Omicron – Conservatives, led by Johnson, incapable of giving clear message

Entirely predictable – Owl

Boris Johnson contradicts expert advice to curb Christmas socialising

Rowena Mason 

Boris Johnson has contradicted leading scientists and one of his most senior health officials who advised people to cut back on unnecessary socialising in response to Omicron, as he urged people not to cancel their Christmas parties or nativity plays.

The prime minister said the best thing to do to counter the threat of the Covid variant was to get booster jabs, with a massive NHS effort backed by the army to offer all adults one by the end of January.

Asked what he would say to schools scaling back nativity plays and people dropping out of Christmas social events, Johnson said: “We don’t want people to cancel such events. We think that overwhelmingly the best thing for kids is to be in school, as I’ve said many times throughout this pandemic.”

He also stressed that current guidance to wear masks on public transport and in shops was enough at this stage, despite Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, suggesting people should reduce their social contact as fears grow that existing vaccines will prove less effective against the Omicron variant.

“Of course our behaviours in winter – and particularly around Christmas – we tend to socialise more, so I think all of those will need to be taken into account,” the former deputy chief medical officer for England told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“So I think [the solution is] being careful, not socialising when we don’t particularly need to, and particularly going and getting those booster jabs.”

With 22 cases of Omicron now confirmed, including one Nottingham University student and nine linked to a social event in Scotland, senior scientists suggested it would be wise for people to cut back their social activities.

Some scientists and Labour raised concerns that the government was not going far enough. Prof John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said: “Jenny Harries is, of course, correct. Reducing our social contacts now will slow the establishment of this new virus in our country. It will also help reduce the spread of the Delta virus which we are still struggling with. If you are intending to socialise or go to the office then the risk can be significantly reduced by taking a lateral flow test beforehand.”

Prof Andrew Hayward, co-director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, said: “I am concerned that the intensification of mixing at Christmas social events will provide a boost to transmission at just the time when the Omicron variant will probably be picking up speed, potentially leading to an earlier peak in the new year before we have an opportunity to counteract this through boosters. Such a peak could seriously affect the ability of an already struggling NHS to provide adequate care.

“In this context my personal view is that it is reasonable for people to reduce indoor mixing but on current evidence I would not want this to be enforced.”

Others called for more clarity around advice. Michael Kill, chief executive of Night Time Industries Association, said venues were faced with “another poorly conceived communications strategy from government which has and will severely impact businesses”, with Christmas bookings and advance ticket sales already hit.

Ruth Rankine, director of primary care at the NHS Confederation, added: “Health leaders need clear and consistent messages to be given out by the government and its national bodies to the public on exactly what they are expected to do and when, both around vaccinations as well as on how they can keep themselves and those around them safe.”

Wes Streeting, the new shadow health secretary, said he was concerned about Harries’ comments because “she is clearly worried that the government isn’t on track, isn’t doing everything it needs to do”. He called for measures such as requiring pre-departure Covid tests from all travellers arriving in the UK to help “ensure Christmas can carry on as we hope it will”.

Johnson said he was not ruling out a move to “plan B” – an order to work from home and the introduction of vaccine passports – but he said it was not necessary at this point, with data on the effects of Omicron not expected for another two weeks.

The threat of further restrictions and Harries’ comments sparked a backlash among some Conservative MPs, who warned of “mission creep”. Steve Baker, a Tory MP on the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown sceptics, challenged it in the House of Commons, saying it “appears now that employed civil servants are no longer bound to policy” and that it was a “recipe for chaos”.

There was also concern among some Conservatives about the new isolation requirements for suspected contacts of Omicron cases, with 34 voting against the regulations in a vote and 24 against mandatory masks. Steve Brine, a former health minister, said the isolation rule change “bothers me a great deal more” than extending the use of masks, especially because of its impact on schools.

He said: “We’re not just looking at a pingdemic in our economy and in our businesses, we’re looking at a pingdemic that’s going to devastate education again.”

At his press conference in Downing Street, Johnson insisted there would be no return to the “pingdemic” of the summer, when many healthy contacts of those with Covid were required to stay at home. He also insisted that the booster programme and urging the unvaccinated to come forward were the best way of defeating Omicron, with the NHS announcing it would need an army of 10,000 volunteers and 1,500 new sites to help offer 25m vaccines over the next two months.

But despite the prime minister’s encouragement to headteachers not to cancel their nativity plans, some schools are switching to virtual performances because of concerns about infection risks and the challenges presented by the new variant.

Jamie Barry, headteacher of Yew Tree primary school in Walsall in the West Midlands, had hoped to put on a live nativity play this year with an audience, but it will now be a virtual performance amid concerns about the risk of staff and pupils having to isolate because of the new variant.

“Until the new variant there was no risk of isolation for close contact,” said Barry. “Now if someone tests positive with the new variant, individuals have to isolate regardless of age or vaccination status. I can’t risk losing half my staff or children missing the final week of term. Boris wants schools kept open but if staff have to isolate, and there’s a national shortage of supply [teachers] we don’t have much choice.”

He said the 12 schools in his cluster have changed their plans.

Hinkley Point C: Chinese nuclear plant fault may delay UK power plan

Key safety components in the UK’s first new nuclear power station for 30 years may need to be redesigned and the project could be delayed after defects were detected at a similar reactor in China.

Ben Webster

The £22 billion Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset is already well over budget and a decade late but the defects mean that the scheduled date for starting electricity generation, of June 2026, may have to be revised.

The same power plant design is due to be used for another nuclear power station, Sizewell C in Suffolk, which is planned but has not yet been approved.

An investigation is still under way into the cause of the problems with the plant in Taishan, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. It was shut down in August after reports of damage to fuel rods, which hold nuclear materials used to fuel the reactor.

The plant is operated by China General Nuclear Power Group and owned in partnership with the French state-controlled EDF, the two companies involved in building Hinkley Point C.

The Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity, a French association created in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, said that a whistleblower had reported that a design flaw in the reactor pressure vessel could be the cause of the problem at Taishan.

An industry source told The Times that the investigation was likely to show that the pressure vessel was “demonstrably safe” but it might also show that design changes were needed.

Paul Dorfman, a nuclear expert at the University of Sussex, said: “If the news we are hearing from the Taishan EPR [European pressurised reactor] is right, then it’s beginning to look like there’s a potential generic fault with the key safety mechanism of the EPR reactor design itself.

“If so, this is serious news for ongoing construction at Hinkley Point C and plans for Sizewell C.

“There’s a couple of ‘ifs’ there, but the thing with nuclear is the very limited scope for safety error. We’ve learnt, to our cost, if something goes wrong, picking up the pieces is costly in economic, environmental and human terms.”

A spokesman for EDF’s UK division said: “Inspection work on reactor one at Taishan is still under way. The cause of the issue with a number of fuel rods will not be known until the end of these studies and the findings will benefit future reactor operations, including those in Britain.

“Fuel performance issues are not unusual in nuclear operation and this issue does not pose a risk to people or the environment.”

The spokesman declined to comment when asked if the issues at Taishan might delay the start-up of Hinkley Point C.

If it is built by 2026, Hinkley Point C would be completed 31 years after Sizewell B became operational.

Remember, remember, this sleazy November

Peppa Pig, PPE and care cuts – Owl

November has been a month to forget for the Conservatives, who have seen their polling numbers plummet on the back of successive scandals.

By the middle of the month, Savanta ComRes had Labour six points ahead in a sign that the recent revelations have hurt Boris Johnson’s party at the ballot box.

YouGov polling published subsequently suggested the Tories had lost their lead, while a separate survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies put the nail in the coffin.

And that was before the north was nuked not once, but twice by a party that won a landslide election victory in 2019 on the back of support from those very communities.

It is a month that most people are unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Here is just a flavour of what went down.


Boris Johnson and the leader of the house, Jacob Rees-Mogg ripped up the Commons rule book to save one of their colleagues, Owen Paterson at the start of the month.

Two former prime ministers hit out at him in the aftermath, with Sir John Major launching an extraordinary broadside at Johnson, describing his conduct as “shameful”.

Theresa May also slammed the government for its “misplaced, ill-judged and just plain wrong” attempt to protect former Tory MP Owen Paterson from being suspended for corruption.

She said that despite the government’s embarrassing U-turn, Parliament’s reputation has been harmed by “effectively letting off” an MP who was judged to have done wrong by regulations that have kept British democracy in check for centuries.

More sleaze

Johnson’s botched handling of the Owen Paterson affair thrust how much time and money MPs raise from second jobs back into the spotlight, along with scrutiny of second home arrangements.

The Times reported 14 MPs were taking advantage of a loophole in the Parliamentary expenses scheme which means they can let their homes to tenants, and then claim for rent paid on a London rental property to live in.

Defending the revelations, Tory MP Andrew Rosindell said: “We have to be careful about this, we have to realise we are dealing with human beings who have families and responsibilities.”

The same MP said back in July,when the government announced it was to cut the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit, that “there are people that quite like getting the extra £20 but maybe they don’t need it.”

And even more sleaze

The PPE scandal showed no sign of abating in November, with a Tory party donor who supported Michael Gove’s leadership bid revealed to have won £164 million in Covid contracts.

The minister referred his firm to a “VIP lane” that handed £5 billion to companies with political connections.

The revelation drew yet more accusations of a “chumocracy” at the heart of government, with new analysis revealing that MPs’ friends and contacts have won huge contracts without proper process of transparency.

Social care cuts

Boris Johnson narrowly succeeded in getting the Commons to back a change to social care reforms that are likely to disproportionately hit those in the north harder than those in the south.

Senior Conservative MPs warned they would not back the new policy to cap care costs in England, which critics argued had been watered down to be less generous.

Ministers were unable to say whether the change to the £86,000 cap on care costs would fulfil an election pledge to guarantee no-one would have to sell their home to pay for care.

The Resolution Foundation think tank warned that people in the North and in Yorkshire are most at risk from having their “wealth wiped out by care costs”.

Former justice secretary Robert Buckland urged ministers to “look again” at the issue, and Bury South MP Christian Wakeford said he was uncomfortable with the change “to move the goalposts”.


 “Why are you betraying the north?”, Victoria Derbyshire asked Tory MP Miriam Cates after the government scaled back its plans for rail investment in the north.

There was anger in the Commons as transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that the eastern leg of HS2 was being scrapped while the planned Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) was being curtailed.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson had “ripped up” promises he made that HS2 would go all the way to Leeds and that there would be a new NPR line from Manchester to Leeds.

“This was the first test of ‘levelling up’ and the Government has completely failed and let down everybody in the North. You can’t believe a word the Prime Minister says,” he said.

CBI speech

Concerned journalists started to check in on the prime minister’s wellbeing after his bizarre speech to the CBI.

The prime minister enthused about a visit to Peppa Pig World and pretended to be a speeding car during an occasionally baffling speech to business chiefs.

He also made a passing comparison between himself and Moses and quoted Lenin in a speech that quickly went viral.

29 November 2021 – Nearly 1,300 people have say on future of East Devon public toilets – East Devon

Nearly 1,300 people have shared their views on the future of East Devon’s public toilets and how £3million should be spent, to help lower running costs in years to come for tax payers.

This report contains the recommendations going to Cabinet from a 2 hrs 35 mins Overview Committee meeting and link to the consultation report.

The authority is not able to afford to continue to run the 27 public toilets it owns as it has done in the past – in 2019 East Devon District Council (EDDC) paid more than £15,000 on average to run each toilet block.

Investments in the toilet buildings is more vitally important now than it has ever been before, to reduce costs. EDDC needs to make hundreds of thousand of pounds in savings in order to balance next year’s budget, because of rising costs and reductions in funding from Government. 

A consultation was run for two months through August and September 2021, and asked residents to look at proposals that categorised toilets (a, b or c) depending on the location and the walking distance to key areas such as a town centre, beach or large park and how well-used they are.

‘Category A’ toilets are sites that will be refurbished, and brought up to expected standards if they don’t already meet them, 80 per cent of residents agreed EDDC’s toilets needed this.

‘Category B’ toilets are sites that are less well used or where there are multiple toilets in a 4 to 8 minute walk from one another. EDDC will be looking at other uses for these sites – like a café with a public toilet or by inviting town or parish councils and community groups to run them.

‘Category C’ toilets are sites EDDC can no longer afford to run and are less used or are in locations served by other facilities. Town councils and community groups will be invited to operate these if they wish.

A total of 18 expressions of interest were made to run or use a public toilet space differently, including cafés, a cycling hub, a bike café, business funding of sites proposed for alternative uses, a community/eco hub, a tourist information point, a takeaway and a tea room.

The idea for ‘pay-to-use’ toilets was support by 56 per cent of respondents – this would help pay for the running costs of the toilets and could help generate £200k a year. Based on the opinions of residents in the consultation this will probably be by contactless card, at possibly 30p – it has been noted that cash is costly to collect and invites vandalism.  More than 40 per cent said a discount card should be available to people who can’t afford to pay or those with medical needs.

Here are some the toilets specifically mentioned by residents in the consultation:

Sidmouth Market Place/Port Royal (Cat B) – 58 per cent of respondents from Sidmouth didn’t agree with this categorisation/alternative use. Specific feedback was that both toilets should stay as they are needed and well used. Outside of the view that it should all be kept, some suggested the Triangle should be closed and Market/Port Royal kept open instead.

EDDC plans to talk to town and parish councils, including Sidmouth Town Council, before categories are finalised – like where there has been an interest in taking on or funding the facilities. 

Budleigh Salterton – Station Rd (Cat B) – 79 per cent of respondents from Budleigh didn’t agree with this being a Cat B, saying these are the most central toilets and are used by shoppers, arriving bus and coach passengers and people using the car parks.

Exmouth – Orcombe Point (Cat B) – 55 per cent of respondents from Exmouth disagree with categorising saying they are not close enough to other public toilets and that these toilets are in constant use during the summer, so would be needed at least seasonally.

Exmouth Bus / Train Station (Cat C) – 52 per cent of respondents from Exmouth disagreed with this categorisation/offer to others to operate. They said it was a major arrival point with no other public toilets nearby, or on the Exmouth to Exeter trains.

Seaton – Harbour Rd (Cat B) – 65 per cent of respondents from Seaton disagreed with this categorisation. They said they were the main public toilets for people arriving at Seaton, as the toilets at the Tramway and Tesco was not well known or sign posted.  

Seaton Hole (Cat B) – 62 per cent of respondents from Seaton disagreed with this categorisation. People said they were needed by coastal path visitors, as the next nearest toilets was a 25-minute walk unless you go along the beach which is not an easy route for some.

Colyton Dolphin St (Cat C) – 100 per cent of respondents from Colyton disagreed with this categorisation, saying it was the only toilet in the town which has 90,000 tourists a year.

Honiton King St (Cat C) – 88 per cent of respondents from Honiton disagreed with this categorisation at it would only leave one public toilet in Honiton if it closed.

EDDC’s Overview Committee made a number of recommendations which will go before EDDC’s Cabinet next week (Youtube recording of extraordinary meeting of the Overview Committee  25 November which lasted 2hrs 35 mins can be found here):

  • Requested that more detailed water usage data for toilets EDDC own and that toilets are more regularly assessed so they can be broken down to show how popular toilets are at certain points of the day/year.
  • Requested that town/parish councils are offered one final opportunity to retain Category B and C toilets if leases with community partner organisations cannot be struck within 12 months.
  • Requested that the council write to all local businesses and make a powerful case for them to offer the use of their toilets to non-paying customers who may have disabilities and illnesses that aren’t always visible, given the findings of the local consultation which shows the high extent of local need.
  • Establishes the principle of charging for Category A toilets such charges to be made and calculated so as to cover the costs of their refurbishment and retention together with careful consideration of the choice of private partners and the option of using cash.
  • Acknowledge the historic, well-publicised and in parts still live, legal and governance issues within Honiton Town Council, and the fact that they require extra time to make finances and resourcing available for taking over King Street public toilets despite their early inclined desire, and to agree to make a special case to keep these toilets open for a further two years rather than one to allow time for them to make the necessary arrangements to inherit and manage the asset.
  • For the council to write to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to request that he lobbies the treasury for a fund to be created to help councils further invest in public toilet provision and to make toilets a mandatory rather than discretionary service given their positive role in ensuring people with health issues can live their lives to their full potential.

Read the full report on the public toilets consultation here.

Category A Toilets

  • Axminster – West Street Car Park Public Toilets – Running costs – £16,258.12 a year.
  • Budleigh Salterton – Cliff Path (West End / Steamer) Public Toilets. Running costs – £15,271.54 a year.
  • Budleigh Salterton – East End (Lime Kiln) Public Toilets. Running costs – £18,279.88 a year.
  • Beer – Jubilee Gardens Public Toilets. Running costs – £39,692.09 a year.
  • Exmouth – Foxholes Car Park Public Toilets. Running costs – £22,543.95 a year.
  • Exmouth – Magnolia Centre (London Inn) Public Toilets. Running costs – £28,881.03 a year.
  • Exmouth – Manor Gardens Public Toilets. Running costs – £24,599.32 a year.
  • Exmouth – Queens Drive Public Toilets. Running costs – £20,495.53 a year.
  • Exmouth – Phear Park Public Toilets. Running costs – £12,893.16 a year.
  • Honiton – Lace Walk Public Toilets. Running costs – £27,365.82 a year.
  • Seaton – West Walk Public Toilets. Running costs – £33,670.32 a year.
  • Sidmouth – Connaught Gardens Public Toilets. Running costs – £28,251.07 a year.
  • Sidmouth – Triangle Public Toilets. Running costs – £22,100.20 a year.
  • Sidmouth – Market Place Toilets would be retained depending on any redevelopment of these sites, or there would be new alternative provision. This would be a prime tourist / town centre location. Running costs – £40,588.09 a year for the Market Place and £7,407 for Port Royal.

Category B Toilets

  • Budleigh Salterton – Station Road Car Park Public Toilets. The site has potential for redevelopment together with the Lower Station Road Car Park. Running costs – £15,021.62 a year.
  • Exmouth – Imperial Recreation Ground Public Toilets. This site is about a four minute walk from the toilets in Manor Gardens. However, it could offer a very good café / bar. Running costs – £24,058.37 a year.
  • Exmouth – Orcombe Point Public Toilets. Around a four minute walk to the larger Foxholes toilet block. Running costs – £6,371.78 a year.
  • Exmouth – The Maer Public Toilets. Could be better used as a cafe/bar with community toilets, potential link with BBQ area. Running costs – £8,951.94 a year.
  • Seaton – Harbour Road Car Park Public Toilets. Proximity map shows the town is served by West Walk public toilets. Running costs – £26,972.73 a year.
  • Seaton – Hole Public Toilets. Proximity map shows the town is best served by West Walk public toilets, with additional ones available at Tesco and the Chine Hideaway cafe. Running costs – £25,142.83 a year.
  • Sidmouth – Market Place Public Toilets. Significant redevelopment opportunity as town centre site. Running costs – £40,588.09 a year.
  • Sidmouth – Port Royal (Alma Bridge) Public Toilets. Potential for commercial use tied to Port Royal. Running costs – £7,407 a year.

Category C Toilets

  • Budleigh Salterton – Brook Road Car Park Public Toilets. Running costs – £1,761.94 a year.
  • Colyton – Dolphin Street Car Park Public Toilets. Running costs – £7,105.87 a year.
  • Exmouth – Bus / Train Station Public Toilets. Very low usage. This site is at a gateway to the town, but directly benefits the station and could be operated by others. The building can’t be used as anything other than a public toilet. Could be re-modelled as part of the Motorhome parking project pending councillor approval. Running costs – £24,541.37 a year.
  • Exmouth – Jarvis Close Public Toilets. Running costs – £10,000.23 a year.
  • Honiton – King Street Car Park Public Toilets. Proximity maps show the town is well served by Lace Walk Public Toilets. Running costs – £11,534.96 a year.
  • Seaton – Marsh Road Public Toilets. Proximity maps show that the town is well served by West Walk public toilets. Tesco in Seaton have publically accessible toilets, as do the Chine Hideaway cafe and other attractions. Running costs – £20,910.43 a year.

Bobbi-Anne McLeod: Council leader suspended from Conservative party over ‘responsibility’ comments

‘This tragedy is in no way her fault’ he said in an apology issued today

A Plymouth City Council leader has been temporarily suspended from the Conservative Party after comments he made about Bobbi-Anne McLoed who was found dead earlier this month.

The 18-year-old girl went missing on 20 November after waiting to catch a bus into town to meet her boyfriend nearby.

During an interview with ITV Westcountry, Cllr Nick Kelly responded to a question regarding the case on Friday, saying: “Everybody has a responsibility not to try to put themselves in a compromising position.”

On Tuesday the Plymouth Sutton and Devonport Conservative Association said Mr Kelly had been temporarily suspended from the party.

A statement read: “Cllr Nick Kelly’s membership of the Conservative Party has been temporarily suspended pending an investigation following comments he was reported to have made in an ITV interview on the 25th November 20212.”

The council leader, now suspended, has since apologised for his comments, adding: “This tragedy is in no way her fault.”

Cllr Kelly’s statement reads: “Over the past 24 hours I have been reflecting on the media reaction that has been developing regarding some of the comments I made in recent interviews.

“I want to start by wholeheartedly apologising, particularly to the family and friends of Bobbi-Anne McLeod, if reported statements made by me earlier this week have caused distress and upset. I want to emphasise that in no way shape or form was I ever suggesting that Bobbi-Anne McLeod did anything wrong. She didn’t.

“This tragedy is in no way her fault. What has happened to her is solely at the hands of the person who took her life.”

He continued:”The fact is the streets of Plymouth must be made safer. It is crucially important that no one feels unsafe whilst out and about in the city, but sadly for many women and girls, this is an all too common feeling.

“I stand together with women to say that violence against women and girls is unacceptable.”

Cody Ackland, 24, has been charged with murder and is currently remanded in custody. He is due to appear in court next on Monday 24 January.

Ottery: Controversial 100-acre quarry plans near Ottery set to be approved

A controversial 100-acre quarry in Ottery St Mary is set to be approved this week at Devon County Council (DCC).

Joe Ives, Local Democracy Reporter

Officers have recommended approval for plans which would see up to 1.5 million tonnes of sand and gravel dug up at Straitgate Farm on Exeter Road over the course of 10 to 12 years. The materials would be transported 23 miles by road to Hillhead Quarry near Uffculme, Mid Devon for processing.

The plans, sent out for public consultation in 2017, have been a source of major controversy.

Some local residents are concerned about the impact of the new quarry on the local environment. There is also anger over the amount of CO2 that could be released to transport the materials.

DCC’s development management committee will meet this Wednesday (1 December) to make a decision.

Otter Valley councillor Jess Bailey (Independent) said she is “horrified” by the current recommendation for approval and is urging her colleagues to reject the application.

Hillhead Quarry, Uffculme. Credit: Devon County Council

Cllr Bailey said: “If the quarry proposal is approved, it will have a devastating impact on our community. As the ward member, I shall be strongly urging the planning committee to reject the officials’ recommendation and vote against the quarry.”

She argues that the quarry “flies in the face of the climate change emergency,” adding, “It is hard to believe that in this day and age we are still contemplating such a level of environmental destruction.”

Straitgate Action Group, a campaign group against the plans, says it will be protesting outside of County Hall ahead of the vote.

The application is being made by Aggregate Industries UK Ltd, a Leicestershire-based building material manufacturer and supplier.

The processing plant at Hillhead was built in 2018 with planning permission granted for processing material within its 91-hectare quarry area. Further planning permission is needed when bringing in material from elsewhere such as Straitgate Farm.

Councillor Jess Bailey stands on Birdcage lane, near the planned entrance to the new quarry. Credit: Jess Bailey

One of the proposed conditions for planning permission is to widen Clay Lane near Hillhead Quarry to allow two-way traffic. If given the go-ahead the operation will lead to up to 86 loads of gravel and sand being transported between the sites each day.

Hillhead Quarry is open between 6am and 10pm on weekdays and 6am to 6pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Sundays and bank holidays. The same hours would be maintained if the new planning application is approved.

The decision is going to DCC as it is the ‘mineral planning authority’ for the area. A mineral planning authority can be an upper-tier council, a unitary authority, or a national park authority.

If granted planning permission Aggregate Industries will have three years to start the operation.

Special education overspend rises

A further £36 million expected to be added to the debt

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter

Leading Devon councillors are urging the government to clarify funding for special education after the county’s overspend on the service was projected to rise to £85 million.

Councils have been told to put overspends for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) into separate accounts for three years until April 2023. It means the shortfall doesn’t currently count towards Devon’s main revenue figures.

The county council entered this financial year with a total overspend of £49 million in its ring-fenced SEND account. It expects to add a further £36 million to the debt in 2021/22, according to the latest budget report.

But it is still not known what wiill happen to the debt when the arrangement ends. At a meeting of the council’s ruling cabinet this week, councillors from all sides expressed concern at the situation.

Opposition leader Councillor Alan Connett (Lib Dem, Exminster & Haldon) said it was “real money that the county council’s spent,” while leader of the Labour group Councillor Rob Hannaford (Exwick & St Thomas) called it a “huge concern” and demanded action.

“There still is a concern, despite all the work that’s going on within children’s services and the treasury, that at some point already overstretched budgets might see resources sucked in to fill that black hole if we’re not careful,” Cllr Hannaford said.

“That’s definitely not what we need. We want more money for schools, more money for children’s services and this debt paid off. I know it’s a big ask but that’s what we’ve got to ask for and I hope that’s actually what we’re going to get.”

In response, cabinet member for children’s services Councillor Andrew Leadbetter (Conservative, Weirside & Topsham) told them: “We have to address this money that’s been put to one side at some point, and that is very much at the top of my agenda.”

He recently spoke to officials from the Department for Education about the matter and invited the under secretary of state to visit.

“We’re going to lobby. I’m going to lobby Devon MPs for their support. I’m already lobbying the government that they have to help us out with that.

“They told us to put it to one side. I think it would be unfair if they then expected us to deal with the whole issue ourselves, so there’s an awful lot of work going on … top of the agenda is to work out how to deal with this deficit.”

Presenting the budget figures to the cabinet, Councillor Phil Twiss (Conservative, Feniton & Honiton) said this year’s projected overspend on SEND of £36 million had increased by almost £3 million from the last update in September, due mainly to increasing demand in new requests for education and health care plans (EHCPs).

The plans set out the needs of a child or young person for whom extra support is needed, beyond that which the school can provide. As a result of the extra demand, the budget report said it has “had a significant impact on the ability … to reduce the demand for EHCPs by supporting children within mainstream [schools].”

According to the report, education officers have developed a “shared management plan which seeks to ensure children with special educational needs receive the support they need, whilst also addressing the [overspend].”

But it warned: “Through this process and [the Department of Education’s] feedback, we have all recognised that the original financial assumptions underlying the savings identified were ambitious. These assumptions are therefore being reviewed.”

The updated projections come after the county council’s deputy leader wrote to the government last month to ask for more money for Devon’s schools and  SEND services.

In his letter, Councillor James McInnes (Conservative, Hatherleigh & Chagford) said about the SEND issue: “This continues to be a major concern. The number of children with special educational needs, and their complexity of need, continues to grow, with demand far outstripping budgets.

“While we appreciate the increase in SEND funding during the last two or three years, significant additional funding is required for both mainstream and special schools. We urge the government to publish the long-overdue SEND review and to overhaul the SEND system to ensure it is fit for purpose.”

Reacting to the letter, Cllr Connett said the SEND funding is a “national scandal” adding “In effect, this is the county council’s credit card being bent backwards to maintain really important services for the most vulnerable children with special needs.”

Pensioner defeats plans to build 4,000 new homes after using map reading skills to find ‘errors’

“On one of the maps, they showed that water was running up-hill.” 

A retired army Major pensioner has defeated plans for 4,000 new homes on his doorstep after raising £30,000 from residents for High Court battle.

Former paratrooper Tom Lynch, 83, used his map reading skills to find errors in the plans to build on 550 acres of countryside and fertile farmland outside his home in Kent.

Planning permission for the controversial Mountfield Park scheme, Canterbury’s biggest housing development project, has now been revoked following a high court ruling.

Construction for the so-called ‘garden city’ was scheduled to begin soon and would have been completed within the next 15-years.

But the project has faced fierce opposition from residents since it was first presented in December 2016.

Now, developers Corinthian are back to square one after Canterbury City Council U-turned on their decision to green light the project, and all thank to Mr Lynch.

The former paratrooper and army major says he found a number of obvious errors in the construction plans after reviewing hundreds of documents with his friends.

Mr Lynch said: “In 2016, a plan to build 4,000 houses was proposed at the local school hall.

“It was quite obvious from the reaction of the local residents that it was not acceptable.

“I stood up and said from the mood in the room, there must be a plan-B, but they said there wasn’t.

“He said, don’t worry Mr Lynch it won’t happen in my time, which I just thought was just outrageous.

“That wasn’t the point. The point was I wanted my children and grandchildren to enjoy walking around the area.”

Mr Lynch, who started looking into legal action years ago, is planning on paying people back once the council has reimbursed the fees.

He said: “They presented a plan-B two years ago just before Christmas, thinking nobody would be turning up.

“But I’ve always been a fighter and one just thought, wait a minute what’s going down here?

“I’d already had a look at their plans with my friends – well over 700 documents.

“Being an ex-military man, I scrutinised their maps and found a number of errors.

“On one of the maps, they showed that water was running up-hill.

Legal battle

“We formed a committee and managed to raise £30,000 to fight our legal battle.

“At the end of course, at the High Court the judge said the council had erred in law.

“The council agreed to withdraw the plan to avoid embarrassment and a lot of extra costs.”

The original planning permission for the scheme lapsed last year due to continual delays, so the proposals had to be brought back before councillors

It was again voted through last December, with Corinthian planning on building around 300 properties every 12 months, starting from this year.

But the company has not thrown in the towel quite yet.

A spokesman for the firm said: “Elected councillors have now voted twice for affordable, sustainable and beautiful new homes in Canterbury, and it is disappointing to see those much-needed homes delayed again.

“The application will be considered by committee for a third time in the next few months.

“In the meantime we will continue to work closely with residents and with Canterbury City Council, who are determined to see sustainable, affordable homes built for local people in east Kent.

“This development is vital for Canterbury’s future – vital for the people of Canterbury, vital for the historic city centre, and vital for the sustainable future of the city.

New roads

“We are more determined than ever to create a beautiful and sustainable community, and are confident that we will be able to get going with making this wonderful new place in the new year.”

Shops, office space, sports pitches and two primary schools were to be built alongside the scheme’s 4,000 proposed new homes, 30 per cent of which going to be affordable.

A system of new roads had also been drawn up, along with a 1,000-space park and ride scheme and a new junction off the A2.

The city council has issued a brief statement, confirming the plans will again be brought back before councillors.

Spokesman Rob Davies said: “Following recent legal action, the planning application for the South Canterbury urban extension will be considered afresh by our planning committee.

“We expect this to be early next year.”

Three people evicted from women’s loo, Seaton

Three rough sleeper’s have been evicted from a women’s public toilet in Seaton.

Anita Merritt

East Devon District Council has confirmed an eviction notice was put on the outside door of the public toilet in West Walk after three ‘heavy drinkers’ were reported to have been causing a disturbance and people were being prevented from being able to use the toilet.

The council said help was offered to three individuals but they did not want to take up the offer of support.

The notice states: “The land is in private ownership and persons in unauthorised occupation of it are advised that they are required to vacate the land by Tuesday, November 2, at 9.30am.

“Failing this, legal proceedings will be taken to gain possession and a certified bailiff will be instructed to remove all vehicles, unauthorised personal belongings and persons from the land.

“These will be stored and kept for seven days from the date of the notice.”

The notice, signed on November 1, also offered a contact number for housing support.

A spokesperson for East Devon District Council said: “The eviction notice is from last month. Housing engaged with the rough sleepers on a few occasions to offer assistance, but they refused to engage.

“It was a group of three heavy drinkers, who were causing a disturbance to members of the public, and blocking access to the toilet.

“We instructed Devon Investigations to evict them after carrying out all of the appropriate welfare checks. The sign will be removed as soon as possible to avoid any further confusion.”

Proposal to overhaul Westminster standards includes extending Nolan principles to eight

[But Boris Johnson is said to be “uncomfortable” with numbers. – Owl]

Alexandra Rogers

MPs could be investigated if they launch “excessive” personal attacks as part of a recommended package of reforms to overhaul standards in Westminster.

The Committee on Standards, which looks into the behaviour of MPs and ministers, has suggested adding a new rule to the code of conduct which would ban members from attacking others in any medium.

The rules around ministers’ gifts and hospitality could also be tightened under the proposed reforms to standards, which have garnered interest in the wake of the Owen Paterson lobbying row.

Under the proposed draft new rules, which are out for consultation, a loophole which allows ministers to not declare on the Commons register gifts and hospitality what they receive in a ministerial capacity would be ended — a move that would force Boris Johnson to declare a recent holiday he enjoyed in Spain.

Under the current rules, the prime minister was not forced to declare the cost of his stay at the luxury Spanish villa of personal friend Lord Goldsmith, because it was logged under the minister’s register of interests rather than the Commons register for MPs.

Meanwhile, the standards committee has also proposed extending the seven principles of public life to include an eighth principle of respect, whereby MPs must “abide by the parliamentary behaviour code and demonstrate anti-discriminatory attitudes and behaviours through the promotion of anti-racism, inclusion and diversity”.

The debate around MPs’ standards was ignited in the wake of the Paterson scandal, in which the former Cabinet minister was found guilty by the standards committee of an “egregious” breach of parliamentary rules by lobbying ministers on behalf of two firms that were paying him more than £100,000 between them.

The government initially tried to put the committee’s recommended 30-day suspension of Paterson on hold on the grounds it believed that parts of the process that found him guilty was unfair.

However, it then abandoned its support for Paterson, triggering his resignation as an MP.

Paterson’s actions led to heightened scrutiny around MPs’ work outside parliament and calls to tighten the rules around second jobs.

The committee said there should be an outright ban on MPs providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy services.

It also recommended a new requirement that an MP must have a written contract for any outside work which makes clear that their duties cannot include lobbying ministers, members or public officials, or providing advice about how to lobby or influence parliament.

Following the report’s publication, Chris Bryant, chair of the standards committee, said: “The past few weeks have seen a number of issues raised about MP’s standards, but the key overarching issue here is about conflict of interest.

“The evidence-based report published by my committee sets out a package of reforms to bolster the rules around lobbying and conflicts of interest.

“These aren’t the final proposals we’re putting to the House. This report is the committee’s informed view on what changes we need to tighten up the rules and crack down on conflicts of interests following a detailed evidence-led inquiry.”

He added: “We will consult and hear wider views on what we’ve published today before putting a final report to the House for a decision in the New Year. If approved, these robust proposals will empower the standards system in parliament to better hold MPs who break the rules to account.”

Earlier in the day Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner proposed her own overhaul of the standards system regulating MPs, and argued that ministers should be banned from work relating to their past job for five years after leaving government.

She also said Labour would set up an “independent integrity and ethics commission” that could launch investigations into ministers’ conduct without the permission of the prime minister, as is the case currently.