Covid outbreak at Lympstone marine camp

Commando training continues though

Radio Exe News

The Ministry of Defence says the Royal Marines’ Commando Training Centre at Lympstone has been affected by an outbreak of covid-19. Although they haven’t confirmed numbers, separate government figures show a cluster of 26 people confirmed with the virus in the Lympstone and Clyst St Mary area.

A Royal Navy spokesperson says: “We can confirm that a number of personnel at the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines (CTCRM) have tested positive for covid-19. Personnel who have been in contact with those testing positive are self-isolating in line with Public Health England guidance.

“There is no impact on other trainees at CTCRM. The safety and welfare of our people remains paramount.”

Devon 20-somethings are covid magnets

The figures, concerning positive cases reported in the week to 27 October, reveal that in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Torbay and Plymouth, the 20-29 age group has the highest number of cases.

Daniel Clark, local democracy reporter

Devon 20-somethings are covid magnets

They account for most cases

New statistics have been released showing the breakdown of positive covid-19 cases by age group and local authority area.

The figures, concerning positive cases reported in the week to 27 October, reveal that in the Devon County Council area, which excludes Torbay and Plymouth, the 20-29 age group has the highest number of cases.

Torbay has a higher number of new cases being reported in the 70-79 age group than the 10-19 age group, the only area in Devon to do so, and the Bay has the highest rate of cases for the 80-89 and 90+ age groups.

Torbay has the highest percentage of cases in the 60+ age range (17 per cent) and the lowest in the 10-19 age range (just six per cent), with 16 per cent of cases in the 20-29, 40-49 and 50-59 age ranges and 23 per cent in the 30-39 range.

In the Devon County Council area, 14.5 per cent of the cases confirmed are from the 60+ age group, with another 14 per cent in the 50-59 age group, with the 20-29 (28 per cent) and 10-19 (19 per cent) with the highest amount.

In Plymouth, just 13 per cent of cases are in the 60+ age group, with 32 per cent of cases in the 20-29 age range, and 13 per cent in the 10-19 age group.

Croydon council on verge of bankruptcy after risky investments

Ministers have sent in a taskforce to oversee Croydon council after an audit report revealed the Labour-run authority is on the verge of bankruptcy following a string of risky property investments and a failure to keep control of social care budgets.

Patrick Butler 

Auditors heavily criticised the south London council for ignoring more than three years of internal warnings over its finances, accusing it of “collective corporate blindness” and fostering a governance culture in which poor spending decisions were not robustly challenged or scrutinised by councillors.

The council has a £60m black hole in its budget, and only £10m of financial reserves, auditors revealed, in a report that carried strong echoes of similarly deep-rooted corporate failings at Tory-run Northamptonshire county council, which declared itself effectively bankrupt in 2018.

The auditors, Grant Thornton, said Covid-19 had “ruthlessly exposed” the council’s fragile underlying financial position. “Whilst the … pandemic has created significant financial pressures for local government, the depth of the issues facing Croydon existed prior to the pandemic.”

The report’s other findings include:

  • Croydon borrowed £545m during the past three years to invest in housing and commercial property. This included a £200m loan to its own housing development arm Brick By Brick, which has yet to return a dividend. The council has capital borrowings of nearly £2bn.
  • It invested £30m in the local Croydon Park Hotel in 2018-19. This went into administration in June. It also spent £46m on a shopping centre. The council’s strategy of “invest[ing] its way out of financial challenge” was “inherently flawed”, as councillors did not properly understand the retail and leisure markets, auditors said.
  • It allowed a £39m overspend on adult and children’s social care to spin out of control after 2017 when an Ofsted inspection branded its children’s services “inadequate”, and subsequently used accounting tricks to mask its failure to control costs in these departments.

The audit report revealed that Croydon’s top finance official drafted a formal section 114 letter to council bosses in September signalling the council was effectively bankrupt but this was not published following discussions with the former leader, and other senior managers.

There has been a clearout of Croydon’s top management in recent weeks with the former council leader Tony Newman, the deputy leader Alison Butler and the former chief executive Jo Negrini all leaving their posts. The new leader, Hamida Ali, has promised “decisive action” to bring the council’s finances under control.

On Thursday the local government secretary, Robert Jenrick, confirmed that Croydon had approached the government for special financial help, and announced that a rapid review of the council’s governance, culture and risk management would be carried out.

He said: “The public interest report published this week is damning about the dysfunctional governance within Croydon council, who have been entirely irresponsible with their spending and investments. There are serious questions [for] local leaders to answer, and we are stepping in to get the situation under control.”

Although it stops short of a full Northamptonshire-style statutory intervention in the day-to-day running of Croydon’s affairs for now, the review will closely examine the council’s financial plans and commercial investment strategies to see if more formal involvement is required in the future.

Ali said: “While a decade of austerity and the Covid-19 crisis have had a major impact on our finances they do not excuse the issues this report has laid bare. The council fully accepts the findings and recommendations of this report and the council’s new leadership will take swift and decisive action to stabilise the council’s finances and governance.”

Croydon’s parlous financial state, while pre-dating the pandemic, has highlighted the increasingly fragile state of council finances across the UK. Manchester city council warned on Thursday it faced “unpalatable cuts” to services if the government did not step in with extra funds to tackle an anticipated £105m budget shortfall in 2021-22.

Manchester’s leader, Sir Richard Leese, said: “At the start of this crisis the clear message from government to local authorities was ‘spend what you need to’ but since then they have changed their tune. We need them to honour that original commitment. Failure to do so would mean that we will be forced into totally unpalatable cuts.”

Concrete desert warning from National Trust over new planning rules

Boris Johnson’s planning reforms risk creating “concrete deserts” that are “devoid of green space”, the director of the National Trust has warned.

George Grylls, Melissa York

Hilary McGrady said that she had “significant concerns” about the scale and pace of the plans, calling them “too dismissive of what currently works”.

In August, No 10 announced the biggest shake-up in planning laws in 70 years with Mr Johnson determined to construct 300,000 homes a year as part of his “Build, Build, Build” agenda.

Rural land in the green belt and in Areas of Outstanding National Beauty will fall into protected zones — where applications will probably face rejection. In areas marked for renewal, most proposals will be approved. Permission will automatically be granted for development in growth areas.

The basis for the present system is the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, has said the planning process is broken and Mr Johnson has said that “newt-counting delays” prevent greater housebuilding.

Ms McGrady, who represents 5.6 million National Trust members, said that reforms would not work without “genuine public scrutiny”. “What should we make of the proposed growth, recovery and protected areas? Certainly they must not lead to concrete deserts devoid of green space, lacking corridors for nature and sustainable travel.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “These claims are entirely wrong, and ignore the fact that our reforms to the outdated planning system protect green spaces and will create beautiful and well-designed communities, with green spaces and tree-lined streets as the norm. Local communities will be able to choose land for ‘protection’, helping them pass on valued green spaces for future generations.”

Under existing rules, the public can object to developments at two points in the planning process: when the council draws up a local plan and when a specific building applies for permission.

The government argues that the second part of the process is too often dominated by “a small minority of voices” and wants to minimise consultation at this phase.

Ms McGrady questioned the government’s plan to enshrine beauty in new design codes after Mr Jenrick said that he would legally enforce tree-planting in new developments and demand that future buildings take architectural inspiration from “Bath, Belgravia and Bournville”.

She said: “More tree-lined streets and a ‘fast track for beauty’ sound good, but how will this happen?’ We must not take a skin-deep approach when nature is in meltdown and we are in the teeth of the climate crisis.”

Tory backbenchers including the former cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling have reservations about the reforms. About 80 Tory MPs are in a Whatsapp group that is co-ordinating opposition to the changes.

One MP said: “The government is not listening. Dominic Cummings holds parliament in contempt and he’s just bulldozing these plans through.”

A source of contention is an algorithm that calculates where the 300,000 houses will be built each year. The formula will concentrate building in London and rural areas, but scale back projects in northern cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle.

In the Commons this month, Theresa May said the algorithmic approach was “mechanistic and ill-conceived”. Ministers would not reform the system by removing local democracy and cutting the number of affordable homes that are built, she said.

Tory minister who voted against free school meals made £65 expense claim – for book about childhood poverty

A Conservative minister who voted against free school meals had earlier made a £65 expense claim – for a handbook about childhood poverty. 

Robin Walker, minister for Northern Ireland, bought the Child Poverty Action Group reference manual last June and then charged it to the public purse.

But last week he was among hundreds of Tories who voted down a parliamentary motion aimed specifically at alleviating such deprivation by extending free school meals over the half-term and Christmas holidays.

The vote – demanded by the Labour party after a petition by footballer Marcus Rashford – was defeated by 322 to 261 in the Commons.

The decision was widely criticised, with businesses and charities across the country coming forward to offer free half-term food to struggling families.

But Mr Walker, who was himself educated at the private St Paul’s School in London, said his decision – to deny poor children a hot meal every day – had been “misrepresented”.

“I think the vote on Wednesday was how we help not whether we help,” he told the Worcester News. “We are definitely going to make sure that there is support for the most vulnerable people and the debate was about whether the best to do that was through free school meals or through the welfare system.

“The motion I voted for was providing extra support through the welfare system.” 

Speaking about the £65 book – which could have paid for almost 30 free school meals – he said: “It was actually something that a previous caseworker ordered because she wanted to get some training on how to make referrals for cases where we thought people were at risk.

“We ordered that as a training resource and handbook.

“It’s to help the team make sure they know the right organisations to go to. We haven’t ordered it again this year because we already have one and we don’t feel need to subscribe to it annually.”

Mr Walker has previously served in the Scotland Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

And for Sasha-holics there is still more

“I don’t say it, but I think f**k the lot of them. Loyalty is always a one-way-street.” These are the words of Sasha Swire in her recent tell-all book: Diary of an MP’s Wife, Inside and Outside Power .

Lifting the lid on the Camerons in Devon

Gillian Molesworth

For those wishing to look as f******t as Sasha here’s where to go [fragrant]:

Hugo, You Can Stop Campaigning – Guido Fawkes

What a hoot! – Owl

[look at the online article to get the full experience]

Hugo Swire’s wife caused quite a stir with her cracking diary detailing the behind-the-scenes joys of the Cameron chumocracy.  A bemused co-conspirator, Tony Colvin, got in touch to query these advertisements running on Guido. For Hugo…

They invite you to find out what Hugo Swire MP is doing for East Devon. Not very much Guido suspects, given he stood down as an MP in 2019. Which meant he fortunately didn’t have to face irritated and embarrassed Tory colleagues. The local Tory MP is now Simon Jupp.

These are Google adverts bought programmatically. Presumably a year after the campaign ended somebody is still automatically paying for them on their card – hopefully not the taxpayer. As much as Guido appreciates the revenue, perhaps somebody, somewhere, ought to cancel the order?

Nearly half of councils in Great Britain use algorithms to help make claims decisions

Today is the last day of public consultation on the “mutant” algorithm and other measures proposed in “Planning for the Future”.

Automated decision-making “black box” programmes are increasingly being used – probably by those who don’t have a good understanding on how they work. In fact may not be transparent even to experts for commercial reasons – Owl 

Niamh McIntyre 

Nearly half of councils in England, Wales and Scotland have used or are using computer algorithms to help make decisions about benefit claims, who gets social housing and other issues, despite concerns about their reliability.

A Guardian freedom of information investigation has established that 100 out of 229 councils have used or are using automated decision-making programmes, many without consulting at all with the public on their use.

This is despite one council admitting that results from one algorithm showed it was only 26% accurate in some instances. The company behind it said it was because people often entered information wrongly.

Another council dropped an artificial intelligence tool to process new benefit claims, saying they were not satisfied with its reliability.

A range of private companies are selling machine-learning packages to local authorities that are under pressure to save money. The systems are being deployed to provide automated guidance on benefit claims, help decide who gets social housing, and allocate school places among a range of other uses.

Concerns have been raised about the arbitrary nature of these programmes, which inform important decisions about people’s lives, and their scope for making mistakes.

Martha Dark, the director of the digital rights group Foxglove, said: “It is very worrying to see so many councils putting in place algorithmic systems without any public consultation. These systems are clearly being used to make huge decisions about people’s lives.”

The use of artificial intelligence, or automated decision-making, has come into sharp focus after an algorithm used by the exam regulator, Ofqual, downgraded almost 40% of the A-level grades assessed by teachers. It culminated in a government U-turn and the system being scrapped.

One of the most used algorithms among councils is that for risk-based verification, a process in which claims for housing and council tax are automatically processed to determine the likelihood of fraud. Those that are considered higher risk are slowed down and people are asked to provide more evidence.

The programme is still being used by South Ayrshire council. When asked about the accuracy of this programme, the council said it had used the company Northgate Public Services, and the programme was found to be 26% accurate at finding low-risk claims, 36% accurate for medium-risk claims and had a 40% accuracy rate for high-risk ones. The service cost £41,500.

A spokesperson for South Ayrshire council said: “All applications are manually processed by staff – we do not use robotics to verify any application or evidence submitted. The type of risk associated determines the type or level of evidence required to verify the claim and so improves efficiency in claims processing.”

Northgate Public Services said the accuracy rates quoted were not related to the effectiveness but rather claimants often inputting incorrect data.

Wigan council uses an algorithm to allocate social housing. It says answers are submitted and a points-based system then decides which category to place people into. The council uses Northgate housing software to sort candidates into groups. The company stressed it was not involved in banding and assessment criteria, which is instead put in place by councils.

Wigan said applicants and council tenants are placed in either group A, B or C when they are able to demonstrate that they meet the appropriate criteria in either their permanent or temporary home. Group A includes young people leaving local authority care, those in severe hardship and those leaving the UK armed forces. Group B includes those living in poor housing conditions. Group C includes those living outside the borough with no local connection, among other criteria.

Nicolas Kayser-Bril, from Algorithm Watch, a non-profit group looking at algorithmic decision-making processes, said that while the council should be commended for its transparency, “there seems to be ample room for arbitrariness”.

“There will never be a way to objectively define who should be first in line for affordable housing. Transparent algorithms can help, but so can professional caseworkers who take the time to discuss with the applicants. Revealingly, none of the criteria in the list concerns the wishes of the applicants. Instead, they attempt to define the ‘good pauper’, much like in previous centuries.”

Joanne Willmott, Wigan council’s assistant director for provider management and market development, said: “Applications are assessed and prioritised based on answers submitted by customers around their own individual circumstances on our online housing application portal and then assessed in line with the allocation policy. A final check of the application is manually carried out.”

Flintshire council, which says it used the company Civica at a cost of £961.40 a year to process new claims for the period 2014 to 2018, said the service was terminated, as the council was not satisfied with its reliability.

A spokesperson for Civica said: “While the authority did not continue with this approach which was based on a third-party algorithm, the company continues to provide the core revenues and benefits software for Flintshire county council which is a longstanding customer.”

A Local Government Association spokesperson said: “Councils have been trying to improve how they use data in recent years, and predictive analytics is just one example of this. Good use of data can be hugely beneficial in helping councils make services more targeted and effective … But it is important to note that data is only ever used to inform decisions and not to make decisions for councils.”

Teddies and paper plates protest over free school meals snub removed from outside HQ of East Devon MP

Anyone seen Eyore?- Owl

A mum has asked the MP for East Devon why teddies and paper plates used in a peaceful protest over free school meals were removed from outside his Exmouth HQ.

East Devon Reporter 

The items were placed in front of Simon Jupp’s Mamhead View constituency office to challenge the Tory Government’s decision to block plans to extend support for food-deprived children over the holidays.

Conservative Mr Jupp voted against the bid – which has been championed by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford – in the House of Commons last week.

Exmouth mum-of-two Rosie Johnson said she and her family were so ‘disheartened’ by the move that they and friends decided on the peaceful protest.

She told East Devon News: “We try to teach our children about compassion and empathy.

“We should be able to look to our elected representatives as examples of this, but instead find ourselves turning to professional footballers.

“We were so disheartened by the vote against extending free school meals that we decided to join our friends in making a peaceful protest outside Simon Jupp’s office.

“We wrote messages, none of them abusive or threatening, on paper plates and left them with teddies.

“They were removed without any explanation even though they were not causing an obstruction and had not damaged any property.

“It was always our intention to remove them at the end of the day but we weren’t given that opportunity.

“This issue is too important to be dismissed.

The peaceful protest of teddies and paper plates outside East Devon MP Simon Jupp's constituency office in Exmouth. Picture: Rosie Johnson

The peaceful protest of teddies and paper plates outside East Devon MP Simon Jupp’s constituency office in Exmouth. Pictures: Rosie Johnson

But the items were removed 'without explanation'.

But the items were removed ‘without any explanation’.

“Children should not be going to bed hungry in one of the richest countries in the world and we should be ashamed to be relying on charities, businesses and celebrities to bridge the gap.

“We are looking for other ways to publicly protest this decision.”

Rosie, whose children are aged 11 and six, added:  “We don’t qualify for free school meals, but having previously been a primary school teacher for 15 years I’ve seen the effects of hunger on young children up close and just how essential free school meals and fresh fruit daily were to the health, wellbeing and educational achievement of the children in my care.”

She asked Mr Jupp on Twitter: “A peaceful, non-disruptive protest against the free school meals decision has been removed from outside the constituency office. What do you want me to tell my daughter?”

A spokesperson for Mr Jupp told East Devon News today: “Items left outside the constituency office in Exmouth can be claimed by contacting the office.”

Asked why it was deemed necessary to remove the teddies and paper plates from outside the premises, the East Devon MP’s office did not respond.

The Government had previously extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays and, after Mr Rashford’s campaigning, did the same for the summer.

But it has refused to do so again.

A bid tabled by Labour to give each disadvantaged child a £15 a week food voucher was defeated by a majority of 61 with 322 votes to 261.

Mr Jupp claimed the vote was ‘more about Labour party lines than actually helping anyone’.

“Tackling child poverty is a challenge and I am determined to ensure families in East Devon get the support they need,” he said.

“I believe the best way to do that is through the welfare system, rather than through schools.

“No child should go hungry, and a great deal of work and investment is going into helping families keep food on the table.”

Mr Jupp said the Government had extended free school meals support during lockdown and families received more than £380million in supermarket vouchers.

He also pointed to Whitehall bolstering the ‘welfare safety net’ with an extra £9.3billion this financial year.

Mr Jupp added: “It is important to remember that free school meals are not a general welfare measure.

“They are aimed at providing healthy meals for children in school to ensure disadvantaged students can learn to the best of their ability.

“Fundamentally, it shouldn’t be up to schools to provide meals for children indefinitely during the holidays and it’s right that we use the tools in place to help parents put food on the table.

“Struggling families need more individual support than the sticking plaster debated and I’d urge any family in this position in East Devon to contact me if they do.

“I promise to help them access available support packages and won’t hesitate to highlight any issues with the Department for Work and Pensions.”

Sidmouth beach protections ‘not fit for purpose’, says chamber president

Plans to protect the town’s seafront ‘do not look fit for purpose’ following a report showing Sidmouth’s clifftop homes could be swallowed by the sea within 20 years.

Those are the words of Richard Eley, Sidmouth Chamber of Commerce’s president.

Beth Sharp 

Sidmouth Nub News previously reported on Plymouth University’s study that warned of a ‘worst case scenario’ for Sidmouth’s eroding cliff.

Furthermore, residents have been reminded that the study did not take into account any actions to reduce erosion, like the Sidmouth Beach Management Plan (BMP).

The preferred option for the Sidmouth BMP would see a new groyne installed on East Beach, 200 metres east of the River Sid, and the splash wall raised to up to a metre along the promenade.

The £9million project would also incorporate importing shingle on both East and Sidmouth beach.

Mr Eley has however claimed there were ‘major problems with the preferred option’.

He added: “The chamber has long argued that the groyne is only likely to be partially successful.”

Mr Eley said the recharge/recycle provision was not funded by the scheme, and was going to be very costly.

He added: “Furthermore, it is highly unreliable: East Devon District Council (EDDC) expect to recharge once every ten years, which seems very infrequent.

“There is a good chance that the newly introduced shingle will soon disappear in the next big storm, and the beach will be vulnerable for years before another recharge is undertaken.

“During that time, erosion will continue at the current rate.”

Mr Eley said the groyne would be located 200 metres along East Beach and was designed to protect the residential housing west of that point, between the groyne and Pennington Point.

He added: “EDDC has previously assumed that houses east of the groyne are so far back from the cliffs that they are not under threat.

“The Plymouth study utterly destroys that thinking.

“The groyne, even if it works as well or better than expected, is not going to do anything to help anyone living to the east, in Laskeys Lane or Alma Lane.

“Even worse, the groyne is very likely to produce an effect known as ‘terminal erosion’…

“In this case, it means that the groyne will accelerate erosion to the east thus increasing the threat to Laskeys Lane and Alma Lane residents.

“So the current Preferred Option, developed before the Plymouth study, does not look ‘fit for purpose’, and surely needs to be reviewed in the light of the report.

“The chamber has consistently criticised the Preferred Option, because we think it is inadequate and ill-judged. This was before the Plymouth study ramped up those concerns.”

Mr Eley said they had argued for a rock revetment rather than a groyne.

A revetment has always been preferred by consultants, residents and EDDC, but has been criticised by Natural England.

Mr Eley called for Natural England to be invited to reconsider it in the light of the Plymouth report.

He added a rock revetment was cheaper than a groyne, more effective and reliable at reducing erosion, it did not require much (if any) recharge or recycle.

My Eley said it was also safer and did not cause terminal erosion.

He added: “It is impossible to ignore the impact of the Plymouth study, so a rethink by EDDC is inevitable.

“We will lobby hard for a revetment to be reconsidered, not least because of the negative impact that a groyne will bring to the residents of Laskeys Lane and Alma Lane.

“This is a very important issue for Sidmouth and we are collectively getting into quite a mess. The whole thing needs to be properly reconsidered without preconceptions.

“This doesn’t mean throwing away all the work that has been done, but it does mean responding to changing circumstances and parameters.

“We cannot just ignore this new Plymouth report.”

Read our previous story on the Plymouth study Sidmouth’s crumbling seafront could claim clifftop homes ‘within 20 years’ here.