Monday, 29 June 2009

Meeting with highways officers

This morning I met with the Council's highways officers for a tour of Launceston Central. I pointed out various problems that need sorting (most of which have been detailed on this blog recently):

- Hoardings on Western Road. The officers agreed to check who owns the boards and what planning conditions were established before they were built. The hope is that we can persuade the owners to use them properly or take them down.

- Traffic on Moorland Road. The officers will look at the sort of traffic calming measures that could work. Actually seeing them put into operation will require funding and consultation, but it is a step in the right direction.

- Hedge cutting on Western Road and Upper Chapel. A lot of the hedges are overgrown - obscuring traffic signs and the road ahead. Responsibility for cutting most hedges falls with the land owners rather than the Council. This is a mistake in my view as it means cutting is haphazard and often late. I have asked officers to check on the ownership of the most serious cases and contact owners to request that cutting takes place urgently.

- Crossing on St Thomas Road. I have made this my top priority. Residents of the Priory side of the road have no safe way of getting into town. Visitors who want to go to the Priory Ruins (promoted by the Council as a tourist attraction) also have to cross a road with no safe crossing. Officers say that the road is too narrow at many points for a pedestrian crossing and that the level of demand may not be enough. I don't believe that either of these should be a valid reason when many families are left with no option but to drive less than a third of a mile into town. I have asked them to look again.

- Dutson Road. This was always going to be a long term project. However, the road clearly has significant safety issues and there is no pavement on much of the route. I have challenged officers to be imaginative in trying to come up with a solution and save many accidents every year.

- Parking outside the old Newport Post Office. With the sad demise of the Post Office, there is no longer any need for the parking spaces on St Thomas Road which can cause significant blockages in the traffic flow - often at peak times. Officers agree and the spaces have been added to the list for removal.

I will, of course, report back when I have more news.

Launceston Castle vandalised

I am as shocked as anyone to read that Launceston Castle has been vandalised. The Castle has stood since the 11th century and was first built by William the Conqueror's brother. Part of one of the remaining fragments of the original wall was damaged at about 3.30am on Sunday morning. Police are currently viewing CCTV footage.

Launceston Castle is the historic landmark of the town. Residents from miles around can see it sitting proudly on top of the hill in the centre of town. Why anyone would want to vandalise it is beyond me. Experts have already said that this type of damage cannot be repaired.

I hope that, on closer inspection, English Heritage are able to effect some sort of repairs. In the meantime, I wish the Police well with their investigations and urge anyone who knows anything about the vandalism to come forward.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Kensey Valley Meadow - Update

I've just had a reply from officers about Kensey Valley Meadow.

They tell me:

"Just to give you an update on the maintenance issues, we have been in touch with Elan Homes and they have replied that they will attend to the maintenance issues raised. I have asked officers to chase this particular issue so that they do what they have promised as quickly as possible. It looks like there will be ongoing maintenance issues so we will monitor the situation. I will keep in touch with colleagues regarding Kensey Valley"
Many thanks to the officers for a speedy and helpful reply. I'll keep my eye on what action the developer takes and continue to report back. In the meantime, if any reader has any problems to report at Kensey Valley Meadow or anywhere else in Launceston Central, please get in touch using the contact details on the right.

Expenses and outside interests

I think it is important that all politicians - whether they are councillors like myself, MPs, MEPs or members of the House of Lords - are open and honest about their pay and expenses. It was the Liberal Democrats whose constant campaigning has eventually led to the publication and cleaning up (we hope) of the system of MPs expenses.

Each year, Cornwall Council publishes a list of the expenses claimed by all of its members. I'm going to publish my expenses claims and any declarations of interest on a monthly basis.

To set things in context:

All councillors receive a basic allowance of £11,700 per year. This is intended to compensate us for the time we spend on our duties - talking to constituents, meeting with organisations and attending council meetings. We do not receive any additional sums for attending Council or committee meetings and we also pay for our own postage etc.

In addition, councillors may claim for travel costs (petrol, train travel or whatever) for attending meetings at County Hall. Car mileage is paid at a fixed cost of 50p per mile.

We also receive free lunches if we are working at County Hall during lunchtime and subsistence payments if working away from home on council business for more than certain hours.

Councillors who hold specific posts are entitled to receive additional sums which are known as special responsibility allowances (SRA). In the main, the people receiving these will be the Leader, cabinet members, the Chair and Vice Chair and those who chair committees. I do not hold any such positions and so do not receive an SRA.

Finally, councillors are required to declare their interests and any hospitality received valued at above £25. This is to ensure that the decisions they take are open and honest. Where they or their family might be seen to have a financial interest in the outcome of a decision (known as a prejudicial interest) then they are not allowed to be present for that debate or vote.

To date I have not received any gifts or hospitality valued above £25. The only gift of any kind I have received has been a diary containing the dates of council meetings - and all councillors have received the same.

As I've mentioned in the 'About Me' section on the right, my day job is as the Fundraising Manager for a national cancer charity. My patch covers Plymouth, North Devon and the Tamar Valley - and therefore includes the towns of Launceston, Saltash and Torpoint. I'm not sure that this would ever bring about a conflict of interest but you can be sure that I will declare this if there is the slightest chance that it might as I do not want to cause any embarrassment to my employer (which is, of course, politically neutral), the Liberal Democrats or the Council.

I also continue to receive some work as a freelance photographer - which used to be my full-time role.

Paula Keaveney has a post on her blog about whether councillors should be full-time or not. This is clearly a hot topic in local government circles. My own belief is that it depends. I certainly think that councils should be as representative as possible and being elected should not be restricted to the retired or wealthy.

I am disappointed that the age profile of Cornwall Council is so old and male. I think that we Lib Dems have a much better profile - I am the oldest of the three Launceston councillors at 39. Our ranks include a 21 year old and we have a fairly good gender balance (14 out of 38 Lib Dems and seven of our 11 Shadow Cabinet are women).

In order to recruit a representative balance, councils need to provide allowances to members. Our role is meant to be about 25 hours per week. On balance I think that £11,700 is a fair amount to pay members for such a commitment. Given the huge number of councillors (in my view 123 is far too many), it would be unreasonable to pay full time wages (and consequently expect full-time working). However, I do think that those who receive the higher SRAs - the Leader and Cabinet and the Chairman - should be working full-time. If they fail to put in the hours then they will not be doing their job properly. That doesn't mean 9-5 every day as there will be evening and weekend work. But it does mean a commitment of at least 37 hours a week on the work for which they get an SRA.

When I worked for Southwark Council, those on the top SRAs were expected to work full-time for the Council. Any who had an outside job would entitled to only a proportion of their SRA. I hope that Cornwall Council will have a similar system.

Perhaps equally as important is the timing of meetings. Anyone who works full-time will have difficulty in attending lots of daytime meetings unless they have a very understanding employer. I appreciate that travelling to Truro can be a long distance, but evening meetings would, in my opinion, be a better option for most committees and encourage many more younger people to stand for election.

Officers agree to Launceston Central Tour

I've had confirmation that various Cornwall Council officers will meet me to tour the Launceston Central ward on Monday morning to look at problems with traffic, parking and other roads issues.

The officers coming along will include Steve Allen, the regional highways manager and Mark O'Brien the Community Network Manager (sorry if the job titles are not exactly correct, I'm still learning them).

Among the problems that I want to take them to see are:

- the disused advertising hoardings on Western Road;
- traffic problems on Moorland Road including outside St Catherines School and the Police Station. This road is meant to be a 20mph zone but there is little to enforce this limit;
- the severe congestion and danger on Dutson Road;
- the lack of adequate crossing facilities on St Thomas Road;
- the need for some form of link road between Kensey Valley Meadow and Newport to enable traffic to bypass the town centre.

If you have any other thoughts about problems in the local area, please let me know in the comments field or email alexfolkes@gmail.com

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

A new role

After the conclusion of the Council Meeting, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Cabinet met to agree spokespersonships. Our role will be to lead the scrutiny of the decisions being made by the individual cabinet members as well as to play a role in helping members of the public to have their say to the Council - especially where they oppose any particular decision being made.

I was asked by Liberal Democrat Group Leader Doris Ansari to cover the brief known as Health and Wellbeing. The principle focus for this portfolio is to deal with libraries, leisure centres, adult education and public health -a bit of a wide range of subjects! I'm looking forward to it immensely as I think that Cornwall has a fantastic library service which needs to be able to continue to grow and reach out to the entire population. As for leisure, we are lagging behind a little bit. We have facilities across the county but it is clear that more can still be done. I'm going to arrange extensive briefings with officers over the next few weeks as well as arranging to visit as many facilities as possible to bring me totally up to speed. In the meantime, I'm also going to get in touch with the different user groups to hear what they think needs to be done to develop our services.

Our other shadow cabinet members will be Ann Kerridge who will cover the corporate support brief, Shirley Polmounter who will cover Planning Highways and Transportation, Kym Willoughby who will shadow on Adult Care, Graham Walker who will cover schools, Tamsin Williams who will deal with children's social services, Adam Paynter who will cover Stronger Communities, Edwina Hannaford who will deal with the Economy, Derris Watson who will cover Housing and Roy Taylor who will cover Waste and the Environment.

Cornwall Council kicks off - not with a bang but a wibble

I don't think that today's first meeting of the new Cornwall Council would have been an edifying spectacle for observers. But then the Annual Meeting has little politics on the agenda and was mainly concerned with electing the leading members and appointing committees.

Pat Harvey was elected Chairman (she insists on the term) and John Dyer Vice Chairman despite being run surprisingly close by Colin Brewer who contested both posts.

As expected Alec Robertson, Leader of the Conservative Group, was elected Leader. The Liberal Democrats did not oppose that election as we accept that the combined forces of the Conservatives and Independents had performed best at the elections and deserved the chance to run the County. We made the point, however, that the people of Cornwall deserve to hear from the new administration what their plans are. There were 32 different independent manifestos and one Conservative document which said almost nothing. That isn't good enough going forward. Without a detailed plan that the people of Cornwall can judge this administration by, we run the danger of little strategic thinking and direction being set by the officers rather than by elected members. We will allow them a little time to come up with such a document, but not much!

It was interesting to note, however, that the Conservatives had not read their rules or constitution. Alec Robertson nominated 9 members to form the executive but failed to name one of them as the Deputy Leader as the rules dictate. A little matter maybe, but we were determined that they should not be able to ride roughshod over the constitution.

Which sort of brings me to the main talking point of today's meeting. Despite a briefing by the Monitoring Officer that the Annual Meeting was not the place to seek to change the constitution, the new administration seemed hell bent on doing so. As well as the universally agreed plan to increase the number of members on one committee to 21 from 15, they insisted on trying to implement a plan to allow members of the largest party to chair scrutiny committees. The Liberal Democrats (and a few independents) opposed this as we believe that having the same party run the council and chair scrutiny will lead to lax scrutiny. I made a speech, my first real contribution, saying that lax scrutiny can lead to bad decisions and failure for the council. Rigorous scrutiny does not mean an overly oppositionist approach, but it does mean that slipshod decisions are more likely to be avoided and there will be more explanation and chance for questioning by the public.

Naturally the administration held the day, but we hope that we made it clear both that we objected to being bounced into changes at an inappropriate forum and that we feel that proper scrutiny is key.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Grammers Park proposals

The Town Council is proposing developments to Grammers Park - the area off Moorland Road. These will include new play facilities aimed at 8-13 year olds. They are also looking to create up to 20 new allotments on the middle part of the park.

Without having yet seen the plans, these ideas seem like a huge step in the right direction. Although play facilities for young children are sadly outdated in Launceston, they do, at least, exist. Play facilities for those young people aged 8-13 are almost totally non-existent and this could be a huge step in the right direction.

The allotments would be a massive step forward. Launceston currently has quite a few allotments but there is a long waiting list for more. To be able to return some of Grammers Park to allotment use (it was used for this purpose before) is great. The Liberal Democrats in Cornwall promised to work with town and parish councils to create more allotments and it is good to know that at least one town council is already thinking along the same lines.

The one gripe I have about these plans is the way the consultation is happening. I received a letter about them through my letterbox today - despite the letter being dated June 8th. I have written to the Town Clerk and the Mayor to make them aware of this as it means that the chance for residents to talk to councillors at the Butter Market has been lost. Two of the three further consultation events are closed and only for parents and pupils at particular schools.

So anyone who has a view about these plans or simply wants to find out more should make their way to St Catherine's school on July 11th at 10am. In the meantime, I would ask the Town Council to consider whether there is anything else they can do to consult on these plans - especially to encourage young people to have their say. There is little point in providing new play facilities if they are not what young people want and won't be used.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

The Marmite Pasty- ugh!

A baker in Cornwall has come up with the idea of a Marmite Pasty. Surely a step too far.

Warren's Bakery, based in West Cornwall, has branches across the South West. They are producing a steak and marmite version as well as a cheese and marmite.

I have to admit, I am no purist when it comes to pasty flavourings. I know that there are many who believe that the only ingredients in a pasty filling should be skirt beef, potatoes, onion, swede, salt and pepper. There are also those who say that no pasty is worth anything if it is not homemade. Being a non meat eater I don't do the regular sort. But I do stick to the fairly basic cheese, potato and onion.

Of course, back in the mists of time when pasties were still dropped down tin mines (note for purists - this probably never happened), the fillings were whatever the household had to hand on the day. But today the pasty fraternity seems to have agreed on the core ingredients - but you can add bits and pieces to taste. Just remember that peas are an anathema to the true pasty.

But many bakers take things too far. Fish pasties just seem wrong. Ditto chicken tikka.

And now the marmite pasty.

I have to say that I think these will be very popular for a couple of weeks as people try them out. But whilst I admire Warrens for getting lots of coverage for this launch, I'm not too sure that the flavour will be around for very long. I love marmite. I just wouldn't want it in my pasty.

Catching up on the Lib Dem blogosphere

A trio of excellent posts from fellow Lib Dem bloggers which I wanted to highlight:

Anders Hanson compares Lib Dem constituency organisers with TV programme Mary Queen of Charity Shops. When I worked in SE Cornwall in 1992, there were many volunteers who had been involved in the successful February 74 campaign and had been doing the same work (by and large excellently) at every campaign since then. The trouble was that campaigning techniques had developed and many of the people around them in 74 had moved on or, unfortunately, were no longer with us. So we needed to reinvigorate the structure with new people and to move to adopt modern techniques at the same time. We weren't successful at the ballot box then but, I like to think, laid the bedrock for success in 97.

Costigan Quist discusses the point of Liberal Youth - following on from a discussion in the Independent and on Lib Dem Voice. From my point of view Liberal Youth has to be a fun campaigning organisation. The Executive have to act to a common plan - agreed at the start of their term of office - which knits together a range of campaigns and activities. Many members will be getting their first taste of politics and, whilst some will only want to discuss policies and philosophy, most are keen to get their teeth into real campaigning. But they often get rebuffed by constituencies or given lots of leafleting and no real say. The move to force every constituency to have a youth rep on their executive was far-sighted, but is often treated in a tokenist way by constituency parties.

The real point of Liberal Youth is to save younger members from feeling isolated.

- They should be co-ordinating campaigning based around by-elections and special campaigns - something they have done reasonably well at times in the past.
- They should be holding training events to develop the hard core activists and organisers of the future - Activate takes a lot of energy but is very effective.
- They should be developing materials for student and young person oriented campaigns and they should be helping young people who want to become PPCs, councillors and so on to develop the skills they need. When I was heavily involved in LDYS (as was) in the early 90s, we would aim to have at least one speaker in every debate at conference. We would help them write speeches and practice them and we would make sure that motions and amendments went in on time representing our views. Yep, we were a thorn in the side of Paddy when we talked about abolishing the monarchy and legalising drugs. But, perhaps more important than the policies themselves, were that we helped people who wanted to be elected politicians to develop the speaking and lobbying skills they would need in the future.

At different times in the past, Liberal Youth and its predecessors have done each of these aspects very well. But they have always failed to get all of them together in a single year and have usually had a comparatively rich year followed by a comparatively fallow one. Budgets, personalities and staff numbers have all contributed but we, as a party, have to remember that we get so much out of Liberal Youth that we cannot cut it adrift or ignore it simply because one particular year is a bit weaker than the previous one.

Finally, Jonathan Fryer discusses why elections might not always be held on Thursdays. The day of election is a historical accident rather than hard and fast. Whilst certain elections must be held on Thursdays by law, this is easy to change and certainly not a good reason to stick with Thursdays if another day would be better. For most of us, being able to vote at the weekend is a good thing. But the problem of Sunday observance and the Sabbath means that neither weekend day is ideal for the whole country - and voting on both days would raise administration costs massively. To my mind, the question should not be 'Why do we vote on Thursdays?' It should be 'Why not?'

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Taking Action - Dutson Road

I've had an acknowledgement from the Council following my letter to them about the traffic on Dutson Road.

The road is heavily used carrying a mix of cars, pedestrians and heavy vehicles. Cars and lorries are often travelling at excess speed and, for large sections of the road, there are no pavements and pedestrians have to walk outside parked vehicles.

I suspect that there is no quick fix to this problem and we will need to consult residents on the best way forward, but I am asking the Council to treat this as a matter of some urgency as there have been a number of nasty (but fortunately not fatal) accidents on the road in recent months.

I'll write again as soon as I get a reply. In the meantime, if you want to comment on this or any other matter, please email alexfolkes@gmail.com or call 07984 644138

Taking Action - Western Road hoardings

I have received an acknowledgement from the Council following my letter about the state of the advertising hoardings on Western Road.

These haven't been used properly since advertising the BBC show 'Britz' some 18 months ago and, despite being papered over, are in a poor state of repair. I have asked the Council to press the owners to either use the site properly or to remove the hoardings altogether.

I write again as soon as I have any further news.

In the meantime, if you want to comment on this or any other matter, please email alexfolkes@gmail.com or call 07984 644138

Taking Action - Kensey Valley Meadow

I've written today toTom Flanagan, the Council's Corporate Director for Environment, Planning and the Economy about Kensey Valley Meadow. Kensey Valley Meadow is a new(ish) development on the Tavistock Road down towards Polson. I say new(ish) because many people have been living there for more than four years.

Unfortunately, the roads are still not adopted by the Council and so local people miss out on some local services. I am asking the Council what plans are in place to adopt the roads, what the developer (either the current one or a previous company) needs to do and what action can be taken to make sure that the current economic climate doesn't mean that local people miss out through no fault of their own.

Among the issues on Kensey Valley Meadow are:

- overgrown hedges on the central island leading to the top part of the estate which are becoming a hazard to drivers;
- a bollard which has been hit by a car and needs repairing;
- The grassed area at the top of the estate which needs cutting;
- the badly fenced off building plots on the bottom part of the estate.

I'll write here as soon as I get a response.

If you know of anything else that needs doing either on Kensey Valley Meadow or elsewhere in Launceston, please get in touch by emailing alexfolkes@gmail.com or call 07984 644138

It wasn't leafleting, it was training...

Just back from two days on Lundy to recover from the election. It was a fantastic place and just the sort of relaxation I needed after four weeks of electioneering.

For those who don't know, Lundy is about three miles long and half a mile wide. There are steep cliffs on all sides and a plateau on top with a small village and working farm. At both north and south points there are lighthouses. A ship sails to Lundy from either Bideford or Ilfracombe (depending on tides) up to four times a week and there are 23 different places to stay on the Island.

Among the wildlife are plenty of sheep, goats, rabbits by the million, deer and, of course, birds - including the famous puffins. We managed to track down a few puffins on the last day - you can't really claim to have done Lundy properly if you don't see them!

Lundy may only be three miles long, but it is anything but flat - even on the plateau. During our visit I entered the 2009 Lundy Marathon - not 26.2 miles but a race from the village down to the southern light, back up Island all the way to the northern light and back to the starting point again. The course is just over 6 miles long and includes two serious sets of steps (over 150 in each) which have to be climbed down and up, as well as a seemingly never ending hill from the landing stage to the village itself.

I managed to be the second person across the finishing line. This wasn't quite as heroic as it seems as the walkers have a head start over the runners of up to an hour. The quickest runner finished in 53 minutes. I walked and finished in exactly double that. Even so, I think I did quite well and put it all down to the training I had delivering up and down the hills and steps of Launceston Central.

If you ever want a very relaxing short break, I thoroughly recommend Lundy.

(The photo below is taken from the level of the village. The landing dock is on the left and the southern light on the right. Part of the marathon course takes you down to the landing dock and up 150 steps to the lighthouse and then back over the same route)

Friday, 5 June 2009

Yay

Tired. But very, very happy. Thank you everyone.

Alex

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Nice day

During today's campaigning (before the scalding brass letterbox incident), I met a constituent who was jogging along wearing a running vest with Mencap written on it. We got chatting about charity running because the charity I work for had 46 runners in the recent Plymouth Half Marathon and the constituent had run the course during his marathon career. He told me a bit about how he got into marathons and mentioned that he had written a book about the experience. Quick as a flash he was off to his flat and he returned with a copy of the book (called 'Because I think I can - A diary of a rubbish marathon runner') in which he had written a dedication to me.

So my favourite constituent of the day is Davey Green

Leafleting injuries - number 94

Today's leafleting injury (I'm going to spell leafleting right today) comes courtesy of the hot weather. It was well over 30 degrees today in Launceston and the sun was beating down without a break.

I came across a nice brass letterbox and opened it with one hand while putting the leaflet in with the other. At which point my brain registered that the temperature of the letterbox was significantly higher than human skin can handle. So I instinctively whipped away the first hand... thus trapping the second hand in the scalding letterbox.

Ow

Monday, 1 June 2009

Leafletting - it's catching

I was delivering leaflets yesterday and came across a letterbox that was really tough to open. When I did prise it open, out fell a hand drawn leaflet asking the householder to 'Vote for Diversity' in the Britain's Got Talent contest.

I'm not sure whether this was an organised campaign or one inspired by there being so many election leaflets flying about in this part of the world, but it's nice to see that campaigning is catching.