Fresh Perspective by Ryan Hall

A column by Ryan Hall, as seen in MDA and PRSD

Rail, Economic and Environmental Resilience – can we achieve all 3 together?

Network rail is currently running a consultation programme as part of the Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth Resilience Project. Events are being held across local communities, to inform the public of plans and to gather the opinions of residents.

                The South West Rail Resilience Programme (SWRRP) was established by Network rail to identify and implement the best options to avoid a reoccurrence of events in January 2014. The destruction of the line in Dawlish by storms, caused the line which connects us to the rest of the country completely cut off, for several weeks. Those who are frequent users of the line will remember the difficulties of trying to travel on rail replacements. Dawlish is now, after 5 years seeing investment to protect the railway and the town.

                Further along the line plans currently being suggested by Network rail include, realigning the railway line 30-50m away from the cliffs out to sea, this would avert any risk from rock falls and landslips, which is the main risk in this area. Opponents to the plans say moving the line further out to sea would have a significant negative impact on the natural environment. The campaign group Save Teignmouth and Holcombe beach are encouraging Network Rail to consider environmentally sympathetic alternatives that will preserve the beach, the sea wall and the vital railway link.

                An inland route bypassing Dawlish and Teignmouth is something which has been suggested, with a range of differing options proposed. However, most have been rejected as they are not cost effective, with any plan to reopen existing or create new lines expected to cost billions. Any inland route would also involve large engineering projects, the old line between Exeter and Okehampton would still require a huge amount of work to ensure it is suitable for modern trains.

                It is important for not just Dawlish, Teignmouth and Newton Abbot that the line stays open, but 50 towns further down the line rely on the railway as an important travel link. This vital transport link needs to be protected for the foreseeable future not only that, we need much more investment in the SW rail network, to make it more reliable and journeys more comfortable.

                The government took 5 years to finally come up with the money to invest in protecting Dawlish, we cannot wait another 5 years for more investment, climate change is making extreme weather events more frequent. The railway as it is will not survive more storms and it is only a matter of time that another similar event like what happened in 2014 hits again.  

                Whatever the solution is to make the line more resilient for years to come it must protect the rail link which is vital to the SW economy, whilst also minimising the environmental and aesthetic impact on the local area. Whilst so many are opposed to the current plans Network Rail have, a cost effective alternative, which satisfies all concerned, needs to be found sooner rather than later.

Collaboration or Cost Cutting?

Local policing is something which has largely disappeared from our streets, it is now rare to see a visible police presence. But Newton Abbot is one of seven towns in Devon to be part of what has been described as an innovative fire and police collaboration project, funded by the Police and Crime Commissioner. Community  responders are retained firefighters with full police powers, the new recruits are nearing the end of weeks of training and will hit the streets soon.

                The role of community responders was created to provide a resource to fire and police services. Community responders can patrol as police officers within five minutes of designated fire stations so can respond to any fire shouts within the designated time, therefore “downtime” is used effectively. They will also be provided with electric bicycles to expand the area they can patrol. Similar initiatives have been introduced in Cornwall, although they have also merged the ambulance service to create “Tri-responders”.

                Critics of the project call it a cost cutting exercise, with no real increase in the police or firefighter numbers. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) for Devon and Somerset say, “it is important to understand collaboration, but the differing roles need to be kept distinct” and the project, “undermines both roles in what should be fully funded and professional services”. All emergency service personnel are highly trained to deal with a wide range of situations, the FBU and others claim, it is impractical to expect firefighters, in addition to their own skills, to develop the same high level of expertise demanded by the duties of other emergency services, such as the ambulance service.

                Whilst others will say collaboration can improve response times and coverage, increasing safety in rural areas. It also creates better connections with communities. Emergency services have always worked in collaboration with each other, there are many circumstances which require a joint response from multiple emergency services. This is happening less often as cuts affect all services, fire and rescue services now do not attend all road traffic collisions, they now only attend the most serious, simply because they do not have the resources.

                The community responder project is being used as a pilot in Newton Abbot and in other towns, funding has been found an initial 2 years, which includes recruitment and training, it is still unclear if funding can be found by the police and crime commissioner to extend the project. We have been promised more police officers on the streets, will this include recruiting new police officers or just firefighters trained to carry out police duties when not attending incidents with the fire service?

Community Engagement Empowers Communities

With the “Safer Together” program now over, the results of the consultation are in, Devon and Somerset Fire and rescue service asked for our opinions. What the public gave them was, an overwhelming message of opposition to all the proposals suggested, with 95% of respondents clearly opposing all of the 6 options.

                The main reasons for opposition will come as no surprise, increased risk in rural areas and vulnerable people due to the inevitable slower response times. Many criticised the consultation risk modelling, which gave no consideration to increasing population levels, increasing amounts of housing and in some areas, seasonal increases in population due to tourism. As is currently seen with events seen in Australia, climate change must also be taken into consideration when considering fire risk, even Dartmoor has seen wildfires during dry months of the year.

                Despite the widespread option from the public, it was always unlikely the fire authority would decide to do nothing, savings still need to make across the board. The recommendations being put forward to the fire authority to approve include; closing Budleigh Salterton and Topsham; removal of third engine from Bridgwater, Taunton, Torquay and Yeovil; removal of second engines from Crediton, Lynton, Martock and Totnes and the introduction of roving engines.

                Despite the likelihood that 2 stations will now close many will be pleased with the recommendations that are being put forward to the fire authority. The extent of the cuts is much less than many anticipated, this has to be down to strength of public opposition. Thousands completed the consultation questionnaire, wrote letters and signed petitions, all taken into consideration. However, some areas will be disappointed by the decision, these communities will be concerned about safety and response times. We just need to hope the result of decisions made now do not have consequences in the future.

                What this exercise does show is that engagement with the community can have real benefits.  Community engagement is built on the democratic idea that everyone who is affected by an issue that impacts their community should have a say in the decision making around it. It is not known what impact exactly the input of communities had on this decision; it could have been a lot worse if the decision were made by the fire authority alone.

                Community engagement should be used in planning and decision making more often, especially in instances where multiple communities would be affected by changes. Increasing the level of community engagement must now be the aim for other consultations, making the process more accessible and a greater out-reach to all communities would achieve this. Although thousands responded to this consultation, hundreds of thousands more would have suffered the impact if the result of the consultation was different.

Small and community changes can help the collective world

With Christmas now over for another year and a new year and new decade now beginining, you may well have started, or be thinking about what change this new year will bring. Many of us look to change our lives in small ways, or for some big changes are in order, as we start a new decade. Whether it be simple changes such as joining the gym or dieting following the festivities of Christmas where we all over-indulge, or something a little more dramatic like embarking on “Veganuary” the trend of going vegetarian for a month, or maybe longer. How many of us actually stick to these new year’s resolutions?

                With the environment firmly on people’s mind, many will no doubt be thinking what they can do to play their part, but not all of us will be able to afford to change to an electric vehicle or make big changes to the way we live our lives. But we can all do simple things to help. Changing habits such as recycling more, buying local and using a car less often can all have an impact on both the environment and our personal wellbeing.

Recycling as much as possible is becoming much easier, Teignbridge is always expanding the range of waste that can be recycled. Support the fantastic range of local businesses, we have in the area, not only benefitting the environment but also the local economy. Cut out non-essential car travel, walk, cycle or use public transport, if possible. We have a plethora of green spaces, all of which can be enjoyed by all for free, they offer an escape from the busy lives we all lead, I will be trying to spend more time enjoying the natural environment on offer all year round.

Helping others and getting involved in community projects should be the focus of more resolutions, whether it be as simple as donating to a charity, checking on elderly neighbours or volunteering with a local charity or community group. We can all do small things to change the lives of others, whilst also enhancing our own. Many more community groups and services are now reliant on the hard work of volunteers to ensure they can aid those who need it, so now is a great time for people to get involved and make a difference. Aside from the obvious benefits to others, volunteering and community involvement can have a positive impact on personal health and wellbeing, especially mental health.

Most of us think about what we change’s we can make to improve our own lives, new years resolutions are usually how these changes begin. If we all make small changes to help others and the environment, we can all have a collectively positive impact on our communities.

“Alone, we can do so little; together we can do so much” – Helen Keller.

The right to a decent home

For some becoming a homeowner is just a dream, plummeting wages and skyrocketing house prices in some areas, price many out of getting that first foot on the housing ladder. More and more people must how look to private rented property to find a home. Private renting is on the rise, particularly amongst younger households, the age group 25-34 now makes up around 35% of all renters in the UK.

                Amid the housing crisis the UK is currently facing, when you have no option but to rent from a private landlord, you’d expect at least a decent home for your money, in some circumstances this is not the case. The English housing survey suggests a quarter of private rented homes are “non-decent”. For a property to be considered decent it must meet certain criteria such as, being safe, in a reasonable state of repair, reasonably modern and meeting a reasonable degree of thermal comfort. The survey claims the reason for so many homes not meeting these criteria is due to the age of the housing stock, with a large proportion of private rented homes being much older. However, much of this could also be down to some landlords not keeping property maintained.

                One-way landlords are cashing in on the rise of people needing to rent is by creating houses of multiple occupancy (HMO’s) defined as 3 or more households normally sharing common areas, this creates a way for landlords to maximise the rental potential of large properties. All HMO’s are required to be registered with the local authority and landlords must meet certain standards and obligations including, gas and electrical safety certificated and smoke alarms. In October 2018 Teignbridge council had 15 houses registered as HMO’s, occupied by over 120 people. This type of housing is seen more widely in towns and cities with large student populations.

                Whilst tenants have the right to live in a home which is safe, many still find themselves living in sub-standard conditions, many tenants are afraid of reporting landlords due to fears of being evicted. If a tenant has a complaint this must first be raised in writing to the landlord, tenants can then take this to local councils. Local councils must then investigate any issues and, if required inspect homes and order landlords to carry out repairs, they can also stop unfair evictions from happening.

                It was recently announced an additional £4 million of funding has been made available to help councils tackle rogue landlords. Councils will be able to bid for a slice of this funding, to step up enforcement. Even though most landlords provide quality homes, a small minority continue to break the law and offer inadequate or unsafe housing. The funding which has been made available, will be used to allow good landlords to thrive, helping millions of hard-working tenants renting privately get the homes they deserve, ensuring those who follow the rules are not unfairly disadvantaged and creating a housing market that works for all.

Twenty’s Plenty

Twenty’s plenty, is a scheme which has been adopted in many towns and cities and could be coming to a town near you. Devon County Council have been trialling 20 MPH across residential areas in parts of Newton Abbot and Kingskerswell. If this trial is a success, then it could be rolled out across Devon. It follows success stories from Bristol, Oxford and Portsmouth.

Campaigners for a reduction in speed limit cite many benefits, they include health and wellbeing, environmental and road safety. The general public generally support 20 MPH speed limits and zones already exist, however usually only outside schools. Devon County Council will currently only look at changing the speed limit or introducing, speed calming measures in areas which have collisions recorded, many communities would like to see measures introduced, but the evidence-based approach currently taken means the council thinks otherwise.

Larger cities have successfully rolled out 20MPH limits to all residential roads, this is then been extended to more roads in the centre of towns and surrounding areas. Cities such as Bristol have recent adopted this community-wide speed reduction. Studies have shown the number of road collisions drops considerably with every 1MPH drop in speeds.

In Bristol the speed limit has been enforced with mostly signs only, whilst this has been effective there is no hard enforcement of speed limits. The Police would have an integral role to play in enforcement, but due to falling numbers on our streets they would simple not be able to enforce this. The 20’s plenty for us, organisation calls for multi-agency collaboration and social marketing instead of just police enforcement. The aim for many campaigns is to make the speed limits “self-enforcing” and tries to change driver attitudes rather than enforce rules, this would involve a large marketing drive and signs to encourage drivers to drive at lower speeds. This is much cheaper than introducing measures such as speeds humps, but some would say is less effective.

But would lowering speed limits without enforcement work? Police do not have the numbers to support any enforcement action, community speed watch initiatives work well in practice but rely on limited volunteer numbers.

Lower speed limits are also said to increase walking and cycling making roads safer, but it would probably do nothing to battle the ongoing blight of congestion in Devon’s towns. Alongside 20MPH speed limits the counties roads can be made safer by cutting congestion, through investing in walking and cycling facilities and public transit infrastructure. Commuters already probably spend a large amount of a journey travelling at low speeds. Nobody can deny the safety benefits of lower speed limits, especially in residential areas. However more effort needs to be focussed on encouraging people our their cars rather than slowing them down, for the sake of our health, safety and environment.

Climate Change and Cuts Exacerbate Flooding

Last week large parts of Yorkshire and the East Midlands suffered from large-scale flooding, described by some as a “national emergency”, thousands have been forced out their homes, with many expected not to be able to return for months. There is no doubt that we are now seeing extreme weather events happening more frequently. The South West has seen its fair share of this type of weather, with disruption to roads and our railways common place, is this something we should just get used to?

We are all aware of the impact of severe weather on our everyday lives, think back to the storms in 2014 which destroyed part of the sea wall at Dawlish, paralysing the rail network. We are continually facing disruption due to storms in this area. Dawlish is however seeing significant investment to ensure the railway is protected from the sea. Our local Rivers and streams also regularly see high water levels. Though the river Lemon running through Newton Abbot has not flooded the town since 1979, huge surges of water can still be seen flowing through the town following periods of prolonged rainfall.

Large-scale flooding is something which reported in the news. Small-scale localised flooding of roads and properties is also widespread but is not always the result of high river levels. Blocked drains and unmaintained drainage channels are a common cause of more localised flooding. Especially in the autumn when drains become blocked with leaves and other debris. Cuts to local government, mean highway maintenance gets left behind. Under the current rules, water needs to be standing for more than 24 hours after rainfall as ceased for the authorities to act on blocked drains. We all know which local areas to avoid during heavy rain knowing the drains will be blocked and roads unpassable.

Our emergency services and even the Environment Agency struggle to respond to floods. Devon and Somerset are still awaiting the outcome of the “safer together” consultation which will reveal what the future holds for our fire and rescue service, flooding is just another thing to add to a long list of services which we need the fire and rescue service to respond to quickly.

Our natural environment is the best flood defence there is, but this seems to be disappearing and our landscape changing into housing developments and roads, this is without doubt going to worsen surface water flooding in some areas. Climate change is also expected to bring more severe weather to the UK, with this will also come more flooding. We will never be able to eliminate the risk of flooding, but we can do more to deal with the impacts when it does happen. Ensuring local authorities have the funding to clear block drains, before flood water becomes so bad it damages property. Emergency services and other agencies also need the resources to prevent flooding and or, respond to it efficiently and safely when it does happen.

Fracking or renewables ?

Fracking is breaking news in the UK at the moment, the controversial method of extracting shale gas from rock deep underground and the associated environmental concerns make it widely opposed across the UK. Shale gas is, a natural gas used for heating and cooking in homes, its extraction from the earth involves pumping pressurised, water, sand and chemicals into boreholes which then fractures rock allowing the gas to flow to the surface.

There are plenty of justified reasons that campaigners have when it comes to opposing fracking, from water contamination to local earth tremors, which have been widely reported in areas of fracking activity. Fracking is, not only unsustainable but does nothing to combat global warming and widespread climate change. Plans go directly against the commitment of the Paris Climate Agreement to end the use of fossil fuels. And a recent independent government report stated that fracking is simply not compatible with the UK’s climate targets.

Fracking operations in the UK are relatively small scale in the UK, it is quite right to oppose the activity, especially in times when climate change is high on the agenda. However, the UK must also drastically reduce its reliance on oil and gas, if we are to even dream of hitting those targets set out by the Paris Agreement. Latest reports from climate finance analysts, Carbon Tracker warn that global reserves of fossil fuels still significantly exceed the amount that can be burned to stay within Paris limits.

There is, however, some good news stories on the horizon when it comes to climate change. Renewable energy sources now provide more electricity to homes and businesses than fossil fuels. Electricity from British windfarms, solar panels and renewable biomass is now surpassing that produced by fossil fuels for the first time since the UK’s first power station fired up in 1882. An ever-growing sight on our coastlines are offshore windfarms, an increase in energy generated by this sort of technology has seen renewables now account for nearly 40% of the country’s electricity, this is a crucial tipping point in our energy transition.

These large-scale renewable energy generation projects need to work in hand with reducing overall consumption, we will never be able to transition to low carbon if we do not tackle energy efficiency in our homes and businesses. Ensuring all homes are as efficient as possible would drastically reduce the amount of energy we use as well as save us all money. All homes and businesses should all have energy-saving upgrades including loft insulation, double glazing and more efficient heating systems. Building upgrades coupled with accelerated transition to renewable energy is the only way the UK can meet new tougher targets on emissions and become leaders in the battle against climate change.  

Universal Credit

​Universal credit was introduced in Teignbridge in September 2018. It was introduced to replace 6 separate benefit payments including, jobseekers’ allowance, income support and housing benefit. To describe this massive change in the UK welfare system as controversial is an understatement. Since the roll out began it has been plagued with huge delays, mounting costs and blamed for causing hardship for many of those most vulnerable people in our society.

​Charities are blaming it for a huge increase in the use of foodbanks across the country. The Trussell Trust research found the use of foodbanks increased by 30% in the 12 months following implantation, in some areas this use of foodbanks was also shown to increase over time, rather than fall which most would expect. The reason for this is put down to the 5 weeks a claimant needs to wait before receiving first payments. Those struggling to cope are having to decide between hardship now, or hardship later. This is putting immeasurable strain on advice services, council-led crisis provision and foodbanks, with many local charities and organisations taking the strain due to cuts in other services. 

You don’t need to search very hard to find stories of those suffering at the hands of this cruel welfare policy,locally and nationally people are forced into homelessness at the hands of a system which supporting those who need it most. Tenants are getting into arrears and facing evictionbecause of the long wait for money, with many ending up on the streets. Coupled with mounting debt trying to pay for the rest of life’s necessities, this is leading to increased anxiety for many. With half of claimants reporting worsening mental health whilst waiting for payments, leading to many preventable deaths. 

Rather than acting as a safety net to ensure vulnerable people do not face destitution, the stories from across the country seem to be telling a very different story of the realities of living on universal credit. The current levels of benefits coupled with rising rents and living costs, are locking people into poverty. Instead of helping those with disabilities and long-term health conditions, the system is having the opposite effect, making daily life harder. 

Universal credit was supposed to make life easier, instead it has reversed many of the things a well-functioning welfare system is supposed to provide. The whole system is an unmitigated disaster and should be stopped in its tracks. It should then be replaced with a fully integrated, NHS style of social security, there for those who need it in times of need.

Integrated Public Transport

Personal car ownership is on the rise, with many families owning more than one car, this has put pressure on our towns and city centres, but also on residential areas, our towns cannot cope with the amount of traffic on the road. Residents are increasing frustrated by sitting in traffic for hours after a long day at work. Traffic in Newton Abbot and our ever-expanding outskirts will only get worse, as Teignbridge council adopt the local plan, which involves building residential and employment developments across the district.

                With the climate emergency on the agenda on all local authorities, including here in Devon and Teignbridge. Planners are tackling the increase in traffic by building new roads across our countryside, but is this the only way of beating congestion?

                While new roads shorten journey times for most commuters, ambitious plans for the district to be carbon neutral will not be achievable unless we see major changes in transport provision. Whilst I advocate the use of electric cars, a complete transition to this would be too slow to meet targets set by 2030. A different approach is needed one that aims to put fast, reliable transportation services within walking distance of as many homes and jobs as possible.

                Whilst Newton Abbot is lucky to have the main railway line connecting the SW to London and beyond, this is not a luxury which is in reach of everyone. Many of those not living within easy of reach of the railways, especially those in the surrounding residential areas and villages, know the difficulty of trying to get home after a train journey.

                The lack of integration and coverage of local public transport is the reason that many have no choice but to get into cars when travelling to work. The reason for this lack of integration is probably down to the fragmentation of our transport networks, all owned by different companies, with the major interest being profit, instead of providing a reliable, efficient and cheap service for passengers.

                By fully integrating all modes of public transport we will see social, environmental and economic benefits for all. A bus can take 75 cars off the road, with obvious benefits in terms of relieving congestion and cutting pollution, more consideration needs to be put into integrating better public transport into our local communities, enabling everybody to access, work, schools, hospitals and high streets with ease.

                Ideally, we need a nationwide public transport system planned, implemented and managed by a single authority. Local authorities should be investing in public transport if they are serious about cutting carbon emissions and cutting congestion, better planning is required for new developments to ensure they can be accessed by sustainable, affordable and efficient public transport.

Local Authority Cuts

Many people are confused about which council does what, in brief; Devon County Council is responsible for education, health & social care, and highways; Teignbridge District Council is responsible for rubbish collection/recycling, maintaining green spaces, car parks, and most public toilets; Town/Parish Councils are responsible for allotments, upkeep of footpaths, café pavement licenses, and local museums, and are statutory consultees to the District Planning Authority on planning applications.

Since 2010 local authorities have seen their funding slashed, but with increasing, aging, populations, and a constant need to provide health and social care for the elderly and vulnerable, some things are being neglected by councils, since they have no choice but to prioritise spending.

As funding is cut, councils need to make difficult financial decisions. Things like education, though still cut to the bone, will need priority funding. Many councils are now struggling to meet their statutory duty of care to their local people, let alone providing for the extra community projects that would enhance the towns they serve.

Notable concerns to many people are those things which visibly blight the neighbourhood; potholes and overgrown weeds, for example. The highways department will now only attend to these sorts of things if they are likely to cause a major hazard to drivers or pedestrians. I have seen plenty of local footpaths unpassable, but not deemed a severe enough hazard to be dealt with quickly.

Recently, we have seen stories in the local media of small armies of volunteers who have been hitting the streets to litter pick, tidy flower beds, clean road signs, and clear paths of obstructions. Whilst this is commendable, councils should not be encouraged to neglect essential maintenance because they think, if it gets bad enough, the public will be convinced to take care of it.

Councils, and councillors like myself, must be continuously lobbying for better funding, to allow us to maintain regular upkeep, without relying on unstable, volunteer manpower.

In Newton Abbot, grass verge cutting, which is the responsibility of Devon County Council, is not being done regularly enough, if at all, which is not going unnoticed by local people. The Town Council is currently looking into a solution, with the possibility of taking this on as an additional responsibility, but it will not come for free, and will need to be carefully budgeted for, to ensure the solution is sustainable.

Town and Parish Councils are taking up the slack for underfunded County and District Councils, which means many of the things provided by the most local councils would disappear forever if they were unable to take on the commitment.

Well funded councils build attractive, sustainable, communities; which encourage visitors and buyers alike to come and enrich our towns, and our local economies.