Sad day for Clyst St. Mary

Message from Gaeron Kayley:

A number of residents and the Parish Council spoke fantastically well at today’s planning committee meeting in opposition to the building of 40 apartments at the rear of Clyst Valley Road. We fought this planning application long and hard over the previous fourteen months. There are a number of significant controversial things regarding the development on the car park at Winslade Manor, least of all where the people will now park their cars! 

Following a site visit by 11 Councillors this morning from the Planning Committee they eventually voted 6-5 in favour of the proposals.

I would personally like to thank each and every one of the speakers together with everyone that has contributed to the campaign that we set up back in December 2014. It’s a really disappointing result, I don’t know any more that anyone could possibly have done. 

I thank you for all your support, we have made some fantastic friendships along the way.

Very Best Wishes,

Gaeron Kayley

Owl wants to extend thanks on behalf of the community to Gaeron and his committee for their dedication and commitment in their efforts to hold developers to account.

Developers need to stop running roughshod over the community once they have gained outline planning permission.

We will need more efforts like this in the formulation of the new Local Plan. 

Government loses battle to keep ‘Covid review’ secret

The government has backed down in its fight to keep secret a “lessons learnt” review of the Covid pandemic, thanks to an appeal by openDemocracy to the information watchdog.

Jenna Corderoy 

It means the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has 35 days to finally make the document public.

The DHSC originally refused openDemocracy’s Freedom of Information request for the review, whose existence was revealed by HuffPost UK last year, claiming that the release of information would be “likely to undermine the safe space for experts and government officials to debate live policy issues”.

We fought the decision for 18 months, complaining to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the process. The DHSC eventually changed its mind and agreed to release the information – though in a sign that the department may still try to drag its feet, officials warned the ICO that its publication “requires ministerial approval which is proving difficult to obtain”.

That may be because Britain has had three health secretaries in the space of a few months, with Steve Barclay most recently appointed to the role for his second stint in as many months.

The ‘lessons learnt’ review is thought to be the work of civil servants in the DHSC conducting internal assessments of what went wrong to improve best practice.

Refusing to share it, the DHSC told us last year: “Officials and experts should be able to share their views on such an important matter without fear that such comments will be open to the public later on. On a matter that has affected so many lives it is vital that they are able to express themselves freely.”

The department did not explain its change of heart in the latest correspondence from the ICO, and declined to give a formal comment.

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, said: “Millions of people across the country have had their lives irreparably altered by the pandemic and deserve to know that the government has learnt the lessons from what went wrong.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and nowhere is that more true than the government’s handling of this pandemic. The government has stalled for long enough in publishing these findings.”

An independent inquiry into the UK’s response to the pandemic is already under way. Officially launched in July, the inquiry will examine how well prepared the UK was for a pandemic, as well as the decisions taken by the UK government once Covid arrived.

Last week, it was reported that the inquiry had asked to see Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp messages during his time as prime minister.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock is very likely to be a witness in the inquiry. He has recently been heavily criticised for his planned appearance in the reality TV show ‘I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!’

Jeremy Hunt’s austerity budget: necessity or political choice?

Jeremy Hunt is preparing to wield the axe over public spending this week and raise taxes for everybody in an autumn statement that will be long on pain and short on good news. After Liz Truss’s short and catastrophic premiership, the “abacus economics” she despised is back in the ascendancy under Rishi Sunak.

Heather Stewart 

The message from the government is that Britain has to live within its means, which Hunt and Sunak say requires action to reduce government borrowing and ensure that the national debt starts to fall as a share of national income.

Failure to do so, they say, will lead to a “black hole” in the public finances that will spook the financial markets and lead to higher borrowing costs for companies and households.

Yet some experts have cautioned that there is nothing inevitable about the new era of austerity Hunt appears to be preparing to usher in, and that there are other ways both of raising money and of keeping the markets sweet.

Is there a black hole?

Many left-of-centre economists challenge the idea of a measurable “black hole” in the public finances, pointing out that its existence is only created by whatever fiscal rules the government has set itself – and that estimates of its size are highly sensitive to economic forecasts.

Economist Jo Michell, a co-author of a paper for the Progressive Economy Forum highlighting the “dangerous fiction” of a fiscal black hole, says the economic backdrop is highly uncertain, making this the wrong moment to draw up concrete plans for spending cuts.

“The sensible thing is to wait and see, for a little bit,” he says. “Things are changing so rapidly: we’re moving into recession, US inflation looks like it may be on the down-slope, gilt yields have come down substantially since the mini-budget and may continue to come down. These are all turning point signals.”

“What we’re seeing is a rush from a £45bn fiscal loosening, with the Truss budget, to a £60bn tightening being floated with the current government,” he adds. “You’re talking about a £100bn swing in fiscal policy, in response to a set of bond market moves that we don’t fully understand.”

Hasn’t the Truss experiment made austerity inevitable?

Proponents of austerity point to the dramatic sell-off in sterling and government bonds, in the aftermath of Kwasi Kwarteng’s tax-cutting mini-budget, as evidence that financial markets are effectively demanding deep spending cuts.

But Michell highlights the technical issues in pension portfolios that amplified the gilts sell-off (prompting the Bank of England to step in).

Other economists have pointed to the wider context of Kwarteng’s statement, including the sacking of the Treasury veteran Tom Scholar as permanent secretary, and Kwarteng’s offhand promise of more tax cuts to come.

Carsten Jung, a senior economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) also warns against learning the wrong lesson from Truss’s mauling at the hands of the markets.

He argues it was fears of surging inflation, as higher government spending fed into demand, that really spooked investors, pushing up bond yields and, in turn, mortgage rates.

“It is portrayed as a fiscal credibility crisis; whereas really it was an expectation that inflation would be higher,” he says, adding that Germany has announced a generous energy support package without being penalised by investors.

Is the government attacking the right target?

Jung is the co-author of an IPPR report setting out the thinktank’s alternative to renewed austerity. The plan – which is conditioned on avoiding rocketing inflation, instead of closing a “black hole” – includes generous spending on helping households through the cost-of-living crisis, and protecting public services from rapid increases in costs.

The IPPR suggests these and other urgent priorities could entail an extra £120bn in spending, much of it temporary. To avoid this short-term splurge exacerbating inflation, they recommend tax increases worth £40bn – which could include reversing the recent cut in national insurance contributions, for example.

Does a doom loop loom?

The former shadow chancellor John McDonnell warns that the current policy mix – with the Bank of England raising interest rates and the government preparing to cut spending – risks exacerbating the economic downturn and leading to a cycle of cuts, weaker growth, a bigger-than-planned deficit, and still more cuts.

“The Bank of England pushing up policy rates, the government introducing austerity – inevitably the result is recession. In technical language, I think it’s barmy,” McDonnell says.

“Even if you accept that there is a gap that needs to be filled, all you need is a relatively mild plan for redistribution, in order to avoid austerity,” he adds. “I think the problem that Sunak and the others have is that they’ve got themselves into an ideological trench, where they’re fighting old wars.”

How about taxing wealth?

Tax Justice UK recently set out proposals for up to £37bn a year in tax increases, as an alternative to what it called “austerity 2.0”.

These included taxing the wealth of the super-rich – anyone with more than £10m in assets – at 1% a year; aligning capital gains tax with income tax, so that unearned income is taxed as heavily as pay; and applying national insurance to investment income.

Or borrowing more?

The political economist and chartered accountant Richard Murphy agrees a wealth tax should be considered, arguing that rich people have the capacity to pay more.

“Alternatively, the government could borrow more. The best way to do this would be by cutting out the financial markets as a middleman. National Savings and Investments already provides the government with £210bn of funding. If interest rates on their products were more competitive they could raise very much more and still lower the overall cost of government borrowing.

“Or, given that austerity is apparently required to keep financial markets happy, the chancellor could call those markets’ bluff and simply say he’ll buy back the bond holding of anyone who is unhappy with the programme of additional spending and investment we need right now using the quantitative easing programme. That would also keep interest rates down.”

The Tories cannot blame Labour this time – we’re in this mess because of Brexit

I really cannot take any more news about how this winter is going to be. It feels like being at school and told to hold your hands out, palms down. A particularly sadistic teacher would then come and rap us on the knuckles with a ruler. The waiting for the pain was as bad as the pain.

Suzanne Moore 

Every day we are told Austerity 2.0 is upon us. Eye-wateringly tough choices are being made. Everyone is going to have less, except the very rich. This induces in most of us a state of powerless anxiety. I panicked and bought an air fryer in which I incinerated a cauliflower as if somehow one kitchen device might make any actual difference to my fuel bills.

More austerity is a political choice, just as the first round of it was. Now, though, it is being presented to us as some kind of inevitability. This is not 2010 though. Yet George Osborne has materialised again advising Hunt on how to strip the very last meat off the bones of many struggling public services. This is repulsive.

Back then, Osborne could at least pretend that belts had to be tightened because of Labour profligacy and not the bank bailout of 2008. It prepared the country in two ways. We were bombarded with messages about strivers and skivers, and endless TV programmes about people on benefits who were somehow a despicable and parasitic underclass. Then, as now, most benefits were for those in low paid work and for pensioners. The divvying up of citizens into the deserving and the undeserving poor is a callous move. I would really rather know about how the undeserving rich are gonna help out here.

But this is not 2010. The Tories cannot blame Labour. We are in this mess (UK GDP fell by 0.6 per cent in September) because of Brexit. We import more than we export and lean on investors’ faith in UK assets. Then there was the insane Truss who had internalised Mark Zuckerberg’s motto “Move fast and break things”. Truss and Kwarteng’s budget imploded, playing havoc with the markets, pushing up interest rates and causing all kinds of chaos that the mere regime at the top of the party cannot sort out.

The public are now being asked again to tighten our belts – but this is not the same public of 10 years ago who will merrily go along with it as Hunt tries to recoup £50 billion primarily from public services.

Again, this is an ideological choice.

Out of all G7 nations we are alone in utilising austerity to stop a recession. While the very poorest are being made even poorer, and the disposable income of the middle classes is reduced, there will be no growth. The NHS is on its knees and the public, far from turning its back on striking nurses or train drivers, has sympathy for them. The current strategy of turning all ire on migrants is but a distraction.

Many of our problems indeed stem from cutting public investment in the first wave of austerity. We didn’t repair school roofs or build flood defences or decent homes.

This new demand, that the public have to pay for the mistakes of our leaders, is not going to be met with sanguine acceptance. The architects of austerity depend on lies and deception, the biggest of which is ‘the household fallacy”. This holds that the government needs to manage its finances like a household and live within its means. Households cannot sustain debt without hearing the knock of the bailiffs. However governments can and do as they can print money, tax the wealthy and hold their debts domestically. In truth, our debt is low in comparison with historical standards and we measure it in a way that does not take into account public investment. If Germany was to use the way we measure our debt, its government debt would be twice as large.

So we are to gloss over the effects of Brexit, the damage done by Truss and 12 years of running down public services and blame everything on what? Ukraine? The pandemic? Ordinary folk are to pay for the mistakes of the Tory Party’s crisis?

It will not wash. Sunak said: “This is a compassionate Conservative government that recognises the pressures people feel. But we’re not going to stop hard choices”. Well, I know a little about compassionate conservatism as once – for my sins – I had to follow William Hague around America so he could find out what it was. He met Kissinger and Bush and we went to schools plastered with brand names. Osborne lurked silently in the background, for he was then Hague’s speechwriter.

Compassion meant only bringing private money into public institutions. There is nothing compassionate about austerity and in terms of what we need to promote growth, nothing even that conservative.

This is discredited and punitive ideology that shows the Tories have run out of ideas and have reverted to the only thing they know how to do: rapping our knuckles, making us poorer, pushing despair while saying there is no alternative. But there is…

Jacob Rees-Mogg faces questions over land for housing development

Jacob Rees-Mogg is facing questions over whether he will benefit financially from a family trust that is believed to hold land proposed for a new 60-house development in the face of huge local opposition.

Rowena Mason 

Rees-Mogg, who spoke in favour of reforming planning laws when a cabinet minister, is not listed as owner of the land adjoining Underhill Farm in Somerset, where developers have applied for planning permission.

However, there is evidence to suggest the land is held in trust for members of the Rees-Mogg family – a structure that may help them minimise inheritance or capital gains tax bills and legally allows its ultimate beneficiaries to remain secret.

The development, part of which is in Rees-Mogg’s own constituency, is being fiercely opposed by people living in the area, with more than 135 objections from neighbours to the plans and opposition from Midsomer Norton town council on the grounds of ecological concerns, traffic and pressure on services.

Curo, the developer, applied for planning permission for the site in July. Since then, neighbours have raised environmental concerns about loss of wildlife, including deer who roam free in the field, and buzzards, as well as worries about overcrowding, traffic pollution, and noise.

Asked whether he had an interest in the trust that holds the land and whether he or a close family member had the potential to benefit from it financially, Rees-Mogg declined three opportunities to comment.

Underhill Farm and the adjoining plot proposed for development are listed separately on the Land Registry as owned by a business manager, Thomas Meadows, who has former links to the Rees-Mogg family companies, and a tax planning lawyer, Richard Cussell.

Rees-Mogg previously applied for planning permission in his own name at Underhill Farm in 2015, even though it was officially listed as being owned by Meadows and Cussell, and there is a house on this plot named Mogg Parlour. Rees-Mogg’s company, Saliston, also bought a bungalow on a road bordering the site in 2019.

Rees-Mogg has declared that he is the beneficiary of a family trust on his register of ministerial interests, although it is not clear whether this is the same trust. He also declares a financial interest in property, land and related farm buildings in Somerset on his register of MPs’ interests.

This is separate from his family home, the £2.9m 17th-century mansion at Gournay Court, his £5m five-storey London townhouse, and at least one more London property believed to be in Pall Mall.

Rees-Mogg’s father, William Rees-Mogg, declared on his House of Lords register that he owned building land at Underhill before his death in 2011.

Rees-Mogg has never commented publicly on the development. However, he has publicly praised the developer, Curo, a social housing association and house builder.

In the Commons in December 2021, while the planning application was already being prepared, Rees-Mogg said Curo did a “really good job”.

He added at the time: “The government are committed to increasing house building. The sheer volume of house building is what ensures that there are houses for everybody. Whether it is social or affordable housing – however it is defined – we need to build more, which is why it was announced in the Queen’s speech that there would be a planning bill.”

Rees-Mogg has several times personally spoken in favour of loosening planning laws and co-written a book about increasing housebuilding. Measures proposed by Liz Truss’s government, in which he was business secretary, included relaxing regulations on planning relating to EU rules, affordable housing, nutrient pollution and biodiversity.

Helen Morgan, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for housing, said Rees-Mogg should be transparent.

“If Jacob Rees-Mogg has nothing to hide then he has nothing to fear. It is right and proper that the public know whether he is set to profit off this land or not,” she said.

“If he does have an interest, then people will rightly want to question why he, when a minister, pushed for loosening housing laws. Local communities have a right to scrutinise who profits from large housing developments. Rees-Mogg’s constituents have a right to full transparency.”

A spokesperson for Curo said they understood the land proposed for development was held in trust but they had not communicated with the owners. “We are a not-for-profit housing association. Our development arm exists to build desperately needed new social housing in our region. We have been working with the appointed land agent to secure planning permission for new homes; we have never had any discussions regarding this site with the land owners,” the spokesperson said.

In its application, the developer has made the case that it can minimise ecological impact to meet its obligations and that the site meets local need, while making a “positive contribution to the character of the existing surrounding settlement”.

Cussell said he was unable to comment. Meadows did not reply to requests to comment.

The proposed development is in Ston Easton in Mendip council area, which allocated the land in its local plan, but the access road and closest settlement is in Midsomer Norton in Bath and North East Somerset, where more people are objecting to the proposals. Midsomer Norton is Rees-Mogg’s constituency, but Ston Easton is covered by neighbouring Conservative MP James Heappey.

Ston Easton is the village where Rees-Mogg spent much of his childhood living in a manor house, Ston Easton Park, before it had to be sold by his father in the late 1970s.

South West Water attend scrutiny meeting at Blackdown House

South West Water has attended a scrutiny committee meeting with East Devon District Council to discuss sewage discharge at Exmouth. 

The meeting on November 2 was attended by lan Burrows, Southwest Water Director of Environmental Liaison and Culture, Exmouth Town Councillors, East Devon District Council Paul Arnott and representatives of ESCAPE Exmouth.  

Adam Manning

The scrutiny committee met at the East Devon District Council offices at Blackdown House for a ‘Presentation by South West Water on beach and river water quality followed by questions from Members of the Scrutiny Committee, Members and the public.’ 

Ian Burrows took questions from members of Escape on sewage pollution and discharge following heavy weather at the storm overflow on Exmouth beach and what measures South West Water can take to make residents more aware when a discharge is taking place.  

The company say they are looking into using Event Duration Monitors (EDMs) on 100 per cent of all its overflows. The question of upgrading the sewage treatment plant in Maer Lane and making information on water quality readily available to the public was also discussed. 

ESCAPE’s Geoff Crawford said: “I was pleased to be able to “zoom” in to this EDDC / SWW scrutiny committee meeting. It’s certainly good to see democracy in action and that would not be practical if online zoom meetings were not available. The councillors were knowledgeable and keen to question SWW robustly. They did a good job. Many questions were around the monitoring and reporting of sewage overflows and discharges. SWW admitted that the current reporting system is inadequate and difficult to understand. They committed to installing alert devices (EDMs) to 100% of their CSO overflow pipes by 2023.” 

“SWW committed to a near real time notification of a sewage discharge to the public but could not say when or how that would happen. A lot of emphasis was placed on the reporting of overflows to the public 24/7/365. Now most overflows are not reported to the public and the local message board system only works from May to September despite water sports, swimmer and beach users being year-round. 

After the meeting Councillor Olly Davey said: “I welcome the willingness of SWW to meet with local councils to discuss issues, and the assurances they have given that sewage discharges into the rivers and seas will be reduced in future, but given the pace of development in East Devon, and the years they have had to address these problems, I am not hopeful of an early solution. I also note that there seem to be no plans to end the transport of sludge to the Maer Lane Treatment Works.” 

Councillor Joe Whibley said: “I’m pleased that South West Water have finally managed to explain the situation as they see it but disappointed that, despite admitting when I asked that this is severely damaging to the town’s reputation, feel that adhering to minimum standards and blaming others is sufficient. It isn’t! New infrastructure that safeguards our beaches and waters is needed urgently.” 

A South West Water spokesperson said: “We welcomed the opportunity to meet with East Devon District Council and local residents to discuss a variety of matters including the operation of storm overflows over the summer, tanker movements to and from Exmouth wastewater treatment works, and our plans for the future. 

 “It was a constructive, interactive and engaging discussion around South West Water’s largest environmental investment programme in 15 years, WaterFit, which is now well underway, focused on delivering benefits for customers, communities and the environment. 

 “Through WaterFit we will dramatically reduce our use of storm overflows, reduce and then remove our impact on river water quality by 2030 and maintain our excellent bathing water standards all year round.”