Now we turn to the economic and social crisis

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My column in today‘s local papers:

As we emerge from the commemoration of the late Queen Elizabeth, our attention returns to the dire economic and social crisis which months of a zombie government has only made worse.

The Queen survived just long enough to see the back of Boris Johnson, who insulted her by presiding over law-breaking parties while she mourned her husband. But she then had to swear in Liz Truss, whose shrill, publicity-seeking persona is such a contrast to hers, despite their common first name. Truss even wanted to cash in on the new King’s tour of the UK nations, until it was pointed out that making it political would bring the monarchy into disrepute.

Certainly, Truss has capped energy costs. But at a massive £2500 a year for an average household – £529 more than we’re currently paying and more than twice what we paid 12 months ago – more people will join those already in hardship. A windfall tax (on the extraordinary excess profits that energy companies are currently making from our excess bills) would have enabled her to freeze them at the current level, as the opposition proposed. Instead she’s gone for another big increase on 1st October. Truss once worked for Shell and she has advisers who worked for BP; it seems she cares more about their balance sheets than the finances of ordinary households.

On top of forcing us to continue paying excessive sums each month to the energy firms, Truss is giving tax cuts to the rich and big corporations, and lifting the cap on bankers’ bonuses which are already at ultra-high levels. Borrowing in order to hand extra money to corporations – who are not even asking for a cut – and  wealthy individuals – who will save much of it instead of putting it into their local economy – is madness now the UK is in recession and small businesses are already closing down. 

Any borrowing should be to support the health service, social care, schools and other public services. You can’t rely on the ambulance service (it’s worse in the South West than anywhere else), people are being forced to pay privately for operations, and tens of thousands of people are even dying because the NHS is so run down. With this backdrop, how dare Truss give handouts to those who don’t need them?

The energy crisis also shows that the chickens are coming home to roost from the Conservatives failure to secure a low-carbon energy future. They blocked offshore wind farms, like the proposal for Lyme Bay (I’ve seen the one off the Sussex coast, and it’s hardly the blot on the landscape that they claimed). They’re still blocking onshore wind turbines, the quickest, cheapest and least environmentally harmful way to improve our power supply. They scrapped schemes to support home insulation and solar power on roofs, so that you often can’t find a firm to install them even if you want to.

After a decade heading in a far right direction, the Tories have managed to find a leader who is even more extreme, who has promoted a notorious climate denier, Somerset MP Jacob Rees Mogg, to manage energy policy. Truss is backing fracking, which even her new Chancellor agrees won’t deliver significant energy for the UK, and hyping nuclear power, which may have a role to play but will take many years to make a difference. It’s almost as though she is trying to annoy people who care about the environment. Thought things couldn’t get worse after Johnson? Think again.

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A local footnote to the story of inadequate government support for public services. This has now forced Conservative-run Devon County Council into a severe financial crisis, so it is increasing parking charges to help with its deficit. Yet recently local Tories berated East Devon District Council’s modest parking rises, forced by similar financial pressures. Will they now apologise for their ill-judged campaign?  

Covid autumn booster can now be booked by anyone over 65

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Appointments are available at Greendale this week (see my previous post) and walk-in is also possible.

Seaton Hole beach path will close from 26th as sea defence repairs begin

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EDDC STATEMENT:

Essential Coastal Works to begin at Seaton Hole to trial low carbon technology

£150,000 worth of works to repair the existing sea defences at Seaton Hole will begin on Monday, 12 September.
Annual coastal inspections of this area by East Devon District Council (EDDC) have revealed the existing concrete and rock structure to be deteriorating much quicker than anticipated, so the refurbishment has been advanced ahead of the planned works as part of the Beach Management Plan (BMP) project.

Works will involve excavating the existing structure, repacking the existing rock, and pumping in new basalt reinforced concrete. This will help to slow erosion to the western cliffs at Seaton Hole. EDDC is trialling basalt reinforced concrete as part of a lower carbon trial. Instead of steel, the concrete will have basalt reinforcement placed in it giving the structure a longer life, as basalt, compared to steel does not rust and expand which cracks the concrete, as well as an approximate saving of 40%.

Unfortunately the works will require the closure of the footpath from Seaton Hole to the beach, as concrete will need to be pumped down this access. The footpath is likely to be closed between Monday, 26 September to Wednesday, 19 October, meaning there will be no access to and from the beach to Seaton Hole above. This does not affect the official South West Coast Path however, which heads inland at this point. EDDC will sign the closure at either ends of the beach and encourage users to take the signed coastal path. The council would like to apologise for this closure as well as any noise and disruption of the works and construction traffic on the roads above.

The remaining elements of the BMP are under development and require further design and consultation before they can be built.

Councillor Geoff Jung, EDDC’s Portfolio Holder for Coast, Country and Environment said:“I do appreciate that this access onto the beach at Seaton Hole is popular, but this work is essential to protect the safety of the footpath and access to the beach at this point, which over the years has taken some pounding from storms. However, this work is essential to maintain and protect the public access for the future. Therefore, I apologise for this short term inconvenience.”

Priority groups and 75+ can now book seasonal Covid vaccinations at Greendale

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Booking is now open here and I found that there were slots at Greendale every day next week. Covid is still around and the growing evidence about its long-term effects (increased risk of heart attacks, strokes, brain shrinkage, as well as fatigue, even from mild infections) means that everyone should protect themselves as much as possible.

Jack Rowland’s latest report gives a good rundown on many important Seaton issues

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I’m grateful to Jack for sending me this report, which was presented to Seaton Town Council last night.

Jack Rowland (right) together with Dan Ledger (left), our other Independent district councillor, and me

EDDC Councillor report for Seaton Town Council meeting on 5 September 2022

Report produced by Jack Rowland on 30 August 2022 Subjects directly related to Seaton

Racal brownfield site

The site has recently been purchased by Seaton Quay Ltd (a wholly owned subsidiary of the Rich Group who are a property investment and development company). I arranged a meeting on 23 August with the key personnel involved and invited the other EDDC Ward Councillors to attend as I wanted to hear their plans, timescales and to suggest that a joint press release should be issued at an appropriate time. By the time you read this the press release should have been issued and the development plans mirror the existing latest approved planning application as that is still live as the previous owners had cleared the site.

The new owners are keen to start work on the site as soon as possible using local contractors I understand and hopefully at long last we will see this brownfield site being developed at a key location in Seaton that will potentially encourage other inward investment to help the local economy.

Seaton Heights – Planning Ref No. 21/1782/MFUL

I continue to keep in regular contact with the site owners, Lyme Bay Leisure, regarding their plans for the site. The EDDC Landscape Architect had sent a response report to the owners in January this year following the submission of the application and now understand that only very recently has a response to that report been sent to EDDC. I’ll continue to keep in contact and also bring to the attention of the owners any instances of the site being unsecure as has frequently happened.

Hook & Parrott site

As previously reported the owners of this site, having secured planning approval at the beginning of this year, recently decided to put the site for sale having yet to submit a demolition plan to EDDC as part of the planning conditions.

I understand that a sale, subject to contract, has now been agreed.

Seaton Coach Park

As part of Cllr Haggerty’s work on achieving coach friendly status for Seaton I had obtained agreement to make the coach park free of charges. However, as many of you know this resulted in the law of unexpected consequences as the school bus companies have taken advantage of this to the detriment of tourist coaches finding spaces on many occasions.

In order to find a solution to this issue I have recently been in discussions with the recently appointed EDDC Carpark Manager and also talked to Cllr Haggerty. My idea

is to offer a limited number of hours free of charge and then make an hourly charge for subsequent hours sufficient to dissuade the school buses from using the site, but at a cost that will not deter tourist coaches. The EDDC Officer is now making arrangements to speak to the school bus companies and local businesses prior to then introducing a formal 21 day consultation period on a proposal depending on the feedback the officer receives.

Axe Valley Levelling Up Bid

The bid that includes a seafront enhancement scheme, redevelopment of the Moridunum site and development of 2 employment sites in Seaton was submitted in the timescale required and following meetings with Richard Foorde (MP for Tiverton & Honiton) who supplied his required written support shortly after he was elected on 23 June.

Moridunum site

See the comment on this site in the previous subject. In addition EDDC continue to have discussions with Fossway Transitions Ltd (FTL) regarding their development and the party wall agreement etc in connection with the Moridunum structure.

Jurassic Centre

I continue to respond on Seaton based FB sites as periodically residents raise the subject of the empty building to either ask what is happening or making suggestions as to uses for the building. I respond as the latter suggestions do not take into the facts as 40% of the original build costs were funded by DCC, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Coastal Community Fund with clauses regarding the use of the building. If those clauses are not adhered to within 10 years of the building completion then EDDC are liable to repay the £1.68m to the funders.

The site is being commercially marketed with those clauses and has attracted interest. Once EDDC Officers have reviewed the expressions of interest and evaluated the required business cases then an options report will be presented to an EDDC Cabinet meeting potentially in October.

Public Toilets

Seaton Hole / Jurassic Bites

I continue to keep in contact with Officers to ask about the discussions between the lessees of Jurassic Bites and the adjoining toilet block. The discussions are ongoing with the lessees even though the block is being marketed for a dual use in case that produces a meaningful bid.

Thury Harcourt

An EDDC press release was issued in late June, following intervention by myself and Cllr Ledger, that contained assurances from the Leader that a public toilet provision will still be provided at this site regardless of the outcome of the current marketing campaign.

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Wider EDDC subjects within the Finance Portfolio

Motorhomes / Campervans proposed policy

In view of the pilot that has been operating in Exmouth regarding the use of suitable EDDC carparks to allow overnight motorhome / campervan parking and sleeping I chaired a working party on 11 July that involved EDDC / DCC Officers and Exmouth based Cllrs at Town, District and County level.

The outcome from the working party discussion has resulted in a proposed motorhome / campervan policy and the report is on the agenda for the EDDC Cabinet meeting on 7 September. The report is recommending that relevant EDDC towns, such as Seaton, set up their own representative working party to consider adopting the same Exmouth policy for relevant EDDC carparks, but have the ability to decide on a local charging structure based on local knowledge and requirements taking into account local private companies that provide facilities for these type of vehicles.

Carparks

The latest available data shows that almost 60% of the income is now paid by card or the Ringo app and cash now accounts for 28% with the remaining balance from permits.

Despite the reservations expressed at the time that some car park charges were doubling (bearing in mind that charges had not been increased for 10 years and during that time VAT had also increased from 17.5% to 20%) the actual income against the budgeted income almost matches and I will provide more detail on this in my next report.

In Seaton the situation regarding the “free for all” carpark following the closure of the Co-Op store and the hiatus before Aldi redesign and re-open is not helping the use of the EDDC carparks at the Underfleet.

EV charging points in EDDC carparks

Work from the 3rd parties has at long last visibly started in some EDDC carparks to install EV charging points – for example, although not operational yet, the points have been installed at the Roxburgh site in Sidmouth and at the Dolphin Way site in Colyton and the 3rd party just needs to install the required signage now.

In Seaton the lease has been signed for the spaces in the Orchard carpark and the civil engineering work is due to start the week commencing 5 September. Similar work is due to start in September at sites in Axminster, Beer, Budleigh Salterton and Honiton.

Other subjects

There are many other subjects that I have not mentioned in this report that fall outside my Finance Portfolio such as:

The EDDC allocation of £1,796,363 over 3 years for the UK Shared Prosperity Fund that has resulted in a plan being submitted on 1 August.

The current status of the work being carried via the Strategic Planning committee on the new Local Plan for East Devon.

The work that has been carried out to formulate a new strategy for Sport & Leisure and Culture & Tourism across the district.

The current pressures resulting from people hosting Ukrainian families and the lack of a Govn lead policy when the initial 6 month agreement expires soon.

The work that is being undertaken to build social housing on EDDC owned land.

If Town Councillors have related questions on any of these subjects I will either answer them at the meeting on 5 September or provide written answers subsequently.

Jack Rowland
EDDC Councillor – Seaton Ward
Portfolio Holder – Finance JRowland@eastdevon.gov.uk

Truss plans to make consumers pay back the extortionate energy bills over future years

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Byline Times’ Adam Bienkov reports:

‘Liz Truss’ plans to freeze energy bills are not what they seem.

At first glance, the plans, which were briefed to multiple newspapers last night, look fairly similar to those backed by Labour and the Lib Dems last month.

However, while Truss is planning to spend tens of billions of pounds on freezing energy bills next month, her plans come with a nasty sting in the tail.

Whereas under Labour’s plans, a large chunk of the cost of freezing bills would be paid for by a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, under Truss’ plans the cost will instead be paid entirely by us.

According to multiple reports the new Prime Minister is considering plans to force the public to pay back the cost of the freeze over the course of decades, through a new charge on our energy bills.

This will leave current consumers, and potentially even future generations, with higher bills indefinitely.

Meanwhile oil and gas companies, who are now making huge unexpected profits due to surging wholesale prices, will not have to pay a penny more in tax.’

We need a good news story, here is a local one widely reported

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East Devon Watch

Drone photos show ‘incredible’ impact of beavers during drought

A series of remarkable drone shots have revealed how the reintroduction of beavers in Devon has had a hugely beneficial impact on the landscape during the current drought.

Harry Cockburn www.independent.co.uk

Over 400 years after beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK, the animals were returned to the river Otter in Devon in 2008, and after initial plans for them to be removed, the government consented to a five-year study which highlighted the astonishing improvements to the ecosystem that beavers bring.

Amid the drought and one of the hottest summers on record, some of those benefits are now highly visible, with the land where the beavers are living remaining a lush green, while adjacent land has turned a parched yellow.

The tinder-dry conditions have led to record numbers of wildfires in the UK, but on the Clinton Devon Estates, where…

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Protect the Green Wedge: bungalows are not what Seaton needs

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My column in today’s Midweek Herald:

It is now official – East Devon is one of the top eight districts in the country for rising population (up 13 per cent up in a decade). The further you go from Exeter, the more the new arrivals are retirees. In town after town and village after village, housing estates catering partly for middle-aged incomers are changing the landscape. In Seaton this month, a developer has showcased a new scheme to build 130 dwellings, many of them bungalows, on the town’s outskirts.

Seaton Wetlands – increasingly surrounded by housing?

Urban growth is not necessarily a bad thing. Towns change and growing populations need housing. The shortage of housing for local people is one of our biggest scandals, made worse by the Conservatives’ low priority for social housing, the poor quality of some private rented accommodation, landlords switching to holiday lets, and the house price boom – artificially stimulated by the government – which prices younger people out of the market to buy while simultaneously pushing up rents.

More housing, but not any old housing – or any old place

So we need more housing, but not any old housing as the government believes. A town like Seaton with one of the most elderly populations in the country – 45 per cent are over 65 – needs more retirement bungalows like a hole in the head. We’ve already had one revolt over this issue, when developers wanted to divert a site earmarked for a hotel to build more retirement flats. The community stood firm and in due course the hotel was built. The developers making the current proposal, Baker Estates, say that bungalows will facilitate downsizing freeing up family homes ‘elsewhere’. It’s little consolation for Seaton to know that houses will be available in the Midlands or the Home Counties! 

The housing we need also can’t be in any old place. Planning policies exist for a reason – if they didn’t, the whole of the Devon coast would have wall-to-wall development, ruining the very beauty which draws people to the area. ‘Green wedges’ between towns and villages is another key policy, maintaining a rural edge for urban areas as well as the identities of distinct communities. People in Seaton and Colyford have shown over the last decade that they value the Green Wedge between the two, and have twice fought off attempts to build it over. The proposed development will further surround the precious Seaton Wetlands with housing, and threatens the bat and bird life which are so important to them.  

Baker Estates promise up to 25 per cent ‘affordable homes’, although even with shared ownership, properties at around £300,000 are hardly affordable for many, and these dwellings (if built) will doubtless end up in the least desirable corner of the estate, with the smallest gardens. I say ‘if built’ because Seatonians are familiar with the ‘vanishing affordable homes’ trick, since what is now the Pebble Beach estate was supposed to have 40 per cent of them, then 25 per cent, and ended up with precisely none. 

Mandatory targets for houses, but not services

East Devon’s planning policies are robust but the council is under the constant pressure of the government’s housing targets and its penalties for not meeting them. It’s noticeable that the government doesn’t enforce targets for social health provision with the same rigour, so if we accept scores more bungalows our extremely stretched health and social care services won’t automatically expand to match.

We cannot keep building over our countryside and allowing our communities to become more and more unbalanced in age terms. We don’t need a nationally imposed target for new dwellings, to be supplied in whichever form the developers find most profitable. We need more good quality social housing, fewer second homes (we should restrict those to the areas where there isn’t acute housing pressure), and a better balance between holiday lets (desirable for tourism) and private rentals (which are essential housing). Not everyone will like this, but we also need house prices to fall, to let young people back into the housing market.

Leading questions in developers’ ‘consultation’ about Green Wedge housing scheme

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On Wednesday, I attended Baker Estates’ exhibition about their proposed scheme for a housing development in the Seaton-Colyton Green Wedge. Following the exhibition, a Facebook group OPPOSE Baker Estates Building on the green wedge between Seaton & Colyford has been set up and already has over 250 members.

Exhibition stand showing sports pitch to west of Harepath Road, possible commercial area (in grey) to east, and housing between Harepath Road and Colyford Road (photo from OPPOSE Baker Estates Building on the green wedge between Seaton & Colyford)

Baker Estates has acquired an interest in the land shown on their map and proposes to build up to 130 homes, a large proportion of them bungalows with a possible 25 per cent ‘affordable housing’. The majority of the houses are proposed to be built outside the Seaton Built Up Area Boundary and inside the protected Green Wedge, as defined by the current East Devon Local Plan (go to the interactive map to compare the plan to the Baker Estates proposals).

Baker Estates were giving out a questionnaire for a ‘consultation’, which is also available on their site. As a social scientist who knows something about questionnaire design, I can confirm that it is so poorly designed and and misleading as to be worthless as an expression of public opinion (but which Baker Estates will doubtless seek to use if they get ‘results’ helpful to their cause):

  1. The first question asks about the proposal to build bungalows, ‘addressing an unmet need and providing downsizing opportunities that free up family home elsewhere’. Giving the alleged benefits of this in the question, but with no mention of the downsides (e.g. a massive increase in Seaton’s already huge pensioner population with all the knock-on effects for local services) makes this a leading question.
  2. The second asks about whether there should be a through link for pedestrians/cyclists/buses only between Harepath Road and Colyford Road, or a road connection, but then says ‘do you agree, yes or no?’, rather than providing boxes for the two alternatives. So this question is so poorly designed as to be meaningless.
  3. The third asks if people support the provision of a new sports pitch ‘to enhance local facilities’. This is like asking people if they like sunny weather, but there is no indication that the scheme will not actually construct this pitch and its associated facilities.
  4. The fourth asks if people support the provision of 25% ‘affordable homes’. No mention of the fact that a scheme that overrides the local plan would normally be expected to have a much higher proportion (as much as 66%). Why no alternative percentages – 50, 66, 75 – for people to tick?
  5. The fifth question asks if housing similar in style to their other Seaton developments would be suitable.
  6. The sixth is the most outrageously leading question: ‘Given that the emerging local plan identifies a need for more homes at Seaton and a need for sports facilities, do you support the proposals? (1) The ’emerging’ plan is not in force yet and will not be when Baker Estates submit their application later this year; it is the existing Local Plan which matters. (2) Both the existing and emerging plans include a policy on Green Wedges, as well as other policies which this proposal will violate. (3) Just because extra homes are needed does not mean that this is the right place to build them – there are other options, as people are pointing out on Facebook.

I will be writing about the wider context of this in a forthcoming column in the Midweek Herald. Sign up for updates to this blog to get notified of this and other comments on these issues.