Breaking news: Tories come last in Newton Poppleford by-election

Congratulations to Councillor Chris Burhop (Independent) on being elected District Councillor for Newton Poppleford & Harpford to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Val Ranger to keep the Indy flag flying.

The turn-out was a creditable 46% and the results are as follows:

Christopher Burhop (Independent)      560 votes

Paul Carter (Conservative)                  113 votes

Caleb Early (Labour)                           162 votes

[Readers may recall that Simon Jupp elicited this comment whilst “knocking on doors” campaigning for Paul Carter in Newton Poppleford: Could you please start responding to your emails, rather than galavanting round East Devon! People are still in crisis and are still needing help, even though your party is in pieces at the moment, your job still stands!”]

Full result declaration can be found here

UK heads for long recession as economy shrinks by 0.2%

Britain’s economy shrank by 0.2% in the three months to September, in what is expected to be the beginning of a long recession.

Larry Elliott

In its first estimate of growth in the third quarter, the Office for National Statistics presented a bleak picture of the economy before next week’s autumn statement from the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt.

The Bank of England expects the latest gross domestic product figures to be the start of a prolonged UK recession – as rising interest rates and the cost of living take their toll on activity – lasting until the end of next year. Another negative growth figure for the final three months of 2022 would confirm a technical recession.

The ONS said the performance of the economy in the three months to September had been affected by the extra bank holiday for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, which led to weaker activity.

Tory turmoil has led to 147 resignations and sackings in 2022’s ‘revolving door’

The resignations and firings are equivalent to one nearly every other day of 2022 so far.

The extent of turmoil in Whitehall has been laid bare by figures showing that 147 members of the government have resigned or been sacked since the start of the year.

Jane Merrick

Mass resignations in protest at Boris Johnson and wide-ranging reshuffles by his successors have led to an unprecedented number of departures of ministers and their MP aides.

Analysis by i of House of Commons Library figures shows that 32 Cabinet ministers resigned or were sacked in 2022 – not including those who were demoted or moved sideways.

Outside of the two reshuffles carried out when Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak first entered Downing Street, there were 70 government resignations or sackings.

Most notable of these ad hoc departures were Sir Gavin Williamson over bullying allegations this week, Suella Braverman as home secretary in the dying days of Ms Truss’s government, only for her to be reinstated by Mr Sunak, and Kwasi Kwarteng’s exit as chancellor over his catastrophic mini-Budget.

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The 147 resignations and firings are equivalent to one per nearly two days of 2022 so far.

To put this figure into context, there are at any one time around 185 ministers and parliamentary private secretaries – also known as ministerial bag carriers – on the government “payroll” in the Commons and Lords.

The number includes ministers who left government altogether rather than those who were demoted or moved to another department, but also takes in people who left and returned later under a new PM.

Some of the departures represent the same role – including the resignation of two prime ministers, Mr Johnson on 6 September and Ms Truss on 25 October, and three levelling up secretaries – Michael Gove, who was sacked by Mr Johnson on 6 July, his replacement Greg Clark, who left under Ms Truss, and his successor Simon Clarke, who was sacked by Mr Sunak on 25 October, only to be replaced by Mr Gove in his old job – leading to criticism of a government “revolving door”.

The first resignation of 2022 was on 24 January, when Lord Agnew quit as minister for efficiency and transformation over the government’s failure to get a grip on tackling covid fraud.

In some cases, the same people have left government more than once in 2022. Guy Opperman resigned as a junior work and pensions minister on 7 July, as part of the mass walkout over Mr Johnson’s leadership, but he was reappointed the next day when the then PM agreed to resign.

Mr Opperman then left the government for a second time on 8 September, when Ms Truss was carrying out her first and only reshuffle as prime minister.

Many of the ministers would have received payouts when they left, including £18,860 for each PM, £16,876 for each Cabinet minister, £7,920 for a minister of state and £5,593 for a parliamentary under-secretary, while ministerial aides are unpaid.

However the payouts do not apply if they returned to government within three weeks, and some ministers, including Sir Gavin, have declined the payment.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said: “Britain deserves better than this revolving door of Tory chaos.

“The British people are paying the price for 12 years of the Conservatives, who crashed the economy and have made the cost of living crisis worse. We’re barely a few weeks into Rishi Sunak’s premiership and he’s already shown that he only offers the same failure and scandal.

“It’s time for a general election and a fresh start with Labour.”

Labour would ditch Tory ban on new onshore windfarms, says Starmer

A Labour government would rip up the planning rules restricting the expansion of onshore windfarms as part of a plan to make the UK a clean energy superpower, the Guardian has learned.

Pippa Crerar 

Keir Starmer admitted that he would have to “persuade some communities to get on board” after Rishi Sunak reinstated a ban, dropped by Liz Truss, on new onshore projects amid fears of local objections.

The Labour leader has already pledged to double the amount of onshore wind, one of the cheapest and quickest sources of renewable energy, and quadruple offshore wind by 2030, creating more than 100,000 jobs in the sector and wider supply chain.

Windfarms, in effect banned by David Cameron in 2015, have been controversial in some of the communities where they are located.

However, during a visit to a windfarm in Lincolnshire on Thursday, Starmer pledged to tackle nimbyism over the issue, saying that his government “will not shy from taking head on the choice that has to be made” by easing planning restrictions for onshore wind turbines.

After meeting with industry leaders, workers and apprentices, Starmer argued that the economic potential of onshore and offshore wind was too great and “must not be sacrificed on the altar of the Conservative party’s electoral woes”.

In contrast, he said, Labour would lift the planning ban on onshore wind “because politics is about choices”. He added: “If that choice means some communities adapting to a new landscape, so we can create tens of thousands of good quality skilled jobs, I will not hesitate to make it.”

The proposed planning changes for onshore wind include removing the loophole that allows a single person’s objection to stop an application, bringing planning requirements in line with other infrastructure.

There would also be tough new targets to get planning decisions on renewables down from years to just months and a crackdown on Whitehall blocking developments, as well as a requirement to proactively identify land for renewable energy developments.

Labour claims that their planned investment in wind power, from both the private sector and their new state-owned Great British Energy company, would deliver £93bn of savings to taxpayers in cheaper energy bills, of which almost £16bn would be from onshore wind.

Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, had promised to change planning rules so that the giant turbines could be deployed more easily in the countryside. But like much of their doomed plan for growth, which also included lifting the fracking ban, it was dropped by her successors.

Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden has confirmed that rules that require local consent on planning would stay in place as it was important to strike the right balance between “recognising local feeling” and investing in renewable energy offshore.

It comes after Sunak’s extraordinary volte-face on attending the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt, saying he would attend in order to “galvanise” world leaders to save the planet.

The prime minister also adopted precisely the same language on renewable energy that Starmer has been using for months, declaring that he now wanted to turn the UK into a “clean energy superpower”.

What is Pi? Covid’s next potential variant that could replace Omicron

Omicron was the last major variant, identified in November last year but scientists are already looking at what could replace it – Pi.

But the UK’s reduced testing regime could leave officials ill-equipped to confront oncoming issues of new variants.

Thomas Kingsley

It has been nearly three years since Covid-19 was first detected, and changed the world.

The virus that shut down the world would go on to mutate into new variants after it emerged in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

Omicron was the last major variant, identified in November last year but scientists are already looking at what could replace it – Pi.

The Omicron variant initially caused huge concern around the world, not least because it was found to be highly transmissible and the 32 mutations to its spike protein suggested it might resist current vaccines.

But 12 months later, Covid cases are now beginning to fall after a mild autumn wave driven by a cluster of Omicron subvariants, which virologists described as “Omicron’s grandchildren.” These include the BQ.1 and BA.2.75.2 subvariants, as well as XBB.

What is Pi?

Experts are now looking into whether a major new variant could arise through the winter and bring a new wave of infections.

If or when a new variant emerges, it would be called Pi, the next letter after Omicron in the Greek alphabet.

But is it really on the way, or have we finally seen the back of Covid-19 as a world-changing disease? Scientists aren’t yet sure.

At the recent Africa Health Research Institute, leading scientists from the UK, Japan and Australia gathered to discuss the outlook for Covid among other viral diseases such as HIV.

Professor Wendy Barclay, a virologist at Imperial College and member of the government’s advisory committee, Sage, told the Telegraph: “Are we going to see variants arise or future versions of this virus arise which come with more severe outcomes than currently the omicrons do, either because they escape some level of control that the vaccines give, or that they change inherently?

“I still don’t think that’s resolved. I still think we are in a phase where there’s an awful lot that we don’t know.”

How serious could it be?

Professor Greg Towers, of University College London, said he was hopeful that while there might be more changes in the genetic make-up of the virus, they would not result in a return to serious disease.

Professor Alexi Sigal of AHRI said there was debate between those who believed the currently more benign situation was because vaccines and infections had built an effective immunity wall, and others who thought the virus had evolved significantly to be less harmful but that such a shift could happen again in the other direction.

However, he warned that viral evolution could bring us back to square in the fight against Covid.

University of Warwick virologist Professor James Young said that the UK’s reduced testing regime could leave officials ill-equipped to confront oncoming issues of new variants such as Pi.

“We don’t have the testing and surveillance regimes we were running previously. People who are having PCR tests are being sequenced which is giving us the information but I worry it might not be representative enough for what’s going on,” he said.

What is the UK’s current Covid situation?

Estimates published in the first week of November by the Office for National Statistics suggested that infections in England started to fall at the end of October.

Some 1.6 million people in private households tested positive for Covid-19 in the week to October 24, down from 1.7 million the previous week.

Infections in England peaked at 3.1 million during the summer BA.4/BA.5 wave.

But experts are still urging caution was we head into winter.

Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programmes at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said: “It is hugely encouraging that Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations are still in decline.

“This goes to show how effective the vaccine programme continues to be and we thank everyone who has come forward for their latest vaccination so far.

“However, it is still vital that anyone who has not had their booster this autumn does so as soon as possible. Vaccination is still the best way to protect yourself, your family and the NHS, particularly as we head into winter.”

Bristol to scrap government’s ‘unrealistic’ housing targets

Bristol is planning to scrap the government’s “unrealistic” housing targets in a bid to protect the city’s green spaces. A new study will look at the evidence behind how many new homes Bristol should build over the next two decades, instead of using the government’s targets.

Alex Seabrook

Bristol City Council is writing up its new Local Plan, a hugely important document setting out how the city will grow and where new developments should go up to 2040. The Local Plan includes policies on environment, energy efficiency, disabled access and more.

But currently if the council can’t show in the new Local Plan that it has identified enough land where thousands of new homes can be built, meeting the government’s target, then developers get more leeway and can overcome Local Plan policies, effectively weakening regulations.

Councillor Nicola Beech, cabinet member for strategic planning, said: “The government, in an effort to reach its manifesto commitment of 300,000 homes a year without upsetting their voters in rural and suburban constituencies, takes the figure for the total number of homes that can be built in the UK’s 20 biggest cities and slaps a 35% increase on top of it.

“We have a housing crisis in Bristol and we want thousands of affordable homes built every year, but local government shouldn’t be penalised for not reaching a target that was set by an ex-prime minister, which doesn’t take the land available in each city into account.

“We’re already projected to build thousands of affordable homes in the next few years, a number which will increase as other developments are brought forward. But even if we far exceed our ambitious targets, we, and the other major UK cities, don’t have the land to build enough homes to reach the government’s non-evidence-based targets.”

A motion to scrap the government’s housing target in favour of an evidence-based approach was unanimously passed on Tuesday, November 8. Councillors said the motion was not “anti-development”, and recognised Bristol needed to grow as a city, but “in the right way”.

When the Conservatives won the 2019 general election, a major promise was getting 300,000 new homes built in England each year. This includes giving the 20 largest English cities an extra high housing target, a figure worked out by forecasting how the population will grow, and then adding a 35% uplift on top of that. Bristol’s target is more than 3,300 a year.

Green Cllr Tony Dyer, who proposed the motion, said: “Having a united front on this is important so I’m glad to see the approach proposed by the Local Plan working group has the wider support of councillors across the chamber. Many of the proposed policies are vital for Bristol if we are serious about tackling the climate and ecological emergencies, as well as providing decent homes for those most in need.

“Setting a housing target for Bristol based on evidence — not a Tory party manifesto — will allow us to better protect green spaces, and will help ensure local planning policy has the necessary force to ensure deliver more sustainable, affordable, and higher quality developments in the city, reflecting the voices of locally elected representatives and the residents of the city itself.”

Details of which pieces of land have been earmarked for development should be revealed by the end of the month, in a new public consultation on the Local Plan. This consultation, which could be delayed, will also explore what rules property developers should follow in Bristol.

One issue in the shortfall in new housing is developers not building the homes they have planning permission for. The number of new homes the council grants permission for is vastly higher than the number of homes actually built each year. But no powers currently exist to force developers to build homes once they have received planning permission.

Before the council meeting, Danica Priest, an environmental campaigner, said: “Last year we approved more planning applications than we have since 2007, but still failed the housing delivery test because developers aren’t building fast enough, and we can’t force them to. We have over 13,500 homes with planning permission that haven’t been built. The year before it was 12,000, so it’s getting worse.

“The data from this year’s housing delivery action plan shows it’s a complete myth that there’s an unlimited amount of labour and materials to build, and if we just granted more permissions the developers would build more. They have limited resources and will direct those resources at what will generate the most profit. Right now, that’s building luxury housing on green spaces.

“These developers are using our unrealistic targets to get out of affordable housing requirements. This is unacceptable and will only make our housing crisis worse. The only people who benefit from the high house targets are those who profit off of the housing crisis: property developers, landowners and landlords.”

Southern Water discharges sewage at nearly all bathing beaches over past week

Note: The quality of bathing water at beaches in the UK is monitored only during the summer months, from May until October. Yet all-year-round water sports are increasingly popular.

And new terminology: “Non-impacting” sewage discharges, defined by Southern Water as those that flow at least five kilometres (three miles) into the sea.

Owl wonders whether South West Water has NISDs (non-impacting sewage discharges).

Southern Water has discharged sewage for thousands of hours over the past week at dozens of bathing-water beaches in England.

George Sandeman

Water quality campaigners analysed the company’s data from the first eight days of November and found wastewater had been released 493 times at 83 beaches, for a total of 3,700 hours.

Last year Southern Water discharged sewage into waterways for more than 160,000 hours and each release lasted an average of 8.4 hours, according to the Environment Agency.

The quality of bathing water at beaches in the UK is monitored only during the summer months, from May until October, meaning that the impact of sewage released by Southern Water this month will not be measured.

Ed Acteson, of the campaign group SOS Whitstable, told The Guardian: “The Environment Act was supposed to herald a new era for the environment in Britain. But this is the worst I have ever seen.

“There are 86 bathing-water beaches, and as of yesterday 78 of them were showing sewage discharges and another five had discharges which the company says are non-impacting.

“This is environmental vandalism and most of these discharges are still ongoing . . . It fills us with foreboding for the coming winter months.”

“Non-impacting” sewage discharges are defined by Southern Water as those that flow at least five kilometres (three miles) into the sea.

The company has recently changed its pollution alert map, which can be accessed by the public, to reduce the number of red flags that would have appeared automatically after a discharge. Now only those deemed to be impacting are marked.

The beach at Pagham, to the west of Bognor Regis in West Sussex, is among those affected by the sewage releases this month. It water quality was rated excellent this summer but wastewater has been released for more than 179 hours over the past week.

Sandown Beach, listed by the tourist board as one of the finest on the Isle of Wight, had more than 65 hours of wastewater released.

Nick Mill, the head of Southern Water’s clean rivers and seas task force, said that significant rainfall over the past week had necessitated the release of the sewage. “To protect homes, schools and businesses from flooding, storm overflows act as a release valve to relieve the pressure, allowing excess flows to bypass treatment and enter rivers and the sea,” he said.

“These discharges are heavily diluted, typically 95 per cent rainwater, and are permitted by the Environment Agency. However, we know that these are not acceptable and this is why we are working hard to reduce them.”