Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 31 January

Private Eye | Money laundering : Electronic Avenue

WHILE official indifference to money laundering and economic crime persists, the opportunities provided by the UK government to the bad guys come thick and fast.


The latest offering from the British launderette is the innocuous-sounding “electronic money institution” (EMI), a type of company that processes payments without being a proper bank and with correspondingly less regulation and internal control.

A study by Transparency International found that 37 of the 260 EMIs set up in the UK had owners or directors from the former Soviet Union. Some of these connections indicate that EMIs are the latest manifestation of the money-laundering networks that grew in the Baltic states in the 1990s as the route into western financial markets and property (with the help of British lawyers, accountants and company service providers, as set out in the Eye’s 2018 special report, Looting with Putin). The researchers found 45 EMIs had senior figures who had already been linked to money laundering.

Suspicious transactions

A Plus Payment Solutions, for example, is run from a trading estate in Bletchley by Latvian Dmitrijs Krasko, who began his career at Latvian bank ABLV, which was shut down after the US Treasury banned it for “institutionalised money laundering”. Krasko went on to run a company formation agency and sign many of the dodgy company filings for UK “limited liability partnerships” of the sort the Eye identified as the money-laundering vehicle of choice back in 2013. An impressive 112 companies from the Krasko stable cropped up in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ FinCEN Files leak of suspicious transactions.

Krasko’s payment company was authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority at the end of 2020, long after it would have been simple to spot the obviously suspicious hallmarks of money laundering.

So lax is the regulation of EMIs that these “institutions” are freely bought and sold. Active in this business is another veteran of the Latvian banking game, Julia Raubishke. Once of Baltikums Bank (fined by Latvian regulators and forced to close 90 percent of non-Latvian accounts, but with no suggestion of Raubishke being involved in wrongdoing), and also a veteran of the company formation game, Raubishke now heads an operation called Round Finance. It can be found advertising “A[authorized]EMI license (FCA UK)” companies for sale. Regulators are supposed to look at any new buyer, but Britain’s financial Clouseaus are not the fleetest of foot.

Financial services growth

Away from the Baltic, a string of other small banks also became important cogs in the laundering machine, none more so than Cyprus’s FBME, which closed in 2015 after the US called it a “foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern”. The man in charge of its card services division from 2006 to 2012 (a hotbed of laundering using fake transactions), Guy El Khoury, now runs another EMI, AF Payments Ltd, authorised by the FCA in 2018.

It’s a good time for questionable payment companies. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has recently instructed the FCA to target growth of financial services as well as regulate them, while the payments companies shrewdly style themselves “fintech” and thus at that cutting edge Sunak is so keen on. With less than 1 percent of financial service companies coming under FCA examination in any year, and half-hearted attempts at reining in the UK’s shell company industry already failing, the money launderer’s British toolbox remains full of all the best gadgets.

Homes to be built on ‘green wedge’ near towns

If this becomes the norm it spells the beginning of the end for Seaton/Colyton Seaton/Beer and other areas. – Owl  

Joe Ives 

Controversial plans for 80 new homes on a ‘green wedge’ separating Bickington and Fremington have been approved by North Devon Council (NDC).

The development, which will provide affordable homes, is seen as a necessary evil by some members of the council’s planning committee but too much of an incursion into the land separating Bickington and Fremington by others.

In the end, the planning committee was split down the middle with its chair, Councillor Eric Ley (Independent, Bishops Nympton), breaking the deadlock and voting in favour.

The development will be built to the west of Bickington and will be accessible through another area of new housing being built off Mead Park.

The land, currently agricultural, is seen as an important ‘green wedge’ separating Bickington and Fremington. It was not in the council’s plans to be built on.

However, North Devon Council, whose housing plans are made in combination with neighbouring Torridge, does not have a five-year housing land supply. This means the two councils need to be more accepting about housing developments they might otherwise turn down.

As the councils are behind on housing targets, by law any development which is deemed sustainable, even if outside the local plan, is weighted towards approval. This is unless it can be clearly demonstrated that the adverse impacts outweigh benefits. Councillors voting in favour of the 80 home Bickington development argued that, regrettably, this could not be done.

New 80 home development. Credit: LHC Designs

New 80 home development. Credit: LHC Designs

Councillor Jasmine Chesters (North Devon Independent, Braunton West and Georgeham) summed up the mood, saying: “None of us want this application but none of us can find substantial reasons to turn it down.”

Councillor Jayne Mackie (Independent, Fremington) understood the concerns but said, in policy terms, there were no ‘clear’ reasons for refusal, adding: “We’ve got to look at some really hard decisions.”

Addressing the planning committee, Cllr David Knight (Liberal Democrats, Roundswell), like several others against the plans, said the new homes would create too much additional traffic on already congested roads.

He continued: “The volume of traffic is just too much and adding further developments in this area – there are no measures that can actually mitigate against this – we will just have stationary traffic.”

There were also concerns about air pollution caused by vehicles driving to and from the new homes.

Councillor Robbie Mack (Green Group, Barnstaple Central Ward) was particularly worried about the loss of part of the ‘green wedge’ field separating Bickington and Fremington. He told the meeting: “If you tighten the wedge any further there isn’t a wedge at all. It is just one park in the middle of southern Barnstaple.”

Cllr Frank Biederman (Independent, Fremington) urged councillors to reject the plans, asking members: “Are we here to support our residents or are we here to support the government’s ‘build, build, build at all costs’ policy?”

Councillors were more positive about the affordable homes stipulated as part of the approval. Twenty-four will be built; ten two-bed, seven one-bed, five three-bed and two four-bed homes. Around 18 of these are to be socially rented.

It means the plans reach the council’s targets for 30 per cent affordable homes – a situation that has become increasingly rare. Developers across Devon have a track record of providing viability assessments to demonstrate they can’t afford to build the number of affordable homes councils want.

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Despite the promises, some councillors remained unconvinced that Cavanna Homes, the Torquay-based developer behind the proposals, will ultimately build the 24 affordable properties.

Councillor Joe Tucker (Liberal Democrats, Marwood) said: “This viability thing is basically a nonsense. A complete and utter nonsense. We’ve seen that already with one or two applications in this area.” He wanted firm guarantees that the affordable properties would be delivered.

Andrew Rowe, speaking on behalf of Cavanna, said the plans would ease the council’s housing supply problem and help deliver “chronically needed” affordable housing for local residents.

If the developers backtrack on their commitment to affordable homes, the plans will go back to councillors to consider again.

On top of the affordable homes, as part of planning permission currently granted, Cavanna will also have to pay just over £635,000 for education provision in the area and more than £45,000 towards expanding Fremington Medical Practice.

A further £68,000 will go on improving the A3125/B3233 junction and the A3125/Old Torrington Road junction.

Exeter is England’s cleanest city

Based on independent environmental data, Exeter is the cleanest city in England according to a new report by environmental data organisation Ends Report.

It ranked the country’s 55 largest urban centres to come up with an index based on more than 30 environmental factors grouped into five categories – air quality, climate, water quality, public realm and green behaviour.

The result: Exeter is tops!

Devon’s capital finished ahead of Worthing and Brighton in a top five, which is dominated by cities on England’s south coast.

Exeter ranked highly on several measures, including air quality, climate and water quality. It recorded fewer days of poor air quality than any other urban centre in the index, and boasted below average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

Exeter City Council is claiming the credit. It says it “has been focussing over recent years on the challenges of climate change, air quality, water quality, congestion, local amenity and quality of life long.”

London finished at the bottom of the ranking. While the capital performed strongly on climate and green behaviour – it has the lowest proportion of residents commuting by private vehicle, and a high level of electric vehicle charging device provision – the capital has overall poor air quality.

Jamie Carpenter, editor of Ends Report, said: “The Clean Cities Index is intended to start a debate about the state of the environment in our biggest towns and cities, and shine a spotlight on some of the wide environmental disparities that exist between them.”

North Devon and RD&E Hospitals prepare to merge

A game of bureaucratic and accounting  musical chairs or will this provide real benefits and unlock more funds and staff? – Owl

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter 

An end to operating theatres so small “it’s like playing musical chairs” and more efficient services are just some of the benefits on the way for North Devon District Hospital Trust (NDDHT).

Senior NHS members held a meeting recently with members of North Devon Council (NDC) to discuss the future of North Devon’s hospital.

Top of the agenda was looming plans to merge the Royal Devon and Exeter (RD&E) NHS Trust with North Devon Healthcare NHS Trust. The two have been collaborating since 2018 but will be formally combining to form a new trust in April. 

Speaking at a Torridge District Council external overview and scrutiny committee, Katherine Allen, director of strategy at the current RD&E Trust, said: “North Devon will benefit from the strengths of a bigger trust – whether that’s access to resources, to research, resilience of small teams joining together to make more resilient services – but equally RD&E will benefit from a small hospital, being really agile, getting things done quickly.” 

Ms Allen said the merger would help to address the problems with staff shortages at North Devon District Hospital and save money for both organisations. 

She added: “The most important thing is that staff and patients see very little difference. This is a corporate merger. The services will stay the same. North Devon patients will still access services in North Devon.

“That is the whole aim of this merger: to make sure that local access is maintained.”

One of the early plans of the new trust is to collate patient records between the RD&E and North Devon on a new digital platform. This is expected to go ahead in July.

The name of the new organisation has not yet been announced but has been decided. It will reflect the “history and provenance of both trusts,” Ms Allen assured the meeting.

A merger between North Devon District Hospital and the RD&E was proposed in 2003 but fell through. “What’s different about this time”, said Ms Allen, “is the clinicians are 100 per cent behind this, they understand the benefits, they can see the benefits of this merger for the patients.”

She warned that if the merger didn’t happen “we would lose momentum” and that NDDHT would be back in the same situation it was in 2017 with a worsening financial position and deteriorating quality of care.

RD&E have run some services in North Devon for decades, providing treatments for cancer as well as ear nose, throat and dental services.

In 2018 North Devon was struggling to provide some key services and asked for help. RD&E stepped up its role and the two trusts have shared many of the leadership positions with each other since then. “That has really stabilised local service provision and started the resolution of quite a number of our challenges”, said the strategy director. 

At several points in the meeting between councillors and health bosses, the  NHS representatives referred to the challenges posed by North Devon being relatively ‘“remote”, something that irked one councillor.

Councillor Christ Leather (Independent, Northam) said: “To me it’s been a managed decline of that [North Devon Healthcare] Trust over the years and I do hear about the remoteness of the hospital in North Devon. It’s not remote to the 180,000 people who live in the area. It might be a bit distant from Exeter but then the RD&E is remote for us in North Devon, so don’t keep on about how remote we are as if we’re at the end of the world.”

Cllr Leather also raised questions over just how much services would improve under the new trust given that the two organisations had been working together since 2018 yet North Devon District Hospital still received a critical report from the Care Quality Commission in November last year. The report said the hospital ‘requires improvement.’

Ms Allen argued the biggest problem is staff supply, which would be helped by the new merger.

She added: “The essence of our plan is we need support. North Devon needs the support of a larger partner and all the resources that brings and sharing of expertise to start to address some of the risks that are so publicly recognised in the CQC report.”

Another problem facing North Devon District Hospital is its ageing buildings, constructed in the 1970s. Zahara Hyde, a programme director at the NHS, told councillors of staff struggling with surgical theatres 40 per cent smaller than their modern equivalents.

Ms Hyde said: “It’s like playing musical chairs in there – not good and certainly not what we want.”

These theatres are due to be replaced as part of multi-million-pound redevelopments to North Devon District Hospital over the coming years. Works are set to take place between 2025 and 2027. 

The NHS boss described the redevelopment as “a big chunk of new coupled with a lot of refurbishment of the old.”

“We’re adding to the hospital is the best way to describe it. What we’re adding is new build but we’re using some of the investment to redesign some of what we’ve got left behind. 

“So it won’t have a whole new hospital, we’ll have a redeveloped site and the site will look very different.”