Wednesday, 29 July 2009

A tricky dilemma for Mister Cameron

The Western Morning News is reporting that London Mayor Boris Johnson is asking the Government to give him a greater share of cash to build affordable homes - saying that London has bigger problems and so deserves the lion's share of the funding. Counties that would lose out if Boris had his way would include Cornwall and Devon.

I see no problem with Boris arguing the case for London - that is his job. But the dilemma comes for the Conservative Party nationally. If they are to be the Government after next year's election, would they accede to Boris' call and shift the balance of funding in London's favour. To do so would hurt Cornwall.

I think that local people have a right to know the answer in advance of an election.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Launceston Foyer Open Day - and a request

After Council I popped along to the Launceston Foyer for their seventh annual open day. The Foyer is a fantastic resource for young people aged between 16 and 25 who are homeless or vulnerably housed. The Foyer provides housing and learning - getting young people ready to live on their own.

There are a number of foyers across Devon and Cornwall and the Launceston version is the smallest of these with five beds. At the moment only four are filled but it seems like they never stay that way for long as there are five people applying for each vacancy. There are lots of agencies that can (and do) refer people to the service and it was explained to me that some of the toughest decisions are who to take and who not to.

I met Lynn, the Chair of the project, as well as Justin, the centre manager and people from the sister foyer in Bodmin. But the star of the show for me was Ashley who lives there and showed me round.

One of the terrible realities of any facility like this is finance. The foyer is 'owned' by the Devon and Cornwall Housing Association and most of the funding comes from the Supporting People fund. Residents either pay rent or claim housing benefit if they are entitled and so this forms the other core strand of the funding. But DCHA cannot afford to support the cost of the foyer and the supporting people funding is very vulnerable.

But this is only the start of the funding merry-go-round.

For anything other than the absolute basics, the foyer needs to apply for a special grant. Want to create a garden? They need to apply for a grant and get help from the Community Service Volunteers. New armchairs? Apply for a grant.

One thing where I am determined to get some help is with computers. The foyer has a computer room which has five machines in it. The problem is that all are more than five years old and none work any longer. You need to have computer access to write a job application and to search for work and training. You need a computer to do coursework if you are studying. You also need computers to enjoy a normal life as a young person - everything from games to facebook.

So the foyer desperately needs replacements for the defunct machines. These machines don't necessarily have to be new - just in working order and able to run the current round of programmes at a reasonable speed. I reckon that there are many businesses in the local area who replace their computers on a regular basis - maybe every 18 months or so. So I'll be writing to a range of firms asking if this is the case and whether they would be willing to donate one or more machines to such a worthy cause.

If you know of any such machines which could be used by the Foyer, give me a bell on 07984 644138 or email alexfolkes@gmail.com

Allowances... (Tory snouts in the trough edition)

The major debate at today's council meeting was on a Lib Dem motion to freeze council allowances for the next four years and also cut mileage and other benefits to the levels given to staff.

This was a commitment that was part of our manifesto and went down extremely well on the doorstep. We might not have won a majority of seats on the council, but we still owe it to those who voted for us to pursue our policies.

You would have thought that the Conservatives would have been happy to go along with this. We even heard that they were planning an amendment to our motion so that they could somehow hijack it and claim it as their own.

We couldn't have been more wrong.

From the outset, the Tory leader Alex Robertson made it clear that his side would be voting down the plan. He claimed that a new review of allowances (there was one less than six months ago which set the current levels) might result in a recommendation to cut allowance levels. Yeah, right. When has that ever happened.

But Cllr Robertson's fig leaf was ripped away by his colleagues, all of whom said that a new review was needed so that councillor allowances could be put up.

Cllr Robertson's only other argument was that, of course, councillors could refuse to take all the allowances to which they are entitled.

To hear councillor after councillor argue that they deserve more tax-payers' money at a time when local people are feeling the pinch and we may have to make council staff redundant was incredible. I would have thought that our first duty ought to be to be to front line services rather than bumping up our own pay.

At the end of the debate, the vote split largely on party lines. At least two independent members voted with us and two other councillors abstained, but all the rest of the administration happily voted to get their snouts further into the trough.

Free over 60s swimming under threat

The popular scheme giving free swimming to people over 60 in Cornwall is under threat after Council leaders refused to say what would happen when the current round of funding runs out in early 2011. Liberal Democrat calls for a guarantee that the scheme would continue were refused by the Conservative/Independent administration during today's meeting of the Council.

With my Shadow Cabinet Member for Health and Wellbeing hat on, I asked Council bosses about the scheme and how popular it had been. The cabinet member responsible for leisure admitted that free swimming - introduced under a Liberal Democrat administration with Government funding - was extremely popular with more than 28,000 free swimming sessions taken during the first three months.

I then asked if the scheme would continue after the initial period of Government funding expires in March 2011. However the administration refused to provide such a guarantee.

I fear that the Conservative led administration is preparing to axe this scheme despite its overwhelming popularity and the obvious health benefits that it brings for local residents. Whilst the Conservatives and Independents are preparing to increase their own pay, they are happy to cut popular services for older people.

I understand that budgets are tight at the moment but this is a scheme which costs nothing in itself. I know that many hundreds of local people have started swimming because they know that they can do so for free. At a time of life when so many people are taking little or no exercise, surely we should be seeking to extend this scheme rather than threaten it with closure.

I think that Cornwall's swimming pools are facilities that we should be proud of and getting more people into. I would like to see the free swimming scheme expanded in due course to under 16s as well as over 60s. Unfortunately, it appears that the Conservative led coalition is more interested in penny pinching than guaranteeing popular services that local people enjoy and which bring huge health benefits.

Newquay Protests!

Today's meeting of the full council was the venue for a fairly large protest by Newquay residents who are concerned about the number of drink related incidents in the town and the subsequent damage to their reputation.

It was a very good natured protest by a group who are right to be concerned. They are asking for better enforcement of licencing laws and more action from the Council on the problem. Local Lib Dem councillor Geoff Brown asked a question of the administration and the Council Leader proudly announced that more than £5000 had been spent last year and claimed that drunken incidents had fallen by 45%. I think everyone present could tell from the reaction of the Newquay residents that this was both not enough and probably not true. To be fair to Cllr Robertson, when Geoff asked a follow up question demanding better action, he responded well, acknowledging that more needed to be done and promising to look at all options.

Whilst we would all like to think that parents would be responsible when caring for their children it is incredible to hear some of the stories that come out of Newquay at this time of year. Many young people come to the resort after they finish their GCSEs. At this age, they are clearly too young to go to pubs and many clubs lay on special under 18s events. The resort is doing its bit - there is both daytime and night-time activity for younger visitors. But far too many parents are happy to drive them down to the town and dump them with a bootful of booze. Many have been turned away from responsible camp-sites but I suspect many more have slipped through the net.

I welcome the fact that Newquay is the venue of choice for many young people. We don't want to stop their ability to have fun. But making sure that licensing laws are applied properly is clearly a pre-requisite, and not having parents abandoning them with enough booze to float a battleship is another.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Mobbed in Nepal

I've just seen this video of Joanna Lumley and Peter Carroll arriving in Kathmandu to see retired gurkhas and their families. It's absolutely priceless.

I should add that I love it both because of Peter getting totally swamped by scarves and because it appears that some of the crowds waiting for them have got hold of some of my pictures and printed them on the welcome banners.

The Green Party - all mouth and no trousers

Other bloggers have talked at length about the failure by the Green Party to do any better than fifth place in the Norwich North by-election. The Party went into the poll on the back of a great performance in the Euro elections and as the second party on the Council. Unlike the Lib Dems, no one could yet accuse them of being a party of the establishment (I dispute that the Lib Dems are, but many voters disagree) and the Norwich election was absolutely crucial to their future chances.

At a conference last month I talked for some time to a number of Green Party activists. I suggested to them that the Norwich North vote was vital to their future electoral prospects. But Norwich South is our strong seat was the reply. Tough. Journalists will look at the Euros and the Council and start expecting a lot of you. If you ignore the opportunity then you'll do yourself damage.

And so what happened?

The press did their bit. They talked up the Greens for all they were worth.

The Green Candidate did what he was meant to do - wind up the Lib Dems, get on the news and act like a serious candidate.

But the Green Party itself failed the test entirely.

As Lib Dems of the 90's know, by-elections are a source of vital media attention for a smaller party. A strong showing can catapult you up the bulletins and force any voter who has half an eye on the TV to take notice. The Party therefore throws everything at it. Helpers are dragged in from all over the country so that there are more than 1000 people a day coming through the doors on the final weekend. The budget is calculated and then blown to produce more and more pieces of literature for the helpers to deliver. There is a massive canvassing operation so that every door is knocked on at least twice in the campaign and then there is a polling day operation that makes sure that no one who even hinted at the Lib Dems is left behind.

(There has been a lot of talk recently about Rennardism but I have no doubt that this is still the model to follow for a smaller party wanting to break through.)

Did the Greens throw everything at Norwich? Well I hope for their sake that this wasn't everything, because it was a truly appalling effort. To deliver just a single leaflet (and one freepost) across a constituency you are targetting is a terrible effort. Have you been reading too much of the likes of Irfan or Charlotte? Did you really believe that simply standing would lead to everyone 'doing the right thing'?

Having failed the Norwich North test, I am fairly confident that the Greens are also going to fail the General Election test.

Let's be honest, the Green Party has doen pretty well in recent elections. They have MEPs and they have Members of the GLA. They also have strong representation on a number of local councils. But their real breakthrough will come when they gain Parliamentary respresentation at Westminster. The system might be against them but a serious party cannot refuse to play until the rules are changed to favour them. As a Lib Dem, I think I'm entitled to moan that this should not be the be-all and end-all. But it is. Live with it.

So surely every sinew of the Green Party general election effort needs to be stretched to secure a single MP. Every single resource that the Party has needs to be thrown at the seat where they have the best chance of winning. Ruthless targetting is surely the way to make the breakthrough.

But no.

At the general election, the Green Party will be splitting its efforts between three seats - Brighton Pavillion, Norwich South and Lewisham Deptford.

All might be strong candidates to be picked as THE target seat (although Norwich arguably less so after this week's efforts). But (as a TV talent show host might say) there can be only one winner and the Green Party as a whole needed to make their choice many months ago. As commentators on the 'Rennardism debate' have made clear, the best chance of winning on polling day comes with the credibility of having campaign for many months - or preferably years - beforehand.

So the Greens will fail to make the breakthrough once again at the election next year and will continue to be a non-existent force at Westminster.

With the greatest respect, I would suggest that the Greens can learn a lot from the Lib Dems. In 1983, we had two leaders and secured a good showing everywhere rather than putting in a winning performance in a smaller number of seats. They have just got their heads around the single leader thing but appear to be making an almighty hash of having any sort of winning strategy.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Town Council Meeting

Adam, Sasha and myself were all present at this month's meeting of Launceston Town Council, as were local community network officers Mark O'Brien and Rosemary Stone.

The Community Networks are a key plank of the move to a Unitary Council. There is no point creating a single council for Cornwall if all the power is then going to be centralised in Truro. The Cornish capital is fifty miles away from Launceston and most local people do not make the trip there with any sort of regularity. They are certainly not going to be able to go there for council meetings.

And so the idea of a local forum, bringing together the five local elected Cornwall Councillors as well as the town and parish councils is a good thing. I made the point last night that the forum also needs to bring in the Police, local health services and a wide range of community groups. All are vital to service provision in the area and all need to play a part in debating local priorities and local services.

How this will work in reality is currently being debated. But I am disturbed by rumours that the new Tory/Independent administration is rowing back from a commitment to give the Community Network forums real decision making powers. We don't need another talking shop and local people will be disillusioned if that is all that the forum becomes. We need to have control over locally devolved budgets, we need to be able to set spending priorities and we need to have the power to ask officers to account for the services they are providing locally. Mark, Rosemary and all the other locally based officers are doing a fine job. But the forum will need the power to summon the decision makers at County Hall to meetings to discuss the best services for Launceston and the surrounding villages.

Also at last night's meeting I reported back on my work to get the Kensey Valley Meadow development adopted, on the need for a new crossing at St Thomas Road, the need for a second crossing on Western Road, hedge cutting on Western Road and the removal of the advertising hoardings.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Council Finance Training

This morning was set aside for a training session on council finance which all councillors are required to attend. The course was led by two experts from the Local Government Information Unit.

Given my past involvement with councils, the course itself didn't tell me a whole lot that was new, but it is always good to have your knowledge re-affirmed (just make sure you haven't missed anything new).

Perhaps the best element of the course was being able to chat with fellow councillors from different groups and to work with them during one break out session.

And finding that a fellow councillor from another group is a reader of this blog!

Monday, 20 July 2009

UPDATE - Kensey Valley Meadow

I've had a meeting this morning with an officer from the Planning and Development Department to discuss Kensey Valley Meadow. We toured the development looking at the current state of play.

As regular readers will know, I'm concerned about:

- the lack of work on the development;
- maintenance issues
- when the roads will be adopted
- the promised play area

The latest news on all these is:

Elan Homes are currently at work on a number of the plots where the buildings have been built. I understand that they are fitting them out for sale. But there is no work happening on the plots where the foundations have been laid but above ground work not started. Once work on the development has started there is no effective time limit on Elan for completion. I have asked officers to establish from them whether they have an indicative timetable and to ensure that the fencing around the unfinished plots is safe and secure.

On maintenance, we have good news! The bushes in the middle of the roadway to the upper section of the development have been pruned back. I have asked officers to ensure that this happens regularly and to ask Elan for their maintenance timetable.

Adoption - I have asked officers again to look at adopting the upper section - where all building is completed and roads finished.

Play Area - This was promised as part of the Section 106 agreement. A s106 agreement is made between a developer and the Council and is sometimes called 'planning gain'. The developer has promised to pay for additional services or to provide these as part of their application for planning permission. One of the promises made in gaining the permission for this development was that the developer would provide an 'equipped play area'. This is code for an area suitable for young children with swings, see-saws etc. To date there is nothing like this on the development and officers will be asking Elan to let us know where this will be and when they will install it.

Finally, I have asked officers to look at provision for a play area for older children. I think it is important to have an area suitable for ball games and none of the open spaces on the development at the moment are really fit for this.

More news as and when it happens.

Memo to BT - Cornwall is the pointy bit on the bottom left

I've just tried to find a number via BT's online directory service. If you type Cornwall into their search engine it decides that you mean Cornwell in Oxfordshire.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

A busy Thursday

Today saw the Launceston Show and the first meeting for the Communities Scrutiny Committee.

First up was the Committee meeting in County Hall in Truro. The first meetings are a formality as they elect the chair and vice chair. According to the agenda, we were meant to discuss the work programme for the committee - something that would have been very useful - but we were told that there would be a big meeting of all the scrutiny committees at some point in September to discuss this. It might have been better if this could have been made clear to councillors before the meeting.

A presentation by the Corporate Director on some of the services that the Council provides followed the meeting but I had to leave to get to...

The Launceston Show 2009.

I was attending the show both as a local councillor and as part of my work for a cancer charity.

As anyone who has been in Cornwall over the past 10 days will know, we have had torrential amounts of rain and most of it seemed to come down on Launceston on Thursday afternoon, washing the show out from about 2pm. This was a huge shame as, up until then, it had been a great - if slightly damp - event.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Western Road Billboards - SUCCESS!

Regular readers will know that I have been campaigning about the state of the advertising billboards on the Western Road. They had got into a shocking state of disrepair and had not hosted an advert for around 18 months. I said that the company that owned them should either repair and use them properly or remove them altogether.

Well tonight they are being taken down.

It appears that the company was not able to paste new adverts because such pasting had to be done from the road itself and this was unsafe. So they decided to take them down. There have been some form of billboards on the site since at least the 1920s but it is right that, as they were rotten and unused they should be pulled down.

The company that owns the land clearly has the right to erect new billboards there. But I would ask them to consider the impact on residents and what works will be needed to the land they are sited on before pressing ahead with any works. In my (totally inexpert) opinion, they could only site new boards away from the road if they levelled the bank and this would have a significant effect on the local environment. Of course, if they come forward with plans then these would have to be properly considered, but it is clearly a major undertaking.

Incidentally, it was telling to note that the firm providing the traffic signals had come from Taunton and the guys doing the demolition work had come from Birmingham. It is sad that they could not have found local firms (and local people) to do the works.

The photos show (from top to bottom): My original campaign; the billboards in various stages of demolition. When it's light enough tomorrow I'll get some shots of the finished article.