Huge solar farm approved for farmland near Clyst Hydon

A new solar farm capable of powering almost 15,000 homes is set to be built in East Devon.

Paul Jones www.midweekherald.co.uk

Lightrock Power’s plan for the 49MW energy plant at Clyst Hydon, known as Paytherden Solar Farm – was approved by East Devon District Council’s (EDDC) Planning Committee at a meeting on Tuesday morning (July 26).

The scheme, on more than 170 acres of land adjacent to Peradon Farm, had been recommended for approval by planning officers.

More than 550 people commented on the application, with more than 200 supporting the scheme, submitted by LDA Design on behalf of Lightrock Power.

Reasons for opposing the plans included the loss of farmland and potential flooding.

The Devon branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) was among those who objected to the plans.

However, the RSPB is backing the scheme, pledging to work with developer Lightrock on measures that would ‘deliver benefits for a wide range of species and will certainly be of higher ecological value than what is currently there’.

Councillors voted 10 votes in favour to two votes against to approve the plans.

After the meeting Chris Sowerbutts, co-founder of Lightrock, said: “This decision will help us to tackle climate change by decarbonising how we generate electricity.

“The decisions we must take to tackle the climate crisis aren’t always easy so we’re grateful to members of the planning committee, council officers and everyone who has engaged in this project.

“We now look forward to continuing to work with the local community, East Devon District Council and other stakeholders to move forward with our plans.”

The solar farm would sit on land near Clyst Hydon – Credit: Lightrock/Google

The solar farm will significantly benefit the environment, he said, helping barn owls to thrive and nest on site, establish otter holts and habitat, improve the banks of the River Clyst for wildlife including water voles, and improve other existing ecological corridors for reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals including brown hares and hedgehogs.

“We face an ecological crisis as well as a climate crisis so it’s so important solar farms like Paytherden benefit local wildlife as well as generating renewable energy,” Mr Sowerbutts added.

To find out more about the plans, visit http://www.paytherdensolarfarm.com.

 

UK health department played ‘fast and loose’ when awarding Covid contracts to Randox

Ministers and government officials played “fast and loose” when awarding £777m in Covid contracts to a healthcare firm that employed the Conservative MP Owen Paterson as a lobbyist, the head of parliament’s spending watchdog has said.

Rob Evans www.theguardian.com 

In a damning report, the House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) concluded that the government made a series of failures, making it impossible to know if the contracts had been awarded properly to Randox.

The Department of Health and Social Care did little to deal with potential conflicts of interests despite “clear concerns” about Randox’s political connections, the cross-party committee of MPs found.

It added that officials were aware Paterson had been in direct contact with Matt Hancock, who was then the health secretary, while promoting Randox.

The MPs found that Randox made “substantial” profits after it was given the contracts to carry out Covid testing during the pandemic.

The firm’s profits in the year to June 2021 were “more than 100 times greater” than the previous year, according to the PAC, which questioned whether they were excessive.

In its latest accounts, Randox reported a profit of £177m for the year to 30 June 2021. The MPs said this compared with a profit of £1.2m that Randox reported for the 18 months up to 30 June 2020.

A Randox spokesperson accused the PAC report of being “deeply flawed and wrong in assumptions it makes and the conclusions it draws”, and added the firm had issued a legal complaint.

He said: “At no stage, either during its deliberations or in its preparation of this report, did the PAC make any contact whatsoever with Randox. Consequently many elements of its report relating to Randox are false, based as they are on wrong and unchecked assumptions about the company.”

A spokesperson for the company has previously said Randox contracts were awarded in full compliance with government procedures and protocols in place at a time of the emerging pandemic.

The PAC also concluded that the health department did not keep proper records of why it gave the contracts to Randox, nor of what happened when ministers met the company. The department was approached for comment.

The publication of the report comes after Randox and Paterson were accused of cronyism in parliamentary debates. Randox paid Paterson, then MP for North Shropshire, £100,000 a year.

The former cabinet minister was forced to resign from parliament last November after he wrongly used his parliamentary position to lobby for his clients, including Randox. Evidence of his lobbying had originally been uncovered by the Guardian.

The Liberal Democrats won the subsequent byelection, and the lobbying saga – including attempts by Boris Johnson to force his MPs to change the rules to protect Paterson – contributed to fury within the party and among voters, which ultimately led to the prime minister’s downfall this month.

Between 2010 and 2018, Randox donated £160,000 to the Conservative party. During the pandemic, Paterson directly lobbied Hancock on behalf of Randox. After Paterson’s lobbying, Hancock chased his officials, saying he was “very worried” about how his department was treating Randox and other firms.

The PAC concluded that the department’s “woeful [and] poor record-keeping means that we cannot be sure that all these contracts were awarded properly. Even allowing for the exceptional circumstances at the start of the pandemic, basic civil service practices to document contract decision-making were not followed.”

It said that the health department neglected to scrutinise obvious conflicts of interest when it awarded the contracts, even though officials knew of Paterson’s contacts with Hancock.

Between January and October 2020, Paterson and Hancock exchanged messages eight times over private email or WhatsApp while the MP promoted Randox. Hancock has said he did nothing wrong.

The MPs said officials were also aware that Hancock had received hospitality from Randox in 2019 when he stayed overnight at a country estate owned by the head of the firm. Hancock said he did not need to publicly declare this hospitality.

The health department was also criticised for failing to meet the basic rule to publicly declare meetings between ministers and outside firms. Only four out of the eight meetings between Randox and health ministers were made public as they should have been. Records of what was said at only two of these meetings were kept.

At the start of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, the health department gave the first contract, worth £133m, to Randox without allowing any other firms to bid. The government had suspended normal rules for awarding contracts as the pandemic was deemed to be an emergency.

The PAC said the award of this contract did not receive “the scrutiny we would expect from the department’s senior civil servants. The role of the department’s ministers in approving the contract was also confused and unclear.”

The MPs added: “Randox struggled to deliver the expected level of testing capacity against its first contract, which did not set out any performance measures. Yet the department still awarded Randox a contract extension worth £328m seven months later, again without competition.”

Meg Hillier, the PAC’s chair, said: “We repeatedly hear the reference to the crisis we were facing as a nation. But acting fast doesn’t mean acting fast and loose.”

She added that “much of the business was won without any competing tenders from companies who may have had better capacity to deliver”, pointing out that Randox had also been given money to pay for equipment to conduct the testing.

A spokesperson for Hancock said: “Randox was the UK’s largest testing provider. Not to work with them during this unprecedented global pandemic would have been a dereliction of duty.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said:“There is no evidence that the government’s contracts with Randox were awarded improperly, as has been concluded by the National Audit Office.

“To suggest otherwise is misleading. By building the largest testing industry in UK history from scratch and at pace, we were able to break chains of transmission and save tens of thousands of lives. Contracts with Randox and other suppliers made a significant contribution to our national response to Covid.”

Spending gap between London and North doubles despite Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ pledge

The “Magic Sauce,” the “Catchup Ketchup” is not working.

Are we surprised? – Owl

The gap in public spending between London and the North has doubled since Boris Johnson came to power, despite his pledge to “level up” the country, new figures reveal.

Rob Merrick www.independent.co.uk 

The capital has surged ahead of England’s poorest region in terms of cash handed out by the government – proving that “the money simply didn’t follow the rhetoric”, according to the think tank behind the analysis.

The data also shows that, three years after the prime minister stood outside No 10 and vowed to level up the nation, public spending in the North has now fallen behind the average for England.

Labour said the findings were “scandalous”, but the UK’s regional inequalities have barely featured in the Conservative leadership contest, which has instead been dominated by discussion of tax cuts and hardline policies on immigration.

IPPR North, which carried out the study, warned Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak that “votes lent to their party” at the 2019 election cannot be taken for granted if the levelling up promise is allowed to fail.

“If candidates hope to serve for longer than their recent predecessors, they should listen to the North and make unlocking the region’s significant potential their personal priority,” said Ryan Swift, a researcher for the think tank.

A spokesperson for the Northern Research Group (NRG) of Conservative MPs said the analysis highlighted “the biggest issue facing our new prime minister”.

“We were elected with a mandate to level up the entire UK, and this is what we must deliver,” the influential group said. “The NRG are pleased that both candidates have signed up to our pledges, meaning both are fully committed to a levelling-up fund, a minister for the North, and greater devolution.”

Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, said: “These figures are scandalous. For all the Tory promises to people in the North, regional inequality has got worse since Boris Johnson became prime minister. And now the two continuity candidates scrapping to replace him are vying for the mantle of Margaret Thatcher.”

And Clive Betts, the chair of the Commons levelling up committee, said: “I’m very disappointed but not surprised by these figures. The problem is that there is no real commitment to spending the money that is needed in the areas that need levelling up.”

In 2019, the North received £13,884 per person, above the England average of £13,648, according to IPPR North’s analysis of data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

But by 2021, its spending per head of £16,223 had slipped below the England average of £16,309 – despite Mr Johnson’s high-profile pledge to rescue left-behind areas.

Meanwhile, London’s share of the pot leapt from £15,397 to £19,231, widening the spending gap from £1,513 per person to £3,008, the figures show.

“On public spending, the money simply didn’t follow the levelling-up rhetoric,” said Marcus Johns, another researcher at IPPR North, a branch of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The criticism will fuel fears that levelling up is floundering even before its champion leaves No 10 in September, forced out by Partygate and the Chris Pincher groping scandal.

It was undermined by the Treasury’s refusal to commit to any extra spending despite the number of ‘red wall’ Tories in vulnerable marginal seats in the North and Midlands.

Meanwhile, as The Independent revealed, at least £2bn has been slashed from development funding in poorer areas as a result of the government breaking its pledge to match EU spending lost because of Brexit.

Starved of extra funding, the then levelling up secretary Michael Gove unveiled 12 “missions”, which were criticised for being vague, unambitious, or impossible to measure, although the bill to “enshrine” them in law was hailed as proof that the targets – to improve pay, jobs, transport connectivity and other indicators in less prosperous areas – had real teeth.

It then emerged that Mr Gove was quietly affording his department the power to abandon the key tests of whether the strategy was working if he was able to argue that they were “no longer appropriate”.

Now IPPR North has analysed the ONS data, covering expenditure on both services and investment, to uncover the true spending picture since Mr Johnson made his pledge.

The “North” covers three regions – the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber – which are seen as the focus of the pledge to level up. Over the two-year period from 2019 to 2021, per-person public spending in the North went from being £246 higher than the England average to £86 below it.

The lowest percentage increase was in the North East (16 per cent), while the lowest per-person public spending in 2021 was in Yorkshire and the Humber (£15,540).

IPPR North also stripped out the huge amounts spent on tackling the Covid pandemic from its analysis, but discovered that the picture remained largely the same.

On that measure, the gap between the North and London grew by almost 80 per cent, from £1,081 per person to £1,937.

Mr Johns added: “Although an increase in public spending on 2019 was welcome and absolutely essential, spending is lower and grew slower in the North than in other parts of the country. At the same time, the country became more centralised and inequalities widened. This is because power is not distributed fairly in this country.”

Mr Swift added: “Our analysis suggests that levelling up was, in many ways, business as usual. But that has to change.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “We do not recognise these figures and are pressing full steam ahead with levelling up the North.”

Two large rockfalls happen within minutes on Sidmouth beach

A beach in Devon remains closed after a double rockfall missed a member of the public by a matter of minutes.

ITV News www.itv.com 

Two rockfalls happened within minutes of each other on East Beach in Sidmouth at around 12.40pm on Monday 25 July.

Glyn Warren was nearby at the time and said he spotted a “cloud of dust” caused by the first rock fall.

He said: “The effect of the first rockfall generated a second, equally as big, rockfall – they both came from the high part of the cliff.”

East Beach has been closed for years due to the unstable cliff face – but locals say people are regularly spotted using it.

“It was so strange to see that in the picture people don’t seem at all phased by the rockfall,” Glyn told ITV News West Country.

Sharing a photo of the recent fall online, Jurrasic Paddle Sports said it acts as “another reminder to stay off” the beach.

“Lifeguards have been advising all summer so far to stay off that beach,” they said. “Please take note of the signs and follow the advice of the lifeguards”.