Coastal towns economies set to benefit from £10m fund

Before readers get too excited this Exeter University project is one of six sharing £9.2 million funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Will any cash actually filter down to local economies? – Owl

Patrick McAndrew 

The University of Exeter has announced a new project which will aim to aid the economies of UK coastal towns as part of a new nearly-£10million fund.

The “Sustainable Development and Resilience of UK Coastal Communities” project will first focus on a range of locations across Devon and Cornwall before applying the practices across the rest of the UK.

University bosses say the project aims to “build the marine economy while protecting ecosystems and communities”.

With a focus on local maritime communities, the university is working in partnership with Devon Maritime Forum and Cornwall Rural Community Charity in the attempt to revitalise areas that face the challenges of the climate emergency, Covid-19 and Brexit.

Dr Louisa Evans, who will lead the project, said: “Marine resources and coastal heritage are some of the country’s greatest assets.

“I am over the moon to have this opportunity to help coastal communities and marine ecosystems thrive now and in the future.

“Our programme will identify how people and livelihoods can be more resilient to environmental and social change, while also improving the well-being of coastal communities and the health of the marine environment.

“We will deliver these benefits across different projects and policies, ranging from sustainable seafood and marine apprenticeship schemes to coastal heritage decision-making and marine conservation policy.”

Steven Guilbert of the Devon Maritime Forum added: “This project will allow us to focus on key areas of interest, namely: blue growth, marine conservation, and climate and coastal change.

“This, in turn can lead to more effective and sustainable outcomes for the marine environment in Devon and the wider South West peninsula.”

The project has been announced soon after England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty highlighted the difficulties many coastal towns, including Torbay, face in his annual report last week.

He said: “Coastal areas are some of the most beautiful, vibrant and historic places in the country but they also have some of the worst health outcomes with low life expectancy and high rates of many major diseases.

“These communities have often been overlooked by governments and if we do not tackle these issues vigorously, they will get worse as the current population ages.”

Early days but fall in Covid cases is reason to be cautiously optimistic

There is something unexplained going on in the data. Tim Spector’s symptom tracker app appeared to have picked up a turning point a couple of weeks ago, but that was considered to be a sampling blip. His app still indicates widespread infections in the South West, see below, and no fall nationally. – Owl

Tom Whipple, Science editor 

It is great news that cases are falling. It is also slightly mysterious. In only a few days we have gone from rapid increases to rapid decreases. The graph of UK cases looks like a spiky Matterhorn.

What is confusing is that if this change was a result of infections and vaccinations only we would expect the rounded dome of a Mont Blanc-style summit, as we slowly edge up to and then pass herd immunity.

So what is happening?

The first thing to note is that we have yet to see most of the effects of England’s July 19 reopening percolate through. Neither, though, have we seen the (hopefully) opposite effect of schools closing for summer.

What is happening now, which cannot be explained by falling test numbers, largely represents trends that came before.

It may be partly the consequences of the Euros ending. We know that football affected case numbers because for the first time we could see a gender split. There was a divergence between men, who watch a lot of football, and women, who not only watch it less but are less likely to do so while congregating in crowds with flares up their bottoms.

The fall may also be the effect of better weather — for both fire safety and infection control reasons it is greatly preferable to have such celebrations, and more staid gatherings, outdoors.

Vaccines have had a huge effect, yet it still remains the case that every thousand fewer infections translates into about one fewer death.

But if behaviour rather than immunity is the most plausible explanation, there is also still some reason for wariness. After all, behaviour, not to mention lifted restrictions and worsening weather, can take cases in both directions.

Both Blackburn and Bolton had early outbreaks of the Delta variant and became the Petri dish for the nation’s third wave. In May their peaks declined, which led some to suggest they had reached herd immunity, but they are rising again.

Even so, this is a good day. Many thought reported cases would keep rising until we hit 100,000 a day. Many looked at the trajectory and thought 200,000 a day — a figure that could threaten the NHS — would not be unreasonable.

Today, with due caveats and uncertainty, it is plausible to believe that we have peaked at 50,000 and are on our way down. All of which means there is reason to be cautiously hopeful.

From Zoe Covid Symptom Tracker

China’s nuclear power firm could be blocked from UK projects

Has Heart of the South West (HotSW) been betting on the wrong horse? – Owl 

China’s state-owned nuclear energy company could be blocked from all future power projects in the UK, with ministers understood to be investigating ways to prevent its involvement.

The move would exclude China General Nuclear (CGN) from the consortium planning to build the £20bn Sizewell C nuclear plant on the Suffolk coast, as well as one in Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.

A Whitehall source confirmed a report by the Financial Times that first revealed the government is exploring ways of removing CGN from future projects.

The move would be likely to stoke further tensions between the UK and China and would also mark a toughening of Britain’s stance towards Beijing. It would come amid major concerns about Beijing’s clampdown in Hong Kong and the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

China’s involvement in nuclear power in the UK dates back to an agreement endorsed by then prime minister David Cameron and Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Nuclear power has an important role to play in the UK’s low-carbon energy future, as we work towards our world-leading target to eliminate our contribution to climate change by 2050.

“All nuclear projects in the UK are conducted under robust and independent regulation to meet the UK’s rigorous legal, regulatory and national security requirements, ensuring our interests are protected.”

Former Tory councillor got £120m ‘VIP lane’ government contract for face shields now lying unused

More cronyism. – Owl

A former Tory councillor was given a £120m government contract for personal protective equipment (PPE) which is now lying unused because of concerns about its quality, it has been revealed.

Steve Dechan, who owns medical device manufacturer Platform-14, had his offer to supply protective equipment from China fast-tracked through the government’s controversial “VIP” lane.

The Sunday Times newspaper reports that fewer than 1 in 400 of the face shields procured by the company on behalf of the government have been used, because the regulator does not believe they meet the right standards.

The original order for 120 million shields has delivered just 274,200 into the NHS supply chain, representing 0.23 per cent of the overall stock.

It means the shields used so far have cost the equivalent of £423 each, despite similar ones being available to buy online for less than £1.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has to authorise all PPE that is not CE marked (an EU designation that means it complies with European standards).

But the regulator said: “None of the documentation provided to HSE indicated the product to be CE marked.”

The regulator wrote to officials in September last year saying the shields “cannot enter the NHS supply chain” and repeatedly refused to approve them.

But in February, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) stepped in and directly approved the face shields, with 274,000 used in the NHS so far. At the height of the pandemic last year, none could be used.

Mr Dechan told The Sunday Times that the “application and usage [of the shields] is entirely a matter for the DHSC”.

He said they had met “the required standards” and added: “As an NHS supplier for nearly 10 years, we will continue to provide innovative solutions and support trusts and patients across the UK.”

The reports come amid concern about the government’s procurement during the pandemic. The National Audit Office (NAO) found that firms referred to the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to have been given government contracts to supply PPE.

The NAO, the government’s spending watchdog, said in a report in November 2020 that there was a “lack of transparency and adequate documentation of some key decisions, such as why particular suppliers were chosen, or how the government identified and managed potential conflicts of interest in the awarding of some contracts”.

Another report released by the Commons Public Accounts Committee on Sunday said that the government is still wasting vast amounts of money on PPE that is “not fit for purpose” a year and a half into the pandemic.

Official figures show that overall nearly 7 per cent of all items purchased by the DHSC have failed quality checks, while ministers are spending £6.7m every week to keep the items stored.

An eye-watering 2.1 billion items have already been found unsuitable for use in medical settings, and 10,000 shipping containers are still to be unpacked.

The same committee also warned of “significant financial risks for decades to come”, with the estimated lifetime cost of all the government’s Covid measures reaching £372bn in May 2021.

There is a way to save our coastal resorts… welcome to Zoomtown-on-Sea

“It is a once in a century chance on which our political establishment should capitalise, especially the Tory party, which represents nearly all the coastal constituencies it so shamefully neglects.” 

Will Hutton 

Britain’s coast is in desperate trouble. As more of us head for our beaches this summer than since the 1950s, spare a thought for the 3.5 million who live on the coast all year round – disproportionately poorer, iller, older, more mentally depressed, in low-paid temporary work, more overweight and more prone to suicide, drug abuse and self-harm than if they lived just a few miles inland. Levelling up is too often associated with derelict industrial Britain, but it is on our coast that the crisis over living standards, life expectancy and health is most acute. If the EU referendum was lost anywhere, it was lost here.

The story is hardly new, as the chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, recognised in last week’s devastating report on the health and wellbeing of coastal communities. As he says, Blackpool has more in common with Hastings 255 miles distant, in its chronic ill health and poor public health services, than Preston just 15 miles inland. Even adjusting for deprivation and an elderly demographic, rates of mental illness and heart and kidney disease in coastal communities are roughly 10% higher than the national average – just one dimension of the “ shit-life syndrome” endemic on our coast. The quality of NHS care in response is enfeebled by major shortages of health and social care staff – 15% fewer postgraduate medical trainees, 15% fewer consultants and 7% fewer nurses per patient in coastal towns compared with the average inland. In any case, medical and public health services can only make so much progress in the teeth of the economic and social forces that create such a lack of wellbeing. Locked in a despairing vicious circle, coastal towns, often beautiful and with healthy sea air, are forgotten casualties because problems seem worse inland. There must be, declared Whitty, a national strategy to engage with this national wrong.

The underlying reasons are well known. The “blue economy” – fishing, shipping, shipbuilding, port traffic and tourism – has been hit hard by deep-seated trends. Industrial fishing has fatally wounded local fishing fleets; containerisation has killed small ports; shipbuilding has migrated to Asia; the British usually holiday abroad. The evaporation of a vibrant private sector with nothing spontaneously taking its place has seen wages, rents and local house prices suffer, on average over a quarter lower than a few miles inland, so that in general coastal towns have become poverty sinks. Neglect and deprivation beget still more, while teachers and doctors are reluctant to make their lives in these run-down places, exacerbating the decay.

What has given the decline its own special British twist is the way political and administrative centralisation, systemically denying local capability to raise taxes, borrow and spend, has interacted with a refusal to recognise that public and private are necessarily a symbiotic whole, more obvious on the coast than inland. Unless there is a vigorous public infrastructure of beautiful seaside fronts, promenades, well-tended beaches and amenities there cannot be successful coastal private enterprise. But that is impossible to create without sustained public resource and the accompanying structures.

Coastal communities in Holland, northern France, Denmark and Germany battle similar forces to our own, but their localities are afforded more chances to pull themselves up. Our coast’s decline is littered with examples of local energy and initiative running into difficulty for lack of any supportive, long-term framework, so that for every successful beachside art gallery or revived old port there is a parallel story of bankrupt pier companies and amusement parks. The doctrine in response is not to empower, but, rather, create Whitehall-controlled funds for which local communities bid against each for fixed pots of money. The root-and-branch overhaul in the way our towns and cities are governed, from which coastal towns would be prime beneficiaries, is abjured. The heroin addicts hanging out in the derelict seafront bandstand are umbilically linked to our pre-modern system of government.

The prime minister did not single out the plight of coastal communities in his recent speech on levelling up ten days ago – on the government website but surreally with no punctuation –, in which he simultaneously deplored so much spatial inequity in Britain while arguing that tall poppies should remain tall. Hence levelling up – not down. But importantly, he did call for more enabled local leaderships, the mayoral model to be extended to shires and counties, which could then put their plans to the centre. He envisages an extension of the existing model: more people to bid for these fixed pools of cash on which Whitehall would decide.

It can’t and won’t deliver what he wants. Yet for all the derision directed at his over-hyped speech so much of which was reheating pre-existing policies, at least he has put spatial inequality at the political forefront, while recognising any success must involve local leaders. It has created a unique moment that coincides with another break from the past. The working from home revolution prompted by Covid is creating the first mass re-engagement with our coast since the 19th century. Thus the Rightmove property network reports a 115% increase in inquiries this summer from city dwellers about buying property in seaside towns. House prices on the Cornish coast have exploded, while Scarborough is reinventing itself as “Zoomtown-on-sea”.

It is a once in a century chance on which our political establishment should capitalise, especially the Tory party, which represents nearly all the coastal constituencies it so shamefully neglects. Britain’s coast should become the spearhead of a green revolution, cementing the growing readiness of city dwellers to live there. There should be massive investment in beautifying our seafronts; in green energy for which the coast is so suited; in super-broadband; in upgrading housing stock; in quality attractions and creative quarters populated by a new generation of art and music colleges. St Ives, Hastings and Margate have shown what can be done with modern art – it can be universalised. All public sector workers in coastal communities should receive a coastal pay uplift. Coastal authorities should be allowed to experiment with spending, borrowing and tax freedoms.

The coast could and should become emblematic of health and vitality – a source of national pride. Chris Whitty is right. What has happened to our coast is shameful, not least as a public health disaster. It can and must be reversed.

Is “Experience” the future of the High Street with department stores of fun?

I’m taking a spin on a go-kart track with a difference. It’s the old beauty hall of the Debenhams store in south-west London.

By Emma Simpson

The escalators are the only trace of the former department store which remain. All four floors are now being transformed into a high-tech entertainment venue.

As we filmed, shoppers stopped to take photos when the shutters briefly opened giving a glimpse of the flashing lights and builders beavering away inside.

“We’re creating a department store of fun,” says Michael Harrison, the co-founder of Gravity which is due to open on 1 August.

“We have three bars, two restaurants, go-karting, a bowling alley, huge screens to watch sporting events and adventure golf. This is the future of the High Street. It’s about experience,” he says.

Michael has no shortage of retail landlords now ringing him up offering him potential new locations.

They’re grappling with the need to rethink, or repurpose, empty shops. Latest figures suggest one in seven stores, on average, are lying vacant. And in some places the number is far higher.

The UK’s biggest property company, Landsec, owns the Southside shopping mall where Gravity is based. Its other centres include Bluewater in Kent and Trinity in Leeds.

Landsec boss Mark Allan thinks a quarter of what is currently retail space will need to be turned into something else.

“For me, it’s really difficult to think of an example where you have 25% of something that it exists in the UK that is no longer required. And so you’re not going to solve that sort of a problem by tinkering around the edges,” he says.

The pain won’t be evenly spread either, says Mr Allan: “Some places are going to be virtually empty and they are not going to survive as retail in any shape or form.

“Some are going to be absolutely fine – rents are lower, sales are lower and they’re worth less than they were but fundamentally they’ve got a role to play longer term and some places are going to be in the middle where they are going to survive but they need some investment.”

Some industry experts think the amount of redundant retail space is even higher. So how did we get here?

We’ve seen a huge proliferation of shops over the last 40 years. Retail has just been growing and growing, from out of town retail parks and shopping centres to so called clone towns dominated by chains, who were willing to pay higher rents.

That retail property boom is now over. Many of our town centres will have to find a new purpose.

We’ve been talking about how to save the High Street for more than a decade but the pandemic has turbo charged the problems now.

Mr Allan says it’s time to act. “Covid has been a tipping point. If we don’t tackle it over the next couple of years together then there’s a real risk some of this redundant retail property sits there for decades empty and that would be a disaster for the communities where that property is located.”

And he says there’s no single party that can solve the problem: “This needs people to come together. I think it’s a significant moment and a really big opportunity, particularly for those centres and high streets where there is no future for retail, for radical, bold, thinking. I think it could be exciting.”

Stockton-on Tees has one of the boldest plans to reshape its entire town centre. It has decided to demolish a large part of its high street.

The local council bought Stockton’s two shopping centres and plans to knock one of them down, creating a new riverside park to make the town a greener, nicer place.

The £37m project is largely being funded with money from the Tees Valley Combined Authority and the Government’s Future High Streets Fund.

The Castlegate mall was built in the 1970s, an era when local authorities were falling over themselves to attract big retail development.

media captionFormer staff reminisce about life at their town’s Debenhams branch

“Retail is still very important, but we now need to consolidate it to meet the demand,” says councillor Nigel Cooke, cabinet member for regeneration.

Businesses who want to stay will eventually move into the other shopping centre further up the street.

The scheme is part of a wider masterplan to market Stockton as an events town. The main high street, the widest in the UK, has been spruced up with new paving, lighting and a big water fountain. The council is also paying for the renovation of the town’s Grade II-listed art deco Globe Theatre.

“I think it is money well spent and I am convinced it’s the right thing to do. We need to get people back onto the high street either to live, to work or to enjoy themselves,” insists Mr Cooke.

“It would be easy to hide under my desk and say guys, we can’t do anything, let’s just wait for the good times to come back. But we have to do something.. nothing is risk free, it’s about managing the risk.”

But Stockton has now got a large, empty Debenhams to contend with, too.

Town centre regeneration is often complicated stuff, with a myriad of owners, stakeholders and issues to solve.

It’s taken Stockton 13 years to get this far and it’s only a third of the way through. But given the magnitude of the challenges now, doing nothing is no longer an option.

Salcombe to stop people buying second homes

Remember: if you rent your second home out as a “furnished holiday let” for part of the year (it should be “available” for 140 days but needs to be let for only 70), you no longer have to pay council tax, but can register instead as a business ratepayer. Then you apply for 100% small business rates relief, cancelling the entire bill. So while every other kind of housing is taxed, second homes, if you play it right, are tax-free. Owl believes that these “reliefs” need to be cancelled nationally as a starter. It would, at least, ensure that second home owners paid their wack and might damp down the demand. Call it “levelling up” if you like. Unfortunately, many of the other schemes end up with “unintended consequences”.

Philip Churm, local democracy reporter

A Devon council is hoping to introduce measures which would stop people from outside the area buying new properties as second homes. 

South Hams District Council unanimously agreed an amendment to the neighbourhood plan for the picturesque town of Salcombe which would ensure that all newly built homes could only be used as a primary residence. 

Average house prices in Salcombe exceed £750,000 with many selling for over £1 million.  However salaries in the area are lower than the national average, making it increasingly difficult for young people to get onto the property ladder.

The amendment presented to the council would mean that a so-called Section 106 agreement would be applied to all newly built dwellings. 

Many new-build properties have already been subject to a planning condition which stipulates that a house must be used as a primary residence but council leader Judy Pearce (Conservative, Salcombe and Thurlestone) said more robust measures are needed. 

“We accept that a planning condition may usually be suitable to secure principal residency,” she said. 

“But this does not allow for the exceptional circumstances encountered in Salcombe and the surrounding area where there’s a very high percentage of second homes. And many houses changing hands frequently between people who are prepared to pay – and do – almost anything to acquire them.”

Cllr Pearce explained that, over a number of years ordinary planning conditions tend to get lost or are overlooked when a house is resold; allowing them to quickly become second homes.

A Section 106 agreement, however, is registered against the property title and would therefore be easily seen by any potential buyer in the future. 

The amendment to the Salcombe Neighbourhood Plan says: “New open market housing, excluding replacement dwellings, will only be supported where there is a Section 106 agreement to ensure its occupancy as a principal residence. This policy is as a result of impact upon the local housing market of second or holiday homes. This occupancy restriction will therefore require the imposition of a legal agreement. New unrestricted market homes will not be supported at any time.” 

Before the amendment was agreed by all councillors Cllr Pearce added that a precedent had already been set in the neighbourhood plan for the village of Thurlestone, near Kingsbridge, which only allows a Section 106 agreement for any new properties attracting a principal residency requirement.  

Although this has now been approved by SHDC the amendment still has to be approved by an independent examiner.

Britain faces ‘decades of financial risk’ as £370bn pandemic bill mounts

Taxpayers will be left facing “significant financial risk for decades to come” because of the levels of emergency government spending on the pandemic, totalling more than £370bn, a powerful committee of MPs says today.

(There was a time when Conservatives claimed to looked after taxpayers’ money! Owl)

Toby Helm 

In two separate reports, the all-party public accounts committee (PAC) paints a daunting picture of the lasting financial strain caused by the first 16 months of combating Covid-19, and says the government must not wait until after the official inquiry to learn the lessons of what went wrong.

The MPs say that by this March the lifetime cost of the government’s rescue measures had reached £372bn, government-backed loans had soared, and taxpayers had been left “on the hook” for an estimated £26bn of credit and fraud losses from the bounce-back loan scheme for small- and medium-sized enterprises alone.

While Boris Johnson, has promised a public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 it will not begin until next spring and will take years to complete, leaving the prime minister open to accusations that he wants to avoid the truth coming out before the next general election.

The PAC says, however, that the national interest demands understanding and recognition of the many shortcomings far sooner. The MPs say it is “clear that the government cannot wait for the review before learning important lessons”.

They expect ministers to “set out a fully costed plan for recovering from the pandemic” in the autumn spending review, alongside a comprehensive framework for managing the risks to public finances resulting from the Covid-19 response.

The committee also highlights worries about the government’s readiness to fight Covid-19 and other diseases in the future, saying it “remains concerned that, despite spending over £10bn on supplies, the PPE stockpile is not fit for purpose”.

Listing a catalogue of problems, the MPs found that up to this May 32 billion items of PPE were ordered by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). But of these only 11 billion have so far been distributed, while 12.6 billion are stored in the UK as central stock, and 8.4 billion on order from other parts of the world have still not arrived in the UK.

The stockpile is costing the DHSC about £6.7m a week to store, the PAC says, with waste being “unacceptably high”. As of May, 10,000 shipping containers of PPE still had to be unpacked, having been ordered in 2020, and 2.1 billion items had been found unsuitable for use in medical settings.

Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “With eye-watering sums spent on Covid measures so far, the government needs to be clear, now, how this will be managed going forward, and over what period of time.

“The ongoing risk to the taxpayer will run for 20 years on things like arts and culture recovery loans, let alone the other new risks that departments across government must quickly learn to manage. As well as monitoring procurement and its effectiveness through the next few years, the PAC will be watching this spending and risk for decades to come. If coronavirus is with us for a long time, the financial hangover could leave future generations with a big headache.”

While examining the efficiency of the government response, the PAC highlights serious staffing problems inside the NHS, which have been brought into focus by the pandemic. The service was already struggling with 40,000 nursing and 9,000 medical staff vacancies before the first lockdown in March last year. By September, six months in, more than a third of remaining nurses were considering leaving.

The report warns that with the health and social care workforces “under constant pressure”, patient waiting times were continuing to increase and waiting lists for non-urgent treatment were growing significantly, storing up huge challenges for the future.

Widescale sewage discharge alerts along coast

As the holiday season kicks off in earnest, there are widescale sewage alerts are in operation for East Devon beaches see and the alert system at Budleigh Salterton seems to be out of action.

E.g: Sidmouth Town

“Pollution Alert: Storm sewage has been discharged from a sewer overflow in this location within the past 48 hours.
Rock pools to the west, overhanging cliffs to the east, Sidmouth Town beach compromises 900m of legally protected pebbles broken up by rock groynes and backed by a promenade and the town. Two sewer overflows are located at Sidmouth, one discharges through a long sea outfall some 600m out to sea while the other discharges into the River Sid, just under 400m to the east.”

In 2020 there were 1,919 pollution incidents, a decrease from 2,204 in 2019, but the second highest total since 2015. See this report.

“Southern Water and South West Water both performed significantly below target for pollution … Southern Water for the second year in a row and South West Water for the 10th year in a row,” the Environment Agency said. “Both companies’ performances have been consistently unacceptable.”

The impact of pollution from water companies can be seen in the poor quality of water in English rivers. Last year every river failed pollution tests. Pollution from raw sewage discharges by water companies directly into rivers, chemical discharges from industry and agricultural runoff are significant sources of pollution, according to the data.

Emma Howard Boyd, the chair of the Environment Agency, said on Tuesday: “The bottom line is, England’s rivers are too polluted.”

Nearly a third (32%) of rivers were failing to meet tests for good ecological status because of discharges from sewage treatment works. About 7% of rivers are polluted because of raw effluent flowing from storm overflows, the EA said.

(Southern Water has just been fined a record £90m for dumping billions of litres of raw sewage into the sea).