Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Cornwall Council - only a little improving

In my pigeonhole at County Hall today was the brand new Council business plan for 2010-2014. I say brand new, but some of it is already out of date because of the budget cuts which are being imposed by the Government.

The front cover (pictured) contains what looks like a Wordle and is clearly meant to show the Council's priorities. In largest print are the management buzzwords - 'passion', 'transform', 'fix', and so on.

In tiny writing are some of the ambitions which I would hope are more important to the Tory led administration - such as 'improving', 'inclusive', 'positive' and 'environmental'.

Highways Cabinet Member sees danger of Launceston roads

Yesterday I was pleased to welcome Graeme Hicks, Cornwall Council's Cabinet Member for Highways, to Launceston. Graeme had agreed to come to look at some of the issues surrounding crossing and the need for a safer way for people to walk down Dutson Road.

Whilst we were there, we met a number of local residents and also talked to the Cornish and Devon Post.

I took Graeme from the town centre to Ridgegrove, pointing out that for people to walk to route, they needed twice to cross a main road where there is no safe crossing. There is also a problem for all the people who live in the 135 homes on the Priory side of St Thomas' Road as they have to cross the road to get into the town, and for people wanting to get to the steam railway, to Priory ruins or for kids wanting to access Priory Park to play football.

Once we got to Dutson Road, it was clear that Graeme was shocked that children have to walk down a thunderous main road with no pavement to get to school. I asked him to urgently consider what can be done to make the road safer. Of course, the best idea would be to cut the traffic using the road, but this will be a major project. In the mean time, we considered introducing rumble strips at the top of the road and a 'speedvisor' speed indicator sign which will warn drivers to slow down.

Graeme has promised to work with officers to look at all of these issues. He will work out whether the needed changes can be done and also how much they will cost. In the past, officers have often indicated that changes are simply not possible. I hope that Graeme will have a 'can do' attitude and look to see how we can effectively reduce speed on Dutson Road and provide safe crossings on St Thomas and Western Road.

Graeme did, however, point out that there is little or no money in the budget for any changes. I told him that many millions of pounds have been found for projects in mid and West Cornwall in recent years but that North Cornwall has largely missed out on vital life-saving highways works. I appreciate that the Council has to save money, but it is surely only a small matter of time before there is a fatal accident in our area and we ought to spend the necessary money now to save lives.

Image courtesy of the Cornish and Devon Post

Attempt to ignore local councillor views on childrens services defeated

A proposal from Cornwall Council's Chief Executive's department to abandon a plan to involve local councillors in children's services has been thrown out thanks to my Lib Dem colleague Pat Rogerson who represents Bodmin.

At the end of today's Children's Scrutiny committee meeting was a paper on 'Local Elected Member Champions for Children and Young People'. In order to help make our children's services better (they had been labelled failing) a councillor from each community network area would become the champion for children and young people in their area. In Launceston, we chose Cllr Phil Parsons to undertake the role.

The plan was delayed at least twice without explanation and it was now proposed to abandon the scheme as being too costly and too ambitious. Instead, we would see a smaller number of officer only boards. No elected member involvement and losing the vital link to local communities. No consultation had been held and the proper reasoning for the change was a mystery to those who read the paper.

Pat Rogerson slammed the new plan as being too centralised, anti-democratic and lacking transparency. She also attacked the reasons given for the proposed change. She pointed out that local councillor involvement in local meetings would cost nothing extra and she derided the idea that we should not be ambitious for local children.

Pat proposed that the paper should be rejected and a special meeting held to discuss the plans for local member champions. The Committee unanimously backed this and so another proposal to exclude elected representatives has been delayed - and hopefully defeated.

Are councillors set to be sidelined?

I have now heard rumours from two sources that Cornwall Council's executive is planning to cut the number of scrutiny meetings for councillors. This will severely inhibit the ability of elected representatives to hold the Cabinet and officers to account and achieve the best for the people of Cornwall.

At particular risk, I understand, are the various scrutiny and policy panels which have been set up to do the most forensic work.

There are three types of panels

- there are very short-lived 'task and finish' panels such as the CCTV group which is meant only to exist for one or two meetings, look in depth at a particular issue and then report back to scrutiny.

- there are panels set up to look at services which are of concern because of their past performance. An example is the Fire Working Group - which I sit on. Seven councillors meet about once per month to make sure that the work to improve the Fire Service is being done properly. The scrutiny of the fire service was once criticised but we have just had a peer review which praises our work.

- there are longer lasting panels looking to create new policy on very complex areas. These include the Parking Panel and the Planning Policy Panel. In both cases they are trying to bring together six different sets of policies and make recommendations as to what is right for the whole of Cornwall.

Each main scrutiny committee currently has just four meetings a year and, even with the ability to set up two panels each, they are struggling to cope with the workload. Today's Children's Scrutiny meeting ran out of time to deal with the whole agenda and wants to be able to meet more often.

If the number of panels is cut and scrutiny committees have to do all the work in just four meetings a year then accountability will suffer. We will see decisions taken by just 10 cabinet members led by officers who will become broadly unaccountable. I know that most members will view the prospect of losing their ability to scrutinise properly with horror.

Elan Homes - it takes six months and 18 days to get a response

Residents of Kensey Valley Meadow will, sadly, be all too familiar with the customer care policy of Elan Homes, the developers of the estate.

Last winter, many local residents were unable to get their cars out of the development because of the snow and ice problems. Some residents were even forced to abandon Christmas as they could not get out to buy all they needed for the holiday period and so could not host friends or family. Others were worried about losing their jobs as, despite the main roads around the town being cleared, the roads of KVM were left iced over. I blogged about this issue here, here and here.

Kensey Valley Meadow has still not been adopted by the Council and therefore the roads are still the responsibility of Elan Homes. I therefore asked in December for Elan to grit the roads or at least to supply salt bins so that people on the estate could get out.

It took two weeks for Elan to reply then and their reply was not encouraging. So I asked another question and was told:

Thank you for your email. Your email has been forwarded on to the Southern Regional Director who is currently unavailable. As soon as we have further information we will contact you again.

So far so good.

But then there was no further information from Elan, so I wrote again. Eventually, after six months and 18 days, I have received a rather terse response from the same woman in the customer service team to say that their policy remains the same. Nothing (as was promised) from the Southern Regional Director and none of the explanation that I sought.

It is deeply concerning to me, and no doubt to the residents of Kensey Valley Meadow who were abandoned by Elan, that they should treat their customer services function in this way.

Time for action on Cornwall Council top salaries

Cornwall Council has just published details of the pay levels for top officers. The report shows that there were 30 officers earning more than £100,000 a year and that 560 officers earning £50,000 or more in the last financial year. To see the report, click here and download the report under agenda item 14. The details of officers pay begin on page 81.

The report also shows that Peter Lewis, the former Director of Corporate Support, received a pay off of £78,750 when he left the council in March. This despite the fact that councillors were told that he left voluntarily.

Kevin Lavery issued a statement when Mr Lewis left which said:

“Over recent months, and particularly during discussions about the Council’s Business Plan, budget and improvement agenda, Corporate Support Director 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.”

That statement raises two issues. First, it should be the elected members of the Cabinet which sets the strategic direction of the Council and not the Chief Executive or the Director of Corporate Support.

Second, and more importantly in this case, the statement makes it clear that Mr Lewis left of his own volition. If that is the case, why did he receive a pay off of more than 6 months salary - almost £80,000. In my experience, the only reason for a pay off is if an employee is forced out of his job. Mr Lavery's statement and this report seem at odds with each other and I have written to him asking for an explanation to be provided to councillors.

I also believe that it is right that the highest paid officers should reflect on their own salaries at a time when huge council service cuts are about to be announced. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the entire government recently announced that they would be cutting their own pay by 5%. I think it is right that Cornwall Council's high paid officers should be doing the same. If they won't do so voluntarily, then I think that the Conservative administration should look to persuade them to do so.

Whilst the figures include schools staff and the Council is keen to stress that a large proportion of the increase in high earners is down to teachers who received an increment raise, I don't believe that this fully explains the huge jump in the number of high earners compared with the previous year. Neither does the unitary process which has seen seven councils merged into one. Whilst it is right to say that some of the jobs have grown in responsibility, it is also the case that many of the roles are the same as under the previous County Council.

I understand that every employee is entitled to seek to get the biggest salary they can, but it seems that there are an increasing number of very large salaries at a time when the taxpayers of Cornwall simply cannot afford them. I believe that it is imperative that Cornwall Council's Conservative led administration gets a grip on these salaries and insists on more transparency when it comes to pay offs for departing officers.

You can find the thoughts of my colleague Jeremy Rowe on the subject here.

I've been interviewed by Radio Cornwall on this subject this morning and I'll post the link here when I find it.

UPDATE - I've slightly altered the original post to make it clear that the figures relate to the last financial year, rather than the current number of employees.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Town Council Parking Meeting

This evening I've been at a meeting organised by the Town Council to discuss parking in the town. The meeting was called following the deputation at the last full meeting led by Karl Hockridge and a group of town centre traders.

The traders want the council to take action to boost footfall in the town. They would like to see the Town Council introduce a cheap initial parking scheme (such as 10p for the first 20 minutes) in the multi-storey car park. They also propose a barrier system to prevent ticket abuse which they say is common and which is costing the Town Council much revenue.

The Town Council say they have debated such a discount period but believe that it would lose money for the Town (and therefore for town council tax payers) and that a barrier system was investigated 10 years ago and found not to be viable.

The meeting got a bit heated at times but the Mayor proposed at the end that the Town Council would consider the ideas put forward as well as any others that are proposed. There was an idea put forward by a town councillor that the town should ask for a technical report on a barrier system and other means of controlling entry and/or exit to determine what would be possible and what is simply not.

I was also asked to speak to explain what Cornwall Council has done and is considering doing. I explained that Cornwall Council had decided to group Launceston in with towns such as Penryn and Hayle (and not the original proposal of lumping us in with St Austell and Camborne). I explained the likely impact on charging and that there will be another meeting in two weeks to consider the issues of charging scale and of discount offers. The Lib Dems have campaigned since last year for a 10p first hour parking scheme in at least one Launceston car park to boost local shops.

I very much hope that the traders and Town Council will be able to work together to make sure that the multi-storey car park balances charges and discounts against maximises income for the council and for the town as a whole.

Graffiti on Ridgegrove Lane

I have asked the Council to deal with the graffiti swastikas that have appeared on Ridgegrove Lane.

One has appeared on the wall at the junction of Ridgegrove Lane and Dutson Road (pictured) and another is sprayed on the road surface along the Lane.

If you know of any other graffiti in the area, please get in touch and I will ask the council to remove it as soon as possible.

If you know who is responsible for this graffiti, please let me know. I will pass on information received to the Police to they can take action, but am happy to keep the identity of anyone who passes information to me confidential.

UPDATE - The Council have promised that these will be dealt with by the end of the week.

Anti-skid surfaces on Dutson Road

The anti-skid surfaces at the bottom of Dutson Road outside the Spar shop have become detached and are in a very dangerous state.

These surfaces (a large red patch and a smaller grey patch, pictured) were put down by the Council just over a year ago to help drivers if they approach the mini-roundabout outside Spar too quickly. The idea is that they stop a car from skidding and help drivers keep control.

Unfortunately, the surfaces are crumbling in many areas and, much worse, are coming away in huge sheets in places. You can see some of the surface that has come loose at the bottom of the photo. If a car or lorry brakes suddenly on a loose sheet then it will skid a huge distance and the driver will have little chance of controlling their vehicle.

The roads are currently in a very dangerous state and I have written to the Council asking for urgent action to repair them.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The dreaded vote of confidence

Which is more believable:

The Prime Minister's full support for Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt following his Hillsborough gaffe

or

The G20's full support for the UK's plans to tackle Government debt?

Size matters - at least in cream tea terms

I went to a fascinating meeting this afternoon with some TV producers from cable channel UK TV Food. They are making a series called 'Monster Munch' which will feature competitions to produce the biggest of certain types of food.

One of the ideas they are considering is to produce the biggest cream tea. And, to perpetuate a debate that has been fascinating BBC Radio Cornwall's Laurence Reed for a while, they plan to have a cook off between teams from Devon and Cornwall.

And so they came to talk to a group of us in Launceston about whether we would like to take part and what ideas we had.

Dave, the owner of Mad Hatters Tea Shop in Church Street, has already been thinking quite seriously about this and how he would go about creating a World Record scone. (It's quite complex and relies on bars in the middle of the scone to make sure it is all cooked properly).

Other businesses are keen to help as well including the newly re-opened Harveys which has a huge oven for the cooking side of things. I am told that Kensey Foods and Roddas (the only place to buy proper Cornish Clotted Cream in my opinion) are also joining in.

If we are lucky enough to be picked to take part, we also want to have a huge tea party to celebrate.

Could this end the 'jam on top of cream' vs 'cream on top of jam' debate once and for all? Probably not, but I very much hope that the TV producers decide to invite Launceston to take part.

Miss Cornwall stripped... of her title

Miss Cornwall has been stripped of her title after it was discovered that she was too old to enter the competition and had no connection with Cornwall.

You can find all the details here.

Being a teacher, I suppose she could still lay claim to being Miss...

Police in the news

This is Cornwall reports that Devon and Cornwall Police are to go on a charm offensive having seen their customer satisfaction ratings slip over the past year.

My own impression is that our Police locally are doing a pretty good job. Whilst crime rates here are, thankfully, very low, the major task the Police face, in addition to investigating the crimes that do happen, is to make sure the public is aware that they are very unlikely to be a victim of crime.

Also in the news is opposition from Devon and Cornwall Police Authority to the Conservative plan for directly elected Police Commissioners. Our local Police Authority - made up of a majority of councillors from across Devon and Cornwall but with independent members and magistrates as well - is fairly well regarded.

I fail to see how creating a single Police Commissioner would help. It will clearly be a political post (whether or not that is party political) and I suspect that elections, and the priorities of the winner, will be dominated by relatively scarce but high profile crime. The Police themselves will lose the ability to prioritise those areas they think they can do the most good in and will see resources moved about for political, rather than operational, ends.

Thankfully, however, we don't live in London where Police officers have again given the appearance of being above the law in their detention of a young photojournalist. The video below (actually a sound recording with some pictures attached) is a great example of how the Police should not be working. See some of my earlier posts on the lack of response from the Police when I lived in London.

Just for clarification, it is not against the law to take pictures of people in a public place for editorial (ie journalism) reasons. That includes children, the armed forces or the Police themselves. What's more, after numerous incidents of wrongful detention and heavy handed policing in the past, all Met Police officers have supposedly been briefed on what is and is not allowed. I'm very glad that in this particular case they are investigating.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Six Cornish general election marked registers 'missing'

Cornwall Council has admitted that six of the marked registers from the General Election are missing.

Marked registers are created in polling stations. When an elector turns up to vote, they are checked against the copy of the electoral register held in the polling station to make sure that they are entitled to vote. A mark is made against their name to show that they have been given a ballot paper.

Whilst the obvious reason for doing this is to make sure that nobody can vote twice, the marked registers are also used after the election for a number of reasons. The political parties use them to check who has voted and they are also used to help prevent fraud. For instance, if a person is known to have died shortly before polling day then the register can be checked to make sure that nobody voted in their name. The marked register can also be cross-referenced to ensure that someone who is legitimately registered at two locations only cast one ballot.

It is worth noting, of course, that whilst the marked register shows who has received a ballot paper, it does not show how a person voted.

There may be a number of reasons for a marked register to be missing. The Council's report (see Agenda item 8 here) on the subject suggests that they might have been put in the wrong container by the polling station staff. After the end of polling, staff have a list of what goes where. Some containers are sealed and can only be opened by court order. Others are documents for the returning officer to deal with after polling day and among these should be the marked register.

There are six missing marked registers in this case, covering one polling station each in the following Cornwall Council divisions:

- St Austell Bay
- Mount Charles
- Fowey
- St Teath
- Wadebridge East
- St Germans

The report on the missing registers was produced after I heard reports that some were missing and it will now be discussed at Friday's meeting of the Council's Electoral Review Panel. It would be inappropriate for me to speculate further on the reasons for them being missing, to apportion blame or to suggest what should happen until after that meeting.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Scope polling report - the wrong solution to a real problem

The charity Scope has called for online and text voting to allow people with disabilities access to voting. Their report highlights the fact that far too many polling stations are still inaccessible to many would be voters.

Scope has been running reports on the accessibility of voting for many general elections now and have rightly garnered a lot of praise for their work in this area. But whilst their aims are exactly right and the concerns they raise very worrying, their preferred solution would cause far more problems than it solves.

Too many polling stations in the UK are still in buildings which are not fully accessible. Even worse are temporary structures such as caravans which can be impossible to access if you have any mobility impairment. The solution - enable the voter to cast their ballot outside - is discriminatory and puts a lot of people off.

Some will suggest that the number of people involved is relatively small. In fact I don't think it is, but even so we should adopt the principle that every elector should have equal access to cast their ballot and that all reasonable means should be taken to help them do so.

So why not internet or text voting?

Both have been extensively trialled in the UK. But both were hugely expensive and, most importantly, did not raise turnout. Indeed, the hard evidence is that turnout actually dropped with 'e-enabled' voting in many areas. Security experts have raised the issue that they might be subject to fraud which, unlike with paper based ballots, could be impossible to trace or correct. And whilst few technical errors were found in the online voting trials, the text voting system was cumbersome and left many voters unsure as to whether their vote had counted or not.

I think that internet or text voting would raise more problems than they solve and would do little if anything to boost turnout. I think that they should be laid to rest, at least for the next ten years.

But that does not mean that Scope do not have a point and I am certain that action needs to be taken. I would like to see a requirement that all polling stations be fully accessible. The current 'all reasonable steps' clause is a wimp out. To help returning officers, they should have the power to use any public building and guidance on using private premises should be made clearer. There will still be some areas where problems remain and the danger is that returning officers will simply offer fewer polling places as a result - making the ballot more inaccessible to many.

My solution - consider allowing electors to cast their ballot in another polling station within the same ward or constituency where their designated polling station is not fully accessible. There would be no need for a polling station to hold different types of ballot paper and there could be a second ballot box for 'out of polling district' ballot papers.

This provision would only be needed where a polling place is not completely accessible and my experience tells me that this tends to be in remote areas where there is more than one polling station for the ward concerned. If there is a ward with only one station and that is inaccessible then I would suggest the returning officer is not trying hard enough.

In such cases, poll cards could be printed to indicate that the polling station is not fully accessible and the address of the nearest accessible station could be given as an alternative.

Thanks to Mark Pack for highlighting the report.

Why David Cameron should not address Lib Dem conference - UPDATED

Today's Independent has an article about plans by the coalition government to 'cement the relationship'. One of the ideas is to have ministers from each party speak at the conference of the other.

I have no intrinsic problem about this. After all, we have seen some Labour and Conservative speakers at the Lib Dem conference before. But such a move by the coalition could be a risky manoeuvre.

Should David Cameron speak at Lib Dem conference? Apart from the nightmare that this would bring in terms of increased security (I suspect the Lib Dem conference is already on course for significant changes in this respect), the danger is that this single event would dominate the whole of the event. A figure such as the Prime Minister could not be shuffled off to a fringe event and would therefore have to speak on the main stage. It couldn't be on either of the last two days - Nick Clegg would end up as a side show - and it couldn't be at the Rally - which should always be a tribal Lib Dem event.

For the Lib Dems, what is there to gain? A hostile reception for Cameron would set the media agenda against Nick Clegg. An overly positive welcome would do even more to blur the distinction between the parties in the minds of voters.

In short, however much Cameron is a positive influence on the coalition - he clearly gets the need for the Lib Dems in a way that many of his Tory colleagues do not - he is still a massively divisive figure within the Lib Dems. Having Cameron at the Lib Dem conference would necessitate a heavy handed control of the conference just at the time that many activists need a bit of stroking.

Not a lot of this applies to most of the rest of the Tory frontbench however. Michael Gove came to the councillors conference last week and got a good reception. He may be a bit of a right-winger, but he is intelligent enough to stick to his brief, not say the wrong thing and to accept that he is on (potentially) hostile ground. William Hague would probably get away with it too (2001 General Election notwithstanding).

On the other hand, I'm sure that George Osborne would be a total disaster. Unfair it might be, but the Lib Dem view of him is of a career politician (yeah, irony alert) totally out of his depth. And his recent decision to cast himself as heir to Thatcher is not a coalition-enhancing step in the right direction.

I can't think of any other Conservative who could demand (or command) the main stage. That means speaking at fringe meetings. There is a certain amount of deniability about anyone who speaks at a fringe meeting in that these are not usually arranged by the Party itself. There is the consequent danger, however, that the speaker will say something a bit too off message. But I have no doubt that there is an avalanche of invites going out to Tory frontbenchers to speak at fringe meetings right now.

A final thought - will any anti-coalition groups be inviting Labour speakers (or even coalition opposing Tories) just to stir the pot?

UPDATE - Jeremy Hargreaves (@jeremyharg) has just tweeted to say that Conference Committee has just decided not to invite David Cameron to speak at Lib Dem conference.

Council agrees to real consultation over empty homes strategy

Cornwall Council has seen sense and has decided to extend the consultation period for its new empty homes strategy. The Council had previously allowed just three weeks for town and parish councils and anyone else who is interested to have their say.

For towns and parishes, this is just too short a time. Most only have meetings on a monthly basis and so a three week consultation often denies them the chance to discuss the issue and have their say. On this issue, Cornwall Council is looking to involve the local councils in finding empty properties and so the short consultation period was not the best way to boost their working relationships.

I raised the issue with officers and was told that they wanted to get the strategy in place as soon as possible because housing was an issue at the top of their list. I told them that a poor consultation raised the possibility of a poor policy and that a short amount of extra time now would pay dividends in the future. Cabinet Member Mark Kaczmarek told me he had yet to come across anyone who had a problem with the strategy and so it should just go ahead. To me that smacks of not understanding the point of consultation.

However, the Council has now emailed to say that the consultation will be extended to August 2nd and so all town and parish councils - as well as many other interested parties - will be able to contribute. I'm very grateful to the Council for seeing sense on this issue and have offered to work with the communications team to help set up a formal consultation policy so that this sort of exclusion won't happen again.

If you want to have your say on the empty property strategy, go to the consultation paper here.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

How much to park here?

In news reminiscent of London, someone in St Ives has recently paid around £60,000 for a parking space.

Full story here.

Launceston Waste Reduction Initiative

There was a briefing arranged today by the team which will be coming to Launceston over the summer to run a six week waste reduction initiative.

At the moment, each resident of Cornwall produces on average half a ton of rubbish per year and only around 37% is recycled. Of the remaining 63%, a quarter is material that could have been recycled.

Included in the rubbish is around 70kg of food waste per year. This isn't the peelings and scraps which are useful for compost but inedible. This is waste food which has simply not been eaten and has gone past its best and is worth around £400 for each person.

Unfortunately, the emphasis of the waste reduction team was on saving money, rather than on environmental issues. Of course the financial element is very important as landfill costs are now more than £78 a ton, but I would have hoped that equal emphasis would have been given to the green agenda.

The waste reduction team wanted to know what the attendees thought were the priorities for Launceston. We suggested a number of things including helping residents of estates with communal bins to recycle. We also wanted to know what the group could do to help businesses. Local firms cannot get their waste picked up by the council but have to pay for it to be taken away. In theory, all businesses also have to show that they either recycle themselves or that their waste contractor does so for them. However I know that many of them struggle to do so as firms are banned from using domestic recycling facilities or from taking their recyclables to Bangors Lane.

Regrettably, the team explained that their remit was limited to domestic waste although they had produced a guide for businesses. I think it can be a turn off to householders if they think that their recycling efforts are being undermined by firms who will not, or cannot, recycle. I'd like to hope that the team will think again about working with businesses.

The other major disappointment today was the turnout. As well as myself and four of our town councillors there was just a single resident. I hope that the team is able to boost interest in the project before the real work starts on July 5th.

The project will include talks to schools, a big green ticket - a sort of raffle where householders who register and recycle could win £100 - and a junk exchange event in September where local residents can dispose of their unwanted items and pick up other people's cast offs for free.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

VAT hike takes gloss of the budget

Having taken a bit of time to digest the budget I can't get past the VAT hike and the message it sends out. Not only is VAT a hugely regressive form of taxation which is likely to hit the poorest hardest, but there is also the message it sends about our Government - both halves of it - that what they said before the election and what they are doing now don't match up.

Nick Clegg in his email to members yesterday talked about how hard some of the decisions were. But for all that the books are in a far worse state than anybody thought, and for all that the Government can rightly blame Labour for their shocking display in office, going back on your word on VAT is a crying shame. Some pedant will point out that all parties left enough wriggle room on the VAT issue to cover their post-election actions. That is true. But the Lib Dems campaigned on the basis of the Conservatives' 'VAT Bombshell' and I can't help thinking that today's decision is hugely regrettable.

Looking at the other measures announced today, you have to think that the Lib Dem thinking was behind a lot of them. The aim of raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 is still being adhered to and we saw a welcome step along that road with a £1000 rise. There is some movement on Capital Gains Tax - although not nearly as much as I would have hoped. In addition, the link between pensions and income is being restored and the whole tenor of the measures on tax allowances and tax credits is that those at the higher end of the income scale will receive less than in the past.

I don't think anyone will be better off as a result of this budget and the fault for that lies squarely at Labour's door. For all her whingeing, Harriet Harman failed entirely to grasp the fact that they got us into this mess and they have done nothing to show what Labour would possibly have done to repair the damage.

I'm glad to see the broadband tax on fixed line phones has been abolished. It would have particularly hit those in rural areas without decent mobile connections and older people who rely more on their landline.

I'm also glad to see the National Insurance break for new businesses outside London and the South East. How much this will actually help, I don't know, but it is a clear message of support for the economy outside the capital.

On many issues the details are still unclear. One of these is the potential freeze in council tax. George Osborne said that if councils could limit cost rises then he would be able to offer some help. I would welcome a freeze in Cornwall next year and campaigned for a lower increase here this year. All the while local Conservatives seemed content to boost bills by as much as would be allowed. How they will react to the Government's offer will be key.

The decision to abolish the cider hike is welcome and many pubs would have been under threat from a significant beer duty increase. Likewise, the costs of petrol are crippling rural communities already and so I am glad not to see another hike in fuel duty. However, it seems perverse not to raise tobacco duty at a time when almost everything else is going up. Surely we should be taxing the bad things much more heavily than the good.

I'll end on a piece of good news. The public sector pay freeze and the ambition of ensuring that the bosses don't earn more than 20 times the lowest earners is very welcome given that those public sector workers on the lowest wages of under £21k a year will actually get a pay rise of £250 a year. These are more examples of Lib Dem thinking becoming reality.

But still, the VAT hike. Oh dear.

Out and about with traffic wardens

This morning I have been spending some time around the town with the supervisor of the traffic wardens who work in Launceston.

Since the signs and lines have been fixed, the civil enforcement officers have been able to do their bit to make the traffic flow as freely as possible. This includes making sure that people don't park in loading bays, that they don't overstay in the limited time parking bays and, of course, that they don't park on yellow lines.

Since April 1st, the officers have also had responsibility for our car parks - including coping with the RingGo system.

The biggest challenge that the officers face is that they are very limited in their numbers. There are currently just five enforcement officers for the former NCDC area - and holidays and sickness can mean even fewer on the streets. The good news is that new officers have just been recruited and there should be a team of ten on North Cornwall streets within a short time.

Whilst we were touring the town we saw some of the officers handing out tickets, as well as taking numbers to ensure people didn't overstay and talking to drivers who wanted to know whether they were parking legally.

Among the tickets handed out were two for people parking in loading bays. Whilst people with disabled (blue) badges can park on some yellow lines, they cannot park in loading bays and one car was tickets for that reason. Another car was simply parked in the loading bay whilst the driver went shopping. They got a ticket and decided to give some pretty childish verbal abuse to the officer when they returned.

I asked about the level of abuse that the enforcement officers are subject to. It was good, if a little surprising, to hear that abuse is relatively infrequent. There is the odd bit of non-threatening verbal abuse (such as I witnessed) and officers are told simply to ignore this. If they are threateningly abused, or if physical violence is threatened, then they are told to leave the area as quickly as possible and report the incident to their supervisor and, if warranted, to the Police.

However, if a driver wants to question why they were ticketed, and they are not abusive or threatening, then the officers are expected to explain the reasons for the ticket as well as explain the ways to pay and the right to appeal.

I'm glad that it now seems that Launceston is getting the parking enforcement support it needs and deserves. Many thanks to the officer who took me around town and to his team.

Launceston in Bloom

Many congratulations to Margaret Wills and her team at Launceston in Bloom who are currently planting flowers on the steps of the war memorial in the Town Square. Many thanks also to all the sponsors and businesses who have kindly supported this year's effort.

As well as the bedding plants, there are also hanging baskets on most town centre businesses. It's just a shame that a few of the bigger companies - including Barclays and Alliance and Leicester - are not showing the same community spirit.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Councillors get go ahead for highways improvements

After he promised two weeks ago that details of local highways improvements were in the post, Cornwall Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks has finally sent out the details.

Each Cornwall councillor will have a budget of £24,000 to spend over the next three years. It sounds like a lot, but with individual schemes such as new crossings costing as much as £60,000 each, a lot of very necessary changes are still out of the reach of local communities.

That is why I have invited Cllr Hicks to come to Launceston next Tuesday to see for himself the problems faced by local residents and to make the case for additional funding for specific projects which are urgently needed and which cannot be afforded from these new budgets.

Among the people he will be meeting is Mr Lea of Dutson Terrace. Mr Lea and his neighbours have to walk down a main road with no pavement and twice cross an A-road with no safe crossing in order to get into the centre of town.

Flashpoint Lifeskills Centre

This afternoon, the Cornwall councillors overseeing the fire service visited the Flashpoint Lifeskills centre in Bodmin. This is a centre that was established about 10 years ago by North Cornwall Council and teaches a variety of people about safety both inside and outside the home.

Now the centre is run by Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service and the majority of their visitors are primary school teachers. In addition, they have other school pupils in and they do first aid courses for adults.

Predominantly led by volunteers, the sessions look at 11 different scenarios from the kitchen to a farm yard and a railway track.

The centre is certainly well put together and very visual. There is lots of effort put into each scenario and masses to learn.

The battle for the centre is twofold

- how to get more volunteers in so that they can cope with as many schools as wish to visit

- how to boost the number of schools who want to visit so that every young person in Cornwall gets to learn vital information about safety at home and outside.

Conservative Councillor arrested over 'sex pest' allegations

The BBC are reporting a story that I heard as a rumour on Saturday - that Conservative Councillor Bill Jenkin has been arrested over allegations of sexual assault. It is reported that he is alleged to have made unwanted sexual advances and tried to kiss a woman against her will.

I take the view that I hope is shared by most people - that a person is innocent until proven guilty and being arrested should not mean that Bill should have to resign.

Bill is, however, the Conservative representative on the Devon and Cornwall Police Authority and I understand that he has chosen to resign from that position immediately - a decision I welcome as not doing so could significantly impinge on the ability of the authority to do its work. Having said that, should this matter be concluded without Bill being convicted of any offence, I trust that he will be reappointed should he wish to be.

Bill is also a member of the Council's Standards Committee - which oversees how councillors conduct themselves.

I hope that for the sake of Bill, the woman involved and Cornwall Council that the Police are able to conclude their investigations and to come to a decision as to whether matters should be taken further as swiftly as possible.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Congratulations to Duncan and Jo

Many congratulations to Lib Dem MPs Jo Swinson and Duncan Hames who have got engaged.

Those of us who (were sad enough to have) logged on to Twitter after getting home last night were in the virtual front row for the whole event.

Just after midnight, Duncan (@duncanhames) tweeted:

'Asking the question.'

Which was followed by Jo (@joswinson) responding:

'answering "yes" :o)'

Duncan is the new Lib Dem MP for Chippenham in Wiltshire and Jo was elected in 2005 for East Dumbartonshire. Both have been friends of mine for a while. Jo was actually one of the attendees at a Lib Dem Youth and Students 'Activate' training session I helped to organise many years ago.

Will either be tweeting at the wedding itself?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Nick Clegg at Lib Dem local government conference

Nick Clegg was the star speaker at today's Liberal Democrat local government conference in London. Nick gave a good speech telling a packed and appreciative audience about the progress with the coalition to date and the difficult decisions that are coming up in the near future.

The funniest moment of the event was when Nick was asked about the timing of the AV referendum. He started his answer by saying:

"I hope to be able to make an announcement about that sometime in the..."

At that point, he stopped and apologised for sounding just like ministers always do. He then went on to give a much fuller explanation about what he hoped to be able to do and when. The key point he made is, of course, that he hopes to be able to set the ball rolling sooner rather than later, but also that he was aiming for a post-legislative referendum. In other words, rather than have a Bill enabling a referendum, then the referendum itself, and then another piece of legislation to shift to AV, there would only need to be a single Act of Parliament. That helps to speed the process along massively and helps to avoid any change (if the voters approve) being delayed until after the next election.

It was a strong performance from Nick. The tone of the questions seemed to imply that the councillors present were concerned about the implementation of plans rather than the plans themselves.

The other highlight of the conference was the presence of Education Secretary Michael Gove who answered questions from a group of councillors. This was the first instance of a Tory or Lib Dem speaking at an event hosted by the other coalition partner that I know of. There is a bit of speculation about whether Nick will go to the Tory conference this autumn - I know nothing about that - but this was certainly a positive toe in the water if that really is the plan.

Certainly the recent local election results have been generally positive for the Lib Dems and this conference showed that Lib Dem councillors are currently a pretty buoyant group.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Kensey Valley Meadow highways fixes

I am very glad to see that Elan Homes, the developers of Kensey Valley Meadow, have contractors on site to deal with the highways and drainage works that need to be done before the road can be adopted.

This afternoon I went round the development with Steve Ewing, one of the council officers in charge of making sure the highways are up to scratch. We looked at some of the works that are being done and talked to a local resident who has had particular problems with drains outside his house. We were very glad to see that Elan had noted the problem with the drain and it was marked up for fixing.

The other issue that needs to be addressed before adoption can happen is the legal transfer of the land from Elan to Cornwall Council. In this area things are not nearly so promising. I am told that work is on-going, but that is what I was told nine months ago. This is incredibly frustrating and I have written formally to the Council's Head of Legal Services asking him to justify the delay and give local residents a definite completing date.

Haye Common Development

Last night I attended a meeting of Launceston Town Council's Planning Committee to hear a presentation about the possible development of Haye Common. This the land adjoining the newly approved Wain Homes site behind Hurdon Way.

The land is the last significant patch of possible housing development in Launceston and might accommodate up to 450 new properties.

It would be wrong of me to take any sort of final view on this proposal at this stage for two reasons - first because councillors (even those who don't sit on planning) should keep an open mind on future developments and secondly because we only have a very basic outline idea about what is being proposed at this stage. It would be wrong to judge one way or another until we see a definite proposal - if the developers decide to go ahead.

The developers behind the scheme are Bovis and I would give them marks for being willing to come at this early stage to talk to the local community.

In my opinion, if this application is to go ahead, it of course needs to conform to all the current planning rules and regulations. But it must also make sure that it offers a fully developed local community - with all the features that means such as play areas and open space, bus links, a local shop, community building and possibly even a local pub. The homes should fit with our community and there needs to be the right mix of affordable housing including homes for rent. Cornwall Council must also decide how it will cope with the extra demands on local schools that new families will bring.

But there is more than that. If Launceston is to see further development, then there should be benefit to the people of Launceston as a whole, including the provision of new community facilities that will benefit the whole town. Some ideas for what might be wanted are coming out of the consultation that took place recently in the town square and the new local development framework consultation.

I am sure that the developers will have taken the views of the town council members and myself on board and we will wait to see whether this proposal is brought forward as a planning application and, if so, what proposals they make. At that stage, the local community will be asked to comment formally. But if you have any views on the idea of such a development, please don't hesitate to get in touch with me using the details to the right. Any thoughts you pass on to me will be shared with my fellow Launceston councillor Sasha Gillard-Loft.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Harveys re-opening

I'm delighted to see that Harvey's is re-opening.

The bar and bistro in Church Street has been closed a for a number of months. It is a prime position in the middle of town and having it closed is not great for our image or the prosperity of other businesses.

According to posters in the windows, the bar will re-open on the 23rd and the bistro the next day.

Arguing the case for lower Launceston parking charges

This morning the Council's Parking Policy Panel was discussing how the different towns in Cornwall should be grouped for car parking purposes. We were not allowed to talk about charging at this stage, but about making sure that similar places are treated the same.

I am not a member of the panel, but went along to argue the case for Launceston being treated in a manner that reflects the problems faced by local businesses and residents.

The proposal before the panel was to treat Launceston on the same basis as St Austell - Cornwall's biggest single town. I argued against this as it would be likely to mean much higher charges than could be sustained in our town and it would mean charging until 6pm and on Sundays.

Instead, I suggested that Launceston should be treated on the same basis as places like Callington and Hayle and that we should have charges on Monday to Saturdays from 9am until 4pm only - and hour less than is currently the case.

I am very grateful to the panel for agreeing the change, and in particular to Mary May and John Coombe who proposed and seconded the Launceston case.

The most contentious issue - of charging levels and whether there should be a very cheap introductory rate - will be discussed at the next meeting on July 8th and I will again be arguing the case for cheaper rates for Launceston car parks to boost our shops.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

In praise of Shane Smeltz

Imagine you support a football club which was only founded less than ten years ago and has risen up the non-league ranks since then. One of your former players has been selected for the World Cup for, perhaps, the least fancied team in the tournament. Late in the game he makes the cross that leads to his side scoring an equaliser for what his coach calls the nation's best ever result in world football.

Good on ya Shane Smeltz. A massive result for New Zealand and a dewy eyed evening for all AFC Wimbledon fans.

Wimbledon has only ever had two World Cup players before - when Marcus Gayle and Robbie Earle played for Jamaica in France 98 - but then were when we were a Premiership side.

Interesting(ish) Shane Smeltz fact. When I was helping to write the programme for AFC Wimbledon, we used to ask the players if they had ever played in front of such a large crowd before. We had average crowds of 3000 and the league average was about 150 - so it wasn't a completely stupid question. Shane's reply was that yes, he had. He had played at the Tokyo Stadium in an international against Japan in front of 90,000. Oops.

Launceston traders take Parking Plea to Town Council

At this evening's Launceston Town Council meeting, a group of the town's traders brought a plea for lower parking charges.

The basic message they were conveying was one with which I wholeheartedly agree: that the town centre is losing out massively to out of town stores and that part of the problem - and certainly a way of redressing the problem - is through parking charges.

The Town Council runs the multi-storey car park and the traders were asking for the first half hour of parking to be free with, perhaps, the second half hour costing 20p. They had done their research and had found that the cost of a barrier system to enforce the system (and to make life easier for motorists who wouldn't need to guess how long they would be in town) could be repaid in about three or four years.

The traders had also looked at abuse of the current multi-storey. They found, through surveying three times a day, that more than 90 cars had abused the system in a week. They reckoned that the potential loss to the Town Council was around £10,000 a year and that this money would be claimed back by having a barrier system.

The issue will now be considered by the Town Council at a committee meeting and I want to congratulate the traders for their excellent work.

After their presentation, I talked to the traders about what Cornwall Council could do and I will be taking their message to the Parking Policy Panel which meets tomorrow to consider some aspects and next month to consider car park charging.

Council backs down on penalising motorists without mobiles

Cornwall Council has admitted that officers made a mistake when threatening to give parking tickets to motorists who failed to pay for parking when a car park machine broke down.

Until recently, the rules have been simple. In pay car parks, you have to buy a ticket. But if the machine has broken down, you don't. But with the introduction of the new RingGo system, motorists have the option of paying by credit card over their mobile phones.

Some motorists in Newquay have been threatened with fines when machines were broken and have been told by enforcement officers that they have to use the RingGo system instead. This is despite some of the motorists involved not carrying a mobile or having a suitable credit or debit card.

Today my colleague Geoff Brown raised the issue at Full Council and received an assurance from Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks that Ringo should only be seen as an alternative and was not a back up for failed machines. It will therefore remain the case that if the machine is broken, motorists do not have to buy a ticket.

UPDATE - In the original post, I said that some motorists had been fined. I am now told that motorists were simply threatened with fines but chose to use a different car park instead. However, the point of the post stands.

Council admits they may need a BSF Plan B

Some time ago, I asked in a council meeting about the bid for money from the Building Schools for the Future fund. Many Cornish schools are in dire need of modernisation and the Council had asked the Government for the cash. But the first bid had been turned down and the Council was asking again. What, I asked, was Plan B should the money be refused again?

The answer was simple. Cornwall doesn't need a Plan B because our application is so good we are definitely going to get the money.

Now the Government has put all new BSF funding on hold because there may not be enough money in the kitty. Having a Plan B suddenly doesn't look like such a bad idea.

Education Cabinet Member Neil Burden has now come around to the idea that an alternative might be needed and conceded to me that the Council would start looking at a Plan B.

The BSF bid is not dead in the water. It is still the best way of securing the funding that local schools so urgently need. I think that everyone in the Council chamber is hoping that it is approved and goes ahead. But it is ludicrous to put all of our eggs in one basket when it comes to something as vital as school buildings. I'm very glad that the Council is seeing sense and thinking of alternatives.

Council investigated just 18 possible cases of second home voting

As I blogged before, at today's full council meeting my colleague Jeremy Rowe asked a question about second home voters and how many cases the council were aware of during the recent general election.

Council Leader Alec Robertson replied and said that the council had investigated just 18 cases in the run up to the election.

That sounds to me like an implausibly low number. Either there was remarkable compliance with the law or the Council was not doing its job properly in making sure that only those eligible to vote actually did so.

The rules are clear. Only those who live permanently in an area may register to vote there. Second home owners may not do so. The only exceptions are students who genuinely live in two places for roughly equal periods of time.

What could the council have done to stop any abuse of the system? They could have checked the council tax register. Second home owners are entitled (wrongly in my view) to a discount on their council tax and are therefore registered as such. Any property which is registered as a second home should not have had any voters registered there.

Jeremy said in the meeting that he was aware of more than 18 cases in his own ward and with one Cornish seat being won by just 66 votes, it is entirely possible that a result could have been swayed by voters who should never have voted.

Cllr Robertson also claimed that it was not possible to find out who had voted more than once in the general election. The law states that, even if you are registered in more than one place, you may only vote once. It is in fact very possible by comparing the marked registers of the two registration addresses. This, however, is a very time consuming business and could realistically only happen where an individual case of illegal activity was suspected. The previous Labour Government set up a project called CORE - the Combined Online Register of Electors - which would have made the process simple. Unfortunately, as with some other anti-fraud measures, they failed to follow through with it.

Because of the implausibly low number in Alec Robertson's answer today, I have asked for an urgent meeting of the Council's Electoral Review Panel to investigate the matter more fully. If it is even remotely possible that the result of an election may be affected then Cornwall Council needs to take action quickly.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Cornwall Councill's centralisation streak is showing

I've written before about the centralisation tendencies of Cornwall Council. From the decision to put localism on hold to scheduling a Launceston planning meeting in Truro, the signs have not been good.

Now comes the news that planning meetings for North Cornwall might be moved from Camelford to Liskeard.

Cornwall has three local planning committees. One of these covers the whole of East Cornwall - the old districts of North Cornwall and Caradon. Until now, the planning committee has met in both Liskeard and Camelford and the officers have tried to make sure that North Cornwall applications have been heard in Camelford and Caradon in Liskeard. It's not always been perfect, and more local meetings to consider applications of very local significance have been hard to come by.

But now the meetings at Camelford are under threat,

Cornwall Council is seeking to get the Police station in the town moved to the Council building. That will save money, but it will also mean that the meeting area will no longer be available for planning and other meetings.

Council officers have promised that the planning committee will continue to meet in the town, but have so far failed to come up with definitive proposals for how this will happen. The alternative is that all planning applications will be discussed in Liskeard.

Such a move would not be the end of the road for councillors, but would be the kiss of death for local people who want to be able to listen to, and contribute to the debate, on issues that affect them.

My colleague Jeremy Rowe has written eloquently on this issue.

I hope that council officers will act urgently to make sure that planning issues continue to be discussed locally.

Weather forecasting - an invitation

After I wrote about the problems with long range weather forecasting, I've had an email from a member of staff at the Met Office HQ in Exeter inviting me to come and chat to them about their work and the problems I have with some of their long range forecasting.

I've said yes and I'll report back when I've been to talk to them.

Dunheved House redevelopment

As I blogged last week, Launceston College, together with Cornwall Council and the university, held a presentation evening last week to explain the plans to redevelop Dunheved House, the former boarding house. For non-Lanson residents, it was the home, for part of his schooling, of future James Bond Roger Moore.

The project will see the college using the venue as a training kitchen and fine dining restaurant for catering students and the ultimate aim is to open a small number of hotel rooms on the top floor.

The University would be able to offer courses there as well as having video conferencing facilities so that students from Launceston may be able to complete more of their studies in the town rather than having to move away.

Cornwall Council will be locating childrens and families services in the building as well as at venues in Callington and Bude, enabling them to be based closer to clients.

Overall, this scheme is well thought through and will be a great boost to Launceston. Local residents have raised concerns about parking and highways aspects which need to be addressed and I am glad that the College has agreed to meet with them on a regular basis to find a way around any problems. I hope that they will find an acceptable solution to allow this great project to go ahead.

Council stripping Ridgegrove of play equipment - UPDATED

Cornwall Council has announced that they are to strip some of the play equipment from the Ridgegrove Estate and that they will not be replacing it. This is despite a site visit in January when an expert agreed that all the equipment was safe to use and only minor repairs were needed. Officers pledged then that the minor repairs (including to flooring) would be done.

For some reason, it appears that housing department officers decided not to undertake the repairs and a further inspection was organised for last week to which I was not invited. That found that one set of swings was not safe, would be ripped out and would not be replaced.

The inspection also decided that the floor matting would also need to be removed and not replaced.

The Ridgegrove play area issue has been dragging on for many months. Senior officer Mike Owen agreed in February with a plan to replace both play areas with a much more modern set of equipment but nothing has happened on this since then.

I think it is appalling that different departments of the council are trying to pass the buck to each other and all the while the Ridgegrove is losing its few remaining community facilities. The remaining play equipment will not last for longer than a further three years and I am told there is no money for any replacement.

Any family that wants to get to a play facility has to walk at least half a mile along main roads with no pavements and cross where there are no crossings.

I have asked the Cabinet Member for Housing, Mark Kaczmarek and Communities Director Gill Steward to meet me at the Ridgegrove as a matter of urgency so they can see for themselves how local people have been abandoned by Cornwall Council.

UPDATE - I've had an email from the Director of Communities:

"I am more than happy to meet on site. I have however, asked for a full update and will look at what I can do move things on in the short term. I am really sorry that this dragged on. It is as you say unacceptable and I have made that clear to officers concerned."

She's absolutely right to say it has been unacceptable.I'm grateful to her for recognising this and for promising action.

Challenging Election Results

Yesterday the Sunday Mirror reported that the new Conservative MP for Romsey, Caroline Nokes, had been having an affair with her agent. In itself, that news should be nobody's business but Mrs Nokes, her husband and the man involved. What makes this worthy of comment is that, during the election, Mrs Nokes signed a campaign group's pledge stating that extra-marital sex was wrong. My understanding is that her signature was then used to appeal to some of her electorate for votes.

If all the above is true, that means that Mrs Nokes campaigned using false promises to the electorate. In short, that she lied.

Her Lib Dem opponent, the former MP Sandra Gidley, is suggesting that she might apply to have the result of the election overturned on the basis of this lie.

In the past, cases of this sort were very rare. The law on whether a false statement could be grounds for overturning the result was unclear and the only way an action could ever succeed would be if the defeated candidate could find people who were prepared to state under oath that they voted for the winner on the basis of the false statement but would not have done if they had known the truth. Sufficient numbers were needed to overturn the majority. But the law was changed recently to allow a judge to set aside the result if false statements of significant magnitude can be proved.

But Mrs Nokes' case is not the only such instance. In Oldham East and Saddleworth, defeated Lib Dem Elwyn Watkins has claimed that former immigration minister Phil Woolas made false statements about him in his leaflets. The Conservative challenger in David Laws' Yeovil seat is also complaining that Mr Laws made statements about being 'clean' on expenses. No doubt there are others out there as well.

It is right that the degree of culpability and its likely effect should be judged on the facts of each case in a court of law. But the principle that an election can be overturned by a court on the basis of false statements should be made clear as soon as possible. The electorate needs to be protected from blatant falsehoods so that they can cast their votes in confidence or know that the result will be set aside.

This isn't a party political issue - as I have demonstrated above, winners from all three main parties have been accused.

Just when you thought things couldn't get worse for Afghans

Vast mineral deposits have just been located in Afghanistan - a discovery that looks set to prolong the destabilisation of the war-torn country for many years.

The New York Times says that the mineral reserves are worth more than $1 trillion and include cobalt, lithium, iron, gold and copper and were discovered by a small team of US researchers and geologists. By comparison, the economy of Afghanistan is currently worth just $12 billion a year.

If such deposits were found in a stable country, it would be cause for huge celebration. There would be new roads and hospitals, better security and energy supply. In a country where many boys aren't educated and virtually no girls receive any schooling, it could have meant a step change in education.

But this is Afghanistan.

To understand what is likely to happen next, look at the Democratic Republic of Congo. That country too has vast mineral reserves - reserves which have been known about (at least in part) for many decades - or even centuries. Different countries have sought control of the land to exploit the reserves for their own ends. Corruption is endemic and the populace has gained hardly anything. In the DRC, matters are reaching a crisis point as, although the remaining reserves are still enough to totally transform the country, the end is in sight and a final scramble is on to secure the last pickings. The country's aspiring politicians who have seen their older colleagues get rich on bribes and backhanders and were awaiting buggin's turn have now discovered that there might not be much left when it comes to their place at the front of the brown envelope queue. Matters are in danger of becoming even more corrupt, rather than less.

As for Afghanistan, the first stage of the battle will be international. Which countries can secure the bulk of the rights.

Key players in this battle are the Chinese. Their model involves paying huge amounts to develop the infrastructure of the nation. They build roads, water plants, bridges and railways using local workers and chinese managers - all in return for the promise of mineral rights. Unlike many western countries, they do not make any demands of good governance - they are happy to deal with any politician who fulfils the old maxim of once they have been bought, they stay bought.

The American model was best exemplified in Iraq. In return for stabilising the regime, US companies are granted the plum rights to anything of value. In Iraq under the Bush regime it was usually Halliburton which came out top in these rights auctions. The US model depends on stability at the top of the political tree and so the leaders in place at the time of the rights auctions tend to stay there - at least until the US decides that they are showing a little too much independence and need replacing from within.

Two other nations might also step up to the plate in Afghanistan. One is Russia whose own mineral sector was carved up by senior figures close to the Kremlin. These oligarchs bought huge sectors of the Russian economy through a series of bribes and promises to play by the, peculiarly Russian, rules. They are free to make their billions so long as they do nothing to upset the Kremlin. They must 'donate' money in the right ways and promise to stay out of politics. Those who don't find themselves exiled and cut off from their piggy banks.

The final player may be Saudi Arabia. The Saudi expertise might be limited to the extraction of oil, but they have a history in seeking to export their own brand of Islam around the world. Like the Chinese, the Saudis make huge investments in infrastructure of developing nations. But they also spend very large amounts building mosques. Could Afghanistan be the next target of Saudi largesse?

None of these models will make especially happy reading for those of us who would hope that it will be ordinary Afghan citizens who gain most from their newly found mineral rights. Whether it is their own oligarchs, foreign companies or other nations - you can be sure that the vast majority of the profits of these finds will be disappearing beyond the borders of Afghanistan.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Why the USA drew with England - the Hands theory

For all that The Sun took to opportunity to reinforce the stereotype that the Americans don't get football on their front page yesterday, the USA are rated the World's 14th best team and they proved last night that they are easily able to hold their own against a shoddy England team.

And despite what The Sun says, American sports analysis in general is some of the best in the world and among those who get football, their writing is superb.

Take this piece in today's New York Times. Sitting alongside the normal match report, it's a colour article which takes as its base the 'Hands Theory'. That's the idea that the reason that Americans don't get football is because it doesn't involve playing with your hands. Baseball, American Football and Basketball - the triumverate of US sports - are all played with the hands and American kids all learn the basics of hand-eye co-ordination at a very early age as they chuck a ball around (of whatever size or shape) in the backyard.

(A sidenote to those readers who ask about ice hockey. It's very much the poor relation in US sports terms and the sides are all dominated by Canadians and Europeans. And anyway, the skills are mainly to with control of the puck with a stick held in the hands.)

Back to the Hands Theory. The article notes that the one position in football where hands are all important is the goalkeeper. Tim Howard, Brad Friedel and Casey Kellar were all good performers at 'traditional' US sports and all have more than held their own in the top leagues. In England we have produced some good goalkeepers. But I can't name any since Gordon Banks who would be considered to be world class.

Annoyed with jingoistic English newspaper coverage of the World Cup - look to America.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Foodie Launceston

Today was definitely a day for the foodies in Launceston. Every local knows about the superb reputation of Warrens the Butchers and also of the fishmonger and The Deli - not forgetting Gillards Sweet Shop!

But today was extra special.

The French market visited the town with a fine range of cheeses, meat, salamis, soaps, bread and fruit.

We also had two indoors markets today. The regular Friday market was happening in St Mary's Church Hall and was joined by a Community Market in the Methodist Central Church Hall selling local farm produce.

One seller in the last of these was cashing in in World Cup Fever by pairing different types of sausage to fit in with different world cup fixtures. So, for England vs USA, you can try traditional British bangers and hickory smoked sausages representing America.

Council Extras

Yesterday the Government announced that it was cutting almost £4million from Cornwall Council's budget. This isn't from core funding but from the additional monies provided to support additional work.

At the same time, they said they were relaxing the 'ring fencing' which means that a lot of the money given to the council can only be used for named projects. Relaxing the ring fencing is good as it means that councils have more discretion to spend money on services which local people need most.

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

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

Hooray for common sense - UPDATED

My colleague Mario Fonk has proposed a motion for Full Council on Tuesday about the new Homechoice system. The issue is that the current rules mean that local applicants have no precedence in the allocation of council housing and sometimes people are forced to move to the other end of Cornwall to get a home, even if they want to stay where they were born and grew up.

But the controversy over this motion is that the rules state that such proposals are not debated and voted on by all councillors at the council meeting. Motions are referred automatically by the Chairman to a committee or to the Cabinet. This adds delay and means that many councillors are not able to speak on the issue. Only the proposer and seconder have a formal right to speak at these committees.

Such was the ruling on Mario's motion. I, and many other councillors, have expressed dismay at the emasculation of the full council. We have the so-called 'strong leader' model where the Cabinet has the real power. But it seems wrong that full council is not even allowed to express a view. Since the Council started last year, only one members motion has been debated.

A number of us wrote to the Chairman asking her to reconsider in this case. I believe that full council should be a forum for debate. We might not be able to do anything about the ultimate decision making power, but we should be able to have our say and make a recommendation to the Cabinet.

Thankfully, and to her credit, the Chairman has seen fit to reconsider and the motion will now be debated at Full Council.

UPDATE - The motion was passed by Full Council earlier this afternoon by 50 votes to 32 with 19 abstentions (which includes the entire cabinet as they will have to vote on the issue in the future). It will now inform the new Homechoice policy. Congratulations to Mario for getting this through.

Culture Board

Cornwall Council has set up a new Culture Board to deliver high profile projects in the Duchy. I have been nominated to be an observer on this Board to scrutinise their work.

Cornwall is showing huge ambition in trying to promote our culture and arts to both local residents and to the wider world. This is not simply with the aim of attracting more tourists, but also to build up some of our biggest exporting industries.

Although Cornwall was not successful in winning the UK City of Culture status, we are also in line to bid to host the Manifesta event in 2014 and to be European Region of Culture in 2013. If we are to win these projects then we need a passionate and committed group to create the best possible bid and to prepare the ground for successful events. Such events cost some money to set up, but they bring huge amounts of funding to the successful bidder. When Liverpool became City of Culture in 2008, it kickstarted massive regeneration as well as drawing in huge numbers of cultural events and hundreds of thousands of extra visitors. There is a long term legacy involved as well and Liverpool will feel the benefit for years to come.

Other events will not bring the regeneration, but will still showcase our brilliant cultural sector and attract high profile arts providers to Cornwall.

The new board includes councillors and officers from Cornwall Council as well as representatives from funding bodies such as the Arts Council. If we are to be successful with our bids and our projects, we need these organisations on board as they have the experience - and they also have a say in deciding who wins!

As stated above, my position is not as a full member on the Board. As an observer on behalf of the scrutiny committee, my duties will be to keep a watching brief, to make suggestions and to report back to the wider council on progress. I also want to make sure that events encompass the whole of Cornwall wherever possible and are not simply concentrated in the West or on existing providers.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Beware of the savage tortoises

Cornwall Council is forcing a woman who runs a rescue centre for pet tortoises to apply for a zoo licence if she wants to keep her project open.

According to This is Cornwall:

"Joy Bloor, owner of Tortoise Garden in Sticker, was told that she must apply for zoo status or close after Cornwall Council reclassified the creatures as wild animals — on a par with tigers, giraffes and elephants. She has been given one month to apply for zoo status for the shelter — which she says could cost her £250,000 a year."

Just how many people have been savaged by a rampaging tortoise? Will Mrs Bloor be forced to keep her charges behind double fences of steel mesh and razor wire? Will she have to feed them by poking lettuce leaves through the bars on the end of a pointed stick? Will the next series of Britain's Got Talent feature tortoise tamers?

The article states that Cornwall Council could have decided to exempt animals such as tortoises from the rules as being formerly wild animals which are now so often kept outside zoos as to regard them as domestic pets. But they didn't. And Mrs Bloor is left to pick up the pieces.

Cornish bus journeys up 6%, but is it really a 'good' network?

Cornwall Council has announced that the number of bus journeys rose by 5.9% in the past year - continuing a period of increases.

That's clearly good news, as is the 97% satisfaction rate with bus journeys among users.

But is it really right to describe our bus network as 'good' as Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks has done in the press release?

Whilst it remains impossible to travel by bus between Launceston and mid and west Cornwall - there isn't even a link between Launceston and Bodmin - the network is clearly still a long way short of being good.

As mentioned before, the Council is about to consult on a new Local Transport Plan that promises to increase the range of the bus network. But with no funding identified, actually realising this promise is some way off and officers have told me that there is no prospect of a new Bodmin-Launceston link in the near future.

I want to see everyone in Cornwall able to enjoy a good bus network and will be encouraging the Council to ensure that bringing the East Cornwall bus network up to the standard of the rest of the Duchy is a priority for the transport plan.

Second Home Votes

My colleague Jeremy Rowe has tabled a question for next week's full council meeting asking how many second home owners in Cornwall cast votes in Cornwall in the recent General Election.

According to the Electoral Commission, a person is not entitled to register to vote (far less actually cast a ballot) simply because they own a property. In order to qualify, a home owner has to actually live in the property for the majority of the year. The only exceptions are service personnel and students. The latter genuinely live in two places and are allowed to register in both.

When it comes to casting a vote, no-one can cast more than one ballot in a general election. Those people who are genuinely entitled to be registered in two places can choose where they cast their vote, but it can only be in one place. With a paper based record system, there is no way of automatically checking on the day, but Cornwall Council can check against the second homes register (those properties where a second home council tax discount is claimed) to find out if anyone has registered to vote and should not have. By checking with other councils, they can find out if anyone has cast more than one vote.

We shall see on Tuesday whether any of Cornwall's election results (some very close) may have been affected by such votes.

Royal Cornwall Show - Day One

I managed to get to the Royal Cornwall Show today for a few hours and the weathermen almost got it right! It was cool and blowy and it only spotted with rain for a bit. I hope that they got the anticipated 35,000 visitors - it was definitely busy.

Stars of the show today were the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall who spent more than four hours touring the show and speaking to visitors and exhibitors. Considering that the Duchess only had the plaster taken off her recently broken leg two weeks ago, she was a real trooper.

As ever, despite the estimated 35,000 crowd, I bumped into plenty of people I know.

It's good to see that Cornwall Council were well represented by the different services but had downsized their stand from last year (the NHS took over the space).

It was also great to see the students from Launceston College's Construction Unit showing off their bricklaying skills and getting members of the public to join in.

Launceston welcomes Olympic athletes

Today's Cornish Guardian brings the news that Olympic athletes will be descending on Launceston later this month during a John O'Groats to Lands End cycle ride.

The celebs, including gold medal winning rower James Cracknell, gold medal winning cyclist Rebecca Romero and paralympic gold medallists Sarah Storey and Jodie Cundy, are expected to be heading a team of more than 600 cyclists.

On June 19th, the group will finish their penultimate stage in the town and they are after local volunteers to help them with the event. If you want to help - with anything from helping the food and massage teams to simply cheering them on - email alex.crosby@thresholdsports.co.uk or go to rideacrossbritain.com

The group are raising funds to help the UK Olympic and Paralympic teams achieve their best possible results at London 2012.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Are petitions just whinges?

The former Labour government decreed that all local councils needed to have a set procedure in place to deal with petitions that are presented to them. Rather than letting councils get on with deciding for themselves what they should do, they set all sorts of criteria - how many signatures were needed to force a full council debate and how many to force a senior officer to appear at a meeting are just two examples. I very much hope that this sort of micro-management of local affairs won't be continuing under the new coalition regime.

But the Labour diktat has not yet been overturned and so Cornwall Council has had to spend many hours considering a scheme. At today's Cabinet meeting there was round condemnation of the former Government scheme, but we agreed a system in any case.

However I was concerned at some of the comments from colleagues about the concept of petitions. They are a means for residents to express the strength of feeling about an issue. As elected representatives, councillors do a lot of the work of presenting local views, but many people will want to get in touch with officers for themselves and we should encourage and assist any of this sort of contact.

One particular comment came from Cabinet Member Graeme Hicks who described the petition scheme as a 'whingers charter' - a comment which I thought was very dismissive of local residents' views and chosen means of expression.