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.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Of course it's going to happen (I just wish it wasn't now)

The FA Cup (sponsored by Eon) Second Round draw has thrown up the tie that I least wanted to see - AFC Wimbledon's potential clash with MK Dons.

Back in 2002, I was one of those fans who refused to accept the franchising of my team - Wimbledon - to Milton Keynes. Instead, we set up AFC Wimbledon, a fan owned club starting from scratch. We held open trials on Wimbledon Common and took our place in the Combined Counties League - five levels below the football league proper.

Meanwhile, the franchise played a season at Selhurst Park before their relocation to Buckinghamshire. In that first season we averaged a higher home attendance (3002) than they did despite playing in a league where crowds of 40 were the norm.

Fast forward eight years and things have changed a lot. The franchise have been relegated twice and promoted once to play in League One. We have been promoted successively into the Ryman First, Ryman Premier, Conference South and now Conference proper where we sit in second place. Along the way we went 78 games unbeaten - a British record - and we have won over almost all those who ever doubted that we were the 'proper' Wimbledon. Even Vinnie Jones has loaned his FA Cup winner's medal to the club and the honours of the 'old' Wimbledon sit in our trophy cabinet.

So it was inevitable that, at some stage, we would have to meet the franchise. But I wish it was on equal terms rather than in an FA Cup (sponsored by Eon) draw. Why? Because a cup tie is a one off occasion with all the attendant pressures that brings. If we were in the same league (as I believe we will be within 5 years) then the two games would be seen in the context of an entire season. Sure, they would be big events. But they wouldn't be seen as metaphors for who was right and who was wrong.

Both AFC and MK have to overcome replays first and there lies my hope. I never thought I would say it, but come on Stevenage.

Image: Sam Hatton playing in a pre-season friendly against FC United of Manchester three seasons ago.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Community Networks and Scrutiny

One of the most important aspects of the move to a single Cornwall Council was the pledge to set up local forums across Cornwall. So whilst the abolition of six districts and one county council would save tens of millions of pounds, there would remain a way of holding councillors to account for local services on a local basis.

When the Tory led administration took over, they put an immediate halt to localism whilst they held a review. This review decided that local community networks would be allowed to carry on and each of the 19 have developed in their own way.

Those in the North and the East have perhaps been the strongest. Here we feel most distant from the decisions being taken about us in Truro and so we have formed strong networks which bring together Cornwall Councillors, parish and town councils and professionals such has police and health services.

In Launceston, we have held thematic meetings to discuss issues such as local shops and play facilities and, most recently, housing and planning. The network (which I chair) has been taking the lead on developing a Launceston town framework plan and making sure that Cornwall Council did not close our tourist information centre without someone else being ready to take it over.

A key part of the network are our staff. We share two members of staff with the next door Caradon network which covers Callington and the surrounding areas. Both are excellent and do a lot to make sure that everyone knows what is going on and keeping us aware of anything we might have missed. They are also a key link point between Cornwall Council and the parish and town councils and have secured the attendance of cabinet members and senior officers at our meetings.

But the community network arrangements are under threat from the current budget cuts. One attitude which seems to be prevalent among some at County Hall is that the networks are about a way of doing things rather than being a front line service. I think this is wrong and I spoke up in favour of the current arrangements (at least, as far as they affect us in our area) at today's final budget scrutiny meeting.

A proposal that had been floated was to centralise the network managers so that we would no longer have our own staff. Instead, staff expertise would be doled out on a case by case basis. In order to ensure continuity and effective working, I argued that the basis of a named network team should stay. As Andrew Long, Chair of the Caradon Network put it: "we should consolidate up to the best performing rather than down to the worst."

We won a concession from the administration that they would not seek to make changes either to the staffing or the ways of working without coming back and getting approval for their plans from the scrutiny committees. I am grateful to them for seeing the sense in this and I hope this means that our community networks will continue to go from strength to strength.

Swings removed from Ridgegrove play area

I've just had news that Cornwall Council has had to remove the cradle swings and chains from the top play area on the Ridgegrove Estate due to health and safety concerns.

I have therefore sent an urgent email to the council officer overseeing the provision of new play facilities on the estate.

As residents and regular readers will know, I have been campaigning since before I was elected to get new and modern play facilities on the estate. A survey of residents was carried out over the summer and there is a plan to put modern new play equipment on the top site and natural play equipment on the bottom site. These now cannot come soon enough.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Cornwall Libraries - future unclear

The future of Cornwall's libraries and One Stop Shops is no clearer after today's scrutiny meeting which was meant to look into the Conservative plans for the two services.

The scrutiny committee asked a range of questions about what services would change, which would move and which might face closure. To all of these we received the response that plans were at an early stage and there were no details available as yet.

We were also told that there are two groups looking at libraries. There is a members group which is looking at the bigger picture future of the service and an officers group considering individual moves and closures. The trouble is that neither of these meet in public nor publish their minutes or decisions and so there is no way that members can have scrutinise what they are doing.

Effectively, we were being asked to agree a total budget for the two services and we were told that savings would be made by closing some facilities and relocating them to other locations. But there were no details given as to which towns would be affected or what closures were planned.

And so, at the end of a frustrating afternoon, I proposed that we not accept the plans but instead express our regret at the failure to give us proper information and asked the cabinet to ensure that the detailed plans were given to us for consideration before the full council was asked to vote on the budget proposals.

Scrutiny is a vital function of any council. It is how we stick up for services both locally and across Cornwall. It is how we check that the administration is getting best value for money and that individual areas of Cornwall are not unfairly stripped of services.

I think that the Cabinet now has three choices:

  • they can get all the details together and present them to another meeting of the scrutiny committee before the budget is voted on
  • they can ignore us and press on with a budget that has no details on a vital service which is used by many thousands across Cornwall every week
  • they can continue working on the libraries and One Stop Shop plans but take them out of the emergency budget and resubmit them for scrutiny once they are finalised

Camelford Leisure Centre Saved (for now)

Camelford Leisure Centre has been saved from the chop - at least for the short term. This stay of execution was announced at today's scrutiny meeting at County Hall attended by a delegation of Camelford LC residents and staff.

As virtually every resident in Cornwall cannot have helped but notice, the Conservatives at County Hall had proposed to withdraw the subsidy to Camelford Leisure Centre and, with nobody willing to step forward, the centre would close.

The details of this deal are still sketchy. Cabinet Member Joan Symons told the committee that she had only been given notice of the deal two minutes before the start of the meeting and so the details have not been worked out.

As far as we can work out at the moment, the deal revolves around the establishment of a local working group to find a new way of delivering the current services at the leisure centre. There will be funding from the Council Leader's contingency fund to tide the centre over (but it wasn't clear that this would be the full amount currently being given to run the centre).

Since the proposal to close the centre was first raised a couple of weeks ago, the centre management has made great strides in identifying how costs can be cut and they have been working on an alternative management model. This deal now gives them the space to work their plans out fully.

The local community has got to take the credit for achieving this u-turn. Their campaign has been superb. Councillors have been bombarded with personal stories of the value of Camelford Leisure Centre as well as information from local GPs and analysis of the impact on local school pupils and other users.

There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered on this but, with the ink on the deal still wet as the meeting started, these cannot be given just yet. So the Communities Scrutiny Committee will have to meet again to look at these. But it's great news for now.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Victory on the buses

Some great news today as Cornwall Council reversed their proposal to end the subsidy given to evening and weekend buses. The effect of this proposal would have been to cut off towns and villages and hit workers, students and those wanting an evening out. One of the bus routes planned for the axe was the 576 service linking Launceston to Plymouth and Bude.

The u-turn came during a scrutiny meeting discussing environment and transport aspects of the proposed budget. Portfolio holder Graeme Hicks interrupted proceedings to hand out an alternative budget cutting proposal which restored the subsidy to bus routes and instead proposed to make up most of the shortfall by bringing Cornwall into line with most of the rest of the UK in not allowing those with free bus passes to use them before 9.30am.

I spoke at the meeting to give credit to Graeme for seeing the strength of our argument and backing down. His alternative proposal is not perfect and there will be people who will be disadvantaged as a result, but making people pay for buses is better than not having buses at all. We will be looking at some of the individual cases to see whether there needs to be a tweak to the new proposal, but it is a far better starting point.

Of course there is a downside to this change of heart. I recorded an interview with BBC Spotlight on the issue which is now unlikely to be shown ;-)

Tomorrow the key battle of the whole budget comes to County Hall as the communities scrutiny committee looks at proposals to cut the number of libraries and one stop shops and, of course, the withdrawal of subsidy to Camelford Leisure Centre which is likely to mean its closure.

The thoughts of an official photographer (unpaid)

As regular readers will know, during the general election I worked (on an expenses only basis) as the in-house photographer for the Lib Dems covering Nick Clegg's tour around the country. So today's row about Andrew Parsons making the move from working for Cameron to working for the Government is of particular interest to me.

On the one hand, I have a great deal of sympathy for Andy. He is a genuinely nice guy who doesn't deserve the flak he is catching at the moment.

On the other hand, Cameron does seem to have skirted the normal rules. Whilst senior ministers are allowed political appointments - so called special advisers - they cannot be seen to be giving politically neutral civil service jobs to their mates. Andrew Parsons has been given a role not as a political appointee, but as a civil servant and that appears to breach the rules. Straight after the general election, a civil servant told me as a matter of course (I wasn't seeking a role) that I could not be given work by the government, even on a casual basis, because of my previous ties to the Lib Dems. I think that rule is fair enough. So why the different case for Cameron's snapper?

What really surprises me is that Andy would want the job. Being on the election trail is actually quite exciting. Being a government photographer seems anything but with endless hanging around waiting for a hand shake.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Anti-skid surface on Dutson Road - fixed

With many thanks to Oliver Jones and the Highways Department, the anti-skid surfacing outside the Spar shop on Dutson Road has, at last, been replaced.

Regular readers and local residents will know that the surfacing was not applied properly by the contractors and was coming away in huge sheets. The delay in fixing it was down to the contractors but persistence has paid off!

There is still one patch of defective surfacing at the junction with Ridgegrove Lane and I am chasing this up.

Also at that junction with Ridgegrove Lane, a pair of safety mirrors have been put up to allow drivers using this blind junction to join the main road more safely.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The bus routes Cornwall Council is proposing to end in the evenings and weekends

Cornwall Council's Conservatives are planning to oversee the end of vital bus links across Cornwall which serve some of our most remote towns and villages. The Council is planning, in its budget, to cut the subsidy that it pays to bus operators to run evening and weekend services on 27 routes (full list below). The Council admits that this is almost certain to mean that these routes will cease to operate outside peak times. As a result students, workers and even those visiting relatives in hospital will be affected.

The 27 routes carry a total of 460,000 passengers on subsidised journeys and are described by the Council's own officers as "important for part-time workers and support the evening/night time economy in Cornwall".

To take just one example - the one I know best - the 576 which links Bude (via Launceston) to Plymouth. This is the only service linking Launceston to Plymouth in the evenings and weekends and is used by many students and workers. If the service ceases to operate when people need it then they will be faced with the choice of moving to Plymouth or giving up their work or course. Neither should be an acceptable option. I am sure that those who live in other parts of Cornwall will be able to tell similar horror stories about what would happen if their local routes were withdrawn.

The scrutiny committee which will be considering this policy will be meeting on Wednesday. I'll be asking for a rethink on this proposal which will see many of our towns and villages becoming increasingly isolated.

The list of routes from which the Conservatives want to remove subsidies for weekend and evening travel is:

14/18 Truro – Redruth – Camborne – St Ives/Penzance
2 Penzance – Helston
5/6 Penzance – Gwavas/Mousehole
10 Penzance – St Just
17 Penzance – St Ives
1 Penzance – Lands End (summer)
34 Helston – Redruth
540 Troon - Camborne – Illogan – Redruth
27 Truro – St Austell
41 Falmouth – Redruth – Camborne
68 Falmouth Town services
82/A Truro – Stithians – Helston
85 Truro – St Agnes
88 Truro – Falmouth
521 St Austell – St Dennis – Newquay
524 St Austell – Par – Fowey
526 St Austell – Mevagissey
529 St Austell – Roche – Bodmin
550 Truro – Tregony – St Mawes (Sats)
556 Newquay – Padstow
587 Newquay – Perranporth – Truro
597 Newquay – St Columb Major – Truro
555 Padstow – Wadebridge – Bodmin – Bodmin Parkway
576 Bude – Launceston – Callington – Plymouth
79 Callington – Gunnislake – Tavistock (Fris and Sats)
81 Plymouth – Torpoint – Millbrook – Cremyll
573 Polperro – Looe

Cornwall Cabinet told to think again on Post-16 education transport subsidies

At today's Children's Scrutiny Committee, the Conservative led Cabinet's proposal to remove the subsidy it provides to help young people over the age of 16 to get to colleges was debated.

I spoke in the subsequent debate and asked for details of the young people who would be affected by this proposal. In North Cornwall (and in particular in Launceston) we have the lowest take up of post 16 education in Cornwall. I therefore made the point that young people in our area would be disproportionately affected by this proposal.

The Cabinet proposal also claimed that local colleges would be able to 'take up the slack' and Conservative Leader Alec Robertson said that just because the Council was withdrawing the subsidy didn't mean that the service would be withdrawn. So I asked what conversations they had had with colleges about them providing the subsidy instead. I was staggered to be told that no communications had been held at all with colleges on this subject. It seems incredible that the Council should be putting young people's education in jeopardy on such an assumption. Local colleges have also seen their budgets cut and may well not be able to take on extra responsibilities. Even if they are, to a certain extent education is a numbers game with colleges being funded for every student they enrol. If a college is to subsidise pupils then they will find it more cost effective to subsidise those who love nearby. Students from far away from the colleges, whether it be those on the Lizard or in North Cornwall, will be hit hardest.

It soon became clear that the Cabinet Member - Neil Burden - was not comfortable with his own Cabinet's budget proposal in this area. He made it clear that he did not know the details of what was being proposed or who or what areas will be affected. Once again, we are being asked to buy a pig in a poke - being told that we should agree a budget without being told the details.

In the end, the committee asked the Cabinet to think again about this issue, to see whether the post 16 subsidy could be retained and the savings found from the wider school transport budget. If this cannot be done then we will need to look to find the monies from somewhere else in the Council's budget.

Next Generation Leadership

I've been selected to be part of a series of training events taking place over the coming year called the Local Government Next Generation Leadership programme. The first event took place for three days at the end of last week in Portsmouth and Eastleigh.

The training programme is operated by the three main political parties individually and there are 18 councillors from around the UK on the Lib Dem course. The aim is to understand local government and leadership better. This is the fifth year of the course.

Our visits to Portsmouth and Eastleigh were based around understanding how two very different local councils - both of which have been run for a long time by the Lib Dems - operate. Portsmouth is a very urban unitary council about a third of the size of Cornwall in terms of population. Eastleigh is a smaller district council which is predominantly suburban and rural.

We met two very different council leaders, as well as two very different Lib Dem MPs in Mike Hancock and Chris Huhne. Portsmouth, because of its congested nature, is much more centralised whereas Eastleigh has operated a local committee system and decentralised model for many years.

No two local councils are exactly the same and it's not possible to suggest that something that is done in Portsmouth would automatically work in Cornwall. However there are similarities in services and in approach and I learned a lot of things that will be appropriate for Cornwall. I'll be thinking more about these and seeking to produce policy and service ideas in due course.

The photo shows me during a tour around Portsmouth's commercial harbour where we looked at both the ferry operation and their freight facilities.