Devon

Conservatives block my call for the County Council to ‘speak up for Devon’ in the debate over the European Single Market and Customs Union – but it will produce an impact assessment

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Union and EU flagsAs the Brexit negotiations finally entered the phase of talking about the UK’s future economic relationship with the EU, I asked the County Council this week to speak up for Devon’s interests in the debate about whether we should stay in the European Single Market and Customs Union.

However my motion that we should stay in both arrangements as we leave the EU, because of the benefits they bring to Devon’s economy and the damage which leaving them will cause, was remitted to the Cabinet who will report back to the next Council meeting in February.

I argued that the motion should have been discussed this week. Pointing out that the DUP, SNP and Mayor of London had come forward to speak for their regional interests, I criticised our MPs for failing to speak as a group for Devon and the South West’s obvious interests in keeping close economic relationships with Europe. I said the Council should speak up and make it clear to Government which kind of Brexit we wanted. All opposition councillors (Liberal Democrats, Labour, Independent and Green) supported my call to debate the motion in the meeting, but the Tory majority voted to postpone the motion for two months.

One good thing did come from the proposal – Council leader, John Hart, promised that Cabinet would look at the evidence on the impact of Brexit on Devon in coming to their recommendation for the next meeting. Although I argued that we have enough evidence to make a judgement now (see below), it will be useful for the Council to do this work. Let’s hope their ‘impact assessment’ is a bit more thorough than the Government’s!

Note. I am fully aware that the majority of voters in Seaton & Colyton, and in Devon, supported leaving the EU. This is not about that decision – it’s about getting sensible terms for the future economic links. Some points I would have made if I’d been allowed to speak fully on this:

  • By value, the SW has the highest proportion of goods exported to the EU of any UK region, rising above 60% in 2015 compared to national average of 44%. The value of SW goods exports to the EU has increased markedly in the last few years. We have actually had a positive trade balance, unlike many regions.
  • 70% of Exeter’s and 68% of Plymouth’s exports go to the EU. These are the two highest figures of any UK cities.
  • Exeter University is one of the top recipients of EU grants. While tourism to Devon has benefited from the weak pound which Brexit has caused, recent figures have shown that international students bring greater economic benefits to Exeter than tourism does.
  • While we do not have figures for the losses of EU and international staff from Devon’s NHS and care system, our officers have stated that this is a major concern.
  • Farming has a larger share in Devon than in the rest of the UK economy. Neil Parish MP says that ‘The EU is a vital market for British agriculture and food & drink exports. EU member states account for 7/8 of the UK’s top agricultural export markets. In 2015, 93% of all British beef exports went to the EU – a trade worth £320 million.’

Given all this information, it is very clear what kind of relationship with the EU is in Devon’s interests:

  • Neil believes that for agriculture, ‘it’s crucial the UK retains a close relationship with the EU market’.
  • Meurig Raymond, president of the NFU has backed a temporary customs union with the EU after Brexit.
  • Exeter University as part of the Russell Group of leading universities is lobbying to remain part of the EU Framework Programmes for research, to reassure EU staff that they have a future in the UK and to ensure new EU staff can be recruited.
  • Remaining in the Single Market is vital for selling goods and services to the EU, and to ensure we recruit and retain sufficient EU workers to support our NHS, social care, farming and hospitality sectors – new figures show that migration into the SW has fallen more sharply than in the SE.
  • The Customs Union is crucial for all our exporters, whether in manufacturing, farming or services, to avoid bureaucratic obstacles to trade which will hit small businesses hardest.
  • The Centres for Cities estimates that a ‘hard’ Brexit, leaving these arrangements, will roughly double the hit to Devon’s and Exeter’s economies compared to ‘soft’ Brexit.

There is no point in developing a SW strategy for productivity and growth, if we don’t first stop the harm that leaving the Single Market and Customs Union will cause.

 

Rural broadband and mobile phone coverage – progress needs to be seen

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The County’s Corporate Infrastructure and Regulatory Services Scrutiny Committee (CIRS), on which I sit, has set up a standing Task Group to monitor rural broadband and mobile phone coverage. Roll-out of broadband by Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS), which has public funds to fill the gaps where commercial providers will not go, has been slow, they say because of the providers, and CDS is not sufficiently open to public scrutiny. At the November meeting, East Devon broadband campaigner, Graham Long, complained about the issue being dealt with by a task group which meets in private. I urged the committee to be aware of the frustration felt by those still without access to reliable broadband and the need to be seen to be urgently seeking progress.

Mobile phone coverage is of great concern in Branscombe and other rural parishes in the division. Unfortunately the committee was told that mobile phone providers would not agree to talk to us. However it emerged that the Heart of the South West Local Economic Partnership (LEP) has earmarked £2.5m to address phone coverage issues, although they have not yet decided how.

How Seaton fares in the papers for CCG meeting

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The papers for the CCG meeting on Thursday are available online. On a quick reading of the 92 pages of the report on the consultation, it is impossible to say clearly what outcomes they point to. All the report says about how the meeting will approach the decision is: ‘The scheduled date for the Governing Body to make a decision is the 2 March 2017, although a key feature in that meeting will be assessing readiness for such a key decision. The CCG has already confirmed the papers will be published and the decision will be made in public, and communicated to stakeholders afterwards. If it is decided that further work is needed prior to decision, it will be for the Governing Body to confirm the rationale and when the decision will be made.

However the summaries of the consultation highlight some things which are hopeful for Seaton, and maybe for the wider aim of keeping more beds in more hospitals than the CCG envisaged:

  • The public meeting in Seaton organised by Seaton Town Council, the League of Friends and the GP surgeries was easily the largest event (estimated at 250 people – I thought 300) of the whole consultation.
  • The EX12 postcode (Seaton) produced about 400 responses, almost twice the number in any other postcode (and there were about 100 from EX24, Colyton, on top).
  • The Seaton option (A) was the most supported of the CCG’s four options.
  • However ‘other (write-in) options’, many of which included retaining more beds than CCG envisaged, were even more supported than Option A overall. Almost half of all respondents did not support any of the CCG’s options.

At the very least, we can say that the Seaton community did a good job in creating awareness and promoting responses, with keeping beds in Seaton hospital strongly favoured – and much support for keeping many more beds than the CCG options offered.

Now it’s schools being cut

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Independent County Councillor, Claire Wright, writes (picture: Seaton Primary School):img_9530-1220x640Last week every Devon County Councillor received a letter from the Devon Association of Primary Headteachers and the Devon Association of Secondary Heads (DAPH and DASH).

The message is depressingly familiar.  And simply cements my long held belief that this government is steadily dismantling public services and instead squandering that money in tax breaks for the wealthy, government consultants, a third runway at Heathrow, a war in Syria and many more things that shouldn’t remotely be a government priority.

Like many other public services in Devon, including health and social care, education in Devon gets a rough deal in the government funding formula. It is near the very bottom of the UK league table on per pupil funding, short by over £290 a head, which is equivalent to a £25.5m shortfall across the county’s schools.

Devon County Council has lobbied central government on this issue for a very long time, unfortunately with very little effect.

Last year, there was an unexpected flurry of activity among Devon Conservative MPs, who were suddenly coincidentally apparently pushing at an open door. The outcome was the government agreed to introduce a new and fairer funding formula for schools.

Unfortunately and sadly, the government has backtracked on its promise to do this by April 2017.  It has been delayed by one year, leaving schools, especially those in our county, in limbo and increasingly desperate for funds.

To make matters worse, new education initiatives have been introduced by central government BUT without any extra funding to help schools cope. These include:

– young people with special educational needs now being able to remain in education until 25
– the removal of the education services grant from next year
– extensive house building across the county
– increases in staffing costs, including the living wage, pensions, and national insurance contributions
– the introduction of the apprenticeship levy from next April, resulting in a bill for Devon County Council run schools of £424,000

The ongoing financial situation for Devon schools means that 26 schools across the county are now predicting a deficit at the end of this financial year.

The letter, which is signed by Paul Walker (DAPH) and Matthew Shanks (DASH), paints a bleak picture. It states:  “…. Schools have financially now reached a real crisis point in the immediate future.

… “urgent necessity to take some very undesirable as well as far-reaching decisions to reduce costs in order to balance the finite resources available.

“Sadly, the implications of these decisions will undoubtedly impact upon the children in our care, including those from some of our most vulnerable families, and these will ultimately manifest further into the wider community.”

The letter urges local councillors to act on their behalf by lobbying education ministers to implement an urgent solution to “mitigate the impact of the present crisis.”

I will be writing to my own MP, Hugo Swire about this, but PLEASE, wherever you are reading this in Devon, write to your own MP and urge them to lobby ministers for more funding for our schools and retain the excellent education that our children deserve.

Exeter rally to Save Devon’s NHS, 3rd Dec.

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3 December at 12:00–14:00, Exeter (Princesshay). ‘Anyone from all parts of Devon are due to meet as one and show a united front against the closures of our hospitals and beds.  It follows on after a recent similar Sees Red Day in North Devon.  So the theme will be for all to wear something RED. Please forward this far and wide and let’s get a huge gathering together to tell the health authorities that these cuts and closures are totally unacceptable.’ EAST DEVON people meet 11.45 at Civic Centre opposite bus station, Paris Street:see-red-day-sidmouth

Somerset NHS services handed over to Virgin

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Just over the border in Somerset: services handed over the Richard Branson’s Virgin Healthcare. Once this happens, will we ever get a proper NHS back? Coming to the NHS Devon in the near future?