Devon’s covid hospitalisations drop sharply

The number of people with covid in Devon’s hospitals has fallen sharply over the past fortnight, but one leading health boss is warning of a “challenging winter.”

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter

As of Tuesday 26 July, 166 patients were in hospital in the county with the virus, down from a recent peak of 334 on 11 July. Two pepole are in mechanically ventilated beds.

For most people, covid is no longer the reason they are admitted in the first place. Two-thirds test positive once in hospital.

However, while Devon’s director of public health says it is “really good to see hospitalisations down,” he warned there is “still some caution required, particularly as we enter the autumn and winter period.”

Speaking to a Team Devon meeting of local leaders on Thursday [28 July], Steve Brown urged eligible people to come forward and have flu and covid booster jabs when the time comes.

He believes the covid booster jab will be launched in the first week of September. Everyone aged 50 and over, care home residents, frontline health care staff and the clinically vulnerable will be eligible.

“In terms of covid, we do know historically that [in the] winter period we can see a higher rate, so that vaccination programme for covid-19 is going to be really, really important,” Mr Brown said.

He added the Southern Hemisphere – where it is currently winter – is seeing “quite high numbers” of flu in adults and children. “So, the flu vaccination is going to be equally important.”

The meeting was also told the current cost-of-living crisis, with energy bills set to rise sharply again in the autumn, could cause further pressure during what Mr Brown predicts to be a “challenging winter ahead.”

He warned: “We’re going to have vulnerable people who are going to potentially be at risk from living in cold environments, as well as covid, as well as the flu.”

Sunak and Truss told: “Westcountry needs proper levelling-up support”

Business Leaders send message to candidates ahead of Monday’s “closed hustings” in Exeter (second after Leeds) according to Western Morning News.

Tim Jones (who seems to have been a local business leader for ever) said “the current devolution discussions are a fig leaf”.

[Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have given a full-throated commitment to “levelling up” the North during the BBC hustings

Ms Truss said she was “completely committed” to the levelling up agenda and pledged “urgent action” if she won the race to Number 10. While Mr Sunak gave “an unequivocal massive yes” to the policy.]

Expect dollops of “magic sauce” and  “catchup ketchup” – Owl

Businesses are sending a strong message to the two candidates vying to be the next Prime Minister, urging whoever wins the battle not to forget the South West and to tackle the major issues facing its cities, towns and rural areas.

Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are due in Exeter on Monday as they try to persuade Tory party members to vote for them in the race to Number 10.

And business leaders are using their visit to highlight the challenges facing the Westcountry and to place the region as prominently in their thinking as the North of England, which is also scrapping for “levelling up” support.

Among the issues spotlighted by South West experts are the housing crisis, transport links, business taxes, and support for key industries such as green and blue technology, agriculture and tourism and hospitality.

Stuart Elford, chief executive of Devon and Plymouth Chamber and chair of British Chambers of Commerce South West, said: “Businesses have faced a tough time over the last few years dealing with Brexit, Covid and exponential rises in costs. Here in the South West we have specific challenges in terms of infrastructure, both physical and digital, as well as the tight labour market exacerbated by the high cost of housing in key areas and the lack of employment land.”

He is calling on whoever becomes the new Prime Minister to do four main things:

  • Economy – help firms manage cost pressures by reducing their tax burden
  • People – reform the training and immigration systems to help firms find the people they need
  • Trade – ensure firms have the support they need to take advantage of global business opportunities
  • Net Zero – incentivise firms to build a green economy and support them through the transition.

Mr Elford said: “The South West has huge potential in the blue/green economy and we ask that the new Prime Minister recognises us as a natural blue/green powerhouse and gives us the resources to maximise our potential. With the right investment we can drive our own levelling up and deliver huge benefits to the regional and national economy while tackling the inequalities in education, employment and health.”

Tim Jones, chairman of the South West Business Council, stressed the region has unique challenges which can only be tackled at a local level. He said: “The current devolution discussions are a fig leaf which will result in retaining strategic policy making in Whitehall. So, what commitment can be made for radical devolution including local tax raising powers – including local institutions/pension funds being able to invest?”

He said SWBC also wants to know what the candidates see as a replacement of previous EU funding for underprivileged areas and asked: “What does levelling up really mean for the South West? The current Shared Prosperity Fund, spread over three years, is not enough to implement a single small road improvement scheme.”

Mr Jones said the Plymouth and South Devon Freeport is “an attractive proposition” which is appealing to investors and to international partners. He added: “Extending this concept to other sectors such as food and drink or marine in local enterprise zones could ignite strong regional growth.”

He said bureaucracy still impacts on many business initiatives and said: “Regional productivity would rise if there was a genuine bonfire of red tape.”

He concluded: “Each region has its own unique proposition. For the South West, food and drink and tourism are high priorities. Emerging is the power of natural capital – the South West will be a national leader in four or five years. A national ‘hot spots’ map with promotion and marketing by the Government internationally would help to replace markets in near Europe lost as a result of Brexit.”.

The next Prime Minister must also tackle the supply crisis in the private rented sector in the South West if home ownership ambitions are to become a reality, according to the National Residential Landlords Association, as new survey data shows that the supply of homes to rent in the region is likely to keep falling over the next year.

Luke Pollard, Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, also put housing high on the priority list, particularly the “second homes crisis”. He wants the successful Tory leadership candidate to look at South West transport links and the region’s “struggling” farmers – and level up too. “The far South West does not get its fair share from the Government,” he said.

Bankrupt Slough could raise council tax by 20% and be forced to sell off assets

A bankrupt local authority could have to raise council tax by 20% a year and will be forced to sell off thousands of homes and other assets under “unprecedented” plans imposed on it after it ran up catastrophic debts amid overspending running into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Patrick Butler 

The scale of the financial and management chaos at Labour-run Slough council is revealed in a stark report by a team of government commissioners sent in to run the authority after it declared effective bankruptcy a year ago.

It calls on ministers to give special powers to commissioners to effectively rebuild “the basics of local government” in an authority it says lacks top-level leadership, faces a major staffing crisis and struggles to deliver what it calls “extremely fragile” services.

The council has been told to offload hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of assets to fund its recovery programme, including its stock of about 6,700 council houses, and a number of development sites earmarked for housebuilding.

But the report warns council leaders that even a fire sale of assets – everything the authority owns except roads and parks is said to be “on the table” – may not be sufficient and that it may need financial support from government for up to eight more years.

The parlous state of Slough’s finances mean local residents face potential council tax increases of between 12% and 20% in each of the next three years, the report says. Annual council tax increases are normally limited to a maximum of 5%.

Although Slough initially reported a £100m “black hole” in its budgets at the time of its Section 114 bankruptcy notification in July 2021, this ballooned to £480m as auditors went through the books. It also owes £680m borrowed in recent years to finance a series of property developments.

Formally responding to the report, local government minister Paul Scully said the “unprecedented” scale of the financial challenge in Slough meant “radical solutions may be required to ensure best value and sustainable service delivery for the residents of Slough”.

The commissioner’s report describes a council reeling from years of disastrous investment decisions and leadership failures and which now struggles to deliver even basic services as it grapples to recruit and retain staff.

“Even in the best of times, managing such a small unitary authority would be very challenging, requiring the highest-quality political and officer leadership and a degree of luck, hoping nothing much would go wrong. Regrettably, this has not been the case over recent years,” the report says.

The report attributes a series of financial failures in recent years to incompetence and deliberate missteps on the part of officers, including overambitious borrowing, the draining of reserves, and misuse of capital receipts. “What is surprising is that no councillor seemed to notice,” the report says.

It reveals senior executives at the council spent £2.8m on consultants with little local government experience to guide a management restructuring that was supposed to deliver £4m of savings. The ill-fated plan, launched at the height of lockdown, instead ran up costs of £1m and left the council shorn of key staff.

The scheme was “totally unfit for purpose and resulted in the speedy destruction of officer capacity and competence with many remaining individuals now in posts they had no experience in and whole teams being made redundant which were essential to delivery of statutory services”, the report says.

The commissioners’ report says many of the posts that were eliminated under the plan are now having to be re-created. There is just one permanent senior director in place at the council, which is highly dependent on agency staff, not least in children’s services, which has been under special measures for eight years.

The former Slough chief executive Josie Wragg was sacked by the commissioners in March for “gross negligence and reckless behaviour.”

James Swindlehurst, the leader of Slough council, said: “The mistakes which brought us to this position are laid out clearly, but what is also clearer as we move forward is what we need to do to help put things right. We have always accepted the seriousness of our situation and the difficult decisions we have to make in the coming years.”

Honiton Town Councillor Jake Bonetta nominated for prestigious award

Cllr Jake Bonetta has been named a finalist in the Young Councillor of the Year award for the National Association of Local Councils’ (NALC) Star Council Awards 2022. 

The 19-year-old student represents St. Michael’s Ward. He has been a councillor for just over a year. As well as being a Honiton Town Councillor, Cllr Bonetta is also a District Councillor at East Devon District Council. In November 2021 he established the charity Foodsave.

The awards celebrate the positive impact that young councillors, clerks and local councils have on the community and are the only awards in England that acknowledge the work of the local (parish and town) council sector.

In response to his nomination, Cllr Bonetta said: “”I’m honoured and humbled to be a finalist for this prestigious award, and I want to thank everyone who has supported me in my role over the last 13 months.

“This truly represents a marked shift in attitudes at our Town Council, and I am so proud to be a part of our hardworking and inclusive team.”

The finalists were decided by leading experts within the local government sector, including representatives from organisations such as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Local Government Association, the County Councils Network, the District Councils’ Network, and the Society of Local Council Clerks.

The winners will be announced later this year at an online awards ceremony. You can find out more information here.

Labour soars to 13-point lead in polls as Tories scrap over Boris Johnson’s successor

Labour have soared to a 13-point lead in the polls as Conservatives scrap over their future leadership, according to the latest exclusive survey by Savanta for The Independent.

Andrew Woodcock

The advantage recorded by Labour in the poll comes close to its best performance since Sir Keir Starmer became leader in 2019, and would put him on course for a comfortable overall majority in the House of Commons if repeated at the next general election.

It comes with the government reeling under the impact of the cost of living crisis, with energy bills forecast to soar to as much as £500 a month for some voters and the UK braced for a summer of strikes as workers demand pay rises to match expected inflation of 11 per cent.

Alarmingly for Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, the candidates to replace Boris Johnson as Tory leader, the prime minister’s resignation seems to have accelerated the Tory plunge in the polls rather than arrested it.

Compared to a similar poll by Savanta a month ago, Tories shed five points, tumbling from 34 to 29 per cent, while Labour gained a point to move up from 41 to 42.

The previous poll was taken on the weekend of 25/26 June in the wake of the Partygate fines and just days ahead of the resignation of deputy chief whip Christopher Pincher in the sexual harassment scandal which was the final straw for Tory MPs who wanted Mr Johnson out.

This week’s results appear to reflect voters turning away from the party amid the vicious infighting of the battle to replace the PM.

And they suggest that events surrounding Mr Johnson’s removal have undermined support among the voters who backed Tories to a landslide victory under his leadership less than three years ago.

The proportion of 2019 Conservative voters who said they would back the party again in the next election plummeted from 80 to 70 per cent in the space of a month, as one in eight of their supporters abandoned them.

Of that group, one-fifth said they would switch to Labour, one-fifth to Lib Dems and two-fifths to Reform UK, the successors to the Brexit Party.

According to the Electoral Calculus prediction website, the figures recorded by Savanta could result in an overall Labour majority of around 70 seats, with Tories losing around 180 MPs to finish with a tally below 200 for the first time since 2005.

Among seats which could fall are Mr Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where the PM has a 7,210 majority over Labour, and deputy prime minister Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton, which is one of the blue- wall constituencies under assault from Liberal Democrats.

Red-wall seats in the north and Midlands which would return to Labour after falling to Tories in 2019, on an even swing, could include Workington, Bolsover, Redcar and Bishop Auckland, as well as two seats each in Blackpool. Bolton, Bury and Leeds.

And other prominent Tories who could risk losing their seats could include Grant Shapps, Steve Baker, Anne Marie Trevelyan and even Jacob Rees-Mogg in North East Somerset.

The Lib Dems put on two points compared to last month to reach 12 per cent in the new poll.

Savanta questioned 2,272 British adults on 23-24 July and the results relate to those who said they were likely to vote in the next general election.