Thursday, 20 August 2015

Government to propose expanding powers of Police Commissioners

Far from regognising that elected police and crime commissioners are a failed experiment, it appears that the government is proposing to give these people control over fire authorities. A consultation is expected to be slipped out next week in advance of elections next May.

Police and Crime Commissioners were created three and a half years ago to replace police authorities. The government's vision was a single person to over see the work of each police force. But the first elections showed that the public didn't understand or were not enthused by the posts and only 15% bothered to vote.

Since then, police commissioners have largely failed to connect with the public - and certainly don't seem to have done anything to reduce crime levels. Instead, they end up costing more than the police authorities they were meant to replace and are being forced to implement government funding cuts.

Now the idea appears to be that they might take on the oversight of fire and rescue services.

One potential problem is where the fire service's boundaries are not co-terminus with the police force - like in Cornwall. Here we have a Cornwall only fire service (part of the council) but Devon and Cornwall Police.

But even if they can get over the boundary issue, this is the wrong step from the government. Better would be to admit that police and crime commissioners are an embarrassing mistake and return to an updated version of police authorities.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Eagle House application withdrawn

The planning application seeking permission to turn the Eagle House Hotel into a private residence has been withdrawn.

The controversial proposal was first put forward - and refused - last year. This re-application was recommended for approval by planning officers but was due to be decided by the planning committee next Monday.

It has been suggested that the hotel has been sold to a buyer intent on retaining it in its current form. I'm afraid I have not had confirmation of this and so cannot confirm - but it would be good news if true.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Scott Mann on the MPs pay rise

Just to be clear, new Tory MP for North Cornwall Scott Mann absolutely and completely disagrees with the idea that MPs should get a 10% pay rise.

But he's trousering the cash nonetheless.

Tony Hogg will not re-stand as Police Commissioner

The elected Police and crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, Tony Hogg, has announced this morning that he will not be standing when the position comes up for re-election next May.

Mr Hogg has set out a number of reasons for his decision but a key point is that he no longer feels able to keep his promise to maintain a minimum of 3000 police officers for the force. This has been a key pledge and he says he is now allowing the chief constable to structure the force in a different way.

Mr Hogg, a Conservative, has also said that if he is not successful in his campaign to get an extra £12m from the government then he will proposed a large increase in the police element of council tax next year. Any increase above 2% would require public approval in a costly referendum. Mr Hogg's budget is subject to approval by the Tory dominated panel which scrutinises him but the rules are such that they can only reject his budget once. In effect, a commissioner can force through pretty much any budget they wish.



Monday, 20 July 2015

Potholes and trip hazards - Inspecting Launceston's roads for defects

This morning I joined fellow Cornwall Councillor Jade Farrington and town councillor Dave Gordon to see the work of one of Cornwall's highways inspectors. The inspector was going round the centre of the town looking for problems with pavements and roads and marking them for repair.

This is an exercise that is undertaken every eight weeks in Launceston and, during the two hours we spent in the town centre, we found 25 defects which have been marked for repair.

To be considered a defect, a hole needs to be 20mm deep if it is on the pavement or 40mm deep if it is on the road. But it also needs to be capable of repair, so there are some triangular gaps on the edges of pavements which could be filled in but the filling would come out again within 24 hours. That makes such repairs time consuming and wasteful.

Each defect that is noted is logged into the council's system using a handheld GPS enabled computer. It is also visibly marked on the street with yellow crayon. Repairs in town centres take place by the end of the next working day - so all of those we saw will be repaired by close of play on Tuesday.

Brian the inspector told us that 25 defects is relatively high for a single inspection route. Part of the issue is that Launceston town centre pavements are largely made up of granite slabs - now 150 years old. These are more prone to breakages than asphalt pavements and the gaps between slabs can open up very easily. You could quickly and dramatically cut the number of repairs by replacing all these with tarmac pavements - but at huge cost and probably to the detriment of how the town looks. (Before anyone gets concerned, no-one is suggesting this is ever going to happen).

Problems do occur between inspections. So if you know of a defect on a pavement or roadway in town (and it is not already marked with yellow crayon) please get in touch.


Thursday, 16 July 2015

Cornwall could be first in line for Votes at 16

A Lib Dem amendment in the House of Lords could lead to Cornwall being one of the first parts of the UK where 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote for local councillors. It's been a long journey since I was one of the co-founders of the Votes at 16 campaign in 2001.

The Lib Dem peers proposed the amendment to the government's Cities and Devolution Bill. It was passed by 221 votes to 154 and would have the effect of allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote in local elections. Given the time taken to bring a new law into effect and to register the new voters, it is unlikely that any change would come into effect before May 2017 when Cornwall Council will be up for election.

The House of Lords has voted in favour of lowering the voting age before. I assisted Conservative peer Lord Lucas with his bill in 2003 but such efforts have always been on a private members bills like that of Ralph Lucas rather than an amendment to legislation. Yesterday's government defeat will become law unless it is overturned in the House of Commons - in which case the matter will bounce between the two houses of Parliament until one gives way.

The voting age was lowered for the Scottish Independence referendum last year. It showed (as other instances around the world have also done) that 16 and 17 year olds took the issue of voting very seriously and entered into the debate fully. Their reasons for voting a particular way mirrored those of older electors.

Young people can get married at 16. They can also leave school and enter work. They have to pay tax and they can join the army. What they cannot do is to vote for the people who make the laws on all these matters.

It also makes sense to have a voting age set at a point in a person's life when they are most stable - before the upheaval of leaving home for university or whatever. The research shows that if a person votes when they are first entitled to then they are more likely to carry on voting throughout their life. If they don't vote first time then they are more likely to become permanent non-voters.

Whilst nationally the Conservatives oppose lowering the voting age, in Scotland the party has come out in favour having seen the positive experience of the independence referendum. Lib Dems, Labour, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru all support a lower voting age and will put up a strong case when the issue is debated in the House of Commons in the autumn. I very much hope that the government recognises that this is a matter both of common sense and fairness and accepts the Lib Dem amendment.

Government's Cornwall Deal is 'Devolution Lite' - UPDATED

The terms of the Government's devolution deal for Cornwall - discussed behind closed doors by the council on Tuesday - can now be revealed. Cornwall may be the first rural area of the country to sign such a deal, but this is devolution-lite with key areas of the Case for Cornwall ignored.

Despite a very strong argument put forward by Cornwall for a wide range of new powers and responsibilities, the government have ignored the key areas of planning, housing, much of heritage and - crucially - they have not been prepared to concede any freedoms or flexibilities for Cornwall to decide matters to do with finance.

I applaud the work done by the Lib Dem - Independent cabinet running the council. They have led the process and achieved a lot. Throughout, the Conservative Group at County Hall have campaigned against the Case for Cornwall and would not even have achieved today's deal had they been in charge.

In my view, it is vital that Cornwall has more control over our own planning rules. We are governed by the National Planning Policy Framework which is designed for the whole of the UK. This one size fits all approach runs wholly counter to the concept of devolution but the government refused to budge. Many of us called for a 'Cornwall Planning Framework' to allow the somewhat different needs of our area to be put first.

The deal also refuses to allow Cornwall any freedom to take action on second homes. We asked in the Case for Cornwall for freedom to create a separate use class for second homes so as to require planning permission in areas where they are a threat to the community. We also asked for the right to charge a second home levy on council tax. Both have been denied by the government.

We know that there is a particular problem with housing in Cornwall with many people, particularly young people, priced out of the market. We asked for more control over housing policy to address this but were refused.

Cornwall also asked for more devolution in the area of finance. We wanted to be free of the Whitehall diktat to be able to take decisions in the interests of the people of Cornwall. Even after we watered down requests for more freedom over council tax, the government still refused to give ground. There has not even been an acknowledgement of the need for fairer funding.

The fear I voiced at Tuesday's council meeting was that, after today, the government would walk away believing that their conversations with Cornwall are at an end and that this is 'job done'. In truth, this is a step in the right direction, but it is barely a third of what Cornwall was asking for and Cornwall needs in order to control and shape our own destiny.

UPDATE:

Apologies for failing to note that the Government's line is that they will only discuss giving further power to Cornwall in the area of finance, planning and housing if Cornwall has a directly elected mayor, centralising all powers in the hands of a single politician. Not even the Tories in Cornwall think that is a good idea and the House of Lords recently threw out a proposal from the government the include mayors in their Cities and Devolution Bill.

UPDATE 2:

Also worth noting that Labour councillors on Tursday voted against the proposed deal. I understand their concerns over the government requirement to hold the discussion in secret, but am concerned that they appear to be against devolution.