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Lib Dems face ‘challenge’ to topple Tories in Devon despite anger at the PM, Ed Davey warns

As Sir Ed speaks, Ms Hurford was sitting down for tea and cake at a nearby farm with the Prime Minister, who had snuck in and snuck out of the constituency on his way back from the Cornwall Show. Again, no chatting to the voters, and no media presence.

[Why is Helen Hurford usually described as a “former headteacher” seldom as “beauty salon owner”? – Owl]

By David Parsley 

The Elsie May’s café in Tiverton loves a blast of pop classics from the 1980s and, so it transpires, does Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey.

Following a day on the by-election campaign trail with his Tiverton and Honiton candidate Richard Foord, Sir Ed is re-energising ahead of an evening rally with a hot chocolate, accompanied by the likes of Aha, Eurythmics, Toto and the soundtrack to Flashdance.

“Oh, I like this one,” says Sir Ed to his advisor. “I went to a Tears for Fears concert when I was a teenager.”

Perhaps Sir Ed has more in common with his nemesis in No 10 after all. While a young Boris Johnson pronounced he wanted to be “king of the world”, one of Sir Ed’s favourite ditties turns out to be the beat combo’s “Everybody Want To Rule The World”.

“Oh, you heard that, did you?”, he says. “They were great, weren’t they?”

Sir Ed’s focus, though, is not so much on world domination. Among Liberal Democrats, everybody wants to rule this piece of Devon after the by-election on 23 June.

Sir Ed has already been to this “winnable” Tory stronghold three times the past few weeks, and he’s going to be around the constituency all weekend.

Despite a Tory majority of 24,239, the bookies have the Lib Dems as big odds-on favourites to take this seat for the first time since its creation in 1997. So, Sir Ed must be brimming with confidence. Not really.

“Well, I don’t believe the bookies,” he says. “We’re not the favourites. We’re the underdogs. It’s a huge challenge. It’s even bigger than the challenge we faced in North Shropshire.”

Of course, the Lib Dems do not want to be seen as the favourites here in farming country. It would look somewhat cocky to assume victory in such a seat, but Sir Ed is a by-election specialist.

Yet, he knows his party is still recovering from the 2010 coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. As a Cabinet member in that government, he is all too aware of the damage that collusion with the enemy did to his party.

At the 2010 General Election, Sir Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats won 57 seats in the House of Commons. After a period in power that saw the party ditch its policy on university tuition fees and vote through Tory austerity measures, supporters deserted the party, leaving it with a mere eight MPs at the next election in 2015.

It didn’t get much better in the December 2019 election, when then-leader Jo Swinson launched the party’s campaign claiming she could be the next Prime Minister. She ended up winning just 11 seats and losing her own seat to the SNP.

But after years in the political wilderness, an onslaught of damaging headlines for the Conservatives have helped spark something of a Liberal Democrat resurgence.

By-election victories last year in Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire have, according to Sir Ed, given his party a renewed momentum.

Now, thanks to the resignation of Neil Parish, the Tory MP who watched pornography on his phone in Parliament, the Lib Dems have another unexpected opportunity to capitalise on that momentum.

“What was good here is that while we were third in Tiverton and Honiton in 2019, we were considered the main challengers from day one,” he says.

“My overall sense is that we are catching up. The challenge is persuading enough Tories who are pretty upset with Johnson, and the Conservatives more broadly, that they can switch to us. We’re having some success in that. The question is, can we keep the momentum going to polling day?”

Referring to odds that place the Lib Dems as firm favourites, he cautions: “I just think it’s still quite an ask. Don’t get me wrong. I think we were really competitive. I just think the bookies’ odds are, well, not a reflection of the challenge we have here.”

One issue for the Lib Dems is that the Conservatives are actually taking this by-election seriously.

Last June, neither the bookies nor the Tories considered them a threat in Chesham and Amerhsam, but they overturned a 12,000-vote Tory majority to claim the seat with an 8,000-strong majority of their own.

Still, back in the Westminster village, Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) seemed equally unphased when the rural constituency of North Shropshire went up for grabs.

After all, there was a comfortable 22,949 majority to defend this time and, thought Mr Johnson, not even the by-election bandits could turn that around.

But turn it around the Lib Dems did, and now sit on a reasonably comfortable near-6,000 majority of their own. That result finally grabbed the attention of CCHQ and, despite an even larger majority here in Tiverton and Honiton, the Conservatives are throwing everything at it.

While the Tory candidate has, so far, declined to talk to the national media and tends to film her campaign videos in safe and easily controlled locations away from voters, her campaign is bombarding the doormats of the 75,000 residents in his part of Devon. In particular, one leaflet has caught the eye.

It is yellow and asks constituents: “Thinking of voting Liberal Democrat?”. It goes on to accuse the Lib Dems of having, among other things, a policy to re-join the EU, voting against border controls, and being committed to putting up energy and road taxes.

Conservative party candidate Helen Hurford has been accused of negative campaigning after sending a flyer in Lib Dem colours to the voters of Tiverton and Honiton (Photo: Supplied)

Conservative party candidate Helen Hurford has been accused of negative campaigning after sending a flyer in Lib Dem colours to the voters of Tiverton and Honiton (Photo: Supplied)

At the very bottom of the page, and in the smallest print permitted by the Electoral Commission, there’s the legal bit that concedes this has been produced on behalf of Conservative candidate Helen Hurford. The Tories are going negative, and Sir Ed admits it will work on some voters, despite denying every point bar one on the not-so-cunningly disguised flyer.

“It is not our policy to re-join the EU,” he says. “We’ve said that the issue in front of us today is the awful trade deal that they’ve done, which is damaging farmers. It’s damaging to businesses and that’s the trade deal we voted against in the House of Commons.”

On the point of the Home Secretary’s border bill, Sir Ed claims it has “a huge number of flaws in it”.

“Let me give you one example,” he adds. “The borders bill means that a Ukrainian refugee who comes here is considered a criminal. I don’t think women and children trying to escape Putin’s bombs should be seen as a criminal. I don’t think Priti Patel should pass a law to make them a criminal.”

As for slapping more taxes on households during the cost of living crisis, Sir Ed says that’s “just a nonsense”.

“I proposed a cut to VAT on fuel, and that would reduce energy bills, not increase them. They can try and make out stuff, but I’ll tell you what our policy is. I’m the leader of the party.”

He then points to a quote on the flyer that Ms Hurford believes will gain her votes. It’s from the Lib Dems’ deputy leader Daisy Cooper.

“We would want to play a role in ousting this Conservative government, that’s our number one priority,” it says.

Sir Ed believes Ms Hurford is doing his candidate’s work for him.

“I tell you what, I want to get Boris Johnson out of 10 Downing Street, and I think the fact that the Tory candidate supports Boris Johnson so much will be an issue for her on polling day.”

As Sir Ed speaks, Ms Hurford was sitting down for tea and cake at a nearby farm with the Prime Minister, who had snuck in and snuck out of the constituency on his way back from the Cornwall Show. Again, no chatting to the voters, and no media presence.

There’s also yet to be any sign of the photo of Ms Hurford and Mr Johnson together on either her website or social media. Perhaps, she agrees with the theory among many local Tories that her boss is more of a liability than an asset in these parts.

After all, she has not hesitated to post pictures and videos with other Tory heavyweights such as Rishi Sunak, Dominic Raab and Oliver Dowden.

“It’s up to voters to decide what they think of that leaflet,” says Sir Ed. “I’m more worried about the fact that the Conservatives are taking this constituency for granted.

“Whether it’s promising forever to reopen train stations and never doing it, or promising investment into Tiverton High School and never doing it, or promising a relief road around Cullompton and never doing it.

“They have made all these promises, and what people are saying, is that they’ve promised these things over the years, but they’ve never made good on them.”

Sir Ed believes “many traditional Tory voters are moving against Johnson” and claims the people of Tiverton and Honiton know they are being “taken for fools” when they “are ignored when it comes to the Government’s levelling up policy”.

“It’s not just because the way Boris Johnson has lied that has led to voters here turning against him,” he says. “It’s also because the Conservatives are not speaking up for the people of Tiverton and Honiton.”

Despite a confidence that the Tories are turning towards his party, Sir Ed claims he is not convinced enough of them will turn in time for when the polling stations open in 12 days’ time.

“If this was a two-month campaign, we’d win without a shadow of a doubt,” he says. “But it’s not. It’s in less than two weeks’ time, and we still have to convince a lot of people here in that short period of time.

“The transition with voters in a by-election campaign goes from ‘oh is there an election?’. That’s the first week or two. Then it goes ‘we’re not very happy with the Tories, Johnson has behaved appallingly and taken us for granted’.

“Then there’s a realisation that, ‘oh, the Liberal Democrats could win here, and I may vote for you’. That’s the journey we’re on, and some people will join that journey really fast, but for a lot of people it’ll take four or five weeks.

“The question is, can we take them on the journey fast enough? The evidence from North Shropshire is we have proved we can do it, but every constituency is different.”

While even the thought of the Lib Dems turning around a 24,239 majority in a true blue rural constituency would have been a ludicrous one a year or so ago, no one here is ruling it out in this crazy political climate.

After all, as Sir Ed knows, Tears for Fears once told us it’s a Mad World.

National park authority defends wild camping rights on Dartmoor

Alexander Darwall, a City fund manager, and his wife, Diana, own 2,784 acres in south Dartmoor. They have filed a case questioning the legal basis of the authority’s bylaws, which allow for responsible backpack camping, where campers leave no trace in permitted areas of the national park.

Tom Wall 

Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) has vowed to defend wild camping on the moor, following a case brought by a wealthy landowner.

The huge moorland in Devon is one of the few places in England which legally allows wild camping in certain areas. DNPA fears the case, which seeks, according to the complainants, to clarify the law governing wild camping in the park, could throw into doubt popular overnight events such as Ten Tors and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award.

Alexander Darwall, a City fund manager, and his wife, Diana, own 2,784 acres in south Dartmoor. They have filed a case questioning the legal basis of the authority’s bylaws, which allow for responsible backpack camping, where campers leave no trace in permitted areas of the national park.

Papers lodged by the Darwalls’ lawyers in the high court claim there is no legal right to camp on Dartmoor, as the Dartmoor Commons Act, which gives the park authority the power to make bylaws, does not allow for camping without a landowner’s consent.

According to the documents, the couple argue: “There is an additional requirement that the camping regulated by the defendant [the park authority] must only take place in areas where the landowners consent and subject to whatever additional conditions and requirements the landowners may stipulate in return for their consent.”

The park’s chief executive, Kevin Bishop, said the authority would not give in to pressure from the Darwalls. “We will defend the right to responsibly wild camp on the moor because national parks exist to both conserve the environment and to create opportunities for public enjoyment and understanding of nature,” he said. “The Darwalls’ claims lack substance. Done properly wild camping is not, as suggested in this claim, a threat to the environment nor a significant risk of wildfires.”

Bishop told the Guardian that section 10 of the Dartmoor Commons Act does give the public right to access the moor for the purposes of outdoor recreation. “We believe this includes wild camping, provided it is done properly,” he said. “This means you carry all you need in a rucksack, stay for no more than one or two nights, and leave no trace.” He said the authority was already working with landowners and the police to clamp down on “fly-camping”, where campers light fires and leave a mess.

A spokesperson for the Darwalls said they were not challenging the park’s existing bylaws but “just asking the Dartmoor National Park Authority to cooperate with those who are responsible for looking after the land and the environment”. The spokesperson added their action would not put events at risk: “I am sure that in all circumstances wild camping could continue on Dartmoor, though it depends in part on the DNPA.”

A Cambridge graduate and former Goldman Sachs analyst, Alexander Darwall is the chief investment officer of Devon Equity Management. After purchasing Blachford Estate on Dartmoor in 2011, the couple soon came into conflict with ramblers by terminating a permissive agreement allowing people to park near the New Waste area of the moor. A petition against the move, which was signed by more than 500 people, claimed the car park had given families, school groups, walking clubs, horse riders and locals access to a “truly beautiful part of Dartmoor”, with a rich prehistoric and industrial history.

Mark Horton, who helps run the 3,800-strong Dartmoor wild camping Facebook group and the Dartmoor access group, said thousands of people, including increasing numbers of women and families, camped responsibly on Dartmoor every year. He accused landowners of looking for any excuse to prevent wild camping. “It’s people with money restricting other people’s pastimes because they want it all to themselves,” he said. “The majority of wild campers should not lose out because of the action of a tiny minority who pitch up next to roads and leave a mess. The fact is cattle and quad bikes used by farmers and landowners cause more damage on the moor than wild campers.”

On the page, there are posts this month from parents taking their sons and daughters out for their first wild camping experiences. All members must leave a photo showing how they left no trace of their visit. Horton, a local builder, who started wild camping on geography field trips in the 1980s, added: “I’m out there camping on Dartmoor all the time. People of all walks of life do it to get away and switch off for a night or two. On the jubilee weekend, I met an electrician, an air-con guy and a doctor out camping.”

Bishop fears that if the Darwalls are successful, the decision could put an end to young people camping on the moor as part of the gruelling Ten Tors challenge, where 2,400 young people from across the south-west aim to reach 10 checkpoints over two days. “If we lose this case there is a risk that campers would need permission from landowners and/or wild camping will be banned from certain areas,” said Bishop. “It could put events like the Ten Tors at risk, which give so many young people a taste of adventure for the first time and opens their eyes and minds to national parks.”

“Backpack camping is an important part of how some people experience Dartmoor every year. It enables people to enjoy the more remote parts of the park and enjoy the moors’ special qualities, dark night skies [and] the sun setting and dawning over the Tors,” he added.

The spokesperson for the Darwalls said it “was not true” they were trying to restrict other people’s pastimes, adding that the Darwells “are simply trying to clarify (not challenge, as you put it) the meaning and extent of s.10(1) Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, given their responsibilities as land managers”. They added that the action would not put the Ten Tors and Duke of Edinburgh’s award at risk: “I don’t believe that there is any risk in any realistic circumstances and I don’t believe anything Mr and Mrs Darwall are doing puts these at risk.”

The spokesperson added the Darwalls closed a permissive car park on farmland due to the presence of cattle and important biodiversity: “There is no access restriction to New Waste and there is no access restriction to Stall Moor.”

NHS: “Safe in their hands”?

Paramedics ‘quitting in droves’ as ambulance wait time soar to record highs


The number of calls for an ambulance in England have nearly doubled since the Tories came to power, amid warnings that record pressures on the NHS are causing paramedics to quit in their droves.

Ambulance calls have risen by ten times more than the number of ambulance workers since 2010, according to analysis of NHS data.

An increase in people seeking emergency treatment, GPs unable to cope with the demand and cuts to preventive care have all been blamed for the shocking figures.

The analysis, undertaken by the GMB union, found that there were 7.9 million calls in 2010-11. By 2021-22, the number had risen to 14 million – an increase of 77 per cent.

Pressure on services

In the same period, the number of ambulance workers has risen by just seven per cent, indicating the extreme pressure on staff.

Ambulance workers are staging a demonstration on Sunday outside the GMB’s annual congress in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, to highlight the pressures they are facing.

The average response time for serious ambulance calls was 51 minutes in April 2022, compared with 20 minutes a year before.

And GMB said more than 1,000 ambulance workers have left their jobs since 2018 to seek a better work-life balance, more pay, or to take early retirement.

Paul, a paramedic and GMB deputy branch secretary, told the Observer he had recently seen a crew waiting ten hours between arriving at hospital and transferring a patient to care.

“They arrived at the hospital at 20.31. They then cleared from the hospital at 05.48 in the morning. The impact of the lack of resources is affecting the ambulance service.

“We are also seeing people become aggressive to the ambulance crew, because they’ve waited hours upon hours in an ambulance.

“We used to have crew we called ‘lifers’ – you join and you’re there for the rest of your life until you retire. But now we are seeing people do two or three years and then going to better jobs – maybe a GP practice or become a university lecturer. There are no nights, no weekends; you’re in a nice, clean environment.”

‘Unbelievable stress’

GMB national officer Rachel Harrison, said: “Ambulance workers have faced more than a decade of cuts while demand has almost doubled.

“It’s no wonder they are leaving in droves while the service itself is teetering on the brink of collapse.

“The explosion in demand is due to savage cuts to essential services since 2010. GMB members tell us the pressures they face are the worst they have ever experienced.

“Our members face unbelievable stress and even abuse while they do their best to administer care and save lives.

“We need urgent investment across the health and care services, otherwise we risk an unprecedented crisis.”

Michael Gove’s planning reforms will ‘erode’ public’s ability to object to developments, legal advice warns

Campaigners accused levelling up secretary Mr Gove of a “power grab” and warned poor quality developments would be built against the will of those forced to live beside them.

Kate Devlin 

Michael Gove is facing calls to tear up his flagship planning reforms after a former adviser to Boris Johnson warned homeowners will not be able to object to nearby developments under the proposals.

Ministers announced the legislation in a flurry of publicity over new “street votes” on loft conversions and conservatories last month.

But a new legal opinion, which has been seen by The Independent and will be published by the Commons levelling-up committee next week, warns that the bill will actually “substantially erode” the rights of local people.

Campaigners accused levelling up secretary Mr Gove of a “power grab” and warned poor quality developments would be built against the will of those forced to live beside them.

The Town and Country Planning Association said that, in the wake of the legal advice, the government should amend the bill.

Paul Brown QC, who advised the prime minister on planning when Mr Johnson was the mayor of London, wrote: “The bill introduces a new mechanism to allow the secretary of state to grant planning permission for controversial developments, bypassing the planning system entirely. There is no right for the public to be consulted as part of this process.”

He adds: “Overall… the bill radically centralises planning decision-making and substantially erodes public participation in the planning system.”

Naomi Luhde-Thompson, director of climate change organisation Rights Community Action, which commissioned the legal advice, said: “This advice is devastating about the impact these proposed laws have on people’s voice in the decisions that matter to their communities. It’s cutting people out of decisions, when we need all hands on deck to deal with crises we face.  Involving people and communities in the development and change of places is a foundation for building places for everyone.”

Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town and Country Planning Association, said the plans go against the government’s levelling-up agenda “which has emphasised the importance of empowering local leaders and communities”. She added: “We hope, therefore, that the government will take the legal opinion on board and seek to amend the bill as it passes through parliament.”

Under the government’s “street votes” plan, people could be given the right to vote on proposed property extensions as well as new homes.

But Crispin Truman, chief executive of countryside charity the CPRE, said that far from strengthening local democracy, the levelling-up bill “is a cleverly disguised power grab by the government”. He added: “As written currently, ministers would have unprecedented power to overrule local plans and, based on the government’s track record, it could mean more poor quality and inappropriate developments being imposed on people against their will.”  

He also warned the bill would leave local councils less able to “deliver affordable homes on small sites, new nature reserves or on renewable energy generation in new housing developments”.  

Rebecca Murray, from Friends of the Earth, said the government’s levelling-up agenda “was meant to give communities the power to regenerate their local areas and ensure that planning decisions are made democratically – yet this bill is set to do the exact opposite”.

Dr Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said public participation in planning was important as it gave people a voice in protecting nature and responding to climate change. “If ministers are allowed to drown out these voices then significant environmental concerns could go unheard,” he said.

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesperson said: “The levelling-up bill will put power back in the hands of communities and local leaders, simplify the planning system and end outdated, bureaucratic practices that slow down regeneration.

“Under our reforms, local people will be in charge of planning, not big developers or national diktats, and communities will have greater say in local plans, giving them more opportunity to shape what happens in their area and stronger grounds to resist unwanted development.”

Exeter brownfield site could provide new ‘waterside community’ for 14,000

The housing potential for this brownfield site is greater than the grade 1 agricultural land “sacrificed” by farmers to build Cranbrook. Makes Owl wonder whether the GESP provided too soft an option for too long.

Anita Merritt

Plans are to be unveiled to turn a once thriving Exeter industrial centre into a ‘vibrant new waterside community’ that has the potential to house around 14,000 people. The proposals could see brownfield land at Water Lane, between Marsh Barton and the Exeter canal, turned into new homes alongside shops, offices, restaurants and many other facilities.

Historically, it was once the home of a thriving industrial centre and Exeter gasworks, but for decades the site has been described as ‘underused’ and has been identified for many years by the city council as suitable for a major redevelopment in its Liveable Exeter vision. That vision states a desire to create an enterprising, self-sustaining community and a place to work as well as to live where day to day needs can be met without the use of a car.

Over the last years, many of the plots, including a former meat rendering plant, have been acquired by the Water Lane Development Management Company (DMC). Now the project team are preparing to invite feedback on proposals for a mixed-use community.

Exact details of the proposals won’t be revealed until Friday, June 24, when a drop-in exhibition will be held at Haven Banks Outdoor Education Centre from 10am to 7pm. The exhibition will also be on view the following day, Saturday, June 25, from 10am to 4pm, and will also be available online. Exeter residents are being invited to shared ideas to help before finalised are submitted to Exeter City Council’s planning department.

Richard Clarke, of Water Lane DMC, said: “Although the proposals are at an early stage, we would like to start a conversation with neighbours, and people living and working right across the city of Exeter, to help refine our vision of a low-car, low-carbon community, well connected to the city, but also a place where people will be able to live, work and spend their leisure time.

“Exeter is a fantastic city with a great environment, surrounded by some amazing countryside. If it’s to continue to thrive and grow in a way that protects that environment, we must make the best use of underutilised land within the city’s boundaries.”

Water Lane is one of nine sites identified in the city council’s Liveable Exeter programme which promotes a vision for sustainable mixed communities, close to the heart of the city. Richard added: “We want Water Lane to be a low-car, low-carbon community, which will help meet the challenges of climate change. It’s already a well-connected site. Parts of it are only a 15-minute walk from Exeter High Street, and less than five minutes from Marsh Barton, and yet the beauty of the canal and the Riverside Valley Park are also on the doorstep.

“The new Marsh Barton railway station which is opening soon will also help connect Water Lane with the rest of the city, and we have been discussing with Stagecoach how we can make the best use of electric buses to serve the new residents – as well as existing ones nearby.”

Water Lane DMC is working closely with Co-Cars, which are already prominent and popular in the city, to develop electric car, van and bike-sharing hubs that are embedded within the design concept of the development, to provide genuine alternatives to private car ownership.

Richard said: “If we’re to meet net-zero carbon targets in the fight against climate change, we will all need to change the way we live. We can make this as simple as possible by designing a community that’s fit for the future, with all the necessary infrastructure.

“In addition to promoting sustainable travel, we’re designing an energy centre to make the best use of solar electricity generated on site, with the aim of being reliant solely on sustainable energy.”

Richard added: “We’re some way off submitting any planning application but it’s important that the local community, and people in Exeter, have an opportunity to be involved in the design of this new and highly sustainable community. We’ll be asking what sort of facilities might be needed, what kind of homes and how best to turn a brownfield site into a green community, with a focus on improving the natural and cultural environment.

“It’s a large area, and like any brownfield site it has its challenges. We look forward to inviting the people of Exeter to help shape the proposals.” The exhibition material will be available online at from Friday, June 24.