To consider reports from Cabinet Members.
(Councillor Davis declared a personal interest in this matter by virtue of being Vice President of the Tarka Rail Association).
The Council received reports from the relevant Cabinet Members on matters of interest or service developments relating to their remits which had occurred since the previous meeting or were likely to have an impact in the future or on specific issues upon which they had been asked to comment, as set out below:
(a) Community, Public Health, Transportation and Environment
Councillor Croad reported, as requested by Councillor Hannaford on the flagship project in Cornwall Council's climate change and carbon-neutral action plan to create a 20,000 acre forest at a cost of between £25m and £30m (with bids being prepared for Government supported national tree planting schemes).
The Cabinet Member commented on the role of the Devon Climate Emergency Response Group and the Council’s Climate Change Strategy in considering the matter, highlighting that the Devon Climate Emergency Response Group (DCERG) had initiated the process of producing the Devon Carbon Plan. As part of that, a Net-Zero Task Force of specialists had been appointed to gather evidence through a set of hearings, each focussed on an individual decarbonisation topic (e.g. buildings, agriculture). The various opportunities available for land-use to absorb carbon, including tree planting, would be considered through that process.
He also reported in response to Councillor Wright on the Council’s Wildflower Verge Policy and the take up from Communities and also a progress report on the actions resulting from the previously submitted notice of motion on the 10 point green action plan. In relation to the Wildflower Verge Policy, the Council’s ‘Life on the Verge’ guidance was launched in May 2019 which set out how communities could take on the management of verges for the benefit of wildlife. Since the launch, the Council had been contacted by a number of communities (15 at present) and the communities on the Yealm Estuary were associated with a ‘Living with Wildlife Community of the Year’ award. The Council’s Environment Group would be running a workshop on road verge management in October. The Council actively promoted the initiative at a number of events and through a number of different platforms.
The Cabinet Member, in response to the 10 point green action plan, reported that it had been discussed by the Environmental Performance Board on the 8 August 2019 in relation to options for enhanced environmental action in relation to pollinators, pesticides and fertilisers, habitat protection, creation and tree planting, soil health and water use. The Board had asked for additional work to be undertaken to refine these options and set them out in revised action plans for endorsement and adoption at a future meeting. Similar endorsement was provided by the Farms Estate Committee at its meeting on 9 September relating to opportunities for action through the County Farms Estate. Other actions were also being pursued in the interim, for example, a planned review of the Devon Ancient Woodland Inventory and plans with The Woodland Trust to launch and promote a new tree planting scheme linked to ash dieback.
A further written update was provided on current service pressures in relation to domestic violence services including trends, numbers, gender balance and the impact of changes to housing benefit and universal credit in relation to temporary and / or emergency accommodation. The Cabinet Member said that LEESAR (Listen, Engage, Empower Support, Advocate, Recover) Partnership had been commissioning since 2017/18 to provide support to high and medium risk victims of domestic violence and abuse. A comparison from the first six months of 2014/15 to the first six months of 2018/19 showed a 24% rise in referrals to specialist domestic abuse support services and in 2018/19 the gender split was female 89% and men 11%. The Report also said the outcomes of the service had been analysed by SafeLives, however, this needed further work. In relation to Housing Benefits and Universal Credit Payments, Officers had offered to meet with Councillor Hannaford to explore the issue further to provide more information in due course.
He responded to Councillor Hook on the safety of all dams in Devon, with particular reference to the Holbeam Dam which protected Newton Abbot. The Cabinet Member highlighted thatunder the Reservoirs Act 1975 all dam structures impounding 25,000 cubic metres or more of water must be registered and inspected/maintained in accordance with the Act. In Devon there were 35 registered high-risk dams, with 23 owned and maintained by South West Water (SWW), 3 by the Environment Agency (EA), including the Holbeam Dam, and 1 by Devon County Council (DCC) at Stover Park Lake. The remaining 8 were privately owned. The Cabinet Member reported on the inspection regime, reporting and surveillance activities.
As requested, the Cabinet Member reported that the most recent Section 10 inspection of Holbeam Dam was completed on 21 March 2019. This identified several issues requiring new works to be completed. However, these were further improvements in line with best practice, not as a result of any defects. The EA had confirmed that Newton Abbot residents could be assured there was no risk to them or their homes for any flood event within the design criteria.
He also responded to questions on quick wins on climate change, overtopping in reservoirs and the impact of austerity on domestic violence.
(b) Economy and Skills
Councillor Gilbert circulated a Report, as requested by Councillor Hannaford, on the Government plans to create up to 10 Freeports to boost trade and manufacturing after leaving the European Union, the Freeports Advisory Panel and the potential of progressing the scheme in Devon, for example at Exeter Airport.
The Cabinet Member had explored the freeports initiative and the likely applicability to Devon, outlining that the Brexit impact was most likely to be felt by the larger ports in the Heart of the South West (HotSW) area, such as Brixham (fishing only), Plymouth (fishing and commercial – EU and outside EU) and Teignmouth (small fishing port and commercial – EU and non-EU). Smaller ports, which focused more on inshore fishing and leisure, such as Bideford, Ilfracombe, Dartmouth and Salcombe would be less affected. The Government announcement on 1st August mentioned airports, therefore Exeter Airport could potentially be an opportunity for the Devon area.
The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), estimated a UK freeport regime could create more than 86,000 jobs for the British economy, largely in industrial areas outside London. However, the criteria for the proposed freeport bids had not yet been released.
For Devon, there was unlikely to be sufficiently large ports to qualify to become a Freeport under the initiative. Teignmouth was the only area port that could potentially be applicable (although was unlikely to be able to scale up due to infrastructure requirements). Others were too small with insufficient infrastructure, such as transport links. Nearby ports that could be more appropriate could be Brixham (if fishing was included) and Plymouth.
The Cabinet Member summarised that the best opportunities for Devon would come from supporting bids from Exeter Airport or Plymouth. However, these were significantly smaller than the largest ports in the UK. The Council would work with local operators to complement any freeports awarded as needed, to help ensure the survival of other ports, such as Teignmouth.
He further reported on Gigaclear and Connecting Devon And Somerset (CDS), as requested by Councillor Shaw, in particular the cancellation of the Gigaclear contracts, potential delays of broadband delivery and funding.
The Cabinet Member’s Report highlighted that nearly 1 million homes and businesses in Devon and Somerset had access to superfast broadband and was as high as 59% coverage in some rural districts.
In terms of the decision of Connecting Devon and Somerset (CDS) to end Gigaclear’s five contracts, it was reported that CDS and the Government’s Building Digital UK (BDUK) agency were unable to agree an acceptable recovery plan with Gigaclear following significant delays incurred by the company in its roll-out of full fibre broadband. Gigaclear had also stated five main reasons for the company’s delayed roll-out in the CDS programme.
For moving forward, CDS was working closely with BDUK on a new procurement process for launch this autumn, commencing a tender process to identify new provider(s) of these services. Government decisions on capital funding for broadband programmes would be made in November. Whilst CDS and BDUK worked on a new procurement process, the roll-out of broadband in Devon and Somerset would continue. CDS were also working with the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership and others to develop a Digital Strategy and a refreshed Local Broadband Plan.
(c) Children’s Services and Schools
Councillor McInnes reported, as requested by Councillor Hannaford on maintained nursery schools, funding issues, risks of closure, any service reductions and / or representations made to Government to address the issues. The Cabinet Member highlighted that Devon had two Nursery Schools (both in Exeter), funded via the Early Years Block of the Dedicated Schools Grant. There had been no indication from either school that they were at risk of closure or reductions in service. Their current take-up of two, three- and four-year olds was high.
In relation to the funding, the National Funding Formula was introduced in April 2013. Devon would have an hourly funding rate based on take-up. As there were additional costs (related to the requirement to have a Head Teacher), further funding was allocated as an annual grant. In 2017, there were further changes to Early Years funding with the introduction of 30 hours. Following a consultation, Nursery Schools were given a separate Supplementary Grant from the DfE that was added to the Early Years block funding. For 18/19 the grant income split between the two schools was £110,000. The Supplementary Grant had not been confirmed post July 2020.
Formal representation to central Government was being made through a variety of channels including a petition through F40 and the National Education Union.
(d) Infrastructure Development and Waste
Councillor Davis commented, as requested by Councillor Hannaford on progress to update the North Devon Link Road and other work to improve regional transport links.
In particular, she highlighted that the scheme was progressing towards a full business case stage, with submission due in summer 2020 and land acquisition had taken place in summer 2019 with no objections to Compulsory Purchase. The Council had also committed to, where possible, removing all at-grade crossings across the route which had resulted in the addition of a further two new walking and cycling facilities at Bishops Tawton and Landkey Junction and the subsequent progression of planning and land acquisitions for these elements.
In terms of regional transport links, including aviation, the Cabinet Member, through the Peninsula Rail Task Force, continued to lobby MPs for a more resilient, reliable and better-connected railway in the South West with improved comfort and capacity and also highlighted the progress made against the 20-year plan, including £50m+ flood resilience works north of Cowley Bridge, £30m signalling upgrade, rollout of Hitachi trains, timetable changes to maximise benefits and £30m committed to first phase resilience works between Dawlish and Teignmouth. For road, there were continued aspirations to improve the A30/A303 and the M5 junction 29-31 gateway and other projects such as the A382 in Newton Abbot, the A39/A361 in Barnstaple and A379 around Exeter and a funding bid for M5 Junction 28 improvements in Cullompton. There was also a Major Road Network proposal to improve highway access to Bristol Airport, recognising the significant numbers of passengers living in Devon and Cornwall.
The Cabinet Member also responded to questions on other rail lines in the County such as, inter alia, the Tarka Line, Okehampton line, Heathfield, links to and from Barnstaple, integrated approaches to regional transport, the cycle network and bicycles on trains and rail provision in very rural communities.