Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Missed rubbish collections

A number of Launceston residents have been in touch to ask about missed rubbish collections. Due to the recent ice and snow, lots of homes haven't had their bins emptied over the past week. They are concerned because the next scheduled collection - on Tuesday - is being missed due to the Christmas holidays.

I have been in touch with the Council who confirm that the missed collections are due to many streets being inaccessible to bin lorries. They are aware of the missed collections and will be trying their best to get round as many missed areas as possible between now and Friday.

Their advice is for residents to leave their bins out ready for collection as they will have to move quickly when the ice clears.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Vince Cable - Ace of Base

Vince Cable's secret interview with the Telegraph is dominating the news agendas. First because he claimed to be prepared to walk out of his job and bring down the government and now with a leaked report (which apparently the Telegraph chose not to publish) about declaring war on Rupert Murdoch over the latter's bid for a full takeover of Sky.

Could Vince have chosen two issues which were more suited to shoring up his position with the Liberal Democrat base?

First of all he is making clear that he is unhappy with a lot of what his Conservative colleagues are putting forward. Not utterly surprising, but it is good for the Lib Dem membership to be able to hear this from the mouth of a minister - even if it is via the medium of the Telegraph.

Not so unhappy as to avoid the whole tuition fees debacle which, it should be remembered, was a policy from his own department and which will probably do the party more damage than any other single policy. But unhappy enough to make it clear that he does not like everything he is having to vote for and that other proposals which have been dropped would have been a lot worse.

But there is probably no person more hated within the Lib Dems than Rupert Murdoch. It's a dog-whistle thing. Murdoch stands for everything that Lib Dems detest. And by declaring war against Murdoch, Vince will once again become Saint Vince among the Focus deliverers of the party.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that Vince was in connivance with the Telegraph over this. We've got to take his word that he didn't know the reporters were who they turned out to be. And it would be entirely wrong to think that the un-named source who leaked the Murdoch aspect when the Telegraph refused to run it might have been close friends with Vince himself. But what great timing? Appearing in the morning before Cameron and Clegg's 'end-of-year report' Vince was assured of being the number one subject of the event with Nick Clegg forced to defend the Government against the beliefs of ordinary Lib Dem members.

Far be it for me to suggest that this was any sort of revenge meted out by Cable against Clegg. But there has been some resentment brewing between the two ever since midway through the election campaign when the core Lib Dem message went from being the £10k tax policy to 'I agree with Nick'.

Want to avoid fortnightly rubbish collections? - Fill in the Council's survey

Cornwall Council is currently conducting a survey about waste collections. It's a massively important questionnaire because it includes the issue of moving to fortnightly collections for general waste. It's therefore a shame that the consultation is being conducted over Christmas when most people are busy with family and other things.

However, over 1500 people have so far completed the survey and I would encourage all readers to do so too if they live in Cornwall. You can take part by clicking here.

The big issue, as I have mentioned, is the potential to move to fortnightly general rubbish collections. The Council is considering whether to start collecting food waste on a weekly basis. They are also considering having recycling collected weekly - but this is far less likely, I understand.

The thinking is that, if food waste - likely to be the smelliest rubbish - is collected weekly then recycling and 'black bag' waste can be collected fortnightly.

The downside - as far as I am concerned - is as follows:

First - that most people will not keep rubbish indoors for up to two weeks. Once sacks are placed outside, they attract seagulls, rats, cats and dogs. We all know how disgusting it is when a rubbish bag is ripped open and the contents spill down the street. If we move to fortnightly collections then this will happen more and more which will do immense harm to our tourist industry.

There is also the problem with disposable nappies. Parents definitely don't want those hanging around for up to two weeks.

The alternative is to move from black bags to wheelie bins. But many people don't have space for these (particularly not three or four bins as some areas have) and what happens to those people who live on hills - as many do in Launceston. I can quite imagine that most of the bins will end up in the river within a few weeks.

My personal view is that we need to retain weekly black bag collections. I'm not opposed to separate collections for food waste where people want them, but the basic service needs to be retained. I'm disappointed that the survey appears to say that keeping the current service can only be done at a higher cost than previously or at the expense of other services. No justification is given for this statement which seems intended to bias the survey.

Regrettably, if the recent parking consultation is anything to go by, this proposal will also prove to be a foregone conclusion as it appears that once a proposal is consulted on, it must be followed through.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Car park charges - consultation could change nothing

Last week I posted about the decision to increase parking charges including the huge rises proposed for Launceston. I pointed out that virtually all those who responded to the consultation (well over a thousand people) were against the increases but that the Parking Panel had decided to go ahead with them anyway.

I suggested that, in the light of the rejection by consultees, the proposals should be abandoned and a new scheme should be designed but, for the coming year, we stick with the current charges plus the 6% increase demanded by the budget.

The lead officer present said that, for this to go ahead, a fresh consultation would be needed. As a result, the panel decided not to pursue this option.

I asked for legal advice on this statement because I don't think it is logical that all options other than the one consulted on should be closed off. In particular, I don't believe that the status quo should not be an option for the panel.

I've now had the legal advice:

"Although it seems to an extent illogical, I have checked the relevant legislation, with a colleague and if the modification proposed represents a “substantial change” to the terms of the draft order as consulted upon then the inference is that the public should be informed and should be given an opportunity to make further representations.

I think the key factor is that a uniform increase of 6% across the board and in all other respects keeping the charges the same, does not represent a substantial change to the current position but does represent a substantial change to what was consulted upon. Although, therefore, the proposed amendment was arguably an entirely sensible one and might have widespread support from members of the public, its difference from what was proposed is such that it would have required consultation before being implemented."

I trust the officer who gave me this advice, but he is right to point out that it seems illogical. I would go further and suggest that it is perverse. It appears that the consultation exercise was a waste of time because the panel had no option but to recommend the original scheme (or a very close approximation of it). Their only choice would be to consult again on the status quo or come up with a new scheme and consult on that. One alternative might have been to consult on both the proposal and the status quo, but this is not what the Council chose to do.

I don't think that this is right and so I am writing to the local government minister to outline the situation and to ask him to change the law. Regrettably, any change in the law cannot be in time to allow Cornwall Council to implement another scheme without further consultation, but this is a situation where the law is clearly an ass.

In the meantime, because of the horrendous impact that the proposed charge rises will have on many towns including Launceston, I will be asking the Cabinet to abandon this proposal and to hold a fresh consultation either on a fairer scheme or on the status quo.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Cornwall CCTV - what a shambles

Also at today's Cabinet meeting, there was an item on CCTV in Cornwall. This title was slightly misleading as only schemes in the mid and west are affected. East Cornwall (including Launceston) CCTV schemes receive no money from Cornwall Council.

The basic issue is that the Council wants the local town councils to contribute to the costs of the monitoring operation. An inquiry by the scrutiny committee recommended that Cornwall Council continue to fund the monitoring operation. But this recommendation was not taken up the Cabinet who proposed that the affected councils stump up around £10,000 each to contribute to the costs.

The trouble is that local town councils have already fixed their budgets for next year and, unless they were omniscient, they have not budgeted for this. They have been told that they need to respond positively by Friday.

The proposal was that if the towns came up with the money then the monitoring could go ahead but if any of them refused then monitoring would cease - a fact of which many of the towns are believed to be unaware.

But then, just as the debate was drawing to a conclusion, cabinet member Julian German posed the killer question. He asked whether any of the towns had already written to say they would not be contributing. The officer confirmed that Falmouth had done so and it was suggested that this was also the case with Penzance.

And so the debate turned into a farce. With one of the two options apparently already ruled out, there appears no other option but that CCTV in the eleven towns will no longer be monitored.

The towns affected are:

St Austell
St Ives

Of course, the loss of CCTV monitoring in Newquay may do significant damage to the success of the Newquay Safe Partnership - a project which has, quite rightly, garnered much praise.

Hope for Launceston over traffic bottleneck?

At today's meeting of Cornwall Council's Cabinet, there was an item on the agenda about proposed junction improvements in the Camborne, Pool and Redruth area.

I used the opportunity to ask when the Council would get round to improving the horrendous congestion in Launceston. The bottleneck at Newport is caused by the roundabout at Newport Square and the narrow bridge over the Kensey. Yet there is virtually no other option for those trying to access the A30 from Holsworthy or Bude. Many thousands of vehicles each day are caught up in the normal town centre traffic causing huge delays.

The congestion also adds to the dangers for pedestrians who have to cross the main road twice to get from St Stephens, Newport, Lanstephan and Ridgegrove to the town centre - roads which have no safe crossings. There is the final (and perhaps biggest) danger of Dutson Road - a main road with no pavement for a significant stretch which is, nonetheless, classed as a safe walking route to school.

The hold ups mean that there is little possibility of further developments at the northern end of our town and mean that Launceston cannot take advantage of its prime position on the A30.

In the absence of Graeme Hicks, cabinet member responsible for highways, no definitive answer could be provided today. However the Leader did promise me that officers would look at the needs of Launceston and tell me how much of a priority they would give to road improvements in our area.

From what the local councillor said about the Camborne/Pool/Redruth improvements, there is mixed local feeling about those plans. However I am sure that there would be great support in Launceston for works that could divert most traffic away from the bottlenecks of Newport Square.

Legal advice sought on parking proposals

As I blogged yesterday, Cornwall Council's Parking Panel has voted through its plan to raise parking charges in Launceston significantly whilst cutting prices in other parts of Cornwall. They have also approved the plan to increase season ticket prices from £195 to £600.

Whilst the Council spin machine claims that they have listened to and made changes based on the responses from more than 1000 people who replied to the formal consultation, the truth is that these changes are marginal at best and do nothing to ameliorate the fears that most people have over the rises.

Of those who responded to the consultation (a record number for Cornwall Council by the way), just seven or so were in favour of the plans.

During the meeting, I asked the committee to consider an option to abandon their plans and think again in the face of the rejection from consultees. For the coming year, I suggested that they should simply freeze tariffs or, if that were not possible, put every price up by the same percentage. With the budget demanding a 6% increase in the 'take' from parking, why could all prices not simply be raised by that amount whilst the panel comes up with another plan for the following year. (Incidentally, I believe it is wrong for the Council to think that it can squeeze that much money out of motorists, but this rise is now fixed).

However an officer at the meeting cautioned against this saying that if the current plan were abandoned then a whole new consultation exercise would have to undertaken by the council at large cost and with a consequent delay. In the light of this advice, the panel members decided against my request.

However, I am not sure that the officer's advice is actually true and I have asked for a formal legal opinion from the Council's Head of Legal on the matter.

In my view, with the proposed scheme being so roundly rejected by consultees, it should be open to the panel to abandon this and devise a new scheme. This could not be done immediately but would have to wait for April 2012. Of course there would need to be consultation on that. From April next year, the current policy (plus the 6% demanded by the budget) could be continued without the need for more consultation.

I appreciate the work that the parking panel has done, but I believe that the scheme they have come up with is massively unfair to many areas (not just Launceston) and is clearly unpopular with drivers. I think they should accept that, despite their valiant efforts, they have come up with the wrong policy.

If the legal officer agrees with my view then I shall be arguing that the panel recommendation should be disregarded as they based it on flawed advice from officers.

Note: To see for yourself what people said about the proposed charge rises, click here and then view the Supplemental Agenda

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

On the departure of Iain Dale from blogging...

I'm sad that Iain Dale has decided to give up regular blogging as announced on his site today. For all that he wound a lot of Lib Dems up (usually, but not always on purpose), he has been one of the people at the forefront of 'proper' political blogging for some time. Although now he runs a politics magazine and has a daily radio show, surely he is to be considered mainstream media?

I can understand Iain's dilemma. With his radio show, magazine and publishing company, he is definitely a busy boy. The latter two are definitely successes of his own making and he has established himself as a more than competent radio host. But I query whether he will become a little more vulnerable as a commentator if he is no longer seen to be at the top of the pile of Conservative aligned bloggers. His blog was his personal success story but he was still known as a blogger first and foremost. I hope, for his sake, that he continues to get the appearances he wants.

Anyone who has recently come to political blogging might not know quite what Iain achieved in his time as a blogger. His recent efforts have been pretty lacklustre by his own standards. But three years ago he really did come up with scoop after scoop as well as adding a decent amount of commentary which made him worth reading - for a Tory.

The worst news about Iain quitting blogging? Guido becomes the uncontested top dog...

Parking Panel confirms huge rises for Launceston

Today's meeting of Cornwall Council's Parking Panel confirmed the huge increases in parking and season ticket prices for Launceston.

The two key areas are:

Rises of up to 131% in the hourly charges.

Whilst the first hour price will drop slightly, all other charges will see massive increases with the charge for four hours going up by 131%. This is likely to act as a barrier to people coming into our town and using our shops.

Even if the Council continues to make the same amount of money from parking (and I doubt this will be the case) that will come at the cost of lower footfall and less business for local traders.

Season ticket prices to rise to £600

The current season ticket price is £195. The proposal is that these should rise to £600 in two years. As I have mentioned before, there are low paid workers in town for whom £600 represents almost their whole take home pay for a month. And some local businesses with multiple permits have said that they will move out of Launceston rather than pay the increased amounts.

At today's meeting I made the case that the proposed increases would be likely to cause severe hardship to many businesses and workers and could mean people losing their jobs. Nevertheless, the panel voted the proposals through.

Overall, it was a very dispiriting meeting. More than a thousand individuals had taken the time to reply to the consultation yet no changes were proposed by the administration as a result. It seemed like they had heard, but not listened. More that one member of the panel made the point that the administration seems to have a fixed view and was not prepared to change it despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And despite the petition with more than 1000 Launceston names arguing against the season ticket rises, the Cabinet member commented that he did not think the issue was particularly controversial.

The administration's policy appears to be that one size should fit all for parking. They repeatedly said that the budget was fixed and demanded an increase in parking income of around 6%. But when anyone tried to make the case for a different balance of charges between different areas of Cornwall they were accused of simply spouting parochial interest.

One aspect that has not been considered at all yet is that of equality. An impact assessment will take place before the Cabinet rubber stamps the policy (why has it not happened already?) but this will focus only on the impact on those with disabilities, older people and (to some extent) people on lower incomes. Of course this is important, but the impact on different areas is not being considered and neither is the economic impact on local shops and businesses. This is a major failing which, if conducted properly, would surely have shown that town centres such as Launceston are hugely vulnerable to parking price rises and will suffer overly if these ridiculous rises are forced through.

Monday, 13 December 2010

A mass of figures - and a lot of spinning

Today saw the Government announce the local government settlement for the next two years. The announcement is complicated but has given rise already to a lot of spinning from Cornwall Council as they try to justify their decision to cut huge amounts early - despite advice from numerous Government ministers not to do so.

At the emergency budget ten days ago, the Conservative led administration forced through a budget based on an assumption of a government grant cut of 30% over then next four years. The Government had announced that the average local government cut was to be 26-28% and ministers including Eric Pickles and Nick Clegg told councils that they should avoid large scale job losses or cutting services too heavily early on.

Cornwall Conservatives, however, thought differently. The mantra was that harsh early cuts would mean greater long term stability and the need to cut less in subsequent years. To some degree, the Cornwall attitude made sense. An early budget would mean changes could be implemented sooner. But, we asked, why make the decisions just ten days before the settlement (and therefore the details) became known. Why not wait so that the budget could be based on reality, rather than assumptions?

Now the figures have been announced. They are not completely clear cut, it must be said. Various changes to the way the grant operates - including the loss of ring-fencing for all but a couple of budget lines - mean that some further investigations are needed.

But the headline appears to be that Cornwall has escaped some of the harshest cuts - for which we must be thankful. There is still a need to make significant cuts, but it would appear on first reading that Cornwall's Conservatives have gone over the top with the axe and many services that could have been saved are under threat.

The simplest comparison is with the 'Revenue Spending Power' figures - in other words, how much the Council will have available to spend based on the grant it gets from the Government. In the current year, this figure is £524.3 million and next year it will be £507.5 million. That is a cut of £16.8 million - or 3.2%, which, when compared with the 8.9% being cut from some councils, is very small indeed. The following year, the cut will be even smaller - at 2.85%.

That's £16.8 million set against a Cornwall cuts target for the next four years of £170 million!

Even the cut in grants from the Government is significantly below the Council's predictions. Cornwall Council said that it estimated that our grants would be cut by 10%. In fact, the figure is 8.9%. That might not seem like a huge difference, but with every percentage point being worth about £2.4 million, it's a lot of libraries or adult care services.

So what has Cornwall Council said on the matter?

The official Council twitter account says:

"Initial analysis suggests that the settlement is generally in line with expectations of around a 10% reduction in grant funding next year."

and later:

Chief Exec: "It will take weeks to unravel details of the settlement, which reinforces council's decision to go early and set its budget."

As I said, there is a huge difference between 3.2% (or even 8.9%) and 10% and the Council should not be trying to pretend they are the same thing. And as for the decision to go early, we have still had no decent answer to why Cornwall Council - almost alone among authorities - felt the need to jump the gun on the settlement figures and ignore the advice from the ministers themselves. Although further work is needed, this really shouldn't take 'weeks' as the Chief Exec claims. And what happens if the final result turns out not to be as bad as forecast? Will the redundancy notices be taken back and services reinstated or will the administration press ahead anyway?

This is the fundamental question. Of course it was right to start work on the budget some time ago, but it was wrong to sign it off before we knew the details. If Cornwall Council really wanted to spare the pain, they would have waited until the settlement was published and made cuts accordingly - cutting only what they absolutely had to. Instead, they have set in train a series of ideological axings which will have a significant and detrimental effect on some of the most vulnerable people in Cornwall for many years to come.

Welcome Pupil Premium (shame about EMA and Activity Pass)

Jonathan Calder has bemoaned the lack of Lib Dem blogging activity about the announcement over the weekend that the Pupil Premium will give schools £430 per year for every pupil from a family on low income.

There's no doubt that the Pupil Premium is welcome, but it won't be greeted with unbounded joy. At the same time as it is being introduced, we are losing the EMA - which I would argue is vital in places like North Cornwall. PP is also a shadow of a scheme that has been running for a number of years in North Cornwall and which is being lost.

The reasoning behind additional support to pupils from poorer families is that they have tended to achieve less from school and, in some cases have required extra support whilst in school. The pupil premium will give the extra funds to the headteacher who will decide how best to spend the money.

It will be interesting to see how this money gets spent because, whilst it is given because of the pupils from poorer families, the only limitation on spending is that it should benefit these pupils. Note that this does not mean 'exclusively benefit'. So will headteachers use the money to employ additional classroom assistants or family school advisors, or will they put the money into healthier school meals, additional teaching materials or even a new classroom?

Whatever they choose to do, we will know because of the condition in the plan that schools must publish how they use the money.

So pupil premium is a good thing. But there will be a worry about how much schools will actually get. The funding will be given on the basis of the number of pupils who receive free school meals. The trouble with that is that take-up in some areas, including North Cornwall, is very low. Many parents who are entitled to claim free meals for their children do not do so, or dip in and dip out of the system. So there will be a challenge for schools to encourage those families entitled to take up the meals so that they can claim the PP cash.

And whilst the Pupil Premium is being introduced, the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) is being scrapped. This is a payment of up to £30 a week to pupils from poorer backgrounds who stay on in education after the age of 16. The idea is that it stops these young people dropping out of school at a time when there are few jobs for them to go into. It's not perfect as there is no way that the funds can be targeted at those who would not stay in school or college without it, but it is incredibly good news for the many thousands of Cornish young people who receive it. In my area of Launceston, we have the lowest take up of post 16 education in the whole of Cornwall with more than a third of 16-19 year olds not in education, employment or training. How many more will drop out when EMA goes?

In North Cornwall, we will also see the end of the Activity Pass - a pilot scheme which gave a notional fund to poorer parents which could be used for out of school hours learning. This fund was over £1000 per child and entitlement went to pupils on free school meals or whose families received the higher rate of child tax credit. Activity Passes were used both for half-term activities and for after school clubs. Crucially, in rural areas at least, the passes could also fund the additional travel costs associated with out of school activities. Sadly, the Pupil Premium is unlikely to follow this lead.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Health and Safety gone mad

There has been a fair amount of comment recently about the rights and wrongs of people trying to clear ice and snow from roads and pavements.

Lots of councils and other responsible bodies have tried to play safe by saying that someone who clears snow or ice might be liable of there is an accident. More recently, we have had more sensible advice suggesting that, so long as a person is sensible and careful in clearing a road or pathway then they probably won't be liable.

But, of course, there's still that all important word 'probably'.

Surely it's time for the Government to make clear that, in the spirit of the Big Society, if a person acts in such a community spirited way and doesn't create additional problems then they will not be liable for accidents.

This need was emphasised by the recent news that Cornwall Council is refusing to allow a street cleaner from Helston to clear snow and ice in the town. This is the same Council which is currently trying to dump responsibility for grit bins on town and parish councils without giving them any money to take this on.

It will seem to many that Cornwall Council would prefer it if everyone would just stay at home as soon as temperatures fall below zero.

UPDATE 1 - As Sal says in the comments below, some councils take a much more sensible approach

UPDATE 2 - And Transport Secretary Philip Hammond was quoted in the Independent on Wednesday making very sensible suggestions:
With icy weather warnings in place across much of the country, Philip Hammond said people should have access to supplies so they can tackle roads and pavements which are not treated by councils." Seems to me that in many rural places this happens anyway and in the world of the Big society it would be a good example of communities showing "true grit"!

Floods - will Devon's intransigence cause more problems for Cornwall

After the floods that hit Cornwall, one of the questions that a few people are asking is whether budget cuts will make the situation worse next time?

In short - it is highly likely that they will. Our regional flood defence levy has been kept lower than anywhere else in the country thanks to the votes of councillors from Devon.

The full answer comes in three parts:

First, Cornwall Council's own emergency budget. Our Conservative led cabinet have certainly considered the idea of cutting back on street sweeping and road maintenance*. An accumulation of leaves and road debris is a major cause of blocked drains and gulleys which can exacerbate flooding. Thankfully, the Cabinet decided that they are not going to cut the budget for this work at the moment. But my colleagues and I will be on the look out to make sure that in-year changes which are not subject to a vote of the whole council don't started attacking this spending.

The second budget is held by the South West Regional Flood Defence Committee - a panel made up of representatives from Cornwall Council, Plymouth City Council, Torbay Council and Devon County Council. This committee has the power to levy money to spend on local flood schemes as well as to recommend other to the Government.

As I posted earlier this year:

Council tax payers in Devon and Cornwall currently pay about 80p per household per year for flood works. This is below the average nationwide (which is about £1.74 per household) and massively below the highest which is more than £3.20. Of course you get what you pay for and the low level of the local levy means that few schemes can be afforded. The options in front of the committee yesterday were for levy rises of 2.5% (about the rate of inflation), 50% and 100%. The latter two would mean that we would build towards having a local levy close to the national average.

All the Cornish representatives agreed that the levy should increase significantly so that more local works could be undertaken. But we were opposed (and outvoted) by the representatives from the Devon authorities who decreed that the levy should stay as small as possible. I asked Cabinet member Julian German about this at the recent full council meeting and was told:

This Council originally sought a 50% increase in the flood levy for 2010/11 due to the fact that the South West flood levy is amongst the lowest in the country but due to the financial constraints highlighted by other local authorities, the final figure was reduced to £160k.

Given the chaos caused by floods recently, I would have hoped that the Devon authorities would have seen the sense in increasing this amount next year. But Cornwall Council is anticipating that there will be no change at all with just £160,000 budget for the next financial year.

Third, there is the money held by central government and either spent centrally or given in a grant to local authorities. Among the first round of budget cuts handed down to Cornwall in the summer was a batch of £4 million grant cuts. Cornwall Council decided in principle that, rather than swap money around to make up for cuts, they would seek to pass the cuts directly on to its budget. As I noted at the time:

When asked about the cuts, Council Leader Alec Robertson said that he would be looking to make savings in the 'extra' services that the Council provides. I have therefore asked a question for next Tuesday's council meeting to ask what he means by 'extra' services and whether these include those services which have just had their ring-fencing taken away.

These include playbuilder and play pathfinder schemes, Animal Health and Welfare Enforcement and Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management. Are these services and projects for the chop and, if not, which are?

And the answer?

"The announcement by the Department for Communities and Local Government last Thursday identified £3.8m worth of specific services which would no longer be funded from Area Based Grants and, logically, it was these, now unfunded, activities which must first be considered for withdrawal. That said, the flexibility offered by the removal of ring fencing was welcomed and, consequently, all services were under review. It was too early to confirm any specific cuts but cuts there would have to be and soon." (Alex Robertson, Full Council 15 June 2010)

I've checked with officers and it turns out that, thankfully, the government cuts to our flood defence budget were not passed into Cornwall's own budget programme. It's good that flood prevention work was not cut in the summer, but there is no guarantee that it will not suffer in the future as it is no longer ring-fenced.

Of course, flood works take time. In addition, there is no guarantee that flood works will prevent all damage to property. But it is certainly the case that more flood prevention schemes will lessen the chance that significant harm, such as that which occurred yesterday, will happen again next time.

*Cabinet considered cutting road maintenance budgets by up to £3 million and street sweeping by 25% according to budget papers.

Recycling Banks to be closed

Cornwall Council has decided to close a large number of recycling banks across Cornwall. The reason being given is that there is now kerbside collection of recyclable materials for every household and so the use of the collection points has decreased massively.

However, a number of facilities will remain. These will include the recycling facilities at the new Waste Transfer Station at Pennygillam (which replaces the old site on the road to Daw's House). The waste transfer station will have facilities for all sorts of recyclables and materials that are not collected at the kerbside including oil and asbestos.

The Council also expects some of the recycling banks at supermarkets to stay open because the supermarkets themselves can offset the waste collected there against their own targets. But each decision will be taken individually and the supermarket will have to agree to pay for collections etc.

If there are any recycling banks in Launceston that you want to see maintained, please get in touch and I'll talk to the Council about how we can make sure they stay.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

If 700 jobs are to go, why were councillors told the figure is 2000

Cornwall Council's Chief Executive Kevin Lavery is in the press today saying that the authority may have to make 700 redundancies. Yet as recently as last Friday (at the Full Council budget setting meeting), we were being told that the figure was up to 2000.

Of course it is good news that the council is not going to make so many people redundant. But surely councillors should be given the most up to date details when they are considering a budget?

During the meeting, my colleague George Edwards raised the issue of job losses and asked about the 2000 figure. He pointed out that the council had already got rid of 1300 posts through natural wastage. He asked why we needed to lose a further 2000. That would have been the perfect chance for the administration to say that the latest figures are just 700. But they failed to take it.

The budget is a very difficult balancing act. There are different political opinions on the correct course of action but those decisions are not helped if councillors are not given the full and up to date details.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

On spying and Mike Hancock

So MI5 and the Home Secretary have detained Mike Hancock's Russian researcher and are seeking her deportation. Mike has said that he knows of no evidence of her having undertaken any illicit or illegal activity and has demanded proof if it exists.

I can't comment on the rights or wrongs of the case as I don't know the details. But the BBC has made clear the very low threshold of the sort of information being passed on which might constitute espionage. It appears that even perfectly open source information might count as spying.

If that is the case, then I suspect that there are tens, if not hundreds, of MPs and their staff who are engaged in similar activities.

The job of foreign embassies is to gather information about the country they are based in. Some is gathered from the newspapers, but much comes from contacts - perfectly innocent individuals who pass on their knowledge, none of it secret. I know that there are many MPs who frequently talk to people from embassies. If they talk about (non-secret) information, does that constitute espionage?

There are also many lobbyists, often former MPs, who have House of Commons passes who have clients who are foreign companies or governments. If those lobbyists find out information - even open information - and pass it on to foreign clients, are they not also guilty of espionage?

When I worked for the Electoral Reform Society I talked to many foreign diplomats to provide information on the UK electoral law and voting systems. None was secret (everything could be found in Parliamentary records or text books) but it was nonetheless easier to talk to an expert and get specific answers to specific questions. Was it wrong to talk to diplomats from Germany, Indonesia or China (among others)?

If the BBC is to be believed and the threshold is really that low then we will soon be in the business of having to report any and all contact with foreigners - a truly totalitarian idea.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

At least the World Cup fiasco should rule out Game 39

The Guardian's Owen Gibson has written a great piece today looking at the five FIFA men who promised their votes to the English bid and then reneged.

He colleague Paul Hayward has also looked at what could happen next with the FA and FIFA. I'd like to suggest one other outcome. Given the anger at some of the FIFA men from the far east, I would suggest that Game 39 - the plan by some in the Premier League to hold an additional game each season in some money-spinning venue overseas - is likely to be dead and buried.

Game 39 might be profitable for the club's concerned, but it is even more so for developing football nations. Just as the FA is unlikely to play any more loss making ambassadorial friendlies against nations who also happen to have FIFA delegates, so they will not want their biggest asset - the Premier League - involved in games in those countries either.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. The Premier League is not owned by the FA, but is a separate body and many of the potential Game 39 venues are in countries where there is no FIFA delegate. But I would think that the mood against doing anything that might please the game's governing body is strong enough that even the most reckless Premier League Chairman would not suggest it for the moment.

UPDATE - Good grief, Franz Beckenbauer is now suggesting that the Qatar world cup should be held in January or February and claims that creating a two month hole in the middle of the European leagues would not be a big problem.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Council passes 'hope for the best' budget

Cornwall Council today passed the Tories' cuts budget and many services must now hope for the best that they will survive the ensuing uncertainty. Liberal Democrat amendments aimed at securing the future of libraries, leisure and adult care budgets were voted down.

The meeting was a generally positive one with genuine debates on Cornwall's services. But, when it came to the vote, most members of the Tory and Independent groups lined up behind the proposals.

Among the decisions were:

- a call for a guarantee that extra funding received above the predicted government grant to be ring fenced for adult social care was rejected. The Council is proposing to spend £4 million less than is predicted to be needed on this service and we wanted to restore this cut;

- a call for the administration to publish its plans for library and one stop shop services and to allow councillors to vote on these detailed plans was also rejected. It will now be up to Cabinet members alone to decide which branches will close and which will stay open;

- a call to delay unspecified projects at Newquay Airport for a year to guarantee the time needed to save leisure facilities such as Camelford, Bude Sea Pool, the Jubilee Pool and Hayle Sea Pool was also rejected. Whilst work will continue to secure their future, there is no guarantee that they will still be in existence by the time plans are finalised;

- council staff face a further review of their severance arrangements, just a few months after the last review massively cut their terms and conditions.

In the only defeat for the administration, councillors voted to take the proposed Stadium for Cornwall out of the capital programme. The feasibility study has still not been received on this project but the Cabinet wanted to pre-empt that by voting the money for it to go ahead anyway.

The move by Cabinet members to cut short debate was also defeated as members from across the chamber shouted them down and demanded the right to have a proper and full debate.

As I mentioned earlier, a motion to have regard to the effect of the cuts on low paid employees was rejected with all but one Cabinet member voting against the proposal.

At one stage, the Cabinet seemed unaware of their own plans as they protested that there had never been a plan to close all but nine libraries in Cornwall. As a leaked early draft of their budget plans showed that this plan existed and was labelled as having Cabinet support. If they now claim that they want to do something different then I am glad, but - as with so much else - there is no idea within County Hall about how they might achieve this.

At the start of the meeting - in a quite extraordinary move - Cabinet Member Joan Symons was allowed to read out a very lengthy statement on libraries and leisure which opposition councillors were not allowed to question despite some sections being demonstrably untrue. Cllr Symons, it should be remembered, submitted a derisory 33 word which could be questioned - although I am told she has been taken to task for this.

And so, despite the fact that the local government settlement which could provide many of the answers we need is just a week or so away, the Conservatives and Independents (almost) all lined up behind a budget which puts a doubt into much of what the Council delivers for local people. There were a few honourable exceptions including Independents Pam Lyne and Judith Haycock and the MK group also voted against the proposals alongside all Lib Dems.

A footnote: Some members of the Tory Group have clearly been learning the art of becoming a consumate politician. Phil Tucker, councillor for the area south of Bude gave a speech rubbishing the amendment which would have secured the future of the Sea Pool. When it came to the vote - which was recorded - he voted in favour. Of course, this was probably due to his being swayed by the strength of the argument... and nothing to do with what his local voters would think of him.

Cabinet votes against helping low paid employees

Quite what low regard Cornwall Council's Tory/Independent administration has for its low paid employees was made clear at today's Council budget meeting.

One part of an amendment being proposed by Mebyon Kernow's Dick Cole stated:

"The potential impact on lower paid employees is actively considered during the negotiations."

There was one honourable exception - Julian German.

The proposed amendment was defeated by 51 votes to 50 in the closest vote of the day.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

England one up on the Aussies

As the second test starts this evening, it's perhaps worth noting that England are already one up on the Aussies - not that either country will be proud of that achievement because it came in the World Cup voting. England scored a measly 2 votes in the bid to host the 2018 World Cup and Australia secured just a single vote in their bid for 2022.

I have significant doubts about the two countries selected as hosts. Both had received dodgy reports from the technical assessments and neither country is exactly ideally situated to be hosts. Russia's bid relies on huge amounts of internal travel (even if it is free) and Qatar involves a pretty long flight from just about everywhere.

Neither country has hosted a major tournament before - and it is good that football is reaching new places - but both have dodgy human rights records. Racism continues to be a problem in Russia which the authorities do not acknowledge and Qatar is a country which bans gay couples and still has a lot of people trafficking and slave labour.

What of England's bid? Clearly, for all the upbeat mood over the last 24 hours, we suffered because of the hooliganism last night and the investigations into FIFA's dodgy practices carried out by our media over the last few weeks. I don't condemn the Sunday Times or Panorama at all. FIFA is clearly an organisation with a lot of members who see corruption as normal. It urgently needs reform, but the current membership obviously did not look kindly on the activities of a free press.

David Cameron staked a lot on backing England's bid. Simply losing does not tarnish his efforts but it is surely a bit humiliating for him that, for all the effort he put in, he was only able to gain a single backer as a result.

More than 1100 say no to unfair parking charges in Launceston

Earlier this week I posted about how expensive parking in Launceston will become under the Conservative administration's plans to increase charges locally.

Today, a group of traders gathered at the One Stop Shop with a petition signed by more than 1100 businesses and their customers against the change. They were joined by local MP Dan Rogerson and Mayor of Launceston Paul O'Brien as well as Cllr Sasha Gillard Loft and myself.

The petition was organised by Bryony Trueman and Marina Ellis who both work for Variety Insurance Services in the town. They did a fantastic job in a very short space of time and the number of names goes to show just how serious a threat local people believe the parking charge rises will be. The petition will now be a formal response to Cornwall Council's parking charge consultation which culminates tomorrow.

Incidentally, in my last post, I mentioned that parking for season ticket holders will become four times as expensive as for residents of Chelsea if the Conservative plans go through. In case anyone thinks that Kensington and Chelsea Council is a one off, we have found at least four other boroughs in London which charges residents less than £195 (the Launceston charge) for parking. And even for businesses the charges are far less than Cornwall is proposing.

We have also heard from a business in town which currently buys four permits for its staff. They say that, if charges rise as proposed, the parking costs will be higher than the rent on the shop. They will move to another location if they go through.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Budget (meeting) cancelled

News is trickling through that tomorrow's full council budget meeting has been cancelled. This was the meeting where councillors were being asked to vote on the cuts package promoted by the Conservative led administration.

It's a shame that the decision has been taken so late in the day when many local residents have taken time off work to come and lobby councillors over the threats to local services. But if conditions are sufficiently unsafe to make driving hazardous then it is the right decision to make.

And so we await a new date. We know that the Council Leader wants to meeting to happen as soon as possible claiming that the Council will lose millions of pounds if the budget is not put through immediately. However there are the competing pressures of the constitution and the local government settlement.

Our constitution states that if a meeting is cancelled then the procedure for calling a new one takes a week or so. The local govt settlement details are due out in about 10 days time - at which point we will know precisely what budget pressures Cornwall faces. There has been some debate already about why the council is meeting just 10 days before the picture becomes a lot clearer. If the reconvened meeting happens just two or three days before the announcement then it would make no sense whatsoever.

Parking in Launceston FOUR TIMES more expensive than Chelsea

Over the past week, I've spent a good deal of time talking to business and shopkeepers in Launceston about Council proposals to change the car park prices. Whilst there is a little good news, the vast majority of charges will be increasing dramatically:

The charges for parking will rise by an average of 42% with the biggest rise being for people wanting to park for four hours who face a rise from £1.60 to £3.70.

In a move that will hit lots of local shop workers, the cost of a season ticket will rise from £195 a year to £600 a year. I met one cafe waitress who told me that this represents almost a full month's take home pay for a full time job. I was told by several people that they simply could not afford to stay on in work if these rises come into effect.

There is a lot of anger in the town at the attitude that Cornwall Council is taking to parking - thinking that they can put prices up and up and up. Local businesses say that they would be in great danger of closing because of the effect higher prices will have on trade.

If these parking charges do happen then parking in Launceston will be four times as much as parking in Chelsea in the richest part of London. There, annual charges range from £66 a year for the most environmentally friendly vehicles up to £154 for the most polluting. And a permit for a second vehicle costs just £55.

I've also heard from people who are incredulous that local Conservative Councillor Phil Parsons was the person who proposed these huge increases.

I hope to have more news on this later this week.

Campaign to save Launceston Library reaches 1000 mark

More than 1000 people have now signed up to the campaign to save Launceston Library.

The campaign was started when it became clear that the Conservative led administration at County Hall wanted to cut around £1 million from the libraries and one stop shops budget over the course of the next two years. The administration claims it does not yet know how it will achieve the saving but we know that they have an unpublished plan which would see the closure of all but nine branches across Cornwall.

If that programme of closures were to go ahead then many branches which are at the heart of local communities would close - including Launceston.

I have proposed an amendment to the Council's emergency budget which would require the Council to publish their plans for changing the service and for full council to vote to approve them before any changes could be made.

It's fantastic that so many people have signed up to support the campaign in such a short period of time. The collection of names of supporters will carry on until we know what the Council has planned for our library.

Concern over lack of fishing industry representatives on new fishing committee

Concern has been raised that the fishing industry is under-represented on the new bodies which oversea fishing and conservation issues.

The old Sea Fisheries Committees are being abolished next year to make way for 'Inshore Fishing Conservation Authorities' or IFCAs and, whereas the old committees had large numbers of people from the fishing industry - representing all strands of the business - the new IFCAs are dominated by scientists and people from conservation groups.

I'm one of the Cornwall Council reps on the new body and, whilst I can't be precise, it does seem that there are only two or three people who are still involved in the fishing industry on the new group.

A balance obviously has to be struck. But with so many different types of fishing practised off our coasts - from potting, angling and long-lining to trawling and dredging - it is difficult for just a couple of fishermen to represent the different views of the whole industry.

The IFCAs were established by the previous Labour government. I wonder whether the new coalition will listen to these concerns and seek to redress the balance.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Next Generation Broadband - an update

Earlier this week I posted about the announcement of the first areas in Cornwall that would receive superfast broadband by March. I welcomed the progress with the project but queried why none of the eight pilot areas were in East Cornwall.

I have now heard back from the officer in charge of the project who tells me:

The purpose of the pilots is to provide valuable feedback at an early stage, for example in relation to different service providers offering services on the new network. The rollout is highly technical and the pilots were selected in areas that could be upgraded relatively quickly.

Detailed planning and survey work is currently underway across the whole of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, and we are expecting to be able to announce a detailed rollout plan when it has been completed in Spring 2011. Because of the existing telecommunications infrastructure it was not possible to run the pilots in North or South East Cornwall, but there is a significant amount of upgrade work currently being undertaken in these areas to ensure that they feature prominently in the first phase of the main rollout.

That's good news. We were promised that the roll out would begin in the East and I look forward to the details of how this will happen in the Spring.

Ministers to look at proposal to make second home owners pay full council tax

Ministers have pledged to look at proposals to make second home owners pay full council tax. The issue was raised by Lib Dem MP Tim Farron in the House of Commons this morning.

Second home owners currently pay a maximum of 90% of the full rate of council tax - a discount which particularly affects areas with high numbers of second homes such as Cornwall.

The first impact is obviously the financial loss. With around one in twenty properties in Cornwall being second homes, the 10% discount means that many millions of pounds of potential income is not helping to provide for services such as libraries, adult care and leisure.

The second impact is that, by effectively giving a subsidy to second home owners, it makes ownership more attractive. In turn this leads to large concentrations of second homes in some coastal villages. With low occupation rates for much of the year, the village as a whole suffers as house prices rise and shops and local facilities close.

Of course there is a vast difference between promising to look at a proposal and actually implementing it, but congratulations to Tim for securing the promise.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

England's World Cup bid to be decided by AV vote

England's World Cup bid will be decided by a form of AV vote - the system that British people will consider in a referendum on changing the voting system next May.

The 22 voting FIFA delegates will cast their votes next week and, if none of the four candidate bids reaches 50% then the lowest will be eliminated and so on until a winner emerges. The BBC reckons that second and third preferences will be crucial as there is no clear favourite to win.

Could the decision of the people in the referendum be affected by the fate of the English bid?

Launceston Christmas lights

The town centre of Launceston has been lit with its new Christmas lights and it looks fabulous. The lights were organised by the Chamber of Commerce with contributions from a number of different organisations including the three Cornwall Councillors - Sasha Gillard-Loft, Adam Paynter and myself.

Together with the Christmas tree, the square looks really great at the moment.

I hope that late night shopping - on Friday 10th December - will be even better than usual thanks to the new decorations.

Joan Symons essay written on the bus on the way to school

At each Cornwall Council full council meeting, councillors receive reports from each of the Cabinet members. The aim of this exercise is (as the council report states):

"It is important for members of the Council to have an opportunity to understand the priorities and activities of the Leader and each member of the Cabinet... (reports) set out the activities that each one has undertaken, meetings they have attended and upcoming meetings and events that are taking place relevant to their portfolio area."

Typically, reports are meant to take up a page of A4 but Cabinet members frequently go over that and we get a pretty good idea of what they have been doing and what they feel is important in their portfolio area. Councillors also get the chance to ask questions of the Cabinet and this is vital to our job of holding them to account. The rules state that questions must be based on the report and we tend to have pretty good debates which easily take up the half hour allotted for the purpose.

Yet at the November 30th meeting we have the following report from Leisure, Libraries and Culture Cabinet Member Joan Symons:

"Since the last full council I have been very busy working on the budget, I have however found time to attend several evening meetings and attended all committee meetings relevant to my portfolio."

That's it.

There are no details of the meetings she has attended, with whom or what was discussed. We have no idea what issues are coming up that she feels are particularly interesting, controversial or tough.

She could have chosen to write about Camelford Leisure Centre, Bude Sea Pool, Jubilee Pool, Hayle Pool, the library service, one stop shops, the bid for European Region of Culture Status, the work to develop Porthmeor Studios, the call centre, the Cornwall Centre and local studies library, the work to change the revenues and benefits service or the museums and historic collections. All of these fall in her portfolio and there have been plenty of tough decisions taken or about to be taken. But we get not a word on any of them.

Joan's report reminds me of the sort of effort turned in by someone who forgot about a piece of homework until they were on their way to school and promptly scribbled something while they were on the bus.

I've written to Joan suggesting that she might like to try again. Councillors - and the public - deserve better.

Council agrees to open up car parks on Remembrance Sunday

Ten days ago, Launceston saw a huge turnout for the Remembrance Sunday parade in the town square. But many attendees found it difficult to park in the town because the Cattle Market car parks were closed off. I have now secured a promise from Cornwall Council to leave these open in future years.

The turnout was so good that the short stay car parks at The Walk and Tower Street were full and on-street car parking was severely restricted because of the parade. Many people went to the Cattle Market only to find that their access was barred.

After I was contacted by John Knights, the Chairman of Launceston Royal British Legion, I got in touch with the Council and they have promised that the car parks - usually closed off on Sundays to avoid anti-social behaviour - will be left open in future years.

I'd like to thank Cornwall Council for their swift action.

Pothole - St Thomas' Road

A large pot hole is opening up in the uphill carriageway of St Thomas' Road in Launceston. I've asked the Council's Highways team to fill it in as soon as possible because this is such a busy road. In the meantime, drivers should be careful as it could cause damage to their car.

Launceston Library Campaign tops 600 signatures in less than 5 days

More than 600 users of Launceston Library have signed up to the Liberal Democrat led petition to save the facility from closure in the five days since the campaign was launched. The service is under threat as part of Cornwall Council's emergency budget.

The Conservative led administration at County Hall is seeking to save more then £1 million from the library and one stop shops budget over the next two years. Lib Dem councillors have repeatedly asked for details of how the savings will be achieved but have been told that no plans are yet worked out. The only scheme on the table is one devised by the Council to close up to 21 branches in Cornwall - retaining just nine.

This is a fantastic response to our campaign to save a vital local service. It shows just how valuable our community thinks that our local library is. Launceston library is a great local service with fantastic staff. They promote reading and learning and are well used by the local community here in Launceston, in surrounding villages and into Devon. Without this library, users will face a journey of at least 20 miles to the nearest branch.

During the two days I have so far spent collecting petition signatures outside the library, I have been impressed by the range of people who use it. There are school groups from the nearby Windmill Hill School who come to learn about reading and libraries as well as groups such as the mother and toddler group which meets on a Monday.

Launceston library is also the base for volunteers who deliver books to hundreds of housebound readers. It has a wide range of large print books and is often the only access to the internet for many local residents.

I would also like to thank the many local business and shops that have been collecting signatures for this campaign. They have told me that the library draws people into our town and if it closes then they will lose trade.

Next Tuesday, I will be proposing an amendment to the Conservative's cuts budget to save Launceston library and all the libraries across Cornwall which are threatened with closure. All are vital to their local communities and all should be saved.

The Conservative plan is incredibly short-sighted. They talk vaguely about community partnership and more use of volunteers but they don't even have the beginnings of a thought through plan as yet.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Lib Dems announce alternative to Tory cuts budget

Liberal Democrats on Cornwall Council are proposing alternatives to the Conservative led administration’s plans to close libraries and swimming pools and cut adult care budgets. The proposals will be debated at the Council’s Budget meeting next Tuesday 30th November.

Just like everyone else in the country, Cornwall Council is having to make cuts. But the council is in a much stronger position to save front line services because of the unitary process which is saving tens of millions of pounds by reducing unnecessary bureacracy and red tape.

Regrettably, the Conservative led administration is proposing to cut vital front line services as part of their budget. Many other parts of their savings plans are not yet thought out and could jeopardise services such as libraries and one stop shops.

The Liberal Democrats on Cornwall Council are proposing an alternative to their budget which will save all front line services and make sure that the people of Cornwall do not suffer.

The Liberal Democrats have already acted to save evening and weekend bus routes and travel for post 16 students. By highlighting which services were going to be ended under Tory plans, we forced the Cabinet to think again and they have withdrawn plans which would lead to many towns and villages being cut off outside peak hours.

The Liberal Democrats are proposing amendments in three key areas:

  • For adult social care, we will ensure that services are properly funded next year. Experts said that Cornwall needed an increased budget of £4 million to cover extra needs. The Conservatives said that they could not afford this. We have found the money by earmarking increased government grants as well as other spending shortfalls so that our most vulnerable residents are properly looked after.
  • For libraries, we are horrified that the Conservatives are proposing to cut about £1 million from the libraries and one stop shops budget over the next two years without saying how they will find the money. The only plan they came up with was to close all but 9 libraries across Cornwall. We have given them time to come up with an alternative scheme by using contingency funding. We expect a fully worked scheme to be ready for debate by February and we expect them to ensure that the long term future of our libraries is guaranteed.
  • For leisure centres and pools, we feel that the people of Camelford, Bude, Penzance and Hayle have been misled by promises that the future of their leisure centre and pools would be secure. We believe that the local groups which may take over the facilities need up to a year to get management structures and funding in place and we will give them time to get this right so that these facilities can continue to be used by thousands of local residents and visitors each year. We will fund this by delaying capital projects such as a medical innovations centre and unspecified schemes at Newquay Airport by a year.

The residents of Cornwall know that cuts have to be made. Thanks to good work by Liberal Democrats in the past, Cornwall has been spared some of the pain inflicted elsewhere. The choice on November 30th is between the Conservative plan to close libraries and leisure centres and underfund services for our most vulnerable or the Lib Dem plan to guarantee these services into the future.

Superfast Broadband - pilot areas announced

Cornwall Council and BT have today announced that eight areas are in line for the first stage of the next generation superfast broadband for Cornwall. The eight will see the service upgraded by March next year.

That's great news but it's a real shame that none of the first tranche is in East Cornwall despite a pledge by the Cabinet to start the roll out in the East.

The eight areas are:

the Chiverton Cross area,
St Agnes,
St Day,

In her press release comment, Cabinet member Carolyn Rule refers to these as 'pilot areas' and still promises that the first real roll out will begin in South East Cornwall. To me, eight areas constitutes a roll out rather than a pilot and I would have hoped that any pilot areas could have included North Cornwall towns.

Next Generation Broadband is a good thing for Cornwall and I thoroughly welcome the announcement that work has started.

I have written to Carolyn asking her when North Cornwall, and in particular Launceston, can expect to see the superfast broadband.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

How to defeat the Tea Party - Have a complicated name and force people to spell it

Sarah Palin's hand-picked candidate for the US Senate seat in Alaska has been defeated by a candidate whose name didn't even appear on the ballot paper. And what's more, for their vote to count, electors had to hand write (and spell correctly) Lisa Murkowski's surname.

Senator Murkowski was the sitting Republican member of the Senate for Alaska who sought re-election. In the Primary, she was defeated by the Tea Party (and Sarah Palin) backed Joe Miller. Murkowski's only chance of retaining her seat was to run as an independent. But she faced the additional hurdle of not having her name appear on the ballot paper. In order to win she needed to get voters to use the write-in option. But the law on judging a voter's intent is a lot less clear in the US and the Republican's were set for a court challenge to rule out any ballot paper that did not spell the name Murkowski perfectly.

When polls closed on November 2nd, the 'write-in' category was in the lead with Miller second and the Democrat trailing badly in third place. But would enough of the write in voters have spelled Murkowski's name right to give her victory.

After a laborious hand count, Murkowski was declared the winner with a lead of 10,400 votes. A large number of ballots were challenged but, even without these, she still had a margin of more than 2,000 and so officials declared her the winner.

How did she manage this feat? One factor will have been an advert she ran teaching people how to spell her name. It's not the most subtle of TV spots, but it is very effective:

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Flooding in Launceston

Today saw severe flooding across Cornwall which has affected many thousands of people. In Launceston we were not immune as Lorraine Conway's picture shows. The Kensey burst its banks and properties in Riverside were badly hit.

The flooding here could have been a lot worse without the swift action of council staff who conducted an emergency clean of the gulleys in areas likely to be hit. Unlike Mevagissey, Lostwithiel etc, Launceston is fortunate that if we flood it is because of the run off from the hills surrounding the town and so we get some warning. That doesn't make it any better for those homes which were hit, but it helped to stop many more families suffering. Huge thanks to the people who swung into action so quickly.

The Prime Minister, answering a question from St Austell MP Stephen Gilbert, promised that the Government would provide all the help needed. As well as helping to make sure people are back in their homes as quickly as possible, I'm sure that Cornwall Council will be making the case that, being out on a peninsula and with our unique geography, Cornwall needs the funding to be able to prevent floods from causing such damage and to ensure that we can clear gulleys on a regular basis.

Cabinet rubber stamps the cuts budget

Cornwall Council's Cabinet has rubber stamped their cuts budget which will see vital services ripped away from thousands of people across Cornwall. But, as ever, there remains money for refurbishing County Hall and other capital projects of dubious value.

For the people from Camelford and Bude who turned up hoping for some good news on their leisure centre and pool, there were were no answers. Conservative Deputy Leader Jim Currie - taking the chair whilst the Leader dealt with flood matters - dismissed concerns about these facilities as being arguments over small amounts. Of course, the £30,000 it would take to save Bude Sea Pool and the missing £67,000 needed by Camelford may be small change for him, but they are much loved local services for the people of those towns and the surrounding areas. Without time to build an alternative management and funding plan, these will be forced to close.

Today I asked who the Council had been in touch with about taking over Bude Sea Pool. I had been briefed that someone was lined up to take the service on, but the truth is that no talks had been held until last Monday. Details would be sent to me, I was told. I'm not holding my breath.

We still have no answers on what they plan to do to the library service and one stop shop network. Apparently we may get some more information by the end of the week - leaving just a couple of days to try to come up with an alternative before the deadline for proposing amendments. It seems that the Council has little idea what they plan to do and they aren't encouraging ideas either.

The budget process moves on to the Full Council meeting on 30th November when the final decisions will be made. I will be seeking (with Lib Dem colleagues and others) to make changes to the budget to save key front line services.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

You can't drive a car with two wheels - Camelford latest

The dismay felt by campaigners trying to save Camelford Leisure Centre has come to the fore today. Campaigner Chris Ingram was on BBC Radio Cornwall's Laurence Reed programme this lunchtime explaining what happened at last night's meeting with Cabinet Member Joan Symons.

Chris used the metaphor of being promised four wheels for your car but then the mechanic only turning up with two. It's simply not possible to drive a car with only two wheels. In the same way, the leisure centre needs funding for a full year in order to allow a new management structure to be put in place. With less than half the necessary money being made available, there will be no time to put into place the necessary changes.

At the scrutiny meeting ten days ago, it was quite clear to me that the Council was promising to fully fund the leisure centre until a long term solution could be found with the proviso that the full funding could not last for more than a year. If Cllr Symons had meant that only £50,000 was on offer then why didn't she say so?

One of the obvious questions being asked is what makes Camelford special when Bude Sea Pool, the Jubilee Pool in Penzance and other facilities are also under threat?

The simple answer is that none of these is more special than any other and all should be saved.

When we held the scrutiny meeting, we were told that local groups were prepared to take over the running of Bude and Jubilee pools and that their futures were assured. Except that this isn't actually the case. It turns out that no discussions had been held with anyone in Bude about taking over the sea pool and therefore the future of that facility is under considerable doubt.

Camelford Leisure Centre is a vital facility for many thousands of people in an area without easy access to other towns and their leisure centres. As the campaign group has pointed out, the costs and travel times for local primary school children if the leisure centre closes would mean that it is unlikely that they would be able to continue with swimming lessons.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Camelford Leisure Centre - were councillors misled?

Ten days ago, Cornwall Council's Cabinet Member for Leisure, Joan Symons, told a scrutiny committee that Camelford Leisure Centre was getting a stay of execution. She said that the centre would be funded for up to a year out of the Leader's contingency fund whilst a working group looked at a long term management and funding structure for the facility. She also announced that a smaller amount - £20,000 - would be available for the subsequent year to make sure that the centre was able to prosper.

The first meeting of that working group was held tonight and, according to one person who was there, the actual money available is nothing like that which was promised at the meeting.

According to my source:

"At a meeting tonight in Camelford, Joan Symons announced that the support
for Camelford Leisure Centre for 2011-12 from the leader of the council
would be £50,000 which is less than 45% of the budgeted shortfall of
£117,000. For the following year, the much reduced amount is £10,000.

Our three local ward members who were all at the scrutiny meeting all say
that this was not what they understood to have been said and are all under
the impression that the commitmment was made to fund the Leisure Centre
remaining open for the full financial year.

I believe that the meeting was misled by the leader of the council and the
portfolio holder."

I agree with the three local members. The clear impression given was that there would be full funding of the current level of subsidy until a workable deal was done and implemented, so long as that was within a year and that if a deal was done more quickly then the subsidy would end sooner.

This u-turn puts the chances of saving Camelford Leisure Centre at serious risk. There is little chance that a new structure can be found and implemented within six months with all the legal niceities in place.

Was Joan Symons misleading the committee when she made her announcement to the committee? I would hope and think not. But what is clear is that the scrutiny committee believed that the deal was for the full amount and approved it on that basis.

Whilst this u-turn is bad enough for Camelford Leisure Centre, how will it look to the town and parish councils and voluntary organisations which are also talking to Cornwall Council about taking on services? If this deal falls through then it puts in jeopardy the whole Big Cornwall initiative being planned by Chief Exec Kevin Lavery and Leader Alec Robertson.

Launceston Library - users write

Since Cornwall Council's threat to close Launceston library and other libraries across Cornwall, I've received lots of messages for local residents in support of the campaign to keep it open. Below are just four of the emails I've received:

Library User 1

“My parents are in their 80s and use the library in Launceston on a regular basis. Because of his eyesight, my father likes the large print books that they stock. We are dismayed to learn that Cornwall Council is proposing to close most of its libraries... the library is also invaluable in helping children to read... The staff are friendly and helpful and there is a wide selection of books.”

Library User 2

“As a resident I am appalled at the prospect of Launceston Library closing. It is an important community building, not just for the book service it provides, including the vital reference library but also it is a place where people from outlying villages agree to meet. I use it frequently for reference purposes and also have the joy of taking my grandchildren there on a regular basis - it has been a prime motivator in these children aged 6 and 5 becoming avid book readers.This asset must remain”

Library User 3

“We were sad when both our Mummy and Grandad told us that Launceston Library may be closing soon. We go there regularly with Mummy, Daddy and Grandad and take books home to read in addition to our school books. It is a lovely quiet place to go and look at books when we are waiting for grown ups to finish their shopping or visit the dentist and we would miss it very much if it closed. Please help to keep it open.”

Library User 4

“Due to Launceston's position in the County it would be difficult, if not impossible, for many current and potential future users to access a library service elsewhere, particularly for those members of the community who have to rely on public transport. The Library is of special value to the older generation and to young people. For anyone on limited means, who cannot afford to continually purchase books, the Library is the only alternative available. Additionally, the support and advice of its staff are invaluable, as is access to the reference section. Further it is also much used by book clubs, I myself belong to "Booktalk", and for the encouragement of reading by children through the various activities it organises. The Library provides easy access to the internet for those who do not have that resource at home. With the increasing emphasis on the use of the internet for daily living, without access many less affluent and older members of society will be disadvantaged and excluded.”

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Lib Dems launch campaign to save Launceston Library

Today the Liberal Democrats are launching a campaign to save Launceston Library. The facility is under threat from the current round of budget cuts being proposed by Cornwall Council.

Yesterday we received the final budget proposals which will be rubber stamped by the Cabinet at its meeting on Wednesday. Despite pleas from scrutiny for more information on the plans to cut almost a million pounds from the library budget, no more detail has been given.

When the budget proposals were originally circulated, it was clear that a cut of this magnitude would mean the closure of a huge number of local libraries. The later budget papers included the same scale of cut but without any of the details of how it would be achieved.

For all that the Conservatives say that they do not want to cut libraries, without a solid and credible plan for making the savings our local libraries (not just Launceston, but across Cornwall) remain under threat.

And so we are launching our campaign today. We are delivering a leaflet to every house in the town asking people to back the campaign and we will also be collecting petitions right up until the final budget decision is made on November 30th. There is still time for the Council to back away from cutting libraries.

If you can help collect petitions, please contact me using the details given on the right of the screen.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Dockacre and Wooda Road - an update

Earlier today I wrote about problems caused by the road works in central Launceston. After a flurry of emails with council officers there are now more signs at the entrance to Wooda Road to advise motorists that there is always access to Tower Street and Castle Street and to sign any diversion which may be in place.

That's good news but it appears that there were points when the whole of Wooda and Dockacre were closed off and so no access was possible to Tower Street or Castle Street even though there should have been. I'm grateful to officers for their work on the signage but have asked them to keep more of an overview in future to prevent total closures happening again.

I've also learned that leaflets were distributed to premises that front Wooda and Dockacre, but not to services or businesses in town which would be cut off by the works. I think this was a mistake and I have asked officers to consider more widespread advertisement in the future.

Save Bude Sea Pool

Fresh from the decision to perform a u-turn on its plans to close Camelford Leisure Centre, Cornwall Council is facing further objections to its proposed cuts to the leisure budget. People in Bude are protesting about plans to close the historic Bude Sea Pool.

Built in the 1930s, the pool is an iconic part of the town's sea front. But it's not just a bit of nostalgia. The pool draws thousands of visitors from across the UK and abroad and is well used by swimmers, people learning to dive, canoeists and the surf life saving club.

When I questioned officers and Cabinet Member Joan Symons about the plans for Bude Sea Pool last Thursday, I was told that the council was in discussions with the town council who were keen to take over the running of the pool. If this were actually the case and it would guarantee the future of the pool then all would be well. Except that the town council has only just been told about the proposed closure when they had a regular, scheduled meeting with Cornwall Council two days ago - four days after I was promised that negotiations were well in hand.

Is there some other group or individual who might take over the running of the pool? Again, if this were the case and it could guarantee the long-term future of the facility then great. But the sad truth is that there are no groups or individuals talking to Cornwall Council about doing this.

So who are these mysterious people who Joan Symons is talking to about saving Bude Sea Pool?

The campaign group managed to attract more than 150 people to the pool this morning at 8am with less than 24 hours notice to show the strength of opposition to the plans to journalists. They've also set up a Facebook Group which attracted more than 1600 supporters within the first 36 hours.

Closure of Wooda and Dockacre Road

Local residents can't fail to have noticed that Wooda and Dockacre Road have been closed recently for re-curbing and re-surfacing work. The closure has had a significant impact on many businesses and services in our town and I have written to the Council asking them to undertake a review of how they manage such closures to avoid such problems in future.

As well as many businesses, one of the services that has been most severely hit has been Dental Dimensions/Vital Dentistry in Castle Street. As well as routine dentistry for both the NHS and private patients, Vital Dentistry is also the emergency NHS dentist for North Cornwall. As such, many patients (some of whom are not able to walk long distances) cannot wait for appointments when the road is back open.

The concern is two-fold:

  • First, that consideration was not given to the businesses which have been affected by the closure. If it had been, then these businesses could have been consulted and plans made to do the works in two sections so that there was always access to Tower Street (and on to Castle Street) throughout the works.
  • Second, that alternative options, such as removing the prohibition on entering Church Street and signing this alternative, were not considered.

Of course, in order to undertake road works there often need to be road closures. But these have to be handled sympathetically with every option considered to make sure that businesses and vital services remain open for business with people able to get to them.

I'll post again when I have a reply.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

New youth cafe for Launceston?

This lunchtime I had a great meeting with two of the people behind Jericho's and Liberty House in Tower Street in Launceston. We were discussing the idea of a youth cafe for Launceston.

A youth cafe would give young people a space to meet and to be themselves, doing whatever they want to do in a safe environment. The aim behind it is about generating a sense of community and helping young people to interact more with their peers and to make the best of themselves. It wouldn't involve structured activities - but would allow opportunities for young people to decide for themselves if they wanted anything more organised. There would also be someone on hand to point people in the right direction if they want to know more about a particular issue or to get involved with a particular event.

One advantage of this project are that it would be a space dedicated to young people on a regular basis that isn't in a pub. At the moment there is so little to do in our town for young people that they end up either sitting at home or going to the pub under age. We have a few projects started recently - including the skate park and the acoustic night at Jericho's - and these are great. A youth cafe would be one more option.

This project is still very much in the early days. Issues of funding and timing still need to be addressed, but full marks to everyone at Liberty House for thinking of this.

The next stage is to get the buy in of young people in our town. So if you have any ideas about this project, please get in touch or leave your thoughts below.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Young people take over County Hall (and why Andrew Wallis is wrong)

Today County Hall was taken over by groups of young people from across Cornwall. They were invited by the Chairman of the Council to come and discuss issues that affect them.

Groups ranged from primary school pupils through secondary to groups of carers and volunteers. In total there were nine presentations on different subjects. In the audience were Cornwall Councillors (although not as many as I would have hoped), and representatives from organisations that work with young people.

Perhaps the stand out presentation was from young carers. There were some very moving life stories told and it really rammed home just how much some people have to fit into their lives, combining caring responsibilities with school and social life. It's difficult enough when you are a parent, but must be very tough indeed when you are a 12 year old caring for a parent with dementia and alcohol problems.

One of the groups that came along were the school council from Launceston College. After the event I had a great session with them asking what changes they wanted to see in our town. The top three issues that they mentioned were:

  • transport - trying to get into town to take part in activities or to see friends and back home again
  • things to do - the skatepark is great for those who skate but people wanted more activities
  • more shops - we talked about the empty shops and what stores they would like to see come to town

I've promised to do what I can on each of these issues and, of course, with Sasha and Adam I will happily work on any issues where people want to see action.

Today's event would not have been possible without the assistance of Council Chairman Pat Harvey. She hosted the event and provided lunch for the participants - something she does for tens of meetings and events each year. Pat also represents the civic face of the Council, at hundreds of events each year. In straightened financial times we all have to look to make savings and the Chairman's expenditure is not exempt from this. But I think it is wrong to suggest, as Andrew Wallis has done, that the Chairman's office and role is a waste of money.