Saturday, 29 May 2010
I'm gutted that he has gone. I genuinely thought that he would stay - partly because it is not clear that he has broken the rules - he certainly has not profited from any breaches of the rules. Also, for the purely political reason that it is early in the new coalition government and troubles now can be got over simply because the new administration is enjoying a honeymoon period. Biut mainly, because he is damn good at the job.
That he has chosen to resign reflects both his character - he didn't want to spend the government's goodwill which might be required later - and his determination to keep the coalition on a sound footing. In 1997, the new Blair Government survived the Bernie Ecclestone donation row but was somewhat tainted from then on. Compare and contrast...
What now for David Laws?
Clearly David has some time to reflect and to try to rebuild everything that has been torn apart over the last 24 hours. I hope that he and Jamie - who has been a friend of mine for many years - will be able to get to grips with their new circumstances in the public eye.
David is and will remain a great talent for the Lib Dems. I have no doubt that, once the investigation is over, he will be able to return to Government if he chooses to. He really is too big a talent to be ignored. It's wrong to compare the dignified and honourable Laws with Peter Mandelson, but Mandelson proved that it is possible to come back to Government after resignation. Both, in their very different ways, are indispensible to their parties.
What about Nick Clegg?
Nick was faced with a very difficult situation. He has just lost the star of the first fortnight of the coalition and had to choose someone to replace him. By picking Danny Alexander he is asking a lot of a man who he has come to rely on for political advice but who has not been at the forefront of economic policy within the Party. He's not David Laws mark 2, but I believe he will do a more than competent job.
Presumably, we will also shortly see the announcement of a new Scottish Secretary. My hope is that it will not be another minister being promoted - if only because the new government has only just started work and to have a long consequential reshuffle now would be incredibly disruptive.
Jo Swinson anyone? - No sooner said than not done as Michael Moore has got the job.
For me, summer starts with the late May bank holiday weekend. You can guarantee that the previous few weeks have been wonderfully sunny. Particularly the four weeks leading up the first Thursday in May when I have been spending all my time electioneering and have had not chance to get anywhere near a beach.
The Whitsun bank holiday is also when Run to the Sun occurs - thousands of VW Beetles and camper vans litter the hard shoulder of the A30 and AA men book the weekend off to avoid having to try to fix the most inaccessible engines known to man.
It is the real start to summer because Cornwall sees its first real influx of holiday makers. Parents decide that prices are too steep to take the family overseas during half term. Dad misremembers the halcyon days of his childhood (it was actually August) and packs Mum and grumpy teenagers into the Picasso for a seven hour road trip to a campsite near Tintagel.
Also this weekend is the Launceston Steam Fair where I have been today on car parking duty. The show last year was steaming hot and packed with happy tourists and locals developing (if they weren't already) all the characteristics of puffer-nutters. Henceforth, they won't be able to see a cardboard box of oily engine bits without having a rummage through to see if anything takes their fancy. It doesn't matter that the dull grey metal all came from either a 1970s Indesit washing machine or an Austin Allegro - it might look a bit like the bit they think they have been searching for and so they'll take it on the off chance.
This year, the weather forecast was a bit different. I stood all day in a field wearing a large orange 'hi-vis' jacket trying to persuade drivers that their stopping distance on sloping wet grass is likely to be a tad more than usual. The rain bucketed down and the wind blew a gale. My generosity in donating my time in return for bronchial pneumonia was to support the Launceston Rugby Club minis and juniors who receive a donation from the Steam Rally organisers for their car parking efforts.
I'm sure the Steam Rally itself has a wide range of attractions and fun for all the family. It's just that when it rains, it's not quite the same.
Still, at least there weren't any Morris Dancers.
Friday, 28 May 2010
David Laws has been a revelation to people both in and outside the Lib Dems since his appointment to the Cabinet. He is no longer the obscure Orange booker but a supremely talented minister fully on top of his brief and more than justifying the decision of Nick Clegg to nominate him to a top job.
The full story about the expense claims will come out over the next day or so, but the Telegraph claims:
"David Laws, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, claimed up to £950 a month for eight years to rent rooms in two properties owned by his partner. The claims could be against parliamentary rules governing MPs’ second home expenses.
On Friday night, Mr Laws apologised and announced that he would “immediately” pay back tens of thousands of pounds claimed for rent and other housing costs between 2006 and 2009. He also referred himself to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner"
According to BBC News, David Laws did not comply with rules prohibiting financial dealings between family and partners in part because he did not want to disclose his sexuality.
David has apologised, pledged to repay the money claimed and referred himself to the Standards Commissioner.
My take on this is as follows:
David Laws, as anyone, has a right to keep his sexuality to himself. Those of us within the Party who have known he is gay for some time have not made it public out of respect for him. The Parliamentary rules put him in an invidious position. On documents that would be made public, David would have to disclose the nature of the relationship.
Of course David was wrong if he broke the rules and is right to repay the money and offer himself up to the Standards Commissioner, but the rules themselves would appear to be prejudicial in this respect.
There will, of course, be those who demand resignations over this and I assume that Labour's John Mann will be on our TV screens soon. But I think we have seen over the last few days why David Laws needs to stay in the Cabinet for the good of the Party, the coalition and, dare I say it, the country.
Traditionally, the Deputy Leader has been a relatively peripheral figure. With the Party struggling to get even the Leader noticed in the media, the Deputy has had a mainly Parliamentary focus - standing in for the Leader at PMQs on occasion and helping to organise MPs and peers. Vince changed that. He was and is achknowledged by the public as a major figure and a sage when it comes to all things financial. He added credibility and gravitas to aspects of the Party and very ably worked alongside Nick Clegg in the run up to and through the recent general election. Indeed, his face appeared next to Nick's on the cover of the manifesto and in much of the campaign literature.
But with five cabinet and many junior ministers, the role will now be of the senior backbench MP and, de facto, joint head (with the Party President) of the rubber chicken circuit.
So it is time, in my view, for a serious look at what we want this person to achieve.
As we have seen from the coalition negotiations and votes, the role of the Party President has become more vital and will no doubt remain so. I believe that Ros Scott is doing an excellent job of this.
The Deputy Leader needs to complement that role but can no longer be seen as a substitute for Nick Clegg. Instead, he or she will have to take on many of the tasks that the Leader used to perform - travelling the country, buoying the troops and helping to lead the development of policy.
So far there are two candidates for the role - Tim Farron who I have known since my time as a student Lib Dem and is one of the best speakers and campaigners that we have and Simon Hughes who I worked closely with during my time in Southwark and has been a ceaseless campaigner since he was elected in the early 1980s.
Given the huge change in the job, I think it is time to consider whether this post should continue to be chosen simply by a vote of MPs. Surely it is time to give the wider membership a chance to express our opinions and to make the vote an all-member ballot.
Matthew was the only Lib Dem MP in Cornwall from his by-election in 1986 until the election of Andrew George and Paul Tyler in 1992. During that time, and since, he has been a steadfast campaigner for Cornwall and I know he will continue to represent the interests of the Duchy in the Lords.
Matthew, who has also now taken up the post of chair of the National Housing Federation, joins Robin Teverson and Paul Tyler and Cornish Lib Dem Lords.
Also named in today's list is the former Director of Public Prosecutions Sir Ken Macdonald and former Childrens TV presenter and education campaigner Floella Benjamin.
As local residents will know, the Post Office branch has been run by a company on a short term rolling contract for a couple of years. Proposals were brought forward to move it to Newport which would have been another blow to the town centre and all the shops there.
Working together with the town council and local traders, Cornwall Councillor Sasha Gillard-Loft and myself persuaded the Post Office to halt that move and to look for a new sub-postmaster or mistress who would take over the business in its current location or another town centre property. We organised a meeting with the Post Office and interested parties at which they agreed to what we wanted and they have advertised the business and held interviews.
I was very glad to hear this afternoon that Julie Allen of Pat's Greetings Cards will be becoming the new sub-postmistress. I know that the whole town will be very glad to hear the news and will be wishing her all the best when she takes over officially on July 15th.
UPDATE - Julie has emailed me to say:
"I can confirm that the Post Office will stay where it is currently, just restaffed and restocked to the level the town deserves! We hope to "plug" a few gaps in lines not currently available in Launceston, including Art supplies. Pat's will also continue unchanged in its current location."
Thursday, 27 May 2010
In today's voting:
Tom Stubbs (Lib Dem) 604
Mebyon Kernow 156
Tom lost the same ward last year in the Cornwall Council elections by 4% so this represents a strong swing to the Lib Dems from the Conservatives.
The roads affected are St Josephs and St Leonards and the work will start on June 2nd and last for five days.
The aim is to get householders to reduce, reuse and recycle their waste.
As an introduction to the programme, there will be a short seminar in the White Hart Hotel on June 24th from 1.30-4pm. Everyone is welcome to come along and find out more. For more information or to book your place, contact Richard Haycock - firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01872 323541.
The Lib Dem candidate is my friend Tom Stubbs who missed out by just 40 votes when he stood in the same ward for the Cornwall Council elections last year.
This time round there are three candidates - Tom, the Conservatives and Mebyon Kernow. Despite the bluster that Truro was a three way marginal at the general election (it wasn't), Labour haven't even put up a candidate.
Many of my fellow councillors have been joining the campaign trail including Ann Kerridge, Jay Schofield, Rob Nolan, Jeremy Rowe and Graham Walker. Campaigning continues until the polls close at 10pm with the result some time after that.
At present, the festival gets a large subsidy in cash and officer time from the Council - more than £100,000 which comes from Cornish taxpayers. Of course it generates far more money in terms of business for local firms.
The present position for the Council is that it wants to gradually reduce the level of subsidy to longer standing festivals like Du Maurier so that they become self sufficient.
No one can consider the Council's commitment to Cornish arts and culture to be anything less than total. We are currently bidding for European Region of Culture status and hope to host the Manifesta event in the coming years. Both of these will need significant council investment but will also draw down huge amounts of matched funding from other sources and will bring thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of extra visitors to Cornwall.
There are many other events in Cornwall which currently receive no subsidy but might be able to grow with small (and short term) bit of support from the Council. In the long term, cutting the subsidy given to the Du Maurier festival is sensible and will not threaten its viability. The question is simply how soon and how fast the subsidy is withdrawn.
The airline's owners are stressing that they are seeking to sell it as a going concern, but in the current climate it is not certain that anyone will want to take the business on and maintain the current levels of service.
I've travelled on the Air South West service to London a number of times and it was speedy and convenient. But the airline accounts for more than half the flights from Newquay and if the current levels of service can't be maintained then the airport's business plan may be in jeopardy.
It is also very worrying for businesses in Cornwall and for the Council and others who are seeking to attract more firms based on the services from Newquay. If there end up being fewer flights, then Cornwall becomes a less attractive location to relocate to.
Obviously I hope that another business will see the benefit on taking over Sir South West - the firm made a profit last year.
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Having talked to the Police, it appears that the news reports are not completely accurate. I understand that an eviction was taking place but the householder barricaded herself in the house and told the eviction team that she had a gun. At this point the Police were called and an armed response team was despatched. Given that they had no idea what sort of gun they were dealing with or whether any threats to use it had been made, I think that this is the only response possible.
The Police also kept the children at St Catherine's School inside and arranged for parents to wait at the Police Station.
After a period of discussion with a trained negotiator, the woman left the house and an air rifle was recovered. I understand that the Police are satisfied that the woman made no threats to use the gun and that no one was actually in danger, but they could not have known this when the first reports were made. The woman has now been evicted from the house and will not be returning.
In my (non-expert) opinion, the Police acted incredibly professionally through all of this and have discussed the situation with local residents and with parents, staff and pupils at the schools to explain what happened. This sort of incident is, thankfully, incredibly rare in Cornwall, but I'm very glad that our local force is able to handle such a situation so well. I'm also glad that it didn't turn out to be nearly as serious as was first feared.
The Butter Market gazebos kept the sun off and there were display boards setting out the issues that face our town and to which people could attach their thoughts. There was also a very decent questionnaire asking for peoples' priorities.
It was also great to see the range of people taking part - including a large number of young people.
The Forum will now be collating the results and these will be well publicised.
If you missed your chance today, the Forum will be be holding another consultation event at Launceston Show on July 15th.
The first part of the debate was about what constitutes a petition. In fact, this debate was somewhat irrelevant. A petition has to be responded to properly and in a timely manner. Because Cornwall Council already has a code of practice so that all letters and communications are dealt with properly, it really doesn't matter if a letter is also a petition. Eventually the committee decided to recommend that something is a petition if it has 25 or more signatures from people who live, work or study in Cornwall.
More interesting was the debate about how many signatures are required before a petition automatically gets debated at Full Council. The guidelines from Government say that the level should be between 1% and 5% of the population. We decided that we wanted to be as open as possible where significant numbers of people wanted to raise an issue and so we recommended that the threshold should be 5000 signatures - just under 1% of the population. We set a similar threshold for petitions going to community network panels - a fixed number of about 1% of the population of that area. So for the Launceston area it will be about 150.
One extra point to note - everyone who is living, working or studying in Cornwall counts - you don't need to be over 18 to sign up.
Despite the arbitrary deadline, I hope that petitions - where local people can raise issues that really matter to them - will become more a part of our work on the Council.
Our recommendations now go to the Cabinet for approval.
Monday, 24 May 2010
I've complained for a while that Cornwall Council was focusing too much on mid and West Cornwall and was neglecting the East. It was therefore very good to see that the problems we face in the East were being recognised at Cabinet level.
On the back of this presentation, I asked Tom if he could help with one of the particular challenges in Launceston - that of connections to other parts of Cornwall. I had raised this issue before but not received a proper answer. Because Launceston has no access to the rail network, local people without cars are heavily reliant on the bus network if they want to be able to get around. Not just that, but if we are to make the best of the attractions we have to offer, visitors need to be able to get here.
Launceston has a pretty decent town bus service and connections to Bude, Exeter and Plymouth - although these are very patchy at times. We also have a bus service to Liskeard - the closest rail station - but this doesn't work early or late in the day and so someone wanting to get to Truro for 10am cannot do so. Local people without their own cars who need to get further west for work find it almost impossible to do so.
So I asked what would be needed in order for a new bus route to be set up linking Launceston to Bodmin - both town and rail station.
The answer, regrettably, was fairly negative. Because there are few villages along the route, officers felt that such a service would not have many passengers. They point out, probably correctly, that few people would wish to use the service to get from Launceston to Bodmin town (or vice versa). The primary reason for such a new service would be to link to the rail network. With such a service likely to cost the council around £1000 a week for just two return journeys a day, and likely low passenger numbers, it is unlikely that such a service could come close to breaking even.
Instead, the Council suggests that strengthening the Liskeard link would be the better option. I have asked them to look into this - particularly laying on buses earlier in the morning and later in the evening so that people who work or want to make day trips down the line could do so from Launceston.
Many thanks to Tom and his team for looking into this for me and I hope that we might get some more positive results soon.
Thursday, 20 May 2010
The update has been commissioned in part by the new Launceston Community Network Panel which is identifying the priorities for our area (not just the town, but the surrounding 16 parishes as well) to shape our work in the coming years as well as to form part of Cornwall Council's local development framework.
Already, the Forum has received the views of the Town Council, a large number of parishes and many other organisations and individuals. They have identified the pressure on the Health Centre and the need for significant traffic improvements in the town. But they still need more views and Tuesday's event will be a major effort to get the views of as many other people as possible.
If you are in the town centre on Tuesday between 10am and 7pm, please take five minutes to have your say.
They have found that 'at least' 1200 people were denied the right to vote despite being in a queue at a polling station at 10pm. They have also found that returning officers had not taken sufficient account of the likely time voters would take to cast their ballots - particularly in areas which also had council elections, had put too many electors into some polling stations and had cut back on staff and ballot papers in some cases.
The Commission is quite right to point out that returning officers had no option but to turn electors away if they had not been given their ballot paper by 10pm. That is the law and (apparently with the exception of Lewisham) they applied that correctly. The Commission is now saying that this law should be changed. In my opinion they are right to make this call. My beef with the Commission is that they have been overseeing elections in the UK and recommending changes for a number of years. Why on earth have they not made this recommendation before now? Whenever I conduct election observation missions overseas (and I know that their staff do so as well), I find that the countries I visit have a law that states that anyone queuing at close of polls is entitled to receive a ballot. It seems eminently sensible and I find it staggering that this small but important rule change has not been recommended by the Commission before now.
The other failings appear to be the fault of either cost-cutting, bad planning or incompetence by election officials at a local level. Of course the majority of the blame for these failings needs to rest with those local staff and returning officers. But what is going to be done about it. In cases where the number of people disenfranchised is greater than the electoral majority, there is a slim but real chance that a (very expensive) court case could order a re-run. In other cases we are told that disenfranchised electors may be offered financial compensation. I would like to see two other course of action as well:
- in cases where there were the greatest levels of official failure the police need to conduct an investigation on the grounds of breach of official duty. This is a recognised offence for people such as returning officers but it is hardly ever used, even where the fault was blatant. Of course, I don't know the complete facts in any of these cases and would not wish to pre-judge any investigations. But there have to be investigations rather than simply promises to learn lessons.
- the Commission must also take some of the responsibility. As mentioned before, whilst they do not have control over elections, they have been monitoring and making recommendations for some time now. If that role is to mean anything, it should be to spot things like cost-cutting and take steps to avoid it rather than just sit on the sidelines bemoaning a Victorian system.
I do not subscribe to the view that the Electoral Commission should be abolished. I think it has a substantial role to play. But the current Commission has been happy to sit back and offer polite comment far too often when they should be tearing the failing system apart and demanding that Parliament legislates.
To regain credibility, the Commission must now draft a complete Bill with all the changes it believes are necessary and then create hell until Parliament passes it. They must also up their game when it comes to identifying risk. Go and watch a few more elections overseas and learn from what they do differently and come back with lessons so that the rules are changed before the next catastrophe.
The Adult Education Service is one which Cornwall is rightly proud of. More and more, it is delivering a range of qualification based study as well as more traditional recreation based courses. That's not in itself a bad thing, of course. But the pressures from the Learning and Skills Council - which provides a lot of the funding for the service - are getting greater and greater. A recent budget cut from the LSC will have a significant effect and the Board of Governors, on which I sit, will have to deal with this cut in the very near future. As much as possible, we hope to be able to mitigate against any cuts to the service that we can provide.
Overall there are more than 10,000 people studying with Cornwall's Adult Education Service. Tonight's awards were for the 70 or so students who were judged by tutors to have done best over the past year. In some cases this was due to their academic excellence. But the awards also recognised those who had overcome adversity to study or made progress after not having achieved much during their school based education.
It was a great pleasure to be there and to chat afterwards with some of the awards recipients. I very much hope that next year we will be able to celebrate similar, or even higher, levels of success.
Also today, Olver Harris was made an Honoured Burgess of the town. Nowadays, this is a ceremonial position but it is fitting reward for more than 60 years of service to the communities of Lewannick and Launceston. In his speech, Olver told of how he started in local politics. He was kicking a ball around one day when the chairman of Lewannick Parish Council came out of the building where a meeting was being held and said they were inquorate and would he mind signing a piece of paper and sitting at the back of the meeting for an hour. During the meeting, Olver got fed up with one discussion and told the councillors they were getting it wrong. They invited him to share his thoughts and, before he knew it, he was hooked. Sixty years later and he is still involved.
Two of the pledges are:
• We will stop the deportation of asylum seekers who have had to leave particular countries because their sexual orientation or gender identification puts them at proven risk of imprisonment, torture or execution.
• We will use our relationships with other countries to push for unequivocal support for gay rights and for UK civil partnerships to be recognised internationally.
Today comes the news that two gay men in Malawi have been jailed for 14 years with hard labour for holding an engagement ceremony in private last year.
The laws under which they were tried were first introduced during the time of British rule of the country and have never been repealed.
I would hope the new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, will be pressing Malawi (a Commonwealth country), and other countries which persecute people on the basis of their sexuality, to change their stance.
One item which stood out to me was this:
"We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election."
What does this mean?
In Totnes before the last election, the Conservatives chose their candidate, now MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston, using an open primary method. Every registered voter in the constituency was eligible to take part and about 24% of them did. Nothing like the turnout in the general election of course, but still a huge proportion of the electorate.
This was a massive change from the normal procedure of all parties. Previously, only party members had been able to vote (and supportive union members in Labour's case). By opening the procedure up to the public, the Tories managed to engage many thousands of people who wouldn't have previously been able to have a say. And with a turnout of around a quarter of the electorate, it is safe to say that no opposition party 'swamped' the ballot in order to pick the worst candidate. Sure, they lost a little bit of party control. But the people who made it onto the ballot paper were all approved candidates and all had been heavily vetted so, in effect, the party would be comfortable whoever won.
The big advantage of this method is that it engages the electorate. If voters have had a chance to select the candidate in a primary, they will be more likely to vote for that candidate (and party) at the general election. And, of course, it is a huge advantage for the party to be able to put out lots of bits of paper with the party names and policies all over them.
So now this process is going to be state funded in up to 200 constituencies at a cost of up to £40,000 each time (that was how much the Totnes experiment is said to have cost although the details of the state funded package may be different).
According to the coalition document, each of the parties represented in Parliament will get a number of primaries in proportion to their share of the vote. So UKIP, the BNP and Sinn Fein will not get any. The Lib Dems will get around 48, the Greens 2, Labour about 65, the Tories about 78 and so on. (I may work out the precise numbers in due course).
How to use them? Well the Totnes primary was used by the Tories to pick a candidate in a safe seat that they held where the outgoing MP was blighted by the expenses scandal. On the face of it, this sort of entrenchment tactic could be used for the state funded primaries. But the detailed rules might spell out that they can only be used in seats that are not already held.
The definition of 'seats that have not changed hands for many years' will also be key. I presume this will mean party control rather than an individual MP. But a party which has been steadily eroding the sitting MP's support for a couple of elections will surely use an open primary to give their campaign a shot in the arm.
Could there be a case where two parties pick the same seat to hold a primary in? Presumably so.
I am sure that the justification for this measure will be that it will help to end safe seats. If so, the aim is laudable. But there will be questions about the entrenchment of the sitting parties and about the cost to the tax-payer. And with the process limited to only around a third of seats, there will be many of us who will continue to miss out - including many who live in safe seats that are not picked by one of the parties.
At the end of the day, changing the voting system to STV would achieve the same end in every seat and so much more. Electors can choose between candidates as well as parties, they are more likely to have a representative of the party of their choosing and safe seats disappear.
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
Their calls echo much of what the Liberal Democrats were pledging at the council elections last year. Regrettably, the new Cornwall Council administration would not accept the introduction of 10p first hour car parking - the most popular single policy of the election campaign - and have asked a committee to review all car parking policies.
Whilst we wait for Cornwall Council to reach a decision, there is still much that Launceston Town Council can do to help traders. It is the Town council that owns and runs the multi-storey and they could introduce very cheap short term parking (perhaps 10p for the first half hour). I know that this is something that Town Mayor Paul O'Brien is looking into.
On another aspect, however, Cornwall Council is at last making progress. With the signs and lines in the town now legal and enforceable (a mere six months after the work was promised), enforcement officers are now patrolling our streets and car parks on a regular basis. Whilst it is annoying for all of us if we get a ticket, proper enforcement means that the traffic is kept free flowing and short term free parking spaces are not abused. I am already in touch with the Council to ensure that the town gets the enforcement that it needs.
The Chamber also suggests that the taxi rank and loading bays in the square should be moved to other locations to free up more short term parking spaces. I'm not sure that Westgate Street - a narrow street where access for lorries is regularly needed - is the best place for the taxi rank but I do support the idea of looking at how often the loading bays are properly used and perhaps moving all loading to the rear of town square businesses.
If you have any views on this interesting set of proposals from the Chamber, please get in touch.
Gone will be ID cards and much of the database state.
In will come controls on the use of CCTV.
Gone will be restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.
In will come a restriction on the use of libel laws to limit free speech.
And there will be a referendum on changing the voting system, a largely elected (by PR) House of Lords and the right to recall corrupt MPs.
And the Government will repeal laws which add nothing to the benefit of society - including asking the public which laws they would like to see the back of.
Labour, of course, is not happy. Alan Johnson - perhaps the least authoritarian Labour Home Secretary of the past 13 years (but that's not saying much) - has said that if we are asking the public which laws they would like to see go, we should be asking which they want to keep. But given that his government introduced around 4 new laws for every day that Parliament sat, he's hardly in a position to comment.
The business of Government should be to regulate where necessary. I think that both the modern conservatives and the Lib Dems get this. It's such a welcome relief to a Labour Government which believed that the state knew best. Labour's opposition to these moves just shows what a sham their call for 'a progressive coalition' really was.
For the full story, see Jeremy Rowe's blog (Jeremy is the councillor for the area that includes St Tudy).
Also at risk is Cornwall Council's cornerstone policy of a PFI scheme to build affordable housing.
It is usually a rule of new Governments that they do not renege on spending commitments that have been made by their predecessor. So that should make the BSF programme safe. Except that the new Government have found that Labour promised money that it did not have. As there was no money there to be promised, ministers have decided that the promise was not valid in the first place. Effectively, they are saying that Labour lied about having the money.
The new Government has, however, made a pledge to introduce the Lib Dem scheme of a pupil premium - an extra payment for pupils who come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Under this scheme, Cornwall is set to gain up to £22 million. That money would go directly to schools and it would be up to headteachers to decide how it could best be used to help pupils - whether by reducing class sizes, introducing Saturday schools or catch-up classes or even by using the money on school improvements. This money is not a replacement for the BSF funding, however. Clearly there will need to be a lot of lobbying by the Council of the new ministers.
Looking further than BSF, another Cornwall scheme that may be at risk is the Affordable Housing PFI bid. There are ten councils across the UK who are together bidding for £1 billion of PFI credits. As these bids have not yet been approved, it may seem that they would be obvious candidates for the chop. At a stroke the new Government would find £1bn of the £6bn savings it is looking to make. But there may still be hope for the scheme. As it is spread over a number of years, it may be that Treasury rules do not allow the whole saving to be written up in year one. In addition, the whole concept of PFI was first adopted by government because the money spent was off the government books. And so cutting the credits might not save the Government any money at all.
We will have to wait and see what Chancellor Osborne has to say on Monday.
At the moment, central government top slices all council house rents. This is money paid by Cornwall residents which goes to central government. It doesn't come back to the Council and so cannot be used to improve the council housing stock or to build new homes.
The idea being proposed is that the Council takes out a large loan, effectively a mortgage, which will buy our way out of the deal. It will give the Council far more control over our properties and the money that tenants pay.
There are risks of course. The loan will be subject to interest rate variations (although a favourable deal is on offer); the value of the rents coming in (which are set by the government) could fall and the repairs needed might outstrip the amount in the bank. But overall this looks like a good deal which is worth pursuing.
The loan would free up money to be spent on repairs which is good and will be welcome news to those tenants who have been told that their repairs are non urgent and therefore some way down the track. I asked, and received assurances, that some of this money would also be used for communal areas and facilities, not just the properties themselves.
And finally, the money could also build up to 150 new council houses.
Of course, with a change of Government, this deal is subject to change. But I very much hope that the new coalition government will consider that devolving more control over council housing back to local councils is a good thing.
Tuesday, 18 May 2010
The national guidelines state that when there is a development of more than 15 houses, at least 35% of them must be affordable - either to rent or to buy at low cost.
In Cornwall, none of the parties felt that this was good enough and the Planning Policy Committee has been working to come up with stricter guidelines. Whatever people may think of the regional spatial strategy target for new housing in Cornwall, I believe that everyone agrees that we need more homes for local families and people who would otherwise find themselves priced out of living here.
The solution they have come up with is to split Cornwall into four types of area:
- In the big towns (Truro, St Austell, Falmouth, Redruth-Pool-Camborne, Saltash, Torpoint, Bodmin, Newquay and Penzance) there will be a requirement for 40% of all new houses to be affordable on developments of 5 or more properties.
- In all other towns and villages (including Launceston) there will be a requirement for 50% of all new houses to be affordable in developments of 2 or more properties.
- In certain areas where there are very high levels of holiday homes, there will be an additional restriction which means that new market homes must be used as principle residences, not as second homes.
- In all other areas - ie outside the boundaries of existing villages, towns and hamlets - there will usually be no development allowed. Where it is permitted, it must be to serve a particular village and all properties will have to be affordable. There is a get out clause that some open market housing may be allowed, but only where the affected community supports the idea and where the provision of open market housing will lower the subsidy needed or make the affordable housing much cheaper.
As previously, where affordable housing is provided, about half of it will be social rented properties and the remaining half either rented or low cost for sale.
What does this mean for Launceston? The existing policy here is already pretty good. It states that the level of affordable housing should be 50% in developments of 5 or more properties, but that the social rented element of the new build is just 35%. So the effect is that any development of more than a single property will be affected and that we will be seeing more rented housing in the future.
In my view this draft policy is a good step forward. It recognises that we have a significant need for more affordable homes and is doing something positive to help bring them about. Of course, getting affordable homes in this way is not the only option. The Council is currently piloting a project to build more council houses itself and is still pursuing the idea of a PFI scheme to build many more - although this will rely on the new government freeing up a lot of money to bankroll the project.
Of course, the new government might have something to say about both the PFI scheme and second homes in the near future. According to the local papers, David Cameron is listening to Lib Dem concerns over second homes and is considering making them subject to higher capital gains tax rules. We will have to wait and see what happens in this regard.
I very much hope that the Cabinet will vote through this policy tomorrow and I think that Dick Cole and his committee which drafted this policy deserve a pat on the back for their efforts.
UPDATE - I've changed the bit about areas with large numbers of second homes following a chat with Dick Cole who clarified that there would be extra restrictions in these areas rather than different.
UPDATE 2 - Cabinet unanimously passed this policy today and it will now go out for formal consultation
Monday, 17 May 2010
- If the coalition's plans come to fruition before the next election, the current 650 seat will be scaled back to a much lower number. The Tories proposed a 10% cut - down to 585. The Lib Dems wanted a more radical cut to 500 MPs. Both of these - or something in between - would require complete boundary changes and so the figures in the table would be merely the basis of calculations.
- The list - although it will be taken as gospel by the papers - is merely the starting point. Individual seats will have had different circumstances which led to a slightly better or worse result than that which might have been gained under 'regular' circumstances. A campaigning chance missed, a dodgy attack leaflet, a section of the population denied the right to vote... all of these might have made a difference to the scores on the doors, if not to the outcome of the contest.
- Similarly, the list merely shows the percentage difference between the winner and the Lib Dem candidate. No account is taken of the third party performance or that of minor party candidates. These make a huge difference in Cowley Street's decision as to which seats to go for next time. If the winner got more than 50% of the vote or if there is a very low vote to be squeezed then the chances of targeting will be significantly lessened. On the other hand, if there is more than 15% to be squeezed and the Lib Dems are clear in second then the decision to target will be a lot easier. And, of course, if the Lib Dems are currently third then it is a lot harder to persuade voters that it is us who are best placed to defeat the incumbent.
All of that said, the list demonstrates very clearly that there are a huge number of seats which, with a strong candidate in place early and campaigning effectively, can be gained by the Lib Dems in May 2015.
I think that the decision to hold this conference was definitely the right one - despite it not being constitutionally necessary as the Parliamentary Party and Federal Executive had already voted to approve the coalition deal by 75%.
The Lib Dems are a party in which the membership gets to decide. We decide policy at conference and we choose our representatives in all elections. We also have one member one vote leadership elections, unlike Labour.
So the Party took the courageous step to hold the conference anyway.
The event took place in one of the halls at the NEC outside Birmingham. It was a huge barn but was strangely intimate with 1400 or so people there. There were no press allowed in - something that has exercised other parties, notably Labour, which used to have secret sessions of its main party conference until very recently. Why closed in our case? I think it was right to do so because it meant that everyone could say what they really thought without worrying what the media would make of it. Any opponents of the deal would know they could say what they thought without having their face dragged across the 6 o'clock news. If they really wanted to sound off against the deal they could do so to the media outside. The closed nature also gave a bit more freedom to our MPs, especially the new ministers. Their words in particular would be picked over with a fine toothed comb for any possible disagreement with our Conservative chums.
I do have to declare an interest in this, however. As the Party Photographer, I had access to the event and was able to put a few pics out via an agency with no competition. So all the inside pics of the event that you see in today's papers are mine.
What of the event itself? Proceedings were opened by Ros Scott, our Party President who was one of the people to take the decision to hold it in the first place. The motion itself was moved by Andrew Stunell, one of the new local government ministers and someone who has been a good supporter of us in Cornwall. Then there were nine amendments. Nine! In fact, this was not a bad thing. None were opposed to the deal but sought to remind the MPs of various key aspects of Lib Dem policy or to press the case for a specific course of action for the new Government. Among them were, inevitably, PR as well as the need to overturn at least part of the Digital Economy Act. All were, in fact, accepted by the movers of the motion and, ultimately, approved overwhelmingly in the final vote.
Among the best speeches I heard during the event were those of Simon Hughes and Evan Harris. Both are darlings of the left of the Party and both spoke passionately in favour of the deal. I hope that, notwithstanding the closed nature of the event, Simon's speech in particular can be made public as it was truly a tour de force.
There were a few speeches in opposition, but the overall mood of the conference was clear before the vote. When it came, there were no more than a dozen to twenty hands raised in opposition.
As Nick said in his speech that followed, that was somewhat North Korean in outcome. Nevertheless, I am sure that he will be very pleased with the result. And so he should be. The vote not only endorses the idea of the coalition, but it shows just how much Nick is respected in the Party and how well our members feel that he and the team did during the negotiations. They secured a vast range of truly liberal deals in the coalition policy document and a number of key ministries too.
Would most of those there yesterday have preferred a different election outcome? Yes, of course. Even if we could not have had an overall majority (no longer quite so far fetched as it once was), most there would have liked to be in a position where we could have genuinely dealt with both Labour and the Conservatives. But the Labour Party was not serious about a deal and so it was never on. As one speaker said - how can you have a progressive coalition when only our party is progressive.
Why a Mac? Well, despite the apparent extra cost, the price is actually about the same as a similar spec PC. Of course you can get a PC much cheaper, but not one capable of doing all the work I need to.
In addition, I think Macs look nicer, don't crash nearly so often and are quicker to start up and close down.
Oh, and because all my computer games are in PC format, I can wean myself off them too.
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
The original proposal was to have two types of season ticket - a single car park version and a Cornwall wide version. The latter - although convenient - would have cost £1200 a year and would clearly be out of the price range of most residents and businesses.
Even the single car park version was not without its problems. Whilst drivers can find a space in most car parks during the winter months, in summer you can often find that your usual car park is full and season ticket holders would have had to pay the day rate if they couldn't get into their season ticket car park.
The Lib Dems, already successful in our quest to freeze first hour parking rates and for a review of whether these should be cut back to just 10p, asked why we were abandoning the old district wide passes. Many businesses and residents want to be able to park in a range of car parks - not across the whole of Cornwall, but in North Cornwall (or Caradon, or Carrick...)
Cornwall Council has listened and has decided that season tickets will be valid for a range of car parks across each former district area.
That's good news and I thank them for listening to the Lib Dems and others who raised concerns.
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
And so the only deal that remains is with the Tories. Except that the Tories are now worried that they have over-committed. Whilst they can't renege on what was said publicly (including the AV referendum), they can seek to re-negotiate what wasn't and this might scupper the whole deal.
From a Lib Dem perspective, there is also the prospect of a Versailles type situation. After the First World War, the allies inflicted a punitive reparations deal on Germany at the Treaty of Versailles. Such was the resentment among the Germans at this deal that they sought every opportunity to get out of it and there was a huge resentment created at all things English, French and American. This attitude, in turn, gave Hitler a basis on which to start building support - which eventually led to his being able to take power.
I'm not, of course, comparing the Conservatives or any single member of the Party to Hitler or the Nazis in any way. But if the Tory backbenchers and grassroots feel that the Lib Dems have won too good a deal then the antipathy towards us might grow exponentially and this could hasten the breakdown of any deal - and resentment of David Cameron for giving away the farm.
Of course the Lib Dems want to get as good a deal as possible. After all, we will have to buy in to the majority of Tory manifesto promises under any coalition deal. And it is right that we should seek to get as much of our manifesto accepted as possible. But too good a deal might also bring more trouble for the future.
Friday, 7 May 2010
I've got a fair amount of experience with different types of election. Before being elected, I worked as an election expert for the Electoral Reform Society and monitored countless elections around the country, including the electoral fraud cases in Birmingham, Hackney and so on. I also led the UK election monitoring missions eight times, including to Bulgaria, Serbia and Guyana.
In every single one of the countries I have monitored in - about a dozen in all - the law states that those queuing at close of polls are allowed to receive and cast their ballots. Thus any problems in the administration of elections do not disenfranchise voters. To me, that is the fairest system and I don't see why the law in the UK is different.
But different it is, and one of the main tenets of monitoring elections is that you should see that the exisiting law is applied correctly.
So we have to look at what went wrong in Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester and so on. The returning officer in the last of these is quoted by the BBC as saying that they don't see it as an issue as the number of people disenfranchised would not be enough to overturn any General Election result. That may be legally true, but it's a cop out of the worst order. Confidence in our electoral system demands that the process is transparent, fair and effectively administered. It seems clear to me that returning officers and councils let down voters in a number of areas yesterday.
To those who argue that the polls are open from 7am to 10pm and voters should have gone earlier, I say this. As polls are open until 10pm, it should be a resonable assumption for a voter to be able to turn up at any moment before that time and be able to vote. On election day all parties keep campaigning until the moment the polls close. I have persuaded electors to go out in their dressing gowns at 9.55pm because their vote might make all the difference. In the future, parties may face the response 'why should we put ourselves out when we are not certain to be able to vote at all'.
Did councils and returning officers try to cut costs on this election by not employing enough staff or printing enough ballot papers? The inquiry should find out. But the first duty of a returning officer is to conduct elections properly and they are semi-detached from the rest of the council in order to give them the freedom to do so. Failing in their jobs leaves them open to a legal charge of breach of official duty. I hope that if any returning officers are found to have failed spectacularly then prosecutions are seriously considered.
Yesterday's turnout was a mere 65% on average. Yes it was up by 5% on last time, but such a rise - at a time when electors knew that this could be a game changing election - was hardly unexpected. Election officials should have been able to cope and it is a cause of much concern that they were not.
In short, if councils, the incoming Government or the Electoral Commission think that yesterday's fiasco was not a serious problem then they clearly have little understanding of the public's shaky confidence in our democracy. The promised inquiry should begin immediately and be prepared to ask awkward questions and come up with uncomfortable results.
For Brown, the result was not nearly as bad as it might have been. Sure there were a lot of losses and there seems little credibility to his desire the hang on in there. As Guido puts it, he is looking increasingly like a squatter. But a large number of Labour MPs in vulnerable seats hung on - particularly cabinet members. And Labour - for all that they fell to one of their lowest shares of the vote in living memory - are still the second largest party.
For the Lib Dems it was hugely disappointing. Cleggmania failed to be translated into the votes that were predicted and the Party actually lost seats. But there are still huge positives. I truly believed that without Nick Clegg - and without the leadership debates - we would have been squeezed into oblivion. There were some stonking results. Take Redcar - a massive 18% (or so) swing ffrom Labour. And we picked up more than just the solitary predicted seat from the Tories too. And yet. The number of seats lost by a comparatively small number of votes is very disappointing. For ages last night whenever there was a close result we seemed to come out on the wrong side of it. Sheffield Central, Camborne Redruth, Watford and so on. In London in particular, we were on the wrong end of a number of close calls as Labour performed incredibly well. Ed Fordham came third in a true three way marginal and it was only really hanging on in the two Sutton seats and Sarah Teather's victory in Brent that were cheer points in the capital.
Overall - incumbency mattered both ways. Those tainted by the expenses scandal lost out and those cleared of any wrongdoing tended to do well.
The increase in turnout was very welcome, but how many of those who bothered to turn out, particularly younger voters, will end up confused at the less than clear cut outcome? And what will be done about so many people being denied a vote? It seems to me that a 'review' will apear to be sweeping the matter under the carpet. Only if a court case happens and is successful (dubious given the strict rules) will people feel that their being denied a vote has been taken seriously.
Nick Clegg will win plaudits from all except Gordon Brown for sticking to his promise to allow the party with the most seats and votes to have the chance to govern. Morally there should be no right for Brown to stay in Number 10 and the seat maths make any Lib Lab deal doomed to failure anyway. Such a deal may be the only real chance of full blown PR but I worry that the voter backlash at a subsequent election would be too great.
David Cameron this afternoon claimed to offer an olive branch to Nick Clegg. He said that he was prepared to govern as a minority if needs be but would like to tie up a Lib Con coalition if possible. But his terms (and I accept that these were simply an opening gambit) are simply not acceptable to the Lib Dems. He seemed to say that we would have to take the bulk of their manifesto. When it came to what we could demand, Cameron simply listed those areas where the twon parties agree in any case. And on voting reform, Cameron declared himself willing to set up a commission to review matters. That is what Blair offered back in '97. At least Blair also said that a referendum would follow, even if this promise turned out to be worthless. Whilst Cam might be prepared to offer real PR, much of his party would not. Dan Hannan was on the BBC shortly afterwards and made it clear that electoral reform does not always mean voting reform. And I suspect that the majority of Tories would want to limit reform to equalising seat size and, perhaps, a referendum on AV after another election.
There will be no response from the Lib Dems to this offer other than to note it until at least after tomorrow's Parliamentary Party and Federal Exec meetings. I suspect that Nick Clegg will be asked by the Party to talk to the Tories to see how far they will be prepared to go. But I strongly doubt that a deal will prove possible.
That, in itself, is not a bad thing. For the Lib Dems to retain credibility we need to stick up for our manifesto. If the Tories accept enough of it then a deal could be done. But if not we can simply allow them to govern as a minority. The Tory tactic will be to try to blame failures on Lib Dems unwilling to accept responsibility, but this can be countered. And, in any case, no coalition would sit more easily with the party membership.
By being clear that it is Cam who should move into Number 10, Nick Clegg has bought both the Lib Dems and the whole political establishment time. A deal does not need to be done immediately - and it should not be. What matters is that the politicians get some sleep and realise that we are living in a changed world. Just as Alex Salmond is doing in Scotland, a minority administration can survive.
A final thought - for all that the Lib Dems won some spectacular ccontests, my winner of the night has to be Naomi Long for the Alliance Party in Northern Ireland.