Tone deaf Johnson flounders in car crash GMB interview

Boris Johnson ended his 1,791-day hiatus from Good Morning Britain with a car-crash interview with Susanna Reid over the cost-of-living crisis, the Partygate scandal and honesty in politics.

The Hound (Extract)

The Prime Minister – who turned up 15 minutes late to the hotly-anticipated interview – did not seem prepared for the ITV presenter’s ruthless questioning and constant interjections.

In one calamitous moment, Johnson was asked about Elsie, a 77-year-old pensioner who has been forced to ride around on buses all day to keep warm so she does not have to pay for heating back home.

Watch the 3 min interview here.

Civil servants called UK Covid testing scheme ‘unlegit’, court hears

Civil servants described the government’s Covid testing programme as “unlegit” and “no way to do business” in emails revealed in a high court challenge to the awarding of up to £85m in contracts for antibody tests.

Haroon Siddique 

The campaigning organisation Good Law Project (GLP) is challenging the health and social care secretary, claiming the contracts with Abingdon Health, a medium-sized UK firm, were unlawful because they were not advertised nor open to competition, and the correct procurement process was bypassed.

The antibody tests developed by Abingdon later failed to pass regulatory tests and the vast majority expired without being used.

At the beginning of the hearing in central London, the GLP released details of emails obtained as a result of its legal challenge, including one in which David Williams, then the second permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), expressed concern at “how unlegit the entire testing strand is”.

In another email, concerned specifically with Abingdon, Steve Oldfield, the chief commercial officer at the DHSC, asked Williams to “have a quiet word with [Lord] Bethell and explain to him that we could make this all a lot more legit if we just took two days to do a public call-to-arms to ‘flush out’ any other companies who might be able to play a role in this space, and remove the criticism that we haven’t given everyone a fair chance”.

Bethell, then a health minister, is said by the GLP to have “made a number of interventions to assist [Abingdon]”, including championing the company – unlawfully, according to the GLP – on the basis of it being British. Bethell’s WhatsApp messages relating to government business have been unavailable for disclosure in the case because they were deleted when he replaced his mobile phone.

The GLP said there were concerns highlighted over the way contracts were being awarded in relation to Abingdon but also more generally, with one email by a civil servant stating: “[This is] no way to do business but we are in exceptional times.”

Additionally, the documents show an unnamed external consultant for the health and social care secretary saying of the arrangements with Abingdon: “Beyond the individual risks by themselves is there a point of mentioning that in conjunction with each other it becomes a monster of a story: first, we selected the RTC [rapid test consortium, which included Abingdon] without competition, then we might have a biased validation leading to a favoured product, we help them financially by funding upfront purchases without sufficient due diligence (ie, no contract in place) and with that commit to buying the test kits without anchoring any pricing principles. That’s big.”

After Public Health England found the tests were not accurate enough for mass antibody testing they were still accepted by the DHSC, with the government saying they were suitable for use in surveillance studies, although emails also showed concerns were raised about Abingdon going bust and “extensive reputational/political damage”.

Concern was subsequently expressed that it “will look like we’ve bought a load of worthless devices”.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “Our engagement with Abingdon Health was led by officials – not ministers or MPs.”

The case is expected to last three days.

Parks near new homes shrink 40% as developers say they cannot afford them

New homes have a dwindling amount of green space because property developers claim they cannot afford to build parks, research has found.

Helena Horton 

Analysis from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) looked at data from the Office for National Statistics, data on the average age of local housing stock from Datadaptive and national survey data on public perceptions of local green space from the government agency Natural England.

It found that compared with the mid-20th century, the amount of green space near new developments in England and Wales has declined since 2000.

For example, in neighbourhoods where most of the housing was built between 1930 and 1939, the median size of a neighbourhood’s nearest park was about 61,500 sq metres. The equivalent figure for developments dominated by post-2000 housing is 36,200 sq metres – a 40% decline. And between 2013 and 2021 the proportion of parks deemed to be in “good condition” slipped from 60% to just over 40%.

Dr Alex Chapman, a senior researcher at the NEF, said property developers had the upper hand in negotiations with councils over green space provision.

He told the Guardian: “The broader planning arrangements around new developments mean developers can cite financial viability as a factor. If the council says it needs to build a huge park alongside the development the developer will say that it’s not financially viable.

“Sometimes the council can challenge this, but because of the pressure to build new houses from central government, the appeal will fail. The council won’t want to take part in a drawn out legal pursuit because they know they are on the back foot.”

Chapman pointed out that many large housing developers have a profit margin of about 15%, so there is room to invest in the property they build to make it better for those who live in and around it. Instead, this profit goes to shareholders.

“The golden age of building large parks near to homes was also the golden age of council housebuilding and I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” he said.

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Not only are new parks not being created, existing parks lack legal protection, so are being built on by developers.

Chapman said: “Some of these developments being picked up by us are infill – some of these developments are being built on what would have been someone’s green space. This could be because the parks do not have legal status or protection, so they can be built on.”

One in three people in England do not have nature near their home, with little or no green space at all in some of the most disadvantaged areas.

Visiting nature has proved to be important to wellbeing and health but access to it is decreasing. Analysis by the NEF found the decline in new green space provision after 2000 can now be associated with at least 9m fewer trips to green space a year, and those living in developments built after 2000 were about 5% less likely to visit green space once a week after other key variables (deprivation, age and dog ownership) were accounted for.

The NEF is supporting a petition calling for a legal right to nature.

Torbay MP’s wife accused of bullying official

Two prominent Torbay councillors – one of them the wife of Torbay’s Tory MP – have been blasted by an independent investigator after a “chaotic” council meeting. Cllr David Thomas, the leader of the Tory group on Torbay Council, was found to have breached the council’s code of conduct while fellow Conservative Cllr Hazel Foster, the wife of Torbay MP and Government Minister Kevin Foster, was said to have bullied a council official.

Guy Henderson 

Reports at the time said the meeting had echoes of the “Jackie Weaver” incident at Handforth Parish Council in Cheshire that went viral last year. The investigation report, which has been published on the council’s own website, will be considered by the council’s standards hearing sub-committee next week.

Cllr Foster told the Herald Express she would be making a statement to her hearing next Tuesday and declined to comment further. Cllr Thomas will go before the sub-committee on Friday May 13.

The investigation followed a meeting of the council’s housing crisis review panel last September, a meeting chaired by Cllr Foster, which Devon Live reported at the time had “descended into disarray”. Members engaged in a fierce hour-long debate over who could or could not be a member of the panel, with the political make-up of the panel the main issue, and at one point a council clerk became “visibly distressed”.

One councillor said the clerk had been “upset and crying”. Six councillors complained – five Liberal Democrats and one Independent – as well as the council’s director of place Kevin Mowat, sparking the investigation.

According to the report Cllr Foster, who was elected to the council in May 2019, was found to have breached Torbay’s own code of conduct five times during the meeting, on matters including not treating others with respect; bullying or harrassing a person and attempting to use her position improperly. The report says she also breached the code’s rulings on bringing her office or the council itself into disrepute.

The investigator said there was insufficient evidence to rule on two other possible breaches of the code. The meeting on September 27 was streamed online, and a copy of the recording was used in the investigation.

The report says: “Throughout the meeting, Cllr Foster appeared focused on and determined to take a vote on membership of the panel. The meeting was at times heated and this is what led to the complaints against Cllr Foster.”

It later says: “Throughout the meeting there are several examples where Cllr Foster appeared to dismiss the opinion of others and at times refused to allow others to speak. The clerk was clearly very distressed and yet no attempt was made by Cllr Foster to rectify the situation or even show any concern or empathy.

“In addition to this, Cllr Foster appeared to ignore the comments made by other officers and other councillors who did not agree with the process being suggested by her. The fact six councillors and an officer of the council all complained shows the strength of concern over the disrespect shown by Cllr Foster.

“I consider that Cllr Foster has not treated officers or fellow members with respect.” When interviewed for the investigation, Cllr Foster said she felt she was herself being bullied by officers.

Among the complaints was a claim Cllr Foster had used her position to give an advantage to the Conservative group, which had been a breach of the code. The report also says Cllr Foster had brought her own office and the council into disrepute.

It states: “There was a clear lack of concern for the officers in attendance, with the clerk being visibly upset and a senior officer being ignored and told he could not speak.” Cllr Thomas faced nine complaints around his conduct at the same meeting, and was found to have breached the code twice, in attempting to use his position improperly to secure an advantage or disadvantage, and bringing his office or the council into disrepute.

The investigator notes: “I am of the opinion Councillor Thomas acted in a blunt, straight-talking manner, as is clearly his way. This approach might be difficult to accept at times (and he might wish to consider how his approach comes across to others) though this of itself would not breach the code.

“People are familiar with his style and there is nothing in any of his individual remarks during the meeting that I would regard as crossing the line between plain speaking and being disrespectful.” It will now be up to the sub-committee at its meetings next week to decide if Cllrs Foster and Thomas have in fact breached the code of conduct.