Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Launceston Community Network

Last night was the first meeting of the new Launceston Community Network Panel. Although it also wasn't.

You see, the community network panels have been put on hold by the Council Cabinet while they review the localism settlement. The agreement to localism was a central plank in the move to unitary status and so any hiatus is bad news. Like most local areas, we decided to go ahead with a meeting anyway.

The three Lib Dem Launceston councillors were joined by representatives of some of the parish councils, Launceston Town Council, the Chamber of Commerce, Launceston Forum, the health service and police (apologies if I have missed anyone). Unfortunately, Independent Councillor Neil Burden is recovering from illness and could not be there (get well soon Neil) and Conservative Councillor Phil Parsons did not attend.

It was useful as a first meeting and we will continue to have meetings both to share information and to discuss themes which are of interest. At the next meeting we will hear from the Police and from the Health Service about local services. Meetings are open to the public and anyone is welcome to come along.

There is, of course, a world of difference between discussion forums and decision making powers and I am asking the Cabinet review to make sure that the Launceston Panel can make decisions over spending that reach further than the small community chest and local highways budgets (assuming they reappear in the next financial year). Full local devolution is not going to happen and it would be wrong for the Panel to start employing staff and becoming a mini-district. But we should be able to affect the delivery of services locally and concentrate on the issues that matter most to local people.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Is the National Trust growing fat off Cornwall Council's desire to save lives?

I've just got back from a meeting of the Environment Scrutiny Committee at County Hall. One item on the agenda was a discussion about the new Maritime Division of the Council.

Residents around the county will know that the RNLI has been providing lifeguard services at many beaches in Cornwall. They are a fabulous organisation and this is a great service. The total cost is around £3 million a year and Cornwall Council pays about £1 million of this. The National Trust pays nothing.

So why should they contribute?

Simple - many of the beaches in Cornwall are owned by the National Trust. Only about 24 of the 57 beaches in the County are Council owned. The rest are a combination of town and parish council, National Trust or private ownership.

The RNLI service is, quite rightly, provided on the basis of need - how many visitors there are and whether they go into the sea.

But it doesn't stop there.

In many cases, the National Trust owns the car parks next to the beaches and charges visitors to park there. They are making huge amounts of money but paying nothing for the safety of beach users.

And there's more.

For many beaches, Cornwall Council also provides toilet cleaning and dog bin services. That's more money that you and I are paying for a valuable service when the beach owner pays nothing.

I am not arguing for the withdrawal of our services. To do so would cut visitor enjoyment and, in the case of the RNLI lifeguarding, could put lives in danger. If we withdrew then I suspect the NT would simply put up a sign saying that there is no lifeguarding at that particular beach.

But surely it is fair that if the National Trust (or any other organisation) owns a beach and makes money from it then they should be contributing fairly to the costs.

Brown and the electoral reform referendum pledge

How else can you view Gordon Brown's pledge to hold a referendum on voting reform than as a pretty naked attempt to woo the Lib Dems and Lib Dem minded voters?

For sure, there are a lot of Labour supporters who also favour electoral reform, but I would argue that they aren't the people this bit of the speech was aiming at.

Brown's theme was 'change you can believe in' and this is change - so you must believe in it!

But the pledge will fall short in two respects. Whilst there are some in the Lib Dems who favour AV - including Lembit and Simon Hughes - the official party policy is for real change and so any post election negotiations would throw this out straightaway. You can bet that the grassroots of the Party (and conference) will see to that.

Brown will be buying far less support with this than he thinks. AV is not proportional (indeed, often it is less so than FPTP) but watch out for Labour figures 'mistakenly' claiming it is to hoodwink voters. Watch out also for Labour claiming this is a new pledge - as David Blunkett just did on BBC 5 Live.

Back in 1997, Labour pledged in their manifesto to hold a referendum on changing the voting system - and then broke that pledge.

And that is the second reason why this will backfire on Brown. When the idea was first floated, Brown was hinting in terms of a referendum on General Election polling day. Now the timetable has slipped. Whilst there are good and bad reasons for two votes on the same day, the one thing it would do was actually show his commitment. This pledge - a 'promise' of a referendum at some point after the election - will lead Lib Dems simply to say 'you promised us that before and broke your word, so why should we trust you now?'

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Toying with Miriam's bra strap (or why Jo Swinson is wrong)

Conference started with the debate on Real Women and, in particular, on a policy proposal to force the details of any airbrushing of photos of adults to be listed with the photo.

Conference ended with a perfect example of why this policy is rubbish.

As Nick Clegg and his wife Miriam left the auditorium there was the usual mad scrum of photographers wanting photos of the couple. Unfortunately, Miriam's bra strap slipped. It happens and no one really cares but it looks slightly embarrassing for Miriam. Most press photographers would not make a big deal of it. They would quickly airbrush out the strap as cropping would take out one of the key players in the photo. The other alternative is simply not to use those photos.

If Jo's policy was in force, you would either not have the image, you would use a version which would embarrass Miriam or you would have to list the airbrushing on the photo and this would cause similar embarrassment.

So Jo - what's it to be?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Nick's Speech

Nick Clegg has just finished making his speech to conference. Others will comments on the words (and I might later) but here are some photos:

Julia and Vince falling out?

Stephen Tall has blogged over at the Voice about the row between activists and the leadership and the rows over the Mansion Tax and tuition fees have certainly dominated the press reporting of our week in Bournemouth - aided and abetted by a letter to the Guardian and comments by frontbenchers including Julia Goldsworthy.

So yesterday's Q&A session on the economy was interesting to watch for the body language between Julia and Vince Cable who was sitting next to her.

The Don Foster Ukelele Orchestra feat. Billy Bragg

Last night the traditional end of conference Glee Club had a rival.

In one room you had Paddy doing the same joke as he has done for the past ten years (because the audience demanded it) and Tim Farron mocking the Speaker in song in front of an audience of several hundred.

Next door, there was a special fringe run by the Arts Alliance with a packed audience of 50 (it was a much smaller room). The Arts Alliance uses the arts to help prisoners to avoid reoffending and the performers included singers, rappers, a theatre group and headliner Billy Bragg.

Billy was as brilliant as ever - but I don't think he's ever had anyone in his audience knitting before.

Don Foster, as Party Culture Spokesperson, came along to say a few words and he had brought his ukelele. He announced that he would be playing the Jonny Cash classic Walk the Line in honour of the occasion. Unfortunately he didn't have a music stand (so Simon Hughes stood in) and he didn't know the tune (so Billy had to come and help out).

It was not a stellar performance I'm afraid. Somehow I just don't think that the ukelele is suited to the Man in Black. It was so bad that Bragg called time on the performance halfway through.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Nick goes Discworld

Nick Clegg had tea with Terry Pratchett this afternoon. Best known for the Discworld novels, Terry is also a campaigner for Alzheimers Awareness and was in Bournemouth to lobby for that cause.

Former Party Leaders?

There's an app for that

Nick and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers

After heavy metal yesterday, today Nick went hunting for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at a farm run by Dorset College here in Bournemouth. The farm is a training base for young people interested in a career in grounds maintenance, farming and horticulture.

He did try offering one to Anne Treneman of the Times after her column yesterday. Perhaps wisely, she refused to play ball as the last person to eat one apparently cried.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Nick and Vince do Heavy Metal

This morning Nick and Vince visited a foundry in Poole. Fabulous photos.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Richard Dawkins - I always vote Lib Dem

Professor Richard Dawkins, famous for writing books like The God Delusion, has been speaking on the stage at Lib Dem conference on civil liberties.

His opening lines were to state that, although he is not a member of the party, he has always voted Lib Dem since the party was founded. It helped, he said, that his MP is Evan Harris.

Clegg on the Beach

On a lovely sunny day in Bournemouth, what better than a stroll on the beach? Well, that's what Nick Clegg thought as he walked along the promenade this morning and joined in with a game of beach cricket.

He made the obvious spin joke, so you don't have to.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The first disappointment of conference

I'm at the Lib Dem Conference in Bournemouth and doing the usual first day thing of having snatched conversations with friends I haven't seen in a while.

Across the room I spotted the Total Politics stand and a copy of Mark Oaten's new autobiography - Screwing Up.

Knowing that I appear in it (see here for details), I went over and thumbed through it to find my name in the index. Nothing. Nada. But wait, there was an Alex Faulkes in the index. So I looked at pages 33-34 and found that I have indeed been included under a wrong spelling.

Apparently Mark describes me as softly spoke and a rock. He also says that I insisted on driving at 10mph below the speed limit the whole time. I can't comment on the middle reference (but I'd like to thank him for it) but can safely say that nowadays I definitely talk too much and the only time I drive at 10mph below the limit is when I'm stuck behind a tractor.

The dog running over incident is, regrettably, spelled out in full, painful and accurate detail.

I shall be taking the spelling thing up with Mr Dale who actually emailed me to check that they had my name right.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Change in Recycling Collections

The Council has decided to change the days on which recycling is collected and this will affect residents in many parts of Launceston. SITA, the contractors, have streamlined their routes and from 2nd November, all recycling in the Launceston area will be collected fortnightly on a Tuesday. The earliest collections will be at 7am and will stretch through the day.

Normal household waste collections will not be affected. They will continue to happen every week as at present.

Garden waste collections will not change. At the moment, garden waste is collected on the same day as recycling (but by a different team). Recycling days will change for many people but garden waste will stay as at present.

Whilst these changes might make sense for the collecting company, any changes inevitably cause confusion for residents. This will particularly be the case for residents who will move to having three different collection days for three different types of waste.

The Council will be sending leaflets to all residents and I have asked that they consider a back up plan for the first few weeks of the new scheme as residents get used to the changes.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Launceston Parking Shambles

My colleague Sasha Gillard-Loft (councillor for Launceston South) has taken the lead on trying to sort out the mess of street parking in the town.

As local residents are all too well aware, there is little or no enforcement of the parking rules in Launceston. This has a severe impact on visitors, locals and businesses. What people may not know is that the reason for the lack of enforcement is that many of the rules cannot legally be enforced.

If a double yellow line is not correctly marked then no ticket can be issued. The same is true for loading bays and over-staying in limited time spaces such as in the Town Square.

Council officers have now been on a tour with Sasha, business leaders and others to audit the parking problems. They now have to correct the mistakes and only then can the rules be enforced.

We're told that they hope to have all the correct lines and signs finished by Christmas.

It's a massive shame that it has taken quite so long and local people and businesses have suffered in the meantime. But congratulations to Sasha and all who have now got the situation moving.

We trust that, once the lines and signs are in place, the Council will ensure that enough enforcement officers are in place to police the rules.

Cornwall - capital of culture?

The Council is considering putting forward a bid to become the European Region of Culture in 2014 as well as UK City of Culture in 2013 and to host the European-wide Manifesta event in 2012 as part of the Cultural Olympiad.

All of this is a very ambitious programme but it could have huge benefits. For a sizeable investment, there could be 5000 jobs created, 3000 new students at university in Cornwall and lasting cultural legacy.

But none of this is guaranteed.

I think it is right that we spend a small amount to see whether it is really possible, but I think we need to see a compelling business case for spending large amounts of money on a bid now when other services are under threat. There's nothing wrong with being ambitious and jobs created by such a programme would be a great reward. But we shouldn't be wasting money if we are not going to have a decent chance of pulling it off.

We also need to make sure that any event is really accessible to half a million Cornish residents and we need to have events across the County, not just in Truro. I was gratified that officers are determined on this point and have pointed to a focus on the East of the County (including Lanson?)

The crucial point will come in December when we see the business plan. But in the meantime, anyone with any ideas on whether or not it is a good idea (and, if so, how to make it work) - please get in touch or leave a comment.

Have your say on local libraries

The Cornwall Library Survey 2009 is under way. This is the chance for library users to make comments about local facilities, services on offer, staff and the number of books.

I know from talking to officers that they take the results very seriously and I'd encourage all library users - whether you use them every week or just once a year - to fill in a form.

It is quite apparent that the administration is considering cuts in the budget for next year and I want to make sure that valued library services are not targeted. So if you like your service, make sure you say so! (And if you think that money for libraries should be increased, say that too)

Ridgegrove Play Areas - edging towards success

I've finally (after waiting since May) got a reply from officers to my concerns about the play areas on the Ridgegrove Estate. I wrote concerned about the litter and dog mess there as well as the generally unkempt state of the areas and the lack of decent modern play facilities.

It has also been noted that someone decided to take away the soft landing mats and so the areas underneath swings have turned into a mud bath.

There will now be a formal audit of the play facilities in the area on October 8th and there should be action to put things right soon after.

I've asked officers if I can attend the audit meetings and will be chasing them to take action immediately after.

It's a great shame that action has taken this long to come, but action now is welcome nonetheless.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Cornwall Tories reject 10-10 commitment

It was all just a greenwash then - at least, that's the message Cornwall's Conservatives gave today when they rejected a proposal to sign up to the 10-10 campaign. That puts them at odds with their own Party Leadership - David Cameron, George Osborne (hell, even Ken Clarke) have all signed up to reduce their CO2 emissions by 10% by the end of 2010.

But not Cornwall's Conservatives.

At today's Full Council meeting there was a cross party motion asking for support for the Cornwall Declaration -a local commitment to tackle climate change. That is all well and good, but it had no targets. If we are to take climate change seriously (and 81% of people think that it is a major problem) then we need to do something about it (and 74% of people agree with this). Thus was born the 10-10 campaign. It's backed by the Guardian and already supported by 16 local authorities and vast swathe of companies, individuals and other organisations as diverse as Cheshire Police and Tottenham Hotspur FC.

But not Cornwall's Conservatives.

I proposed an amendment to the original motion to include signing up to 10-10. Initially, all seemed to be going well. The Cabinet Member, Julian German (an Independent), agreed with me and accepted the amendment into the motion. He had previously listed all the things that the Council could and will do to cut its harmful emissions. Then he was told by his Cabinet Leader that he shouldn't have done so and ended up both arguing against and then voting against his own motion.

The argument used by Council Leader Alec Robertson is that it might be expensive to save the planet (I paraphrase slightly) and we can't necessarily afford it. And so he and many of his colleagues voted to take the support for 10-10 out again. There were a few Tories and Independents who abstained or voted with us, but sadly not enough.

A 10% cut in CO2 is only a small step in the right direction but it is a meaningful start. There are many of us who see commitments to cut CO2 by 80% by 2040 and who think that it is a long way off. We want to take steps now and this is the right thing to do.

It's such a shame that, for all the good words from David Cameron on the environment, Cornwall's Conservatives really don't get it.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Taking the Kensey Valley Meadow fight to County Hall

I've just started experimenting with video and here is the first result...

Sorry about the squeezed format and the wind noise - I'll work on them!

All comments welcome

Friday, 11 September 2009

Elections Review Panel

I've just been appointed as the Vice Chair of the new Elections Review Panel, which had its first meeting this morning.

The panel is considering two key issues - the first is the finalisation of the boundaries for council wards and the second is to consider what went wrong with the conduct of the elections in June.

Some may say that the boundaries should have been finalised before the election - and I would agree! But the short notice of the June poll meant that they had to be conducted on draft recommendations and so there are still some matters to follow up. Given the way that the Boundary Commission works, nobody is quite sure why they are only consulting on four areas. Does this mean that they have dismissed any ideas for the rest of the county or is it that they have accepted them without any further need to discuss?

In Launceston, the Lanstephan Estate is split between the ward I represent and Launceston North, represented by Adam Paynter. This makes little sense and appears to have been done simply to make the numbers add up. Whilst equal ward size is important, local conditions should take precedence, particularly when the numbers affected are comparatively small.

The four areas under discussion were Redruth and Camborne - where there are two quite different schemes and opinion seems equally split; the Clay area and Helston where the concerns are about splitting parishes and Bude - where the question is whether or not to have a multi-member ward.

Overall the discussion tried to focus on principle rather than detail of local circumstances - which is a relief as I know little about the West of the County!

Then it was on to the discussion about making sure that mistakes as happened in June cannot happen again.

Whilst many officers performed heroics in trying to make sure that everybody got their vote, the elections cannot be said to have been anything other than a failure. We heard that more than 1500 postal voters did not get their ballot papers properly and the council was only able to help around 350 of these. There were polling stations that got the wrong ballot papers and many postal voters got a ballot paper that did not list all the candidates.

I am full of praise for the attitude that the council has now taken - they accept that mistakes were made and have held an internal review. Now they want to get an outside expert to ensure they have missed nothing and also ask him to help structure the new combined elections department. I think that this is the right approach and the person mentioned would be ideal. Of course, this will cost. But the abject failure in June shows the need to focus on this area and to get it right. If a council cannot even hold elections properly then it loses the credibility to govern.

I was disappointed that some Conservatives argued that there should be no money spent and no external expert. If the officers feel that they need outside help then we must give it to them. In the end, the arguments of myself, Jeremy and MK's Dick Cole won the day as the committee was unanimous in agreeing to have an external review.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Empty chairing England

Watching the England match. It's half time. Magnificent so far. Awful to see so many empty seats in the hospitality area. The FA should name and shame the culprits.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The Mark Oaten book - an exclusive preview!

As fellow Lib Dems will know by now, the publication of Mark Oaten's book has been brought forward so that it will now be in print just before the start of Lib Dem conference in a couple of weeks.

I can exclusively reveal the contents of the book.

Ok - one small anecdote. And that concerns my part in the Winchester by-election in 1997.

As many will know, Mark won the General Election contest in 1997 by just two votes. The Conservatives wouldn't accept the result and challenged it in the High Court. The judge decided (in my opinion utterly wrongly) to order a re-run and Mark won with a massive majority. Perhaps the voters saw Gerry Malone and the Conservatives as sore losers?

Anyway, back to the story.

I was the agent in the Isle of Wight at the time and became Mark's minder for the campaign. First thing in the morning on day one I went round to pick Mark up. He got into the car, I reversed to get out of the drive and ran straight into Mark's dog.

(The dog bounced and was totally unhurt.)

This story has made it into the book. Fame at last.

I don't know any more of the contents - sorry.

If your name begins with C - you're likely to be a naughty child

A new survey reported on the BBC claims that teachers can identify which children are likely to be the naughtiest purely by their name.

The claim is that children called Chardonnay, Callum, Connor, Charlie, Chelsea, Casey and Crystal are among the naughtiest.

Just to redress the 'C' balance, Christopher and Charlotte are among the brightest children according to another question in the same survey.

Is it just me, or does this look it might be a bit of a class thing?

(Alexander also came out in the brainiest category)

Ali Bongo (good at contortionism)

As the world's focus is on Afghanistan, another election has taken place and this too seems to be mired in fraud accusations.

In Gabon, Ali Ben Bongo has won an election - allegedly with the support for the French to help rig the poll. Mr Bongo's father, Omar, ruled the former French colony for more than four decades.

Now President Sarkozy has come down behind the new President Bongo sending a letter of congratulations - a letter which President Bongo is now using to authenticate his victory.

Save Election Night - a silly, insular campaign

A lot of fluster in the political blogosphere about an apparent plan by some councils to move their general election count from the Thursday night to Friday morning. Jonathan Isaby, Mark Pack, Iain Dale and others are campaigning under the banner of 'Save General Election Night'.

On balance, I agree. But I can't let some of the proponents of this campaign get away with some of the statements they are making:

- 'It's tradition dammit'. Well, only up to a point. There are many councils which have only very recently come over to the idea of counting on the Thursday night - some as recently as 2001 or 2005. Among the seats which traditionally counted the next day were St Ives. So if you want tradition in places like that then the count should be held over.

- 'there really is no valid reason for doing so apart from sheer incompetence and laziness'. NO! There are plenty of very valid reasons why the count should take place the next day. Chief among these is that most of the staff involved in the count will have been working in polling stations all through the day. They will be knackered (as party staff will be) and mistakes will creep in.

Surely it is better to get the right result than a quick result?

Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. If you can have completely fresh counting staff then mistakes are less likely to occur. (Although there is nothing you can do to get fresh party staff!)

- 'We want to know who won as soon as possible'. I agree. To me the worst part of election night are the exit polls and the pointless pontificating by the networks on the basis that these exit polls are both accurate and can be translated into seats. They may be the former, but they are not the latter. And so I want to get into the meaty results sooner rather than later. But we should be trying to discourage authorities from seeing themselves as being in a race. I cannot believe that a count that is completed in 50 minutes is going to be perfect (I've met enough returning officers). In a safe seat (they tend to be) the outcome might not be affected, but let's make sure that the figures are accurate, rather than just broadly right.

And let's face it, the real fun of election night is not knowing which party will win - that's almost always a foregone conclusion. The real fun is the individual results - the upsets, the shocks and the rumours. Where would '97 have been without the Portillo moment? And in 2005, Lib Dems up and down the country were looking out for Solihull (betting slips in hand).

The campaign proponents are completely right to say that the 24 hour news agenda means that Friday counting would be a retrograde step. I also tend to agree with them that hiding ballot boxes away for 12 hours would mean the danger of fraud or mistake might rise compared with an immediate count using fresh counting staff.

But they are completely wrong to say that counting on the Friday would mean that no one could follow the results coming in. At the moment, having no results before 11pm and no flood before about 1am totally excludes children who have school the next day as well as the vast majority who are not able to stay up through the night. In that respect, this really is an insular campaign. The results programme might have high ratings but I guess that most people either switch off before midnight, are asleep on the sofa or are anoraks.

If you shift the count to the Friday then schools can use the experience to communicate real life politics to pupils, the majority of people who don't like to go to bed at 5am can be involved and the majority of the country can follow it as we work. A perfect solution - absolutely not, but only about as imperfect as counting through the night.

Sorry, I won't be joining the 'Save General Election Night' campaign.