A personal point of view from East Devon Leader Paul Arnott.

I long ago realised that people who choose to stand for district council need to develop a thick skin.

This is sad, but in the world we inhabit today, it’s kinder to prepare prospective new district councillors for an unjust duffing up at a parish or town council meeting, or an ill-informed and accusatory email riddled with errors. It shouldn’t be like this of course, but as social media and “disruptor” mainstream broadcasters like GB News coarsen public life, anyone wishing to serve their communities must be ready or risk being sucked under.

However, at East Devon a new generation of younger councillors is coming through in my administration, and every now and then I think it is right to tip my hat to them in fulsome praise. It can’t all be about the negatives.

In Whimple, Councillor Todd Olive was elected in May 2023 and got off to a superb start at the age of just 24. Todd is around sixty years younger than some of the councillors, and he and his young cohort bring with them new skills, expectations of civility and depth of knowledge. In his case, it is around planning law and strategy, together with a marked concern for the local environment.

A couple of months ago, East Devon hosted an online debate with representatives from South West Water. It is fair to describe it as being from the “moving forward” school, limited apologies offered but in-depth explanation of why SWW’s sewage infrastructure kept failing and the history to that deftly swerved. I could see Todd’s face on the Zoom scheme, with almost visible steam coming from his ears.

So, what a good councillor does in the face of a public relations machine is do their own research. Todd, using his forensic skills, studied data from the Environment Agency to get a truer picture of how we in East Devon have been affected. Of course, the story before and after the New Year focussed mainly on Exmouth and the raw sewage tankered from failing pumping stations and in effect straight into the sea, or frothing up through the town’s manhole covers.

On behalf of the Exmouth and Exeter East Liberal Democrats, Todd spent hour after hour of his own time with the EA data, leading to the most unwelcome finding that of the top 15 areas in England for sewage spills, four are where we live or travel to locally: South Hams, West Devon, East Devon, Torridge and Teignbridge.

Digging into the specific more local data, Todd identified 15 individual wards in East Devon which had more than 1000 notifiable hours of spillages into a local water course in 2023. This unenviable hit parade goes Tale Vale, Woodbury & Lympstone, Sidmouth Rural, Clyst Valley, Coly Valley, Newbridges, Honiton St Paul's, Exe Valley, Exmouth Littleham, Trinity, Feniton, Sidmouth Town, West Hill & Aylesbeare, Axminster, Exmouth Town and Budleigh & Raleigh.

Where does this all land for local people? First, which is very obviously going to happen this year, a change of national government. Second, a government intervention to put the interests of local people and the environment ahead of the private shareholders who are the natural friends of the Conservative party, which has favoured defunded and/or light touch regulation of the water industry nationally for many years.

Finally, local people need to keep the pressure on the government, the water companies, and those who might be future local or parliamentary members in the near future. We’re not all bad and more often than many people think, many of us work extremely hard against some very powerful interest groups.