Thursday, 30 September 2010

Kensey Foods to use only Cornish milk

Congratulations to Launceston firm Kensey Foods for signing a deal which means that they will only be using Cornish milk in future.

The deal is with Trewithen Dairies and means that around 75,000 litres of milk every week will be shipped to the Pennygillam factory for use in its production of quiches and desserts.

Superfast Broadband for Cornwall - yay! (Treating councillors like mushrooms - boo!)

I am indebted to Matthew Clarke who has provided recordings from the press announcement of super fast broadband for Cornwall earlier today.

You would have thought that, as we are asked to be ambassadors for the scheme, Cornwall councillors would have been given a full briefing on the deal. Unfortunately not. We had a chance to learn more at a meeting of East Cornwall councillors earlier in the week, but the officer pulled out citing an embargo on any details. The only notice we had was a perfunctory note sent out late last night from the Leader of the Council giving no details whatsoever.

Richard Glover of the Chamber of Commerce made it clear this morning that his members have been given the full details of the scheme - yet elected councillors are once again treated like mushrooms.

I asked the Leader of the Council for details of the scheme or a full briefing yet have not had the courtesy of an acknowledgement or a reply. Cllr Robertson was perhaps too busy parading in front of the world's media.

As for the details of the scheme, it should be fantastic news for businesses in Cornwall. They will get access to 100mb superfast fibre-optic broadband. The Chief Executive of BT has made it clear that they will not be holding a monopoly on provision and so competition should ensure that the packages are affordable - but we could do with a bit more detail on this.

I have a few more concerns about the access for residents and private customers - concerns which I would have hoped could have been assuaged in the missing briefing.

Specifically, I am concerned about whether there will be decent access for all residents. BT has said that about 85% of residents will have access to fibre-optic broadband direct to their home or to the local junction box. If it is the latter, what speeds will actually be achieved? We have all seen the reports by Which? that make it clear that 'up to' figures are often totally unrealistic. So for those residents who will have to reply on copper wire for the final stage of the broadband link, what speeds can they realistically expect?

And what about the 15% of residents who won't be connected to the fibre-optic network, either directly or indirectly? Previously, it was promised that they would have access to similar service levels via satellite broadband or similar. Is that still going ahead, when and how?

I have heard that access for residents will depend on local businesses taking up the offer to be connected. Is that ture? And if it is, what about those people who live in areas where there are no local businesses or where local businesses don't want super fast broadband. Will these residents still be able to benefit?

With 130,000km of cable to be laid, can BT say what sort of disruption this will cause in terms of digging up roads?

And finally. In the past it was promised that superfast broadband would roll out from the East of Cornwall. Yet this was not mentioned today and the press conference was held in Newquay. So has this plan been abandoned? At the press conference it was said that there were engineers working on the project already and the press release says that the first connections will be made by early next year - so why have they not told us where this will be?

None of these comments should be taken as questioning the nature of the project itself. I think it is very good news and it was initiated by the previous Lib Dem led County Council. But instead of writing a purely good news story, I have had to write one which has so many questions simply because, yet again, the Cabinet has chosen to ignore local elected members.

(Incidentally, whilst no councillors broke the 11am embargo on the partnership with BT, it appears that the BBC did and the Cornish Guardian managed to have all the details in their on-line report whilst they skirted round the embargo issue. I'm sure that there's a lesson in there somewhere.)

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The first great purge...

Perhaps the best forecasting of the Ed Milliband speech came from Conservative commentator Dizzy who suggested that the new Leader might follow the lead of Krushchev in 1956 who famously denounced Stalin and Lenin.

And so it came to pass that Blairism and Brownism were set aside and the new ideology of youth was adopted. Would it be too much to suggest that Red Ed has been reading his Cambodian history books? Certainly the intellectuals are fleeing for the borders, led by David Milliband.

Whilst the majority of the party applauded the new orthodoxy, at least DM had the guts to stick to his principles (albeit principles that I heartily disagree with) and lambasted Harriet Harman for clapping a denunciation of the Iraq war.

Further denunciations have taken place today with Nick Brown being sacked from his position as Chief Whip and the new leader is clearly using his honeymoon period to place his most loyal followers in the key positions.

Whilst David may be withdrawing from frontline politics, everyone remaining in Manchester seems to be chanting in unison:
"We love Little Brother. We love Little Brother..."

Stadium for Cornwall - latest update

Just like Cllr Andrew Wallis, I've been sent a copy of an overview of the consultant's report on the siting for a Stadium for Cornwall. As with Andy, it's marked confidential. I have asked why this is so as it does not appear to contain any commercially confidential details or discuss personnel matters (the two usual reasons for confidentiality).

What it does do, however, is make it very clear that - despite what Cllr Carolyn Rule is saying now - the Cabinet were gung-ho in favour of a council funded stadium and have spent far more than the £78,000 spent on external consultants.

As and when I clear up the confidentiality element, I'll hopefully be in a position to publish extracts from the report.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

'Big Cornwall', 'Active Partnering' and other nebulous concepts

This afternoon I went to a briefing with officers about various economic matters in the East of Cornwall.

One of the items we discussed was 'Active Partnering'. This is the fancy name for Cornwall Council working together with town and parish councils to deliver services in the future. This is all very well as a concept but will depend a lot on the detail of what services are delivered locally, how they are delivered, how much they cost and who is responsible for quality.

Unfortunately, there were a number of items on the list of possible services which could be delivered by local councils which hit a raw nerve:

- Tourist information. Yep, the same Cornwall Council that tried to dump Launceston Tourist Information Centre without any sort of succession planning, wants to take the money saved by abandoning Launceston and the three other TICs which used to be run by Cornwall Council and spend a tiny amount of the savings on a tokenistic joint effort spread across Cornwall.

- Parking Enforcement. When Launceston Town Council formally wrote to Cornwall Council offering to take on civil enforcement duties in the town due to the lack of decent action by Cornwall they received an incredibly patronising response which suggested that the Town Council was not capable of handling the work. Now, suddenly, with massive savings having to be made, Cornwall Council is interested in the idea.

- Car Parks. The Town Council also wrote to Cornwall Council asking about the possibility of taking back the management of car parks which were transferred to NCDC in the 1974 local authority reorganisation. This was met with a firm 'No'. Now, with massive savings having to be made, Cornwall Council is suddenly interested in the idea. (Are you seeing a pattern yet?)

- Grit Bins. One of the cornerstones of the whole 'active partnering' mantra is that there has to be an improvement in services. Yet this principle is being abandoned when it comes to winter road maintenance. Cornwall Council has announced that, in 15 months time, it will stop managing grit bins. If a town or parish council wants grit bins in their area to be re-filled then they will have to do so themselves (at their own cost, natch).

So instead of a principled move towards more localism, it appears that active partnering is more an attempt to shift costs from Cornwall Council to town and parish councils which are not (yet) capped. Given the high-handed manner with which Cornwall Council dismissed the offer by local councils to take on these self-same services less than a year ago, I can imagine that the answer that might be received will be short, sweet and end with 'off'.

Of course, it could still work. But I would think that Cornwall Council needs all 123 members to be ambassadors for the scheme. But it's very difficult to get us on board if we are not told what the scheme means and, when there is a briefing, the person who can answer the political questions doesn't bother to turn up.

The wider issue concerns the nebulous term 'Big Cornwall' which senior officers and Cabinet Members have been bandying about for some time. We are told it is part of the move towards a 'commissioning' or 'enabling' council. Does this mean that Cornwall will be moving towards the model that is apparently being pioneered in Suffolk? Who knows? As yet, ordinary councillors have not been given any details of this plan which would appear to signal a fundamental shift in the whole set up of the authority.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Why David has to stay to back Ed

The 'will he, won't he' game about David Milliband's future has dominated today's news agendas. For what it's worth, I cannot see how either Millibrother will have much credibility left if David throws his toys and refuses to stand for the Shadow Cabinet.

Apparently, David is saying that if he stays the press will spend all their time writing about sibling rivalry. Secretly, I suspect he is also feeling immensely bruised and can't stand the sight of Ed at the moment. He'll come to terms with this, of course. And he'll realise that it's not Ed's fault that he isn't leader of the Labour Party. But such coming to terms will be a lot easier if he doesn't have to spend all his waking hours paying homage to his little brother.

But, however much it may hurt, the alternative - David riding off into the sunset - will be far worse for Ed, far worse for Labour and, I suspect, far worse for David in the long run.

It will be far worse for Ed because the absence of David will mean he will lack a heavyweight and experienced operator in the Shadow Cabinet. It will be worse for Labour because the media will run splits stories from now til kingdom come and the Blairites will see the absence of their leader as meaning they can have open season on 'the traitorous Ed'.

And I think it will be far worse for David because I think he may struggle to get the grandee position that will take him above and away from the Labour in-fighting. Both Brown and Darling are also going to be on the lookout for senior positions and Blair is still hoovering up anything that the Americans have influence over. Unless he is happy with the ambassadorship to Burkina Faso or becoming the master of an Oxbridge College then I really cannot see what David will be doing.

In a discussion on this subject on PM this evening, Andrew Rawnsley suggested that David thinks he no longer has a hope of the Labour leadership. The argument is that if Ed fails then they are hardly likely to turn to another Milliband. I don't agree with this. They stood on very different platforms during the leadership election and David was the only one being unashamedly Blairite. For all that Labour may be trying to distance itself from Blair at the moment, they have seen the failure of Brown and they may rue the new Old Labour ideals of Ed. If so, it might just be the case that they want to return to the ideology that won them three successive elections and David remains the best placed candidate for that.

Stadium for Cornwall - Council changes its tune

Anyone who has read anything from Cornwall Council about the Stadium for Cornwall would have got the impression that the Council was fully backing the project. But it appears that they might be getting cold feet about it after all.

On September 1st, Conservative Cabinet Member Carolyn Rule was gushing about the project:

"It’s great to see the project take a step forward by identifying a location. I'm sure once it's completed the stadium will be an inspiration to all that use it and will encourage participation in sports, as well as the economic benefits it can provide."

Not much room for doubt there. Despite the fact that the final value for money report from expert consultants (costing £78,000 of council tax payers' money) had yet to be received, Cllr Rule was talking in terms of when and not if it is built and also seemed certain that it would bring economic benefits. Remember that this was just a month or so ago - when the cuts that the Council is facing were well known and appreciated.

And yet now the mood music seems to have changed.

I asked Carolyn to explain the basis for her optimism on the financial viability for the project and asked who she or her officers had talked to about the stadium. I've now had this reply:

Dear Alex
Thanks for your email and interest in the stadium project.
You are correct in that there was a recent press release to say that the initial thoughts of the consultants are for one of several sites being looked at in the Truro/ Threemilestone area. You are also correct in that I expressed support for the ‘idea’ of a stadium. What is not yet decided on is whether a stadium will actually be built, the final report is not due until the end of the year and the ‘public’ money spent thus far, that came from my budget, was 78K.
I was happy to spend this money from a budget, which was funded via central government that I use to try and assist projects in the ‘working up’ stage to see if the case for a stadium for Cornwall actually stacks up. My feeling is that ratepayers can not be expected to pay for such a facility, no matter how wonderful, and there has to be other means identified to deliver such a venue, primarily from the private sector. This report will eventually direct that decision making process. The main thing in my mind is that it has to be financially sustainable and that is what I have tasked the consultants with proving.
Once we move further along the process, if there is a need for public money intervention then it would be part of the budget process and all the council would have an opportunity to debate and approve any such expenditure. With the extremely difficult times we now face that decision along with many others will need to be taken extremely carefully as always. No decision has been taken at this stage to proceed, nor has a final site been identified as yet.
Best wishes

And so it seems that it is not full steam ahead with the Stadium for Cornwall project after all. Apparently Cllr Rule was only in favour of 'the idea' of a stadium and, whilst she was happy to put money into a feasibility study, it appears pretty unlikely that Cornwall Council will ever have any spare money to fund the building itself. It will be up to the Pirates, Truro City or whoever is a prospective user to find the funds.

Incidentally, I haven't received any information about which prospective users have been talked to and so I have asked again for this.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Dear Labour...

Dear Labour Party

If you are going to object to the 'Red Ed' tag for your new leader, perhaps you ought to think about your imagery a bit more carefully.



Saturday, 25 September 2010

Brown and Harman among those who failed to vote in Labour leadership contest

Okay, so they may have a pig's ear of a leadership electoral system, but the Labour Party's decision to publish how every MP and MEP voted is going to provide some fun and games over the coming days.

The first this I have noticed is that there are a couple of high profile absentees from the voting lists. These are Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman.

I suppose you could argue the point that, as Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman needed to be able to work with whoever was elected - but that's more an argument for not publishing the lists than for not voting.

But as for Brown, he turns up infrequently enough in the House of Commons. The least you would have thought he would do would be to give a damn who succeeds him.

Others have pointed out the number of MPs who cast just a single preference - ignoring the fact that AV allows you to vote for as many people as you like, safe in the knowledge that a lower preference won't harm the chances of a higher.

Mark Reckons has pointed out that it would have taken 6 MPs or MEPs swithcing allegiance to have swung the election for David Milliband. An alternative view is that if there were 11 MPs or MEPs who did not cast a counting vote then they could have swung the result. In the event, there were only four MPs who bothered to cast a vote but whose ballot paper did not contribute to the result (because they didn't cast a preference for either of the Millinbands). These were Diane Abbott, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and John McDonnell. Add in Brown and Harman and you do not have enough to alter the outcome (although I haven't yet checked to see if there were others who failed to vote at all.

Friday, 24 September 2010

A blogging and tweeting councillor

This is my article for the Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2010/11 which was published yesterday. I was asked to contribute something about how new media helps me as a councillor and why I take the view that, whilst it won't win me re-election, it's still something councillors should be doing.

David Penhaligon’s famous advice to politicians was that if you have something to say, you should write it on a piece of paper and stick it through peoples’ letterboxes. In today’s digital world, that advice is still as true as it ever was.

I’m an enthusiastic advocate of modern communications methods. As a councillor I use twitter and have a blog and most of my communications are done by email - I think I’ve only written two actual letters in the fifteen months since I was elected. I was also one of a group of councillors who pushed for Cornwall Council’s meetings to be webcast. But I’d be lying if I claimed that anything other than good old leaflets and letters got me elected and if I am to be re-elected then it will be through exactly the same means.

My experience as a councillor using blogs and social media has been mixed, to say the least. I started my blog ( before I was elected as an additional means of communicating with both my prospective constituents and anyone else who cared what I thought. It hasn’t got the greatest readership in the world and some of the biggest visitor numbers have come through distinctly unpolitical postings. Pictures I took of reality TV star Lee Mead performing at the Princes Trust awards have grossed the highest number of visitors, closely followed by London residents searching for public transport timetables who come across my post on weird names given to kids - someone named their child Number 13 bus shelter. Even when talking about politics, it is my take on national stories that tend to garner more visits. However, most of my more mundane posts are about ward issues or the politics of Cornwall Council and I have a pretty good following for these. Whilst my constituents might not be there in great numbers, I do get feedback about my blog on the doorstep and I always ask what issues people would like me to cover more.

The other important audience is the local media who read all the local blogs looking for stories. This has led to a number of my issues being picked up in the local papers and on the radio. The downside is that I have to make sure I moderate my comments. A councillor’s blog has to be interesting enough to be read time and again but not so lurid as to land me in front of the Standards Board.

I also started to use twitter just over a year ago. Like other cynics, I hadn’t seen the point of a system that only allows you 140 characters for a message. Perhaps that’s the verbose politician in me. I’m still not going to win any awards for most beautifully crafted tweet, but twitter is still incredibly important for me in three ways.

First, I tweet about all my blog posts and that draws readership. It used to be said that a website was like a reference book - readers go there if they know there is something they want to find out about. A blog is supposedly like a newspaper - people will read it every day just in case there is something interesting. The true blog champions like Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes can pretty much rely on their readers coming back time and again. A little local blog like mine will probably lose readers over time unless I do my best to market it and tweeting my posts is an easy way to accomplish this. It’s probably worth noting that the big bloggers aren’t content to sit back but do this too.

The tweeting new posts thing also works in reverse. I get alerted to a lot of the news that interests me through the tweets I receive.

The final great use of twitter for me is live tweeting from council meetings. Although this has distinct up- and down-sides. The positive was exemplified during a meeting of Cornwall’s sea fisheries committee. It’s not the most dynamic of affairs and attracts very few councillors who do not sit on it. But a tweet about a debate on a proposed by-law drew an immediate response from a colleague concerned about the impact on his own area. A question on his behalf was quickly asked and he got the reassurances he needed about the plans. It didn’t hold up the meeting but saved his time and the cost to the taxpayer of paying for his mileage to attend.

The downside of live tweeting comes when someone gets the wrong end of the stick or decides that modern technology gets in the way of ‘proper meetings’. Perhaps it was this view that resulted in the headline ‘What a bunch of twitters!’ on the front page of the Western Morning News back in January accusing five Cornwall Councillors of sending ‘sexually suggestive’ tweets during a council meeting.

In fact, nothing of the sort had taken place. But a number of councillors from across the political spectrum had been providing updates to our respective followers about what was happening during a debate about members’ allowances.

The story of ‘Twittergate’, as it unimaginatively became known, started with the live tweeting of meetings. The tweets were a mixture of meeting updates, political commentary and messages from one councillor to another. During the course of that particular meeting, there had been a couple of double entendres between the Chairman of the council and one of the backbench councillors. One of my colleagues tweeted that there was ‘a high level of sexual innuendo in the chamber today’, nothing more or less. Two days later the story ran in the local weekly papers as a factual, if lighthearted, report on the various tweets that were being sent during the meeting. The day after, it was taken up by the daily WMN as a shock horror front page.

It would have been easy at that stage to throw in the towel and abandon the use of twitter and other social media forums. After all, rural local authorities are not known for being at the cutting edge of modern technology.

Fortunately, the council brushed aside the criticism. So too did the local weekly paper which has started running a live blog from some of the bigger council meetings and has invited councillors to contribute their own updates to these from time to time via twitter.

Incidentally, one of the recipients was the Taxpayers Alliance, who had asked to be kept up to date about the discussions on an area of keen interest to them. So it was more than a little ironic for the same organisation to be quoted lambasting us for wasting taxpayers’ money when we should have been concentrating on the debate.

The other members of the twitter gang have also continued to to use the medium. But the case of Ken Livingstone has made us a little more careful. Livingstone was accused of making some incautious remarks and was promptly hauled up before the Standards beaks. His defence, which has since become the benchmark, was that he was not acting in his elected capacity at the time. As councillors, we know that any public comment we make could land us in trouble. Some of my colleagues separate their official and their more sweary comments into different accounts. Others, including myself, maintain a single account but are just careful about what we say on it.

Cornwall Council has adopted a social media policy which is pretty forward looking. It focusses not on the particular mediums - twitter, facebook etc - but on the sort of communications we want. The aim is to have a two way conversation with residents, visitors and businesses. I don’t think we are completely there yet, but a corporate twitter account and facebook page have certainly started the ball rolling. So too has the webcasting of full council meetings. Although this is currently a pilot study, I have no doubt that it will continue beyond an initial six month period. On its first outing, more than 1000 people watched the proceedings live with a further 1300 watching the archived version at some point in the month afterwards. It’s not exactly thrill a minute stuff and web-casting is not an end in itself, but it is another step towards transparency and openness at minimal cost.

The council has also taken advantage of free software connected to their website to help all councillors set up a blog if they want to do so. There are already eight of us who have our own blogs - of whom five could be described as ‘regular bloggers’ - but I would encourage others of all parties to take the plunge. Cornwall Council meetings tend to be devoid of ‘real’ political debate and blog posts can encourage decent exchanges of views on issues that are barely mentioned in formal meetings.

I also hope that more of my colleagues will adopt twitter. Perhaps not the councillor who took me aside one day to lambast me for failing to pay attention but who nonetheless falls asleep in committees on a regular basis. But the more outsiders we can interest our efforts on their behalf, the more they might be encouraged to have their say and the more responsive our council will be.

But even with all these communications methods, nothing will replace knocking on doors or delivering leaflets on a regular basis. When I won my seat, I delivered 12 different pieces of paper in the four weeks leading up to polling day to get my message across. I wouldn’t pretend that I won for any other reason than this. Blogging and tweeting will hopefully help me to do my job better and may even add a few votes to my pile next time, but it will be the traditional campaigning methods which will stay dominant for many elections to come.

If you would like to buy a copy of the 2010/11 Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging in the UK, you can do so by clicking here.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Fed up with Council delay, I have written to Nick Clegg about second home voter registration

Two and a half months ago, Cornwall Council's officers were told to prepare a letter to send to the Government on the issue of second home owners registering to vote in elections in Cornwall. To date, despite repeated promises, no letter has been prepared or sent and so I have today sent my own letter in my capacity as Vice Chair of the Council's Electoral Review Panel. It would clearly have had more impact coming from the Council Chief Executive but my patience has been exhausted.

According to officers, the letter wasn't sent over the summer because they wanted to wait until MPs returned from their summer holidays. I don't believe that this excuse stacks up. For a start, Parliament didn't go into recess until some three weeks after the decision to send the letter was taken. And anyway, just because MPs are on holidy doesn't mean that the whole Government grinds to a halt. Nick Clegg (the minister responsible) was clearly on duty for the majority of the summer and, even if he wasn't, I would trust civil servants to keep it safe until he returned.

If the letter had been sent earlier then it is possible that legal clarity could have been given by an amendment to the voting reform bill currently going through Parliament. However that opportunity has now passed.

In my letter (copied below) I have been careful to stick to the position that what is needed is clarity in the law - whatever side of the fence the Government chooses to come down on.

As soon as I get a reply, I'll post it here.

Dear Nick
It was good to catch up at conference. I hope that you enjoyed your trip to New York. I write in my capacity as the Vice Chair of Cornwall Council's Electoral Review Panel to ask you to consider clarifying the law over the rights of second home owners to register to vote in the UK.
This is an issue of some considerable concern in Cornwall where as many as 10% of all properties are used as 'second homes' and, should all those who use them choose to register to vote from these addresses then Council, Parliamentary and other elections could be significantly affected by people who spend as little as one week a year in the local area.
The law at present is confusing both for electoral registration officers and for electors. The Electoral Commission publishes guidance on its website which seems clear enough - that a person may register to vote at a second home only if they can be said to be resident there full-time, that certain people (such as students) can genuinely have two full-time addresses but that purely recreational second homes are unlikely to count.
However, this clarity is not backed up in law. Indeed, the law is a morass of often contradictory statements. There appears to be little in law to assist electoral registration officers to consider whether or not to allow registration in individual cases and so refusals to register are very few and far between.
I am therefore writing to you in your capacity as minister responsible for constitutional affairs to ask for legal clarity to be given in the form of statutory guidance. My personal view is that no second home registration should be allowed save for genuine two homers - students and so on. However, even if you decide that some other should be the law, I believe that it would be in the interests of all electoral registration officers and public confidence in elections if the law was clarified.
I would be happy to meet with you or one of your colleagues to discuss this issue at your convenience.

With best wishes


Alex Folkes
Vice Chair, Electoral Review Panel, Cornwall Council

WRAP them up

There's a quango out there called WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) which has today released a report about its successes. Except their successes appear to be pretty meagre. If the Government wants to cull another quango to save money then I would suggest that WRAP could be a prime target.

The aims of WRAP are absolutely fine. They want to reduce excess packaging on food and other goods that we all buy. They also want to cut down on the amount that we throw away.

But the report they have produced today indicates that they have failed one one of their three key aims of cutting the amount of packaging produced and sold through supermarkets. The reason - they claim - is that people were buying more stuff from supermarkets because of the recession and that actually the amount of packaging has been cut by 4%. Well that sounds fair enough - except that this is 4% over five years and we weren't in a recession for at least half that period.

On a more positive note, WRAP is keen to point out that the UK grocery sector had reduced food and packaging waste entering the waste stream by more than 1.2 million tonnes. Just two problems with this stat:

- There's no context given here so we have no idea whether this is a drop in the ocean or a substantial proportion of the previous total.

- It's actually consumers buying and throwing away less that is responsible for this cut - rather than the supermarkets themselves who have magnificently managed to achieve their target of zero waste growth (ie they have stopped producing more and more excess packaging).

So WRAP had three aims. They failed to achieve one, one is the result of us consumers throwing away less and the final one was a pretty pathetic target in the first place.

I couldn't find out how much taxpayer's money WRAP has spent to achieve this magnificent result of less than 1% cut in packaging per year, but I would bet that it is quite a substantial amount. The quango has eight executive directors and eleven non-execs including Electoral Commission Chair Jenny Watson. A similar (or possibly better) result could be achieved for far less cash if someone else was given the job. Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson is one who has done more than most to highlight the issue with her annual survey of excess packaging on Easter Eggs.

Why an 'enabling council' is simply an enabler of profit

It was reported in yesterday's Guardian that Suffolk Council is planning to become an 'enabling council' - one that provides none of its own services but which outsources everything to private companies and voluntary organisations or social enterprises.

With potential budget cuts of up to 30%, it is certainly an attractive option to look at outsourcing services as the companies that bid for them almost always claim they can save money.

But I worry that Suffolk, and others who choose to follow them, may well be going too far.

It is certainly possible for a council to handover some services to private contractors or the third sector. This is easiest in the case of simple bulk operations where the contract specifications are unlikely to change. Waste collection is one such. There is a set contract to collect particular types of waste from residential properties (a clause can be added to cover new builds) at a set frequency. Private companies and the council's own in-house providers can bid for the contract and the cheapest will win. Penalty clauses ensure that the service is up to scratch and if the external contractor wins then TUPE rules ensure that staff are transferred to the new service at their existing rates of pay and conditions. So far, so good.

But this is a far more difficult operation in cases where the service changes on a regular basis or where it is subjective. Take building control, for example. The peaks and troughs of the housing market means that at some points there will be many new homes being built whilst at other points there will be virtually none. If the service is in house then the council can meet demand and shift budgets to cope. A contractor has no incentive to do so.

The advent of new technologies will also cause problems. The cheapest contracts will be the longest, but these will also be the least flexible. If a new pattern of working or new Government legislation emerges then the local authority will either not be able to alter the contract or will have to pay vast sums to do so.

There are clearly services that can and should be subject to tender. There are also layers of bureaucracy within many local authorities which should be stripped away. But I question whether a totally out-sourced council will deliver the high quality front-line services with the flexibility that local residents have come to expect.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Council acts to end Newport bottleneck

Following requests I made on behalf of local residents and businesses, Cornwall Council has acted to take out the parking bays outside the old Newport Post Office. These have been replaced with double yellow lines.

Hopefully this will stop people from parking here and blocking the very busy traffic on St Thomas Road.

Many thanks to Oliver Jones and his team at the Highways Department for their work on this.

St Vince the Abuser - Resurrected

Ever since the mid-point of the general election, Vince Cable seems to have been on a downward political spiral. Impossible to keep out of the Cabinet, but nonetheless losing influence. If anyone seriously believed that was the case then today's speech to party conference will have put them right. Paul Waugh described the speech as 'political viagra' and it certainly put delegates in the mood.

This was a tour de force that sent Lib Dem activists away wondering why they ever harboured any doubts about 'The Sage'. It had the jokes and the ritualistic abuse, but was also a very canny bit of political manoeuvring.

First came the jokes. 'This is my happy face' he said in response to those who claim he is looking glum. Sharing power in the coalition was like sharing a bed with the Tories. You had to work hard to keep some of the duvet, he claimed.

The core message was summed up in a single phrase - 'strong disinfectant stings'. The cuts are going to hurt a lot, but they will cure the problems of the economy at the same time. We shall have to see about that. But it is clear, as Nick Clegg said on Sunday, that the party has determined to be wholehearted about the coalition and all that entails.

But Vince was there to be a crowd-pleaser too. He bashed the bankers hard, re-using the spiv line from six months ago. He also incurred the displeasure of the Adam Smith Institute. Both of these are moves which will create some clear Pantone 123 water between the Lib Dems and the Tories. The message of the week from everyone from Nick down is that we may be in coalition, but we are distinct and different from the Tories. This was Vince's contribution to that cause.

With Nick disappearing to the UN in New York for the second half of conference, the organisers knew they needed a new act to close the event. Taking their cue from Labour, they picked our version of John Prescott and so spake St Vince the Abuser.

From 'our man' to target man - how the Guardian has turned on David Milliband

For me, one of the most interesting moments of the general election campaign came towards the end. It was during a Nick Clegg visit in South London and he was ending in his usual style by conducting interviews with regional journalists. Not being particularly interested in yet more pics of Nick talking to a TV camera, I got back on the bus to edit my pictures. A minute later, a Guardian journalist also got on the bus. I don't think she realised anyone else was there and she started a call on her mobile. The call concerned the Labour leadership election and what she referred to as the need to get 'our man' elected. At first, I had no clue as to who she was talking to or who 'our man' was. But as the conversation went on, it was clear that she was talking to a work colleague and that 'our man' referred to David Milliband. At one point she slammed Ed Balls for briefing against 'DM'.

It was interesting that, even before the general election votes had been cast or counted, the Guardian were looking to the future of Labour beyond Gordon Brown and at least some of its staff were actively involved with the David Milliband campaign which was already in full swing.

Today, coincidentally just a few days before the results of that leadership election are announced, the Guardian has published a story which implies that David Milliband was consulted about interrogations which may have included torture.

Guido suggests that the paper may have held back on the story until it could do little damage to Milliband's chances of being elected. Whether that sort of thing happened or not is something that only those within Guardian HQ will know. But what is clear is that if David Milliband is to become Labour Leader on Saturday, he will not be starting with a clean slate and has managed to lose the outright support of one of the key Labour cheerleaders within Fleet Street. For all that the Guardian endorsed Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats at the election, it is most definitely a Labour supporting journal at heart. Maybe they have taken the gamble that it is Ed Milliband who has won and they are trying to mend fences, but I would imagine that he might consider that a bit late in the day.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Tim Farron: "Our ministers are selling the coalition, someone has to sell what the Lib Dems are for"

Whilst I was at conference, I got the chance to talk at greater length with Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale and a candidate for the Presidency of the Liberal Democrats. Tim is also someon
e I have campaigned alongside for many years as we entered the Party at about the same time. Here is what he had to say for himself.

The Presidency has changed massively because we are in power and have the Deputy Prime Minister running the country. We need someone who can get out there, inspire people and sell our message. We need to counter the Labour narrative that we are somehow a bunch of soft southern Tories. I have 24 years of activism in the Lib Dems and I’m someone who is active and progressive and on that wing of the party, but also someone who is a team player and a loyalist.

The job of being Party President is totally different now. It’s not about being a mayor and it’s not about fiddling about in Cowley Street too much. It is about getting out there and inspiring people to support the Liberal Democrats. I want to make the hairs on the backs of peoples’ necks stand up because they believe we are saying the right things. Our ministers have to sell the coalition. Someone has to get out there and sell what the Liberal Democrats are for.

I think I have belonged to the party for longer than the other three candidates put together. I’ve been a member since I was 16, I’ve been a councillor, I’ve been a student activist. I’ve been a failed candidate in rubbish seats and I’ve been a failed candidate in a seat that I should’ve won. I am the grassroots candidate and I am the non-establishment candidate. The way I’ve been able to put forward a narrative in Westmoreland is because I haven’t been part of the Westminster bubble. I want to be a representative of the party within the Parliamentary Party to make sure their voice is heard.

All these roles are what you make of them. The Deputy Leader is Deputy Leader of the Party in Parliament and Simon is doing a superb job of that. The President’s job is to lead the party in the country and be the public face of the party in the country but also be the voice of the members and plugged into the grassroots, totally and utterly without grandstanding so that if the party thinks that the leadership are not doing the right thing that they are flaming well told. I’ve got the access to do just that and to make sure that they know what the party is thinking and if they are making compromises in Parliament then they know if they are not taking people with us.

I don’t want to overstate it, but unless we are incredibly sharp, inspirational about our politics and distinct about what we are for, rather than the coalition, then we do risk having our identity completely blurred and our electoral standing severely threatened.

The Chairman of the Conservative Party gets a seat in the Cabinet, but being the President of the Liberal Democrats would rule out a ministerial post for you. Does that bother you?

I’ve kind of made that choice. I don’t want to sound arrogant or presumptuous but there might be a reasonable chance that I might become a minister at some point. I made the choice that this would be a better use of my skillset, inspiring activists to action, making people feel good about being Liberal Democrats and leading people from the front than I am sat behind a desk talking to civil servants. So yes, I am making the sacrifice of not being a minister - at least for the duration of my term as President.

Do you think that this is a stepping stone to becoming Leader of the Party?

This is a job in its own right. The Presidency has evolved and now we have a Leader in Government, occupied with doing his own things, there is a role for someone, I say humbly, of my skillset to do what I want to do to sell, inspire and lift the party and to recruit people to the party. Believe it or not, I am not all that personally ambitious. I’d be very happy for all sorts of reasons if Nick Clegg led the Party for so long that by the time the post became vacant I was far too decrepit to even think about it.

Are you happy with the way Cowley Street is working at the moment?

As someone who worked in the public sector for 13 years before I became an MP, I know that restructuring is something that happens when anyone comes in at the top and frankly that is a vain thing to do. Every time you restructure you bleed as an institution and as individuals. My job is to make sure we have a period of calm within Cowley Street and to make sure that people there are supported and feel wanted, led and encouraged.

What there will be is an energising of the Campaigns Department and the Press Office so that they are able to go on the attack and not the defensive. My job is to lead from the front and particularly send us on the attack.

Is what we really need a decent by-election?

A by-election would do us no harm. I wish no one any ill - apart from perhaps Phil Woolas. Many of us remember that great night in Littleborough and Saddleworth in 1995 - Blackburn won the League and then we won the by-election. This would be our chance to recreate that. It is a seat we should have won in the General Election and we were unfortunate to miss it. The literature put out against our candidate was appalling. There has got to be a good chance we win the case. If so off we go and work our socks off.

Who is the bigger challenge now, Labour or the Conservatives?

It depends where you are. My honest answer is that whatever you might feel personally, if you are in a seat where 97% of the electorate has voted for one of the two parties in the coalition then you are probably getting a relatively easy ride. I do have constituents who are concerned about it but basically the coalition is quite popular in places like Westmoreland. It’s only people like me who get anxsty about it, even though I’m sure we are doing the right thing.

If you are defending a Liberal Democrat seat against a Labour challenge then it must be much much harder. But we have to be positive about it and not defensive.

I think our threat is going to come from Labour at the moment but if you are up against the Tories and you are in second place, why would you vote for us rather than the other coalition party. That’s why we need to be being incredibly distinct about what we stand for and what we have done which is different.

There are lots of big and little things that we are doing in Government that we are getting no credit for. I use the example of Steve Webb tripling discretionary housing benefit. Nobody knows that, but he did. These are things that we have achieved and there is a whole list of things that we have stopped the Tories doing like tax cuts for millionaires. I think we have to be bold without being rancorous about saying those things and putting them into the simple Focus leaflet format that we are used to.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Presidents, BOTYs and Nick Clegg's speech - what conference meant for me

I'm back in Lanson after a weekend at the Lib Dem conference. Listening to the radio on the way home, it seems that most people felt the same way about Nick's speech as I did - it was governmental. On one hand that's fabulous. We're in Government and the Deputy PM was the one delivering our Leader's speech. On the other hand, it was pretty low key stuff and many commentators claim that it could have been given equally by Cameron.

I don't think it could be. Apart from anything else, Nick made it clear that he opposes the concept of small government for small government's sake. We may cut the size of the UK government but only in response to the need created by Labour's economic crisis.

He also talked about genuine additional powers for local government - announcing the power to borrow against future income to fund development - and didn't mention the Big Society once.

And he wasn't subtle. 'Stick with us' was the plea to voters and activists alike. He made it clear that he didn't want to be in coalition with the Conservatives forever, but was equally clear that the minimum commitment was for five years.

Within the hall there was hardly gushing enthusiasm for the speech. But then Nick is not a rabble rouser and he had a very difficult message to deliver. I thought he did the job very well in the main. I believe that he could have done a little more to assuage concerns expressed earlier in the day over academies and free schools, but that aside it was competent enough.

For another view on Nick's speech, it's worth reading Alex Foster's blog on the subject.

The other big (in Lib Dem terms) news of the day was the withdrawal from the Lib Dem Presidential race before it got started of Jason Zadrozny. Jason says he had already got the necessary nomination signatures but decided to pull out in favour of Susan Kramer. Curiously, he did this only a couple of hours after writing a piece for Lib Dem Voice on why he would be the best candidate for President. I'm not sure what his thinking is (other than the likelihood that he would not win) but I think that the contest has lost a candidate with a particular angle and will be poorer for it.

And finally, I failed to blog before, but I won the Blog of the Year award for the best blog written by a Lib Dem holding public office. I was very chuffed to receive the award from Sue Garden, wife of the late (Lord) Tim Garden in whose name the award is made. Not expecting to win, I talked rubbish for three minutes as an acceptance speech - a concept that will be totally familiar to council colleagues.

Apologies for the pic featuring a very unflattering image of me. I handed my camera over to someone else and they returned it with 20 pictures taken - 19 of which were out of focus. (But that's better than my average at times...)

Nick Clegg - supremely relaxed about life

Yesterday, Nick Clegg declared himself 'supremely relaxed' about the independence of the Lib Dems. Certainly that is the image that he is portraying around the conference.

He is appearing without a tie on more occasions than with and is spending a lot of time laughing and joking.

At his Q & A session yesterday he batted away critical questions with aplomb, whilst also managing to drop some nuggets of welcome news in the laps of his audience. Would the Lib Dems be getting into bed with the Tories in a more formal way at the next election? Not a chance said Clegg. We will stand in every single seat. Cue roar of applause.

Back on Sunday he was happy to joke about his Cabinet colleagues and to drop snippets of gossip into his speech. Nothing to scare the horses, of course, but a far change from the stilted civil service language he used when talking to councillors just after the coalition was formed.

After his session on the stage yesterday, Nick was having another chat - this time with young members and with wife Miriam in tow. Miriam is, famously, her own woman and (rightly) wasn't about to muck about her work schedule during the general election to spend the whole time on the stump. But she too was in supremely relaxed mode yesterday, laughing and joking with her husband for the snappers.

The big speech is this afternoon - much earlier in the week than is usual because of a government trip to the UN. No doubt relaxation will continue.

90 seconds with Jennie Rigg

And in the final episode of my interviews with the declared candidates for the Presidency of the Liberal Democrats, here is what Jennie Rigg had to say. Apologies for the background noise.

Of course, if you know of anyone else who is considering standing, please get in touch.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

90 seconds with Tim Farron

In the third of my interviews with the candidates for the Party Presidency, here's Tim Farron on why he thinks he should be the next President.

Rally for Reform

Conference Rally was a bit weird. Instead of being the usual confidence raising, Tory-bashing session it actually had a defined purpose. We were there to see the launch of the Yes to AV campaign with the referendum due on May 5th next year.

And so we had a celebrity host - Art Malik - who was sublimely suave and professional. We had speakers from the campaign partners - Keith Sharp from the Electoral Reform Society and Pam Giddy, the Chair of the Yes campaign. And we had Martin Bell, former MP and anti-sleaze campaigner, who spoke about the benefits that the new system would bring.

We also had a smattering of Lib Dem speakers - Jo Swinson, Tim Farron and Nick Clegg.

It was great to see the Lib Dem speakers relaxed and still making the same sort of jokes. Tim made jokes about Andy Coulson, of course, but it was Nick who seemed the most relaxed. When Art Malik made the joke that under an AV system the Lib Dems would never have to produce a wasted vote focus leaflet, Nick was overheard to say 'Don't bet on it'. When his turn came to speak, he told the story of Eric Pickles stalker and receiving admonishment from the Maltese Embassy about his oft-told tale of their centralised government system.

So conference has started in truly relaxed style. There is only a background level of grumbling and complaint. The Telegraph claims that we need a good row to get conference going. I pretty sure we don't. The media might just have to get used to the fact that we are relaxed and happy to be in government. That doesn't mean that I (and others) won't be lobbying on individual issues such as Devonwall. But government is not binary. We are allowed to be generally satisfied with small gripes here and there.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Huhne promises Green Deal Bill this autumn

Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne today promised a ‘Green Deal’ Bill this autumn which he said would be a bigger attempt to dramatically improve the energy saving capability of houses that have already been built anywhere in the world.

“Everything up until now has been incremental. It will make sure that every home is lagged, insulated and draught proofed to within an inch of its life to be consistent with our climate change targets - an 80% reduction in our carbon emissions. If we don’t get our homes right we can kiss goodbye to our carbon emissions targets,” said Chris.

The work will extend to public buildings too and Huhne joked about a naming and shaming session within the Cabinet with the best department winning a prize and the worst awarded a wooden spoon. He couldn’t say whether the results of this would be made public but indicated that he hoped they would be.

On nuclear power, an issue which divided the parties during the general election, Huhne said that it was his belief that there would be new nuclear. “We recognised that we couldn’t go to the wire on this because there is an overwhelming majority in favour of nuclear power in the House of Commons.” But, he said, the Lib Dems had won a concession so that our MPs will abstain when the matter comes before the House of Commons. “A deal is a deal and my job is to deliver on the deal exactly as I would expect George Osborne to deliver on our commitment of raising tax thresholds.”

However, he acknowledged that he himself faces a difficult decision as to how he will vote. “The coalition agreement implies that I will abstain on this, but I’ll have to discuss that with Alistair (Carmichael) and Nick (Clegg),” he conceded. “It does look a bit odd if I’m actually facilitating all of these new energy sources and then abstaining in the House of Commons.”

Chris Huhne also announced that he would be backing former Richmond Park MP Susan Kramer to be Party President:

“I think it’s better to have someone who is not an MP. Whilst it’s not deliberate that Susan is not an MP, I think it’s better to have someone who isn’t.”

90 seconds with Susan Kramer

In the second of my interviews with the candidates for Lib Dem Party President, I caught up with Susan Kramer in the (very busy) conference centre.

90 seconds with Jason Zadrozny

As I posted before, I'm trying to interview each of the four (or more?) possible candidates for the Presidency of the Lib Dems. I'll keep the videos very brief and try to ask similar questions to each.

The first candidate I caught was Jason Zadrozny.

The delights of Liverpool

I'm in Liverpool for the Lib Dem conference, working out of the Lib Dem News office which is on one of the VIP boxes at the Liverpool Arena. Tis a long way up!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Individual registration coming sooner rather than later

It's good news (if slightly geeky) that the Government have announced that they have dropped the planned voluntary phase of the move towards individual registration of electors. That means that the process will start for real in 2014.

Individual registration means that each adult will have to complete an electoral registration form rather than a single form being completed for each household. It means that personal identifiers (signatures or dates of birth for example) can be collected and these are the best possible way of combatting fraud in elections.

The phased introduction (no one will be excluded from the register for failing to register as an individual for 12 months - until after the next general election) will hopefully appease the Labour argument that it could lower registration levels. But the problem of fraud is so significant (or potentially so) that this move is very welcome.

Hat-tip to Mark Pack for this news.

Lib Dem Party Presidency

Nope, this isn't another candidacy announcement. But it's great to see that so many people are putting their hats into the ring.

According to Lib Dem Voice, the possible candidates so far are:

- Jason Zadrozny, the candidate for Ashfield who came so close to winning in May;
- former MP Susan Kramer;
- blogger (among many other things) Jennie Rigg;
- Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale.

And there may well be more to come.

Of course, with the need to find 200 nominating signatures from 20 constituencies in just 2 weeks, it may be that not all of the above make it onto the ballot paper. But I very much hope that we have a decent selection to choose from.

I have no doubt that they will all be at conference lobbying anyone who will listen and I'm going to try to get some words from each of them as to why they are standing and what they hope to achieve if elected.

Watch this space.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010


Many thanks to the kind people at Lib Dem Voice who have shortlisted this blog for their Best Blog by an elected Lib Dem category in the Blog of the Year awards (the BOTYs). The results are announced on Saturday.

Unfortunately, as I am away working at a conference for the next five days, there are unlikely to be lots of insightful new posts between now and then.

And well done too to Jeremy Rowe who has been shortlisted in the new blog category.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

All Blacks take first honours in battle of Cornish rugby

Launceston's Cornish All Blacks took the spoils in today's first Cornish derby as they thrashed Redruth 40-15 at Polson Bridge.

It was a hugely one sided match with the All Blacks holding the edge in every division of the game. Redruth had three players sin-binned in the first period and gave away two breakaway tries which effectively sealed the win for the hosts.

Man of the match was clearly Ryan Westren who scored a hat-trick. Other tries came from Richard Bright on his home debut and replacement winger Kieron Lewitt (pictured).

And AFC Wimbledon won to stay top of the Conference.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Could Launceston One Stop Shop be moving to the Library?

One of the points made at yesterday's meeting to discuss the Tourist Information Centre (see below) was about a potential move for the One Stop Shop to the library.

I should stress from the outset that this was mentioned just as a possibility and that no decision or even firm proposal has yet been made.

I know I blogged a while ago saying that libraries are about more than books, but I am firmly opposed to the concept for a number of reasons:

  • I believe that the library is inconveniently sited. It is up a steep slope, making it difficult for some people to walk there;
  • It has very little parking (I know the same is true for the current OSS, but any move should have to bring an improvement);
  • I do not believe that there is sufficient space in the library for all the OSS functions;
  • Although the library is open on Saturday mornings (and presumably the OSS would be too), it is also closed for one day a week and so there would be a net reduction in OSS opening hours.

But there is also an additional reason why such a move is simply wrong in concept. That is that library staff will be expected to handle OSS work (and OSS staff will be expected to undertake librarian duties). This is because, in a bid to save money, the two staff currently employed at the OSS will be cut to just one.

The OSS staff are very well trained to do their job. Librarians are also very well trained to undertake their role. But neither is trained to do the job of the other. Our One Stop Shop is extremely busy and, by cutting down to a single member of staff, I can foresee librarians having to spend lots of time doing OSS work. They will therefore be able to do even less of what they are trained for and what they are good at - promoting literacy, reading and information.

In theory, there is no reason why a library and One Stop Shop cannot be sited in the same venue - and I know it works elsewhere. But such a venue should be genuinely big enough for both operations and their staffing should be kept separate. In Launceston's case, the library is simply not the right place to site the One Stop Shop. If this becomes a serious proposal then it will be being made purely for financial reasons and the people of Launceston will be getting a worse service as a result.

Launceston Tourist Information Centre update

Yesterday I organised a meeting to discuss the future of the Tourist Information Centre in town. I asked the head of the Council's Customer Services section, Clare Metcalf, to come as well as a representative from tourism and the town council. Also there were my council colleagues Sasha Gillard-Loft and Adam Paynter.

The reason for the meeting was the apparent decision by Cornwall Council a month or so ago to close the TIC (see also here).

At the meeting yesterday, Clare Metcalf made it clear that they had not made any decision to close the TIC and would not be running down any services. That was very good to hear and means that the service will continue as a going concern whilst its long term future is sorted.

Unfortunately, the Council is quite clear that it wants the TIC to be run by someone else. The Town Council have expressed a willingness to discuss taking over running the office and all the different groups have agreed to keep talking.

As far as I'm concerned that's a good outcome. Launceston needs a very active tourist information or visitors centre in order to help attract more people to the town and to point them at some of the great attractions when they get here.

I'll blog again when I hear more.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Another great Visit Cornwall video

From the same source (I think) as the spoof Visit California ad comes this latest Visit Cornwall video. Next time, I hope he manages to make it up as far as Lanson!

Cornwall Council agrees to reconsider pointless bureaucracy in highways orders

Tonight we held the third full meeting of the Launceston Community Network Area panel. This brings together Cornwall Councillors, parishes, the Town Council, police, health service and anyone else who wants to turn up. The theme for tonight's discussion was traffic and transport.

We were joined by Graeme Hicks, the Cornwall Cabinet Member for highways, as well as some of his officers. Many thanks to Graeme for coming along.

One of the major gripes that I raised was the ridiculous cost of bureaucracy imposed by Cornwall Council and the Government. As regular readers will know, it takes 11 people and costs £3600 to paint 40 feet of yellow line because of a combination of Government and Council paper pushing.

This bureaucracy slows down vital highways improvements and the extra costs mean that less than half of what should be done is actually achieved.

I asked Graeme to look again at the Council policy and to make sure that where there were unnecessary people involved or costly procedures that had little benefit that these are removed. I was delighted that he has agreed to do so. I also hope that he will do what I have done and write to Eric Pickles asking him to lessen the Government bureaucracy too.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Nick Clegg's second PMQs

I think we can safely say that the civil servants will be a lot happier with Nick Clegg's second attempt at PMQs than they were with his first. After that event, they had to cope with his declaration of the Iraq war as illegal (it was, but the Government doesn't like to say so) and clarify that only the children's wing of Yarls Wood Detention Centre would be closing.

This time round, Nick coped admirably with a truly terrible Jack Straw. For someone who built his reputation on forensic questioning, Straw has been awful as a stand in for the stand in Labour leader Harriet Harman. His six questions were all on the subject of Andy Coulson and phone hacking and he failed to land a single blow. Straw's tactic was to seek to get Clegg to say whether or not he believed Coulson on the issue. Clegg played a straight bat to every question saying that it was for the Police to investigate and Coulson had denied any wrong-doing. He didn't back Coulson, but then how could he have done so? In among the answers was a very good line about Gordon Brown being the first to call Coulson to wish him well, and this took the wind out of Labour sails. Clegg's pay off line was even better, questioning why Straw was asking about these allegations rather than Afghanistan or Pakistan.

For the rest of the session, Clegg shone. He was light hearted and witty in replying to a light hearted plea from Labour MP Ian Davidson for a birthday present of two aircraft carriers. He sounded dourly serious in replying to a Tory who believes that chinese lanterns are the biggest threat to western civilisation. And most of all he took the fight to Labour and their attempts to claim that the economy only went into freefall on May 7th.

There was a Cornish interest in PMQs as SE Cornwall MP Sherryl Murray asked a question about foreign nationals who come to the UK for medical treatment but then don't pay their bills.

The final question to Clegg came from anti-coalition Tory backbencher Christopher Chope who asked whether significant amendments or defeat for the voting reform and constituencies bill would spell the end to the coalition. Clegg assured him that it would not. I'm not entirely sure that the mainstream Lib Dem Party would be happy to stay in Government if the key demand of a referendum on electoral reform was lost.

UPDATE - Paul Waugh has highlighted the Clegg answer to Chope saying that it might well be taken by rebellious Tory backbenchers as the green light to vote against the AV referendum. Yes, I think it could be. But I also think that this could be an exceptionally clever piece of positioning by Nick Clegg. There is no doubt that the majority of the Liberal Democrats would be up in arms about the prospect of staying in coalition with the Tories if there were to be no AV referendum. Clegg can 'listen' to them on this issue and harden up his stance with his Tory colleagues. This might be seen to give the vital reassurance that Lib Dem backbenchers need on the coalition. Of course, this could alternatively have been a massive faux pas which ends up losing the referendum and splitting the Party. Who knows?

Blair book update - The Americans get a better photo

A few days ago I moaned about what I think is an awful photo on the front of the Tony Blair book (top image). I've just seen the cover of the US version (bottom image) - and it's so very different.

The most obvious change is that the US version is half length rather than simply head and shoulders. I've got no problem with the UK version in that respect, but the close crop does emphasise the annoying slightly off centre nature of the image.

There is the same half smile/half grimace in both photos, but the US version has Blair facing fractionally off camera with his head at a bit of a tilt. The pose softens the effect - it also make Blair look less positive and a bit defensive.

But perhaps the greatest difference is that in the US version Blair has his arms folded. Body language experts will have a field day over this. The former PM comes across as hugely defensive and not prepared to brook an argument. 'Here it is and tough if you don't agree with me' seems to be the message.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Localism - oops

A month ago, councillors from East Cornwall spent a day looking at alternative venues for planning meetings in the old North Cornwall area. This was because it had been proposed that the Police should move into the building at Camelford and this would mean the loss of the meeting room. For a full run down of the subject, see my previous blogpost.

At the end of that day, we unanimously agreed that none of the venues we had seen were suitable and that meetings should continue to be held in Camelford until a decent alternative could be found.

Today we discovered that Cabinet Member Lance Kennedy (who did not come on the tour of sites) has ignored that recommendation and it has been decided that meetings will be held in Bodmin. I'm a bit unclear as to who made the decision. Logically, it should have been Cllr Kennedy. If a group of councillors write with a recommendation to the Cabinet Member then it is not for officers to make a different decision without the Cabinet Member's say so. But Cllr Kennedy said it was not his decision at today's meeting (and as he is also a Bodmin Town Councillor and Bodmin TC owns the proposed venue, it would seem a conflict of interest for him to make the decision in any case).

Today Cllr Kennedy was asked if he would review his decision and he said no. He then proceeded to lead the Cabinet in voting down a formal amendment demanding reconsideration.

Also at today's meeting, we had yet another report from Cllr Kennedy on localism which failed to mention anything except the Newquay Safe project. Whilst that is a very good scheme and deserves to be promoted, it does seem odd that, for the past five months, Cllr Kennedy has had nothing else to say to full council meetings about anything else in the localism agenda. My colleague Jeremy Rowe even asked him what else he had to say on the subject and he appeared first dumbfounded and then speechless. So we are none the wiser.

Currie admits - "We did what the Government wanted us to do"

Deputy Leader Jim Currie told Cornwall councillors today that the administration submitted a plan for a Local Enterprise Partnership controlled by the private sector "because that is what the Government wanted us to do".

As I blogged yesterday, the Council's LEP bid is flawed because it proposes that the new organisation should be chaired and run by the private sector and because it will seek to bid for contracts well away from Cornwall - presumably in a bid to make money. In my view, because the new LEP will control vast amounts of taxpayers' money, it should have democratic accountability and be led by elected councillors working in genuine partnership with the business and voluntary sectors.

So today a number of councillors including my Lib Dem colleague Edwina Hannaford and myself pressed Cllr Currie on the decision to hand over control to unaccountable interests. His response was, as stated above, that they did so because that is what they believe the Government wants.

Surely the LEP bid should seek a structure which reflects what Cornwall and its people need, not simply what the Government wants. It seems as though the administration has abandoned any concept of localism altogether. This is also true of the decision to pursue contracts outside Cornwall. Such a move would dilute the focus on Cornwall, its needs and problems.

(Note: Jim Currie's words are based on my hastily scribbled notes taken during the meeting. As soon as the webcast is available readers will have the chance to view the actual statement.)

Webcasting - Council shows its worst side

Cornwall Council today voted to continue its webcasting experiment for the next six months - but at the same time produced an unedifying spectacle for anyone who happened to be watching the current product.

There was a report on the first few months of the project which showed that as many as 17,000 people had viewed the three webcast meetings to date - either live or in archive. The recommendation was to continue the experiment and to extend it to other meetings including Cabinet and big planning meetings.

However there seemed to be a move afoot to limit the extension because of concerns about costs and so an amendment was proposed. Except that the amendment has resulted in an unworkable policy. It wants the Cabinet meetings to be covered, but denied the right to extend the coverage to the room in which the meetings are held. Councillors were unclear what they were meant to be voting on and even after the vote was taken were asking what was going on.

Even at a time when we have to make cuts, the extra costs incurred in webcasting meetings are relatively tiny compared to the ability to reach out to people who care about Council decisions but cannot (or will not) travel to Truro to watch them in person.

Today's decision denies the ability to webcast Strategic Planning meetings - despite the fact that these usually take place in the room which has the cameras fitted.

I don't think that Cornwall Council meetings will ever overtake Eastenders as popular entertainment. But finding a way to reach out to new audiences and to engage them is a key part of what I think the Council should be doing. I'm therefore very disappointed with the decision today.

Cornwall misses the boat on second home voter clarification

It seems Cornwall is missing the chance to get clarification of the law on the rights of second home owners to vote in Cornish elections.

Back on 2nd July, the Electoral Review Panel discussed the issue and was told that the law on voting entitlement is very unclear. Although the information provided by the Electoral Commission suggests that you cannot use a purely recreational second home to get entitlement to vote, it seems that the actual law is not so clear.

And so the Panel agreed that the Council should write to the Deputy Prime Minister asking him to clarify the law. My personal belief is that second home ownership should not allow entitlement to vote, but even if the Government disagrees with this view we need clarification. Clarification would need to come in the form of an amendment to the law.

You would have thought that the best avenue for doing this would be the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill which had its second reading yesterday. But Cornwall Council has failed to send the letter despite having had more than 9 weeks to do so. And so the chance for the Government to consider the issue and put forward its own amendment has been lost.

Why has Cornwall Council failed to write the promised letter? Apparently, it's because they did not want a letter arriving before Parliament returned to work on the basis that it might get lost or ignored during the summer. We are now promised that the letter will be written within the next 7 days.

If we are to get clarification then it will almost certainly have to wait until another elections bill is promoted in Parliament. The trouble is that, on average, these only come forward every four years or so.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Another award

After being named in the top councillors blogs, I've now also been named among the top 20 Lib Dem bloggers by Total Politics. I have risen from number 60 last year to number 16 this - the highest climber.

And so there's another little award button on the right hand side.

Many congratulations to Jeremy Rowe who entered the charts at number 19.

Cornwall's LEP bid - a bit of a curate's egg

Cornwall Council has today published its bid for a Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) based on Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Whilst the document has the support some of the great and the good, I think it is deeply flawed in a number of key respects - particularly over who will lead it and who will be part of the decision making structure.

First the good news. It's a coherent bid for an LEP that distinguishes Cornwall from Devon and 'the South West'. It has also attracted the support of the Council of the Isles of Scilly who clearly want to be part of a joint programme with Cornwall.


- Private sector leadership

Despite the warning on page 30 that:
"if it is to succeed the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Enterprise Partnership must represent a straightforward partnership between the public and private sector. It must have clear lines of accountability, a strong remit, and the power to deliver,"
those clear lines of accountability are pretty vague. The document states (p10):
"We expect the private sector to chair and lead our LEP"
Indeed the 'key principles' (p10) state:
"• Business will be at the heart of the governance and delivery structures. • Decisions on economic priorities and investment will be made locally. • The governance arrangements will be strategic and focussed on a narrow range of economic outcomes and sustainable growth. • The delivery of our economic strategy will be undertaken through the use of both the private sector and the Cornwall Development Company (CDC), itself private sector led, with a private sector chair and a majority of private sector directors."
So despite the fact that the vast majority of the money that will be spent by the LEP will be public money, it will be a private sector quango that will be making the decisions. Yes, it will be a local quango, but it seems that the key ingredients of democratic accountability and transparency are missing.

Whilst membership of the LEP will be based on "ability, influence and a commitment to make a difference" (p22), these are pretty vague concepts and need proper explanation.

For all that the Council carried out a detailed public survey before they wrote the bid, this was one crucial aspect that they failed to address.

- Voluntary sector involvement.

Despite the endorsement of the chairman of the Voluntary Sector Forum, the bid document has little to say about the third sector. There's no mention in the 'Wider collaboration' section (p11) or in the chapter on 'Key Principles' and, although there is reference in the section discussing past successes (p15), there is only a fleeting reference to"
"using the best abilities of the private, public and third sector"
in any reference to the future. The current CEF has third sector involvement. One of the keys to the new LEP will be to ensure that it retains this aspect.

- Big ambitions?

For all the talk of localism:
"We strongly support the Government’s policy of decentralisation and localism" (p17),
it seems that those behind the LEP might have wider ambitions. The sentence:
"If successful, we see no reason why we couldn’t in future be in a position to tender for work outside our LEP boundaries." (p23)
gives the game away. Despite all the problems that Cornwall faced as a small cog in the South West Regional Development Agency, the authors of this bid appear keen to repeat the experiment by extending the reach of Cornwall's LEP across the Tamar. Presumably, they think that this doesn't matter, so long as Cornwall is in charge. But the whole point of the Cornwall and IoS LEP bid is that it should be free to concentrate solely on the best interests of the two council areas. As soon as the LEP quango stretches its tentacles, that guarantee disappears.

And so, for all the opportunities given to us by the Government in abolishing the RDA and creating the LEP structure, it seems to me that Cornwall's Conservative leadership have blown their chance in key respects.

We are told that the LEP process has been extended and the submission is a 'work in progress'. That's fine, but I think that the Council has jumped and come down on the wrong side of several key questions.

Tony Blair's book - I can't get past the cover

Every time I see the front cover of Tony Blair's book I cringe. What on earth possessed them to use that photo? I'm afraid that I don't know who the photographer is. (I haven't yet got close enough to actually pick up the tome and open it to find out). But the pic just gives me the shudders.

I suppose that part of the cringe factor comes from who the subject of the photo is. But even setting that aside, I still hate it for three reasons:

- it's off centre and I can't fathom why. Ok, it's not a cardinal rule that the subject of a portrait should be in the middle of the frame. In fact, the most interesting images are deliberately off centre. There is a technique called the rule of thirds where you place the point of interest one third (or two thirds) in from the left or down from the top. But Blair is annoyingly just off centre and the additional white space on the left is just plain irritating.

- the eyes. The piercing blue eyes could be seen as refreshingly honest, staring straight out at the reader. But they just look too blue.

- the mouth. Is he meant to be smiling? About to bark an order out to a minion? Irritated?