Friday, 30 July 2010

Stunning American images

Thanks to Jonathan Calder for pointing me at this set of incredible images from the USA. They are from the period of the tail end of the Great Depression through to the height of World War Two.

The quality of the images is amazing. All seem to have used Kodak slide film and so the colours are not what we are used to nowadays but are all the more stunning for it. I've pinched my favourites shot to accompany this post, but I urge you to have a look through the whole lot.

North Cornwall rover ticket will continue - but in another name

I've just been involved in a discussion on the Laurence Reed show on BBC Radio Cornwall about the proposed new parking charges in Cornwall.

The discussion was prompted by Town Councillor Connie Geach who was particularly annoyed at the proposal to scrap the rover ticket which allows people to park in any long stay car park in the former NCDC area for £190 a year.

Local people accepted that the price might have to rise, but the Council's proposal was for a rise to £800 a year - with the right to park in any long stay car park across Cornwall. This seemed to be a pointless centralisation - a 'one size fits all' approach to the issue.

On air, Andrew Wallis, Chairman of the Parking Panel, told us that local rover tickets would remain, but would have a different name and would be priced at around £200-220 per year. That's a huge step in the right direction but is in direct contradiction to what we were told at the meeting three weeks ago. Then, I asked about the rover ticket and was told categorically that it would be abolished. No mention was made of any form of replacement other than the Cornwall wide ticket. Indeed, no mention is made of any replacement in the consultation of Cornwall Councillors that is currently taking place.

I'm very glad if the officers and parking panel have listened to the concerns of local residents and businesses and have backed down from their move to abolish the rover ticket. I'll be making sure that this new pledge is carried through into the new policy.

Falling out of love with Eric Pickles

Over the past couple of weeks, I've posted a number of blogs agreeing with Eric Pickles about pay offs for chief officers, weekly bin collections and returning to the committee system.

But now, inevitably, our paths are diverging and this love affair must end.

Mr Pickles has made a statement today which seems to be the opposite of the localism that he claims to be advocating. He says that MPs should have the right to set a maximum increase in the council tax across England and that there should be local referendums if councils propose increases above this level.

Having a nationally set maximum increase is the very opposite of localism. There are a myriad of different circumstances across the country and each local authority will consider its own situation when setting the tax level for the coming year. Suppose a party stood in a council election on a policy of vastly increasing council tax in order to improve local services and they were elected on the basis of that promise. It would seem anti-democratic to then force them to have a costly referendum on exactly the same issue.

Mr Pickles is right that council taxes have to be reasonable and justified. At a time when residents are struggling with the economic situation, it would be pretty courageous (as Sir Humphrey might say) for a council to propose high tax increases. But, as the Conservatives have always argued in respect of voting reform, you can always vote them out at the next election.

So instead of costly referendums which are only going to be held after tax rises have come into force, why not develop a robust system for consultation before the tax level is agreed. It would be far cheaper and have the same effect. And let's allow local authorities the freedom to make their own mistakes rather than living by (yet another) central government diktat.

And while we're about it, let's also make town and parish council precepts subject to the same rules. This year, Cornwall Council set a tax rise of 2.9%. But many of the towns and parishes voted for their precepts to rise by far more. I agree that towns and parishes should be given more powers and responsibilities. But they need more accountability too.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Legal aid changes will hit East Cornwall families

Cornwall Citizens Advice Bureau have put out a press release about changes to the legal aid contract in the East of Cornwall which will have a significant impact on many of the poorest families in our area. CAB estimates that more than 900 local families need family legal aid services each year in our area.

The Cornwall CAB press release says:

We understand the Legal Services Commission has just announced the award of the new contract for Family Legal Aid to one firm in the East of the county. This means that for the next three years, the duration of the contract, clients will have no choice when seeking advice and, should the other party already have retained the services of that firm, will be forced because of conflict of interest, to obtain advice from outside the area. For many this will impose great hardship and for many more may be a near impossibility. The winning firm has offices in Liskeard and Launceston and so Family Legal Aid solicitors will not be available in East Cornwall's largest towns - Bodmin, Saltash and Bude.
Because only one firm will be able to carry out work inevitably there will be problems of conflict of interest. The firm will be unable to take on all cases it has been allocated and this will result in large numbers of people unrepresented.

The impact appears to be that where two sides of a dispute need legal aid, only one will be able to be served by the local firm to avoid conflicts of interest. And if you don't live in Liskeard or Launceston then you will have to travel up to 25 miles to even see a legal aid solicitor. The firm awarded the contract will not even be allowed to set up new offices closer to their clients.

At present in North Cornwall there are 4 firms of solicitors in Bodmin, 3 in Launceston and 3 in Bude who can do Family Legal Aid work. Without them there will be an increase in the workload of the CAB and demands on them for advice which they are neither funded nor qualified to provide.

The CAB explains that in even the simplest cases there can be three parties needing representation and often two of these will qualify for legal aid. With only one company allowed to take on local business, one of these parties will have to travel to Plymouth, St Austell or Okehampton to get advice.

Throughout Cornwall the impact of this change will be to reduce the availability of Family Legal Aided advice. Where there are currently 31 firms of solicitors spread across the county there will in future be only 5 - one in the East and five (including the Eastern firm) in the West. The proposal is that this contract should last for three years.

I have no doubt that it will be the poorest, most abused and least able who will suffer most, but all families in the East will suffer because of this change. The firm chosen to get the contract is large and very reputable and they will do a good job for their clients. But if they can only represent half the people who need assistance, what happens to all the rest?

Some time ago the Legal Services Commission promised 'rural proofing' to guard against just these problems. It would appear that this promise has vanished.

Cornwall Cabinet Member calls for sale of Newquay Airport

Mark Kaczmarek, Cornwall's Cabinet member for Housing, has broken ranks with his colleagues and called for the sale of Newquay Airport. The remarks were in an interview for Business Cornwall which you can hear here.

The airport was taken on by the Council 18 months ago when the RAF moved out and has been making a loss since that time. My understanding is that this loss was expected and that development and investment would turn the airport into a valuable asset over time. Certainly there have been a number of cabinet discussions over recent months about investment in the facility. My understanding is that Cllr Kaczmarek voted in favour of all these investments.

There are a number of councillors who believe that the council should never have got into the airport business. But now Cllr Kaczmarek appears to be the first to go public with a call to cut and run to save money in the short term.

I'm not sure how his comments will go down with his Cabinet colleagues, particularly Carolyn Rule whose portfolio he is trampling over.

Cornwall Council to shed 2000 jobs

Yesterday afternoon Cornwall Council's Chief Executive Kevin Lavery and Leader Alec Robertson held a briefing for councillors to tell us that they wish to make a further £70 million of cuts over the next four years. They believe that this process is likely to involve around 2000 job cuts. This was the message that they went on to give to the press.

It is absolutely clear that Cornwall Council needs to, and can, make cuts. However I have not yet seen the justification for cuts on this scale and we need to make sure that jobs which deliver frontline services are protected wherever possible.

I have posted twice in the last few days about the needless bureaucracy involved in painting a yellow line. I know that there are other areas of the council's work where there is similar padding which needs to be stripped away.

But I won't pretend that the total of all these examples will add up to £70 million.

One point that was made at yesterday's briefing was that there are alternatives to redundancies. If, for example, all staff were to take a 5% pay cut, then it would save around £40 million per year. That's a big step towards the total needed. I have asked in the past about the top directors being prepared to take such a step now but was told that they have not even been asked to do so. Presumably they would be willing to share the cuts that might be imposed on all other staff.

Other ideas put forward are for increment freezes or short time working such as moving to a four day week for some posts. All of these are said to be 'on the table'.

Kevin Lavery made the case that these cuts present big opportunities for Cornwall. Indeed, he went on to use the term 'Big Cornwall'. He sees joint commissioning of services, outsourcing and a re-evaluation of what it is that the Council should be doing as the step forward. I have no idea whether or not I share such a viewpoint as there is simply not enough information to make any sort of decision on the issue. So I asked him about the involvement of councillors in the planning. The message seemed to be that our ideas are welcomed and there would be detailed scrutiny involvement when the proposals are ready. But, I said, we found last year that lots of budget plans were not produced in time and our involvement was not as successful as it might have been. Would those lessons be learned this time around. Rather than the bland yes that I had been expecting, I actually got no assurance at all. The message seemed to be that with such big changes and huge budget cuts, it might not be possible to involve councillors as fully as we would like.

But if we really are to see proposals for a radical shake up of what Cornwall does and how it delivers then the very least we can expect is for councillors to be able to shape and agree the proposals every step of the way. This won't be something that can simply be undone if it doesn't work out. We will be tied to contracts for many years into the future.

Together with my Lib Dem colleagues, I'm going to fight to save as many frontline services as possible and the jobs that deliver them. We will want to see justification for the cuts that are proposed and we will want to know what alternatives have been considered. And we will want to see all padding and excess bureaucracy removed before a penny is taken away from vulnerable people.

Incidentally, when it was suggested a few months ago that there might be job cuts on this scale, the council was quick to rubbish the selection with Cabinet Member Jim Currie saying that there would be nothing of the sort.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

£3600 cost of painting yellow lines to be reviewed by council and government

On Sunday I blogged about the frankly incredible costs of traffic regulation orders and how it would cost at least £3600 and take eleven people to paint just 40 feet of yellow line outside the old Newport Post Office in Launceston.

I've had a couple of updates since that time.

On Sunday I compared the Cornwall costs with the figure of £800 that I was quoted as being the charge in Cumbria. In fact, this turns out to be the cost for a different type of order and the typical cost across the country is between £3000 and £4000. It's still outrageous, bit it does appear that Cornwall is not completely out of step with other authorities.

The good news is that the Government has acknowledged that these costs are way too high and they are reviewing the system at the moment.

Today I questioned Highways Cabinet member Graeme Hicks on the issue and he agreed that he would look at the way that Cornwall Council operates the system to see if there could be any cuts in charges or staff time.

Any changes which could see the process made quicker or the amount of bureaucracy cut will be very good news and I look forward to hearing more as soon as changes are made.

Cornwall will consider return to committee system

Cornwall Council will consider abandoning the 'leader and cabinet' model of governance and returning to the old committee system. That was the pledge made by Council Leader Alec Robertson when I questioned him today at full council.

A few years ago, the Labour Government forced all but the smallest councils to choose between three new models of governance. The vast majority chose the leader and cabinet model. The Council as a whole elects the leader who in turn picks up to nine cabinet members to help him or her run the council. All executive power rests with the cabinet and the remaining councillors have little say in the day to day decisions which affect peoples' lives. This system has been criticised for resulting in secretive decision making - certainly an accusation we can recognise in the case of Cornwall.

Other options open to authorities were the Mayor and cabinet model (where there is a directly elected mayor who holds all power) or the council manager model (where a chief officer has the power).

Only the very smallest councils were allowed to take the so-called 'fourth option' of having specialist committees making all the decisions. There would still be a council leader but he or she would simply be the chair of one of the committees. Most, if not all, councillors would serve on at least one of the committees and so all would share in decision making.

Today I asked Alec Robertson whether, in view of Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles' comments that he would allow councils to choose their own system, he would be supporting the right of Cornwall councillors to make the choice when the legislation allows. He agreed and said that he had an open mind on the subject and would not be pre-judging the issue.

I hope that Mr Pickles will get on with bringing forward the change in the law as soon as possible so that Cornwall can make its choice.

Council unanimously backs Lib Dem motion on RDA replacement

Today at full council I proposed a motion welcoming the abolition of the regional development agency and its replacement with a local enterprise partnership for Cornwall.

We wanted to see the LEP working for the good of Cornwall, not for some amorphous south west region. To combine Cornwall with counties further East will be to our detriment. There are the cultural and historic arguments and these are important. But what is more important is that it is all too easy to ignore Cornwall's needs if you are also trying to think about Dorset, Bristol, Devon and Somerset at the same time.

The new LEP should cover Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly only. And including the Isles of Scilly should only happen if the people there feel their interests are best served by joining with us.

This was the direction that Cornwall Council was already pushing and Prime Minister David Cameron had given guarded support to us when he visited a couple of weeks ago. But we still felt that our case would be stronger if it had the unanimous support of the entire council and, thankfully, that is what we got.

In my speech I made the point that we should not think of ourselves, or be thought of, as being at the end of the line. We are also at the start of the line and we need to be proud and confident of our case when it comes to Government or European funding. Such confidence is much more difficult to project if you are struggling to be heard among the different councils of the South West of the UK.

We hope to hear in a couple of months whether the Government is acceding to our request.

Later on in the meeting, the Council also backed a cross party motion calling for a commission to investigate the funding that Cornwall receives and calling on our MPs to continue their fight for a more equitable settlement. There was an amendment put forward by the Council's leadership which sought to do away with the commission element of the motion, but this was defeated by 42 votes to 34 (a rare defeat for the leadership) thanks to genuine cross party support - including from a number of Cabinet members.

More assaults on the rights of photographers

I've blogged before about Police Officers who ignore the law and their own procedures and think it is ok to detain photographers for taking pictures in public places and often demand that they delete the images.

Now I read about 'Rail Enforcement Officers' who have taken to doing the same. This story is, regrettably, typical of some people in authority who have an important job to do but waste time detaining people they have no right to detain for actions which are in no way against the law. It also shows how badly trained these REOs are.

Hat tip: Thanks to Jonathan Calder at Liberal England for pointing me towards this.

Gordon's Southwark connection

Guido Fawkes notes that Gordon Brown, despite no longer being Prime Minister or Labour Leader or holding any front bench job, has decided to appoint a PPS. His choice is newbie MP Alison McGovern. Ms McGovern has been elected for Wirral South but I know her from my time working for Southwark Council where she was an elected member.

Also an elected member at the same time was Kirsty McNeill who was Gordon Brown's speechwriter when he was in Number 10. Was this perhaps behind the decision to appoint Alison McGovern?

£78,750 was best value for money for getting rid of former director says Council Leader

Finally, Cornwall Council Leader Alec Robertson has gone on the record with a comment about the departure of Peter Lewis, the former Corporate Support Director who left with a £78,750 pay off.

Until now, all we have heard from the Council has been that they won't comment because of a confidentiality agreement. Although we still haven't got much further on the details, at today's council meeting Alec Robertson responded to my question by saying that the deal represented the best value for money in the circumstances.

This fails to answer the key question of why the Council agreed to a settlement of any size given that Mr Lewis was not with the Council for long enough to be able to take us to an industrial tribunal.

However, it is becoming clearer and clearer that Mr Lewis did not leave of his own accord - despite the clear impression given by Chief Executive Kevin Lavery at the time.

Even though Cllr Robertson has been more open than before, there are still many questions left unanswered about the spending of public money. This may well be a matter that the Audit Commission will want to investigate.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Will this be the end of the affair?

Labour's cynical decision to vote against the AV referendum could potentially spell the end of the coalition.

The Bill will come before the House of Commons to vote in the autumn and Labour MPs will be whipped to oppose a measure they themselves had in their manifesto. Their official reasoning is that the Bill will also include plans to reduce the number of MPs. But I believe that their real motive is that they want to cause as much friction as possible in the coalition, perhaps even to break it apart.

Of course, Labour on their own cannot defeat the Government. But there are also 44 MPs, mainly Conservatives who have backed a Commons motion opposing the timing of the AV referendum. Some of these will follow the three line whip imposed on Government MPs on this issue and others will vote in favour of amendment on the referendum timing but back down when it comes to the core principle. There may also be a few Labour MPs who think it is wrong to vote against a plan they campaigned on just three months ago. But it is still a dicey moment for Cameron and Clegg.

If the AV Bill fails then I cannot see any hope for the coalition to remain. Staying in Government with the Conservatives in such circumstances would certainly split the Lib Dems, many of whom would see the desire for bums around the Cabinet table as being less important than remaining true to a fundamental (perhaps the fundamental) policy of the party. AV is not the electoral reform that most Lib Dems want, but it is emblematic of the relationship and no amount of persuasion will convince us otherwise.

Come the autumn, it will be the turn of the whips to take centre stage. But before that there will be a long hard summer for Nick Clegg and David Cameron as they try to keep the coalition together.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

It costs £3600 and takes 11 people to paint 40 feet of yellow line

Did you know that it costs Cornwall Council more than £3600 and takes 11 people just to paint 40 feet of yellow line?

That's the price that has been quoted to me to erase the parking spots outside the old Newport Post Office - and thereby ensure smooth flowing traffic on the main road through Launceston at rush hours. Whilst the parking spots were essential when the post office was still open, it has been shut for almost two years and local drivers know that just one car parking (quite legally) can bring all local traffic to a halt.

So I asked the council to get rid of the parking places and to paint yellow lines on the road. No problem, they said. And then the bureaucracy began:

Steps to erase parking spots and paint yellow lines outside old Newport Post Office
1. Request from councillor

2. Scheme added to programme of works and assigned to designer

3. Designer gathers relevant information about the site e.g Traffic Order details etc. Regional Engineer contacted to gather any additional information and to discuss request.
4. Designer visits site to obtain measurements, photographs, information to calculate works cost and makes notes
of any other issues that may affect the requested scheme.
5. Designer then produces an initial scheme assessment report with a recommendation which is submitted to a panel of Senior Engineers for approval.
6. If the scheme is approved then the designer puts together a consultation package consisting of – newspaper notice, draft order, site notice, consultation drawing, statement of reasons and consultation letter.

7. 21 day public consultation - Notice placed in newspaper, site notices erected on site and extents of proposal marked on carriageway, scheme goes live on web-based consultation system, consultation letters sent to parish council etc.

8. Following consultation a report is produced summarising the responses. Designer liaises with Councillor regarding responses to see if they still wished to proceed with the scheme. Consultation report submitted for approval to Senior Engineers with a recommendation. If scheme is approved to proceed then responses sent to those people who commented during consultation.
9. Works package prepared and issued to contractor

10. When scheme has been built works are checked on site, Order is sealed, notice placed in newspaper with operational date of Order, legal documents sent to relevant people (police etc). Order details added to map based system (Parkmap).

In fairness to Cornwall Council, some of the steps outlined above are legal requirements. But it is still a hugely bureaucratic process which involves eleven different individuals:
1. Designer
2. Team Leader
3. Regional Engineer
4. Area Highway Manager
5. Admin support within the Highway Design Group
6 & 7. Parkmap team within the Highway Design Group to check Order/works and add details onto map based system.
8 & 9. Parking Manager and staff from his team
10. Works Co-ordinator
11. Bloke with a can of yellow paint and a brush

And the costs - a minimum of £3600. Which is justified as follows:
Stages 1-5 cost £800 in staff time
Stages 6-8 cost £1500 (£950 staff time plus £550 newspaper notice)
Stages 9 and 10 cost £1300 (£750 staff time plus £550 newspaper notice
plus the cost of the works themselves - in this case the paint and the scrubber to erase the parking lines.

Each Cornwall councillor gets a notional budget of £8000 this year to spend on highways projects. But how can I justify using almost half of my annual budget on such a small job. Bear in mind that more than two thirds of the cost is actually on council staff time. With the officers already employed and with them being paid regardless of whether I set this in motion or not, these costs are strictly notional. And while the newspaper adverts are required by law, why do they need to cost £550 each?

I have been told by colleagues that it is possible to combine more than one TRO into a single order. But the officer who produced these costings for me cautioned against this as if one scheme receives lots of objections then it will delay all of the others in the package or even cause them to be abandoned.

I've talked to other councillors and officers from around the country about this and have found that the cost varies hugely in different authorities. Some charge as little as £800 for a single TRO.

On Tuesday, I'll be raising the issue with the Cabinet Member for Highways at the full council meeting. I'll also be writing to the Government to say that if they are serious about helping councils to cut budgets then one of the better things they could do is to do away with the need for some of the pointless bureaucracy involved in simple processes such as this.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Davis lambasts the 'brokeback coalition'

Former Tory Leadership contender David Davis has been overheard describing the government as 'the brokeback coalition'.

After Wednesday, which was described by some journalists as being the worst day yet for the coalition, comes a couple of tirades from the different wings of the coalition. I'm sure that this is the start of a silly season which will sorely test Clegg and Cameron.

On Wednesday, David Cameron forgot when America entered World War 2, Nick Clegg was rebuked for describing the invasion of Iraq as illegal, caused a spat over the date of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and had to be corrected when he said that the Yarl's Wood detention centre would be closed down (it's just the family wing which will be).

Today we had Lib Dem MP Tim Farron describing the Tories as 'toxic' and Simon Hughes saying that if we were not in coalition, the Lib Dems would not have voted for the Academies Bill.

Tonight, the Financial Times is claiming that former Tory frontbencher David Davis described the relationship between Cameron and Clegg as 'the Brokeback coalition' - a reference to the gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain. (link is to Sky report to avoid paywall).

It ought to be pointed out that David has denied making the comments but three FT journalists all claim he has not been misquoted.

Ridgegrove rubbish

This morning I was out on Ridgegrove Estate with three council officers looking at rubbish collection issues.

Local residents have rightly complained in the past about the communal bins and frequency of collections. So there are now three collections per week and the collection crews and street rangers are doing a lot more to make sure that the bin areas are kept as clean as possible.

The prompt for this visit was the recycling initiative being undertaken in Launceston at the moment. Despite pretty good recycling rates in much of the town, the Ridgegrove Estate is still lagging behind. We were looking to see what the council could do to help improve rates.

Of course, recycling where you have communal bins is much harder. There is no dedicated space for recycling bags and they often get swamped by ordinary black bags if the bins are full. So I asked the officers to come up with a way of providing recycling sections and asked them to provide signs to show what sort of materials can be recycled.

The recycling team will also be talking to residents to encourage them to recycle as part of their six week effort around town.

Of course, there is only so much that the Council can do. The big effort has to come from residents being willing to recycle. But the Council needs to make this as practical as possible and make sure local people know what can be recycled.

Whilst most of the bin stores we looked at were pretty clean and tidy, there is still a big problem with the one on Ridgegrove Lane at the bottom of the estate. This was overflowing and I am concerned that it causes a danger to people coming down the steps. I have asked the officers to investigate what can be done to make it safer or to provide alternative collection facilities for nearby householders.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Latest news from the Eric Pickles Appreciation Society

Now this is getting worrying.

After agreeing with Eric Pickles about golden handshakes and then about weekly bin collections, I'm now forced to support him in his call for councils to be able to choose the best governance model it chooses.

In an interview with Iain Dale for Total Politics magazine, Pickles was asked:

ID: The cabinet system in local authorities is very unpopular with a lot of people. If local authorities wanted to change that and go back to the committee system, what would your reaction be?

EP: Fine. We will be putting something into the local government bill to let them do that. I don’t care how things are organised. They can have it on the basis of a committee system, on a cabinet basis, on the mayoral system. If they want to introduce it on a choral system with various members of the council singing sea shanties I don’t mind, providing it’s accountable, transparent and open. That’s all I need to know.

I'm really not sure about Jim Currie's singing voice, but it is clearly good news that true localism is going to be allowed to flourish in this respect and that Cornwall Council will be able to choose whether it wants to continue with a system whereby all power is held in the hands of just ten of the 123 elected members or whether a committee system where nearly all councillors can play a substantial role is a better option.

Pickles has been (rightly) attacked by some of my readers over the bins statement as this implies a centralised diktat from government - even if I happen to agree with Pickles' line on the issue. But this is different as it will mean genuine power to decide for the whole council.

As an example of why things need changing, at today's communities scrutiny meeting we were due to have reports from the three Cabinet members whose portfolios the committee shadows. They didn't appear, apparently because the Leader had unilaterally decided that they should not do so and a centralised system for all scrutiny committees should be imposed. That's not open and transparent and it removes the ability of scrutiny committees to decide for themselves how best to examine the work of the Cabinet.

I'm prepared to bet that spreading out power is not something that the current Cabinet are going to support, but it is certainly something that I think should be properly decided by all councillors as soon as the law allows.

What a waste of (your) money

Today there was a discussion about community play facilities in County Hall. I had raised the subject because far too many of our local play facilities are old and falling apart. Regular readers will know the battles I have had trying to get the facilities on the Ridgegrove Estate brought up to standard and they were included in the debate.

Many of our play facilities, notably those in the old North Cornwall and Carrick areas, fall within the Housing Revenue Account. That means that the money to maintain and improve them has to come out of the rents paid by council tenants. Of course the users of these facilities are not just the children of council tenants but also of private tenants and home owners. So, the argument goes, why should these facilities not be paid for out of the general fund.

I have a lot of sympathy for this argument. HRA funding should be used to improve the homes of council tenants and play facilities will always be seen as the back of the queue.

When we asked about transferring the play areas to the general fund we were told that there would be a transfer fee. Apparently it would cost around £2000 per play area to transfer responsibility from the HRA to general fund. With around 49 HRA play areas that would make the total cost around £100,000.

We could debate whether this would be money well spent. But I would rather focus on why on earth Cornwall Council thinks it is right that simply transferring a facility from one part of the council to another can cost so much.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Fancy a cut price compost bin?

Cornwall Council is giving residents the chance to buy a composting bin at cost price in a move to help boost recycling rates in Cornwall and ten lucky people will get their bins completely free.

The bins allow you to chuck away materials such as pet’s bedding, shredded paper, cardboard, clothing made of natural fibres as well as garden waste and vegetable peelings and turn them into compost for your garden.

The cost is
£14 for a 220 litre compost bin and £17 for a 330 litre compost bin.

To make an order and have a chance of winning a free compost bin people should go online at www.cornwall.getcomposting.com or call 0844 571 4444 and quote reference: COR001L.

Phil Woolas and Zac Goldsmith update

The Electoral Commission has decided that the case of Zac Goldsmith's expenses merits a proper investigation that might last up to three months. It still doesn't mean he is guilty, but it appears to show that there are questions that need proper explanations.

In another move, the High Court has decided that there is most definitely a case to answer for former minister Phil Woolas. A special election court will sit in Oldham in September to decide whether his campaign leafets were so misleading about his Lib Dem opponent Elwyn Watkins that the election should be re-run.

The court will sit for five days from September 13th. The timing means that, if the court orders a re-run, it is likely to take place during the conference season.

UPDATE - I'm told that any result of the Phil Woolas case will need to be read by the Speaker on the floor of the House of Commons and so a by-election - if that is the decision of the court - would be unlikely to be held until after the House returns.

Unfair dismissal vs Leaving of your own accord

The former Chief Exec of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trusts has been awarded £67,250 for unfair dismissal after a tribunal found that he was removed because he stood in the way of plans to transfer some cancer services out of Cornwall to Devon.

The former Corporate Support Director at Cornwall Council was given £78,750 when he left the Council after just 9 months of his own free will.

Anyone who can explain the above should please get in touch.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Chris Rennard and the Electoral Reform Society

Earlier today I was told by someone I trust that Chris Rennard was set to be appointed Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society - an organisation I used to work for.

The story had the ring of truth about it. Chris has always been a passionate believer in electoral reform and, with his long history of running successful campaigns, would be an ideal person to lead the campaign in favour of a yes vote in the AV referendum next year.

I tweeted about it and it was picked up by a number of people including Guido Fawkes.

Chris has just been in touch to say that he is not about to be the new Chief Exec of ERS because he didn't apply for the job.

I'm sorry to Chris for any embarrassment caused and to those who took up the story on the basis of my tweet.

Agreeing with Eric Pickles over bin collections

It's not often I agree with Eric Pickles, but I'm now in the position of agreeing with him twice in a week.

Last Thursday he attacked councils for giving huge payoffs to former officers. Now he is in a battle with Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman over weekly bin collections.

Mr Pickles wants councils to keep weekly collections for household waste. Ms Spelman believes that fortnightly collections will save money and help boost recycling.

I agree that abolishing weekly collections can save money, but disagree with her view that such a move will boost recycling rates. I think that offering decent recycling services and lots of education can have just as good an effect in reducing landfill.

When it comes to money, the Council needs to consider just what services it thinks local people deserve. If you go out into the street and asked about council services, most people will name bin collections as one of the top three services that authorities provide. Making sure that this is a quality service is important to them and I'm glad that Cornwall currently provides a high quality service.

But the Conservative led Council has voted in favour of abolishing weekly collections as part of its forward budget. They have said that there will be a proper debate before such a scheme is implemented and I have been digging to try to find out when such a debate will take place.

Following the decision by the Cabinet to move towards an integrated bin service across Cornwall (as it was a function of the old districts there are currently six different contracts), I asked what the timescale would be for this decision.

I have now been told that the decision could be taken as late as December next year but is far more likely to be taken within the next six months. I've asked the Council to make sure that this is not simply a decision taken by the Cabinet but is a proper consultation with all councillors and with residents across Cornwall.

Cornwall Council to debate raising allowances AGAIN!

It seems incredible, but someone at Cornwall Council wants to argue the toss yet again about putting up councillors' allowances. A paper in the name of the Leader of the Council Alex Robertson before Full Council next Tuesday includes a proposal for a 2.3% rise. I cannot believe that this will do anything but lower the reputation of councillors and the Council among the public.

At the start of the new Cornwall Council, we debated allowances. The Lib Dems argued for a freeze in all allowances for the duration of the council (ie 4 years). The Conservatives and Independents said no, we needed a formal review.

Fast forward to just before the election and the results of the review were back. The Lib Dems again argued the case for a freeze for the remainder of the life of the council. The Conservatives and Independents decided that the freeze should only be for a year. Some suggested that they just wanted to get the election out of the way.

Just six months later and we have yet another proposal to raise allowances. The excuse appears to be that an organisation in London has decided to increase an amount that they pay to councillors. Why this should mean that Cornwall should waste time debating the subject now is beyond me.

At a time when Cornwall Council is having to cut significant amounts from its budget, it is quite wrong to even consider the issue of councillors' allowances and we should dismiss this proposal with the contempt it deserves.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Seven questions for Zac Goldsmith

Following the questions raised by Channel Four News about Zac Goldsmith's election expenses and his subsequent denial of having done anything wrong, I have the following questions which he will presumably be able to answer without a problem:

Campaign jackets.

1. If you are serious in only charging a portion of the cost of the stickers to your campaign expenses, presumably you have all the stickers carefully stored away and they are in a fit state to be re-used. If not, can you explain why the full cost of any which are missing or damaged has not been included in your expense returns?

2. What has happened to the jackets themselves? If they have not been charged to your campaign expenses, what has happened to them? If you gave them to campaign supporters, presumably these cannot have been constituents or that would have been treating. So did you charge the people you gave them to and can you produce receipts?

Undelivered leaflets.

3. You claim that you bought and paid for 62,000 campaign leaflets which were not delivered. How does this waste of paper fit with your green credentials?

4. What have you done with the undelivered leaflets? Can you prove that they were not delivered?

Posters.

5. You apportioned £700 of the cost of your campaign posters to your local council colleagues. How do you justify this apportionment given that your image and name appeared on the posters and not those of your council colleagues?

6. Of the remaining sum, you have included less than one seventh of the cost in your election expenses. Presumably this means that these posters will be able to be used for a further six elections. Can you produce all the posters in a fit state to be used again or justify why you have not included the full cost of damaged or missing posters in your expense returns?

Trikes.

7. On Channel Four News you said that you had not declared the cost of trikes that you used in your campaign. How do you justify this decision? Were these vehicles which already belonged to individual campaign supporters and did you declare the running costs or depreciation of the vehicles? Or were these bought by your campaign or constituency association, in which case how do you justify your decision not to declare any portion of their purchase cost in your expenses returns?

I make no judgment that Mr Goldsmith has broken the law in respect of his election expenses and will happily publish or link to any statements he makes which answer the questions he poses. But, given the desire of the public to move towards cleaner politics, it is surely right that he should be able to justify in detail his accounting practices rather than simply make claims about what other candidates might or might not do.

Pickles slams 'casual attitude' to golden goodbyes

Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has today commented on the habit of local councils giving huge payoffs to officers:

"The age of golden goodbyes and huge pay offs in the public sector must end. Such as a casual attitude to spending public money both looks and feels wrong and sends the wrong message to hard working members of the public."

The particular case he was talking about was in Labour Newham. But presumably his comments apply equally to Conservative led Cornwall where £78,750 was given to Peter Lewis despite the fact that Mr Lewis had only been with the council for 9 months as Corporate Services Director and left of his own volition.

Still the Council is hiding behind a confidentiality agreement and refusing to explain why Mr Lewis left or why it felt such a huge payoff was in order.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Zac Goldsmith and the posters that will last 50 years - UPDATED

Hot on the heels of news that Scottish Tory MP David Mundell is being investigated by the Police over his election expenses comes a report by Channel 4 News that questions have been raised over the expenses of new Richmond Park Tory MP Zac Goldsmith.

The report claims that Goldsmith declared expenses for the short campaign (ie the 23 days leading up to polling day) of £10,783 - just £220 below the legal limit. There's nothing wrong with that. In order to maximise your chance of winning, a candidate will always try to spend as close to the limit as possible. But the report questions whether the real cost of the campaign wasn't actually a bit more.

In my experience the most damaging allegation is over Goldsmith's claim that a portion of the cost of his election posters should be attributed to Conservative local election candidates in his area. That would be entirely legitimate if the posters said 'Vote Conservative' or similar as he could argue that some of the benefit of these went to local candidates. Except that it is said that the posters carried his name and photo and therefore would have little benefit in promoting local candidates.

Goldsmith also claimed that much of the cost of the posters could be discounted as they could be used for other elections. This is a common tactic. A poster could - at least in theory - be used for more than one election. But claiming that they could be used for more than 50 years (ten elections) might be tough for him to prove.

Other claims concerned the use of 200 campaign jackets with 'I back Zac' on the back of them. Goldsmith has said that only the cost of the stickers should be attributed to his campaign expenses and has, once again, claimed that the stickers could be used for further elections. Perhaps it would be interesting to ask him to produce the reclaimed stickers and for him to show that they are in a fit condition to be used time and time and time again.

The final claim concerns leaflets which were ordered but not used. On this item, I think that Goldsmith is on firmer ground. If they did not contribute to his election campaign then they should not be counted. Proving that they were never delivered is a tough task. Perhaps Mr Goldsmith could produce the undelivered piles of leaflets to prove his case.

If his main opponent in the election - Lib Dem Susan Kramer - wants to challenge the result on the basis of overspending then she has only a limited time to do so. Mr Goldsmith's agent has stated that he believes they have scrupulously abided by the law.

UPDATE - The original details in this post were based on those listed on Channel Four's website. I have subsequently updated them and more details are on my later blogpost here.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Are local grants under threat?

One of the debates at today's Cabinet meeting was on the discretionary grants review that has been taking place behind closed doors over the last few months.

The review has been looking at the grants given by Cornwall Council to a wide range of different organisations. The last budget showed that almost every service gives out grants in one form or another. Despite asking, I still haven't managed to find out what all of this public money was spent on, but it included money spent by the HR and properties departments - not normally council offices which you would expect to give out community grants!

Today's discussion was on a curate's egg of a paper. The good stuff included a recognition that the term community grant is very inappropriate for the way some of the money was spent. In effect, much is given to voluntary groups which provide a service on behalf of the council. In the future, such spending should not be lumped together with genuine grants which do not elicit a service in return.

The less good bit of the paper concerned the actual grants themselves. There was much talk about the straightened financial times and the confusing nature of having some grants given out by the council and some by individual councillors. Jim Currie, the Cabinet Member for Corporate Support said that these different pots might be brought together and doled out either by the community network areas or by individual councillors, but no decision has been taken.

I asked when a decision was likely and was told that the aim of this review was to inform next year's budget. If this is the case then the lack of a conclusion on this aspect is not a worry - but we hope to have some proper proposals soon.

However, as a parting shot, Alec Robertson, the Leader of the Council, suggested that grants may well be cut in order to give more money to frontline services. This would be a very contentious decision to take. The level of community grants (whether they come from the council or individual members) is comparatively small, but they help a vast number of organisations to survive and improve and they kickstart many projects and events.

To take one example in Launceston - I provided two grants of £500 each to organisations involved in the recent Causley Festival. I was told that without these grants the festival would never have happened. I am sure that each one of the 122 other councillors could name similar community events which brought interest to their town or village but which would never have happened without the community grants.

Of course, there are many difficult decisions to be taken, but I would be horrified if all community grants were being cut as they do so much good across the whole of Cornwall.

When No seems to be the easiest word

There was one question from the public at today's Cabinet meeting. The Leader was asked if the Chief Executive and his fellow Cornwall Council corporate directors would be following the example set by the Prime Minister in taking a voluntary reduction in salary.

The single word answer was... No.

I'm very disappointed that this course of action is not even being considered by the top echelon of Cornwall Council officers. It is something I called for a couple of weeks ago.

Regardless of your views of the individual salaries, I think that Cornwall's top officers should have considered a voluntary 5% pay cut for two reasons:

- First, because it sends a message to the public that the officers understand that the cuts that are hitting Cornwall from both national and local government are going to have an effect on the quality of services that we are able to offer residents. The officers would be demonstrating that they are suffering the consequences too.

- Second, because one of the avenues which I think should be explored in seeking to cut costs is to ask staff more generally to consider accepting a small pay cut if the trade off is that more jobs and services can be saved. Of course, this would need to be properly discussed with staff and unions. But I think it is a much more difficult concept to sell to lower level staff if the top officers - often in jobs which the council is legally obliged to fill - are not seen to be doing the same.

I very much hope that, in their discussions around budget cuts over the coming weeks and months, the Cabinet and top officers revisit this discussion and come to a different conclusion.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

A day on the high seas

One of the committees I sit on as part of my work as a councillor is the Sea Fisheries Committee. I've blogged before about some of its work - regulating the sort of fishing that can be done in the inshore waters around Cornwall.

As a member of the committee, I was invited to go out with our fisheries protection vessel for a trip and today I did just that.

The ship is the St Piran and it works out of Newlyn which is convenient for both the North and South coast. On board the vessel today was a crew of five experienced sailors and one definite landlubber. The skipper is Shane and he was accompanied by engineers Mike and John and fisheries officers Zac and Simon.

As well as the St Piran, the Council also owns two RIBs - one of which is launched from the main boat - and a research trimaran.

Today's trip took us from Newlyn along the south coast as far as Mevagissey. With high spring tides, there were few boats out in Mounts Bay and so we steamed past Dodman point at 18 knots to do our work.

The bulk of the work involves boarding fishing vessels to inspect their gear and their catch. The officers need to make sure that neither is undersized - in other words, to protect the young fish and shellfish. In addition, the boats are checked because there are limits on the size of vessels that can be used in inshore waters.

Boardings are done from the RIB capable of up to 32 knots with a coxswain driving and a fisheries officer jumping onto the fishing boat. I was delighted to be able to go out on the RIB but refrained from trying to jump across in the middle of the high seas. There could only have been one outcome. I was wearing a dry suit - just about fitting into the biggest one aboard - but it would still have been a bit of a pain to fall in. (Bottom pic shows me in the drysuit. All the cool kids will be wearing them soon)

The variety of boats boarded was huge. From a tiny dinghy casting nets around Gorran Haven to much larger scallopers and trawlers further out. It should be said straight away that the vessels boarded were not automatically suspected of wrongdoing. The fisheries officers board a random selection of boats as well as targeting any vessels they think might be breaking the law. None of today's fishing boats had under-sized nets or catch and all were entitled to be fishing inshore.

On board the St Piran, there is a range of sophisitcated equipment to track vessels and the officers work very closely with other agencies to make sure that no-one can jump between jurisdictions to evade capture. Some of the work is quite sensitive and the St Piran (and her crew) is often used by other agencies when their expertise and equipment is needed.

I asked about the relatively low level of prosecutions in recent months. The reason is twofold. Partly, due to the fishing economy, there are fewer boats out. But mainly it is down to the hard work put in by our officers over many years. Boat skippers know that they cannot break the law willy nilly and get away with it. This is particularly true for over-sized vessels. Whilst a skipper who thinks they are outside the 6 mile limit but are in fact inside might get away with a warning the first time, they will find themselves tracked more closely to ensure they cannot do it again. Transponders track larger boats and can help to make sure they don't break the rules and the St Piran has access to this data.

When it come to catch size, the fisheries officers carry a very old fashioned, but effective measure and can instantly tell if fish or shellfish are too small.

I massively enjoyed the day out. It was great to see a very successful arm of the Council at work and I'd like to thank Shane, Simon, Zac, John and Mike (who kindly took all the photos) for making me feel so welcome and putting up with my idiot questions with good grace.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Cornwall Lib Dems call for local replacement for unaccountable RDA

Cornwall's Liberal Democrat councillors are calling on the Council to back a campaign for a local approach to administering European and central government support for the Duchy. The campaign comes after the Government took the decision to abolish the unaccountable Regional Development Agencies and replace them with Local Enterprise Partnerships.

The coalition government has quite rightly made localism a key policy. If there are funds available from Europe or from central government to assist Cornish development and Cornish industry then it should be accountable local politicians and business leaders who should oversee how that money is spent."

Until now, Cornwall has been lumped in with places as far away as Wiltshire and Bristol under the unaccountable and hugely bureaucratic South West Development Agency. Cornwall was recognised by Europe as the poorest place in the UK and received large amounts of support through Objective One and Convergence funding. Yet these funds were allocated by a body which had no accountability to the people of Cornwall and which wasted large amounts on needless paperwork and form filling. Whilst many great projects have been funded, other monies were wasted on white elephants.

We welcome the Government's decision to abolish the RDA and we believe that the best way of deciding how so-called structural funding is spent in the future is for local councillors and business leaders to assess bids and monitor spending. We are confident that this process will be quicker, cheaper and able to support the projects that will bring the most benefits to the people of Cornwall.

Whilst we would be happy to go ahead with a Cornwall only LEP, we believe that the Council of the Isles of Scilly should be invited to participate in a joint LEP should they wish to do so.

Our motion calling for a Cornwall Local Enterprise Partnership will be debated at the next full Cornwall Council meeting on July 27th. We hope that Cornwall Conservatives will live up to the rhetoric of their leaders in London and back us without equivocation.

Full text of the motion submitted by Cornwall Council Liberal Democrats is:

Abolition of South West Development Agency

Cornwall Council:
- welcomes the decision by the Government to abolish the undemocratic South West Development Agency and to establish Local Enterprise Partnerships to provide strategic leadership on economic priorities and to create the right environment for business and growth by looking at issues like planning, housing and transport;
- further welcomes the establishment of a Regional Growth Fund to create the conditions for growth and enterprise in the regions by stimulating investment and create sustainable private sector jobs;
- believes that Cornwall Council and local businesses are best placed to manage the delivery of Government and European support to projects in Cornwall;
-
resolves that the Council shall propose to Government how Cornwall will efficiently and effectively manage it’s own LEP rather than one which combines Cornwall with any other part of the mainland UK;
- believes that an invitation should be extended to the Council of the Isles of Scilly to join with Cornwall in a joint LEP should they wish to do so.

Friday, 9 July 2010

North Cornwall should be pilot area for fuel duty rebate says Dan

North Cornwall Lib Dem MP Dan Rogerson has called for North Cornwall to be used to pilot a scheme for a fuel duty rebate for rural areas.

In the budget, Chancellor George Osborne announced that the scheme would be consulted on and Dan has written to him asking for the pilot scheme to be North Cornwall.

In Dan's letter he says that using a car in North Cornwall was a necessity because of "poor" public transport. Driving in North Cornwall is a necessity since public transport links are inadequate even between the urban centres and completely non-existent when it comes to our most rural communities. North Cornwall would be an excellent place to start with an early pilot scheme to ensure that nationwide roll-out of a rural rebate is a success.

Hackney Council, the non-existent candidate and legal threats

This is a fascinating story concerning Hackney Council's actions after their decision to exclude the election address of Tory mayoral candidate Andrew Boff from the booklet sent to voters before the election in May.

It soon escalates to misinforming voters that Mr Boff was not a candidate at all, legal threats and secret taping.

The excellent Jack of Kent has the full story.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

£18.12 per vote!

BBC Radio Cornwall's Graham Smith has been doing some research on the amount spent by various candidates in Cornwall in the recent General Election.

One candidate in St Ives - Jonathan Rogers (Cornish Democrats) - spent £7,175.65 for 396 votes which is equivalent to £18.12 each. that figure doesn't include the £500 for a lost deposit.

I wonder if any candidate in the general election has a higher 'cost per vote'?

'Cash cow' attitude to car parks threatens local businesses

Sasha Gillard-Loft, my fellow Launceston councillor, and I have criticised Cornwall Council for demanding that car parks raise more and more money. We believe that the high costs could drive away visitors and threaten town centre shops and businesses.

We have also attacked the proposal to kill off the old North Cornwall rover parking ticket once and for all. The ticket allows local residents and businesses to use long stay car parks across the area and was widely used. It's replacement will cost at least four times as much.

Cornwall Council has increased the income they are demanding from car parks by 14%. That is despite a 5% rise in charges and the recession which is hitting local pockets very hard indeed. How can they think that higher car park charges and a recession will mean that more people will want to use local car parks? It just does not make sense.

This year we were very successful in persuading the council to cap charge increases at an average of 5% - but we still saw rises above this level in Launceston car parks. The proposed prices for next year are a mixed bag but will still mean that most shoppers and businesses will have to pay more.

Whilst it is proposed that the charges for the first hour of parking will fall from 70p to 50p, the Car Parking Panel has dismissed the very popular 10p first hour scheme that we put forward. The figures claimed that later hours would have to rise dramatically, but that is only because the Council seems insistent on making such a huge profit out of local drivers. This could see visitors simply bypass towns like Launceston and residents may choose to use out of town stores rather than local businesses in town centres.

The proposal is that the charge for the second hour will rise from £1.30 to £1.70 (a 31% increase), and for the third hour from £1.70 to £1.90 (a 12% increase). After that point, drivers will be forced to leave all but one of Launceston's car parks.

For long stay parking, the charge for four hours will rise from £1.60 to £2.50 (a 56% rise) and parking all day will rise from £3.20 to £4 (a 25% rise). The only good news other than the cheaper first hour is that charging hours will end at 4pm rather than 5pm at the moment, which could help boost late afternoon trade.

In another blow to local businesses, the Council is proposing to end the very popular North Cornwall rover ticket which more than 372 local drivers used. These allowed people to park in a range of long stay car parks across our area for £190 a year. We understood that the cost would have to rise, but the Council is now scrapping the ticket altogether. The only alternative will be to buy a Cornwall-wide ticket costing at least £800 a year - and increase of 321%.

Cornwall Council seems hell bent on a one size fits all attitude to parking. They are refusing to recognise that different towns need different approaches to car park charging. They have already seen that if charges are too high then people will simply refuse to park in our car parks. Last year they missed their parking income target by around £600,000.

Cornwall Council Cabinet member Graeme Hicks told today's meeting that he did not see that parking was an issue. He sadly misunderstands the situation in Launceston and the wider East Cornwall area where shops and businesses are being hit by lower footfall due, in part, to high car parking charges.

Cornwall Council seems to regard car parks as a cash cow which can be milked at any time to provide more income. The truth is that there is only a finite amount that people are willing to pay to use them and higher charges mean fewer users which means less footfall for local shops.

Cornwall Council costs - an update

Yesterday I blogged about Cornwall Council spending and the fact that after two months of the financial year, the Conservative led authority is already predicting budget over-spends of almost £4 million by year end.

Cornwall Council's new Corporate Support Director has responded in the press to say that the report indicates the exact opposite - that the fact that the council has identified the overspending shows good budget management and allows the problems to be addressed.

Of course I agree. Cornwall Council has a good system for monitoring the budget and officers regularly present reports to Cabinet showing where services are over-spending. I agree that Mr Crich and his team do a good job in presenting us with the figures.

But just because you know how deep a hole you are in doesn't deflect from the fact that you are in a hole. If the Council has overspent in the first two months of the year and adjusts budgets for the remainder of the year then it is most likely that services will be cut for the rest of the year to make up.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A bit of praise for Cornwall Council

A couple of weeks ago the Government announced that they were cutting the free swimming for over 60s programme that Cornwall Council had signed up to. The programme was due to last until next April but was being cut to save money they said.

Across the UK, they said that most users of the scheme would have gone swimming anyway and the cost was far too high. In Cornwall we were able to keep costs down and had seen a good take-up but have accepted that the scheme is being cut as a result of budget pressures.

But full marks to the Council for continuing with a discount rate for over 60s. Instead of paying between £3.10 and £3.50 to swim, over 60s will be able to do so for £2.30.

The original free scheme will, however, run until the end of this month.

Transparency and Openness (part 94)

Cornwall Council's Cabinet meetings are arguably the most important in the authority. Because the Council uses the 'strong leader' model, it is the Cabinet that takes all the key financial decisions. Whilst the full council approves the budget on an annual basis, the decisions on individual projects are always taken at a Cabinet level.

So the agendas for these meetings tend to be very long and there are lots of complicated reports to read. Typically, the whole agenda bundle will be almost 1000 pages long with appendices.

As a result councillors need to have everything on time to be able to properly read up on subjects and to have a few days to ask questions of officers where a point is unclear.

The agenda for next week's Cabinet meeting has been published and there are no fewer than six major items where the papers are marked 'to follow'. The Democratic Services staff do a great job in getting papers out quickly, but they can only do so when the cabinet members have approved the reports.

Dan raises second home voting with the Prime Minister

At today's Prime Ministers Questions, North Cornwall Lib Dem MP Dan Rogerson raised the issue of second home owners voting in Cornish elections.

David Cameron replied by promising that the relevant minister would meet with Dan to discuss what can be done to clarify and enforce the law on this issue.

The full text of the exchange is below:

Dan Rogerson
(North Cornwall) (LD): Voting by non-resident home owners in regions such as Cornwall is becoming a contentious issue. Councils are not checking whether people are voting in two locations in the same election, and local residents are worried that sometimes election results might be skewed. Will the Prime Minister meet me, or invite one of his ministerial colleagues to do so, to discuss this issue?

The Prime Minister: I am very happy that one of my colleagues should have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman. It is important that we make sure that electoral registers are accurate. It is also important to recognise that it is an offence to vote at a general election in two different places. However, I think that there are problems with saying whether second home owners can vote. I think that a number of hon. Members might take rather a dim view, as some of them might not be able to vote in their own constituencies, but I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to have a meeting with the Minister responsible for electoral registration.

Compensation for loss of office - again

BBC Radio Cornwall led with this subject again this morning. I commented saying that I felt that there is a culture of secrecy surrounding the payments made to top officers when they leave their posts. Whilst the law has changed so that we now know what payments have been made, we are still caught up with confidentiality agreements so that we don't know why a person has left or on what basis a payment has been made. The recent example of Peter Lewis who received a payment of £78,750 despite apparently leaving of his own volition is typical.

Also interviewed on the radio was an employment expert from Coodes Solicitors. She described the payment to Mr Lewis as well above average but also made two other telling points:

  • The Council has made a statement to say that secret deals are a useful way of avoiding expensive and time consuming hearings by industrial tribunals. Yet these are only an entitlement for people who were employed for more than 12 months. Mr Lewis was only in post for nine months and so would have had no right to take the Council to an industrial tribunal.
  • Even where a case is taken to an industrial tribunal, the most that can be awarded to a person who has been unfairly dismissed is £50,000 - well below the amount given to Mr Lewis.

So the questions remain - why did Peter Lewis leave Cornwall Council? Did he jump or was he pushed? And why did the Council give such a huge payoff to a former employee who was only with the authority for a short period of time?

Questions raised over Cornwall's out of control budget

Together with my Lib Dem colleagues, I have raised concerns after it was revealed that Cornwall Council has a projected over-spend of almost £4million after just two months of the financial year. We have questioned whether the Council's Conservative leaders are capable of administering the budget.

The details of the projected over-spend were revealed in documents due to be debated at next week's Cabinet meeting and show that there is a projected deficit of £2.367 million in the adult care and support budget, £600,000 in the housing service and £750,000 in customer first.

To documents also show that the Council is failing to meet many of it key targets for service delivery:

- Within adult care and support, they are reaching none of their five key targets and three areas are described as 'much worse than target';
- Within children's safeguarding, just two of the six key targets are being met and three areas are described as much worse than target;
- Within value for money and performance, none of the four key targets are being met and two are described as much worse than target.

It is very worrying that just two months into the financial year, the Conservative led Council is already on course to over-spend by almost £4 million. If they cannot keep control of the current budget, how can they be trusted to make the cuts imposed by central government budget reductions without crippling frontline services.

Decision day for Lord Ashcroft

Today is the day that Lord Ashcroft, the Tory donor-in-chief, must decide whether or not to give up his non-dom status.

Three months ago, members of the House of Lords were given today's deadline to get their tax affairs in order or relinquish their seats in the House of Lords. So far, four peers have decided that they value their tax free status more. These include Lord Laidlaw and Lord McAlpine - who announced their plan to leave the Lords a while ago - and Lord Bagri and Baroness Dunn who have revealed their decision to quit in the last few days.

At the time of the general election, Lord Ashcroft said that he would be giving up his non-dom status and paying full UK tax. But his spokesman has apparently been giving mixed messages in recent years and so today will be decision day.

Regrettably, the peers who do decide to keep their non-dom status will still be allowed to keep their titles for life, although they will no longer be able to sit or vote in debates.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Protect the Tamar campaign - update

I blogged earlier today about how Cornwall could protect its borders from plans to create a 'Devonwall' constituency if plans to cut the number of MPs go ahead.

North Cornwall Lib Dem MP made clear his opposition to Devonwall on BBC Radio Cornwall this morning:
"There is an issue of the very natural boundary of the Tamar, doing it as a mathematical exercise is too rigid. We are economically different, there's all the cultural aspects as well, and we need to make sure that we come up with boundaries which make sense."
Clearly Cornwall cannot rely on any support from Labour. Plymouth MP Alison Seabeck referred to the Tamar in these terms:
"It's a river. It could just as easily be a large expanse of heathland."
Better news came from SE Cornwall Conservative Sheryll Murray who said:
"There's a definite, natural line and boundary between my constituency and the city of Plymouth. I certainly would not be prepared to lay down and accept that we have to cross county boundaries and the Tamar."

I remain convinced that the best way to defeat plans for a Devonwall constituency is for all six Cornish MPs - both Lib Dem and Tory - as well as those from other parties and from none to band together for the good of Cornwall and ask the Government to rethink.


Quotes taken from BBC.

Suspicious death in Launceston

Local news websites are reporting a suspicious death at a house on Ridgegrove Estate.

I have received the following from the local Police:

Police were called to an unexplained death in Launceston at around 6.40pm on Monday 6 July 2010.

On arrival at the house in Prince Philip Road officers found the body of a man in an upstairs bedroom

The body of the man has yet to be identified but police believe him to be a 42-year-old international.

Due to the circumstances, police are treating the death as suspicious at this time and an investigation has been opened accordingly.

Scenes of crime officers are examining the scene. Cause of death at this time is unknown.

The body will be taken to Treliske Hospital to undergo a forensic post-mortem examination.

Detectives are working with local officers to try and establish the series of events and circumstances leading up to the man’s death.

Local officers will be mounting high-profile patrols in the area for the time being to provide reassurance to the local community.

No arrests have been made at this time.

I have asked the Police to keep me informed. As soon as I hear anything else, I will post it here.

UPDATE - Police are asking anyone with any information to contact police via Crimestoppers on 0800 555111 quoting police ref. 824 050710.

Options to avoid a 'Devonwall' constituency

Whilst the big political debate yesterday, and certainly most of the news coverage, focused on the announcement of the date of the AV referendum, the other significant can of worms that was opened up was the proposed reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 - a proposal that the Conservatives have insisted on tying to the AV reform.

The first interesting point was the figure. The Conservatives argued in their manifesto for a 10% cut (ie to 585). So how come the figure of 600 has now been picked and how firm is the commitment of the coalition to it?

The second point is that only the two small Scottish constituencies (Western Isles and Orkney & Shetland) have been preserved. The other two notable island seats - Ynys Mon and the Isle of Wight - will find themselves being amalgamated (at least in part) with a section of the mainland.

The Government has suggested that the average size of the new constituencies will be 75,000 and that a margin of 5% will be allowed - giving approximate minimums and maximums of 71,250 and 78,750. UK Polling Report has had a go at trying to predict approximate boundaries for such a change.

But if equality of voter numbers is all, why should the two Scottish seats be treated as an exception?

Of course, there are some other tricky hurdles to overcome. The major one being the situation of the National Assembly for Wales. The seats there are tied by law to the Westminster constituencies and a reduction in Wales from the current 40 seats to the probable 30 might well cause viability problems for the Assembly. If the Government has to sort this out before the overall seat reduction can go ahead then it may lead to significant delays.

Labour's major argument yesterday was to ask about the significant number of people who are not registered to vote but are entitled to do so (estimated as 3.5 million). Labour claim that the most significant under-representation issues tend to be in Labour seats. They believe that the number of likely Labour seats will be unfairly cut. This is a major concern, but is a red herring as far as the proposal to reduce seat numbers is concerned. I believe that under-registration is a significant issue in most parts of the country and the Government needs to take action. The move to individual registration of electors could and should be the spur to significant effort in this regard.

Here in Cornwall, we currently have approximately 419,000 registered electors. If we hold on to six seats then that would mean an average seat size of 69,833 - outside the threshold range. If we reverted to the five constituencies that existed prior to the recent general election, then the average size would be 83,800 - again, outside the threshold range.

So there seems little option on the face of it except to have a cross-border Devon and Cornwall seat. Whether this is a North Cornwall and West Devon seat or a Plymouth West, Saltash and Torpoint seat, such a move would be hugely contentious and not at all popular with people in Cornwall - including myself.

What options might there be to avoid this?

- First up, a joint campaign by all of Cornwall's six MPs, together with Cornwall Council and the people of Cornwall to persuade the Government that they are simply wrong to consider abolishing the historic and cultural border of Cornwall. The demographic arguments are on our side in that Cornwall's population is increasing in comparison with other parts of the UK and so whilst our voter numbers might be outside the threshold range at the moment, they would be 'coming right' as time goes on.

- Second, to test the firmness of the 600 figure. If the Conservatives stuck to their original 10% cut in MPs proposal then it just about be possible for Cornwall to retain its borders and have five MPs. Alternatively, if the 600 figure were to rise to about 615, then the the threshold limits would allow for six Cornish seats to be retained.

- Third, to increase the threshold limits to 7%, rather than the current five. This would still allow for the proposed reduction in seat numbers and correct the greatest anomalies in Scotland and Wales, but would allow the Boundary Commission to have greater regard to community boundaries - including the borders of Cornwall.

- Fourth, to 'de-couple' the MP number issue from the AV referendum. The AV issue is pretty clear and could be introduced (if voters agree) on current boundaries. The reduction in the number of MPs is far more complicated and requires a substantial boundary review. If the Boundary Commission is instructed to complete their work in just 18 months (instead of the usual 4 years) then the finished product is likely to be less good and the ability of the public to have their say will be far less.

- Of course, there is one other option. If the Government clarified the law to exclude the registration of second home owners then I suspect that this would remove sufficient numbers from the Cornwall electoral register to allow five Cornish seats which easily fit within the threshold limits.

Monday, 5 July 2010

The obligatory 'vote for me' post

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2010

Once again it is voting time - the time when you can choose your favourite blogs as part of the Total Politics Blog of the year poll.

Of course, I would be dead chuffed if you would vote for this little old blog as one of your favourites.

The rules are fully explained on Iain Dale's blog. But basically, you vote for your top blogs in order (you have to vote for at least five and no more than ten) and email them to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com

Let's be AV'ing it!

Nick Clegg today made a statement in the House of Commons about three significant shifts in our electoral system.

The first is to fix the date of the next election for May 7th 2015 - in other words to introduce fixed term parliaments with the proviso that they can still be ended early if two thirds of the House of Commons demands it or if a new government cannot be formed within two weeks of a no confidence motion.

The second is to reduce the number of MPs. I'll blog about that later.

The final announcement was to confirm that the AV referendum will be held on May 5th next year - giving the chance for the system to be implemented in time for the next general election.

I'll be happily supporting a move to AV as it means that more votes will count. It's not perfect and it is not a proportional system. But it does mean a huge change, especially for smaller parties. If you are a Green, MK or UKIP supporter, you have traditionally gone to the polls knowing that your party has almost no chance of winning. Should you still back them or should you vote tactically for a party that can win? I respect those who still stuck to their guns, but I suspect that many smaller party supporters succumbed to the barrage of 'wasted vote' leaflets that came through their door from the bigger parties.

The same is true even for the bigger parties in parts of the country. In Cornwall, Labour has no chance of winning a seat and many Labour voters (perhaps outside Camborne and Redruth) have got used to backing the Lib Dems as the only hope of a non-Tory MP. I'm happy that AV will mean that they can now vote Labour as their first preference in the knowledge that their vote will not be a wasted one so long as they choose between the Lib Dems and Conservatives (still the front runners) before they stop allocating preferences.

What I would hope we get in this referendum is a genuine debate on the facts. There are decent arguments for the retention for First Past the Post, but the proponents of no change seem determined not to make them. Daniel Kawczinski, apparently the leader of the FPTP group of MPs, was trying to make the claim that if he only cast a Tory vote he would be disenfranchised compared to someone who was less firmly committed to a single party as 'they would have more votes than him'.

What utter rubbish.

In a constituency such as his, the Tories are always going to be in the top two and so his decision to firmly side with the Conservatives and no one else will make no odds. His personal second preference would never come into play. And even if it did and he declined to name a second choice then that's his decision.

And then there are the Labour Leadership candidates. All campaigned in the general election on a platform backing AV. Yet now Andy Burnham and Ed Balls are trying to say they oppose the move. Such a pity they didn't say it at the time. Or perhaps they are simply posturing for Labour Party votes now?

I fervently hope (but am not holding my breath) that the media will try to hold reasoned debates on the issue and not simply invite the antis (or indeed the advocates of change) to spout half truths and lies without opposition.

And, incidentally, top marks to Iain Dale for rubbishing the arguments of those who want to shift the referendum date. Their aim is to try to have such a low turnout that they can claim there is no mandate for change.

Compensation for loss of office - an update

Last week I blogged about the payoff of £78,750 received by the former Director of Corporate Support, Peter Lewis. Just to recap - the Chief Executive put out a statement which seemed to imply that Peter left entirely voluntarily. I questioned why anyone who left of their own volition should get a payoff of nearly £80k.

I have had a series of email exchanges with both Kevin Lavery (Chief Executive) Richard Williams (Head of Legal Services). The key information from these exchanges is as follows:

- The reason why the amount paid to Peter Lewis has been made public, but amounts paid to officers who left previously have not, is that the law changed. The Accounts and Audit (Amendment No.2) (England) Regulations 2009 came into law in December last year and therefore affected the departure of Mr Lewis, but not others.

- Quote from Richard Williams: 'Compromise Agreements were a standard means by which the arrangements for staff departures from organisations were set out when such departures were individually negotiated and that confidentiality clauses were standard provisions in such Agreements.'

Which I take to mean that confidentiality clauses have been standard in the past and will remain so.

- Quote from Richard Williams: 'The Chief Executive kept the Leader and the relevant Cabinet Member advised of the negotiations which he properly undertook as part of his delegated powers. He took advice in relation to those negotiations from the Assistant Director of HR and (Richard Williams) and we were satisfied that it was appropriate for the Council to enter into the Compromise Agreement on the terms set out therein.'

My take on this statement is that the negotiations took place between Kevin Lavery and Peter Lewis alone. Elected members were told what was going on, but were not asked to agree the confidentiality clause or the amount.

I don't believe that the interests of Cornwall taxpayers are being best served by continuing to have secret pay offs for departing top staff. There have been various (contradictory) rumours circulating about Mr Lewis' departure. With everyone who knows what happened bound to secrecy, there is no way of stopping such rumours - however obviously silly.

I think it is essential that, where pay offs are being considered, elected members are closely involved in the process from start to finish and they are accountable for the decisions that are taken.

Alec Robertson and Jim currie talk all the time about 'openness and transparency'. In the case of the departure of Peter Lewis, it seems clear that the Council is being far from open or transparent. As both council tax payers and as councillors, I think we deserve to know why senior officers are leaving and why any pay off is being made.