In these unprecedented times, it has never been more important that the facts of what is happening are reported.
Everywhere you look, you can find some sort of conspiracy theory and someone with an agenda to drive, and that muddies the truth around the most important issues of the day.
Getting to the bottom of what is happening is not always easy and certainly not quick – and in a world where journalists are under more and more pressure to hit ever increasing numbers and volumes of targets when there are fewer and fewer of them remaining – the sometimes dry, complicated and detailed world of local councils, politics, and statistics could easily be put aside.
This is where the Local Democracy Reporting Service comes in. The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) was set up in 2018 in a unique partnership between the BBC and local news organisations such as Reach PLC, which publishes DevonLive, CornwallLive and PlymouthLive as well as the Herald Express, North Devon Journal, Express and Echo, Mid Devon Gazette, The Herald, West Briton, Cornishman, Cornish Guardian and the Western Morning News.
The journalists are funded by the BBC as part of its latest Charter commitment but employed by regional news organisations, with nearly Local Democracy Reporters having been allocated to 59 news organisations in England, Scotland and Wales.
The partnership has enabled reporters to get back into council chambers (once physical, now virtual), shining a light into the corners of local authorities and reporting on what has been happening.
Stories are then written, uploaded to a wire and distributed to all partner agencies, including our traditional ‘rival’ newspapers to use as they wish.
And since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country in March, nationwide, Local Democracy Reporters have published more than 15,000 stories relating to coronavirus – covering everything from the daily statistical updates, the impact of council finances, how individuals and businesses have been affected, and the knock-on impacts that the lockdown will have going forward.
All of this has run alongside the usual business of covering council activities – although rather than putting reporters back in County Hall as originally planned, it has seen us dial it Zoom calls or watch meetings live on Youtube.
Virtual meetings have enabled democracy (and subsequent reporting of it) to carry on throughout the pandemic, but every reporter is longing for the day the words ‘you’re on mute councillor’ is a thing of a past.
I cover Devon’s two unitary authorities at Torbay and Plymouth. The bright lights of the English Riviera have some of the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods in their shadows. In Plymouth, the Labour-run council is forging ahead with regenerating Britain’s Ocean City.
One of the biggest stories of the year, apart from Covid-19, was the death of George Floyd in the United which sent shockwaves across the Atlantic and has triggered change in Devon. In Torbay, the council is carrying out a review of racism, which has already uncovered some uncomfortable truths about attitudes, as revealed when councillors gave accounts of their own experiences.
In Plymouth, the city council’s response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations included removing the name of slave trader Sir John Hawkins from a public square. The process has resulted in a re-examination of the city’s history, and an appeal against the decision to rename the square after black footballer Jack Leslie is due to be heard in November at the city’s magistrates’ court.
Covering the coronavirus pandemic has of course been a priority, particularly in the early stages of lockdown. So when the travel restrictions were lifted, it was good to get out and about again in August to see what was happening on the bus network in Plymouth, as the economic recovery began. Operator Citybus was keen to reassure passengers about the hygiene and safety measures in place, so I went on my travels around the city out to North Prospect and Derriford to see if people were following the rules. I discovered how much people rely on the service, heard concerns about overcrowding, and found everyone politely complying.
The victims of a child abuse scandal in Devon are still waiting for justice. I have spoken to members of the Forde Park Survivors Group, as they highlight their concerns over what happened to them at a now-closed residential school in Newton Abbot, run by the Home Office and then Devon County Council. The school has featured in an investigation by the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse, but the survivors are unhappy with the way it has gone, and still have unanswered questions about the response of the authorities to what they went through. Their search for the truth carries on, despite the obstacles in their way.
In Torbay, the conflict between building homes and the pressure a growing population puts on services and the environment continues to make the news. The village of Collaton St Mary, near Paignton, which is zoned for growth, has been the backdrop for the arguments for and against development. Torbay Council’s planning committee has faced a series of difficult decisions, with more to come. Objectors to the latest application for the ‘car boot field in the village went to the highest level to try and block the scheme.
One of the most controversial planning applications in Torbay has been the replacement for the Corbyn Head Hotel on the seafront at Torquay. One objector memorably described the design as like something from the Spanish resort of Benidorm. The scheme was finally approved after the height was reduced, following the refusal of an earlier version. It is one of four hotels being redeveloped across Torbay by the Fragrance Group, in a total investment of an estimated £100million. The issue highlights the pressure in Torbay to modernise its offer to visitors, while safeguarding what makes it special.
Telephone: 07741 295900
Richard is the LDR for Cornwall- covering Cornwall Council as well as the Council of the Isles of Scilly and other public sector organisations in Cornwall
Covering council meetings is a major part of the job of an LDR and can often uncover stories and information which might otherwise have gone unreported.
Reports which were provided for a meeting of the audit committee at Cornwall Council revealed that the council had had to pay a penalty of £45million in order to repay controversial LOBO loans which had been taken out by the authority.
And a briefing of councillors about the council’s work in trading standards and tackling fraud revealed a shocking story of a vulnerable man who was left homeless after being conned out of his own home.
The current situation with coronavirus has seen local councils having to take on new responsibilities including the distribution of grants from the government to local businesses.
However there was concern in Cornwall when it was revealed that more than £50m had been claimed by owners of holiday homes in the Duchy.
LDRs also take time to look at some of the bigger issues and try to answer some of the questions that readers might have – such as affordable housing, which continues to be a major issue in Cornwall.
Telephone: 01872 247426 / 07834 568345
Daniel is the LDR for Devon – mainly focused on covering Devon County Council, as well as when time allows, the eight district councils – East Devon District Council, Exeter City Council, Mid Devon District Council, North Devon Council, South Hams District Council, Teignbridge District Council, Torridge District Council, and West Devon Borough Council, plus Dartmoor National Park
Coronavirus has been the main thing on everyone’s mind and lips this year, so it would be churlish not to mention it, but making sure that the facts and figures, and the latest comments, warnings and advice from the county’s Public Health Team is a vital part of the job – many stories could be mentioned, but here is the latest.
The other major story that has been in the news this year has been around race and the Black Lives Matters movement following the death of George Floyd in America. It has led to councils across Devon to re-examine their relationship with their historical past, their current relationship with minorities, and allowed those from BAME communities to tell their story in an attempt to affect change.
The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan was due to be the major blueprint for development across large swathes of Devon – covers East Devon, Exeter, Mid Devon and Teignbridge. Plans for thousands of new homes, including a second Cranbrook, relocating service stations, a sports hub etc were due to go out for consultation – but following a vote from East Devon, the GESP is now dead.
Exmouth seafront remains one of the most controversial sites in Devon – with the long awaited plans to regenerate the site having hit yet more setbacks this year. It may seem an age ago, but back in February, it felt like movement was finally being made when councillors backed the marketing exercise for the site, but since then, a call-in, a change of leadership, and the coronavirus pandemic have thrown the plans into chaos and back to square one.
It has been a year where active travel and getting people out of their cars and onto other forms of transport has been high on the agenda, with Exeter seeing road closures and new cycle lanes popping up, while plans to reopen railway lines have been progressed with bids submitted for Bere Alston to Tavistock, Cullompton, and the Marsh Barton station – so back in January – which feels like a different world – I went back and looked at all the lost railway lines as part of the Beeching Axe in Devon and Cornwall.
Telephone: 01392 346759 / 07775 030856