Clap or do something meaningful? An easy choice for Boris ‘hope it all goes away’ Johnson

Where the UK could act, and could make a difference, would be to impose meaningful sanctions on Putin’s favourite oligarchs. It has failed to do so. When Keir Starmer asked Johnson “why on earth” Roman Abramovich has not faced sanctions (as Johnson claimed last week he had done, and subsequently had to correct the record), he could only reply that he “could not comment on individual cases”.

Tom Peck

The whole of the Commons were up on their feet for more than a minute, applauding in a moving show of solidarity with their guest in the public gallery, Vadym Prystaiko.

Boris Johnson, being Boris Johnson, was unable to suppress his trademark smirk as he did so. It will not be lost on him that almost a fortnight has now passed since he became the first prime minister ever to be interviewed under police caution, and as yet nobody has asked him a thing about it.

The ambassador seemed genuinely humbled by the gesture, though the speed at which the house shot to its feet would be outdone seconds later, by the speed at which His Excellency’s eyes rolled to the back of his head.

Ukraine has not found gestures of solidarity hard to come by in the last horrific week. They are grateful for them. Why wouldn’t they be? But they also know that gestures of solidarity are easy. It’s harder to take action, and there has been plenty of action. But what’s really hard is to take action that you don’t want to take. UK government ministers have taken to saying, whenever asked, that they are “leading the world” in action against Putin, a claim that lacks any demonstrable evidence whatsoever.

Germany cancelled Nord Stream 2, despite being heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas. The UK was keener than others to kick Russia out of the Swift payment system, precisely because it doesn’t rely to the same extent on Russia being in it, in order to pay them for the energy it needs. Germany has committed to spending a very long overdue extra £84bn on defence.

Where the UK could act, and could make a difference, would be to impose meaningful sanctions on Putin’s favourite oligarchs. It has failed to do so. When Keir Starmer asked Johnson “why on earth” Roman Abramovich has not faced sanctions (as Johnson claimed last week he had done, and subsequently had to correct the record), he could only reply that he “could not comment on individual cases”.

There are two flats near Westminster, worth £11m, owned by Putin’s former deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov. Shuvalov was one of the oligarchs gathered for last week’s preposterous meeting with Putin in the Hall of the Order of St Catherine. He is on the EU’s sanctions list but not on ours.

What did Johnson think of that? “We are doing everything we can to expose ill-gotten Russian loot blah blah blah yadah yadah yadah murble burble make it go away.”

He’s not doing everything he can. He knows as well as the next person that the UK’s entire economic model is based on incentivising dubious foreign wealth to park itself here and the small matter of a terrifying land war in Europe is not going to be enough to make them do anything about it now.

Speak to any of London’s obscenely wealthy immigrants, and I’ve spoken to a few, and they all tell you variations of the same thing. They’re not here for the staggering beauty of London’s grey skies and general low quality of life. They’re here because comparable countries, like France or Italy or Germany, simply don’t let them do the kind of outrageous nonsense they get up to here.

There are no shortage of bankers in the City, working for the usual handful of major investment banks, whose salaries get paid directly offshore, and if they want to use that money to buy a property abroad, quite possibly in the country of their actual birth, they’ll never have to pay a penny of tax on it.

The UK’s “world beating financial sector” is world beating precisely because nobody else lets them get away with it. Which is precisely why, even at this unimaginably rarefied hour, all Johnson can do is swat away the questions about the things he hasn’t done and hope they’ll go away.

They won’t go away. And nor, in all likelihood, will the oligarchs. We don’t even want them to. We’re all much happier clapping in solidarity and hoping for the best.

Ukraine crisis; Russian Tory donor previously married to Putin minister recently gave Conservatives £80,000

“All donations to the Conservative Party are from people on the electoral register in Britain, those donations are properly declared.” So that’s OK then? – Owl

A Russian Conservative donor previously married to one of Vladimir Putin’s ministers gave the party another £80,000 in the last quarter, the latest figures have revealed.

The party accepted £80,250 from ex-Russian banker Lubov Chernukhin in the last three months of 2021, according to figures released by the Electoral Commission today.

A British and Russian citizen, she was married to Vladimir Chernukhin, who was a deputy finance minister under Mr Putin and was chairman of Russian state development corporation VEB.RF, which has been placed under sanctions by the UK this week.

Mrs Chernukhin has donated around £2m to the Conservatives since 2012.

Tory Party criticised for Russian donations

The Conservative Party has been criticised for accepting donations from people with links to Russia as further sanctions have been placed on individuals and companies directly involved with Mr Putin after he invaded Ukraine last Thursday.

Asked last week if any Russia-linked money should be handed back by the Tories, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told Sky News: “All donations to the Conservative Party are from people on the electoral register in Britain, those donations are properly declared.”

Lubov Chernukhin’s meetings with prime ministers

In 2018, the Conservative Party was criticised for accepting £50,000 from Mrs Chernukhin on the same day then-PM Theresa May said it was “highly likely” Russia was behind the Salisbury spy poisonings.

And in 2014, Mrs Chernukhin paid £160,000 at an auction for the chance to play tennis with then-PM David Cameron and Boris Johnson, who was London mayor at the time.

In 2019, she had dinner with Mrs May and six of her Cabinet ministers after donating £135,000 at a Conservative fundraiser.

Vladimir Chernukhin and Vladimir Putin

Image: Vladimir Chernukhin was Vladimir Putin’s deputy finance minister from 2000 to 2002

Mrs Chernukhin named in Pandora Papers

The Pandora Papers, documents leaked last year revealing owners of offshore companies and secret bank accounts, revealed Mrs Chernukhin’s wealth comes from her ex-husband.

They own a house overlooking London’s Regents Park worth £38m and a mansion in Oxfordshire bought for £10m, the papers found.

Evidence found by the investigation suggested Mr Chernukhin abused his position as the government-appointed head of a state bank to advance his private business interests.

Mrs Chernukhin’s lawyers in 2021 said it was not accepted any of her political donations had been funded by improper means or affected by the influence of anyone else.

In 2018, when Mr Johnson was foreign secretary, he said “all possible checks have been made” on Mrs Chernukhin’s donations “and will continue to be made”.

Labour criticises Chernukhin donations

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner hit out at the Conservatives for accepting donations from Mrs Chernukhin.

“This government’s dangerous links to Putin’s cronies must be rooted out,” she said.

“If this government is serious about taking the toughest measures to eradicate Putin’s influence in Britain, they must first get their own house in order.”

During Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions, ahead of the new donation figures being released, Labour MP Bill Esterson asked Mr Johnson if he would instruct the Conservative Party to hand Mrs Chernukhin’s donations to Ukrainian humanitarian causes.

Mr Esterson said: “I know he doesn’t want to tar everyone with Russian links with the same brush and neither do I, but leaked documents… show that Vladimir Chernukhin received eight million US dollars from a Russian member of parliament, an ally of Putin who was later sanctioned by the United States.

“This is an opportunity for the Conservative Party and for the prime minister to end the suspicion of conflict of interests with Putin whilst showing solidarity with the Ukrainian people.”

Mr Johnson replied it was “absolutely vital” to demonstrate “this is not about the Russian people, it is about the Putin regime”.

Simon Jupp on Ukraine

This column was first published in the Exmouth Journal on Wednesday 2nd March 2022 and in the Sidmouth Herald and Midweek Herald later in the week.

This is undoubtedly one of the darkest periods in modern times.

Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin tore up a peace deal. He sent his forces across the borders of Russia and Belarus into Ukraine. He now stands accused of shattering peace in Europe.

Putin vastly underestimated the steadfast response from the Ukrainian government and people. His military intelligence is as lacking as his own humanity.

The harrowing daily footage we are seeing is a haunting reminder of the fragility of freedom and democracy. The international community must consider the urgent next steps we can take together as the number of casualties rises by the day.

The UK government has introduced tough sanctions designed to hit Russia’s economy where it hurts. We’ve led the calls to remove Russia from the global Swift payment system, and we’ve provided military support including shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles which the Ukrainian forces have already put to good use.

At the time of writing, the PM has announced £40 million of further humanitarian aid to Ukraine to provide vital medical supplies. We are a generous nation.

We’re taking in Ukrainian refugees with family in Britain. But we can do more. We should offer sanctuary and support to the people of Ukraine during their time of crisis, providing a route for Ukrainians fleeing disaster, war, and persecution.

That is why I’ve signed a public letter to the Prime Minister calling on the government to offer a simple and speedy way for Ukrainians to apply for temporary refuge in the UK. Neighbouring countries including Poland and Romania are offering refuge for over 500,000 Ukrainians who have already fled from their homes.

Some are saying we should immediately offer permanent housing, too. However, I believe that we must only offer the hope of a new life if we can deliver it. We face our own housing crisis. NHS resources are stretched, and we don’t have unlimited school places.

Nonetheless, we must do what we can to help the people of Ukraine as they face war on the streets of their country. We share that responsibility with our friends across Europe.

UK house price boom brings Persimmon windfall of nearly £1bn

Britain’s biggest housebuilder, Persimmon, has announced profits of nearly £1bn in 2021, but cautioned that the Ukraine invasion could disrupt the the UK economy in the year ahead.

So does it build its full quota of “affordable” homes? – Owl

Jasper Jolly 

Persimmon’s profits jumped by nearly a quarter to £970m thanks to “positive pricing conditions” in every British region in which it operated, as the house price boom defied the coronavirus pandemic, it said on Wednesday.

Dean Finch, Persimmon’s chief executive, said he was “mindful of the growing risk of an economic impact as a result of the tragic conflict in Ukraine”, but that he expected continued house price rises to “mitigate build cost inflation”, suggesting higher costs for materials and labour would be passed on to buyers.

“The UK housing market remains supportive with demand continuing to exceed supply, favourable interest rates and good levels of mortgage availability,” he said.

Persimmon said it had some built-in protection from increased materials costs, which could be further escalated by the Russian invasion, because it had increased capacity at factories producing timber frames, bricks and tiles.

Vistry, the sixth biggest London-listed housebuilder, also announced bumper results on Wednesday, saying it had more than tripled its annual profits to £320m.

Housebuilders in the UK have benefited from years of strong demand, thanks to a dearth of new homes. Nationwide, the UK’s largest building society, reported on Wednesday that prices of homes on which it offered mortgages increased by 12.6% in the year to February, with the average price crossing the £260,000 mark for the first time.

Many analysts had expected the pandemic to end the extraordinary price increases, but a combination of unprecedented low interest rates and employment support schemes caused prices to defy lockdowns. The UK government indirectly fuelled house price growth by temporarily cutting stamp duty, a subsidy that has now been removed.

Housebuilders have already set aside the costs of removing flammable cladding, found to be a key cause of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people.

Persimmon built 14,550 new homes in 2021, 1,000 more than 2020 when housebuilding was temporarily disrupted by the first pandemic lockdowns. Its rate of private sales was 22% ahead of 2019, before the pandemic struck. Vistry built 8,600, more than in 2019.

Both companies expected to improve on 2022. Vistry said it predicted a “significant step up in profits and returns in 2022”. Persimmon said it would increase sales volumes by 4-7% in 2022, while keeping similar profit margins. That would suggest a return to above-£1bn profits, a level previously seen only in 2018 and 2019.

Persimmon shares gained 6.4% on Wednesday morning. Shares in Vistry, which was formed in 2020 from the merger of Bovis and Galliford Try, gained 6.6%.

Yet some analysts question whether the housebuilders’ strong run can continue over the next year. Consumer price index inflation has risen to its highest level in 30 years, squeezing household incomes, with more increases to come next month. Economists expect the Bank of England to increase interest rates further this year, which could also dampen demand.

“The backdrop is changing,” said Julie Palmer, a partner at Begbies Traynor, a restructuring consultancy. “House price growth this year is expected to be more muted and we have to question whether Persimmon will be able to absorb ever-increasing costs through higher selling prices.”

Vistry’s chief executive, Greg Fitzgerald, said there had been “strong demand across all areas of the business”. He added that the company had experienced “extended lead times and inflationary pressures on certain products”.

Environment Agency downgrading 93% of prosecutions for serious pollution

And what have we got in our rivers: serious pollution!

Owl doesn’t have to work too hard to see a connection. Yet more evidence of the effectiveness of “light touch” regulation.

Sandra Laville 

England’s Environment Agency has downgraded 93% of prosecutions for serious pollution over four years, despite recommendations from frontline staff for the perpetrators to face the highest sanction, a leaked report seen by the Guardian reveals.

Between April 2016 and December 2020, investigators within the agency gathered evidence and prepared case files on 495 serious incidents, involving the worst type of pollution of rivers and coastal waters as well as serious waste crimes, according to the internal document.

They recommended that the agency prosecute in all the cases. But the document shows that after intervention by managers just 35 cases were taken forward to prosecution, the rest being dealt with via a lower sanction such as a warning letter, or dropped all together and marked for no further action.

Officers investigating the highest categories of waste pollution, including those perpetrated by individuals involved in serious organised crime, recommended prosecution in 386 cases. But only 4% of cases were pursued, while the rest were downgraded to a caution, enforcement notice or warning letter, or marked for no further action. The scale of dropped prosecutions was revealed as the government claimed it was engaged in a crackdown on waste criminals.

When it came to investigation of serious pollution incidents in rivers and coastal waters, investigating officers said 109 cases should be prosecuted. These are likely to have involved breaches of permits by water companies leading to illegal discharges of raw sewage, as well as other serious water pollution. Only 21 cases, however, were pursued to a prosecution; just 19%.

The information supports claims from within the EA that it has been cut back to such an extent investigating pollution incidents has been deprioritised and the regulator was no longer a deterrent to polluters.

The report suggests that EA officials will be ignoring serious waste crime involving organised crime group.

Recent instructions to staff, according to a previous Guardian report, are to ignore pollution incidents that are considered lower level; so-called category 3 and 4 incidents.

But the internal report reveals that most waste offences are listed under current guidance category 3 and 4, and therefore, under the new guidance would no longer investigated, “even those that are part of major or serious operations dealing with organised crime”.

The leaked document says the agency “cannot underestimate the significance of large proportions of cat 3” for waste and water quality pollution incidents.

“These include chronic cat 3 impacts associated with priority offenders and long running high risk waste sites that can be deliberate and committed by offenders with enforcement history,” states the document.

“In many instances these are more appropriate for an upper tier [stronger enforcement] response than some cat 1 or 3, depending on circumstance,” it said.

The report suggests that one reason for the wholesale downgrading could be that the agency’s “resources and our ability to evidence offences and pursue cases to prosecution has reduced over recent years”.

Miscategorisation of pollution incidents or permit breaches as low impact when their consequences were actually high impact, is something that concerns the angling community.

Campaign group Fish Legal has details of a pollution incident in which building rubble was dumped into a tributary of the River Tamar. It was initially deemed to be category 2 and was later downgraded to category 3 without any inspection or sampling. The perpetrator was sent a warning letter.

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said the regulator does not comment on leaked documents. However, they said it does “consider, record and prioritise all incidents – with all breaches and offences reported to us undergoing a robust initial assessment”.

They added: “We have a wide range of enforcement options, including civil sanctions, enforcement undertakings, and in some circumstances, advice and guidance. Where prosecution is appropriate, we pursue robustly and in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors, which sets out that the evidence must provide a realistic prospect of securing a conviction and that a prosecution is in the public interest.”

The spokesperson added: “Over 90% of our prosecutions are successful, and recent outcomes such as the £90m fine of Southern Water Services show a clear and welcome trend towards much bigger fines against offenders in appropriate cases.”

The truth, they say, is the first casualty of war, more so at a time when misinformation spreads so rapidly. But with correspondents on the ground on both sides of the Ukraine-Russia border, in Kyiv, Moscow, Brussels and other European capitals, the Guardian is well placed to provide the honest, factual reporting that readers will need to understand this perilous moment for Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The Guardian has an illustrious history of persistent, independent reporting in the region. We know there is no substitute for being there, and were on the ground at all the critical moments – from the 1917 revolution and the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, to the collapse of 1991 and the first Russo-Ukrainian conflict in 2014. And we will stay on the ground through this frightening period as well.

As a Guardian supporter, you will know that since we started publishing 200 years ago, tens of millions have placed their trust in the Guardian’s fearless journalism, turning to us in moments of crisis, uncertainty, solidarity and hope. More than 1.5 million supporters, including you, from 180 countries, now power us financially – keeping us open to all, and fiercely independent.

And thanks to your support, we are able to provide all of this for free, for everyone. We do this because we believe in information equality. Greater numbers of people can keep track of the global events shaping our world, understand their impact on people and communities, and become inspired to take meaningful action. Millions can benefit from open access to quality, truthful news, regardless of their ability to pay for it.

If you can, we hope you’ll consider making an extra contribution to the Guardian today – you can do so from just £1. Every contribution, however big or small, sustains our future. You’re helping to power independent Guardian journalism that everyone can rely on.Thank you.

Council tax premiums on second homes to increase by up to 300% in Wales

“Second homes are a symptom of a wider problem – a market that treats property, not as a home, but as a way of making a profit.”

The Welsh Government has announced an increase to the limit on council tax premiums for second homes across Wales.

The maximum level at which councils can set council tax premiums on second homes and long-term empty properties will be increased to 300% from April 2023.

The changes are part of a wider package of measures intended to ensure people can find an affordable home in the place they have grown up, as set out in the Co-operation Agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru.

The commitment is to take immediate and radical action using the planning, property and taxation systems, and also includes, new local tax rules for holiday lets.

Rebecca Evans, minister for finance and local government, said: “These changes will give more flexibility to local authorities and provide more support to local communities in addressing the negative impacts that second homes and long-term empty properties can have. 

“They are some of the levers we have available to us as we seek to create a fairer system.

“We will continue to make every effort to increase the supply and availability of houses, as shown by the £1 billion of funding to build 20,000 low carbon social homes, contained in the budget I published at the end of last year.”

Plaid Cymru’s Sian Gwenllian said: “It is clear that we as a country are facing a housing crisis. So many people cannot afford to live in their local areas, and the situation has worsened during the pandemic. 

“These changes will make a difference, enabling councils to respond to their local circumstances, and start to close the loophole in the current law. It’s a first, but important, step on a journey towards a new housing system that ensures that people have the right to live in their community.

“Through the Co-operation Agreement, we are committed to introducing a package of measures to tackle the injustices in the housing market. Today’s announcement is just one part of that wider package. 

“Second homes are a symptom of a wider problem – a market that treats property, not as a home, but as a way of making a profit. By working across the parties in the Senedd, we will introduce more measures, as soon as we can, to make house prices and rents genuinely affordable for people.”

The changes will enable councils to decide the level that is appropriate for their individual local circumstances. Councils will be able to set the premium at any level up to the maximum, and they will be able to apply different premiums to second homes and long-term empty dwellings.

Premiums are currently set at a maximum level of 100% and were paid on more than 23,000 properties in Wales this year. 

Local authorities opting to apply premiums have access to additional funding, and the Welsh Government has encouraged councils to use these resources to improve the supply of affordable housing.

Julie James, the Welsh Government’s minister for climate change which includes the housing brief, added: “We want people to be able to live and work in their local communities. But we know rising house prices are putting them out of reach of many people, exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis we are facing.

“There is no easy answer or quick-fix solution. This is a complex problem that requires a wide range of actions. 

“We continue to carefully consider further measures that could be introduced, and these changes are the latest steps we are taking to increase the availability of homes and ensure a fair contribution is made.”

Last summer the Welsh Government outlined a three-pronged approach to address the impact of second home ownership faced by Welsh communities. 

This seeks to address the affordability and availability of housing, amend the regulatory framework and system, and ensure second homeowners make a fair and effective contribution to the communities in which they buy.

The criteria for self-catering accommodation being liable for business rates instead of council tax will also change from next April.

Currently, properties that are available to let for at least 140 days, and that are actually let for at least 70 days, will pay rates rather than council tax. The change will increase these thresholds to being available to let for at least 252 days and actually let for at least 182 days in any 12-month period.

The change is intended to provide a clearer demonstration that the properties concerned are being let regularly as part of genuine holiday accommodation businesses making a substantial contribution to the local economy.

Both changes follow a consultation process that has included businesses, the tourism industry and local communities.

However, there is not universal support for the proposals within the Senedd, with the Welsh Conservatives in long-standing opposition to a hike on second homes.

Commenting on the news of the council tax rises, the party’s shadow minister for housing, Janet Finch-Saunders, said: “It is deeply concerning that Labour ministers are pandering to their nationalist coalition partners and punishing aspiration and investment in Wales.

 “The housing crisis is a direct result of years successive Labour-led governments failing to provide opportunities and build enough houses with housebuilding falling below levels before devolution. What we see is a Labour Government desperately trying to act long after the horse has bolted.

 “This Labour Government is failing to tackle the root issues of the housing crisis failing to address the fact that, until recently there have been more empty homes in Wales than there are second homes.

“Labour ministers in Cardiff Bay need to get a grip, address the housing shortage in Wales and provide an environment where hard work can be rewarded.”

Candidates for Honiton’s vacant seats on town council

Owl hopes that the Honiton town council can now get off to a new start.

Philippa Davies 

A by-election for four Honiton Town Council seats, representing the St Paul’s ward, will no longer be held. 

 Only three candidates have put themselves forward for the seats – Joseph Furneaux-Gotch, Debra Hulin and Caroline Kolek – and they have been elected unopposed. 

There will still be an election on March 10 for four vacancies on St Michael’s ward. Six candidates are standing: Lisa Beigan, Jenny Brown, Robert Fowles, Cathy Maunder, Andrew Pearsall and John Taylor. 

A spokesperson for Honiton Town Council said: “The role of Town Councillor is as important as ever. The Town Council makes decisions that affect everyone in Honiton and the town’s economy, environment and community.  

“Voters have the opportunity to be represented on the Town Council by councillors for whom you have voted. By voting you are expressing your hard-won democratic right to Vote. Democracy is best served by a good turnout of people voting. Councillors are an essential link to and work closely with the community, representing people at the Council.” 

For more information visit the Elections page of East Devon District Council’s website.