Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Missed rubbish collections

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Vince Cable - Ace of Base

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Car park charges - consultation could change nothing

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

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

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

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

I've now had the legal advice:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Cornwall CCTV - what a shambles

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

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

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

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

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

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

The towns affected are:

St Austell
St Ives

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

Hope for Launceston over traffic bottleneck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal advice sought on parking proposals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

On the departure of Iain Dale from blogging...

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

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

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

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

Parking Panel confirms huge rises for Launceston

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

The two key areas are:

Rises of up to 131% in the hourly charges.

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

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

Season ticket prices to rise to £600

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 13 December 2010

A mass of figures - and a lot of spinning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what has Cornwall Council said on the matter?

The official Council twitter account says:

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

and later:

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

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

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

Welcome Pupil Premium (shame about EMA and Activity Pass)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 December 2010

Health and Safety gone mad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full answer comes in three parts:

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

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

As I posted earlier this year:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the answer?

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

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

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

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

Recycling Banks to be closed

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 December 2010

On spying and Mike Hancock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 December 2010

At least the World Cup fiasco should rule out Game 39

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 December 2010

Council passes 'hope for the best' budget

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

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

Among the decisions were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cabinet votes against helping low paid employees

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

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

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

There was one honourable exception - Julian German.

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

Thursday, 2 December 2010

England one up on the Aussies

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

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

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

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

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

More than 1100 say no to unfair parking charges in Launceston

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

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

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

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

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