Johnson’s lurch to the right adds to momentum for leadership vote

Boris Johnson’s lurch to the right after Partygate is fuelling even more anger among rebel Tory MPs, with momentum now building for a leadership challenge next week.

Decision time for Simon Jupp may be approaching. Predictions from Electoral Calculus suggest that he might not be secure in the newly redrawn Devon East constituency (and that is before we know how badly the Tories do in the by-election). – Owl

Rowena Mason 

Conservative whips spent the first day of recess anxiously phoning round the parliamentary party to shore up support for the prime minister, as four more MPs called on him to resign, including Jeremy Wright, the former attorney general.

Several Tory MPs told the Guardian they believed the threshold of 54 letters withdrawing support for Johnson was close to being crossed – or may have been already. This would trigger a secret ballot on whether they still have confidence in the prime minister.

It is understood that Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, will have to use his own judgment about whether to announce the milestone being passed straight away if it occurs while parliament is off this week, or wait until Monday, when the House of Commons returns after the Queen’s jubilee celebrations.

One backbench critic of the PM said MPs from the 2019 intake were “gathering their courage” to put in letters before next Monday, but were worrying about repercussions if No 10 were to identify them after an unsuccessful coup. They said the opposition to Johnson was increasingly coordinated and determined to trigger a vote, with almost 30 MPs having publicly declared their opposition so far.

In his statement withdrawing support for the prime minister, Wright said Johnson had done “real and lasting damage” to the institution of government, and while he could not be sure that the prime minister had misled parliament, Johnson had been at best “negligent” in how he had approached the issue.

Elliot Colburn, a Tory MP with a small majority against the Lib Dems, said he had put in a letter “some time ago”, while Nickie Aiken, the Cities of London and Westminster MP whose council turned Labour this month, called on Johnson to bring an end to the situation by submitting a no-confidence letter in himself. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen also told constituents he had resubmitted his letter.

The dismay over Johnson’s premiership is worsening among Tories in so-called “Blue Wall” seats at risk of losing them to the Lib Dems, and “Red Wall” marginals where they have narrow majorities over Labour.

With Johnson’s future in the balance, No 10 has begun launching a number of rightwing, nationalistic policies in recent weeks. These include the return of imperial measures, plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol, a hint about expanding grammar schools, a review of fracking, and repeated promises to tear up more EU regulation.

A cabinet minister told the Guardian that Johnson appeared to be trying to stop the right of the party turning against him in the event of a leadership challenge, citing policies such as the review of fracking – which is electorally unpopular but appeals to a minority in parliament.

But Tory pollsters and some centrist MPs warned that this “core vote” direction was the wrong route to go down with public trust in Johnson so low among swing voters. Tobias Ellwood, a Tory former minister and chair of the defence committee, warned: “We will lose the next election on the current trajectory as reflected in recent elections.

“There is not only just a concern on the conduct of behaviour in No 10, because that has breached the trust with the British people, it is now concerns about No 10 thinking what our policies are.”

On the weights and measures policy, he told Sky News: “There will be some people in our party which will like this nostalgic policy in the hope that it’s enough to win the next election. But this is not the case. This is not one-nation Conservative thinking that is required to appeal beyond our base.”

One Tory cabinet source said the imperial measures policy was “absolutely bananas”, while another cabinet source said they had “no idea which muppet had come up with that idea”, as “this is not what the government’s overall strategy is about”.

Another Conservative MP said he represented a seat in the “heart of middle England” and about half of the core Conservative voters there had lost faith in the prime minister.

Some local government leaders also expressed a lack of confidence in Johnson. Rishi Sunak’s local council leader, Carl Les, the Conservative leader of North Yorkshire county council, said he thought it was time for a leadership election, blaming Johnson for heavy losses in the local elections.

“I am very disappointed that the strong majority we had in North Yorkshire has diminished down to a working majority, but only just, and a lot of the comment we were getting on the doorstep was about the impact of Partygate,” said Les.

The warnings from MPs and councillors were echoed by pollsters and political strategists, including former No 10 advisers James Johnson and Will Tanner. Both said Johnson was on course to lose the election by swinging to the right instead of focusing on delivering goals on schools, hospitals, housing and the cost of living.

Tanner, a former No 10 aide and the director of Conservative thinktank Onward, said: “My view is that while it’s understandable that the prime minister and Downing Street would want to demonstrate their commitment to rightwing policy issues, to satisfy some of his backbenchers at a moment where clearly the prime minister is worried about his future, those issues are not going to win the Conservative party the next election.”

He said he had “never sat in a focus group or conducted a poll where issues like imperial weights and measures or Channel 4 privatisation has come up repeatedly” from the voters Johnson is seeking to court.

He added: “It is NHS, immigration, crime, wages, good jobs in my town. Those are the fundamentals that the Conservative party needs to be focusing on, not these quite small and niche issues, which only matter to a few people.”

James Johnson, a pollster at JL Partners, who worked for Theresa May, said: “Some of these things that might have raised a smile in the past will actually invite ridicule, the pounds and ounces thing being a good example of that. We’re approaching the situation with Johnson similar to one we faced with Corbyn, where the individual policies might be popular, but the brand attached to them is toxic.”

Electoral Pact Poll May 2022

Latest polling results show that an electoral pact between Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Greens could make a fundamental difference to the outcome of a general election. (extract)

Current opinion polls show that Labour might be largest party after a fresh general election, but there is no guarantee that it would have enough seats for an outright overall majority. The latest Electoral Calculus monthly poll of polls suggests that Labour would be short about 10 seats of a majority. The recent local election results also suggest that Labour’s support is partial and patchy.

But if there were an electoral pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in England and Wales, then the Conservatives could lose two-thirds of their seats and would be ejected from government. The pact parties would have a landslide victory, with a parliamentary majority of over 300 seats.

Within the pact, all three parties benefit from it. Labour nearly doubles its seat total. The Liberal Democrats go up to 71 seats, which would be the best Liberal performance since 1923. And the Greens could win 17 seats compared to their existing single seat. This could be perceived as win-win-win for these three parties.

The poll did not include Scotland and the calculations assumed no change to the 2019 election result there. In Wales, the poll suggests that Plaid might lose a couple of seats to the pact.

Loss of 25,000 NHS beds caused ‘serious patient safety crisis’, finds report

Over the years Devon Watch has chronicled the zeal with which local Tories have pursued local cuts and slapped down all criticism, it’s all “on the record”. – Owl

The NHS has lost almost 25,000 beds across the UK in the last decade, according to a damning report that says the fall has led to a sharp rise in waiting times for A&E, ambulances and operations.

Andrew Gregory 

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine said the huge loss of beds since 2010-11 was causing “real patient harm” and a “serious patient safety crisis”. At least 13,000 more beds are urgently needed, it added, in order to tackle “unsafe” bed occupancy levels and “grim” waiting times for emergency care and handover delays outside hospitals.

Patients are increasingly “distressed” by long waiting times, the college said, as are NHS staff who face mounting levels of burnout, exhaustion and moral injury. The UK has the second lowest number of beds per 1,000 people in Europe at 2.42 and has lost the third largest number of beds per 1,000 population between 2000 and 2021 (40.7%), the report said.

There are currently 162,000 beds in the NHS across the UK, according to the college.

“The situation is dire and demands meaningful action,” said Dr Adrian Boyle, the college’s vice-president. “Since 2010-11 the NHS has lost 25,000 beds across the UK, as a result bed occupancy has risen, ambulance response times have risen, A&E waiting times have increased, cancelled elective care operations have increased.

“These numbers are grim,” Boyle added. “They should shock all health and political leaders. These numbers translate to real patient harm and a serious patient safety crisis. The health service is not functioning as it should and the UK government must take the steps to prevent further deterioration in performance and drive meaningful improvement, especially ahead of next winter.”

The college’s report said 13,000 staffed beds are required in the NHS across the UK to create “meaningful change and improvement”, which includes a “significant” improvement in A&E waiting times, ambulance response times, ambulance handover delays and a return to safe bed occupancy levels. It recommends opening at least 4,500 of these before winter.

The NHS Confederation said a fully funded long-term plan for the health and social care workforce was needed as well as immediately investing more cash in social care to make sure patients medically fit for discharge can be cared for in the community.

Rory Deighton, acute lead at the NHS Confederation, said: “This report lays bare the scale of the challenge the NHS is facing in terms of capacity and workforce. NHS leaders see first-hand that capacity in urgent and emergency care and ambulance services can simply not cope with the level of pressure we are seeing in the whole system.”

Andrew Goddard, the president of the Royal College of Physicians, said: “Even before the pandemic hospital beds were short, but Covid-19 has created its own extra demand for beds, claiming around 3,000 beds for almost a year now.

“We also desperately need additional beds in social care. Without these, hospitals will continue to be full, with knock-on effects in emergency departments and on ambulances. The fact is, it’s simply not possible to have more staffed beds without increasing the number of doctors, nurses and other clinicians available to care for the patients that need them.

Pat Cullen, the chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said the report spotlighted “a health service on its knees”, adding: “Hospitals are full to bursting, with patients in inappropriate locations all too often.”

Downing Street fails to deny reports of Boris Johnson birthday gathering in flat during lockdown

Downing Street has failed to deny that Boris Johnson took part in a birthday gathering in his flat above No 11 during lockdown in 2020.

Andrew Woodcock 

Reports at the weekend suggested that Mr Johnson joined his wife Carrie and friends in the flat to celebrate his 56th birthday at a time when indoor gatherings were banned.

The alleged event, which supposedly took place just hours after a cake presentation in the cabinet room for which both Johnsons were fined by police, was not mentioned in last week’s Partygate report by senior civil servant Sue Gray.

Asked eight times at a regular Westminster media briefing on Monday whether the event took place as described, a senior No 10 spokesperson failed to deny it.

Instead, they repeatedly referred to the terms of reference for the Gray inquiry, telling reporters: “That was clear that they were able to look into other gatherings that they received credible allegations for, and those would be covered in the general findings in her final report.

“Downing Street staff were given clear guidance to retain any relevant information and cooperate fully with the investigation. And you’ve seen the result – Sue Gray published her final report last week and the Met Police have concluded their investigations also.”

Ms Johnson is alleged to have sent texts to a No 10 aide that indicate she hosted a gathering with at least two male friends in the Downing Street flat on the evening of 19 June 2020. Covid rules at the time prohibited indoor gatherings of two or more people, except for work purposes.

According to The Sunday Times, the aide sent Ms Johnson a message saying her husband was on his way back to the Downing Street flat at 6.15pm. The Daily Telegraph reported that Ms Johnson responded: “Great. I am already here with the gays,” an affectionate reference to close gay male friends.

Downing Street had previously acknowledged two birthday events on 19 June – one in the cabinet room and another when Mr Johnson lawfully met with siblings outdoors in his garden. However, in January No 10 dismissed the existence of a third event as “totally untrue”.

It is understood that the Downing Street aide reported the existence of the messages to the Gray team in January, but it is unclear whether they were handed over for consideration by the inquiry.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has called on the Commons privileges committee to investigate the allegations as part of its inquiry, expected to start next month, into whether Mr Johnson lied to parliament.

She said: “It appears that No 10 has now stopped denying that another lockdown-breaking secret gathering took place in the Downing Street flat.

“Less than a week after the release of the Gray report, this raises serious questions about whether Downing Street has been caught lying yet again and why the event has not been investigated.

“The prime minister must come clean with the British people.”

Downing Street today confirmed that Mr Johnson will “engage” with the privileges committee inquiry, expected to be led by senior Labour MP Harriet Harman.

Asked whether the PM was ready to give evidence to the inquiry, the No 10 spokesperson said: “We’ve said before that we will engage with the committee. It’s obviously for them to set out the process and the next steps.”

Flood work at Feniton scheduled

Rail line will shut for a week

Work on flood preventions to protect 65 homes in Feniton in East Devon will begin again in September after being delayed because of the pandemic and funding issues.

Radio Exe News

An under-track rail crossing which forms phase three of the Feniton Flood Alleviation Scheme. The first two of four phases have already been completed.

It will involve 24-hour working near to the village for a week.

The nearby Waterloo rail line is already due to have work in the week of 16 September, and the Feniton construction will coincide with it. Pre-crossing works are likely to begin in early September, and post construction works will continue until the end of the month.

Phase three involves creating a small compound to the east of Green Lane, so manhole chambers can be put in on either side of the railway. Once the railway line is closed to rail traffic, a section of rails and trackbed will be removed, and a trench made for a new pipeline.

This will then be backfilled before the track bed is re-laid and rails are reinstalled.

Feniton’s Flood Alleviation Scheme is designed to take flood water from the north of the village, via a culverted pipeline around the village and back into the stream south of Feniton.

Downstream channel improvements to properties south of Feniton and in Gosford have already been delivered as part of phase one and two, however their performance will be further investigated as part of the ongoing works. 

Once the under track rail crossing is complete, it will allow phase four to begin: a 900-metre long, 1.05-metre diameter culverted pipeline running from Station Road, via phase three’s works to Ottery Road.

Depending on contractor availability, the council aims to start construction of phase four in spring 2023.

Councillor Geoff Jung, EDDC’s portfolio holder for coast, country and environment, said: “At long last the saga of this long-awaited scheme to alleviate the surface water flooding at Feniton seems to be nearly over. I am sure the long-suffering residents who will shortly be able to sleep a little more soundly when there is a storm, and no need to clamber out of bed to act as volunteer flood wardens.”

EDDC’s Feniton ward councillor Alasdair Bruce added:”This is fantastic news for Feniton. After having to put up with the constant threat of flooding for years, an end at last may be in sight. I believe these works will go a long way to securing a dryer, safer and less stressful future for Feniton.”

New redevelopment plans announced for former East Devon District Council site

The redevelopment of The Knowle in Sidmouth looks set to be revived by a partnership between McCarthy Stone, the developer and manager of retirement communities, and the care home company Porthaven. 

Philippa Davies

They have acquired an interest in land at the site and are working up proposals to redevelop it with specialist retirement housing. 

The plans include a purpose-built care home, retirement living apartments and affordable housing.   

The site already has planning permission for an assisted living scheme which was granted at appeal in 2018 and was being progressed by the property developer LifeStory – but the company said in March last year that it was ‘reviewing the consented development’. It has now sold the site to McCarthy Stone. 

The principle of the site’s redevelopment has also been established within East Devon District Council’s Local Plan for the period up to 2031, adopted in January 2016.  

The site consists of a variety of disused buildings that were formerly used as offices by East Devon District Council. It is considered suitable for older persons’ accommodation, and is near local services and the town centre. 

McCarthy Stone and Porthaven say they will soon begin a pre-application community consultation programme, to ensure that the revised proposals respond to the concerns raised by the community when the original consent was granted.  

This includes creating a better relationship with the occupants of neighbouring properties as well as the wider community, stakeholders, East Devon District Council officers and Sidmouth Town Council over the coming months, and drawing up proposals for a high-quality, specialist retirement scheme which also contributes towards Sidmouth’s housing needs.  

Shane Paull, Divisional Managing Director for McCarthy Stone Southern, said: “We are delighted that we have acquired an interest in The Knowle site. We are committed to bringing forward its development, which presents an exciting opportunity to meet a strong local need for specialist retirement living accommodation.  

“Over the coming weeks we will be sharing our initial proposals for the site, that seek to propose a sensitive, well-designed development that will help improve accommodation choice for older people in the local area.” 

Unleaded petrol to cost  seven pounds fourteen shillings and seven pence a gallon!

Tossing “red meat” to the “true blue”, Boris Johnson has decided that it would be fitting to bring back imperial measurements in time for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

But “Unleaded only £7.73/gallon“ looks a certain loser on garage forecourts in Tiverton and Honiton.

Dead cat story of the week backfires?

Boris getting desperate? – Owl

By-election news Monday

From Politico London Playbook:

Tiverton and Honiton: It looks increasingly plausible that the Devon seat vacated by porn-watching MP Neil Parish could go Lib Dem, despite the Tories defending a 24,000 majority. The Lib Dem campaign there has been up and running for weeks and there are already signs that Labour is encouraging its voters to go yellow as the opposition parties’ unofficial pact continues. The Liberals have cemented themselves as the blue wall mid-term protest party after winning Tory seats in North Shropshire and Chesham and Amersham in the last year. And today the confident Lib Dem operation releases figures showing Tiverton and Honiton has the worst ambulance waiting times in Devon.

Wakefield: It’s not much better for the Tories in the seat given up by Imran Ahmed Khan after he was jailed for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. A minor candidate there has put “I have never sexually assaulted anyone” on his campaign literature, which tells you everything you need to know about how that contest is going to go. Labour will be expected to overturn the Tories’ 3,000 majority in a seat that is usually always red.

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 16 May

Anger grows over second homes energy windfall

Both the Observer and Sunday Times carry articles on Rishi’s generosity to second home owners giving them twice the fuel discount, and how it plays within the local communities. – Owl

‘It’s not on’: Whitstable rages against extra £400 for second-home owners’ fuel bills

Mark Townsend 

Peter Robinson stared out to sea and shook his head. “It’s not on. They don’t need more money.”

The “they” in question are the thousands of second-home owners who have converged on Whitstable in recent years. According to the 68-year-old, 40% of all the houses on Albert Street, where he has lived for two decades, are now second homes.

And Rishi Sunak’s latest intervention to help the nation pay its energy bills – £400 for every household – means that Whitstable’s expanding cohort of second-home owners will be rewarded with a double rebate, one for each home.

In the Kent coastal town, such generosity has left many – largely those who own a single home – bewildered. “The house next door to me has been sold to a wealthy developer to convert into holiday homes. The same with the one opposite,” said Robinson, a retired council worker.

Further along Whitstable’s beachfront promenade, retired teacher Sarah Houseman similarly lamented the chancellor’s largesse. “It would seem unfair to give these people more money,” said the 65-year-old. Houseman noted that neighbouring three-bed terraced homes were being rented out to tourists for between £700 and £800 a weekend. “And they have no problem getting that. These people don’t need extra help.”

Like many in the town, she felt that Sunak’s announcement was rushed out last Thursday in order to deaden the outrage that followed Sue Gray’s Partygate report. “It’s not fair to use this [the energy crisis] in order to save their political skin,” she said.

Outside the Sea Farmer’s Dive pub, electrician Max Legett was convinced Sunak’s initiative would be modified to stop it rewarding the wealthy. “There’ll be uproar if it’s not changed.”

Whitstable’s locals call the second-home owners DFLs – Down From London, a reference to the fact that many who own second homes live in the capital. It’s a trend accelerated by the pandemic.

A recent national survey listing the most popular places for second homes included Whitstable as the only town in the south-east, the remainder being largely in Cornwall.

Legett was a DFL once, arriving from south-east London 16 years ago. Now a self-described native, he worries at what has unfolded in the south-west of England. “So far, it hasn’t yet changed the character in the same way as Cornwall.”

For another long-term Whitstable resident, the fact that second-home owners will be given an extra windfall was greeted with a resigned shrug. John Baker admitted he’d given up caring who was buying what in his adopted town. The 70-year-old said that coping with a ruptured achilles tendon and a brain tumour diagnosed in 2017 had made him philosophical. “Some haven’t, but the reality is that some of these second-home owners have worked bloody hard for them.”

Further along a street called Sea Wall, one of those second-home owners – who asked to remain anonymous – conceded that Sunak’s handout to the 772,000 households with two homes rankled.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous, it’s impossible to justify. That money should be given to the most needy,” she said, adding that she donated to local charities and helped out at a food bank to alleviate her conscience.

She said: “I for one will certainly not be keeping that extra £400.”

Subsidising the wealthy: the village of second homes … and they all get a fuel grant

Hannah Al-Othman 

It is easy to see why second homeowners love Chapel Stile, a beautiful village close to both Windermere and England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike.

About 85 per cent of the 160 or so homes in the village are holiday lets or second homes, according to the local MP, the former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron.

For people who actually live in the village — an increasingly rare breed — the takeover by outsiders is worrying. Many are angry that second homeowners will get the same £400 discount on their energy bill this year, announced last week by the chancellor, as they will.

“That extra £400 benefit for people who do not need it is to completely fail to read the room, to fail to understand one of the biggest things affecting rural communities,” Farron said.

Many of the few remaining full-time residents of Chapel Stile are pensioners — younger people have mostly gone elsewhere, in search of better job opportunities and more affordable housing. On the Rightmove website, properties being advertised for sale around the village include a £725,000 three-bedroom end-of-terrace house in Elterwater, near Ambleside.

“It’s terrible,” said Gordon Smith, 87, who has lived in Chapel Stile his entire life. “There’ll be no local people left. In fact, we’re being driven out.”

Last year a four-bedroom semi-detached house in the village sold for more than £1 million, far beyond the reach of those who have lived here all their lives, often in rented accommodation.

“It’s absolutely disgusting,” Sue Monk, 71, said. “They have pots of money to start with. They do local people out of being able to own a home because we can’t afford them. We’re all in rented accommodation. Why they should get it for their second homes, I have no idea.”

Monk, who lives alone, is keeping her head above water but only because she manages her money carefully. “I’m on the basic state pension — I’ve nothing else,” she said. “I don’t put the television on till five o’clock at night, and I usually switch it off at about eight. I switch lights off, I limit the washing machine to a couple of washes a week.”

Chapel Stile is just a few miles northwest of the tourist honeypot of Ambleside, with its cafés, pleasure boats, and watersports. It is an enviable place to call home but locals pay a premium to live in the Lake District.

Housing costs are high here and incomes are low, with many working in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Public transport is expensive and unreliable, leaving many households no choice but to run a car. Even local shops charge higher prices for a loaf of bread than city convenience stores.

Asked why the money is being given to second homeowners, the Treasury insisted that it would be impossible to differentiate between which energy bills are paid by those with more than one home.

The average median full-time salary for somebody living in Farron’s constituency, Westmorland & Lonsdale, is £20,400 a year, below the average of £23,700 in the North West of England, according to ONS data for 2019-20. Farron said: “The thing to remember about an area like ours is we’ve got very low unemployment, but low incomes. And on top of that, the cost of living in a rural community is that much greater.”

However, Jeremy Lewis, 57, who runs the local shop in Chapel Stile, puts it bluntly. “I basically earn my living from the tourists,” he said. “So I don’t want anything to stop them coming.”

Boris Johnson, the party animal, has vomited over standards in public life

Standards in public life.

The first two paragraphs of Andrew Rawnsley’s column in the Guardian describe vividly the depths to which Boris Johnson’s leadership has sunk – Owl

Andrew Rawnsley 

Picture the squalid scene that confronted the cleaning staff on the morning after a night before of drunken delinquency by the denizens of Downing Street. Wine stains on walls. Pools of sick. Empties spilling out of bins. Mounds of party detritus on the floor. The heart of government, the place where you’d most hope for sobriety in the middle of a pandemic, turned into a vomit-splattered nightclub. The only heroes in Sue Gray’s investigation into Partygate are the security staff who suffered abuse when they tried to break up illegal gatherings and the cleaners who had to mop up.

Now try to picture scenes of all-night boozing, puking, punch-ups, vandalism and law-breaking at Number 10 under any other prime minister. You can’t. Nothing like this happened under any of Boris Johnson’s predecessors. The character of organisations is immensely influenced by the example set by the person at the top. When that person is Mr Johnson, you get a culture of selfish, arrogant, entitled, amoral, narcissistic rule-breaking that combines, in the true spirit of the Bullingdon Club, snobbery with yobbery…..

Coded message from Ben Bradshaw?

A former Labour minister has appeared to suggest that voters in the Tiverton and Honiton by-election should consider going Liberal Democrat in a bid to oust the Conservatives.

Tiverton and Honiton by-election: Ex-Labour minister appears to suggest voters go Lib Dem

Colin Drury 

Ben Bradshaw – who was culture secretary between 2009 and 2010 – said his party should fight for every vote in the seat.

But, in what some will regard as a coded message, he added: “What some Labour members and activists don’t always appreciate is that a lot of Conservative voters, if they want to give the government a kicking will vote Liberal Democrat but they wouldn’t vote Labour…

“So if we have a joint purpose of wanting to send the prime minister a message and ultimately defeat this government in a general election then I think there are very good prospects of a Lib Dem victory there.”

The race for Tiverton and Honiton – a sprawling, largely rural Devon constituency – prompted by the resignation of Neil Parish who admitted watching porn in the House of Commons, is being widely touted as a two-horse race.

The Tories currently enjoy a 24,239 majority and have held the seat since it was created in 1997 but the Lib Dems believe they could steal it on the back of anger about Partygate and rising living costs.

Suggestions have been made that Labour will fight only a bare minimum campaign here to allow yellow candidate Richard Foord a clear run, with the Lib Dems returning the favour in Wakefield where another by-election is being held the same day.

Both parties have denied such a pact.

But Mr Bradshaw’s comments – initially made on Radio 4’s The Week In Westminster – will be seen as a tacit endorsement of voting tactically.

On Friday, he went further when he compared Tiverton and Honiton to North Shropshire – where the Lib Dems won a by-election in December.

The MP for neighbouring Exeter told The Independent: “The figures are very much like the figures in North Shropshire, and, as there, people are furious with the Tories not just because of parties and the cost of living crisis, but because of the way the government’s treated rural areas and farming and fishing industry in particular.

“Johnson’s Brexit deal is an absolute disaster for our farmers so, you know, I would hope for the people of Tiverton and Honiton will send a clear message to the government.”

Asked if he was recommending tactical voting, he said: “If you look at by-elections in North Shropshire, Chesham and Amersham, and Batley and Spen, the voters didn’t need to be told how to vote.”

Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Lib Dems, said: “There is no doubt the Lib Dems are the only party that can beat the Conservatives here… This by-election is a unique opportunity to send Boris Johnson a message and that’s why supporters of all parties are backing us.”

Downing Street accused of trying to ‘dilute’ Sue Gray’s Partygate report

Downing Street officials have been accused of attempting to dilute Sue Gray’s report into the Partygate scandal, with demands to anonymise staff who broke coronavirus rules and to change how the so-called “Abba party” was reported.

Nadeem Badshah 

Partial drafts of the findings were allegedly circulating in No 10 the day before the final report was handed over on Wednesday, the Sunday Times reported.

Sources told the newspaper that Gray was urged by three senior civil servants not to publish the names of some of those who had attended the 12 events under investigation.

“On Tuesday night, one last attempt was made to persuade her [Gray] to omit names from the report, but she made it plain to them the only way that was going to happen was if they issued her with an instruction,” a Whitehall source said.

The newspaper has claimed that key passages were altered at the behest of No 10, including the “Abba night” party alleged to have been held in the prime minister’s flat in November 2020. An earlier draft referring to music being played and stating at what time it finished was allegedly tweaked by Steve Barclay, Johnson’s chief of staff.

A government source told the Guardian that Barclay did not edit or influence the report in any way.

The Cabinet Office rejected claims that the report was edited due to pressure or that any events were not investigated because of requests made by senior figures.

They referred back to the wording of the report where Gray explained her rationale for halting her probe into what happened in the flat Johnson shares with his wife, Carrie. Gray said she halted her work having only collected “limited” information about the gathering when the Metropolitan police began their own investigation.

Gray’s 37-page report on the party culture in Downing Street ultimately included nine photographs and named some senior civil servants.

The findings detailed how each event unfolded including a leaving party on 18 June 2020 at which “one individual was sick” and “there was a minor altercation between two other individuals”.

The report included security logs revealing some staff carried on partying until 4am after the leaving do for the director of communications, James Slack, cleaners giving evidence of spilled wine on the walls on another occasion, and messages warning drunken staff to leave via the back entrance to avoid being seen by journalists.

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Gray also highlighted a number of occasions in which members of No 10 staff raised questions about whether events should go ahead, or about drunkenness in Downing Street, and had their concerns dismissed.

Johnson issued an apology to MPs for the culture that developed in Downing Street during the pandemic on Wednesday, saying he took “full responsibility”.

However, the prime minister insisted he regarded it as “one of the essential duties of leadership” to attend leaving events and thank departing staff, because “it was appropriate to recognise and to thank them for the work that they had done”.

He also told a press briefing on Wednesday: “The first I saw the report and read it in its entirety – and, to the best of my knowledge, the first any of my team saw it – was when we got it shortly after 10am this morning.”

Neil Parish ‘slowly recovering’ from political death

He says he’s coming up for air now.

(No mention of campaigning for the Tories) – Owl 

Joe Ives, local democracy reporter

Disgraced former Neil Parish MP, who resigned following revelations that he had watched pornography in the House of Commons, says he is starting to recover from his “political death.”

Mr Parish, who served as MP for Tiverton and Honiton for 12 years, has explained how the fallout from the controversy has impacted his life and wellbeing. 

It is a month since Mr Parish was identified as the Tory MP caught watching porn on his phone in parliament. 

He said: “I feel that I’m coming up for air now. It’s your political death really and you don’t sleep. 

“I’m a great one for eating food but I’ve hardly been eating my food. You get completely thrown.

“My wife is very good, very down to earth, very supportive but also says to me: ‘come on, pick up the pieces, get on with it.’

“This is life and there is life outside of parliament. Even though I shall miss parliament greatly, there is life outside. 

“I have a practical farming background [and I have] still got the farm. I go back to that. I’ve got plenty of gardening to do. I’ve got some practical things to do and I can build that up.

“I also want to keep going on other issues, People4Ponies, I’m the president of that and I want to help that as well.

“[It’s] a charity trying to stop ponies being mistreated across the south west. Lots of things there that I can do and hopefully help with.”

Mr Parish wants to “keep his brain alive” by focusing on these activities as well as farming charities and the environment.

He continued: “I’ve really appreciated the support that I’ve been given in the constituency.

“I tried to work hard over the last 12 years and I hope that’s paid off and I really have been glad of the support.”

The by-election for Mr Parish’s successor will take place on Thursday 23 June.

Tourists to south-west England urged to check if rental affects housing crisis

Tourists heading to holiday homes in the south-west of England are being urged to check before they travel if their rental will worsen the area’s affordable housing crisis.

Robert Booth 

The call for “ethical consideration” of the potential negative impact of short-term lets comes as figures showed 3,000 new holiday and second homes were registered in the south-west during the pandemic while homes listed for normal letting halved and rents jumped.

The housing campaign group Generation Rent also found that in Wales, over the same period, the number of second homes and commercial holiday lets increased from 31,779 to 33,474, with the average weekly rent rising from £155 to £181, based on analysis of figures from Zoopla.

As thousands of families prepare to descend on coastal hotspots for half-term, the former St Ives MP Andrew George, who now builds affordable housing, said people renting holiday lets should consider challenging landlords over the impact.

In parishes around Padstow on the north coast, as many as one in four properties are second homes, according to Cornwall council, which has about 22,000 households on its social and affordable housing waiting list.

In March, graffiti appeared in St Agnes, Cornwall, which read: “No more investment properties. Second homeowners give something back. Rent or sell your empty houses to local people at a fair price.”

Gwynedd in Wales, which includes most of Snowdonia national park, is a hotspot for holiday lets and, according to research by the estate agency Hamptons, 16% of sales in the year to May 2022 were second homes.

George, the chief executive of the Cornwall Community Land Trust, which builds affordable housing, said the people were not at the point of “superglueing the locks or burning [second homes] down” but “anger is directed at the legislature that allows this to happen”.

He is calling for a new planning class for second homes that would allow town halls to cap their numbers. Asked what holidaymakers should do if they are renting, he said: “They should ask [the landlord] before they come: ‘can you assure me this accommodation is not having a negative impact on housing need?’”

He added that if they found, while on holiday, thattheir rental was causing problems they should complain at being “mis-sold”. If holiday renters “find the housing needs of people in the area are being overlooked they could write to the owner of the property and say they are never coming again”.

He said the acute shortage of affordable homes means low-income renters too often have to endure damp, cramped and energy-inefficient homes from private landlords who enjoy an imbalance of power.

The incentive to offer properties as short-term lets is huge. A small two-bedroom house in St Ives was this week offered for more than £3,000 for half-term on Airbnb, while a four-bedroom house on Vrbo cost £668 a night.

Merryn Voysey, 33, moved from Cornwall to Portugal in part to escape the stress of the housing crisis, he told the Guardian. While working as a gardener he had to live in his van for 18 months. Average weekly private rents in the south-west rose from £206 to £238 from February 2020 to July 2021.

“One of the reasons I am here [in Portugal] is that the housing crisis is not right in front of me and I am not driving around feeling like a victim,” he said. “I am feeling the benefits. My peace of mind and wellbeing has improved.”

Generation Rent is calling for government action to bring properties back into the residential market, including scrapping mortgage tax relief for holiday lets, plus powers for councils to license and cap holiday lets.

“We have heard countless stories of people being evicted so their landlord could start renting to tourists,” said Dan Wilson Craw, the campaign’s deputy director. “Taking homes out of the residential market prices out people who want to settle down in the place they grew up. That destroys communities and starves local businesses of workers.”

Earlier this month, the government announced a new bill that will allow councils to apply a discretionary council tax premium of up to 100% on second homes, as defined by “periodically occupied”.

Paula Higgins, the chief executive of the Home Owners Alliance, predicted some second homeowners would pass on the cost to holiday renters, but said: “It might put people off purchasing extra homes because it’s an extra cost. That combined with the increasing stamp duty on second homes, I think it could have an effect.”

Council tax on a band E home in Cornwall is £2,577, so a doubling would push the annual bill above £5,000.

A group of Cornish tourist bodies this month began consulting on a compulsory registration system for holiday lets. The Welsh government has said it will increase the council tax premium that councils can charge on second homes and long-term empty properties to 300% from April 2023.

Porn, parties, petrol prices: True blue Tories consider Lib Dem switch in Tiverton and Honiton by-election

Despite the excellent choice of Liz Pole for Labour this columnist concludes this will be a two horse race.

This is without discussing the additional headache the Tories face from the four right wing cum populist cum re-branded Brexit candidates:

  • Jordan Donoghue-Morgan, Heritage Party
  • Andy Foan – Reform UK
  • Frankie Rufolo – The For Britain Movement
  • Ben Walker – UK Independence Party

Porn, parties, petrol prices: True blue Tories consider Lib Dem switch in Tiverton and Honiton by-election

It was the afternoon of the Sue Gray report and, stood under the historic Tiverton Clock Tower, life-long Tories Andrew and Heather Barlow had already decided how they would vote in next month’s by-election here.

Colin Drury 

Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord talks to voters in Honiton

Liberal Democrats,” he said decisively. “Until that man [Boris Johnson] is no longer leader, I will never vote Conservative again.”

This was, he made clear, not a decision taken lightly.

The couple, both retired teachers, had gone blue at almost every election since they turned 18. As a student, Andrew had been a member of the Oxford University Conservative Association. He once had dreams of being a politician – until Heather told him that she had no dreams of being a politician’s wife.

Yet this near lifelong loyalty will be broken after the prime minister refused to resign over revelations he broke coronavirus lockdown rules by attending boozy Downing Street parties.

“He wouldn’t know integrity if it was looking him in the face,” said Heather. “I cannot understand how other Conservatives are not embarrassed to be associated with him. I think they are. They just don’t say it. And I’m not sure which is worse.”

Tiverton and Honiton – a sprawling, largely rural constituency in Devon – may feel a million miles from the machinations of Westminster but next month this agricultural heartland will find itself at the centre of the UK’s political universe.

A by-election is to be held here on 23 June after former Tory MP Neil Parish stood down following an admission that, while Googling tractors, he had ended up watching pornography in parliament. Twice.

It means that people here will be the first to ever go to the polls with a prime minister who has broken the law while in office.

And, if a former minister’s observation earlier this month is correct – that the longer the gravel drive the greater the anger about Partygate – the Tories may have good reason to be worried: while this is a constituency with pockets of considerable deprivation, it is also one with plenty of long, gravel drives.

“You get a lot of Tories here,” said Annie Hargreaves, a Northern Irish woman who settled in Tiverton 23 years ago and now runs Leela, a sustainable lifestyle store, in the town. “But it doesn’t feel like any of them are especially proud to be Tory at the moment. They feel let down by what’s happened.”

On paper, Tiverton and Honiton should still be a safe blue seat.

It has been Tory ever since it was created in 1997. In 2019, Parrish won a majority of 24, 239. For good measure, the Conservatives are the largest parties on the county, district and town councils here too. In 2016, it voted Brexit.

Yet voters here are openly debating if they are prepared to give their backing once more to a party so bogged down in sleaze and which – perhaps more significantly – is increasingly seen as taking the area for granted.

In an uncanny echo of last year’s North Shropshire by-election, the Lib Dems – third place in 2019 – have emerged as the unlikely frontrunners. “It’s a tougher gig [than North Shropshire],” party leader Sir Ed Davey said in an early campaign visit to the area. “But the Tories know we’re on their case.”

It was a sentiment reiterated by candidate Richard Foord in a Tiverton coffee shop this week.

“It’s clear to people that the Tories don’t feel they need to work for votes,” the 44-year-old said. “They’ve been complacent for years – and people are fed up of that. Absolutely fed up. Just like they were in North Shropshire.”

The evidence of complacency? Brexit trade deals have more or less ignored the region’s farmers; no action has been taken to address the fact that Devon has England’s longest ambulance waiting times; and a perceived lack of investment across the constituency.

“There’s been no levelling up money,” said Foord, who works for the University of Oxford but lives in Uffculme. “Tiverton has got a high school that’s simply not big enough for the town anymore – we’ve needed a new one for years – and the hospital now closes through the night because of cuts.”

There is, he says, a joke that people know when it’s election time here because local Conservatives start talking about building an Axminster bypass or a Cullompton train station. “These have been the same promises going back 20 years,” the father of three says. “They will still be making them in another 20 years, I expect.”

The cost of living crisis, too, is hurting people here in a way the government doesn’t recognise, he reckons. Fuel intensive sectors – like farming – are being devastated. In a place where people are reliant on their cars to get between small towns and villages, ever-rising petrol prices are adding to hardship. A cut on national insurance is needed, he says. A windfall tax on energy companies announced on Thursday doesn’t go far enough.

Against this backdrop of grievances, it has been suggested the Conservative contender here – that’s Helen Hurford, the deputy mayor of Honiton – has been selected, ultimately, as an “electoral sacrifice”.

“I asked in the tea room this morning if we had actually selected an electoral sacrifice,” Sir Roger Gale, MP for North Thanet, told BBC Newsthis week. “And I’m told that we have.”

What Hurford herself makes of this is anyone’s guess.

As has become the norm with Conservative by-election candidates, the former headteacher is said to have been ordered not to talk to media during the campaign. The fear, apparently, is that she will not be capable of answering questions about Partygate in any satisfactory manner.

Safe to say, a request by The Independent to speak with her went firstly unanswered and then got declined.

More unusual, perhaps, is the fact that it is not just the candidate who appears silenced.

Local Conservative councillors, too, are said to have been informally told to go to ground in the wake of the Sue Gray report this week. One, the mayor of Tiverton, Sue Griggs, pulled out of a planned interview literally minutes after the document was published.

To add to the possible Tory woes, meanwhile, is the suggestion Labour – represented by local businesswoman Liz Pole – appear set to run a minimal campaign.

Sir Keir Starmer has insisted he wants to win this seat but, self-evidently, it makes sense for the party to focus resources on Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, where another by-election is being held the same day and where there is a greater chance of red victory.

And yet and yet.

Despite such a host of issues, it is by no means beyond the Conservatives to retain this seat. The fact is there are still plenty of people here who believe the government has served them well enough – not least in keeping them safe and financially secure through the pandemic.

“What’s he [Johnson] ever done for me?” pondered Carole King, in her eponymous Tiverton lifestyle shop. “He kept my business alive during the pandemic. He got a vaccine out before anyone else in Europe.”

It’s a popular point.

In a region with a large portion of independent businesses, there is a sense that whatever the prime minister’s faults, he had got a lot right.

“The cheques he signed off saved people from going under, including me,” said Tom Hirst, who runs Tivvy Cobblers. “We’ve got a lot to thank him for.”

He has, he admitted, a “soft spot” for Mr Johnson. “He’s different, isn’t he?” the 36-year-old said. “I think the parties just show he’s like the rest of us, really. I can’t feel angry about them.”

Pertinently, too, while senior Conservatives MPs may have questioned Hurford as a candidate, there are plenty in the constituency who think she is a wise choice. The fact she is local appears especially popular.

“She certainly will get my vote,” said Honiton’s mayor Serena Sexton, who herself sits as an independent. “I vote for the person, not the party and Helen is extremely capable. Compassionate, analytical, trustworthy. She would do an excellent job, just like she has done during her year sitting on the town council.”

Which brings us back, perhaps, to Annie Hargreaves in her Tiverton shop, surrounded by plants.

She herself will vote Lib Dems but she thinks, whatever the result, the by-election is already doing some good for the constituency.

“It’s so blue that people can be quite apathetic at election time, because they don’t think their vote will matter,” she said. “But this is different – it’s a real contest – and that’s invigorating people a little bit. It feels like our voice can make a difference for once.”

A by-election brings Ministers, U-turns and promises – Priti Patel has been in Devon 

And Alison Hernandez, our PCC, doesn’t miss a photo opportunity to be snapped with her, and the Tory candidate, whilst reopening a desk in Tiverton police station. See photograph below which looks like it has been taken by the PCC herself. (Problem is that it’s a mirror image and describes the police station as belonging to the Llawnroc & Noved force, but shows her best side!).

A couple of days earlier, she was photographed with newly chosen Helen Hurford also outside what looks like Tiverton police station, see: Police Commissioner photographed with new Tory candidate raises question. Makes Owl wonder just how many times the front desk at Tiverton policed station has been reopened by the PCC. Perhaps this is the only example the Tories can find of what they have done for Tiverton.

Is Owl the only one to find such blatant political posturing by a Police and Crime Commissioner, supposedly “the voice of the people”, at odds with the Nolan principles? These are the seven principles governing those in public service and include: integrity, objectivity and leadership.

Is this another example of how the Conservatives under the leadership of Boris Johnson have lost all sense of integrity? How are we supposed to believe in the political neutrality of the police knowing they are accountable to, and the Chief Constable appointed by, such an overtly political PCC?

The Home Secretary is quoted as saying “I’m absolutely thrilled that the station will be reopened again. It speaks to the Conservative Party in government, the party of law and order being focused on delivery, delivering for local residents and delivering for the British public because we do believe in our police, we back the police.”

Wasn’t it the Osborne Tory austerity programme that caused the closures in the first palace? “Law and order”, what a joke. Expect a succession of Cabinet Ministers making their first visit to Devon. – Owl

Lewis Clarke (extract)

The Home Secretary Priti Patel has been in Devon this morning, talking about policing, the crisis in Ukraine and the shocking murder of Bobbi Anne McLeod.

She spent time speaking to campaigners on May 25 ahead of the upcoming by-election on June 23, backing their Conservative candidate Helen Hurford. She also headed to Tiverton Police Station to meet Alison Hernandez, the Police Crime Commissioner, as well as the town’s police force.

Speaking exclusively to Devon Live she said: “I’ve had a fantastic visit this morning. It’s a privilege to be here supporting in Helen and the great Conservative team. Actually just having the opportunity to get out and about, meeting activists, but I’ve also been with our Police and Crime Commissioner, Alison Hernandez today, down to the police station speaking to the front line and the officers that do everything that they can day in, day out, to keep local streets safe.”

Speaking about Helen Hurford, the Tiverton & Honiton Conservative candidate she said: “Helen is a great candidate and local. A local lady who’s absolutely dedicated to public service. Her professional background as a teacher, but also someone that’s been active in the community for the last 12 months as well.

“She’s going to be a fantastic member of parliament for this constituency. I think residents will be blessed to have her as the MP, but I think importantly as well, she will go on to serve and represent the local area in an exceptional way.”

Priti Patel, Helen Hurford and Alison Hernandez

This week it was announced by Alison Hernandez that the front desk of Tiverton police station was among those planned for reopening this year. These offices will be staffed by Police Enquiry Officers from Monday to Saturday, from 10am to 3pm, while the existing nine operated by the force will operate extended opening hours of 8am to 6pm on the same days. Officers staffing the offices will be able to support the 101 contact centre too when not dealing with people person.

The Home Secretary welcomed the move: “I’m absolutely thrilled that the station will be reopened again. It speaks to the Conservative Party in government, the party of law and order being focused on delivery, delivering for local residents and delivering for the British public because we do believe in our police, we back the police……

Proposed solar farm near Rockbeare could power up to 18,500 homes in East Devon and Exeter

Developers of a proposed solar farm totalling the equivalent size of 55 football pitches near villages in East Devon are gearing up to outline their plans to residents.

Becca Gliddon 

Ford Oaks Solar and Green Infrastructure says its proposed ‘facility’, near the hamlet of Westcott and Marsh Green village, made up of 45 hectares of ‘green infrastructure improvements’, could power up to 18,500 homes across East Devon and Exeter.

East Devon

The area outlined in red shows where the proposed solar ‘facility’ will be built.

The project manager of charity Devon Communities Together, leading the community consultation process which began in autumn 2021, will attend the Aylesbeare Annual Parish Meeting on Wednesday, May 25.

The Taiyo Power and Storage team, promoting the development, will attend the Aylesbeare Parish Council meeting on Wednesday, June 1, to answer questions and outline the plans through an exhibition.

A date with Rockbeare Parish Council is to be confirmed.

Ford Oaks Solar and Green Infrastructure said the site, located next to the A30 close to Exeter Airport, East Devon, is a ‘solar development that would provide renewable energy that will help to deliver East Devon District Council’s target for being net zero by 2040 and meet Devon County Council’s net zero target for 2050 after having declared a climate emergency in 2019’.

East Devon

The proposed site would be near Westcott Lane, pictured.

A planning application setting out the details and design has been submitted to East Devon District Council.

If it is approved, it will be the first solar development in the UK to apply for the Building with Nature Accreditation.

A Taiyo Power and Storage spokesperson said: “In practice, this will lead to the delivery of approximately 45 hectares of green infrastructure improvements that would increase wildlife in the valley and reduce existing flooding issues. The plans will result in a biodiversity net gain of 121% across the site.”

The plans include:

  • 45 hectares of green infrastructure improvements, in line with the Devon Green Infrastructure Strategy.
  • Delivery of 121% biodiversity net gain, achieved through creating grasslands habitats with species-rich seed mixes, Devon traditional meadows, a mosaic of wetland habitats, and beetle and butterfly banks.
  • Flood mitigation, with new leaky dams and scrapes designed into the scheme to keep surface waters in the fields to reduce flows both onto local lanes and downstream under the A30.
  • 29 hectares of solar arrays designed to permit extensive sheep grazing.

In addition, the proposal states of the intended solar panels:

  • The arrays will be a maximum of 3.15m in height and will be mounted on a south facing axis, except in two fields adjacent to identified properties where the orientation has been realigned to the southeast, thus reducing potential glare to a minimum.

The proposed development also requires the following supporting infrastructure:

  • Substations and transformers which will be held in containers of 3.5m in height.
  • CCTV on poles between 2.5m and 4m high directed away from residential property.
  • A 2m deer fence.
  • Distribution Network Operator (DNO) and client substation, including internal connective cable routes.
  • Internal access tracks.
East Devon

The plans say: “In addition to the solar arrays, the proposed development will provide an expansive network of ecological and landscape enhancements.” Image of some of the proposed schemes: with permission.

Simon Crowe, Director at Taiyo, said: “Ford Oaks will be a fantastic opportunity for East Devon to progress its ambitious climate strategy.

“At a local level, we are providing a renewable energy source for 18,500 homes for the area. At a national level, we need five times as much renewable energy as we are currently producing if we are to be net zero by 2050.

“Ford Oaks marks an important first step in Taiyo’s journey in supporting the UK’s commitment.”

He added: “If we are to truly make East Devon a greener district, we must go beyond renewable energy provision to also enhance the local area’s biodiversity. That’s why we are excited to make this the UK’s first solar park to apply for the Building with Nature accreditation, with vast amounts of biodiversity and nature improvements to the local area.”

Ford Oaks is a joint venture between Kajima and Low Carbon Alliance Limited in partnership with local landowners, including Devon County Council.

The energy produced will be used to power homes across East Devon and Exeter.

A spokesperson for Tayo Power and Storage said: “By providing a renewable energy source that will export 30MW of power to local electricity circuits and power 18,500 homes, 7,430 tonnes of CO2 emissions will be saved – the equivalent of taking 1,600 petrol cars off Devon’s roads for one year.”

They added: “This will be a secure energy source for residents in the Exeter and East Devon area, while positively contributing towards the climate emergency by aligning with Devon County Green Infrastructure Strategy, the Devon Climate Declaration and government targets to increase solar power capacity to 50GW by 2030.”


“I worked at Shell for 33 years – the government is wrong on North Sea oil”

I was a principal scientist for the oil company Shell, for which I worked for 33 years. I have a degree in aeronautical engineering and a PhD in fluid mechanics.

Grahame Buss

I recently read a letter from the business and energy secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, in which he tries to justify government plans to encourage investment in new North Sea oil and gas. He says it would “protect Britain’s energy security” and smooth the “transition to cheap, clean, home-grown energy”, as well as cutting energy bills.

But expanding North Sea oil will do none of those things, for several reasons.

We don’t own the oil and gas, which we give away to energy companies together with substantial subsidies. They sell the oil and gas to the highest bidder on international markets, keep all the revenue, and are currently making eye-watering profits on which they pay almost no tax. Almost 80 per cent of UK production of crude oil is exported and plays no part in our domestic energy security.

We don’t own the companies that exploit this oil and gas. According to one study, more than a third of the licence blocks in the North Sea now have a private or state-backed controlling interest, with fossil fuel firms from China, Russia and the Middle East playing an increasingly dominant role. As well as being unaccountable to UK shareholders, these businesses have no strategic interest in UK energy security or in keeping bills low for UK households.

We don’t own the refineries. They are owned by private companies like Essar (Indian-owned, and reportedly had links to Russian company Lukoil), Petroineos (Chinese joint venture) and Exxon Mobil.  To make money these refineries must run close to full capacity with specific types of crude oil not found in the UK. Reconfiguring is expensive, so the refineries have a strong interest in tying us into foreign crude imports.

We have no control over the price of oil and gas. Producing our own oil and gas does not guarantee that it is available to UK consumers at a price they can afford, as the recent energy price crunch has demonstrated. We pay the international price of oil no matter where it comes from. Fluctuations in the oil price both up and down are felt directly by us.

We can’t just turn on a tap. Allowing new UK oil and gas production is not a quick fix to plug the small gaps caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The new licences in the North Sea will take years to come on stream – an average of 28 years from the licence being granted to production, says the Climate Change Committee. Even the “easy” stuff can take up to 8 years depending on the geology.

So despite Kwarteng’s plans, the UK public will remain vulnerable to global instability in oil availability and price for the foreseeable future.

As for smoothing “the transition to cheap, clean, home-grown energy”. What kind of clean energy investment signal is the government sending by continuing to subsidise fossil fuels?

By refusing to recognise and incentivise investment in the most cost-effective opportunities to cut carbon – solar and wind energy, insulation and free public transport – it is destroying jobs and ensuring higher and more volatile energy bills are baked in.

The only way to be truly secure is to exit fossil fuels and invest in the alternatives.

National Farmers Union funding legal challenges to curbs on river pollution

Environmental groups have criticised the National Farmers Union for helping hundreds of agricultural businesses to push back against measures designed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to protect vulnerable rivers in the UK.

Wil Crisp 

Working with the specialist consultancy Hafren Water, the NFU has helped at least 200 land users in nearly 40 river basins and groundwater catchments to fight against “nitrate vulnerable zone” designations, according to documents made available to the union’s members.

Farmers operating in areas of the UK that are designated as nitrate vulnerable zones are required to comply with restrictions related to the use of fertilisers and the storage of organic manure, designed to reduce the risk of pollution leaching into waterways.

In a video made available to union members, the NFU announced that its legal board had agreed to make special financial support available to agricultural businesses that wanted to appeal against these designations through its legal assistance scheme.

In the video, which was obtained by the investigative journalism organisation Point Source, an in-house solicitor for the NFU said the organisation’s legal assistance scheme would fund the entire cost of preliminary research and consultations before the formal appeals process.

The solicitor also said the scheme would provide subscribers with financial contributions towards costs during the formal appeal proceedings.

The NFU encouraged members to form groups to share costs and work with Hafren Water to challenge designations, saying the consultancy could be trusted and had previously “fought really hard on behalf of members”.

In a document accompanying the video, the NFU said it had “enjoyed a good degree of success” working on nitrate vulnerable zone appeals with Hafren Water in the past.

The NFU declined to tell the Guardian how much money it had already provided to support appeals against designations.

Under the existing system farmers are given an opportunity to appeal against designations every four years.

During the last round of appeals, which started in 2017, 94 of 135 were successful.

The appeals that the NFU and Hafren Water helped farmers to win included removing designations from the River Calder in Lancashire and the River Dove in the Midlands. Together their catchments cover an area of about 1,500 sq km (580 sq miles).

No English rivers have good chemical status and only 14% have good ecological status, according to the most recent Environment Agency figures published under obligations originally established by the EU water framework directive.

Environmental organisations were highly critical of the NFU’s efforts to push back against designations intended to reduce pollution in waterways.

Runoff from agriculture is the biggest single polluter of English rivers, responsible for 40% of damage to waterways.

The chief executive of Salmon & Trout Conservation, Nick Measham, said: “The NFU’s efforts to reduce the number of designated nitrate vulnerable zones in the UK is part of a broader push to deregulate farming.

“The organisation is pushing to remove designations even if it is clear that their removal will result in worsening ecological conditions for already degraded waterways.

“What the NFU should be doing is using its resources to make members true stewards of the countryside instead of seeking to game regulations so that farmers can increase their profits at the expense of the environment.”

The head of science and policy at the Rivers Trust, Rob Collins, said: “Nitrate vulnerable zones are designed to prevent excessive levels of nitrate from polluting surface and groundwaters, causing eutrophication and requiring costly water treatment.

“Rather than challenging designations, funds would be better spent supporting farmers to optimise fertiliser application through nutrient management plans and improving slurry management.”

During the latest round of appeals the Environment Agency has received 55 applications across nine river basin districts, according to information obtained by Point Source using freedom of information legislation.

Defra said Hafren Water was named as the representative acting on behalf of owners or occupiers for 14 appeals.

None of the appeals have been heard yet in the current round, which is the first since Britain left the EU.

David Baldock, a senior fellow at the Brussels-based Institute for European Environmental Policy, said organisations that opposed restrictions on fertiliser use could achieve significant change during the forthcoming appeal hearings.

“The NFU has always had its sights set on trying to push back against these nitrate regulations,” he said. “Previously Defra was under pressure from the European Commission to report back and demonstrate that they were complying with the EU nitrate directive, but now that Britain has left the EU this is no longer necessary.

“Defra’s reaction to these appeals is going to be one of the tests of its resolve to maintain standards of environmental legislation after Brexit.”

Nitrate vulnerable zones covered about 69% of England in 2009. Over the past decade, this figure has been eroded and during the last round of appeals it was reduced from about 58% to 55% of the country.

In a statement the NFU said: “Farmers are perfectly entitled to follow that appeals process to ensure that the designation is correct and has been applied fairly. NFU members are able to seek guidance and support from our legal assistance scheme to help with the appeals process.”

Hafren Water said: “The decision as to whether an area should be designated as a nitrate vulnerable zone is entirely objective and determined using catchment-specific data and Defra-derived methodology.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are committed to working with farmers to improve water quality through advice, incentives and effective regulation. Our goal in the agricultural transition plan is for a modern approach where farmers and regulators work together to improve standards, underpinned by credible deterrents for severe or serial harm.”