‘Levels of Scrutiny and Accountability of those employed and Represented to Stand Up for Sidmouth’.

(Letter from last week’s Sidmouth Herald)

The Sidmouth Jazz and Blues Festival planned for 2022: 

I read with interest in last week’s Sidmouth Herald that the proposed Sidmouth Jazz and Blues Festival for 2022 will not take place on The Ham, or in Connaught Gardens, and will only take place in Blackmore Gardens if monies can be raised to fund it. The Parish Church is hosting events. 

The Festival was ill-conceived and ill-thought through. It was attempted to be pushed through by Sidmouth Town Council. 

Much upset and dismay was caused by Sidmouth Town Council in relation to the Event taking place on The Ham. This was compounded by the actions of the EDDC Planning Department and EDDC Planning Committee Councillors. 

The Sidmouth Town Clerk and Leader of Sidmouth Town Council told the Festival Organiser that Plans for the use of The Ham and the Festival were ‘agreed, done and dusted’, before they were. 

Local residents were told that the Festival was agreed, before it was, and that there was therefore no point in objecting to it taking place. 

There was also the expectation that a late-night lounge Music and drinking Event would take place on The Ham, until 2.30am, each night, during the proposed Festival, in a residential area. 

A full meeting of Sidmouth Town Councillors giving them the opportunity to consult, consider, understand, debate or decide upon any proposals, at this point, had not taken place. 

Local residents highlighted serious concerns raised by the Festival Plans: the arrangements made, the numbers involved, safety and accessibility for Sidmouth residents and proposed attendees. 

These included 2,250 people attending the afternoon or evening Events and the impact on The Ham area. That Sidmouth residents and visitors would be denied access for 14 days to The Ham pathway and cycleway whilst the Festival was set up and taken down on The Ham, funnelled onto a small unsafe pathway and narrow road to access the Town and Esplanade, with these concerns intensified with the increased Festival attendees and traffic. 

The Festival Organiser with the support of Sidmouth Town Council presented their Application to the EDDC Planning Committee, as part of the formal process for the Festival taking place. 

Arrangements for making a Formal Objection were not straightforward with the EDDC Planning Department. 

This was another opportunity for the EDDC Planning Committee to externally scrutinise the concerns raised, and for the Plans to be fully reappraised by the Festival Organiser and Sidmouth Town Council. 

The EDDC Planning Committee Councillors, at the Objections Committee Hearing, gave full approval to the Festival Plans supported by Sidmouth Town Council. 

This was on the basis of the provision of ‘no information, no Consultation, no Consultation of Statutory Bodies, no risk and safety assessment’ and on ‘promises’ made by the Festivals representative, and the assurance that they would act in the best interests of Sidmouth. 

Sidmouth Town Councillors and Sidmouth EDDC Councillors (except one) provided no support and made no intervention on behalf of the ill-conceived and ill-thought through proposal, causing great upset and dismay. 

There had been no consultation, involvement or consideration of local residents, or Sidmouth townsfolk by Sidmouth Town Council, EDDC or their Councillors. Concerns exist about the role of scrutiny and accountability exercised by Councillors. 

For many, the case is strengthened for major events to take place out of Town. 

It heightens longstanding and ongoing concerns about the lack of consultation with, and consideration of local residents by Sidmouth Town Council, (except one) Sidmouth Town Councillors, and Sidmouth EDDC Councillors. 

Sidmouth Town Councillors and EDDC Councillors for Sidmouth need to actively stand up for Sidmouth, and its residents, and be seen to do so. 

Stephen Pemberton, 

SIDMOUTH, 

Some Tories have perfected the art of defending the indefensible 

Given the sheer volume of scandals emanating from Downing Street – Partygate being only the latest – the prime minister is fortunate in having someone ready to rush to a keyboard or broadcast studio to deploy immediate assistance to their stricken chief.

Sean O’Grady www.independent.co.uk 

The prime minister is a little less fortunate in that the first figure on the scene is usually the elaborately syruped figure of Michael Fabricant MP.

Fabricant has been around Westminster for some many years. He was first elected in 1992 to represent Mid-Staffordshire and later the city of Lichfield, his luxuriant hairstyle often echoing the magnificent unchanging frontage of the medieval cathedral.

This does not detract from the substance of his words – which are not always helpful to Boris Johnson. In the recent row about Nusrat Ghani’s sacking and Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, for example, he declared to LBC: “She’s hardly someone who’s obviously a Muslim.” He argued that Ghani’s accusation of Islamophobia is a “lame excuse” for her sacking as it’s “not apparent” she is Muslim. Cue a warranted backlash. He tries to be helpful, with mixed results.

In the case of “Birthday Partygate”, Fabricant was slower to get to Twitter than usual, but with a novel, albeit riskier, take: “I am pleased that @metpoliceuk are now involved along with Sue Gray of the Cabinet Office investigating so-called ‘Party-Gate’. Rather better to have a professional investigation than trial by social and mainstream media!”

Only a little behind Fabricant in the rush to a microphone when the chocolate birthday cake hits the mainstream media fan is Peter Bone, now a BBC Newsnight favourite (even though he wants to defund the BBC). When all other lines of defence collapse in his dogged trench warfare campaign, he retreats to the unchallengeable salient of his own seat. He declares that allegations of law-breaking in Downing Street (or whatever) are of little interest to his Wellingborough constituents, who prefer to kick off about Ukraine when they see him on their doorstep. Maybe Abkhazia will be the next big talking point across the East Midlands.

Quick as Fabricant and Bone are, though, the most loyal of the loyal in Johnson’s Praetorian Guard is Nadine Dorries. It was she who sacrificed what remained of her reputation by appearing in the Commons to de-announce the abolition of the BBC licence fee and admit that the government hasn’t in any case got any idea of what to replace it with. Birthday Partygate brought a typically robust response, and one that displayed a commendable disregard for public sensitivities about bereavements and the like during lockdown. As usual, Twitter was the channel of choice: “So, when people in an office buy a cake in the middle of the afternoon for someone else they are working in the office with and stop for ten minutes to sing happy birthday and then go back to their desks, this is now called a party?”

This drew some harsh responses, including from the fine satirist Rosie Holt: “So, when 12 people vote in the middle of the jungle for someone else they are living in the jungle with to eat an ostrich’s anus and stop representing their citizens for three weeks and then go back to their constituency, this is now called the culture secretary?”

Other members of the guard also overstate their case to comical effect, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg emerging from the last cabinet meeting (when the Metropolitan Police investigation wasn’t mentioned, let alone discussed), and telling reporters that the government is going “from strength to strength”. I could detect just a hint of desperation through the Etonian drawl.

Other cabinet colleagues – Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss – have tended to keep a lower profile, probably having better career prospects than Rees-Mogg, Dorries and indeed Priti Patel in the event of regime change.

The Academy Award for improvised but effective defence of the indefensible must go to Gavin Shapps. He prefers guerrilla warfare through the rubble of the prime minister’s standing in the polls to the formalities of logical debate. Though no stranger to gaffes himself, Shapps possesses a preternatural ability to fumble and scrabble his way through even the most pressing of forensic examinations, darting between irrelevant observations and twisted facts to dodge the bullets.

It is always a simple matter of surviving the next quarter of an hour in a studio, and Shapps knows it. Up against sharply focused questioning by Justin Webb on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and on all the morning broadcast round, somehow Shapps made it through the ordeal without ever referring to the truth.

It was strongly reminiscent of his slaloming defences of Dominic Cummings during the height of the Barnard Castle affair in 2020 (plenty of irony there). None of these encounters do anything for Shapps’ personal reputation but goodness, what staying power! Like Dorries or Rees-Mogg, he sounds absurd, but manages not to combine it with being offensive or sounding arrogant – a rare skill. A man with such vast reserves of stamina used to such futile purpose must surely be an asset to any prime minister. Regime change holds no terror for him.

Keep wearing masks plea in Devon

Devon’s public health director is advising people to carry on wearing masks after the lifting of Covid restrictions as “we are not yet out of the woods”.

From the Devon Covid dashboard, which contains cases up to 20 January, case rates appear to be rising in all age groups below 60 years. See below – Owl

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com 

Steve Brown said it was a “sensible precaution” in crowded and indoor spaces.

He was responding to the Government announcement of the end of Plan B Covid measures.

Working from home guidance has been lifted, and from Thursday, masks were no longer required in classrooms.

From Thursday, January 27, Covid passes will no longer be needed for entry to some venues, and the requirement for masks on public transport and in shops will end. The rules on self-isolation are expected to finish on March 24.

The Prime Minister said the change was possible as the Omicron wave had passed its peak and vaccinations had kept people out of hospital.

Mr Brown’s comments came as some Devon schools decided to keep mask-wearing in place due to the number of cases among pupils.

Mr Brown said that the number of positive tests was down, but case rates were still high and had risen in younger children.

He urged caution and said that the change was to revert back to Plan A measures, warning that people should stay alert to the risks.

According to the latest seven-day figures for Devon as a whole, Covid cases rates were highest in Torbay, with 1,101 per 100,000 population.

Plymouth was on 939, and the Devon County Council area saw an overall rate of 742 cases per 100,000 people, compared to the rate for England as a whole at 967.

Mr Brown, director of public health for Devon County Council, said: “Omicron is by no means a mild virus, and the symptoms to those who are unvaccinated or who have underlying health concerns can be extremely serious if not life threatening.

“So while the Prime Minister is indicating light towards the end of the tunnel, my advice is that we are not yet out of the woods.

“We must stay vigilant and alert to risk that is still around us.

“Being fully vaccinated, and boosted, gives us best protection from this virus. It’s not too late to start vaccinations, and there are now plenty of opportunities in Devon to get your booster jabs at walk-in and vaccination centres.

“Wearing face coverings is still an effective and sensible precaution to continue in indoor and crowded spaces, especially with people you don’t know.

“Regular lateral flow device testing for people with no symptoms is still the best way to identify those carrying the virus. As is taking a PCR test by people showing symptoms.

“Keeping indoor spaces ventilated is a sensible precaution to reduce risk.

“And staying at home and avoiding others if you have symptoms of the virus or test positive for it, is still the most responsible way to avoid spreading it to others.

“Please be cautious, let’s use our common sense, and continue to follow good basic public health advice.”

Mr Brown said more than 85 per cent of eligible people in Devon had received a booster jab.

But he said that take-up was lower in some younger groups and it was “imperative” they and everyone eligible came forward “as soon as they can”.

Confirmed case by age up to 20 January from the Covid dashboard:

The verdict is in: George Osborne’s help-to-buy scheme has been an utter disaster 

The Lords-built environment committee has revealed that all of the £29bn spent on the help-to-buy scheme has been wasted. The scheme gives subsidies for homeownership, but all they do is “inflate prices by more than their subsidy value”.

Polly Toynbee www.theguardian.com 

A rogue prime minister on the verge of defenestration drives out news of almost anything else. But housing usually languishes in the forgotten in-tray anyway. It sits low in voters’ and government concerns: the last 17 housing ministers remained in post, on average, for barely more than a year. Housing stories fill news pages, but only if they provide an opportunity to gloat over escalating property prices.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that a shocking report on a Conservative flagship housing policy fell below the news radar. The Lords-built environment committee has revealed that all of the £29bn spent on the help-to-buy scheme has been wasted. The scheme gives subsidies for homeownership, but all they do is “inflate prices by more than their subsidy value”. They “do not provide good value for money”, which would be “better spent on increasing housing supply.”

The report, chaired by the Tory ex-minister and businesswoman Lucy Neville-Rolfe, shows that Margaret Thatcher’s signature right-to-buy policy lies at the heart of the ballooning housing crisis. The council house sales under this policy symbolised a rolling back of the state to create a property-owning, share-holding, Tory-voting electorate. (Pollsters use homeownership as a strong indicator for voting Conservative.) Councils that were forced to sell at knockdown prices were also barred from using the receipts to replenish the council housing stock. This meant a bargain for the 2 million tenants who bought council homes, but a disaster for the low-earners who came after.

In 1980, a third of people lived in socially rented homes, at genuinely affordable below-market rents. That’s now fallen to 17%. Over the past 30 years, England has seen a net loss of 24,000 social homes every year on average. Another 29,000 social homes vanished alone through sales and demolitions.

Those disappeared tenants end up in the expanding private-rented sector. Instead of paying for lasting brick-and-mortar council homes, the taxpayer subsidises private landlords through housing benefit, costing £22bn a year. The Lords report quotes the housing analyst Toby Lloyd: “The private rented sector is by far the most expensive, by far the lowest quality and by far the least popular. It is absolutely the worst possible tenure for almost everybody in it.”

Of the many destructive Tory social policies, help to buy, announced in 2013, was always an especially egregious example of naked vote-getting. Its creator, George Osborne, knew a subsidy to buy homes worth as much as £600,000 would just inflate prices – and it did. It slightly speeded up the purchase date for those who were already likely to buy, often via family help. More people on high incomes – over £80,000 – use the scheme than low earners. Yet ownership is still falling and the age of first-time buyers keeps rising.

Bringing up a family in a private-rented home means living under the shadow of eviction, with private landlords using section 21 orders to evict tenants for no reason. I once followed the misfortunes of one family that was forced to move, time and again, sometimes having to move their children’s schools too, often living in squalor, once through a long winter with a broken boiler. They weren’t destitute, both parents were in work, but their children were deprived of a permanent home in their early years. Last month’s excoriating report by the National Audit Office (NAO) on private renting found that in 29,000 instances in one year, “households were, or were at risk of being made homeless following an eviction that was not their fault”.

I heard a few of those voices of distress last week when I listened in to the helpline at the housing charity Shelter, hearing the struggles of those who should be in social housing. Among the many homeless, Jay (not her real name) was typical of those NAO findings. Frail and on personal independence payment, she was suddenly facing eviction. Why? She complained to her landlord about frequent sewage flooding; getting no response she called environmental health. Her landlord, taking revenge, is evicting her, needing no reason. The NAO says a quarter of private rentals are of “non-decent” standard, and 13% have at least one serious hazard. The government long ago promised a bill to protect tenants, abolishing section 21 evictions, but there’s no sign of it.

What hope is there of “levelling up”? Access to quality, affordable housing is going into reverse, according to a report from Legal & General this week. Property is where the nation’s wealth is stored, and there it stays – useless and unproductive. Who dares break the taboo on the sacred right of homeowners not to be taxed on their ballooning unearned property wealth? A hypothecated tax spent directly on council housing would link the winners to the growing numbers of those who lose out in Britain’s grossly dysfunctional housing market.