Thursday, 29 October 2009

The curious case of Candidate D*ckh**d

As others have reported, Tory PPC for St Austell and Newquay - Caroline Righton - is in trouble for suggesting that her Lib Dem opponent Stephen Gilbert referred to her as a d*ckh**d.

It appears that she sent out an email reproducing a tweet made by Steve but someone had added the fateful word to the end of Steve's message. I cannot believe it was her - more likely some silly junior member of her campaign team. But her silence on the issue and refusal to apologise means that the focus is shifting onto her and her credibility as a candidate.

Local readers will remember back in May when a leaflet was distributed in Camborne referring to a Mebyon Kernow candidate as a 'greasy haired tw*t'. In that case it was a joke leaflet which mistakenly got printed and delivered to a few homes. That is no excuse however and the candidate, agent and others immediately apologised.

Nevertheless, voters decided the matter for themselves and the MK candidate beat the Lib Dem in the council seat concerned.

Caroline Righton may well find that the voters cast the same opinion on her when it comes to the polls next May.

Play success!

Following my concerns over the managed abolition of the Ridgegrove play areas and the lack of one on the Kensey Valley Meadow development, at today's scrutiny meeting I asked for a full review of play and play areas across the whole of Cornwall and the committee agreed.

As I see it, the Council's approach is just too disjointed at the moment. Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, we are seeing seven councils join together and there will be work needed on integrating services. There is also the problem that the Housing Department is responsible for some play areas when they should be more generally managed.

And then you have the hundreds of town and parish councils which themselves own or manage play facilities.

I think that we need to look at facilities for play across Cornwall. I'm betting that there will be a great disparity. We need to have a better strategy so that the provision is more equally based on local needs. I hope that the planning policy group will be involved so that they can create a new standard for developments in the future. Certainly, large scale estates like Kensey Valley Meadow being built without access to proper facilities should never have happened and must never happen again. I'm glad that things are looking hopeful there, but retrospective action is a poor substitute for proper planning.

One of the measures suggested by Housing Cabinet Member Mark Kaczmarek was that groups of people should band together to bid for grants for play. I'm all in favour of this where it is possible, but I think he (and the Council) need to accept that it is not always the way forward. In many cases, the residents have been let down so often that they are disheartened. Community action is also much easier where you have a more stable population of better educated residents. In areas with more mobile populations with greater needs and less education it can be impossible to get such groups together. Do such areas not get facilities because they are less able to make their case?

I'm very grateful that the committee agreed to look at this and very hopeful that we will get a better play policy and provision as a result.

Councillors must be given a say on PFI scheme

We have just finished a meeting of the Council's Communities Scrutiny Committee. One of the items for discussion was a response from Housing Cabinet Member Mark Kaczmarek to our concerns over the proposed Housing PFI scheme.

Housing PFI would have the potential to bring about 900 new council homes - about a third of our annual need - at a huge cost. Maybe not to the Council itself, but somebody has to pay at the end of the day.

Previously, we expressed concern at three levels:

- is the concept of Housing PFI right for Cornwall in principle?
- if so, do the figures in this case add up?
- if so, are the proposed sites the right ones?

At the previous inquiry day, Mark Kaczmarek promised that all councillors would be consulted and be able to have their say on the issue. Whilst the final decision is reserved by law for the Cabinet, councillors from all sides believe that they should be able to have their say in a vote on the issue. Independent Councillor Pam Lyne was particularly forceful in demanding this at a previous full council meeting - to no avail.

Now Cllr Kaczmarek has shied away from his promise - he claims he never made it. He is saying that all members will only be able to ask questions - not the same thing as voting.

For something potentially as big as this - around £150 million - surely it is right that all councillors are able to have a proper, voting, say on what happens?

Friday, 23 October 2009

How to waste money

At a time when the recession is biting and spending on vital front line services is being cut, how can this be justified?

The Arts Council is to give half a million pounds to a Devon artist to chop off part of an arctic island and tow it round the South West coast on a barge as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2012.

The Cultural Olympiad is a great way to boost tourism and interest in the arts for those parts of the country which are not otherwise directly benefitting from the Olympics. But this seems like an incredible waste of money that won't bring any of the benefits we need.

At the same time, Cornwall is bidding to host the massive - Europe wide - Manifesta event to bring millions of pounds and hundreds of thousands of tourists to the county. I can imagine the Arts Council refusing to back Cornwall's bid because of lack of cash - cash that has been spent on this silly project.

Tories abandon commitment to longer opening hours for Launceston One Stop Shop

The Conservatives who lead Cornwall Council have backed down on a commitment from the Council's Chief Executive to extend the opening hours of Launceston One Stop Shop.

Back in June, Chief Exec Kevin Lavery described the One Stop Shops as the vital link between the public and the Council and he pledged to extend the opening hours so that local residents can access services at weekends and in the evenings. At present Launceston One Stop Shop is only open from 8.45am until 5pm Monday to Thursday and 8.45am until 4.30pm on a Friday. The staff there do a fantastic job and always have lots of visitors. It is quite clear that the service is well-used and liked.

I couldn't have agreed more with Mr Lavery and have therefore been pressing the Council since June to tell me when the longer opening hours would be introduced.

Finally, yesterday, I got a reply from Lance Kennedy, the Conservative Councillor in charge of the One Stop Shop service.

Cllr Kennedy told me that he has backed down from the longer hours commitment. Instead there will be a survey of the use of each One Stop Shop and this will determine whether longer opening hours are needed.

The trouble is that I don't know what a survey will show. If it finds that the service is well used, does that mean that it will be even better used if it is open longer? Or does it mean that everybody who needs it already has access? On the other hand, if it is poorly used, does that indicate that longer hours are needed or that the service is a waste of time?

I think that the Council should have the courage of its convictions and open the service into the evenings and (particularly) at weekends as soon as possible. And then it needs to make sure that local people know that they can access the full range of council services there.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Tory MPs tell Robertson to back 10:10

Conservative Party MPs yesterday effectively ordered Alec Robertson and the Conservative led Cabinet on Cornwall Council to pull their socks up on the issue of climate change. A month ago Cllr Robertson refused to back the 10:10 campaign on the basis that it might cost too much and they needed to look into the subject a bit better. This despite the fact that David Cameron and the Conservative Party had already joined the Lib Dems in wholeheartedly supporting 10:10.

In the House of Commons yesterday there was an opposition day debate on the subject of climate change. The motion called on all public sector bodies (which would include Cornwall Council) to make it their policy to achieve a 10% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the end of 2010 - exactly the idea of the 10:10 campaign.

(Opposition day debates are when the subject is chosen by either the Conservatives or Lib Dems and, in this case, it was Simon Hughes and the Lib Dems who called the debate.)

All the Tories present voted for the motion as did all the Lib Dems including all five Cornish MPs. The Tories who voted included the Conservative Local Government boss Caroline Spelman. It was the Labour Party who used the type of excuses spouted by Cornwall Tories. Will Cllr Robertson listen to what he is being told by his own MPs or is he happy sounding like a third rate Gordon Brown?

You can read the full text of the debate here.

Note: North Cornwall MP Dan Rogerson was a 'teller' in the vote and therefore appears at the bottom of the lists of those voting.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Tory Leader says he has no plans for service cuts (at the moment)

Cornwall Council's Tory Leader Alec Robertson was on BBC Radio Cornwall's Laurence Reed programme this lunchtime and said:

"we will do everything possible to protect front line services"

a little later he added:

"we have no cuts planned to services at the moment."

If the Council decides to remove the current play equipment on the Ridgegrove Estate and not replace it then I shall be reminding him of this promise.

Ridgegrove Play Areas - UPDATE

I've just received an update on what is happening with the Ridgegrove play areas.

To date the Council has ripped out a see-saw and some goal posts. There will be a safety audit of the rest of the equipment next Monday - carried out by a fully trained safety official.

Of course it is right that the Council makes sure that all the equipment is safe to use and so I welcome the audit.

My concern is over what will happen if the audit decides that any more equipment is unsafe. And what is happening about general maintenance to stop the remaining equipment degrading further?

I've been told that the Housing Department (who are responsible for these areas) are saying that they have no money and so if anything is ripped out then it will not be replaced. I think that it is a moral responsibility that large estates such as Ridgegrove should have well-maintained play areas. The Housing Department (first of NCDC and now of Cornwall Council) have let the areas get into this state and they must replace any equipment that is defective.

I have therefore asked someone from Housing to come along on the audit so that they can see the state of the equipment and the level of need for themselves.

FURTHER UPDATE - At least one officer from the Housing Department will be attending the audit on Monday. Many thanks to them for doing so.

Launceston Town Council

I went along to Launceston Town Council's meeting last night. Although local government meetings may not be the most exciting proposition, it is always disappointing to find no members of the public coming along to see what is happening in their town. It may be that the Town Council needs to look a bit at what they can do to invite residents to their meetings, to make them feel involved and welcome.

Among other things:

- we heard from Sgt Aaron Ward and PC Matt Kingdon about what the police are doing locally. One of the key concerns is the misuse by motorists of limited use roads such as Church Street. In recent weeks the Police held an education day and an enforcement day to make drivers aware of the rules. But taxi drivers and those cars carrying disabled drivers have complained that they need access to these streets. Quite sensibly, the Police have said that they will be sensible in their enforcement of the rules until such time as the Council can make the legal changes needed.

- The Town Council had received a request from the Lanstephan Play Committee asking for help with setting up an new equipped play area on the estate. Given the troubles we have had with play areas in Launceston, I very much hope that this one goes ahead and that the Town Council is able to provide all the help they can.

- I updated that Town Council on a number of issues including the news that it looks likely that the entire Kensey Valley Meadow Estate will be adopted by the end of the financial year. I'm very grateful to officers for finally getting all the information together. I'm concerned that this has taken as long as it has, but at least it is finally happening.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Just how long does it take to respond to a petition?

Following on from the council failing to reply to my concern about the play areas on the Ridgegrove Estate, I am reminded about another failure by the Council to respond to councillors and residents.

About three months ago, my colleagues Nathan Bale and Dan Rogerson MP presented a petition to the Council about a local issue in Bude. They received a bare acknowledgement but not proper reply and so, last month, I asked a question at full council about the administration's policy on replying to letters and petitions. I specifically mentioned Nathan and Dan's petition as a case in point. To their credit, the Council acknowledged that they had not been as smart as they would like to be at replying to letters and they promised to get better.

Whatever else they might have done, the Council has still not responded to Nathan and Dan's petition.

Not smart.

If the report doesn't fit, disown it

Full council meetings are always a chance for political knockabout. Today was no exception. The incoming Conservative led administration commissioned a report when it was elected to look at the council's finances. My guess is that they wanted to find a big black hole and be able to blame everything on the previous (Lib Dem) administration.

The report was published today and says:

"The Council currently has a healthy balance of reserves... The new Council has made significant savings upon the transition to the new council with £15m or so expected in year one... These ongoing savings and savings strategies for year 2 and 3 will, if delivered, put the Authority in a relatively good position to deal with the severe funding pressures that will affect local government in the future... Despite these problems caused by delays in transition, overall
financial control has been maintained... The level of debt arising from external borrowing, although a large amount, is generally in line with the Authority’s capital financing requirement."

It should also be noted that Cornwall was given the highest possible AAA rating for financial management under Lib Dem control.

Yet at today's Full Council meeting, the Cabinet Member for Finance, Jim Currie, appeared to say that he had little confidence in this report and gave greater credence to a reading of the council's finances which say that all is doom and gloom.

Cllr Currie seems to forget that the unitary council is on course to make savings of more than £15 million per year. He voted against making these savings.

It seems that Jim Currie has commissioned a report and doesn't like a lot of what it has to say because it proves that the Lib Dem County Council was financially sound.

Has anything been done about the 10-10 campaign

At September's Council meeting I proposed that the council should join the 10-10 campaign to cut CO2 emissions by 10% by the end of next year.

The administration voted this down saying that they needed to look further at the issues before they could sign up.

So today I asked Julian German, the Cabinet Member for the Environment, to tell me what action he had taken since the last meeting to find out more about the 10-10 campaign.

He couldn't provide me with any details at all and invited me to look at his online diary to find out what he has done. I've done so and there doesn't appear to be anything that fits the bill. To be fair to him, it may have been tucked away in another meeting and so I've written to him to ask for details of the meetings he has held on the subject and reports he has commissioned.

My concern is that, despite his promise, he has done nothing. I very much hope that he is able to prove me wrong.

Frustrating times at the Council meeting (but thankfully no singing)

Today saw an eventful council meeting.

The good news was that the rumoured singing of Trelawney will not be taking place until the December meeting (if ever).

The major problem was the non-attendance of three of the Cabinet members. Full Council is the main opportunity for ordinary councillors to hold the Cabinet to account. If Cabinet members are not present then question after question is responded to with the Leader saying that someone will get back to us.

I know that at least one, if not two, of the absentees were on other council business, but I would argue that Full Council should be top of their agenda. The only real excuse for absence should be illness. It appears that at least one of the Cabinet members simply couldn't be bothered to turn up.

I raised the urgent question of the Ridgegrove Estate play areas. These are the responsibility of the Housing Department and so transferred from NCDC to Cornwall Council. Back in May they were very run down and covered in broken glass and dog mess. I wrote to the Council asking that something be done. After I was elected in June I wrote again to repeat my call. To date I have had a letter of acknowledgement but no substantive reply.

Yet the Council appears to have been very busy on the estate. They have decided that the area is so run down that the play equipment is unsafe and has to be removed. Neither I not any local resident appears to have been consulted or told about this. It was just decided.

So today I asked why and what action would be taken to replace the play equipment. I was told 'that someone would get back to me'...

Thursday, 15 October 2009

And shall Trelawney live (at Council meetings)?

An interesting rumour reaches me that there are moves afoot to sing Trelawney at the start of Full Council meetings...

I'm not sure that the public are ready to hear my singing voice, but I'll gladly take part if it happens.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Elections fiasco - Council pre-empts investigation

It appears that Cornwall Council has decided that the blame for June's elections fiasco lies with the printers in Sussex and they are loudly telling this to the press.

From what I have seen as Vice Chair of the Electoral Review Panel, there is certainly some blame to be borne by the printers in Sussex. But I am concerned both that the Council seems unwilling to acknowledge its own failings and that they are coming to this conclusion before an external report has finished.

A few weeks ago, we agreed to ask John Turner, and outside expert, to review the failings. He hasn't finished his work and, until he has, I don't think we can be sure where the fault entirely lies.

Illegal workers at Spice Room?

Police raided the Spice Room restaurant in Western Road last week and apparently found three Bangladeshi workers who do not have the right to be employed in this country.

Whilst I do not condone illegal working, I do support the indian restaurant industry in their campaign over the lack of suitably qualified and trained chefs for indian restaurants. If we are to keep excellent restaurants like the Spice Room, the Government needs to make the system work properly so that they have the people to work in them.

It is also interesting to note that the Spice Room might be fined £30,000 if guilty of this breach but the Attorney General (the Government's chief law officer) was fined just £5000 for employing an illegal worker herself.

St Mabyn and St Tudy schools to close?

Cornwall Council is planning to close the primary schools at St Mabyn and St Tudy and to create a new school at a new location.

The Liberal Democrats pledged in our manifesto in June that we would not close any school in Cornwall for at least four years. It appears that the new Conservative led administration has no such policy.

If you support the campaign to save these schools, please join the Facebook group.

(I applaud Conservative Councillor Scott Mann for being willing to oppose his administration's stance on this though)

Launceston Magistrates Court to close

The Government has announced that the magistrates court in Launceston is to close. The court has heard no cases since May when everything was moved to Bodmin.

The court building might not be ideal at present, but it seems strange that, under the new arrangements we will have a police station with cells in the town but no court and in Bodmin and court but no cells. Just how much will be saved and how much extra spent on ferrying prisoners around?

Once again it appears that Government facilities are being removed from Launceston. We have lost post offices, including the one at Newport, the tax office and now the court.

Council redundancies - this month's solution

Just as with the Japanese Knotweed problem (see below), the briefing on a new redundancy scheme took place behind closed doors with opposition councillors, the press and public excluded. We were left to wonder where the figures that were being bandied about came from and how much the new schemes would save or cost the council.

Unions are quite rightly concerned that the early redundancies (mainly the bosses) were being done on the old, higher, payouts whilst future cuts (mainly lower paid employees) would be based on new (lower) figures.

Some councillors asked why there couldn't be a scheme to limit the maximum payouts at the top end - after all, the public accept the concept of fair payouts but not schemes which allow the top bosses to walk away with hundreds of thousands of pounds each. We were told that such schemes might break age discrimination laws.

Surely it is not beyond the wit of man (or lawyer) to devise a scheme which does what we asked but does not break the rules?

In response to the debate, the Leader of the Council said that any agreement today would not have to be for the long term but could be reviewed. He implied that such a review could take place very soon.

At the vote, the Leader's proposal only went through by 5 votes to 4 with at least one cabinet member very unhappy.

It was also apparent that the consultation with the unions has not been as comprehensive as we might have wished and that the Council's HR committee had not even been consulted. All together this looked like a quick fix solution railroaded through without proper thought.

Not surprisingly, it will be called in for further scrutiny.

A knotty problem

At today's cabinet meeting, the Council agreed to apply for a licence to trial a new way of getting rid of Japanese Knotweed. It is in the form of a bug which, according to what we were told, will suck the sap of this plant but will affect nothing else.

Knotweed, as many non-indiginous species, is a real problem. It takes over gardens and open spaces and can be impossible to get rid of. I therefore welcome a safe way of dealing with it.

People will naturally be concerned that bringing in another foreign import to tackle it might simply create a whole new catastrophe. We were assured it won't.

My concern comes because we must rely on these assurances. Despite being promised that the scientists behind the scheme would come and give evidence, it was decided that such a presentation and questioning would be only for cabinet members and behind closed doors. Opposition councillors, as well as the press and public, never got the chance to see the evidence or to have their say.

I fervently hope that the assurances are true. I have no reason to doubt the experts on this. But it would have been far more reassuring to be able to see all the evidence and have the chance to ask questions.

New wind turbines approved

Quite unexpectedly (at least from my expectations), the Council's strategic planning committee last night voted to approve applications for new wind turbines at Davidstow and Otterham.

It was a really packed meeting with lots of locals present who objected to the schemes. There were also a few people in favour but the majority of the audience were resolutely opposed.

The Otterham scheme is another relatively small scale project which has a maximum capacity of just 2-3 megawatts of power. The Davidstow proposal, on the other hand, was for 20 turbines generating up to 50 megawatts of power - enough for about 5% of Cornwall's energy needs.

Objections were not just to the siting of the turbines but also based on the possible threat to bird habitats and to air traffic control. In the end the scheme was approved subject to resolution of these two problems. Basically, if a solution cannot be found then planning permission will be withdrawn.

Personally, I am in favour of more wind power. It cannot be the only solution, but must fit with wave and solar power. But there are no proposals for such schemes at the moment and our dependence on coal, gas and nuclear is becoming ever more acute. With the depletion of north sea oil and gas and the end of coal, we are approaching a tipping point in terms of supply and the climate change argument means also that we need to take action to move to more environment friendly means of generating power. And removable wind turbines are a whole lot better than having to have a nuclear power station in Cornwall.

I went into last night's meeting (I was an observer rather than a voting member of the committee) thinking that we need such schemes but that this might not be the best place to locate it. But looking at the detailed site map changed my mind. The site is not unspoilt countryside and it is not an area of outstanding natural beauty (although there are some nearby). In the vicinity you have a reservoir, the massive Davidstow Creamery and the abandoned airfield.

At the end of the day, such a decision will always be a toss up between the benefit of clean, green power and the detrimental effect on the landscape. There is no doubt that some views will be harmed byt these turbines, but, on balance, I think that the right decision was made.