Report to be presented to Tuesday’s Health Scrutiny meeting shows Devon NHS continuing to let down patients with cancer and those needing ‘elective’ surgery. Where is the urgency to improve patients’ experience, when they are faced with life-threatening and life-changing conditions?

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A report to be discussed on Tuesday provides alarming evidence that the NHS in Devon is continuing to fail patients with serious conditions, both cancer patients and patients who require what is classified as ‘elective’ surgery. On both counts, Devon yet again scores worse than the national average.

It shouldn’t need emphasising that with cancer, delays cost lives. With many other conditions, delays cause needless weeks and months of additional pain and suffering, with serious impacts on patients and their families.

The Government’s long-term failure to fund the NHS is primarily responsible, and staff shortages – exacerbated by Brexit (which is driving away European doctors and nurses) -make the situation worse.

Yet it is difficult not to feel that Devon’s NHS leaders (in the Sustainability and Transformation Partnership) are complacent about these failings. Once more, damning figures are buried in the middle of a report whose main focus is the overall Winter experience in 2018-19.

Where is the urgency to improve patients’ experience of our NHS, when they faced with life-threatening and life-changing conditions? When will the Health Scrutiny committee call the NHS to account for these failings?


Cancer – time to treatment  ‘Performance against national cancer waiting times standards for first definitive treatment within 62 days for urgent referrals showed significant variation throughout the year, with performance at Devon level consistently failing to meet national targets.’

Over the year, the figure varied from 68.4 to 80.2 per cent, against a national target of 85 per cent.

Cancer – time to see specialist  ‘The time taken for patients to see a specialist after urgent referral for a suspected cancer within 2 weeks of an urgent referral improved during Winter, with overall performance at Devon level reaching an in-year high-point of 89.5%, but still failing to meet the national target of 94% of patients being seen within 2 weeks of urgent referral.’

In fact, the figures show that March 2019 was the best month of the last year, during which the figure varied from 80 to 89.5%.

Referrals to treatment within 18 weeks ‘We continued to see a deterioration in the proportion of people being referred to treatment within 18 weeks, dropping to 80.5% by the end of the year.’



Is there a future for Devon’s libraries? My article for the new Devonshire Magazine

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My article in the Summer issue of Devonshire Magazine:

After a decade of austerity, libraries are one of the success stories that our County Council likes to tell. As another shire county, Derbyshire, hands over all its libraries to local communities, Devon still has fifty branches across the county. The Council handed over the service in 2017 to the mutual Libraries Unlimited, but still provides the bulk of the funding. However Libraries Unlimited’s charitable status has enabled it to win funding from other bodies and – if we are to believe the publicity – do more for less. 

Libraries Unlimited’s vision is to ‘reach beyond libraries’ traditional book lending role’ to look at broader ‘ways in which libraries support individuals and communities’. Highlights include ‘fab labs’ in Exeter and Barnstaple – which allow users to ‘print t-shirts, design and produce 3D prints, make beautiful embroidered designs’, etc. – and an Exeter business information centre where workshops, one-to-one advice sessions and ‘inspiring’ talks take place. Of course libraries in smaller towns and villages don’t have these things, but the aim is to turn them into community centres, hosting local events and increasingly run by local community volunteers. 


We’re told this is a win-win situation. Library users keep their core service and exciting new developments take place, while financial pressure is lifted from the hard-pressed council. However when we look beneath the surface, there are troubling areas in Devon’s library service and big uncertainties about the future. 

Libraries Unlimited has a new chair, Professor William Harvey of Exeter University; a new chief executive, Alex Kittow, takes over on 1st June 2019. So I offer a critical perspective in the hope that the new team will recognise the seriousness of the challenge they face. At its heart is not just a different vision of the library of the future, but whether Devon’s libraries have a longer-term future at all. 

The question is how far ‘beyond’ their traditional book-centred role our libraries can go before – especially in smaller communities – they are no are longer viable libraries. The new developments would be fine to supplement well-resourced book-lending libraries. But what happens when managers are putting their energies into raising grants for innovation, while funding for books declines? 

The evidence, as measured by the library service itself, is sobering. When the figures for book (and other) loans in 2018/19 are released, it’s likely that they will have fallen by 50 per cent over the last decade: only half the number of books that were being taken out of Devon libraries ten years ago are being taken out today. And that’s the average; in many smaller libraries the downturn is far greater. Particularly alarming, children’s book issues, which were holding much steadier, have fallen drastically in the last couple of years (see graph below)

Devon Libraries children's loansDevon’s libraries have seen a modest rise in issues of e-books, but small in numbers compared to the drop in issues of ‘real’ books. People like the convenience of e-readers when they go on holiday, but despite the enthusiasm for digital a decade back, the traditional paper version still dominates. In the USA and Australia, libraries haven’t seen the crippling cuts we’ve had under austerity in the UK, and they are thriving.

Tipping point?

The danger is that we may have reached a tipping point at which the failure to renew the library stock is seriously driving away readers. A constituent told me, ‘I’m an avid reader and I used to go to the library every week. But I’ve read everything they’ve got and they just don’t get the new releases.’ Some libraries are taking donations of books from local people; while the gifts are laudable, they’re no substitute for a professionally curated, up-to-date library stock.

If these trends continue, it would be rash to bet against a Derbyshire-style clearout in the not-too-distant future. I’m sure that neither the County libraries team nor Libraries Unlimited wish that, but the time has come for everyone to recognise where the crisis in the book stock could lead. Communities should demand proper local provision, and the Council should halt its inexorable funding cuts.

Instead of going to the library, my constituent was looking for bargains on Amazon. But that’s no substitute for a proper local library, especially for our children. What if the next generation never get the reading bug which their parents and grandparents got from their local community library? We will all be the poorer.

Latest funding information for local organisations, from the County Council

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DCC logoLatest Devon Funding News Updates published by the Devon Economy, Enterprise and Skills Service.

05-06-2019 03:40 PM BST
Funding to support early interventions to tackle youth offending by supporting activities and organisations working with children at risk of being drawn into crime and violence Continue reading
05-06-2019 03:05 PM BST
To identify high-potential digital technology interventions that can improve parental engagement in maths and maths outcomes for young people Continue reading
05-06-2019 02:57 PM BST
Grants up to £100,000 for the development of digital solutions that can be implemented in schools and colleges to improve student outcomes and decrease teacher workload Continue reading
05-06-2019 02:31 PM BST
To strengthen the financial position of credit unions and help them to develop new strategies for growth Continue reading
05-06-2019 02:13 PM BST
Awards to recognise and celebrate local high streets Continue reading
05-06-2019 01:49 PM BST
Grants for planting trees in urban areas Continue reading
05-06-2019 12:22 PM BST
Small grants for projects in Devon that bring people together, enrich and strengthen communities and improve wellbeing Continue reading
05-06-2019 11:13 AM BST
A Devon County Council grant to connect people in a positive, fulfilling and inclusive way: tackling and reducing loneliness and undesired isolation of all types and across all age groups Continue reading
29-05-2019 11:21 AM BST
A new four-year programme for collaborative projects to regenerate England’s struggling historic high streets and town centres through lasting improvements to restore and enhance local historic character Continue reading
22-05-2019 01:38 PM BST
Grants for food waste prevention are the first phase of a new fund to improve resource efficiency. Further phases will cover plastic packaging, textiles, food processing, recycling infrastructure and litter bins. Continue reading

Official East Devon Alliance statement issued, on cooperation with Independent Group at EDDC

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fullsizeoutput_64c“The Independent East Devon Alliance looks forward to the promise of change made by the new ruling Independent Group. We will act as a critical friend, serving the best interests of the people of East Devon. There are challenging times ahead and only by working together will the Council be able to deliver change for the better. We are pleased that the Leader of the Independent Group accepted our request to explore democratic reform and a move from Cabinet governance to the more democratic Committees system in which all councillors play an equal part.”

Paul Arnott, Leader, Independent East Devon Alliance, 23 May 2019

Beer Men’s Shed launches its Crowdfunder – a really worthwhile project for male carers, please support

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Beer Men's Shed

Beer Men’s Shed says: In a rural area like East Devon, it’s easy as men get older for them to feel lonely, isolated, and excluded from life around them.  Some may live on their own, may have lost their lifelong partner, may live with a partner or family member who they have to care for.  Some may just have lost their sense of purpose in life after retiring from work. Having somewhere that they can go to regularly and where they can meet other men, have a friendly chat and a cuppa, make something useful or repair something that matters to someone, can make a great difference to a man’s life, to his mental health and also to his physical health.  We live in one of the most beautiful areas in the UK – Beer has even been voted English “village of the year” – but if you feel that you’re locked indoors, or that you’re duty-bound always to stay at home and look after your partner, you can only too easily find yourself in a downward spiral that you don’t feel that you can get out of – not on your own. …    READ ON AND DONATE HERE.

A false start at EDDC sees new ‘Independent Group’ relying on the discredited Tories rather than the East Devon Alliance, Lib Dems and Greens who local communities voted for in order to achieve change. And the Axe Valley is left out in the cold again.

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I was unfortunately unable for personal reasons to attend last night’s annual meeting of EDDC, but many Independent supporters who were there have expressed considerable disappointment. I have however close knowledge of the situation and offer the following comments.

Mandate for change

On May 2nd, after 45 years of increasingly dysfunctional rule by the Conservatives at East Devon District Council, the local electorate reduced their number to just 19 of the 60 councillors. Instead voters elected a majority of 31 Independents, including 11 members of the East Devon Alliance (EDA), 8 Liberal Democrats, and 2 Greens. 

A clear mandate was given by local people. Big gains by Independents – both EDA and others – Liberal Democrats and Greens all represented their desire for change. The best administration would have been a coalition of some of these groups, which could have formed a progressive majority of up to 40 seats out of 60.

A new ‘Independent Group’ excludes the East Devon Alliance

Before the elections, all Independent councillors including EDA members were part of the Independent Group, led by Ben Ingham. EDA expected this to continue and looked forward to working with other Independents to form a progressive new administration, possibly in cooperation with the Liberal Democrats and Greens. 

However on the day after the elections, Ben formed a new Independent Group, which EDA councillors were not invited to join. He was elected leader and Susie Bond deputy leader. As a result of this exclusion, EDA councillors formed their own group but continued to work for an alliance of EDA with the Ingham-led Independent Group. 

The Independent Group relies on the discredited Tories

Since the new Independent Group with 20 members is the largest group on EDDC, they had the right to take the initiative in forming an administration. In this light the EDA leader, Paul Arnott, was happy to second Ingham’s nomination as Leader of the Council.

However there was no justification for the Independent Group, with only one-third of all councillors, to form an exclusively Independent Group cabinet. Even the outgoing Conservative administration, which had an overall majority, was more inclusive, including some non-Conservatives in the Cabinet. 

In both the Axe Valley and the Sid Valley, the East Devon Alliance had routed the Conservatives, but in Ben’s selection of his new Cabinet and chairs of key committees, he could find no place for EDA Independents from these areas. The east of East Devon is once again drastically under-represented in the EDDC leadership.

Rewarding the discredited Tory party

Clearly there were personal issues here – Ben had left EDA after being voted out as leader in 2017 – but we had still collaborated in the old Independent Group.  Nothing can justify Ben’s apparent decision now to rely more on the defeated Tories than on his fellow Independents.

The Conservatives are the official opposition, entitling them to the Chair of the Scrutiny Committee. But the Independent Group have also allowed them to take the key positions of Chair of the Council and Chair of the Development Management Committee. In contrast they offered EDA only the position of Vice-Chair of the Council. In addition they appear to have voted members of the discredited Tories on to other bodies, at the expense of EDA and Lib Dem candidates.

At the very moment when the electorate voted for change, and the Conservative Party has lost all credibility nationally as well as locally, the EDDC Independent Group seems to have breathed life back into this exhausted party and allowed it to keep several important positions, while turning its back on the other advocates of change.

A way forward

The East Devon Alliance believes that many members of the Independent Group share our desire for change at EDDC. They must surely realise that yesterday was a highly embarrassing false start. 

Despite the way that group has chosen to form its administration, I know the EDA group will support them, as the Lib Dems have also said they will, when they propose positive policies for the benefit of East Devon, as well as seeking their support for our own proposals.

In particular, I welcome the fact that when questioned by Paul Arnott, Ben Ingham yesterday repeated his long-held position that EDDC should consider the option of a more collaborative Committee system, rather than the all powerful Leader-with-CEO and small Cabinet model which he has inherited, which leaves most councillors with little real input into major decisions (as I know from the County Council). 

In any case, EDA councillors will have healthy proportionate representation on key committees such as Planning, Strategic Planning, Scrutiny, Audit & Governance and Overview, and I am certain that this will give them many opportunities to change the district council in a collaborative and positive way.

We must now hope that despite yesterday, both groups of Independents together with the Lib Dems and Greens can do some real work for local communities in the new Council.