Surprise opening of ‘Devon’s biggest skate park’

A major £365,000 investment to revamp a popular skate park in Devon has unexpectedly opened today as soon as works were finished.

Owl expects this to be very popular!

Anita Merritt 

The sudden completion has been welcomed by skaters who have been desperate to use Exmouth Phear Skate Park since it closed in June.

The official opening event will take place on Saturday, October 30, from noon to 4pm, which will include an informal competition and professional demo riders.

The investment into the project saw £240,000 coming from East Devon District Council, and £125,000 from Exmouth Town Council.

The design was agreed in consultation with a group of local skate park users. It is free to use.

An aerial view of the revamp plans at Exmouth Phear Skate Park

An aerial view of the revamp plans at Exmouth Phear Skate Park (Image: EDDC)

A spokesperson for East Devon District Council said: “Work on the new skate park in Phear Park, Exmouth, finished this afternoon, October 14, and as we knew skaters were keen to use the site we have already opened it up for use.

“Security fencing will remain around the edge of the site to help the new landscaping to settle in and the new grass to grow.

“We ask that users please keep off the fenced-off areas as much as possible to help prevent the new skate park getting covered in mud.”

Phear Skate Park received a £150,000 redevelopment in 2018, and when it reopened it was hailed as ‘one of the best skate parks in the country’.

It involved the demolition of old wooden equipment which was replaced with a new concrete skate park, designed with input from a group of local skaters and BMX riders.

Among those happy to see the skate park back in use again is Graham Hill, owner of Exmouth skate shop Rule 1, who has helped bring the new facility to the town.

He said: “I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying this is now Devons biggest skate park.

“I would like to thank councillor Paul Millar for helping me to finally getting this finished after five years of trying.

“Enjoy the radness and wear a helmet.”

Don’t let environment get in the way of trade deals, government tells its negotiators

UK trade negotiators should prioritise economic growth over the environment in trade deals, according to a leaked official document. 

The paper, drawn up by officials at the Department for International Trade, says environmental safeguards should not be treated as a red line when other countries do not want to include them in agreements.

It comes a month after it was revealed that the UK secretly dropped climate promises to get a trade deal with Australia’s government, which is hostile to action on climate change.

In the latest document, circulated to around 120 officials this week before being leaked to Sky News, department bosses say the “economic case” for reducing trade barriers should take precedent.

The UK is currently trying to negotiate a trade deal with Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right Brazilian government, whose policies on Amazon deforestation have caused an international outcry.

Campaigners have suggested that the UK should use trade deals as leverage to encourage Brazil’s government to stop its deforestation policies.

But the leaked document says: “[The government] should not refuse to liberalise on products of environmental concern where there is an economic case for liberalisation, or partner interest is so strong that not doing so would compromise the wider agreement.

“In these cases, we should continue to liberalise and address carbon leakage risk (in general, as well as any marginal additional risk from the fair trade agreement) using those FTA levers outlined in this note and non-FTA levers outlined elsewhere.”

It adds: “HMG should not pursue a conditional liberalisation approach. This is due to the very high negotiability challenge (little precedent and proven difficulty of raising with partners on related issues) and WTO compliance issues/creating double standards with trade partners.”

The overall economic case for free trade agreements is relatively weak, with the government’s estimates putting the benefits of even the largest agreement with the US at less than 0.16 per cent of GDP over 20 years.

But the government has effectively accepted that this deal will not happen under president Joe Biden, and is instead focusing on other deals with even smaller economic benefits.

Yet ministers are politically desperate to be able to point to concrete wins from leaving the EU, with other benefits so far few and far between.

The Department for International Trade downplayed the significance of the leaked document, but trade experts say the approach it outlines is clearly already being pursued by civil servants.

Opposition parties also criticised the approach.

“It’s really shocking to see a document going round government where they’re essentially saying, ‘never mind about climate change, never mind about the environment, Bolsonaro is a difficult guy, if you want a trade deal from Brazil, and he wants to sell us stuff from a rainforest, we probably shouldn’t get in the way that much because otherwise we won’t end up with a trade deal’ – really?” said Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow international trade secretary to Sky News.

A Department for International Trade spokesman said: “This is not government policy, and is not being considered by ministers.”

Growing Crops Under Solar Panels? Now There’s a Bright Idea 

Heavy precipitation that can damage crops is also on the rise, since a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. “In times when there is extreme heat or extreme precipitation, by protecting plants in this manner, it can actually benefit them,” says Madhu Khanna, an economist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who also won funding from the USDA’s new agrivoltaics grant. “So that’s another factor that we want to look at.” 

By Kemal Pasha

Khanna will be studying what the ideal solar array might be for a particular crop, for instance, if it needs bigger or smaller gaps between panels to let sunlight pass through. Height, too, is an issue: Corn and wheat would need taller panels, while shrubby soybeans would be fine with a more squat variety. 

Thanks to those gaps, crops grown under solar panels aren’t bathed in darkness. But, generally speaking, the light is more diffuse, meaning it’s bouncing off of surfaces before striking the plants. This replicates a natural forest environment, in which all plants, save for the tallest trees, hang out in the shade, soaking up any sunbeams that break through. 

Barron-Gafford has found that a forestlike shading under solar panels elicits a physiological response from plants. To collect more light, their leaves grow bigger than they would if planted in an open field. He’s seen this happen in basil, which would increase that crop’s yield. Barron-Gafford has also found that the pepper Capsicum annuum, which grows in the shade of trees in the wild, produces three times as much fruit in an agrivoltaic system. Tomato plants also grow more fruit. This is likely due to the plants being less stressed by the constant bombardment of sunlight, to which they’re not evolutionarily adapted.

But every crop is going to be different, so scientists have to test each to see how they react to shade. “For example, we probably wouldn’t recommend that somebody plant summer squash directly in the deepest shade, directly under a panel,” says Mark Uchanski, a horticultural scientist at Colorado State University who’s studying agrivoltaics and tested that exact scenario. “The better location for that might be further out toward the edges where it’s more likely to get a little bit more sun, because we did see a yield decrease in that case.” 

While setting up the panels entails some up-front costs, they might actually make farmers some money, as Kominek told Grist in this 2020 story before his panels were in place. They’d produce energy to run the farm, and the farmer can sell any surplus back to a utility. And since some plants—like those salsa ingredients in Barron-Gafford’s experiments—will use less water, that can reduce irrigation expenses. “If we can actually allow farmers to diversify their production and get more out of the same land, then that can benefit them,” says Khanna. “Having crops and solar panels is more beneficial for the environment than solar panels alone.” 

This kind of setup also cools the solar panels in two ways: Water evaporating from the soil rises up towards the panels, and plants release their own water. This is dandy for the panels’ efficiency, because they actually perform worse when they get too hot. They generate an electric current when the sun’s photons knock electrons out of atoms, but if they overheat, the electrons get overexcited and don’t generate as much electricity when they’re dislodged. 

Courtesy of Greg Barron-Gafford

Daughter of Covid victim tears into report

A Devon woman [Dr Cathy Gardner] who is challenging the government over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic says a report from MPs has “skipped over” the initial failure to protect care home residents who were “sitting ducks”.

[The High Court judicial review starts on Tuesday, October 19.]

Edward Oldfield

Dr Cathy Gardner, from Sidmouth, has brought the case following the death of her father Michael Gibson, at the age 88 in a care home in April 2020, early in the first lockdown.

Dr Gardner, who has a Phd in virology, claims that the UK Government, and NHS England, unlawfully failed to do enough to protect the right to life of vulnerable care home residents in the early response to the virus.

A report from MPs on the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee, published on Tuesday, said the UK’s preparation for a pandemic was far too focused on flu, while ministers waited too long to push through lockdown measures in early 2020.

In the wide-ranging study stretching to 151 pages, MPs criticised the fact community testing was abandoned in March 2020 as a “seminal error”, said NHS test and trace was too slow and failed to have a big impact, and that thousands of people died in care homes partly due to a policy of discharging people from hospital without testing.

The MPs concluded that the “decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic – and the advice that led to them – rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

Dr Gardner, who has a science background and worked in the pharmaceutical industry, said: “For me, the section on social care skipped over the surface. It mentions in the first paragraph that the arrangements to protect the elderly were of vast importance, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, but it does not go back to mention what were the measures to protect the elderly, what should have been done, and if they were not done, why not.”

She added: “Nothing was done for people in care homes. They were sitting ducks. The government has a legal duty to protect the most vulnerable. We have asked what steps were taken over the infamous protective ring around care homes, which was not there – we know it was not there.”

Dr Gardner, who represents Sidmouth Town on East Devon Council and is a member of the East Devon Alliance, has raised more than £130,000 with a public appeal to fund a legal challenge to the government, but the campaign is still £35,000 short of the total amount needed.

She said she was partly bringing the case in memory of her father, who was an assistant registrar and filled out thousands of death certificates. Dr Gardner said his own certificate is inaccurate as he was not tested for Covid, but it states his death was due to “probable” Covid-19, suspected to have been caught from a patient discharged from hospital to his care home in Oxfordshire.

Dr Gardner is bringing the judicial review alongside Fay Harris, whose father also died with Covid-19 in a care home. They argue certain key government policies and decisions led to a “shocking death toll” of more than 20,000 care home residents from Covid between March and June 2020. These include a policy of discharging around 25,000 patients from hospital into care homes – including the homes of the claimants’ fathers – without testing and proper isolation.

A judge has allowed the case to go forward to a full hearing which is due to take place over four days in the High Court, starting on Tuesday, October 19.

Dr Gardner said: “I would like the ministers involved to admit that they made mistakes, and that those mistakes cost lives. I am not interested in an apology, but I think the failure to apologise is disgusting. To me it is about admitting they were wrong. It is about the law, it is about, did you do what you were supposed to do?

“You had a legal duty to try and protect the elderly, just admit that you did not do it, and you should do better. Just have some humility about this, rather just waving the vaccine around like some shiny distraction.”

The claim to be heard in the High Court in London states that the Department for Health and Social Care, NHS England and Public Health England, “unlawfully failed to protect care home residents from the three principal routes of transmission of Covid: infection by other residents, by external visitors to care homes, and by care home staff.”

Dr Gardner said the claim sets out that the government failed to consider the health and wellbeing of care home residents when hospital patients were released without testing, or advice to care home staff on PPE or isolating new arrivals.

She said the government had so far refused to hand over key documents explaining why decisions were made.

Minister for the Cabinet Office Stephen Barclay defended the government’s handling of the pandemic. He told Sky News’ Kay Burley the Government “did take decisions to move quickly”, including on vaccines, and that both scientists and ministers were acting on information they had at the time.

However, he admitted he had “not had chance to read” the MPs’ report, which was circulated to the media under embargo on Monday morning and also sent to Government departments, including his own Cabinet Office.

Mr Barclay said: “It was an unprecedented pandemic, we were learning about it as we went through and of course, with hindsight, there’s things we know about it now that we didn’t know at the time.

“Of course there are going to be lessons to learn, that’s why we’ve committed to an inquiry, but the Government took decisions at the time based on the scientific advice it received, but those scientists themselves were operating in a very new environment where they themselves were learning about the pandemic.”

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Barclay was asked if the Government was too slow to go into the first lockdown – a key criticism in the MPs’ report. He said: “Well I think there is an issue there of hindsight, because at the time of the first lockdown the expectation was that the tolerance in terms of how long people would live with lockdown for was a far shorter period than actually has proven to be the case, and therefore there was an issue of timing the lockdown and ensuring that that was done at the point of optimal impact.

“And so it is a point of hindsight to now say that the way that decision was shaped and how long we could lock down for… because we now know that there was much more willingness for the country to endure that than was originally envisaged.”

Mr Barclay denied there had been groupthink on handling the pandemic, even though former health secretary and fellow Tory MP Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the Commons health committee, said there had been.

“No, I don’t accept that, and we followed the scientific advice throughout. We protected the NHS from the surge of pressure that we saw in other countries, such as Italy, and we can’t apply hindsight to the challenges that we faced,” Mr Barclay said.

Asked whether he agreed, however, that it was an “appalling error” not to introduce a second lockdown earlier, even though scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) recommended one six weeks before it was introduced, Mr Barclay said: “No I don’t, because I think there were difficult judgments to be made. We followed the scientific advice throughout, we took action to protect our NHS, we got a vaccine deployed in record time, but I don’t shy away from the fact that there will be lessons to learn.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, when Covid-19 emerged in China, MPs said the UK policy was to mistakenly take a “gradual and incremental approach” to interventions such as social distancing, isolation and lockdowns. They said this was “a deliberate policy” proposed by scientists and adopted by UK governments, which has now been shown to be “wrong” and led to a higher death toll.

The MPs concluded that the “decisions on lockdowns and social distancing during the early weeks of the pandemic – and the advice that led to them – rank as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”.

After hearing evidence from people including the Prime Minister’s former adviser, Dominic Cummings, and former health secretary Matt Hancock, the MPs said it was only in the days leading up to the March 23 lockdown that people within Government and advisers “experienced simultaneous epiphanies that the course the UK was following was wrong, possibly catastrophically so”.

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Mr Hunt, who was health secretary from 2012 to 2018, admitted he was part of the “groupthink” that focused too much on flu and failed to adequately plan for a pandemic such as Covid.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain the UK should have locked down earlier and “the Prime Minister is of course ultimately responsible, but some of the advice that he got was also wrong”.

Mr Hunt added: “There was a groupthink that the way you tackle a pandemic should be similar to a flu pandemic, I was part of that groupthink too when I was health secretary.”

Questioned on the impact of the Prime Minister’s personality early on in the pandemic, and whether Boris Johnson did not want to shut down the nation in case it was “unpopular”, Mr Hunt said that “every prime minister’s personality matters but in this particular case, on those particular decisions, he was following the scientific advice, and the question we have to ask is why across the whole of the system in those early months, everyone was advising the wrong approach?”

Mr Hunt also said that when images of the pandemic in Italy hit TV screens in the UK, the focus was on hospitals rather than other places such as care homes.

He added: “We say this was like a football match with two very different halves, and yes there were those very serious errors that… led to many tragedies.

“But in the second half of the match, we have the vaccine programme which was, we say, the most effective initiative in the history of British science and public administration, we had the discovery of treatments like dexamethasone in the UK which saved a million lives worldwide, we had that extraordinary response in the NHS which saw everyone who needed a ventilator and an intensive care bed, got one.”

Meanwhile, Tory MP Greg Clark, who chairs the Commons science committee, told BBC Breakfast that “other countries elsewhere in the world, particularly in East Asia” quickly mobilised testing capacity so they could test people in the community and isolate them, which “allowed them to get a grip of the pandemic earlier than we were able to do”.

He said increasing testing capacity in the UK was “painfully” slow, adding that if everyone coming out of hospital into a care home could have been tested “then undoubtedly we could have stopped the seeding of infections into care homes”.

In a joint statement on the publication of the Coronavirus: lessons learned to date Report, Mr Hunt and Mr Clark said: “The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.

“Our vaccine programme was boldly planned and effectively executed. Our test and trace programme took too long to become effective. The Government took seriously scientific advice but there should have been more challenge from all to the early UK consensus that delayed a more comprehensive lockdown when countries like South Korea showed a different approach was possible.

“In responding to an emergency, when much is unknown, it is impossible to get everything right. We record our gratitude to all those – NHS and care workers, scientists, officials in national and local government, workers in our public services and in private businesses and millions of volunteers – who responded to the challenge with dedication, compassion and hard work to help the whole nation at one of our darkest times.”