Ottery: Controversial 100-acre quarry plans near Ottery set to be approved

A controversial 100-acre quarry in Ottery St Mary is set to be approved this week at Devon County Council (DCC).

Joe Ives, Local Democracy Reporter

Officers have recommended approval for plans which would see up to 1.5 million tonnes of sand and gravel dug up at Straitgate Farm on Exeter Road over the course of 10 to 12 years. The materials would be transported 23 miles by road to Hillhead Quarry near Uffculme, Mid Devon for processing.

The plans, sent out for public consultation in 2017, have been a source of major controversy.

Some local residents are concerned about the impact of the new quarry on the local environment. There is also anger over the amount of CO2 that could be released to transport the materials.

DCC’s development management committee will meet this Wednesday (1 December) to make a decision.

Otter Valley councillor Jess Bailey (Independent) said she is “horrified” by the current recommendation for approval and is urging her colleagues to reject the application.

Hillhead Quarry, Uffculme. Credit: Devon County Council

Cllr Bailey said: “If the quarry proposal is approved, it will have a devastating impact on our community. As the ward member, I shall be strongly urging the planning committee to reject the officials’ recommendation and vote against the quarry.”

She argues that the quarry “flies in the face of the climate change emergency,” adding, “It is hard to believe that in this day and age we are still contemplating such a level of environmental destruction.”

Straitgate Action Group, a campaign group against the plans, says it will be protesting outside of County Hall ahead of the vote.

The application is being made by Aggregate Industries UK Ltd, a Leicestershire-based building material manufacturer and supplier.

The processing plant at Hillhead was built in 2018 with planning permission granted for processing material within its 91-hectare quarry area. Further planning permission is needed when bringing in material from elsewhere such as Straitgate Farm.

Councillor Jess Bailey stands on Birdcage lane, near the planned entrance to the new quarry. Credit: Jess Bailey

One of the proposed conditions for planning permission is to widen Clay Lane near Hillhead Quarry to allow two-way traffic. If given the go-ahead the operation will lead to up to 86 loads of gravel and sand being transported between the sites each day.

Hillhead Quarry is open between 6am and 10pm on weekdays and 6am to 6pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Sundays and bank holidays. The same hours would be maintained if the new planning application is approved.

The decision is going to DCC as it is the ‘mineral planning authority’ for the area. A mineral planning authority can be an upper-tier council, a unitary authority, or a national park authority.

If granted planning permission Aggregate Industries will have three years to start the operation.

Special education overspend rises

A further £36 million expected to be added to the debt

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter

Leading Devon councillors are urging the government to clarify funding for special education after the county’s overspend on the service was projected to rise to £85 million.

Councils have been told to put overspends for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) into separate accounts for three years until April 2023. It means the shortfall doesn’t currently count towards Devon’s main revenue figures.

The county council entered this financial year with a total overspend of £49 million in its ring-fenced SEND account. It expects to add a further £36 million to the debt in 2021/22, according to the latest budget report.

But it is still not known what wiill happen to the debt when the arrangement ends. At a meeting of the council’s ruling cabinet this week, councillors from all sides expressed concern at the situation.

Opposition leader Councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon) said it was “real money that the county council’s spent,” while leader of the Labour group Councillor Rob Hannaford (Exwick & St Thomas) called it a “huge concern” and demanded action.

“There still is a concern, despite all the work that’s going on within children’s services and the treasury, that at some point already overstretched budgets might see resources sucked in to fill that black hole if we’re not careful,” Cllr Hannaford said.

“That’s definitely not what we need. We want more money for schools, more money for children’s services and this debt paid off. I know it’s a big ask but that’s what we’ve got to ask for and I hope that’s actually what we’re going to get.”

In response, cabinet member for children’s services Councillor Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Weirside & Topsham) told them: “We have to address this money that’s been put to one side at some point, and that is very much at the top of my agenda.”

He recently spoke to officials from the Department for Education about the matter and invited the under secretary of state to visit.

“We’re going to lobby. I’m going to lobby Devon MPs for their support. I’m already lobbying the government that they have to help us out with that.

“They told us to put it to one side. I think it would be unfair if they then expected us to deal with the whole issue ourselves, so there’s an awful lot of work going on … top of the agenda is to work out how to deal with this deficit.”

Presenting the budget figures to the cabinet, Councillor Phil Twiss (Conservative, Feniton & Honiton) said this year’s projected overspend on SEND of £36 million had increased by almost £3 million from the last update in September, due mainly to increasing demand in new requests for education and health care plans (EHCPs).

The plans set out the needs of a child or young person for whom extra support is needed, beyond that which the school can provide. As a result of the extra demand, the budget report said it has “had a significant impact on the ability … to reduce the demand for EHCPs by supporting children within mainstream [schools].”

According to the report, education officers have developed a “shared management plan which seeks to ensure children with special educational needs receive the support they need, whilst also addressing the [overspend].”

But it warned: “Through this process and [the Department of Education’s] feedback, we have all recognised that the original financial assumptions underlying the savings identified were ambitious. These assumptions are therefore being reviewed.”

The updated projections come after the county council’s deputy leader wrote to the government last month to ask for more money for Devon’s schools and  SEND services.

In his letter, Councillor James McInnes (Conservative, Hatherleigh & Chagford) said about the SEND issue: “This continues to be a major concern. The number of children with special educational needs, and their complexity of need, continues to grow, with demand far outstripping budgets.

“While we appreciate the increase in SEND funding during the last two or three years, significant additional funding is required for both mainstream and special schools. We urge the government to publish the long-overdue SEND review and to overhaul the SEND system to ensure it is fit for purpose.”

Reacting to the letter, Cllr Connett said the SEND funding is a “national scandal” adding “In effect, this is the county council’s credit card being bent backwards to maintain really important services for the most vulnerable children with special needs.”

Pensioner defeats plans to build 4,000 new homes after using map reading skills to find ‘errors’

“On one of the maps, they showed that water was running up-hill.” 

A retired army Major pensioner has defeated plans for 4,000 new homes on his doorstep after raising £30,000 from residents for High Court battle.

Former paratrooper Tom Lynch, 83, used his map reading skills to find errors in the plans to build on 550 acres of countryside and fertile farmland outside his home in Kent.

Planning permission for the controversial Mountfield Park scheme, Canterbury’s biggest housing development project, has now been revoked following a high court ruling.

Construction for the so-called ‘garden city’ was scheduled to begin soon and would have been completed within the next 15-years.

But the project has faced fierce opposition from residents since it was first presented in December 2016.

Now, developers Corinthian are back to square one after Canterbury City Council U-turned on their decision to green light the project, and all thank to Mr Lynch.

The former paratrooper and army major says he found a number of obvious errors in the construction plans after reviewing hundreds of documents with his friends.

Mr Lynch said: “In 2016, a plan to build 4,000 houses was proposed at the local school hall.

“It was quite obvious from the reaction of the local residents that it was not acceptable.

“I stood up and said from the mood in the room, there must be a plan-B, but they said there wasn’t.

“He said, don’t worry Mr Lynch it won’t happen in my time, which I just thought was just outrageous.

“That wasn’t the point. The point was I wanted my children and grandchildren to enjoy walking around the area.”

Mr Lynch, who started looking into legal action years ago, is planning on paying people back once the council has reimbursed the fees.

He said: “They presented a plan-B two years ago just before Christmas, thinking nobody would be turning up.

“But I’ve always been a fighter and one just thought, wait a minute what’s going down here?

“I’d already had a look at their plans with my friends – well over 700 documents.

“Being an ex-military man, I scrutinised their maps and found a number of errors.

“On one of the maps, they showed that water was running up-hill.

Legal battle

“We formed a committee and managed to raise £30,000 to fight our legal battle.

“At the end of course, at the High Court the judge said the council had erred in law.

“The council agreed to withdraw the plan to avoid embarrassment and a lot of extra costs.”

The original planning permission for the scheme lapsed last year due to continual delays, so the proposals had to be brought back before councillors

It was again voted through last December, with Corinthian planning on building around 300 properties every 12 months, starting from this year.

But the company has not thrown in the towel quite yet.

A spokesman for the firm said: “Elected councillors have now voted twice for affordable, sustainable and beautiful new homes in Canterbury, and it is disappointing to see those much-needed homes delayed again.

“The application will be considered by committee for a third time in the next few months.

“In the meantime we will continue to work closely with residents and with Canterbury City Council, who are determined to see sustainable, affordable homes built for local people in east Kent.

“This development is vital for Canterbury’s future – vital for the people of Canterbury, vital for the historic city centre, and vital for the sustainable future of the city.

New roads

“We are more determined than ever to create a beautiful and sustainable community, and are confident that we will be able to get going with making this wonderful new place in the new year.”

Shops, office space, sports pitches and two primary schools were to be built alongside the scheme’s 4,000 proposed new homes, 30 per cent of which going to be affordable.

A system of new roads had also been drawn up, along with a 1,000-space park and ride scheme and a new junction off the A2.

The city council has issued a brief statement, confirming the plans will again be brought back before councillors.

Spokesman Rob Davies said: “Following recent legal action, the planning application for the South Canterbury urban extension will be considered afresh by our planning committee.

“We expect this to be early next year.”

Three people evicted from women’s loo, Seaton

Three rough sleeper’s have been evicted from a women’s public toilet in Seaton.

Anita Merritt

East Devon District Council has confirmed an eviction notice was put on the outside door of the public toilet in West Walk after three ‘heavy drinkers’ were reported to have been causing a disturbance and people were being prevented from being able to use the toilet.

The council said help was offered to three individuals but they did not want to take up the offer of support.

The notice states: “The land is in private ownership and persons in unauthorised occupation of it are advised that they are required to vacate the land by Tuesday, November 2, at 9.30am.

“Failing this, legal proceedings will be taken to gain possession and a certified bailiff will be instructed to remove all vehicles, unauthorised personal belongings and persons from the land.

“These will be stored and kept for seven days from the date of the notice.”

The notice, signed on November 1, also offered a contact number for housing support.

A spokesperson for East Devon District Council said: “The eviction notice is from last month. Housing engaged with the rough sleepers on a few occasions to offer assistance, but they refused to engage.

“It was a group of three heavy drinkers, who were causing a disturbance to members of the public, and blocking access to the toilet.

“We instructed Devon Investigations to evict them after carrying out all of the appropriate welfare checks. The sign will be removed as soon as possible to avoid any further confusion.”

Proposal to overhaul Westminster standards includes extending Nolan principles to eight

[But Boris Johnson is said to be “uncomfortable” with numbers. – Owl]

Alexandra Rogers

MPs could be investigated if they launch “excessive” personal attacks as part of a recommended package of reforms to overhaul standards in Westminster.

The Committee on Standards, which looks into the behaviour of MPs and ministers, has suggested adding a new rule to the code of conduct which would ban members from attacking others in any medium.

The rules around ministers’ gifts and hospitality could also be tightened under the proposed reforms to standards, which have garnered interest in the wake of the Owen Paterson lobbying row.

Under the proposed draft new rules, which are out for consultation, a loophole which allows ministers to not declare on the Commons register gifts and hospitality what they receive in a ministerial capacity would be ended — a move that would force Boris Johnson to declare a recent holiday he enjoyed in Spain.

Under the current rules, the prime minister was not forced to declare the cost of his stay at the luxury Spanish villa of personal friend Lord Goldsmith, because it was logged under the minister’s register of interests rather than the Commons register for MPs.

Meanwhile, the standards committee has also proposed extending the seven principles of public life to include an eighth principle of respect, whereby MPs must “abide by the parliamentary behaviour code and demonstrate anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”.

The debate around MPs’ standards was ignited in the wake of the Paterson scandal, in which the former Cabinet minister was found guilty by the standards committee of an “egregious” breach of parliamentary rules by lobbying ministers on behalf of two firms that were paying him more than £100,000 between them.

The government initially tried to put the committee’s recommended 30-day suspension of Paterson on hold on the grounds it believed that parts of the process that found him guilty was unfair.

However, it then abandoned its support for Paterson, triggering his resignation as an MP.

Paterson’s actions led to heightened scrutiny around MPs’ work outside parliament and calls to tighten the rules around second jobs.

The committee said there should be an outright ban on MPs providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy services.

It also recommended a new requirement that an MP must have a written contract for any outside work which makes clear that their duties cannot include lobbying ministers, members or public officials, or providing advice about how to lobby or influence parliament.

Following the report’s publication, Chris Bryant, chair of the standards committee, said: “The past few weeks have seen a number of issues raised about MP’s standards, but the key overarching issue here is about conflict of interest.

“The evidence-based report published by my committee sets out a package of reforms to bolster the rules around lobbying and conflicts of interest.

“These aren’t the final proposals we’re putting to the House. This report is the committee’s informed view on what changes we need to tighten up the rules and crack down on conflicts of interests following a detailed evidence-led inquiry.”

He added: “We will consult and hear wider views on what we’ve published today before putting a final report to the House for a decision in the New Year. If approved, these robust proposals will empower the standards system in parliament to better hold MPs who break the rules to account.”

Earlier in the day Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner proposed her own overhaul of the standards system regulating MPs, and argued that ministers should be banned from work relating to their past job for five years after leaving government.

She also said Labour would set up an “independent integrity and ethics commission” that could launch investigations into ministers’ conduct without the permission of the prime minister, as is the case currently.

Ministers ‘dragging feet’ over leasehold house ban, 2017 promise unfulfilled

Mustn’t upset the developer lobby by hasty action, must we? – Owl

Melissa York

The government has been accused of dragging its feet over a ban on “outrageous” new leasehold houses as its reforms to property ownership are set to be debated by MPs.

A long-awaited bill to effectively restrict ground rents to zero on new leasehold properties arrives in the Commons for its second reading today.

This would protect future homeowners from having to pay exorbitant ground rents that double every 10 to 15 years, a practice that the Competition and Markets Authority has clamped down on in the past two years.

Whitehall has promised to outlaw new leasehold houses since 2017 but the pledge does not appear in the new bill.

Lucy Powell, the shadow housing secretary, said: “There is no justification for a house to be sold as leasehold.

“It is an outrageous practice that allows developers to scam homeowners out of thousands of pounds a month.

“Half a million people have already been trapped in leasehold houses under the Tories’ watch, yet they have chosen not to use this bill to fix this obvious injustice.” Leasehold house owners have also complained of being charged extortionate estate management fees, which has led to the nickname “fleecehold” for these types of properties.

Of the 480,567 leasehold houses that have been sold in the last ten years, 287,434 of them were situated in the northwest of England.

Tracy Whittle, 60, bought a four-bedroom detached leasehold house in Northwich, Cheshire, in May 2016.

The housebuilder David Wilson Homes told her she could buy the freehold of the property for £5,500.

A few months after the sale Whittle tried to buy it, but her solicitor told her that the freehold had been sold to Aviva Investors and it now cost £11,000, and she would have to pay their legal fees.

Whittle pays £250 a year in ground rent and £150 in estate management fees. Her lease only allows her to have certain pets and forbids roof aerials.

The Department of Levelling Up Housing and Communities said: “We remain committed to banning the sale of new leasehold houses. We will set out further . . . reforms in due course.”

Crackdown on second home owners exploiting tax loophole on coast

Conservative dominated (38% of seats) East Suffolk Council, tired of waiting for promised government action, have agreed to take immediate measures against second home owners exploiting loopholes.

Will “Team Devon” be following their lead, or is it just a “talking shop”? – Owl

Jason Noble Local Democracy Reporter 

Free council services including waste collections may be taken away from second home owners exploiting a loophole to escape paying council tax or business rates.

A legislation loophole currently exists where people who own a second home register as a holiday let business to avoid paying council tax, but then make no efforts to let the home.

As businesses with a rateable value of less than £12,000 get a business rates relief of 100pc, it means the homeowner effectively gets away with paying neither council tax or business rates.

The problem has been a key one in east Suffolk’s coastal hotspots, including Southwold, exacerbated by people travelling from London to their second homes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the Government said it is aware of the loophole and is working to close it down, East Suffolk Council on Wednesday night unanimously agreed a motion for immediate measures.

That motion will mean any home registered as a business will be required to pay commercial waste collection and not be allowed free household bin collections, as well as barred from using resident parking spaces and household waste recycling centres.

Conservative council leader Steve Gallant, who bolstered a motion by Southwold’s Liberal Democrat ward member David Beavan, said: “I am aware of the behaviour of some individuals who seek to use a loophole in the current legislation to line their own pockets with scant regard for the effect this has on both our council and our residents.

“Those that choose to opt out of council tax should not avail themselves of the services that we as a council provide to our council taxpayers.

“If an individual home is registered as a business then it should be treated as a business, for instance if they want waste collection then they should be paying a commercial rate – they are a business.”

Other areas which could be used to clampdown on those seeking to subvert the system could be food standards visits or fire inspections.

Cllr Beavan, who has long campaigned for progress, highlighted one example where a London resident regularly travelled to Southwold during Covid, where he has a home registered as a holiday let that had no customers last summer.

Cllr Beavan said: “If he wants to escape rates, he should register with HMRC as a furnished holiday let and show evidence of actually letting.

“This is not a party political matter, it is about decency and fairness.

The loophole reflects badly on all second homers and divides our communities.

“This is going to be hard enough winter for local people, many of whom can’t afford one home, without having to subsidise these fraudsters with two homes.”

A neighbourhood plan being drawn up in Southwold and Reydon includes provision to ensure that all new homes are for principal residents only, meaning new homes will not be allowed to be used as second homes.

Missing Colyton woman found ‘safe’ by police

A 22-year-old woman who was reported missing has been found “safe” by police.

Sam Beamish 

Devon and Cornwall Police have announced that Hannah Widger has been found after concern was raised for her welfare.

She had last been seen in the Colyton area at around 6pm on Thursday, November 25.

Today (Monday, November 29) a spokesman for Devon and Cornwall Police revealed that Hannah has been found ‘safe’.

He said: “Hannah Widger, 22, who had been reported missing from the Colyton area today (November 29), has been found safe by police.

“We would like to thank members of the public for their help.”

Urgent appeal to find woman last seen four days ago: from Colyton

A young woman has been reported missing from the Colyton area of Devon.

Clare Busch

Devon and Cornwall Police said they are “increasingly concerned” for Hannah Widger’s welfare.

The 22-year-old was last seen in the Colyton area around 6pm on Thursday, November 25.

The police describe Hannah as “being white, of slim build, with long blonde hair and is 5ft 4ins tall.”

Hannah may be wearing blue jeans, a black coat and black and white Adidas trainers.

She may be driving a white Vauxhall Corsa with the registration number CX09YLR.

Hannah Widger, 22, was last seen in the Colyton area

Hannah Widger, 22, was last seen in the Colyton area (Image: Devon and Cornwall Police)

Police ask that anyone who has seen Hannah or knows of her whereabouts contact officers immediately on 999. The log number is 0192 of 29/11/21.

BREAKING : Masks to be worn in two places Tory MPs don’t go from 4pm Tuesday 

“This is because the crafty little virus really only targets places where poor people go,” newly promoted Tory Minister for Infections, Basil Toilet-Brush MP told LCD Views 

PICK ANY VARIANT YOU LIKE : GREAT NEWS TODAY FOR WORRIED BRITONS that the geniuses governing them will not see any appreciable impact on their own lifestyles by the changes to the rules in the tantric pandemic.

Designing the rules around the lifestyles of Tory MPs and donors has been a key plank of pandemic policy, especially when it comes to the time to discard the rules. Now from 4pm Tuesday masks will have to be worn on public transport and in the supermarket, but not anywhere fun, so that’s alright.

“This is because the crafty little virus really only targets places where poor people go,” newly promoted Tory Minister for Infections, Basil Toilet-Brush MP told LCD Views. “You know, those little crowded cans they shuffle back and forward in to the mill. Or to mill as a low value economic unit may say. Also to market. But fine dining, the pub and the sweaty private rooms of private members clubs will be immune from the inconveniences.”

The decision to give the new variant several days grace before the change in the rules has also been seen as displaying the PM’s sense of “sportsmanship” and “fair play”.

“There’s no suggestion we will need until late Tuesday to pick donors to throw lucrative contracts at,” the minister reassured.

Fears about non-compliance with the new rules have been eased too, especially in the knowledge that Tory MPs are incapable of adhering to basic rules which safeguard other people.

“There are two places Tory MPs simply do not go,” Toilet-Brush MP stated. “That’s the supermarket and on public transport. So there is no need to fear any of us being fined for non-compliance. We will be in full compliance with the law. The drones who serve us will have to fight for themselves in Tesco. Or on the tube. But that’s fine by us because we don’t care. Now. Another glass of pandemic? It’s a very good vintage this year.”

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 15 November

English social care “rapidly deteriorating”

Social care services across England are “rapidly deteriorating”, with waiting lists soaring and councils struggling with care home closures, social services chiefs have warned.

Robert Booth

Long-term waiting lists have almost quadrupled and 1.5m hours of necessary home care were not delivered in the three months to November, amid a deepening staffing crisis going into winter.

“Red lights are flashing right across our dashboard,” said Stephen Chandler, president of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass), which ran a survey of 85 councils. “Older and disabled people are suffering.”

Half of councils have had to respond to a care home closure or bankruptcy in the last six months.

The bleak assessment comes ahead of the government’s social care white paper, scheduled for Tuesday, which is expected to propose a new strategy for pay and career development for care staff amid an exodus of workers, who currently earn on average just over £9 an hour, to higher-paying employers including Amazon.

Downing Street is under growing pressure to deliver on Boris Johnson’s promise in 2019 that he would “fix the crisis in social care once and for all”. Last week details of a plan to cap care costs at £86,000 sparked a Tory backbench rebellion when it emerged that England’s least wealthy people would still face the sale of their homes to pay for care, while richer people would get to keep a greater share of their wealth.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, promised council leaders last week the imminent reforms would mean everyone had the choice and control to live independent lives, everyone could access outstanding personal care, and that adult care and support would be there for everyone who needed it. But the government has so far only pledged £1.8bn a year in additional money for social care after the Covid pandemic exposed its fragility. MPs and care experts believes the sector needs an extra £10bn a year.

Adass’s snapshot survey covering the period from August to October suggests close to 400,000 people are now waiting for an assessment for their needs. The number waiting for six months or more has surged from 11,000 reported in September to over 40,000 now.

“This survey confirms our worst fears,” said Chandler. “The government must now acknowledge the scale of the crisis and step in with emergency funding and measures to ensure we can get through the winter ahead.” It is calling for urgent £1,000 bonus payments to retain exhausted care workers. £500 payments have already been made the devolved health and care authorities in Scotland and Wales.

There are well over 100,000 vacancies in England’s social care workforce, and tens of thousands of staff who declined to be double-vaccinated can no longer work under legislation making jabs a condition of employment. Not-for-profit care home chain MHA, which lost 150 staff to the vaccine mandate, is among operators to close some of its homes to new admissions because of staff shortages, which in turn blocks up the NHS discharge system.

A survey of care workers by the trade union Unison also found that staff shortages meant people were “dying without dignity” and in some cases there were not enough staff to sit with people in their final hours. A third of those surveyed said staffing levels were “dangerously low”.

Javid told council leaders last week that when the social care white paper is published, “people will see how serious we are about the workforce”, and he said “as the NHS was born out of the second world war”, the government wants to “make a change that lasts for generations”. He said he had been concerned to see a young care worker on a BBC TV documentary, fronted by Ed Balls, say he was planning to become a paramedic or nurse because of the lack of career paths in care.

A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to delivering world-leading social care. That’s why we are investing an additional £5.4bn over three years, which will allow us to build our comprehensive adult social care reform programme. Care homes and home care providers are already benefiting from the new £162.5m workforce retention and recruitment fund to assist local authorities and care providers in working together to ease workforce pressures in a variety of ways.”

Labour proposes watchdog for ministers’ ethics to stop ‘revolving door’

“If you break the rules there should be clear consequences. Our democracy cannot hinge on gentleman’s agreements; it needs independent and robust protection from Conservative corruption.”

Peter Walker 

Ministers would be barred from lobbying or other paid work connected to their government roles for five years after they leave office under a Labour plan to set up a new, independent watchdog for potential conflicts of interest.

The proposals, being set out by the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, in a speech on Monday, would establish a new organisation to enforce such rules that could also sanction ministers who breached wider regulations.

The planned integrity and ethics commission would replace several elements of the existing system, and would also have more powers, for example the ability to independently open investigations into suspected breaches of the ministerial code, the official rulebook for ministers.

It would replace the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which decides on rules for ministers taking new jobs. However, Acoba cannot impose punishments, which are up to ministers.

Last week the Cabinet Office said it was taking no action against Philip Hammond, the Conservative former chancellor, who is now a peer, despite him being reprimanded by Acoba for using his government connections to help a bank he is paid to advise.

The new commission would also replace the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, a role currently occupied by the crossbench peer Christopher Geidt. He can only open investigations into suspected ministerial wrongdoing with the permission of Downing Street.

The adviser also has no power to mandate punishment for breaches of the ministerial code. In November last year, Geidt’s predecessor in the job Sir Alex Allan resigned after Boris Johnson declined to sack Priti Patel despite a formal investigation finding evidence that she bullied civil servants, a breach of the ministerial code.

Labour’s proposed new body could set binding sanctions, and former ministers would be obliged to apply to the commission before taking paid roles after they left office. It could also recommend changes to the ministerial code.

The body would also enforce rules banning former ministers from lobbying, consultancy or any other paid work linked to their former role for at least five years, ending what Labour termed “the revolving door” between government jobs and the private sector.

The plan is part of a wider Labour push on ethical issues following controversy about lobbying by former ministers and serving MPs, prompted by Johnson’s abortive attempt to stop the Tory backbencher Owen Paterson from being punished for breaking lobbying rules by rewriting the entire MPs’ disciplinary code.

Labour has already said that in office it would ban all second jobs for MPs, aside from limited exemptions for people such as medical staff or military and police reservists, and introduce stricter political funding rules, including on donations from opaque shell companies.

In her speech, Rayner will say: “The current system does not work and it has failed.

“It only works where there is respect for the rules and there are consequences for breaking them.

“If you break the rules there should be clear consequences. Our democracy cannot hinge on gentleman’s agreements; it needs independent and robust protection from Conservative corruption.

“Labour’s independent integrity and ethics commission will stamp out Conservative corruption and restore trust in public office.”

Opposition cooperation in a minority of seats (154) can remove Tories from power

New constituency-level analysis of polling across England reveals cooperation between opposition parties in a minority of English constituencies would be enough to remove the Conservatives from government at the next election.

The data shows that fielding unity candidates between Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens in 154 battleground constituencies in England would relegate the Conservatives to just 254 of 533 seats in England, making it impossible for them to form a government, and leaving them 40 seats short of a majority even if they were to hold their 20 Scottish and Welsh seats and gain the support of the DUP’s 8 MPs.

(Chart 1: Change in seat share in England between the 2019 UK General Election and our MRP analysis prediction for an election in which Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Greens work together)

Senior Conservatives at risk from alliance

The move would also result in high profile electoral casualties for the Conservative party. In this scenario Jacob Rees Mogg would see a dramatic reversal of fortune in North East Somerset, losing by 2 percentage points compared to his previous 26-point margin of victory, Iain Duncan Smith would lose Chingford and Woodgreen by 3 points after winning it by just 2 percentage points at the last election, and Dominic Raab’s 4-point victory in Esher and Walton is transformed into a 4-point defeat. A unity candidate would also make for a close race in the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip where his lead narrows to just 3 points compared to 15 in the last election.

Chance for fairer system

The Labour Party would only need to step back in 26 seats where the Liberal Democrats have greater support. Regardless of whether or not the Liberal Democrats withdraw, there are 15 seats where the Green Party standing aside flips the seat from a projected Conservative win to a Labour win, including Tony Blair’s former seat of Sedgefield. Whether or not they can be persuaded to do this will depend on Labour’s willingness to deliver a fairer voting system in government.

The polling also dispels claims that Lib Dem voters are as likely to back the Tories if they are left with a choice between Labour and the Conservatives. The data shows less than 20% of Lib Dem voters would back the Conservatives in the average English constituency with 40% going to Labour. Similarly, Labour voters are overwhelmingly likely to back Lib Dem or Green candidates where the choice is between them and the Tories.

Naomi Smith, Chief Executive of Best for Britain a campaign group for the election of a more internationalist government said:

“In 2017 and 2019, parties on the right chose not to fight each other in key marginals, and will likely to do so again. This polling shows that opposition parties must do the same as non-aggression pacts only won’t cut it and there is no other route to power.

“Refusal by Labour and the Lib Dem leadership to cooperate, form government, and deliver change is failing the people and communities these parties seek to represent.

“In 1997, Labour’s NEC and the Lib Dem higher-ups, chose not to stand against the anti-sleaze candidate Martin Bell who beat the Conservative MP embroiled in scandal. Sleaze and corruption are back with a vengeance and opposition party cooperation should be too.

“As the saying goes, you can’t fatten a calf on market day and work to coordinate this strategy needs to begin now.”

Previous polling from Best for Britain, published in May 2021 shows that around 63% of people want like-minded parties to work together at election-time, rising to 70% support among Labour voters.

Such cooperation would only be necessary for one election if a new government introduced voting reform for future general elections because first past the post structurally favours the Conservatives.

The poll

This constituency-level analysis is based on a Number Cruncher Politics online poll of 12,816 UK adults, fieldwork 2nd to 17th August 2021 and further multilevel regression and post stratification (MRP) analysis by Focaldata for Best for Britain Ltd. With further analysis by Best for Britain. The work is based on current constituency boundaries because the new boundaries have not yet been published.

Constituency results mentioned above can be viewed as a data tables here.

All parts of Devon above covid average

Up for second week running

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter

Covid infection rates across Devon have risen for the second week in a row, with all but one council area in the county reporting an increase in cases.

Figures for the week to Sunday, 21 November show 7,809 new infections across Devon, 13 per cent (923) more than in the previous week.

Levels are extremely high in parts of the county and every district has a higher infection rate than the UK average. The average infection rate across Devon is now 626 per 100,000 of the population. In comparison, the national average sits at 437.

The north of the county continues to see its already high case numbers grow. Last week cases in Torridge more than doubled to the highest infection rate in England. Numbers have risen again. In the last complete seven-day period, the district recorded 717 new cases, 112 (18.5 per cent) more than in last previous week. Torridge now has an infection rate of 1,043 per 100,000 of the population – almost two and a half times higher than the UK average.

It’s a similar story in North Devon which recorded 847 new cases, 138 (19.5%) more than in the previous week. The district now has an infection rate of 863 per 100,000.

The only council area with a decrease in cases was West Devon, which recorded 272 new infections, down 10 (3.5 per cent) on the previous week. West Devon now has an infection rate of 485 per 100,000.

Overall, the Devon County Council area, which excludes Plymouth and Torbay, saw 5,406 new infections, 610 (13 per cent) more than the previous week. The infection rate across its seven districts is now 667 per 100,000 of the population.

Cases rose significantly in Plymouth too. The city had 1,561 new infections, 272 (20 per cent) more than in the previous week – and an infection rate now at 594 per 100,000.

Torbay’s infections rose by four per cent, recording 842 new cases, 32 more than in the previous week. The rise takes the infection rate in the Bay to 618 per 100,000 of the population. 

Speaking this week, Steve Brown, director of public health for Devon County Council, said part of the rise in cases was because the county had a lower “natural immunity” compared to other areas which experienced higher levels of infection earlier on in the pandemic.

He added: “We are also seeing cases really being driven by primary and secondary-aged children.

“We are not seeing those cases in those older more vulnerable people who might end up in hospital.

“I wouldn’t want to worry people but our rates are much higher than last year but with the vaccination programme we are not seeing the same impact which is the important measure to look at.”

Mr Brown also said that more people were getting tested in Devon compared to many other parts of the country, leading to more cases being identified. 


As reported on Tuesday, the NHS in Devon has 168 patients in hospital with covid, up from 111 in early November.

It has not specified the numbers in each hospital. However available figures to Tuesday 16 November show that 40 per cent were in Plymouth, 34 per cent at Exeter, 15 per cent in Torbay and just over a tenth in North Devon.


Deaths have increased, with one more recorded than in the previous week.

Nineteen people died within 28 days of receiving a positive covid test across Devon in the most recent complete seven-day period (to Sunday, 21 November).

Thirteen people died in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Plymouth and Torbay. Meanwhile, four deaths were recorded in Plymouth. A further two deaths occurred in Torbay.

Across Devon, a total of 1,342 people have now died within 28 days of a positive covid test.


Eighty-seven per cent of people aged 12 and above have had their first dose of a vaccine in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Plymouth and Torbay, with 80 per cent receiving both doses.

In Plymouth, 83 per cent have had one dose, while 76 per cent have had both.

In Torbay, 85 per cent have received one dose, while 78 per cent have had both jabs.

This means that vaccination rates in Devon remain slightly behind the rest of the UK. Across the country, 89 per cent of people aged 12 and over have had one dose, while 80 per cent have had both jabs.

Distribution of infection across age groups: from the Devon Covid dashboard

Rules don’t apply to Tories # 3

Boris Johnson has said that anyone “prioritising outside interests” and neglecting their constituents should face investigation.

Geoffrey Cox again found working as lawyer while parliament sits

Rowena Mason 

Geoffrey Cox has again appeared as a lawyer for the British Virgin Islands (BVI) inquiry while parliament is sitting, calling into question whether he is meeting the prime minister’s demands for MPs to put their duty to their constituents first.

Cox, who has earned about £1m from legal work over the last year, joined the BVI commission of inquiry into allegations of corruption for two hours while the House of Commons was sitting on Wednesday afternoon.

Angela Rayner, the Labour deputy leader, said Cox was “taking the mick” and called it a “test of leadership” for the prime minister. “The prime minister is letting him get away with it,” she added.

Cox has come under scrutiny over his outside earnings since it emerged that he had been voting by proxy in parliament from the BVI during the pandemic. It subsequently became clear he had skipped at least 12 votes on days when he was doing paid legal work, after the proxy voting allowances ended.

Since then, Boris Johnson has backed the idea of banning MPs from working as paid parliamentary consultants or advisers and said that anyone “prioritising outside interests” and neglecting their constituents should face investigation.

However, it is not clear exactly how many MPs and their second jobs this could cover. A Guardian analysis found it would be likely to affect fewer than 10 of those with outside interests if the limit were set at 20 hours a week as suggested by the cabinet minister Ann-Marie Trevelyan.

Cox’s average time spent on legal work is only slightly more than that amount, raising the prospect that he could just reduce his hours by a bit.

Cox has been approached for comment. He previously defended his outside interests by arguing that “it is up to the electors of Torridge and West Devon whether or not they vote for someone who is a senior and distinguished professional in his field and who still practises that profession”.

He was asked to advise the BVI government and has described his role at the hearings as being “to assist the public inquiry in getting to the truth”.

The most recent update to the MPs’ register of interests shows that Cox earned £54,404.49 in August for approximately 45 hours of legal work. His salary as an MP is £81,932 a year.

The Commons standards committee is conducting a review of the MPs’ code of conduct rules, including the rules around outside work, and is due to publish a report on the issue on Monday, according to its chair, Chris Bryant.

Rules don’t apply to Tories # 2

Labour has accused the government of not being serious about tackling sleaze after ministers declined to punish or reprimand the Conservative former chancellor Philip Hammond for using his government connections to help a bank he is paid to advise.

Letting Hammond off shows PM won’t tackle corruption, says Labour

Peter Walker

Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said the government had “muzzled its own watchdog” after it emerged that no action would be taken against Hammond despite an official ruling that his actions had not been “in keeping with the letter or the spirit” of rules for ex-ministers.

In August, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which looks at jobs taken by former ministers, said it was an “unwise step” for Hammond to contact a senior Treasury official about a project developed by OakNorth.

Hammond argued he emailed Charles Roxburgh, the second permanent secretary at the Treasury (HMT), to establish that senior officials in the department were aware the bank was offering free support to aid the Covid pandemic national response.

The chair of Acoba, Eric Pickles – who like Hammond is a former Tory MP and now a peer – ruled that Hammond should not have sought to use contacts made in government.

“I do not consider it was in keeping with the letter or the spirit of the government’s rules for the former chancellor to contact HMT on behalf of a bank which pays for his advice,” Pickles wrote to Michael Gove, who at the time was the lead Cabinet Office minister.

Pickles said it would be up to Gove, who has since moved to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to decide what sanctions would be appropriate in the case.

After Pickles’ letter to Gove on 31 August there was no update until Rayner submitted a written parliamentary question to the Cabinet Office this week, asking whether any action was being taken.

The reply, from Michael Ellis, who as paymaster general holds a more junior Cabinet Office title, told Rayner that “although we concur with the committee’s conclusion, we do not believe further sanctions should be taken given the particular circumstances of this case”.

In a letter to Pickles yet another Cabinet Office minister, Tory peer Nicholas True, argued that Hammond had stated he was not seeking to lobby for commercial gain, and that there was also the “broader context” of the Covid pandemic.

But Rayner said the response was “just the latest evidence that Boris Johnson will not tackle the corruption that has engulfed his government and the Conservative party”.

She said: “By letting Hammond off the hook, the government has muzzled its own watchdog. Even when their own hand-picked anti-corruption tsar, a former Tory cabinet minister, asks them to take action over a flagrant breach of the rules they have outright refused.”

Rules don’t apply to Tories # 1

Labour is calling for an investigation into the conduct and honesty of the Conservative peer Michelle Mone after she repeatedly denied any association with a PPE (personal protective equipment) company it has since emerged she recommended to the government.

Labour calls for inquiry into Tory peer Michelle Mone over PPE contract

David Conn 

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) recently revealed that Lady Mone referred the company, PPE Medpro Ltd, as a potential supplier during the coronavirus pandemic. It was then entered into a “VIP” fast-track, high priority lane for firms with political connections before being awarded two contracts, for face masks and surgical gowns, valued in total at £203m.

Formed on 12 May last year, PPE Medpro was administered and provided with directors by Knox House Trust (KHT), an Isle of Man corporate services firm run by Mone’s husband, Douglas Barrowman.

In extensive correspondence over six weeks last year, the Guardian repeatedly asked Mone about her connection to PPE Medpro. She was also asked whether she had had any discussions with government officials about the firm.

Meanwhile, PPE Medpro was asked if anybody involved in the company had discussions with any peers as part of its approach to the government.

In their responses, neither Mone nor PPE Medpro disclosed that she had referred the company to Lord Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister.

At the time of the correspondence, Mone’s lawyers repeatedly denied that she had any connection or association with the company, or any role in how it secured the contracts.

One of the responses stated Mone and Barrowman “never had any role or function in PPE Medpro, nor in the process by which contracts were awarded to PPE Medpro”. Her lawyers said Mone was “not connected in any way with PPE Medpro” and added “any suggestion of an association” between their client and PPE Medpro would be “both inaccurate and misleading”.

The lawyers also said that “with reference to the ‘high priority lane’ … any suggestion that either [Mone or Barrowman] played any role in how the PPE Medpro contract was processed would be wholly inaccurate and misleading”.

However, last week the DHSC disclosed that Mone had played a seemingly crucial role in the process, by making the initial recommendation to Agnew.

After her referral, Agnew recommended the company to the “VIP” lane for companies referred by ministers, MPs or peers. At that time, the government was awarding contracts with no competitive tender under emergency Covid regulations. Companies referred to the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to be awarded a contract, according to a National Audit Office report.

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, called for the government – or the cabinet secretary if the government declined – to publish all correspondence, documents, meeting minutes and notes related to all contracts awarded through the VIP process.

Rayner said: “There are serious questions that Baroness Mone must answer about whether she was telling the truth when she said that she played no role in the awarding of £200m of taxpayers’ money to PPE Medpro. Boris Johnson and the Conservative party also have serious questions to answer about Baroness Mone’s position if she is found to have lied about her role in these contracts and the VIP fast-track lane.

“If Baroness Mone wasn’t telling the truth about her role in these contracts, then she has clearly failed to uphold the Nolan principles and there are further questions to answer about whether she has breached the House of Lords code of conduct. Baroness Mone should refer herself to the House of Lords commissioners for investigation if she is confident she has done nothing wrong and has nothing to hide.”

The code of conduct for members of the House of Lords states that they “should observe the seven general principles of conduct identified by the Committee on Standards in Public Life”, known as the Nolan principles. These include integrity, accountability, openness and honesty, and a positive duty of leadership, which requires members to “actively promote and robustly support the principles”.

Mone’s role in the process was revealed after the DHSC published the list of 47 companies awarded contracts through the VIP lane after a freedom of information request pursued by the Good Law Project, which is challenging the propriety of some government contracts.

There is no evidence that Mone played any part in PPE Medpro securing its contracts last year, beyond her initial referral.

However, this week the Financial Times reported that Mone had also lobbied officials working for the government’s test-and-trace programme, apparently on behalf of PPE Medpro. Jacqui Rock, a senior official, emailed colleagues on 10 February, saying: “Baroness Mone is going to Michael Gove and Matt Hancock today as she is incandescent with rage on the way she believes Medpro have been treating [sic] in the matter.”

Mone’s representatives told the FT that: “In relation to test and trace, she has advocated to government that all companies tendering for UK contracts be treated fairly and that a transparent process is adopted by DHSC in the award of contracts.”

In response to questions from the Guardian, Mone’s lawyers said: “Baroness Mone does not deny the simple act of referring PPE Medpro as a potential supplier of PPE to the office of Lord Agnew.”.

However, they said Mone strongly denied that any of her previous statements were untrue or misleading, saying that they denied her being connected, associated or having a role in PPE Medpro, in the “commercial meaning” of those words. They described Mone’s referral of the company to Agnew as a “very simple, solitary and brief step”, which she did as a contribution to the Covid emergency response.

The Guardian is still awaiting a response from Mone’s lawyers about why the peer initially chose not to disclose her referral of PPE Medpro.

Opportunity knocks for Michael Gove – but will he take it?

Gove has been asked to recast non-metropolitan Britain.

The trouble began with Margaret Thatcher “weaponising” housing subsidy as a middle-class vote-winner, with property developers piling in as her party’s leading financial backers, pressing at every turn for planning decontrol...”

Simon Jenkins 

The whale is wounded. The sharks smell blood and start to circle. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is in the lead. The rest thrash about, still disoriented by Covid.That is, except for Michael Gove. Last September, in an unguarded moment, Boris Johnson handed Gove the opportunity of a lifetime: to chart a path out of the ideological chaos of lockdown towards a 21st-century Tory dawn, and, with it, a claim to the succession.

Gove has been asked in effect to recast non-metropolitan Britain. He must revive local democracy and reverse the centralist planning regime of his predecessor, Robert Jenrick – the regime that so enraged Chesham’s Tories in the June byelection. Gove must sort out the intellectual vacuum that is Conservative housing policy, with its casual pledge of 300,000 new homes. He must also reveal what Johnson really meant by “levelling-up” the north. He has even been told to rescue the union with Scotland in his spare time. If he can pull all this off, Gove will be a hard man to beat.

At the heart of Jenrick’s planning fiasco lay a confusion over housing. A true Tory would leave houses to the marketplace and concentrate on homelessness among poor people. The trouble began with Margaret Thatcher “weaponising” housing subsidy as a middle-class vote-winner, with property developers piling in as her party’s leading financial backers, pressing at every turn for planning decontrol. Jenrick was putty in their hands.

This reached its nadir with this year’s algorithmic targets for new development. This defined housing “need” as demand represented by price. New estates were imposed on every town and village, wherever prices were rising fastest: a developer’s dream. First-time-buyer subsidies merely pushed up prices – overwhelmingly in London and the south-east. Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire began to go the way of Middlesex. Johnson even found himself protesting over new estates in his own constituency. As of today, about 400,000 houses granted permissions remain unbuilt, their builders fearing too many houses might damage profits.

Appearing last month before a Commons committee, Gove signalled a radical change of gear. He ordered a “complete rethink” of Jenrick’s planning reforms. He promised that communities would be re-empowered to “take back control” of their future development. He wanted to see brownfield sites developed and opposed carbon-guzzling “concrete and steel” materials. He was also sceptical of housing policy as being only about new-build. The supply of properties to the market is overwhelming existing buildings.

Britain has some of the most inefficient and underoccupied houses in Europe, largely through longstanding undertaxing of living space. A luxury London flat may pay barely a tenth of the tax on one in New York City. This combined with high stamp duty is a tax against downsizing, and has led the Resolution Foundation to argue that fiscal policy should hold the key to housing policy. Half a million homes lie empty as “savings”. About 600,000 houses could be nudged back on to the market “without the need to lift a single brick”. London’s half-vacant luxury towers and Georgian terraces make a mockery of housing targets. Whether Gove has the clout to take on the Treasury’s aversion to fiscal reform remains to be seen but is a real test of his seriousness.

Gove seems determined to reset the balance between Whitehall and local communities on the future of land use. His advisers are tending towards urban densification and renewal rather than clear-and-build. The champion of more traditionally planned towns, Nicholas Boys Smith of the thinktank Create Streets, has been appointed head of Gove’s new Office for Place. This is intended to promote a popular, perhaps more aesthetic, kind of planning, in contrast with Whitehall’s powerful and developer-led Homes UK agency.

Meanwhile, Britain’s local government is in turmoil. Public services have been devastated by 11 years of austerity halving their budgets. The much-publicised cuts in care homes are the tip of an iceberg that includes police, youth services, older people and childcare, local transport, arts and museums. When confronted with this reality, “levelling up” by splurging on infrastructure is meaningless.

The real threat to the north has long been the magnetism of the south, rather than a lack of public investment. I recently attended a meeting of business leaders in Manchester at which the overwhelming cry had nothing to do with infrastructure or HS2. It was: “Why can’t the south stop stealing our best young people?”

A truly radical levelling-up agenda would ban new greenfield housing in the south, pleasing Tory voters and making house-buying there even more expensive. Southern flight should be discouraged by waiving student loans for all graduates who work in the north. Every penny of cultural and skills investment should go north for a decade. Move the Royal Opera to Manchester and the National Theatre to Leeds. Dump the House of Lords in York. Drive HS2 north from Birmingham, not south from it. Put London’s Crossrail into mothballs. The reality is that levelling up the north can only work with levelling down the south.

The answer to northern decline lies in the re-empowerment of its cities, which long ago revived those of industrial Germany and France. A relentless hollowing out of local democracy has been the defining feature of the Cameron-May-Johnson years. Gove has been given a truly radical opportunity. But his motto should not be “take back control”; it should be “give back control”. Will he do it?

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist