Boris hints at ‘powerhouse’ decision as South West kept waiting

Owl has a number of concerns about the leading role played in “the Great South West” project by the Pennon Group. 

First, the business experience of a monopoly utility supplier doesn’t seem an obvious match to what is needed to chart a way forward for a rural economy based on small businesses with a heavy reliance on the seasonal and low paid hospitality sector. The dominant experience harnessed at the start of the Heart of the South West, (HotSW) Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) experiment, was equally unmatched; it included developers, universities, nuclear and defence.

Second, given the recent exposure of South West Water’s failure to deal with sewage releases into our rivers and bathing beaches, the Pennon Group seems a strange choice to be the authors of a “green jobs boom” report. This is being promoted as the way to level up our region and stop the brain drain of talented young people leaving the region.

Owl also notes the cryptic reference in Johnson’s letter to a “review of Local Enterprise Partnerships”. As with the emergence of HotSW, the “Great South West” has appeared with little or no democratic oversight. Is it about to supplant the LEP?

Hannah Finch

Boris Johnson has told the South West it must continue to wait for news about the region’s £45billion ambition to become the UK’s ‘natural powerhouse’.

The Prime Minister, in an exclusive letter to our sister print title the Western Morning News, which has been spearheading the #BackTheGreatSouthWest campaign, hinted at good news on the horizon.

The PM writes that the Levelling Up White Paper, due to be published by the end of this year, will provide ‘an important step towards securing the formal recognition and funding that the Great South West Campaign seeks’.

But he has made no firm commitments and a campaign leader today declared: “The region has already been waiting too long”.

Mr Johnson’s comments come in response to a letter to Number 10 sent by Bill Martin, the newspaper’s Marketplace Publisher, and Editor Philip Bowern in September. They urged him to act on his warm words about the Great South West campaign.

At the time, business leaders said they were ‘beyond frustrated’ at the lack of action on their business case which they say will transform the region, delivering £45 billion of economic benefit and establishing the region as the UK’s leader for the green and blue economy.

In his letter, sent in September, Mr Martin explained how it has been five years since the #BackTheGreatSouthWest campaign was launched with the region’s biggest private sector employer Pennon Plc and the backing of MPs, business leaders and LEPS.

The Great South West Partnership set out how it has the potential to become the ‘UK’s Natural Powerhouse’ in its Securing the Future prospectus and presented it at 10 Downing Street in 2019.

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

In his letter, Mr Johnson said that he is a supporter of the greater South West and recognised the work that had gone into the campaign.

He said: “The Government is a passionate supporter of a greater South West and I recognise the work that partners have put into the prospectus, maintaining the partnership and securing the support of MPs, local government and others.”

Mr Johnson added that the Levelling Up White Paper “is an important step towards securing the formal recognition and funding that the Great South West Campaign seeks, whilst providing the right framework for delivering these ambitions”.

But Mr Johnson’s response still falls short on the reassurances that the region is expecting, said Mr Martin.

“The Prime Minister appears to recognise that the Great South West is an opportunity, and his reply seems to indicate this will soon be recognised by Government. The trouble is that the region has already been waiting too long and that is preventing the region from realising its full potential,” he said.

“However we shall await the white paper and will continue to lobby on behalf of the region.”

Business leaders have expressed concern that the rural South West, including Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset that is represented by the Great South West, will be overlooked in favour of its nearest cousin – the Western Gateway – covering Bristol, Bath, Gloucester and parts of Wales, including Cardiff.

They fear that the Government will want to deal with one entity only when considering the needs of the South West.

But it is not as simple as that, said John Hart, Leader of Devon County Council.

He said: “The economic challenges faced by the Great South West are a world away from Bristol, Bath and Swindon, and demand special recognition by Government in terms of productivity, wages and life chances.

“Our communities have been the poor relations for far too long, but the potential for the Great South West to be England’s green powerhouse is huge.

“Levelling Up is the Government’s golden opportunity to unleash that potential.”

Gary Streeter, co-chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Great South West, said further delay is holding the region back.

He said he had recently explained to the Minister for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, that the Western Gateway area does not wish to expand its territory to include the four counties within the Great South West.

“The Government is beginning to recognise the contribution the Great South West can make to Net Zero and the Plan for Growth but we continue to be concerned that Government is focused on our metropolitan areas and doesn’t recognise the huge levelling up challenges particularly to our coastal and rural places.

He said: “Although we can all understand the need for coherence. There is every hope that we will get the right result, but the delay is holding our region back in maximising its unique potential.”

A report published in September called Levelling Up the South West by thinktank Onward warned against a ‘one size fits all’ policy when considering the differing needs across the South West.

And in the Autumn Budget, big transport cash was reserved for areas with metro mayors, including £540m for the West of England Combined Authority (Weca) region – or £568 per head – for public transport in the Bristol and Bath region.

The South West did secure some vital funding in the Autumn Budget including investment through the British Business Bank for South West SME businesses, a major road improvement project in Plymouth and £48.4m for improved Isles of Scilly ferry transport links.

David Ralph, chief executive of the Heart of the South West LEP, said that it is time for the Great South West to get similar funding and recognition as its urban cousins.

He said: “The Western Gateway have clearly set out they have no appetite to extend the borders and that doing so would not be helpful to either area.

“We are collaborating effectively on areas of common interest on the Bristol Channel and aerospace but the Great South West needs to operate on a level playing field with similar funding and recognition. Then we can work directly with Government to accelerate our ambitions rather than continue to operate on the basis of good will and no funding or support.

“The proposition of the Great South West is genuinely as a powerhouse. Whilst other areas in the UK are looking to use power to try to transition to a low carbon economy, the Great South West has the raw materials to supply the rest of the UK with low carbon green power from its huge resource of untapped natural capital. It’s time to back the Great South West.”

Boris Johnson’s letter in full

“The Government is a passionate supporter of a greater South West and I recognise the work that partners have put into the prospectus, maintaining the partnership and securing the support of MPs, local government and others.

“The upcoming Levelling Up White Paper will set out bold new policy interventions that will improve opportunities and boost livelihoods across the country as we build back better from the Covid-19 pandemic. It will also look at how the Government can best work with local institutions. This is an important step towards securing the formal recognition and funding that the Great South West Campaign seeks, whilst providing the right framework for delivering these ambitions.

“I am pleased that the forthcoming White Paper will present an opportunity for councils and local government to be at the very heart of the Levelling Up agenda. Moreover, with the completion of the review of Local Enterprise Partnerships, we will have a greater understanding of how the Great South West can best work across local institutions.”

East Devon has UK’s cheapest council tax

Is EDDC just lean or “lean and mean”? Could we all afford a bit more to restore some local services? – Owl

Chloe Parkman

It is good news for East Devon residents as a new study has revealed that this area has topped the list for having the cheapest council tax across the whole of the UK.

The study carried out by Mashroom, which explores the cheapest and most expensive areas in the UK are for council tax, unveiled that East Devon’s Band A tax (£101.19) is 179 per cent cheaper than the most expensive area, Blaby.

It comes after Devon Live reported that the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said that under current Government spending plans, a rise of at least 3.6 per cent on council tax bills will be needed per year just for town halls to keep services running at the levels seen before the coronavirus pandemic.

But the researchers said this would likely be a minimum requirement, with extra cost pressures and demand potentially meaning bills could rise by up to five per cent every year up to 2024/25.

And they said social care aims announced by the Government last month are currently underfunded and would cost £5 billion a year in the long term – almost three times the additional funding allocated over the next three years. Read here.

What is council tax exactly and what is it used for?

Council tax is the money you are required to pay to your Local Council and is different depending on the Council, the money then goes towards funding local services.

The local services that are funded by your council tax include but are not limited to police and fire services, leisure and recreation projects, libraries and education services, rubbish and waste collection, transport services, street lighting and cleaning, road maintenance, environmental health and administration and record-keeping.

Government is acting like a mobster to its own MPs – Good Law Project

It’s not much fun being a Tory backbench MP at the moment. Just when you think things couldn’t get any seedier, No 10 is reportedly threatening to withdraw funding for their constituencies if they don’t toe the party line in Commons votes. 

It appears the Government threatened to punish voters to try to force MPs to support attempts to spare Tory MP Owen Paterson from suspension, after he broke parliamentary rules by lobbying for a private firm that paid him £100,000 a year. One backbencher said MPs were told “they would lose funding for their constituency” if they failed to vote with the Prime Minister, according to the Financial Times. 

This is not the first time we’ve heard of No 10 using this underhand tactic to keep their MPs in line. One backbencher told PoliticsHome in September: ​​”There’s been threats made to a few people that they won’t get funding for projects if they don’t side with the Government… To try and hold back an entire area or prevent regeneration just to get you to vote for something you clearly don’t like, it’s not something I’m particularly comfortable with.”

This is shocking stuff. Not only does it undermine Parliament and weaken MPs’ independence, if true, the allegations are in the realms of criminal offence.

Threatening to cut off funding for local communities to force MPs to vote to save a disgraced MP also reveals the truth behind what the Government likes to style as ‘levelling up’. As always, it’s people from hard-up communities who end up paying the price.

Good Law Project has sent a pre-action protocol letter to Michael Gove inviting him to deny, if he can, that the alleged conduct happened, to turn over any documents evidencing it, and to stop the threats.

The reports suggest a very serious misuse of public money, in the realms of criminal conduct, by or for the Prime Minister. We will not stand by and watch. 

If you are in a position to support this case, you can do so here. 

Read our pre-action protocol (PAP) letter to Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. 

Perfect storm has created a housing crisis

Cllr. John Hart wrings his hands in public about the housing crisis in his press article this week, see below. What is he doing about it?

Describing it as a perfect storm implies a rare combination of unfavourable and unavoidable circumstances. 

Owl believes that much, if not all, of this crisis can be laid at the door of past and present totemic Tory policies. Correspondents can doubtless add to the list.

It starts with Margaret Thatcher’s sell-off of council housing without reinvesting the proceeds in new social housing. Since 2008 it has been exacerbated by austerity, with the South West disproportionately hit, and a general squeeze on local authorities. 

The current acceleration in second home ownership, buy to rent, eviction of tenants in order to exploit self catering holidays through Airbnb etc. has been encouraged by various property tax allowances, ostensibly aimed at encouraging the housing market to grow. Second homers can now usually avoid paying both council tax and business tax. Investment in housing is seen as a one-way bet.

Despite what Whitehall thinks, the CPRE has shown that Devon has been building 30% more homes than required for demographic needs. Who do you think has bought them?

So “build, build, build” is another favoured policy that has failed. Locals can always be outbid by those from the more affluent parts of the country and councils don’t have the cash to build social housing on any scale. The demand is insatiable.

John Hart says: “we need a united, cross-party, cross-council approach so we have a more powerful voice in lobbying the Government for the changes that need to be made.” Though he doesn’t reveal in his article what those changes might be.

In Owl’s opinion the real crisis is that the Government has a long history of taking no notice of the West Country. From a Westminster perspective the region doesn’t matter economically or electorally, electorally it can be taken for granted, its MPs are lobby fodder. In any case we also have a Prime Minister who is unlikely to make “bold” decisions to unwind these damaging policies for fear that they might be unpopular or impinge on personal liberties. He doesn’t “do” rules and regulations. 

Simon Jupp has already been “kicked into the long grass” on this by Johnson.

Perfect storm has created a housing crisis that needs fixing

John Hart 

We certainly aren’t out of the woods on Covid yet but across Devon, we are now facing another crisis. And that’s housing.

 House price rises in some parts of Devon are among the highest in the country.

The lack of affordable rental properties means key workers in care, health and education can’t fill job vacancies because they can’t find anywhere to live.

More and more long-term rental properties are being converted to short-term holiday lets or sold off to take advantage of rising prices.

 Now housing is not a county council responsibility but a district council function but this problem is so serious that it needs concerted action.

The county council’s new strategic plan commits us to “doing whatever we can to make it easier for key workers and people on low incomes to find affordable homes”.

Within the next couple of weeks both the county council and Team Devon – which is a partnership of county, district, town and parish councils – will discuss the issue.

County councillors are being asked to back a new strategic housing Task Force in partnership with the districts.

 We will also consider offering accommodation to key workers to attract them to work for us and lobbying MPs to tighten up tax loopholes on holiday rental homes.

The problem is so serious that we need a united, cross-party, cross-council approach so we have a more powerful voice in lobbying the Government for the changes that need to be made.

 Team Devon, which I chair, has already seen some very worrying statistics.

The Office of National Statistics says house price inflation in Devon is running at 13.4 per cent – more than Cornwall or Somerset – and some parts of the county are even higher. North Devon at 22.4 per cent is in the top 10 districts in the country for house price growth with Torridge on 19.8 per cent and East Devon on 14.8 per cent.

We also had figures showing Air B&B offering 253 rentals in Exmouth compared with just four residential lettings. In Ilfracombe the figures were 326 compared to four.

 Hospitality businesses in coastal areas can’t get staff because they can’t find anywhere to live and that is stifling our strong economic recovery.

We also heard from one successful Devon business that is considering relocating some of its operations to Bristol because of the housing situation here.

The county council is struggling to fill hundreds of vacancies for care staff who can’t find anywhere to live. And that has an impact on our hospitals if they can’t discharge patients who could go home with some support from a carer which would free up beds.

Some schools are finding it difficult to recruit staff because they can’t find accommodation.

 Now some of the actions needed will require Government to act but there’s a lot that councils can do.

For example, the county is considering the potential to convert some offices or other properties into housing for key workers and offering grants towards deposits for house purchases.

Team Devon already has a bid for Government cash to help promote small-scale housing projects providing local homes for local people under Community Land Trusts.

Councils can also learn from best practices in other areas and share ideas on how housing and planning policies could be adapted to allocate some affordable homes solely for essential local workers.

There has always been an issue in Devon with young people not being able to live where they grew up because of low wages and high house prices but this is a perfect storm and we need to take urgent action.