Sunday, 28 February 2010

LRFC Colts storm to victory over Falmouth

Yesterday afternoon the Launceston Colts took on Falmouth in a merit table match and stormed to a comprehensive victory which sets them up for their U17 cup match at Weston next Sunday.

A few photos below. You can find more here.

Launceston Boxing

Congratulations to Launceston Amateur Boxing Club on putting on another superb show, this time at the White Hart in the centre of town. The place was packed to the rafters and the atmosphere was incredible - especially for the last two fights of the evening featuring Tom Ware and Jordan Platt, both home club boxers of great potential.

I was surprised but very happy to be given the chance to pick the bout of the night and gave it to the match between Tom Ware and John Welshman of the Pilgrims Club in Plymouth.

But there were some great fights from the off. Sam Smith comprehensively beat Combe Martin's Alex Dovell and Dan Banton was non-stop action to outpoint Connor Farrell who was one of four fighters to come from Eltham in SE London.

Launceston ABC is a great venture run by coach Des Charnock and his team and they know how to put on a show.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Post Office Ltd pledges to keep town centre branch

Great news following the meeting I chaired with Post Office Ltd on Wednesday. They have agreed that Launceston Post Office needs to stay in the town centre and they have rejected the proposal to move the branch to Newport.

They haven't accepted the one application on the table for a town centre postmaster, but have agreed to re-advertise the position so that the people who have expressed an interest in the last few days can be properly considered. I know that there are several strong contenders out there and so I am increasingly confident that we will keep our town centre branch.

Sincere thanks to Post Office Ltd for listening to what we had to say on Wednesday.

Email from Tim Nickolls of the Post Office:

To confirm our telephone conversation, Post Office Ltd has taken the decision not to proceed at the current time with the potential relocation of the Launceston Post Office branch to the Newport area. We believe that circumstances have changed significantly in recent days/weeks with regard to the town centre (ie more favourable terms being offered for the current property and a number of possible other partners/premises coming forward) and we feel that we would like to explore these possible solutions for the current problem. At the present time, we will not be offering appointment to the individual interviewed Wednesday for the on-site option.

This does not mean that all is resolved - retaining a service in the town centre still depends on us reaching agreement with a suitable partner, offering suitable premises. However, I will be doing all that I can to ensure that the current impetus is not lost and I hope that the various parties in attendance at Wednesday's meeting will also be assisting where they can.

We will now begin the process of re-advertising the vacancy for the subpostmastership of the Launceston branch and we will be contacting the various parties who have already been in touch with us.

Please let me know if you require any further information at the current time.

Regards

Tim Nickolls

Network Development Manager South West
Post Office Ltd, 1st Floor Admin, Swansea Mail Centre, Swansea, SA1 1AA

ALDC Column

My latest column for ALDC has just bee published. It's on the subject of Cornwall Conservatives failing to live up to the fine words of their leadership.

You can find it here.

Want something to do this weekend?

There's lots going on this weekend in Launceston.


Tonight - there's a Wine and Wisdom event at the rugby club - £3 per person and teams of up to 6 allowed. Kick off is 7.30pm


Tomorrow - Launceston Amateur Boxing Club are holding an event at the White Hart. The bouts start at 7.45pm. I went to their last do in Kilkhampton and can vouch for it being a great night out with lots of superb boxing.


Sunday - Cornish All Blacks take on Cambridge at Polson Bridge at 2.30pm. The All Blacks are third in the table and take on fifth placed Cambridge in what promises to be a great match. Before the game there is a carvery in the Lanson Suite.

Early Election - nope

Here's one of those posts that could quickly prove that my political soothsaying is on a par with a koala that's been kept in a dark room for a long time. Despite all the flurry of panicky emails and tweets to BBC journos, I'm convinced that Gordon Brown is not about to call a general election any earlier than May 6th.

To things lead me to this thought:

- First, the polls are clearly running against the Tories at the moment and their lead is down to five or six points. Is this a blip or a trend? If it's a blip then in a month's time the Tories will be back with a healthy lead. So calling an election now will hand victory to David Cameron. Better to hang on and hope things improve. If, on the other hand, it's a trend then it will keep on going and things will just keep on getting better for Brown, so it would be better to wait.

- Second, the major reason for an April election is becoming less of a danger. That was the thought that although the UK came out of recession last quarter it was only by 0.1% and the forecasters felt fairly certain that the next figures (in late April) would show us back in negative growth and that this would be curtains for Brown. The BBC reports that the ONS have revised their figures slightly upwards and we actually saw growth of 0.3% last quarter. Still fairly meagre, but the changes of going back negatiuve next quarter are a lot less.

And what else is there?

- Labour is still cranking up its election machine. This is a monolithic beast and needs a lot of lead time.

- There have been too many negative stories in the press recently - from bullying to the terror role of MI5. Wilst we all know they are likely to continue, I bet he thinks they will run dry and he wants to call an election with a relatively clean slate.

Of course, tomorrow afternoon Brown will call the election and I'll be proved completely wrong, but hey...

One in three Tory candidates oppose party policy

The New Statesman magazine has a special look at the Conservative Party this week and, to assist their coverage, the commissioned a poll of Conservative candidates from ComRes.

Those of us who aren't in the Tory Party often make the criticism that they don't really have a lot of policies. We point out that their only confirmed tax policy is a tax cut for dead millionaires. Given the paucity of policy in this area, you would have thought that they would have managed to get all their candidates signed up to it.

But no. According to the ComRes poll, more than one in three Tory candidates disagree with the policy of an immediate cut in inheritance tax. How on earth are these people Conservative candidates if they disagree with George Osborne's one and only policy?

Another fascinating finding from the same poll concerns Tory attitudes to the death penalty. There are clearly deep divisions on the issues, but the finding that most intrigues me is that one in nine Tory candidates don't know whether or not they support the death penalty.

I have always found that the death penalty is one of those clear cut issues. I am absolutely opposed to it but I know that there are many who are in favour. It is one of those issues that you think about fairly early in any political consciousness and you stick to your view. For a politician not to have a view just seems pretty extraordinary to me.

So what does this mean?

It seems to me that there are lots of Tory candidates who are not really signed up to the Conservative agenda and some who simply don't know what they think on key issues. There was the story recently of the Conservative candidate who expects to be able to spend just one and a half days a week in London. Put together, this would tend to spell trouble for David Cameron, particularly if he does not have a commanding majority in Parliament. It's all very well wanting to have MPs who are not party automatons - that's good. But if those same peope don't have a clue on the big issues then that spells trouble.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Council playing silly beggars over Clegg visit

Cornwall Council has decided to bar Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg from visiting the Heartlands Porject in Pool. Local Councillor Kym Willoughby wanted Nick Clegg to see for himself how a rundown old mining area is to be transformed using a multi-million pound Lottery grant.

Even local Labour bigwig Malcolm Moyle (who is part of the team behind the Heartlands Project) seems mystified:

"I'm in favour of anything that we can do to publicise it. I would welcome the leaders of any political party, as I would welcome any member of the public. I don't know if there's an issue with the Lottery, or whether it's something to do with an impending election. What I do know is that once an election is called you will see all these party leaders visiting schools and so on, so why shouldn't they come here?"

I can recall times in the past when Lib Dems have been denied access to various projects whilst Tory politicians have had full run. The claim then was that the Tory was a 'Shadow Minister'.

As Mr Moyle says, most projects would welcome a visiting politician as it brings publicity and nobody would mistake allowing a visit for any sort of support for the party.

I presume that no Conservative politicians will be allowed to visit any Council facilities between now and the election.

You can read the full story on This is Cornwall.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Launceston Post Office - latest

We held a very productive meeting with representatives from the Post Office today discussing the future of Launceston Post Office.

The PO explained that they had not had a permanent tenant for a number of years and the landlord wanted a long term deal. The PO did not feel this was possible at the moment and so they were given notice to leave the premises by the end of May.

The only application up until three weeks ago came from the person who wanted to move the PO to Newport. Three weeks ago another applicant came forward with the desire to keep the business in town. Both of these applicants have been interviewed today.

The Cornwall councillors - Sasha Gillard-Loft, Phil Parsons and myself, together with the Town Council and the Chamber of Commerce - all expressed the strong desire to keep the PO in town. Whilst we do not criticise the person who wants to move the Post Office to Newport, we all feel that it would be better for the town as a whole if it remains in the town centre. Many shops gain a trade boost from people visiting the Post Office and would suffer if it moved to Newport. Whilst Newport has parking, the venue is almost inaccesible for pedestrians and has little public transport. And, whilst it is a bit more convenient for those in the Ridgegrove and St Stephens end of town, that does not make up for the damage it would do to the town centre.

The Post Office told us that their wish was for the venue to stay in the town centre. We told them that, since the landlord had indicated that he would allow a lower rent and a rent holiday and Cornwall Council would provide between 50% and 100% rate relief, there were a number of other people who would be interested in applying to run a town centre post office if the current applicant did not meet the criteria.

We will not find out for another 48 hours or so what the outcome of today's interviews is, but I hope that we will hear then that the Post Office is staying in the town centre or, at least, that other town centre applications are being invited.

Unfortunately, it appears that the local papers said that there would be a public meeting at 4pm on the issue. This was never planned but the three Cornwall Councillors stayed behind after our meeting with the Post Office to chat to members of the public and press who turned up to tell them what had been discussed. I hope everyone understood that it was not our fault that a meeting was wrongly advertised and they seemed to go away, as we did, with a bit more hope than before.

Cornwall fails to make City of Culture final four

The news has just come through that Cornwall has failed in its bid to become the UK City of Culture 2013. Cornwall was one of fourteen bids but has failed to make the final shortlist which is made ujp of Norwich, Sheffield, Birmingham and Derry/Londonderry.

This is undoubtedly a blow. Cornwall has been bidding for a range of cultural events including hosting the Manifesta event in 2011, European Capital of Culture in 2012 and the UK City of Culture status.

I have asked the officers in charge to share the feedback they will receive from the Government as to why Cornwall failed in this instance and what this failure might mean for the other bids.

What's going on with the proposed fire control centre?

One of the great projects proposed by the Government is to create a single fire control centre for the whole of the South West. The new centre - in Taunton - is already costing taxpayers £155,000 a month even though it is standing empty.

Over-runs are said to be almost £4.5 million and local taxpayers may have to pick up that tab and apparently fire chiefs are concerned that the new centre may be using obsolete technology.

You can read more about the concerns on This is Cornwall.

I have asked that councillors receive an update on this issue at the next meeting of the Fire Working Group, a scrutiny sub-committee on which I sit and which is monitoring the efforts to make sure that the Fire Service is up to scratch following the poor audit assessment.

Cornwall Tories are the high tax party - official

It's official - Cornwall Conservatives are a high tax party.

A study by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) has found that the average council tax bill rise this year will be about 1.8%. CIPFA are the recognised experts in this area and you can bet they have done their homework well.

In contrast with this average 1.8% rise, Cornwall Conservatives have chosen to raise council tax by 2.9%. When the higher precepts charged by town and parish councils and the Police are taken into account, the average rise in Cornwall will be over 3%.

At the same time. the Conservatives are cutting money from Fire and Childrens' budgets and are proposing to abolish weekly waste collections in East and West Cornwall.

Back in June, the Conservatives sent out a ton of leaflets claiming that they wanted a two year freeze on council tax. But as soon as they got into power, that promise went out of the window.

So it seems the lesson from Cornwall is that if you vote Conservative you get less and pay more.

Fish is Off

Labour MP David Drew will be arguing in Parliament this afternoon that public bodies - including schools, hospitals and social services - should only use fish which is 'demonstrably sustainable'. Whilst this Bill has no chance of being passed at the moment, if it ever came to law then it could be the end of the Cornish fishing industry.

The key here is the use of the phrase 'demonstrably sustainable'. Because that means that the judgement will be very subjective. What is sustainable to one person - even one scientist - is not sustainable to another.

Most people can agree that any commercial fishing of some threatened species could lead to their extinction. Bluefin tuna is one such example.

In other cases there needs to be a limit to the amount caught, but some fishing can continue. Species such as cod and haddock fall into this category. (Note that this is not an argument in favour of the EU quota system which is fatally flawed - but it is an argument in favour of some form of restriction to prevent an all nation free for all).

Farmed fish are generally given the thumbs up. But they tend to taste of little. Only a few species get the unrestricted ok - sea bream, coley and gurnard being examples. Even those on the MSC 'fish to eat' list tend to have caveats (where and how they were caught).

And there are a huge number of species judged somewhere in the middle - and therefore off the list according to Mr Drew (who represents Stroud which is not known for its fishing fleet). If he got his way then Cornish fishermen would be restricted to serving us all a never-ending diet of coley.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Lanson residents will face 100 mile planning round trip

Cornwall Council has confirmed that the decision on the major waste transfer station at Bangors Lane will be taken 48 miles away from Launceston. There are no other applications on the agenda for the meeting and so there seems to me no good reason for the meeting to be anywhere other than in Launceston.

Yesterday when I found out that the meeting was set for Truro, I asked the Council to urgently reconsider the decision. Today they have replied to say that, because the agenda has gone out saying Truro, people may become confused if it is switched. Not that this has stopped the Council changing the location for other meetings late in the day.

They also claim that there are no suitable venues in Launceston and so people would have to travel to Wadebridge. I believe that there are suitable venues that could be found in the town (and in any case, they seem to have forgotten Camelford, which is a lot closer than Wadebridge).

But the principle remains. When this Council was set up, they promised that decisions would be made as close to the people they affect as possible. They promised that this would not be a Truro-centric authority. So why on earth was this meeting not set for Launceston from the outset? And why is it that other meetings can be moved (such as the Binhamy Farm application in Bude and the Penzance Harbour development) but not this one?

Given that it appears the battle for this meeting to be moved is not going to be won, I have asked the Council what measures they are planning to assist local residents who want to attend. Attending will be expensive for those with a car and could be next to impossible for those without as the lack of public transport means that it is impossible to make it to Truro for a 10am meeting. I also asked whether the Council would arrange for the meeting to be available by video link or webcast.

So far I have had no response on any of these questions.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Peter Lewis leaving Cornwall Council

Cornwall Council has announced that Peter Lewis, the Director of Corporate Support, is to leave his post on 11th March. I have always found Mr Lewis to be very capable and supportive of members and will be sorry to see him go. But the manner of his departure and the reasons being given have raised more questions than answers.

In a statement sent to councillors and now to the press, Chief Exec Kevin Lavery says:
"Over recent months, and particularly during discussions about the council's business plan, budget and improvement agenda, Peter Lewis has expressed a desire to sharpen the focus and increase the pace of change beyond what I consider the council is ready for at this time. Consequently Peter has decided to leave Cornwall Council in order to contribute to an organisation with which he can feel more aligned."

I think it is reasonable to ask what direction Mr Lewis wanted the Council to take which could not be agreed. Given that the administration has set out its stall with the aim of privatising many council services, I can only assume that this is not the move that Mr Lewis was after.

I'm also concerned about the timing of Mr Lewis' departure. It would be normal in the case of a manager of his level to have to give around three months notice - although I have no knowledge of the terms of Mr Lewis contract. So how come Mr Lewis is leaving in just over a couple of weeks time? For the Council to hire in an interim Director will be costly, so why has Mr Lewis not been held to the terms of his contract?

Launceston residents asked to trek 48 miles for Bangors Lane planning meeting

On March 4th the Council's Strategic Planning Committee will be debating the application from Sita for the new waste transfer station at Bangors Lane on Pennygillam Industrial Estate. You can find the papers for the meeting here.

The application is the only substantive item on the agenda, yet the meeting is set to take place in Truro - 48 miles away from the town affected.

For those who want to object to the application, those who want to support it or just those who are interested and find out more, this is an enormous and unnecessary journey.

I have written to the Council to ask them to move the meeting to the town or, at the very least, to move it to a nearer venue such as Camelford.

When the new council was created, we were promised that it would not be unnecessarily Truro-centric. I'm sorry to say that it appears that this meeting is failing that test.

Note: Although I don't sit on the committee, I have taken the decision not to comment either in favour or in opposition to the application until the meeting.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

A culture of openness and transparency?

Way back at the start of the new Cornwall Council, the Leader - Conservative Alec Robertson - promised a culture of openness and transparency. Whether he meant that as a political dig at the Lib Dems or not, we certainly welcomed the sentiment.

It's such a shame then that the new administration has completely failed to live up to the promise.

- On the Council's property policy, at first the Leader claimed that there was no list of buildings they were thinking of selling off, only to then be forced to admit that there was such a list (but councillors can't see it);

- on schools targeted for closure, the council at first denied any list existed, but after repeated Freedom of Information demands now acknowledge such a list is in place, but insist it will not be disclosed;

- on the budget, the administration shut down debate with only half the councillors who wanted to ask questions or have their say being able to do so.

Top Cop says prayer cuts crime

THE power of prayer has helped to catch criminals, increase detection rates and reduce the number of people killed on our roads, according to senior Devon and Cornwall Police officer Inspector Roger Bartlett.

This is Cornwall has more.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Do the Tories give a damn about social care?

So the Conservatives have refused to take part in a conference organised to look into the future of social care. Surely this can't be because actually they don't care?

They claim that the event is a political stunt, but - as well as Labour and the Lib Dems - it will be attended by the Local Government Association (chaired by a Tory) and a wide range of charities involved in the sector.

One of the future options that will be discussed is the Government's 'death tax' option that the Conservatives hate so much. They are, of course, entitled to their views on this which are shared by many people. But that isn't the only option to be discussed. Perhaps by turning up the Conservatives would have to admit that they were misleading people when they claimed that the death tax was Labour's settled policy when it isn't.

By attacking the conference as a political ploy, the Tories are accusing all the charities taking part of engaging in party politics - something they are not permitted to do.

There was a great episode of the West Wing on this very subject - how to pay for social security for older people. There were behind the scenes talks in that too. As soon as one side started playing for party advantage the whole thing came near to collapse.

If the Conservatives carry on playing the Party card then the only conclusion that can be reached is that they have no interest in a consensus on this issue.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Burundi 1

I'm out of the UK at the moment working in Burundi. The country has a long history of inter-ethnic violence (it shares many of the same tensions as Rwanda) but is emerging as a democracy and has a series of elections (local, parliamentary and presidential) scheduled for later this year.

The Liberal Democrats, as all the main UK parties, have a number of sister parties around the world. In Burundi, we work with the ADR - a relatively new party headed by the hugely charismatic Alice Nzomukunda.

Our work here is to run a training for trainers course - that is, we are training leading party activists to become trainers themselves. It's a key part of any party's work to be able to spread their message effectively. To do this they rely on a network of volunteers who knock on doors, write literature and so on. Starting from scratch, it can be difficult to make sure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and that is where having good trainers comes in. Hopefully, we will be helping the party to have better trainers.

Our four days of work involve a day of training the basics including lots of theory and exercises, followed by two days of practicals and, finally, the real thing as the trainers we have been working with for the first three days present to an audience of over 100 party activists. Each day is about 10 hours as we are trying to cram a lot into a relatively short space of time. Regrettably, that means that we are very limited as to the amount of sight-seeing we can do in this beautiful country on the edge of Lake Tanganyika (all we really get to see is the airport, hotel and training venue).

The training team here includes three Brits - myself, Candy and Aidan - and Fulgere, a member of the opposition Seychelles National Party. Fulgere was a trainee on an earlier training for trainers course and is a natural at it. (It also helps massively that he speaks fluent french and so doesn't need the translators).

I'll post a longer and more detailed blog later.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Tories in a muddle over community grants

The future of local community grants is in doubt again after Conservative Cabinet Member Jim Currie told a members' briefing that the community chest pot would rely on being able to make savings in grants to other groups. That statement caused a certain amount of panic in officer circles and Cllr Currie had to scuttle from the room to check his facts. When he returned it was to say that grants were in the budget after all, but that the money to fund them had yet to be found.

The community chest grants are still therefore in doubt although I have been told by officers that they are confident they will find the money. But it is worrying that, this close to budget day (next Tuesday) the Cabinet Member in charge doesn't understand the detail of the budget he is in charge of.

In September the community chest grant pot was revived having been on hold since the election. Cabinet Member Lance Kennedy said that the full year amount for each councillor to distribute was £6,600, but that because the time it was covering was shortened, the amount for this year would be just £2195. He said that he would be asking Cabinet to reinstate the full amount from April 1st.

That appears to have been an April Fool as no one is talking about £6600 any more.

So why are community chest grants important? Mainly they matter because they are a way of supporting small community groups with projects that matter locally. Cornwall Council as a whole is far too centrist and bureaucratic to decide what should be funded at this level and so the community chest is given to each local councillor to give out in their ward or local area (and by doing this it means each area gets the same amount). In Launceston, I have already funded the Forum to help them refresh the community plan and am about to hand funds to small sports clubs and for local events (more details soon).

None of these groups would be able to get grants from the Council directly - especially as they have not been allowed to bid yet.

I trust that, by Tuesday, Cllr Currie and his colleagues will have been able to get everything sorted because many local projects are relying on the funds tnat the council is able to provide.

Devon and Cornwall Police set for officer cuts

Devon and Cornwall Police have announced that they will cut officer numbers by 5% over the next three years - 180 officers in total. In addition they will be cutting 100 back office staff and will be raising their element of the Council tax by about 5% every year - about double the current rate of inflation.

Most of our area has a very low level of crime. That's not to say that individual events are not shocking and deeply affecting for individuals and communities, but we do not have the same problems as many cities.

Whilst a 5% cut is not likely to lead to huge changes, it is clearly a step in the wrong direction. I am concerned that it will mean slower response times and less community engagement. I'm keen to hear from the Police themselves about how they will manage these cuts and what service degradation they envisage.

Council Chief Exec pledges to go on and on and on

Cornwall Council's Chief Executive today gave councillors a review of the first year of the new authority - albeit after 8 months rather than the full year.

Overall, I thought the presentation he gave was a fair one. He explained where the council had been judged to be failing - on adult care, children's safeguarding, fire and rescue and housing - and explained what the Council had done to address the problems. On all except housing, he said the Council had taken the judgement on the chin and vowed to improve. On housing, he compared Cornwall with a London council and said that it beggared belief that we were red flagged when all our statistics were better.

On finances, Mr Lavery made it clear that the Council inherited a strong financial position from the County Council. The recession and future Government cuts have, and will continue to, eat into this. But at least we started off from a sound base.

Mr Lavery addressed the issue of staff morale - recognising that this was a concern.

Crucially, he made it clear that there would have to be priorities for the Council. When we first started, I got the impression that he viewed everything as a priority and I challenged him on this. Now he is clear that the budget pressures and time pressures mean that we cannot excel in every single area. I challenged him again to ensure that the areas that we focus on must be those which are most important for the people of Cornwall. Usually, these will coincide with the audit marks we receive - nobody would suggest that we do not want to have a good child safeguarding system, for example. But there are occasions when we fall into the trap of concentrating on the boxes that the Government wants ticked and not on what really matters.

A number of members also raised the issue of the way that councillors are treated. I have raised concerns about the slow replies to correspondence and a new super-cautious view on how the Council communicates with members could also lead to breakdown. I know that one senior officer is looking into this area. Councillor morale is not the most important measure but is important if we are to really deliver a member led authority.

And finally, Mr Lavery quashed rumours that he was only going to be here for a short period. He made it clear that he had moved his family here and, perhaps in the manner of Mrs T, he will go on and on and on.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Do you fancy being a Town Councillor?

Following the resignation of Tony Howe, there is a vacancy on Launceston Town Council. This will be filled either by a by-election or by co-option.

The Town Council meets roughly once per month and runs a number of services in the Town including some open spaces, allotments and the Town Hall. The council is also consulted and has its say on any other issues affecting Launceston.

In the interests of democracy, I would hope that there will be a number of people who are interested in the post and therefore that there will be a by-election. In order for this to happen, at least 10 electors living in Launceston must formally call for a by-election to happen. To the best of my knowledge, the way to do this is to write to the Deputy Returning Officer at Cornwall Council - although I'll have to check who this is!

If a by-election is called for but there is no contest (ie if only one person puts themselves forward) then the one nominee will be declared elected and there will be no cost.

If not enough people call for a contest then the Town Council will co-opt someone at their meeting on March 16th.

If you are interested, get in touch with the Town Clerk, Rita Skinner, on 773693 or email ltc@talk21.com

Cabinet confirms first hour parking freeze

Cornwall Council's Cabinet has today confirmed that parking charges in Launceston and the rest of Cornwall will be frozen for the first hour, but prices for beyond that time would rise by an average of 5%.

I took the chance to point out that the 5% figure is misleading as prices in many areas - including Launceston - will rise by far more than this - the minimum rise is 10p. I said that many shops and businesses in town are really suffering and a second rise in the space of a year would simply drive more shoppers to the out of town stores rather than local town centre businesses.

The Cabinet is in a bit of a mess over their attitude to parking. Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks (as well as the Leader) confirmed that they did not see parking charges as simply being about revenue raising. Yet when I asked them to consider freezing all charges for next year, they told me that they needed the cash. That sounds to me like their decision is all about revenue raising!

But it is good news that there will be no increase in charges for the first hour. The Parking Panel will now have 12 months to complete their indepth review and I will be pressing the case for 10p first hour charges to give a real boost to town centre shops.

Welcome Tilly Jade Paynter

Congratulations to my council colleague Adam Paynter and to Katy his wife and welcome to Tilly Jade Paynter who was born at Treliske in the early hours of this morning.

Lib Dem Campaign Slogan and Graphic unveiled

I've just had an email from Jonny Oates, the Party's Director of Election Communications, with the new Lib Dem logo and slogan for the election campaign which I've shown above. I like it - clean and clear and good message.

Cornwall will have to think again on election counts

Last night MPs backed an amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill requiring all general election counts to start within 4 hours of the close of polls. This means that Cornwall Council will have to think again about plans to hold our counts the next day.

Along with colleagues on the Electoral Review Panel, I had expressed concerns that the Council is proposing to hold all our counts on the Friday - the final decision lies with the Returning Officer Kevin Lavery.

Whilst the St Ives count might be a special case because of the need to get ballot boxes from Scilly, I see no reason why we should be abandoning election night. As my friend Mark Pack has stated on a number of occasions, election night counts can be better and more secure than Friday counts.

The variable in this whole debate is as to whether or not the Constitutional Reform Bill will make it into law before the general election. If it does, then it appears Mr Lavery will have no choice. However, even if the Bill does not become law, there is a clear message being sent on the issue.

Higher Trenant - Cornwall Conservatives back down

Today's Cabinet meeting is a biggie. Later on we will have discussions on the controversial waste contract, but first up is the proposal to sell off the Higher Trenant offices in Wadebridge - the former offices of NCDC.

Higher Trenant is one of the most modern buildings in the council's property portfolio and it seemed bonkers to me that the Cabinet should be selling it off in advance of undertaking the holistic review of all council property.

All sorts of arguments have been advanced for why selling off Highr Trenant is a bad idea. These include the likely net loss of money if we sell off Higher Trenant only to build new offices seven miles away in Bodmin. There is significant doubt that the Council can make the money from the sale that they are talking about and new offices are likely to be more expensive in any case.

Of course, if we were starting from scratch, we might not choose to have the Eastern hub offices in Wadebridge. But the truth is that we are starting with modern offices in Wadebridge and no offices of significant size in Bodmin.

The Corporate Resources Scrutiny Committee looked at this proposal and held a meeting in Wadebridge to gauge local opinion. In a very strong report, the committee unanimously agreed to ask the Cabinet to abandon this plan - at least until after the full office vision review has taken place.

At today's meeting, Scrutiny Committee Vice Chair Dave Biggs (a Conservative) made a very strong case on behalf of the committee for the sale of Higher Trenant to be considered as part of the vision review, not on its own.

At last, the Cabinet appears to have started to see sense. Leader Alec Robertson amended the proposal in the papers and proposed that only the land around the Higher Trenant Offices be declared surplus to requirements at this stage - not the offices themselves. This is a huge climbdown, but still appears to be clinging to a determination that part of the land could be sold off as soon as possible. My colleague Jeremy Rowe asked if this was because there was already an offer on the table from a supermarket for the land, pointed out that the vision might conclude that the land around the offices was also needed and suggested that two hubs for East Cornwall might be needed - East Cornwall is 52% of the entire Cornwall area and a single hub covering the whole area from Bude to Torpoint seems far fetched.

Cabinet Member Jim Currie refused to answer Jeremy's question - claiming that he had already answered twice. Those of us listening to the debate hadn't heard such answers and we shall look forward to reading the details in the minutes.

Despite Graeme Hicks appearing to suggest that he backed the original recommendations, the Cabinet voted to give a stay of execution to the offices, to declare the land around Higher Trenant surplus now and to report back to the Corporate Resources Committee on the review of the office vision. Whilst not perfect, this is a significant climbdown by the Cabinet and shows that this time (unlike on the severance scheme) they have been prepared to listen to cross-party objections.

UPDATE - Jeremy Rowe has come up with a great soundbite on this - “They have a building which doesn’t need to be replaced, a replacement which doesn’t need to be built, a business case that doesn’t even begin to stack up, universal public derision at the proposals, and absolutely no answer to the question of why they need to rush ahead with this madcap scheme before their own office review has even started.”

Monday, 8 February 2010

Let's face it, the financial markets would prefer we lived in a dictatorship

As Lib Dem Voice reports, Vince Cable has had a go in the FT at those who claim that a hung Parliament would cause panic in the financial markets. By extension, these critics are attacking any form of proportional representation on the basis that it would be more likely to lead to no overall majority.

Vince's answer is to point out that some of the most stable economies in the world have PR systems and coalition governments. Conversely, some of the biggest financial problems happen in countries with single party governments, like Greece at the moment.

I would go further than Vince. For the past two years of so we have had financial markets wobbling despite the 'certainty' of a Labour Government with a secure majority. They wobble for the last 12 months or more of any Parliament when the outcome of the next election is in doubt in any way.

It seems to me that, if we really just wanted to acquiesce to the market's desire for stability, we ought to abolish elections altogether. A nice stable dictatorship is really what the market needs.

This is just another example of financial market hubris. Yet again 'The City' is dictating how the country should be run with no acknowledgement on their part of their own mistakes or of the wider needs of society.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Paddy in Cornwall

On Friday, Paddy Ashdown came to Newquay to meet up with the Lib Dem candidates and MPs. One place they visited was St Columb Minor School where the pupils were holding a charity fundraising day. There were a wide range of stalls and things to do and the team all had a great time.

Paddy, it would appear, really enjoyed the biscuit decorating stall.

A few more pics follow including Julia Goldsworthy getting her nails done:

Friday, 5 February 2010

Brilliant spoof of Arnie's 'Come to California' video

This is just fantastic. It's one Cornishman's take on Arnold Schwarzenegger's come to California advert featuring David Beckham et al.

Councillor of the Year Conference

I was in London yesterday for the LGiU Councullor of the Year Conference.

The keynote speakers were the three Party local government spokespeople - John Denham for Labour, Caroline Spellman for the Conservatives and Julia Goldsworthy for the Lib Dems.

John Denham arrived late and left early, but argued while he was there that Labour had great plans to devolve lots more powers to local government. But, as I asked him, why should we believe Labour now when they have had 13 years to give more powers to local authorities and have done virtually nothing.

Caroline Spellman also explained the raft of extra powers that the Conservatives would give local councils. Once again this sounded like a good list. But, I asked her, how could we believe her when Conservatives who have power do the opposite. In Cornwall, Conservatives put localism on hold, cut local highways budgets and local community grants and are planning to cut the hours of some one stop shops. Ms Spellman's answer - the Conservatives have only been in power in Cornwall since June and haven't had a chance to do anything yet.

Given the damage they have already inflicted on localism in Cornwall in seven months, I shudder to think what they could accomplish given more time!

And anyway, how does Caroline Spellman's promise to allow councils more freedom to choose sit with David Cameron's diktat that councils will freeze council tax for two years come what may. Surely their policy should be to allow them to choose what to do?

Afterwards, there were lots of decent workshops on subjects like finance, social media and waste before, at the end of the day, the Councillor of the Year awards were formally announced.

Below is video of me receiving my award as New Councillor of the Year.

Launceston Post Office

Not surprisingly, my revelation that the Royal Mail are planning to close Launceston Post Office and move to Newport has led to a lot of discussion in the town and has made the news (including my own appearance on Radio Cornwall).

The good news is that Royal Mail say that they are open to new offers until the end of the month - so if anyone can find suitable premises and comes forward offering to run a post office in the town, they will look at the proposal.

A second piece of good news is that Royal Mail managers have agreed to come to the town to talk to councillors and interested parties about the plans and to hear concerns. I'm currently trying to arrange a suitable meeting.

The bad news is that apparent spin that Royal Mail have put on the decision. I understand that their landlord offered them a new long lease and Royal Mail refused it. However Royal Mail are now saying that they had been given notice to quit the building, implying that their hand was forced when in fact they could have committed to the town for many years but chose not to.

Office Vision latest

It seems that the Corporate Resources scrutiny committee understands more about how a vision is meant to work than the Cabinet does. At the meeting last night they voted unanimously in favour of Lib Dem Leader Doris Ansari's motion to have the Higher Trenant office sell off considered as part of the startegic vision, rather than on its own.

Why is this important?

Well first it shows that it is more than just the Lib Dems who are objecting to the way that the Cabinet is dealing with this issue. The scrutiny committee is a cross-party grouping chaired by an Independent with a Conservative Vice Chair. The Lib Dems only have five of the fifteen members.

Second, it shows that there is very deep concern about the proposal to declare Higher Trenant - one of the council's best offices - surplus to requirements now rather than considering it properly alongside all the other council office buildings.

Concerns have been raised that the Council is only looking to sell the building because they think they can get a lot of money for it (but, worryingly, less than it could cost to build a replacement). I can't see what benefit the council has in shifting offices just 7 miles from Wadebridge to Bodmin and councillors have yet to see the business case for this. It would certainly be wrong, in my view, to sell off Higher Trenant before the business case has been proved.

We will see at the Cabinet meeting next Wednesday whether the administration take any account of the Scrutiny Committee's recommendations.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

More chuffed than a very chuffed thing

It's not officially announced until tomorrow, but the embargo has been broken by various news outlets and so I can reveal that I have won the New Councillor of the Year award given by the LGIU.

Obviously I'm very very chuffed at the news and want to thank the LGIU very much indeed.

Tomorrow I'll be in London at the LGIU's conference (and picking up the award) and so I'll blog more about it then.

Shocking plans to close Launceston Post Office

I have uncovered plans by Royal Mail to close Launceston Post Office and move it to a new base outside the town centre. There is a total lack of public consultation and that the likely new location is all but inaccessible to pedestrians.

Until a year ago, Launceston had two post offices - in the town centre and at Newport. In addition, there were numerous post office services in the villages around the town. Since the last round of closures, the people of Launceston have had to rely on the main town post office and part time or home services in some villages.

I am told that they have been unable to find a permanent postmaster who can make a profit. I understand that they have considered other locations in the town centre but have been unable to find anyone to take the business on.

The current thinking is that the post office will move to the empty Newport Grill building. Royal Mail say that they have secured parking and that the building is accessible to disabled people. However I also understand that another location in the Newport area is also under consideration. It seems amazing that just a year after closing Newport Post Office they are planning to move back to that area.

This is a shocking development just a year after the last round of post office closures which decimated the service in North Cornwall. It has been apparent to all local residents that the current situation was unsatisfactory, but the loss of the town centre post office will hit local people very hard.

A post office in Newport will be very difficult for many Launceston residents to reach. The area is fairly inaccessible to pedestrians and lacks footpaths. I am also concerned that there may well not be enough parking for all customers. Customers using public transport will also find a Newport Post Office difficult to reach.

It will also be another nail in the coffin of town centre shops as even more potential customers are forced to go out of town.

Together with my colleague Sasha Gillard-Loft, I'm calling for a full public consultation by Royal Mail before these plans are allowed to go ahead. We are also planning to use the new Community Area Network Panel to hold an inquiry into the proposal.

Cornwall Conservatives should repay £9k wasted on pointless allowances review

Cornwall Council has told me the cost of the independent review of councillors allowances - a review whose findings were ignored and the expense of which could have been avoided had a Lib Dem motion to freeze allowances been accepted back in July.

In response to a question by me, officers have revealed that the costs included:

IRP Panel Members £6,893.16

The other costs are from within existing resources:

Staff hours:

  • approx 95 hours (including meetings, preparation, research/analysis, report preparation)

Printing/postage costs:

  • minimal as meeting papers circulated electronically to the Panel
  • printing of final IRP report was part of the Council agenda

Councillor related costs:

  • interviews were arranged when Members were at County Hall as far as possible but the total cost of those who claimed for travel to attend an interview came to £52.90
The staff time involved - 95 hours - is an estimate and includes a range of officers - from the Director of Legal and Democratic Services at the top of the earnings tree down to admin staff. I would guess that the hourly pay would range from about £61 down to about £8. Perhaps the total staff cost would therefore be around £2000 at a conservative estimate.

So the total cost of the entire review is likely to have been around £9000.

This is a massive waste of council taxpayers money and could so easily have been avoided. The only reason we had a review at all was because Independent and Conservative members could not accept a Lib Dem proposal to freeze allowances. Yet just a few months later the council voted by 92 votes to 9 in favour of a freeze with the Conservatives in support.

The £9000 that this review cost (as well as being a waste of the time of the review panel) could so easily have been used to provide more front line services so needed by the people of Cornwall.

The Conservatives should be ashamed of themselves for forcing Cornish taxpayers to foot this bill. They should be reaching into their own pockets to find the money.

Conservatives plan jobs and services axe in Cornwall

Conrwall Council's Conservative led administration is planning to slash at least 1500 council jobs and the services they provide, Deputy Leader Jim Currie has admitted.

But a think tank believes that the cuts will be more like 3500 jobs.

The full story is on the BBC website and the interview was on Radio Cornwall this morning.

Whilst I believe that there are back office functions that can be cut within the council, to lose 3500 staff (or even 1500 if Mr Currie is right) will mean swingeing cuts to front line services.

My question to the Conservatives therefore is: Will they publish the list of cuts they are planning to make to frontline services.

Just what are councillors for?

There has been a very angry meeting at County Hall today with officers answering questions about the so-called office vision.

The anger stems from the lack of information being given to members by officers on the subject. I accept that there should be a strategic review about where our offices are, but am aghast at the lack of information being given to councillors on the subject. An attempt to call-in the original decision was denied by officers and today's meeting was a substitute to allow questions to be asked by ordinary councillors. Unfortunately, officers and the Cabinet member are still refusing to give any real answers.

Yet again today, officers refused to share with members the list of offices that are proposed for disposal or any details of the vision that underlies their thinking. After members from across the political spectrum had all made similar requests, the Director conceded that he, and the Cabinet, would think again about sharing the list with members on a confidential basis. Previously they had said they would only share information with local ward members about offices in their ward - a sort of divide and rule strategy. I hope that we will get a change of heart on this because otherwise we will have meetings like this time and again.

Once again, Jeremy Rowe asked why the Higher Trenant office had been separated from the rest of the 'vision' and received no proper answer.

Other members made the point that Cornwall doesn't start at Bodmin and that a 'vision' for the most easterly hub to be 30 miles into the county was extremely flawed. Officers promised to look at the options for Bodmin and to talk to local members in the East but there was no real acceptance that I could pick up that perhaps the East should be better served.

This all leads to the view that officers are keeping councillors out of the loop on a key decision which affects many thousands of jobs and local businesses. So what are councillors for if they cannot be trusted with key information?

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Why Councils should blog

Mark Pack, former Lib Dem Geek-in-Chief, has written a series of articles for Total Politics magazine on the use by councils of new technologies. In this month's article, Mark argues the case for councils having blogs. He says that it should not be a means of communication solely for individual councillors, but that council officers should consider using a blog to communicate what the council is doing.

The key argument that Mark makes is that people come back and read blogs regularly because they know they will have something new to say. Regular websites, on the other hand, need to advertise when they have something new to say because people only go to them when they want information that they know is there.

Anyway, read the whole article.

Brown on AV - why should we believe you now?

Today Gordon Brown is asking Parliament to agree to hold a referendum (after the election) on a change to a different voting system.

As I blogged before on the subject when it was mere conjecture - why on earth should we believe you now?

In 1997, Tony Blair committed Labour to holding a referendum on a proportional voting system for the House of Commons. I'm fairly sure that Blair himself was never committed to PR and saw this pledge as a means of getting the Lib Dems on board should he need them in a hung parliament. Labour got a massive majority and so never needed the Laib Dems, or this pledge, and so the commitment died.

Now Labour is going into an election that the polls say will be very close - maybe even a hung Parliament. Brown knows that many Lib Dems hate the idea of doing a deal with the Conservatives and so he is trying to position himself so that a coalition with the Lib Dems remains a possibility. PR is a hot button issue for Lib Dems and so Brown has pushed that button. The trouble is that he has wimped out and is not proposing a PR system but one which is supported by many Labour MPs because they think it would be even more biased towards them than the current one.

Of course Lib Dems should be supporting a referendum, and should support AV as a (very) small step in the right direction. But I wouldn't be surprised if more than 50 Labour MPs vote against Brown in this vote. If the hung Parliament situation Brown is hedging against does come to pass then I can see a small number of anti-reform Labour backbenchers derailing the whole shebang in any case.

UPDATE - Dan Hannan has had his say on the Telegraph blog. I think he is wrong in some of his characterisations of AV, but his sign off sentence is absolutely spot on.

Eleven page grant forms will be reviewed - victory for common sense!

Each Cornwall Councillor has a small pot (£2195) to give to local organisations in the form of community grants. At the start of our term we were told that there were few restrictions and, whilst there would be a checklist for officers to make sure that monies were not being mis-used, there would be no complex forms for local groups to fill in before they get the money.

Then, in September, we were told that there would, in fact, be a form. And boy, what a form it is.

It runs to eleven pages and asks for all sorts of information that could not possibly be needed in order to assess the application.

I hear from colleagues that there are some organisations that have chosen not to apply for a grant because of the complexity of the form. Others are having to be helped by officers to fill in the form.

Once filled in, there will be more bureaucratic box ticking so that officers can present a report claiming the strategic objectives are being met.

Whilst I understand that we need to make sure that funds are not being mis-used, the scheme looks like it is being set up to keep bureaucrats in jobs rather than fund local inititatives.

And so I have today got agreement from Lance Kennedy, the Cabinet Member in charge of the scheme, to look at the forms again. I hope that this can be done immediately so that no organisations are put off applying for a grant this year. Regrettably, I suspect that it will be a long and slow process which needs to be signed off at all stages.

On a separate note, it is very disappointing that the overall grant pot is so small. The amount was meant to be £6,600 per member but got reduced in the first year because the council came into being late. Lance Kennedy promised to review the amount for next year, but it now appears that he has lost the battle and so we will get less than half the amount again next year.

I have asked Lance to look again at the amount and see whether it can be increased as the bureaucracy is cut.