfizer – whose vaccine is the booster of choice in the UK – suggests that a third dose restores immunity to highly protective levels (though these findings are also still awaiting review).

The problem is that the booster programme appears to be behind schedule in getting third doses to people as they become eligible six months after their second. We also don’t know if the take-up of boosters will be as high as for the initial two doses. If it’s not, many people may end up vulnerable to hospitalisation and death from COVID this winter.

The health secretary, Sajid Javid, has conceded that the government’s plan B may be necessary if pressures on the NHS become unsustainable, but the components of this plan seem quite weak compared to restrictions that were used earlier this year. Would these measures bring down transmission and reduce cases – and therefore hospitalisations – in older, more vulnerable age groups? Possibly not. The Cabinet Office’s COVID-19 Taskforce estimates that the impact of these measures on transmission might only be “moderate”.

Some experts have pointed to less invasive measures that could also be introduced. Improving the targeting of testing through revising the list of symptoms that allow people to book a PCR test, or even dropping large-scale PCR testing in favour of cheaper rapid lateral flow tests, might make finding and isolating cases quicker. However, such changes remain unlikely for now. This means plan B, if implemented, may struggle to achieve its goals of relieving pressure on the NHS.

Nevertheless, further measures to limit the spread of the virus, such as those in plan B, seem inevitable unless progress can be made on reducing cases in older age groups. If cases among these groups remain high, more drastic restrictions – such as imposing social distancing in hospitality venues at some point this winter – remain a strong possibility.

Exmouth’s lifeboat ramp to be fixed

Owl thought that the move of the Lifeboat station in 2009 from the old site next to the “Ocean” was to solve the problem of launching into the sea! It required realignment of the road etc. etc.

Is this an example of poor decision making or the just “wrong sort of erosion”?

Coastal erosion means it doesn’t reach beach

Sections of Exmouth beach will be closed next month as the RNLI proceeds with long-awaited improvements to its launching ramp.

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

Exmouth lifeboat station (courtesy: Google Maps)

In November the charity will build a 10-metre extension to the ramp from the lifeboat station to improve access to the sea. Although it’s only around 12 years old, the current ramp no longer reachers the sand because of erosion, meaning there’s a drop at the end. 

It’s not clear whether Exmouth’s all-weather lifeboat has been able recently to use the boathouse, which was built in 2009 at a cost of £1.75 million. Shortly after opening, the ramp had to close again because of problems with its construction. Once that issue was fixed, the RNLI housed both an inshore lifeboat and the larger ‘D’ class vessel.

Half of the ramp’s new extension will be buried in the beach to ensure against further erosion and sand loss. It should make it easier and safer to get the lifeboats in and out of the water, whatever the conditions.

Planning for the RNLI ramp extension at Exmouth Beach. The public won\’t be able to access the areas marked by red lines

The construction work will effectively close sections of the beach around the lifeboat station for the majority of the tide. 

The RNLI has been waiting a long time to fix the issue. Planning permission for the ramp extension was granted by East Devon District Council in late 2018 after erosion forced the ramp to be temporarily made the ramp unusable for lifeboats.

In addition to the extension, the lifesaving charity will also repair a piece of the sea wall that recently snapped off.  They are worried the damaged concrete could be a danger if thrown around in the sea in a storm or heavy seas. 

They will remove the broken concrete and repair the damaged structure, adding extra depth to the concrete defence so that water doesn’t scour the wall beneath the promenade.

Speaking at East Devon District Council’s Exmouth beach management plan steering group, Max Underhill, an estate engineer for the RNLI, said: “This wasn’t originally part of our beach work, but it’s something we don’t really want to leave.”

An officer report written around the time planning permission was granted states the ramp extension works could take three to six months.

Concrete broken away from the sea wall near Exmouth’s lifeboat station (courtesy: East Devon District Council)