The staggering scale of the catastrophe at Thurrock council in Essex – one of the biggest ever financial disasters in local government – is contained in an internal report made to the council’s cabinet, which reveals it has lost £275m on investments it made in solar energy and other businesses, and has set aside a further £130m this year to pay back investment debts.
Thurrock has appealed to the government for an emergency financial bailout and warned that it will have to push through a drastic programme of cuts to local services and staff redundancies, along with a probable fire sale of buildings, land and other assets as it attempts to stay afloat. Council tax rises are also likely.
There was astonishment in the wider local government world at the scale of the financial disaster. “What we are seeing in Thurrock is shocking and unprecedented. I have not seen anything like this in my 30-year career in local government,” said Rob Whiteman, the chief executive of Cipfa, the public sector accountants body.
Thurrock had become one of the most indebted of all English local authorities in recent years after borrowing £1.5bn – 10 times its annual spending on local services – to enable a string of investments in solar energy and other businesses.
According to the BIJ, Thurrock invested £655m in Kavanagh’s companies, and expects to lose £188m on the deal. It also expects to make a £65m loss on its investment in a company called the Just Loans Group, which went bust in June, and millions more on a series of other deals that turned sour.
In common with many other councils Thurrock attempted to offset the effects of years of austerity cuts to its funding by borrowing cheaply from the Treasury and investing in commercial business in the hope this would provide an alternative income stream. By 2019, English councils had borrowed over £6bn for this purpose.
Concerns over Thurrock’s exposure to risky commercial investments led a panicked government to send in a team of commissioners to run its finances in September. The cabinet report reveals Thurrock’s finances are now in a significantly far worse state than originally thought just a few weeks ago – and could get even worse.
The report predicts a further black hole in its budget of £185m in 2023-24, suggesting that it may have to declare effective bankruptcy. Three councils, Croydon, Slough and Northamptonshire, have gone insolvent in recent years, the former two after running up huge debts on borrowing.
“This is a grave position and at this point the council cannot find a way to finance their expenditure in-year and is unlikely to achieve a balanced budget for 2023-24 without external support,” the report says.
The council’s Conservative leader, Mark Coxshall, issued a statement saying that services would continue to operate as normal for now and staff would continue to be paid. But he also warned that there would be “extremely difficult decisions to come” in what he called “uncertain and unsettling times”.
He added: “These are shocking numbers but the first stage to creating a good plan for recovery is to understand the full extent of the problem. I know that Thurrock residents will be concerned, and rightly so, about what this means for local services. Please rest assured that this report is the first stage of planning for our recovery.”
John Kent, the leader of Thurrock council’s Labour opposition, said Thurrock residents will be paying the price for the Conservatives’ catastrophic handling of the council’s affairs for decades.
“This report lays bare the culmination of six years of Conservative leadership of Thurrock council,” he said. “Just what were those Conservative councillors who make up the council’s cabinet doing? Are we really expected to believe they didn’t notice what was going on under their very noses?
“The Tory cabinet are absolutely complicit in this scandal and with every new revelation their position becomes even more indefensible.”
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That’s just as it should be in a healthy democracy.
Two years ago, the local news media sector came together through industry trade body the News Media Association to discuss how to give public notices a boost.
Local journalism is reaching more people than ever before, currently 42 million people a month, but much of that audience is now online.
The challenge for the industry was to bring public notices into the 21st century by harnessing local media’s large and increasing digital audiences while ensuring everyone can still access them in their printed local newspaper.
Today, we are delighted to introduce the result of that work – the Public Notice Portal (PNP), which will transform the way readers interact with public notices.
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Although all the main publishers in NMA membership are signed up to the scheme, the portal is still in beta phase and has not yet been rolled out across the whole industry.
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During the beta phase of the project, you have the opportunity to have your say about this transformative technology.
Tiverton & Honiton’s MP Richard Foord has slammed the Government’s ‘botched’ Australia and New Zealand trade deals, warning they risk driving already struggling farmers across the West Country out of business. Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Foord drew attention to the huge impact being caused by these trade deals – caused by opening UK markets to produce made to lower standards abroad.
He also raised the ongoing issues with rollout of the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) which is seeing the Basic Payment, the current farming subsidy, reduced before ELMs payments fully kick in.
Warning of the huge threat these deals post to 64,000 people across the South West who work in Agriculture, Mr Foord called for MPs to have a stronger say in the terms of new trade deals and for protecting UK industries to be central to future negotiating priorities.
His comments come in the wake of former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice similarly criticising the deals, saying they were: “not actually a very good deal for the UK – the UK gave away far too much for far too little in return”.
The debate granted today by the Government was a ‘General Debate’, meaning the motion MPs were discussing was neutrally worded and unamendable. This meant that any vote on it would have no binding impact on the Government’s approach, contrary to a more substantive debate as was requested by the Parliamentary International Trade Committee.
Speaking after the debate, Richard Foord MP said: “It’s clear that this Conservative government either don’t get it, or they simply do not care.
“Their botched trade deals are putting the future of local farmers here in Devon at risk, by allowing lower quality produce to flood our markets. It’s ludicrous that the Government expects them to compete when these deals tie not one, but both hands behind their backs.
“And the trade-off for all the pain and misery set to be inflicted on rural communities by both of these deals? A whopping 0.11% increase to our GDP. This is drop in the ocean compared to the huge turmoil and hurt it will cause for local farmers.
“Even the former Secretary of State has come out and admitted the deals are bad, giving away far too much. No wonder the Government would only give us a hollow debate, which lacked any chance for us to actually change their approach.
“The whole situation is a scandal. We must ensure MPs have the final say on not only the terms of trade deals, but also the negotiating priorities and red lines. This is the only way we can ensure our world leading farming and fishing industries are properly protected.”
(Or how the Tories crashed the economy and we came within a whisker of losing our pensions)
The governor of the Bank of England has indicated it was left blindsided by Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous mini-budget, describing an “extraordinary process” in which there was “no formal communication” before the chancellor unveiled his measures.
In candid evidence to the Lords economic affairs committee, Andrew Bailey said Kwarteng had broken with tradition by failing to brief the central bank, suggesting that even Treasury officials were not fully aware of his plans a day before the event.
“I’m afraid there was parts of it we had no idea what was in it,” Bailey said. Asked by the Lords whether this suggested a slapdash approach from the government when making major changes to tax and spending policy, he said: “There was no formal communication of the sort we normally have. It was a quite extraordinary process in that sense.
“I didn’t say to the chancellor ‘you have to tell me what’s in this fiscal statement’, because, frankly, I would never say that to a chancellor. But then I don’t need to say that in normal circumstances. We have channels of communication.”
He said it had been an “extraordinary time”, as the mini-budget came in the same week as the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
Financial markets were plunged into turmoil after the former chancellor unveiled more than £45bn of unfunded tax cuts largely directed at higher earners, sending the pound plummeting to its lowest level in history, and government borrowing costs surging to the highest rate since the 2008 financial crisis.
Responding to questions from Mervyn King, who was the Bank’s governor during the 2008 financial crisis, Bailey suggested even Treasury officials were not fully informed of Kwarteng’s plans a day before the mini-budget.
“I don’t think Treasury officials were clear what was going to be in it,” he said.
“What people said to me was they were surprised, substantially surprised, that it was done at that point in time in that context in that situation.
“And people in the markets said those two things had quite a big impact on them in terms of their reaction to it. And their judgment of the direction of UK economic policy and fiscal policy making at that time, which was obviously very negative.”
King said it was normal for a Treasury official to attend meetings of the Bank’s rate-setting monetary policy committee, and they would typically provide guidance to the central bank before major announcements on tax and spending.
King said the MPC had met a day before the mini-budget, and asked whether a Treasury official was present and had provided a broad update on Kwarteng’s tax and spending plans and their economic consequences. Bailey said the official had “told us what they understood to be the situation,” but suggested they did not have a full picture.
Bailey rejected suggestions that the Bank’s time-limited intervention in the bond market after the mini-budget “brought down” the Truss government. “We did not bring the government down. We did a limited operation for financial stability purposes and we did exactly the right thing and ended it promptly.”
UK residents hit by the ongoing energy and cost of living crises may face three-hour winter blackouts over the festive season.
[Owl has been taking part in the Demand Flexibility Service trials over the past couple of weeks which seems to have been effective in reducing peak demand at specified times by significant amounts, equivalent, in Owl’s suppliers case, of taking a gas fired generating station off grid for an hour each time.]
Although National Grid ESO insisted the blackouts would only be ‘worst case’ measures initiated if gas supplies fall ‘extremely low’, uncertainty around what to expect remains a fear. In a report published in October, operators said the UK losing power was ‘unlikely’, but on Tuesday, an ESO blackout alert caused widespread panic before the energy firm promptly cancelled it, the Mirror reports.
In the alert, ESO said homes would lose power at 7pm due to ‘tight capacity’, but the firm took to Twitter, saying it had withdrawn the ‘Capacity Market Notice’. The removal failed to reassure UK residents, so many have wondered how to proceed if a blackout occurs.
With energy supplies already threatened due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, costs will likely skyrocket as more people turn on their heating to counteract the cold winter months. In 2017, The UK closed its ‘rough storage’, meaning other states could stockpile supplies more efficiently, but 70 per cent of the British Isles’ gas arrived from the ‘continental shelf’ and Norway in the winter of 2021.
ESO said residents would receive 24 hours’ notice before a blackout occurs, but the extent of the power cuts would depend on the demands of operating firms. However, as they are likely to be ‘rolling’ blackouts, the effects would be divided up, with certain areas cut off at certain times.
John Pettigrew, the CEO of ESO, said power cuts would likely be in the evening, as this is when demands surge. The firm said 4pm to 7pm would be probable – when ‘it’s really cold in January and February’, with vulnerable customers, including care residents, under the responsibility of network operators, the details of which are yet to be confirmed.
With supply failures, customers would usually receive compensation, but this is unlikely to be the case for blackouts of this scale, as the energy firms have planned the cuts and already informed residents. But ESO is thought to have plans to back up the nation’s energy supplies with coal generators, thanks to three firms.
ESO has also launched a ‘Demand Flexibility Service’, offering cash to residents with smart meters if they switch to off-peak energy. Residents who have registered with the service are to receive messages asking them to reduce their outputs or change usage times on specific periods of the day, meaning households may have to switch energy-guzzling appliances off when requested.
The definition of ‘insanity’ is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet despite a damning East Devon District Council report into their daft decision to double the price of parking, ruling councillors plan to rubber stamp prices staying at £2 an hour next peak season.
EDDC is led by the East Devon Alliance Party alongside the Liberal Democrats, Greens and one Independent. Ruling councillors from this dysfunctional coalition insisted the parking price hikes were necessary to bring in extra revenue to council coffers.
Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce warned about the impact of the parking price hikes after nearly 2,000 people signed petitions against the plans. Arrogantly, the petitions were ignored by the council. The Chamber also ran a business survey which paints a bleak picture. 80% of businesses surveyed said that the car parking charges had affected their business or may have. 70% said their trade was lower than anticipated. One visitor commented, “Wouldn’t visit East Devon again. We are shocked at the increase in parking charges.”
I have spoken to businesses in Exmouth, Budleigh Salterton and Sidmouth. They are annoyed the parking price hikes were pushed through without consultation, ignoring government advice.
EDDC have the evidence that doubling the price of parking in 2022 has been nothing short of disastrous. During peak season, more drivers used the car parks in 2021 than 2022. That’s despite national Covid restrictions continuing into July 2021.
Their justification for these high charges continuing from April 2023 is “income supports the delivery of other services… and will also help the council achieve its ambition of becoming carbon neutral by 2040.”
The council did introduce a residents parking pass, presumably because they realised they’ve priced local people on low incomes out of our town centres. I won’t applaud them for trying to mitigate their own policy whilst also forgetting that our local economy relies on tourism.
Ruling councillors need to read their damning report, wake up to their spectacular own goal and reverse their decision. Let’s finally see some common sense from councillors running the council.
This column first appeared in the Exmouth Journal on Wednesday 30th November 2022 and in the Sidmouth Herald later in the week.
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Simply click on the button below this paragraph and a random piece of business jargon will appear in the box. If you need more than one buzzphrase, just click the button again and again. www.plainenglish.co.uk
The figures were discussed at the Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Panel, where it was revealed there had been a sharp increase in people using the force’s contact centre, with over 900,000 trying to get in touch, by phone or online in the 12 months to September 2022. In the year to July 2022 there were 82,322 more 999 calls alone received than in the 12 months to June 2019 – an increase of over 35 per cent.
Police and Crime Commissioner Alison Hernandez insisted she had urged temporary chief constable, Jim Colwell, to cut 999 waiting times to under 10 seconds by December. But the meeting heard that there had been some ‘serious issues’ which had affected performance in the control room.
Panel member and Conservative councillor for Woolwell, Nicky Hopwood, was first to quiz the commissioner on the call times. “When you’re dialling 999, to wait eight seconds, which was what the previous score was in 2021 – it’s now gone up [by] 18 seconds – it’s really not good enough for the public and I don’t think is acceptable,” said Cllr Hopwood.
“And I think you’ve agreed in the past that it’s not acceptable. When do you get to the point where you think, actually, you know what, we cannot sort this out – we need outside help because it’s absolutely unacceptable to be up 18 seconds?”
Ms Hernandez admitted there were problems. “There are some really serious issues that are affecting performance in that control room,” she said.
“Over the years, they have brought in multiple people from outside to help, which I have supported them in. And they do not seem to have been able to stabilise, let alone reduce the performance in that control room.”
Cllr Hopwood insisted her comments were not to find fault with call centre staff. “This is not a criticism of those who answer the phone,” she said. “And I think that’s really important to recognise that those answering the phone probably go above and beyond in their jobs.”
But there was further criticism of the 101 service. Figures showed so-called ‘priority 2’ calls, which include things like anti-social behaviour or callers requesting updates about ongoing investigations, had average wait times in the 12 months to September 2022 of 38 minutes, six seconds.
Independent councillor for Fremington in North Devon, Frank Biederman, was critical of the police for not being able to show how many people may have given up on a 101 call to then phone 999.
“I find it unbelievable we don’t know how many people are abandoning a 101 call to then ring a 999 call, because I suspect an awful lot of those 999 calls are people who have got really frustrated,” he said, also questioning the call centre’s criteria for an emergency call.
“Somebody tried to get my daughter into their car. She escaped – ran off,” he explained. “We rang 999. We were told, ‘Well, she’s not in danger. Not a 999 call.’ Well, no. But somebody else’s daughter is in danger.
“And then last week a resident’s telling me they rang 999 because they intercepted an intruder in the house. Again [they were] told it’s not a 999 call – there’s no immediate danger.”
The commissioner replied to Cllr Biederman, insisting she was taking the matter seriously and was pressing hard for improvements. She said: “All the tweaking, all the investing, all the messing – that fundamentally is a leadership and management challenge within the force.
“I have every confidence, Cllr Biederman, in both the temporary chief constable who has gripped this, who I have asked formally to answer 999 calls within 10 seconds, by December this year.
“They’ve told me informally and formally many times that the reason the performance in 101 dips is because they’re answering the 999 calls. And that doesn’t seem to be the case with the performance that it’s showing me today, because 101 would be way worse. And 999 would still be being answered.”
Ms Hernandez said she was also asking for a triage system to be used to assess the urgency of each call. Later in the meeting the commissioner also announced she was launching a survey to find out which police stations in Devon and Cornwall people want to be re-opened.
Six enquiry desks are already opening this financial year and Ms Hernandez hopes to open more. The public are being asked to choose three preferred locations from a list of 44 police stations in the Devon and Cornwall Police area.
GP ‘league tables’ that give patients access to data on UK surgeries that offer the fewest appointments will boost ‘transparency’, say officials.
The data, published on the NHS Digital website on Thursday, could ‘name and shame’ practices, with the UK Government saying it would provide patients with ‘more informed choice’. The tables will set out the number of appointments each England practice offers and the timeframes waited by patients.
But GPs hit out, with concerns the scheme will compare sites without ‘accounting for different patient characteristics’. For example, a seaside town possessing an elderly population may have surgeries with fewer appointments than those in the city centres treating younger people.
Steve Barclay, the health and social care secretary, said: “We promised to prioritise patients and improve access, and that is exactly what we have done – and this is just the start. I am determined to make it easier for people to get an appointment with their GP practice when they need one, and this will allow patients to make a more informed choice about the care they receive.”
Thursday marked the first day patients could determine the effectiveness of surgeries using the data, although the idea was announced last year. Leading medics have also raised concerns that more GPs had left the profession than entering it following the publication of Health Education England (HEE) figures detailing the number of doctors starting specialist training to become GPs.
Professor Kamila Hawthorne, the chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), said: “We have serious concerns about how the publication of practice-level data will be used to compare practices against each other, as with general, you’re rarely comparing like with like. What works in one may not in another – so they will tailor their services to their patient population.
“We worry this data will be used to create arbitrary ‘league tables’ that don’t account for different patient demographics and ways of working. Those that appear at the bottom will face undue criticism at a time when the profession is already demoralised and working under intense pressures.”
Hawthorne said the published data is ‘experimental’, so it is unclear ‘how comprehensive or useful’ it is. The HEE said 4,032 trainee GPs had joined placements, meeting government targets for GP speciality trainee recruitment.
But the RCGP said up to 19,000 GPs could leave the profession in the next five years due to the ‘intensity of workload pressures’. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s appointment letter to Barclay dropped the Conservative manifesto target of recruiting 6,000 GPs in England by 2024.
Earlier this year, Sajid Javid, the former health secretary, said they would be ‘unlikely to meet the commitment’ due to early retirements among GPs. But the DHSC said it was ‘set to reach its target of 26,000 additional members of primary care staff’.
The cabinet minister Oliver Dowden received more than £8,000 in fees for “policy advice” to the company of a hedge fund manager who hosted a champagne reception for the former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng on the day of the disastrous mini-budget.
Dowden, a close ally of Rishi Sunak, was briefly employed by Caxton Associates, the hedge fund of Andrew Law, after resigning as Conservative party chairman earlier this year.
Law, a substantial party donor, hosted the reception for Conservative backers and business leaders at his home on the evening of Kwarteng’s mini-budget, which triggered market turmoil.
It was later reported by the Times that Law’s hedge fund had been shorting the pound and would probably have profited from the fall in its value triggered by the mini-budget. Law is also a substantial party donor, having given more than £3m to the Conservatives over almost two decades.
There is no suggestion that Kwarteng provided any hedge funds or Tory donors with any insider information, or that any of the hedge funds were trading on the basis of information that was not public.
A spokesman for the Conservative party said at the time it was “not unusual for politicians to attend political fundraisers” and that “absolutely no information was given to anyone in attendance that was not already in the public domain”.
Dowden provided “policy advice” to Caxton Associates in October while he was still a Conservative MP, despite having been in the cabinet until June.
He gained permission for the job from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, making £8,398 for 12 hours of work between 24 September and 24 October when he resigned to join Sunak’s government as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, working from the Cabinet Office.
In its advice letter approving the job, Acoba said: “You sought the committee’s advice on taking up a paid, part-time appointment with Caxton. You stated Caxton is a global macro hedge fund founded in 1983.
“The website states its aim is to deliver ‘ … consistent absolute returns for its investors irrespective of the market environment’. It states it uses: ‘Rigorous analysis, disciplined risk management, and a relentless pursuit of excellence underpin Caxton’s reputation as a market leader.’
“You informed the committee you will be a policy adviser to provide advice and analysis on international and UK policy developments. You said this role does not involve contact with government and that your proposed contract will include a specific clause making clear that ‘ … for the avoidance of doubt, Caxton is not retaining you as an adviser for the purpose or intent of influencing or affecting, in any manner, any current or proposed legislation or any government official or action’.”
Dowden also took on a £5,000-a-month job for a firm called Pierce Protocols trading as Heni, an “international art services business”.
Dowden’s work for the hedge fund and art business come after MPs’ second jobs have come under scrutiny in the last year.
Under Boris Johnson, the government suggested it might set a limit on hours and/or pay from second jobs held by MPs. The former prime minister had pledged to clamp down on MPs’ second jobs after the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal and a furore over Geoffrey Cox being paid nearly £6m as a lawyer since joining parliament, voting by proxy on days he was undertaking paid work.
However, it later dropped the proposals claiming a ceiling on earnings would be impractical.
Other former ministers to have taken second jobs in the last year include Gavin Williamson, a former education secretary who took on a £50,000-a-year job for RTC Education, a higher education firm offering higher national diplomas, which is linked to two Tory donors Selva Pankaj and Maurizio Bragagni.
Williamson quit the RTC Education job on joining Sunak’s government as minister of state without portfolio. Two weeks later he resigned from the government in relation to bullying allegations, which he denies.
The Cabinet Office and Law have been approached for comment.
At the moment, 325,000 English properties have a 60% risk of flooding in the next decade, according to calculations by the NIC, due to a lack of investment in infrastructure.
The report calls for stricter controls on building in flood-prone areas, as well as a £2bn investment in drainage over 30 years to bring our systems up to standard and stop lives being ruined by flooding.
A combination of more extreme weather due to climate breakdown and increasing pressure on drains due to new developments is likely to push 230,000 more homes into the high risk category for flooding by 2055. If more impermeable surfaces are built across England, such as when people pave over their gardens, this could move another 65,000 properties into a high risk area.
The report advises that the government should legislate to stop new developments connecting to existing drains, to encourage uptake of sustainable systems.
Prof Jim Hall, the national infrastructure commissioner, said: “It’s clear that faced with more intense rainfall and increased urbanisation, we need to start taking this type of flooding far more seriously.
“The solution is clear: reducing the amount of water flowing into drains, whilst also improving the capacity of those drains. That means stopping urban creep from increasing the amount of storm water that drainage systems have to cope with and giving nature more opportunities to hold on to excess water, as well as targeted investment to ensure sewers can cope with growing pressures.
“While sustained investment is needed, the estimated additional costs are relatively modest. At least as important is a more joined-up approach to owning and acting on the problem.”
The report also calls for an expanded role for the environment watchdogs Ofwat and the Environment Agency to oversee joint local plans for high risk areas. It adds that Ofwat, the water regulator, should ensure that water and sewerage companies play their part by enabling efficient investment in both above and below ground drainage infrastructure
It adds that nature-based solutions will be critical to tackling flooding in the future including the use of roof gardens, rain gardens, green gulleys and flood storage ponds.
Its modelling suggests that its recommended levels of investment in new infrastructure could move 250,000 properties out of the high risk category and boost protection levels for thousands more properties. Action on new developments could prevent a further 95,000 properties from facing a high risk of surface water flooding in their area.
The NIC has said there should be better public knowledge around flood risk areas, so members of the public know whether they are at risk.
Last week Theresa Villiers tabled an amendment to the flagship “Levelling Up Bill” that would ban councils from taking housebuilding targets into account when deciding on planning applications, including the infamous “five year land supply” rule.
She got so much support that the imminent vote was postponed, leaving the government in disarray.
Over the weekend there has been a backlash from the “build, build, build” wing of the Tory party.
Summarised by the Sunday Times as: a “wicked” quest to “enshrine nimbyism as the governing principle of British society” and by the Daily Mail as follows:
Tory housing rebel claims leafy constituencies are ‘under siege’ from developments that ruin the ‘quality of life’ for affluent locals – after ministers pull vote on changes to planning laws that would make it easier to build homes amid backbench anger www.dailymail.co.uk
Theresa Villiers told Sky News: ‘Our constituencies are under siege’
Wants to ban councils from using housebuilding targets in planning decisions
Would make it easier for councils to ban building on greenfield land
Ex-Chancellor Sajid Javid said politicians ‘owe it’ to young people to fix housing
Warned that lack of housing is UK’s ‘most significant barrier to social progress’
Below is the text of her amendment with a list of Tory MPs supporting her including Selaine Saxby (North Devon) and Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot).
[PPSs wouldn’t dare get involved is such controversial stuff – Owl]
Nimbyism in perspective
“If you live and work in a city, imagining the opponents of new development to be a bigoted shower and endlessly shouting “nimby” at them is easy. But take a closer look at what is actually happening across the country, and you might come to a more nuanced opinion.”
Guardian Columnist, John Harris, lives in Frome.
In May 2022 ”Independents for Frome (IFF)”, sometimes described as an example of “flatpack democracy”, won all 17 seats on the Town Council in preparation for Unitary Somerset.
Yesterday he articulated the problem top down development targets pose to rural communities rather well.
The Tories are tearing themselves apart over housing – but this is another crisis of their own making
In the corner of Somerset where I have lived for nearly 15 years, life in late-Tory England grinds on. Our MP is David Warburton, the formerly Conservative backbencher who was recently found to have broken the parliamentary code of conduct amid allegations of sexual harassment and drug use, which he denies. He has not been seen for eight months. Our new unitary county council faces a financial black hole of £38m before it has even come into being, so cuts are being readied. The town’s GP service is completely overstretched, bus services are a constant worry, trains to Bristol and Bath run at inexplicable times of the day, and the roads are regularly jammed with traffic. Use of the local food bank is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, a lot of local angst is now focused on an ever-increasing number of new housing developments: a huge local story that reflects one of the ever-growing number of internal Tory conflicts eating away at Rishi Sunak’s government.
The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto promised that the government would trigger the building of 300,000 new homes a year, which inevitably entailed a sizeable loosening of the planning system. But proposals for drastically changing the rules and introducing new liberalised “development zones” were dropped after revolts led by Tory MPs, largely from the south of England.
Now, scenting even more weakness at the top, Conservative rebels led by the former minister Theresa Villiers want to amend the new levelling up and regeneration bill to – among other changes – make Whitehall housing targets advisory rather than mandatory, get rid of the planning system’s inbuilt presumption in favour of development, and allow councils to ban building on the green belt. The result has been an almighty row, and panic at the top.
Conservatives being Conservatives, none of the controversy gets near the most urgent housing issue of all: the dire lack of homes for social rent, and the pitiful numbers built every year. But that hardly diminishes the passions of the combatants.Today the minister-turned-senior backbencher Sajid Javid warned in the Sunday Times that Villiers and her comrades wanted to “tear down the existing planning system”, and lead their party into “a colossal failure of political leadership”.
A Tory-aligned columnist in the same newspaper recently described the rebels’ moves as a “wicked” quest to “enshrine nimbyism as the governing principle of British society”. Given that their ranks include such panto villains as Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood, most bystanders on the political left would presumably be inclined to agree.
But this issue is complex and confounding, and two somewhat contradictory things could both be true. Yes, the anti-development Tories’ motives might be cynical and self-serving. But at the same time, some of the widespread unease that they are seizing on is real and understandable. If you live and work in a city, imagining the opponents of new development to be a bigoted shower and endlessly shouting “nimby” at them is easy. But take a closer look at what is actually happening across the country, and you might come to a more nuanced opinion.
For a start, objecting to concreting over huge chunks of countryside and obliterating natural habitats is surely not an inherently evil cause. The fact that most new housing tends to lock in dependency on the car only compounds many people’s unease about what new developments mean for their environment.
The complex and opaque machinations of landowners and private developers only increase a sense of them being distant interests with very little sense of what people in places hold dear. Because profit is usually the deciding consideration, far too many new-build projects are cheaply constructed, lack community amenities and are out of step with an ageing population and increasing numbers of people who live alone. And one massive tension now sits at the heart of local arguments about housing: the plain fact that, after 12 years of cuts, new development threatens to deepen the problems of places whose services and infrastructure are now in a state of decay.
Damian Green, the former minister and MP for Ashford in Kent, is one of the Tory rebels. “Much of the opposition to particular developments,” he recently wrote, “is based on the proposition that there are not enough school places, or medical services, or even water, to cope with a rising population in a locality.” This is undoubtedly true. And in that sense, whether they realise it or not, Green and his allies are really decrying their own party’s time in power, and failures that made any sensible conversation about new housing all but impossible, for one obvious reason: if a country doesn’t maintain the stuff that keeps it running, then any viable future becomes impossible.
Back, then, to where I live. Frome – population 28,000 – has a dysfunctional housing market characterised by often impossible prices and rising rents. Most of the new developments now scattered over the local area have done very little to ease these problems (the price of new-build four-bed houses regularly scrapes £500,000), and have worsened the tension between an expanding town ever more dominated by cars and an increasingly threadbare social fabric.
Last Thursday I went to a packed-out meeting organised by our town council to discuss plans for a huge “garden community” of 1,700 homes – housing about 7,000 people – to be built on fields beyond the edge of town that many people see as the area’s green lung. On the face of it, these plans are better than the norm, promising a new primary school, a “community hub”, properties for social rent, playing fields and more.
But, as people repeatedly pointed out in their speeches and questions, these visions are the work of a so-called promoter – a company that works with landowners to get initial planning permission for their land, and thereby hugely increase its value, in return for a share of the profits once it’s sold to the highest-bidding developer. In other words, the people we heard laying out their seemingly benign plans are not the people who will actually do the building, and square lofty promises with real-world economics (in a town eight miles away, “viability” has meant the probable affordable share of a big housing project going from 30% to around 10%).
As well as fears of yet more traffic and air pollution, one objection came up time and again: how “a whole new town” would cause the wider public realm to buckle under the strain. To quote one eloquent statement of opposition, “Services and infrastructure are already overstretched. Who will fund what is needed? Not the promoter or landowners, and not the local authority, given the present economic outlook.” Here, once again, is a very familiar picture of Britain as a Babel-like mess, in which far too little is ever integrated or joined up. Councils are so starved of money that they can’t function. The fact that housing is inseparable from transport, health, care and all the rest is repeatedly forgotten. And amid the chaos, Conservative politicians turn on each other, as their endless failures become clearer and clearer.
Just one farm was sanctioned for breaking laws designed to stop water pollution out of 2,000 inspected, data shows.
[And: The Marine Conservation Society is announcing today that it is applying for a judicial review of the strategy, which does not require any improvement of the country’s storm overflows next to designated bathing sites until 2050.]
About half had been found to have breached regulations.
Leading green groups have accused the Environment Agency of being missing in action, as figures released under freedom of information laws also show the regulator inspects only about 2 per cent of England’s farms a year to check compliance with pollution rules.
Although most public anger over England’s polluted rivers has been directed at water companies, nitrogen and phosphate pollution washing off farmers’ fields is the number one reason that waterways fail to meet good ecological standards.
Yet just 2,213 inspections to assess nitrogen pollution compliance took place on England’s 105,000 farms from the start of 2020 to the end of 2021, figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reveal.
About half the inspections found breaches, suggesting that even with such minimal oversight, incidents of pollution are frequent and widespread.
The lack of surveillance and enforcement has prompted two green groups, ClientEarth and WWF, to lodge a formal complaint with Britain’s post-Brexit green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection. They argue the government is in breach of at least three regulations controlling nitrogen pollution.
“While many farmers are putting more sustainable practices in place, unfettered agricultural run-off from other farms is turning many of our rivers, streams and lakes into toxic soup,” said Kyle Lischak at ClientEarth, an environmental law group. “Inspections and sanctions remain pitifully low. We argue this failure is unlawful.”
Nitrogen is used by farmers in fertilisers but can pollute rivers when washed off fields, harm sensitive habitats on land and be released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Globally, 68 per cent of agriculture’s nitrogen emissions comes from crops grown to feed animals, followed by nitrogen released by the build-up and management of manure.
Tom Bradshaw, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “Good water quality is of paramount importance and farmers take their environmental responsibilities seriously and recognise the role their businesses can play, alongside producing food.” He said the farming industry had already made “great strides” on voluntary action to benefit waterways.
The government did not reply to requests for comment.
It is facing two new legal challenges against its recent flagship plan to cut sewage discharges from storm overflows. The Marine Conservation Society is announcing today that it is applying for a judicial review of the strategy, which does not require any improvement of the country’s storm overflows next to designated bathing sites until 2050.
“We’ve tried tirelessly to influence the government on what needs to be done, but their plan to address this deluge of pollution entering our seas is still unacceptable,” said Sandy Luk, the society’s chief executive.
Overflows within a kilometre of England’s marine protected area spilt untreated sewage 41,000 times last year, the society’s analysis of government data found.
The society’s legal challenge follows another by the environmental group WildFish, which announced last week that it was seeking a judicial review to see the plan withdrawn.
If granted, the cases may be heard together in court.
A Cornish MP says that proposals to have a directly elected mayor for Cornwall should be separated from the Duchy’s latest bid for more powers and funding from the Government. George Eustice has tabled an amendment to the Levelling Up Bill which he hopes will highlight Cornwall’s unique position in relation to devolution.
[Cornwall is seeking a level 3 devolution deal, which currently requires an elected mayor, where Devon and its constituent unitary authorities are seeking a level 2 deal. No easy summary of the difference. – Owl]
The Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt announced in his recent autumn statement that Cornwall was one of the areas which would have a directly elected mayor as part of its latest devolution deal. The Government has said that in order to get the top level three deal Cornwall Council would have to change its governance system to have a directly elected mayor.
However, a campaign has been launched to try and secure a referendum so that people in Cornwall have a chance to vote on whether there should be a mayor. Under the current proposals the decision on having a mayor will be taken by the 87 Cornwall councillors.
Whilst supporters of the change claim it will bring additional funding and powers to Cornwall and give the Duchy a stronger voice, critics say that it will be a costly endeavour which will only duplicate what is already in place and increase bureaucracy.
Mr Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth, has tabled two amendments to the Levelling Up Bill which is currently going through Parliament. The first seeks to ensure that when making any decisions on devolution the Government takes into account the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCPNM) which recognises the Cornish as a national minority.
The second amendment seeks to change the rules so that local authorities can secure a level three devolution deal without the need for a directly elected mayor. Both amendments have been supported by St Ives MP Derek Thomas.
Mr Eustice said that he considered that whilst there might be a case for having a change in governance he did not think that a devolution deal should be dependent on it. He said: “I am quite agnostic about a mayor. I know there are good arguments for one with the idea that you would have a single, strong voice for Cornwall and being directly elected would give more accountability.
“On the other hand there is something about Cornwall that having just one person having that power is uncomfortable – one for all rather than one and all – which goes against our sensibilities.
“Whether we should have a mayor, and the merits of having a mayor, is an issue of governance, it is a separate question to the one about securing devolution. If having a mayor is the right then then we should have one, but by not having a mayor should not mean we do not get a devolution deal.”
Mr Eustice said that ten years ago the FCPNM had been “pushed quite hard” by MPs including Liberal Democrat Dan Rogerson and was accepted by then Prime Minister David Cameron.
He said: “What the amendment says is that when considering the devolution deal the Government must have regard for what it means for the national minority. What that does is Cornwall is the only place in the whole of England that has a recognised national minority which makes Cornwall, legally, a special case.”
Mr Eustice wrote in a comment piece in the Western Morning News at the weekend that he was not in favour of a referendum which he said could be “quite painful and divisive”. He did praise council leader Linda Taylor for stating that councillors will be given a free vote when the time comes to decide what to do.
He said: “Each one of them will be able to listen carefully to residents in their own ward, hear arguments on both sides and then make up their own mind. That’s how it should be on a big issue like this and other parties in Cornwall should do the same. A development such as this would be an important constitutional change and we need there to be a free and open discussion about the merits of both courses of action.”
According to data from the Environment Agency, sewage has been dumped into the seas and rivers around the UK more than 770,000 times over the course of 2020 and 2021 – the equivalent of almost 6m hours.
During his short stint as environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena demanded that every water company boss write to him with plans to reduce storm overflows, where human waste is pumped into rivers and on to beaches.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did not publicly release these letters until months later, when obliged to under the Freedom of Information Act.
In the letters, the water company chief executives made scathing comments about the lack of action from government on the sewage scandal. They complained that the government had failed to bring in new laws as a reason for sewage discharges.
The water companies complained about two pieces of legislation in particular: regulations for drainage systems on new developments passed in 2010 but not yet enforced in England (Wales enforced the measure in 2018), and a ban on wet wipes which are not biodegradable proposed in a private member’s bill by the Labour MP Fleur Anderson but ignored by the Conservative government.
The Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson, Tim Farron, said: “It is a bleak day for the government when even the water companies are blaming their inaction for the sewage crisis.
“No wonder the environment department sat on these letters for so long, they are highly embarrassing. They prove successive conservative ministers have buried their heads in the sand while Britain’s coastlines have been polluted with foul sewage.
“These are the same water company executives who paid themselves insulting bonuses worth millions of pounds, all while destroying rivers and lakes. The government needs to get their act together. Years of Conservative chaos has delayed tackling this crisis. This is an environmental scandal which is sadly here to stay.”
The CEO of Anglian Water, Peter Simpson, said the government had not acted to make sure homes were built sustainably, with the sewage system taken into account. “If water companies were made statutory consultees on planning developments, not just local plans, and if schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act were enacted, then our role in ensuring sustainable growth would be greatly enhanced.”
In addition, Simpson called for a ban on the sale of non-biodegradable wet wipes: “We also believe the time has come to enforce a complete ban on the sale of wet wipes that do not adhere to Fine to Flush standards. The sector has worked closely with manufacturers and retailers on the development of this standard, but adoption is not happening quickly enough.”
The CEO of Thames Water, Sarah Bentley, called for regulations on drainage in new developments. “The biggest single driver of discharge of untreated sewage into the environment is excess rainfall coming through our sewage treatment works, overwhelming them. By choosing to enact schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 government can significantly reduce the rate of surface water discharging to our network, meaning more available capacity for new connections for new development and a lower risk of spills from combined sewer overflows.”
Water companies have come under fire for paying their CEOs generous bonuses yet failing to stop the sewage scandal. Last week, it was revealed that companies have been releasing sewage on to beaches and in rivers even when it is not exceptional weather.
Matt Hancock has just a few days left on I’m a Celebrity before he returns from the safety of the Australian jungle back to the more poisonous environment of the Palace of Westminster.
But this week, more Conservative MPs are pondering ways to get out of there – as a deadline approaches to give notice that they intend to stand at the next election.
MPs are already predicting as many as 50 colleagues may decide not to stand in 2024, having looked at the state of the polls. Some are toying with whether to stay till the end of the parliament or jump sooner – others holding out hope for a final reshuffle to get a chance at ministerial office.
Conservative MPs have been given a deadline of 5 December to declare whether they plan to stand down at the next election. The date coincides with the final decision on boundaries for the next election, so that Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) can start to look at the full electoral picture with new constituencies.
Chloe Smith, the former work and pensions secretary, and Will Wragg, the chair of the public administration select committee, have said they will stand down. On Friday Sir Gary Streeter announced he would not contest the next general election after 25 years in the Commons, followed shortly afterwards by Dehenna Davison, the levelling-up minister and MP for the “red wall” seat of Bishop Auckland.
Smith is 40, Wragg is 34 and Davison is 29, all with a significant amount of their professional lives still to come, but they have still decided they want out. The strains of the past five years of turmoil have been great for so many MPs – changes of prime minister, Brexit, the pandemic and party infighting. And all are on course to lose their seats on the current polling trajectory.
But some Tories predict that MPs such as Davison, Smith and Wragg are likely to be younger outliers and that there will be a major generational shift in the party, with numerous veteran MPs opting to stand down.
“A third of us were new to parliament at the last election, but there’s a lot of Tory MPs who have been here 15 or 20 years and feel they’ve done their time,” one said. “Some of those are in their 60s and 70s. If they go, they’ll get a good pension and be able to do the odd bit of work here and there.”
MPs who are still ambitious but feel their seats are on shaky territory are beginning to reach out to recruitment consultants, headhunters and former firms to try to get a sense of the post-electoral employment picture.
One long-serving Conservative backbencher said they had few illusions about their fate – or any plans for what might happen if, as expected, they lost their seat. “My constituency tends to change with the government, so it doesn’t look that great for me at the moment,” they said.
“But it’s not like I’m alone. Some colleagues are looking at other things they can do, but quite a lot are just keeping their heads down and getting on with their jobs. Everyone realises that the best we can probably expect in the election is damage limitation.”
Another MP said that they expected a number of colleagues to depart now they realised there was no longer a prospect of serving in government. “There are colleagues who have been passed over for ministerial jobs for years and now it’s getting to the point where they won’t serve – in which case, why stay?” one minister put it bluntly.
Others are concerned about Keir Starmer cracking down on MPs having second, often lucrative, jobs in addition to their parliamentary work. “You need to bear in mind that if we stay on and end up in opposition, the Labour government is likely to get really tough on second jobs,” one said.
Some have even discussed whether they should stand down early – even if that meant the party facing difficult byelections – thinking they would be more employable now.
“After the 1997 election nobody wanted to employ a former Tory MP,” one said. “It will be the same this time round, so people are thinking about getting out early while they still have some currency.”
Many have convinced themselves that life on the outside would be easier. “Even if the job was not that high-profile or interesting, I could earn three times as much and still spend all weekend at home with my kids,” one minister said.
More MPs are expected to announce departures before the deadline, but a number of Conservative MPs say they are likely to delay their decisions until later, to give themselves more time to decide.
Rishi Sunak could yet conduct another reshuffle, and one MP said they were waiting to see whether there was anything on offer for them for what they called “my last two years in parliament” before expecting to lose their seat.
“Rishi keeps dangling a reshuffle over our heads and of course that’s something that would be more attractive in the outside world, but if you say you’re going now, you won’t be getting a ministerial job.”
One said they had all but decided to go at the next election though had told CCHQ they were staying. “Under Liz [Truss] I would have gone like a shot, but I think Rishi’s got a chance of holding maybe 50 more seats than she would have done,” one senior backbencher said.
Others already have a new life back in government having thought their ministerial careers were now over – and might reconsider their future.
“I think there are some including Dom [Raab] and Michael [Gove] who might have decided to look for new careers after 2024, but now they are back in the tent that decision is not going to come any time soon,” the backbencher said.
Labour advisers report an avalanche of attention from recruitment consultants and lobbying firms, desperate to hire those with an inside view of the party.
“The phone just hasn’t stopped, it’s doing my head in. Even worse is people emerging out of the woodwork trying to get commissions and jobs,” one senior Starmer adviser said. Conservatives are likely to find the opposite is true.
In a recent post detailing the latest meltdown in the NHS emergency service, Owl asked:
Do you remember 2017, the year the local Tories ruthlessly started stripping out our Community Hospitals?
To which a correspondent has written:
I do indeed remember those times.
I attended a few meetings at DCC HQ and heard the pleas to retain our cottage hospitals, solid arguments from Claire Wright and Martin Shaw .
I remember the promises of alternative provision but later experienced a 100 year old former Royal Marine and ex POW friend being told no such alternative care was available despite him fully meeting the criteria.
He blocked a few beds but was also sent home on occasions, one of which saw him laid in a hospital-provided bed but from which he could not move by himself. He was expected, in light of the shortage of the promised alternative, to be left alone in that bed and flat all night, some 12 plus hours.
In the end, friends, (there was no capable family), stayed for several nights until alternative private arrangements could be made.
I should have liked Sarah Randall Johnson, the Tory party through and through chair of the Health Security Committee, to have seen what the consequences of the policy she was promoting caused.
Those who have read any of Swire’s wife’s diaries will know that he got involved ‘saving’ Ottery’ just to piss Claire Wright off (see Martin Shaw’s blog). That’s Tories and health care for you.
Having been the subject of 999 calls for a priority ambulance I can assure you it is not a pleasant experience waiting and wondering if they will turn up in time-obviously and thankfully they have so far, but dozens will share the concerns and as long as we have the same politicians running things, our hard working ambulance service will (hopefully), be carrying the politicians.
They, and we, deserve better. Sarah Randall Johnson appears still to be chair of the County Health Scrutiny Committee. I for one would like to see her long gone.