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Boris Johnson sighed in relief – then the message from UK local elections took hold

…..The Lib Dems have already started campaigning in Tiverton and Honiton, where a byelection will be held next month after the resignation of Tory MP Neil Parish, who admitted looking at porn in parliament. (Extract)

The constituency includes the prosperous Devon town of Cullompton, normally safe Conservative territory. There, lifelong Conservative voter Tim Cox said he was considering voting for a different party for the first time. “It’s just the general behaviour of the Conservative party. It’s pretty shocking – it’s appalling,” he said, pausing on the high street. “Johnson lied. It’s the bare-faced lies he’s told. It’s all about personal character to me, whether you are believable or credible as a leader of the country. There are a few of them in the cabinet, including Johnson, who just aren’t.”

There seems to be some desire for change in the constituency, which has been staunchly Conservative since its creation in 1997. Ryan Lacey-Mills, 34, who works in car sales, voted for Johnson in 2019 but now felt the PM was a spent force. He is also weighing up the offer from other parties. “[Johnson] has had his time. He did Brexit,” he said. “Whether it is his fault or not, something needs a shakeup. It’s time for a change.”

Even those still planning to vote Conservative struggle to summon up much enthusiasm. Steven Morris, 69, believes Johnson will have to go eventually. He can’t forgive the parties that took place in No 10 when the country was in lockdown. “I’ve got asthma. I was actually locked up for two months when it all kicked off – and to think they were having parties really upsets me,” he says, cradling a wrapped portion of fish and chips. “I always thought the Conservatives had got standards, but Boris hasn’t got any.”

As they eye Tiverton and Honiton, the Lib Dems have their blood up. Johnson may be able to soldier on after Thursday’s local elections but whether he could survive a byelection defeat in a safe seat in a few weeks time is another matter entirely.

Levelling up just got tougher, says Michael Gove

Looks to Owl as if it is/was nothing more than a slogan.

Rising prices are making the government’s plans to reduce regional inequalities more difficult and more important, says Michael Gove, the cabinet minister for levelling up.

BBC Panorama

The goal of levelling up is to provide equal opportunities across the UK.

A BBC Panorama investigation raises questions about whether the money is reaching the most deprived areas in England.

Mr Gove said his department was helping councils to ensure bids are effective.

Levelling up was a key part of the Conservatives’ 2019 election campaign.

The government recently set out its 12 “missions” for the policy – ranging from improving education to faster broadband capability to local transport – with a deadline for delivery in 2030.

“Unless we stick to those missions, then the cost of living issues that we face at the moment will deepen inequality,” said Mr Gove.

Labour’s Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Levelling Up Secretary, said the government should begin by getting inflation under control. “By their own admission, their mismanagement of the economy is going to make levelling up harder,” she told the BBC.

For the first round of the so-called Levelling Up Fund, £1.7bn has been allocated to towns and cities across the UK.

When Panorama sent freedom-of-information requests to councils in the 100 most deprived areas in England, it found that 28 councils had all their bids rejected. This included 18 areas that were on the government’s top priority list, including Knowsley and Blackpool.

Meanwhile, 38 councils won all, or some, of the money they requested, and 34 councils did not submit a bid in this round.

Map showing outcome of Levelling up fund bids in 100 most deprived local authorities

A second round for the fund will open for applications at the end of May.

Former government economist Nicola Headlam said asking councils to bid against each other was not the right approach. “A beauty contest around who gets the money, that’s not really how I would do it,” she said. She also said that affluent places could have more resources to write better proposals.

Mr Gove said his department was deploying levelling up directors, who live in the relevant areas, to assist with bids.

Data methodology: Data gathered under Freedom of Information requests to lower tier local authorities. We have excluded any bids made at a county council or combined authority level as these had more limited eligibility criteria for the Levelling Up Fund. We used the Index of Multiple Deprivation 2019 ‘rank of average ran’ summary measure. Corby has been excluded due to boundary changes, so we included the 101st-ranked local authority Nuneaton and Bedworth.

Second home owners face doubling of council tax

The Government will be giving local authorities the power to double council tax on second homes in plans due to be announced in next week’s Queen’s Speech. The new council tax rules for second and empty homes will be introduced as part of the UK Government’s commitment to invest in local communities and drive levelling up across the country.

Maxine Denton

In Devon alone, figures presented to Devon County Council’s cabinet earlier this month showed that there were more than 11,000 homes classed as second homes. It also revealed that in October, there were 640 homes in Devon that were being charged the Empty Homes Premium as they had been empty for more than two years – 46 of them in the South Hams and 33 in West Devon.

Under the new rules, English local authorities will gain ‘discretionary powers’ to levy a premium of up to 100 per cent on council tax bills for second homes that are furnished but not occupied as a sole or main residence. As well as supporting and improving services, this extra funding could be used to help ensure council tax is kept low for local residents.

Other homes simply left empty could also see the standard council tax rate doubled after 12 months – as opposed to two years at present. It is thought that the move will discourage owners from leaving properties vacant for a long time, while injecting money back into local areas.

In addition to having the power to apply greater premiums at a level of their choice, Local Authorities will have flexibility on how to spend the funds raised and can decide to prioritise keeping council tax bills low for local households. This will help with plans to deliver affordable housing, social care and children’s services.

Both West Devon and South Hams councils have declared housing a crisis. Due to a number of factors, including the lack of rented accommodation which is available for longer than six months, an excessive rise in house prices due to second home-owners, the conversion of properties to Airbnb’s and people moving into the District since the pandemic. South Hams District Council last Autumn said it has no choice but to declare a Housing Crisis.

West Devon councillors in February heard that house prices in the borough are the least affordable in Devon with average housing costs at over 12 times the average salary. An almost complete lack of long term rented accommodation was highlighted as one of the leading problems contributing to the crisis alongside the increasing trend for people to move to the area from urban locations.